in a time of peace

by ilya kaminski

Inhabitant of earth for fortysomething years
I once found myself in a peaceful country. I watch neighbors open

their phones to watch
a cop demanding a man’s driver’s license. When a man reaches for his wallet, the cop
shoots. Into the car window. Shoots.

It is a peaceful country.

We pocket our phones and go.
To the dentist,
to pick up the kids from school,
to buy shampoo
and basil.

Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement for hours.

We see in his open mouth
the nakedness
of the whole nation.

We watch. Watch
others watch.

The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy—

It is a peaceful country.

And it clips our citizens’ bodies
effortlessly, the way the President’s wife trims her toenails.

All of us
still have to do the hard work of dentist appointments,
of remembering to make
a summer salad: basil, tomatoes, it is a joy, tomatoes, add a little salt.

This is a time of peace.

I do not hear gunshots,
but watch birds splash over the back yards of the suburbs. How bright is the sky
as the avenue spins on its axis.
How bright is the sky (forgive me) how bright.

the books of january 2019

DORIS LESSING 《The Golden Notebook》
my much postponed read of this totemic classic turned out to be a blessing; the world of these women would have seemed impossibly chaotic, their minds hyperbolic and personalities impossible, in my past of having loved literature but not knowing enough to be challenged by it. doris lessing has created, here, a legacy for women once thought impossible, who will themselves into reality and unreality, who are variant, difficult, brilliant. the feminism of today will seem foreign to those fighting then, yet the ever-persistent notion of self-doubt and contradiction rages for as long as there are battles to fight. and there is something that remains unchanged: to be, as women, we must know ourselves beyond the standards held by our society. we must be unflinching in self-examination, in scrutinizing our hypocrisies, our expectations, our fragments. in this, lessing is unafraid. the golden notebook is a book worthy of women. yesterday, today, tomorrow.

GEORGE OPPEN 《Selected Poems》
george oppen, a master of the line break, of patience, of the sky in increments. it has been a wonder to see his poems in different forms, how the infamous of being numerous mutated and grew and became glorious. to start days with a coffee and these light-footed, tender-hearted lines of noticing, gives such sweetness to the state of being wakeful.

AKIYUKI NOSAKA 《The Cake Tree in the Ruins》
if I didn’t know better I would call it heartless. in these japanese stories from the last days of WWII, there is no mercy. yet in these stories of war and murder and starvation there is no bitterness, either. how is this possible? nosaka ascribes to his characters the status of myth; we are not wrecked from these stories because, despite that they are incredibly painful, they take on the form of tales told to the child, so that the child may learn, may do better. a mother floats away because she has turned into a balloon. a soldier starves to death without ever realizing the war has ended. a whale falls in love with a submarine, and it is this love that tears him to pieces.

the portrait never coheres. for refugees, immigrants, expatriates— in a world we define by nationhood there is no knowing a place still enough for our many selves to become one. in these subtly brilliant stories we live inside and beside memory, as people who reckon with multitudes of identity, some more shameful, some more vacant, some further and further away.

the father of japanese modernist poetry is attractive in the way many moody, quiet men are attractive. there is the intense suspicion and expectation that behind the sullen facade there lies a universe of tumult and depth. enclosed in these poems there is, here and there, that universe.

SEI SHONAGON 《The Pillow Book》
and here is a woman who sees. with the delicacy and grace the heian period demanded, the woman of this work collects herself from the world around her. at a time when poetry was so revered it gives such pleasure to see an artist and a thinker escape the rigidity of a canonized craft, and sei shonagon does so with a self-assuredness that renders her beauty irrelevant.

