Helen Leslie Sokolsky: “In the Company of Books”

Winning Writers subscriber Helen Leslie Sokolsky has just released a new poetry collection, When We Had Orchards When We Had Moonbeams. I favorably reviewed her earlier book Two Sides of a Ticket on this blog a few years ago. Helen has kindly allowed me to share a poem from her new book below. She says, “It was written for a dear friend of mine, an Auschwitz survivor. She and her two sisters were in the camps and her love of life for all the years I knew her was an inspiration to so many of us. Regina loved literature and poetry. That poem was on her night table when she died in her apartment a year ago last June. I was told by her neighbor next door that she had asked to hear it read shortly before she passed away.”

In the Company of Books

I sit on the other side of the table reading to her
she grasping the pages in a long good-bye
she who for so long has struggled to hold back an endless night.
Now with light beginning to abandon her as shadows move into her lens
she reaches for my hands to guide her back to a familiar landscape
that hallowed place she has created
a pyramid of nested books, many of them shelved in weathered jackets.

I look at myself in the lens of her glasses, featureless
trying to imagine what it is like in that sea of darkness
and continue reading to her believing in the power of language
letting the music of words flow into her hands
which she cups as if they were scattered butterflies.
Outside the window birdsong trill their scales across the field
the wind chases in and out of sycamore branches
like a cloud reshaping itself sounds become the new vista.

I pause for a moment, let that moment rest on my lap
nothing moves but my hand across the page.
Here in the company of books we share I keep turning the pages
applaud a smile that slides across her face
when she tilts her head to listen and inhale
the crickets just beginning their nightly crescendo
a welcome background chorus.
Sounds continue to magnify within her lens
leaving behind a filtered beam of light
as if someone had just lit a candle for her.

 

October Links Roundup: Farewell Divas

Happy Spooktober!

At the Naumkeag Pumpkin Show last weekend.

The entertainment world lost two legendary women this month, both of whom continued creating and performing well into old age. Country star Loretta Lynn died last week at age 90. Best known for her hardscrabble childhood anthem “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lynn also used her music to take a stand against sexism, as in the 1973 hit “Rated X” about the unfair stigma of divorce for women and 1975’s “The Pill” about the liberating power of birth control.

Dame Angela Lansbury, whom we lost yesterday at age 96, was beloved for her role as crime-solving senior citizen Jessica Fletcher on “Murder, She Wrote,” a cozy TV series that our family watched religiously throughout the 1980s and 90s. But did you know she got her start as the maid in the 1944 film “Gaslight,” from which we get the popular term for reality-warping emotional manipulation? Lansbury was equally good at playing villains, winning a Tony Award for creating the role of Mrs. Lovett (seller of the cannibal meat pies) in “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway.

The Jewish Currents newsletter introduced me to the music of Ezra Furman, a mystical, anti-fascist indie rocker who recently released her ninth album, All of Us Flames. Interviewer Jael Goldfine describes it thus:

In the gritty world of the album, underground syndicates of Jews and queer people organize, traveling in gangs, speaking in code, and stockpiling weapons and intelligence while the powers that be are none the wiser. In a series of bluesy Dylanesque battle epics, love stories, and down-and-out road epics, Furman imagines the stories we might tell in the future about “the great transfiguration” that ended our current “brutal static order” and eulogizes those we lost to it.

The way she sings about revolution as inevitable can feel uncomfortable, like wishful thinking. But Furman, who recently completed her first semester of rabbinical school, takes seriously the idea of the messiah, and messianism’s point-blank insistence that the world can and will be improved.

Furman says, “I think I’m doing anti-despair work.” Listen to “Throne” from the album here.

A couple of good poems: At Frontier Poetry, Tyler Raso’s “Emotion Recognition Task” captures how children’s emotions are policed, doubted, and oversimplified by adults who don’t want to feel deeply themselves. At Palette Poetry, Mónica Gomery’s “Occupational Hazards” won the 2022 Sappho Prize. Interspersing fragments of a Talmudic gratitude prayer with troubling images from the news, this piece re-enacts the challenging practice of staying open to the wonders and sorrows of life.

The first Sunday of October is traditionally the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Kittredge Cherry at Q Spirit explores the saint’s gender-bending side:

His extravagant love crossed boundaries. Other Franciscan friars referred to Francis as “Mother” during his lifetime. He encouraged his friars to be mothers to each other when in hermitage together, and used other gender-challenging metaphors to describe the spiritual life.

He spoke of himself as a woman during his very first set of meetings with Pope Innocent III in 1210, when he was seeking permission to found a religious order.  “I am that poor woman who in God’s mercy is loved and honored.  God has begotten legitimate children through me,” Francis explained.  The Pope was impressed by this gender-shifting argument and gave Francis his blessing to establish the new Franciscan order.

He experienced a vision of an all-female Trinity, who in turn saluted him as “Lady Poverty,” a title that he welcomed. Francis allowed a widow to enter the male-only cloister, naming her “Brother Jacoba.” His partner in ministry was a woman, Clare of Assisi, and he cut her hair in a man’s tonsured style when she joined his male-only religious order. She had a queer dream of drinking sweet milk from the breast of Francis. Clare consistently communicated that she sought to imitate Jesus, while Francis compared himself to Mary.

