Life in Missouri

By John Samuel Tieman

Here, in Missouri, I live in a fairly liberal enclave within a larger, stupider state. I really should say a stupider state and a half, since southern Illinois is really us, and it’s the stupider half of that state. Even within relatively liberal St. Louis, I live in University City, the most liberal bit. We were the only township in Missouri to have gone for George McGovern. We were the first municipality in the state to allow civil unions, pass a resolution discouraging the police from enforcing marijuana laws, that sort of thing. The state, on the other hand, just passed a law saying it would not enforce Sharia law, should Muslims take over Missouri, something Phoebe and I were certainly worried about.

With all that in mind, Missouri is really quite beautiful. It’s sometimes like living in an enormous national park, one with hoosiers instead of park rangers, admittedly, but lovely nonetheless. The Mississippi is at flood stage, and is, in the true sense of the term, awe inspiring. So were the seven tornadoes we had a week or ten days ago, thank you global warming pick-up driving four miles per gallon hoosier wankers. And then there’s my beloved Cardinals — best record in baseball! And I love the Arch, which I regard as one of the truly magnificent works of public art.

But there are days when even I have to love these hoosiers. I say “these”, because we are talking about half of my family. Back in the 80’s, we went to visit the village where my father was raised. It’s in the foothills of the Ozarks. He runs into this good old boy, and asks him how all is going.

“Oh, Chet,” he says to my dad, “you wouldn’t believe how everything has changed.”

I look around. There are still the three streets, the railroad tracks, the fields. My father is having much the same reaction. So he asks.

“Everything has changed. Everything! We now got us a homosexual and a one-way street.”


 

 

Book Review: Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014 by David Mason

 photo 5fa0bad3-dc00-4304-8a22-1ba89fb3e676_zpsa53b96a0.jpg Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014
Poems by David Mason
Red Hen Press, 2014
$18.95


Reviewed by Jason Barry

On a breezy evening in early April, Colorado’s Poet Laureate David Mason gave a reading from his latest collection, Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, at Boulder’s Innisfree Bookstore and Café. During a question and answer session after the reading, a member of the audience asked Mason what inspires his writing the most, he responded “So much stands between us and our experience of nature, and one of the reasons I write poems is to discover the texture of the world again.”

Sea Salt is a collection of work devoted to that rediscovery of nature. It’s a lyrical celebration of the earth’s dynamic textures: the crash of an ocean wave on the shore, the calming trickle of an alpine creek at night, that peculiar scent of fescue in the valleys or those gleaming, seductive eyes of a fox beneath the pines. Mason’s poems are earthy, and the best in this collection take the sea or river as their subject matter and setting. Several of the pieces in the volume are written in formal meter—iambic as the preferred metric—and the trapeze repetition is well-suited for Mason’s water motifs and rhythmic investigations. The poems we have in this collection are measured and mature (in both the formal and emotional sense); they are reflective and wise, and they give us a glimpse of a poet who is concerned with the earth and the lessons it has to teach us about living and dying.

In his expansive and beautifully composed sonnet, “Another Thing,” Mason invites us to join him on a trip beneath the sea, to explore the ocean’s dangerous tides and (if we’re lucky) to wash-up, changed but unbroken, upon the sweeping shore.

Like fossil shells embedded in a stone,
you are an absence, rimmed calligraphy,
a mouthing out of silence, a way to see
beyond the bedroom where you lie alone.
So why not be the vast, antipodal cloud
you soloed under, riven by cold gales?
And why not be the song of diving whales,
why not the plosive surf below the road?

The others are one thing. They know they are.
One compass needle. They have found their way
and navigate by perfect cynosure.
Go wreck yourself once more against the day
and wash up like a bottle on the shore,
lucidity and salt in all you say.

What I love about this piece is its call for renewal, and the way it invites us to transform our lives for the better, even if we must act in solitary (‘solo’), unconventional (‘antipodal’) and perhaps even radical ways. In these lines, the author’s voice is both firm and encouraging; it points to—or perhaps reinforces—a course of action that is known to us but might have been forgotten. It’s a call to adventure and bold decision-making, and it invokes the notion that the way toward a flourishing and creative life might require us to wade neck-deep into swift currents, to risk what we are now for what we might become. This poem serves as a reminder (an antipodal compass) to stick to the difficult path if it’s authentic, to not become complacent in living a muted or dull life shaped by the influence of others who cannot see the changing clouds above them.

