Monday, December 21, 2009

Best Books of Poetry, 2009

APOLOGIES FOR CRIBBING MY own list from the San Francisco Chronicle, but deadlines and grading take precedent over originality. I'll call special attention to my stocking stuffers--excellent books of poems that may fly under the radar of most lists.

The Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens, edited by John N. Serio, (Knopf; 327 pages; $30). A gorgeous and generous selection from the most important American poet of the previous century. Stand in awe at the bling in Stevens' first book, "Harmonium," but linger longer on his final collection, "The Rock," especially gems like "The World as Meditation," "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" and "The Planet on the Table." Amazing and enduring work.

Inseminating the Elephant, by Lucia Perillo (Copper Canyon; 93 pages; $22). Perillo's insightful work is less silly and more philosophical than Billy Collins', but just as funny. Imagine William Carlos Williams poems on roller skates, holding Roman candles in each hand, wearing a Viking costume, and racing down an abandoned waterslide, and you'll get an idea of what reading Perillo is like.

Face, by Sherman Alexie (Hanging Loose Press; 159 pages; $18). Alexie's poems are razors. Watch him lather up the faces of pop culture, Indian reservations, basketball and family. Then marvel at how his crazy sharp poems scrape them clean. This collection is Alexie's least angry and his most formal.

Archicembalo, by G.C. Waldrep (Tupelo Press; 64 pages; $16.95). Limning the line between verse and prose, this ingenious book takes the form of a 19th century "gamut," a kind of self-help primer that prefaced early American sheet music. The poems, forged in music's fire, instruct the reader not just about music and language but also about what we might call the internal symphony of the self.

Chronic, by D.A. Powell (Graywolf; 78 pages; $20). San Francisco remains one of the world's great cities for poetry, and Powell is its best poet. Powell's poems map the mysterious spaces where the internal and external world overlap, ultimately calling attention to the chronic afflictions affecting both.

Stocking stuffers:
Slamming Open the Door, by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno (Alice James Books; 80 pages; $15.95). A harrowing book about the murder of the poet's 18-year old daughter. The poems manage to be affecting and sorrowful without being exploitive, dramatic, or sentimental.

The Looking House by Fred Marchant (Graywolf; 63 pages; $15). An accomplished book about the problems of war and coming home from war. Meditative and introspective, these poems feel particularly relevant as America steps up its involvement in two wars.

The End of the West by Michael Dickman (Copper Canyon; 96 pages; $15). A better and more mature book than his brother's more lauded effort. These poems feel like they are about everything.

And How to End It by Brian Clements (Quayle; 122 pages; $14). See my previous post about Clements two recent books. Great stuff from small but outstanding presses.

Sightmap by Brian Teare (University of California Press; 96 pages; $16.95). The ghost of Robert Duncan lives on in these fragmented poems that catapult across the map of the page. I just love what Teare does with language here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Onward Christian Assassins or “Oh, Lord, please do that voodoo that you do so well” - A Guest Post by Scott Andrews

OUR FRIEND SCOTT ANDREWS is back with another guest post. Last time it was about werewolves; this time, voodoo.

Recently a Southern Baptist preacher from California was in the news because he was praying for the death of President Barack Obama. Wiley Drake of the First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park was practicing what he called “imprecatory prayer.”

To imprecate is to pray for or invoke a curse or harm upon another person. Drake has said there is a biblical mandate for such a prayer. In an interview, Drake made it clear he was praying not for an inconvenience, an embarrassment, or a bad fortune – a lost ATM card, party crashers at a state dinner, etc. No, he wanted Obama dead.

And he wasn’t alone. A handful of other pastors were doing the same. Pastor Steve Anderson of Faithful World Baptist Church in Tempe, Ariz., said he did not feel moved to pray for the benefit of the president, whom he described as “the socialist devil.” He said, “Nope. I’m not gonna pray for his good. I’m going to pray that he dies and goes to hell.”

First, I wondered how these pastors described their sermons on those bulletin boards you see outside churches, out by the sidewalk, announcing that week’s topic: “This Sunday: Opening God’s Can of Whoop-Ass”?

Second, I wondered why no one had charged them with attempted murder or conspiracy to commit murder.

There is a precedent for it.

In 1989, two men in Mississippi were charged with conspiracy to commit murder when they attempted to hire a voodoo priestess to kill a court judge with her special powers. John Henry Ivy and his half-brother Leroy were caught in a sting operation trying to obtain some hair belonging to Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner. They were upset with Gardner because of his sentencing of John Henry for armed robbery.

In the eyes of the district attorney, whether the two men could kill the judge with voodoo powers was irrelevant. What mattered was that they believed they could, so their actions were taken with the intent to kill another person.

The case never reached trial. The half-brothers pleaded guilty to reduced charges.

The case is included in a popular law school textbook, Criminal Law: Case Studies and Controversies by Paul Robinson, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The voodoo murder case is in a chapter that discusses a defense based upon “Impossibility.” A fuzzy area of the law is whether a person is guilty of attempted murder if it is impossible for the planned course of action to result in the intended victim’s death. For instance, we often say “if looks could kill,” but probably no one will be charged with attempted murder for giving the stink eye, even if he or she believes that look could kill.

But there ARE people who believe in voodoo. It is a religion, after all, and so it has faithful followers. They certainly believe in its powers. Perhaps they even believe in its powers to rob others of life or turn them into the undead – as Bill Pullman’s character found out in “The Serpent and the Rainbow” or as Star Jones discovered after she left “The View.”

