The most beautiful, horrible, disgusting, pristine, perfect photograph

Note, before you go clicking any links in this post, this is not a PG-13 post. Some of the images are disturbing enough to, possibly, cause nightmares. Only recently have I started following, actively, the blog of Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic, who today posted a very stirring image from Iraq. Leaving aside the content of the image, for a moment, this picture was a moment of artistic genius, akin to the migrant mother photograph from the Great Depression, or the famous photograph of Settela Steinbach enroute to the concentration camp. The monstrous yellow of the body bag billows like the river fro Ophelia, the bloody bandages radiate from the tiny face like an halo, and even the death shroud across the child's nakedness look like the billows of a wedding gown. The face is tipped just backwards, like the averted face of an enraptured saint. The man, the living, grieving man, feels almost like an afterthought, almost irrelevant, a trick makes us suddenly, painfully aware of his relevance. The scene has a Poe-like quality, violence contrasted with peace, purity and corruption, happy death and miserable life. Only, that's just it - you can't leave aside the subject matter. Remember for a moment, this is a little girl (I think), someone's daughter. There is an immediate feeling that it could be your own daughter, or son. When you next feel inclined to say 'they've been killing each other over there for thousands of years, we may as well just leave', you must remember this photograph, that this is what your statement means. This isn't a nation of mindless sub-human barbarians, intent on suicide bombing each other just long enough to pack a plane full of terrorists to hit tall buildings. This a nation of human beings, mothers, fathers, children, beautiful sacred human beings, that you have just declared as unsalvageable. Somewhere in there, there is a tiny seed lodged into me, that whispers out, that no man is unsalvageable, no people is without hope, that the very vigor and pallor of this photograph is a grim, aching reminder of that hope. I support the troops: when I hear about a soldier dying in Iraq, it hurts in a real, personal way. My father is a retired military medical warrant officer, it's not difficult for me to imagine his deft fingers fishing around the meatloaf flesh of a soldier blasted by an IUD, trying to cincture the death out of his body, to wrangle his blood back and forth from his heart, it's not difficult even for me to imagine it was him there on the pavement of some dusty street. This isn't a statement of patriotism, or an excuse to flag-wave down someone else with a differing opinion, it's simply a strong desire to see America's children come home. It's why it pains me, I think, to see the Iraq War become so semantic. At some level, then, photography, with it's brutal clarity, is an element of much needed truth in an argument that's come to surround buzzwords and partisan politicking. It's about human being, found dead, tortured, or forever broken on a battlefield that doesn't even have the name battlefield anymore. It's both cold and pointless, and eminently important. And what is America to do? It was stupid to go in the way we did, I think that's a pretty popular opinion, now, but it's also an irrelevant one - it's not a good reason to leave. Saddam Hussein was a terrible man, but that's irrelevant as well - after all, we're doing such a great job of bringing security and democracy that the Iraqi government that we have stood up in the name of democracy is asking us politely to tell us when we'll get out of the way. And that's just it, that's the dilemna. On the one hand, to leave now would probably result in thousands and thousands of photographs like this one. On the other, staying is an artificial solution, one that cannot exist forever, and one that forever acts as a goad to other, unknown and unpredictable death. As human beings who love other human beings, we have a duty to these children of the invasion, as human beings who love other human beings, we also have a duty to these suffering American kids forced to dissolve their identities into either physical death, or PTSD induced self-destruction, when we hardly have the resources to take care of the veterans we already have. What are we to want? Our troops home, to watch the dissolution of the people they've grown to protect and love? Ourselves home, as we are now, watching the slow dissolution of our troops? There are so many easy answers: America doesn't cut and run. We don't have any obligation to teach Iraqis to like each other. We broke it, now we have to fix it. We're just making things worse. The greatest honor to our soldiers is to let them do their jobs. The greatest honor to our soldiers is not to leave them in a war with no mission, or a mission with no end. The Iraqis have billions of dollars, and should be able to take care of this themselves. The Iraqis just need more training. None of these answers is the truth. The truth is much colder, much simpler, without the comfort of surety or the balm of hopelessness, it's the photograph of a dead child, sinking slowly into the murky waves of a bodybag, her eyes turned to a God we Americans only argue about, a man kneeling beside her, and silently, eternally, crying out the cry of the damned. The problem is, we expect the truth to point to an answer. There is none.

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America's Better History

I've watched elections since I was a kid, so while I don't have a long track record, I've paid attention as long as I've been able in my small life. Never have I felt as excited about a president getting elected.

And never have I felt as vulnerable.

