Friday, October 31, 2008

Ballad of Getting Older














Ballad of Getting Older


Time came by to see me.
It was in disguise.
"Your lease is up," Time said,
with phony, heavy sighs.

I am the age I am.
What can I do?
I am not dead yet, no,
but I'm not new.

Of course I'm scared to die,
faith in God aside.
Time came by to see me.
It said something snide.

I'm alive. Then I'll die.
That's pretty much the tale.
Time said my lease is up,
my place in space for sale.

Time and space, death and life:
the basics of our being.
Faith is concentrated on
what's beyond the seeing.

Travel Plans














Travel Plans
*
*
Tokyo and Instanbul
are places I've not been.
They're the same place.
Or so claims Zen.
*
*
History, brochures,
and residents there
will, I'm certain,
beg to differ.
*
*
Given time and money
(I don't ask much!),
I hope to visit both,
compare, contrast, and such.
*
*
'Til then I keep a Tokyo
in one part of my mind,
an Instanbul nearby:
two images that bind.
*
*
Hans Ostrom Copyright Hans Ostrom 2008











Thursday, October 30, 2008

October 31st

October 31st


The high-school girl had been trick-
or-treating, filling sharp Pacific Northwest
air with operatically lemony perfume.
Now, at our doorstep, she stood, bleeding.

"I was happy," she said, "and skipping when
I fell." We invited her in, explained how
hydrogen peroxide wouldn't sting her
cut hand. Her mother, costumed as

a classic witch, came to our doorstep.
"Did my daughter just come in your house?"
she asked. "Yes," we said. "Please come in."
"No," she said. "One stranger in your house

is enough." The bandaged daughter
joined her mother. "Happy," we called
to them as they walked away on
concrete into shadows, "Halloween."


Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Socialism










Candidate Obama has been labeled a "socialist," and "socialism" seems to be especially visible and audible in the media these days, so I thought I'd check with the venerable OED (albeit the online version) for a definition of "socialism":


"1. A theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all. Freq. with initial capital. Christian socialism, a doctrine or theory, promulgated about 1850 by F. D. Maurice, C. Kingsley, T. Hughes, and others, advocating a form of socialism on a Christian basis.
1837 Leeds Times 12 Aug. 5/1 Socialism.Messrs. Fleming and Rigby.On Monday evening..these two gentlemen attended [sic] an audience..on the topics of the real nature of man. 1839 J. MATHER (title), Socialism Exposed: or ‘The Book of the New Moral World’ Examined. Ibid. App. 22 To explain and expose what Robert Owen's Socialism is. 1840 Quart. Rev. Dec. 180 The two great demons in morals and politics, Socialism and Chartism. 1850 Daily News 13 Mar. 5/2 The infection of..‘Christian Socialism’ is spreading to Whitehall. 1863 FAWCETT Polit. Econ. II. i. 181 Socialism, as first propounded by Owen and Fourier, proposed that a society living together should share all the wealth produced. 1881 STEVENSON Virg. Puerisque 89, I do not greatly pride myself on having outlived my belief in the fairy tales of Socialism.



2. A state of society in which things are held or used in common.
1879 H. GEORGE Progr. & Pov. VI. i. (1881) . . . ."


A mere citizen and poet, I am obviously no expert on politics, political economy, or philosophies of government.

However, my lack of expertise, as usual, does not impede the offering of opinions.


Judging by definition #2 in the OED, the U.S. seems to have decided (to the extent a nation can be said to decide) to operate as a society that combines capitalism, socialism, repbulicanism (small r), democracy (of sorts, small d), and imperialism. By the latter term, I mean simply that the U.S. decided to control a lot of lands and countries outside its boundaries, rather aggressively. I give you the Puerto Rico, Iraq, South Korea, a piece of Cuba, and Afghanistan as examples, not to mention bases in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. We make the Romans look like provincials.


I think the capitalist aspects of U.S. society are self-evident. I think some socialist ones are, too. The latter include national parks, state and interstate, highways, public schools, public universities, the Library of Congress, national monuments, social security, and Medicare. That is to say, in a manner of speaking, citizens or "the government" "own" these things and entities; or rather, these things and entities are a "commons" we share. Theoretically, at least, some of my taxes go to support Yellowstone Park, and I may visit there, enjoy myself, but not act as if I own it in the way I own a third of an acre in some suburban tract. It seems to me one great question with which a society must grapple is what parts of the society should constitute "the commons," as opposed to private or corporate property. I happen to think national parks a are a heck of a good idea, for example.


I happen to think health care should be part of the commons, something of which we all take part and something we all support, each according to our capacities. Everybody needs medical attention at some point, no exceptions. Most adults have something to contribute to a common pool; those that don't have something deserve assistance anyway because they are our fellow citizens. When somebody's that far down on their luck or their health, you don't just help them out, ad hoc, you think ahead and develop a system that's there to help them out. It's called being compassionately practical, or sensible.


Some kind of comprehensive (definition = everyone eligible to be covered) system, not necessarily nationalized but coordinated nationally, stands a very good chance of being more economically efficient and easier to navigate than the incomplete, expensive, inscrutable system we have now.


Further, I'd assert that almost all, if not all, Republicans and Democrats (including McCain and Obama) combine capitalism and socialism in their views, policies, and plans--with very little difference between them (the views, policies, and plans).


Let us now see if I, a mere citizen and poet, can get even more simplistic in my analysis:


I think a remaining piece of the socialism the U.S. is moving toward accepting is, indeed, a "universal" health care system. I think it will not look like the one in Italy or Sweden, but I think the politicians will be forced to pass laws that give almost everyone access to health care up and above visits to emergency rooms. Oddly enough, I think such a system will assist capitalism as practiced by small businesses and large corporations, and this assistance may be the capitalistic impetus required to achieve socialistic ends. Wouldn't a sensible, more-or-less universal health-care system help all businesses and corporations to assess and to control their overhead better and therefore operate more efficiently?


Then, this question: Are the combined armed forces an example of socialism? They are controlled, allegedly, by "the government," and they are funded by tax-dollars. On the other hand, how much say do citizens have in how armed forces are deployed? The last war formally declared by our elected representatives was WWII. Are the armed forces an example of capitalism (the military-industrial complex about which Eisenhower warned)? Are they a form of oligarchic dictatorship? Did "we" decide to invade Iraq, or did Bush and a few others?


However one might define our combined armed forces politically, they present the U.S. with quite a problem. The U.S. spends almost immeasurably more money on its military than almost every other nation; the U.S. is broke; the U.S. probably needs to shrink its armed forces. Will it shrink its armed forces, whether McCain or Obama is elected? No, I think not. I think the system is self-perpetuating.


But back to the original question about socialism: all mainstream politicians blend capitalism and socialism, and many of the programs that fit the definition of socialism (like highways and bridges) keep the politicians in office. Pork is a variety of socialism, that is. Even the most right-wing politicians who rail against "socialism" support projects owned collectively by "the people." Even Bernie Sanders, the independent, socialist politician from Vermont, harbors some capitalistic tendencies. So A) let's not kid ourselves, B) let's stop hurling "socialism" and "socialist" around as if we were calling people werewolves or vampires, C) let's fess up to the fact the our system does combine and will continue to combine capitalism and socialism, and D) let's admit that we don't know how to stop spending so much money to maintain our imperial status.


Incidentally, the famous Helen Keller (pictured) liked socialism and thought of herself as a socialist.


And, deploying another abrupt, non-transitional transition, let me mention that I just finished reading a fascinating nonfiction book: Meet You In Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Partnership that Defined America. Co-monopolists, Carnegie and Frick basically cornered several related markets: coke (not cocaine but raw material for steel); steel (making and selling); iron-mining; and railroads (which required steel to operate and which hauled the coke and the steel). It was all a magnificent closed loop, one that made them surrealistically wealthy but that brutalized their workforces, and I'm not being melodramatic. If you made steel, your body was basically ruined by age 40, and your family was left broke.

Ultimately, the two men became sworn enemies, owing in part to the strike at the Homestead steel-making factory, the attempted strike-breaking by the hired Pinkertons, and the eventual take-over of the factory by the military, which was not pro-union, to say the least. Monopolism triumphed. Strangely enough, however, Carnegie eventually decided to "redistribute" almost all of his massive wealth. He just kept giving it away. He gave it away ostentatiously, true; that is, he made sure people knew he was giving it away. But he still gave it away. He was a mightily conflicted man. Frick, not so much. He was an unconflicted, uncomplicated, albeit very bright and ruthless capitalist, monopolist, and anti-unionist. Anyway, the book's a great read, regardless of your own economic perspective, whether you are a capitalistic purist, a muddled centrist, an anarchic syndicalist, or just a person who works, sleeps, eats, and then occasionally votes.

