Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Tuesday's Child

7:03: "The purpose of awakening is black coffee." Alice Notley, "The Prophet"


Kids off. Bulgar pilaf with cranberries and almonds for breakfast; caught up on some romance reviews at Dear Author while it simmered. The new Lydia Joyce sounds promising.

Trying to imagine a site like Dear Author about poetry: not just a site with reviews, but one that gives, like, low grades to books. Is there something out there like that? If not, why not? What would the absence say about the differences between reading poetry and reading genre fiction? (Poetry, too, after all, a "genre.")

Has anyone who studies fandom ever turned his or her attention to poetry readers? I suspect there's a good deal to be said from that perspective: the passion, the depth of knowledge, the feral infighting...


Spent too much of my first day back at school restlessly checking news from Gaza, and it tugged at my attention today as well. The latest horror--30 or 40 civilians killed at the UN school where they were taking shelter--haunts me, and reports that Hamas gunmen were firing from the school, in which they'd barricaded themselves, booby-trapping it first, makes things worse, not better. (It's entirely believable, but sadly no more so than any other explanation.)

Those poor children--so many, and more to come.

Muriel Rukeyser's little poem from 1939 keeps running through my mind:
M-Day's child is fair of face,
Drill-day's child is full of grace,
Gun-day's child is breastless and blind,
Shell-day's child is out of its mind,
Bomb-day's child will always be dumb,
Cannon-day's child can never quite come,
But the child that's born on the Battle-day
is blithe and bonny and rotted away.
Sorry so glum, but what can you do? Brant Rosen reposts an interview with Israeli geographer Arnon Soffer, one of the idea-men behind the original Gaza pullout, back on May 21, 2004:
...when 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill.
In case you couldn't tell, he's not saying that as a warning (like, let's not let this happen). He's just planning ahead. "The only thing that concerns me," says he, "is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings."

I am sickened and ashamed.


Anyway, I did my best to keep my attention elsewhere a while this morning. For the love poetry class, I'm rereading Octavio Paz, The Double Flame, chapters 1 and 2, along with Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet. The goal is to gather a shared vocabulary for talking about love (and desire, and related matters) as the course begins. Paz starts by setting up an analogy between poetry and eroticism:
"The relationship between eroticism and poetry is such that it can be said, without affectation, that the former is a poetry of the body and the latter an eroticism of language" (2).
How so? Well, eroticism is "sexuality transfigured," in which "imagination turns sex into ceremony and rite," just as imagination, in poetry, turns "language into rhythm and metaphor" (3). Eroticism makes sexuality "say" something more than reproduction, so that pleasure (and aggression, and any other element of sexuality) becomes an end in itself. Likewise, "in the poem...language deviates from its natural end, communication" (4). The language of poetry circles around, looks back on itself, aspires to shapeliness rather than simply to clarity. Thus "Poetry puts communication in brackets in the same way that eroticism brackets reproduction" (5).

The implications of this? "St. John of the Cross did not wish to say anything that departed from the teachings of the Church; nevertheless, his poems said other things" (5). Poems always (at least potentially) say something more, something other that what is intended or what is useful, socially speaking. "There is always a schism between social and poetic expression: poetry is the other voice," says Paz (6).

Paz distinguishes love from eroticism, and both of them from sexuality.

"Sex is the primordial source. Eroticism and love are forms derived from the sexual instinct: crystalizations, sublimations, perversions, and condensations which transform sexuality, very often into something unknowable" (7). Eroticism "is sexuality socialized and transfigured by the imagination and the will of human beings" (8).

First Paz talks about the imagination's role. "Eroticism is invention, constant variation; sex is always the same." This multiplicity inheres in the nature of the erotic: "in every erotic encounter," says Paz--even in our most "solitary pleasures"--there is "an invisible and ever-active participant: imagination, desire" (9).

He then discusses the social side of things. Sex as such, he says, threatens society: it's "like the god Pan," at once creative and destructive; it "ignores classes and hierarchies, arts and sciences, day and night--it sleeps and awakens, only to fornicate and go back to sleep again" (10). [Ah, those were the days!] Human cultures invent taboos, prohibitions, inducements: eroticism includes both "repression and license...sublimation and perversion"; it generates cultural production, from laws to rites to arts, around the twinborn poles of "abstinence and license" (11-12).

Writes Paz, "Every great historic religion has given rise, on its margins or at its very heart, to sects, movements, rites, and liturgies in which the flesh and sex are paths to divinity. It could not be otherwise: eroticism is first and foremost a thirst for otherness. And the supernatural is the supreme otherness" (15).
  • This will set up one of our recurring topics: the relationship between sacred and secular love poetry, and by extension the relationship between sacred and secular love.
Paz then turns from religion to its inverse or mirror image, "libertinism." A longish disquisition on libertinism, which in my experience is as foreign to students as sexual rites and liturgies. In the 18th century, "the libertine was the intellectual critical of religion, laws, and customs," and "libertine philosophy turned eroticism into moral criticism" (22).

