Mark Strand – RIP

The best of the poets influenced by Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand’s work is distinguished by terse portraits of dimly lit rooms in which men sit, reviewing the passage of their lives. In a Paris Review chat in 1998, Strand confirmed that he needed “a place, a desk, a familiar room. I need some of my books there. I need quiet. That’s about it.” Reading Selected Poems in sequence is wearying; he was a poet made for excerpting. Unlike Philip Levine, to whom he is often compared, Strand’s lines don’t flatten into enjambed prose. Perhaps confining his poems to one a scene or mood at a time helps.

You stand at the window.
There is a glass cloud in the shape of a heart.
There are the wind’s sighs that are like caves in your speech.
You are the ghost in the tree outside.

The street is quiet.
The weather, like tomorrow, like your life,
is partially here, partially up in the air.
There is nothing that you can do.

The good life gives no warning.
It weathers the climates of despair
and appears, on foot, unrecognized, offering nothing,
and you are there.

This one is called “The Good Life.”

‘Inequality fuels economic policy’

Paul Krugman is wrong about Richard Nixon’s interest in the environment. It happened because he employed people who did care. As John Dean confirmed in last week’s Miami Book Fair International appearance, Nixon was clear on foreign policy and often incoherent on domestic (what he was clear about concerned approving CIA destabilization of Chile’s elected government and invading Cambodia, so I give him no credit for smarts anyway). Yet this column points to essential truths. Inequality fuels, no pun intended, environmental policy:

The basic story of political polarization over the past few decades is that, as a wealthy minority has pulled away economically from the rest of the country, it has pulled one major party along with it. True, Democrats often cater to the interests of the 1 percent, but Republicans always do. Any policy that benefits lower- and middle-income Americans at the expense of the elite — like health reform, which guarantees insurance to all and pays for that guarantee in part with taxes on higher incomes — will face bitter Republican opposition.

And environmental protection is, in part, a class issue, even if we don’t usually think of it that way. Everyone breathes the same air, so the benefits of pollution control are more or less evenly spread across the population. But ownership of, say, stock in coal companies is concentrated in a few, wealthy hands. Even if the costs of pollution control are passed on in the form of higher prices, the rich are different from you and me. They spend a lot more money, and, therefore, bear a higher share of the costs.

In the case of the new ozone plan, the E.P.A.’s analysis suggests that, for the average American, the benefits would be more than twice the costs. But that doesn’t necessarily matter to the nonaverage American driving one party’s priorities. On ozone, as with almost everything these days, it’s all about inequality.

Singles 11/28

There isn’t one Bruno Mars single I could stomach before this week’s Mark Ronson collaboration, so I have a remedy: less falsetto, more chalk. As in, chalky vocals. The Brown-isms didn’t grate last week but you watch as this thing takes off on radio, and it will if last week’s SNL studio audience was any indicator. Selena Gomez, often lukewarm, is also benefiting from enthusiastic airplay. Don’t underestimate Ellie Goulding though.

Broken English remains a touchstone, and 2002’s Kissin’ Time a lovely adaptation of her sprechgesang to synth landscapes produced by Billy Corgan and Beck. If the pope had a wife she’d sing like Faithfull. But the stylings of Nick Cave edge her to self-parody. Suggestion: recycle the title.

This week’s winner then is Gerardo Ortiz, doing his thing quietly and well for a couple years.

Click on links for full reviews.

Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars – Uptown Funk (7)
Gerardo Ortiz – Eres una Niña (7)
Calvin Harris ft. Ellie Goulding – Outside (6)
Katie Rush ft. Samantha Urbani – Dangerous Luv (6)
Selena Gomez – The Heart Wants What It Wants (5)
Belle and Sebastian – The Party Line (5)
Lil Wayne ft. The Lox – Gotti (4)
Marianne Faithfull – Late Victorian Holocaust (4)
Brett Kissel – Tough People Do (4)
Panda Bear – Mr. Noah (4)
Walk the Moon – Shut Up and Dance (1)

‘We’re better off apart’

I’ve written extensively about Tango in the Night; Marcello gets to it. Five weeks at #1 in England, three different times. Here’s a lovely and accurate evocation of two of its best songs as well as an accounting of influences and allusions:

Little Lies” works chiefly because of Buckingham’s keen awareness of New Pop mores – the arrangement and whispered chorales are distilled Prefab Sprout, whereas the chorus could be Bucks Fizz (“Tell-me-TELL-ME-LI-IES!” Who said something about their camera never lies?) – and its own little lie that it’s a charming late eighties love song when actually it is proposing a break-up (“We’re better off apart, let’s give it a try”). Likewise, the happiness on “Everywhere” sounds very transient indeed (“You better make it soon/Before you break my heart”); the latter is effective because of the cut-up symphony Buckingham and his Fairlight make of piercing, pointillistic stars of voices.