My Sims Are Bisexual Communists

As I grow into the queer nerd boy I should have been, I’ve rediscovered an escapist pastime I last savored during the George W. Bush administration: The Sims. My 10-year-old tries in vain to teach me to play Minecraft together on our tablets. Invariably, after five minutes of hearing me exclaim “Why am I underwater?” or “Oops, I broke another wall!” he takes over both our iPads and plays our characters simultaneously, like Tom Cruise coordinating his array of touchscreens in “Minority Report”. Unlike most parents, I can’t wait till he gets his driver’s license. His spatial sense leaves mine in the dust. The car will be in better hands when he’s 16.

To stay in the gaming-together zone, I downloaded The Sims Freeplay to my tablet. I’m amused by the unintentionally radical things that can happen because the gameplay is so simple. In the full-blown game (The Sims 4) that you buy for desktop or gaming console, the characters have complex emotions and social relationships, which means they can feel jealousy and anger when someone else kisses or WooHoo’s (has sex) with their sweetie. Not so in the free iPad game. These innocent little creatures will “Be Romantic” with anyone they know well enough, but don’t fight about their polyamorous exploits unless you select the “Be Rude” interaction. Thus I was able to make a Sim woman fall in love with a man and a woman simultaneously, move in as a threesome and raise a baby together.

Another simplification of the free game is that your Simoleons (game money) go into a single account, whereas each household in the computer game has a separate budget. So in Freeplay I can send some characters to work, earn money, and spend it on building a house for other characters. Not to worry, though: iPad Sims live by the Marxist principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” They freely drop in on each other’s houses, eat their food, and fall asleep in their beds, whether or not the owner is home.

The free game is not all that interesting after awhile. Quest actions take too long unless you pay real dollars to speed them up. But it would open up some great possibilities if you could make your Sims 4 characters play in communist mode, or set possessiveness and monogamy as sliding-scale traits when you create a character, with some preferring more open-ended lifestyles than others.

Notably, all Sims are default bisexual. The Sims 4 lets you create custom pronouns, decide whether your character can become pregnant or impregnate others (“both” and “neither” are also options), and sort-of design transgender characters by dressing male-template bodies in female styles and vice versa.

One thing they will not let you do, unfortunately, is be a thot. Sims do not WooHoo on the first date, nor for some time thereafter. This fits the game’s structure of hierarchical goals, where putting in time on smaller interactions unlocks higher-stakes ones. To me as a fiction writer, however, it feels constraining and judgmental. A demisexual/slutty axis for character creation would be a lot of fun. The game developers have already put some thought into making it queer-friendly. Let’s go all the way!

September Links Roundup: Cthulhu at Costco

You just never know what you’ll find at Adam’s favorite superstore. I suppose Lovecraft’s Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young needs those jumbo-sized cans of tomato sauce to feed all the kids.

A bit late with the link-o-rama this month because I’ve begun Year Two of the Temple of Witchcraft Mystery School. This year I’ll be learning spell-crafting, altar-building, how not to kill my houseplants, and possibly an answer to the question “Is it cheating on your marriage to have sex with a god?”

Talented essayist Grace LeClair, a fellow regular in the Tarot writing workshops I’ve attended since 2015, pushed the boundaries of 1960s propriety when she challenged Barnard College’s outdated rules against cohabitation and its curfews for female students. The Columbia Spectator interviewed her recently about her undergraduate activism, which made her a target of the tabloids in New York City. The all-women’s college folded on its feminist principles because of pushback from wealthy pearl-clutching alumnae. Grace, then known as Linda, courageously stuck to her message that her campaign was not about sexual license but empowerment and equality–the very reasons she’d chosen a women’s college in the first place.

A less sympathetic tale of activism comes to us from–where else?–Texas. NBC News and ProPublica reported last month on a contentious school board meeting in the North Texas town of Granbury:

For months, the woman in the clip had been demanding that the Granbury Independent School District ban from its libraries dozens of books that contained descriptions of sex or LGBTQ themes — books that she believed could be damaging to the hearts and minds of students. Unsatisfied after a district committee that she served on voted to remove only a handful of titles, the woman filed a police report in May accusing school employees of providing pornography to children, triggering a criminal investigation by Hood County.

Now, in the video that Weston found online, she was telling the school board that a local Christian pastor, rather than librarians, should decide which books should be allowed on public school shelves. “He would never steer you wrong,” she said.

The clip ended with the woman striding away from the lectern, and the audience showering her with applause.

Weston, 28, said his heart was racing as he watched and rewatched the video — and not only because he opposes censorship. He’d instantly recognized the speaker.

It was his mother, Monica Brown.

The same woman, he said, who’d removed pages from science books when he was a child to keep him and his siblings from seeing illustrations of male and female anatomy. The woman who’d always warned that reading the wrong books or watching the wrong movies could open the door to sinful temptation. And the one, he said, who’d effectively cut him off from his family four years ago after he came out as gay.

I love erasure poetry because it flips censorship on its head. Words and lines are blocked out, not so much to silence the source text, but to make it speak a hidden message, or to talk back to its oppressive assumptions. When he was in prison, my pen pal “Conway” used to make powerful erasures out of disciplinary memos. Poet Jennifer K. Sweeney has a series of such “effacements” posted in the online journal Gasher, using collage and erasure to break open the constraints of a 1950s etiquette manual.

An insightful New York Times video series by James Robinson about living with disability profiled Paul Kram, who has prosopagnosia (face-blindness). As someone with a less severe version of this condition, I found his experience relatable. At one point the video shows faces turned upside-down, making them harder to recognize. This disorganization of data is similar to how facial information enters a face-blind person’s brain. Along those lines, I had a dream the other night where someone got my pronouns wrong, and I replied, “It’s okay, I can’t recognize people I already know, so I can see how certain things just don’t stick in your mind, either!”