I'll end with two final hopelessly simplistic rheotrical questions: Isn't almost any program of taxation, even in a capitalist society such as ours, a form of redistributing wealth, even if the wealth distributed is comparatively trivial? Did any truly wealthy person ever become unwealthy because of taxation?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Light Verse for the Birds




I've been observing starlings for quite some time. Maybe you've seen them; they often lift off from the ground and take off in a great cloud of hundreds, and the cloud then undulates in what seems to be a coordinated way. This take-off and the undulating cloud are especially startling and pleasing at dusk. The phenomena are quite something to watch.

A book on birds I have describes starlings as "garrulous." I think they can be pretty aggressive around other birds, although I doubt crows or eagles take them seriously. A side note: the fictional detective and gourmand Nero Wolfe likes to have his chef, Fritz, prepare a meal of roasted starlings. Yikes. I have not dined on starlings. Nor do I know anyone non-fictional who has done so. Anyway, pictured here is a starling. I've always appreciated the speckling and the deeply yellow beak.

And here, for a bit of a glum Tuesday, is some light verse regarding birds, a poem I hope will lighten your load if you've had a tough day, as the cashier at the local supermarket did in fact have; she told me 4 people had called in sick, and at the late hour of 6:00 p.m., she hadn't yet had a lunch-break. So a special tip of the cap goes out to working folk, especially those who've been on their feet all day.

For the Birds

Here's to starlings
who travel in clouds,
and unsubtle ravens,
who caw in louds.

Here's to robins,
who run-and-then-stop,
and jays climbing trees
hop by hop.

Here's to songbirds,
sharp and small.
Hell, here's to birds--
let's toast them all,

including extinct ones,
an awful loss,
moreso because the cause
was likely us.

But let's not end there.
It's too sad.
Think of your favorite bird.
Be glad.

Hans Ostrom 2008 Hans Ostrom

Monday, October 27, 2008

Villanelle: Cosmic Status









Villanelle: Cosmic Status

If we add up all that we claim to know,
The sum is zero when compared to Mystery.
We are as nothing in the cosmic show.

Or do you disagree? Maybe it's so
That we are in control, can claim to be,
If we add up all that we claim to know.

If Universe is infinite or so,
Then we're about as trivial as can be.
We are as nothing in the cosmic show.

But if God is, well, then: there you go:
Perhaps God made it all and let us see
If we could claim to add up what we know.

Irrelevant or godly? Hard to know--
A or B? And might there be an option C
In which when we discover all we know,
We're more than nothing in this cosmic show?


Hans Ostrom 2008 Hans Ostrom

Deconstructing the Sonnet-Form






In a poetry-writing class recently, we read and discussed several traditional sonnets, some modified sonnets, and one sonnet by Sherman Alexie that deliberately shreds the form entirely. Alexie writes 14 paragraphs of varying lengths. Why he still calls the poem a sonnet and why he shreds the traditional form are both made compellingly evident by the poem itself. It's a very effective poem.
We then decided to develop our own list of improvised sonnet-forms, and we had quite a good time doing it. We may even have come up with variations you'll want to try. Here are some of the variations:

1. A traditional Italian sonnet, which tends to "break" after 8 lines. Our version, however, would be a "dialogue" sonnet, in which the first 8 lines are spoken by one person and the last 6 by another (for example). Thaks to Miriam for this one.

2. "The Baker's Dozen." A sonnet that is about baking or a baker but goes only to 13 lines. I think this was Jean's idea.

3. A free-verse sonnet--the only real restriction being the 14 lines.

4. A blank-verse sonnet--14 lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter. This might have been Meg's idea, but I'm not sure.

5. A "choose your own adventure" sonnet. I have to confess I did not fully understand the guidelines for this one, but basically the idea is that within the poem, you give the reader different options as to what line or lines to read next. This one's above my pay-grade. I think Ryan may have come up with this one.

6. A blues sonnet. Tricky. Two traditional blues stanzas (six lines each), followed by a couplet. One would want to go very easy on attempting to imitate African American dialect as sung (for example) by Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, or Son House. The emphasis here is more on the f0rm than on imitating the vernacular because such imitation can go very badly. I am intrigued, though, by combining the two blues stanzas with a couplet--an interesting formal experiment.

7. I told the students about a "diminishing sonnet" I once wrote (and may have posted here earlier): The rhyme-scheme is more or less traditional, but in the first quatrain, you use iambic pentameter; in the next quatrain, you use iambic tetrameter; in a couplet, you use iambic trimeter; in the following couplet, you use just two iambs; and in the final couplet, you use two syllables per line (could be one word with two syllabes or two words with one syllable each). And yes, the last two "lines" still have to rhyme. The shape of the poem is like that of a somewhat lopsided triangle.

8. Two stanzas in limerick-form (for a total of 10 lines) plus a quatrain (for a grand total of 14 lines). The additional twist: it must be a serious "sonnet," not a joke-poem.

9. A "Joycean" or "Faulknerian" stream-of-consciousness sonnet. In traditional sonnet-form--or not? It's up to you. Intriguing. I think Cory might have come up with this one.

10. Traditional sonnets that embody the plot and/or convetions of fictional genres. For example: a "mystery" or "detective" sonnet; a "science fiction" sonnet; a "trashy romance" sonnet, also known as a "bodice-ripper," I believe; an autobiographical sonnet; a picaresque sonnet (or Don Quixote in 14 lines) ; a "sex sonnet." This last one was supposed to be in contrast to the traditional "love" sonnet, but I expressed the view that one pitfall to avoid was writing a pornographic sonnet.

11. A sonnet in 7 heroic couplets. Oy! Shakespeare meets Alexander Pope.

12. An "indecision sonnet." I wrote this down, but I confess I can't remember what the rubric was.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Uncertainty


Those who cast news often speak of something being surrounded by a great deal of uncertainty. At the moment, the stock markets worldwide are alleged to be surrounded by much uncertainty. It's more likely that they're surrounded by certainty--that things aren't going well.

I don't think I've ever fully understood Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, but that hasn't kept me from liking it very much. For one thing, I like the inherent paradox of an Uncertainty Principle. How principled can a principle be if it's an Uncertainty Principle? I think but do not know that the U.P. refers to the atomic and sub-atomic level of reality, which, when studied by humans, can be changed by the studying. Therefore, by studying item X, especially at the sub-atomic level, scientists change what they're studying and consequently cannot reach a definite (certain) conclusion about X. Apparently quantum mechanics support the H.U.P., but you couldn't prove it by me because I'm uncertain about the whole thing. I urge you to contact your local physicist, but there's no rush. Take your time, which is a function of space.

I had a different kind of uncertainty in mind, I think (I'm not sure), when I wrote the following poem. I suspect the poem may be, in part, a response to the sense in which we are pushed and pulled to decide quickly all the time, or almost all the time.


Uncertainty

When in doubt, why not stay there?
Sure, the station claims a train leaves
for Clarity every two hours (or so),
but that city may be ironically named,
like New York, which is neither new
nor connected to York in any substantial
way. When in doubt, enjoy the contours

of uncertainty. Sigh. Stall. Scratch
yourself or a domesticated animal.
Stare out or into a window. Check
your store of provisions. The world's
always in a hurry to urge you to decide.
The reasons for this circumstance may

chiefly be economic and political.
Also, impatience self-perpetuates.
What, in fact, is the rush? I don't
know. I'm not sure. I'm uncertain.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, October 24, 2008

As Chance Would Have It













Why Here, Why Now?


Is this the place in which
you planned to be,
or not particularly?
Is that the face
you hoped to see
in the mirror when
you arrived?
You've survived
thus far by means
of grace, you might say,
or we could always
phrase it another way--
chance or will or accident.


To be is to embody
mystery. Would you agree?
These are the places
of your life, it seems,
and these are the faces
of those you'll know
during your time.
It's tempting just
to leave it at that,
so let's, as the sun
sets at a point west
of exactly where you are,
and where are you, exactly?


