Thursday, October 31, 2002
There used to be a little bar in Hanoi, on Hang Bac Street, no longer there, where I would go to sip a Tiger beer in the evenings. Somewhere the owner of the bar had gotten hold of a trove of old Charlie Chaplin films on video & he played them on a television set above the bar. Here was a bit of anarchy at the heart of what remains a repressive regime. Politically, what I'm interested in is vitality.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:44 PM.
MaxSpeak Weblog MaxSpeak Weblog: "It is reputed that on the eve of his execution for a crime of which he was innocent, a fellow named Joe Hill said, "Don't mourn; organize." For the critics, the real problem with the funeral is that the attendees didn't all commit suicide and join PW in the hereafter. Damn they might even retain sufficient composure to retain the seat for the Democrats. // My personal hope for my own funeral, assuming anyone would bother to show up, would be for a wild bacchanal with people getting BJs & CJs under the tables, drinking and smoking themselves stupid, and indulging in political rhetoric that would make Hunter Thompson blush. Think garden of earthly delights. I only wish I could be there myself."
My sentiments exactly. The only thing I'd add is that I want all my friends to bring their dogs. Dogs make people happy. The strongest weapon against tyranny, political repression, partisan cant & media cliches is joy. Rip it up! Rock & roll & forget Vin Weber, who qualifies as the quintessential square, man. (After the business of the funeral is taken care of in high good humor, I want everyone to retire to the bar, where there will be an endless loop of Monty Python episodes playing on multiple monitors.)
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:34 PM.
Wednesday, October 30, 2002
CNN is reporting that "some Republicans" are demanding "equal time" because the Wellstone memorial was carried on C-Span. They say it was a political rally. Some people are such dry moral husks of human beings that . . . I give up, fill in the blank for yourself.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:19 PM.
The estimable Max Sawicky has gathered a bunch of bloggers from across the political spectrum who are united in their opposition to an American war in Iraq. Called Stand Down, the new site promises to be a source of civil discussion & debate. I've been visiting the member blogs this afternoon & have been deeply impressed with the seriousness, good humor & intelligence of all concerned.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:02 PM.
My step-father phoned tonight. Usually I dread his calls. My mother has been dead for 17 years & my step-father & I were never close, even when my mother was alive. ("Never close" is a shameful euphemism for "couldn't stand each other.") It was very strange, though, tonight: All my anger seems to have evaporated. We had a friendly, if superficial, conversation & I invited him to visit this spring. No one could be more surprised by this than me. I've nursed my anger at his rigid fundamentalism all these years & now I just don't give a shit. It's not that anger has turned to love; no, it's just that the anger is gone. Weird.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:20 PM.
Notes, mostly for myself: All the snow stayed south of us. Brilliant clear late fall day. Took some bags of clothes to the thrift store & drove down to Canton to get my glasses fixed. Department meeting to discuss curriculum this afternoon, then home for a dogwalk & final work on my essay about the American Literature of the Vietnam war before I send it off to the editor next week.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 12:55 PM.
Has anyone else been offended by the squabbling among jurisdictions to see who gets to execute the DC sniper?
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:16 AM.
Tuesday, October 29, 2002
Only a few crystals, but first snow fell yesterday. Looks like we'll get the real thing tonight.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:16 AM.
Monday, October 28, 2002
Anti-war protester puts me to shame: Michell Goldberg, writing in Salon [Salon Premium, requires DNA sample] describes the recent protest march in Washington: "It was a rally rich with spectacle and passion where radical cant competed with political substance. There were indie-rock cheerleaders jumping around crying, 'Liberate! Smash the state!' and huge banners with messages like, 'Defeat U.S. Imperialism: Defend Afghanistan and Iraq for Class War Against the Imperialism War.' But there were plenty of committed, articulate people like Mark Arend, a programmer for Microsoft, who stood with his 13-year-old son and hoisted a sign built like a spiral notebook, each page turning to reveal a new antiwar message. He had so many reasons for opposing invasion he couldn't choose just one. 'I don't have a lot of time -- I have a job and a family,' he says. 'But this is bugging me so much it's like a midlife crisis. I listen to the news and I have to do something'."
And in another Salon article, also by Michelle Goldberg we get this: " . . . the politics of the group behind it, the International Action Center, are anathema to most Americans -- including the vast majority of people who oppose a U.S. war on Iraq. IAC opposes any action against Saddam, including containment. 'It is the position of the International Action Center that Iraq, as part of its self-determination, has the right to a military force sufficient to defend itself,' says a 1999 statement. Its Web site is a cornucopia of empty lefty hyperbole that boils down to the notion that, as Richard Becker, IAC's western region co-director writes, 'No one in the world ... has a worse human rights record than the United States'."
I love the idea of a spiral notebook protest sign, though: one could protest & qualify one's position in detail. And these days it's the details that interest me. But it was Mr. Arend's statement that "this is bugging me so much it's like a midlife crisis" that really got to me. Maybe I should have gone down to DC after all. But then there's this, from the same article: "Unfortunately, the antiwar protesters had nothing at all to say about the crimes of Saddam. Operating with a political template borrowed from Vietnam, this peace movement seemed unprepared to reckon with the dictator's evil, even when its victims were staring them in the face. Speakers including Susan Sarandon, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton offered stirring indictments of the Bush administration. They made frequent references to Martin Luther King and led the crowd in chants of 'Free Mumia!' A girl from Hunter College quoted Che Guevara, saying, 'The bullets, what can the bullets do to me if my destiny is to die by drowning?' Someone played a taped message from Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown), who is in prison for murdering a policeman who was trying to arrest him for theft. // Nearby on Constitution Avenue a drum circle formed, and a few hundred people started dancing. Chants went up -- to the tune of 'Who Let the Dogs Out,' some sang, 'Who kills Iraqis? Bush Bush Bush Bush. Who is a Nazi? Bush Bush Bush Bush.' A young blond woman wore a sign that announced, with staggering self-congratulation, 'I speak for the voiceless victims of war'." Sure you do, honey. So, in addition to the dumb politics of the organizers, many of the protesters seem disconnected from reality. Still, I keep thinking about Mark Arend's act of conscience.
