History, Official Lies, and Poetry

Sunday, September 15, 2019

I only recently noticed that President Trump’s casual revisions of historical events include a preposterous explanation of the Soviet Union’s motive for its invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979:

“Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. … The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt.” — President Donald Trump (January, 2019)

In the early 1970s, Robert Bly wrote a long poem, “The Teeth Mother Naked At Last”; in one of its sections, a satiric recitation of the lies the President tells on a daily basis culminates in a parallel collapse of historical motivations:

“(The President) insists that Luther was never a German, and that only
the Protestants sold indulgences,
That Pope Leo X wanted to reform the church, but the “liberal elements”
prevented him,
that the Peasants’ War was fomented by Italians from the North.”

As Bly pointed out in his poem, the willingness of a populace to accept lies on this scale is a reflection of the grip of the death-wish on the nation’s culture.

I never thought I would regard the CIA as a friendly witness, but things have long surpassed any normal expectations. President Trump is so woefully ignorant that I have little choice but to call upon a government agency long known to be hostile to anything insubordinate to the corporate interests of U.S. global hegemony:


It is true that Islamic-inspired separatists engaged in terrorist activity in opposition to Russian rule at the outset of the conflict known as the Second Chechen War, but that occurred 20 years after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up a puppet government. There is no evidence whatsoever to support Trump’s account of a significant conflict of the Cold War.

I have not the slightest idea of how to break the hypnotic grip of deceit that Mr. Trump has on a large segment of my fellow citizens. How is it possible that over 40 percent of the population has no problem with a president who would appear to be more interested in facilitating the dissemination of false information provided by the intelligence operations of Vladimir Putin? The Russian people deserve better, and so do we.

One of the readers of this blog, according to this site’s records, seems to be located in the “Russian Federation.” While it is a pleasant fantasy to suppose that a young Russian poet is reading this blog, it would appear more likely that it is being tracked as part of an overall assessment of Trump’s opposition. It’s hard to believe that a blog with an incredibly minuscule level of readership would be worth registering on their political scales, but perhaps the plans for rounding up the opponents of dictators, no matter how mild their protest, have accelerated far beyond our reasonable fears.

I highly recommend another outlet that is no doubt being tracked, too: Larry Smith’s recent commentary in his CALIBAN CHRONICLES:


VOLUME 9 – No. 1 WWW.CALIBANONLINE.COM Sunday, September 1st, 2019

And, of course, the usual suspects:



How “I Hate Hamlet” Leads to “Prufrock as Prince of Oyster-Shells”

September 12, 2019

About a week after my mother died, I attended the first meeting of the school year, a gathering of three dozen incoming M.A. students at CSU Long Beach. Each person in attendance was asked to introduce themselves not just with their names and citations of their alma maters as well as major research interests, but with the title of a book they read during the summer “for fun.”

The preponderance of books mentioned in the course of playing this familiar game in which one usually aspires to sound “casual yet sharp” (Dennis Cooper’s phrase about late 1970s/early 1980s West Coast wardrobe) leaned towards the high brow end of authors, but I couldn’t resist being flippant.

“Fun reading?” I asked, as if repeating the question to make sure I’d heard it correctly. “Isn’t all reading fun?” I paused. “I Hate Hamlet,” I said, “by a playwright I’d never heard of before, Paul Rudnick.” I paused again. “It’s about a television soap opera star who is cast in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet. It’s the funniest piece of meta-theater I’ve read in a long time. Instead of Hamlet’s father, though, the ghost that appears is of John Barrymore.”

I doubt my brief description convinced anyone in the room to run out and get a copy, but it’s their loss. I thought of the play again yesterday when I was teaching Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which is easily the most important dramatic monologue in 20th century American and British poetry. For the first time, I truly paid attention to the line:

“No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”

Why does Prufrock feel the need to include Hamlet’s rank? Why not simply:

“No, I am not Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”

It’s not as if readers would confuse the citation with someone else. Seriously, what the odds of someone thinking, “Hmmm, Prufrock has mentioned Lazarus earlier, and I’ve read the Bible, so that’s an easy identification, but does Hamlet refer to the protagonist of one of Shakespeare’s most daunting plays or to some other person?”

It would seem, therefore, that even in that small touch, Eliot has nudged us with a reminder that it is not just the women who give an edge to their habitual name-dropping, and that social rank matters to this character even more than we suspected.

I should add that one of the quiet jokes in Rudnick’s play comes towards the end, when Felicia Dentine, a real estate agent, discloses that she is not familiar with this particular masterpiece by Shakespeare. In fact, having left the premiere performance after the first act for a dalliance with a new acquaintance, she asks the lead actor with all sincerity how the story turns out: “You’re king now, right?”

Mirthful sighs are rare.

There is one other line I’d like to mention in “Prufrock” that doesn’t get enough attention. Until recently, I’d always regarded “and sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” as the kind of urban detail meant to indicate how Prufrock is living a double life; the social world of the working-class has more than an alluring, raffish charm for this reticent voyeur. In point of fact, the “oyster shells” have more than literal intent; rather, they are a foreshadowing symbol of the image that most tellingly reveals Prufrock’s degree of abjection: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silence seas.” And when we finish the poem, it is by looking back from the shore-line out to where we see Prufrock “not waving, but drowning” that we can appreciate what a subtle clue to the outcome Eliot offered us at the outset.

