Friday, April 10, 2009

"The Insane Sin of Man": Two Poems for Good Friday

We're coming out of retirement to share these two sonnets by Luís de Camões, translated by William Baer.

The Passion

So why has the triune God, in agony,
sacrificed himself for the insane sin
of Man? Because no man could ever begin
to withstand the just and heavy penalty.
Who could endure the necessary pains?
Who could suffer such injury, death, and disgrace?
No one, except for God, whose sovereign grace
commands, and reigns, and obeys, as He ordains.
The resources of men are way too weak and small;
they could never sustain the pain of God’s just plan
For righteous and necessary restitution.
So God’s great strength endures it all,
with a pure and merciful love for helpful Man:
who makes the error, but never the retribution.

O Glorious Cross

O glorious cross, O victorious
and holy prize that encompasses everything;
O chosen miraculous sign ordained to bring
Your remedy to each and every one of us.
O living font of sacred blood, expel
our sins and cure our sinful souls. In You,
O Lord, we know the almighty God, who
embodies the gentle name of mercy as well.
With You, the time of vengeance ends. A new
compassion flowers forever, and ever,
like after winter, when springtime blossoms again.
So vanquish all your enemies, Lord, You
who’ve made so many changes, yet never
cease to be exactly what you’ve always been.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Politics & English Grammar

Pundits are offering all sorts of reasons to explain why Democrats won and why Republicans lost. Most of these explanations are of very little interest to writers, but the real reason certainly is.

It’s simple: The GOP loves Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA.” Naturally, we have no grievance with an artist, or even a country music singer, expressing his religious beliefs through his craft. Our problem with this song is that its chorus relies on a mixed construction. As Diana Hacker explains, a writer “should not begin with one grammatical plan and then switch without warning to another.” But look what Greenwood does:

And I’m proud to be an American,
Where at least I know I’m free.

The first line proclaims his pride in being something; but in the second line, the pronoun “where” refers to a place. (As you can see, this grammatical situation is slightly more complicated than the standard pronoun/antecedent disagreement.) If the lines ran, “I’m proud to be an American / ‘Cuz at least I know I’m free” or “I’m proud to be in America / Where at least I know I’m free,” we wouldn’t be bothered; but they don’t, so we are.

It’s fine for writers to occasionally slip into a mixed construction. It happens to the worst of us. But Greenwood recorded his, he sings it every day, and he spreads it like a usage virus. Whenever anyone sings this song, they’re participating in and perpetuating Greenwood’s grammatical sin.

The Gods of Grammar will not stand for it. They have shown their displeasure in the last two elections. If the GOP doesn’t distance itself from Greenwood, it will soon be eclipsed by the Green Party.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Gioia to Resign in January

Why are we always the last to find out about these things?! Dana Gioia is resigning as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in January. From the New York Times:

“I’ve given up six years of my life as a writer,” Mr. Gioia, 57, said earlier in the week from his office in Washington. “I felt I had to go back to writing when I still have the kind of stamina to do it seriously.”

This is bad news for the NEA; it's good news for American poetry. To mark the occasion, here's one of his best (from the collection Interrogations at Noon):

"Summer Storm"

We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.

We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.

The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light,
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.

To my surprise, you took my arm–
A gesture you didn't explain–
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.

Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.

I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn't speak another word
Except to say goodnight.

Why does that evening's memory
Return with this night's storm–
A party twenty years ago,
Its disappointments warm?

There are so many might have beens,
What ifs that won't stay buried,
Other cities, other jobs,
Strangers we might have married.

And memory insists on pining
For places it never went,
As if life would be happier
Just by being different.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Catholic (?) Short Fiction of T.C. Boyle

We’ve recently been enjoying a number of short stories by T. C. Boyle. We’d read some of his work before (“Greasy Lake” comes to mind), but what inspired us to return to his work this time was that we noticed a story of his was included in a collection called The Best American Catholic Short Stories (Sheed & Ward, 2007). His work had never struck us as particularly Catholic, so his inclusion surprised us. We resolved to take a look at some of his work--which we're happy to say is much more enjoyable than looking at his publicity pictures, in which he consistently looks like the bassist for an 80s arena-rock band now playing at county fairs.

A couple of the stories were quite good, but their subject matter puts them out of the purview of this site. “Balto” and “1300 Rats,” from a recent The New Yorker. The former is a realistic short story; the latter is strange but not fantastic. It’s also the weakest of the bunch, as the narrator’s voice and knowledge is inconsistent.

The first story worth considering here is called “Killing Babies.” We’d had this in a collection (the 1999 edition of The Best American Short Stories) for some time and hadn’t gotten around to reading it because, seeing that it had originally been published in The New Yorker, we’d assumed it would be a pro-choice story. It isn’t. We’d like to write more about it later, but for now we’ll just say that while the narrator, whose brother is a doctor who performs abortions, hates the pro-life advocates who protest his brother (and these protestors are certainly not presented with much sympathy), the story’s tone changes suddenly at the end with a very surprising simile. We finally interpreted it as a pro-life story, but one with serious reservations about the pro-life movement.

