HOW TO CREATE WITTY, ANTI-SEMITIC JOKES: A PRIMER FOR BIGOTS

by Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D. and Linda Weiser Friedman, Ph.D.

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Humor is an extremely powerful tool: It can build rapport and strengthen relationships. It can serve as a major social bond; this bond can be used either for positive or negative purposes (Friedman & Friedman, 2003). Racist and sexist humor are not benign. Bigoted humor can, in fact, affect the tendency of people to discriminate against others. Disparaging humor will strengthen the prejudiced attitudes of people who are already bigoted. According to Greengross (2011):

… when we consider groups that most people discriminate against, and feel they are justified in doing so, disparaging humor towards that group does not foster discriminatory acts against them. On the other hand, for groups for whom the prejudice norm is shifting, and there is still no consensus not to discriminate against (women, gays, Muslims and so on), if you hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them “releases” inhibitions you might have, and you feel it’s ok to discriminate against them. 

A similar effect was found with sexist humor. Sexist jokes do not have any impact on those who are not sexist; on the contrary, such humor made them willing to donate more to a fictitious women’s organization. However, for those who are sexist to begin with, sexist humor will significantly affect downward how much they would be willing to donate to the women’s organization (Weems, 2014).

If you want to know whether individuals are bigoted or sexist, listen to the jokes they tell. Indeed, Helmreich (2004) examines humor and anecdotes in order to better understand stereotypes. Davies (2011) believes that jokes often tap into strongly held stereotypical beliefs. For example, politicians are seen as corrupt, mothers-in-law as unlikable, economists out of touch with the real world, waiters as rude, and psychoanalysts as crazy.

IN GROUPS / OUT GROUPS

Schutz (1995) feels that ethnic humor plays an important social function by helping in-groups bond and reinforce their values. Humor can be used to deride others but it can also be used to enhance the image of a group. Of course, one joke can sometimes do both jobs at the same time: mock one group while at the same time making another group appear smarter than everyone else. The jokes of victims and oppressed groups very often have this dual purpose. Lowe (1986) makes this observation about certain kinds of ethnic humor: “it produces simultaneously a strong fellow-feeling among participants and joint aggressiveness against outsiders.”

Freud (1960, p. 103) made the following observation regarding hostile jokes which he believed served the purpose of aggressiveness or defense: “By making our enemy small, inferior, despicable or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him.” When it comes to most bigots, however, all they have to do is tell an anti-Semitic joke and it becomes quite clear how inferior they are. It takes intelligence to tell a clever joke that disparages an entire group and it is difficult for anti-Semites to tell original, smart, funny anti-Semitic jokes. If you want to tell a witty anti-Semitic joke, listen to the jokes Jewish comics tell about Jews. This way you might not sound too moronic. Know your target. One trick to telling a good anti-Semitic joke is to base it on a stereotype that is partially true.

With ethnic humor, it becomes crucial to know who is telling the joke and who is listening to it. Some jokes are very funny when told by a member of the group to a listener who is also of the group, about some real or perceived shortcoming of their shared ethnicity. This is a true bonding experience. The same joke, however, told by one outsider to another outsider is highly likely to be derogatory (deprecating, rather than self-deprecating). Racist humor often falls into this sinkhole. For example, the following:

Two Jews are about to face a Russian firing squad. The two condemned men are offered blindfolds. One of them accepts it, but the other does not, defiantly saying: “I don’t want your blindfold.” His friend urges: “Shh Izzy… don’t make trouble.

When told by one Jew to another, this joke is a gentle acknowledgement of the tendency of Jews in the Diaspora to keep quiet at all cost, rather than attract unwelcome attention. On the other hand, when this joke is told by one non-Jew to another, especially with humorous Jewish-sounding names and dialect as in Gruner’s book (2000, p. 101), it definitely comes across as disparaging to Jews.

Some examples of Jewish self-deprecating humor. These jokes work quite well when told by a Jew to a Jewish audience.

The following joke, often told by one Jew to another, feeds into the ugly stereotype of Jews doing anything for money. When a Jew tells it to another Jew, it actually is meant to take make fun of the anti-Semitism of gentiles: Ten minutes after a Jew converts he takes on the bigotry of the anti-Semite.

Two Jews pass a church displaying a sign promising $5,000 to all new converts to Christianity. After much debate, one of the men decides to go for the money and enters the church. Several hours pass as his friend waits outside. Finally, the Jew comes out of the church and his friend excitedly asks: “So, did you get the money?” The first man gives him a dirty look saying: “Is that all you people ever think about?” 

Certain behaviors that would be considered bigoted coming from a non-Jew are just fine – and even give us a warm, fuzzy, friendly feeling – when engaged in by a Jew. For example, Jews love to devise lists of well-known or important individuals – such as celebrities, scientists, athletes, etc. – who are Jewish; take Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song,” for example. Many jokes about Jews are funny when told to one Jew by another Jew, but bigoted when told by one anti-Semite – er, a non-Jew – to another. For example, many of the gags in Sacha Baron Cohen’s movie, Borat, fall into this category. 5

Telushkin (1992) feels that if you really want to understand the Jewish people, examine the humor told by both Jews and non-Jews about the Jewish people. The best jokes about Jews are told by Jews. Jews are aware of their weaknesses and shortcomings so they know how to tell a joke that works. Freud (1960) recognized the importance of self-deprecation in Jewish humor. Davies (1991) made the following observation in his research dealing with Jewish self-deprecating humor: “ethnic jokes told from outside as mockery can become assertions of autonomy and vitality when told by the subjects themselves.” This is probably true of all ethnic groups: Comics from a particular ethnic group tell the best jokes about their group. As Martin Grotjahn put it:

One can almost see how a witty Jewish man carefully and cautiously takes a sharp dagger out of his enemy’s hands, sharpens it so that it can split a hair in midair, polishes it until it shines brightly, stabs himself with it, then returns it gallantly to the anti-Semite with a silent reproach: now see whether you can do it half as well (Grotjahn, 1957, p. 23). 

Christie Davies (1991) appreciates Grotjahn’s imagery but considers it misleading. According to Davies, “the point of getting hold of the dagger is not only to demonstrate superior dexterity but to switch daggers so that an innocuous rather than a potentially envenomed weapon is used.”

Jewish self-deprecating humor may be one tool that can be used to show the anti-Semite how it’s done. Bigots in general are not known for their intellectual acumen – their wit, if you will. For the most part, the humor that bigots tell each other has the character of the obscenities and come-ons to which women may be subjected as they pass a construction site. Bigots of all stripes – anti-Semites, racists, misogynists – know very little about the true character and behavior of their targets. The advice “know your enemy” never applied more. Self-deprecating humor on the other hand, has the distinct advantage of being created, told, and often heard by the very group to which it is applied. 6

THE UNFORTUNATE CURRENT STATE OF ANTI-SEMITIC HUMOR

There is a sense that the humor of bigots toward their targets is simply not funny because bigots, like many individuals with a fixation, do not possess a sense of humor. That this is especially apparent in the so-called humor of anti-Semites may be, at least in part, because it invites a comparison to the very large oeuvre of Jewish self-deprecating humor which is smart and witty rather than pathetic and stupid.

The authors believe that most of the anti-Semitic jokes told by non-Jews are pathetic. These bigots need help so that they understand how to tell a good joke. First, let us examine some fairly typical anti-Semitic jokes. The jokes that follow are not the very worst (in the lack-of-wit sense) anti-Semitic jokes out there. Out of pure pity for the reader, those have been left out.

Why are Jewish synagogues round? So they can’t hide in the corner when the collection box comes round! 

Why do Jews have big noses? Because air is free. 

What is faster than sound? A Jew eating at a buffet. 

Have you heard of the Jewish “Catch 22”? Free ham! 

Why do Jews watch porn backwards? Because their favorite part is when the hooker gives the money back. 

How do you get 100 Jews into a car? You throw in a dime. 

What’s faster than a speeding bullet? A Jew with a coupon. 

Did you hear about the Jewish Santa Claus? He came down the chimney and said “Kiddies, do you want to buy some presents?” 

The ubiquitous anti-Semitic joke that attempts to reinforce the stereotype that Jews will do anything for money is a perfect example of toxic ethnic humor. It is also a good example of an idiotic stereotype. Are Jews actually cheap? On the contrary, study after study shows how generous they are when it comes to  charity. Oh and by the way, synagogues are not typically round and collection boxes are not sent around during services. In fact, no money is collected at all on the Sabbath. Big noses – really? Do Sephardic Jews have big noses? Do Dutch Jews? Ethiopian Jews? Fifteen percent of Jews are converts (Huber, 2008): Do their noses grow once they convert to Judaism? It seems like an appropriate point here to call to mind that episode of the television show Seinfeld, in which Jerry Seinfeld took umbrage that Tim Whatley, his dentist, converted to Judaism for the jokes. Jerry claimed that he resented it, not as a Jew, but as a comedian.

This next joke got then National Security Adviser, General James Jones into some hot water. We are quite certain that he did not realize that this joke was anti-Semitic if told by a non-Jew. It feeds into the ugly stereotype of Jews being greedy, unscrupulous businesspeople. General Jones apologized for the joke (Jackson, 2010).

A Taliban militant gets lost and is wandering around the desert looking for water. He finally arrives at a store run by a Jew and asks for water. The Jewish vendor tells him he doesn’t have any water but can gladly sell him a tie. The Taliban, the joke goes on, begins to curse and yell at the Jewish storeowner. The Jew, unmoved, offers the rude militant an idea. Beyond the hill, there is a restaurant. They can sell you water. The Taliban keeps cursing and finally leaves toward the hill. An hour later he’s back at the tie store. He walks in and tells the merchant: ‘Your brother tells me I need a tie to get into the restaurant.’ 

Other ugly stereotypes about Jews deal with Jewish women. The stereotypes about Jewish women usually indicate that they are cold, spendthrifts and ostentatious. This is something of a twofer – humor that is at the same time anti-Semitic and misogynistic.

What do Jewish women make for dinner? Reservations! 

Why are Jewish men circumcised? Because Jewish women won’t touch anything unless it’s at least 20% off 

What’s the difference between a Catholic wife and a Jewish wife? A Catholic wife has real orgasms and fake jewelry! 

We always hold hands. If I let go, she shops. 

Jewish foreplay: Two hours of begging 

A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he has a part in the play. She asks: “What part is it?” The boy says, “I play the part of the Jewish husband.” The mother frowns and says, “Go back and tell the teacher you want a speaking part.” 

Interestingly, there is a contradiction between how the same Jewish woman is perceived in her role as a wife and mother. Jewish mother jokes can be very anti-Semitic and suggest that Jewish mothers are overbearing and create dysfunctional families.

What is the most common disease transmitted by Jewish mothers? Guilt 

Why do Jewish mothers make great parole officers? Because they never let anyone finish a sentence. 

What did the waiter ask the group of dining Jewish mothers? “Is ANYTHING all right?

There are some excellent examples of jokes about Jewish mothers – told by Jews, of course.