DeWayne Rail: “The Book of Days”

Sunday, September 8, 2019

This past week’s mail included a small, self-published chapbook (less than 6 x 4 inches) of a half-dozen poems by one of the most reticent members of the Hermetic Underground. I first read DeWayne Rail’s poems in an anthology, Down at the Santa Fe Depot, edited by David Kherdian (Giligia Press, 1970). As an independent press production at that time, it was fairly successful: over 120 libraries still list it in their holdings, and it had an impact on poets with a working-class background far greater than its print run and distribution might indicate. I certainly felt that I had come into contact with some kindred spirits when I got hold of a copy in the last week of October, 1971, during a visit to a friend who had transferred from U.C.L.A. to Fresno State to continue her studies in theater.

The poets in that anthology included DeWayne Rail, who had his MFA thesis at UC Irvine, “Going Home Again,” published by Perishable Press in 1971, as well as a chapbook published by Blue Moon Press in Fresno in 1988. I remember liking his work very much, and whenever I picked up the Fresno anthology, I wondered why he had not become as well-known as several other poets in that book. I’ve never met him, so I have no idea of whether he stopped writing at a certain point, or as I myself have intermittently done at various points in the past, stopped circulating work for publication.

Rail has, however, recently published a small chapbook (perhaps about 6 x 4 inches) with a half-dozen poems entitled The Book of Days. This very slim volume has no distributor whatsoever, so you’ll need luck both to get a copy as well as to keep track of where it is on your bookshelves. Unless you have a trove of favorite saddle-stitched productions, this book could easily prove irretrievable.

The poems themselves retrieve the most stoic degree of tenderness I have encountered in any poet since last reading Christopher Buckley’s work. The conclusion of the collection’s first poem portends that our planet itself has a kind of Sisyphean task:

“In August, the earth has come round
In its great circle the zone of meteorites.
Spacerocks fall in a parody of rain
And use our oxygen for their beautiful burning.”
(“The Day of Prophecy”)

As I read and re-read the other five poems (“The Day of Patience”; “The Day It Rained”; “The Day of Good Looks”; “Ash Wednesday”; and “The Day of Contact”), I detected the influence of Donald Justice, whose poems I have been reading recently for a post-in-progress. In particular, one hears how Justice’s variant of Cesar Vallejo’s “I will die on a rainy day in Paris” becomes a droll meditation by Rail on “Ash Wednesday,” which he takes more seriously than most escutcheoned believers.

Some readers might be surprised at my affection for Justice, since his work is so different from the tone of my primary interests. However, I am less inclined than other critics to relegate a poet to the Kuiper Belt of Quietude. I suppose that will be Rail’s fate, too, although we should not be completely startled at another outcome, foretold by a dream in “The Day of Contact”:

“I will step forward from the crowd to greet them,
accepting their recognition,
babbling in that alien tongue.”

In between prophecy and apocalypse, Rail awaits the reiterations of “ordinary life” and how one’s steadfastness is the valor requisite to endure its reiterations in a landscape all too familiar to characters in a story by Chekhov. Fortitude’s ranks are larger than we suppose. Look in the distance. Rail’s poems mark yet another boundary of resilient anticipation.

“Blue Collar Review” featured at PAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE

Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019

Fred Voss and I were the first two readers at the afternoon-long poetry reading held on Labor Day at PAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE bookstore in Long Beach.

Here we are backstage with one of our favorite literary magazines: BLUE COLLAR REVIEW, which is published by Partisan Press in Norfolk, Virginia.

Both of look forward to the possibility of a second annual Labor Day reading at the store!

Blue Collar - BACKSTAGE - 2019

Photo: Joan Jobe Smith, (c) copyright by Joan Jobe Smith, 2019. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Joan Jobe Smith.

Art (Braunstein) and Poetry (Berland): Michael Stearns Gallery

is pleased to present
The Loft
401 S. Mesa Street
San Pedro, CA 90731
(enter the gallery on 4th Street through the loading ramp)
September 5 – October 26, 2019

In “Places Without Walls” artist Terry Braunstein and poet Dinah Berland engage in a call and response intermingling of image and text, with Braunstein’s initial photomontage serving as the ignition point for a poem by Berland, which Braunstein then uses as a resource for her next collage. The poet and artist continue alternating until the sequence culminates in an assemblage of pieces that can stand alone in their oscillating logic and yet simultaneously amplify each other’s cohesive vision.

On Sunday, September 15th, the Michael Stearns Gallery will host a special convergence of poetry and art at the Loft. Collage artist Terry Braunstein will give a talk about her work at 2 p.m., followed by a reading of poems by Dinah Berland at 3 p.m. The reading will take place in a studio adjacent to the Stearns that is the current workspace of artists Linda Fry and poet Bill Mohr. Seating will be provided.

Doors open at 1 p.m., and the gallery and studio will be open until 5 p.m.


“The Affinity School”: A conversation with poet Lynn McGee

9/1/19 (A palindrome of time)

Lynn McGee and I recently exchanged a set of questions about each other’s latest volumes of poetry, and the ensuring conversation has just been published.

Methods and Materials: The Sojourns of Affinities

As a “sneak preview,” I present our opening queries:

Lynn McGee: When I opened the padded envelope with The Headwaters of Nirvana: Reassembled Poems, I stood at the kitchen counter reading almost the entire book. I’m thinking now of the pivots and line breaks in “Vallejo,” the precise unfolding of images in “Eye Chart for an Orbiting Space Station.” Of course, I recognize many of the poems, like “Rules for Building a Labyrinth,” which you set into a letterpress pamphlet in the nineties. I also noticed some familiar poems aren’t in this new book, like the one about a roommate who leaves broken glass on the kitchen floor. I know your editors selected the poems for this collection. Did their choices surprise you? What are your thoughts on how to assemble a collection of poetry?