Copyright Hans Ostrom 2008

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Horses in Cinema




Being a citizen of the United States, and of the western United States, and having grown up during an era in which the cinematic Western was quite popular, I watched a lot of Westerns in theaters and on TV. In Sweden, in 1994, I also learned from an Irish scholar (that is, a scholar from Ireland), that many Irish men more or less of our generation were and are awfully fond of Westerns.

The more eccentric the Western, the better, as far as I'm concerned. Therefore, I love the one with Johnny Depp (is it called Dead Man?), directed by Jim Jarmusch and featuring a splendid cast, including Robert Mitchum, who was acting in his last movie. I think Neil Young did the soundtrack.

The plot is witty and surreal, and what poet can resist a Western in which the protagonist is called William Blake? I like the "spaghetti" Westerns very much, partly because of the spare scripts and over-the-top music, but also because of the post-modern combination of Spanish locations, one American star, mostly Italian actors (although Klaus Kinski is in one), and an Italian director. One detail I liked in those movies was the food. It really looked like the kind of slop people had to eat in the West back then.

I'm awfully fond of High Noon, mostly for technical reasons (no fuss, no muss direction), the casting, and the tossing of the badge in the dirt at the end. Arguably, that movie is the grandfather or grandmother of the anti-hero Westerns from later decades, such as the Culpepper Cattle Company and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, although in the latter film, Altman does his dumb thing with dialogue and sound in which people mumble and are not audible on purpose. Just make the damn film.

With the exception of Dead Man and The Unforgiven, I don't like most contemporary Westerns, not Costner's, not the one with Kevin Kline and Danny Glover, not the one with Lou Diamond Philips and the other "rebels" of the moment. There's an abundance of predictability, an excess of costuming and sets, and a ponderousness of direction.

Shane,
of course, is supposed to be a great film, and it has its moments, but Alan Ladd isn't believable, in my opinion. They couldn't ever really hide the fact that he was a miniature man who wouldn't last 2 seconds in a bar-fight. In that long fist-fight scene, I think they had to use all sorts of ramps and boxes for him to stand on. I thought Ven Heflin was terrific. Monte Walsh is a pretty darned good Western, with Lee Marvin and Jack Palance.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
is good because it has some real political, intellectual, racial, and sexual complexity to it. There's some great lore about Woody Strode and John Wayne on the set of that one, but I'll skip it. John Ford knew how to make movies, but I find most of them kind of boring, except for the use of exteriors, and almost all his movies are unbearably racist.

The greatest comic Western is Blazing Saddles, although Cat Balou is a close second. My favorite musical is a Western: Paint Your Wagon, in which the casting is superbly absurd: neither Marvin nor Eastwood can sing! How lovely. I'm one of the few people, apparently, who liked The Missouri Breaks. I loved Brando's cross-dressing schtick as "the Regulator." The Western Brando directed (I can't think of the name) fell apart, but it also had its moments. Brando didn't know how to direct. He probably wasn't practical enough.

I appreciate what they tried to do with Sharon Stone in that one Western, or maybe I don't; anyway, it was miserable. I can't think of a Western with a genuine female protagonist that really works. There's probably one out there.

On the small screen, I have to go with Deadwood. Before that, I really liked the Virginian--a 90-minute per week series! Seems incredible now. Gunsmoke left me cold.

But anyway, no matter what kind of Western it is, I always watch the horses. They are the movie within the movie. Hence this poem:


Cinematic Horses

In movies with horses, watch the horses,
not the actors. The horses are thinking
all the time. They react to phenomena
while professionally fulfilling the task of giving
a stunt-man a lift or standing still beneath
a vapid star who hates working with animals,
children, and complexity. Horses snort.

They rear their heads, swat at flies with their
tales, sweat. They appear not to understand
the plot. They fear smoke and loud noises,
get wild-eyed with fright for good reason.
Their intuition is as wide as a pasture.

No matter what the movie may be,
the horses tell a horse-story while
the film drains through its reels
into accounting books and profits,
the manure of Hollywood.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Anti-American, Un-American, American, Feminist



Congressperson Bachman from Minnesota has raised the specter of certain members of Congress (and of Obama) as being "un-American," or "anti-American," and Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin has claimed that the "folks" in small towns love America, whereas, presumably, the folks in cities don't love America. William Bennett, on his radio show, opined that "liberal feminists"don't like Palin because a) she works b) she's attractive and c) she's happy.

Oh, my, there's so much to sort out here, especially for poets.

As a poet and a literalist, I tend to interpret "un-American" as "not-American." In other words, a Swedish citizen or a Chinese citizen would qualify as un-American. However, I am aware that Senator McCarthy defined "un-American" as Communist. I think that definition (his) is too limiting. I think a capitalist who is a citizen of Great Britain could be un-American.

"Anti-American" is more difficult. An anti-American person might be one who disagrees significantly with something economic, social, political, or aesthetic about the U.S.A., or about the Western Hemisphere, which consists of North and South America, and which, bizarrely, is named after an Italian. If one concedes that both the Constitution and American traditions value dissent and disagreement, might one proceed to argue that "anti-American" is "American"?

Meanwhile, Bennett's sentiments constituted a blast from the past, especially the 1970s past, when those opposed to, unfamiliar with, or frightened by feminism liked to caricature feminists as physically unattractive, unhappy ("bitter" was a code-word back then, as was "angry," as in "she [a feminist] seems so angry"), and not traditionally employed.

My definition of feminism is pretty basic. I define it as a perspective that advocates for and values the equal treatment of women in society, economics, politics, and the arts. Therefore, I don't agree with the premise that feminists would be bothered by how attractive Palin is, assuming she is attractive, and I assume she is, within certain conventional boundaries. I think she is a physically attractive person, but I think most people are physically attractive. I don't think feminists would be opposed to Palin's working, although I am reminded of the old joke about a White feminist and a Black feminist converging at a rally; the White feminist says she is protesting so that she can achieve employment (probably middle-class employment). The Black feminist says, "I've always worked"(at jobs that weren't so great).

I think I'm an American, by virtue of having been born in the United States. I think I am anti-American to the extent I disagree with certain policies put forward by the U.S., and with certain aspects of American culture and American history. I don't think I'm un-American, but that's chiefly because I think that term is a smelly red herring dressed up as an adjective.

I'd just add that feminists, be they White, Black, male, female, or whatever, are (in my experience) in favor of employment, physical attractiveness, and contentment. That Bennett thinks otherwise makes me think he is stuck, psychologically, in a place that's about 40 years old.

If he weren't well paid and well employed by such entities as CNN, I might attempt to generate pity for Bill B. It's as if he missed a lot of history. Rip Van Bennett. I suspect Bennett started out as an academic, didn't really like academic work, teaching, and academic pay, and decided to become a professional conservative media performer--not a bad gig in the Reagan and post-Reagan era.

Now, however, the act, the gig, is wearing a little thin. Memo to Bill: "louder, funnier, and more original"--that's what your act needs. But I'm glad you're employed, attractive (in a full-figured way), and happy. A lot of people I know think you're an asshole and a fraud, but I'm not willing to go quite that far. I think you got stuck in a gig, just like the guy who had the plate-spinning act on The Ed Sullivan Show. To be a member of the Punditocracy is to be a citizen in one of Dante's circles of Hell, and I think Bill B. would understand the reference. To change myths, I think the likes of Bill Bennett and George Will sold their souls to the Conservative PR machine and to popular corporate media. The machine and the media have lived up to their ends of the bargain. Bill and George are well paid and well known. However, the part about the loss of the soul is a problem, maybe.

Skin-Scanning



















There is a whole generation of native Californians (and Arizonans, et al.) who grew up not knowing how deadly the damage of sun-exposure could be. I'm in that generation. Our parents told us to slather on stuff like Copper Tone lotion, which was a nice-smelling oil but which block the sun not at all. When we went swimming in alpine lakes--about 6,000 feet above sea level--the sun-burns tended to be worse because there was less air between us and the sun, I guess. However, the worst sunburn I ever received was when I spent all day at Huntington Beach. One result is that I've had to have a melanoma hacked out of my leg. Another is that I must visit a dermatologist frequently. Hence the following poem.









