Beyond “Liberal” and “Conservative”: What Kind of Christian Am I?

The blogosphere has responded vigorously to Ross Douthat’s recent NY Times editorial, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? In the piece, Douthat repeats a familiar conservative argument that mainline church membership is declining because what we offer is too indistinguishable from secular liberal politics. Now, I’m skeptical that doctrine should be put to a popularity contest in this fashion. There are just as many evangelical mega-churches that pander to their congregation with prosperity-gospel preaching and American jingoism, as there are liberal churches that massage the ears of the aging Democrats in the pews. But I have long shared Douthat’s concern that churches lose their unique “value-add” when they downplay the actual living presence of God in human affairs.

An interesting gloss on this editorial comes from Fare Forward, a new journal of arts and religion started by a group of young Dartmouth grads. Taking its title from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”, Fare Forward appears to have a conservative/orthodox but interdenominational perspective. Andrew Schuman’s sympathetic response to Douthat’s argument includes a definition of liberal Christianity that got me thinking that I don’t fit well in either camp:

…In his response to Douthat’s column, theologian Steve Holmes helpfully clarifies the root of liberal Christianity. His characterization of liberal Christianity, and much of the discussion below, is particularity apt as a description of European liberal theologians, but it does not, perhaps, fully capture the nuances of on-the-ground American liberal Christianity in, say, the civil rights era. Nevertheless, Holmes’ response serves as a useful starting point for discussion. He puts forward two core commitments for liberal Christianity. The first is a dedication to take seriously the challenges coming from modern philosophy, namely Kant’s rejection of knowledge of the noumenal world and the hermeneutical skepticism of Biblical higher criticism – both of which cast serious, if not fatal, doubt upon traditional accounts of God’s revelation in Scripture. The second is a commitment to a new grounding for religion (in the place of revelation) based on Schleiermacher’s “shared human religious experience.”

But here’s the problem: a religious reason founded in human experience, instead of revelation from God, will always struggle to retain its primacy over social identities and agendas. By virtue of its epistemology, such grounding is first concerned with human realities (i.e. social realities), and then divine realities. It is firstly anthropological, then theological. In other words, liberal Christianity will struggle to keep its religious reason for existence central because the core of its approach to faith is based first in self-examination and inference, not examination of the eternal realities of revealed truth.

In his work The Priority of Christ, theologian Fr. Robert Barron places at the center of liberal theology the concern with some “grounding experience deemed to be transcultural” instead of “the stubbornly particular Christ.” This move, for Fr. Barron, necessarily resulted in a lower Christology, in which Jesus is no more than “a symbol for, or exemplification of, a universal religious sensibility.” This low Christology had the ironic effect of reducing theology’s ability to engage with the world. As Fr. Barron puts it:

“It is precisely the epistemic priority of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, that warrants the use of philosophical and cultural tools in the explication and propagation of the faith, since these means come from and lead to that very Word. Because Jesus Christ is the Logos incarnate–and not simply another interesting religious figure among may–signs of his presence and style are to be found everywhere, and he can relate non-conpetitively to them. The paradox is this: the lower the Christology, the more problematic the dialogue with philosophy and other cultural forms becomes; the higher the Christology, the more that conversation is facilitated.”

And so liberal theology, in grounding itself in experience, anthropology, and a symbolic Jesus, empties itself, over time, of the theological resources necessary to dialogue with culture and philosophy, and sustain social reform…

Much to unpack here! “The eternal realities of revealed truth” is the kind of phrase I used to wield until, say, 2008, and that now makes my oppression-detector go “ping”. How humbling. More about that momentarily.

My second reaction was, I guess I’m not a liberal Christian, because I don’t define my difference from the conservatives along the natural/supernatural axis, but rather the diversity/unity axis. The rationalism of liberal Christians has pained me because it invalidates my experiences of God’s revealed presence. At several key moments in my life, I have felt love and wisdom coming to me from outside, in a way that the liberal philosophies summarized in this quote simply cannot accommodate. I also worry that liberal intellectual skeptics in the pulpit discourage needy people from seeking out this life-changing power, and make them ashamed to talk about and believe their experiences of it.

