New poem 2012-12-24

February 24th, 2012

What do you do when the intolerable
occurs right in your midst?

A firing, the tag-ends of history
hanging out all over it. But who remembers?

Under Mussolini the subways ran on time?

That’s not right,
is it?


On seeing W.L. again

June 19th, 2011

Time passes. She is a grandmother, with two married children. My son is getting his PhD. We linger over lunch, catching up. Family, friends. “Who’s in, who’s out.”

We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
…And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies…
- King Lear (V.iii.)

Well, it is a bit of a cliché: all the world’s a stage. But I think we lose sight of the meaning of that quote within the costuming and historical language of Shakespeare’s plays. What is happening on stage seems remote, removed, foreign. We understand, perhaps, on an intellectual level, that the plays are metaphors for us, for our own lives, but what part of us? What part of our lives?

Well, it is easy to see with Lear. As you age and you gain some perspective on the mistakes you have made, it is easy to see the parallel: who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out. Othello, too, is not mysterious. Notwithstanding the eponym, the play is about Desdemona and her perspective, the fatal attraction to power and violence. Othello describes the girl’s fascination:

Her father loved me; oft invited me;
Still question’d me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels’ history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,–such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline:
But still the house-affairs would draw her thence:
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,
She’ld come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse…
- I.iii. 129-151

And Desdemona herself begs to accompany her husband to war, but in doing so, she uses an interesting turn of phrase:

That I did love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world: my heart’s subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord:
I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,
And to his honour and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.
So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft me,
And I a heavy interim shall support
By his dear absence. Let me go with him.
- I.iii. 249-260

“My downright violence” is interpreted by E.A.J. Hongmann, in the Arden Shakespeare, as an absolute break with convention. As well, I have always been struck, in this play, by time image of young Desdemona hurrying to hear Othello’s tales of wars, disasters and misfortunes, listening raptly, falling in love, hardly understanding that the capabilities that made him a great soldier could be turned against her, if he should ever perceive her as the enemy.

The paradoxes run deep: how could someone who breaks with convention, flees and flouts her father’s authority in order to satisfy her own romantic and carnal longing, be trusted not to flee and flout her duty to her husband? Othello is a play about people getting what they want and then having to face its negative aspect. So, Desdemona consecrated her soul to Othello’s “honour and his valiant parts,” did she? What about his other parts? What about the parts he had to have to win that honour and prove that valour? Hmmm. She falls in love with a warrior, a man who kills and suffers. It does not occur to her that he will kill her and suffer for it. Should it have?

Violence has a strange sort of fascination for people, a horror you can’t look away from. I always think that people have put too much emphasis on Freud’s ideas about eros and not enough on his ideas about thanatos. Well, we are attracted to that as well. Love and death.

But Hamlet. What is Hamlet about? Well, ordinary people may have their patrimony stolen by unscrupulous relatives. I think that is as common as bowls of pottage. Also, ordinary people indeed see ghosts and may be told to do something. “Kill your uncle – he killed me.” Well, well, well, is this not the common story of the psychotic murderer? Redrum. Redrum. Is Hamlet an Elizabethan schizophrenic? Shakespeare might have written the Stephen King thriller-drama of his time except for two factors. First of all, other people see the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Secondly, Hamlet tests the story that the ghost tells him. He does not act until it is proven that the ghost’s accusation of Claudius is valid.

So, Hamlet is a hero – as Jimmy “Spider” McKuen puts it, in The Haunted House Hamlet, “the guy who tried so hard to figure out justice.” But on a mundane level, he is also a misogynist and a murderer. Ophelia could tell you something about that – except that it has driven her mad. Just as the idea that the perfectly wonderful boy next door, the athlete about to leave on a scholarship, could turn into a looter, the idea that the prince, the apex of perfection, could be a monster as well makes no sense to poor Ophelia. It makes the whole world make no sense and she becomes unable to make sense. Her bearings, based on naivety, really, are removed from her and she has nothing to replace them with.

