#21: Starting from Paumanok

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Happy New Year, friends! (Even though we are already halfway through January – how is that possible?) I have been in the midsts of a busy tax season & new semester at school, so things have been hectic, to say the least. But I have been reading a lot and still have so many things I want to think about with you, so I thought the easiest way to ease back into writing regularly is with a Whitman Wednesday post. Today, we start on Book II of Leaves of Grass. The first poem here, “Starting from Paumanok” is really long, 19 pieces, so here’s just the first part.

Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born,
  Well-begotten, and rais'd by a perfect mother,
  After roaming many lands, lover of populous pavements,
  Dweller in Mannahatta my city, or on southern savannas,
  Or a soldier camp'd or carrying my knapsack and gun, or a miner
      in California,
  Or rude in my home in Dakota's woods, my diet meat, my drink from
      the spring,
  Or withdrawn to muse and meditate in some deep recess,
  Far from the clank of crowds intervals passing rapt and happy,
  Aware of the fresh free giver the flowing Missouri, aware of
      mighty Niagara,
  Aware of the buffalo herds grazing the plains, the hirsute and
      strong-breasted bull,
  Of earth, rocks, Fifth-month flowers experienced, stars, rain, snow,
      my amaze,
  Having studied the mocking-bird's tones and the flight of the
      mountain-hawk,
  And heard at dawn the unrivall'd one, the hermit thrush from the
      swamp-cedars,
  Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.

Do you remember discovering where Whitman was born? (He lived in Long Island, if you forgot!) Here, I think he’s venturing out of his fish-shaped home (do you think Long Island looks like a little fish attached to New York State?) and he’s discovering the rest of America, from Manhattan to North Dakota.

I think this is a great poem to think about as I start the new year. I have been in such a rush to meet deadlines at school and work, that I haven’t taken any time to withdraw “to muse and meditate in some deep recess” which is honestly all I want to do every December. I have been reading “White Trash” right now, which is a 400 year history of class in America, so I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what life was like in the 18th and 19th century. I have been questioning whether our current idea of growing up in a log cabin is actually quaint and completely false. But I digress. After an insane 2016, this poem has instilled in me a renewed sense of hope, exploration, and curiosity as we strike up for a New Year.

How about you? What are your New Year resolutions? What are you reading? Please tell me everything since we last spoke.

Far from the Madding Crowd – what’s in a name

The protagonist of Thomas Hardy’s classic, Far from the Madding Crowd, is the beautiful and sharp Bathsheba Everdene.

She is named after Bathsheba from the Bible – the wife of first Uriah and then of King David, and mother of Solomon the wise. The story of David and Bathsheba is one of sin and repentance. One night King David saw Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop and “coveted her”. He got her pregnant and schemed to have her husband, one of his soldiers, brought back home, thinking that with a bit of luck in timing, her husband would assume he is the father. The plan failed, and David ordered Uriah to the front lines of battle, ensuring his death. After the mourning period, David and Bathsheba married. God struck down their first child to show his displeasure with their actions, which pained both David and Bathsheba greatly. David thoroughly repented and was eventually forgiven. We assume the same for Bathsheba, but less is written on her account.

Hardy references this relationship again through Sergeant Troy, Everdene’s first and very fickle husband. When Troy is still courting her, Bathsheba reprimands him for speaking to her inappropriately. He responds by saying:

… you take away the one little ewe-lamb of pleasure that I have in this dull life of mine.

The one little ewe-lamb refers to the when the prophet Nathan tells David a story of a rich man with a flock and a poor man with but one lamb, whom he raised with love and great care. When a traveler came through the city, the rich man offered him a meal made not of the sheep in his own flock but of the poor man’s lamb instead. David is outraged and misses the parallels between the story and his actions. Nathan clarifies that David, a king with many wives, is the rich man stealing from poor Uriah. It is also in this passage that David learns his first child has died. Troy is, of course, trying to guilt Bathsheba for his own reasons.

The story of David and Bathsheba is also the subject of Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered Hallelujah.

The surname, Everdene, is taken from a Dorset village named Evershot. Dorset is one of the locations that inspired much of the geography in Hardy’s novels. (See: Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.) Those who read or watched The Hunger Games may recognize the last name since Katniss Everdeen owes her last name to Hardy’s character. Suzanne Collins has said of the two women,

The two are very different, but both struggle with knowing their hearts.

