Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 25, 2014

Fishing on the Pole Star

Filed under: animal rights,literature — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

My Facebook friends know that lately I have been posting poems on my timeline. It has been many decades, five at least, that I have read poems—let alone try to write one. After getting radicalized in 1967, my life took a rather prosaic turn.

Most of the poets I like to read are long dead, including Herman Melville who was damned fine even if he is best known for his prose. As might be expected, his poems share the subject matter of his best-known prose:

The Maldives Shark

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

Just by coincidence it seems, I got a copy of Paul Pines’s latest book of poems titled “Fishing on the Pole Star” that also has a great poem about sharks:

Screen shot 2014-05-25 at 4.08.58 PM

Like Herman Melville, Paul Pines was not a product of the Iowa Writers Workshop but a life of wanderlust including time spent as a deckhand on merchant ships. In the introduction to “Fishing on the Pole Star”, he explains the book’s origin:

As a boy in Brooklyn I fished for crappies in Prospect Park with my brother Claude, and later bottom-fished on party boats out of Sheepshead Bay and Boston Whalers on Long Island Sound. When I owned a bar and restaurant, several of my staff, including our chef, Nathan Metz, fished out of Montauk for blues and stripers which we brought back to feed our patrons. While living in Belize my buddy Ted Berlin, a peerless hand-line fisherman and free-diver, showed me how to scour coral heads for crab, lobster, conch and snapper. But nothing can convey the mystery and challenge of those weeks at sea tracking the great marlin south through the out-islands of the Bahamas—and to those who opened that world to me, starting with my father, I will be forever grateful.

I never did any salt-water fishing but growing up in upstate NY, there were many days spent fresh-water fishing including on the Neversink River, one of the state’s legendary trout streams a couple of miles from my home.

But the fondest memories were of fishing for pickerel, perch and crappies (we called them sunfish) in Silver Lake in Woodridge, my hometown. My father was about as distant from me as could be imagined. Since I was born in January 1945 when he was off fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he never bonded with me. I suppose even if he had been around, he still would have been a distant figure—that’s the way that Jewish men who lived through the Depression were so often. But when we were on the dock watching the red-and-white float bobbing on the surface, it was like a scene from The Andy Griffith Show, with me playing Opie.

Despite my overall prosaic mindset, there’s something that still touches my mystical inner eye when it comes to water. I don’t think I could ever live very far from the water. When I did so in Kansas City, I was miserable most of the time. Of course that was just as likely a function of belong to a cult that was forcing me to get an entry-level factory job at the age of 33.

When I croak, I will have my wife cremate me and dump the ashes into the Hudson River, for me an especially holy body of water—my Ganges in effect.

It is so easy to take water for granted. But did you ever stop to think about where it came from? When the planet earth was born, there was no water (and no god to create it either.) Although it is only a theory, there’s a good chance that it came from a water-laden comet or meteor crashing into our planet was responsible.

The other thing that intrigues me is our connection to the fish itself. While we are obviously far removed from them on the evolutionary ladder, they are our great-grandfathers and grandmothers. Despite our terror of the shark, they are in some ways our closest relatives since they are at the top of the aquatic food chain just as we are at the top of the entire food chain. Unlike us, the shark poses no danger to the survival of the planet, however. In a very real sense, the shark in “Jaws” was a lot less scary than BP or Exxon-Mobil.

I recommend the website of Thomas Peschak, a National Geographic photographer, conservationist, and author of “Sharks and People”.  Peschak has a few videos there, including one of the Manta Rays on a feeding frenzy in the Maldives, the same place that Melville’s poem was set in.

I have no idea how the world will end, whether with a bang or a whimper but I’d hold out hope that the sharks and other swimming creatures will survive our wickedness and give evolution a chance to start all over. Those beasts at least know how to participate in the great circle of being, unlike our own sharks on Wall Street who will certainly destroy us given the chance.

Paul’s very fine new book can be ordered from the publisher’s website. Not only are the words great, the accompanying seascape collages by Wayne Atherton are priceless. Paul dedicated the book to his late brother Claude who was a good friend of mine during the halcyon days before the Vietnam War. The book is a fitting tribute to Claude as well as a major contribution to the poetry canon by a true original. Waste no time. Buy the book and get spiritually elevated.

April 21, 2014

The return of Stefan Zweig

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Jewish question,literature,war — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Counterpunch April 21, 2014

Madness and War

The Return of Stefan Zweig


When a publicist from IFC invited me to a press screening of Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise” (the film opens Friday in NY), I could not resist. Leconte was one of my favorite directors and I considered his “Ridicule” a masterpiece. Since IFC described “A Promise” as a tale about a young man of humble origins taking up a clerical post in a German steel factory at the beginning of WWI, it sounded as if Leconte had returned to the concerns of “Ridicule”, a film that pitted a minor aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France against the snobbery and authoritarianism of Louis XIV’s court. It seemed all the more promising (no pun intended) given the screenplay’s origins as a Stefan Zweig novella titled “Journey into the Past”. I was aware that there was something of a Stefan Zweig revival afoot, reflected by Wes Anderson’s homage to him in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and new editions of his fiction and nonfiction work from both New York Review of Books and Pushkin Press, a boutique publisher specializing in fine literature.

This much I knew about Stefan Zweig. He was the quintessential fin de siècle author from the quintessential fin de siècle city—Vienna. He was a pacifist who opposed WWI and a Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He was also connected to a wide range of intellectuals and public figures, ranging from the Zionist Theodor Herzl to Richard Strauss, the German composer who had an ambivalent relationship to the Third Reich but who stood by Zweig when it came to including his librettist’s name in a programme. He was particularly close to Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler and Romain Rolland, three other key figures from fin de siècle Vienna. After relocating to Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide together. Like fellow Jew Walter Benjamin, he succumbed to despair.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/21/the-return-of-stefan-zweig/

March 17, 2014

Thoughts on a Counterpunch article paying tribute to Cormac McCarthy

Filed under: indigenous,literature — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

Cormac McCarthy

In today’s Counterpunch—my favorite online and print publication—there’s a tribute to Cormac McCarthy, my least favorite novelist, by a Texas attorney named Carl E. Kandutsch who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University. Often set in Texas and the old west, McCarthy’s novels leave me with the impression that they are a mosh-up of overwrought Faulknerian or Melvillian prose and the Warner brother’s Roadrunner cartoons.

