During &

Hal Sirowitz
(Soft Skull Press)
Here we have a hundred or so poems about sex. Thinking about sex. Looking for sex. Doing sex. Wanting more sex. Regretting sex. Doing sex. Wanting more sex. Regretting sex. Doing sex. Wanting more sex. Regretting sex.

Apparently, the female in this case is one of those otherworldly ladies most of us have never known and will probably never know who:
  1. Hangs out in singles' bars near Chelsea (we trust this means a certain area of New York City and not our previous president's daughter);
  2. Doesn't mind getting picked up;
  3. Has certain standards about when and why she is going to share her bed with whomever she's picked up or has lured to her apartment;
  4. Doesn't mind being outspoken, sometimes crudely so, about what goes on and what is expected to go on in her bedroom; and
  5. On occasion, we find out, she gets damned sick and tired of some idiot guy who wants to hang around all day and stuff the old cabbage roll into her oven every five minutes or so.

I guess it's all in good fun only there is an undertone here that is more than a little sour --- a New York we're-just-in-this-for-the-kicks routine that some of us find hard to swallow, if we may use that freighted phrase.

    I want to show you my winter clothes,
    she said. Since we've only known
    each other this summer you've never
    seen any of these dresses on me.
    Don't you like this one with the
    strapless back? All this is in store
    for you if we stay together.

As you can see, if this is poetry, it's not what you would think of as your classical Shakespearean or Spenserian sonnet form. Nor any other form known to us traditional poetry types. Rather, it's a hunk of prose out of which a seven-line verse is struggling mightily to get born.

In the During department, we get:

    The next time you hand me a condom
    to throw away, she said, kindly
    make sure it's right side up, so
    the contents won't spill.
    One day I may need your sperm
    to produce a child, but until
    that day I'd not rather have it on me.

I suppose some would call all this "making love," but then there's that picture --- not exactly a Wordsworthian one --- of the used condom. And "I may need your sperm/to produce a child" is not what many of us have in mind when we think of the wonders of love and motherhood. Rather, it comes across as the cold ruminations of a cynical lady, one who is bitter about love, bitter about being a woman, bitter about having to put up with men just to get her rocks off.

In the After stage, "Take Him, He's Yours," presumably takes place as our subject couple are out to dinner together:

    If I see you staring again
    at another woman, she said
    I'm going to escort you
    to her table, make the introductions,
    & say: "You can have him.
    I don't want him anymore."

Thus our pair have graduated from the casual pick-up, a few damp sessions in bed, and are now into the jealousy routine.

§     §     §

The publisher of these lubricious passages is Soft Skull Press. We gave them high praise for a recent volume of theirs, Off the Cuffs: Poetry by and about the Police. It was an honest, funny, sad mix of poems by those who enforce the laws conjoined with poetry by those who have been brutalized by the very same laws.

That Soft Skull should now devolve into a sardonic mass of poems about the plight of those who have to depend on the singles bars for their kicks might be saying something about the economics of the poetry publishing biz. And Sirowitz has, we find, a rather weird take on women, and love, and the reason men like hanging out with them in the first place. Some might define him as a not-so-closeted misogynist.

Before you get on my case for being a spoilsport --- it's all in good fun, right? --- I have to tell you that there was one poem that almost made me fall out of bed, even though I was not in the midst of congress, at least not his type of congress. It was called "Favoring the Nose:"

    The fact that you had to hide your penis
    from other men, she said whenever you
    used the lockers or bathrooms
    makes you want to show it
    to me more. But I'd
    rather look at your nose.
    At least when something comes out
    of it you cover it up
    with a handkerchief. You don't get it all over me.

--- Rebecca Sanborn

Vintage Naipaul
V. S. Naipaul
Over the years, and because of his well-developed case of logorrhea, many of us have found V.S. Naipaul tough going. As my beloved mother would say in her heavy South Georgia accent, "He just won't shut his mouth up." Despite this, in their Vintage series the publishers have decided to accord him the honor of being included alongside Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Oliver Sacks, and Martin Amis.

The anonymous editor has chosen four fictional excerpts and three reportorial pieces out of his writings of almost thirty books of fiction and non-fiction. In Vintage Naipaul, he speculates about India stuck between the ages (18th Century art vs. 20th Century machinery), the tragedy of the Congo under the heavy hand of General Mobutu, the many failings of the study of literature in England, tales of a refugee from the Caribbean living near Stonehenge, the epic tale of a poverty-stricken family of Trinidad, and a story of a boy from Malaysia turning away from his family's magical religion to become a Muslim.

Naipaul is all on his own a 20th Century literary United Nations, what with his writings on the Caribbean, the Far East, England, India, the West Indies and South America (and the American South) --- but in language and writing style, he is hopelessly conservative. His extended exegesis on the late Sese Seko Mobutu takes up almost a quarter of this volume and may have some insights into the nature of tyranny --- especially the Central African tyranny of a modern day "king" --- but it does meander on and on. Since it was written in 1975 it is, too, somewhat dated.

"Jasmine" is an extended complaint about the way literature is taught in graduate school, but these plaints have been around for a half-century now. "Each writer has to be approached through the booby-traps of scholarship," he proclaims:

    There were the bound volumes of the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, affectionately referred to by old and knowing young as PMLA. The pages that told of Chaucer's knowledge of astronomy or astrology (the question came up every year) were black and bloated and furred with handling, and even some of the penciled annotations (No, Norah!) had grown faint. I developed a physical distaste for these bound volumes and the libraries that housed them.

"Delight cannot be taught and measured..." Naipaul concludes. "A literature has been codified and reduced to a few pages of 'text.'" It's an old and common complaint about English departments, one that is too well known to waste our time on here.