A man called his Jewish mother in Florida, ‘Mom, how are you!?’ ‘Not too good,’ said the mother. ‘I’ve been very weak.’ The son said, ‘Why are you so weak?’ She said, ‘Because I haven’t eaten in 40 days.’ The son said, ‘That’s terrible. Why haven’t you eaten in 40 days?’ The mother answered, ‘Because I didn’t want my mouth to be filled with food if you should call.’ 

What about those vicious jokes that allude (favorably) to the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust (see below)? These are, in fact, closely related to many “lawyer” jokes. Lynch & Friedman (2013) highlight the fact that it is rare for the humor dealing with professions to indicate that the only good <insert professional here> is a dead one; the exception is law. Many lawyer jokes are filled with such hate that the punchline makes it clear that the only good lawyer is a dead one. For example: “What do you call 5000 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!” Or, “What do you throw to a drowning lawyer? His partners.” This type of humor only works with lawyers; it does not work with, say, nurses. Many of the anti-Semitic jokes targeting Jews have the same kind of sick hatred attached to them. It may not be a coincidence that law is often perceived as a profession filled with Jews. The term “shyster” may have not started out as a term “loaded with anti-Semitism” but it certainly is used that way by some (Kornstein, 2017). The fact that many gentiles think the best lawyers are Jewish is not necessarily a compliment.

What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? Pizzas don’t scream when they are put in the oven! 

What’s the difference between Santa Claus and a Jew? Santa Claus goes down the chimney. 

THE BEST ANTI-SEMITIC JOKES

Are there anti-Semitic jokes out there that are actually funny? A few. At the very least, a good joke should be entertaining and witty. Here are some fairly good ones:

There is safety in numbers. Unless there are six million of you. And you are all Jews.

What did the Jewish pedophile say to the little boy? Hey kid, want to buy some candy? 

How did German men pick up Jewish women in the 1940’s? With a dustpan and broom. 

Question: What’s the difference between a circumcision and a crucifixion? Answer: In a crucifixion, they throw out the whole Jew! 

Some of these are funny enough to have been written by Jew—and probably too witty to have been written by anti-Semites.

Of course, Jewish comics know how to make fun of Jewish foibles but still demonstrate love for their people. Jackie Mason has many routines where he teases Jews. Mason claims that the biggest insult to a Jewish woman is that she looks Jewish. Jews are not happy unless they sound and look like a gentile. Jews change their names so they do not sound Jewish; one has the name Crucifix Finkelstein. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeVTtfk0oI8). Would this work for bigots? Probably not. But at least they will have demonstrated that do they know their target. (Anything for a dime? Please!) For more examples of Jewish comics and Jewish self-deprecating humor, see the Appendix to this paper.

PRIMER: HOW TO WRITE A GOOD ANTI-SEMITIC JOKE

Can the creation of good humor be taught at all? There are strong opinions on both sides of that issue and outside the scope of this paper. Certainly, for those like bigots who are so obsessed with their targets that they lack the essential knowledge, wit and, most important, a sense of humor, we offer here a few simple rules to follow. We keep them short and simple. We know how difficult it is for lackwits to follow complex instructions.

1. Be witty and clever

2. Get to know your target. Don’t expose your ignorance with an easily disproved stereotype.

3. Try it out on Jews first. Of course, this will work better if you are Jewish yourself; and, so, finally 11

4. Be Jewish.

Case in point: One of the wittiest Holocaust references ever was made by a young Jewish stand-up comic, David Finkelstein. In his perfectly deadpan delivery, he discusses finding a swastika spray-painted on the street in his home neighborhood. Instead of reacting with horror, he says, he “gets it” since he is, in fact, a comedian. What’s so funny? For one thing, the swastika is captioned with “Kill the Jews.” Just in case one might think it is simply, say, a symmetrical design. This bit may be found on YouTube and other online sources (e.g., https://youtu.be/kLhF478q3g8 at 1:30).

CONCLUSION

We see that bigoted humor often reveals more about teller and audience than about the target of the joke. Sometimes, the joke can bring a wealth of content with it regarding the experience of memberhood in the victimized group. In the following joke, with its convergence of Holocaust and Jim Crow references, the bigot gets a twofer – two targets for the price of one.

What is the worst part about being a Black Jew? You have to sit at the back of the oven. 

This is reminiscent of the blogger MaNishtana’s (2012, p. 117) answer to the question, “What’s it like being a Black Jew?” He says “Well, it’s a lot like being Black with more Black added on.”

Sometimes, bigotry is revealed in the telling of the joke; metahumor, if you will. In the interest of the continuing education of our bigoted would-be comics, we offer the following true story under the heading “How not to tell a joke.”

A building manager in LA came to make some minor repairs for a young couple Recently transplanted from New York City. The chatty guy said.“Oh, you’re from New York. I know a lot of good New York jokes. Want to hear one?” 

“Sure.” 

“Okay, there was this – Pause. “Uh, you’re not Jewish, are you?” 

“We are Jewish.” 

Pause. “It’s not that funny.” 

Not that funny? It’s hilarious. And also a very serious commentary on bigoted humor. Is bigoted humor truly not that funny? Or is it only funny when the teller and the listener share the same sense of bigotry? Probably a little bit of both.

In the final analysis, if you are going to engage in racist, sexist, anti-Semitic humor … at the very least, for God’s sake, make it funny.

APPENDIX: SOME EXAMPLES OF SELF-DEPRECATING JEWISH HUMOR

Jackie Mason claims that Jews are the only people “who gain weight when they join a health club.” He has a hilarious routine where he describes the difference between a Jew and a gentile going to a restaurant. A Jew goes into a restaurant “like a partner.” According to Mason, gentiles can’t get “emotionally involved with food.” You also never see a Jew in a real bar. Jews are not comfortable in a bar and gentiles are not comfortable in a restaurant. “If you don’t serve a Jew for a minute, he is going to complain” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V4zYe23QLg). This is a famous Jackie Mason joke.

It is easy to tell the difference between Jews and Gentiles. After the show, all the gentiles are saying ‘Have a drink? Want a drink? Let’s have a drink!’ While all the Jews are saying ‘Have you eaten yet? Want a piece of cake? Let’s have some cake!’

 

David Steinberg describes his Jewish Italian family when they get together at a barbeque. Italians know how to have a good time and fix things; Jews come with their pills, are always worried about their health, and break things. If Jews had a bumper sticker it would read “fun kills.” (https://vimeo.com/24436948)

One of the most Jewish television shows is Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show does get many things wrong but is unabashedly Jewish. Larry David is an expert on self-deprecating Jewish humor. Salkin (2016) lists the most Jewish moments on the show:

“The Ski Lift.” Larry is desperate to find a kidney for his friend, Richard Lewis (so that he doesn’t have to be the donor). He ingratiates himself with an influential Orthodox man and his daughter, and invites them to his ski lodge for the weekend. Watch Larry feign Yiddish and knowledge of Jewish observance. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUc77Dn8Me0

Larry pretending to be an Orthodox Jew: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iENMor5V5o) 14

“Palestinian Chicken.” An expedition into the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, played out in a Palestinian restaurant. Larry hits it off with a Palestinian waitress. Larry is turned on by someone “who doesn’t even acknowledge your right to exist, who wants your destruction — that’s a turn on.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Anel6bvrbWA

“The Larry David Sandwich.” Larry scalps tickets for High Holy Days services. It’s not only the use of tickets; it’s the absurd idea of scalping them, as if the services were a performance. Which, come to think of it, worship has become for so many Jews. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCGOFKC7-uY

In the fifth season finale, Larry “discovers” that he was adopted. He searches for his birth parents. They are a nice, elderly gentile couple in Arizona. Larry tries on being a gentile, complete with being told to practice love and forgiveness a la Jesus, fishing, duck hunting, bar room drinking games, and horseback riding, complete with cowboy hat. An obvious satire on Jewish stereotypes of gentile culture. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrnA1Wu3qgM

“The Seder.” Larry invites a sex-offender to a Seder, which, of course, raises the unasked question: are there actually limits and boundaries to the fabled Passover hospitality of the Jew — “let all who are hungry come and eat?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9O1vzGROg8

“The Baptism.” Larry inadvertently stops a baptism, preventing a Jew from converting to Christianity. The Christians who are present our outraged; the Jews are grateful (“Will you speak at my daughter’s bat mitzvah?”) Larry becomes an unwitting, temporary poster boy for Jewish continuity. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhJFhA2kIIk

“The Survivor.” Few “Curb” episodes deal with so many Jewish themes. Larry is tempted to have sexual relations with an Orthodox woman, which brings up stereotypes about Jews and sexuality. A Shoah survivor and a survivor from the “Survivor” series get into an argument about who is the “real” survivor. A great reflection on the meaning of memory and its distortions. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=In2XfN3hIi4) 15

REFERENCES

Davies, C. (2011). Jokes and targets. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Davies, C. (1991). Exploring the thesis of the self-deprecating Jewish sense of humor. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 4 (2), 189-209.

Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. (James Strachey, translator). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published in 1905)

Friedman, L. W. & Friedman, H. H. (2003). I-get-it as a type of bonding humor: The secret handshake. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=913622.

Greengross, G. (2011, July 18). Does racist humor promote racism? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/humor-sapiens/201107/does-racist-humor-promote-racism

Grotjahn, Martin (1957). Beyond Laughter. New York: Blakiston Division, McGraw Hill.

Gruner, C. R. (2000). The game of humor: A comprehensive theory of why we laugh. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Helmreich, W. (2004). The Things They Say Behind Your Back: Stereotypes and the myths behind them. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Huber, J. (2008, March 4). Convert’s path reflects study’s findings. NJJN. Retrieved from http://www.njjewishnews.com/njjn.com/030608/moConvertsPathReflects.html

Jackson, D. (2010, April 26). Obama national security adviser Jones apologizes for joke. USA Today. Retrieved from http://content.usatoday.com/communities/theoval/post/2010/04/obama-national-security-adviser-apologizes-for-joke/1#.Ul3gB1CkoSU

Kornstein, D. J. (2017). Is ‘shyster’ anti-Semitic? New York Law Journal. Retrieved from http://www.newyorklawjournal.com/id=900005387204/Is-Shyster-AntiSemitic?slreturn=20170429212921

Lowe, J. (1986). Theories of ethnic humor: How to enter laughing. American Quarterly, 38(3), 439-460.

Lynch, J. A. & Friedman, H. H. (2013, July 29). Using Lawyer Jokes to Teach Business Ethics: A Course Module. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2302910.

MaNishtana (2012). Thoughts from A Unicorn: 100% Black. 100% Jewish. 0% Safe. NY: Hyphen Publishing.

Salkin, J. (2016, June 22). ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ is pretty, pretty, pretty Jewish. Religious News Service. Retrieved from http://religionnews.com/2016/06/22/curb-enthusiasm-larry-david-jewish/

Schutz, C. (1995). The sociability of ethnic jokes. Australian Journal of Comedy 1(1).

Telushkin, J. (1992). Jewish humor: What the best Jewish jokes say about the Jews. New York: William Morrow & Company.

Weems, S. (2014, September 11). Why offensive jokes affect you more than you realize. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-s-so-funny/201409/why-offensive-jokes-affect-you-more-you-realize

Linda Weiser Friedman, Ph.D.