Skin-Scanner



As he scans my skin, the dermatologist
talks politics. One of his eyes enlarges
comically behind a magnifying glass.
"Nobody changes Washington D.C.,"
he says, focusing on a small brown
constellation on my wrist. He deems
it "odd but not dangerous." "The most
anyone can do is play the system," he
continues. My body

grants citizenship to new moles every year.
Some are cherry-red. Most are dark brown.
The dermatologist periodically checks
their passports and papers. He's
the Border Patrol of my epidermis.
"The drug companies," he says,
"are raping the system. I can't believe
what they charge for medicine." I'm

naked now before him. He looks
at the scar from a melanoma-excision.
"Looks fine--keep up the good work,"
he says to my leg, which does not respond.
All my moles applaud the compliment.
I begin to add items of clothing to my
my mole-crowded body. The scanner

writes notes to himself about
the case of my skin. He presses the pen
hard into the surface of the paper.


Hans Ostrom





Copyright 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Everything Must Go!

When I was in California briefly to visit a member of the family, I read in a San Diego newspaper that the corporation, Mervyns (no apostrophe, as far as I know), based in Hayward, California, had decided to declare bankruptcy. Mervyns is a lot like J.C. Penny, except with fewer household goods for sale. That's my sense, anyway.

The head of the corporation was quoted as saying (and I paraphrase) that they'd explored the possibility of being purchased by another corporation but that, ultimately, they decided that the best way to pay their creditors was to announce that they were going out of business and then conduct "going-out-of-business" sales (through the end of the year?). This was the first time I had heard a corporate executive articulate a business-practice I had long observed: Stores go out of business (slowly), but first they attempt to ingest one more large meal of cash. They do so by creating a sense of urgency, a kind of store-apocalypse, and consumers get the sense that they will be able to buy things very inexpensively by "taking advantage" of the "wounded" store, which is more likely taking advantage of them by "slashing prices" on things consumers don't really need and still making a nice profit.

Nonetheless, I'm sorry that Mervyns is going out of business. I kind of like stores that are on the lower end, so to speak, of the market, and my eldest aunt worked for Mervyns in Hayward for a long time. She died quite a while ago, but I tend to remain slightly sentimental about these things. I'm also sorry for the people who are working for Mervyns now. May they find good work speedily after Mervyns closes for real.

Anyway, I exhumed a wee poem about "everything must go," the customary tag-line for going-out-of-business-sales.

Close-Out


Hurry—everything must go!
This sale won’t last forever.
We accept all major credit cards
with unconditional love.
We’re closing our minds forever. The
savings are incredible, so don’t believe
them. We’ve forgotten what business
we’re in, so we’re closing our doors.
We know our business concerned
merchandise, which must go, so
hurry to the corner of Want and
Need. We’ve slashed our prices,
which are bleeding. You must
hurry, we must go, and everything
that doesn’t last forever is on sale.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Monday, October 20, 2008

Date-Palms










Apparently there are about 10 varieties of date-palms--palms trees that bear the fruit, date, which is alleged to be a highly nutritious food. I had opportunity to stare at a couple date-palms in San Diego recently. It was a privilege.



Date-Palms in San Diego


Calm palms in San Diego look like crooked
columns made of brown-gray stones stacked
slowly over years by Franciscan monks. When
the columns reach a height uncertain, bladed
fronds formally erupt. Golden dates
materialize, suspend themselves like a surreal
swarm of gemstones. A brown-grey bird

stretches upside-down to pick a piece
of date-flesh with its beak. Pacific breezes
push. The tapered columns bend, nod,
never topple. Flexibility of vegetation,
patience of stone: palm.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, October 17, 2008

Things Presidents Never Said

Here are some statements U.S. presidents never said, but in some instances I wish they had said them--although in several cases, time-travel would have had to be involved:



"I wish I had a dollar for every dollar on which my portrait appears."



--George Washington



"I agree: on the one-dollar bill, I look more like someone's grandmother than a general."



--George Washington



"The only thing we have to fear isn't just fear. There are Jim Crow Laws, lynching, going to war with Japan, going to war with Germany, unleashing nuclear weaponry, and this list doesn't include stuff in your neighborhood, like a rabid dog or a contagious disease. Nonetheless, let's keep our focus on fear itself."



--F.D.R.



"I got the Doctrine. Marilyn got the looks."



--James Monroe



"I was more honest than Nixon and smarter than Reagan, but that's not saying much, now, is it?"



--Jimmy Carter



"Trick or treat!"



--Dick Nixon



"How did I miss the Harlem Renaissance?"



--Calvin Coolidge



"Yey! You British kids! Get off our lawn!"



James and Dolly Madison



"Napoleon: great general, stupid realtor."



--Thomas Jefferson



"Writing the Declaration of Independence while owning slaves? Yes, I think that probably qualifies as a form of hypocrisy."



--Thomas Jefferson



"I warned you about the military-industrial complex, but did you listen? No!"



--Dwight Eisenhower



"You're depressed? Imagine how I feel!"



--Herbert Hoover



"We didn't bathe every day back then."



--John Adams



"Gorbachov? Hah! Now, Louis B. Mayer--there was a dictator."



--Ronald Reagan



"The day will come when a stuffed animal and a type of lingerie will be named after me."



--Teddy Roosevelt



"Just imagine if I'd lost the election to Bush, and then imagine if he'd been re-elected. Scary thought!"



--Al Gore



"Someone had to be Chester Alan Arthur."



--Chester Alan Arthur

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hey, Poets





























Hey, Poets



Hey, poets, how are things? I hope

the writing warbles for you these days,

or blasts like a Boeing turbine, or

whatever you prefer. I pray right words

are paying your screens and pages

visits. Too, I hope other parts

of your lives are operational, a word

I stole from a manual somewhere.




Poetry's a lot but not close to everything.

It's made of words (this just in), which

are almost nothing but also essential.

I can't see you from here, but I imagine

you there making a poem out of words--

as far as I can tell, it's going fine

(and better than mine).



I imagine that poem you're working on

turning out well enough to send a wave

of satisfaction rolling up on the beach

there at the back of your mind. Hey,

poets, worldwide, here's what John Ciardi

used to say on the radio, "Good words to you."



Good days and nights to you, too. Hey,

poets, keep it going--all poetry all the time

on this, the global poetry network.

That's the spirit, poets. Hey.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008

Robert Bridges on Nightfall, Etc.

Here is a poem by Robert Bridges I don't remember encountering before. Sometimes when I see a title like "Winter Nightfall" above a poem by a relatively conventional poet, I lower my expectations, as I did this time. I was pleasantly surprised, beginning in line 3, with ". . . nothing tells the place/Of the setting sun." These lines suggested that Bridges was taking a hard look at the scene, a scene in which, presumably because of English mist, fog, clouds, and overall murk, no one can foretell where the sun will set; the murkiness just dims. At any rate, the poem:

Winter Nightfall

by Robert Bridges


THE day begins to droop,—
Its course is done:
But nothing tells the place
Of the setting sun.

The hazy darkness deepens,
And up the lane
You may hear, but cannot see,
The homing wain.

An engine pants and hums
In the farm hard by:
Its lowering smoke is lost
In the lowering sky.

The soaking branches drip,
And all night through
The dropping will not cease
In the avenue.

A tall man there in the house
Must keep his chair:
He knows he will never again
Breathe the spring air:

His heart is worn with work;
He is giddy and sick
If he rise to go as far
As the nearest rick:

He thinks of his morn of life,
His hale, strong years;
And braves as he may the night
Of darkness and tears.


I especially appreciate the subtle combination of a rural and an urban or suburban scene--farm and avenue. For me, the poem also slides easily into its consideration of the old man.

In the neighborhood we lived in previously, a married couple occupied a house across the street, and the woman's father lived with them. He was living with a respiratory disease, and he died not long after we moved there. His son in law told me that the old man believed that as long as he could walk around a bit (including crossing the street to get the mail) and, most importantly, sit in "his" chair, he would be all right; he wouldn't die. One day, of course, he had to be moved from the chair to a bed. I thought of this man when I read Bridges' poem, and of the way almost all of us construct a private calculus, whereby if we do X (keep sitting up in a chair), then Y will continue as it always has.

Bridges now is best know for his friendship with Gerard Manley Hopkins and for his having helped insure that Hopkins' poems got published. In their lifetimes, Bridges was much the better known poet than Hopkins.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Gratitude















Concerning Gratitude


Gratitude--that's a tough one, easy
to fake, or to ruin even when you're
not pretending. It isn't the same
as feeling lucky, and when you
express it, you should feel as if there's
plenty more left in the pond. Wait.
I shouldn't speak for anyone but me.

I feel as if gratitude isn't just
liking what's come my way but
marveling that I came this way
& that there is a way.