And there certainly are people who believe in the power of prayer, since there are about 150 million Christians in the United States. I was raised in Southern Baptist churches, and I never heard prayers like those offered by Drake and Anderson. So I do not think their effort to recruit God in a regime change is indicative of some widely held sentiment or practice. But there probably is some kind of consensus among American Christians about the power of prayer. And the idea of charging Drake and Anderson with conspiracy to commit murder through “imprecatory prayer” has some interesting implications for those faithful millions.

Ronald Rychlak is a law professor at the University of Mississippi College of Law, and he commented on the 1989 case to the Associated Press: “The fascination is when you prosecute people with conspiracy to commit murder with voodoo, are you acknowledging the existence of voodoo?”

If Drake and Anderson were tried for conspiracy to commit murder, would that be the U.S. government acknowledging the power of prayer?

If the two preachers were found innocent with the Impossibility defense described in Robinson’s textbook, would that be the U.S. justice system saying that prayer is powerless?

Would Glenn Beck herniate a tear duct if that came to pass?

And wouldn’t Drake and Anderson reject the Impossibility defense for themselves? Accepting it would be sacrilegious for them, wouldn’t it? Certainly they would not say their public prayers were in vain.

Drake, at least, is off the hook. He says he has stopped praying for Obama’s death. He wants Obama to live now – so the president can be tried for treason.

That’s not exactly turning the other cheek, but it’s a start, I guess.

Scott Andrews teaches American and American Indian literatures at California State University, Northridge.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Grading President Obama's Speech on Afghanistan

HOW GOOD WAS PRESIDENT Obama's justification for sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan?

You would hope pretty good. Placing 30,000 young Americans in harm's way has more at stake than the rationale for watching Old School over Office Space.

If you're committing that many people to a war-ravaged country on the brink of toppling to the Taliban, you would want your rationale to be air tight, your methodology ultra sound. So, politics aside, just how convincing was he? Or, put another way, if his speech were a college essay, what kind of grade would it receive?

Most professors of freshman composition would be paying attention to Mr. Obama's organization and reasoning. Was his argument based on sound principles or easy fallacies? Did he provide a thesis? Did he lay out his points? Did he provide specific details to support his arguments? Did his arguments cohere? Interestingly, his immediate audience of cadets and his frothy but physically distant audience of congressmen were, no doubt, asking similar questions.

One of the key strategies to a good essay is making sure the author and the audience are on the same page regarding the terms and facts of the topic. To ensure this, Mr. Obama gave a brief and, I would say, rather objective history of the nation's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. He refrained from criticizing President W. Bush's ridiculous troop buildup in Iraq (over 100,000) but noted the staggering imbalance between those in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida lurk. This backstory may have been a little long, but it was important to set the stage, to bring everyone up to speed so that they could all start this surreal race to troop deployment on the same foot.

To his credit, the president did put his thesis foot forward. He stuck it out there and, sort of fearlessly, he ran with it. Never one to shy away from his plan of attack, Mr. Obama stuck to his guns. He also avoided cliches, unlike the author of this post.

His thesis is impossible to miss:

These facts compel us to act along with our friends and allies. Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.

To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al-Qaida a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

We will meet these objectives in three ways. First, we will pursue a military strategy that will break the Taliban's momentum and increase Afghanistan's capacity over the next 18 months. . . Second, we will work with our partners, the U.N., and the Afghan people to pursue a more effective civilian strategy, so that the government can take advantage of improved security. . . Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.

Not bad. Direct. Clear. Hard to misinterpret. Those of you expecting a one sentence thesis statement like the one you wrote for your five-paragraph essay on why recycling is good for the earth may be puzzled by this multi-paragraph assertion. But, for a longish speech, this is actually a fairly concise thesis. He numbers his points (three is standard; five or six are way too many and one or two can feel skimpy).

One could quibble over certain terminology. Can anyone, for example, ever agree on what, exactly, a "more effective civilian strategy" might look like? What does it mean to "defeat" al-Qaida? Defeat how? Military personnel and Christian congressmen may have different ideas about this. He gets marked off a few points here for unclear phrasing, but it's certainly forgivable. Justifying deployment into minefields is a real minefield.

Also, interestingly, Mr. Obama employs another classic rhetorical strategy. He names and refutes the major criticisms of his thesis.

I recognize that there are a range of concerns about our approach. So let me briefly address a few of the prominent arguments that I have heard, and which I take very seriously. . . First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. . . Second, there are those who acknowledge that we cannot leave Afghanistan in its current state but suggest that we go forward with the troops that we have. . . Finally, there are those who oppose identifying a timeframe for our transition to Afghan responsibility.

Notice each of the sentences in the above paragraph are the first (and topic) sentences of Obama's body paragraphs. Notice how short they are--how to the point. This method of stating and refuting the major arguments against your ideas does not show weakness; rather it demonstrates that Mr. Obama has thought about his plan, has weighed the opposite approaches and has, with full knowledge of contrary opinions, made a decision.

Grading such a speech is tough because how valid you think an author's ideas are can largely depend on your level of agreement with the author's political or social views. For example, someone who is a conservative Christian would probably find an argument mandating prayer in school entirely rational and perhaps even objectively on point, whereas someone more progressive would find the same argument an objective violation of the separation of church and state and, therefore, specious.

So, how convincing you think Mr. Obama's arguments are could depend on your own cultural and political barometer for rightness.

That said, I'm going to undermine my own argument. Though I am personally opposed to sending more troops to Afghanistan, I found Mr. Obama's rationale surprisingly convincing. I buy (for the most part) his argument. He made me alter how I think about this issue; he got me to consider his point of view. When it comes to a persuasive text, that is generally as much as you can hope for.

So, for this speech, Mr. Obama gets an A-.