At the same time, the “eternal verities” rhetoric is too often code for a privileged subgroup’s resistance to hearing revelations from the margins. It allows the current priestly class to pretend that the Bible is not a human document produced and interpreted by societies where only certain types of people were allowed to speak.

In theory, as Schuman seems to be saying, the particularity of Christ’s revelation should make Christians more sensitive to cultural diversity, as opposed to an imperialistic liberalism that homogenizes by pretending to be transcultural. (Stanley Fish’s version of this critique of liberalism paved the way for my conversion in the late 1990s…full story coming in the next post in my “40 Years of Book Love” series.) However, at least in America, conservative Christians are not exactly known for their cross-cultural sensitivity. Either the doctrine doesn’t have the effects he’s claiming, or Christians are failing to act on its implications.

Moreover, what is the goal of this dialogue? Is it simply to translate our own “eternal verities” into language that will be more palatable to nonbelievers, so that eventually they believe exactly like us? Or are we also open to changing our beliefs in response to their testimony about what the Spirit has shown them?

I think I must be a postmodernist Christian, neither liberal nor conservative, skeptical of the ahistorical universalizing claims of both “reason” and “Scripture/tradition”. Belief in revelation is what distinguishes me from liberals. Where I part with the conservatives is in my belief that revelation comes from plural sources and evolves over time, and that we must be sensitive to the real-world inequalities embedded in and reinforced by interpreters’ authority.

One last question: is it even coherent, psychologically, to say that a religious belief is “founded in human experience, instead of revelation from God”? How does revelation get into our brains except through someone’s experience? How is this not simply code for “trust the experience of people who lived 2,000 years ago, but not your own”?

This is not a rhetorical question. I really would like to find a non-cynical answer. Readers, your thoughts?

40 Years of Book Love: The 1980s in Prose

Continuing my tour through the formative books of my youth, today I’ll talk about the prose writers who guided my middle school and high school years.

Some of these choices may raise some hackles. They certainly did for my teachers. I won’t defend, as an ideal, the horror of weakness that characterizes both Rand and Nietzsche. I didn’t take it uncritically even then. But I also didn’t feel that adults had a lot of credibility to criticize my attempt at psychological survival, if they weren’t going to protect me from the bullying and ostracism that I endured pretty much non-stop from 1st through 10th grade. Smart, lonely, funny-looking teenage girls love Ayn Rand for the same reason that small children are obsessed with superheroes and dinosaurs. Adults who are gratified by innocence, but don’t want to bear the burden of having it themselves, sentimentalize the helplessness of children. But we just want to get out.

Yes, I was mad, and so was my hair.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
My mother read this to me, and I think I’d read it again on my own by the time I was 11 or 12, and at least twice thereafter, most recently this year. Everything I believe about the dignity of the human soul, the importance of speaking truth to power, and the equality of all people before God, is all in there. Jane is the anti-Dickens heroine. Chaste and modest, but fiercely self-possessed, she doesn’t suffer in silence in hopes of melting the abuser’s heart. She survives because she knows she deserves to, and she would rather brave the world on her own than be dependent on someone who doesn’t respect her. Hooray, Jane!

The Collected Dorothy Parker
I remember two things that terrified me in the summer of 1983: the sudden appearance of cellulite on my thighs, signaling my transformation from a pretty little girl to a flabby, awkward adolescent, and Parker’s story “Big Blonde”. The protagonist plays the role of the pretty, lively, “good sport” girl who never imposes her feelings on others, because that’s how she needs to be to catch a husband. Once she gets one, she feels she can relax and have her true feelings, and so she cries all the time. This alienates her lumpish spouse, who leaves her. By then she is no longer young and pretty, so she cries some more and becomes an alcoholic, unsuccessfully attempts suicide and has to pretend to the nurses (once again playing the good sport) that she feels lucky to be alive. I have always lived in dread of becoming this woman. Though drink holds no appeal, I come from a long line of women who drowned in their own tears. I’m only now beginning to unravel the false beliefs that make me afraid of my emotions.