The claim that the protesters were "operating with a political template borrowed from Vietnam" is interesting, but troubling, at least for a middle-aged veteran of those protests. In 1968 there was a fairly well-defined division in the anti-war movement between those who like to chant, "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is gonna win" & those who saw the war as a disaster for American policy & society. At the time, my position was that the Vietnamese should have been allowed to settle their own differences; now, having spent a good deal of time in Vietnam & read the relevant history, I see a historical inevitability to the victory of the the Communist north over the American-backed south. How to map this onto the current situation in Iraq? It's not an exact fit--nothing in history ever is; but I'd argue that it's not so much the countries of Iraq & Vietnam we ought to be comparing as the set of American policies & the effects they had & will have on our own society. [Aside: my opposition to the death penalty is not based on religious or even moral grounds, but pragmatic ones: executing criminals serves to make us a more violent society. By analogy, extending American military force into local & regional conflicts serves to make us, internationally, a violent & repressive force in world politics & that is not ultimately to our own advantage.]
And that's why I read this as a piece of a-historical nonsense: Law professor Glenn Reynolds, otherwise known as Instapundit quotes somebody named Andrew Stuttaford on Vietnam analogies: "NPR ran a story this morning on this weekend's 'peace' demonstrations in the US. The reporter noted that many of those demonstrating were veterans of Vietnam war era protest. In a revealing slip of the tongue, one woman recalled how those protests had "ended Vietnam". Indeed they did. Within two years of the US withdrawal, South Vietnam had fallen to communist rule. Thousands were murdered by the new regime, an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 people (out of a population of twenty million) were incarcerated in concentration (oh sorry, 're-education' ) camps for periods of up to ten years, and hundreds of thousands of boat people took the dangerous and often fatal route into exile. Quarter of a century later Vietnam remains a communist dictatorship. Doubtless the Vietnamese are most grateful to the peace campaigners of yesteryear." It strikes me that the right is solely concerned with avoiding the negative lessons of Vietnam regarding the arbitrary extension of American power. I have no idea who Mr. Stuttaford is, perhaps he's an expert on the history of the American War in Vietnam. If so, his desire to blame the American peace movement for the repression of the Communist Party & the government of Vietnam between 1975 & 1985 is as idiotic as the left's assertion that they ended Vietnam'." This should get some kind of award for specious nonsense. The central problem here is the complete failure to recognize that United States policy toward Vietnam went a long way toward creating the hard-line policies of the post-1975 government. I'm not an expert on very many things, but Vietnamese history & culture is one of the areas in which I can claim some specialist knowledge. I've lived in Vietnam & have many friends, American, Canadian & Vietnamese, who still live there. In fact, the Vietnamese in Vietnam--as opposed to those who fled--are quite "grateful to the peace campaigners of yesteryear." Did the left "end Vietnam"? Of course not; the Vietnamese ended the war by winning it. Were the reeducation camps morally defensible or politically wise? No. Were they an historically comprehensible response to what the Vietnamese call the American War? Well, yes. As usual, things in the real world are more complex & difficult than they are in the fevered fantasies of Professor Reynolds & his acolytes.
Sunday, October 27, 2002
Why I didn't go to the peace demonstration this weekend: I first marched against the ware in Vietnam when I was sixteen years old, in San Francisco. As a college student in Seattle I participated in many more demonstrations, including the one that shut down I-5 for an afternoon. I was teargassed & smacked with a baton, though I'd smokes so much hash I hardly felt the blow. Hurt like hell the next day, though. And I'm against the coming war in Iraq, under the current circumstances. Those circumstances include: Not having seen what strict inspections will elicit from Saddam's regime; failure by the War Party to demonstrate that Iraq constitutes an imminent threat; the historical precedent of the US employing a policy of preemptive military action; the Bush administration's utterly cynical marketing of war; the incoherence of the Bush administration's foreign policy . . . I could go on, but that list positions me pretty clearly on the political spectrum. So, why didn't I go down to Washington to march against the coming war?
It's a good question & one I have been asking myself. The short answer is that I'm busy: I have a house I'm fixing up & dogs & a job as a teacher; I have my own work as a writer & translator, much neglected recently. But had I wanted to go, I could have: just last week I went to Chicago for an academic conference. I didn't go, finally, because the message coming out of the anti-war movement so far seems naive, doctrinaire & one-dimensional. Perhaps when I was younger I had more tolerance for absolutist pictures of the world; an older person now, I am obsessed with subtleties. I support the political aims of the marchers--to stop the way--but my aesthetic sense is offended by the simplistic qualities of much of their rhetoric. Rhetoric & even aesthetics (in the broadest sense) are parts of human life just as much as politics. Which lens we chose to view the world through depends upon out accumulated experience. This is not quietism, exactly, though there is a resemblance; I wish the young well & I may yet feel moved to rise up.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:47 PM.
Carole is away this week enjoying the Arizona sun with her aunt & mother & I've got a busy week at school, so entries may be sparse. They're certain to be brief. (I'm also trying to get caught up with my colleague Chris Robinson on our Philosophical Investigations project.)