* * *
Lynn, I’d like to talk about the title of your new collection. While the cover art reinforces the image of public transportation, the word “tracks” also has the common association of physical footprints. In your poem, “Sign,” the opening image is of your perilous trudge through snow and ice, “feet deep in the prints of those who gone / before me.” On a literary level, one could think of any poet’s work as walking in a similar manner. Are there any particular poets who influenced this project?

* * *

I hope you find our answers to these and subsequent questions as tantalizing as I did upon re-reading this collaborative interview. I want to thank Lynn McGee for all her work on this project.

Lynn McGee is the author of the poetry collections Tracks (Broadstone Books, 2019); Sober Cooking (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016), and two award-winning poetry chapbooks: Heirloom Bulldog (Bright Hill Press, 2015) and Bonanza (Slapering Hol Press, 1997). Her poems are forthcoming or appeared recently in The Tampa Review, Lavender Review, The American Journal of Poetry, Potomac Review, The American Poetry Review and Southern Poetry Review. McGee earned an MFA in Poetry at Columbia University, taught writing at private and public colleges and led poetry workshops in NYC public schools. A 2015 Nominee for the Best of the Net award, McGee received a Recognition Award from the NYC Literacy Center, and Heart of the Center Award from the NYC LGBT Center. Today she is a communications manager at Borough of Manhattan Community College, The City University of New York.

Bill Mohr is the author of The Headwaters of Nirvana / Los Manantiales del Nirvana, a bilingual collection of poetry from What Books/Glass Table Collective, 2019. An internationally recognized poet whose work has been translated into Croatian, Italian, Japanese and Spanish, Mohr authored Hold Outs,The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992 (University of Iowa Press, 2011). He holds a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, San Diego and is a professor at California State University, Long Beach. Editor and publisher of Momentum Press, 1974-1988, his own poems, prose poems, and non-fiction essays have appeared in dozens of magazines, including Antioch Review; Blue Collar Review; Caliban On-Line; Miramar; Santa Monica Review; Sonora Review; Blue Mesa Review; Spot Lit; Skidrow Penthouse; and ZYZZYVA. His many anthology appearances and on-line reprints include POETRY DAILY; all three editions of Stand Up Poetry; as well as volumes such as Grand Passion; Wide Awake; and Coiled Serpent. His stand-alone volumes of poetry include Hidden Proofs (1982); Penetralia (1984); Bittersweet Kaleidscope (2006) and a bilingual volume published in Mexico, Pruebas Ocultas (Bonobos Editores, 2015). Mohr’s critical commentary, articles, and reviews have been published in Chicago Review; William Carlos Williams Review; Journal of Beat Studies; New Review of Literature; OR; IdeAs (Idees d’Amerique); and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His academic awards include a Visiting Scholar residency at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, as well as awards from the Huntington Library in San Marino.


On Monday, September 2, 2019, PAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, Long Beach’s most recent addition to a long tradition of used book stores, will be the host of an afternoon-long poetry reading that will celebrate the Labor Day holiday. Here is the line-up. Hope to see you!

2714 E 4th St, Long Beach, CA 90814
Phone: (562) 588-7075

“One cannot tell from the taste of the oats the conditions under which it was grown.”


Fred Voss
Bill Mohr
Erin Foley

Bill Friday
Jane Sprague
Kevin Ridgeway
Darren Taylor

Donna Hilbert
Kelsey Bryan-Zwick
Robert Jay

4:00-5:00pm (store closes at 6:00pm)
“Open Time”

Fred Voss and I have often published poems in this quarterly journal of progressive working-class literature. Published in Norfolk, Virginia by Partisan Press, and founded over 15 years ago, its mission is to encourage those who do the work that enables culture to thrive to articulate the conditions of that work. “One cannot tell from the taste of the oats the conditions under which it was grown.” Marx’s observation should still give us pause, eh?

Subscriptions are $20.00 yearly, or $7.00 for a single issue.
Subscribe using the on-line link or send checks to:

Partisan Press
P.O. 11417 Norfolk, VA 23517.
e-mail at red-ink@earthlink.net


In the interests of national security, I have decided to declassify the following information from the Google Lighthouse SEO report on my “site’s performance and quality.” Sites were graded according to the following scale: 0–49: poor; 50–89: average; 90–100: good.

The assessment result for billmohrpoet.com was 89. The message urged me to “(t)ake the first step by reading about how SEO can help your business get found online and maximize revenue.”

If I could accomplish that goal for anyone on Labor Day, 2019, it would be both for a bookstore such as PAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE and BLUE COLLAR REVIEW,

“Metonymy” — by Andrew Tonkovich


Andrew Tonkovich

THE CANDIDATE complained about immigrants, women and Muslims at a formal dinner on Monday, of headaches, dizziness, low energy and blurred vision on Tuesday, collapsed after an arena rally in Phoenix, Arizona on Wednesday, was admitted for tests on Thursday, and underwent emergency brain surgery on Friday morning at Banner-University Medical, the best facility in the American Southwest.

Identification of a tumor on the CT scan — likely source of pressure on that section of the frontal lobe affecting personality, speech and behavior — seemed perhaps cruel or ironic, if also instructive beyond only its medical import and assessment: “Benign yet potentially life-threatening” wrote the doctors in their official if ambiguous statement offered to the media, approved by The Candidate’s people. Surely this explained so much, finally, at least in the off-hand, easy, ungenerous, delighted way of social media, gleeful late-night comedians, smug liberal media wags and angry, militant activists who’d insisted that so much more mattered than The Candidate’s run for office, including their own lives.