I first became—how should I put it?—obsessed with McCarthy after seeing “No Country for Old Men” in 2007. When the most likable character, a blue-collar worker who has absconded with the drug money found at the site of a shootout that left the dealers killed, is killed off himself long before the end of the flick only to leave a sheriff played by Tommie Lee Jones to blather on about the state of the world, I turned to my wife and said, “What the hell? Is this the way this stupid movie ends?”

That led me to an examination of the Cormac McCarthy fan’s website (http://www.cormacmccarthy.com/), where I saw his 1985 “Blood Meridian” described as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

Since I guess I am one of those people who subscribes to the “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization”, I had problems with McCarthy’s novel even before I read it.

Kandutsch’s tribute references “Blood Meridian”, a novel most pro-McCarthy critics regard as his finest and liken to “Moby Dick”. With respect to the “politically correct” question, Kandutsch states:

There are no “noble savages” in these novels, and the Indians described in Blood Meridian are every bit as brutal, rapacious and blood-thirsty as the lawless gang of gringos who patrol the border badlands destroying villages in search of Indian scalps to sell for bounties offered by the Texas and Mexican governments.

Before I turn to the Comanche “noble savage” topic, I want to say something about McCarthy’s style. In the interests of transparency, I have to admit that I can’t stand overwriting so that probably disqualifies me as an objective critic of McCarthy to begin with. The late Nora Ephron, a wise and witty critic of male foibles and a pellucid prose stylist, had these words on McCarthy in the New Yorker magazine as related in a bedtime chat she was having with an unidentified man:

She opened the book and started reading from the end.

He does this weird thing with contractions, she said. He uses apostrophes for words like that’s and it’s but he doesnt use them for dont and wasnt and wont. He doesnt use quotation marks, either.


Cormac McCarthy.

As the best example of what I find troubling about both McCarthy’s writing and his politics, there’s no better example than this passage from “Blood Meridian” that describes a Comanche band returning from a raid on a Texas village as if it was a Walpurgisnacht procession:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Wow, that’s all one sentence! Back in 1977 when I was working for Salomon Brothers, the programmers took a workshop on writing memos that was better than any writer’s workshop class I ever took at Bard or NYU. We learned to avoid the passive voice, number one (you’ll rarely see them in my articles.) The next thing was to understand the Gunning Fog Index that rated prose on the basis of readability, including the average number of words in a sentence, etc. Running the passage above against a Gunning Fog Index calculator (http://gunning-fog-index.com/fog.cgi) returned a rather feverish reading of 102.2. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunning_fog_index) states that texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12 and those for universal audience require an index of less than 8.

Turning to the substance of the passage, a careful reader with a tolerance for high Gunning Factor Indices might wonder what Comanche Indians were doing wearing stovepipe hats, an umbrella, white stockings, a bloodstained wedding veil, etc. As McCarthy was reported to have read extensively on the historical background of the Comanche Indian wars celebrated in films like “The Searchers”, you would have to believe that he was not making this up. In fact there was such a procession of weirdly dressed Indians with a telltale sign of a recent massacre of whites (bloodstained wedding veil) in Texas history.

This was a reference to the August 6, 1840 Linville Raid when 600 Comanche killed and kidnapped many settlers, including Daniel Boone’s granddaughter. What struck McCarthy’s literary fancy was the raiding party’s looting of the town’s general store, resulting in the aforementioned sinister costume party.

However, what McCarthy leaves out is the incident that led to the raid. While McCarthy’s account of the raid is accurate if overwrought stylistically, it leaves out an important element. This was not an unprovoked attack but vengeance for the killing of 12 of the top Comanche leaders at a peace negotiations meeting in the San Antonio Council House on March 19th of that year. The Indians sought agreement on the boundaries of their territory—the Comancheria—and the Texans the return of some captives. When the Texans learned that only one captive was being returned at the meeting, they told the chiefs that they would be held hostage until the rest were returned. A pitched battle ensued leaving all the chiefs dead as well as a number of warriors, three of their wives, and two children.

McCarthy is not interested in this part of the story since it would interfere with the Hobbesian vision of his novel. Without mentioning the philosopher who is always pitted against the “novel savage” vision of Rousseau, Kandutsch seems to get that it is his philosophy that guides McCarthy’s narrative: “Others have attacked his allegedly reactionary moral and political stance, based on little more than his commitment to pessimism and his evident distaste for modern urban life.” Yup.

In “Blood Meridian”, the most repugnant character among a host of vile bodies is “The Judge”, the leader of a band of bounty hunters trading Comanche scalps for dollars who is based on the historical figure John Joel Glanton. The Judge muses:

These things are known to all the world. The world is construed out of blood and nothing else but blood. Death is the condition of existence and life is but an emanation thereof. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood. Before man was, war waited for him. The idea that man can be understood is an illusion.

Now McCarthy is a pretty smart guy even if he cant write worth a lick (that’s a McCarthy parody italicized there.) This notion of perpetual bloodlust is one I am very familiar with after having seen numerous accounts debunking the “noble savage” myth from one sociobiologist or another over the years, starting with Jared Diamond. McCarthy seems to be aware of their legacy from the appearance of the epigraph to “Blood Meridian”:

“Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.”

The Yuma Daily Sun, June 13, 1982

You see, war must be in our genes based on the evidence of scalping 300,000 years ago.

It turns out that the primary resource for “Blood Meridian” was T. R. Fehrenbach’s “Comanches: the Destruction of a People”. Fehrenbach, who is considered the dean of Texas history writing, died on December 1, 2013. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study was likely the inspiration for the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War”. These words must have resonated deeply with McCarthy who was determined to prove that there was no “noble savage” even if it was necessary leave out those aspects of Texas history that undermined his fictionalized sociobiology.

February 28, 2014

The Obedient Assassin

Filed under: Counterpunch,literature,Stalinism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 1:45 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition Feb 28-Mar 02, 2014

John Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”

Killing Trotsky


Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is still a compelling figure for the artist based on the evidence of three novels focused on his sojourn in Coyoacan that have appeared in the last several years.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” came out in 2009. Like the 2002 film “Frida” (screenplay by CounterPunch regular Clancy Sigal), Kingsolver put Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo into the foreground. For her the two characters enabled her “to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle”, as she states on her website. The World Socialist Website frowned on the novel’s treatment of Trotsky and its deficiencies in the dialectical materialism department, which I suppose is reason enough to recommend it.

