Saturday, September 23, 2017

Ahab in Vietnam

I’m writing under the Influence, having just finished reading Moby Dick. After 487 pages one is fully immersed. When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. So with Ahab at the helm of my ship, harpoon in hand, I started watching the PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. Herman Melville meet Ken Burns.

Like most viewers, I suspect, I’d long ago made up my mind about that tragic folly of a war. I had no appetite to witness a replay of the carnage. However there were many antecedents to our full entry and Burns gives the cast of distant voices a human face and context.

Ahab, as a force of Nature, is the great American allegory. There is no hissing the villain or cheering the hero in the book. Melville (call him Ishmael) presents the white whale as demonic and ferocious on one page and noble on the next. In one chapter on Whiteness we are reminded that his is the absence of color which sums up the ambiguity of both the pursuer and pursued. Add to this our contemporary understanding of the oceanic ecosystem and we grow indignant as Melville maligns our cuddly behemoth. Of course the journey of the Pequod is not to be read literally. The author is after far greater game.

Were the architects of our misadventure in Southeast Asia testosterone-driven men? Yes, of course, many were. But I’m not willing to paint all of the combatants with such a broad brush any more than can Ahab be captioned as a crazed monomaniac…though he was. Five presidents along with the so-called best and brightest they could assemble schemed and stumbled and abdicated their good sense and lied their way for nearly three decades with wanton disregard for human life. We met the enemy and they were us. Yet…

Yet their acts were committed in the Cold War context premised on the belief that this Leviathan called Communism would gobble up one country after another and doom would descend upon civilized life. Instead they created their own doom. They mistook a small country’s determination to shake off colonial rule for the Communist dragon. As it turned out that dreaded apparition is now the same form of government which buys our treasury notes and supplies our shelves in Costco and Walmart.

Ahab’s mission was revenge for the loss of a limb which Freud regarded as castration but more importantly to pierce the mask of Moby Dick, to destroy that which lies behind the face of so-called evil. His zeal was messianic but the imagined outcome was unattainable just as religious fanatics, with colossal wrongheadedness, obsess over an aspect of human nature which they project on to others.

Maybe it’s a stretch too far to grant the reckless Pentagon and blind Dulles, McNamara, Rusk, et al a similar status as Ahab. But I’d like to grant them, or at least the soldiers, the benefit of being knights-errant chasing an illusory dragon.

Aside from the war crimes of napalm, defoliants, stacks of body bags and a nation torn asunder the tragedy of Vietnam was our excruciating refusal to come to terms with our role as replacement for European colonialism. It was a dark time in American history lit by some bright songs and burning draft cards and the emergence of a counter-culture. Yet just as Ishmael survived the wreckage on a floating coffin we are carried away in our leaking ship of state, still wounded, still haunted. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Anniversary, How It Came to be and How it is

In my favorite French film, And Now My Love (1974), directed by Claude Lelouch, the man and the woman almost meet for 90 minutes and finally do, via their two suitcases, in the last scene. Their baggage seen touching on the airport conveyor belt has brought them together.

It was finally our baggage that also brought Peggy and me together twenty-three years after our first meeting. In 1957, U.C.L.A. sponsored a poetry extension course which Peggy hosted in her Reseda home. I attended for the ten sessions in her living room but she has no memory of me. Color me nascent.

Claude Lelouch would have rendered me a rather forgettable guy…which I was. But I remembered her when, in November, 1980, she introduced herself after a Robert Bly reading. Aren’t you Norm Levine, she said. I checked my wallet and sure enough I was. Peggy had been at a poetry reading I gave earlier that summer. Our separate travels had somehow deposited us at that same time and place.

We connected that night, soulfully. Two people fully met. At Christmas time we even gave each other the same book (Wendell Berry’s, A Place on Earth). For the next three years four months we had memorable trysts and assignations. While I agonized over my crumbling marriage singing spirituals on the back forty she read me the Emancipation Proclamation and waited and waited.

In the hands of Claude Lelouch it wouldn’t have taken so long. But I’m no Andre Dussollier. My vacillation would have been compressed to no more than twenty minutes. In the French rendition we would have run off for weekends in Carlsbad, Montecito or Ojai which is just what we did.

At last in March, 1984, I called and told Peggy I had good news and bad news. The bad news had something to do with Reagan supporting the Contras in Nicaragua; the good news was that I was packing my toothbrush and moving in with her the following Saturday.