Questions and speculation about his recovery began, twenty-four seven, and about whether The Candidate would or even could continue his campaign, the likelihood of his potential replacement by a recently named running mate — this most unprecedented of accession narratives — and changes to his campaign schedule in light of convalescence and perhaps weeks, even months of rehab, who knew?

But as if challenging even that impossibly medieval medical diagnosis associating health and morality via thinking which once inspired “humours,” spirits and resultant affliction or punishment, the pathology also provided an irresistible political metaphor. Yet, finally, both symbolism and history and reality were once again trumped, in a manner of speaking, by The Candidate’s own response.

Indeed, by late Sunday morning, less than a week after his diagnosis, he sat up, talked, laughed, read, and watched television, surrounded by family and advisors in his elegant hospital room. According to anonymous reports from the hospital’s nursing staff, he was nearly unrecognizable in demeanor, speech and affect, suddenly, dramatically gracious, affectionate, asking after others’ well-being, expressing gratitude for his care, and eager indeed to get back to running for office. The campaign and its spokesmen were silent, perhaps as so often to this point, themselves unsure or uninformed, apparently lacking instruction from their boss.

The post-op press conference found The Candidate in a wheelchair, wheeled out into the hospital’s solarium, his head obviously shorn of its tremendous wispy bouffant and instead wrapped in a white mesh beanie. He waved, smiled, wearing a standard-issue gown and bathrobe, slippers and IV. The room was bright, sunshine seeming to find him there in the hall, the glow of health obvious, his excitement and relief palpable.

He rose, slowly, from the wheelchair, and stood at the podium, and took the microphone. “I feel great,” he began, offering a characteristic thumbs up. “Again!”

And so, with genuine laughter and even scattered applause from the press corps he’d so recently alienated, taunted, threatened, even singled out for ridicule, The Candidate thanked those assembled, “the ladies and gentlemen of the press,” as well as his doctors, nurses, technicians, wife, ex-wives, family, children, friends, even expressing gratitude for good wishes and flowers sent by both the outgoing president and by his opponent. Within seconds it was obvious to all that his speaking voice was now somehow warmer, his syntax richer, almost even eloquent. His speech was modulated, affect and manner measured and genteel.

Gone was the too-familiar repetition of a single assertion or idea offered at the end of a provocative claim or accusation, an idea which, having suddenly struck him as a winner, was repeated, word for word, for emphasis or in some vain effort at verity. Gone were the characteristic finger pointing and high-volume monotone holler, the smirk and name-calling. Instead, he offered his remarks gently, with light syncopation, subtly, pausing to smile and consider, seeming to reflect and to acknowledge the attention and care of those around him, a hundred photographers, videographers, reporters from across the nation and around the world. The change was obvious, dramatic, and yet that was only the beginning.

He paused, then warned, in pleasing if totally unfamiliar self-deprecation, that he was “not much of a singer,” confusing the audience and perhaps causing them to reconsider his actual condition. But then he began, slowly, in a strong, vigorous baritone, to sing that familiar hymn of humility and wonder, famous celebration of cautious joy and affirmation, the call and response of empathy offered and empathy received: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see. ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”

The room fell silent, or perhaps somehow more than silent, with many moved to quiet tears and only the occasional clicking and buzzing of hundreds of cameras calling attention to what was occurring. The Candidate ended the beloved song of redemption, including the oft-ignored verses, and resumed his remarks, acknowledging the seriousness of his medical emergency, sharing again that a team of excellent surgeons and other medical professionals had indeed saved his life, and reminding all that his expert brain specialists had been, respectively, an Asian American woman, an African American and a Jewish man, and that he was eager to continue his campaign if, for no other reason, than to make what he could of this excellent gift of life he’d been given.

He continued his homily on redemption and, yes, grace. The search for grace, The Candidate offered, would define his campaign from now until November, with details of a revised program forthcoming — in writing, he promised, and written by The Candidate himself — including proposals to fund massive governmental infrastructure improvement, vigorous scientific research, public health clinics, women’s reproduction assistance, environmental and education initiatives. He offered his commitment to destroying, as he put it, “the massive hoax, the historical conspiracy, of a terribly, terribly rigged system — the worst, just horrible, believe me! — of stealing from the poor, of the burning of fossil fuel subsidized and encouraged by national chauvinism, of industrial greed and war.” He pledged, he said, again, quoting here directly, “to undo, reverse, and make right the tragic history of a decades’-long transfer of public wealth into private hands.”

The room was even quieter now, most in attendance perhaps waiting for some qualification, explanation, punch line, as if — notwithstanding the song — the speech were a hoax or a joke.

These did not arrive. Smiling, The Candidate invited all assembled to anticipate a fuller list, with further details of his plans to reduce the work week, institute free higher education and day care, and implement campaign finance reform in order, he offered, “to save our democracy from the military-industrial-corporate-advertising complex which has nearly destroyed our planet.”

Indeed, he conceded, some might be surprised at his embrace of these positions. By way of explanation he recounted his experience of, upon waking from surgery, being shocked to see images of himself on the television in his room, pictures of someone who resembled him at least, if a cartoon person. Clearly, he continued, this stranger was a man long suffering, it seemed to him now, the obvious effects of a serious and debilitating medical condition. That man had been relieved, healed, restored.