In his longer poem “Let it Go,” Mason’s lyrical subject is the Earth, and he address it as though he were speaking to a friend or a close (though sometimes difficult) acquaintance. Here is an excerpt toward the end of the piece:

I’m shedding what I own, or trying to,
walking down the path of blooming dryad
and the pitch of pines, until I hear the stream
below me in the canyon, below the road,
below the traffic of ambition and denial,
the unclear water running to the sea,
the stream, dear Earth, between my love and me.

Like “Another Thing,” this poem calls to mind the ideas of navigation, paths, and water both upon and beneath the earth’s surface. Note the lines about the stream below the canyon and the road, its “unclear” and murky qualities. You’ll notice here the imagery that parallels two lines from the preceding poem: “And why not be the song of diving whales, / why not the plosive surf below the road?” Both poems are concerned not only with moving surface water, but also with the depths: the streams and plosive surf suggest the change and transformation that is inherent to all things liquid, while the diving whales lead us to think about psychological, subterranean currents that move the author’s life—along with his lover’s—and keep them grounded to and connected with the earth. There is also a sense here that water shapes and carves, that it leaves canyons and markings on everything it touches.

And in the poem, “River Days,” we are reminded again of the water’s powerful impression:

You stared into the canyoned years,
millions of them, where the water-saw
lowered the river bed so far
that we could only gape, our minds leaping.
We must mean what we say,

the way the gorge reveals its earliest foldings,
the way it waits for us to learn the ground
we walk upon, cousin to the cold and
distant planets, the way it watches us
by being seen and partly understood.

The gorge reveals its many layers to us, shows itself in a lucid and exposed way, unveils the earth’s composite nature even though we don’t fully understand it and, indeed, have not been there to witness its many transformations. In the same way that the lines on the face of an elderly person reveal a history of experience, of difficulty and overcoming, of living, so too does the canyon reveal the struggles of the earth with water, with changes of the seasons and the impact of floods and drought. If we allow the fluidity of water into our lives, Mason has us thinking, then we should be prepared to have its history engrained into our nature as well.

David Mason is a writer who’s preoccupied with water and the lessons it provides to a thoughtful, reflective person. Although there are poems in Sea Salt that take on a different subject matter at the surface, such as the changing relationship between the author and his father, or the lives of the author’s friends, we sense that these poems too are concerned with transformation and aging, with loving and loss, and thus they are fluid and also about water. Sea Salt is a heartfelt and touching collection of exquisitely crafted poems, and Mason succeeds admirably in putting the reader in touch with the textures of the earth and its animals, its elements and raw power, and for this he should be applauded.
______

David Mason is the Poet Laureate of Colorado. His books of poems include The Buried Houses (winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize), The Country I Remember (winner of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award), and Arrivals. His verse-novel, Ludlow, won the Colorado Book Award in 2007, and was named Best Poetry Book of the year by the Contemporary Poetry Review and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. It was also featured on the PBS NewsHour. Mason is the author of an essay collection, The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry, and a memoir, News from the Village, which appeared in 2010. A new collection of essays, Two Minds of a Western Poet, followed in 2011. He recently won the Thatcher Hoffman Smith Creativity in Motion Prize for the development of a new libretto. A former Fulbright fellow to Greece, he lives near the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and teaches at Colorado College.


 

Small Talk

by Nola Garrett

I’m not good at organized small talk. I dread cocktail parties, church suppers, Christmas parties, big birthday parties, even poets’ wine receptions. I seem never to have anything to say face to face with half drunk strangers wearing name tags. Once at an apartment house cocktail party, I asked the landlord a too obvious question, and he evicted me. I find that my best party gambit is to drink ginger ale, find an empty seat at the farthest edge of the room, settle in, and observe. After a decent interval, I can thank the host and leave.

