Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sudden Spring...Tree of Noon...

I've been lazy about updating these here Expensive Skies, I realize, but ne'er you fear. For the time being I'm more or less treating this weblog as an online notebook: thoughts, observations on politics and current events (like Killer Swine!), and hopefully much more about art, literature, cinema, music, and culture generally.

From now on there's also going to be a new feature on this blog: the Poem of the Day. It'll be an exacting task, but I like the challenge of finding and sharing a poem that, in some way or another, reflects my sense of each day. It gives me an opportunity to act out Goethe's famous line from Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship: "every single day one should listen to a little song, read a good poem, look at a fine painting and, if possible, say a few sensible words." That's the challenge I'm trying to meet with this blog. And now to the good poem of the day; I thought I'd begin with a great poem that's at once a meditation on mortality and a luxuriant song to welcome spring.

Response and Reconciliation
Octavio Paz
Translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger


Ah life! Does no one answer?
His words rolled, bolts of lightning etched
in years that were boulders and now are mist.
Life never answers.
It has no ears and doesn't hear us;
it doesn't speak, it has no tongue.
It neither goes nor stays;
we are the ones who speak,
the ones who go,
while we hear from echo to echo, year to year,
our words rolling through a tunnel with no end.

That which we call life
hears itself within us, speaks with our tongues,
and through us, knows itself.
As we portray it, we become its mirror, we invent it.
An invention of an invention: it creates us
without knowing what it has created,
we are an accident that thinks.
It is a creature of reflections
we create by thinking,
and it hurls into fictitious abysses.
The depths, the transparencies
where it floats or sinks: not life, its idea.
It is always on the other side and is always other,
has a thousand bodies and none,
never moves and never stops,
it is born to die, and is born at death.

Is life immortal? Don't ask life,
for it doesn't even know what life is.
We are the ones who know
that one day it too must die and return
to the beginning, the inertia of the origin.
The end of yesterday, today, and tomorrow,
the dissipation of time
and of nothing, its opposite.
Then will there be a then?
will the primigenious spark light
the matrix of the worlds,
a perpetual re-beginning of a senseless whirling?
No one answers, no one knows.
We only know that to live is to live for.


Sudden spring, a girl who wakes
on a green bed guarded by thorns;
tree of noon, heavy with oranges:
your tiny suns, fruits of cool fire,
summer gathers them in transparent baskets;
the fall is severe, its cold light
sharpens its knife against the red maples;
Januaries and Februaries: their beards are ice,
and their eyes sapphires that April liquefies;
the wave that rises, the wave that stretches out,
on the circular road of the year.

All that we see, all that we forget,
the harp of the rain, the inscription of the lightning,
the hurried thoughts, reflections turned to birds,
the doubts of the path as it meanders,
the wailing of the wind
as it carves the faces of the mountains,
the moon on tiptoe over the lake,
the breezes in gardens, the throbbing of night,
the camps of stars on the burnt field,
the battle of reflections on the white salt flats,
the fountain and its monologue,
the held breath of outstretched night
and the river that entwines it, the pine under the evening star
and the waves, instant statues, on the sea,
the flock of clouds that the wind herds
through drowsy valleys, the peaks, the chasms,
time turned to rock, frozen eras,
time maker of roses and plutonium,
time that makes as it razes.

The ant, the elephant, the spider, and the sheep,
our strange world of terrestrial creatures
that are born, eat, kill, sleep, play, couple,
and somehow know that they die;
our world of humanity, far and near,
the animal with eyes in its hands
that tunnels through the past and examines the future,
with its histories and uncertainties,
the ecstasy of the saint, the sophisms of the evil,
the elation of lovers, their meetings, their contentions,
the insomnia of the old man counting his mistakes,
the criminal and the just: a double enigma,
the Father of the People, his crematory parks,
his forests of gallows and obelisks of skulls,
the victorious and the defeated,
the long sufferings and the one happy moment,
the builder of houses and the one who destroys them,
this paper where I write, letter by letter,
which you glance at with distracted eyes,
all of them and all of it, all
is the work of time that begins and ends,


From birth to death time surrounds us
with its intangible walls.
We fall with the centuries, the years, the minutes.
Is time only a falling, only a wall?
For a moment, sometimes, we see
not with our eyes but with our thoughts
time resting in a pause.
The world half-opens and we glimpse
the immaculate kingdom,
the pure forms, presences
unmoving, floating
on the hour, a river stopped:
truth, beauty, numbers, ideas
and goodness, a word buried
in our century.
A moment without weight or duration,
a moment outside the moment:
thought sees, our eyes think.