Motioning to an attendant standing behind him, The Candidate took from him and offered there for display, a tumbler-sized specimen jar, holding it high — the tumor itself, all were meant to understand — a gray-white glob, an object of dread, a small artifact from the history of the unspeakable shame of the Republic. This was the explanation, he seemed to suggest, for so much that had been argued, challenged, explained, justified, blamed, excused, now finally excised from the body, his body and from, he explained, the body politic. And for which he apologized and, yes, asked forgiveness.
“I am sorry,” said The Candidate, “for all of it.” Returning to his wheelchair, he was wheeled back down the long corridor from which he’d emerged, out of the assembly, and into a place of unfamiliar if intriguing remove but also, somehow, the promise of total civic imagination realized, of engagement, participation, collective aspiration however mysterious and hopeful.

* * *

AND SO across the land The Candidate was celebrated, cheered, endorsed (by brave members of his party who’d previously shunned him, and by many of the opposition!) and, naturally, condemned. After a full next day of tweets, now advocating a startlingly new and different variety of greatness, including great humility and great empathy and great cooperation and great honesty, and the reported arrival of large checks at the offices of a dozen national civil rights, environmental, veterans and human rights organizations, Planned Parenthood and the NAACP, presumably as recompense, the attacks, slurs, indictments, political backlash arrived, with rumors, memes, insinuations, and speculation about his betrayal, cooptation, virtual kidnapping and treachery, and general unsoundness of mind. Was he now trying to buy the office? Had he staged his illness? Hadn’t he made a pledge to his own party? Could he be trusted?

In response, The Candidate appeared before the cameras again the next day, again in the hospital’s solarium, again in front of hundreds of cameras, reporters, the national and international press. He stood at the podium, no wheelchair, this time wearing an elegant tailored suit and silk tie, shoes polished, a campaign baseball cap on his head (bearing the familiar campaign phrase) and looking even healthier and nearly, it seemed, recovered. He declined to answer questions shouted from the floor, would not, he said, respond to critics or criticize, and welcomed participation by all in his new campaign.

He had little further to say beyond acknowledging the new elements of his agenda, leaving the assembled reporters, TV and radio news crews quietly stunned, amazed, and certainly more than satisfied by way of filing their stories, so much so that some began leaving the room, so grateful were they for another day of this extraordinary unfolding of The Candidate’s transformation. But, wait, he was not done, offering what soon became the most stirring and dramatic moment of eighteen previous months of already dramatic moments.

There, for all to see, consider, photograph, appreciate, learn from in a gesture which soon become an image as iconic as the eruption of Krakatoa, the Hindenburg exploding, the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, the Kennedy assassination, the Saigon mayor shooting his Viet Cong prisoner, moon landing, Twin Towers falling, was a truth hard to deny, miss or contradict. The Candidate simply removed the iconic baseball cap from his shorn head, slowly leaned forward and so revealed the surgical incision to all, stitches crisscrossed across his bare scalp, with dried blood and scabs and bruising, and just the very least bit of a thin layer of bright red stubble beginning to fill in over the wound.

* * *

THE CANDIDATE checked out that evening, flying to Florida to supervise the transformation (“rehabilitation,” he called it) of his premiere coastal country club into a full-service thousand-bed homeless shelter, a gesture received with incredulity, joy, cynicism, and delight, often many contradictory responses, simultaneously. A stunt? A fake-out? Or a genuine and brave effort at redemption signaling a new politics, a meaningful embrace of the challenges of representative democracy?

The next morning hundreds of protesters assembled outside the golf resort, the angry and disappointed, the betrayed and hurt, those disciples, followers and repeaters of his former slogans built on anger, despair, hurt and rage. Campaign caps and shirts and placards were burned. There were threats upon The Candidate’s life, this newly revived ex-patient, this survivor of a more tangible threat. Arrests were made by police and Secret Service, many in the crowd carrying guns and knives, displaying these as a matter, they proclaimed, of Second Amendment privilege, patriotism, and self-defense. Of integrity and what was right, or had been once.

They remained outside the grounds for days, with homemade signs challenging the diagnosis and the “so-called surgery” performed on The Candidate, calls for his arrest, demands that he abandon his campaign, ultimatums, petitions to return to them the real Candidate, a victim who’d obviously, they asserted, been replaced by this stand-in. As ever, they chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A,” however confusing and inexplicable, but still and forever available, a better or more appropriate chant apparently lacking. Robbed of everything except the mantra of hollow, easy chauvinism and nationalistic coercion, they seemed comforted if not particularly reinvigorated, soon disappearing altogether.

Inside, protected by gates, guards and armed men on the roof of his sprawling Spanish-style compound, The Candidate offered another press conference, assessing his new situation in light of a resultant dramatic bump in the polls, and speculating on the future of the campaign. He also offered painfully personal details of other recent developments, confirming his rumored estrangement now from his wife and family, resignations of half of his advisors and staff, but also acknowledging the massive increase in donations from millions of everyday Americans even as his own party’s support had been officially withdrawn and its search for a new candidate in the works.

He announced a renewed voter outreach and registration program, and offered to debate his opponent, this time on the issues, he promised, at a time most convenient to her, and to air when as many Americans as possible might view it.

* * *

A FEW DAYS later, and a similar press conference. More donations were reported by The Candidate, who seemed genuinely surprised, gratified if embarrassed. It would all go to charity, he promised. Please don’t send any more, he asked those watching. Looking straight into the cameras, he begged supporters to stop sending contributions. “I have enough money,” he said. “I have too much money.”

The Candidate acknowledged the confusion — understandable, he said — expressed by his opponent, now left with little to argue against, forced to sincerely consider his new positions and reconsider her own, and their actual agreement on many policy questions. “A good thing for the entire nation,” said The Candidate, chuckling, if noticeably quieter and tired-looking, appearing slightly weaker.