However, I do enjoy chance meetings and the small passing conversations those situations engender. I find I’m often asked for advice by younger shoppers in grocery stores. I like the tiny bits exchanged during the elevator rides in my condo. Once as I walked past a woman who had just alighted from a downtown bus, she began talking with me as if she were talking with her sister. She was almost as surprised as I was, but as we stood there chatting among her profuse embarrassment, it became evident that she had boarded that bus from Oakland to Downtown for no other reason than simple loneliness. At my suggestion, we adjourned to McDonald’s for ice cream cones, and then went our separate ways.

A week or so ago, I was sitting in the Allegheny Court House around the corner from the hallway outside the judge’s chambers where the judicial mediation for my divorce was being held. For a few minutes I conferred with my attorney, and then she went into the courtroom. I sat there oddly at peace, mostly because I trusted my attorney and because I felt I was nearly finished with this divorce that was not of my choosing. A few minutes later another woman about my age sat down a chair away from me. I smiled. She smiled back. We exchanged first names. Turned out Jan was dealing with a divorce similar to mine, though her divorce was finalized she was still attempting to reclaim monies her husband owed her.

Ten minutes later, my attorney returned, told me the judge had agreed with everything we had presented, and now all we had to do was wait to hear if my husband would accept the judge’s mediation findings. We could both hear from around the corner my husband’s angry disagreements with the judge and even with his own attorney’s advice.

Meanwhile, Jan’s attorney arrived and the two of them conferred. A few minutes later, her attorney went looking for her husband’s attorney. While we waited, my attorney chatted with me and lots of other passing attorneys and court personnel. Jan’s attorney returned, told her that her husband had not yet appeared. Promising to return in a half hour, Jan’s attorney left. Jan and I continued our small talk. As promised, Jan’s attorney returned to explain that her husband apparently would not appear nor would his attorney. Jan prepared to leave, but before she left she removed from her wrist one of her elastic bead bracelets, a green one interspersed with metal beads imprinted with the words, wish and hope, and placed it on my wrist. I had nothing with me other than my poet’s business cards, so I gave her one. We hugged and she left.

More than an hour later while my husband still was arguing with his attorney, my attorney approached his attorney to find out if any progress toward resolution had occurred. Turned out the real sticking point left for him was the escrow account. He demanded it all. The judge wanted the account to be evenly split. If both of us couldn’t come to an agreement, the divorce proceedings would continue for months or even years longer.

I looked down at the bead bracelet Jan had just given me, remembered her ongoing sense of hurt and injustice even though her divorce was finished, and I said to my attorney the small magic words that I have said several other times during my life, words I have never regretted: It’s only money.


 

Book Review: The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

 photo 31a43176-0499-4db7-9147-29ab68b8308e_zpsce473e38.jpg The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog
Poems by Alicia Suskin Ostriker
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

“A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing,” said Gertrude Stein. Alicia Suskin Ostriker borrows those words for the epigraph of her newest poetry collection The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. They are, in fact, the perfect words to frame a collection that creates for readers an unlikely chorus of three voices searching for identity and examining the world around them. Taken together, these three characters weave a multicolored tapestry of memory, philosophy, and desire to remind us that our perceptions of life are what define our experience.

While reading Ostriker’s poems, the multiplicity of voices and the use of flower as persona struck me as vaguely familiar. About halfway through the book, I realized it is somewhat in conversation with Louise Glück’s collection from 1991, The Wild Iris. In that book, Glück inhabits voices that are natural (in the form of wildflowers), human, and divine to explore the concepts of faith and mortality. While the two collections share some structural similarities, it’s clear that Ostriker’s project is embarking on a new journey. For one, her diction isn’t as formal or somber as Glück’s. As Tony Hoagland writes of the voice in her poems, “Ostriker has devised a style that is offhand-seeming, a voice that is effortlessly concise.” It’s this voice that allows readers to easily engage with Ostriker’s poems and inhabit the minds of her three distinct characters.