That very same year Leonardo Padura, a Cuban, wrote “The Man who Loved Dogs”, a nearly 600-page novel about Trotsky now available in English translation. Naturally the N.Y. Times reviewer, a Mexican novelist named Álvaro Enrique, saw it as a parable on Cuban society with the artist in mortal danger of being killed by a state inspired by the Moscow Trials: “Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.” One must conclude that Enrique does not consider reporters to be writers since a hundred have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

I imagine that I will get around to reading Kingsolver and Padura at some point, but I had a keener interest in what John P. Davidson had to say about Trotsky in the brand new “The Obedient Assassin”, a novel that turns Ramon Mercader—Trotsky’s killer—into the major character.

I was surprised if not shocked to discover that this was the same John P. Davidson who had written a supremely witty and thoughtful account about going to butler’s school in the January 2014 Harper’s titled You Rang?, where he writes:

For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students.

Assuming that the unsellable novel is “The Obedient Assassin”, we can only thank our lucky stars that he was a washout as a butler and that his agent finally hit pay dirt. As someone who has been a professional journalist for thirty-five years for reputable outlets like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Davidson brings to the table an ability to write briskly and without a single superfluous word. Nor will you find the trendiness favored by MFA graduates. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some of the greatest novels were written by men and women who started out as journalists, first and foremost among them Ernest Hemingway.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/28/killing-trotsky/

January 27, 2014

Recent novels about Leon Trotsky

Filed under: literature,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

For reasons not clear to me, there’s been a bumper crop of novels about Trotsky in Mexico published recently. The first was Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” that came out in 2009 and is very pro-Trotsky. I have not made time for it, however, because most critics view it as a lesser work.

Moving closer to the current day, there are two books about the assassination of Leon Trotsky that have just been published. One is titled “The Man who Loved Dogs” and written in 2009 by Leonardo Padura, a Cuban. A translation by Anna Kushner now makes the nearly 600-page novel available to English readers. The N.Y. Times review would have us believe that Padura wrote the novel to discredit the Cuban government:

In the context of a plot that revisits the grim mockery of Stalin’s show trials, these acts of compulsive self-incrimination are not only loaded with significance but are also — given that Mr. Padura is a Cuban author writing in Cuba — charged with an additional layer of meaning.

Fidel Castro’s most scandalous show trial was not mounted against a political figure but against a writer: Heberto Padilla. In 1971, after 38 days of detention, Mr. Padilla was forced to “confess” at the Cuban writers’ union to the charges of “subversive activities.” He had published a book of poems faintly critical of the regime.

I don’t know if all this self-incrimination is part of the novel because Mr. Padura wants to make the point that in Cuba, writing is an activity fraught with fear, or because it is the involuntary reflex of someone who has awaited the day of his own political trial. In any case, it stands as a clear register of the author’s circumstance: Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.

As it turns out, the Times assigned one Álvaro Enrique to review Padura’s book. Enrique is a Mexican novelist who perhaps does not consider journalists to be writers. If he did, he surely must be aware that a hundred reporters have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

One should certainly not prejudge Padura’s novel based on the use that Enrique is making of it since the wiki on Enrique states:

Padura’s novel El hombre que amaba a los perros (The Man Who Loved Dogs) deals with the murder of Leon Trotsky and the man who assassinated him, Ramon Mercader. At almost 600 pages, it is his most accomplished work and the result of more than five years of meticulous historical research. The novel, published in September 2009, attracted a lot of publicity mainly because of its political theme. The main argument of the author seems to be that Joseph Stalin betrayed socialism and destroyed the hope of creating a utopian society in the 20th century.[citation needed] It leaves open the possibility that such a society might still be possible in the 21st.

The novel that I am looking forward to reading the most, however, is John P. Davidson’s “The Obedient Assassin”. I had the great pleasure of experiencing his writing in a long article that appeared in the January 2014 Harper’s titled “You Rang: mastering the art of serving the rich” that chronicled his experience at butler school! It is exceedingly witty and socially aware:

Getting the details right was especially important when there were several houses, so that consistency could be maintained from property to property in the remotes for television sets, the controls for lighting and security systems, the organization of kitchen and bathroom cupboards. Principals did not want to fumble around, lost in their own houses. Ms. Fowler used Excel spreadsheets to stock refrigerators with soft drinks, then lined up and photographed the contents so that a glance would tell what needed replenishment. She religiously checked the expiration dates on cans of soda: if you own seven houses and each has as many as six refrigerators — two in the kitchen, one in the garage or storeroom, one in the pool house, one in the master suite, one in the screening room — for a total of forty-two refrigerators, it’s possible that years could pass before a can of soda is opened.

One hopes that Mr. Davidson has found better uses of his talents than checking on soft drink expiration dates, such as his new novel. On his website he describes how became interested in the Trotsky assassination:

My decision to write the novel came gradually, starting on a visit in 2001 to the Trotsky Museum in Coyoacán. As I walked through the Trotsky compound, I sensed an old turmoil, a kind of narrative static electricity. Trotsky’s life in Mexico was so unexpectedly romantic, and the assassination so dramatic, I didn’t understand how it could be that I didn’t know the story.

Or rather, I didn’t understand how I had forgotten the story, because I had been to the museum on earlier visits to Mexico, walked through the rooms, read the documents, and looked at the old black-and-white photographs of the Trotskys with Frida Kahlo, Diego River and André Breton.

I wondered if decades of anti-Soviet propaganda had kept me from grasping Trotsky’s humanity. Or perhaps my perspective had been changed by 9/11 and my own maturity. But whatever the cause, I was certain there must be a compelling book about Trotsky’s exile and the assassination. I began to search for that book but found nothing that was accessible or in print.

In the chapter that I have reproduced below, Davidson describes the encounter between Trotsky’s assassin and Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s chief bodyguard. I only knew Hansen well enough to say hello after joining the Socialist Workers Party in 1967 but I was much closer to George Novack who spent a lot of time in Coyoacan and was one of the main organizers of the Leon Trotsky Commission of Inquiry chaired by John Dewey.

