“It takes so little to make me happy tonight…”

“It takes so little to make me happy tonight!
Four hours of singing will do it, if we remember
How much of our life is a ruin, and agree to that.”

Excerpt From: Robert Bly. “The Night Abraham Called to the Stars.”

Listen pal, don’t bother me. I’m trying to remember how much of my life is a ruin. I think I’ve got it right. 65 per cent. I’m agreeing to that.

So it’s love among the ruins; dancing in the fallen temple of Hermes; waving my skinny arms at the moon and shouting “what have you done with Lorca?” 35 per cent…

Factor in my age. At 65 I’ve got actuarial creep. Is my 35 per cent still solid?

“Just agree your life is a ruin and you’re alright,” I say.

I write a poem:

Ode to the World

I am at my best when writing
And the Devil take the hindmost.
You know, I was a worm
Before I was a man
And the Devil take the hindmost.
Sunset at the shore
Feeling the pulse
In my wrists
And so forth
All for the Devil.
Of the worm
Call him an accountant—
Shuffling zeros.
Such a steep hill
We’re climbing.
I can’t love you all
Any more than this.

Ode to the World

Ode to the World

I am at my best when writing
And the Devil take the hindmost.
You know, I was a worm
Before I was a man
And the Devil take the hindmost.
Sunset at the shore
Feeling the pulse
In my wrists
And so forth
All for the Devil.
Of the worm
Call him an accountant—
Shuffling zeros.
Such a steep hill
We’re climbing.
I can’t love you all
Any more than this.

In More Innocent Times

In more innocent times we asked questions like “what’s the “beyond” in Bed, Bath, and Beyond? We were max-innocent. We asked because the answers would be foolish. If nothing else the past four years have rid us of vapid fancies.

Meanwhile one thinks of Will Rogers: “An onion can make people cry, but there has never been a vegetable invented to make them laugh.”

Now this is true as far as it goes. He means peeling. I’ve yet to peel a rutabaga and just crack up. The name of the rutabaga will make you smile but so what?

When I think about peeling the president I just see smaller versions of him popping out. This is not funny.

In more innocent times…

Well of course there never were such times. But a fool and his nostalgia are not so easily parted. But there never were such times. While people watched “What’s My Line?” on their Dumont televisions they were executing the Rosenbergs.

Will Rogers: “Things aren’t what they used to be and probably never were.”

Peter Charles Hoffer’s splendid book “Clio Among the Muses” tackles this very problem. In short we’re living in an age when as he puts it, “there’s too much history to bear.” We’re also prone to believing only the history we like and the devil take the hind most. Christopher Columbus butchered and enslaved human beings. Hey, my grandfather loved Christopher Columbus. The latter view is a call for more innocent times.

Hoffer notes that suffering is crucial to our understanding of greatness in human beings, noting that Lincoln was not the best educated candidate for the presidency but he was certainly the greatest sufferer:

“Lincoln served as president during the most horrific and perilous of all American wars. His life, until the Civil War erupted, did not seem to prepare him for greatness. But it did prepare him for suffering. Often lonely, beset by images of his dying mother, melancholy and depressed, he identified with others’ suffering. Suffering taught Lincoln to hide a portion of his thoughts and feelings, and the empathetic suffering he exhibited during the war. The poet W. H. Auden wrote, “Let us honour if we can; The vertical man; Though we value none; But the horizontal one.”

In more innocent times…

Will Rogers: “The worst thing that happens to you. May be the best thing for you if you don’t let it get the best of you!!”

Old Horse, What Is to Be Done?

I have a new book due out next week, a collection of poems entitled “Old Horse, What Is to Be Done?” It’s my seventh book and my third poetry collection. 

The poems were written slowly over the past five years although some of them are mined from old notebooks I kept in times of deep solitude. The book is dedicated to Robert Bly. In my late twenties and early thirties, struggling with blindness and the overwhelming question of “how to live and what to do” Robert counseled me to accept imagination and loneliness as my secret companions. 