Another good word for this voice might be “unassuming.” Ostriker’s characters, even in their starkest pronouncements, never take on the arrogance of certainty. They simply present readers with their perspective on life. All the while, though, their voices retain great power. The best example of this comes in “The Outsiders,” a poem in which each character reflects on her marginalized status:

Actually I am at the epicenter
of your subconscious
I am the witch
the mother
the excreted
the marginal one said the old woman
I’m the damned dark of the moon

Have you noticed
poets don’t write poetry
about flowers
these days
so what said the tulip
lightly tossing her blossom
the bees dig us

The characters own their history here—even the Dog stands among a pack, all of the canines “remembering when we were wolves… every single one of us/ unleashed.” Ostriker uses the Old Woman to recall, like Sexton and Plath before her, various mythologies of women throughout history—the witch, the Madonna, the whore. The Tulip takes a stab at the poetic canon, and the Dog at human civilization. It is out of this tension between one’s unstoppable power and the limits imposed by society that these voices are born.

“The Outsiders” might very well speak directly to the ideas that Ostriker only nods at throughout the rest of the collection. Structurally, we’re always aware that no one voice is more important than the others. Each poem is broken into three stanzas—one for each character—and each stanza is comprised of the same number of lines. The lack of punctuation allows each voice to flow smoothly into the next, exposing to readers a constant stream of thought as well as multi-layered language. Sometimes a poem passes by in a moment, sometimes the stanzas stretch across pages, but in each case the trio is given an equal opportunity to explore various subjects and impart their wisdom. These poems don’t shy away from heavy subject matter—God, family, death, and politics are all considered, among other topics. By each poem’s end, the reader finds herself unconsciously absorbing the words each speaker orates. This, Ostriker seems to say, is how identity and ideas are created. We all are an accumulation of the stories we hear and the lessons we’re taught.

That accumulation is what allows for the many-ness in Stein’s epigraph. Or, as Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Throughout the book, the Old Woman is described as impure, proletarian, literary, a mother, a drunk, and naked. The Tulip is red, purple, dark, throaty, Biblical, and naturally selected. The Dog is philosophical, frightened, nostalgic, a mongrel, vain, and imbued with divinity. As each poem begins, the reader is unaware what new facets of identity will be held, sparkling, against the light. But by the end, each new layer makes perfect sense. “Yes,” we think as we read, “I, too, contain multitudes.”

So it’s true that this is not a book of poetry suited to a reader asking for answers. But, then again, what good book of poetry is? Ostriker is content to dive into a messy excavation of life, comfortable to question even her own conclusions. Take, for example, these lines from “Many Lives:”

Many lives said the old woman
the grains of sand add up
I have been a housefly and a queen

Do you even know what love is
said the dog and are you sure
the grains of sand add up

We open with a claim and end with a question that surely exists in the reader’s mind—Do those grains of sand add up? These voices aren’t here to grant us a final answer. Due to the book’s unpunctuated style, we get that line “the grains of sand add up” twice without embellishment. No period, no question mark. How will we choose to read it? The question at the end is nearly unavoidable, but the reader might elect to make it a declarative statement. Or she might side with the Dog, deciding to leave the whole discussion open-ended. Inevitably, the reader’s interaction with the poem is as necessary an ingredient to meaning as the words on the page. She is as much a free agent as each of the three characters.

This existential freedom, I’d argue, is what Ostriker celebrates. Our ability to simultaneously inhabit our many selves, to pursue the immediate desire. It’s on that note that the collection ends, though without a strong sense of finality. The quest for understanding will extend, for characters and reader alike, beyond these pages. Even so, Ostriker gives the Dog a final say in “Summertime,” an exultation of revelry:

Finally they have taken me
to the shore it is the happiest
day of my life says the wet dog
oh those seagulls

______

Alicia Suskin Ostriker is one of America’s premier poets and critics. She is the author of fifteen poetry collections, including The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979–2011; The Book of Seventy; The Mother/Child Papers; No Heaven; the volcano sequence; and The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968–1998, as well as several books on the Bible. She has received the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, the William Carlos Williams Award, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. Ostriker is professor emerita of English at Rutgers University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Drew University.