Americans have never really recovered from the wounds of the 60's and 70's, especially of Watergate, from the feeling of betrayal and irrelevance towards our highest leaders. The bleeding is past, perhaps, but we never really cleaned the wound, and it's a festered scab, now, occaisionally oozing out the infections of the past. America has become a cautious wife, and caution has, over and over, shown up lies, discrepancies, uncleanness, and continued unfaithfulness, in both parties, with almost every president since Nixon. Suspicion and caution have largely transformed into cynicism and sublimated frustration. What's the point, we say? The old couple will stay together until one or the other dies, but the love is gone.

That's why this election is so important to me, on a personal level. Maybe it's the passing of the baby boomer mantle, maybe it's just the healing power of time, who knows - the power of this election has been that people can look to the new president and feel investment, kinship, hope. America has, in some small way, reached a timid, hopeful hand out to try to repair the old, broken marriage between public and government.

I like Barack Obama. I voted against him in the primaries, but I am glad he won. I feel a small tendril in the wave of hope that America hasn't felt in a long time. I know there are those who think this is simply a hope that government will give us things, that government will bend over to the interests of this or that specific issue. I don't agree - the people who spent countless hours, countless scanty dollars, and internal heartache and investment into this race cannot simply be working on a quid pro quo basis. This is not a Jacksonian presidency. These people love and hope and dream, mostly, guilelessly.

America has kvetched and mocked for years about segments of society - youth particularly - that just didn't turn up at the polls in the same numbers as the reliable groups: union members, older people, rich white people, evangelicals, etc. I remember hearing the requests, and the civics lessons when I was younger, the condescending talk of how your vote matters, told like some sterile storybook that the reader couldn't really even buy into. And then, in the real world, the prevailing wind in politics was that you were picking between the lesser of two evils, that both parties were the same anyway, that you could depend on whoever gets elected to break all their campaign promises, cheat, lie, and act like a dog. The only person who'd want to run as president must be crazy or power-hungry. Culturally, we lost a general faith in humanity.

People don't like to live like this, why would they be interested in getting engaged in a complex process that leaves you emotionally hurt if you lose, and even more emotionally hurt if you win and your candidate deserts their ideals?

Barack Obama's victory is not a Democratic victory. After all, what if, say John Edwards had been the winner? We'd be starting his term finding out that he was diddling one of the campaign staff while his wife stayed home trying to fight her breast cancer, and subsequently lied to the American public about it. Yay Democrats! It's not a victory for liberal ideas - frankly, I wish he was a bit more liberal than he is, though I'm sure that's not a universal sentiment. If it was ultra-liberal politics that America wanted, we'd of elected Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinish or something - not-so-stellar choices, in my opinion. It was not even Barack Obama's victory - the man is just a man, and aside from the Obama girl video, most of the excitement I've heard has been around the empowerment of all the little people working for him. It wasn't even the normal populist victory, of people who are mad as hell and don't want to take it anymore. It was none of these things. The victory of Barack Obama is the quiet voice of a people who desperately want to trust again. Americans don't just want to stop being ashamed of where their government is going, they want to start being proud of it - they want to start being PART of it.

During the Cold War, America had a compelling (if somewhat deceptive) story - it was the vanguard of democracy, facing an evil empire of communism. I remember when the wall came down, pundits made a lot of noise that America does not know how to not have an enemy. I understood that at the time, and it came true, has continued to come true - we have tried our hand against a number of different enemies. But here's the great irony - we finally found one, the perfect enemy, because it's one that will never, ever completely go away, in the attacks on 9/11. We, as a people, could, if we wished, delude ourself into a story where, forever and ever and ever, we stand on the right side of a battle against terrorism, extremism, or Islam, depending on the teller. This could cease to be one of our struggles, and start to be our identity.

It worked, for a while, but at some point, America started to lose it's stomach for it. The voice of cynicism tells me it's because the conflict was headed by complete dunderheads, and because America no longer has the stomach to be at war. But I think this is a lie, the sort of comforting cynicism that we make up to keep ourselves from destiny. America is just past the point where it can accept the idea of black-and-white battle as a defining national characteristic. So the war drifted, Bush fell apart, and America came into an election season desperately seeking for it's own soul.

The election, to me was simple. The gaffes, nonsense, vagueness, news stories, and everything else, were never important in and of themselves - it was simply that one side felt like a dream, and the other felt like an assurance that nothing would have to change. I wanted to dream, again, like I ever had, but again, nonetheless, like in the poem by Langston Hughes:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

And that's just it, that's why I feel so vulnerable, and why I think a lot of Americans, particularly younger Americans (other groups, I don't know, I can only speak for the ones I know) are feeling the same way. I didn't just let Obama have my vote - I gave it to him. And he promised me, in a more directly personal way than any politician has managed to in a long time, to use it to create a dream that he is not possibly capable of creating, but that he needs to create nonetheless. It's not just 4 years at stake. This isn't a trial run. America in her ancient wisdom knew it was time to be a dreamer again, and dreamers do not make backup plans or hedge their bets, they succeed or fail, gloriously.

