Brief Book Review: A Passage to India

Just finished for book club: A Passage to India by E. M. Forster. I hope to write a more thorough review in a future post. For now, summarized thoughts on the reading.

Probably a 4.5, maybe even 4.6 out of 5. Only minor lagging and minimal obfuscating text.

Brilliant in most every other way–from structure to theme development, to literary device use and turn of phrase, to character complexity and insightful omniscient third person point of view, to measured dramatic arc and lyrical, mystical realism, to vivid setting description, especially geology (one of my loves), to a tone of nonchalant cynicism (not indifferent nihilism) founded in secular humanism, i.e., brotherly love, and good intentions, while proving, through keen cultural understanding and storytelling, that in unequal, occupier-colonist relationships amidst racial tensions and in-country religious differences, good intentions are never enough.

Absorbing, educational yet not pedantic, and resonant well beyond its early 20th-century era and final page.

cover_a-passage-to-india

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 7: Black Legacies

In honor of Black History Month (and the birthday of poet Thylias Moss), here are some ideas and resources for exploring nature poetry–and uses of nature in literature–across the Black* and African diasporas of the Americas.

In nature poetry and environmental literature
Resource

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Camille T. Dungy, ed. Published by University of Georgia Press (2009). The review by Alexa Mergen at the Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing is undated. Here’s a basic description of the anthology, which I just ordered online:

Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy, provides 180 windows from 93 poets onto views of nature.”

Ideas
  1. Consider the role of nature in the history of American slavery and other forms of Black oppression and destruction. Examples: trees used for lynchings, rivers for trafficking slaves. Can you hear Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit?” Slave-driven American agriculture appropriated both nature and Africans.
  2. Natural race, racial nature: As with nature-based portrayals of women, white patriarchal literary and other traditions have used nature concepts and imagery to dehumanize, reduce and limit Black experience and existence, under the assumption that nature, too, is to be dominated. On the other side, feminists and scholars have theorized means of liberation through ecofeminism–a blend of feminism and environmentalism. I read Ecological Feminist Philosophies for a course during college. Perhaps I’ll look at nature poetry from a feminist perspective in the future. Jon Claborn recently published a nonfiction work titled Civil Rights and the Environment in African-American Literature, 1895-1941. Camille T. Dungy, referenced above, highly praises the book.
  3. Derek Walcott, an award-winning contemporary Black Caribbean poet, died in March of last year. His book-length poem Omeros, a work I also read–and loved–in college, weaves together language, rhythm, sea and island symbolism, myth, and allegory. The poem’s main purpose is to illuminate the history of colonization and the nature of post-colonial life in St. Lucia, the West Indies.
  4. Wild Africa: poems about nature in Africa, though not necessarily by African poets.
African American poetry resources

Moving beyond the subject of blackness: from the Modern American Poetry series at the University of Illinois, “Furious Flower: African American Poetry, An Overview” by Joanne V. Gabbin:

“Rita Dove, acknowledging her own debt to the Black Arts Movement, said that if it had not been for the movement, America would not be ready to accept a poet who explored a text other than blackness. Unencumbered by a necessarily political message, Dove in her Pulitzer Prize winning book Thomas and Beulah (1987) brings wholeness and elegance to the histories of her grandparents. Dove, who held the post of Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 until 1995, is representative of a large accomplished group of poets who published their first poems during the late 1970s and 1980s: Yusef Komunyakaa, Cornelius Eady, Melvin Dixon, Dolores Kendrick, Thylias Moss, Toi Derricotte, Gloria Oden, and Sherley Anne Williams.”

Dolores Kendrick, Poet Laureate of Washington, D.C., passed away last November. Here is an in memoriam from her southwest D.C. community, including her poem “Epoch.” The Poetry Foundation notes that Kendrick made connections through poetry. She said, “Good poetry does not belong to the poet.”

See also the Academy of American Poets interview with poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois,” which includes among its subjects the issue of real and perceived neglect of black writers by white anthologists. The absence of Gloria Oden (G. C. Oden) and Sherley Anne Williams from the the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation websites may speak to that neglect, though the Poetry Foundation does include Williams’ profile page. Below is the salient excerpt from the Brooks interview.

Angle: Do you think that the fact that you are a Negro placed you under any handicap in a writing career?

Brooks: If it has, I don’t know about it. Certain things might have happened that I don’t know about, but I can’t say that I have been hindered because of my race in the field of writing. I am not aware of this being true. I have written poems. I have submitted poems to editors and publishers. When the poems were poor they were returned (as a rule!). When they were other than poor they were published. Everything that I have written that I wanted to see published has been published, with the exception of one juvenile which needs a couple adjustments. And for many years I have had writing invitations from editors and publishers.