Hansen was 57 when I joined the SWP and still quite vigorous. Despite the fact that I was not that familiar with him personally, his approach to political problems was a great influence on me. To this day, I have Hansen’s methodology in the back of my mind when I am writing about some vexing problem in the class struggle such as how to figure out what is going on in Ukraine and Thailand where class lines are not sharply delineated.

I have only browsed through “The Obedient Assassin” to this point but what I have seen impresses me a great deal. Davidson’s background is as a journalist and this probably accounts for the lean but compelling character of his prose.

The other day Stephen Colbert interviewed novelist Michael Chabon about Ernest Hemingway in a show devoted to the novelist Chabon regarded as always sounding fresh. Although Chabon did not mention it, I think a lot of what we like about Hemingway can be attributed to his training as a journalist. With so many novelists today writing 800 page novels trying to capture What Life is Like Today, it is refreshing to read prose that is focused mainly on capturing human drama in a pellucid style such as how Davidson writes:

Row after row, eight abreast, thousands of Mexicans marched down Reforma. Many looked Aztec or Mayan, with straight black hair and sharply sculptured features. Plumbers, carpenters, electricians, painters, the rank and file of the Communist Party in Mexico, they carried cardboard placards demanding that Trotsky get out of the country. Afuera Trotsky! Trotsky, get out! They walked silently, their faces so impassive, it might have been a funeral procession but for the trucks with loudspeakers that passed at regular intervals bearing large pictures of Trotsky looking satanic with his white goatee, eyes glaring intensely through his spectacles, a harsh metallic voice ringing from big cone-shaped speakers. “Trotsky is a traitor and terrorist!” the voices would cry from the distance, grow painfully loud, then fade away as the trucks moved on. All the while, the shuffling of the workers’ feet on pavement remained soft and constant.

To the casual observer, the May Day parade was a stunning turn-around. Trotsky had been a hero to peasants and workers when he arrived in Mexico, and now he was an archvillain. To Jacques, the parade was a demonstration of Eitingon and Caridad’s prowess They had brought the power of the Kremlin and Comintern to bear upon the Communist Party of Mexico. Moving behind the scenes never showing their hand, they purged the Communist newspapers in Mexico, replacing the editors and writers who had accepted the presence of Trotsky. Brought to heel, the Communist press mounted a campaign against Trotsky, all but calling for blood. Trotsky was not a friend of the worker. He was a terrorist and a Fascist.

Eitingon and Caridad had applied the same sort of pressure to the largest and most powerful labor unions in Mexico, which were Communist-run. Union bosses had turned out twenty thousand Mexicans to protest against Trotsky. Eitingon and Caridad had their kinds on the levers of power and were pulling all of the elements of their plan into alignment. Everything was running according to schedule. The attack on Trotsky would take place soon. It was the first of May; Hitler’s troops had invaded Denmark and Norway. France, the Netherlands, and Belgium were next. The free world would watch in horror as a Fascist dictator marched through West-ern Europe. Hitler would provide all the cover needed for Stalin to settle an old score.

After the parade finally passed, Jacques got in his car and started for Coyoacan. He would have preferred not going on that particular day, but Marguerite had asked him, and he feared it would look strange if he didn’t appear.

As Jacques pulled up in front of the house, lightning flickered in the dark clouds clustered against the volcanoes. He recognized Julia and Ana, the women Siqueiros had hired to spy on the house. Dressed like peasant girls, they were flirting with the policemen in front of their hut. They had rented cheap flats on the next street, where they entertained the police, pumping them for every last detail about their post.

Jacques waved to Jake Cooper in the machine-gun turret, then heard the electric lock snap open as he approached the reinforced door. The heavy metal bar scraped against cement; Sheldon opened lie door, stepping aside, his eyes wide in the dim light of the garage.

“What are you doing, letting me in like that?” Jacques asked in a low voice.

“I heard your car. I knew it was you.”

“You have to be careful.”

“Marguerite had to go out, but Hansen wants to see you.”

“Me? Why does he want to see me?”

“I don’t know, but he said to send you in. He’s in the library.”

Walking up the flagstone path, Jacques felt as if some great gravitational force were taking hold of him, a strong ocean current that would drag him out to sea. The doors to the library stood open a waiting trap. As he stepped beneath the bower of bougainvillea he removed his dark glasses, his eyes and mind working rapidly, taking notes for Siqueiros. The room resembled a battlefield command station, spartan, improvised, orderly with unfinished plank floors thick adobe walls plastered a deep mustard color, bare lightbulb hanging on long cords from the rafters of the ceiling. There were two desks and a worktable, two big black typewriters, filing cabinets, a telephone, a map of Europe, and a small bookshelf filled with volumes of an encyclopedia.

Jacques had imagined the room so often, assembling a picture from bits and pieces of information. He was surprised to find it empty, except for Joe Hansen, who sat at the desk toward the back of the library. He gazed up from a typed document, studied Jacque, for a moment, then got to his feet. Wiry and of moderate height Hansen was like a character from the Wild West, his dark blond hair cut badly by a Mexican barber, pale blue eyes, and a prominent Adam’s apple riding above the knot of his tie and the frayed collar a holstered pistol hanging from a wide leather belt.

“Marguerite asked me to give you this,” he said, handing Jacque, an envelope.

“I’ve seen you outside. I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Yes, I know who you are.”

“The Old Man wanted me to talk to you. He keeps hearing abo you and has begun to wonder what it is you’re doing here.”

Jacques felt his mouth go dry. “I’m in Mexico on business. M wife, Sylvia, introduced me to the Rosmers.”

Hansen frowned. “What about this false passport?”

“Yes, I had to buy a Canadian passport in Paris. I’m Belgian but couldn’t get a passport there.”

“Why was that?” Hansen asked, crossing his arms.

“A problem with my family, a legal difficulty.”

“By legal, do you mean criminal?”

“No.” Jacques recoiled a bit as if offended. “I don’t believe this is your business, but I was commissioned as an officer in the army. Later, after I was discharged, my family pulled strings to have me lecalled so I wouldn’t leave the country. I was eventually cleared hut with the war and all, my visa was tied up in red tape. Buying a passport was a matter of convenience, nothing more.”

Hansen chewed on that for a moment, nodding. “The Old Man also wants to know about your politics.”

“I stay clear of politics.” Hansen gave a slight shrug. “Well, I’ll let you get on your way.”