Slippery identities and slanted stories are the theme of Kij Johnson’s “Five Sphinxes and 56 Answers” in the latest issue of the experimental lit mag DIAGRAM. The award-winning fantasy writer braids a Midwestern girl’s coming-of-age story with variations on the Oedipus myth, exploring the intergenerational misunderstandings and enforced silences of women throughout the ages.

You have come to accept that she is who she is because of her own confusing and critical mother, and the cycle goes back through forever it seems: women unhinging their pelvises to bear other women and then getting started on the hard work of dying, back and back and back, mothers and daughters and mothers of monsters.
Mixed messages, riddles you can’t solve. You stand at the entrance to a great city, the world. Your mother waits astride the rock that bars your way. The first riddle ends in your adulthood; it is unlikely she will be alive for you in your three-legged stage, though perhaps she is counting on you being there for hers.
The second riddle is existential, and there is no answer. Night and Day. Living ’til night or waking up in the morning is always a matter of faith. In the end, both women die.
Your mother is also Hera, angry and vengeful and punishing the wrong people.
You mother is also what you have tried hard not to grow up to be. Have you succeeded? Could she have done better? Have you?
There are other versions of this story, as well.

Also in DIAGRAM, Tyler Raso’s “Personality Index” cleverly reads as both a numerical questionnaire and, if you ignore the numbered part, a poem composed of the phrases in the left column. I do love me some psych-test satire.

Sanah Ahsan’s column in The Guardian, “I’m a psychologist–and I believe we’ve been told devastating lies about mental health,” unpacks why I often find psych checklists reductionist and insulting.

If a plant were wilting we wouldn’t diagnose it with “wilting-plant-syndrome” – we would change its conditions. Yet when humans are suffering under unliveable conditions, we’re told something is wrong with us, and expected to keep pushing through. To keep working and producing, without acknowledging our hurt.

In efforts to destigmatise mental distress, “mental illness” is framed as an “illness like any other” – rooted in supposedly flawed brain chemistry. In reality, recent research concluded that depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance of the brain. Ironically, suggesting we have a broken brain for life increases stigma and disempowerment. What’s most devastating about this myth is that the problem and the solution are positioned in the person, distracting us from the environments that cause our distress.

Individual therapy is brilliant for lots of people, and antidepressants can help some people cope. But I worry that a purely medicalised, individualised understanding of mental health puts plasters over big gaping wounds, without addressing the source of violence. They encourage us to adapt to systems, thereby protecting the status quo.

Da’Shaun L. Harrison’s book Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness (North Atlantic Books, 2021), which I’m currently reading, makes a similar point with respect to body-positivity. When standards of beauty and health are deliberately constructed to exclude your type of body and subjugate your type of person, you can’t self-esteem your way out of the material disadvantages this creates. More thoughts to come once I’ve finished this radical, brilliant book.

Over at The Philosopher, Olúfémi O. Táíwò’s piece “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference” critiques the simplistic deployment of “standpoint epistemology” to turn the minority member of an elite group into a spokesperson for even less privileged people in his demographic. For instance, the Black professor probably knows more about racial discrimination than his white colleagues, but the factors he has in common with them, such as social class and education, may outweigh the differences. But these spaces tend to operate as though handing the Black professor the microphone is the beginning and end of incorporating truly diverse perspectives. Meanwhile, they don’t notice the other ways their group is homogeneous and unrepresentative.

From a societal standpoint, the “most affected” by the social injustices we associate with politically important identities like gender, class, race, and nationality are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, underemployed, or part of the 44 percent of the world’s population without internet access – and thus both left out of the rooms of power and largely ignored by the people in the rooms of power. Individuals who make it past the various social selection pressures that filter out those social identities associated with these negative outcomes are most likely to be in the room. That is, they are most likely to be in the room precisely because of ways in which they are systematically different from (and thus potentially unrepresentative of) the very people they are then asked to represent in the room.

This “being-in-the-room” privilege, relative to other members of his demographic, doesn’t discount all the ways that this Black professor may also be disrespected within the room. Standpoint epistemology–deferring to marginalized people as experts on their own experience–can be a corrective “morally consequential practice…of giving attention and respect.” It’s just not the only thing we need to do. Otherwise you get the all-too-familiar political echo chamber of liberal academia, where arguments over symbolic deference take up way more energy than constructive material change. We need to build coalitions across our different kinds of vulnerability, rather than compete for attention by comparing our traumas, he concludes.

I honestly think there’d be a lot more support for affirmative action, reparations, etc. if we took these suggestions and moved away from an attention-scarcity economy.

Finally, enjoy some groundbreaking African photography in this 2020 article from The Guardian, profiling Ekow Eshun’s Africa State of Mind. Adam and I enjoyed seeing queer South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s striking black-and-white self-portraits at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum this past February.

August Links Roundup: Barbie-Core

In anticipation of Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming live-action “Barbie” rom-com, which you know I’m going to watch even (or especially) if it’s terrible, “Barbie-core” is the new fashion trend. Or so says the New York Times, which pointed me to these links from Vogue and WhoWhatWear depicting celebs like Kacey Musgraves and Kim Kardashian in campy hot-pink attire. For us masculine folks, the look would be Ken-core. Last week in Provincetown I thought I’d died and gone to button-down shirt heaven. Never had I been surrounded by so many other middle-aged homosexuals in flamboyant leisure wear. I splurged on a Postmarc top with a color palette similar to my Angel Face Barbie’s floral-print dress in the photo above.