I have something further to say on the subject, however. I do believe that it is true, as Karl Shapiro says, that many white anthologists will not admit black writers to their pages. Mr. Shapiro wrote (in a foreword to Melvin Tolson’s “Harlem Gallery”): “One of the rules of the poetic establishment is that Negroes are not admitted to the polite company of the anthology. Poetry as we know it remains the most lily-white of the arts.”

There are exceptions to my exception, of course. Sometimes Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson may be found. Sometimes I may be found. Sometimes LeRoi Jones may be found, but never with his best work, which is the poetry of The Dead Lecturer. Never Kent Foreman, Don Lee, Dudley Randall, Margaret Danner, David Lhorens, Ted Joans, G. C. Oden, Julia Fields, Robert Hayden, Conrad Rivers, Owen Dodson, Margaret Walker. (You will find these people in the Negro anthologies, in Hughes’s and Bontemps’s anthologies.)

Poem by an African American

Finally, an excerpt of a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa, the full text of which can be found through the Poetry Foundation and JSTOR:

Excerpted from "Blessing the Animals"
by Yusef Komunyakaa

. . . An elephant daydreams, nudging
ancestral bones down a rocky path,
but won't venture near the boy
with a white mouse peeking
from his coat pocket. Beyond
monkeyshine, their bellows
& cries are like prayers 
to unknown planets & zodiac
signs. The ferret & mongoose
on leashes, move as if they know
things with a sixth sense.
Priests twirl hoops of myrrh. . . .

Bibliography

Academy of American Poets. “We Asked Gwendolyn Brooks about the Creative Environment in Illinois.” Accessed February 27, 2018. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/we-asked-gwendolyn-brooks-about-creative-environment-illinois.

Claborn, John. Civil rights and the environment in African-American literature, 1895-1941. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

Dungy, Camille T. Black nature: four centuries of African American nature poetry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Gabbin, Joanne V. 2004. Furious flower: African American poetry from the Black arts movement to the present. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. (listing: https://www.worldcat.org/title/furious-flower-african-american-poetry-from-the-black-arts-movement-to-the-present/oclc/52424044 )

“The Furious Flower Conference of 1994 represented the largest gathering of African American writers at one event in nearly 30 years. This work assembles a second selection of works by 43 Furious Flower participants covering three generations. It includes biographies and photographs by C.B. Claiborne of many of the Furious Flower participants.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Blessing the Animals,” Poetry, July 1997, 220-21.  Accessed February 27, 2018 through Poetry Foundation and JSTOR. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?volume=170&issue=4&page=39.

Walcott, Derek. Omeros. München: Hanser, 1995.


* Black – The term is here distinguished from “African American” to acknowledge the various groups of black people who (1) did not descend from Africa (any more than all of humanity does, which it does) but are in fact descendants of darker-skinned peoples relatively more native to different parts of, for instance, the Caribbean, in this “Americas” context, and (2) are neither geographically nor culturally American.

The term “Black” is here capitalized as a sign of respect for traditionally subjugated and marginalized groups, who, while not ethnically or culturally homogeneous, tend to have darker skin compared to whites and other people of color, and whom white, majority cultures have oppressed, over the centuries, in large part because of that darker skin. For more on the debate over color labels and their use in type, see “Black and white: why capitalization matters” by Merrill Perlman at Columbia Journalism Review.


My series on famous nature poetry:

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1: Sun Spots
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1a: “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 2: Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 3: Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 4: Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 5: Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Up next:

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 8: “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons

Scots: Living Language, Not Bygone Dialect

Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.

cover_A-Streetcar-Named-Desire_images.duckduckgo.com

Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.

Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.


If you enjoyed this review, you may also like:

Book Review: Molière’s Tartuffe

Five-Phrase Friday (27): Oscars Race

The Oscars cometh on February 28, as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy resurges, and everyone wonders just how show host Chris Rock will address it all.

With little viewing experience of this year’s Oscar contenders, I’ve set a preliminary list of Academy Award-nominated films and artists I’d most like to see. I’ve seen and enjoyed The Martian and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (twice on the big screen), but there are many more performances worth seeing, stories worth experiencing. The 88th Annual Academy Awards is just another touchstone of an opportunity to learn about them.

It actually took me until this post to bother to look up the synopses for the films I’m less familiar with, which is ironic since I’m hosting our second annual Oscars party on Sunday. Oh well. I just care more about Outlander than movies right now, I guess.

