It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
–William Carlos Williams
(“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” Yeats wrote. People and events fly by us like shadows on a drunken night—the Pope’s “historic” visit; followed by the UN’s 70th anniversary collocation—with all the bigwigs running, and pretending to run, the world—making speeches, making excuses, threatening oblivion. Migrant-refugees overrunning Europe, escaping America’s wars, and Russia bombs in Syria while “bomb-bomb-Iran” McCain demonizes Putin! The MSM is intent on bringing me the latest news about an election some 14 months away—who’s up, who’s down, who’s spinning around. Volkswagen fibs about emission standards and even the Pope says: Can we please get serious about air pollution? 50 Americans are shot in Chicago over the weekend…and we wonder: Why do they hate us? The stock market implodes, US poverty explodes…and nobody can contextualize—put it all together, find patterns. Artists used to know, intuitively, that they were pattern-makers and code-decoders. What’s the place, the function, of the artist in this frenetic world? Is there a place for what Wordsworth called “the philosophic mind”—the one who reflects, inquires, challenges, contemplates? “Byzantine Catholic” poet-friend, Chuck Orloski, and I–one crying in the wilderness of doubts and shouts–do our best in an exchange of emails to stay the whirling Zeitgeist.–Gary Corseri)
Gary Corseri: How’s it going? It has been a while!
Charles Orloski: Doing okay, managed to purchase a 2006 Dodge Stratus which will help out very much.
GC: I’ll probably be looking for another vehicle next spring (to replace my beloved 1995 Plymouth Voyager minivan–which I bought in 1998 (for about $7K), with about 67,000 miles on it and to which I’ve added about 80,000 miles in 17 years! (Frugality is my middle name!) How is your family? [Here we exchange some personal info; then–] I was wondering if we could tête-à-tête about the Pope’s visit? I’ve been inspired by his energy!
CO: He did, indeed, inspire! You know, a month after 9/11, I read Reinhold Niebuhr’s complex and powerful book, Moral Man and Immoral Society…. A religious leader can certainly inspire people to live according to their world views, and I liked when Pope Francis referenced the American lives and works of Catholics–Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Popes can encourage people to work for the social good, and if such is turned into mass action, positive political change can happen.
GC: I was also most impressed by his tributes to Day and Merton! (Tribute to MLK was well-deserved and expected.) This Pope sets a very high example. I hope he inspires many to reach higher in thoughts and deeds. Alas, like St. Francis himself, he’s bound to have very few who can actually emulate him.
CO: I don’t expect to see many Western diplomats engage in the act of washing the feet of Moslem women—unless, of course, they support the war on terror! A rabid idealist at heart, I wished Pope Francis would have mentioned the great contemporary work of Kathy Kelly.
GC: I did think about our good, open letter about his visiting with peace-activist (and “jailbird”) Kathy Kelly! That would have been a much better visit than the one he granted to that Kentucky official who refused to grant marriage licenses to gay couples!
CO: I agree…. He said and did some fine things, but there were contradictions, too.
GC: When I was a child, I was impressed with Pope John XXIII. I remember some wag writing then that that Pope had managed to move the Church out of the 13th Century and into the 15th!
CO: While we’re dealing with omissions and contradictions… Can you tell me how John Boehner managed to wildly applaud during the insane Netanyahu address to Congress… and weep during Pope Francis’s? Simple answer… hypocrisy? I suppose it’s the old tried & true “cry with one eye” syndrome, and although I momentarily fell for Boehner’s tears and office resignation… well–forgive my deep cynicism–but, I suppose he will not be staffing the food line in Dorothy Day’s “House of Hospitality.”
GC: I’m sure he’s got a nice, fat Lobbyist position lined up for him!
Hypocrisy has always been predominant in the US… and in the Western world! “Hypocrites” seems to be one of Christ’s favorite words; he rails against them often, throws the money-changers out of the Temple, etc. Frankly, I’ve always thought he was killed because he was too troublesome to the “hypocrites”!
I did think the Pope hit a false note when he spoke about the “Americas” as “a continent” of immigrants, but failed to mention the crimes against the indigenous people here while those “immigrants” (or invaders) were conquering this land!
CO: Unfortunately, most Roman Catholic thought, of which I’m aware, extols Columbus’s discoveries and conquests which led to the mass extermination of the American Indian.
GC: Definitely a fault against “Roman Catholic thought”!
CO: Ten lashes upon me for using the term “American Indian”?
GC: Not from me! A hundred from the PC-crowd!
CO: Popes seem to look upon the South and North American ethnic cleansing undertaken by European Christians as something ordained by God! As an uneasy member of Knights of Columbus, I am hoping there’s more to the heralded Roman Catholic “Discovery” legacy than simply kicking native butt and “moving on in” like the Jews did to Philistines in the O.T. and today what’s done in Palestine.
GC: Much more discussion needed on that! Frankly, I always felt the Canaanites got a raw deal!