And so we tell the tales – or the actors do, on the various stages of the world that is in itself a stage. I think it is a mistake, though, to think that these plays are chronicles of mistakes not to be repeated or that in repeating these mistakes we are somehow not “learning our lesson.” The “mistakes” are not mistakes but are patterns of being. The lessons are not lessons in behaviour, but rather lessons in expression. It is inevitable that we repeat these patterns, as it is inevitable that high school students become adults, gain partners, children, grandchildren, have lives, make mistakes, and in the end reflect,

like birds i’ the cage…
…And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

May 26th, 2011

How long can the mind hold onto a paradox: two equal and opposing ideas in perfect equilibrium? It is the heart that gives out, not the mind. The heart cannot take the intellectual stress and so one finds one has to make a choice, even knowing that all choices are equal and the act of choosing is artificial. Indeed, this knowledge reinforces, rather than mitigates, the emotional hold of the choice. Thus, one is loyal not so much to the idea, since all ideas are equal, but rather, to the idea of the idea, since the idea of the idea encompasses the choice, and its articulation, which together determine personal ownership. And paradox, the key to wisdom, is rejected.

Ownership and its concomitant protectiveness give rise to aggression.

On the death of Tyler Clementi

October 2nd, 2010

As Hamlet dies, he looks up at his beloved friend Horatio, and asks him not to commit suicide in grief, as he has threatened to do, but rather:

…in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story. (V. ii. 325-326)

He goes on, a few lines later, to specify that Horatio should tell this story to Fortinbras, likely the next ruler of Denmark:

So tell him, with th’occurents, more and less
Which have solicited – the rest is silence. (V. ii. 346-347)

The rest is silence. Silence.

This morning I am thinking about those who died, those whose deaths were the result of injustice and cruelty. Giordano Bruno. The Warsaw Ghetto. Matthew Shepard. Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old who committed suicide September 22, after his room-mate in a Rutgers dorm secretly filmed him having sex with another man and broadcast the video over the internet. Two students have been implicated in the crime: Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei.

When I think about this death, related to both the invasion of privacy and the sexuality of the victim, I think of the places where it is Tyler Clementi’s sexuality that is considered the crime – a crime that may even carry the death penalty. “The love that dare not speak its name,” as Lord Alfred Douglas famously put it. Another kind of silence. “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Yet another silence. In the early years of the AIDS crisis, activists created the slogan Silence = Death. However, in places where a kind of love is a crime, silence is necessary because exposure is death.

And so I read Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, Campo dei Fiori. In the poem, Giordano Bruno’s execution is brought to his mind on a spring night when the smoke from the burning of the Warsaw Ghetto drifts through an amusement park, full of happy, celebrating couples.

But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.

Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.

Giordano Bruno’s inability to find words, his silence, is juxtaposed with the indifference of those around him, who return so easily to their lives. As W.H. Auden pointed out so poignantly in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

We go on with our lives. We continue. My thoughts move away from a boy dying of exposure, jumping from a bridge, a life ruined. My thoughts move away from the Campo dei Fiori and the Warsaw Ghetto to the meetings I will have today, the lecture I have to give on Thursday, the five pages of chapter I want to write to accompany my lecture and the report I have to write for a committee I am on. They suffer who suffer and we who do not suffer continue with our lives. The rest is silence.

Tonight, the Rutgers football team will observe a moment of silence for Tyler Clementi. How poignant that moment of silence will be, commemorating a loss that could have not occurred if another young man had chosen silence instead of broadcast.

Something has happened. As in Auden’s poem, a boy has fallen out of the sky. But unlike all these poems, the life that continues is not completely indifferent, the silence is not complete. The same media which was instrumental in the despair that led to the silence of Tyler Clementi’s lonely death carries the echo of his “forsaken cry.”

Beau temps, beau temps – The Season begins again

September 27th, 2010

In his poem, A Mistake, Czeslaw Milosz describes an attitude he had of nihilism. He allows himself to indulge in a sense that life does not mean anything in itself and is just a lead-up to death. But then he notices a paraplegic in his village, who is wheeled from the sun into the shade, and back again, according to the weather. The paraplegic notices the world around himself and whispers, in some wonder, “beau temps, beau temps.” Good times. Good times.

As I rushed around last week in the maelstrom of the beginning of term, I kept thinking those words: beau temps, beau temps. My life, since the age of five, has largely been structured around “the season.” Most of the time, it has been the school year, which begins in September and really, even now for me, goes until June, through the last of the grading, re-grading, resolving petitions and academic offenses, reporting on the year and culminating in the hiring process for the following term. July slows down – I vacation. People around me vacation. Then August picks up again, but September really accelerates into the pace of the year.