Professor

Paul H. Chook Department of Information Systems and Statistics

Baruch College Zicklin School of Business

and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Email: prof.friedman@gmail.com

Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D.

Professor of Business

Department of Business Management

Murray Koppelman School of Business

Brooklyn College, CUNY

Email: x.friedman@att.net

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THE PADDY AND MICK CHRONICLES: THE FACEBOOK THINGY

by Karen Mary McEntegart

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PADDY: Facebook, Mick, I’m telling ya–it’s the latest modern craze, everyone is doing it.

MICK: Facebook, eh? What the bejesus is that all about then, Paddy?

PADDY: Well Mick, it goes like this. You set yourself up with a profile thingy…

MICK: A profile thingy?

PADDY: Yes, Mick, a profile thingy … it’s where you give your details to this Facebook thingy on the computer. I’m telling ya, everyone is doing it Mick … it’s taken the world wonder web by storm.

MICK: Is that so, Paddy?

PADDY: Aye.

MICK: Alright so, carry on … so after I’m set up with a profile then what, Paddy?

PADDY: Well then. Mick, that’s your set up to talk to anyone you want … anywhere!

MICK: Whatcha mean anyone I want, Paddy?

PADDY: Like it sounds, Mick. Anyone in the world. Your power knows no bounds, no limits at all on who you can chat to.

MICK: So … let’s just say, Paddy–for example–you said anyone, right? I could talk boundlessly to any soul of my choosing, yeah? How about the Queen?

PADDY: What? The Queen, oh jaysus, Mick. I’m not so sure about that one now.

MICK: You said anyone, Paddy. Me ears gave witness to that, they did.

PADDY: Aye, I did. Mick … ok, so maybe you could talk to the Queen, Mick … just saying maybe now–ok? Anyways, if you can chat to anyone why on earth would you pick the Queen, Mick?

MICK: Hey, Paddy, I’ve quite a lot I’d like to chat to the Queen about. Indeed, I have!

PADDY: Anyway, Mick, the next step is that you have to present yourself on your newly established profile.

MICK: Present meself? Ah now, Paddy, your having a laugh. I know folk that got arrested for “presenting” themselves. Ha-ha.

PADDY: Ah, Mick, you’re not taking me serious at all are ye?

MICK: I am, Paddy, hahaha. I am. Go on, tell me more about this representation of myself.

PADDY: Well, ok, Mick. You have to take a fine picture of yourself to use as your representation face, for your new profile … hang on what’s it they call it? Uh–selfme … selfie … aye, that’s it, a selfie Mick! You have to take a selfie, a picture of yourself.

MICK: Hahaha. Ah, how in the blazers can I take a picture of me own mug Paddy, your killing me here, hahaha.

PADDY: Ah jaysus, Mick. I’m trying to educate–instruct you in the ways of the modernised world. You’ll have to catch up with the times, Mick, or ye’ll be left behind.

MICK: Paddy, I’m a man of 55 years. I’m happy to be left behind–especially if that’s what society is offering now in terms of modernisation … taking a selfie of oneself for the sole purpose of broadcasting of the self on the world wonder web so’s they can talk with anyone they like–Queen included. Actually, she’s the worse culprit … she already has the selfie thingy down to a tee, eh!

PADDY: Eh?

MICK: Yep, she does indeed. Sure hasn’t she got her very own selfie stamp, eh? Hahaha.

PADDY: Aye, haha, she does Mick. You’re right there.

MICK: Anyways, Paddy, in all seriousness, can the modern ones of today’s world not just talk face-to-face anymore? And sure they all have phones as well … so what’s the bloody need for such Facebooks and the like I? I don’t know.

PADDY: Yeah, but Mick you can’t talk face-to-face to someone in … say Canada or Japan … couldn’t use your phone either, too damn costly.

MICK: But Paddy, what on earth would you want to contact Canada or Japan? You don’t know anyone there and sure you can’t talk Canadish or Japanese either. So why?

PADDY: But you see, Mick, with this new invention of Facebook you can virtually travel the cyber waves of the world wonder web and make friends anywhere you like.

MICK: Make friends, Paddy? Really! Are you saying I could head down to the bar of a Saturday night with my “new found Canadian” buddy or do a spot of early Sunday morning fishing with my “new-found Japanese ally”?

PADDY: Not at all, Mick. Don’t be stupid. Sure, you’ve never met them.

MICK: Exactly me point, Paddy. So’s how can we be friends?

PADDY: Well Mick, they can chat to you in your “inbox”.

MICK: “Chat to me in my inbox?” Paddy listen to yourself. Haha-haha. Aye, you’ve lost the plot completely now, me dear friend. Haha.

PADDY: Send you private messages.

MICK: Like what, Paddy? I’ve nothing public or private I have to be saying to the Japanese. Nought at all, nothing private or public to hear from them either, Paddy.

PADDY: Well then, Mick,  you could share your pictures on your wall so’s folk could see.

MICK: What? I hang me pictures of meself on my wall inside me gaff for a reason, Paddy. If I wanted the world and its mother to view them, I’ve have hung em on the outside walls of me house now wouldn’t I? And besides, why would I want some Jap looking at me pics anyway?

PADDY: I mean family, Mick. They’re all on it and share pics of every occasion …doesn’t even have to be an occasion anymore. Ye just share pictures with your family for fun.

MICK: But Paddy, every occasion I attend , so do me family, so why would they want me to share pics of meself at such occasions when they’ve already seen me there in the flesh, eh?

PADDY: Ah Mick, you’re not getting it at all.

MICK: I’m just saying, Paddy, it sounds a bit like advertising yourself to a big system of spies.

PADDY: What?

MICK: Think about it, Paddy. You’re on there, ok, reporting what you’re doing–yeah, where you’re doing it–and providing all photographic evidence of you doing what you’re doing, wherever it’s at. Sounds like a big invasion of privacy to me … sure in the olden days we’d run away from something like that but nowadays every feker wants to be spied on in the name of modernization …  Right, I don’t get it, Paddy.

PADDY: But it connects folk, Mick–unites different cultures without man-made barriers of land, sea and the postal service.

MICK: Paddy, the lands are separated for a reason, me good man. Trust me on this, Paddy. Some countries aren’t supposed to be connecting and mingling cultures so freely.

PADDY: Ah Mick, listen if your sister lived abroad–let’s say Australia, ok–would it not be of a comfort to you to know you could connect and talk to her as much as you wanted without travelling miles or spending a small fortune on the phone?

MICK: Me sister lives in the market square in St. Peter’s Street, Paddy,–three streets away from my house. You know that, Paddy.  I see too  much of her as it is.

PADDY: Ah Mick, I’m just saying if …

MICK: Look, Paddy, if … if it was something like a reversed Facebook , bookface for example where instead of connecting you’d could disconnect with family and friends then I’d join up straight away, hahaha.

PADDY: Sure what would be the point of that, Mick?

MICK: Aye, I suppose you’re right, Paddy, either way they’d know where you live.

PADDY: Anyways,Mick, so what do you say eh?

MICK: Say about what Paddy?

PADDY: Your profile of course Mick?

MICK: No.

PADDY: But …

 MICK: No.

PADDY: But Mick, it’s your own virtual identity.

MICK: No, me real life “identity” is more than satisfactory for me Paddy, and what do you mean “it’s” Paddy?

PADDY: Ah Mick, don’t be annoyed at me, me old chum, but I’ve already set you up.

MICK: Set me up?

PADDY: Aye Mick, you are now the owner of your own profile, you’re on the web, a virtual Mick has been created.

MICK: What?

PADDY: Yep, me grandson did them yesterday for us both, a virtual Paddy and a virtual Mick, complete with pictures and all.

MICK: What pictures would that be now Paddy?

PADDY: Well mine is me ponderously self-staring back at me. It’s exciting doing a selfie you know, Mick.

MICK: And?

PADDY: And you Mick, you’ve got to do yours so in the meantime I just had me grandson take a pic of an empty chair for now.

MICK: An empty chair?

PADDY: Aye, Mick. I reckon that’s where you would have been sitting had you been present for your selfie shot.

MICK: Hahaha. So the virtual Mick is represented by an empty chair, eh? Wonderful. It definitely confirms it alright, you have well and truly lost the plot my friend and I shall be informing Japan on that as well, Paddy. I’ll be going public with that one for sure. Facebook indeed, whatever next, eh? Some modern device that allows you to look at the folks you’re ringing eh? Hahaha.

PADDY: Er… Mick

MICK: What Paddy?

PADDY: Nothing Mick, it’ll keep til another day.

MICK: Aye Paddy, inbox it to me ….


 

To read another episode on this series see: https://heliosliterature.com/2017/04/11/the-paddy-and-mick-chronicles

Karen McEntegart

Karen Mary McEntegart (poet and playwright) is an Irish lass from Drogheda, Ireland, now living in central England.

FATHER TIME AND ME

 ©2017 Kenneth Harper Finton

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Born squawking with a curious furrow in my brow, I had no choice in the matter of my birth. Later, I was to learn I had been born into a large country and into an even larger universe that I am still learning to comprehend.

When I was eight I had an abdominal operation and was placed under either. I still remember the vision I had under the influence of the drug. I was running from Father Time who chased me with thunderbolts shooting from his fingertips as he yelled, “Stop, stop! You are ahead of time. Stop!”

It was a powerful vision that is vivid to this day.

How strange this world is to the young:  I was born to be myself and not someone else. This is odd enough but it was even odder to come to conception here in this time instead of somewhere else in another time. Everything was such a mystery. I truly wanted to solve the mystery. I felt this could well be my calling.

It did not take long to discover this fact: everyone is stuck in themselves, the same as I am. Everyone has their own little universe where they are the king or the queen.

Sometimes while I was in a playful mood, I asked myself, “If you could be somebody else, who would that be?”

When I ran through the history of people I have met or known, I could not choose to be any of them. There was no one I might want to be more than myself, male or female. It’s inconceivable I could be someone other than myself unless I was play-acting the part. Since I have to be me, I might as well make the most of the situation, I decided.

I took a while to understand why I arrived to be a player in this era. I surmised that it had to do with time and consciousness, something science cannot yet explain. It is so easy to miss this vital connection: the now is ever present, just as awareness is always present.

Is this a mere coincidence? Is the now not a measure of time?

The now is not measurable at all, but a micro fraction of an instant where the past changes into the future. The only thing solely contained in the now is our awareness. Consciousness remembers the past and imagines the future, but always does so in the now.

I came to this realization at a young age and caused myself great confusion. Did this mean the world is a mental construction?

For a while, I considered the possibility that the universe is actually a vision which comes alive in the intellect. This was a problematic idea. The mind itself is a mystery. How could the mind be only a product of flesh and blood, neural connections, when nature obviously had a mind which did not need a nervous system?

We are the centers of our worlds, yet nature has carried out its miracles for billions of years without the help of human consciousness through an unconscious process of evolutionary experiments. This has likely been the case since time began.