I read this post, by a programmer I keep a stray eye on, who talked about America needing to be like a good engineer - optimistic in the way that makes you fight to do things that seem impossibly complex at the beginning. Read the article, he says it much better. Of course, we're not the first nation to try this, to try to become what we dream. France, for instance, tried it out in 1789, and ended up murdering huge swaths of it's own population. No great power has ever lived through this stage of it's development, because it either refused to throw itself into the void, and slowly dwindled away into irrelevance, or it threw itself into the void and fell and fell, not strong enough to fly. This is easy to explain, easy to understand - no  nation is really a narrative, it's a collection of people, full of warts, fears and imperfections, unified only in a desire to not have to worry about things, led by men who desperately want to make sure they don't get replaced. Men fly, on occaision, genius happens on the individual level, but a nation? A nation is too big, too cumbersome. It's an endeavour in which it is impossible for any nation to succeed.

It's time for us to succeed anyway.

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Baron Samedi for Obama - Happy Ghede Day

Yesterday, for those who were not aware, is both the birthday of Toussaint Louverture, the 'George Washington of Haiti', and 'Ghede Day', an important religious day for Vodou pracitcioners in Haiti, when Haitians go to cemeteries, to give rum, candles, ribbons, and other offerings tatop the graves of the dead, in respect for Baron Samedi, the guardian of the dead (sort of. Haitian Loa do not fit so easily into the Greek God boxes that we all learned in mythology). The Baron and his confederate spirits or not glum, Plutonic things, at all, but have a reputation, actually, for being heavy drinkers (when a praciticioner is ridden by one, they will drink clairin, a white rum steeped with chili peppers, that most people cannot even swallow, normally), infamous practical jokers, and fond of bawdy humor. So, yesterday was a raucous day in Haiti. Anyway, I thought it was interesting, in this article, that the people of Haiti, in a year when 'even the Baron is hungry, because everything is so expensive," prayed not only for more food, and political peace, but for the election of Barack Obama in the States. It brings to mind this article, where tit's pointed out that, really, there is no 'US Election' anymore - every American election is a world election. No news on plans for the Baron and Samedi to appear together in campaign stops, anytime soon.

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Emily Dickinson Update - Killing Hemlocks for the Poet

An interesting story the other day from The Boston Globe, about some people in Amherst trying to cut down about 200 trees, because they believe it's what Emily Dickinson would want.

Yeah, read that sentence again.

Some of these folks are a lot more well-versed in Dickinson lore than I am, don't get me wrong, so I will not begin to argue about whether Emily Dickinson would be unhappy to have a row of 'rather forbidding' trees out of her window. I don't know. The point that was interesting to me was this one:

"Dickinson is the one American writer who is so keenly identified with
one place, and it is that place," said Martha Ackmann, an English
professor at Mount Holyoke College and vice president of the Emily
Dickinson International Society. "My students want to know what she
saw. I want to see what she saw."

Really?  I think the combination of this statement with one a few paragraphs down is particularly striking:

Officials at the Dickinson museum and Amherst College, which owns the
homestead, have determined what the poet would have seen from her
window: a low-lying hemlock hedge. She also saw a hayfield and the Holyoke mountain range from her window perch, but that view has been
obliterated by a large apartment complex built across the street from
her house.

The old saw about Emily Dickinson being a morbid poet, is tiresome, but it does have some root: Emily Dickinson more than most poets had a strong concern wtih the idea of permanence and immortality. Emily Dickinson was a distinctly American poet, in part, because of her affinity towards the simple, regular person in these stories. Whitman was the teller of grand tales, sort of the wild troubadour of American poetry, the man who wrote 'O Captain, My Captain.' Emily Dickinson was more of a murmurer, speaking about robins instead of eagles, about the everyday and commonplace, about the impudence of pride. Isn't it strange that we would build this quasi-Lenin's-Tomb shrine around her? I am not sorry that Emily Dickinson's home is still there, but it does make one wonder - trying to pretend that Miss Dickinson hasn't been dead for more than a century, that her room is still sitting there waiting for her return, with the view she wants, like we are parents who had a child die young and keep the bedroom just as the child left it. Well, the bedroom is not a closed system, especially for a soul as expansive as Emily's, and you just can't keep the world from changing. Let the trees grow, they're better than apartments, anyway. That's not Emily's opinion, it's mine.