The “season” of theatre, dance, opera and music also begins. This year, we have already purchased tickets to some of the most exciting dance and opera events: lots of Balanchine as well as other choreographers such as Crystal Pite and Twyla Tharp. Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, John Adams’ Nixon in China and Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Lots of modernism, works you do not get to see often – though there are plenty of the old stand-bys such as The Magic Flute, but we are not going to that this year. We have enough to look forward to with the new stuff. Beau temps, beau temps.

This morning I was reading The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams and in it, before one poem, he includes a note to his mother, to whom he sent the work, hoping she would like it better than some of his other, more obscure writing. “Art is a curious command,” he writes. “We must do what we are bidden to do and can only go as far as the light permits.” As the school year, the season, begins again and I get caught up in my busy and hectic schedule, I am appreciative of what “the light permits,” from shade to sun to shade again, nature and art, the good times “as long as,” as Milosz puts it, “time is time at all.”

2010 Scotiabank AIDS Walk for Life Toronto

September 19th, 2010

Why do I walk in the Scotiabank AIDS Walk for Life?
Because I am gay. Being gay has been a definitive part of my life, something to think about, something to fight against, something to come to terms with, something to comfort myself with, since I was in Grade 2. When I was growing up, the world was largely in denial of the existence of same sex attraction. In popular culture, there were no overt representations of gay relationships and no positive role models. Homosexuality, such as it was acknowledged at all, was equated with effeminacy and that was deplored in boys and men. Same-sex sex wasn’t even mentioned. It was something that wasn’t done; hence, it was an impulse to which you were not to yield.

Sexuality, all sexuality, as all impulses of desire, has to have some controls. Human animals can be, like “competitive eaters” in the non-human world, competitive consumers, not stopping, as we well know fighting with our weights, when they are simply satisfied. But heterosexuality was acknowledged and its impulses were accepted in various circumstances in various ways. I will never forget going to a different barber shop with my father and seeing Playboy Magazine out for customers to browse through while waiting for their haircuts. There were no women there. It was a barber shop. Why not have Playboy Magazine? It was not just that finding women attractive was normal. Finding men attractive was not thought possible. Not in the way that women were, not in the way that women were in Playboy.

In the so-called sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, things changed. What was implicit became explicit. But that didn’t mean, as we all know, that out-ness changed attitudes. Anyone who hears someone today refer derogatorily to something as “that’s so gay” knows well that homophobic prejudice is alive and dangerous.

So, too, in the early wild celebration of acknowledgement and decriminalization in Canada and some states of the US, the centuries of hiddenness, of self-hatred and shared homophobia did not vanish. So, on the one hand, there was bacchanalia but on the other, an obsession with masculinity both in terms of outing men we would not have expected to be gay, given the representation of homosexuality up to that point, and in terms of being masculine and gay oneself. Effeminacy was as condemned in the gay world as it had always been in the straight world and so for a young man, such as myself, who did not possess conventional characteristics of masculinity, finding rejection in the gay world was harder to tolerate than having found it in the straight world. The great liberation that I had waited for was withheld from me – unless I got a checked shirt, more muscle, a deeper voice, was less excitable, laughed differently, walked and ran differently, became the different person I had never been.

AIDS was a hard lesson. It was a lesson that came at too great a cost. But it was a lesson. It was a lesson that taught us to value ourselves, to “set [our] entreatments at a higher rate than a command to parley” as Polonius advised Ophelia. We learned not to avoid the bacchanalia but to take care. Not to lose ourselves so much that we lose our health, but rather, to find ourselves in our sexual lives. And we learned to honour those selves. Those we lost to AIDS were the masculine and the effeminate, the smart and the silly, the kind, the beautiful and the capable. Men and women. We felt those losses intensely and they led us to understand how much we love one another, notwithstanding characteristics that society, in the past, has derogated.

When I came out a second time, in my forties, I found the gay world much changed. I found many arms open to me that I had not found before. I was changed too, I will admit. I was older, more mature, more confident, less sensitive. But it seemed to me the gay world was kinder as well, more acceptant. That was my experience and it made me happy.

Today, I will join the AIDS Walk for Life to honour my brother Erik who died of AIDS, in 1992, at the age of 40 and to honour all of those who we lost too early, when they were too young. I also walk to pay tribute to the organizations supported by initiatives such as the AIDS Walk for Life, because I know, personally, how much these organizations contributed to my brother’s well-being at the end of his life. I, and my whole family, are tremendously grateful for their work.

And I walk to honour the living, gay and straight, who value what they are, what we are. I walk to acknowledge, to thank and to pay tribute to those who take care.