Stray thoughts: The NRA is right, Guns don't kill people, people kill people. That is, a culture that fetishizes guns kills people. The NRA, of course, is the chief fetishizer of guns in the world. Ergo, the NRA kills people.
I learned to shoot when I was six years old & I'm still a fair shot with a 22. I don't currently own any guns, but wouldn't object to having one in the house. Many of my neighbors hunt & I have accepted venison from them on occasion. But to accept the arguments behind the NRA's rejection of even reasonable gun control legislation one must sign onto a paranoid (& pornographic) vision of American history & politics.
So what about the DC sniper? I don't know what the right-wing warbloggers are saying--I rarely have the heart (or stomach) to check their sites--but I can imagine that a lot of them are spinning this as an Islam is evil narrative; but to me it seems a quintessentially American story with Islam only a faint note, almost an afterthought. [links to NY Times; registration required] Unlike Timothy McVeigh, John Allen Muhammad's politics & religion did not become a full-blown rationalization for personal rage & failure; even McVeigh wasn't fundamentally a political terrorist but an angry man with access to explosives who used a political ideology to give some kind of coherence to his chaotic vision of the world.
What's this have to do with the NRA? Nothing directly. Indirectly, the NRA sponsors a culture of entitlement to instruments of violence. Someone shot my friend's dog the other day as it was standing in its own front yard. He's still alive, though barely; the vet says that every hunting season he sees half a dozen cases of dogs that appear to have been shot from a moving vehicle. A vehicle that no doubt sports an NRA sticker on its back window & whose occupants attended an NRA Youth Camp. (Yeah, yeah, unfair assumption, I know.) But this isn't really an argument, just a sketch for some kind of future argument. In any case, people who shoot dogs are even more cowardly than people who shoot human beings. It's a gun culture. See?
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 8:04 AM.
With allies like this who needs enemies? Maybe Egypt needs its own version of Media Whores Online--oh, except that the Horse would no doubt be sentenced to hard labor. In trying to think clearly about terrorism & the Islamic world, we would do well to pay less attention to trying to pin down the ever-shifting shapes of religious doctrines & more attention to the concentration of economic & political power in an oligarchy that transcends religious belief even while using it cynically. All three of the "great monotheistic religions" participate in this oligarchy. You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to see this historical development, just a political empiricist. One more reason not to be a monotheist.
A brief comment on my other weblog about the meaning of the DC sniper. This association came about from reading & briefly commenting on this subject at Max Sawicky's Maxspeak.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:51 AM.
21 degrees this morning, clear blue sky, hard white three-quarter waning moon. The maple trees appear to glow from within. After the guy comes to clean the furnace, I'm heading over to WSLU, our public radio station, North Country Public Radio, to answer phones for the fundraiser. Your basic liberal poet's Friday morning.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:37 AM.
It's about language. Dana Milbank pointed out a number of instances in which the president had used language--wittingly or unwittingly, or some combination of wit & witlessness--to mislead the public, to push his political agenda, to shield himself from criticism. There is really not much distinction between the howlers chronicled by Bushisms & outright lying: both originate from the same relativism that treats language as an instrument of power, not of truth. Fact is, the Right, William Bennett notwithstanding, is as postmodern as the academic left. Left postmodernism has at least the critical advantage of being more or less self-reflective about its own procedures; Right postmodernism is a form of (unreflective) popular culture.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:26 PM.
The increasingly indispensable Max Sawicky writes: "ISLAM! ISLAM! ISLAM! Just thought I would get into the act too. Note to the clueless: just because I change my name to Joe Islam doesn't mean I'm part of a worldwide terrorist conspiracy. Further note: "leaderless resistance" refers to decentralized operatives who have first been organized to perform certain tasks after dispersal. It does not refer to any dude who takes it into his deranged head to emulate something he saw on television. Question: is there any event you would not exploit for the sake of harping on your theme of a worldwide war on Islam?"
My sentiments exactly. This case, friends, is home-grown. Attacked from the outside, we eat ourselves alive from the inside.
Country Living: Got up earlier than usual this morning & went out into the clear, cold semi-darkness to unload a truckful of horse manure Carole brought home from the barn last night. The radio was on, the police had made an arrest in the sniper case, but I left that behind to go outside. By the time I was finished unloading the truck the red & orange maple leaves & the yellow birch leaves were glowing with the light of dawn. I'm a happy man, no kidding.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:01 AM.
Tuesday, October 22, 2002
I haven't got any idea what sort of madness is motivating the DC sniper, but watching the television coverage tonight for the first time, I was struck by a weird & unsettling development in the rhetorical context of the case: we, as a society, have begun communicating with the sniper, but to communicate with him is to grant him a kind of legitimacy that undercuts our most fundamental beliefs about the social contract. It is also possible to assume, though, that the authorities have decided to communicate with the sniper in an effort to trap him: the more he communicates, the more vulnerable he is. I don't think (though I have considered the possibility) that the sniper is a "terrorist" in the current political sense, but there is an interesting analogy to be made between our treatment of the sniper & our treatment of Saddam Husain. While Saddam has not taken any shots at us, we would be wise to watch him closely. The question is not what we should do if we are attacked, but how we should treat a potential attacker. A potential attacker like Saddam has not yet crossed the line beyond which even communicating with him seems both futile, illegitimate & perhaps immoral--the line the sniper has already crossed. So there is a rhetorical reason for engaging Saddam under the current circumstances. Once he pulls the trigger, the world changes & our choices change.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:09 PM.
Here is another statement of political faith I am happy to endorse. All you 'fiscal conservatives' who want to be 'social liberals', get real.