What is Emily Dickinson's opinion on a row of Hemlock trees? I imagine that her opinion is that she's dead, and glad to leave these kinds of meddling concerns to the living.

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Deprived of other Banquet

Daily Dash 1789 is a blog I've started keeping my eye on frequently. The premise is simple (the best blogs seem to be...): every day, the author posts one of Emily Dickinson's 1789 poems, and offers her, sometimes very peronal, insights into what the poem is saying. I almost never see the poems the same way, and that's part of what makes the blog so wonderful. More than most bloggers on poetry, I feel like Ms Kackley is sincere about what she's saying, and she writes with a polite courage, that makes me look forward to her daily thoughts. And it helps that it's all Emmy Dickinson, of course ;P. I could probably comment every day, but I imagine I'd probably start seeming creepy. But let me just say that the line I am like an architect that can't find a builder", was probably the funniest, poignantly sad, and completely self-describing line I've read in a blog, ever.

Anyway, Ms Kackley, the other day (don't I sound like I'm telling my mom about something my English Teacher said?), did her analysis on the poem 'Deprived of other Banquet,' a poem I don't think I ever really thought about before - it's difficult to be theme-ish thinker, like me, because you start to overlook things that fit a theme you've already seen elsewhere, and stop looking for the particularities in poems. I thought it was interesting, that her description, of the same poem, could range from Macroeconomics to private sorrow, and I don't say that with any snickering irony. There's something very humbling, for me, very painful but important, about juxtaposing public tragedy with private tragedy. In the grand scheme of things, for me, something like the current financial crisis does not yet mean anything to me, except on a theoretical level. I just haven't 'gotten it' yet, even if I can kind of fumble at the outlines of what's just happened to us all. But, really, my little blue brain clutches at the thought - what can something so banal as an investment portfolio mean, compared to the death of a daughter, or sexual abuse?

That didn't come out the way I meant it. It sounds so cold and theoretical. It was a very empathic experience reading this poem with this review, because I can imagine (though I can't vouch for the accuracy of my brain) this very feeling, I've felt it, of reading a poem, that feeling of simultaneously needing say what you feel about it, and having little idea how to say it, and being terror at the feeling itself (to say nothing of the people who might read the feeling). Emily Dickinson isn't a comfortable poet, and the feelings in her poem are not comfortable. There's a subversive air to what she writes, where poems that seem to be cheerful (like, say this one, or Hope is the thing with feathers, for example), in the end always remind you of the price of happiness. Emily Dickinson is the best sort of friend, the kind that never lies to you, even if she knows you'll leave her.

The poem, for me, has a pretty straightforward 'story' - the speaker finds herself abandoned by those who used to provide her with what she needs (food is a metaphor for, really, just about anything. insert whatever you feel neglected in, in your life. It's a mirror of Erised kind of moment). At first, she has atrophied, from depending so long, but eventually, the experience of starvation drives her to grow into her challenge, eventually producing enough to supply a 'Robin's Feast' (the Robin always, for me, having a certain connection to the secret companion of Emily Dickinson, the debate over whether this companion be physical or spiritual, male or female, romantic or otherwise, left to the biographers, since it's pretty irrelevant). And then, in the great turn of irony, providing enough that she has the berry reserved for charity.

It's the questions that this raises that are uncomfortable. There are several (one interesting one centers around whether charity enslaves the benefactor, and what that means for the giver), but the one that means most to me, is the implication that our moments of great sorrow are not, really, license to simply accept our failure. The starvation, the brink of death, this is what we need, as humans, it's what makes us live. It's the smiling beloved that whispers back to us in our times of pain and strife, a reminder of our own prayers - 'Thou, child, thou asked, if thou might raise your children to be wise - how canst thou, lacking wisdom? I come to fill thy prayers and give thee wisdom', 'Thou, child, thou asked, if thou mightest learn better discipline, how canst thou shriek when thou findest a whip at thy back? I gavest thou the covenant of reward, and thou turned it down, I only come at they request, this is the whip thou requesteth.' God's strange relationship with Emily Dickinson is manifestly clear, here - why is Emily great at the end of the poem? Is it that god has benevolently cursed her? Or is it that she refused blessing out of a perverse courage, and became heroic in spite of God's disapproval?

I'm always struck by the audacity of a woman who can stare quietly through a lonesome bedroom window, and refuse to beg release from God, when, perhaps, God would give it. It's the sort of hopeless hope that is the root of all the sacred souls I've loved (that means you too, my beautiful wife ;) ). Maybe Emily Dickinson stood up just so, and thank you either way. Maybe Ms Kackley stood up just so, and thank you either way.

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