PANKAJ MISHRA 《Age of Anger》
today, if you are not angry, you are not looking. mishra’s ambitious text links back centuries of philosophy to culminate in an inevitable outburst of rage: today. page after page it appears that we have locked ourselves in this world with our legacies and our learnings, that we build smaller cages for ourselves based on the preceding lectures and manifestos. for lessons that ranged with malleable ideas in history (Voltaire’s love for commerce, Rousseau’s intense belief in revolution), when applied by the rigorous standards of a perplexing and multi-dimensional present, can indeed be twisted to indicate anything; the ideas aren’t new, but have used their place in the timeline to multiply dangerously. within the hierarchy that relies on powerlessness and inferiority, we invent our own enemies.

the inability to read japanese is especially irritating when it comes to books like these— in certain cases translations must apologize for the inexpressible. in ibuse’s book on hiroshima after the a-bomb, much (like one has come to expect from japan) goes unsaid (a seemingly insignificant passage in the middle of the book suddenly informers the reader that our narrator has died by the end). so it is that such books are always characterized as “restrained”, and one is left wondering if such restraint is merely a symptom of a language that depends on implication. nevertheless, ibuse is profoundly effective at detailing the aftermath of a literary earth-shattering moment in japanese history, and of all the continuations that live on in a world that no longer seems to understand them.

NOÉMI LEFEBVRE 《Blue Self-Portrait》
a slim volume of tremendous will and perspacity combines the categorical values of painting, music, and literature. it is difficult to believe that in few pages one may bore so keenly into the historical inheritance of trauma, and what that effect has on creation. in the ways that nazism continues to haunt the works of german creators, self-interrogation is such a constant companion to the point of grazing, then embracing, absurdity. this book has the pace, the unpredictability, and the urgency of symphony. “it’s a novel without any fiction,” lefebvre has said.

A great book involves the assertion of a world. Authors loath to betray the dictates of a fiction must submit to its characters. The best women in books take on the ballast of life. Irrepressible Isabel Archer must have bettered her creator. Long-suffering Tess d’Urberville, savagely raped by a man masquerading as her cousin, stars in by far the best of Thomas Hardy’s novels. Sometimes a writer’s genius qua writer amounts to moral salvation. His own inability to betray the demands of his work secures his compassionate treatment of his female characters, thus his deliverance.

But then, I am not convinced that it is not the woman’s doing: that it was not Isabel Archer and Tess d’Urberville themselves who endowed their male creators with so much immensity. The woman with their totemic, transformative suffering. The women who can redeem even the most loathsome lothario by weeping over him—or writing about him. Whatever appeal he ever appeared to have was no more than a trick of the lighting. Men have only ever borrowed their beauty from the women they hurt.
— becca rothfeld, "a gender study"

in reading the article on the war correspondent marie colvin one encounters the supposed notion that she was drawn to scenarios of catastrophe and cataclysm by something broken within her. some is mentioned about her unfruitful love affairs, her detachment to the civilian war, and her loyalty to the battlefield, the quality that eventually cost her everything. much is made, of course, of her femininity. I can’t help but wonder why we construct this narrative of instability for women who refuse traditional forms of labour to take on something that is not only (almost solely) precedented by men, but also undesired by people in general. what we construe as unusual and disarming brazenness and seeming disregard for the sanctity of safety is a trait contributed to people whose supposed strangeness stems from their inability to function in roles that do not provide constant spikes of adrenaline, because we tend to think our urge for self-preservation is a vital one for a complete checklist of mental sanity. yet it does not seem to me strange or the least bit inhuman that one like marie colvin would be willing to brave horrors for the moral agenda of anti-cruelty, and I do not find it a symptom of mental illness if she had valued this ideology to the point of disregarding her own safety. at times it occurs to me that if one values one’s own life more than their ideas or sense of ethics then one would only be a partially complete person. not to say that all anti-war activists must go to the extent that marie did, or even say, a fifth of that— I of course hold an anti-war position, and can find within myself (sadly? perhaps) no urge to witness the devastation at frontlines in the hopes that information, and greater depth of it, would eventually transmit a movement towards peace. yet I find myself moved, and indeed grateful, that people of such strength and resolve do exist, and I would be unwilling to categorize them as less mentally fit, because of that. our humanity takes multitudinous forms with plenty of space here and there to spare for inconsistencies and the extraordinary. we should be stunned that such extraordinariness, such as that found in marie colvin, is a manifestation of her humanity. 