Oh, yeah, as long as I'm cleaning up the political agenda, allow me to state for the record that I am a leftist who has been un-homophobic since I discovered what homosexuality was--thirty years ago--& I can call Andrew Sullivan any vile name I want to (though I never have) without a hint of homophobia. Sully wants it both ways: he wants to be a gay conservative who flaunts his gayness, but have his sexual preference off-limits to his critics. Get real.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:58 PM.
Who are they trying to kid? Well, us, of course. Paul Krugman [registration required] explains the situation with his characteristic pungency & penetration in the NY Times. The question is, how stupid is the American electorate. I must admit I don't have much faith in the good sense of my fellow-citizens. The toxic gas of false consciousness wafts across the continent, causing otherwise reasonable people to believe that their best interests are being served by the current gang of thugs in Washington. Makes me crazy.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:03 PM.
Monday, October 21, 2002
Egypt, Pakistan & Saudi Arabia are authoritarian states. It's just that they are our authoritarian states. So let's cut the bullshit when we talk about world politics. The next time an American politician of any party starts going off about bringing democracy & freedom to other nations, they ought to be shouted down as liars & hypocrites. Our politics would be a great deal more honest if we would stop abusing language & the only way that we can stop abusing language, given the nature of language, is to acknowledge the indeterminacy of language & the consequent necessity for accepting the sometimes contradictory truths of different positions & perspectives. Some things cannot be decided under a particular set of circumstances; politicians who believe in absolutes are philosophically impoverished--worse, they are dangerous because they have no feel for reality. This view is not the same as moral relativism, which relinquishes any point of view. I'm arguing that we must learn to accept multiple points of view. Negative capability ought to be a political virtue, but that's perhaps a utopian view.
[A few minutes later] Vietnam is also an authoritarian state & I have had to hold in my mind & heart at the same time: love for the people of Vietnam, respect for the nationalist revolution, a critical understanding of the damage done by adherence to doctrinaire Leninism & Maoism (at different periods), respect for the willingness of old revolutionaries to learn from their mistakes & reform the economy. Enough contradictions to keep one awake at night. But there is no answer, no resolution: there is only development, flow, change. Seems I really have become a Buddhist . . . This does not mean that one has no point of view, that one can never act; it does require that intervention & action be grounded in pragmatic understanding, knowledge & good will. Seems I've become a Confucian into the bargain. Live & learn.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:38 PM.
Sunday, October 20, 2002
Translation as meditation: In Vietnam, I haunted temples & would often sit for extended periods listening to monks reciting sutras before images of the Buddha. Such practice is technical, even mechanical, but leads at least sometimes to enlightenment. I never felt comfortable as a kid praying to the Christian God. I don't mean to present myself as intellectually precocious, but asking God to pay attention to me & my family always seemed like an affront, or at least impolite. (I was not intellectually precocious, but maybe I was emotionally so.) But the Buddhist practice does not presume anything. It is a technique that leads beyond technique. It is a practice. That's the way I do translation, as a practice.
[A moment later] If translation & even the learning of a language can be a process of healing, it is not a matter of accomplishment, but of quiet practice. The strange twist is that translation is so fundamentally a public act . . .
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:49 PM.
The Sons (& Daughters) of Willis: Dorothea Salo dropped a line: "I learned the basics of translation from Willis Barnstone back in--oh, Lord, must be a decade ago now. I have an autographed copy of The Poetics of Translation. Small blogsphere. :)" Indeed. And just before I received Dorothea's note I had been standing in the hotel lobby listening to Willis answer a question I had asked about biblical translation--he has a new translation of the New Testament called The New Covenant. I'd asked him what he thought of Stephen Mitchell's Job & Genesis, which I use when I teach our fall freshman Humanities course. The short answer was that he didn't think much of them, though he allowed that Mitchell is a good poet (though not a great one). He particularly objected to Mitchell's splitting out the various source texts of Genesis & reordering the whole & he didn't like Mitchell's short-line versification of Job. What I didn't know at the time & in fact have just now discovered is that Mitchell too has recently produced a New Testament. But in offering these opinions, he took me & a group of three or four other rapt translators on a journey through the scholarly & aesthetic issues of translating the bible that simply left us gaping. From someone else, such a discourse would have been a demonstration of egotism, but coming from Willis it was completely authentic--his passion for the subject burns through superficial notions of ego & his deeply layered & detailed knowledge of the subject left us agog. Ben Johnson had a tribe of younger poets, the Sons of Ben: well, I am, at the advanced age of 51, a charter member of The Sons of Willis. (Sitting between his two natural children during our morning session, responding to a subtle question from Willis, I began, 'Far be it from me to disagree with you, dad, . . .' which brought the house down. It was a sincere sentiment, though, however humorously expressed.) What an astonishingly learned & gentle man.
Saturday, October 19, 2002
Translating & identity: I began translating as language practice; I practiced Vietnamese also by going out into the streets of Hanoi & speaking; I practiced how to be in that place by speaking & writing & crawling through dictionaries. I've always made my world through language & in many respects this was no different. Well, that sounds pretentious, but I mean literally as a kid I practiced over & over what I would say in different situations--I was no good improvising, where I might give something away. To some extent, I figured out very early how to use language to present myself from different angles depending on the situation. A little bit like lying, but not exactly. Or, lying to the extent that I learned to present my self to my own advantage & differently in different places & to different people. A scattered identity. Translating from Vietnamese has become a practice for me in the sense that it allows me to legitimately inhabit other identities, but at the same time has led me to confront my own habitual shape-shifting. Does the translator need an authentic, stable self (insofar as that's possible) in order to enter another self through the text of a poem?