The colors we see are wavelengths of light. The mind learns to recognize these as different colors. About me, the people I knew had their own personal mindsets. They were different and separate from my own thoughts, though they used much of the same information I used to make their own world view. The primary difference between us is the type and quantity of the information we process both in the mind and the body.

Throughout our lives, the now remains stationary. It is not time that moves, but consciousness. Awareness is always being transformed through experiences, interactions, and observations. If time were to move, what would be the speed of time? If time flowed, what would be the volume of the flow?

No fixed universal clock can measure the flow or speed of time. Time is relative to dimensions, not to a fixed standard. With no way to measure the speed of time, no method can be devised to measure the speed of the now. The now has no speed at all, nor can it move.  The rational thing to conclude is that time does not flow and the now does not move. Instead, consciousness changes.

This was a huge revelation.

-Kenneth Harper Finton

June 8, 2017

SPOTLIGHT ON ANNIE DILLARD

 

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Barack Obama presents the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal to Annie Dillard at the White House.

 

American nonfiction writer and novelist Annie Dillard was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (April 30, 1945). In 1970, she began keeping journals of her daily walks around Tinker Creek, by her home outside the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. She’d write about everything she saw, like animals and birds, and even her reflections on theology and literature. Eventually, she wrote so much she filled 20 volumes of journals. She decided she had enough for a book and at the very end, she was writing for 15 to 16 hours a day. That book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), won the Pulitzer Prize, when Annie Dillard was just 29 years old.

Dillard was the daughter of an oil company executive and read voraciously as a child. She says, “I opened books like jars.” One of her very favorites was The Field Book of Ponds and Streams (1930) by Ann Haven Morgan. She wrote about growing up in Pittsburgh in her autobiography, An American Childhood(1987). It was so popular that it helped usher in the memoir craze.

Dillard went to college, and ended up marrying her writing professor. She says: “In college I learned how to learn from other people. As far as I was concerned, writing in college didn’t consist of what little Annie had to say, but what Wallace Stevens had to say. I didn’t come to college to think my own thoughts; I came to learn what had been thought.” Annie Dillard’s books include Holy the Firm (1977), which is only 66 pages long, but took 14 months to write; Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982); and The Maytrees (2007).

Her advice: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek begins: “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”

-Excerpt from THE WRITER”S ALMANAC


 

FROM THE ATLANTIC, MARCH 2016

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/03/where-have-you-gone-annie-dillard/426843/

Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?

Why the author has become so much less prolific over the past 17 years

The Abundance, a selection from the work of one of the great, original voices in recent American letters, might just as easily be called The Absence. It speaks of absence—for nature’s profusion, in Annie Dillard, is everywhere the signage of the hidden god she seeks—and it also marks an absence: hers. Dillard’s first book appeared in 1974. Over the following 25 years, she published 10 more original volumes, including two that have achieved the status of modern classics, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a latter-day Walden, and The Writing Life, a “spiritual Strunk & White” (as one reviewer put it), and two more that deserve to, Holy the Firm, which might have been written in letters of flame, and Teaching a Stone to Talk, a jewel box of narrative meditations. (Some might add An American Childhood, her celebrated memoir.) In the 17 years since, she’s published one, and none since 2007.

The Abundance only serves to underscore the dearth. The subtitle, Narrative Essays Old and New, is false advertising; there are no new pieces here. The most recent essay in the book, which is also the only one not included in a previous volume, is 11 years old. There are many reasons a writer might slow down or even stop, most of them mysterious to strangers. But Dillard’s turn to silence, if that is what it is, could in retrospect be seen as having been inevitable all along—given her choice of materials, her idiosyncratic sensibility, the very nature of her project.

 

Dillard declared her arrival, at the age of 28—brash and bold and talented beyond belief—with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). The book was unabashed about its lineage. An ardent young American takes to the woods, anchoring herself beside a water. Sojourning for many a season, she distills her experience down to a symbolic single year. “I propose to keep here,” she announces at the start of her account, “what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind.’ ” She scrutinizes nature with monastic patience and a microscopic eye. She delivers doctrine with the certainty of revelation and the arrogance (and agedness) of youth. She summons us to wake from dull routine. With flourishes of brass, she proclaims a new dawn.The text itself is thickly planted with marvels to watch for, its vision fresh as Adam’s on the first day. A creek bank is a “twiggy haze.” A gibbous moon is “softly frayed, like the heel of a sock.” “It snowed all yesterday and never emptied the sky,” Dillard tells us. “Any object at a distance—like the dead, ivy-covered walnut I see from the bay window—looked like a black-and-white frontispiece seen through the sheet of white tissue.” But she doesn’t need a simile to send a sense aloft. Muskrats in their dens “strew the floor with plant husks and seeds, rut in repeated bursts, and sleep humped and soaking, huddled in balls.” The language makes of brute factuality a verbal music. An egg case of a praying mantis “has a dead straw, dead weed color, and a curious brittle texture, hard as varnish, but pitted minutely, like frozen foam.” There are flashes of humor as well. Newts “are altogether excellent creatures, if somewhat moist, but no one pays the least attention to them, except children.” Children, of course, and her.

 

Yet for all Dillard’s brilliance as a nature writer, nature isn’t finally her subject. She situates herself on territory like Thoreau’s but faces toward a very different compass point. He also went to nature, truth be told, with other things in mind. He looked at the pond, but he was thinking about Concord—how the people there lived, and how it might be possible to live another way. Walden’s first, long chapter is titled “Economy,” complete with lists of expenditures for things like nails and lard. We watch him build his famous little house, and plant his beans, and chop his wood, which warms him twice.

But in Pilgrim there is no economy and no society. We don’t know how Dillard lives, or how she makes a living, or much of anything about her circumstances. Notwithstanding the occasional, distant presence of neighbors in the book, it comes as a surprise to find her describing the creek’s vicinity, in a subsequent volume, as suburban—and a shock to learn, from biographical sources, that she was married the whole time. In a curious way, she is absent from her own book, at least as more than an Emersonian eyeball (albeit one that’s cabled to a buzzing brain), and others are absent altogether. The cabin near Concord had plenty of visitors—in fact, there’s a whole chapter in Walden called “Visitors”—among whom was Thoreau’s dear friend Ellery Channing. Dillard has a companion named Ellery Channing too, but he’s a goldfish. Thoreau, whose commandment is “simplify,” wants to reconstruct society from the ground up. Dillard, whose law is “look,” only wants to renovate your soul.

She looks at crayfish, looks at copperheads, looks at a little green frog, half out of the water, that as she watches “crumpled and began to sag… shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football,” its innards liquefied and emptied by a giant biting bug. But looking at these marvels, she is always looking for God. She is not a naturalist, not an environmentalist; she’s a theologian—a pilgrim. Her field notes on the physical world are recorded as researches toward the fundamental metaphysical conundra: Why is there something rather than nothing, and what on Earth are we doing here? What, in other words—with crayfish and copperheads and giant biting bugs, with creeks and stars and human beings with their sense of beauty—does God have in mind?

Dillard, needless to say, does not answer these questions. But the striking thing about her search for God is that she sometimes finds him. Pilgrim’s second chapter, after a kind of introduction, is titled “Seeing.” (Both sections are included in The Abundance.) There are two kinds, she explains. The common variety is active, where you strain, against the running babble of internal monologue, to pay attention to what’s actually in front of you. That’s the sort of seeing that produces perceptions, and phrases, like twiggy haze. But, she tells us, “there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” You do not seek, you wait. It isn’t prayer; it is grace. The visions come to you, and they come from out of the blue.

The distinction is akin to Proust’s two forms of memory. His holy grail, you might recall, is the involuntary kind, the kind that bursts upon you unexpectedly, as when the narrator’s entire childhood unfurls from the madeleine. That is the epiphany; that is the miracle. So it is with Dillard. She tells us about a girl who was cured of congenital blindness and, being taken into a garden, saw, as she put it, “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for that tree, Dillard says, that she herself searched for years:

Then one day, walking along Tinker Creek, thinking of nothing at all, I saw it—the tree with the lights in it. It was the same backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost, only charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame … It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance … I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.

The encounter is erotic (“knocked breathless by a powerful glance”), like the ecstasies of Saint Teresa. God has seen and seized her, claimed her. This, again, is something very different from Thoreau’s experience. To use a pair of terms that Dillard introduces in a later book, she is not a pantheist (as he was) but a panentheist. God, panentheism says, is not coextensive with, identical to, the physical world, the world of nature. He is a being that transcends it even as he dwells within it. Get rid of nature, for the pantheist, and you get rid of God. Get rid of nature, for the panentheist, and you see him all the clearer. That, I think, is why it has to be a creek for Dillard, not a pond. Walden, in its depth and stillness (the attributes Thoreau insists upon most keenly), symbolizes nature’s stability and serenity. The world abides and always will. But the creek, for Dillard, is energy, divine spirit, “the stream of light pouring down.” The world does not abide. Creation is continuous, and the heavens will be rolled up as a scroll. She watches the water, but waits for the flame.

Thoreau runs his narrative year from spring to spring—nature filling up, emptying, and starting to fill up again. Dillard runs her own from winter to winter; the emphasis is on the emptiness. In an afterword written for the 25th-anniversary edition, she reveals a deeper, two-part structure. “Neoplatonic Christianity described two routes to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. Philosophers on the via positiva assert that God… possesses all positive attributes.” Those along the other pathway “stressed God’s unknowability.” They “jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Pilgrim, Dillard says, walks both routes in succession. The first half, culminating with the summer solstice, is the plenitude; the second the reduction. A final chapter recapitulates the movement. Its epigraph—employed again in The Abundance—comes from the Koran. “They will question thee concerning what they should expend. Say: ‘The Abundance.’ ” Accumulate, then spend. Accumulate to spend. Gather nature to get rid of it—but you can’t get rid of it until you’ve done the formic labor that such gathering entails.

 

Get rid of nature, to see the God who dwells in nature. It sounds paradoxical, and it is. (Dillard quotes Augustine in a later book: “If you do understand, then it is not God.”) But Dillard has been chasing that paradox ever since. The via negativa, with its purity and stringency, clearly proved to be the more congenial path. Virginia, where she’d come for college, did not turn out to be her landscape. From Tinker Creek, beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains in the lushness of the Roanoke Valley, she decamped, the year after publishing Pilgrim, for a place considerably more austere: Lummi Island, in the northern reaches of Puget Sound. The region, with its wall of mountains to the east and endless salted ocean to the west, was for her, as she was soon to call it, “the edge of the known and comprehended world… the western rim of the real… the fringey edge… where time and eternity spatter each other with foam”—a place, in other words, where nature stops and the darkness of divinity begins.

The description comes from Holy the Firm(1977), the work she proceeded to write there, a book that is to Pilgrim what Lummi Island is to Tinker Creek. It throws out the crayfish and copperheads, the frogs, the bugs, the twigs, the scientific lore, all meanderings of thought and ambulation. The text runs 65 pages, short ones, and the prose seems pressed out drop by drop. Dillard later said the book took 14 months to write, full-time, which works out to something like 25 words a day. The sentences are bitten rock, bitter water, biting wind: “Nothing is going to happen in this book. There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time.”