The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
You know who else was afraid of emotions and hated being a girl? Ayn Rand! But through rational introspection and artistic excellence, you too can grow up to have hot sex with the guy who fixes your fireplace! Actually that part of the book did nothing for me. The two lessons I took away from Rand’s novel, which were the beginning of my adult strength, were these: (1) It is possible to live mindfully and responsibly, by knowing your values and comparing them to your actions, rather than being at the mercy of unexamined emotions and heedlessly hurting yourself and others. (Since none of the real adults in my life modeled this for me, I had to learn it from a book.) (2) Sometimes people hate you for your strengths, not your weaknesses. You don’t have to internalize their contempt.

The Valley of Horses, by Jean M. Auel
Conversation, when I was 11, went something like this:
“Mom, I just read this book and I have a weird tingly feeling.”
“That’s sexual arousal.”
“Oh, so that’s what that feels like! What do I do about it?”
“You can masturbate.”
Seriously, my mom was that cool.

Dawn of Day, by Friedrich Nietzsche
Again, I didn’t have much interest in the “Ubermenschen” aspects of Nietzsche’s thought that became disreputable because the Nazis claimed him as an influence. Like Rand, he championed the prophetic, creative, innovative individual against the jealousy of the herd. I also valued his critique of asceticism as a psychological splitting mechanism, where a person denied certain aspects of his life force (e.g. sexuality, aggression, unconscious wishes) and pushed them off onto a scapegoat. My favorite quote from him went something like this: “In every ascetic morality, man worships one part of himself as God and demonizes the rest.”

The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin Jr.
And just to counter-program all the others, this Christian allegory of Jesus as a goofy, despised barnyard dog! Wangerin’s storytelling gave me my first personal experience of God’s love in a Christian context.

Poem by Ruth Hill: “She (Ode to a Roadside Weed)”

I love the wordplay and sound patterns in this charming poem by Winning Writers subscriber Ruth Hill. Listen to it on YouTube in this video from Writers Rising Up, a nonprofit that encourages environmental stewardship through the literary arts.

by Ruth Hill

She is hot pink,
so I say, “She..she…”
Come along with me, burgundy…organdy.
Flaring like a flame, flamenco flamingo.
Daring like a dame, demonic durango.
She is feather soft, plumes aplenty, boas flowing.
She daft on dunes, and bending,
she, leaning and gleaming.
Oh, how you catch the light!
you shimmering cocktail, Zinfandel infidel,
nubile Nubian, ruby Reuben.
Sunrise has kissed your silk-strung necklace
with dewdrops of amethyst mist.
Sunset bathed you, bronze and brazen in the breeze,
pivoting pirouette.
Blonde hair bouncing, sumptuous, voluptuous,
parking like an arcing rose, all bramble-scramble.
Side of the road hitchhiker, biker, femme fatale,
wish I could defer you
from preferring the disturbed at the curb.
Roping wild lopers, you, with your wild lasso.
Sowing your wild oats, barely barley,
wheedling your way in, under someone’s skin.
Look how you set the hook…
how you make the hound dogs howl!
They are afraid of you, so afraid,
into a braid or earwig surprise, demise;
but I have eyes for you, tenderize.
They mace you,
but you brace a trace they can’t erase,
then face the race, all vivid and livid.
I will miss you,
when nothing but your descendants remain.
No one can replace your lost grace.
She, Sheila, Sheba: Shalom, Salome, vamp by the ramp.
Silicon desiccant for butterflies, and others, when you fade:
flash o’ flesh, dreamy cream puff, fluff!
Wind lifts your sisters’ blue flax skirts: flirts!
Little ladyslippers loan you their yellow stilettos.
Ripening next to freckled bromegrass,
scarlet hairs on paintbrush,
carmen pistils on fuchsia fireweed,
little girl in bloomers: vixen,
foxtail fixin’.

Excerpt From Charles Shaw’s “Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics and Spirituality”

This week, the excellent online literary journal The Nervous Breakdown features a chapter from Charles Shaw’s prison memoir, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics and Spirituality, recently released by Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press. I will be ordering copies for myself and my prison pen pals. The book examines what the surveillance state and the prison-industrial complex are doing to the soul of America. Here’s a sample:

All cultures have their own particular concept of “limbo,” purgatory, or some other form of antechamber to paradise. The word “limbo” itself comes from the Latin limbus, meaning an “edge or boundary.” Used as proper nouns, Limbus describes the edge of Hell, and Limbo is a place for the souls of unbaptized infants and patriarchs who died before the coming of Christ, to wait for Christ to be born and pardon them. Once pardoned, they are in effect “saved” and become de facto Christians, and are finally granted access to eternal paradise. But the Messiah doesn’t seem to come around very often, so they sit around like millions of undocumented immigrants, waiting for the next mass amnesty.