The 25th of March is our real anniversary but we made it official with benefit of clergy two and half years later on Sept. 20th. Peggy was a very young sixty-five and still in her prime now at 96; I was a reinvented fifty-three. Life, Part Two, had begun. It is still beginning every morning. As a French film we would need no subtitles. We are fluent in the language of intimacy which knows when to allow silences. A murmuration of two, unsayable and unmapped.

All passion as yet unspent. Whether it be for poetry, art or even the Dodgers Peggy is nothing if not capacious (a word I use sparingly) in her wide embrace of life. Her enthusiasm is irrepressible beyond the scope of any French actress who might be cast. Yet at the same time she is contemplative with access to her vast inscape.

We now have thirty-three and a half more years of shared memories. Bless this life, this cherished baggage as we row in Eden, oar to oar.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Of, By and For the People

I’ve long had a fickle romance with the People, aka the masses, the working class, the common man, hard-hats, them, etc…  I loved Them when they were the poor dispossessed farmers, the striking rank and file union workers during the depression, those whom Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger sung to, the exploited miners with black lung disease.

I fell out of love with those same workers when they supported the Vietnam War, then elected Reagan, and went on to elect Dubya and now clamor to get their jobs back in the coal mines. Trump like Hitler before him was brought to power by an aroused, ill-informed and gullible underclass the way a lynch mob strings up their strange fruit in misplaced rage orchestrated from above.

No, certainly not the underclass alone but they are a big chunk of the narrative. Trump said or at least implied three words during the campaign, I hear you. And that was enough. Enough to mesmerize, at least, the White population, from the displaced to the highly placed.

It’s small comfort to know that he really lost the popular vote by a landslide. Such avalanches don’t count in our archaic and rigged system. It makes me question our version of the democratic process.

Democracy. How sweet the sound. Wars were fought to make the world safe for it. Americans have died for it. Jefferson proclaimed it. Lincoln bequeathed us those words to live by. 

Who could argue against participatory democracy? And yet….
Our founders hedged their ideal with multiple asterisks. More people, by far, were excluded than included. Women, slaves, indigenous people and the unpropertied were all deemed unfit. Now Republicans are busy suppressing the vote after first carving out districts with no straight lines.

The People, Yes wrote Carl Sandburg but are they really some undifferentiated, amorphous mass who listen with half an ear and a smaller fraction of brain? In 1937 Archibald MacLeish wrote a radio play, The Fall of the City, in which he depicts the common man cowering at the sight of a would-be master and all too willingly transfering his autonomy to him, even if the dictator is an empty shell. It may have been true, at first, in Nazi Germany and to some extent replicated here today.

I would argue, after much wrestling with myself, that such a point of view deposits one in a place of dangerous cynicism. H.L. Mencken, our most quotable of cynics said, Democracy is the pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. I would say to H.L. that you are on a path to Fascism.

Besides it being too easy, to be contemptuous of the people leads to inaction and despair. The only alternative to democracy is some sort of monarch and however beneficent he may be, abuse of power is always an imminent threat.

As Winston Churchill put it, Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.  It is noisy, messy and can be infuriating. Sometimes it commits suicide through apathy and shrugs. Attention must be paid. In fits and starts it rises again from the parched earth. The garden requires watering. My romance with the common folk is more conditional now but estrangement only reinforces the great divide. The differences are not irreconcilable. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Like Robert Frost, I never met one I could love. Humpty-Dumpty, I think, would agree. Edgar Allen Poe hid bodies behind them. Walls are where people wail. They divide and isolate us. The Berlin Wall did nobody any good except to spawn John Le Carre novels. The Dodgers, after four months of great baseball, have hit a wall. The Old Testament had them tumble in Jericho with a riff from Miles Davis or Wynton Marsalis. The Vietnam Wall testifies to our tragic folly. Walls are where kids who run with scissors in school, had to face for long minutes in shame. Maybe that’s where Donald Trump first went off the rails.

My brother drove his car into a mountain wall fifty-five years ago. He loved jazz and was returning from a night in Santa Barbara at a jazz bar, filled with scat singing and whiskey. Maybe he thought there was a portal in that mountain face on the San Marcos Pass. I’d like to believe he heard some hot bluesy sax to accompany him out of this world.

