Friday, July 31, 2009

Free a Death Row Inmate!

This cartoon appeared in Salon in the summer of 2000, in those innocent days when Bill Clinton was still president and when the death penalty was still our signature, national human rights embarrassment (before the days of President George Bush, rendition, and Guantanamo Bay).

That fall, in a capital defense clinic when I was a third year law school student, I was assigned to write a "post-conviction petition" for a man on death row in Alabama who - if not for my amateur legal assistance - would have had no legal representation at all and would have instead been forced to write his own petition, and conduct his own investigation, from his cell on death row.

On Nightline, Alabama's then-Governor Don Siegelman was asked by Ted Koppel whether it might reflect badly on the state of the criminal justice system in Alabama that law students were volunteering to work on these cases because of the lack of real, qualified lawyers. He either didn't understand the question or didn't care:

"There has not been one person whose final appeal on death row was not assisted by some of the top law firms in the country and wonderful law students at NYU and other great law schools around the country who participate . . ."

Bryan Stevenson, the inspirational director of Montgomery's Equal Justice Initiative and the professor at NYU Law that ran the clinic, spoke much more clearly about the issue:

"Any governor, any state that is relying on law students a thousand miles away to provide legal services to people on its death row, should not be bragging about that. I think that's an embarrassment. I think it's a shame. It's actually disrespectful to the people of Alabama in whose name these folks are going to be executed."

A handful of years later, things are not much better in the administration of the American death penalty.

And Bryan Stevenson's closing remarks on Nightline ring just as true:

"There's no one about whom I would say doesn't deserve an opportunity to show why they shouldn't be executed. And even if you kill somebody, you're more than just a killer, and that a society committed to justice, fairness, human rights, has to be at least willing to examine whether there's more to this person than this terrible crime."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lee Friedlander Photos of Billie and De De Pierce and Jim Robinson

Volume Two of Atlantic's Jazz at Preservation Hall series has Jim Robinson's Band on Side One and Billie and De De Pierce on Side Two.

The album notes say, "If the world's jazziest trombonist isn't Jim Robinson, then that person surely remains undiscovered."Husband and wife Billie and De De Pierce played together in New Orleans for more than 35 years in the "waterfront dance clubs on Decatur Street."
Billie and De De Pierce were also the subjects of a more well known Friedlander photograph:

Love, marriage, music, Jesus Christ, and Pall Malls, if I am not mistaken.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Plato on the Lovely Spectacle

I read Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, a compelling account of the Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people were murdered with machetes in 100 days, during my first year of law school.

I was struck by the book and the horrors it records and, after reading it, I aspired to be similarly willing to go where I was needed and to engage even the worst things that the world has to offer with open eyes.

Gourevitch prefaced the book with a quote from Plato’s Republic:

“Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was coming up from the Peiraeus, close to the outer side of the north wall, when he saw some dead bodies lying near the executioner, and he felt a desire to look at them, and at the same time felt disgust at the thought, and tried to turn aside. For some time he fought with himself and put his hand over his eyes, but in the end the desire got the better of him, and opening his eyes wide with his fingers he ran forward to the bodies, saying, ‘There you are, curse you, have your fill of the lovely spectacle.’"

Sometimes when I meet other death penalty lawyers, people who work in human rights whose daily work confronts famine or genocide, journalists on the crime beat, or anyone else whose job puts them face to face with the ugliness that is manifest in so many places in the world, I think about the quote and wonder how we ended up doing what we do.

On a trip to California a few years ago to see my brother, a wine seller for the terrific Robert Sinskey Vineyard, he pointed out, after some delicious wine, that he ended up working in a field selling something that we both love, that brings people joy and pleasure, and I ended up doing work that originates from circumstances that horrify me, where people were killed and others may be.

I suppose it's no accident.

Monday, July 27, 2009

High Lonesome New Orleans

My late friend and mentor, Neal Walker, a high lonesome, bad-ass criminal defense attorney and harmonica player, saw Bruce Springsteen with the Pete Seeger Band at Jazzfest in 2006 and reported that it was the most "musically transcendent" experience of his life, and possibly one of the best moments of his life, period.