This proved to be good advice. Blind, I wasn’t going to drive a cab in New York. A bookish life was certainly available. 

The poems are about many things: seasons, music, books, journeys, chance encounters. The title poem is about watching my wife’s old horse “Luigi” a thoroughbred as he looks out the window of his stall:

“Old Horse, What Is to Be Done?”

—for Robert Bly

I also want to live tonight 

My pockets filled with ghost silver 

The real coins I spent long ago 

There are weeks, whole months

When I read only the ancients

I mean the dark one the river compulsive 

A man who made clocks from string…

Time is a game played beautifully by children

Lately this is all I can think of

When I was very small I lived by a meadow 

You loved me and I wasn’t confused

The “dark one” is an allusion to Herakleitos the Greek poet who said we can never step into the same river twice. Time is fleeing, our mortal lives are precious and short. I don’t know about the loneliness of horses. I don’t know if they meditate on growing old. But I knew as a child I loved them and as the poem says, I wasn’t confused.

I’ll be reading from the book THIS THURSDAY at 7:00 Central Time alongside my dear friend Ralph Savarese who also has a new book coming out, a collection of poems entitled “When This is Over” about the struggles we’re facing in a time of pandemic. We’re reading virtually and you can register for the event here: 

https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_leiEi5bgTrqh_E2V7SbM0Q?fbclid=IwAR2bItgdinkW147xlS8Jn7k7-qUZPcrICZ1w-YTy0_N_YahNlqRvYN_QcqE

Here’s to the poets, all, who keep on singing in dark times. 

Cover, “Old Horse, What Is to Be Done?”

Can I help it if I’m too sentimental to trust my instincts…

Can I help it if I’m too sentimental to trust my instincts? Oh how many times have I stepped onto thin ice, just name the setting: employment, friendships, hodgepodge transactions of every sort. I’m the dope who thinks the car salesman “likes” him and to answer the question, apparently not.

Trust is a necessary adjunct to civics but its relationship to sentiment is poorly understood. Ernest Hemingway said: “the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them,” which is fine advice but it ignores the clouded and moist diffusions of tender feelings. If you grow up in a loveless house you’ll likely misunderstand affection–hardly any news there–but let’s think of sentimentality, the resistance to one’s better judgements, that Miltonic snake, as one of the worst things that can befall us and one of the most necessary.
Hemingway was mostly right. Wanting to be loved, dare to be loved, decide you’re in love, look for it in all the wrong places. Give it a go.

Sentiment, that gushy thing is not what we suppose for its merely the desire to love the self so in turn it becomes brittle, demanding and manipulative. Thomas Merton wrote: “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

When I imagine the car salesman likes me I’m not perfectly myself. When I think workplace colleagues will be true friends I’m not at all myself. I’m just another sad soul demanding others reflect me. Baby Narcissus.

None of this is news. But sentiment has a worse trick up its sleeve. One is so in love with being in love, so thirsty a failure of almost sub-atomic proportions occurs. Here’s Emerson:

“A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal, that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another.”

I’ll presume atoms have no sentiment, just life.

Vote for the Binding-heart

I wish I could tell you what’s in my heart in this political season. I don’t mean the rage-heart or the schadenfreude-heart, those twins of Freud’s Id. I’m thinking of the binding-heart, the one that heals. Wishing this I acknowledge it’s tricky, this heart-speak since it requires a bit of poetry and a lot of self-awareness.

I’m blind. Some see me on the street and think I’m a sad sack for what else is disability but a ticket to an inferior life? The statistics on blindness and unemployment are sobering. In my heart? This political season I want Americans to vote for job expansion, inclusivity, dignified employment—which means true diversity in the jobs of the future.

In the heart—mine—I want black lives and guide dog users and wheelchair drivers and women getting equal pay. I wish away the tacit assumption that difference means incapacity. I don’t want employment specialists looking at me as a flight attendant once did, saying: ”if I was disabled I think I’d kill myself.”