In the Q & A after the morning session on "Spirit & Translation" someone asked about the translator's relation to specifically religious texts, in particular when the poet is either of a different faith or of no faith. My rather off-the-cuff response was that when I am translating a Buddhist poem I become a Buddhist, though in Vietnam most of the Buddhism I encountered--inside & outside of poems--was deeply infused with animism. (I come quite naturally to animism, so this isn't much of a stretch.) My remark is only partially true, though & I meant it mostly in a technical sense. That is, in the sense of going word-by-word; but you have to allow yourself to believe what the poem believes, word-by-word. Not much of a stretch for me to be an Animist, but how about a Christian? I might not be able to translate a Vietnamese Catholic poet like Nguyen Quyen, though I was happy to include him in the selection I edited last year for Poetry International. Given my own rejection of Christianity, I wouldn't be the right translator, maybe. I'd like to think I could imaginatively move inside a Christian poem, but it would be a stretch for me. If I were able to do it, I would have to rely on technique, on simple practice, word-by-word-by-phrase . . .
Anyone who has been paying attention will have realized that the last two entries were not posted in real time. I wrote them partly off-line & also wanted to develop a few things further than I usually do, mostly for my own record-keeping. My presentations here at ALTA in Chicago (I return home early tomorrow) have deepened my understanding of my own practice as a translator. Anyway, I'm back in real time.
The other thing that's been going on with me is a kind of dawning realization of the soul-rending that I went through in Vietnam. It may seem strange that I am only coming to this more than a year later, but I was some of the time an observer of my own turmoil.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:58 PM.
Friday, October 18, 2002
My presentations went swell, the first better than the second but both just fine. ALTA encourages panelists not to read prepared papers, which is fine by me. I'd rather improvise around a set of related ideas the way I do when I teach. In the morning session, with Aliki Barnstone on my right & Tony Barnstone on my left, not to mention Willis Barnstone in the audience,* I talked about my notion that translation is a partial recovery from the human condition after the destruction of the Tower of Babel. Nothing new in this notion by itself--Babel is an emblematic image for translators. My particular twist on the idea came from tying the tower to a Vietnamese folktale about King An Duong's attempt to build a Spiral Palace. Though the story doesn't deal with language directly, it deals with social organization, which is a problem also for the builders of Babel, though the biblical text all but suppresses this aspect of the story. (For steering my thinking in this direction, I am indebted to an article by Danna Nolan Fewell in A.K.M. Adam's Post-Modern Interpretations of the Bible: A Reader.) Nolan goes to the text of Genesis in order to show that the great tower built at Babel had a "top" & a "bottom," the top being the powerful king who ordered it built, the bottom being the slaves who actually did the work. It follows that the destruction of the tower would have been a defeat for nobility, but a liberation for the common folk whose labor had been coopted to the king's vanity. In the story of An Duong's attempts to build his Spiral Palace, the theme of social organization is made explicit: An Duong has overthrown the previous dynasty, the country is in turmoil & the walls of the palace he wants to build in order to consolidate his power keep falling down because he is abusing the workers. Once the king takes the River Spirit's advice & sends half of them home with gifts & begins treating the rest fairly, the kingdom returns to harmony & the palace is quickly built. What's this got to do with translation? Most generally, that it is necessary for the translator to understand the context as well as the text. Also, that language can be used & misused. Ideas to develop further.
I was also concerned to confess that translation from Vietnamese, for me, has become a mode of healing. I quoted a remark of Lady Borton's, made offhandedly on a sidewalk in Hanoi, that "This place has healed a lot of people." She was talking specifically about a mutual friend, but meant to include herself & me & lots of other Americans for whom Vietnam is both an American historical problem & an imaginary (in the rich sense of that word) kingdom in which extraordinary transformations may take place. The concept of healing has been much abused by New Age hucksters & other reductionists, but it is the only word I can think of to describe my own experience in Vietnam, the great irony being that Vietnam is the location of an American cataclysm. I'm just beginning to figure this out.
Second presentation was simply a brief reading of some of my own Vietnam poems with a bit of commentary.
*The Barnstone clan is something of a phenomenon among the tribe of the translators. More on the Barnstones soon.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:22 PM.
Wednesday, October 16, 2002
Checking in from the Magnificent Mile: I'm currently attending the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) meeting in Chicago. Tomorrow I'm going to be talking about my translations of Vietnamese poetry & a little bit about translation in general, though that's a subject I approach with trepidation--my interest in translation is very narrowly focused on Vietnam & I am more than a little hesitant to offer generalizations based on my personal experience. Especially with the likes of Willis Barnstone in attendance. What I have, in fact, are mostly questions, which is one of the reasons I've come to the conference. (Well, Chicago has some great restaurants too & I'm going to try to have a couple of nice meals out with friends.)
I began my preparation for the conference in the best possible way: The weather was fine over the weekend, clear & crisp. I took the truck over to the barn where Carole keeps her horse & had them load me up with composted horse manure, which I brought home & spread on a long-neglected area on the northeast corner of the house where we're going to bring in some shade-loving plants in the spring to go with the azaleas already there, which I pruned back pretty substantially as they had gone quite leggy in the low light. I pulled what must have been fifty pretty good-sized rocks out of the area: someone had put them there, I think, to define a long-gone flower bed. This particular corner of the yard butts up on my neighbor's woods, which means we're constantly trying to keep the Queen Ann's Lace & its cohort species from completely taking over. I still need three or four more loads of manure to bring the level up so it won't be so boggy. I get a lot of pleasure out of doing this sort of work--it feels a lot like making a poem, or delivering a good lecture to students. It also, unlike these things, feels good in the body. (Poetry imagines that it involves the body, but it's a figure of speech, really--at most an evocation of physical emotion.)
