When Keats and Rexroth Saved My Life

Beauty is twice beauty when we’re talking about John Keats. “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing — to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.” I remember reading that for the first time and lifting, lifting inside, like a sea creature who becomes itself by rising.

I was in the hospital at the time. I was barely seventeen and I’d largely given up on life. My parents were alcoholics and by turns abusive and distant. I was legally blind and unable to keep up in school. Classmates were cruel. At a loss to imagine a robust method to end it all I starved myself. Anorexia was easy. Not eating was a discipline. By the time I hit 100 pounds I looked like John Lennon or Mick Jagger—thin by means of corruption, cool, pale, faintly menacing.

There was that damned Keats. “Make up one’s mind about nothing…” How does one explain the moral imperative of adolescent thought? It’s easy to describe its delinquency but not its aspirational qualities. I was sick. Incredibly ill. Strengthening one’s intellect seemed both superfluous and everything. Let the mind be a thoroughfare. Could I imagine another me?

I had some help from other poets. I read Rexroth and was surprised by this:

Yin and Yang

It is spring once more in the Coast Range

Warm, perfumed, under the Easter moon.

The flowers are back in their places.

The birds are back in their usual trees.

The winter stars set in the ocean.

The summer stars rise from the mountains.

The air is filled with atoms of quicksilver.

Resurrection envelops the earth.

Goemetrical, blazing, deathless,

Animals and men march through heaven,

Pacing their secret ceremony.

The Lion gives the moon to the Virgin.

She stands at the crossroads of heaven,

Holding the full moon in her right hand,

A glittering wheat ear in her left.

The climax of the rite of rebirth

Has ascended from the underworld

Is proclaimed in light from the zenith.

In the underworld the sun swims

Between the fish called Yes and No.

That a person could conceive of fish in the underworld and that the sun could swim fish like between yes and no—this, I saw, was what Keats meant. This was the everything principle that Keats and Rexroth brought to me while I lay in my sickbed and boy scouts raised and lowered the American flag beneath my window and the body, mine, so thin it was actually throbbing, a body which was about to fall away, reached out for the ancient dropped lifeline of ascendant blazing solar fish and atoms of quicksilver.

Make up one’s mind about nothing. It’s the most complex sentiment one can read.

 

Top Ten Reasons “Normal” People Wish They Were Disabled

Top Ten Reasons “Normal People” Wish They Were Disabled…

  1. We have that “cute little logo”.
  2. We don’t have to stand up for the national
    anthem.
  3. We have psychic powers: All disabled people know all other disabled
    people.
  4. They’re jealous of our specialty clothing.
  5. Disabled people are “more musical”.
  6. We have sign language and Braille and other
    “sneaky stuff”.
  7. We can park anywhere, just like the Pope.
  8. We have really cool pets and we can take them
    anywhere.
  9. We have our own stalls in public restrooms,
    some with “high-tech” devices.

 And the number
one reason normal people wish they could be disabled:

  1. Airline employees are actually forced to help us.

Now

 

Each morning I carry to my garden

—I do not have a garden

 

I carry my father’s old rake

—Father 

 

And rake

Long gone

 

I dig in loam

—Earth, it is true

 

Hearing

In skull

 

—Head is clear 

A Schubert

 

Quartet

Quarter notes

 

Derived

From dance

 

Knowing

How

 

Dance

Returns to us

 

Father and rake.

Everything Behind Me, I See…

There will be a day soon when old translations, flawed though they may be, will defy the odds and return to meaning—pages falling at the feet of reckless students, word-scraps carried on the wind like newsprint. Cicero will get tangled in your hair: a room without books is like a body without a soul… Montaigne catches on your wrist: My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened… I wish I could tell you more but there’s little enough to say, the dead stick around for better or worse, words poorly understood always plot their homecoming. I say they come back before sunrise. The Finnish poet Saarikoski, a great translator wrote: “everything behind me, I see, is just death, but when I sleep, I sleep…”

 

Fallen Birch

Say “the world” but not canker

Never rags, nor blood—

In the library

You’ll be safe.

You meant blue planet

Coleridge

Reveries…

 

I know.

I’m no better.

I still want some gods

Inside the wind.

 

Once I went all the way to Karstula,

My grandmother’s town

In Finland,

Walked into empty woods

Saw two sets of initials

Carved on a fallen birch.