Neal wrote my friend Ben an email about it, that Ben later shared with me:
He had nearly everybody in the crowd weeping at times with powerful spirituals and proletarian anthems like How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live, dedicated to President Bystander ("We drove around Lakeview and the Ninth Ward yesterday . . . the criminal ineptitude makes you furious"). He had an 18 piece band with a six piece horn section, two fiddles, an accordion, multiple guitars, etc., and they were in the fuckin' pocket, stoppin' on dime.
Neal wrote out the lines to Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, one of the songs that Springsteen played that day:

Paul and Silas, bound in jail
Had no money for to go their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on,
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

The very moment we thought we was lost,
Dungeon shook and the chains fell off,
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on,
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

Only thing that we did wrong
Was stayin' in the wilderness so long,
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on,
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

Only thing that we did right
Was the day we begun to fight!
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on,
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

I recently went back and tracked down a You Tube clip of the Springsteen singing How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live that day at Jazzfest:

Neal had remembered all of the commentary, like he was working from a transcript on one of the scores of appeals that he wrote for locked up men and women here in Louisiana or up in Kentucky. I have spent some time wishing that I had been there, wishing that I had gone to the Fairgrounds that day, run into Neal, and watched the Boss with my old boss. But now I think that's its better to see it through his eyes, to have Neal's unclouded experience instead, an experience of a hard but well lived life, of working in the trenches on some of the most frightening cases of crime and injustice in America, of humble origins in Appalachia, of playing music that springs from this experience. His life was an American folk song, classic American blues. He was Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, a poor man who couldn't stand these times and live.

I tried to say some things at Neal's memorial, ending up talking about another song, Little Froggy:

Neal was part of the American musical and storytelling tradition that this song came from, a tradition called “high lonesome” by the folk musician John Cohen when he went down and recorded Roscoe Holcomb in Daisy, Kentucky in 1961, when Neal was eight. As I understand it, and I am sure that Neal could do a better job explaining, high lonesome is a blues that’s battered and sad but still innocent, like that of a hurt child. But the high lonesome singer or story teller, in fact, is wise on the blues and unsurprised at the pain of the world. He knows and possesses these blues. They don’t possess him.

In some ways, I think that this high lonesome tradition brings the different parts of Neal, the musician, the amazing lawyer together. Neal was a storyteller wherever he was, the Supreme Court, Winn Parish Courthouse, on stage with his harmonica. He used these skills to fight two of the darkest black eyes of American democracy, the death penalty and the woeful treatment of human beings following Hurricane Katrina, and he used these skills to play songs and tell stories that made our lives richer.

Like many of the songs that Neal liked, Little Froggy didn’t end happily, because as Neal knew, life is sweet, though hard:

Mr. Frog went a-hoppin' up over the brook, Uh-huh,
Mr. Frog went a-hoppin' up over the brook.
A lily-white duck come and swallowed him up, Uh-huh.

A little piece of cornbread layin' on a shelf, Uh-huh,
A little piece of cornbread layin' on a shelf.
If you want anymore, you can sing it yourself, Uh-huh.


Almost four years after Katrina, more than two years after Neal's death, with things still a mess in this city, it's instructive to remember what these songs are telling us - life is sweet and hard, be ready for both, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Villon's Epitaph, Jill McDonough, and the Possibility of Political Art

I met Jill McDonough at a forum in New York City on Hurricane Katrina in late September of 2005. I had driven through the night from Oxford, Mississippi to get there and spoke with an impassioned delirium about how the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina merely served to expose the poverty and inequality in New Orleans that I had seen long before the storm while working on behalf of people facing the death penalty here. Jill came up to me after the event and introduced herself, said, "Bless your heart," told me that she was writing a series of poems about executions in American history, and offered to bake me cookies and bring me bourbon as her form of Katrina relief. A couple of days later, she sent me a number of her poems as well as a translation of Francios Villon's Epitaph, a poem that I had obsessed over in college, that had pushed me toward becoming a lawyer for people facing the death penalty.