While I was doing yardwork, I was also thinking about translation, specifically the translation of poetry & the process of getting it from one language to another. I began translating Vietnamese poetry out of a fairly desperate desire to get my balance inside a culture that overwhelmed me. I admit that it's an impossible undertaking, translation; that's why guys like me keep trying to do it. Look, I'm not a professional translator, I'm an amateur. As I began to learn a little simple Vietnamese in the mid-1990s, I simply found myself driven forward. I was terribly insecure & at the same time proud of myself. I would go around Hanoi speaking my wretched Vietnamese hoping to be admired by my countrymen & accepted by my hosts. Foolishness, I admit it. But I had something like a pure heart. I had fallen in love with Vietnam & I am a poet, so I was aiming even then at formal translation. In 1998, on my second trip to Vietnam, I was given a copy of a literary newspaper. I selected a short poem at random & got out my dictionary. Eventually, after consultations with my Vietnamese teacher & others, I came up with this:
By now the boat has crossed the river
By now the myna has flown behind the mountain
By now longing melts away
By now the stars have come out to pour down their love
By now your palm hat is missing from the courtyard
By now my shirt no long floats snagged on the lotus flower . . .
Please tell me how long you will go on bothering me
I will sit up late writing by flickering lamplight.
I was possessive: I wanted to own the poems I worked on--not financially, but spiritually. That's a far more potent currency than mere money. I have had to learn to relax, to let go a little bit, but I'm always going to feel possessive. I continued working on translations because I wanted to come to terms with a reality other than my own--with an experiential world with which I was unfamiliar. I suppose some people are suited for such encounters, but I was not. I was thrown for a loop. I've been to Vietnam five times since my first trip in 1997, the most recent a Fulbright assignment that put me in Hanoi for ten months. I always feel slightly crazy when I'm there. Like that lover in the little poem above who longs for the girl even as she exasperates him with her teasing. I'm not an expert & my Vietnamese remains rudimentary, if serviceable. What I am talking about is a love affair. Well, more on this after my presentations.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:47 PM.
Sunday, October 13, 2002
The weekend: Cutting brush, spreading horse manure, thinking about translation. This morning Carole got up early, took the dogs out, made coffee & brought me a cup while I was still in bed. I'd been awake for a few minutes, but enjoying the sound of wind & rain. Just as I sat up to take my mug of coffee, the low clouds broke up bathing the maples by the river, red & yellow this time of year, in yellow morning light. From my upstairs window, still lying in bed, coffee in hand but not yet tasted, the trees & the light & the metallic sheen of the river insisted that there is no mind, no matter. Just light.
Didn't read much, didn't write at all. Just worked in the yard & watched cooking shows on television: Iron Chef & Emeril Live. Food on television is strange--at once distant & utterly close-up. There is something pornographic about watching someone prepare food that you will never taste. At least I made a good Chinese Chicken last night for dinner. Nothing fancy--I didn't tie myself up or anything--but a nice savory chicken dish served over rice. Carole made some greens with black vinegar, a sharp contrast to the sweetness of the chicken.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:14 PM.
Saturday, October 12, 2002
Cool gray morning.
Wind & dry red leaves.
I'm going to spend
the morning looking
through the macroscope.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:30 AM.
Thursday, October 10, 2002
As a second-generation Californian (exiled to New York), all I can say is Thank you, Congressman Pete Stark.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:40 PM.
World News Headlines from Reuters UK Reuters Poll: Americans are Dickheads Clearly, this is a literacy issue. Word, sentence, paragraph--we simply cannot read, which is to say we cannot organize our intellects so that they parse reality. This is not, as some sages have suggested, the Information Age (thought there is plenty of information); this is the Age of Opinion.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:17 PM.
At least I used to be a bigshot: "The clearly bleating rumormongers want it both ways. After Saddam obliterates the United States, they'll say, 'See, we told you so. It's all President Bush's fault.' Joseph Duemer, what kind of a man are you? The most unmistakably dishonest of the deceivers, Joseph Duemer distorts the position of Ann Coulter again. 'This whole thing is bullshit,' he said in a special appearance on The Simpsons. Now that's just outrageously obsessive and even dangerous irrelevance. George Orwell has observed, 'leftoids appease everything and protect nothing.' The calculated elite makes reasonable political discourse impossible when they resort to insouciance and viciousness every time Condie Rice says something accurate. To oppose tough war is to hate America. I suppose some notice should be paid to the performance that the calculated Joseph Duemer delivered Monday on his web page. 'This whole thing is bullshit,' he said. Well, duh. Joseph Duemer, unmistakably, is a formerly important loser." [from the essay "Joseph Duemer's Unmistakably Screeching Deception" by R. Robot, excerpted from National Republic Online]
I confess. I have often resorted to insouciance. And worse. "If my thought-dreams could be seen / they'd probably put my head in a guillotine." [Bob Dylan] "Dang me, dang me, / They oughta take a rope and hang me." [Roger Miller]
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:03 PM.
Conspiracy theories gain their power through simplification; they fail through over-simplification. Again, sentimentality appears where you least expect it.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:08 AM.
Wednesday, October 09, 2002
It's been a very long time since I was looking for a job & even longer since grad school, but this made me laugh out loud; & this, from the same source, is useful, witty & smart. Since I was about fifteen I have taken refuge in ideas. Not a bad way to deflect the violence & sentimentality of the current lebenswelt.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:20 PM.