 

 

On Leadership, Empathy And Final Exams

by John Samuel Tieman

The schedule for final exams was just posted. We will spend three and a half hours each day with the two classes taking the exam each day. Two classes per day, one on Friday, three and a half hours with each class. Make-ups Friday afternoon. All this to give high school finals, each of which takes forty-five minutes.

This decision met with outright anger from the teachers and students. By no means is this worst decision this year. But it is interesting. Why? Three reasons. First, the person, who decided all this, doesn’t appear to be able to imagine the impact of that decision upon our daily lives. Second, the administrator is removed from any direct consequence of this decision. Third, the administrator apparently has no way to hear the reactions of the teachers and students.

It is hard to decide whether this is a problem in the administrative model, or if this decision comes from an inability to understand what another feels.
—–
I am inclined to think that we should consider a new model of educational leadership, one not unlike an M. B. A. model of business leadership, or a West Point model of military leadership.

Gone is the day when the long serving teacher became the department chair, then the principal, later the superintendent. In my state, Missouri, principals are required to have at least five years in the classroom. Why? Because, at the time the law was written, many principals had fewer than five classroom years. It’s worth noting that most of us regard five years as a significant, albeit limited, experience. The relevance of that experience be¬comes more limited with time. A move to a new district limits the experience that much further.

Gone is the day when the C. E. O. started on the shop floor, became foreman, went to night school to learn accounting, apprenticed in the front office, and so forth. Someone earns their M. B. A., and starts in the office. The job is the functioning of the company, not the structuring of the shop floor, a job best done by a shop foreman.

Perhaps we can learn from the graduate of West Point. That graduate starts as a lieutenant. He or she will soon be a company executive officer, and a company commander. Their job will be the functioning of the platoon and the company, not the structuring of the private’s daily life. This latter job is best left to the sergeants and the cor¬porals. No colonel would micromanage the corporal’s work detail.

We talk, in the abstract, about the function of a district, and the structure of a classroom. In reality, the classroom is micromanaged through the standardization of everything from the daily lesson to, in some cases, the very words of instruction. The results are at times disastrous.

I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with folks going straight into educational administration. I think there is something inherently wrong with the colonel telling the corporal how to supervise the buffing of the barracks floor.
—–
A word about empathy. It is possible that the person, making the decision about the final exams, lacks empathy. I refer here to the sense of empathy as attunement.

It is best to start off with what “empathy” is not. It is not “sympathy.” Interestingly, Dictionary.com makes special reference to the fact that these two terms are often confused. Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another. Empathy is the ability to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within their frame of reference. Empathy is me thinking about you thinking, me understanding your thinking from your point of view.

Empathy is a neutral term. Sympathy has the connotation of kindness. Empathy can be kind. It can also be vicious. As Richard Friedman put it in the New York Times, “When the Nazis were bombing Rotterdam in World War II, for example, they put sirens on the Stuka dive-bombers, knowing full well that the sound would terrify and disorganize the Dutch. The Nazis imagined perfectly how the Dutch would feel and react. Fiendish, but the very essence of empathy.”

Some people have a reduced capacity for empathy. It must be said that it would be extremely worrisome if an administrator lacked that capacity. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition), one characteristic of a narcissistic personality disorder, and of an antisocial personality disorder, is the reduced ability to feel empathy.

Empathy is a form of attunement to the emotional disposition of the other.

The administrator must be attuned to the emotions of the other. It is an absolute necessity for any form of educational dialogue. It allows for an accurate judgment of the feelings between administrator and teacher or sutdent. I hasten to repeat that these feelings are not necessarily positive and uplifting. Nor should they be. Sometimes what is shared is anger and frustration.

_____

Dance Review: We Sing the Body Eclectic by Shana Simmons Dance and I am Woman by Murphy/Smith Dance Collective

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The first ever Pittsburgh Fringe Festival took place over the weekend, with more than 20 performing arts shows in various venues around Shadyside. The now worldwide festival was modeled after the original, in Edinburgh, and supports up-and-coming artists in theater and dance, all of whom are “on the fringe” of the mainstream arts scene.