Then, the big announcement. The tumor, he explained, had reappeared. In only a matter of days, it had grown back. Imagine that, he said. No, he was not in pain, but was fatigued, subject again to headache, dizziness and nausea, but was primarily, urgently concerned about the return of those “symptoms,” as he called them, which had earlier defined him and his campaign and so profoundly defined the race, the reporting, the discourse of the land. And so, The Candidate further reported, he would undergo a second surgery, immediately, scheduled closer to home this time, again performed by another culturally and politically representative team of all-American surgeons, an operation from which he was confident he would emerge again, healthier than ever, even more prepared to make the nation great, believe me, he said, believe me, in a poignant and purposely ironic echo of his former self.

* * *

AND SO it went, for weeks and months. The Candidate would dutifully re-enact the original if exhausting, difficult, ecstatic if redemptive task of undergoing not one, but one after another, in fact dozens and dozens of surgeries, as the familiar golf-ball sized tumor was identified, then removed, his health assured, the campaign resumed, only for the pathology to return in days or weeks. He did not complain, and each time held another press conference, thanked all, sang or prayed or reflected, was joined now by clerics and celebrities and admirers, returned to campaigning soon after, but was back in front of the cameras before long, again wearing a white cotton bandage or a campaign cap or, bravely, doggedly, arriving bare-headed and showing again the long, ugly surgical incision which ran permanently now from behind each ear across his scalp, soon as familiar as the outlines of the fifty states or the nation’s borders with Mexico and Canada, the topography of the land and its fabled interstate network, as familiar to all watching even as the latitudes and longitudes of the globe, as familiar as the horizon line or constellations.

And each time he held another press conference, he also displayed the newest mass, freshly resected, so that long after Labor Day, well into what was normally, traditionally, the busiest and fevered and most contested period of campaigning, and only weeks away from the final, he had collected and routinely arranged for display on the long table next to the podium in the solarium, lobby, press room or country club patio dozens of matching specimen jars, each containing a golf-ball sized growth, the same familiar flesh white-gray totem of punishment or redemption or struggle, all lined up in an impressive if macabre display.

He seemed not only to grow these things, he said, laughing ruefully, but to survive them too. He’d lost weight, appeared pale and haggard. “I’m happy to do it,” he said. “And, apparently, I’m good at it, too,” he joked. Biopsies indicated that the tumors were consistently benign, a description which seemed itself to elaborate on that diagnosis, especially considering its dramatic consequences. Drugs and other interventions could not, would not, stop their reappearance. Nor would radiation or other treatments. The Candidate was, he noted, with something like pride or perverse satisfaction, getting better at surgery, with quick recovery and just enough time for the incision to heal until the next operation. Never did The Candidate complain or express anger. Not once did he show self-pity, disappointment or fear.
Each time he came out of the surgery rested and ready, if also prepared for an inevitable recurrence, reappearance of the tumor. His doctors expressed concern, wondering how much and how long he — any person — could endure.

The nation closely followed the story, holding The Candidate in its prayers even as, indeed, more was demanded, expected of the presumed front-runner, his opponent, who was healthy and un-encumbered by illness, un-assaulted by a clumsily sadistic metaphor or absurd and cruel existential crisis. The Candidate’s former allies and foes were themselves long past the outrage, bitterness, revenge, amusement and concern offered on behalf of the Republic, all of which he’d inspired only months earlier. His personal campaign seemed to have somehow become a campaign for all — for compassion and dignity and survival and, yes, grace, his struggle vicarious, and for something bigger and more ambitious.

And with the protesters finally shamed or embarrassed, tired or bored, robbed of their former champion, their numbers dwindled. The Candidate was free again to walk the grounds of his seaside mansion unassailed, now his default if much-diminished campaign headquarters. His privacy was respected. He was reconciled with his children. The press conferences were fewer. There were intervals of equal parts convalescence and modest campaigning, with brief appearances when possible at service clubs, senior centers, inner city schools, churches, mosques, synagogues, job training facilities, day care centers, with The Candidate generously allowing children and curious adults to shake his hand, embrace him, and even to touch the wound. He obliged their sometimes timid requests, leaning down in obeisance and respect, humility and generosity.

He declined an invitation to address the United Nations, and politely turned down visits with the Pope and the Dalai Lama. It was rumored that The Candidate was writing a book and selling off his assets and those of the campaign, establishing a charitable foundation, endowing an academic chair, turning a high-rise here into a cancer research facility, a luxury apartment complex there into a work training center. Finally, nearly all these rumors were confirmed as true — true! —, each having given reporters little to do except fact-check and repeat them.

And, as far as the national election, now nearly an afterthought, The Candidate’s opponent had by now adopted what were now understood as not only his positions but hers and nearly everyone’s – however available and ideal and universally ambitious or impossible or desirable — and, completely unopposed, found that previous polarities and divisions which had characterized the race were less important and urgent now than were careful discussion of policy, self-interrogation, questions and answers, elaborations on history itself and even the nature of representative democracy, the role of civic responsibility.

By virtue or dint of his simultaneous strength and vulnerability, his always precarious attachment to life and health, The Candidate’s introduction of those ideas and programs previously unspeakable, unconsidered and outside the bounds of national discourse were now not only allowed but invited and encouraged, from the role of the Supreme Court and the Electoral College to the place of money and wealth in politics, the failure of the former two-party monopoly to the role of malevolent corporations.

