Friday, January 29, 2010

The Time Is Now, The Time Is Wright

In some ways, I don’t even know how to verbalize a response to Wright’s portrait because the cruelty and hatred he depicts just leaves me dumbfounded. Particularly, the story he relates about the beating of the black woman is very disturbing. That the white men abused her, not even so much because of her debts, but really just more for the hell of it—simply because they could. I’d like to think we’ve moved beyond that today.

However, I was reading the latest edition of the Flagpole and there was a story about a Hispanic man, Frankey, a legal worker, who speaks perfect English and kind of serves as a protector for other laborers who are not as wise to the dangers of the business. Anyway, several horror stories are described in the article, but this one really stuck out:

“One day, a man pulled up in a van and picked up seven guys, didn’t tell them about the work. Frankey said it didn’t feel right; he looked out the window and saw that they were headed to Atlanta. When he asked the man where they were going, he responded, ‘We’re going to Immigration. I’m dropping y’all off so y’all can go back to y’all's damn country.’ Sure enough, Frankey knew the van’s tag number and called 911 on his cell. The cops pulled the van over and arrested the man for kidnapping.” (for the full article see

So, I was telling my wife about the above incident, and I posed the question: “who would be so cruel, and ignorant, and hateful as to try something like that?” And that’s when it hit me that maybe we haven’t advanced at all from Richard Wright’s Jim Crow iniquities. People will do whatever they think they can get away with, especially to one perceived as ‘other.’

But it really makes me stop and think about myself. While I’m outraged at such racist behaviors, I think of all the unspoken racisms, sexisms, stereotypes, and cruelties that leap into the mind unbidden.

It makes me think of these lyrics, to a song called ‘Crooked Deep Down’ by Derek Webb:

“My life looks good i do confess,
you can ask anyone
just don’t ask my real good friends
because they will lie to you
or worse, they’ll tell the truth

because there are things you would not believe
that travel into my mind
i swear i try and capture them
but always set ‘em free
it seems bad things comfort me…”

I guess my prayer is just to become a little less crooked each day, a little less Jim Crow on the inside. The time is now, the time is right—every hour on the hour.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Park Bench Negro Speaks: Me

“I am a Negro:
Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa.

I know I am
The Negro Problem
They lynch me still in Mississippi

When Abe Lincoln,
(So ashamed of being white),
Brushed the boots of Washington –

Hell of a distance
Between us two…

Wondering how things got this way?

I built my hut near Park Avenue and it lulled me to sleep,

But I’m wakin’ up
Solutions to the Problem…

Say, ain’t you afraid?”

A Boot Was Thrown

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Who are our?

This poem by Claude McKay essentially uses the teachings of Jesus and turns them against the many so-called Christians who would have been adamant that Fascism abroad must be fought, yet all too ready to ignore it at home. Such Christians need to take the log out of their own eye before they mess with the speck in someone else’s. Likewise, such people are like tombs which are outwardly ornate and finely adorned but inside, of course, contain worm-infested vestiges of death.

All of this makes sense coming from a black poet calling out white Christians. The really interesting thing to me is in the lines: “We bathe our lies in vapors of sweet myrrh, / And close our eyes not to perceive the fact” (9-10). The fact that he uses the word ‘our’ means that he is no longer directing his attack simply at whites. Rather, he consciously joins whatever group this is and labels himself part of the problem. Is the group Americans in general? America as a nation? Are these same words of Jesus valid criticisms of our nation? That seems just as relevant a question today as in 1945.


The line I am most attracted to in this poem is its conclusion: “You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.” It’s interesting because the word ‘race’ is ambiguous; to what (or to whom) does it refer? One way to take it is something akin to the ‘race’ of life. Paul, in the New Testament, often used this metaphor for the Christian life: it’s a race that you must persist in. If you are able to go all the way to the finish line, then you can finally put away your tools, your toils, your “wood and stone” – and join Christ in paradise.

The other way to take ‘race’ is to see it as a reference to the black race in general. “Wood and stone” then become metaphors not simply of work in general but specific representations of the institution of slavery. Therefore, it was through the perseverance of the unknown black bards (particularly their songs) that the road was paved for an escape out of slavery into a new creation for the race as a whole.