Related: Literature’s feistiest feminists: How Thomas Hardy paved the way for The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen

1Q84 – brief cult comparisons

Aomame, one of Murkami’s protagonists in 1Q84, notices slight differences between the world she is in and the world she knew; one of those differences is the existence of a religious cult, Sakigake (“pioneer” or “pathfinder”). We learn that Sakigake began as a peaceful commune of about 30 members founded in 1974. However, some members with more radical ideology and split, forming the Akebono (meaning “dawn” or “daybreak”) commune. The Akebono commune was destroyed in 1981 after a shootout with Tokyo police. The Sakigake commune carried on but retreated from public eye and grew increasing private and guarded.

Murakami has also written a book (Underground: the Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche) about the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attack. The religious cult was founded in 1984 but grew to notoriety after they released sarin gas in the Tokyo subways as a coordinated act of terrorism in 1995. This attack killed 13, injured 50, and caused temporary poisoning in over 5,000 others. Afterwards, the Aum Shinrikyo cult split into two factions, with the Hikari no Wa (“Circle of Rainbow Light”) group disavowing the violent actions of Aum Shinrikyo, instead focusing on their spirituality. Regardless, both groups (with Aum Shinrikyo since renamed “Aleph”) are on terrorist watch lists to this day.

#20: I Hear America Singing

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Hi Friends, we are almost in December, can you believe it? This is the 20th Whitman Wednesday, marking five months of poetry! Today’s poem is “I Hear America Singing.”

  I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
  Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
  The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
  The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
  The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
      singing on the steamboat deck,
  The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
      he stands,
  The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
      or at noon intermission or at sundown,
  The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
      or of the girl sewing or washing,
  Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
  The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
      fellows, robust, friendly,
  Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

The more Whitman I read, the more I feel like poetry is a mirror. Poems often reflect their surroundings or the state of the reader more than anything else. It’s hard not to be political these days; it’s hard not to read in between the lines all of the time. It has been especially hard for me to read Whitman, that old patriotic bastard! In this poem, I see a really idealistic and beautiful version of America, the version that I think we all have in our minds. It is a really stark contrast to the news headlines today. I suppose Whitman has an outdated view of America – women do more than sew, sing, and wash these days (thankfully). I’ve been thinking a lot about the “forgotten” white voters who are nostalgic for the past. I hope Whitman’s America is what they are nostalgic for, and not for a pre-abolition, pre-women’s suffrage America. Because doesn’t Whitman’s description seem lovely?

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

Also, my friends and I are trying to start a little non-fiction book club to help us get informed and survive for the next four years. If you’re not afraid to get a little political, please let me know if you’d like to read along with us! Hopefully we’ll have some discussions on Goodreads and Facebook, in addition to real life meetings.

Pulitzer Project: Laughing Boy, Oliver La Farge (1930)

the pulitzer project

laughing boy.jpgA Brief Summary*: At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive “American”-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences

Setting: T’o Tlakai, a fictional town in Southwestern America

Time Period: 1914

A Fun Fact: The book was adapted into a movie in 1934.

Review: After the disappointment of Scarlet Sister Mary, I was hesitant to pick up Laughing Boy when I saw it was a “Navajo” love story written by a rich white guy from Rhode Island. But, I gave La Farge a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t completely blown away, but I enjoyed the book much more than I expected. Turns out, La Farge was an anthropologist who spent most of his life fighting for Native American rights. I think it was this interest and devotion that helped him create complex characters, especially in comparison to the caricatures we saw Julia Peterkin create.

This book tells the love story of Laughing Boy and Slim Girl. Laughing Boy is jealous of Slim Girl’s American education, while Slim Girl is trying to learn the traditional Navajo skills to fit into the community. It’s endearing to see the two of them try to figure out their place in society together, but neither of them ever feel like they fit in. I related to this predicament, as I’m sure most children of immigrants would. As Laughing Boy introduces Slim Girl to a lot of Navajo traditions, such as dances, horse taming, and blanket weaving, La Farge gives us a very basic primer as well. La Farge writes respectfully; for example, he keeps a lot of the traditional songs in the Native Navajo language instead of trying to translate into English. The book has a timeless feel, and I think part of this is due to such a narrow cast of characters and plot. Most of the story revolves around the two main characters, but we get a few glimpses into other people’s lives here and there. One scene I really liked happens when a few young Navajos go into a general store to play a prank on the storeowner.