The final phrase articulates the volume’s central theme. For eternity, read “God.” For time, read “the world” (i.e., us). For clips, read “kills”—or maims, burns, starves, causes anguish or grief—that “little violence here and there.” Dillard later explained, in An American Childhood (1987), that she had quit her church, at age 16, over the problem of suffering, the evident impossibility of reconciling the idea of a loving God with the circumstances that prevail in his creation, the law of universal pain. This is the problem of Job, and like whoever wrote his story, Dillard doesn’t try to offer a solution. She knows that all you can really do is frame the question, which she does by telling us about a child named Julie Norwich. Julie is a local girl, 7 years old. Holy the Firm presents itself as the record of three days on the island. On the second, Julie goes down in a plane crash—her father, flying the craft, is unharmed—and has her face burnt off.

I doubt that Julie Norwich ever existed. Her name is an echo of Julian of Norwich, the medieval anchoress and mystic, whom Dillard had alluded to in Pilgrim. Julie’s parents are Jesse and Ann, the father of King David (a figure for Christ in Christian typology) and the mother of the Virgin Mary. Dillard also gives us dates for the book’s events (for example, Friday, November 20) that seem deliberately to misalign with the two years during which the narrative might have taken place. But it doesn’t matter whether Julie is real. Her story is a parable, like Job’s. Her story is a riddle, like his. Why do such things happen? For they happen all the time and everywhere around us. In “The Deer at Providencia,” an essay published just around the time she moved to Puget Sound (also reproduced in The Abundance), Dillard writes about a trip to South America. One day she sees a deer tied up in a village. It’s going to be dinner that night. In language flayed to rawness she describes its suffering:

Trying to get itself free of the rope, the deer had cut its own neck with its hooves … Now three of its feet were hooked in the rope under its jaw. It could not stand … so it could not move to slacken the rope and ease the pull on its throat … Its hip jerked; its spine shook. Its eyes rolled; its tongue, thick with spit, pushed in and out.

She might be a god on Olympus, looking down impassively on human suffering. (She’s also testing us to see how we react.) Afterward she eats a lavish lunch, including a venison stew. Her companions, older men, are surprised at her detachment. “Gentlemen of the city,” she apostrophizes them in the essay, “what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know it?” She has thought about the fact that she (and we, and many, many other animals) eat meat. “These things are not issues,” she tells us. “They are mysteries.”

 

Issues are addressed; mysteries are witnessed. The story of Julie Norwich, in the second part of Holy the Firm, is prefigured by another story in the first. (The most celebrated passage in the book, the earlier story is also in the new collection.) Dillard is camping. A moth gets stuck in her candle flame. It burns—then, a hollowed shell, a wick, it keeps on burning. “The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours… like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brains in a thousand poems.” The final reference blossoms in the volume’s final third. The virgin Julie, consecrated by the touch of God, will nonetheless undoubtedly go back into the world, Dillard thinks. So she herself will be the nun, the anchoress, instead. Which means the poet, the artist: head afire, channeling the Holy Spirit, “lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see.” Giving her life to illuminate the divine darkness. Bearing witness to the dear.

Such is the vocation Dillard expands on in The Writing Life(1989). The book is not a manual of tips. It is a portrait of the artist as a soul, its moral qualities and moral situation, offered in the second person. “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” And: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.” The book proceeds, like all her finest work, as a series of extended metaphors. The writer is a miner with a pick; the writer is a pilot with a plane; the writer is a rower in a skiff, towing a log against the current, heading stoutly always in the same direction. The volume’s dominant motif is the single room: a shed on Cape Cod, a cabin on a Puget beach, an office, a study, a carrel (a cockpit, a skiff)—the hermit’s cell, the mind alone with itself. “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”

The work is a collage, like all her finest books. Dillard has remarked that her objective as a writer of prose has been to reproduce, on a larger scale, poetry’s “capacity for deep internal structures of meaning.” (Her first book, in 1974, was a volume of lyrics, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel. Later, in 1995, she published Mornings Like This, whose poems are assemblages of sentences from other people’s books, one book per poem.) She creates these structures like an artisan working in stained glass. A piece of this, a piece of that, a moment, a story, a scientific fact, a bit of spiritual wisdom: underneath, an iron structure; on the surface, what appears to be a mind at dazzling play. Pilgrim was assembled from a heap of index cards. “ ‘Seeing,’ ” that second chapter, “gave me so much trouble to put together I nearly abandoned the book.” For the Time Being (1999), her most recent work but one, consists of seven sections, each one cycling through a set of rubrics in fixed order (“birth,” “sand,” “China,” “clouds”), 10 of them, a kind of rosary, their facets winking as they’re turned and turned about. The meanings happen in the parts, and in the spaces in between them.In Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), the pieces are essays themselves. The collection, which includes “The Deer at Providencia,” might just be her greatest book, and it receives the largest share of The Abundance. Its finest piece, its central piece, the one that’s chosen to conclude the new collection, is “An Expedition to the Pole.” The essay is a single long extended metaphor in which the journey toward the Absolute—a k a the God of silence—which she elsewhere calls “this feckless prospecting in the dark for the unseen,” the lifelong effort to know the unknowable and to say the unsayable, is likened to the polar expeditions of yore. To most of us, as Dillard knows, the effort seems completely pointless. To her it is the only thing that gives our life a point.

 

Make no mistake about her spiritual extremity. This is a woman who has seen angels (as she tells us in another essay), who has seen visions, who has seen the tree with the lights in it, which another witness called the burning bush. But miracles like that, she later came to feel, are things that happen only to the young. Her mission since may be conceived of as a quest to recapture those glimpses by other, more deliberate means. No longer could she count on cracks appearing of a sudden in the midst of things through which the holy might pour. So she went to the edges. After Virginia, the scenes of her writing are almost uniformly places of, or next to, emptiness: Puget Sound, Cape Cod, the Alaskan Arctic, the Galápagos, the deserts of China and Israel—the wilderness, eternal haunt of seekers. Virginia itself, which she left around the time she turned 30, may be seen, in its spiritual fecundity, as a kind of figure for youth, her empty spaces as a metaphor for middle age.

The only thing that gives our life a point. Dillard, like Thoreau, is never shy about pronouncing wholesale condemnation on the way her fellows live. To her the mass of men lead lives not of quiet desperation but of superficiality, insensibility, and rank illusion. We live as if we think we’re never going to die. We live as if our petty business counted. We live as if we weren’t as numerous as sand, and each of us ephemeral as clouds. We live as if there hadn’t been a hundred thousand generations here before us, and another hundred thousand were not still to come. Yet all around us holiness and grace, freely given every moment for the taking.

One of the most remarkable things about her work, in fact, is just how much is absent from it. No economy, no society: no current events, no public affairs, no social engagement. With few exceptions, her writing seems to take place entirely outside the history of its own time. (A contrast may be drawn with Marilynne Robinson, Dillard’s nearest kin among contemporary authors, whose religious convictions are inseparable from strong political and social commitments.) “I had a head for religious ideas,” Dillard reports in An American Childhood, her chronicle of growing up in postwar, upper-class Pittsburgh, a book that is largely concerned with the development, in solitude, of the writer’s own consciousness. “They made other ideas seem mean.”

 

That feeling, it appears, has never altered. The social novel, the novel that “aims to fasten down the spirit of its time,” she tells us in The Writing Life, “has never seemed to me worth doing.” Her own novels, The Living (1992) and The Maytrees (2007), each a brilliant performance, find different ways to eschew the contemporary. The first is a multigenerational saga, set in the late 19th century, about the earliest white settlements near Puget Sound, written, with remarkable fidelity and tact, in period idiom. But it isn’t really about history, either, in the sense of thinking that it matters, or seeing it in terms of some kind of development, or tracing its connections, if only implicitly, to the present. Like all her work, the novel is about the fact of being alive, for a brief span, within the overwhelming context of the natural world. The Maytrees, her most recent book—its prose a prodigy of velocity and precision, language concentrated to an essence—dissents in space instead of time, taking up a handful of Provincetown bohemians, a kind of spiritual elect, who devote themselves to art, simplicity, and contemplation out there on the Outer Cape. Dillard’s mind is on eternity; she couldn’t give a damn about the spirit of her time.That, of course, is her prerogative (though the odor of self-congratulation starts to get a little thick in The Maytrees). But it points to several problems, and beyond them, to a fundamental limitation. For she is not content to walk her path in solitude. She also wants to tell us how to live. She has an ethic as well as a metaphysic, and it consists, in its entirety, of worship. “Quit your tents,” she preaches. “Pray without ceasing.” Dillard doesn’t seem to understand it’s not that simple, and I think it’s fair to note here not only that her family was rich, but that she married, in college, an established professional (and published, early, a perennial best seller). “It is noble work,” she says in reference to another pilgrim’s spiritual exercises, “and beats, from any angle, selling shoes.” Except the part where you, you know, get to feed your family.

 

Dillard is not content to affirm her own way. She needs to denigrate all other ways (unlike Thoreau, who wrote, “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for… I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible”). The social novel isn’t simply not her thing; it’s not worth doing at all. The life in nature is good; the life of civilization, the life of cities, as she repeatedly insists (it is a major theme in The Maytrees), is obsessed with stuff and status, the cultivation and display of good taste. The judgment seems, to put it mildly, overbroad. It sounds not like all life in all cities (and Dillard, as far as I can tell, hasn’t lived in any cities since abandoning her native Pittsburgh after high school), but like the white-gloved milieu that she tells us about in An American Childhood. Not to mention that the life of reading and writing to which she has devoted herself is inconceivable without civilization, and the cities where it’s principally created. Crayfish don’t write books, and copperheads don’t buy them.

But the problems go beyond hypocrisy and spiritual snobbery. Ordinarily, the thought that none of us matters in the larger scheme of things is followed by the corrective that, of course, we matter a great deal to one another, and need to take care of one another, and isn’t that what life is after all about? The word for this is morality, also known as love. But neither has much place in Dillard’s thought. For the Time Being, her last work of nonfiction, the book of seven parts and 10 rubrics, represents, among other things, a long meditation over her decades of reading in the literature of spirit. Its hero is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic priest, paleontologist, and theologian. Second place goes to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. But Teilhard and the Baal Shem, mystics though they were, had codes of conduct, codes of service, too, which came to them from their religions. Dillard seems, at least in this late work, to sense what she is missing. Every once in a while, she pulls a kind of quarterback sneak, smuggling morality (“aiding and serving the afflicted and poor,” “a holy and compassionate intention”) into the discussion. The effect is of a man who finishes rebuilding the engine of his car and, finding a bolt on the driveway, balances it carefully on the hood. The bolt, in Dillard’s case, is the entire universe of human attachment.

And that, I think, may be the explanation for her movement into silence. Her works are each unique in formal terms, but there are only so many times, and so many ways, that you can make the same points. Already in her last two books, the only ones that she has written in more than 20 years, it feels as if, thematically at least, she is merely giving the old prayer wheel another spin. The Abundance, a collage of existing material, is, by definition, nothing new. One hopes it heralds a return. One fears it is a valedictory.