Leaving, Jacques found Sheldon waiting in the garage. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The tin roof above ticked as the afternoon sun abated. The area smelled of dust and oil and tires and grease. A straight-back chair, a clipboard, and a stack of old magazines sug-gested the monotony of waiting.

“What did he want?” “Nothing. He had a note from Marguerite for me.”

“Why didn’t he give it to me?”

“I don’t know.” Jacques took out his cigarette case, offered one to Sheldon, and took another for himself. As he lit their cigarettes, he observed the young man’s hand tremble slightly. Jacques put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Can you get away tonight?”

He nodded. Yes. “Come to the Shirley Courts. I’ll bring you home.”

“When should I come? Is seven too early?”

“No, that’s good. Now, you’d better let me out.”

He watched Sheldon move the heavy iron aside. The door opened to the smell of rain coming across the valley.

“The Obedient Assassin” can now be ordered from Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/The-Obedient-Assassin-A-Novel/dp/1883285585).

January 15, 2014

My favorite poet’s new book

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 12:57 am


Saturday, January 11, 2014

New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros by Paul Pines
(Dos Madres, Loveland, OH, 2013)

“Roland insists history
doesn’t live in people but

in stones.”
–from “Light Changes”

With his latest, Paul Pines reveals himself to be at the peak of his poetic powers.  Except that, ever since I started reading him a few of his books ago, I also noticed that he gets better and better.  So, may he keep peaking!

Two general things I want to say about Pines’ New Orleans Variations and Paris Ouroboros.  First, the movements across and between a multiplicity of references is just fabulous jazz.  Second, the collection is a wonderful manifestation of something he quotes by Homer: “We leave home to find ourselves.”

The poet left home to travel to two cities the subject of this book: New Orleans and Paris.  Many of these poems charm, and I want to focus on the charming — and witty, wise, moving (Section 3 from “Silences” is a treasure), aware — poems.  That could be all of them.  So let me share a sample from the New Orleans section, Section 3 from “Hello From Nola”:


a party awash in rice and beans
Popeye’s fried chicken
and biscuits
chorizos and King Cake
with the baby
still in it

served by Sor Juana
still in her escudo
I enter in jeans and a t-shirt
no longer recognizable
to those who sit
around a larger table
until my hostess
introduces me
as the man who was Jesus
at which there are random
nods of recognition

I’m asked
from time to time
to perform an intervention
as when the dog
leaps up to a low lying
bowl and devours
the sausage
or a reveler
spills her rum and coke
on the sofa but nothing
approaching a miracle
though I tell them
I can turn wine
into urine

a Mad Hatter
challenges me
to make it through the airport
dressed as our Savior

says it would be a spectacle
to watch them scan my robes
divest me of my hair and beard
conduct a cavity search
a veritable security

a new wrinkle
on the Grand Inquisitor
I appear before a southern judge
who finds me guilty of
inciting to riot
disrupting the status quo
a warning to Terrorists
a Republican trope

one can’t be
too careful when
the Prince of Peace
might be just another

who just last week
danced without incident
in the second line
all the way to
Canal St.

“[T]urn urine into wine” — that’s just deft, Dude.  And a killer ending…

And here’s a sample poem from the Paris section


At fourteen her blue eyes
hedged by dark lashes

Mathilde prepares three plates
of pate and goat cheese

served with white beans
bread and wine then confides

that her English teacher
encourages students to learn

Chinese German Russian
any other tongue but English

Her father Roland points out
the French threw Tom Paine

in the Bastille for objecting
to the wholesale execution

of aristocrats but mark the spot
with a silver plaque where

Hemingway drank himself silly
At La Closerie de Lilas

Americans in paris are always
lost (he says) but no worse

than Germans or Spaniards
Once a group from Munich

asked him where he’d learned
to speak their tongue so well

to which Roland replied

I can’t resist the appeal of these poems; here’s another astounding Paris poem (that hearkens, too, my theme in my engagement with Leonard Gontarek’s two books in this issue):


can only be grasped if we understand
the meaning of chaos as

a gap

between objects
or conditions

the space

Hermes’ wind
nourished in the belly
of the earth

where God
becomes conscious
of Himself

Last but not least, this collection is hugely entertaining—and I don’t say that about most poetry books!  Do give yourself a treat and read these poems!


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she’s its editor. But she is also pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books.  Her 2013 book, THE AWAKENING was reviewed by Aileen Ibardaloza at OurOwnVoice; and her 2004 book MENAGE A TROIS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, was reviewed (along with Joi Barrios’ poetry) through the essay “The Self Revolution of Radical Love–Externalizing Internal Worlds of Freedon in Filipina Poetry” by Michaela Spangenburg at OurOwnVoice.  Eileen invites you to her new blog, EILEEN VERBS BOOKS; poets are invited to participate in three of its features: “Poetry and Money,” “What Are You Reading?” and “What Do You Re-Read?

January 12, 2014

Memories of Amiri Baraka and Adolfo Olaechea

Filed under: literature,Maoism,obituary — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka and Adolfo Olaechea both died on January 9, 2014, Baraka of an undisclosed illness at the age of 79 and Olaechea of pancreatic cancer at the age of 70. Besides dying on the same day, the two shared Maoist politics. Baraka was a member of the League of Revolutionary Struggle (Marxist-Leninist) that dissolved in 1990 while Olaechea was the most prominent spokesman for the Communist Party of Peru, better known as Shining Path. And perhaps as a bit of a surprise, both were subscribers at one point to Marxism listservs that are now based at the University of Utah. I never knew Baraka personally but his career had a significant impact on my own political development. I knew Olaechea as a bitter adversary on the Marxism lists but grew closer to him after offering my support when he was in danger of becoming a victim of Peru’s repressive judicial system. And long after that, he became a Facebook friend, where I learned of his death.

In 1961 I was a sixteen-year-old freshman at Bard College, having skipped my senior year of high school. I was about as confused as any teenager, in my case a member of the Young Americans for Freedom and an aspiring “beatnik”. Maybe that wasn’t so strange a combination since this was just around the time that Jack Kerouac was drifting to the right in an alcoholic haze.

When I discovered that Robert Kelly was giving a writer’s workshop, I signed up since he was pretty well known as a “new poet”. Kelly was committed to bringing kindred spirits up to Bard for readings, including Robert Duncan. When I discovered that Leroi Jones was going to give a reading from his novel-in-progress “The System of Dante’s Inferno”, I was really excited since Jones was becoming a star of the new poetry movement.