I think there is an interesting trend going on in the Pulitzer awards. Between 1928 – 1932, four of the five books are about non-White people (even though they all had very White authors). We have just visited Peru in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the Gullah people in Scarlet Sister Mary, we are visiting the Navajo here, and in just two short years, we’ll be out of the country, in China, with Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I am always thinking about the importance of diversity, and it’s nice to see the Pulitzer juries valued this even 100 years ago. However, I will definitely be eagerly looking forward to the first person of color to win the Pulitzer! Just taking a brief glance at the list, I’m not sure when this is – does anyone know?

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I would recommend this book to people who are curious about Native American literature, but honestly, if you are, I would suggest you start with Native American authors, like Louise Erdrich, for starters. While I enjoyed the book more than expected, I don’t think I would recommend this to friends or revisit this book in the future.

#19: When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

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Hi Friends, if you’re just tuning in, every Wednesday, we talk Whitman! We are still trekking our way through the first section of Leaves of Grass, but I thought I’d mix things up a bit today. I was reading The New Yorker on the couch this Sunday, when I spotted a reference to a familiar face in this article: Ishion Hutchinson, Post-Post Colonial Poet, a review on Hutchinson’s second book of poetry, House of Lords and Commons.

But poets don’t want to be fodder for panels and colloquia, and Hutchinson’s poems are oppositional and disruptive, sometimes tauntingly so. “The Orator,” like Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” is a poem about poetry itself, its immediate purchase on the sublime, so much more powerful than classroom circumlocution. A lecture on “Caribbean Culture” is delivered by a “bore” who “was harping in dead metaphor / the horror of colonial heritage.” Suddenly, a thunderstorm knocks out the lights, and the lecturer now stands helpless in the dark

So I thought it would be fun to pull up Whitman’s poem next to Ishion’s. First up, Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

This poem is so quintessentially Whitman to me – shunning higher education institutions for the power of poetry and nature. Next up, Hutchinson’s “The Orator.”

Continue reading

Infinite Jest – Vocabulary II.

I had so much fun going through some of the vocabulary words I learned from the first chapter of DFW’s Infinite Jest (almost two months ago), that I thought I’d continue to share some of the more interesting words and sentences here. I am still slowly working my way through Infinite Jest, but I am hope to be able to devote a nice chunk of time to it over the winter holidays.

  • Presbyopia: prezbēˈōpēə (noun) – farsightedness caused by loss of elasticity of the lens of the eye, occurring typically in middle and old age. Literally means old-eyed.

O. stood there, he says, hefting a cold clod, playing with the Velcro on his puffy coat, watching as the Moms, bent way down to me, hand reaching, her lowering face with its presbyopic squint, suddenly stopped, froze, beginning to I.D. what it was I held out, countenancing evidence of oral contact with same.

  • Enfilade: enfəˌlād (noun) -a volley of gunfire directed along a line from end to end

Uncle Charles, a truly unparalleled slinger of shit, is laying down an enfilade of same, trying to mollify men who seem way more in need of a good brow-mopping than I.

  • Fantods: fantäds (noun) – a state or attack of uneasiness or unreasonableness; the creeps!

Roaches give him the howling fantods.

  • Apocopes: əˈpäkəpē (noun) -losses of syllables from words, particularly unstressed vowels

Gately could easily have screwed out of there and never looked back; but here indeed, in the lamplight, is a seascape over next to the chiffonnier, and the associate has a quick peek and reports that the safe behind it is to laugh at, it can be opened with harsh language, almost; and oral narcotics addicts tend to operate on an extremely rigid physical schedule of need and satisfaction, and Gately is at this moment firmly in the need part of the schedule; and so D.W. Gately disastrously decides to go ahed and allow a nonviolent burglary to become in effect a robbery – which the operative legal difference involves either violence or the coercive threat of same – and Gately draws himself up to his full menacing height and shines his flashlight in the little homeowner’s rheumy eyes and addresses him the way menacing criminals speak in popular entertainment – d’s for th’s, various apocopes, and so on…

I was going to type out the whole sentence, but I flipped the page and realized the sentence continued for another half a page!

What are some of the books you’ve read which require a big dictionary every page or so? What are some of your favorite archaic words? I think Howling Fantods is one of the best phrases I have read in a while.