(Superstar Ken, 1977 — my first one.)

In less enjoyable news about people named Ken, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was among the 20-plus Republican state AGs who sued the Biden administration last month to oppose a Department of Agriculture school meal program that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. According to NBC News 5 in Dallas-Fort Worth:

The coalition of attorneys general are hoping for a similar result to a separate challenge from earlier this month when a Tennessee judge temporarily barred two federal agencies from enforcing directives issued by Biden’s administration that extended protections for LGBTQ people in schools and workplaces.

The judge sided with the attorneys general, ruling that the directives infringed on states’ right to enact laws, such as banning students from participating in sports based on their gender identity or requiring schools and businesses to provide bathrooms and showers to accommodate transgender people.

Because nothing says “I follow Jesus” like taking food away from gay kids, right?

I forget how I came across this 2021 piece from FilmDaze, “Anti-Queerness and the Pinkification of Allison of ‘The Breakfast Club'”, but it’s a worthwhile read about the familiar movie trope of the makeover into gender-role conformity. Columnist Nia Tucker says of Ally Sheedy’s metamorphosis from Goth rebel to debutante: “She doesn’t even receive any last words, keeping true to her character having the least lines and a lack of personal development. In exchange for her willingness to be made over, she has been given the gift of the male gaze.”

I had the same reaction to the late great Olivia Newton-John’s transformation in the other direction, from Sandra Dee “lousy with virginity” to sexy spandex chick in “Grease”. What kind of love turns a girl into the opposite of who she was when you met her? There’s an important difference, I feel, between a love relationship that gives both partners the security to grow and change, and a romance that eliminates your eccentricities so you can become “desirable” by the other person’s standards.

Femme style is revolutionary in M.A. Scott’s prose-poem “Pink Magic” at the DMQ Review. “Go ahead & relive that prickle of crinoline, subvert it as drag. Pink magic favors a post-Barbie podiatry, acts as road opener to your slut-crone phase.” Put your Ken doll in a dress!

“How choirs can welcome trans singers”, a recent article on ClassicFM by Sophia Alexandra Hall, reports on several professional choirs that are decoupling vocal parts from gender identities. For instance, Jane Ramseyer Miller, director of One Voice Mixed Chorus in Minneapolis-St. Paul, doesn’t assume that sopranos and altos in her LGBTQ ensemble must be women, or tenors and basses men:

“Most of my conversations are really about the health of a voice,” Jane explained. “If someone’s auditioning, and I’m not quite sure of their gender, I will usually ask pronouns, just so that it’s a little orienting for me.

“Sometimes I will ask if they’re on testosterone, because it makes a difference where I’ll place somebody in terms of voice.”

Some of her chorus members told the reporter about upsetting experiences where choir directors tried to make them wear wrong-gender clothing to fit in with the other singers in their section.

“We are singers, and we wear black,” Jane told Classic FM about the dress code for One Voice.

As opposed to how some ensembles gender their outfits, the singers in One Voice can “choose any kind of black outfit that they want – it’s completely up to them”.

On top of the black outfit, the chorus also wear rainbow scarves.

Listen to this choir sing “Where There Is Light in the Soul” on YouTube.

Poetry by David Kherdian: “The First Problem and the Last”

Poet and memoir writer David Kherdian is the author of numerous books about Armenian-Americans and working-class life in the Midwest. His most recent poetry collection is Blackbirds Over Aurora, an account of an Oregon community based on the mystical teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. He has kindly allowed me to publish one of his newest poems below.

THE FIRST PROBLEM AND THE LAST

I would like to think we end
here to start over again there,
or else continue again from here
where we have landed,
naked, alone, to learn for ourself
what is expected of us here now.
Nothing bedevils me more
than not knowing what’s next.
Can it be that this futile life
is without a sequel,
could anything be worse then ending
without knowing what comes after.

What we want to know above all is:
If death is the answer to life,
what was the question we failed to ask
before it became too late, as it is now,
here / now, always the same conclusion
with nothing said about The After.
How do we approach the end
without knowing either the question
or the answer, and is it enough to say
at the end I lived Fully.

Neutrality Is a Value Judgment

The dream of classic American liberalism is perfect procedure. Abstract principles that all sides accept as legitimate, thus avoiding an impasse or a violent clash between factions with incompatible worldviews. That dream is killing us.

In centrist liberal discourse (Democratic or mainline Christian), the worst sin is being “just like them,” a comparison that always happens at the level of methods, not ends. If “they” are fervently certain, we must be open-ended. If their policies are guided by prayer, mysticism, or tradition, we must be superior rationalists. And if they see America as a spiritual battleground between good and evil, we have to behave as though they’re our valued colleagues–even while they’re destroying the institutions of democracy.

What this means in practice is a permanent gig for hacks like NY Times opinion writer Pamela Paul to lament that the Left and the Right are both “censors” because…the state of Virginia is pursuing obscenity charges against queer YA books, but on the other hand, some booksellers aren’t pushing Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters? (For the record, not enough people are trying to seduce me. Cancel culture has gone too far.) The faux pas of excluding some ideas from respectable discourse outweighs any ethical inquiry into the impact of those ideas.

This search for a privileged vantage point above politics is just that–privileged. And it’s not even working. The Jan. 6 hearings have reminded us that the religious fascists helming the GOP will choose violence no matter what we progressives do, because their worldview is eliminationist and their commitment to democracy is only temporary and expedient. They literally do not believe that anyone except white Christian nationalists deserve civil rights.