Villon's poem, written from the perspective of a man who had been hanged, had made clear to me that there was little moral distinction between the condemned and those who judge him and that we are all very much in need of absolution, or as Jill puts it in her translation, "some slack."

Epitaph, Francois Villon, Translated by Jill McDonough

Brother humans, who’ll be here when we’re gone,
Don’t let your hearts turn so hard against us.
If you have pity for us, the poor ones,
God’s more likely to grant you his mercies.
You see here, strung up, five or six of us:
You see our flesh, which we have fed so well.
It was slowly devoured, after it swelled.
And we, the bones, are now just dust and ash.
Don’t laugh: we’re already miserable.
Just pray that God cuts all of us some slack.

Don’t be insulted if we call you some
kin to us, brothers. We’re sure that justice
was done in our deaths, but not everyone
has the sense to avoid being reckless.
So you stand up for us, since we’re helpless:
talk to the Son of the Virgin and He’ll
listen: He’ll pour out grace in liberal
doses, save us from Hell’s thunderous crash.
We’re dead now. Don’t make fun or give us hell;
Just pray that God cuts all of us some slack.

We never rest. We’re never left alone:
first we’re here, then there, as the wind changes.
Swinging corpses is its idea of fun.
The rain has soaked us through and laundered us.
The sun has dried us out and blackened us.
Crows and ravens have plucked out our eyeballs
and pulled our beards and eyebrows out as well.
We’re pocked as thimbles from the birds’ attacks:
Don’t do what we’ve done: see how far we fell?
Just pray that God cuts all of us some slack.

Prince Jesus, you are master over all:
Help us; make sure that we don’t go to Hell.
We have no dealings there, and that’s a fact.
Men, it’s no good mocking: it’s not His will.
Just pray that God cuts all of us some slack.


Just in case her offers of cookies, bourbon, and five hundred year old French poetry by a poet/thief weren't going to be enough to make me love her forever, Jill also sent me her own sonnets about the two executions of Willie Francis here in Louisiana:

May 3, 1946: Willie Francis
St. Martinsville, Louisiana

They brought Louisiana’s only chair
in a pick-up from Angola into Saint
Martinsville Parish, to the Court House, where
a fifteen-year-old colored boy had lain
on straw for months. Jailhouse on the second floor:
Death kindly took the elevator. Wires
were tossed from dynamo to window. Four
men setting up the chair passed flasks, dead tired
and innocent of amps. They called the priest,
and pulled the switch, and thought he’d die. He shook
and lurched and gasped-- You’re not supposed to breathe!
They shut it down, freed him from straps and hood.
Then Willie Francis stood up without help
and --miracle, miracle--walked back to his cell.

May 9, 1947: Willie Francis
Saint Martinsville, Louisiana

The Times reporters asked him to describe
the taste of death. Cold peanut butter. Fair
stars, little speckles: pink and green, like shines
in a rooster’s tail
. He said God fool’d with the chair.

His father smashed his gravestone into slivers
of granite. Hundreds wrote divine intervention,
how gold electrodes would corrode and silver
wires short if they tried to kill that boy again.
Like Daniel in the lion’s den; those men
in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace; unusual; cruel;
double jeopardy. None of these could save him.
At noon the chair was ready, voltage full.
He said everything is all right and died
without pink stars, green, anything divine.


These poems make me believe that art and culture can bring about social justice by helping people to better understand their thoughts and feelings about the world they live in. It's hard to imagine someone reading any of these poems and then voting on a jury to send someone to death, supporting a politician who uses the death penalty as a political tool, or, at the very least, not having a touch of human empathy for the "reckless," "helpless," and "miserable."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

When I went to Greece with my father, right after graduating from law school, before moving to New Orleans to work at the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center, I brought a single book, The Library of America's American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume 2.

One of the things that I liked about the book was that it included songs, American standards and old blues songs.