Triangles, cubes, the sphere, the pyramid
and the other geometrical figures
thought and drawn by mortal eyes
but which have been here since the beginning,
are, still legible, the world, its secret writing,
the reason and the origin of the turning of things,
the axis of the changes, the unsupported pivot
that rests on itself, a reality without a shadow.
The poem, the piece of music, the theorem,
unpolluted presences born from the void,
are delicate structures
built over an abyss:
infinities fit into their finite forms,
and chaos too is ruled by their hidden symmetry.

Because we know it, we are not an accident:
chance, redeemed, returns to order.
Tied to the earth and to time,
a light and weightless ether,
thought supports the worlds and their weight,
whirlwinds of suns turned
into a handful of signs
on a random piece of paper.
Wheeling swarms
of transparent evidence
where the eyes of understanding
drink a water simple as water.
The universe rhymes with itself,
it unfolds and is two and is many
without ceasing to be one.
Motion, a river that runs endlessly
with open eyes through the countries of vertigo
there is no above nor below, what is near is far
returns to itself
without returning, now turned
into a fountain of stillness.
Tree of blood, man feels, thinks, flowers,
and bears strange fruits: words.
What is thought and what is felt entwine,
we touch ideas, they are bodies and they are numbers.

And while I say what I say
time and space fall dizzyingly,
restlessly. They fall in themselves.
Man and the galaxy return to silence.
Does it matter? Yes but it doesn't matter:
we know that silence is music and that
we are a chord in this concert.

This poem is available in Eliot Weinberger's anthology World Beat: International Poetry Now from New Directions. 

Friday, April 17, 2009

And On a Cheerier Note...

Sleek sexy high speed trains yes pllz!

Oh how I long for fast, comfortable train service à la France or Switzerland to ferry me to and from the oaks and graveyards of Savannah. Not to mention New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, Miami, Key West, and New Orleans. Hell yeah.

Also: Can we go the whole hog and make it a North America-wide rail network, so I go see hockey games in Canada and wake up the next morning in Oaxaca?


Barack Obama deserves credit for releasing four Bush-era memos that detail--in generalized, clinical, and bureaucratic language--just what the CIA has been doing to prisoners in their "interrogation" sessions for the last 8 years. He's facing all manner of wrath from CIA and other military-industrial elites who don't care much for open government , not to mention the standard bile from the usual right-wing pundits, bloggers, and rank-and-file. This was a courageous move, and he deserves praise for it.

On the other hand, I have to admit I'm dismayed that Obama has already given up on the idea of prosecuting the people responsible for these war crimes. All the prattle about moving forward and not backward, a time for reflection and not retribution, is, well, just that: prattle. Prosecuting the torturers wouldn't be about "retribution"; it would be an act of reflection and consideration, bringing shameful crimes perpetrated in all our names to light and working through the consequences. "Reflection" is meaningless if it doesn't lead to action.

It's worth looking at all of these memos. Several commentators have already noted the unavoidable specter of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" thesis, her vision of Adolf Eichmann and other Nazi war criminals as not slavering diabolical fiends but as unimaginative, unreflective bureaucrats who murdered people from their desks because they couldn't imagine the concrete moral consequences of their document-typing and number-crunching. To them, mass murder was an abstract thing; they saw themselves as working with pens and paper, not with instruments of death. The bureaucratic jargon of the Bush-era torture memos just released are a thing to behold: atrocities recounted in the language of a corporate lawyer.

Via Glenn Greenwald, some excerpts from the memos:

One wonders just what has been redacted.

For a description of torture in living language, non-bureaucratic language, language that instead of being empty and mendacious and designed to sanitize or simplify or outright deny reality is meant to illuminate, evoke, and describe reality, let us turn to John Donne, speaking out against "stress positions" in a 1625 Easter sermon:

They therefore oppose God in his purpose of dignifying the body of man, first who violate, and mangle this body, which is the organ in which God breathes, and they also which pollute and defile this body, in which Christ Jesus is apparelled; and they likewise who prophane this body, which is the Holy Ghost, and the high Priest, inhabits, and consecrates.