That’s how it always is. People would sooner weave their dreams deep into the linens than let them grow up next to them into a life without enough sun for them to ripen. When you near your end, you leave your dreams behind in small and seemingly worthless, old-fashioned things, which betray no secrets before they perish in turn. And not because they keep quiet, but because they sing their sentimental songs in a language which no one left alive can understand, for which there is no dictionary and no teacher. So even the ivory-inlaid spinning wheel of my virtuous ancestor Josepha Christin von Goldberg does a poor job of helping me understand the girls matured at the distaffs in the small towns and tiny villages of my homeland.
— rainer maria rilke, "interiors"

In fact, most claims of cultural ownership and charges of appropriation are bogus. While sometimes they provide an instrumental basis for tortious claims, as in pursuit of restitution for Nazi and other imperialists’ looting of artifacts, more often they posit a dead-end conflation of fixed and impermeable racial identity with cultural expression. As Michaels has argued for more than twenty-five years, the discourse of cultural ownership stems from the pluralist mindset that treats “culture” as a key marker of social groups and thereby inscribes it as racial essentialism.
— adolph reed, "the trouble with uplift"

the difficulty in talking about cultural appropriation lies here, in how we decide what is and what isn’t integral to our selves, in how we define ourselves by property, in how commercial doctrine has invaded the cultural sphere, and forced us to measure our identities in commodities. in a discussion that really has no latitude for complexity, we are forced into opposing sides of the room, putting tape and writing our names on things like items of clothing or decorative motifs. pain is divided into what we are and are not allowed to feel.

it’s frustrating because the urge to take the correct side is so overwhelming, to fight for those who have been wronged, to listen to those voices that are giving space to allow the celebration of their creations, but more importantly, the power instilled in cultural products today is counter-productive to the ultimate cause of mutual admiration and understanding. it makes so much sense that one would want to deprive their oppressors of the privilege to shop freely from the cultural market, especially to further their gain, and yet this concept fails to allow for movement and evolution within ethnic identities, whose individuals are not, of course, rooted in those cultural symbols, yet somehow are morally imposed to consistently honour and uphold them. what reed states is so crucial to this dialogue; the idea that there is no spokesperson, and no preordained agenda of thought that is circumscribed to a race.

cultural products are not definitive, but supportive. they exist as markers of those who came before us, and of stories that should be told with pride. they are evidence of what has happened, but they are not what happened. they are not chips we cash in to get through the gates of our communities. they are not strikes to make you more or less. the concept of ownership, extended to this degree, leans towards isolationism. there is no denying that appropriation is a source of aggression against minority populations, but it is a crime against the cultural pinnacles that cannot be marketed, or sold, or reproduced. it is a crime against histories, or values, or truths. what it falls short of covering, perhaps, is a dress-pattern.


by dan beachy-quick

Must I, in this question I am asking, include myself
Asking it? Must I include my face—
My face that I cannot see—through which I speak
This question about my eyes, about the field
Of vision, in which my hands press down these letters
Unattached to my arms? The sunlight
Comes in the window and lights up my hands
As they work. The world is not being kind
But there is the sensation of kindness. 
There is an appeal to a rule when we realize a term
Behaves uncomfortably. God falls down 
Into grammar and says I am but the words are spoken
From a bush on fire. God is included in this grammar 
Philosophy offers to the fly stuck in the bottle—
There it is on the table, walking in circles within the empty
Bottle, pausing only to rub its forelegs together,
In anticipation or prayer. I remember
Walking into the glass-walled museum and seeing myself 
Reflected in the head and in the belly of the metal rabbit’s
Mirror-like skin. This was not long ago, this experience
Of the ancient world, reason simultaneous with appetite,
Watching myself think, seeing my eyes thinking,
My body a body that contained this thinking 
That I write in the margins of the books I read, a script
That over time appears less legible, a form 
Of cuneiform I cannot read myself what I wrote 
In the margins. There is a fragment that floats in the air
Floating in my mind, spoken by a voice not mine:
To study circumcises the heart and calms,
The book steadies the heart [many words are missing
Or illegible
] if not, to turn away,
Fire courses through the veins [many words are
Missing or illegible
] then
Anger, anger. Leaning back in the tall grass,
Putting my book aside, my toe covers the sun.
I am imagining this world but I’m inviting you in
So I can join you. In the old language, the language
No one ever spoke, the language whose words
In the scholarly papers are marked by stars,
Asterisks that say this word exists by not existing,
The imaginary root pushing down from the sky
Into our heads, the root of the tongue;
In this language “I” meant “here,” it did not mean “me,”
It meant a location in which this body I am
Was not an expression of love but a word of
Presence. Here I am. Voice in a boundary.
In this place I am I once had a dream. 
Cylindrical seals rolled across the earth 
Printing in the mud the image of a woman braiding 
Her hair was loose and then her hair was bound.
These roads end at the horizon where I also end,
Present in this world as the alphabet is present
In this poem. *I. *I. Sometimes *I like to stutter.
*I like to think the sky is blue. *I see sometimes it’s red.
More soon on the nature of impossible constructions.  
The man in the moon. The sea rose. The living room. 


