Post-Script to the Missing Months

Monday, November 30, 2015

I don’t know if I’ve ever gone so long between posting on my blog as this particular instance. It’s not as if significant matters in my own life have not taken place, sometimes within the high-frequency edge of events that I have no control over, and yet which impact the lives of those I work and collaborate with. Linda and I were at LAX, for instance, on Friday afternoon, November 13th, waiting to board a flight to Paris, France. Before I ponder the tragedy of 11/13, however, I would like to explain my recent extended absence from the blog. One of the reasons that I did not post anything for almost two months is that all through October and early November I was very busy writing my plenary talk for a conference on “Modernities” at Dijon, France. This was the first time I had ever given a plenary talk at any conference, let alone an international one, and so I wanted it to be good enough to justify the invitation to travel that far. In addition, I had to put together an enormous amount of material for my files at work in order to be considered for a promotion. For some poets, such as Ron Silliman, such impediments would hardly constitute an excuse for not blogging. As ordinary as my prose might seem, however, writing it takes far more time than it would the average author, and so the slightest decrease in the time needed to compose an entry tends to shut down the project quite abruptly. I hope my absence hasn’t been too frustrating for those who check my postings with any regularity whatsoever.

As a way of catching up, I do want to mention a few local events that preceded the conference talk in Dijon. First of all, Paul Vangelisti gave an extraordinary lecture about poetry and translating at CSULB on October 6th. My only disappointment was that none of my colleagues in the creative writing section attended his lecture and reading. However, several of my students attended his presentation and I was gratified afterwards by their appreciative comments about his work. Slightly less than a month later, Neeli Cherkovski and I shared the stage at Otis College of Art and Design to celebrate the publication of “Cross-Strokes,” which unfortunately turned out to be premature in more ways than we expected. Despite my long-term efforts in which I did far more than half the editorial work on the book, it will have to be reprinted, at considerable cost to myself. “The only fair in life is the county fair,” a therapist once told my first wife back when she was stationed in West Germany in the U.S. Army. It’s an adage that I still find useful in reminding myself of the exasperating futility of expecting others to carry their share of the weight in any given task.

Teaching, though, has been a pleasure this semester. I have two graduate seminars, one which has primarily M.A. students and another with only MFA students. Neither is a creative writing course as such, though, so I have a chance to work with students in doing close reading and critical as well as imaginative analysis. The semester will be over in a couple of weeks, and I will miss working with these students very much.

The trip to France was bookended by the massive recoil of attack and counter-attack; Islamic fanatics murdered well over 100 people and severely wounded several hundred more on the evening of Friday, November 13th. One of the people killed was an undergraduate student at CSULB, so the massacre was not something that happened only to people whose lives only indirectly intersect with Southern California. Nohemi Gonzalez was a design student at CSULB, and I could not help but think of Michael Wilson, who teaches in the Design school and who had dropped off a copy of his fine first book of poems just days before I left for France. No doubt someone Michael knows had worked with Nohemi before she became an exchange student living in Paris. The degrees of separation keep shrinking every year.

The trip itself went very well. I led a seminar at Nanterre for Helene Aji, and my plenary talk was well received. I enjoyed several of the presentations at the “Modernities” conference, especially one on Stuart Davis and his “Champion” spark plug paintings. Over the course of ten days total in Paris, We visited a half-dozen museums and spent a fair amount of time just walking around a city that very slowly began to work its way out of a state of shocked grief. Both Linda and I would like to thank Charlie Crummer, a retired physics professor who now lives in France and who generously walked us around some of his favorite haunts in the neighborhoods surrounding his residence, for his genial commentary and illuminating attentiveness.

The only major disappointment in the trip was that Yves Bonnefoy was scheduled to read at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, but he had to cancel at the last moment. The cancellation happened on the day of the event, which gave my disappointment all the more a gush of one chance only, and that chance gone blank. I did, however, enjoy browsing the poetry stalls, and found a collection of poems influenced by Brecht which I simply could not resist buying.

However beautiful or enchanting Saint-Chapelle or the Louis Vuitton Museum might be, though, it is difficult to forget for any length of time this country’s self-inflicted harm to its alleged social ideals. Unfortunately, in the course of our trip, the egregious nastiness of the massacres in France had its replicating microcosm in the United States in yet another dubious decision by a police officer to open fire on a young African American male. Whatever crimes Laquan McDonald might have committed on the evening of his death were surely minor compared to the “condemn and cauterize” process of the police forces in this country. Such executions, which are revealed to be as blatant as they are only because a video recording ends up contradicting official claims of the police, are surely not completely unrelated to other apparently spontaneous individual acts of domestic terrorism. Planned Parenthood clinics, for instance, seem to be equally deserving targets of assassination in the minds of those deranged by right wing obsessions.

Linda and I returned to this country chastened by the challenge of trying to resolve the ongoing lack of equilibrium in the social discourse. We are only all too aware that little progress can be made so long as countries insist on the right of male citizens to turn bloody chaos into an eviscerating virus. Whether the weapons are legally or illegally obtained is irrelevant; an entitled requital by a patriarchal psychosis seems to have no boundaries in its rigorous capitulation to barbarism.

Being centered in meditation is not enough. But neither are rallies in public spaces enough in or of themselves. The State, as in France, only needs the most minimal of excuses to choke off the demands of those who think of others first, and then of others secondly, and as for third place…. it’s an easy guess, isn’t it? After all, no one is that selfless, are they? Amazingly, that would seem to be the case. Only when more of us become willing to join that growing minority and insist on a radical devotion to compassionate affirmation will any of this haunting cease to be part of the air we breathe over our overlapping lifetimes.

— Bill Mohr