The New York Review of Books: Is the Universe a Computer? "There are also well-known examples of complexity emerging from simple rules in the real world. Suppose that a uniform stream of air is flowing in a wind tunnel past some simply shaped obstacle, like a smooth solid ball. If the air speed is sufficiently low then the air flows in a simple smooth pattern over the surface of the ball. Aerodynamicists call this laminar flow. If the air speed is increased beyond a certain point, vortices of air appear behind the ball, eventually forming a regular trail of vortices called a 'Von Karman street'." [Steven Weinberg, NYRB]
In the novel I'm working on, there must now be a Von Karman Street. Aside: I've been fascinated by chaos & complexity since it emerged in the 80s & have kept up with the central ideas, but far from liberating, I have found the central tenants of chaos theory & complexity to be firmly rooted in deterministic & reductionist views of the world. Views that do not reflect the phenomenological spread & reach of the human experience of the world.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:51 PM.
Tuesday, October 08, 2002
Conspiracy theories ascribe too much power to human agency & not nearly enough to contingency. Conspiracy theories are anthropocentric; furthermore, the proponents of such theories are egotists who believe they have discovered the secret, nefarious truth behind reality. There is just the plain welter of reality, with different people & groups acting in various ways (not necessarily according to the economists' simple model of unambiguous self-interest). Conspiracy theories are way too logical for the actual shape of history.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:10 PM.
Monday, October 07, 2002
I'm not reading you. Over: A couple of years ago I spent a lot of energy arguing with several other poets on a listserv--most of them from Australia--that the American entry into the Vietnam war in the Gulf of Tonkin was the result of what amounts to serendipity. I was arguing that nobody knew what ways really going on & that the Johnson administration seized on several unrelated events in order to launch strikes against North Vietnam. Others argued that it was all pre-planned, that a vast conspiracy existed to extend American power into the region. What's funny is that our argument, though passionate, was largely semantic. I saw a series of accidents & reactions resulting in the extension of American imperial power into Southeast Asia; my Australian pals saw the whole thing as mapped-out in advance, a conspiracy. I saw the entry into the war as something like a self-fulfilling prophecy: not innocent, certainly, but full of accidents that allowed an ideology to be applied. That is, I saw the flow of history whereas my correspondents saw a vast conspiracy. (The Australians & later the South Koreans were the only nations to send a significant number of troops to Vietnam at Johnson's behest--maybe there is a sense of guilt operating here.) I see contingency & random events operating in both the natural world & (consequently) in human history. That's why I don't subscribe to conspiracy theories. The whole thing is bullshite.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:08 PM.
Sunday, October 06, 2002
Still further thoughts on Baraka: Max Sawicky emailed me the link to Baraka's own interpretation of "Somebody Blew Up America." Together, the poem & the statement demonstrate a formidable intelligence & equally formidable political paranoia. (It may be that for a Black man in America a deep political paranoia is both understandable & efficient in terms of reality testing.) Actually, I find the (polemical) statement much more engaging & convincing than the (poetical) poem. I've already given my opinion of the poem as poetry, but Baraka's statement does lead me to reconsider the politics of the text. My initial charge of anti-Semitism was based on my reading of the conspiracy theory theme of the poem, especially the end, which rang in my ears like many other anti-Semitic fantasies throughout the centuries & across continents; I see now, after another careful reading of the poem, that Baraka has been very careful to avoid generalizations about Jews & to root his paranoid vision of the world in the nation & government of Israel, which has weirdly (in the thematic space of the poem) become one more agent of White oppression despite the historical suffering of the Jews. I have been insistent in this weblog that it is not only possible but necessary to make a clear distinction between Jews & the government & policies of the state of Israel. I concede that the poem is not overtly anti-Semitic. To my mind, though, the Israel-Bush conspiracy angle casts a shadow of unreality over the poem: such an explanation seems far too easy. It is the responsibility of poets to offer difficult & nuanced visions, not cartoons. "Somebody Blew Up America" is a cartoon. (Well, cartoons can certainly be art . . .) And despite the fact that various intelligence services around the world had a pretty good idea that the US was going to get hit. I just can't step over the line into the paranoid fantasy. Hell, maybe I'm protecting myself from reality.
When I was in college, a white boy just emerging from a fundamentalist Christian childhood, I saw two Baraka (then Leroi Jones) plays at college, then went out & bought a book of his poems. He was one of the earliest influences on my own attempts to write poetry. Across the cultural gulf, this work spoke to me. I continue to admire that early work & some of the later poetry, but somewhere along the way Baraka's view of the world & mine became so divergent that I find it difficult to read him. (As in, "I'm not reading you. Over.") Nevertheless, he remains important historically & as a polemicist. He certainly has no cause to resign his position.
the crows & bluejays of late fall
engage me with the passion of friends
long critical of my behavior, my beliefs--
my very gait as I walk in the woods
scuffling up the leaves with my shoes
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:56 PM.
Windstorm Friday night knocked our power out for sixteen hours. I actually wrote with a pencil in a notebook:
high wind overnight
kept the dogs awake
carpet of pine needles
going out for wood for the stove
I hear the noise of generators
cloudy at mid-day
sound of wind in the pines
rooms lit by natural light
reading about the war
what concern is it of mine?
the experts say
the new war will not be
like the old war
pinned to the wall
above my table
a little chart
of Vietnamese vowels
there has always been terror
but our recent genius
has been to teach it our desires
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:56 AM.
Friday, October 04, 2002
Has anybody else noticed that Blogspot blogs are taking for-fucking-ever to load the last few days--ever since Pyra began offering a paid hosting service? Makes me want to consider paying for web hosting, but not with Blogspot. I already pay Blogspot for an ad-free site & Blogger Pro for their service. I'm beginning to feel nickled & dimed here.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 8:21 AM.