the land in reverence to the snowfall, opens toward the evening. the sky has not yet begun its dimmed blue, taking on the same powder-white as the papered windows, cleared of dust by an anonymous hand just a few hours ago. it’s been a warm winter, and the rooftops and branches, in softened silhouettes, will soon resume their edges. the kakuma river can be heard speaking a joyous language, rushed to the edges of the delta by great crackling plates of ice, and it is along here that you walk, swept by a mountain wind, emboldened by its silken cold, its rising continuum, its music harnessed and conducted in tandem with the water. chorus, the kind to be remembered later, at the curves of other rivers. there is a sense of being a piece of something, your shape along the road leaving an impression only you will be able to fill. the solid air holding still. so many houses in this town seem empty until someone emerges from them, windows are lifeless until you dare to look into them, and witness the tea sets of well-used china lined in human formation on the floor, faucet left running as if only for a moment, in the darkness of the next room something stirring. still, you are, in the many ways we consider, alone. stunned by landscape, by the world realized in such clarity that it seems to have first been imagined. 


by spencer reece

I remember she rented a room on the second floor from Jenny Holtzerman, an Austrian widow. The two women lived on Girard Avenue South, in Kenwood, an elegant suburb of Minneapolis. Any promise of husbands had disappeared long ago. From the kitchen I often remember the jelly smell of a linzer torte. I was in high school and often I eavesdropped. Once, quietly, she said to my mother, “I never knew the love of a man.” She had mentioned having a husband, but during the war they were separated in the chaos of Budapest, and later she lost track of him. Once she showed me her room: the walls were bare with cracks. Her daybed was narrow, barely slept-in. Her room resembled hundreds of scant little rooms around the world, the way it accepted blue and purple-violet detail—on her bureau, no family photographs, instead, playbills autographed by cast members, a calendar tattered, crossed, marked, no jewelry, some coins. Her window sashes warped, her wires shorted and the paint around her doorframe kept chipping off—“like in The Cherry Orchard,” she said, “by Chekhov.” She told a joke in Hungarian to Hannah Tamasek and even I, not knowing a word, laughed. She bowed gently in a mannerism distinctly Viennese and spoke on occasion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She loved the Guthrie Theater, where curtains rose on miniature worlds, preferring memorized dialogue and costumes to something truer. Five feet tall in orthopedic shoes, she limped. Time has a way of rearranging things and I could have most details wrong now, but there was this: during the war, she met a man, whom she gave money to, she did not know the man well, but had trusted him to smuggle her father across the border, the man pocketed the money, bought chocolates for his mistress from Belgium, and placed Margaret’s father on a train to Auschwitz. So it makes sense to me now that simple decisions baffled Margaret. It makes sense to me now that when news reached us of Primo Levi’s suicide, Margaret did not blink. It makes sense to me now that when Dr. Sikorski spoke of fighting in the Warsaw sewers, Margaret said, “I do not believe in God.” Those who saw what they saw grow fewer. Margaret has been dead a long time now. But perhaps you will understand why I chose her, why I have smudged the slow waltz of her smile and added only a few modest blue strokes—here and here. As you leave Margaret behind and turn the page, listen as the page falls back and your hand gently buries her. This is what the past sounds like.

on doris lessing's "the golden notebook"

at one point in doris lessing’s the golden notebook, a male character says to the narrator, anna wulf, regarding her one novel: “meretricious, that’s the word I would use, if asked.” if the complexities presented in this book can be in any way distilled (they cannot), then some attention should be paid to this brief bit of dialogue. 