As a corrective, let me share some thoughts from a book that changed my life: Stanley Fish’s essay collection There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Fish’s central thesis is that free speech decisions are always made by balancing political interests in a dynamic, situation-specific way, whether we’re talking about true government censorship or private actors exercising discretion about what books to publish and what speakers to invite. “Speech, in short, is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good to which it must yield in the event of conflict.” (pg.104)

Conservatives in 2022 understand the instrumental nature of legal rights very well. Courts and elections are a means to an end. This is not the problem; Fish would say that everyone operates this way, whether they admit it or not. The problem is that the Right’s conception of the good is a dystopia for most people. When we throw down our own weapons and retreat to the superior ground of both-sides-ism, the most marginalized people suffer.

According to Fish, when we pretend that pure legal principles require a certain result, we’re being disingenuous, because legal concepts are created by people within a political system. You don’t find them in nature like rocks. “Speech” is defined in advance so that it includes “stuff we want to allow almost always” and excludes “stuff we want to regulate.” It’s a pragmatic decision masquerading as a command from on high. Important Supreme Court decisions happen when the culture has shifted away from the value-judgments embedded in prior cases’ definitions of speech, but the law hasn’t caught up.

By contrast, when we’re up-front about this pragmatic element, we have a basis to push back against “principled” decisions that throw marginalized people under the bus. We bring our opponents down to the level of politics that they were always already on, and make them defend that harm as something they chose to do.

Neutrality about the value and impact of protected speech, taken to an extreme, ends up undermining the free society that the First Amendment was supposed to preserve:

This is where the idea that there is no such thing as a false idea (and therefore no such thing as a true idea, like the idea that women are full-fledged human beings or the idea that Jews shouldn’t be killed) gets you: it prevents you, as a matter of principle, from inquiring into the real-world consequences of allowing certain forms of so-called speech to flourish. Behind the principle (that there is no such thing as a false idea) lies a vision of human life as something lived largely in the head. There is an entire book to be written about the stigmatization and devaluation of the body in First Amendment jurisprudence… (pg.126)

In a “rights regime”, a regime whose chief concern is to protect the autonomy of individuals, categorical analysis turns an indifferent and dismissive eye to the effects produced by the exercised rights… When the harms seem particularly grievous, as in the case of the Holocaust survivors [in Skokie, IL] who were told that they must endure a parade of Nazis marching through their neighborhood with the intent of disseminating anti-Semitic propaganda, the court will typically announce the regret with which it refuses a judicial remedy, and then solemnly declare that this is the price we must pay (one wonders exactly who the “we” are here) for living in a democracy. (pg.127)

…Modern First Amendment doctrine wishes to…ascend to an intelligibility that is hostage to no past whatsoever. It wishes, that is, to justify its actions from scratch, without reference to the views or interests of anyone who has ever lived. This is the impossible dream of liberalism… (pg.131)

 

July Links Roundup: Live Poets Society

Readers know I have mixed feelings about the “always already” trans narrative, but it does say something that my favorite movies as a teenager were “Some Like It Hot” (musicians fleeing the Mafia have to cross-dress to hide in a women’s dance troupe) and “Dead Poets Society” (boarding-school boys read poetry to each other in a cave).

Last month, my husband, who’d never seen the latter film, suggested that we stream it for date night. It was just as beautiful as I remembered. Against our current backdrop of right-wing attacks on school curricula and libraries, the message of literature versus repression hit even closer to home than in 1989. I could also see clearly what I had not understood when I was the same age as the characters–the movie’s only-barely-subtextual queerness. I yearned for this same tenderness between men, which included homoeroticism but went beyond it.

Fortunately, now there’s Google. I went looking for “dead poets society gay” and found, among other things, Adelynn Anderson’s “‘Chased by Walt Whitman’: Or, Why Did Neil Perry Kill Himself?”, a 2020 article at Medium. She makes a persuasive case that “wanting to be an actor” was 1980s-speak for the main character’s real confession to his repressive parents, which he would ultimately rather die than say aloud. The maverick professor played by Robin Williams frequently references Walt Whitman, that Daddy of gay poets, as their role model for an authentic life. Anderson explains why Neil’s struggle has to be coded rather than overt: “Part of the issue is because movies created at this time were still feeling the repercussions of the Hays Code, a code of ‘moral conduct’ for films introduced in the 1930s. It outlawed, among other things, the display or mention of non-heterosexual characters.”

Poet Diana Goetsch is very much alive and getting well-deserved acclaim for her new memoir, This Body I Wore (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2022), reviewed last month at Autostraddle by Melissa Faliveno. I had the pleasure of hearing her read from it at a Charis Books & More online event. Goetsch had been teaching English and publishing well-regarded books under her former name, while expressing her hidden self in New York City’s cross-dressing social clubs in the 1980s and 90s. She came out as trans at age 50. Faliveno’s essay reflects on queer temporality and late-in-life discoveries:

“There is simply no knowing a thing if it is self-secret,” Goetsch writes, “perhaps because that thing refuses to know itself in your presence. It is like a valley, spread out before you, hiding in plain sight.”

…Queer people are constantly resisting straight time. We often live in direct opposition to it, refusing or unable to buy in, forging our own, often nonlinear, paths. We don’t get married, or we don’t have kids, or we don’t buy houses — those markers that, to the straight world, make us more adult. We exist, instead, in queer time.

