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Venom in the House



We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!

--Arthur Miller, "The Crucible," first performed in 1953


To have enslaved America with this hocuspocus! To have captured the mind of the world's greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!

--Philip Roth, "The Plot Against America," 2004



I have been struggling all morning to find a pithy quote to begin this blog post, one that describes the shredding of hope, expectation, good will, common sense, intelligence, and civility in Washington DC. I remembered a discussion of hot and cold mediums when I was in graduate school after I slogged my way through Marshall McLuhan's gnomic prose, but I have rejected several McLuhan quotes and present you, instead, dear reader, with Arthur Miller and Philip Roth. (More of McLuhan later.) "The Crucible" was written at the height of the McCarthy siege in Congress, not unlike the venomous hearing we witnessed yesterday. "The Plot Against America" was written in saner times, yet it is disturbingly prescient. It imagines Charles Lindbergh winning the presidency in 1944; Lindbergh was a neo-Nazi. Both "The Crucible" and "The Plot Against America" are literary masterpieces and I urge you to read them.


Hot and cold. Text is cold, email a bit warmer, the human voice warmer still. Where was Mueller's voice yesterday? Where was his conscience? So obedient to "fairness," and the words of his own report, such as he remembered them, or scrambled to find them, that he could not stray into warmth, or intimacy, or opinion, or passionate concern. Only once did he manage to eke out a more forceful sentence about the dangers of continuing Russian interference in our upcoming election. Whether or not the Democrats in the House understood what might happen if they summoned Robert Mueller to a hearing is moot now. The deed is done.

"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," Robert Capa, the famous war photographer once said. The same is true for all story-telling, whether oral or written. I can can still feel the heat from our larger-than-life flat screen as Robert Mueller raised his hand to take the oath. Television, especially our huge, high definition close-up screens and crisp audio, is a hot medium. People may tell lies unabated and without remorse, but the digital image and audio do not lie. They flare into our consciousness, into our synapses and our bones, whether we will it or not.

If I had listened to Mueller on radio, his stammering and confusion would have been obvious. The image of his bewildered and exhausted face amplified his weak and faltering—nearly autistic—delivery. The Republican prosecutors—Mueller on trial—were as venomous as Joseph McCarthy and his cohorts. Mueller was pummeled and diminished, his report in tatters, or already forgotten.

"How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn't see it with my own eyes, I'd think I was having a hallucination," Roth writes in The Plot Against America.

I end this post today with Roth's question which has, as yet, no answer and no immediate remedy. I think that those of us who have been resisting the regime in Washington since it was installed more than two years ago, and who watched the Republican display of opportunism, righteousness and cruelty yesterday, will never forget it.

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History is Sudden, Poetry is Kind

Pages from my personal poetry anthology: handwritten, printed, clipped.
Oh, how the mind wanders, connects, obfuscates and clarifies. Not necessarily in that order and mostly when I am moving, usually in the water, sometimes on dry land. This strange juxtaposition of thoughts occurred to me on the A train yesterday. I had been reading Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” a prescient and disturbing book. It’s my second Roth in several months. First up during the election was “The Plot Against America,” also prescient and disturbing.

Though Roth overwrites and his machismo grates, I have never put down one of his books. His most recent—shorter—books, “Indignation” and “Nemesis” are masterpieces.

Page 87 of “American Pastoral”: “People think of history in the long term, but history , in fact, is a very sudden thing.”

That thought has stayed with me all week. But how did it connect to “poetry is kind?”

The progressives among my readers will understand: we’ve been hit by a 2x4, e.g. “history is sudden.” And even those more centrist will agree, we’re headed for a bumpy ride. Every day there is more bad news about an inappropriate, dare I say—cruel-- appointment to head a government agency. Worse, this election, like the 2000 election, may have been stolen. As I write this morning, President Obama has announced an investigation into Russian cyber interference. The accusation is no longer “notional.” It is certain.

Now for the second phrase: poetry is kind. What do I mean to say? That poetry is consoling, most probably, particularly in a confusing moment in history or our personal lives.

I have been collecting poetry in a designated notebook ever since I joined a writer’s group with three poets. I had been working as a free lance writer for Holt Rinehart & Winston and one of my editors there was trying to write fiction. So was I. She was starting a writer’s group and asked if I’d like to join. “What about a couple of poets?,” she asked. I think my only thought was: why not? I was in for some big surprises.

Unconcerned with linear narrative, poets think in images and connect ideas as, yes, juxtapositions, just as I have here today. My linear narrative prose illusions were shattered and I began to write more freely. It was grand. Since then, I’ve returned to reading and writing poetry regularly, sometimes daily. I have a poetry app on my electronic devices and continue to build a personal anthology. But when I mention the word “poetry,” to my students, they often glaze over.

They are mostly young, eager and thoughtful. To a person, they were hit hard by the election, hope shattered. They were shocked one week, angry the next, a predictable cycle of grief. Then came depression, a subdued entry to the classroom, nearly catatonic. So, this week, I brought in some poetry and read a selection for thirty minutes before we got to “work” critiquing their manuscripts. “Let your mind drift. Relax,” I said. I assigned prompts from lines in the poems—two minutes each. “Try not to ‘think,’ I said as you read what you’ve written aloud.”

I don’t know if the poetry and the prompt exercises helped. I hope they did because I care so much about my students and their progress as writers. And I feel strongly that older adults—parents, educators—have an obligation to be supportive guides in grave and challenging moments. We have more perspective, more experience. But if my students needed reassurance, I did, too, of course. By encouraging them I was lifting my own spirits. In the end, we shared our wisdom, our resilience, and the life-affirming poetry I had brought to class.  Read More 
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