The binding-heart is a sober heart as it understands the disabled and their families have considerable disposable income. Most American colleges and universities don’t get this and continue to treat disability services as a pinched nose mandate they’d rather get rid of. Underfunded accommodation programs in higher education are one of the primary reasons only one in four students with a disability graduates. Schools that do a good job discover the disabled are generous. The binding-heart understands this. Black lives are generous and queer lives; yes this is true. Diversity in employment and education means opening the floodgates of talent and generosity in the twenty-first century.

By now you think I’m bananas.

In this political moment America must get imaginative. Let’s imagine disabilities as expertises. If we’re really going to build new infrastructures, who better than the disabled to explain universal design? The binding-heart is both visionary and inclusive. The binding-heart is pragmatic.

Take a look at “Our Ability” a non-profit in Albany, New York that uses AI technology to create accessible and inclusive technology for the employment of people with disabilities. From their website:

“Our vision is to help people develop more advanced skills in the workplace and to evolve the culture around inclusive hiring by creating a job search interface that will connect opportunities for employers and the disability community.”

Take a look at Syracuse University’s Taishoff Center for inclusive education where they say: “we celebrate disability because it makes our campus stronger, more diverse, and much more interesting; until everyone is included, there is no real inclusion for anyone.”

Yes the binding-heart knows disability is interesting. I wish I’d thought to say that to the flight attendant. On that occasion all I could say was, “I’m not what you suppose.”

Vote for the binding-heart.

Privilege in Them Thar Halls…

“Now a secret must be imparted. Professor Pnin was on the wrong train. He was unaware of it, and so was the conductor, already threading his way through the train to Pnin’s coach. As a matter of fact, Pnin at the moment felt very well satisfied with himself. ”

Vladimir Nabokov “Pnin”

This is a confession of sorts: I’ve helped build two disability studies programs at major American universities and now, after twenty plus years I’m Professor Pnin on the wrong train, though I’m becoming dimly aware of it.

The problem is that disabled faculty who require accommodations to work, teach, and conduct research are not well represented in the field. This is because colleges and universities advance sub-rosa programs in “area studies” as long as they don’t have to engage in any new hiring. I’ve traveled across the US over the years visiting scores of campuses and I rarely meet disabled faculty. Note I say “rarely” for there are some stars of disability research who are cripples but they’re outnumbered. I’m no essentialist: I think non-disabled faculty can and should teach disability themes and conduct research. But I lament the divide that has kept younger disabled scholars and writers from advancing. I can also attest that my own need for accommodations in the workplace has been treated variously and it’s often the case that non-disabled faculty who trade in dis-studies are not meaningful allies.

It would be far different if there were more cripples in the ranks.

Prof. Pnin is Nabokov’s lost emigre scholar who suffers from accidie—that late medieval weariness of the isolated monk who just can’t go on. Pnin doesn’t fit in at the provincial American campus where he finds himself teaching Russian lit and experiences the loneliness that comes with having no true friends among his colleagues. The faculty are “in it” for themselves, an old theme perhaps but for disabled scholars this is a nightmare. Just last week a blind graduate student wrote to say she’s having the run around with her university’s information technology team who are unwilling to help her with assistive tech and rather than admit they’re not up to speed on ADA 101 tell her she’s the problem. When I told her this has happened to me repeatedly even as recently as last year, she was aghast. Surely I was somehow well off? Surely as a well known disability activist and writer with a professorship I must have found the secret to inclusion.

Ableism in the faculty ranks is not over. The cottage industry of hiring non-disabled faculty to teach disability related themes is not over. The unwillingness of technologists to meaningfully address disability is not over. The silence of some though not all faculty in the dis-studies field is not over.

There’s privilege in them thar halls.

A Slogan for Trump

Every day there’s an assault on reason in the neighborhood, yours or mine. In Central Asia parents hide disabled children so their non-disabled offspring will be attractive for arranged marriages. Reason seldom prevails over local economics. Thomas Jefferson understood slavery made him rich even as he venerated reason.