On Saturday night, back to back dance performances took place at the Winchester Thurston dance studio. Local companies, Shana Simmons Dance, and Murphy/Smith Dance Collective, shared short works with an intimate and engaged audience.

I am Woman was choreographed by Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith, and originally premiered in December of 2012. The two were inspired by a heated election season and the women’s issues that were passionately debated. They decided to look at the history of women throughout the decades, creating an evening-length work with seven dancers.

For this festival, they showed excerpts of the piece, utilizing five dancers. In the first segment, the performers dressed in skirts, aprons, and pearls, while a voice over the speaker system gave instructions on how to be a good wife. “Be happy to see him!” we heard, in reference to the husband, after his work day. The dancers smiled cheekily and moved lightly on their toes through their supposedly joyful housewife duties.

Later, Jamie Murphy shed her dainty garments for a pair of simple striped pants. She moved in and out of the floor with ease, flexing her muscles as the sound morphed into a pastor and his male congregation complaining about women who do not dress feminine enough. Eventually, the other women entered the space wearing similarly tailored pants, and form-fitted blazers. They performed in unison over top of Hillary Clinton’s voice echoing sentiments for women’s equality.

Despite the topic having been explored quite a bit in the arts, I am Woman felt relevant. In fact, many of us could still use the history lesson. The Murphy/Smith Dance Collective took us back in time in a creative and interesting way.

In We Sing the Body Eclectic, Shana Simmons and the Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra (ELCO), explored ways in which we are affected by technology. The piece utilized four dancers and a large group of musicians. Similarly to I am Woman, the sound was equally intriguing as the movement.

To begin, ELCO used three different John Cage pieces, organized by artistic director, David Matthews. The second work was an original composition of “crackly” phone sounds by associate director, Alan Tormey. The final piece was called “Syndakit” by renowned performer and composer, Elliott Sharp.

In the first section, the dancers followed a digital clock, projected on the far wall, to guide the timing of their movement. The musicians watched closely and chose corresponding sounds, similar to how Cage worked with Merce Cunningham in early modern dance.

The dancing ranged from incredibly slow-motion walking, to intricate partnering. As the piece crescendoed, the performers used running transitions between big bursts of athletic movement, showing off their stamina and power.

Overall, the work cleverly portrayed the influence of technology on our minds and bodies. The concentrated but sometimes catatonic state of the dancers’ measured moments mirrored the lull of the laptop screen. And their frenetic, rapid quality was reminiscent of our need for instant gratification, a sad side effect of the tiny devices we call “smart” phones.

The festival’s simple goal of giving smaller, innovative artists performance opportunity made the weekend worthwhile. Hopefully the events will spark annual interest.


 

American Films

By Karen Zhang

I must confess I am a movie buff through and through. Since I came to America, the only entertainment I cannot live without is movies, either at home or at theaters. Now I understand why years ago some Americans in China told me what they missed most from their home country was watching movies.

On average, American theaters play at least two new movies weekly, often shown on Friday at theaters. I see why the first-weekend box office is a weather vane of a movie’s popularity. One of the best things about watching movies in America is the overall price of movie tickets, which is more reasonable than that in China, where a movie ticket can easily cost the equivalent of over US $15.

Hollywood movies are always well-received in China, especially among young people. Since the American domestic box-office revenues are shrinking, thanks to the online media and the option of watching movies on various electronic devices, more and more film producers place their hope in the overseas markets, including China. In the meantime, the growing number of Chinese middle class needs to be entertained. China has now overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest movie market.

I used to go to theaters in China, but of course not as often as I do now. Besides the fact that the movie tickets are expensive, new films don’t come out as quickly and frequently. However, the pirate market is a different story. Occasionally, pirate DVDs are available before the film is released in China.

Facing a similar fate to news media, imported movies in China have to get approval from censors before showing at the Chinese theaters. To protect Chinese films’ market share, Chinese authorities allow only 34 foreign films to be released in the country each year. But that amount is still larger than the number of imported movies from China released in the States.

Standing between two cultures, I wish Americans were able to watch more Chinese movies. Perhaps more cultural exchange would help reduce misunderstandings between the two nations.