I feel as if gratitude isn't
an inventory of tools, jewelry,
machines, money, and enemies.
I don't think it's taking stock,
recording victories, or even,
heaven forbid, counting blessings.
--Nothing against accounting,
but gratitude's not a ledger.

I get this idea of the whole, and,
yes, I know what I just wrote's
as vague as fog. Gratitude
makes me kind of quiet--
and careful, because it's easy
to let slip away, gratitude.
It seems to be a large but delicate
emotion--yes, warm inside,
true enough, but cool to the touch.


Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Change

"Change" is in the air, I mean the word, amplified by microphones, broadcast by networks.

Obama and McCain both represent change, according to their campaigns. The credit-crisis is alleged to foretell enormous changes in global economics.

Last week, when the market "crashed"--it didn't really crash; otherwise, it couldn't have glided a bit higher this week--I told a colleague that, if the stock-market gets really awful, all people will have left is change (you know, quarters, pennies). Okay, so it wasn't a very good joke. But I can report that he chuckled.

After either Obama or McCain become president, I wouldn't mind if he sought to rein in the powers of the Executive Branch, not just as expanded by Bush II but by presidents since and including Roosevelt. I'd like the shared-power concept (not really a balance of power) embedded in the Constitution to be effected more greatly. This is a kind of change that would please me. I'd like a lot more, and more transparent, judicial and congressional and private oversight of corporations, banks, and surveillance-organizations, including a review of how civil liberties have, arguably, been eroded.

In that spirit, and without veering into non-clinical paranoia, I did notice that an army brigade had been redeployed from Iraq to the U.S. to join the newly created Northern Command. That is, the 3rd army isn't just coming home from a tour; they're being redeployed to a nation called the U.S. Bush II created this Northern Command. Is he preparing for martial law? Is that an outrageous question? I don't know the answer to either of these questions. That I don't know the answer springs, I hope, from ignorance, and not from concern that is somehow valid. I can live with my ignorance. I'm used to that. I'm much less comfortable with the possibility of martial law, or, less dramatically, with the concept of a Northern Command. Anyway, here's a link to a discussion of that redeplyoment:

http://www.kinism.net/index.php/forums/viewthread/397/

The redeployment bears on the issue of the "posse comitatus" statutes, and that issue goes all the way back to the brokered presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, who effectively ended Reconstruction. It's a wicked web, pax Robert Burns.

Anyway, all this talk of change, as alteration or as quarters and dimes, led to a poem:


Unsparing Change


Ritual, routine, and regulation distract
us from noticing the universe is never the
same, is reconstructed every second or less.
That King's Boulevard intersects with
Alpine Avenue is a sad wee show of stasis,
reminiscent of the joke Joe told every Friday
at the tavern before he lost his mind and the joke
and the tavern burned down. Every day,

every human's supposed to act like one
not bewildered by constant crashing change.
Sometimes we pull off this performance
of counter-reality to an audience of one or two,
or fifteen or more. Otherwise, nothing much
disguises disintegration, space's silent
screaming alteration, time's vulgar variety
show starring rot, riot, and ruin. This
is not a happy poem, but I'm determined
to be more upbeat, but not beaten up, I
hope, later today, when things will have changed.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Random Suggestions












I cooked a lot today, making some dinners for the week ahead. With profound apologies to vegetarians and vegans, I must admit that one of the dishes is an old-fashioned beef stew.

I also took a walk (the expression must puzzle those new to English: "take a walk?") on the sharp but sunny slope of West Tacoma.

The combination of cooking and walking seems to have jumbled my mind into coming up with some extremely random suggestions, which should probably be taken with blocks, not grains, of salts.

1. If someone falls out of love with you, assume they've experienced a terrible lapse in judgment. Therefore, as you place a lifelong curse on them, do remember to temper justice with mercy.

2. When you're driving a car, make as few left turns as possible. Very little good comes from left turns in the arena of driving automobiles.

3. If you're reading a poem that seems especially difficult, assume it's easy, accessble, and it will become so. It works every time, or at least every 9 out of 10 times.

4. Don't attempt to smash an oppressive state because oppressive states are usually very good at smashing back. It's like trying to bite an alligator into submission. Instead, think of termites. They get together and eat whole mansions. Bring down an oppressive state in small, relatively unnoticed morsels--relentlessly, peacefully, efficiently.

5. There is no logical reason to believe in God. Or is there? Whether you've sorted this one out or not, do pay attention to an essential insoluble mystery in life.

6. Make it your goal to get through life without blowing up anything or anyone. Live explosion-free, if possible.

7. Witttgenstein was wrong about the cat/language issue. If lion and other cats could speak, we would understand them. They would insist upon it. After all, as little as they speak now, they will us to understand this communication.

8. Money is not the root of all evil. It's the root of some evil, and it's the fruit of other evil. Hatred is the garden-plot of evil. Don't fertilize it, whatever you do.

9. Buy or pick a lot of apples, and make your own applesauce: water, sugar [or sugar substitute], cinnamon, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil and then simmer. (I prefer chunky applesauce). Your life will be much improved by this activity and by the resulting sustenance. --Oh, I assume you know you should wash and peel the apples before cutting them into manageable slices. You knew that.

10. If someone is extremely rude to you, they are most likely fatally flawed and/or overcome with a feeling of power. If possible, let them pass on into the rest of the difficulty they have created for themselves.

11. Assign a number to how important you believe you are. An example is 10. To determine a rating that more closely relates to your real importance, divide by two and subtract one--reducing your importance in this example to 4. Anyway, the lower number is always more accurate than the higher. It's kind of like a law of physics.

12. Choose at least one instance or circumstance of injustice and work to reduce or eliminate it, preferably working with others. Participate in the erosion of injustice.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Like a Simile, As a Sign













Like a Simile, As a Sign


Briefly astonishing, then gone, the semiotician
vanished like a gray fox at dusk. Like
a tectonic plate, the structuralist's bowels
shifted. She quaked. Like the moon,
the tides, the sun, and the seasons,
the rhetorician repeated himself
conventionally. As the banker dismissed
the janitor's dignity with a sneer, so
the academic Marxist derided poetry
as bourgeois scribbling, even if
practiced by a welder. As the feminist
lauded the recovery of a lost novel,
so the waitress frowned to see the size
of the gratuity this scholar left. Like
the universe, there is no thing. There
is no thing like the universe.


Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, October 9, 2008

For Aunt Nevada

One of my aunts, Nevada, died today. Although her name was initially Nevada Ostrom and then Nevada Lewis, the first name she went by was Babe, which sounds kind of funny in this (or any) day and age, and I forget the origin of the nickname. But as I've opined before, you wouldn't think a woman named Nevada would need a nickname of any kind, let alone Babe.

She was a rugged, stubborn sort. She started the only bar-fight I was ever in (and ever hope to be in). Some visitors, bikers, from out of town were in the bar, cursing. She told them to stop cursing (somewhat ironic, since when she was not in a public establishment, she cursed), and one of them called her a c**t, so she slapped him as hard as she could, and the fight was on. My mother, father, brother, and I were in the dining room of the establishment, and my uncle came to get us, telling my father that he needed his help, but giving no details. (Thanks very much.)

So we all went into the bar, where chairs and fists were already flying. My brother and I pulled one biker off some innocent neutral party. My father was knocked under a table, but he got up, grabbed a biker, put him in a bear-hug, and backed up to a wall. The fellow couldn't escape my father's grip, my father's back was to the wall., where he could survey the battle and use the biker as a shield, if necessary. Excellent strategy and tactics.

Eventually it all ended up outside, where my uncle knocked out one of the bikers with a punch that was almost Hollywood-like. Eventually, the sheriff showed up (law enforcement moves at its own pace in the Sierra Nevada). My mother mortified one of the bikers by lecturing him. I felt for the guy. He was a biker from the Bay Area, and this woman was giving him a lecture about civility. I remember her wagging a finger at him and asking, not rhetorically, "Why do you come to our town and start trouble?" He had no answer.

The sheriff took the bikers to the county seat and arrested them, chiefly because there were outstanding warrants on them in the Bay Area. (I like that term, "outstanding warrants"; it makes me wonder what a "truly excellent" warrant is.) No one associated with Aunt Nevada's side of the conflict was arrested, partly because the sheriff had known our family for 30 years (home-field advantage), and partly because the large biker Nevada slapped might have had trouble asserting that he had to slug several men to defend himself from her. I do remember that, for the first time in my life, I later had to fill out an "affadavit." At any rate, wee went home and cleaned up. No one was seriously injured. But no one ever let my Aunt Nevada forget that she had acted somewhat precipitously, especially when she and my uncle were outnumbered in the bar at the time. My Aunt Nevada remained unrepentant. She asserted that she had behaved correctly. No one in the family seemed able to mount persuasive counter-arguments.