My roughly prioritized selections are based on genre interests, preferred actors and other movie makers, Oscar buzz, feminist leanings, and sheer curiosity.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road – for the  impeccable and unique film editing of Margaret Sixel, wife of director George Miller, plus Charlize Theron and her women warriors’ badassness. I’d like to get to know Tom Hardy’s work better, too.
  2. The Revenant – Wilderness and Leo and, again, Tom Hardy, and bears and buzz.
  3. Room or Carol or Joy, depending on mood – Curious about Brie Larson’s performance in Room, long-time fan of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, co-stars of Carol; and love Jennifer Lawrence, too. Saw The Hunger Games, American Hustle, and Silver Linings Playbook already, and Joy will be particularly uplifting, I think. Yeah, I guess Joy will be the first of these three that I see.
  4. The Hateful Eight – Tarantino, people. Tarantino. Plus, cast and music.
  5. Spotlight – curiosity about the history/story, plus a great cast.

And as for the snubbed, if I get around to it:

  1. Woman in Gold Helen Mirren seen by some to have been snubbed for lead actress in this and supporting in Trumbo. Co-starring Ryan Reynolds, a WWII Jewish cultural heritage story. Always liked both actors.
  2. Steve Jobs because I like Aaron Sorkin‘s writing; I love Fassbender and Winslet.
  3. Straight Outta Compton – As a white girl and 80s New Wave fan, I’ll get to learn some new things, gain greater music and cultural appreciation from my youth.
  4. Inside Out – It’s supposed to be interesting.
  5. Bridge of Spies – WWII and Hanks usually work. Spielberg‘s the apparent snub here.

I have no desire to see The Big Short, Brooklyn, Creed, or Concussion despite all the hype, mainly due to subject matter, though I’ve heard Brooklyn is also underwhelming.

The Danish Girl sounds interesting, but I have yet to see The Theory of Everything on my DVR, so I haven’t become enamored of Eddie Redmayne yet. I’ve also seen what are probably more compelling transgender works in both film and TV. If anything, I’ll revisit Transamerica, for which Felicity Huffman earned a Golden Globe nod (2005) for playing a male-to-female, pre-operative transgender in a more complex and interesting story. A woman as a man on his way to becoming a woman–how very Shakespearean!

About the awards controversy, it’s more complicated than simple prejudice, injustice, banning, and protest. I doubt most mistakes, if they can rightly be called mistakes, have occurred out of malice. A few other thoughts:

  1. It’s nothing new–as in, not just last year, but decades’ worth of overlooked, deserving artists of color. Therefore, pick your battles.
  2. Whites have been snubbed for meritorious work as well.
  3. What about Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and women?
  4. The problems stem from limitations, both cultural and political, on the front end of movie making more so than at the awards-giving phase. Where are all the female directors? Which movies get made, and which actors get cast, in the first place? Etc.
  5. Besides, as with censorship, some degree of controversy is useful to raise awareness of art that’s worthy of experience and celebration.

So there you have it. If apparent prejudice gets your dander up, by all means join the conversation. It’s still a free country, even for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, who by the way, are already making changes to their policies to address concerns about improper bias.

But these are the arts, people; bias is the name of the game. It’s a matter of taste and critical mass. Not everyone can secure a nomination, just as only one can win the award. If everyone’s special, nobody is.

In the end, though, awards and critical acclaim are just a highlight, a blip on the screen of the long cultural arc of arts and entertainment stories. As Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ box office records show, ticket sales can tell a different and equally valid story.

Watch on.

Ocsar Statues Are Made Ahead Of This Year's Academy Awards

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images, 2008

Why I am not Charlie: A pressed post

Why I am not Charlie. Originally posted by A Paper Bird

Okay, so this is not timely commentary on my part. The source content is just so good that I felt compelled–now–to use social media to capture and broadcast what I see as an important message, especially for you, the thoughtful and empowered. Note: In emphasizing that description of “sharing,” I acknowledge the fine point made here that supportive speech and active solidarity are not synonymous.

I see at least two applications of this concept in the pressed post. Using myself as an example: First, I should carefully avoid claiming to do, e.g., human rights work, but I can openly appreciate those who do. Second, and apparently a more difficult concept for many, my defense of one’s right to non-violent expression is not–and need not be–support for the ideas or beliefs expressed.

I found this post after reading visitor comments on A Paper Bird‘s “about me” page, which I sought after being impressed by and tweeting the post Internet entrapment in Egypt: Protect yourself!. I receive a weekly digest from his blog.

After some mental laboring over, and re-reading of, Why I am not Charlie, my eyes have opened to complexities in the nature of satire, nuances I was startled to realize did not arise in my teaching of it to high school English classes.

A Paper Bird has deepened my hopefully growing understanding of the need to think critically and learn (i.e., research and/or ask questions) before either acting or reacting, especially in a provocative, emotional way. Otherwise, one may unwittingly create or perpetuate a distortion of fact and, thus, condone blindness to a truth. Such blindness only enables threats–and increases the potential for threats–to people’s freedoms and lives . . . which is bad.

In the name of sense and reason, let’s all try harder to think first and more carefully. And to shed light, not self-control.