The other stories are both from his 1989 collection If the River Was [sic!] Whiskey. “The Devil and Irv Cherniske,” included in The Best American Catholic Short Stories, is not a specifically Catholic story, but is a recasting of Washington Irving's moralistic "The Devil and Tom Walker" in a modern American suburb: a greedy businessman and father, frustrated in his marriage and his professional life, is approached by the devil, who makes him an offer he should refuse. The devil “wanted the usual deal, nothing less, and he held out to Irv the twin temptations of preternatural business success and filthy lucre.” Bless his heart, Irv initially resists the temptation. But His wife Tish, no pleasant help-mate, scolds Irv for being so stupid, and sets out to seal the deal with the Dark Prince herself. This does not end happily for her.

Irv eventually accepts Satan’s offer, and in ten years becomes one of the fattest fat cats around. But he wonders about his devilish deal, so “he returned to the church—not the Roman church, to which he’d belonged as a boy, but the Church of the Open Palm, Reverend Jimmy, Pastor,” who preaches the power “of the one and only God—profit,” and whose scripture is The Wealth of Nations. This new faith gets him richer and happier, but of course it’s only doing his soul more damage, and (like Tom Walker) he can’t avoid his fate, which we’re afraid is much less pleasant than the Washington Irving story to which the title alludes. (If only Daniel Webster were there to help!)

The next story in the collection is “The Miracle at Ballinspittle,” which is as irreverent as the title suggests. Two drunk Americans visit Ireland on a whim to see “the snotgreen likeness of the Virgin” which “was seen one grim March afternoon some years back to move its limbs ever so slightly, as if seized suddenly by the need of a good sinew-cracking stretch.” Of course, the vision is doubtful--at least in part because it was experienced by a lone young girl in the midst of a fifteen-day Marmite and soda binge--but that doesn’t keep the site from becoming a popular pilgrimage destination.

Still, it turns out that there is something miraculous about the statue, which suddenly statue calls out to one of the drunk Americans, Davey McGahee. The other many pilgrims watch as she speaks to him. He begins praying the Hail Mary, but when he asks her to pray for sinners, she retorts,

“And you think it’s as easy as that, do you?...Gone is the beatific smile, gone the gace of the eyes and the face is a gargoyle’s, a shrew’s, and the voice, sharpening, probing like a dental tool, suddenly bears an uncanny resemblance to his ex-wife’s. ‘Sinner!’ the gargoyle hisses. ‘Fall on your knees!’”

When he drops, a vision marches out before him and all of the other pilgrims, a vision of all of his sins. All of the alcohol he’s consumed appears in barrels. All of the women he’s lusted after, every sinful sexual act, all of the excess food he’s eaten, right there for the world to see. For two days.

When Davey awakes, he’s humiliated but surprised to learn that it’s been declared “the greatest vision vouchsafed to man since the time of Christ.” He’s also become an object of praise, veneration, and publicity. But as he’s receiving this praise, he is moved to move his bowels (hey, it’s been two days!), and when he does that on a holy site (oh, the irony!) not only do the pilgrims turn on him, but the skies open and his many sins fall down like rain on him, and he (like Irv C., though in less sinister manner) disappears…

The site becomes one of the great holy places of the world, but Davey McGahee is never heard from again. “Some say he descended into a black hole of the earth, others that he evaporated, while still others insist that he ascended to heaven in a blaze of light, Saint of the Common Sinner.” We’re not sure Davey’s like all of us—some of his sins are pretty bad. But the point of the story is to parody the sort of vision that we hear about, to turn it into something absurd and disgusting. For that reason, it’s hard to call it a Catholic story, because it demeans the notion of a miraculous vision. Then again, sin is real in this story: it is manifest before the world, made as clear to the world as it to God. It's just difficult to determine whether Boyle is also mocking this element of the vision.


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Solutions for the Poetry Crisis

Charles Bernstein has some timely advice for bailing out poetry:

Cultural leaders have come together to announce a massive poetry buyout: leveraged and unsecured poems, poetry derivatives, delinquent poems, and subprime poems will be removed from circulation in the biggest poetry bailout since the Victorian era. We believe the plan is a comprehensive approach to relieving the stresses on our literary institutions and markets....

As we know, lax composition practices since the advent of modernism led to irresponsible poets and irresponsible readers. Simply put, too many poets composed works they could not justify. We are seeing the impact on poetry, with a massive loss of confidence on the part of readers. What began as a subprime poetry problem on essentially unregulated poetry websites has spread to other, more stable, literary magazines and presses and contributed to excess poetry inventories that have pushed down the value of responsible poems.

It's funny because it's true!...Well, sort of. Here's the rest.


Sunday, September 28, 2008


For those of you looking for a quick Chesterton fix, has a couple of reviews up. One is positive; the other, less so. (Note: although the headline of the second link calls The Man Who Was Thursday as a novella, our well-placed sources inform us that the author of the review knows better.)


Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace, R.I.P.

From the LA Times:

David Foster Wallace, the novelist, essayist and humorist best known for his 1996 novel "Infinite Jest," was found dead Friday night at his home in Claremont, according to the Claremont Police Department. He was 46.

Mark Hemingway has some kind words over at NRO. Here are Michiko Kakutani's thoughts over at the New York Times.