Archive for March, 2011

Cape Smokey

March 26th, 2011

I heard recently from a friend who lives part time in Novia Scotia, that blessed land.  She was crowing about having just eaten a three pound Nova Scotian lobster.  That’s a lot of lobster, but she’s a dancer.  I’ve been up that way a few times, with the then-wife and kids.  We used to camp in Cape Breton National Park.  I remember particularly one sunset I stood watching a pod of Minke whales from our sea-side tent site,  their arched backs black and massive and numerous, passing only a couple of hundred yards offshore, somehow putting me in mind of a buffalo herd.  I’ve been a lot of beautiful places.  Vermont, where I live, is by all accounts beautiful, but every time I came home from Nova Scotia I felt as if I were returning from the truly beautiful to the merely pretty.  There is a different quality to it.  Rilke liked to emphasize how terrifying angels are.  I think he was on to something.  On the Cabot Trail, the road that follows the shore around Cape Breton, there is a high place called Cape Smokey.  With a nod to Rilke, this poem is an attempt to bring home something of Cape Smokey back to the Green Mountains:

perhaps the way a gull
may beak a clasped shell
up beside the headlands

up and then drop it to shatter
upon the rounded rocks
that contain mere rock

and swoop then to the meat
among the shards a tan
bit it carries off

so the headlands misting
blued in their plunge to the sea
still and empty words

shuck them of what sustains
the rock the heaving foam
the hidden trembling Name

In the spirit of White Bull

March 19th, 2011

A story I read last month in Thomas Powers’ wonderful history, The Killing of Crazy Horse, has been vibrating in my mind ever since.  The book is characterized by exhaustive research, adherence to ascertainable fact, scrupulous refusal to romanticize or demonize anybody, globally comprehensive perspective, beautiful sense of proportion, and willingness to offer humane and reasonable interpretation but only with a dignified sense of restraint.  It is the best attempt I have read to depict the tangled relations among Indians and whites on the frontier during the period of the Sioux wars of the 1870s.  Powers does justice (in all meanings of the phrase) to people on both sides and the many people in between.   It is history written as if history were about human beings in all their multi-dimensionality.

The story that has stuck with me so vividly has to do with a battle that occurred in August, 1872, near the Yellowstone River.  About five hundred U.S. soldiers and civilians were camped on the north bank, in territory from which whites were excluded by the Treaty of 1868.  Coincidentally, a

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The first casualty of class warfare…

March 10th, 2011

Really, it is too much.  This morning on Vermont Public Radio I listened to Jim Douglas’ apologia for the shame of Wisconsin.  VPR likes to hire “former” politicians as commentators, as if the politician’s perspective were under-represented in our civic discourse, overwhelmed by the thundering voices of the poor, the marginal and the disenfranchised.  The commentary was presented in Douglas’ usual soothing tones; if you could bottle this man’s voice, you could use it as cough syrup.  He availed himself of the familiar conservative Republican tactic of depicting the facts not as they are but as they might be on a planet where they support the conclusions that he would prefer to draw.  Thus, he described himself as a believer in collective bargaining and implied that, as a former union member, he is a friend to organized labor.  He described Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Senate as motivated by concern for the state budget.

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Vote for me!

March 10th, 2011

Yeah, you!  I’m talking to you!

I received an email the other day from the Vermont Arts Council inviting me to nominate a candidate for Vermont Poet Laureate, and I thought, who better than me?  For all of you who agree, follow this link to help me throw my hat in the ring.  You can find everything you need to know to fill out the nomination form right here on this web site.

Poetry doesn’t need to be boring or mystifying or trivial.  It can be about more than some feeling or experience or passing fancy or perception the author had.  It doesn’t have to be a word game.  It can do more than advertise how sensitive or perceptive or humane or smart or verbally adept the author is.   It doesn’t have to come in little bite size pieces that you can read while folding toilet paper.

Poetry can engage the world on all the levels that you do.  It can make statements, tell stories about characters doing things, express points of view and arguments and ideas, contain adventure and excitement and jokes that are actually funny.  It can be so big that it takes hours and days and weeks to read.  It can be so vivid that you don’t want to watch a movie instead.

I want to wrest poetry away from the clammy fingers of the Standard MFA Workshop American Lyric that are clenching it by the throat, squeezing the life out of it.  I am sick of reading award winning poems that tell me in twenty lines or so about some tranche de vie.  Why are you telling me this?  Who cares?  Why should I care?  Why should anybody care?    I am sick of being dazzled by verbal brilliance – it hurts and it’s bad for the eyes.  I am sick of poems that dare me to understand them, like an adolescent with something to prove to himself.

Where are the poems that back an eighteen wheeler up to your head, unload, and leave you with completely rearranged furniture and a new set of tenants?  Who is writing them?  I’ll leave it to you to decide if I’m such a poet, but if you agree with me that this is something poetry needs to do and that too few poets are trying to do it, then VOTE FOR ME!

The deadline for nominations is March 25.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

March 1st, 2011

This past Sunday, I attended a rally here in Burlington in support of the Wisconsin protesters.  About 250 people stood at the top of Church Street in the raw, biting cold, listening to speeches for half an hour, after which we all walked down to the bottom end of Church Street, in front of City Hall, and I left the group, my feet at that point having started to ache icily.  To my eye, the crowd consisted mainly of people in their forties and fifties, with a smattering of younger folk.  I had told my nineteen year old son that morning of my plans to attend the rally, and he looked at me and said, “Oh, so people still do that?”

The speakers all were eloquent and blessedly brief and to the point.  Among them was my boss, Attorney General William Sorrell, the only statewide elected official to put in a personal appearance, although representatives of Senators Leahy and Sanders and Representative Welch all delivered strong messages.  I have heard Bill speak in public a number of times, and have not tended to think of oratory as his strong suit.  He is thoughtful and deliberate and says “um” a lot.  This day, however, he was in fine form, fluent and direct and full-throatedly impassioned, and he really warmed the crowd up.  We needed it.  I think the subject of workers’ rights drew out the best in him.

While Bill was working the crowd into a frenzy, I thought about my paternal grandfather, Isidor Stenzor, may he rest in peace, who came to this country from Poland a hundred years ago and gave the rest of his life to the union movement.  Although he has been dead some thirty years, I can still hear his basso voice rumbling, “You kids don’t know the struggles we went through.”  I found myself wondering what he would say if he knew that today, 75 years after FDR signed the National Labor Relations Act into law, thousands of people are finding it necessary to take to the streets in the dead of winter to defend workers’ basic rights to organize.  He probably would not have been surprised.  He was a very practical and realistic man, and he knew that the rich are always with us.  Hanging in my closet is a wool coat that belonged to him.  I think I’ll wear it to the next rally, so that he can be with us as the struggle continues.

The other day, I heard a woman say on the radio, “I think maybe unions served a purpose in this country once upon a time, but maybe not any more.”  I wanted to say to her, “Yes, as soon as Governor Walker gets off the phone with David Koch I’m sure he’ll take your call.”  My Zaide Izzy would have liked this joke, which answers her perfectly.  A CEO, a unionized public employee, and a Tea Party stalwart are sitting around a table.  In the center of the table is a plate with a dozen cookies on it.  The CEO reaches over and takes eleven of them.  He then turns to the Tea Partyer and says, “You better watch out for that union guy.  He wants a piece of your cookie.”