Elsewhere there is the unusual sight of three Lindsey/Christine co-writes. Of those, “Isn’t It Midnight” was again written with Quintela, and canters along like a standard mid-eighties MTV-friendly rocker until Buckingham’s furious, fuzzy and increasingly atonal lead guitar suddenly and terrifyingly appears on the scene and proceeds to erase the song altogether; the only other time this happens on the record is with the Buckingham-penned title track, poised as it is between morbid contemplation and unfettered fury, perhaps echoing the record’s cover painting, Homage á Henri Rousseau, by the Australian artist Brett-Livingstone Strong, which depicts a nocturnal glade by the seashore. At its centre something gleams with a light that has been pointed at it from a direction and source unknown; in the water there are two swans, one camouflaged, and between them lurks a crocodile, ready to come ashore and wreak havoc if it gets annoyed

This snake-in-the-bushes air to the album — a sinister force required in any idyll — has long fascinated me.

Out to get you: Citizenfour

Hours of explanation regarding how the National Security Administration spies on Americans with the collaboration of European allies. Nervous eye flickers as the Hong Kong hotel in which he’s hiding holds a fire drill. He has to plug the room phone he’d turned off (these new phones can record conversations) and call the front desk. Finally, ready to inspect Guardian columnist and reporter Glenn Greenwald’s laptop, he throws what looks like a red curtain from his grandmother’s parlor in 1976 over his head. Someone might be spying on him at that moment. From — where? The room titters with laughter.

At that moment the NSA contractor whose crisp jargon-free English betrays traces of his North Carolinian birth, becomes likable. Not that it matters. One of director Laura Poitras’ decisions when assembling Citizenfour was to exclude biographical montages, interviews with friends, relatives, and former lovers, accompanied by music — the cliches of documentary filmmaking. This isn’t Flag Wars or The Oath, Poitras’ best known previous films. The first thing out of Snowden’s mouth when Greenwald sits across from him is an insistence on depersonalizing the stories that The Guardian and the Washington Post will publish. Greenwald, a victim himself of smear campaigns and dismissals because he doesn’t hang out with Luke Russert at Peggy Noonan’s for Sunday brunch, practically claps. What the audience sees is an articulate twenty-nine-year old in a black tee on a bed explaining the extent to which a largely unaccountable state apparatus accumulates, with a bipartisan imprimatur, credit, banking, and electronic information from Americans. No NSA, State Department, or administration apparatchiks get interviewed for the sake of a phony balance. Snowden and Greenwald in a modern Hong Kong hotel, oitras invisible behind her camera, accompanied sometimes by Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill are all the film shows for a forty or fifty-minute stretch. There is never any question about Snowden revealing himself — how long he can evade detection without his story subordinating the purloined data shapes the drama. The only moment when Citizenfour succumbs to spy novel bait happens when Snowden and a human rights lawyer try to figure out how to slip him into a United Nations facility where he can claim asylum. Replacing glasses with contacts, fussing over how much mousse he spreads into his hair, smoothing his shirt, he’s like a star readying for a E! interview, albeit with a bullseye drawn on his back.

Separating my responses to what Snowden leaked from a full accounting of Poitras’ film is hopeless. Citizenfour is a political document. Readers of this blog know them. Click on the tags. It would be agitprop if Poitras belonged to a cause, but I hesitate to call an informed citizenry taking advantage of its constitutional liberties a cause. I wish she had drawn a line between Snowden’s revelations and Wikileaks. Using the fear of terrorism as an excuse to keep the United States as financial and military hegemon is the least surprising fact to emerge from Citizenfour,

How Good to Be Privileged, Part #2032

I concede that domestic tranquility is nice, and advice columns for coping with awful Limbaugh-listening relatives have become clickbait this time of year, but Michael Brendan Dougherty doesn’t get it:

That’s a problem. Our politics are taking on a religious shape. Increasingly we allow politics to form our moral identity and self-conception. We surround ourselves with an invisible community of the “elect” who share our convictions, and convince ourselves that even our closest and beloved relatives are not only wrong, but enemies of goodness itself. And so one of the best, least religious holidays in the calendar becomes a chance to deliver your uncle up as a sinner in the hands of an angry niece.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. As a conservative raised in an argumentative and left-leaning Irish-American family, Thanksgiving and other holiday dinners did more than any professional media training to prepare me for MSNBC panels. But arguments like these, particularly when we allow politics to dominate our notions of ourselves, can leave lasting scars. And precisely because our familial relationships are so personal, the likely responses to our creamed and beaten talking points will be defensive, anxious, off-subject, or overly aggressive.

Only someone for whom politics is a force outside one’s “moral identity and self-conception” can keep from offending others. Who are these privileged men and women? Right — whoever’s not black, illegal, or gay. Or a woman. Never forget women. The relative with the spouse of the same sex, the friend stopped for entering a store, hands in his pocket — why would he or she eat turkey anyway? They cause trouble. “Instead of honing your argument on tax reform into unassailability,” he tuts, “maybe ask your parents or siblings ahead of time what some of the further-flung or more volatile members of your family are up to in their lives before they sit down.” Instead of getting mad, write a letter. Or better: a devastating satire for The Week. Just devastating.

‘Test’: What is behind the curtain?

Test has the sparseness and uninhabited look of a movie for public television on AIDS filmed in the year in which it’s set—think Parting Glances. But its awareness of history is contemporary, its acuity strengthened by three decades of mourning. Written and directed by Chris Mason Johnson, Test concerns Frankie (Scott Marlowe), an understudy in a San Francisco dance ensemble trying to get a break in his vocation and fate. It’s 1985, and the mysterious gay cancer once known as GRID has a new name. Doctors have managed to develop a blood test that identifies HIV. Worse, the possible infection of Rock Hudson has not mitigated the disgust of straight Americans; “human garbage,” spits a cab driver into the rear view mirror on realizing he’s dropping Frankie and a friend at a gay club. Doctors say it can’t be spread from casual contact, but still, the dancers get jumpy when they sweat on each other.

Frankie has a bantering relationship with Todd (Matthew Risch), a company member with the grin of a practiced libertine who mulls over the do’s and don’ts of hustling for money. Before showtime they study their bodies in front of mirrors for the signs of Kaposi’s sarcoma. Backstage they’re brittle and self-amused, onstage they show fluidity and grace; Johnson makes this point without underlining it. At home though Frankie can barely contain his anxiety. Walt (Kristoffer Cusick) picks him up at a bar and Frankie won’t fuck or be fucked (“I have to get out of this city,” Walt sighs). He decides to get the blood test and wait the purgatorial two weeks for the results.

As played by Marlowe, Frankie, who looks like Jeremy Irons circa Brideshead Revisited, has the intensity of a young man whose ambitions make him monomaniacal. Friendless except for chats with dancers affecting the bitchy backstage manner picked up from watching movies with Gail Patrick in supporting roles, he goes into trances when his Walkman headphones press against his ears and he can stretch his legs and hips. Shots of his apartment flaunt a respectable eclecticism: rotary phone, shower curtain instead of a closet door. His life is an endless series of rehearsals: for sex, blood test results, auditions. Frankie gives the impression of living off diminishing psychological resources; his old ways of survival are about to crumble. To learn in an aside that his mother stopped drinking Communion wine from the chalice on learning about AIDS comes as no surprise.

Johnson’s last movie True Adolescents caught the moment when male adolescents experiment with sexuality as if to demonstrate that the self has an elasticity limited only by fear. Test has a couple of weaknesses: telegraphing SYMBOLISM with closeups of the power being switched off a radio before Frankie’s blood test, and a dream sequence whose results taint the rest of the film. But there’s a casual bedroom scene between Frankie and Todd in which the reality of condoms invokes chuckles (yeah, get used to’em, buddy). Test ‘s leisurely stretches of men and women dancing, the well-deployed use of semi-obscurities like Visage’s “The Anvil” and Laurie Anderson’s “Born, Never Asked” (more respectable eclecticism) in which Frankie finds comfort at home or in the club create a sense of life unfolding one scare at a time. And there will be more.