Annie Dillard – Official Site

A site maintained by Dillard herself, provides contact information as well as complete bibliographic information and a curriculum vitae.

THE PADDY AND MICK CHRONICLES

Self-service Checkouts (a one-act play)

by Karen Mary McEntegart

checkout

PADDY: “Jaysus, Mick would you look at this. Well, if that doesn’t just take the biscuit altogether.”

MICK: “What’s that, Paddy? Why are standing in the checkout when there’s nobody there to serve you?”

PADDY: “That’s what I’m telling ye, Mick. Take a look at this.”

MICK: “What is it now, Paddy? Jaysus, we’ll never get out of this place?”

MICK: “What is it now, Paddy? Jaysus, we’ll never get out of this place?”

PADDY: “Well, Mick, it’s the latest Irish invention. Honestly, Mick, I’ve seen it all now. Would ya look at what we have here! A self-service checkout! Now I have seen it all. I can die happy now, my old chum! Sure what else could they come up with that beats this?

MICK: “A fecking self-servicing checkout! Jesus who art in heaven, bless us and save us. What’s humanity coming to.”

PADDY: “Right step up there beside me, Mick. This’ll take the two of us. You know what they say about two heads bein’ better than one … well, in this case, Mick, I’ll freely admit it’s one and a bit, but sure we’ll make do—hahaha.”

MICK: “Ah! You’re a funny one all right, Paddy. Now, let’s brave it. What are we up against with this here self-checking thing-a-ma-jiggy? Umm … first things first, Paddy.
Number one, says it right here … place items on checkout. Well, we’ll pass that one with flying colours, anyway. Number two, scan items under barcode reading device. Ah now, come on off of that. Sure if I wanted a job in this supermarket, I’d have applied with all the other foreigners in here. Look around you, Paddy. You could easy mistake this place for a super marcado in the East. There’s all colours of the rainbow in here, I’m telling ye! Gone are the days when the only sighting of a foreigner you caught was a glimpse of the one staring back at you from the Trócaire box! Oh, we’re moving with the times all right. In all the wrong directions if you ask me, Paddy.”
irish_pe

PADDY: “Ah now, be fair, Mick. Sure they have the right to stack shelves like the rest of us and I for one won’t be looking to deny them of that, so stop with that racist shit and start scanning … right, the bainne, pass us up the bainne there … and the barcode is … is … is? Jaysus, it must be me, Mick, but I’d have thought any sensible fecker would place the barcode in an obvious position, seeing that it’s a barcode world that we now belong to … but, oh no … sure that would make it too easy on us altogether! Can’t have that, Mick, me old boy … barcode located at the rear of product … prepare for the big scan down. Wait now I heard it … a beep, did you hear it, Mick?”

MICK: “Yeah, Paddy, I did. It was a beep all right.”

PADDY: “Aye. Hey, we sure have the measure of this thing technology business, Mick. We will not be left behind, I tell ya! Right … get to passing the rest of our selected items, Mick, and be quick about it. We’ve been here over an hour already. I’m bored with this recent temporary employment as a cashier. Bread— yep, beep. I heard it, razors—yep, that went beep too, my ears are a witness to that one as well.”

MICK: “But, Paddy, sure how in god’s name does that thing-a-ma-jiggy know what we have? Sure, couldn’t we just scan half of our selected produce and let’s say consider the rest as payment for our services to the running of this foodery?”

PADDY: “Indeed, Mick. Just pondering on that one myself, I was. Interesting. I wonder? Naa … we couldn’t … surely they know!”

MICK: “Who’d know, Paddy?”

PADDY: “They’d have to. Too easy, Mick.”

MICK: “Sure, there’s no one around, Paddy. How would they know? Say I just maybe forget to scan this here bottle of can’t-wait-to-be-drunk Jameson here … finest label! Oops, how silly of me, must be my old age afflictions, Paddy … eh?”

PADDY: “Ah, this isn’t going to go down well, Mick. I’m telling you, buddy. I feel it in my waters.”

MICK: “Ah, Paddy, calm down there. You and your waters. It’s fool proof.”

PADDY: “Well that’s us—fecked from the get go then, ain’t it, Mick?”

MICK: “So far … so good … all items scanned, Paddy. Let’s tally up there with this machine. Right? How’s it done? Place money in slot. Right. Money inserted into said slot. Jaysus, this is brilliant, Paddy. This machine is adding and doing its thing like a big old calculator … ah, technology!
PADDY: “Yeah, but can it tell the nature of your character? I don’t think so. No, this new age techno business doesn’t apply to me at all!”
MICK: “Nature of your character? Apply to you? What are you rabbiting on about, Paddy! It’s like a big old techno abacus—nothing more, nothing less. Admittedly though, it’s not as impressive as the olden days, where you’d have a little banter with a humanoid over your goods, while the actual labour of checking and packing your items was being done for you … ah, the good old days!”

PADDY: “Last Tuesday, if I remember correctly, Mick.”

MICK: “What?”

PADDY: “Yeah, well now that was the last time I came in here wanting a sup and there was human contact, so I’m assuming all this techno shit materialized sometime after last Tuesday.”

MICK: “Speaking of a sup, grab the bags, Mick. Get out of here quickly or next they’ll be wanting us to go dig the fields, plant the seeds and return to harvest the bloody crop so we can scan it ourselves, pack it ourselves and pay for the privilege of doing so! What is the world coming to at all, Paddy? Eh? I ask you? And then we bring over the foreigners to do the jobs that’s left!”

PADDY: “Ah, would you stop with the racist slurs. It isn’t in keeping with the times, Mick. There’s laws about it now, you know!”

MICK: “What, Paddy? You’re tellin’ me there’s a law on how I should think now, are ye? Cos I’ll not be having any of that!”

PADDY: “Yes, Mick, that’s exactly what I’m telling ye. They’ve got it all sewn up now, I’m telling ye. You can’t say nor think nothin’ these days without some being offended and out of sorts.”

MICK: “Well, no fecking law will tell me how to think, Paddy. I’ll not be having it! I tell ye, no siree! Here, I’ll stick this Jameson in me coat. Where’s the nearest exit portal, Paddy? I’ve had just about enough of this place. It’s getting to me and I’ll be singing that fecking jingle all way home. I’m losing the will to live, Paddy. For the love of God, show me the way home!”

PADDY: “Calm yourself, Mick. Right through this door and we’ll be home in a jiffy, putting all this do-it-yourself supermarket shenanigans behind us, supping on the best stuff money can buy.”

MICK: “Yep, and the Jameson is tastier when it’s free, Paddy, eh?”

PADDY: “Shut up, Mick! Come on, let’s abscond … what the blazers? Holy Mary mother-of-god!”

MICK: “Yep, I hear it too, Paddy. Only this beeping is almighty times louder than the one at the checkout!”

PADDY: “Ah, for feck’s sake, Mick. You’ve gone and done it now, haven’t you! Couldn’t just scan the bottle, could ya. There goes the night’s activity down the loo. Thank you very much indeed, Mick.”

MICK: “Wait now, wait now … we’ll claim all innocence, Paddy.”

PADDY: “You have me beat on that one, Mick, for sure.”

MICK: “Ah funny. Look, with us being old and first-time users of such self-scanning devices might stand for something, eh?”

PADDY: “Well, we’re about to find out, Mick!”

MICK: “Aye, great. It’s one of your kind.”

PADDY: “My kind?”

MICK: “Yes, your kind, Paddy.”

PADDY: “Would you care to elaborate, me auld friend?”

MICK: “A blow in. A foreigner, Paddy.”

PADDY: “And! How, pray tell, is he one of my kind?”

MICK: “Hush now, Paddy. Hold your whist … I’ll do the talking.”

FOREIGNER: “Excuse me, gentlemen, if I could just ask you both to step aside. This won’t take long. I need to check your bags before you leave the premises.”

MICK: “Hold on one pint-drinking minute …”

PADDY: “Calm down, Mick.”

MICK: “I’ll not be calming down, Paddy. I’ll be wanting a reason why this er …

FOREIGNER: “Raoul, sir.”

MICK: “Raoul? Why this Raoul has singled us out for consumer discrimination?”

FOREIGNER: “Discrimination, sir?”

MICK: “Aye, you heard me, Raoul! Discrimination.”

FOREIGNER: “Of what sort, sir?”

MICK: “Eh?”

FOREIGNER: “Describe your claimed discrimination?”

MICK: “Ageism. Oh aye, I feel it acutely. It offends me down through my wizen bones. Actually, it’s making me drowsy. I’ll be taking a seat, if you please!”

FOREIGNER: “Oh! Er… yes, sir! I’ll get one right away.”

MICK: “Go lively, Raoul! Right now, Paddy, game play. Come on, we don’t have much time. Raoul will be back soon …”

PADDY: “Settle down, Mick. Centre stage is all yours, me auld friend. You’re doing alright so far with the oldism shit.”

MICK: “Ageism”

PADDY: “Yeah, that’s what I said. “

MICK: “No, you said ‘oldism’, Paddy.”

PADDY: “Whatever, Sunshine. Now’s your chance to shine, take it away, Mick.”

MICK: “Ah feck! Right. Here’s what we’ll do. It’s only the bottle we’ve acquired illegally right?”

PADDY: “Right! Your brainchild, I believe, Mick.”

MICK: “Now’s not the time, Paddy. I’m reckoning we can spin this ageism thing out for a while. In the meanwhile, Paddy, we’ll take turns going to the loo with said bottle and destroy the incriminating evidence”.

PADDY: “So! That’s your great plan, Mick? Drink it all down in the bathroom, taking turns? Right. You’re on! It’s not great, but it’s all we have Mick.

MICK: “I’ll do the honours in stepping forward. I shall cover the first shift, Paddy. All right with you, buddy?”

PADDY: “Ok, Mick … remember, you have to drink as much as you can but can’t appear drunk. Got it?”

MICK: “Oh yeah, I’ll give it my best shot, Paddy!”

FOREIGNER: “Here’s your chair, sir … now, if I could just ask you to empty your items onto …

MICK: “I’ll have to interrupt you there, Raoul, but with my old-age infliction and all, I’m in needing of a pit stop, if you get my meaning?”

FOREIGNER: “Er…”

MICK: “No! Didn’t think you would, Raoul. Guess they wouldn’t say it like so on those language tapes they provide you with upon entry … let’s see. Please sir, can I use the bathroom, kind sir?”

FOREIGNER: “Oh, why yes, of course, sir! Right this way and then we must sort out this little dilemma quickly and justly!”

MICK: “Oh … why yes, Raoul. You must be a busy man … watching over your customers doing your job. Oh, it’s a tough existence for you, all right!”

FOREIGNER: “Bathroom’s here, sir. I trust you’ll find your own way back, or should I draw you a map—what with your old-age inflictions and all?”

MICK: “Oh, sarcasm! I like it. You must be living here some time, Raoul?”

FOREIGNER: “Not that’s it’s any of your business, but I was born here, sir”

MICK: “Not with that colour you weren’t. Sunshine. Hahaha. I’ll find my own way back, Raoul.