One night, drunk on white wine and vinsanto, my father and I sang the old Lorenz Hart song, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, from the pages of the book. I couldn't remember how the melody of the first bit - "After one whole quart of brandy" - went but my dad pulled it back from times long past. When the familiar melody started at "I'm wild again, Beguiled again," I was on steady ground. I didn't really sing, but read, the parts between the refrains and my father, a man not afraid to sing, play the trumpet, whistle, or express his musical nature at any place or time, would then belt out, "Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I."

Lorenz Hart, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

After one whole quart of brandy,
Like a daisy I awake
With no Bromo Seltzer handy,
I don't even shake.
Men are not a new sensation;
I've done pretty well, I think.
But this half-pint imitation
Put me on the blink.

I'm wild again, Beguiled again,
A simpering, whimpering child again-
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.
Couldn't sleep
And wouldn't sleep
Until I could sleep where I shouldn't sleep
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.
Lost my heart but what of it?
My mistake I agree.
He's a laugh, but I love it
Because the laugh's on me.
A pill he is,
But still he is,
All mine and I'll keep him until he is
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered
Like me.

Seen a lot-
I mean a lot-
But now I'm like sweet seventeen a lot-
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.
I'll sing to him,
Each spring to him,
And worship the trousers that cling to him
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.
When he talks, he is seeking
Words to get off his chest.
Horizontally speaking,
He's at his very best.
Vexed again,
Perplexed again,
Thank God I can be over-sexed again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

Sweet again,
Petite again,
And on my proverbial seat again-
Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered am I.
What am I?
Half shot am I.
To think that he loves me
So hot am I-
Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered am I.
Though at first we said, "No, sir."
Now we're two little dears.
You might say we are closer
Than Roebuck is to Sears.
I'm dumb again
And numb again,
A rich, ready, ripe little plum again-
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Margaret Bourke-White

In fits and starts, I developed a political conscious sitting around the home of my friend Sarah Kunstler. As a fifteen-year-old, when her father, the crusading, radical, criminal defense attorney Bill Kunstler, was already his seventies, he’d yell at Sarah, in front of me, about her poor choice of friends, referring to me as a crackhead, as in “Why do you hang out with these crackheads,” or, “What do you need money for? To buy crack for your crackhead friend?” Though this moniker was a somewhat apt description of me at various points as a teenager, I came to see that his hurling the early 90’s worst insult at his daughter’s friend was his way of being nice and welcoming.

In the years that followed, after his death, I would - during breaks from college - sit with Sarah and we would argue about race, poverty, war, and justice over bottles of wine at the kitchen table in their Gay Street house beneath a framed Margaret Bourke-White photograph. The photo showed a line of down-and-out looking black people waiting for food, or some kind of help, framed against a billboard showing a happy, white, idealized American family driving their car, with two bits of text on the billboard, “World’s highest standard of living,” and, “There’s no way like the American way.” Using this as one of many reference points, Sarah would explain, for the hundredth time, how her father would say that all white people are racists and how that is reflected in the country, including the work that I had recently begun doing at public defender’s offices. Because at St. John’s College where I went to school, unlike most northeastern liberal arts colleges, we didn’t really talk about these polarizing cultural issues of American society, and because my gathering interest in criminal law was more based on my moral and aesthetic sense than on any social justice issues, these conversations were an education for me, an opportunity to see the political dimensions of my own life and experience.

Sitting there as a college senior, getting a verbal beating from Sarah, I began to see the significance of the fact that I had recently asked her mother, another terrific attorney Margie Ratner, to write me a recommendation for law school when I had called her house just five years earlier to ask for representation following a felony drug distribution bust, for which I was largely responsible but for which I had managed to escape all consequences due to some combination of the fact that my mother had health insurance to send me to rehab, the fact that my girlfriend's parents were respected people in the community, and other obvious privileges. The absurdity and inequity in the fact that I was now applying to go to prestigious law schools when I should have been completing my "juvenile life" sentence - the sentence that I might have otherwise received from a blind lady justice - might have escaped me if not for the combined influence of Sarah's sharp rhetorical skills, too much wine, and the very fine Margaret Bourke-White photograph.