Hurston and Genesis

After reading Hurston, I was already thinking about all the religious imagery, specifically Satan and the snake, when I considered once more the story’s title: Sweat. This, to me, along with musings on the snake, conjured up the curse scene in Genesis 3.

Let’s take a look at the passage:

The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’
14The Lord God said to the serpent,
‘Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.’
16To the woman he said,
‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.’
17And to the man he said,
‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
“You shall not eat of it”,
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

There are so many points of contact here that it’s hard to wrap my brain around them all. First, though, notice verse 19: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground.” Delia is a woman living under the fullest implications of the curse. Ironically, even though the words about work and toil are addressed to the man in the passage, all the work in their marriage seems to fall on her. Sykes certainly conforms to the line in verse 16: “and he shall rule over you.” Thankfully, in this story we Delia beginning to break that rule.

The words to the snake: “I will put enmity between you and the woman” certainly ring true, as Delia is terrified of them. The rest of verse 15 is often seen as a messianic reference, alluding to Christ striking down the devil, putting his foot upon the serpent’s head. Hurston puts a twist on this, though, by having Sykes get bitten, not on the heel, but in the neck. Whereas biblically the serpent loses, here he wins, although this is fitting because Sykes is almost completely the opposite of a messianic figure. One might almost begin to transfer some of the serpent imagery over onto him.

Hurston does this when, referring to the battle between Sykes and the snake, she records “another series of animal screams.” It is as if he is no longer human but an animal, something which his horrifying appearance at story’s end only reinforces.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Pear Is A Pear Is A Pear

“The pears are not seen as the observer wills” (line 24).

In his study of 2 pears, Wallace Stevens is not free to describe them in any way he wishes to. In fact, the pears resist being seen on anything other than their own terms. As Stevens acknowledges, “The pears are not viols, / Nudes or bottles. / They resemble nothing else” (2-4).

In a way, this is an astounding admission for a poet to make because literary ingenuity is often judged on the creativity of the poet comprising metaphors to illuminate his or her subject. Stevens, however, does not take this approach. He puts his own comparisons on hold and bathes in the simple beauty of the pears themselves.

To think of it, the poem is actually more like a photograph in that it aims to represent the pear exactly as it is, without any interpretive propaganda.

On the other hand, Stevens’ use of this method that deliberately lacks a clear “message” contains in itself the message that a ‘photographic’ approach is the best way to write a poem about a pear. Ironically, in the poem’s last 2 lines, we are told the proper way to observe a pear. But did the pear relay this information? No, another observer did. So is Stevens willing us to see the pear his way? Is this a contradiction? Is it fair to the pear to be limited in such a way? Perhaps the pear would prefer to be memorialized in a poem containing absurd metaphors and interpretive hints.

Who are we to judge the pear?

The Song Remains The Same?

Frost’s poem “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be The Same” is all about the voice of Eve. Ironically, then, the only voice we actually hear is presumably Adam’s, describing her voice to the reader. I find it interesting that Adam argues that “to do that to birds was why she came,” (line 14) when the biblical account describes Eve as being made specifically for Adam. So maybe he appreciates what she adds to the wider creation, not just what she does for him. Perhaps this Adam, at least, is not a sexist pig.

Of course, it would seem at first that this poem takes place before the so-called “Fall,” when Adam and Eve sin by eating the forbidden fruit. After that incident, God tells them that: “cursed is the ground because of you” (Genesis 3:17), meaning that creation itself receives a curse on behalf of their actions. In truth, “Never again would birds’ song be the same,” (line 13) for to their song must be added notes of sin, death, decay, shame, and godlessness.

Interestingly, however, in the Genesis 3 account, Adam does not name his wife Eve until after they have been caught by God and he has issued the divine curse. So maybe the poem does take place after the “Fall,” but Adam is choosing to remember the beautiful things Eve accomplished in the Garden. Even though they are to be expelled from paradise, the birds there will still sing her eloquent song, for, even though Eve has sinned, she is still made in the image of God.


up from the grave he arose
up from his tomb he arose
when they pried the mummy loose

ne’er to betrothe
but dead he’s a rose,
fallen for emmy’s noose


no crops to yield
no soil fit to be tilled

no garden in sight
no women at night

certainly no roses
for her majesty’s might

and so emmy
carved an h.
and then she
etched a b.

into the throne
her king to see

to seat
him eternally
in her chambers

flushed of color
wilting to bone
stunk up from death:

he’s a rose

Pay No Attention To The Elephants Behind The Curtain

Hemingway is interesting because he is so realistic. His story “Hills Like White Elephants” is simply a conversation, a dialogue – which feels very authentic, and there are no clues or metaphors from the author for the reader to interpret in regards to the story’s “meaning.” I have had uncomfortable conversations like this (although with differing subject matter), and I totally relate to the woman’s comment about the hills looking like white elephants. The comment is an escape, a flight of fancy, something to point away from harsh reality. For me personally, it might be a reference to Seinfeld or the Office, something to get a laugh and further stall the seriousness waiting in the wings.