In one of those strange coincidences, I'd been working on a poem involving Aunt Nevada just last night. I don't like to make too much of such things, but it does seem a little uncanny, especially since I had not heard anything about her health having suddenly failed. So it goes.

The Compost-Lesson

Aunt Nevada showed me
a compost-heap between
the ranch-house and her garden
when I was 8. I don't remember
what she said. I remember that
she said, talking to me as if
I were older than 8. She was trying
to explain how composts worked
and their relation to gardens.

The sounds of her explaining:
these I heard and liked. They
were human noise in a language
I understood. She was an aunt
providing linguistic nutrients
to a nephew. I remember seeing
a cracked white egg-shell
and coffee-grounds in the compost.
I remember a strong compost-
smell--not unpleasant; earth-perfume.
I saw fat red worms writhe
as if they were having bad
worm-dreams. Around the meadow

where the Zergas had built that ranch,
conifer-covered Sierra mountains stood
stately in full sunlight. Wind made leaves
of cornstalks in Aunt Nevada's garden gossip.


Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

I Liked Those Days










[pictured: a potato bug]









Good Ground



I liked those days when I kept my gaze
close to the ground, although I'm sorry
about that sound I repeated in line one.
I saw black beetles, which gave off an
awful stench, and I saw potato-bugs,
large, delicate, decorated, slow--
almost like Art Deco. Yes, I saw
salamanders, those wee amphibians,
amost too gentle for Earth, connoisseurs
of shadow. Sight of scorpions and
black-widow spiders injected me
with terrible lore and jolts of adrenalin.
I saw ants hauling dead moths like
stiff canvas sails, and I watched ant-lions
waiting for prey to slip down the side
of the terrible sandy funnel. I read
Earth closely. It's the best book ever,
after all, especially when you're a kid,
even if you're a kid who likes to read.
I sneaked up on the frog pond and watched
frogs copulate, all of them at once, and
what a cacaphony! Later I saw the
tadpoles, which grew legs--freakier
than any horror movie Hollywood
had to offer the National Broadcasting
Company. I learned to stand tall and notice
humans almost exclusively. This is known
as "joining society" or "growing up" or
whatever term you prefer. It's one of
those necessary things. Life may be
better spent with one's nose close to
soil and stone, eyeballing bugs and
all that stuff. No, I don't mean becoming
a "naturalist." That would ruin everything.
This isn't nostalgia. It's just preference.
Spiders, insects, worms, amphibians,
reptiles, and birds delivered the goods
curiosity sent for from the mail-order
catalogue, is all I'm saying. These
creatures did some weird, interesting
shit, just as a part of their ordinary
day, okay? I'm an adult now, no
major complaints today, but I do
wish for children that they may live
near interesting ground and be
allowed to read it if they want to.



Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Highly Recommended Documentary

I highly recommend the new documentary video by Hyperborean, whose blog appears on my list of blogs and sites I follow. The documentary concerns organized protests at the DNC and RNC nominating conventions and has some extraordinary "footage" (an old film-term, I realize) of plainly excessive police-over-reaction, among other things, but you can judge that issue for yourself, of course.

A link:

http://aeconomics.blogspot.com/2008/10/our-documentary-is-done-watch-it-here.html

Well done, Joe.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Capitolism
















Capitolism



He was a capitolist. He believed
everyone should live and work
in dome-capped buildings, however
modest such structures might be.
He believed conveyances should
be built with small transparent
domes attached. He himself
wore a bowler hat.
Domes, he believed, shaped
human will, calmed spirits,
made people look and think
up, aspire. He opposed
commonism in its several
architectural forms--flat
utility, corporate boxiness,
and most especially predictable
decorative tricks. He extolled
capitolism, its mysteries of
circle and hemisphere, curve
and line, boldness and modesty.
He deemed domes essential,
regarded Karl Marx and Adam
Smith as having trudged down
blind corridors of economics, when
they should have been looking. Up.



Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Clothing







In the house we lived in the longest in the Sierra Nevada, the main living quarters were on the second floor, which also had a porch. My father attached one large pulley to one of the porch-posts and another to a pine tree a hundred feet away. Then he threaded a cable through the pulley-wheels, and my mother used this to dry clothes on. It remains the longest clothesline I've encountered, and of course my father had not calculated how much strength was required to push the loaded line out and pull it back, so some strength was required of my mother and us. Children of the Great Depression, my parents owned an electric dryer but almost never used it.


I have not done so yet, but I'd like to track down the biochemical and olfactory-biological reasons why clothes dried outside by breeze and sunshine universally smell so appealing to people. I would hazard that cotton thusly dried may smell especially good. With regard to the odor of the dried cloth, what do the sun and the breeze do that a machine-dryer doesn't?

This has all been a circuitious introduction to a poem about clothing, except the poem has almost nothing (but at least something) to do with this drying business I've been discussing. --So it goes with poems, introductions, clothing, and blogs.



The Clothing


Laundry in a basket still wore
some of sun's expenditure
and breeze's perfume.

Eventually, we put on these
washed things. They led us
back out into sunlight, into
lakes of air. We wear

the repetitions of our days,
dress our bodies with our ways,
fold clothes of our woven

consciousness, put them
in closets of memory, hang
them in dreams, where they
re-costume themselves
in carnivals of synaptic light.

People from an old civilization
called Time sit beside a slow
river, rubbing wet cloth with
stones, paying no attention to
the gods who splash and cavort
nearby, who rise from the river,
and cloth themselves in sky.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Weather Forecasts That Are More Than Unpleasant

Before I launch into the subject at hand, I must mention a new blog I like, Poefrika:

http://poefrika.blogspot.com/

Some nice postings there, and the person has multiple blogs. He just posted a very witty short poem by Amiri Baraka.

....In less exciting news, I've always been attracted to the patter and rhetoric of weather-persons, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where the weather-persons on TV often have to invent weather-variety where there is none. They also often use the term "sun-breaks." In California, the same phenomenon is called "cloudy."

I played around with slightly more sinister forecasts:

Tomorrow calls for rain, followed by urine in the afternoon. (This is probably too unpleasant to be funny. Or just unfunny.)

Thursday looks like patchy morning fog, followed by a rash over your entire body in the evening hours.

By this time tomorrow, we can expect Hell to be cooler than Earth.

Partly cloudy in the afternoon, with absolutely no chance of meeting that special person with whom you might like to spend the rest of your life.

Snow in the higher elevations, turning into psychosis in the foothills.

A slight chance of rain, but no chance that your roommate will bathe within the next 10 days.
********

This morning, a colleague reminded me that Abe Lincoln, self-deprecatingly, once said, "By the time you're 35, you've earned the face you have."

This is a roundabout way of saying that I hope tomorrow brings you weather you enjoy, whether (nyuk, nyuk) you think you've earned it, or your face, or not.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Who's Crazier, Who's Funnier?












Apparently there are two new cinematic satires out there, Bill Maher's funny (Maher hopes) nonfiction take on religion and some guy's feature-length "comedy," "American Carol," in which documentary-maker Michael Moore (a character based on him, that is) is given a Scrooge-like tour of what would have happened had the U.S. not fought in certain wars. The tour sounds more like the one George takes in It's A Wonderful Life, but oh well.

I won't see either of these movies because I'm boycotting Hollywood films. Just imagine how terrified Hollywood moguls must be of my boycott.

I don't think I'll even watch these films when they percolate down the electronic strata and end up on cable or "free" TV.

I think they'll be bad satire; that's the main problem. Long ago and far away, I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on satire, and I almost remember some of what I wrote.

The satire of Moore will be (is) bad because he's not a worthy object of satire, which ridicules vice and/or folly. As satire ridicules, however, it implicitly asks to be judged by the worthiness, the heft, of its target. For example, Jonathan Swift took on all of England, if not all of humanity.
In the cinematic realm, Mel Brooks took on the entire hallowed genre of the Western, as well as taking on the issue of race in the U.S., in Blazing Saddles.