Purgatory, by comparison, is like the express line at the US-Mexican Border, the one for people with spotless backgrounds, or diplomatic cover. It’s the waiting room for the already-saved, a kind of hazmat decontamination unit that scrubs off the last few sins and moral entanglements of the true believers, before they can cross the border into freedom and eternal, unencumbered bliss. What all of these places have in common is the theme of detention. Prison is all of these things constrained within the temporal, corporeal plane. The lives of inmates exist in stasis until that time when they are released back into the world. There is absolutely nothing you can do about the outside world, or about the life you may have been living, while you are incarcerated. Everything that you are doing in life stops in its tracks. Vita interrupta. Your rent and bills stop being paid, your mail stops being picked up, your phone is never answered, your email is never downloaded, your refrigerator is never cleaned out, your dog is never walked or fed. Forget about your dreams and ambitions, your plans and goals, because those get put on hold too. If you are lucky to reemerge, you are forever altered by the reality of a conviction record.

Nine times out of ten, no one but your family and closest friends, if you have them, know where you are or what happened to you. Those few people are your lifelines to the outside world, and generally are the only people to do anything for you. You find out very quickly whom you can trust and who will really be there for you. Many inmates find themselves with no one.

Prisons are situated on the fringes of civilization, isolated from most population centers and the general public, hidden away from sight in a gulag network of thousands of municipal, county, state, and federal facilities stretching across the land. Americans not only want to feel that their communities are safe, they really don’t want to have to trouble themselves with thinking about the consequences of locking up millions of people, or the abuses, in all forms, that might be taking place under a system of Prohibition funded by fear, apathy, and taxes. In America, it is simply a matter of out of sight, out of mind.

Because of that, and because of the isolation of the prison experience, the full understanding of what it is like to be forcibly dislocated from society becomes, for many inmates, the key struggle and in the end the key transformative experience of their lives. Jazz musicians talk about “sustained intensity.” Prison life is a frantic Coltrane riff that produces no sound and sucks the life right out of you. It’s a negative-sum game for which there is no recuperative period. No . . . Sleep . . . ’til . . . Parole!

The lack of popular noise produced over our national prison system, and the underlying reasons for the apparent apathy of the public, will keep Americans from ever having a Bastille moment, which was the storming of a Paris prison that sparked the French Revolution. The American public’s pervasive lack of political involvement seems to keep them from storming anything except a Wal-Mart during Christmas shopping season. Plus, since American prisons are so far away from everything else, the proverbial angry mob would have to endure a six-hour bus trip ahead of time before they could commence stormin’.

But prisoners of the drug war aren’t seen by the Mainstream as political prisoners, as victims of tyranny like those held in the Bastille by Louis XVI, even though that’s precisely what they are.

There are reasons for this, and most are attributable to race and class. At its core, the war on drugs is nothing more than the criminalization of lifestyle. In many regards, it is also a war on religious freedom, and on consciousness itself.

The punishment for defying the system and exerting these inherent freedoms (the ones endowed by our Creator and all) is first disability, then disenfranchisement, then imprisonment, and finally, internal exile. Limbo time everybody, how low can you go? When in limbo, one invariably has an entirely new understanding of time.

I would spend 13 days in isolation at the Stateville Northern Reception and Classification center in Joliet, Illinois, before being sent on to my prison facility to serve out the remainder of my sentence. Thirteen endless days in a brand-new, state-of-the-art, hyper-sterile, hyper-industrialized detention facility. It was “only” 13 days, I can tell myself now, four years later. But while it was happening, it was a form of torture that leaves an indelible scar on a person’s soul. That is why they call Stateville “Hotel Hell.”