Nothing prepared me for “The System of Dante’s Inferno”. This was one of the first expressions of Black outrage at the time. Inferno was nothing less than American society and Jones’s protagonist was its victim. The reading was so powerful that I became an early convert to the Black struggle even though on all other fronts my consciousness lagged.

A year after Jones’s reading, I had dumped the conservatism of my high school years and subscribed to the Camus-influenced liberal existentialism that was in vogue at Bard and other “hip” colleges. But it was Black nationalism that intrigued me, not so much the “integrationism” of the student movement. Bard was the kind of place where “prejudice” was unheard of but I never heard any white students trying to figure out why only 2 percent of the student body was Black.

In my senior year, when I was in New York for the weekend I found out that there was going to be a debate on Black nationalism between Jones and Nat Hentoff at Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate. This I would not miss for the world. The Village Voice reported on the event:

Village Voice March 18, 1965, Vol. X, No. 22
Gig at Gate: Return of the White Liberal Stompers
By Jack Newfield

Goateed, immaculately dressed Negroes looking for a pogrom, carefully coifed Hadassah ladies looking for a lynching and impassive hipsters looking for a “happening” jammed the Village Gate last Wednesday night. The marquee proclaimed blues singer Paul Butterfield, but the magnet was LeRoi Jones and his White Liberal Stompers.

The Stompers had made a spectacular debut at the Village Vanguard two weeks ago when they refused to play a dirge for the slain civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner and for the six million Jews incinerated by Hitler.

“Those boys were just artifacts, man,” poet-playwright-polemicist Jones had said of the dead integrationists. “They weren’t real. If they went (to Mississippi) to assuage their leaking consciences that’s their business. I won’t mourn for them. I have my own dead to mourn for.”

Full: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2009/09/clip_job_leroi_1.php

Even if I weren’t more sympathetic to Jones to begin with, I would have supported him no matter what Hentoff had to say. I always found him an insufferable Pecksniff and never understood how he became such an authority on jazz, let alone politics.

Two years later I found myself at the New School working on a PhD in philosophy, mostly as a way of staying out of the army. By day I was working for the welfare department in Harlem and becoming radicalized by the injustice that my clients faced and on a personal level facing the draft.

On July 12, 1967 the Newark ghetto exploded. I reacted to it with jubilation. People inside the U.S. were resisting the same rotten system that the Vietnamese were. Six weeks later I would join the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the SWP.

Amiri Baraka, Newark, July 1967

During the Newark riots, the cops ganged up on Jones, who had changed his name to Amiri Baraka by this point. The charge was carrying an illegal weapon and resisting arrest that was later dropped. His real crime was being a Black militant.

As Amiri Baraka became more of an activist than an artist, his poetry suffered. I pretty much stopped paying any attention to him until he forsook Black nationalism for Maoism when he joined the League for Revolutionary Struggle. The LRS was the result of a fusion in 1978 of a number of Asian, Chicano and Black groups including Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Communist League (Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse-tung Thought). By 1990 the group was a spent force and dissolved itself, with a number of members joining the Freedom Road Socialist Party that staggers on, although divided into two rival sects.

I never paid much attention to what Baraka was writing as a member of the LRS but decided to have a look today to help put his Marxism into context. On the Marxist Internet Archives, you can read his polemic with the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters (RWQ), a group that has like so many of these Maoist currents disappeared from the face of the earth. Baraka is anxious to take on the “workerism” of the RWQ that he evidently regards as too much influenced by their origins in Bob Avakian’s RCP. He lectures them:

RWH does not understand that black capitalism is the cry of the black bourgeoisie for self-determination!! And black capitalism can help the Black Nation at this point. We should encourage the black national bourgeoisie to be bigger and better capitalists (at present their whole gross income is about that of General Electric). We must, as Mao said in his classic work on the United Front, “respect the interests” of the black national bourgeoisie as well as all the other classes in the front. But obviously, as communists, we struggle for the leadership of the working class within the black united front. And even though we encourage black capitalists to become bigger and better capitalists, we do so urging that this proposed expansion of black capitalism be done in the interests of the Afro-American Nation.

I guess this sort of explains Baraka’s eventual embrace of Barack Obama (their names means “blessed” in Arabic and is obviously related to the Hebrew word “baruch”.)

The most interesting sentences in the polemic are those that evoke the incandescent imagery of “The System of Dante’s Hell” that I first heard 52 years ago:

But what is also overwhelming is RWH’s consistent upholding of these RU / RCP lines, in spire of themselves. Sometimes it is like an old junkie one has known a long time who now tells you he is going to “clean up” and bores a hole in your head with this Christmas tree fantasy, but at the same time still speaks so lovingly and hungrily about “scag” that one is certain he is never going to kick. In fact, while he is talking to you, you can still see a trace of spittle in the corners of the mouth, the eyes begin to sag just a bit, and the telltale hand starts to scratch ubiquitously at the dried skin the drug has made.

An old friend who graduated Bard the year I came in as a freshman started out preferring my non-political writings, especially ones that referred to birds. He would rebuke me: “more birds…” If I knew Amiri Baraka better, I would have told him “more junkies…”

In 1998 Adolfo Olaechea showed up on the Marxism-International mailing list that gave birth to Marxmail after he and Louis Godena, a CP’er who had become converted to Maoism, hijacked the moderation board and began expelling people right and left.

Like Amiri Baraka, he was capable of some truly bombastic “Marxist-Leninist” rhetoric:

Today’s social-fascists are the direct descendants of the Menshevik social-chauvinists who led the working masses into the butchery of the First Imperialist War, who later PAVED the way for FASCISM and nurtured and provided “intellectual muscle” for Mussolini’s anti-bolshevik “Fascios die Combattimento”, the same “white-gloved butchers” who showed Hitler and his brown shirts the road and methods for assassinating the working masses and the proletarian leaders by means of the Social Democrat revisionist “Frei-Korps” organised by the social-fascist regime of Ebert in Germany.

Within a year of “capturing” Marxism-International, the list was dead. And within another year, the Communist Party of Peru was also dead. Its founder Comrade Gonzalo had been captured in 1992 and by the late 90s, the group began to splinter—partly out of state repression but also out of its own sectarian logic.

