The Age of the Great Symphonies is Over Now: Thoughts on Iowa City

So I’m having one of those days, a rainy kind of day though it’s perfectly sunny and I find myself in Iowa City, Iowa where although it’s very hot, the cheer factor of an excellent American midwestern university town is extant, palpable, almost in every street and shop. This is a small city that people generally like. With it’s famous Writer’s Workshop, performing arts center, International Writing Program, theater scene, excellent music venues, it beats many bigger cities when it comes to having or sustaining what used to be called “cultural life” but which I think we should now call “imperatives.” Citizens should have access to clean water, safe streets, health care, adequate housing, educational opportunities, recreation, and of course, whatever it is we mean by poetry. As Walt Whitman would say, the states themselves are the greatest poem. Places and people are sacred compositions. We forget this at our peril. And this is why it’s a rainy day. Rain is coming down on the public squares, those rich places of imagination, and perhaps this is more evident to me in the little burgh of Iowa City than it is in my current hometown of Syracuse, NY. Syracuse is a “rust belt town” and her people have been fighting for civic life and human dignity for years. In Iowa City one could always take certain standards—decencies—for granted. But no longer. Not anymore.

**

 

I won’t say Iowa City is dying. But the town is in trouble despite a host of upscale new restaurants and shiny aluminum skinned high-rise condominiums. The governing class in Des Moines has ruthlessly pursued policies that relocate resources from the public interest—“the commons”—assuring the top 1 % gets “breaks”—which in a rich agricultural state means the freedom to no longer support cultural treasures. It’s a cycle of cynicism and pork—the little people get less and less; the elites get plenty. In Iowa this means abandoning a century of support for excellence in public education. The current Governor and State Legislature have been strangling the state’s universities for over 20 years.

This is what makes visiting Iowa City so interesting. The town’s not dying in the manner of Syracuse. But a casual walk across the University of Iowa’s campus reveals an institution which doesn’t have a functioning art museum nearly ten years after a devastating flood. The art department’s old buildings (with the Horatian chestnut, “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis Est” carved above the door) stand in ruins. The school’s treasured art collection still resides in other cities. The university’s board of trustees has recently praised the university for postponing a new museum and instead, continuing to investigate the matter. The board of trustees is an embarrassment.

**

Locals know the town is in trouble. Despite the influx of upscale restaurants and tony coffee joints and new mini-skyscrapers the town’s biggest industry, education itself, is starting to starve.

The best book on how states like Iowa “got here” is Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. 

The sun is out but it’s a rainy day.

One thinks of Rolf Jacobsen’s poem: “The Age of the Great Symphonies” here translated from the Norwegian by Robert Bly:

The age of the great symphonies

Is over now.

The symphonies rose toward heaven with real magnificence—

Sunlit clouds with thunder

Over the brilliant centuries.

Cumulus under blue skies. Coriolanus.

Now they are coming back down again in the form of rain,

A banded, stone-colored rain on all the wave lengths,

and programs

Covering the earth like a wet overcoat, a sack of noise.

Now they are coming back down from the sky,

They bounce of the skyscrapers like electric hail

And seep down into farmers living rooms

And roll over the suburbs and brick-oceans

As immortal sound.

A rain of sound,

“You millions of this earth, embrace”

So as to deaden screams

Every day, every day

On this earth which is thirsty and takes them back into

itself again.

 

Generally Applicable

So it works this way people you thought were sturdy as birches

Not without bent trunks or thinned leaves

But long in uprightness

Fail within

Birch-like

 

In a wet summer

When mushrooms are everywhere

& your neighbors children

Dig with spoons

Down among the roots

Me, Mark Twain, My Blog, and the Chief Jeweler

My blog overtly known as Planet of the Blind has been “down” for almost a month. In a world of famine and violence my absence from the blogosphere is scarcely news. What is less than news but not quite gossip? Narrative poetry? The contemporary American novel? Even goodwill suffices as an answer.