Further thoughts on Baraka: Max Sawicky has a thoughtful essay on the Baraka blow-up, arguing that the poem is not anti-Semitic, which I had claimed earlier. Max admits that his reading is "a bit forced" but even so has caused me to reconsider. There have been some other discussions of the poem scattered around the web, from which I've also benefited, including some of the comments in the usually pretty juvenile comments section of Warbloggerwatch. [permalink not working: see comments for the post of Oct. 2nd 12:37p.m.] The main point that Max makes is that the poem includes Jews in its list of those who have been oppressed by the power of the white establishment & I'd say this is a mitigating fact, but the "4000 Israelis who stayed home" on 9/11 still strikes me as coded anti-Semitism. In any case, as I've already noted, it's not a good poem, but that's no reason Baraka ought to resign.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:24 AM.
Wednesday, October 02, 2002
Someone named Lynn Sislo came across this site recently & posted on her blog, "it's less about "reading & writing" than about conspiracy theories and trashing the Bush administration." I have no idea what she's talking about when it comes to conspiracy theories, since I tend to dismiss such stuff when I run across it. As for "trashing the Bush administration," I'd say that the Bush administration is busy making trash out of the Constitution so any littering I might do around here is entirely superfluous. I would also suggest that Ms. Sislo can't have read very much at this address, since I regularly discuss acts of reading & of writing. Or perhaps she simply can't read--that is, she can parse the words, but her ideological fixations prevent her from actually understanding what's going on. The heading of her post is "Freakin' Idiots" & she seems to think that being a leftist in America is somehow a sort of fashion statement. Perhaps that is true of her own brand of superficial conservatism, but I'd like to point out that dissent has a long & honorable tradition in America & I reserve the right to dissent. If Ms. Lynn Sislo wants to take the Dick Cheney line that anyone who raises questions about the coming war is unpatriotic, all I can do is ask, Who is the real subversive here?
Ms. Sislo also presumes to give advice to the left, beginning with this personal revelation: "Now [after 9/11] everything is different. I don't think I've actually shifted to the Right. It's just that since September 11 the Right has done a much better job of shutting up their lunatic fringe, while the common sense Left has gone into hiding and let their lunatics take over." How about an example. Maybe she's talking about Al Gore, that well-know radical. No, really: Ann Coulter? Michael Kelly? The right's lunatic fringe has become the center. Well, she's from the great state of Oklahoma, so we maybe we ought to cut her some slack. (A favorite piece of graffiti from the Blue Moon Tavern men's room, circa 1976: "Happiness is a dozen Texans headed south with an Okie under each arm.") The right's lunatic fringe holds the most powerful offices in the land: John Ashcroft? Richard Pearle? Paul Wolfowitz? If Ms. Sislo is looking for the "common sense left," she isn't looking very hard. She could start here for a smart & passionate response to the sort of loose talk she's been engaging in, then for a discussion of the coming war (with which I largely agree) she could go here.
Tuesday, October 01, 2002
It's not a very good poem, but Baraka should stand firm. It is often the duty of poetry to be unpleasant, even wrong; it is the duty of poetry to sometimes make you squirm. Even a tender love poem must transgress, saying in public what is usually said in private, or never said. In the case of Baraka's poem, what we have is mostly strung-together bits & pieces of language from the media, ending with an expression of cliched anti-Semitism which, while it may very well reflect what some people believe, is an insult to intelligence. Baraka claims that criticizing Israel is not the same as anti-Semitism & I agree, but this is beside the point since the poem does not really criticize Israel, but makes an assertion about Jews, though the poet is careful not to use the word. But every artist has to be granted the right to fail in the service of a larger success. Baraka remains an important poet despite this bad poem. Bad because it over-simplifies. Bad because it is predictable, its language flat, its repetitions boring. Not bad because it contains an unpopular--& I am certain untrue--political assertion; bad because that assertion is given no context of language or thought that might allow a reader to consider its broader implications. In any case, the Arts Council of New Jersey ought to have known that giving Baraka an official position was going to come back to bite them on the ass. And if they didn't know, they should have--Baraka has a 35 year history of making controversial statements & publishing controversial work, much of it searingly brilliant.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:46 PM.
In "One Vote Away" by Nicholas Confessore, which appeares in the new Washington Monthly, we get a preview of what the administration's domestic playbook will look like if Republicans take back the Senate & continue their control of the House:
"[T]hose four months of one-party [at the beginning of Bush's term] rule were nothing compared to what the real deal will be like if the GOP wins back the Senate this fall. Unfinished business from 2001 would be up first: permanent repeal of the estate tax; permanent institution of the income-tax cut; passage of Bush's energy plan (including provisions to drill in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge); a partial-birth abortion ban; money for the technically unfeasible national missile defense system; repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax; redefinition of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule that protects more than 50 million acres of federal land from logging; and a welter of special-interest corporate tax breaks that didn't make it into Bush's big cut. "What changes is that the president's able to get his agenda considered," says Charles Black, a leading Republican consultant and former adviser to Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush. 'You would have a unified agenda and a predictable order of business.'"
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 1:00 PM.
Jonathon Delacour kindly sent me an early birthday present. It's mounted on the spice cabinet behind me. Cut off by the cropping is the bright yellow star of the Vietnamese flag on my shirt. What you can't see is that the portrait of Bush is composed of thousands of little images of Jesus--it's made by an outfit called Jesus Mosaics. The title of the piece is "Our Christian President." What the hell can I say? Thanks, Jonathon.
Update: It occurred to me after I posted the picture of me & the Boy King that Jonathon's gift is, indeed, an early birthday present, but for this weblog, which launched on October 8th last year. Thanks, Jonathon!
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 10:15 AM.