 

What Is Socialism?

by John Samuel Tieman

When I hear, “Obama is a socialist”, I want to hand that person a dictionary.

I am a democratic socialist. When I say that here, in St. Louis, folks are mystified. Were I to say to someone in Europe, “My mother supported us on her secretary’s salary — I’m Catholic — I teach in an inner city high school — so yea, I vote socialist”, were I to say that to someone in Europe, they’d likely reply, “That figures.” Then yawn. Here, it’s a big mystery.

First of all, when someone says “socialist”, the immediate follow-up should be, what kind of socialist? As near as I can tell, when folks say “Obama is a socialist”, they refer to democratic socialism, a socialism exemplified by Tony Blair and the British Labour Party.

Social democracy, also referred to as democratic socialism, is by far the most common form of socialism in the west. It rejects the authoritarianism of Soviet communism, and favors democratic reform. Democratic socialist parties have, at one time or another, had ruling coalitions in almost all western democracies. In the United States, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas ran several notable, if futile, campaigns for president. At present, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders is our only socialist senator.

In addition to the politicians mentioned above, prominent social democrats in the United States, past and present, include Helen Keller, Cornell West, Barbara Ehrenreich, John Dewey, Howard Zinn, Michael Harrington, Dolores Huerta, Sidney Hook, Rosemary Ruether and Gloria Steinem, to name just a few.

Encapsulating what democrat socialists believe is like herding rabbits. Take war and peace, for example. Eugene Debs was a pacifist. Shimon Peres was Israel’s Minister Of Defense. There are socialists of every religious persuasion. Most are anti-communist.

Social background is no predictor of socialism. Prime Minister Harold Wilson was an Oxford don. Member Of Parliament James Kier Hardie was a Welsh coal miner. Nor is education a predictor. Gloria Steinem went to Smith College. Helen Keller was famously homeschooled.

With all that in mind, in general social democrats support:

  • A mixed economy, one that consists of private enterprise and publicly owned or subsidized programs for universal health care, child care, elder care, veterans’ benefits, and education;
  • An extensive system of social security that counteracts poverty, and insures the citizens against destitution due to unemployment, retirement, injury or illness;
  • A government that supports trade unions, consumer protections, and that regulates private enterprise by ensuring labor rights and fair market competition;
  • Environmentalism and environmental protection laws, funding for alternative energy resources, and laws designed to combat global warming;
  • A value-added tax and a progressive tax to fund many government expenditures;
  • Fair trade, not free trade;
  • Policies that value immigration and honor multiculturalism;
  • A foreign policy supporting the promotion of democracy, the protection of human rights, and, whenever and wherever practical, effective multilateralism;
  • Advocacy of social justice, human rights, civil rights and civil liberties.
  • Democratic socialism should not be confused with such anti-democratic movements as Stalinism. It is worth emphasizing that social democrats see democracy as both a process and an end unto itself. The vision of democratic socialism is one in which there is a decrease in the power of money in politics, and an increase in the voices of ordinary workers. This vision is of a society in which everyone, rich, middle class and poor, shapes society.

A word about capitalism. Democratic socialism stands for a continual reappraisal of capitalism. One problem with the United States is that there is no persistent critique of the Gordon Gekkos. Beyond that, the relationship between capitalism and socialism is something of a debate.

On the socialist right is the “Third Way”, a synthesis of or right-wing economics and left-wing social policy. Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, is an advocate of the Third Way.

Other social democrats feel the Third Way is a betrayal of basic socialist principals. These folks would say that socialism and capitalism must be in constant dialogue. This dialogue stems from fixed ideological positions, which include loyal opposition, but do not include a “Third Way” synthesis.

On the far left are those social democrats who are true to their vision of Karl Marx. These folks feel that democratic socialism is transitional. The end point is the communist utopia.

The overwhelming majority of democratic socialists today are in the camps represented by the “Third Way” and the center-left.

And Obama is not a socialist. But I am.