(If you want to get a sense of Sarah's adolescent rhetorical arsenal, which has only grown stronger over time, there is some old footage of her from that era in the terrific documentary that she and her sister made about her father, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. It may be coming to a theater near you this fall or to your home on PBS's P.O.V. series in the spring.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Craig Elementary School

In early 2003, my wife Nikki Page, an artist and art teacher, was involved in a project at the Craig Elementary School in our old neighborhood Treme where she had students paint portraits of loved ones that were incarcerated. She said that there was not a single child who didn't have someone - a mother, a father, an aunt, a neighbor - that was locked up and who they missed. The portraits were draped out of the windows of the school along with a banner with "Why are so many people we love behind bars" in large letters as part of the opening of a Critical Resistance conference on "ending the nation's reliance on prison cells and razor wire to stop crime."

As a child, I didn't know anyone who had been incarcerated and prison didn't factor into my life at all except as something I saw on television or in the movies or heard about from my cop stepfather. So, despite the fact that I had been working in the criminal justice system for a few years at the time, it was still jarring to me how mass incarceration had marked so many of these children's lives, depriving them of their caregivers and loved ones. These kids and their communities are the collateral damage of the war on drugs and the fact that America has abandoned nearly every social program focused on the poor other than incarceration.

I thought of the kids at the Craig School when I saw the article in today's New York Times, "Record Number of Inmates Serving Life," which explained that Louisiana had set the trend for the rest of the country in throwing away the key:

Burk Foster, a criminal justice professor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan and an expert on the Louisiana penitentiary system, said the expansion of life sentences started at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation’s largest maximum penitentiary, in the early 1970s, when most people sentenced to life terms were paroled after they had been deemed fit to re-enter society.

“Angola was a prototype of a lifer’s prison,” said Professor Foster. “In 1973, Louisiana changed its life sentencing law so that lifers would no longer be parole eligible, and they applied that law more broadly over time to include murder, rape, kidnapping, distribution of narcotics and habitual offenders.”

Professor Foster said sentencing more prisoners to life sentences was an abandonment of the “corrective” function of prisons.

“Rehabilitation is not an issue at Angola,” he said. “They’re just practicing lifetime isolation and incapacitation.”


Note to the rest of the country: If it started in Louisiana and it doesn't have anything to do with food or culture, don't try it. We are at the bottom of most meaningful measures from education to infant mortality. Significantly, we are also one of the most dangerous and crime ridden states in the union (and New Orleans is the country's murder capital by leaps and bounds) despite the fact that we also, as a state, have more people incarcerated per capita than any place in human history. You might say to yourself, if Louisiana's radical experiment with permanently incarcerating a significant percentage of its population was a successful public policy, wouldn't it stand to reason that people in such a place wouldn't be afraid to walk the streets at night lest they be robbed or killed?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ignatius Reilly on Community Policing in the Flagrant Vice Capital of the World

At the beginning of A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius Reilly is threatened with arrest while waiting for his momma in front of the old D.H. Holmes department store on Canal Street, where she is buying "fancy mix" and "wine cakes" in the bakery department.

The cop asks for Ignatius' identification and then asks him about the contents of his bag. Ignatius won't tolerate this treatment:

"Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized world?" Ignatius bellowed over the crowd in front of the store. "This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft. If you have a moment, I shall endeavor to discuss the crime problems with you, but don't make the mistake of bothering me."


In a New Orleans where violent crime spirals out of control but where police are spending half their time arresting people for minor offenses and hauling them off to the Orleans Parish Prison for a couple of days while they wait to go before a judge or for their paperwork to go through, it would appear that Ignatius is onto something. According to the Metropolitan Crime Commission, almost half of the annual 50,000 arrests in New Orleans are for traffic and municipal offenses. (Ethan Brown wrote about this with characteristic clarity earlier this year in Gambit.) While Ignatius' peculiar preoccupation with sodomites, fetishists, and lesbians probably should not drive criminal justice policy, New Orleanians would be far better served by a policing strategy that focused on serious crimes rather than street harassment of citizens less able to defend themselves than Ignatius.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lee Friedlander and Eureka Brass

I will pick up any old 1960's Atlantic Records album that I find in the bins at a junk store, without much regard for the artist or the condition of the record, if it has one of the richly colored photographs that appear on many of the covers of that era. After I had accumulated a few of them, I took a look on the back and realized that Lee Friedlander was the photographer for these musician photos.