Hypocrisy flourishes where economies of suborned dignity are the norm. American conservatives talk of the US constitution using the term “originalism” thereby making no secret of their false virtue where racial equality or human rights are concerned. The American constitution was written by slave owners and their feckless northern apologists. Disdain is never a secret, it’s just tricked out with piety and the kind of candy coated earnestness we saw from Amy Coney Barrett.

There are plural assaults on reason of course: the arranged slaughter of Kashoggi; children caged; refugee camps; environmental looting from the rainforests of Brazil to Lapland, legislation to jail homosexuals in the Dakotas–the list is nearly inexhaustible not only because economies of scale triumph over dignity but because as the globe dies the resource fights are about theft on steroids.

What sells? Delegetimancy. But only for the powerful. Trump’s rhetorical employment of Mexican rapists, the GOP’s histrionics about socialists–(Biden is coming to destroy your suburb) all are incitements to hate the neighbors.

Since Trump is running on no observable platform and since he’s got no catchy slogan (Make America Great Again and Again isn’t cutting it) he should just cry out from his balcony, “Hate Your Neighbors!” There’s plenty of money to still be made.

Mad at the World

William Souder’s extraordinary new biography of John Steinbeck has thrown me back into my youth in ways I’d not imagined possible. I’ll explain in a moment. “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck” is a nuanced and scrupulous volume and it’s also a study in depth psychology without the turgid rhetoric of Jung and Freud–it’s a book about a life of ambitious heartbreaks. It is quite frankly one of the best biographies I’ve read in years ranking alongside Richard Ellmann’s “Oscar Wilde” and Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt” in its shrewd and empathetic treatment of the doubts and drives inside a creative human being.

Of my youth I’ll just say that between the ages of 22 and 27 I lived the driven torture of “the imagination” often hiding in lonely places just to afford the luxury of writing without income. All writers have these periods I think but Souder brings out the exquisite, clarifying, haunted precision of early seeing that hurts, fascinates, and ultimately makes one who’d deign to write. He brought back for me the loneliness of perception, the cold wind of it. One night at twenty I went out, got down on all fours in a cemetery and chewed the grass because Lorca said something about it in a poem. Yes I was blind. Yes the moon was up. Yes I was wildly alive.

“Mad at the World” is not a staid biography, it’s almost a nonfiction bildungsroman about a man who was richly alive with all the triumphs and tragedies inherent in a writing life. The cliche is “warts and all” but Souder gives us Steinbeck’s blemishes with the light and space to take them in:

“One of the mysteries of writing is how it sometimes happens in spite of everything. Many writers cannot bear distractions. Steinbeck, always brittle and impossible to be around when he was in the middle of a book, had been fiercely protective of his writing time, and nobody who knew him even a little dared interrupt him when he was working. Maybe being alone with his dying mother felt perversely like the kind of isolation he craved. Or perhaps he discovered at last that writing well is impervious to the noise and clamor of everyday life. It happens. Life (or death) taps you on the shoulder, interrupts what you’re doing, and suddenly you find that nobody has been bothering you but yourself. Indulgences disappear, instincts take over, mistrust of your own work fades, and the tendency toward self-doubt is carried away. And so it was with Steinbeck in that terrible time. He actually enjoyed himself while writing Tortilla Flat and the short stories that fell so easily onto his pages. It did not seem possible that this was the beginning of everything. But it was.”

One may say an open hand is nearly always empty but fate has other things to give and it’s sometimes a tenderness, an illuminated private station and Souder shows us how it worked for John Steinbeck. For my money this is one hell of a compelling book about a writer’s life, the lived life of the unaffiliated places inside.

One night, blind and alone in Helsinki, Finland I found a frozen spoon in the snow. I talked to it. Said: “we’re in equilibrium. It all balances.” It was snowing hard.