Sadly, that "moral criticism" ends up preaching its own rather nasty moral vision, at least to Paz:
"For the libertine the ideal erotic relationship means absolute power over the sexual object, and an equally absolute indifference toward its fate; while the sexual object is totally complacent toward the desires and caprices of its lord" (22). As a result, "the libertine turns everything he touches into a phantom, and he himself becomes a shade among shades" (24).
  • This from Sade, of course, whom I haven't read since high school. Does it have any bearing on the actual behavior of anyone else?
Thank heaven, Paz has no taste for Sade. "A prolix and dull writer," he calls him, "the opposite of an artist" (24). He prefers Shakespeare, Stendahl, even Freud, "a man of science and a tragic poet" (25). He gives the last word in the chapter to D.H. Lawrence, who envisions, through eroticism, a "return to the place of origin, where death and life embrace," as in the poem that he quotes, "Bavarian Gentians."

So much for sexuality and eroticism (chapter 1), what of love? More on that anon.


Laura Vivanco said...

"It's entirely believable, but sadly no more so than any other explanation."

The latest from the BBC on this is as follows:

The Israeli military said its soldiers had come under mortar fire from Hamas militants inside the school.

Unwra spokesman Christopher Gunness said the agency was certain Hamas militants were not using its school to attack Israeli troops.

A spokesman for Hamas denied there had been any hostile fire coming from the school.

"Those poor children--so many, and more to come."

I feel so very limited in what I can do to help them. Unicef UK has sent out a
Palestinian Children’s Appeal
and says that

In response to the current crisis in Gaza, UNICEF has so far delivered 355 first aid kits and 20 resuscitation kits to hospitals. We have also pre-positioned USD 50,000 worth of emergency supplies at United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) warehouses. The UNRWA is the largest agency which is still operating its health clinics and schools.

M├ędecins sans Frontieres is also still at work there:

MSF is adapting its activities in order to reach people in need of medical help who are unable to leave their homes due to the insecurity. Local MSF doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists have taken medical supplies to their own neighbourhoods and are providing care and distributing medical material to meet the immediate needs of patients living in their vicinity. In response to a request from Shifa Hospital, MSF is attempting to send a surgical team into Gaza. MSF is also trying to send a mobile hospital unit with an operating theater and an intensive care unit. Additionally, the organization is trying to send medical materials to hospitals to help them deal with the numerous emergencies and patients they are receiving.

E. M. Selinger said...

Thanks, Laura. The slough of helplessness is a real danger, and humanitarian relief makes a bigger difference than protest at this point, I suspect.

About the conflicting explanations of the school attack--the question of believability--the trouble is that I don't have much faith in anyone's account at this point. The Israeli and official Hamas explanations are both what I'd expect, each side excusing itself of blame. As for the UN response, in the heat of battle, it strikes me as entirely possible that a small number of fighters could have gone in and started firing from the school without UNWRA's knowledge, perhaps even deliberately hoping to draw fire to a civilian target. ("Using the school to attack" suggests something on a larger or longer scale.)

We won't know the truth for quite a while, if ever, alas.

E. M. Selinger said...


Actually, Laura, a few more minutes of reading this morning turns up a story from the Hebrew-language edition of Ha'aretz casting doubt on the IDF explanation.

"UNWRA notes that video the IDF disseminated yesterday seeking to verify the army’s claim was actually shot in 2007. Either the IDF intelligence apparatus is so incompetent it dredges up video from nearly two years ago to prove something happened yesterday or…it is so malign that it brazenly attempts to pass off this claim to the world in a desperate attempt to lower a smokescreen over what actually happened. If UNWRA’s claim is correct, then what actually happened appears to be something close to a cold-blooded massacre of refugee civilians.

Again, it is possible that the IDF shells were misdirected or some other technical error caused these deaths. Or it is possible that the Israeli firing was willful. In either case, the tragedy is unpardonable and again, if the UNWRA story is correct, solely the fault of the IDF."

--For those with the Hebrew, the story is here: http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1053489.html. I found it discussed here: http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2009/01/07/idf-false-claim-militants-fired-from-gaza-un-school.

E. M. Selinger said...

And the last word, perhaps, goes to Robert Fisk in the Independent:


I'd forgotten some of these, and the excuses given. A grim piece, but a necessary one.

Laura Vivanco said...

"Why do they hate us, we will ask? But let us not say we do not know the answer." (From the article by Fisk)

Those figures and events Fisk relates are devastating. And one might well want to add in the numbers gathered by Iraq Body Count as part of the answer too.

E. M. Selinger said...

I suspect that this is just what war does, Laura. I suppose there have been one or two brief conflicts that didn't kill many civilians or unleash savagery on them. (The Falklands War, maybe? I think of military deaths in that, but not civilian ones.) But as a rule, they're probably all much, much worse than we who live in safety know or imagine. I don't particularly like Fisk's headline--hatred always has many causes, internal and external--but I deeply admire his unwillingness to forget or shrug off the past, as so many do.

Service Express said...

that is so sad and so scary. The children should be protected and should be love. They shouldn't have that kind of experience at that young age. This will greatly affect their growth and way of thinking.

disa said...
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