in this remendous and excursive novel, what primarily struck me was how, in the relationships between men and women, the word “meretricious” refers to both the way thinking women are afraid of being perceived (largely by men) and the way they in turn consider and disregard (a considerable number of) men. lessing, writing from the mecurial rise of women’s liberation, created the formidably intelligent female character who was stricken by the contradictions between demands from the “sex war”, and a woman’s personal inclinations of love, self-doubt, weakness, neediness, and all those other symptoms modernity was meant to change. conexisting with this myriad is this fear of posterity, or inanity, or madness. thinking women are intensely self-aware to the point of being vulnerable to insanity. there is no linearity, only discursion. we do not have the luxury of assuming importance; it seems that at least, in vulnerable states, we battle meretriciousness.

it has been over fifty years since, and little has changed in this web of inverse and obverse axioms by which a woman is meant to live by. in reading the golden notebook I felt occasionally shocked by what anna was willing to admit to herself— the pliant attitude towards a toxic male presence, the submissiveness in sex, the willingness to cook and make coffee on demand! it is all that the contemporary feminist constitution obliges one to reject. yet in a woman’s internal dialogue why must we dissuade such thoughts, and would it not be unfounded righteousness for the voyeur to pass judgment on them? the assignment of a hierarchy to a woman’s emotional life is, in fact, an acting limitation to liberation. all these methods that have been invented for women to doubt themselves, their value, and here we are using these weapons against one another, against ourselves.

the love of men is threaded throughout the various narratives of this book. love, and hatred, and dependence, and pity— it is a wonder that such a book exists, congregating all the terrifying ways the liberated women must face her world. all the patterns and tropes and tired routines that threaten a wildly living soul. all those ferocious dichotomies that turn truth into charade, turn rawness into stereotype. the threat of superficiality. anyone who reads the book carefully will understand why lessing refuted the caption of a feminist novel. it is art beyond agenda, and it is redemption, a record of greatness for those titans that populate our world, those thinking women.

Whether unconsciously or by intent, the writer chooses subjects, adopts a tone, considers an order for the release of meaning, arrives at the rhythm, selects a series of appropriate sounds, determines the diction and measures the pace, turns the referents of certain words into symbols, establishes connections with companionable paragraphs, sizes up each sentence’s intended significance, and, if granted good fortune because each decision might have been otherwise, achieves not just this or that bit of luminosity or suggestiveness but her own unique lines of language, lines that produce the desired restitution of the self.
— william h. gass

"catastrophe and the power of art" at the mori art museum

add color painting: refugee boat ( 1960/2016-2018)   yoko ono

add color painting: refugee boat (1960/2016-2018)
yoko ono

the role of art in catastrophe is not necessarily a moral one— the artist knows the futility of reason or beauty or even thought in the face of pain. it is a point of disillusionment for any artist who is aware of the world around them; this notion of how dare I. how can I. when we awake enlightened of meaningless horrors, the preoccupation of art affecting the universe can seem unbearably narcissistic.

there is nothing moral about painting a starving child, or photographing a city block masticated by floodwaters; there is no fine justification for art. we may look upon the work—the monochromatic mural of ai weiwei or the photographs of the world trade center imprinted upon puzzle pieces by christoph draeger—and understand their message. we receive their intentions and are touched by it. we can—or some may even say, must—use our work as a method for our advocacy, but even if their resonance is measurable, it is ultimately an ambiguous and diluted force against the evils we combat. 

odyssey  (2016/2018)   ai weiwei

odyssey (2016/2018)
ai weiwei

sunrise at the world financial plaza. new york, september 2001  (2018) christoph draeger

sunrise at the world financial plaza. new york, september 2001 (2018)
christoph draeger

but in the aftermath of disaster we are left with our humanity. whether it be our own pain or the empathized shocks of another’s pain, it is necessary to reinstate the self, the emotive, uncaptured, living self upon the land that cruelly continues. as we see from the kobe artist horio sadaharu, the work he created after the devastation of his hometown during the hanshin-awaji earthquake kaleidoscopes in the vivid and maddening strokes that glare upon the pages, furious and ruinous. pools of black overwhelm the collapsed urbanity, concrete snapped like matchsticks. the calamity is here, yes, but so is the artist. he has been reborn a witness. it is a creation in collaboration with the pain, and no— not everything has been overcome, not everything has been forgiven, but something has emerged from the self, and it declares itself, triumphant.