Television ads, now pointless in the remaining weeks and days of the presidential race, were withdrawn entirely, by both sides. Inspired, encouraged and emboldened, most Congressional and gubernatorial and local campaigns followed suit. In only a few weeks an entire media industry disappeared in advance of the pending election, with the now nearly fearless frontrunner announcing that she would from now on accept public financing of her own campaign, and return to donors any and all unspent contributions. Her victory presumably assured, she invited the full participation in her administration of esteemed and respected economists, labor leaders, scientists, artists, veterans and dissidents, announcing initiatives once scoffed at, laughed about, dismissed or ignored: free health care, a Department of Peace, alternative energy, taxes on the wealthy, a shortened work week, subsidized rent, gun control. It had all been there after all, if obscured by the official history, the media monopoly, the bait-and-switch of prejudice and privilege.

The Candidate entered a hospital once again on the Monday evening before Election Day, and died on the table the next morning, in the early hours, even as millions were already making their ways to the polls. The nation grieved, but that evening the returns came in, the results of the races themselves surprising enough but the tallies actually more shocking, the electorate having come out to vote in numbers so far exceeding the tradition, history, imaginings of any democracy as to overwhelm the system, and creating long waiting lines. This was widely interpreted as an expression of gratitude from the nation, a gesture of thanks acknowledging his example, penance or sacrifice or recompense, appreciation of all that The Candidate had set in motion. It was also surprising, or now perhaps not surprising at all — perhaps, indeed, as it always might have, should have been! — that hundreds of thousands waited patiently, peacefully to pull the lever, to fill in the ballot bubble, to press a button, with volunteer workers and state election officials staying late, uncomplaining law enforcement and firefighters and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and members of civic groups and church groups all there to assist.

They provided coffee and sandwiches, stood in as placeholders for those needing to leave the great cheerful assembly of suffrage, to pick up children or run errands, who returned later to find their counterpart, their fellow democrat, another proxy and personification of the best of the imagination, waiting for them, standing that much closer to the front of the long line, to the polling place entrance, to the curtained cubicle, and to its promise and hope, at least, of a representative democracy, now great, greater indeed.

(c) 2019 by Andrew Tonkovich. All rights reserved to the author.

Note on the author:

Andrew Tonkovich edits the West Coast literary journal Santa Monica Review and hosts the weekly books show Bibliocracy Radio on Pacifica’s KPFK (90.7 FM). His fiction, poems, essays and reviews have appeared widely, including in Ecotone, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Rattling Wall, Juked, Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Review of Books. He is author of a novella collection, The Dairy of Anne Frank. He writes for the OC Weekly, and with Lisa Alvarez co-edited Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (Heyday). A staff member at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, he teaches writing at UC Irvine and works with fellow union activists representing Lecturers and Librarians.

In addition to well-known (and some not so well known) literary models of parody and satire, the author would like to cite the following contextual excerpt as especially pertinent to its composition:

“In private, Mr. Trump’s mood is often sullen and erratic, his associates say. He veers from barking at members of his staff to grumbling about how he was better off following his own instincts during the primaries and suggesting he should not have heeded their calls for change.
He broods about his souring relationship with the news media, calling Mr. Manafort several times a day to talk about specific stories. Occasionally, Mr. Trump blows off steam in bursts of boyish exuberance: At the end of a fund-raiser on Long Island last week, he playfully buzzed the crowd twice with his helicopter.”
– New York Times, August 14, 2016

Homage to Ella Fitzgerald by Paul Vangelisti

The citation of Ella Fitzgerald in two recent blog posts elicited the arrival of an unpublished poem by Paul Vangelisti, which I have obtained permission to circulate in today’s post.

(From a work-in-progress, “LIQUID PRISONERS,” begun in June, 2018)


Passage of landscape where the eyes have it,
impersonal as that may seem, one bears
aging sentiments too often pricked out,
dim as a watery look maundering
in ragged slippers around the garden.
A morning to savor the chill on flesh
and begin to romance another day,
forlorn as the ruthless dark may have left it.
Imperfection’s what makes the impersonal
so beguiling. That excruciatingly
superlative engine, as Ella scatting all
the while home and Oscar Peterson scalding
on Benny Goodman’s “Special Delivery.”
Hand in hand a state of emergency.

According to the note that accompanied Vangelisti’s poem, “Liquid Prisoners” will eventually culminate in some 77 sonnets following Shakespeare’s even-numbered sonnets. The odd-numbered ones are being addressed by a friend.

* * * * *

During the past half-century, no other poet-editor-publisher-translator in the United States has upheld the ideals of a literary life that encompasses all of those activities in Paul Vangelisti’s manner. For those unfamiliar with his poetry, I would refer you to an essay I wrote back in the first decade of this century that was published in the Chicago Review. Here are the opening paragraphs, which I hope will tempt you to read the entire commentary.

ISSUE 51:01/02

Likelihood of Survival: Paul Vangelisti’s Poetry

If the avant-garde in American poetry since the defeat of the United States in Viet Nam has focused on the distinctions between poems written in lines on the one hand and prose in which the logic of inquiry operates with all the modulations of poetic syntax on the other, then Paul Vangelisti’s Embarrassment of Survival (Selected Poems 1970-2000) demonstrates his singular contribution to the development of that avant-garde. Vangelisti’s career-long dedication to long poems and his playful flexibility and variations of genre might make this collection appear forbidding at first. But if seemingly willful obscurity is often a deterrent in reading or viewing work from any avantgarde, Vangelisti’s poems are replete with a sustained clarity that invites us to savor these moments without being penalized for letting go of that which seems inaccessible. The reader who fears secret remonstrances from the author hidden in the text, c.o.d., can relax. The title is meant only for the author, who was born in San Francisco in 1945, and moved to Los Angeles in 1968.