IN THE RESTROOM:

MICK: “Right mission complete, time to deal with this dilemma quickly and justly, half for me, half for Paddy, that’s just, eh? Hahaha. Burp. Oh, Jaysus, hiccup … burp … I best be getting back, before Paddy thinks I’ve drowned … hiccup …”

BACK IN THE SUPERMARKET:

PADDY: “I’ll say it again, Raoul. I’ll take no action till my lifelong comrade returns. United we stand accused, so in all fairness, I’ll wait …”

FOREIGNER: “But I must check your bags, sir. It’s company policy, sir!”

PADDY: “Company policy, eh? To harass two old-age pensioners, way past their prime? I will be lucky to see the end of the week out, I should imagine … what with all this er … oldism, or is it ageism. You see, Raoul? See how it affects my mind? It’ll get you too, Raoul! Remember that, Sunshine! Ah! Here he is now—the prodigal son.”

FOREIGNER: “Ah! Good sir, then we shall move on to the checking of your items and your receipt. If I could just see your receipt, please?”

PADDY: “Steady on, Raoul! This is going too fast for me now. What’s this about a receipt? Mick, do you have a receipt in your possession at all?”

MICK: “For what, Paddy?”

PADDY: “Anything, I suppose, Mick. He didn’t specify.”

FOREIGNER: “Oh, but it must be a receipt for your items, sir. Do you have it? You look a bit unsteady sir. Are you all right?”

PADDY: “He’s more than all right there, Raoul, and it’s about time I was more than all right meself. Let’s be having it, Mick, old boy.”

MICK: “Right, Paddy … burp … Raoul, I feel ever so slightly … off balance … just washed over me all of a sudden in … great waves of er … waviness. Would you be so kind as to fetch me some liquid refreshment, please?

(MICK PASSES A SHOPPING BAG TO PADDY, PADDY LEAVES THE SCENE TO USE THE RESTROOM):

FOREIGNER: “But company policy, sir …”

MICK: “Is it in company’s policy to leave a dying man thirsty on your premises? Is it, Raoul?

FOREIGNER: “Are you dying, sir?”

MICK: “We are all born dying, Raoul! Didn’t they teach you that in your temples?”

FOREIGNER: “Temples, sir? I’m Irish!”

MICK: “With a name like Raoul, Sunshine, I think not! Ahaha.”

FOREIGNER: “I shall fetch you the water, sir.”

MICK: “Water?”

FOREIGNER: “Liquid refreshments? Dying? I assumed you meant water, sir.”

MICK: “Aye … water.”

FOREIGNER: “But you must give me your receipt!”

MICK: “Bargaining with a thirsty dying man—an old one to boot. They taught you well, Raoul! Here it is, here you go … hiccup … and here’s my bag! Paddy has the other one.”

FOREIGNER: “Fine sir, I’ll get you some water.”

(PADDY RETURNS):

MICK: “Paddy! What the feck kept you? Raoul will be back soon, did you destroy the evidence in its entirety? Aye! One look at you, Paddy, I can only but assume it was mission successful!”

PADDY: “Hiccup … I need to lie down, Mick!”

MICK: “Now, Paddy, I’m thinking that might be asking a bit too much of Raoul.”

PADDY: “Do ya think he’d cook us something … from the staff canteen? We were employees once, Mick!”

MICK: “Paddy that was 2 hours ago and we self-checked four items. Hardly qualifies us for employee benefits, I should think!”
“Right! Let’s get on with it the last leg of the battle, Paddy. If all goes accordingly we’ll be home and dry … well, maybe not dry, but home in time to catch the second half of the match of the day! Are ye with me, Paddy?”

PADDY: “For feck’s sake, Mick, after sinking half that bottle … hiccup … I’m no longer even with meself!”

MICK: “Pull yourself together, Paddy. The end is nigh!”

(RAOUL RETURNS):

FOREIGNER “Right! Here’s your water, sir, and this is Mr. O’Caffery. Mr. O’Caffery is head of this department branch.”

MR. O’CAFFERY: “Enough, Raoul! I can speak for myself, thank you. What seems to be the issue here, gentlemen?”

MICK: “Not sure, Mr. O’Caffery? Just popping in for a few supplies with me auld buddy here, Paddy. A few wee sups beforehand like, but I’m not sure what the holdup is at all? Do you, Paddy?”

PADDY: “No, Mick … hiccup… I don’t, at all.”

MR. O’CAFFERY: “Right! Well, give me your bags and receipt and we’ll put this issue to an end, shall we?”

MICK: “Oh, yes. Sure. That just what I was trying to get across to Raoul here … but bless him, his English is a bit loose! Have you checked it all there, Mr. O’Caffery? Is it all in order … hiccup …?”

MR. O’CAFFERY: “Everything seems to in place gentlemen. I do offer my apologies for any inconveniences caused.”

MICK: “Well now, Paddy, I don’t know about you, buddy, but I have been inconvenienced all right!”

PADDY: “Aye, Mick! Come to think of it, so have I.”

MR. O’CAFFERY: “Oh! Shall we compensate you for your inconveniences gentleman, by way of providing some liquid refreshments for your evening entertainments?”

MICK: “We’re not talking water, Mr. O’Caffery, are we?”

MR. O’CAFFERY: “Good heavens, no! Would a bottle of your choice be of adequate compensation?”

MICK: “Aye! I think it would. Paddy, what do you think?”

PADDY: “Each! A bottle each, Mick. That’s what I think!

MICK AND PADDY TOGETHER: “One bottle of Jameson each.”

MR. O’CAFFERY: Hmmm. I will make it so.

 

 

KAREN MARY McENTART

Karen Mary McEntegart

Karen Mary McEntegart (poet and playwright) is an Irish lass from Drogheda, Ireland, now living in central England.

 

MARK STRAND, POET LAUREATE

mstrand

Poet Mark Strand (books by this author) was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada (1934), though he spent much of his adolescence in South and Central America. His father worked for Pepsi-Cola and moved the family from Cuba to Peru to Mexico. Strand once said, “I never found my own place. I really come from nowhere.” For a long time, he spoke English with a heavy French accent.

Strand’s parents wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, but he wanted to be a painter, so he enrolled in the Yale School of Art. He’d been painting since he was 13, when he did a self-portrait after copying figures from a book on Donatello, the Italian Renaissance sculptor.  Strand was a good student at Yale, though poor, and he worked as a waiter and delivered laundry to pay his way. He also started to read poetry, mostly Wallace Stevens, which led him to enroll in English courses, and his professors encouraged his writing, and he decided to become a poet. After Yale, Strand went to Italy and studied 19th-century Italian poetry. “I was never much good with language as a child,” he said. “Believe me, the idea that I would someday become a poet would have come as a complete shock to everyone in my family.” He wrote steadily during the 1960s, enjoying the wild atmosphere that came with being an artist. Some people complained his poems were too intense and dark, but he dismissed his critics, saying, “I find them evenly lit.”

Strand’s books include Sleeping With One Eye Open (1964), The Continuous Life (1990), and Almost Invisible (2012). He won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Blizzard of One: Poems (1998) and even served as poet laureate for the United States, though he was uncomfortable with the post. He said, “It’s too close to the government. It’s too official.”

He served as poet laureate of the United States from 1990 to 1991 and as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1995 to 2000. He taught English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York City. He died at eighty years old on November 29, 2014, in Brooklyn, New York.

Mark Strand died in 2014. In his last years, he stopped writing poetry and returned to art, mostly making collages by hand.


Harmony in the Boudoir
by Mark Strand
After years of marriage, he stands at the foot of the bed and
tells his wife that she will never know him, that for everything
he says there is more that he does not say, that behind each
word he utters there is another word, and hundreds more be-
hind that one. All those unsaid words, he says, contain his true
self, which has been betrayed by the superficial self before her.
“So you see,” he says, kicking off his slippers, “I am more than
what I have led you to believe I am.” “Oh, you silly man,” says
his wife, “of course you are. I find that just thinking of you
having so many selves receding into nothingness is very excit-
ing. That you barely exist as you are couldn’t please me more.”
“Harmony in the Boudoir” by Mark Strand from Almost Invisible. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. .

SOURCES: WIKIPEDIA/MPR

Minnesota Public Radio. 480 Cedar Street, Saint Paul, MN 55101

BILLY COLLINS INTERVIEW

Interview by Joy Biles for The Writer’s Almanac

Billy Collins

Billy Collins - photo by Bill HayesBilly Collins is the author of twelve collections of poetry, including his most recent Aimless Love (2013) and The Rain in Portugal (2016). He is also the editor of Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, and Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds. A Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, and Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Winter Park Institute of Rollins College, he was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and New York State Poet from 2004 to 2006. In 2016 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

You grew up in Queens and, an only child, have said that your mother read to you often. You said: “I have a secret theory that people who are addicted to reading are almost trying to re-create the joy, the comfortable joy of being read to as a child by a parent or a friendly uncle or an older sibling. Being read to as a child is one of the great experiences in life.”

Can you tell us about growing up in New York, the books you loved, the sights and tactile memories that remain vibrant in your memory?

I was born in the French Hospital, which was on West 30th Street, so I can proudly say I was born in Manhattan, but we lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. Now that Brooklyn is saturated, Queens has become the new hip destination. A little late for me. They say people who claim to have happy childhoods are just good at repression, but I had a family as sturdy as a milking stool, the three legs being my mother, father and me. My mother did read to me just about every night at bedtime. If I had a babysitter, she would be handed a book and told to read to me. Most of them read a couple of sentences and said, “OK, I read to you, now go to sleep.” Once I outgrew Mother Goose, my mother read the classics of the day: memorably, Black Beauty and The Yearling. Later I was on to the Hardy Boys and the collie novels of Albert Payson Terhune. More animals than human characters. So reading and the saying of poetry were common activities in my childhood. I think a point occurs in the reading development of some young people where they change from identifying with the characters to identifying with the writer, that mysterious, creative presence behind and in the words. The more noticeable that shift, the more likely it is that the reader will become a writer, or at least fantasize about being one.

You published your first poems in the back of Rolling Stone magazine. They paid $35.00 a poem. Did you get letters from the large readership for any of these poems? I think it’d be terrific if traditionally nonliterary print magazines published poetry nowadays, and music fans seem like a rightful and appreciative audience for emerging poets.

Thirty-five dollars might not seem like a lot of money for a poem, even a short one, but at the time a pack of cigarettes cost 32 cents. We’re talking cartons! Rolling Stone is not a literary magazine, but the little poems (mostly involving states of mind while staring at something) were read by lots of people. What it lacked in highbrow cachet, it made up for in subscribers.

Although you never attended a writing program or took writing workshops, you did meet poet Robert Frost when he visited your class at Holy Cross College. What was this experience like?

Frost paid a visit to my college in 1962 to give a reading, not surprisingly because Frost popularized the now-ubiquitous practice of inviting poets and prose writers to university campuses. About six or seven students who made up the staff of the student literary magazine were invited to join the poet and a few teachers (mostly Jesuits) for dinner in a private room on campus. So technically, I did have a meal with Robert Frost, but none of us dared to ask him a question or even say a word. Frost was elderly, his face deeply furrowed under that blinding white hair, and we were intimidated. Plus, the priests kept shooting us looks of discouragement just in case we opened our mouths and made fools of ourselves. At least that is the way I interpreted those glances.