Let's assume you don't like Moore's documentaries or you don't think they're very good. Fine. They and he still aren't vicious and foolish enough to fuel funny, worthy satire. Also, Moore never argued against all U.S. wars, just the ones lots of people have doubts about. Also, even if he's misguided, he's not mean, at least not in the way Scrooge is. Moore's a successful film-maker, a big moose of a guy, and a person with opinions, most of which are about social class, not war. Maybe you could squeeze out a three-minute SNL sketch on him--something about Michael Moore's Hollywood entourage, or Michael Moore in Cannes. There are some humorous possibilities there. Or Michael Moore dating Paris Hilton? That might be funny. For a moment.

But for a feature-film-length satire, you need to think big. Think Dr. Strangelove. The guy who got the financial backing for "American Carol" must have leveraged some moguls who simply don't like Moore and think he's too lefty. Maybe some of them thought the scene he did with Charleton Heston (when Heston was already clearly a bit befuddled) was gratuitous. Who knows? But satirizing Michael Moore is like satirizing Bruce Springsteen. If you hate the documentaries or the music or are bugged by the success or something, just say so, in an email, a blog post, or a review. Not in a full-fledged satire, for heaven's sake. The genre doesn't work that way.

Maher's satire will fail for similar reasons. Religion is indeed big enough to satirize (many have done it well, including James Hogg), but Maher's gone after small targets like a Jesus impersonator and some village (in Ireland?) that still pays homage to some kind of figure of legend. In the one clip from the movie I've seen, the Jesus impersonator says to Maher, calmly, "What if you're wrong [about God]?" (Maher is an atheist, of course). Maher responds, "What if YOU'RE wrong?" I had exchanges like this with my brothers when we were adolescents. The exchanges were not the stuff of world-class satire.

Maher also apparently presents such revelations that some people of faith use their religion as an excuse to commit violence and even atrocities, and that some religious people are hypocritical. Next, I suppose, he will reveal that some politicians are insincere.

Apparently, Maher has a "theory" that (all?) people who believe in a religion or even in God have a mental disorder. If that's the case, he'd better hope there's a God. Also, who's crazier (and sadder)? Someone who goes to church once a week, finds some fellowship and contemplation, and then goes out for pancakes, or a middle-aged stand-up comic running around with a camera crew making fun of Jesus impersonators or arguing with people about religion?

In the realm of the religious, the ones that seem foolish and vicious enough to satirize are the extraordinarily wealthy pastors of mega-churches who literally preach "the gospel of wealth." Just imagine what Jesus would think of these clowns, or how Jonathan Swift (or Mel Brooks) would satirize them.

I'd rather see videos of Maher talking to smart people who write about religion, people like Garry Wills, Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, and so on. They all have sense of humor, and they know a massive amount about religion. Wills even wrote a book on the very religious and very funny G.K. Chesterton, devoutly Catholic, satirical in a most British way, inventive--really a kind of grandfather to the Monty Python folk, artistically speaking.

Maher attended Cornell, if memory serves, and he seems quite confident in his intellect and his sharp social criticism. He's a smart, hip guy. He'd probably have fun arguing with someone like Garry Wills, and it would probably be funnier than "Religuous," his movie, with a title that's not funny.

A better satiric target for Maher (not that he cares about, needs, or wants my advice) would be ABC and its parent company--the ones who fired him for saying that it took more courage to drive a car-bomb than to bomb a city from 30,000 feet (I'm paraphrasing). They fired him from a show called Politically Incorrect for making a comment that was politically incorrect not in the sense that reactionaries take the term (as something that would offend feminists or liberals), but that was politically incorrect because some advertisers pulled their money from his show. Media conglomerates. Corporations that fund TV shows. Now, there are some targets worthy of first-rate satire. (But I guess it would be hard to get backing for such a film in Hollywood. )

But everyday, ordinary religious people? Michael Moore? Whatever you think of them, they're just not vicious, foolish, and powerful enough to sustain satire. It's a genre-thing.

Full disclosure: I'm Catholic, having converted from a spiritual stew of atheism, agnosticism, and Zen about 8 years ago. I attend a progressive Jesuit parish. I've met several parishioners and Jesuits who seem funnier than Bill Maher, but that's not his fault. My parish just happens to have some humorous, ironic people in it. The parish does insane things like distribute large amounts of food to families in economic difficulties (the religion, or not, of the families is not relevant to their getting food. There isn't even a means test, so Bill Maher is welcome to a bag of groceries). Yes, of course there are 3 masses per weekend in which the parishioners believe bread and wine are inspirited. If you think that's irrational, you're right. Hence the term faith. No, the parishioners don't think God is an old man with a white beard who sits on a cloud and directs traffic (one of Maher's favorite jokes). Incidentally, of the best naturally talented satirists I know is a product of Jesuit education. Hmmmm.

But it's not a religion-thing. It's a genre-thing. Satirists need worthy targets.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Our Verbal Progress










I overheard a conversation between two students today. One was talking about how her cat was misbehaving, and the other was complaining about how much her dog licked her. The cat-person said, "I don't like dog-tongues. In fact, I find all tongues disgusting." I thought this was a remarkable statement, bold and fascinating.

I'm still pondering what to do with the statement, poetically or otherwise.

In the meantime, I've been thinking of "tongue" in the sense of language ("she speaks several tongues"), and that isn't a bad if old-fashioned synecdoche (if that's what it is; I often conflate metonymy and synecdoche), for although much more than the tongue is involved in speaking, the tongue is pretty crucial.


Our Verbal Progress

Before we were born,
we lived theoretically in the infinitive,
to live. Once incarnated,
we were conjugated, about
nine months after a conjugal
interaction. Conjugated:
I live, you live, he, she, it lives.

After we lived for a while,
we "used to go," "were thinking
of falling in love," "had been planning
to travel to Athens," "had once been
a highly regarded cello player,"
and so on.

Too soon we shall have used up
all occasions for needing the future
tense and shall rely on the past
tenses almost exclusively. Soon
thereafter, we will, being dead,
not require verbs, nor even pre-
positions. The infinitive to die
will house us foreover in our
re-unconjugated state, where
words spoken by tongues
shall not reach us, where we shall
exist in a state of supreme listening.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Proverb Ambulance











Richard Brautigan (pictured) wrote a very funny poem called "Haiku Ambulance," and once I stole the title-concept from it and him and wrote a poem called "Zen Ambulance," which plays around with that infamous tree falling in the forest, etc.

For the second time, I'm pilfering Brautigan's concept, this time in connection to proverbs.


Proverb Ambulance

Don't put all of your baskets
on top of one egg, unless the year
is 1929, say, and you're in Vaudeville,
in need of money, playing the Pantages,
and have a basket-act. Look:
before you leap, ask yourself or
someone you trust, "Do I really
need to leap?" Haste makes waste,
but not as much of it as cruise-ships,
which sail slowly and stuff people
with food: you do the biology. Unless
someone asks you, "Incidentally,
was Rome built in 24 hours?" don't
say, "Rome wasn't built in a day."
"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool
me twice, and I advise you to sleep
with one eye closed." You dig?


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008

A T-Town Sonnet












Sonnet: Tacoma


Tacoma's tough. That's what you need to know
To start to get to know the town that is
A city which is reticent to show
The world a worldly face. Indeed, fact is,
Tacoma tells you to your face, "I'm me.
I'm trains and cranes and barges by the Sound.
I'm labor, boss, protester, cop, army."
To find a city anxious to be crowned,
Take I-5 north to where Seatttle's fed
To bursting with paté of pride. It needs
To feel the pat of status on its head.
Seattle thinks that T-Town's in the weeds.
Seattle may day-dream that it's Par-ee.
"Take it or leave it," says T-Town. "I'm me."


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008

What Jake Said









What Jake Said

I waited so long for my big break
to come along, I got used to doing
without one. Who needs
a bolt of recognition, thunderous
good fortune, or some timely
assistance anyway? I belong

to a loose group of toilers
and grinders, some mildly
befuddled never-minders
who work the job and show
up when Up says to show.
For all I know (not very much),

my big break drove by
in a long dark car and waved,
and I didn't notice because
I was bent to some task
and didn't even know to
ask if I might take a minute
and look up. Oh, well.

Like I care. My big break,
if it had come, might have
broken me anyway. Fuck it:
I'm here today and alive--
that's plenty. It's a break.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Concerning Joy

Poet Hayden Carruth died last week. I did not read and have not read a lot of his work, but what I did read was good, in my opinion. Also, he did seem to have one of those names that seemed manufactured just for a poet. He's considered an important American poet.