Even if we do want some of those things — like marriage (assuming queer folks can still do that in the future), a house, a family — it can take a lot longer to get there, not least because we often spend more time figuring out who we are, interrogating those structures and exploring what we want. But even in queer spaces, there’s pressure to do things a certain way. To come out, for instance, as soon as possible. The problem is that, for a lot of people, it’s not possible. For some people, it’s not safe. For others, we don’t have the models that reflect us, the language that fits. We define and redefine ourselves as we go…

…In queer spaces, we spend so much time urging people to come out. And don’t get me wrong; I believe that coming out, extracting ourselves from the shame that people and institutions place upon us and living our lives as authentically as possible is important — not least in this era of “Don’t say gay” bills and constant threats to queer and trans lives. Speaking our truth can in fact save us. But that pressure can also undermine an individual’s sense of time and space and safety, the acknowledgement that some things take a while.

At the Ploughshares blog, Jessica Hines’ essay “Queer Desire and the Myth of Iphis” looks at how medieval writers questioned social roles by retelling an ancient Greek story of a gender-switching princess. Chaucer’s contemporary John Gower, for instance, commended the myth as a role model for courageous devotion. The socially transformative power of queerness, which made the church and the state afraid, can also make lovers brave.

Iphis’ story is one of magical transformation. Assigned female at birth, Iphis is raised as a boy by their mother, Telethusa, due to their father’s decision that all female children will be killed in infancy. All goes well until Iphis becomes engaged to a young woman, Ianthe. Ianthe and Iphis long for each other and deeply desire marriage. Iphis and Telethusa keep delaying the marriage, however, because they fear that it will expose Iphis’s secret. Iphis laments loving Ianthe, seeing it as, in Valerie Traub’s terms, amor impossibilis—an impossible love. Iphis lacks a phallus and thinks this indicates that they do not have the physical means to satisfy their desire (this detail gets me every time—if only Iphis had had access to sex positive sex ed!). And so, Iphis worries that even as they will get what they most desire through marriage—Ianthe as a wife—Iphis will not be able to “complete” that love and will ultimately risk exposure and humiliation. In the end, the goddess Isis intervenes, and Iphis transforms into a man (perhaps biologically, perhaps socially—Ovid’s original isn’t entirely clear). Iphis and Ianthe live happily ever after…

…Gower’s story of Iphis occurs as part of a much larger work, a poem called the Confessio Amantis, in which a failing lover, Amans, gets advice from his priest, the allegorical figure Genius. Genius tells the story of Iphis in the section of the poem about the sin of sloth. Amans confesses that slothfulness, particularly in the form of pusillamité, cowardice, has frustrated his efforts as a lover. Genius tells Iphis’s story as a counternarrative, a story of how great courage can win love. Iphis and Ianthe, with their willingness to throw themselves into Some Thing—some desire, some practice, some love—that was all unknown to them, are an example of the kind of courage that can help someone reach great love.

I don’t want to oversell what’s happening here. Gower isn’t out marching in the medieval equivalent of a Pride parade. But there is something shockingly moving in the fact that Gower brands this expression of desire as a cure for cowardice. It frames the willingness to exist in the epistemological uncertainty constructed by unknown desire as a type of courage. It suggests that the willingness to move into the unknown spaces of desire and bodily union is powerful and transformative. That there is something to be desired and worthy of imitation—something that cowardly lovers should learn from—in the dwelling in obscurity, in the unknown spaces, of sex and desire.

I wish I didn’t have to repeat myself that throwing trans people under the bus will not save democracy, but mainstream media is enamored with this idea that Democrats would have the bandwidth for real social change if only they didn’t have to worry about the pronoun police. At the social justice news outlet Truthout, journalist Kelly Hayes talked with ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio last month about why attacks on trans rights are an integral part of the fascist strategy to control everyone’s sexuality, healthcare, and family formation. Scapegoating misunderstood minorities is also a convenient pressure-release valve for the trauma of life under authoritarianism. Hayes observes:

Cultivating a disregard for suffering is going to be fundamental to any capitalist system, as we move forward in this era of drastic inequity and catastrophe. But for the Republicans, the goal is not simply to cultivate an indifference to extreme and routine acts of violence against targeted groups, but also, to satisfy an enthusiasm for that violence…

…As we saw under the Trump administration, a government can fail to deliver on nearly all of its promises, but still enjoy the celebration of a fascist movement if the state offers up violence that its followers experience as redemptive.

The GOP does not plan on doing anything to make anyone’s life better, and it’s not really even pretending to offer any plans that would do that, but it is promising white people, cis men, and cis women who feel threatened by trans women, a form of social retribution.

Strangio concurs, and connects “gender-critical” feminism to racism:

[W]hite women in particular have been central to mechanisms of white supremacy in the sort of structural political sense, even when cast as sort of outside of typical power structures. Sort of there’s this long history of white womanhood being situated as that which needs protecting, which builds some of the most violent mechanisms of state power, and we can sort of trace that through the entire structural formation of the United States as a nation state, where you have protecting white women and this being used in the service of mass violence against Indigenous communities, against enslaved communities, and to perpetuate lynchings, to fuel mass incarceration, to propagate wars globally…

…And in the context of anti-trans bills, this is very much part of the continuation of that legacy wherein you have in particular a lot of cis white girls and their white parents, in particular their white mothers, sort of evoking this idea that their daughters are being threatened by this monstrous other that needs to be controlled and removed and the state needs to step in as protector.