His photographs from the Jazz at Preservation Hall series are among my favorite album covers. They are similar to his work that appears in his Jazz People of New Orleans book, taken in New Orleans between 1957 and 1974.

I scanned and photographed the cover of Volume I featuring the Eureka Brass Band of New Orleans.

Too good.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Politics by William Butler Yeats

I am going to try to avoid too many posts that begin this way but . . . several years ago, when I was losing my mind from too much pressure, sadness, and despair from long days working on death penalty cases, I taped this poem on the wall of my office to help get some perspective. I read it to mean that beauty - holding life and love in your arms - eclipses even the big dramas in the world. I took it as a directive to try to forget about my clients, their tragic cases, and their awful lives and circumstances for the night, to go home and be with N., to drive through the streets with her taking in the city we love, and not to forget that I got into this odd brand of human rights work because I cared about actual people, including the ones in my life.

I apologize to anyone who has heard me try to recite it from memory while drunk. I was only trying to remind myself.

by William Butler Yeats

'In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.' -Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Tonight I was on a panel with Dave Eggers and Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun at the Garden District Bookstore. Kathy and Zeitoun are the subjects of Eggers' new book, Zeitoun. Eggers conducted a Q and A with Kathy and Zeitoun and then gave me a chance to talk about how Zeitoun's experience in the criminal justice system reflects a generally collapsed and dysfunctional system, something that I experience in my work as a lawyer and which I have written about for The Nation and elsewhere. (There have been some bright spots in the recovery, like the great, post-Katrina Orleans Public Defender which provides real adversarial vigor to the system, but, generally, the system is still a mess.)

The Zeitoun's story is close to my heart. I sat on their couch and listened to them described their post-Katrina travails while conducting some of the initial interviews of them for the McSweeney's Voices from the Storm book and included a thumbnail of their story in Down in New Orleans. But Eggers managed to tell this story, an ugly convergence of the war on terror, mass incarceration, and one of America's worst disasters, in a balanced, non-polemical book that gave the Zeitoun's story the treatment it deserved.

Zeitoun and Kathy are great people and terrific New Orleanians but I think that Eggers' Zeitoun has also made them emblematic literary portraits that may serve to explicate a more dynamic picture of the Muslim American experience.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mind of Winter

I became preoccupied with this poem a couple of years ago. To me, it's a poem about empathy and understanding. You can't know the freezing woods if you haven't been "cold a long time." At the time, I was spending a lot of time trying to convince two clients who had lived through awful misery, one of whom suffered from serious mental illness, that they should take sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole in order to avoid the death penalty. In those dealings, then as now, I try to have a "mind of winter."

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

--Wallace Stevens

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Away We Go

N. is eight months pregnant with our first child and we have been living through the agonies and ecstasies of this new, amazing, and somewhat scary experience. So, of course, we were keen on seeing Away We Go, the new Sam Mendes movie written by Dave Eggers and his wife Vendala Veda based, one must assume, at least in part on their experiences with the same momentous occasion in their lives.

I watched the movie less as a film or work of fiction than as a touchstone for my own experience as an expecting dad.

As such, the movie raised two questions for me. First, if I recently replaced our cardboard window pane in our bedroom with a proper piece of glass, does that mean that we are ready to have a child? Second, is it common that men fret over terminal diseases when they are expecting their first child? I have been wondering whether the fact that I am bad with names - something of fairly long standing - means that I have a terminal brain tumor.

Epilogue by Robert Lowell

Someone sent me a line from this poem a few years ago: "All’s misalliance. Yet why not say what happened?" I randomly came across the email today and read the poem again. It sums up some of my aspirations, and anxieties, about writing.

by Robert Lowell

Those bless├Ęd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.

But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

Robert Lowell, “Epilogue” from Day by Day. Copyright © 1977 by Robert Lowell.