there is the question of who “owns” the right to create on the basis of a disaster. is it only the victim? would anything else be considered exploitative? but that notion undermines our capacity to know one another. it dangerously perpetuates notions of property upon the universals of shock, loss, anger, grief. that is not to say that there does not exist work that is exploitative, but that work stemming from empathy should not be invalidated. trauma is not a legacy, and though there are ways to steal it and to tarnish it, there are no limits to its effect. one of the foremost functions of art is to provoke conversation, and one cannot have a conversation without response. 

from  “earthquake landscapes”  (1995) horio sadaharu

from “earthquake landscapes” (1995)
horio sadaharu

regardless of justification the need to create is indefatigable, and that is a relief. paul celan affirmed; “there is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a jew and the language of his poems is german.” it is an impossibility to be free from the desire to speak, and it is a certitude to which we must give thanks. how much I have learned from those who have conceived from catastrophe. how I have felt myself change. perhaps the ripple that has touched me has failed to further social transformation, perhaps it has failed to serve a purpose, but the movement that has transpired from one mind to another is a force nonetheless. the determination that culture should survive is not narcissistic; it comes from knowledge that the arts are a formidable construction of the world experienced. things did not simply happen; we lived through them. a muteness would be agonizing; it would be lethal.

we make art so that we may remember, so that we may have catharsis, so that we may speak in the name of justice or sympathy, but ground into the foundation of those sentiments is one, pure brightness: the declaration of our consciousness. as jack behar said;  “we have been strangely exhilarated to contemplate a world in ruins in which all that is left is the wayward ego matched to a future it must create out of nothing.” disillusionment will continue, but alongside the conviction that we must not leave ourselves in crisis. it is not nothing. 

a song out of tune

by octavio paz

The day is short,
                          the hour long
Motionless I retrace its steps,
climbing its minor calvaries,
I descend on stairs made of air,
and am lost in transparent galleries
--but I don't find me,
                                and I don't see you.

The day is short,                                
                          the hour long.
I see my stubborn hand that writes
its circular words on the page,
I see my shadow on the page, I see 
myself falling through the hour's blank center
--but I don't find you,
                                 and I don't see me.

The day is short,
                          the hour long.
Time drags on, hides, and peeks,
time is buried, clods of air,
time sprouts up, a column of air,
it bashes my forehead, scrapes my lids
--but I don't find me,
                                and I don't see you.

The day is short,
                          the hour long.
I walk through lots and corridors and echoes,
my hands touch you and you suddenly vanish,
I look in your eyes and suddenly vanish,
the hour traces, erases, invents its reflections
--but I don't find you,
                                 and I don't see me.

The day is short,
                          the hour long.
There is a seed asleep in time,
that explodes in the air with a burst of syllables,
it is a word, and it speaks without speaking
the names of time, yours and mine,
--but I don't find me,
                                and I don't see you.

Names are fruit that ripen and fall;
the hours immense, inside itself it falls.

Essentially all this is crude and meaningless. . .as an avalanche which involuntarily rolls down a mountain and overwhelms people. But when one listens to music, all this is: that some people lie in their graves and sleep, and that one woman is alive. . .and the avalanche seems no longer meaningless, since in nature everything has a meaning. And everything is forgiven, and it would be strange not to forgive.”
— anton chekov, "themes, thoughts, notes and fragments"

letters from maine

by may sarton


Yes, I am home again, and alone.
Today wrote letters, then took my dog
Out through the sad November woods.
The leaves have fallen while I was away.
The ground is golden, while above
The maples are stripped of all color.
The ornamental cherries, red when I left.
Have paled now to translucent yellow.

Yes, I am home again but home has changed.
And I within this cultivated space
That I have made my own, feel at a loss.
Disoriented. All the safe doors
Have come unlocked and too much light
Has flooded every room. Where can I go?
Not toward you three thousand miles away
Lost in your own rich life, given me
For an hour.

                      Read between the lines.
Then meet me in the silence if you can.
The long silence of winter when I shall
Make poems out of nothing, out of loss.
And at times hear your healing laughter.

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