It is a cold and sterilized form of detention, a little taste of a supermax prison for everyone. Once they process you in, and stuff you into that 6 x 10 cement hole, you don’t come out again. You are on 24-hour-a-day lockdown with your cellmate, if you have one, and nothing else. Nothing to read, nothing to see, nothing to do but wait, wait, wait. And once the waiting begins, things start to go all sorts of ways inside your mind.

Thirteen days was interminable while on lockdown, yet right now I think over the last 13 days of my life and can’t remember half of it. Most people wouldn’t think twice about doing anything for two weeks, until it’s put into the proper context. The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted 13 days. Ask anyone who lived through it to tell you what a hellish eternity it was, teetering, if only briefly, on the edge of nuclear annihilation. Ask anyone on day seven of a two-week master cleanse fast how they feel, or two new lovers separated for two weeks, or the parents of a lost child, or someone waiting two weeks for test results that will tell them whether they live or die.

Likewise, two weeks spent in the cold and dark—half-starved, without anything to occupy your mind, contemplating your past, your life, your crimes literal and spiritual, missing people you love, pondering your future as a convict, stressing about which penitentiary you will be sent to and what you will have to face once you get there, and soon and so forth—is its own particularly menacing brand of torment.


Sexual Visibility and Tolerance

I’ve been thinking about the roots of homophobia, especially among people who aren’t conservative Christians, and I have a theory. Before “out” gay people and open discussion of homosexuality became routine in our culture, people could tell themselves that single-gender social environments were spaces where they could be free from the sexual gaze. Of course this was never true, but it was a comforting fiction that maintained a shield of privacy for those who wanted it.

Now that gay desire is no longer invisible, none of us feel quite so invisible, either. In my view, hysteria about male homosexuality is most prevalent in patriarchal subcultures (such as the evangelical church) because they can’t imagine male sexuality without dominance. God forbid some man should do to them what they feel entitled to do to women.

The same anxiety probably underlies radical feminists’ resistance to transgender presence in “female-only” spaces. They have a fear, ill-founded in my opinion, that male-born transwomen will carry over the predatory and dominating aspects of male lust for women, a kind of sexual gaze that’s different from how “true” lesbians would look at each other.

Now, I wonder whether the increasing support for GLBT rights among the younger generation (I can use that phrase now I’m 40) has anything to do with the disappearance of privacy in the era of social networking, reality TV, and camera phones. We are all being looked at, all the time. We break up with our partners via Facebook status reports. We give birth on YouTube. Movements like SlutWalk challenge the idea that limiting our sexual visibility is the proper way to protect ourselves from harassment and rape. The boundaries of our intimacy are undergoing huge shifts, and while not all the consequences are positive, I think sexual minorities have benefited from this trend. Your thoughts, readers?

40 Years of Book Love: The 1980s in Poetry

My impending 40th birthday has occasioned this look backward through the decades at the books that shaped my identity. The first post in this series can be found here. (Update to that post: Adam read it and bought Gockel, Hinkel and Gackeliah for me for only $36.95 on Alibris. What a guy!)

My book consumption ramped up in my middle-school and teenage years, so I’m going to cover poetry and prose in two separate posts. I was a lonely, precocious young person with a smaller budget and more time to reread books than I have now, so my relationship to those favorite volumes had an intensity that gave this budding writer a good training in close reading. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my main influences: Anne Sexton, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden. Below are a few of the lesser-known collections that found their way into my soul, with excerpts.

There are no acceptable photos of me from this period.

Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Teasdale (1886-1933) was an American lyric poet, a contemporary of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I stumbled upon her final chapbook, Strange Victory, in the Stockbridge, MA library when I was about 10 years old, on summer vacation, and was thrilled and stirred by her tragic yet unsentimental voice. She used rhyme and meter in a well-patterned but not rigid way. The darkness in her poems is pregnant with a spiritual presence that will endure while our little lives come and go. It’s a consolation for those sober-minded enough to face it. Perhaps that was the terrifying yet desired presence I sensed just beyond the looming nighttime trees and star-clustered sky of Western Massachusetts, where God seemed a lot closer than in the city. This poem says it all for me.