CO: Returning to Reinhold Niebuhr– he made an unforgettable case for individual moral acts of human beings. While reading his Moral Man, Immoral Society, I sensed that it’s actually quite immature to believe a government can herald a fair and just society. Niebuhr made a strong case for the inevitable corruption of all institutions, and, as a Byzantine Catholic, I find that the Vatican is not exempt from this calculus.
Am I immature for expecting fairness, justice and peace in our world? Were the departed like Teresa of Calcutta and Mahatma Gandhi foolish to live their lives distinguishably selfless and for others? No! They are better than I!
GC: I don’t think you’re immature for “expecting fairness, justice and peace in our world.” Our world today is mostly led by immature morons, egoists, violent maniacs. They play on half-truths… and half-truths are the most difficult concepts to fight because they are malleable… and contain some truth! (Bald-faced lies are much easier to deal with!) So, surely, we should grieve for the situation of the millions of migrant-refugees from Syria or Mexico, but let us also recognize the plight of citizens of this country and others who fear loss of jobs, etc. If the “Major Powers” are screwing up the lives of people in dependent countries like Syria and Mexico…and those people hightail out… who is ultimately to blame?
We need not compare ourselves to Teresa or Gandhi, btw. Their circumstances were very different from ours. Each of us can only do his/her best within the niche we find ourselves. We can only judge ourselves against our higher selves–the “better angels of our nature.”
CO: Decadent, propagandized, and “dumbed-down” America desperately needed Pope Francis’s presence and holy words. Unfortunately this morning’s extremely popular New York Daily News headline foolishly proclaimed, “Pope Shames Perv Priests!” No doubt, and as you and I have often discussed, the American “free press” has become a colossal obstruction to promoting fairness, justice, and peace.
GC: I was not aware of that headline. The Daily News has long been best used for wrapping up dead, smelly fish and discarding! I often think about what William Carlos Williams wrote: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” When you and I were college-age or grad students, the general public respected the Humanities– Literature, History, the Arts. In the land-grant institution I first attended, we’d actually have “bull sessions” about Sartre’s “Existentialism”—man defines himself…and all that! But now, the Mainstream Media defines us and confines us. Most people are Twittering their lives away…and wondering where it’s going….
CO: Continuing then: You’ve written before that you thought Pope Francis was in “the best of the Jesuit tradition.” I agree that he’s in that more reform-minded, challenging tradition. But, as always, the hard work of putting faith into practice will be left to individuals like Kathy Kelly—in our nation and elsewhere.
GC: Amen, bro!
CO: Also, I should be clear: I do not compare either self or others to Gandhi and Teresa of Calcutta. Knowing their interior and “circumstances” were different, I simply make a point that such people (as individuals) can give more to the lost cause of human justice.
GC: No doubt!
CO: A year ago, I read Mother Teresa’s 2009 book, Come Be My Light: Private Reflections. Teresa expressed serious problems and frustrations with the Church hierarchy in charge of her assignments…. I found that even her expressed doubt(s) seemed superior to much of my (proud) beliefs! She acted singularly to bring love and practical care to the poorest of the poor. Judging on a scale made of flesh & bone–Tessie is definitely better than me!
GC: I have often thought that Kathy Kelly is a better person than I am! John Keats was a better poet by the time he died at 25 than I will probably ever be if I die at 98! I still don’t think there’s much value in such comparisons….
CO: What’s more, after reading her testimony, it seems that Mother Teresa would have agreed with Niebuhr on the awesome power of individual morality as compared to that of often compromised institutions. I do not know the quotation’s author, but one of my all-time favorite sayings is, “The only battle worth fighting is the one you know that you cannot win.”
GC: I don’t think I’ve heard that before…. But, I’ve often thought that real courage is about persisting knowledgeably in a good cause even when the outcome of one’s efforts seems very uncertain. (I think it’s important to stress the word “knowledgeably.” Most “patriotism” stresses persistence or courage for the sake of one’s country or for a good cause because “that’s the mark of a man” or a valiant woman! We honor “heroes” who are just “doing their job.” The more unthinking, the better! Lack of thought, lack of perspective and reflection has never seemed courageous to me!
CO: Out of gas, maybe full of gas (?), I will stop on the topic of a 1977 war film, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring James Coburn–The Iron Cross. It involves brutal WW II action on the Eastern Front, and James Coburn plays a battle-hardened Soviet sergeant. As I recall, in the film, a soldier asked the sergeant if he believed in God. He contemplated and replied, “Yes, but God is a sadist… and he doesn’t know it.” (Sigh) It took a very long time for the Vatican to come to terms with “unbridled capitalism,” and perhaps a Pope will one day ask for forgiveness and admit a role in sadistic crimes against American “indigenous people.”
BTW, you wrote before that you had come across an African political poet whose work you wanted to share….