It appears that she does this knowingly, as she acknowledges, “I was being amused. I was having a fine time […] I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?” She seems content to continue the verbal fa├žade, but the man is too eager to interject reality into the conversation. I wonder, though, if she is really content to pretend, or if she is just too vulnerable emotionally to talk about the realities of the situation?

Considering this vulnerability, we see her use different communication tactics to try and say what she is feeling without really saying it. One example is her use of sarcasm, when, responding to her lover’s insistence that he’s “known lots of people that have done it,” she counters, “So have I […] And afterwards they were all so happy.” Subsequently, she gives the rhetorically extreme argument “Because I don’t care about me” as her reason for being willing to go through with the abortion. This is obvious hyperbole, and I suspect her real meaning might be: ‘you don’t care about me.’

As the conversation intensifies, and she comes closer to having to say what she really wants to say, she begs of him, “Can’t we maybe stop talking?” However, the man refuses, and his comment that he’s willing to through with the pregnancy “if it means anything to you,” drivers her over the edge.

Doesn’t it mean anything to you,” she retorts incredulously?

Here we see her true feelings on the subject, feelings that are not reciprocated when her lover insists that, while it does mean something to him, “I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else.”

Thus rebuffed, she recedes back into her defenses, once again pleading, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” She even threatens to scream when he won’t drop the subject. Conversation moves back to more superficial matters, such as the train’s ETA, and the narrative ends with her cold, closed declaration: “I feel fine […] There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”

Everything is back where it started. They’ve had a conversation, but he hasn’t heard her. And so it will continue…

The Love Film of J. Alfred Prufrock

I thought for my blog on Eliot I would make some comments on the short film I’m going to be showing tonight in class. I originally developed this film back in 1999 while in undergrad. However, I revisited it this past summer while in the Media & Technology course because we had to do a project using Microsoft Moviemaker. I decided to re-edit my original film and make it better, since the original version had a lot of things I wasn’t happy with (considering how crude by comparison editing software was in 1999).

Anyway, I think it’s interesting to note some of the differences between the film and the text. To begin with, I translated the quote from Dante’s Inferno, because what’s the point if you can’t read it, right? Of course, the text gave the translation in the footnotes, but it makes me wonder if the original publication had the translation. Knowing how elite Eliot was, he may have expected his readers to be able to read the original language. One thing you will notice is that the translation in the film is from a different edition and thus reads differently from our book:

“If I thought my answer were given to anyone who would ever return to the world, this flame would stand still without moving any further. But since never from this abyss has anyone ever returned alive […] without fear of infamy I answer you.”

Which version do you prefer?

Lines 15-25 were removed from my narration because I thought the imagery was too difficult to replicate visually.

Lines 35-36 were not repeated from 13-14 because I thought it would have been visually redundant.

Line 41 is changed to say “How his body is not thin,” since, while I wasn’t losing my hair, I’m certainly not a skinny guy, so it made better sense that way. Likewise, adding the word ‘not’ in line 44 reflects the same line of thinking.

Line 82 replaces ‘bald’ with ‘large’ for the same reason already listed above.

I add an extra 2 ‘No’s’ in line 113 for dramatic effect and also because it seemed to work better that way as part of the dialogue between Prufrock and his date.

Lines 114-124 got cut probably because the action of the scene (striding intensely, almost angrily, down the street) did not go well with the rest of the monologue. Plus, you already get his point in line 113: “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”

After lines 127 and 130, I added a voiceover of Prufrock’s date asking him to come back, saying that she will sing to him, that there is, in fact, hope. This new detail illuminates Prufrock’s hopelessness at this point, as he responds each time, “Nay,” continuing further out to sea, and, presumably, his death.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010