Return to a Country House

Nothing but darkness enters in this room,
Nothing but darkness and the winter night,
Yet on this bed once years ago a light
Silvered the sheets with an unearthly bloom;
It was the planet Venus in the west
Casting a square of brightness on this bed,
And in that light your dark and lovely head
Lay for a while and seemed to be at rest.
But that the light is gone, and that no more
Even if it were here, would you be here,–
That is one line in a long tragic play
That has been acted many times before,
And acted best when not a single tear
Falls,– when the mind and not the heart holds sway.

Rupert Brooke: The Poetical Works, edited by Geoffrey Keynes
Romantic poet who died young in World War I. Plus he was smokin’ hot. What more could a teen girl want? Though the first half of this poem seems a little cliche to me now, the second half still raises goosebumps. That’s the kind of love I always wanted, and have found: a comrade in arms who marches with me, jauntily, into the great unknown that waits for us all. (Adam might not appreciate the implication that he has “scarlet lips”, though.)

The Wayfarers

Is it the hour? We leave this resting-place
Made fair by one another for a while.
Now, for a god-speed, one last mad embrace;
The long road then, unlit by your faint smile.
Ah! the long road! and you so far away!
Oh, I’ll remember! but…each crawling day
Will pale a little your scarlet lips, each mile
Dull the dear pain of your remembered face.

…Do you think there’s a far border town, somewhere,
The desert’s edge, last of the lands we know,
Some gaunt eventual limit of our light,
In which I’ll find you waiting; and we’ll go
Together, hand in hand again, out there,
  Into the waste we know not, into the night?
Contemporary Poetry: A Retrospective from the Quarterly Review of Literature, edited by Theodore and Renee Weiss (1974)
Lest you think my tastes ran entirely to Edwardian schmaltz, this anthology was also a close companion of my high school days. It may have been a gift from St. Ann’s School classmate Alissa Quart, or one of the precious freebies I picked up as an intern at the Poetry Society of America, where my tasks included returning improper submissions in SASEs and shelving their burgeoning and disorganized collection of review copies. This book gave me glimpses into modern subcultures and ways of speaking that were new to me, all the more fascinating because I lacked the context to understand them fully. So much of the content looks unfamiliar to me now, that I suspect I focused on a few favorites and reread those while skimming the rest. Some of those old friends were:

Yehuda Amichai, “As for the World”
Edith Sitwell, “Dirge for the New Sunrise”
Richard Wilbur, “The Good Servant”
Charles Tomlinson, “Mad Song” and “Obsession”
W.S. Merwin, “Song With the Eyes Closed”
Raphael Rudnik, “A Letter for Emily”
Howard Nemerov, “Brainstorm”
W.D. Snodgrass, “Inquest”
Richard Hugo, “Keen to Leaky Flowers” and “Bluejays Adjusted”
M.L. Rosenthal, “Liston Cows Patterson and Knocks Him Silly”
Harvey Shapiro, “National Cold Storage Company”
Herbert Morris, “The Neighbor’s Son”
Michael Hamburger, “Friends”
Frederick Feirstein, “The Anti-Life: A Fantasy”
Phyllis Thompson, “The Last Thing”

You can buy this book for one cent on Amazon. And you should.

Darker, by Mark Strand
My 9th-grade English teacher introduced me to Strand’s koan-like poem “Reasons for Moving”, after which I snapped up this early collection at the sadly now-defunct Gotham Book Mart. (First published in 1968, the 1985 reissue by Atheneum, which I own, appears to be out of print, so I’ve linked to a Strand compendium that includes it.) This book seemed innovative to me because the weird, horror-movie images were not mere poetic similes, but were actually happening in the narrative of the poems. A more predictable writer might say his neighbor’s face is menacing like a hawk’s, but Strand says this, in the apocalyptic final poem, “The Way It Is”:

…My neighbor marches in his room,
wearing the sleek
mask of a hawk with a large beak.
He stands by the window. A violet plume

rises from his helmet’s dome.
The moon’s light
spills over him like milk and the wind rinses
  the white
glass bowls of his eyes.

His helmet in a shopping bag,
he sits in the park, waving a small American flag…

The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, by Richard Hugo
I’ve always been sensitive to the vibe of a place, and Hugo was a master at putting those intuitions into words. His free verse has a stately, compact quality that feels like formal poetry, an echo of iambic pentameter holding up the poem like the indestructible old girders of the abandoned factories he elegized in “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg”.

Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987, by Diane Wakoski
I won the high school poetry award from the Poetry Society of America the same year (1988) that this collection won their William Carlos Williams Award, and we both read at the award ceremony at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park. What a head rush! Wakoski’s talky, vulnerable, raw, female voice was a good balance for the high-modernist male poets that mainly influenced me during this period. At the ceremony, she read the powerful poem “Joyce Carol Oates Plays the Saturn Piano”. I remember feeling awed and discomfited that a writer so much more famous and old than myself would still be haunted by self-comparison to other writers, and by the feeling that she had let time slip away from her — ironically, because her younger self cared more about external validation than about devoting herself to art. “I promised myself/that if, by 40, I had won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry/I would let myself play the piano again,” she begins, going on to say that when she reached that milestone with no Pulitzer in sight, her hands had forever lost the flexibility to play as she had done at 20. Upon hearing that Oates has taken up piano, the speaker feels:

No. Past that.
A sense of failure?
Perhaps. For I gave up something
I loved/ to attain something
unknown, and now I have neither.

Wakoski was 45 when she wrote that poem. That seemed a lot older to me in 1988!

My Writing Career Continues to Thrive in My Absence

Since Shane was born in April, I have written one serious poem (about baby poop) and one parody poem (ditto). However, like Noah’s dove, the contest entries I sent out in the winter and spring are still returning to me, bearing sprigs of green in their little beaks.

“Poem Written on the Side of a Cow” won the 2012 Betsy Colquitt Award for Poetry. This $500 award is sponsored by Descant: Fort Worth’s Journal of Poetry & Fiction, the literary journal of Texas Christian University, for the best poem published in the magazine in the past year. Their annual submission period is September 1-April 30. This poem, which I wrote in 2003, was inspired by an anecdote I read about Sylvia Plath setting out bread and milk for her children before she committed suicide. Adam suggested the title and I figured out a plot to go with it.

After a dozen years of trying, I will finally be published in the excellent journal New Millennium Writings, which selected my poem “Robot Deer Shot 1,000 Times” as an honorable mention in their winter 2012 contest, the 33rd New Millennium Writings Awards. This twice-yearly contest awards prizes of $1,000 for poetry, fiction, flash fiction, and essays. The 34th contest is currently open through July 31. The poem was based on a “news of the weird” story that Adam sent me, about a mechanical deer that game wardens use to entrap poachers.

My poem “I Wish I Were in Love Again” was one of 20 International Publication Award winners in the Poetry 2012 International Poetry Competition from Atlanta Review. The most recent deadline for this $1,000 prize was March 1. Late one night, last winter, Adam and I were driving home from some high-pressure, adoption-related event, and Sinatra’s song by that name came on the radio. The tongue-in-cheek ballad romanticizes what social workers would call a high-conflict relationship, complete with black eyes and broken dishes. Adam said, “‘Love’ sounds like it should be the name of a violent town in Texas,” and that’s what the poem is about.

The guy is pretty good luck, don’t you think?

40 Years of Book Love: The 1970s

Your intrepid blogger turns 40 years old this coming July 13. Books have been part of my identity from the very beginning. Now that I have a baby of my own, I’m starting to re-read the children’s books that I saved from my own youth, remembered as special but unopened for decades. Often I’m surprised by stories I assumed were familiar, thanks to my new adult perspective and the amnesia of time.

Then I look around my office with new eyes, re-encountering titles that were formative during my teens, 20s, and 30s. What did I see in Camille Paglia, George Steiner, Sara Teasdale, Richard Hugo, Rupert Brooke, that makes the spines of those long-unread books stand out like the faces of old friends in a yearbook, whose names you can’t quite place?

In the weeks ahead, I intend to revisit some of those books and blog about what they meant to me and how I view them now. But “let’s start at the very beginning…the very best place to start”: with some of the books that stand out from my childhood memories. I’m passing over well-known classics like Anne of Green Gables and The Chronicles of Narnia. Though I did read these lovingly, many times over, everyone knows about them. Let’s get to the weird stuff.

(1978, age 6: my brief experiment with playing the guitar, which I gave up because I got blisters. Still have the guitar, though. Rock it, Shane.)

Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care
I really have no idea what’s in this book, but the family legend is that I said my first word (“baby”) at 6 months old while pointing to the cover photo.

Stuart Little, by E.B. White
Haven’t you ever felt like a talking mouse inexplicably born to human parents? I know I have. Family legend, again, says this was the first book I read on my own, at one year old. The sad, yearning, open-ended conclusion of this tale frustrated my youthful sense of the way stories ought to work, and yet for that very reason it grabbed hold of me, compelling me to act out alternate endings with my toys.

The Doll’s House, by Rumer Godden
Besides mice, my passions back then were dolls and all things British. This is another slightly dark chapter book for young readers that includes a bereavement, handled in a matter-of-fact (British?) way rather than the therapeutic gooey-ness that one might expect today. It probably resonated more with me because I lost both grandparents by the time I was 6, though I don’t remember drawing that connection at the time. I named my dolls after these characters and subsequently lost one in the park…life imitates art. Wherever you are, Tottie, I hope you had a good life.

The Tale of Gockel, Hinkel and Gackeliah, by Clemens Brentano, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
A weird, intricate, fantastic story about a family and their magical rooster, who has a jewel in his throat and dies and comes to life again. I could never remember the name of this book or where it was shelved in the Jefferson Market Library children’s section, which made each re-discovery a magical quest in itself. Then it vanished completely. I may have to spend the $86 on Amazon to unearth a copy of this out-of-print picture book.

Little Witch, by Anna Elizabeth Bennett
A little girl has no friends because her strict and evil mother, the witch, turns people into flowerpots when they piss her off. But who is that sweet sad woman trapped in the enchanted mirror, and can the girl set her free? A surprisingly accurate picture of my home life. Sorry. Hat tip to Harrison Solow for recognizing my description and helping me find this book again, which I read in my elementary school library.

She Was Nice to Mice, by Alexandra Elizabeth Sheedy
Mice. British. Need I say more? Before Ally Sheedy was a movie star, she was the 13-year-old published author of this quirky book that depicts the doomed romance of Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex from the perspective of the palace mice. I was inspired by her example as a young writer, but my main interest in this book was the character of Essex, with whom I fell madly in love for quite some time (a fantasy that wisely substituted for dating such men in real life; see also, Phantom of the Opera, 15 years later). My mother identified strongly with QEI — charismatic, fashionable, autocratic, voluntarily single, controversially wedded to her vocation (in her case, parenthood, not ruling England). As a result, I grew up immersed in a sort of tragic feminism: you can aspire to anything but you can’t have it all. The price of power is cutting your boyfriend’s head off when he gets too uppity. Talk about work-life balance.

How Babies Are Made, by Steven Schepp and Andrew Andry
I’ve got to hand it to my mom, she wasn’t a prude. I’m grateful that I could always get age-appropriate information about the human body, without shame or awkwardness. (In later years, she would also accede to my requests for a Chinese erotic art book and a huge Latin dictionary to translate the naughty passages that for some reason were encoded in this language.) First published in 1968, this picture book accurately depicts the process of reproduction in plants, chickens, dogs, and humans, through gently colored and pleasant-looking paper-collage art. Consistent color themes highlight similar functions across species. 

Heidi, by Johanna Spyri
Why did I love this book so much? Non-traditional family? Longing for wide open spaces? All I know is, my mother and I used to act out “Heidi and Clara in the wheelchair” with my kiddie rocking chair. Heidi and her little playmates in the Alps lived in an atmosphere of wholesomeness that was sometimes hard to find among the private-school children of 1970s Manhattan. Even 30+ years ago, modern kids seemed to lack the empathy, maturity, and sweetness I’d unrealistically grown to expect from my steady diet of 19th-century classics. Were kids different then, or simply not portrayed accurately?

Ant and Bee, by Angela Banner
Quaint board books from the 1940s teach kids about colors, shapes, numbers, and letters, through the somewhat surreal adventures of two insect friends. I’ve started reading these delightful books to Shane, though it’s hard to refrain from inappropriate commentary: “Ant went for a ride on Bee’s back, and then they exchanged hats, and were friends forever…and got married in Massachusetts!” Bee does look just like my high school English teacher who came out to us at the end of the semester…