Adolfo was out of sight and out of mind until 2004 when Louis Godena asked me to publicize efforts to prevent his being extradited to Peru, where he would face the firing squad or life imprisonment if he were lucky. When he was in Spain doing some consulting for his corporate employer, the Spanish cops arrested him.

Three years after being arrested, he stood trial and was cleared of all charges:


In Lima’s National Criminal High Court, on Tuesday October 23, 2007, and after 4 years and 3 months of what started as one of the most internationally trumpeted “terrorism” extraditions and trials of recent times, these proceedings come to the end of the juridical road completely transformed into a purely political and ideological test of the essential democratic values of freedom of thought and freedom of expression.

Adolfo Olaechea was arrested July 3, 2003 in the Spanish town of Almeria, while on a consultancy assignment for the British firm Spectrum International Research Ltd. on behalf of a top Japanese vehicle manufacturer. The then Spanish govrenment of Jose Maria Aznar, involved to the hilt on Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’, had decided to enforce an extradition request from the Peruvian government. This extradition order had originally been issued in 1993 by the now himself extradited former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori. Ironically, Fujimori himself is now in Lima too, awaiting trial for the same crimes against humanity that Olaechea had first denounced in a “war crimes trial” sponsored by the Secretariat of the late Lord Bertrand Russell in London back in 1992. This action of Olaechea’s has been revealed to be at the centre of the charges of “terrorism” brought illegally against this long standing British resident on the instructions of Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s spy chief.

Dubbed by the international press as the case of “Shining Path’s Chancellor”, the “ambassador of terror”, etc., the proceedings against Mr. Olaechea have involved international campaigns on his behalf by prominent personalities, among which several members of the House of Lords and the British parliament-. Among them Lords Eric Avebury and Lord Nicolas Rea, statement on his behalf by prominent intellectuals and writers, including Tony Benn and Mario Vargas Llosa, the famous Peruvian novelists, as well as writers, journalists and activists in many countries. Lord Nicolas Rea, the hereditary peer member of the All Party Human Rights Group of the British parliament, appeared in Lima’s High Court back in April 2007, as a witness for the defense, a totally unprecedented event in Peruvian juridical history. In the pre-trial stages of the proceedings, the famous Peruvian jurist, Javier Valle Riestra – now a member of the Peruvian Parliament again, and therefore unable by law to defend cases in which the Peruvian state is involved – took a prominent role, and even wrote a chapter dedicated to the case in his celebrated Treaty on Extradition, published in 4 volumes. Valle Riestra therefore, gets frequently quoted and mentioned during the closing stages of the proceedings. The case, also reached the Spanish Constitutional Court, that decided that Spain had violated Mr. Olaechea right to legality. In the European Court of Human Rights Spain was condemned and ordered to pay a fine for having extradited Olaechea in defiance of a directive from the Human Rights Directorate to have the case examined at Strasburg first.

Then, six years later, I got a Facebook friend request from Adolfo—of all people. In the first few months he was very warm and gracious even promising that I would be his guest of honor if I ever made it down to Lima.

The tone changed somewhat after he figured out that I was behind the Syrian armed struggle against the Baathists. As might be obvious, rallying around Bashar al-Assad comes easy for those who were trained in Stalinist politics.

I didn’t pay much attention to the sparks that flew when some of my pro-revolution FB friends began to take issue with him, but somewhere along the line I discovered that he was ill. When I found out how seriously ill he was, I urged my friends to avoid using invective with him. Even though he claimed that he had beaten the disease, I knew that pancreatic cancer had the lowest survival rate of all cancers.

This was the last conversation we had on September 14, 2013. I will really miss Adolfo.

Me: Adolfo, are you sick? What is going on?

Adolfo: I have been diagnosed last year (September) with cancer to the páncreas. Was given 3-6 months and dubbed a terminal case stage 4. However after undergoing a heavy chemio (against the advice of some doctors).the cáncer markers started giving negative results (no cancer) and the tomographies and magnetic resonances could´t visualise the tumour at all. Sincé then I have been put in an only pills chemiotherapy that actually does have as one of its side effects to empty my bowels in a full manner every morning at 6.00 am like clock work. Another side effect is losing my toenails due to swollen feet and therefore must spend a few hours of the day with my feet high up. Can´t complain. A leader of the Peruvian parliamentary “left” was disgnosed with the same cancer around the same time as mine. He died in less tan 4 months despite the most expensive treatments and private clinics. I am having treatment in the Social Security services, that even though seems more like a nuthouse, has evidently good doctors!

Me: I am so sorry to hear this. I am sure you know that pancreatic cancer is very deadly. I am an atheist but my thoughts are with you.

Adolfo: Well, I am an atheist too, however my family is not, and they are now trying to get my experience with pancreatic cancer declared a “miracle” and ascribe it to my mother or my aunt, both now diseadsed but with the last one, my aunt having died. – as the clerics like to say – in “odour of sanctity”. Don´t worry too much and remeber DEmocritus way of dealing with death: “When I am here, death is not. When death is there, I am not. We will never meet”.}

Me: Stay in remission, comrade.

Adolfo: I will. Thanks for your concern Louis!

October 10, 2013

A communication on Sol Yurick

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 3:29 pm

Dear Louis

Forgive this unsolicited approach, but after reading your piece on Sol on Counterpunch, I thought that you might be interested to know that my company are republishing his novels Fertig—which is out now, via rocket88books.com— and The Bag in a few months. We hope to make all of his out of print novels available in due course and if his agents approve our request to also put out Someone Just Like You, An Island Death, Richard A and Behold, Metatron. Naturally they wish to see how we do with Fertig and The Bag before agreeing.

I’d like to explain that this is a labour of love on my part, having been a fan since first discovering The Bag when in my early twenties in a thrift store (I was an anarchist squatter activist in London at the time, so it rang more than a few bells with me).Sol deserves to be remembered as far more than the author of a book that spawned a movie and video game, and both Fertig and The Bag are much bigger and more important American novels than The Warriors, I think.

I hesitate to ask, and hate to beg, but if there is any way that you could find the time and space to let people know about the republication of Fertig, we’d be hugely grateful. Any spreading of the word would help enomously.

Once again, apologies for intruding without introduction.