 

Book Review: Bloom in Reverse by Teresa Leo

 photo 7766eaff-4e13-4cef-9af6-27e93f71bc2e_zps099c2122.jpg Bloom in Reverse
Poems by Teresa Leo
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

One of Immanuel Kant’s philosophical musings stands as such: it is not how we bring ourselves to understand the world, but how the world comes to be understood by us. In the aftermath of a friend’s suicide, Teresa Leo’s speaker mourns, while attempting, out of forced necessity, to find life within death. The poems move like children led by an unknown hand through a dark hallway—trusting, yet questioning. In Bloom in Reverse, Leo reveals that healing comes from the world pulling forward, matched with our ability to follow, to receive a hand, regardless of our understanding.

Broken into four sections, Bloom in Reverse begins at an end. While Leo chronicles the death of a friend’s suicide, she simultaneously chronicles the life of her speaker, recovering from this suicide. In the first section, titled “No,” the speaker grapples with the full-body consumption of loss. Each poem tunnels a hole, the small ring of light fading, in order to get closer to what’s gone. Through this cave-in, we learn of both the friend and speaker’s “troubled room,” synonymous, it seems, for ‘troubled lives.’ The friend’s room is described as

collapsed,
taking with them the floor, the staircase,
and finally the house; every last thing
that she wanted to say was gone

Yet, the speaker, too, collapses. She internalizes her friend’s death, for “The troubled room is now my head…” The final poem in the section, “After Twelve Months, Someone Tells Me It’s Time To Join The Living,” moves towards recovery. The pace of the poem quickens, Leo’s doesn’t use a period until the fourteenth stanza. It’s as if the sheer thought of moving on causes anxiety. After the period comes a shift in pace, the rush leveling. The poem ends on a realization, one that speaks towards the entire section:

because maybe it’s exactly the thing

we can’t release that keeps us
on this side, among the living.

Leo treats nature as a separate entity, a character within the collection. The speaker calls upon the natural world in an attempt to understand death. In “I Have Drinks With My Dead Friend’s Ex-Boyfriend,” both search for their lost friend in natural images:

a bird that veers off, breaks formation

from the flock, a branch heavy with ice
that can no longer hold

and snaps from the tree…

When these signs fail to ebb their missing, they find comfort in “what can be conjured between us.” Healing comes from intimate interactions, instead of searching for symbols. This concept is echoed in one of the strongest poems:“Your Rose Bush,” which comes from the second section, “Wolves in Shells.” The speaker kills her friend’s roses, for “these particular roses always bloomed/and died the same day…”. Instead of finding her friend re-incarnated within nature, the speaker finds her own grief:

and so your rose bush is not—
not here to invoke or provoke,

not here to dismember the mind,
no false hope, a bloom in reverse,

just another way to say
I disremember you.

Here is the Kantian moment; the speaker finally rejects nature as a symbol. The realization: “I disremember you.” The heavy reliance on nature limits the speaker’s ability to heal, for she is filled with “false hope.” The end of the rose bushes symbolizes the end of denial. Now, the speaker is able to face the terrible concreteness of death. Leo’s title, Bloom in Reverse, references this acceptance. From here on out, the speaker chronicles her own “bloom in reverse.” Through the thorns, a second life begins.

The final two sections, “Hidden Wings” and “Passenger” depict the speaker’s metaphorical journey back from the dead. The speaker reaches her most content, healed moment by the final piece, “Advice For A Dying Fern.” The poem describes the treatment of a dying fern plant,
“ripped from pots,/ stuffed in garbage bags,/left to decompose/in corners of the house…” An “advice poem,” Leo urges,

…but check—

under the dying leaves,
among dirt and bound-up roots,

there still may be fiddleheads…

Here, the couplets represent the two lives: the speaker and her lost friend. Further, Leo reaches out, asks her readers to be made aware of those struggling with depression and self-harm, to remember, even still, “the living ready to burst/through the dead.”
______

Teresa Leo is the author of the poetry collection The Halo Rule, which won the Elixir Press Editors’ Prize. She is the recipient of a Pew fellowship, a Leeway Foundation grant, two Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowships, and the Richard Peterson Poetry Prize from Crab Orchard Review. Her poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She serves on the board of Musehouse, a center for the literary arts in Philadelphia, and works at the University of Pennsylvania.