 

 

Dangerous Thinking on Today’s Campus

“There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking it-self is dangerous.”

—Hannah Arendt

I’ve always taken Hannah Arendt’s liberties as moral rapprochement though never as protective coloration. If the purest lesson of the twentieth century is the victory of alienation, bravery is an ethical concern.

Thinking is dangerous in prejudicial times and as Arendt made clear the present is always prejudicial.

“Who am I,” you might ask, “to hold this nearly insipid generalization up for scrutiny?”

I am one who, like the poet Marvin Bell tries to visualize the umbrella outside and inside, both views at the same time.

Now recently a friend (whose identity must be protected) an academic day laborer (whose university shall be withheld) someone who as an instructor is about as low on the totem pole as possible—this well meaning soul endeavored to moderate a discussion turned fight between students. I can’t tell you about the argument, only that it involved art and race and the issue of cultural appropriation: who’s black enough to make black art? Could anyone, regardless of race, conceivably be, even modestly, part of the discussion? It turned out the answer, was no—in the minds of two students a white adjunct, older, a woman, a veteran thinker, was not entitled to an opinion—in fact, her effort to uphold the view that art is inclusive and a place for discussion was twisted into a narrative of harassment.

These days taking offense substitutes for imperturbability on college campuses. Emotions replace sagaciousness. Students know that history affords scads of dangerous thinkers but mistakenly think debate is perilous and a step toward surrender.

 

Fearing risk some students think whatever is beneath engagement must be the solution. What’s “below” is mere feeling–stripped, beseeching moods.

Yes, Plato feared the crowd incited.

“Plato,” today’s students might say, “was privileged.”

The lessons of Socrates are lost.

I believe anyone, of any race, gender, sexual orientation, ability-disability, should be able to make art about anything.

As a writer who’s blind I hate portrayals of blindness by sighted writers. I’m not fond of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, because he metaphorizes blindness even as he attempts to demonstrate it’s potential—his blind character is a kind of seer. I wish he’d studied more about disability before he wrote the book. I wish plenty of abled artists would bother to study more about disablement.

The trouble with privilege as a delineation or marker of acceptable ideas is that it devolves into Stalinism before you can say William Styron.

Now pain is pain. All historically marginalized people know a good deal about the cruelties of discrimination and the abjections of erasure. No one should be confused about the dreadful, enervating, daily struggle for autonomy people across the globe must contend with: colonialism, racism, homo-phobia, sexism, ableism, God Almighty the list is long.

And cultural appropriation exists. Most of Disney…

Within disability studies we call able bodied writing that utilizes disabled characters “narrative prosthesis” and let’s be clear, most of the time, disability is subjected to cultural appropriation. See JoJo Mayes.

But I believe anyone should be able to write, paint, draw, compose, sculpt, photograph, dance what she or he or they want.

I think this, not because I don’t believe in cultural appropriation but because thinking itself is dangerous and we better celebrate it, be discomfited but argumentative, listen to others, defend the right of our opponents to hold opinions we may dislike—we do this or face a contemporary Counter-Reformation.

In 1945 Isaiah Berlin wrote a report for British intelligence on the literary scene in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The entire paper is worth reading but I like this passage in particular:

Writers are generally considered as persons who need a good deal of watching, since they deal in the dangerous commodity of ideas, and are therefore fended off from private, individual contact with foreigners with greater care than the less intellectual professionals, such as actors, dancers, and musicians, who are regarded as less susceptible to the power of ideas, and to that extent better insulated against disturbing influences from abroad.   

Who shall watch? Who shall bear watching? Who shall be denied contact with ideas? Who must be insulated against disturbing influences?

More of Berlin:

Having protected himself adequately against suspicion of any desire to follow after alien gods, the Soviet writer, whether imaginative or critical, must also make certain of the correct literary targets at any given moment. The Soviet government cannot be accused of leaving him in any uncertainty in this matter. 

Let’s end with Stalin:

“Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don’t let our people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?” 

 

I Have Broken my Small Faith….

I have broken my small faith

So many times

And the hours, lame crows

Repair the rent mind,

 

Walk sidelong

Overfed

On plain

Beliefs—

 

So little to say,

Afternoon,

The neighborhood

Children

 

In yellow rain jackets

Trooping home

On a wet road

From school.