Later in the interview, Strangio takes aim at the argument that gender identity is a frivolous “culture war” issue distracting us from real material concerns:

I have truly never understood the culture war discourse as anything other than some sort of media narrative to minimize and sort of invisibilize structural power. Everything and nothing are culture wars all at once. We are constantly having fights over yet sort of who can live and die. That is the nature of politics. And that is inextricable from all of the things that we might understand to be culture and cultural norms.

And so every conversation about gun control or foreign policy or taxation or housing, I mean, those are culture wars. It’s a conversation about who is centered in our understanding of our ideological and cultural norms in this country.

Honestly it reminds me of the irritating progressive Christian platitude that “what matters is not what you believe, but what you do”–as if there could be any action without a belief behind it.

Speaking of Christianity, I was struck by the originality and boldness of these Easter weekend reflections from philosopher Adam Kotsko’s blog, which obviously I am catching up on several months after the fact. In his post for Good Friday, “The Cross: That’s How They Get You”, Kotsko remembers praying the rosary during the end of his Catholic phase and deciding that it no longer felt wholesome and redemptive to meditate on Christ’s martyrdom:

People talk about the power of “making martyrs,” but martyrs are very easily recruited by the powers that be, to shore up their own legitimacy. And within the first generation of Christians, even as they were living under Roman persecution, the Christians themselves were helping out with that process. You can find the outlines of an anti-imperial account of the cross in the synoptics, especially Mark, but even in Mark you already see the beginning of the effort to deflect culpability from the Romans to the Jews.

I’d propose that the real effect of the cross imagery in history has been more akin to the imagery of the fetus in pro-life circles (which obviously overlap heavily with Christian circles) — a fantasy of victimhood that incites fantasies of revenge. The cross has incited more pogroms than revolutions, it seems, and when it has inspired revolutions, Christians have been among its greatest opponents. Among more well-meaning Christians, the cross seems to underwrite a kind of magical thinking about redemptive suffering, as though being beaten up by the police and arrested will somehow in itself produce social change. It turns the performance of state terror into a performance for the state, which will somehow shame it into doing the right thing. The very sign of a social order that is irredeemable — the fact that it publicly tortures people to death in order to terrorize populations into submission — becomes a sure method for helping the powers and principalities to find their best selves.

I’d argue this is why Christian writers and churches are so much more enamored of abuser-redemption stories than supporting survivors’ resistance. Kotsko’s post on Holy Saturday calls out the guilt-trip underneath the message of free salvation:

So God becomes man in Jesus Christ, God submits to the humiliation of birth as a helpless infant, God experiences the ignorance and insecurity and fear that make up a human life, God contrives to antagonize the legal authorities until he can count on being publicly tortured to death to fulfill the demand of — God. God dies on the cross to satisfy God’s demand for punishment, to calm God’s wrath. God dies on the cross to save us from God — hallelujah!

…And after the delirious, incredulous joy of this bizarre moment, the next section reveals the truth: God’s payment of our debt of sin was not true forgiveness, not a clearing of the books, but a consolidation loan. He died for you, can’t you live for him? God is willing to offer you for forgiveness, and all he asks in return is your very life, your very soul. God saves us from God by binding us ever more closely to God, indebting us more profoundly to the one who sacrificed himself for us.

That’s love, right? That’s what love looks like: sacrificing yourself, so that you can emotionally blackmail the loved one. That’s what love looks like: giving up everything, so that the beloved can never leave. That’s what love looks like: playing the carrot of forgiveness off against the stick of the old regime, the supposed “Old Testament God” whose threat and demand remains the only background against which this heroic self-sacrifice can even remotely make sense. That’s love — love for the debtor who will always only be debtor, love for the debtor who now carries not just a debt of sin but the burden of having somehow caused the death of God. That’s love.

If that’s the only way God knows how to love, then I don’t want God’s love. If that’s what the death of God on the cross is meant to accomplish, then maybe we’d be better off if God stayed dead.

There is a minority tradition in the West — running from Hegel and Nietzsche up to Altizer and Žižek (and maybe, I’d dare to suggest, by way of Bonhoeffer) — that claims that that is precisely how we should interpret the cross. God dies, permanently and irrevocably, leaving us alone to figure out for ourselves how we want to live our life together.

An Ode to Paulie Walnuts

Tony Sirico, who played Mafia henchman Paulie Walnuts on “The Sopranos”, died last week at age 79. A memorably eccentric character, Paulie was superstitious, quick to anger (even by gangster standards), and vain to the point of old-womanish fussiness about his appearance. Sirico did his own hair on set, creating Paulie’s distinctive two-tone hairdo, a dark grey bouffant with white “wings” at the temples. From the NY Times obituary:

Gennaro Anthony Sirico Jr. was born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1942, the son of Jerry Sirico, a stevedore, and Marie (Cappelluzzo) Sirico. Junior, as he was called, remembered that he first got into trouble when he stole nickels from a newsstand. He attended Midwood High School but did not graduate, his brother Robert Sirico said.

“I grew up in Bensonhurst, where there were a lot of mob-type people,” he told the publication Cigar Aficionado in 2001. “I watched them all the time, watched the way they walked, the cars they drove, the way they approached each other. There was an air about them that was very intriguing, especially to a kid.”

He worked in construction for a while but soon yielded to temptation. “I started running with the wrong type of guys, and I found myself doing a lot of bad things,” he said in James Toback’s 1989 documentary, “The Big Bang.” Bad things like armed robbery, extortion, coercion and felony weapons possession.