Melville’s Bartleby preferred walls to all else. And look what happened to him. He stared at a dead brick one in a Wall St. office which, now that I think of it, is well named. Later the poor guy ended up in a courtyard with high walls. We have come to this point of erecting walls behind which, the one percent can live in the illusion of safety from the invading hordes, real or imaginary.

As a function of the punitive American mind-set our obscene prisons are bulging beyond what those walls were meant to entomb. While outside, Kafka saw the labyrinth high with partitions where workers toiled with no exit. Mindlessly they even bought into the hokum of fear and rage against otherness; an agenda of hatred which walls them in deaf to all reason.

I take it back; there is one wall I look back upon with endearment. It was the wall against which my pink Spauldeen was thrown hundreds of times. How many times I smashed my ball dreaming I was in games of my own invention in which I played pitcher, batter and fielder? That wall was the outside of my father’s drug store; the external skin of the twelve-stool fountain. On the other side my father concocted elixirs with earthy smells and vapors. One day I would walk through that wall and become my Dad.

Across the street from my wall was Donald Trump, (literally) sealed within his private school called, Kew Forest. What witches and demons did he see to erect walls on his interior landscape and what tunnels and bridges were never built?    

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Every Friday at Three

Tea for three it is; our weekly tea-time with Carol Davis for the past ten years, or is it twelve or fifteen? Time eludes me in these twilight years like a slippery tea bag having galumped into the hot water. I’m getting good at the art of putting the kettle on and pouring. One need not scald the tea, I read somewhere. Then there’s the setting of the table and putting out our version of biscuits or scones which could be Babke or strudel. Peggy takes her Earl Gray. Carol and I prefer Good Earth Sweet & Spicy. It all feels very British as in the Cotswold’s, perhaps, where all vexing matters were to be sorted out over a teacup of hot nice, as we have named it. 

If this were a scene on a BBC Masterpiece Mystery it would be the perfect prelude to a murder or two. One could never trust what fiendish plots were hatched under a thatched roof.

However our conversation is mostly of family triumphs and travails and literary. Poetry acceptances are celebrated or rejections consoled, T.V. shows not to be missed are noted or those devoutly to be avoided. It’s all so civilized except for our habit of balancing the empty mug on its handle as it teeters on the placemat. This Mad Hatter’s ritual is something which has evolved over the years but is no match for the madness about to be let loose to tremble the body politic; more than any detective chief inspector could unravel.

While it is mid-afternoon here the clock has struck evening In Trump Tower. Time now to fire one or two aides, issue an imperial decree or royally deranged pardon in the hope of a quick burial over the weekend. Sorry, Donald but your last Friday night dump came through in neon lights.

Friday already has a dark reputation. Nixon, cornered as he was and in an agitated state on an October Friday night 1973, set in motion what is now known as the Saturday Night Massacre when he fired the Special Prosecutor, Attorney General and Deputy A.G. It seems that the account of that usurpation of power may well be Trump’s book for summer reading.

It has come to the point where the country holds its breath waiting for the next febrile act from our Carnival-Barker-in-Chief. By now you’d think he would know that Friday at six, Eastern Time, is not a propitious moment to hide another body. As the clock strikes mid-day here and eventide there, cable news braces for the next exhibit of our quasi-monarch’s tweeted mind, writ-large.

We need to cherish these moments of calm retreat, congeniality and reasonable discourse. Let us sip and slurp while the birds may chirp but under no circumstances shall we allow the megaphone from Mar-a-Lago to disturb our peace with Breaking News.  

Saturday, August 26, 2017

First Words

Ilaria is one of the new people in the world. My step-great granddaughter is now 10 months, 2 weeks old. Just about the time for the miracle of words to come chirping out of her mouth. First comes parroting and then …… paragraphs in which she will name her garden and know the power of language.

The video sent to us has her almost repeating CAT as her father points to their furry pet. Four years from now she may recognize a Catalpa tree with its heart-shaped leaves. The growth that shall occur will be in leaps and she may be unrecognizable as the butterfly is from the caterpillar. Nothing prepares us for all this. We witness it with wonder…. if we haven’t lost our awe to the geopolitical Catastrophic Cataclysm. But let’s not go there.