If you went to my page, at least early in my hiatus, you’d have seen a message: “site undergoing maintenance.” It was a promising phrase—something was happening. “Maintenance” is a fine word. It comes from Old French meaning: “upkeep, shelter, protection” or “action of providing a person with the necessities of life.” The French “main” (hand) is in there. A helping hand.

This is a piddly tale—akin to Mark Twain’s story about entering a watch repair shop because he wanted to confirm the correct time while winding his pocket watch. Our motives are innocent and of course, that way tragedy lies. Here’s Twain’s opening:

My beautiful new watch had run eighteen months without losing or gaining, and without breaking any part of its machinery or stopping. I had come to believe it infallible in its judgments about the time of day, and to consider its constitution and its anatomy imperishable. But at last, one night, I let it run down. I grieved about it as if it were a recognized messenger and forerunner of calamity. But by and by I cheered up, set the watch by guess, and commanded my bodings and superstitions to depart. Next day I stepped into the chief jeweler’s to set it by the exact time, and the head of the establishment took it out of my hand and proceeded to set it for me. Then he said, “She is four minutes slow — regulator wants pushing up.” I tried to stop him — tried to make him understand that the watch kept perfect time. But no; all this human cabbage could see was that the watch was four minutes slow, and the regulator MUST be pushed up a little; and so, while I danced around him in anguish, and implored him to let the watch alone, he calmly and cruelly did the shameful deed. My watch began to gain. It gained faster and faster day by day. Within the week it sickened to a raging fever, and its pulse went up to a hundred and fifty in the shade. At the end of two months it had left all the timepieces of the town far in the rear, and was a fraction over thirteen days ahead of the almanac. It was away into November enjoying the snow, while the October leaves were still turning. It hurried up house rent, bills payable, and such things, in such a ruinous way that I could not abide it. I took it to the watchmaker to be regulated. He asked me if I had ever had it repaired. I said no, it had never needed any repairing. He looked a look of vicious happiness and eagerly pried the watch open, and then put a small dice box into his eye and peered into its machinery. He said it wanted cleaning and oiling, besides regulating -come in a week. After being cleaned and oiled, and regulated, my watch slowed down to that degree that it ticked like a tolling bell.

**

As for me, my nanoscale mistake was to imagine I could “un-point” my URL: www.stephenkuusisto.com from my WordPress blog—the aim was innocent as entering a jewelry store to check the time. I wanted to start a new blog project and Network Solutions, hereafter known as “the Chief Jeweler”—the company hosting my URL—said, “only one blog per URL holder” and then they convinced me I could disconnect my fortunate and altogether functioning blog and have it hosted somewhere else, thereby freeing space for my new project.

All seemed innocent enough until it became clear that my blog, uncoupled was incredibly hard to move. Moreover, once they unhooked it the entire design of “Planet of the Blind” essentially collapsed.

**

Do not do business with Network Solutions. I recommend Bluehost.

Three weeks and $400 later I’ve got my blog back. But Twain’s story is apt for my conversations with multiple Chief Jewelers at Network Solutions were largely hopeless.

What should have taken only minutes stretched into a merciless and dysfunctional shakedown.

**

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, in this case Iowa City, Iowa I’m writing a novel about the great opera tenor Enrico Caruso who discovers his voice has a persona and point of voice all its own.

Meanwhile I’m living like a hermit crab in a friend’s elegant downtown condo and walking around a midwest college town with my beautiful guide dog Caitlyn and soaking up good vibrations. Yesterday I saw a young woman talking to a tree and stroking its leaves. Iowa City is that kind of town.

Don’t play with matches. Don’t smoke in bed. Don’t do business with Network Solutions.

Do talk to trees if you’ve a mind.

 

Yellow Bird

I don’t know what you are—my world is necessarily impressionistic—I see and do not see as blind people often do. This morning, early, you were there, poised in mid-air like a dream face and though nothing in your life concerned me you were mine for all of ten seconds. You made the dull bones in my wrists come alive. Though I couldn’t see you, not precisely, I touched the window…