The only successful bit in this volume is the first --- the introduction and beginning chapter to the novel A House for Mr. Biswas which was published some forty years ago. We are in Trinidad. Mr. Biswas is the owner of three houses but deeply in debt. To him, nonetheless, there is the wonder of being a homeowner, "the audacity of it:"

    to walk in through his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wished, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no noises except those of his family, to wander freely from room to room and about his yard...

In the first chapter of the novel, we return to his childhood. He is born with six fingers. The village pundit says that he must be kept away from water. The curse comes true: left in charge of a calf, he wanders to a nearby lake. The calf gets entangled in the weeds, drowns. Mr. Biswas (even though he is but five years old, the author refers to him as "Mr. Biswas") goes into hiding; his father drowns trying to find him and the calf in the lake. Born to tragedy, he is cursed, as surely as Oedipus.

The novel concerns itself with how early tragedy shapes our lives. This is finely mixed with the exotics of living in Trinidad, amidst its poverty, curses, magic --- all tied to family and neighborhood. I suspect one of the reason the excerpt works so well is because it is long --- almost fifty pages. Like any good novelist, Naipaul needs space to build his foundations, and this is the only chance we get in this volume to begin to see his novelistic rhythms at work.

He labels himself "V. S. Naipaul." Why? It's not like Herbert George Wells or Thomas Stearnes Eliot or even Harry S. Truman (where the "S" was understood). No --- it's Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipul. How would you like to wield that handle each time you had to endorse a royalty check?

--- S. W. Surabad

The War for

Progressive Christianity,
the Great War, and
the Rise of the
Messianic Nation

Richard M. Gamble
Leading up to what was so arrogantly known as "the Great War," the American faith of choice was "Progressive Christianity." This was no minority religious ethnic: it was supported by the mainstream leaders of American spiritual life --- Baptist Minister Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Jewett Tucker (President of Dartmouth College), Washington Gladden and Lyman Abbott (Plymouth Church), George A. Gordon (Harvard University), and the leading spokesman --- President Woodrow Wilson.

On the day in 1917 that the draft was instituted, Wilson said that the nation was "an instrument in the hands of God to see that liberty is made secure for mankind:"

    This is a war which any great spiritual body can support, because I believe if ever a nation purged its heart of improper motives in a war, this nation has purged its heart, and that, if there ever was a war which was meant to supply a new foundation for what is righteousness and true and of good report, it is this war.

As Gamble makes clear, the Progressives had a two-fold task. One was to demonize Germany; the second was to ennoble a crusading America. Germany was the enemy of the modern religious spirit, "monarchical and feudal," a place of the "tribal god." The leaders of the German state were characterized as the "Predatory Potsdam Gang." The invasion of Belgium in 1914 confirmed the German state as the Antichrist.

One writer in the influential magazine, Christian Century, wrote that Cæsar and his conspirators had crucified Jesus, and now again, nineteen centuries later, "the Son of man is stretched upon the cross of Calvary."

    His two metaphorical hands, Belgium and Poland, were "nailed to the cross," while Serbia and Armenia were "his feet streaming with blood."

§     §     §

In this religo-centric view of history --- with America's God-given rôle as home of the divine --- dissent was considered to be heresy:

    For an American to refuse to share in the present war, to oppose preparation for war, to induce men to avoid the draft, and to attack all forms of military preparation for the purpose of national defense, is not Christian.

"To defy the American government was to defy God," was the operative truth of the Progressives.

And surely America would prevail, for the teachings of Jesus "proved that the war was God's war." Frederick Lynch, head of Andrew Carnegie's Church Peace Union (sic) called America "the Christ Nation to the other Nations of the world." The dean of Yale Divinity School said that America stood for "moral idealism:"

    May we not believe that this country, strong and brave, generous and hopeful, is called of God to be in its own way a Messianic nation...[through which] all the world may be blessed.

It is important to reëmphasize that these Progressives were not the Jimmy Swaggarts and Pat Robertsons and Billy Hinns and other ne'er-do-wells of their day. Rather, they were respectable and well-placed, the upper crust of main-stream American Christian establishment, ones who championed "practical Christianity," those who taught "social ethics" and supported the "Settlement Movement" --- houses of service to the poor, places for support and encouragement for the have-nots in the big cities.

The true villains for the Progressives were not only the Germans but the "premillennialists" --- those Christians who felt that "the world's transformation required direct divine intervention;" in other words, the Rapturists of a century ago who claimed that the war presaged the end of the world. Christian Century stated that they touted "a theology of denial and despair," whereas the Progressives encouraged "loyalty, courage, and devotion."

§     §     §

Gamble takes Progressive Christianity from its "modern, adaptive" beginnings at the turn of the century, through its peak --- 1915 - 1918 --- and follows it through to its inevitable decline, when cooler heads began to realize that murdering 10,000,000 peoples in the trenches of Europe was not necessarily a viable assist to the evolution of Christianity.

Even though his story is comprehensive, there are a few problems with The War for Righteousness. One is that it is grossly overwritten. It is a viper's nest of quotes and references, ones that repeat themselves enough to drive the casual reader quite mad. We accept the fact that these Fosdick, Gladden, and Abbot types were foolish to sacralize America's participation in the Great War, claiming that with "suffering love ... Christians would help redeem the temporal world." This "Onward, Christian Soldiers" school of divinity has been and always will be the fallback for scoundrels. But to state this point again, and again, and again is enough to not only gild the lily, but drown it.

Many of us will always be baffled when the followers of the Prince of Peace hold up the killing fields as the true path to divine glory. But through numbing repetition, the War for Righteousness forces us to conclude --- as they say on the streets of New York --- that we must put this one to bed with a shovel.

--- Terry Fellowes, DD, DHL
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