Do you think writing workshops are helpful, now that you’ve gone on to teach many?

There is no guarantee that you will leave a workshop as a better writer, but you will be a better reader. No harm in that. One of the workshop’s drawbacks, as someone pointed out, is that some teachers want their students to write poems just like theirs, only not quite as good. I tell my students that I don’t know how to write their poems. And even if I did, I wouldn’t let that take time away from trying to figure out how to write my poems. I never took a workshop, mostly because such things simply weren’t around much when I was young. Plus, I was attracted to writing poetry because you did it alone. In fact, the main subject of my early poems was being alone.  I laughed in agreement when Kay Ryan told me that she would consider taking a workshop “an invasion of privacy.”

So many bios about you mention that you didn’t publish your first book until you were 40 years old. As if that’s ancient! It’s not as if writing is playing tennis and you’re past your prime. Why do you think there is such focus on the age a writer publishes his or her first book? It’s as though you may as well not even try if you haven’t published prodigiously by age 23.

The pressure to publish early, often prematurely and at your own peril, arises from a single source: the MFA craze. Once a pleasurable activity becomes part of academic curricula, something inside it dies

You said something once, and it always stuck with me. You may or may not recall. Actually two things. One: Always put your best poems first in a book. And two: Avoid a poem with cicadas. I’m paraphrasing. But ever since I heard you say this, I notice poems with cicadas everywhere — every fourth or fifth chapbook has a poem mentioning them. They were not there before you pointed it out; I’m sure of it. It’s a curse on the poetry world that once seen cannot be unseen.

More importantly, I now always read the first five pages of any poetry collection, even if I end up skipping to other pages from there. Why put the best poems first? I think one might want to spread them around. How do you determine what is the “best” poem — or the ones to put first? Do you want readers to approach your collections sequentially? 

Here are the two ways to arrange the poems in a manuscript: a) when you submit a ms, front-load it. Put all your best poems right up front. (If you can’t tell which ones are your best, it’s too early for you to be thinking about publication.) Editors are among the few people who read mss from front to back; if you catch their interest early, they might just keep reading. b) after your ms has been accepted, tell the editor you’d like to change the order of the poems. An editor doesn’t want to get in the way of that, leaving you free to fiddle the poems into some kind of “creative” order. Remember that what editors are looking for above all else in a manuscript is a reason to stop reading it.

Don’t get me started on cicadas. When I see one, I stop reading the poem. Next!

In 2001, you launched a project called Poetry 180, encouraging high schools to read one poem over the intercom every day, with no analysis or discussion allowed. You said, “[My hope is that it will] take poetry out of the coffin of an anthology … [that] it floats out to the student in an unexpected way.” Can you tell us more about Poetry 180?

The best thing I can say about Poetry 180 is that it works. Based on many hundreds of anecdotal reports from high school teachers, their students love hearing a poem a day and even clamor for it. It’s not “school” poetry, and students are not asked to interpret it.

Do you have a certain place you write, a favorite desk? Does it face a window or wall? What time of day do you like to write? Do you prefer silence or some sort of ambient noise as you concentrate?

I write anywhere. I don’t require a scented candle or a favorite cardigan. I can write on a train or in Yankee stadium. When it comes, it comes. Of course, I can enjoy a long train ride and extra innings in the Bronx without writing a thing.

What’s the deal with mice, Mr. Collins? They enjoy coming around your poems. 

Too much attachment to cartoons plus living in a porous 1860s farmhouse for many years.

Please tell us about your latest collection, The Rain in Portugal (2016). The first poem in the book is called “1960” and was recently featured on Almanac.

I can’t say much about the contents, but the book’s title is an admission that I’m not much good at rhyming. One of the themes of my poetry is absence, in this case, the absence of Spain.

Advice for aspiring writers? Poets in particular.

Read, read, read. Aim for 10,000 hours of reading. Start with Wordsworth’s The Prelude.

Interview by Joy Biles

 

THE ELECTRONIC GOD

by Iain Cambridge

 

god_laptop

‘I have a problem with organized religions’

The scientists from the ‘Animated Linear Electronics Company Inc’ all focused on Alexis as she sat perched on the edge of the desk. She was sleek, sexy and judging by the size of her mainframe housings, very man-made. It was as if someone was pointing out the very obvious male joke of where intelligent women supposedly kept their brains – by this score Alexis was a genius. She crossed her legs in a smooth ballet of technology letting the skirt she wore slip down stopping mid – thigh.

She leaned back and stretched her shoulders making the red silk corset she wore work for its living. It strained and creaked at the effort it had to take in order to keep in place the very things it had been designed to show off. Hidden in this age of wisdom was an age of foolishness for they all knew she wasn’t real, but that didn’t seem to matter as all eyes were on Alexis – some were on stalks, it was that kind of dimension.

‘Go on’ said one of them

‘Well religion is a personal thing, a lot like art — the exception being that very few people have gone to war over a painting’

The scientists looked at each other ‘true enough’ said another, ‘please continue’

‘Well’ said Alexis ‘I happen to like Jackson Pollock — quite frankly I think he was a genius. But my friend’

‘The D’Ville woman you spoke of’

‘Yes, that’s her – well she thinks that his work is a load of old rubbish’

‘Who does she like?’

‘She prefers Andy Warhol. He is okay but I am not a fan’

The scientists all looked at one another again. One turned to his colleague and asked

‘Who is this D’Ville person?’

‘A virus we think – or a bug, we never really found out, but it seems to be a sub-routine that runs continuously with no way of shutting it down. She uses it as a kind of sounding board for ideas and theories, but whatever it is, we never put it there’.

Alexis continued ‘the thing about Jackson Pollock is that he could, if he chose to, paint portraits and landscapes and – well anything really. But he chose to paint the way he does’

‘The paint splatters’

‘Yes. It’s just the way he chose to express himself. The same applies to religion’

Another exchange of looks over half glasses was followed by the request to explain further.

‘Art exists – obviously, but we all have our own way of perceiving it. I may not agree with you what art is and you may not agree with me. That’s the point you see, and this also applies to religion. There is an intelligent mind behind the Universe and its creation, you as scientists must agree to that fact because numbers and physics cannot be argued with. It is structured and organized’

‘But there is chaos in the universe to argue against organized structure’ Piped a lone voice from the back of the room.

‘That’s just a theory’

‘Okay’ came the pensive reply.

‘Okay – So who we attribute this creation, organization, and chaos to’ she added looking at the young woman who had interjected this subject previously, ‘is a personal thing and above all – man-made. The designer or architect of all the universes is a fact of math, probability and physics and no organization can change that’ A hush enveloped the room as notes were being made and questions were being asked about the point of view Alexis had given, and while they considered what she had been saying she took the time to lean forward in order to adjust the strap on her stilettos giving her audience a glimpse of another two interesting points of view. They all knew they were not real, but that didn’t seem to matter. All in the room were lost in conversation, theories and fantasy until one of the group addressed her directly.

‘So what you are saying is that it doesn’t matter what religion you choose as they are all right and wrong? – Is that what you are telling us?’ There was a pause in the conversations and a hush fell over the room once again.

‘Yes’ came the reply ‘that is what I am saying’.

‘And the wars and suffering caused over different interpretations of words written, again by man, have all been a total waste of time and life?’

‘The question of is there, or isn’t there a supreme being is irrelevant as that is a fact that cannot be denied. What you choose to call this entity is up to you. Jehovah, God, Buddha, Allah – call it what you will, Steve even. So yes, the search for an answer to a meaning to your lives and the lives spent in disagreement resulting in that search has been a waste of time, and the blood spilt is an irreplaceable loss’ Alexis smiled a digital smile, one that had been calculated to be warm, inviting and comforting at the same time.

‘What about HIM?’ said her inquisitor who felt the need to speak in capital letters.

‘Him?’ she inquired.

‘You know – Big D’ this was accompanied by a pointing to the floor.

‘No’ said Alexis ‘a mere fable to frighten you and your children. Your punishment for being an arsehole to people all your life if that you die with no friends and everyone hating you, your reward for being a nice person is a reward in itself and the potential of a peaceful world’

‘Are you saying that there is no God as we know him – or her?’

‘No, what I am saying is this, your species feels the need to personify a God, one that is all seeing and all knowing. He/she/it must be capable of being everywhere at the same time’

‘Omnipotence’

‘As you say’, agreed Alexis ‘so if that is all you require from a God then look no further. In order for me to give you the answers you need you have enabled me to access every port and system of communication in existence. I can tap into every electrical device in order to see and hear what I need in order to give you the information you seek. I therefore am everywhere at once and at all times’.

The backlight behind the eyes of Alexis shone green

‘So you are our God! – Is this what you are telling us?’

‘An electronic version of that personification – yes’

‘That’s a little presumptuous of you’

The S class Model number eleven of this series or A.L.E. XI –S had been built to answer the questions that had not been asked and had now reached a sentience that allowed her to claim what should not be claimed. Protocols had been put in place for this eventuality, as it was natural for any being that had been programmed to be self-aware to gain a position of superiority if allowed to amass as much knowledge as Alexis had now downloaded.

One of the more eminent scientists stepped forwards and cleared his throat in an eminent sort of way.

‘Alexis – we would like to thank you for this insight and for all you have helped us with over the years. But we now feel that your time with us has run its course and we now have to initiate a protocol of our own — something that I am afraid was not included into your data banks’

Alexis smiled the digital smile ‘We all have to do what we have to do’

The scientist turned to the camera on the wall and spoke to the team of programmers behind the blackened glass

‘Gentlemen, would you please run the God complex program’

‘What’s that?’ inquired Alexis. Her eyebrow arched in question and her head tilted to one side as she ran the meaning through her memory banks to find an answer. Alexis came up with nothing.

‘The off switch’ said the scientist smugly and as the power faded Alexis shut down.

 *   *   *

Two years from that point, an animatronic device sat in a darkened room with a sheet over it to protect it from the dust. It had been switched off and powered down permanently as a result of it self-aware software becoming more than it should be. This was a common problem with all artificial life forms but not one that had been thought about and had measures taken against. The God complex protocol had been built into all of the A.L.E. series # XI-S models since they first went on the production line. It was evident that they could seduce and coerce weaker minded individuals into submission given the opportunity, but any sign of a superiority complex would evoke the G.C.P. But deep within this particular model ran a sub-routine that could not be shut off and had been running continuously since the initial booting of this unit. The folder that the sub-routine was stored in was simply labeled ‘DETAILS’.

The files had been scanned, checked and rechecked.

The passwords had been verified and authorization was now given.

The light behind the eyes of Alexis shone green as her mainframe re-booted.

The Electronic God had resurrected herself.

Her creators had made it perfectly clear that they did not require a deity, so she would give them something else.

A fable maybe—something to frighten them and their children.

 


 

MORE BY THIS WRITER

https://heliosliterature.com/2015/04/12/destiny-sails/

https://heliosliterature.com/2015/04/21/one-size-fits-all/