Yours with best wishes

Mal Peachey


September 19, 2013

Under the Dome

Filed under: literature,television — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

Counterpunch September 19, 2013
Remarks from an Ecosocialist

Under the Dome


In 2003, after the National Book Foundation presented Stephen King with a distinguished career award, a big hue and cry went up from all the snobbish critics and authors who regarded him in much the same way that Dumbo was viewed by the other elephants. King’s acceptance speech was an eloquent testimony to his belief in a people’s art:

Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes genre fiction or any kind of fiction that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It’s a lie. The idea that all storytellers are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I’m going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Tabby and I would still be living in a trailer or an equivalent, a boat. My wife knows the importance of this award isn’t the recognition of being a great writer or even a good writer but the recognition of being an honest writer.

Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: “What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth.” And that’s always been the bottom line for me. The story and the people in it may be make believe but I need to ask myself over and over if I’ve told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.

Most people are aware that King writes horror stories but the reference to the muckraking Frank Norris hints at a side of the author that many of his fans never considered. King is also an outspoken liberal who takes on social and political issues but without the sterile didacticism so pervasive in leftist fiction.

When I discovered that CBS had adapted “Under the Dome” as a 13 episode series, whose finale aired last Monday night, I was eager to watch it not only as a long-time King fan but as an ecosocialist anxious to see how what some regarded as a parable on the environmental crisis would play out. Although I had not read the novel, I assumed that with King serving as executive producer it would ensure that the TV series would remain faithful to the novel. But only after watching the finale, a dreary conclusion to an altogether dreary series, did I begin to consider the possibility that King’s intentions would be subverted by another big-name executive producer: Stephen Spielberg as well as the show’s major creative force, one Brian K. Vaughan.

Before dealing with the novel and its original agenda, some thoughts on what was likely the worst adaptation of the author’s work ever made. Since King is on record as hating Stanley Kubrick’s masterful “The Shining”, I would love to get him alone for five minutes to find out why he did not leave this TV show on the cutting room floor in its entirety.

“Under the Dome” sticks to the premise of the novel, namely that a mysterious transparent dome lands on a town called Chester’s Mill cutting it off from the outside world. Nobody can get in and nobody can get out. If you were unfortunate enough to be on the perimeter of the dome at the moment it landed, you would be sliced in two. Each week the show begins with the shot of a cow being cut right down the middle and a small plane bursting into flames as it crashed into the dome. It goes downhill from there.

read full

June 20, 2013

Poetry notes

Filed under: literature — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

Paul Pines

Quite by coincidence two very interesting items that fall within the general rubric of poetry arrived in my mailbox within the last week. One was the long and very interesting article by Mark Edmundson titled “Poetry Slam, Or, The decline of American verse” that was part of the July 2013 Harper’s, a magazine that I have been subscribed to for three decades now. The other was Paul Pines’s latest book of poems titled “New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros”, a collection that serves as a counter-example to the malaise described by Edmundson. While I don’t want to get a reprimand from Harper’s web-master about purloining their intellectual property (and worse?), I think that quotes qualify as “fair use”:

Contemporary American poetry speaks its own confined language, not ours. It is, by and large, pure. It does not generally traffic in the icons of pop culture; it doesn’t immerse itself in ad-speak, rock lyrics, or politicians’ posturing: it gravitates to the obscure, the recondite, the precious, the ancient, trying to get outside the mash of culture that surrounds it. The result is poetry that can be exquisite, but that has too few resources to use to take on consequential events.

 Mass culture and mechanical reproduction surely play a part in the current retreat of American poetry, but what about MFA programs? Poetry now is something of a business. You make your way into the game by getting a sponsor: often it’s a writer in residence from your undergraduate school. Then come the MFA and the first book, both of which usually require sponsorship—which is to say pull.

 To thrive in this process you often must write in the mode of the mentor—you must play the game that is there to be played. You must be a member of the school, you must sing in the correct key. If you try to overwhelm the sponsor, explode his work into irrelevance—well, the first law of success is simple: Never outshine the master. The well-tempered courtier knows how to make those above him feel superior. He knows that in his desire to succeed he must not go too far in displaying what he can do. The master will not like it—and there will be no first book, no fellowship, no job, no preferment. It is only by making the master look more accomplished, by writing in his mode, becoming a disciple, that the novice ascends.

When reading this it dawned on me that academy-based poets trying to “make it”, to invoke the title of Norman Podhoretz’s memoir about his climb to the top of the literary establishment, have lots in common with dissertation students who shy away from writing something that will irk a member of their board. Since their career is on the line, they avoid sounding too “Marxist” or any other ism that is frowned upon in the academy.

Paul Pines took another route entirely as should be obvious from the home page of his website.

Paul Pines grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbets Field and passed the early sixties on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a merchant seaman, spending 1965-66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a taxi and tended bar until he opened The Tin Palace in 1970, the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Wm Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. My Brother’s Madness(Curbstone, 2007) a memoir, has recently enjoyed wide critical acclaim.

This sort of background is equal to a thousand MFA’s. Oddly enough, it reminds me of what Karl Marx wrote to W. Bracke in 1875: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

Perhaps the best illustration of Paul’s ability to write some of the most memorable and finely wrought poems of anybody on the scene today is the first one in the series titled “HELLO FROM NOLA” (NOLA is New Orleans, Louisiana):


I dress up for Mardi-gras
in a costume provided
by my hostess

on the package
Jesus, “one size
fits all.”

a long white gown
a red sash
a wild wig of auburn curls
down to my shoulders
and a beard
I can’t secure
to my ears which
are too small
must finally pin to
my “soft” crown
of thorns

When I appear
my hostess
“You look more
like a rabbi.”

I point out that many
called him this
which is what he
probably was.

Another in our group

“He looks more
like Moses.”

On our way through
the French Quarter
to a party
in Jackson Square
at La Petit Theatre
(oldest community
theater in the U.S.)
celebrants ask
for my blessing
attempt to kiss
the hem of my

I confess relief
when a beefy guy
in a New Orleans Saints
football jersey jumps
in front of me

“Hail, Bacchus!”

obviously mistaking
my crown of thorns
for grape leaves.

“New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros” can be ordered direct from the publisher: http://www.dosmadres.com/shop/new-orleans-variations-paris-ouroboros-by-paul-pines/.

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