Where I find myself going is back to the process of acquiring early speech which went on when my ex-wife and I taught our daughter how to speak. We discovered Janice was congenitally deaf when she was about 20 months. It took almost another year for her say her first word.

Unlike with hearing children the word was not denotative. It was to be an action word which gave her a sense of dominion, of moving her world. The word was Open. Under the guidance of instructors at the John Tracy Clinic we created a number of situations with doors, windows, lids, caps and ultimately our arms. She was urged to say the word in order to effect a change. Open was a good first word; it welcomed the world.

We not only had to get her to make eye contact but also to place her fingers on our mouths and feel the breath of the P. It was demanding on her but we persisted until it all clicked. Maybe there was a moment of sudden recognition that people spoke and sounds were being made which she could not access like others. And these openings and closings of mouths resulted in something called speech and communication. It must have been both a trauma and an epiphany for her. An Oy and an Aha maybe at the same time. 

My guess is it came incrementally that hers would be a different path. Over time she would learn to hear with her eyes. She now sees more than I have ever heard. She notices a frown and how my nostrils flare, so I'm told, when I'm trying to be funny. Janice's fingers have written more poems in the air than I have ever composed on paper. 

At some point her receptive and expressive language grew exponentially but still not sufficient to express or receive abstract thoughts. There are far too many ideas which cannot be visually re-created. Her conceptual development required signing and finger spelling. She picked it up from peers and soon her fingers flew like small birds uncaged.

From Ilaria words will also fly. Her babble and gurgle will make the earth move in ways beyond my imaginings. Some day I will look to her for instructions of how to make sense of this world. I’m reminded there is nothing to suggest a sprouting of wings in the crawl of a caterpillar. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Party

In our household growing up, The Party, was short for the Communist Party. During the war years, for a short time, meetings were held in our living room once a month. Who knows what nefarious plots were hatched on the other side of that wall? None at all, I’m certain. Our newspaper was The Daily Worker, an organ of the Party. I never thought of asking but could assume that my mother and father were members at least during the early forties.

Two F.B.I. agents knocked at our door when I was fifteen. They wanted names from my father. He blocked their way and offered them a loud silence instead. At the time he was working as a pharmacist for a nearby drugstore chain. Later that week he was fired.

With youthful eyes and from a distance Communism looked fairly attractive. Up close it looked like a system better to be seen from a distance. With binary vision and a thirst for absolutes, I reasoned since the U.S. had committed genocide on indigenous people, built the country on slave labor and supported tyrants in the Americas…therefore the USSR must be a more equitable and anti-fascist regime. Wrong! In fact they were worse.

However American communists, in my admittedly limited sphere, had very little to do with what went on in Soviet Russia. My parents were political idealists. There was a romance about it. They had compassion for workers and people of color along with a vehemence against the power elite. Jim Crow abuses angered my father. But he could no sooner overthrow the government than overthrow my mother. She was the reigning matriarch who cursed the butcher for an imagined finger on the scale. She also cursed the landlord for holding back on the heat in winter. Gonif, Schnorrer, Momzer! I think her entire Yiddish vocabulary was in curses.  

Ardent as I was for a more just system with evenly distributed wealth I enrolled for two classes at the Jefferson School in Manhattan to study the philosophy of Marxism. It was clear by the end of the fifties that the F.B.I. was inadvertently the biggest supporter of the Communist Party. So thoroughly had they infiltrated the class I attended that the teacher would address us as, students and F.B.I. agents. They were busy reporting on each other.

I don’t believe an average American, then or now, understands what the word, communism, meant. It was aspirational. An illusory dream of fairness and justice. It was certainly not what went on in the U.S.S.R.

It was also naïve but allegiance to a society of brother and sisterhood was basically harmless. What was wide-spread and respectable in the thirties became branded reprehensible and subversive a decade later.

Today we have a world turned upside-down. Republicans are contorting themselves to excuse their President for his Russophilia while what’s left of the American Left denounces his embrace. Of course, the word communism, has been excised from the conversation. But Putin’s Russia bears a strong resemblance to Stalin’s with Capitalists, instead of bureaucrats, grabbing power. 

The party is over. Call it Socialism or don't call it anything but a recognition of necessities with a reinvigorated role of government to provide for health, housing, education, employment and support for Science and the Arts. Call it civilization. 

The planet spins and words, like heavenly bodies, get eclipsed. Sometimes we even get to see them with new eyes.