My most specific memory regarding him goes back to an evening maybe two decades ago when I was having dinner with three other poets, Lee Bassett, Sam Hamill (best or most recently known for the Poets Against the War project, but also a fine poet, translator, and publisher), and Madeline DeFrees. This was not long after Richard Hugo had died, and Madeline was angry about a bad review Carruth had written about Hugo--maybe it was about his collected poems. I don't know. I never tracked down the review. I just remember that Madeline, not the type to anger easily, was pretty miffed at Carruth's review, especially where it (according to her) had observed that Hugo "had no hear"--for poetry, that is. Hugo's poetry is deliberately clipped and sometimes purposely monotonous and/or staccato, but he had a great sense of language. My own view is that he was writing in the way he'd heard language when he was growing up, working class, Pacific Northwest. And he just leaned more toward the Anglo Saxon side of the language as opposed to the Latin side. Carruth probably just didn't get what Hugo was doing, but Hugo had studied with Roethke, after all, and Roethke was all about sound. If you've read Hugo's The Triggering Town, you know Hugo was almost all about sound, too.

To digress from the digression, the NY Times obituary (which I think I found online) of Carruth mentioned his once saying that he wrote a lot about loss, a statement that made me giggle because, well, don't we all write about loss, even people who don't write? Then I scolded myself for a) giggling and b) writing about loss too much myself. So I made one of those precipitous resolutions. I resolved to write about joy more. I don't know precisely why I chose joy as the opposite of loss when gain, possession, interest-accrued, or permanence would probably have been more reasonable choices as opposites to loss. Fulfilling the resolution hasn't gone all that well, but here's one poem, at least, allegedly on joy--with one of my classic, numbingly obvious titles, which Carruth probably would have hated, along with my poetry, although I doubt if he ever read even one by me, unless maybe one I had in Ploughshares. (Anyway, Mr. Carruth, I'm sorry you're dead.)


Concerning Joy


When an infant laughs,
especially at nothing,
joy has scrawled a note
for anyone to read
and get a giggle.

When people see someone
they love receive what's right,
joy juices a corpuscle of time.

When you sense that thing
move through you, the one
that feels as if your bones
just told a joke to your nerves,
which then told your feet
to dance (knowing full well
your feet ache) joy just might
have been nearby. Mercurial,

needed, and nimble,
as small as a thimble
and as big as a moon,
joy is, I'm telling you,
welcome most any time,
including midnight,
noon, and soon. I'm

saying something about
joy, okay? I'm not trying
to reproduce it, so don't
get all joyless on me. If
joy comes to you, let it.
If it doesn't, ask around.
See what you can find out.
Somebody has to know something.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, October 3, 2008

Oh, Nonsense









Some relatively serious cold rain hit the Pacific Northwest today, one of those firmly stated storms that bring undeniable closure to summer and summerish Fall. Not a bad day for some nonsense-verse, in my opinion, with a wee tip of the cap to Edward Lear (pictured here, an image of Hunt's portrait of him):

Why Oh My

How will they what,
And when will they how?
Who will they why,
And can they where now?

Why are they who?
And how can they when?
When are they there,
And what will you then?

I cannot why now.
Time wheres me so fast.
Who whats, and then some.
Why, this cannot last!


Lear-like wordplay is one sensible approach to nonsense verse. Another, I think, is to play around with a genre. Rather early in my life, I began hearing ballads and other kinds of story-songs that sometimes had dialogue--two characters "in" the song, that is. Burl Ives sang some of these, I remember. In some ways, Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind" riffs on that kind of song, as it asks questions and answers them; it's almost as if two kinds of people are speaking. Anyway, I decided to play around with that form.


Oh Ballad, Dear Ballad

"Oh father, dear father,
where did you go?"
"I got drunk and drove
the Ford into snow."

"Oh mother, dear mother
why do you cry?"
"'Cause I'm stuck at home
caring for you, that's why."

"Oh grannie, dear grannie
why are you so wise?"
"It's just a schtick, kiddo,
like rolling your eyes."

"Oh, God, greatest God,
do you listen to me?"
"You and six billion others,
omnisciently."

"Oh life, dear life,
what should I expect?"
"In good years, a job.
On good days, a check."



That's quite enough of this nonsense.


Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Sarah Palin, Cubist Painting











As Murray Edelman has asserted, politics is largely a matter of spectacle in the U.S. It is often optimally viewed as a performance of one kind or another, and the alleged differences between candidates or parties are often contrived or exaggerated for the sake of the performance, not for the sake of, say, people or problems or "solutions."

Oddly enough, I caught a glimpse of what Edelman means way back when I was 16 and attending something called Boys' State, a kind of mock-governmental conference sponsored by the American Legion. One male per high school in California would converge on Sacramento and play politics, annually, in the summer. We were all juniors in high school.

Ronald Reagan spoke to us assembled high-school junior males (who had just elected, as our "governor" and "lieutenant governor" two African Americans--that says something about the 1970s, but that's another story).

We sat in the auditorium and listened to a warm-up act, and then Reagan arrived: BAM! Photographic lamps went on, TV cameras materialized, he entered the auditorium, surrounded by an efficient entourage, shook hands, smiled, worked the crowed, smiling, smiling, got up on stage, said nothing but said it well, got off the stage, shook hands, worked the crowd, everything being filmed, BAM! out the door. It was a schtick. Of course, I was mightily impressed. He was our governor! But something in the back of my mind told me: I just saw a schtick.

I thought of this when I watched the "debate" between Biden and Palin last night. It was the oddest political spectacle I've seen in a long time, and I think Biden thought the same thing. He looked at Palin sometimes as if she were from the moon, and it has almost nothing to do with politics (in the sense of policy or beliefs or what to do next or yadda yadda). It has to do with spectacle, and it has to do with gender, and something has gone terribly wrong.

I hate pretending as if I know anything about Sarah Palin because I don't know anything about her, really. I do think McCain made a reckless choice when he chose her (that's not her fault). I think it is evidence of an impulsive side he can't control.

But as I watched her last night, I saw an amalgamation of traits, affects, effects, gestures, gimmicks, and tricks that don't add up. Or rather, they add up to a kind of robot badly assembled, or a Cubist painting.

The parts include the following: cute--but a bit too old to be cute (mutton pretending to be lamb); "beauty-contestant"; anti-intellectualism (having knowledge about issues is a symptom of being "elite; when talking to your audience, drop the g from ing in words); put your head down and get through this awful event (she had loaded her rhetorical gun with statements, and she was going to shoot them regardless of what questions were asked); something vaguely corporate ( the suit, the glasses, the coiffure); cheap tricks or worn-out jokes ("There you go again": Reagan's line TWENTY EIGHT YEARS AGO; the "white flag of surrender": that is meaningless); the winking at the camera; the lame folksy reference to extra credit in third grade.

Sarah Palin is whoever she is. I don't know who she is. I'm sure she is someone with a unified personality. But Sarah Palin as political spectacle is a symptom of our political system, and something is terribly wrong. The amalgamation of traits she attempted to hold together with glue and tape during the debate is freakish and bizarre, and it says not all that much about her but volumes about how conflicted and fragmented our society is, particularly around issues of femininity and power. I think she's trying to do some kind of job she's been given, and she doesn't exactly know what the job is, except . . . get out there, make noise, be cute.

Reagan made the schtick work. Countless other politicians have, too. Clinton, Roosevelt, Nixon (until he disintegrated), Carter, Bush I, Bush II, take your pick. It has nothing to do with ideology, beliefs, or policy. It is a performance of a show named "Democracy": whatever.

Biden and Obama make the schtick work. The Clintons, too. The parts seem to cohere. They are at least plausibly familiar or familiarly plausible. McCain, too--except for his strange impulsive side.

In the spectacle of Sarah Palin, the schtick has come undone. I was fascinated by the spectacle of her last night because it suggested how badly politics can go wrong and in how many complex ways it can do so, and once again, I have to say it has little or nothing to do with ideology (I think in many ways Hillary Clinton has had to assemble herself into a Cubist painting, too). Sarah Palin the concocted, "prepped," inappropriately chosen, impulsively selected, hastily assembled political entity is a monstrosity. Who Sarah Palin the actual person is, I have almost no clue. Sarah Palin, candidate? A bizarre assemblage. A reflection of her society.