‘Hope is not magical. Hope is earned.’

Quoted in The Wars of Reconstruction:

“When you would look over and see a man who had a large family, struggling hard up on a poor piece of land, you thought a great deal less of him than you did of your own master’s negro, didn’t you? Douglass tried to assure the president that h e never done so, but Johnson overrode him again, proposing a conspiracy between the “the colored man and his master, combined,” to keep the poor white “in slavery” and deny him a share “of the rich land of the country.” If granted the franchise, blacks might once more unite with their former masters against white workers. In any case, Johnson added, “the majority” had the right to decide on the ballot. This time, Douglass cut in and observed that in South Carolina and Mississippi, blacks were the majority. With barely “repressed anger,’ the president rose and called an end to the exchange.” It doesn’t end there. The president , a Democrat and former military governor of Tennessee, fulminated to his secretary about “Those d[amne]d sons of b[itche]s” who “thought they had me in a trap. I know that d[amne]d Douglass; he’s just like any nigger, and would sooner cut a man’s throat than not.”

America, as a friend remarked today, is lucky to have Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yesterday I posted an essay asking for a reconsideration of looting; it asked us to look at the politics of looting, as it were. We treasure the nonviolent tradition of MLK. It can be said that we fetishize it. But note the exchange above between Lincoln’s successor and Frederik Douglass, not many years before the Republican Party, with the consent of Democratic satraps, returned the freedmen to their former masters and a state of peonage and terror for the next century. The freedmen were returned at the point of a bayonet, with a noose, with the burning of their homes. The threat of damage to life and property is a powerful tool:

“Property damage and looting” is a fairly accurate description of the emancipation of black people in 1865, who only five years earlier constituted some $4 billion in property. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is inseparable from the threat of riots. The housing bill of 1968—the most proactive civil-rights legislation on the books—is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed. Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil-rights movement. “We could go into meetings and say, ‘Well, either deal with us or you will have Malcolm X coming into here,'” said SNCC organizer Gloria Richardson. “They would get just hysterical. The police chief would say, ‘Oh no!'”

A holiday weekend is about to start. “Ferguson” will come up at dinner. Don’t use cant. Stay safe.

‘It gets to a point where we need to be able to protect ourselves.’

John Thrasher, soon to be Florida State University’s president, isn’t calling for guns on campus after last week’s ambush at the Strozier Library. It’s beyond personal, he said, in the pious tones of a newly converted zealot who sees differently because his empathy extends only to those in his circle. But good for him. However, he’s opposed:

“These shootings are happening all across the nation and you are seeing students die left and right,” said Erek Culbreath, the president of Students for Concealed Carry at FSU. “It gets to a point where we need to be able to protect ourselves.”

Culbreath called the response from FSU police “great,” but said an armed adult on the scene could have diffused the situation even faster.

He noted that most undergraduate students would not be able to carry on campus. Concealed-weapon permits are issued only to people who are 21 and older, unless the applicant has been honorably discharged from the military.

“These would be adults, who have the right training and background checks,” Culbreath said.

Yes, I think arming college students who can barely drink responsibly would have prevented what happened Nov. 20.

Michael Brown RIP

Many of my friends are lawyers, and what’s clear from conversations over the years is the ease with which prosecutors can get indictments from a grand jury even if he scribbles the request on a Kleenex. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch did not want one (Vox published a piece explaining the challenges that Michael Brown’s family faced). In his press conference he made it clear that the idea of even sorting through conflicting testimony was as onerous as social and traditional media doing their jobs. That’s what trials are for. Brown’s family won’t get one, unless they pursue federal civil rights charges. The president of the United Sates, looking as wan and tired as he did when he addressed the problem in August, made it clear after the platitudinous evocations of The Enormous Progress America Has Made since the sixties that he wanted lessons to be learned (“there will inevitably be some negative reaction,” said this wizard with words). McCullouch’s report, boasting the imprimatur of thoroughness, still didn’t answer the question why Darren Wilson fired twelve shots into a kid who stole cigarillos. When it comes to our history of racial violence don’t answer the question “why.” Facts are supposed to answer it. But power and authority use facts to prepare us for the lessons to be learned and our opportunities for growth.