GC: What I’ve always liked about the Arts—they give me pause, they put things into perspective. We get caught up in the moment and tend to think our crisis is the worst ever, but Homer, Tolstoy, Remarque and others remind us that the terrors of war have plagued the human soul for millennia. All of us can become migrant-refugees in a moment because of some weather-event, or a war, a plague, loss of livelihood, etc.
The family of Rethabile Masilo were in danger in their native land in Africa. They emigrated when Rethabile was a teen. His younger brother didn’t make it, though.
THE BOY WHO WOULD DIE
By Rethabile Masilo
~for Motlatsi Masilo
The bedroom was a shallow
perhaps the opinion of the men
or of the wardrobe in that
room in which a woman hid.
In any case, there was a
burial in that room;
decked in bright pyjamas he
as bullets hankered for the
softness of his body
and found the linoleum under
Men he did not know
in a house on a hill like a
from the grave you climbed to
the sitting room
whose Cyclops window looked at
the reason perhaps for such an
act for which there was no wake,
then further up to the
that stood above the rest, in
which in winter
we sang around a pot on the
if not for the outhouse some
metres into the hill
the kitchen was the highest
place of the house,
the closest thing to heaven we
No dog dared bark that night.
We lived on that hill and it
lived in us, in rocks
carved out of boulders and
into bricks by able hands of
He died at the edge of his
dream, a potted plant
on a winter sill, aged three,
died for us;
and from then on all poems
would end thus.
CO: I must admit to neither knowing the poem’s place nor epoch, and Masilo’s gift made such knowledge unnecessary. Nevertheless, the winter song and mourning around “a pot on the stove” (resulting in epiphany) is universal LANGUAGE! I’d surely like getting to know him!
GC: The language is soft and hard—as befits a child’s world, but one disrupted by chaos and violence. I note, especially, “bullets hankered/ for the softness of his body”—the plosive “k” of “hankered” mingling with the sibilance and liquids of “bullets,” “softness,” “his.”
CO: The poem’s beginning of a vulnerable boy (age 3) in a bedroom hit me rather hard. As an only child, mid-1950s, my Center Street home bedroom was paradise, certainly not the scene of a “shallow grave.” I have a Brownie Automatic picture which depicts the tousle of my brown hair & eyes peeping into a wall-based Anderson window. In such place, and in contrast to Masilo’s bedroom (shallow grave) and murdered boy, no intruders could get to me; only bad dreams were perceived and perhaps discussed after my having survived imaginary terror.
GC: The poem has a soft luminosity about it—an interior quality that invites us into that innocent, but dangerous, world. That’s where we all live now! And “all poems… end thus.”
CO: In bright pyjamas, “He died at the edge of his dream.” Except for American children who do NOT live in project housing, perhaps city crack house, no one gets to hear an alarmed dog bark at night. Yes — too often children “die for us” and graceful warning poems must end this way.
I’m impressed by the Roman Catholic Church’s emphasis upon “family.” Perhaps a clean-living & self-centered family could spiritually gain from encounters (clashes) with others less fortunate? Maybe I’ve lived too long in a small & worried town, but whoever gathered around the stove pot in Masilo’s strong poem would get what I mean.
GC: Blake said something about having to create his own myth, or being slave to another man’s! I think Artists—the best Artists (capital “A” Artists!) are always trying to do that! Too many people think of that as escapism. I think of it more as engagement with what is, what has been, and what may be.
CO: I think, in a way, we’ve been writing about that these past few days and nights—the myths people live and die for, the worlds we create… and lose! In that regard, I send you this untitled poem by Marc Beaudin from his new book, Vagabond Song: Neo-Haibun from the Peregrine Journals:
The bus descends through the night
into the bloodstained antiquity of the Southwest
I sleep fitfully, waking in the predawn glow
over red stone & cactus mesas
America is only skin deep —
the flesh of New Mexico is red
One road ends & another begins
as we roll into another myth
that waits for a voice to speak it
Gary Corseri has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library, and his dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and elsewhere. He has published novels and collections of poetry, has taught in US public schools and prisons and in US and Japanese universities. His work has appeared at the Seattle Star and hundreds of publications and websites worldwide. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For many years, Charles Orloski was a field-worker in environmental protection services. Currently, he drives a city school bus, good-shepherding children and others to their destinations. His articles and poems have appeared at CounterPunch, LA Progressive, Countercurrents, Hollywood Progressive, Dissident Voice and elsewhere.
Born in Lesotho in 1961, Rethabile Masilo left his country with his parents and siblings to go into exile in 1980. He has lived in Kenya and the US, and has resided in France since 1987. He edits anthologies of poetry. Things That Are Silent is the well-received book of his poems.
Marc Beaudin is the Poetry Editor of CounterPunch and the founding Artistic Director of Caldera Theater Company. His new book is Vagabond Song: Neo-Haibun from the Peregrine Journals. He believes that Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D is more powerful than all the guns, smokestacks and coal trains in the world. More on his writing and theatre work can be found at CrowVoice.com.
(Originally published at Counterpunch.)