While serving 20 months of a four-year sentence at Sing Sing, the maximum-security prison in Ossining, N.Y., he saw a troupe of actors, all ex-convicts, who had made a stop there to perform for the inmates. “When I watched them, I said to myself, ‘I can do that,’” he told The Daily News of New York in 1999.

Co-stars Steve Schirripa and Michael Imperioli’s “Talking Sopranos” podcast recounted that Sirico had a chance to move up higher in the mob, but declined, saying he wasn’t good at following orders. A tactful way to say no to the kind of guys who make offers you can’t refuse…

In his honor, here’s a poem from my unpublished chapbook The Waste-Management Land, which I wrote last winter while bingeing the show. Hard-core fans, see if you can catch all the episode references.

Between Noon and Three O’Clock

for Paulie Walnuts

What am I paying for, Father?

I was raised — and not only me —
on the creed that if I served
my silent time in the flame-
colored jumpsuit, I’d walk clean
through the snow at transmission’s end.

What’s a few hundred years
of ashes in the purgatorial can
compared to that damned cut to black,
the freezing barren where I’d plead
guilty to hold even my enemy
warm as a lost shoe?

But no more protection
gold for you, Father,
the saint can parade bare-faced as a boss
who lets his stockboy’s legs be broken
rather than pay me one bean.
It’s over for the little guy.

I’ve seen the Mother of Sorrows on the stripper pole.
I’ve seen a cat suck the breath from a ghost.

See, bad luck’s contagious
as piss on a shoelace.

Everyone who headed that crew
before me died
or will die and everyone
takes that one-way cruise
with the man who says, let’s go fishing.

When my time comes, tell me, will I stand up?
Last night I dreamed I asked
my underwater friend
but he just flipped
the fish frying in the pan
and passed the plate
to me.

The Poet Spiel: “War Zone” and Other Poems

Good evening. America is fucked. Please enjoy these crazy-ass angry and true poems by my friend Spiel, who has lived through this madness for 80 years as a proud homosexual. Transition goals, baby.

War Zone

“My therapist said,
‘Sometimes I think you believe you live in a war zone.’
And I said,
‘I do. Doesn’t everybody?'”

****

Chain of Blood

This bucket of blood
chained to my neck,
same as the buckets
hung to the necks
of my siblings
passed on by our mother
hung to her neck
just like her sisters.

Passed on from their father
same as his sister,
chains from their mother
dragged and dragged on
from their father’s mother,
her mother’s mother and so on.

Each attempt to move forward
clouds my eyes
so I barely can see.
Friends walk away
in dread of mother’s gift.

Why hate her for what
no one knew
of the poison
of her madness?

As I turned dark,
none questioned my blood,
instead whipped my ass
to straighten me.

****

Witness

In innocence, as you crayoned on the floor,
she emerged from her dark closet to reveal
what she knew were forbidden–her petals of flesh.
She planted a wanton glance with nowhere to settle but upon her firstborn son.
Your bewildered face between her space–for her, a lily in her valley.
Your eyes aghast, replete with games, repeated over time
in a shame you could not name in crayon-speak
and your crayon days were early done.

Now, after all these years, you wonder, which hurts the most?
Perhaps those vital tidbits you can’t recall to reassemble nor recant;
or is it the reverberating odor of the absolute volumes you cannot forget?

****

First son

They said on TV that winning champion cow at State Fair
is like something they’d worked toward all their lives–
like when they give birth to a son.
Someone to plow, someone to milk the cows,
someone to carry on the farm when they are gone.
They likely said similar decades ago when you were born,
the first son, fourth generation on the farm.

But you had no inclination to become a farmer.
You were an artist at heart from your first spanking.
They said it broke their hope of what they expected a son would mean to their tradition.
Yup, they said on TV that winning is like getting a son.

They said this in America, not China, where they threw the baby girls away.

****
carne

after The Corvo Brothers art exhibition at the Sangre de Cristo Art Center

indifference in the eyes of the frilly-frocked child refuses you,
refuses also the flop-eared cotton-stuffed bunny she has already
half disposed into a pot-metal meat grinder she cranks without passion
feeding fresh ground rabbit meat out its gaping end onto the flat stump
of an old oak tree long ago erupted up and through the white slate
tile floor of her reckless playroom.

only the wistful eyes of one of her three captured teddy bears connect
to you as you wish the lack of spaces in its bent wire cage might provide
an out for mr. soft-pink-ear elephant if only he were not so deflated
but he proves to be no inspiration for his innocent bear companions
who already recognize their fate is no doubt recorded in the history
tamped into strings of turgid sausages suspended directly above them
and possibly her motivation for not demolishing the weighty antique
butcher’s drawing of a quartered hog barely dangling from old twine.

then of course the significance of the steel roast pan at her side bearing
an enormous sun-bleached skull with a dark eye-cavern that never ceases
its gaze upon a gleaming slaughterer’s axe driven deep into that stump,
the fine splinters of the skull’s own snout forever aimed at new red meat
squishing from the grinder as a constant reminder just how dead the skull is,
how long ago its own live meat may have flourished on its desiccated bone.

but this aloof peach-ribboned child was not there when the tree threw up.
the floor was not there when this skull’s live nostrils flared at the slightest
hint of life and its thick lips feasted upon moss like the moss that even now
still prospers on the roots of the butchered tree.

and certainly she was not there when those peculiar brothers spelled carne
with wooden christmas blocks across the floor way back
when the white slate was new and the wire cage imprisoned,
a perpetual rotation of yellow-fat-dripping fowl.

and if you dared to ask the child
where does the fresh ground rabbit meat come from
it will be as if you were never there.