Vangelisti shifted from the conventional free verse lyric popular in the late 1960s towards an experimental mode at an early point in his career. In the five-page title poem of his first full-length collection, Air, Vangelisti combined a self-portrait of the young artist with prose retrieved from newspapers and magazines, ranging from five women’s responses to the question “Do you have a sexy outfit?” to the piquant weariness of a diplomat signing a peace treaty. “Air’s” collage includes an indented paragraph of self-critique wedged between his stark delineation of the writer at the keyboard:

honk the honk of barrio wedding
goddamn plaster every time the door
tailpipe strut on Alvarado north
my one day off
this is Saturday afternoon
or is it or is it

Vangelisti accomplished the trick with a magic incantation,
declaring by fiat that “Marx’ most profound commitment was to the
primacy of existence over consciousness.” This is nonsense. Marx’
most profound commitment was to freedom, that is, the ability of
human beings, acting through their consciousness, to change the
facts of their existence to meet their needs and desires.

cockroach under typewriter
hesitate my fingers
listen to the words
to the voice of the word ‘cockroach’
like a face for a woman in another car
tip of my finger stare at what surrounds you
the reader barely possible

Unusual as the foregrounding of Marxist theory within a poem that simultaneously juxtaposes prose and verse might have seemed in 1973, Vangelisti’s argumentative arrangement would not have been particularly surprising to readers of Invisible City, the journal he founded with poet and graphic artist John McBride in 1971. Their first issue opened with a front-page essay by Vangelisti entitled “Why I Am a Socialist”; over the next ten years Vangelisti and McBride would publish excerpts from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and essays by the Caribbean revolutionary writer Rene Depestre and African-American radical poet-critic Amiri Baraka (whose selected poems, Trans-bluesency, Vangelisti edited for Marsilio in 1995). But Vangelisti’s assessment in “Air” of the social relations implicit in any creative act refuses to settle for a perfunctory critique of the need for change: he’s all too aware that no revolution will be able to liberate language sufficiently to make visible even a small portion of the potential poems around us, although their presence may seem to be palpable. Setting out from the stoically engaged poetics of George Oppen, who wrote a brief introduction to Vangelisti’s first chapbook, Communion, Vangelisti envisions the self’s relationship to the exterior world as a continual interrogation of the yearning to be pragmatic. His protest requires that any action taken, or suggested, initially examine the tantalizing gap that punctuates the distinction between object and metaphor. …

“Threshold Delivery”: The Needle and the Soundtrack

Patty Seyburn’s most recent book of poetry was published a few months ago by Finishing Line Press, which did a serviceable job. The type is dark and large enough to let me read her poems, even without my glasses on (which in fact have long been out of correction). I wish, however, it were possible for a publisher to provide a soft-cover book in which the cover does not begin to curl shortly after arrival in the mail. Is it too much to ask for a cover that flattens against the book’s pages???? I realize that $20 does not buy what it used to buy, but a book that would have cost $2 fifty years ago at least provided good cover stock.

If I am making such an issue of my discontent with the cover’s quality, it is partly due to an affection for book covers, beginning in childhood, that I have never been able to keep in proportion. Maybe it has something to do with the cover’s ability to help me keep track of where I have shelved or stacked my book; and given the contingency of these habits, I need all the assistance a cover can provide in helping me find the volumes that matter the most to me, as this does. It hardly helps to have a book with a curling cover that makes me put it at the bottom of a stack in hopes of eventually flattening the cover so that its jounce does not irritate me the second I pick it up.

Most certainly Threshold Delivery is a volume I will want to use poems from to show my students prime instances of memorable poems. Among my favorites are “November”; “The Train”; “Long Distance” (Parts 1 and 2); “Sweater”; “After Great Pain”; and “Lightning, 1992-1890.” I have little doubt that other readers will prefer a different half-dozen. An individual poet is interesting to the degree in which readers can’t agree on the poems that deserve the most affection in memory’s dialogue.

The conversation started by the image of a needle in both “November” (the first poem in the volume) and “Lightning, 1892-1890” is an undercurrent of visionary knowledge that conveys itself in the quietest of whispers. The italics of the final line of the latter poem is as effective a sotto voce as anything that still echoes from the great plays of Renaissance England. On a technical level, I’d like to praise the vivacious, subtly varied trimeter of the book’s first poem, which provide an easily accessible case study for anyone seeking how to illustrate the marriage of free verse and metrical nuance.

I confess that I was not able to finish the long poem, “Mah Jongg: An Homage,” in Threshold Delivery, even though it seemed to be an intriguing example of a variation in prose poetry. I have an antipathy to poems that make use of card games that goes back to a traumatic encounter with Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” in my sophomore year of college. This is hardly Seyburn’s fault, and no one should cheat themselves of the pleasure of the many very fine poems in this book simply because of this instance of my irrepressible, idiosyncratic antipathies. My guess is that someday I will get around to read this particular poem, even as I eventually surrendered to the allure of James Merrill’s epic encounter with the ouija board.

Threshold Delivery deserves to be on a short-list of “best books of poetry” of the year. Most books on next year’s short list, in fact, probably won’t be as solid and imaginatively convincing.

As a personal post-script, I would note that many of the poems in this volume feature the presence and voice of Seyburn’s dead mother. In one of those coincidences that mark the convolutions of one’s life, I note that a song hummed by Seyburn’s mother, “Mean to Me,” was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald (among many others). All microphones lead to Fitzgerald, who appears to be this blog’s current favorite recording artist!