Transgressors that put God’s organ out of tune, that discompose and tear the body of man with violence, are those inhuman persecutors who with racks and tortures and prisons and fires and exquisite inquisitions throw down the bodies of the true God’s servants to the idolatrous worship of their imaginary gods, that torture men into Hell and carry them through the inquisition into damnation. St Augustine moves a question, and institutes a disputation, and carries it somewhat problematically, whether torture be to be admitted at all, or no. That presents a fair probability which he says against it. We presume, says he, that an innocent man should accuse himself, by confession, in torture. And if an innocent man be able to do so, why should we not think that a guilty man, who shall save his life by holding his tongue in torture, should be able to do so?

And then, where is the use of torture? It is a slippery trial and uncertain (says Ulpian) to convince by torture. For many says (says St Augustine again) he that is yet but questioned, whether he be guilty or no, before that be known, is, without all question, miserably tortured. And whereas, many time, the passion of the Judge, and the covetousness of the Judge, and the ambition of the Judge, are calamities heavy enough upon a man that is accused. If the Judge knew that he were innocent, he should suffer nothing. If he knew he were guilty, he should not suffer torture. But because the Judge is ignorant and knows nothing.

Donne is speaking here as a believing Christian, of course. I'm not a believing Christian, but I think this is language far more attuned to the absolute degradation and destructiveness that torture always entails--and the practical absurdity of it--than these bureaucrats' memos. This sermon was dug up a few years ago by Scott Horton of Harper's; his essay on it is well worth reading:

It was delivered as his Easter Sunday sermon, which is important. Then as now, the Easter service drew the biggest crowd of the year. The Easter sermon was the minister’s minute in the spotlight—the moment when he would reach his greatest audience and make his reputation. And we know from John Donne’s correspondence, he was concerned about another audience: the king, his entourage and the courts. When Donne rose to deliver this sermon, torture was a heated “political” issue in England. Under the Stuart monarchs, the use of torture was viewed as a royal prerogative (how little things change). It was administered by judges, particularly by the national security court of seventeenth century England, the so-called Court of Star Chamber. John H. Langbein’s important book, Torture and the Law of Proof gives us very clear guidance into how torture was prescribed and used.

Over a series of centuries, the genius of the English law had been steadily to restrict and limit the use of torture, until at this point, under King James, it was controlled by the king’s judges and limited in practice through a series of special writs. Which is to say, legally it was far more constrained than it is today under an Executive Order issued by King James’s understudy in allegedly Divine Right governance, George W. Bush.

How little things change.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

And Now for Some Local Bitching

From Creative Loafing:

We all know that Senate Bill 120, the legislation that would’ve allowed MARTA to exercise control over its own finances and possibly prevent the transit agency from making drastic service cuts, failed on the final night of the legislative session. But why?
In a candid email to his constituents, State Rep. Ralph Long, III, D-Atlanta, says Georgia House Republicans used the bill as a “political football” and threatened to punt the measure if the Fulton and DeKalb delegations didn’t vote for a GOP-endorsed piece of legislation involving freezes on property values.

Long writes in the email:
I will always stay true to my commitment to keep my constituents educated about the pressing issues concerning us today.
On Wednesday, April 1st, two days before the end of the General Assembly’s 2009 session, the Fulton and DeKalb County delegations called a special meeting for the sole purpose of discussing MARTA. At that meeting, the Republican leadership approached the two counties with what they said was a deal. According to the Republican leader, they needed 20 votes to pass S.R. 1, an unpopular bill related to property valuation freezes.
We were told that we must support S.R. 1 in order to give the Republicans the votes they needed. In return, the MARTA bill would pass. If S.R 1 did not pass, we were told that the MARTA bill would die in committee and not be brought up for consideration before the end of sine die. The Republican leader said that he lives closer to Disney World than any MARTA train station, and that he only occasionally rides MARTA to ball games.

Fabulous. A bill that would have drastically improved Atlanta's transit system--and thereby might have helped Atlanta along its way of trying to become a truly world class city--gets voted down by Republicans who don't even live in Atlanta. That don't live in Atlanta and snicker about making life difficult for people who do live in Atlanta.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mind-Forged Manacles

This item in the New York Times really ought to tip off anyone who remains unconvinced to the fact that our society is every bit as beset with usurious evil--the poor and sick shackled to rich insurance salesmen, bloated city bureaucracies, and landlords--as that described by William Blake and Charles Dickens or Baudelaire and Balzac. Or even the one described by Dante. 

Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son. When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison.

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.

-Blake, "London" (Songs of Innocence and of Experience)