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Posts from October 2020

What I’ve Been Reading: Yusef Komunyakaa, “Ignis Fatuus” (2004)

From The Best American Poetry: 2004, eds. Lyn Hejinian and David Lehman, pp. 136-137.

Ignis Fatuus

Something or someone. A feeling
among a swish of reeds. A swampy
glow haloes the Spanish moss,
& there’s a swaying at the edge
like a child’s memory of abuse
growing flesh, living on what
a screech owl recalls. Nothing
but a presence that fills up
the mind, a replenished body
singing its way into doubletalk.
In the city, Will o’ the Wisp
floats out of Miles’ trumpet,
leaning ghosts against nighttime’s
backdrop of neon. A foolish fire
can also start this way: before
you slide the key into the lock
& half-turn the knob, you know
someone has snuck into your life.
A high window, a corner of sky
spies on upturned drawers of underwear
& unanswered letters, on a tin box
of luminous buttons & subway tokens,
on books, magazines, & clothes
flung to the studio’s floor,
his sweat lingering in the air.
Years ago, you followed someone
here, in love with breath
kissing the nape of your neck,
back when it was easy to be
at least two places at once.

— Yusef Komunyakaa (2004)
from The New Republic

(Ignis fatuus is Latin for foolish fire, meaning a will-o’-the-wisp or jack-o’-lantern — a ghost or fairy light seen on a dark night, in a bog or marsh, that seems to promise a place to rest, but really only leads the unwary traveler deeper into the mire.)

What I’ve Been Reading: Kim Addonizio, “Chicken” (2004)

From The Best American Poetry: 2004, eds. Lyn Hejinian and David Lehman, pp. 15-16. I’m not always convinced that the title of this anthology is strictly accurate. But this one is probably my favorite poem in the collection.


Why did she cross the road?
She should have stayed in her little cage,
shat upon by her sisters above her,
shitting on her sisters below her.

God knows how she got out.
God sees everything. God has his eye
on the chicken, making her break
like the convict headed for the river,

sloshing his way through the water
to throw off the dogs, raising
his arms to starlight to praise
whatever isn’t locked in a cell.

He’ll make it to a farmhouse
where kind people will feed him.
They’ll bring green beans and bread,
home-brewed hops. They’ll bring

the chicken the farmer found
by the side of the road, dazed
from being clipped by a pickup,
whose delicate brain stem

he snapped with a twist,
whose asshole his wife stuffed
with rosemary and a lemon wedge.
Everything has its fate,

but only God knows what that is.
The spirit of the chicken will enter the convict.
Sometimes, in his boxy apartment,
listening to his neighbors above him,

annoying his neighbors below him,
he’ll feel a terrible hunger
and an overwhelming urge
to jab his head at the television over and over.

— Kim Addonizio (2004)
from Five Points

Systemic Structural Court Reform Or Something Similarly Anodyne

So, there’s nothing particularly special or elevated or delightsome about the United States Supreme Court. Nor is there anything sacrosanct — or mandatory — or obviously preferable — about the present composition of the Nine Riders cloaked in black. For all I know, it might be better some other way than the way it is right now. As we’ve all heard a million times now, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t say anything in particular about that,[1] and historically Congress has expanded, and has clipped, the nose-count of the court, on more than one occasion. The reasons for doing so pretty much every time were political, and indeed part of a fairly nakedly partisan power-grab, by temporarily triumphant Congressional factions or by long-frustrated Congressional majorities.[2]

Now there are plenty of righteous reasons why political Progressives have gotten so furious and ended up feeling so utterly, desperately frustrated over the last few years. There are some stupid and invidious reasons too, but that’s hardly the point. Even if every Progressive political demand is legitimate, just and wise in its substance, — whether a faction is wrong-headed or right-on, under the circumstances or in general, — still, the fact is, in a partisan political order, it is almost always going to be pretty grubby, and short-sighted, and dangerous, and really very destructive, to govern as if your own faction or political party is just never going to lose another election, nor ever wish, on some future day, that you all had abided some hindrances to the government’s power to ride roughshod over opposition, or had some remnant left of conventional restraints on the momentarily triumphant faction’s naked wielding of political power.[3][4]

  1. [1]Even if the U.S. Constitution did say something about it, so what? If it should require something that’s a bad idea in general or under the circumstances, well then written constitutions can and should be amended, altered or abolished.
  2. [2]See for example Timothy Huebner’s post at SCOTUSBlog.
  3. [3]Suppose you just knew that you will be the Government more or less continuously, more or less forever, and never have to think about being in the opposition, or the resistance, in the future. Maybe you know deep down that you represent the Emerging Majority, and you can be certain that so long as every vote is counted, then tomorrow belongs to you. If you think that, then you might also think that conventional restraints on big exercises of political power will serve as little more than a hindrance to the achievement of your just and legitimate claims. Maybe you should get rid of them, and to hell with the Emerging Minority. I’d say there’s something deeply wrong, and really kind of sad, about that attitude. But in any case, if you really think that you know you will be the Government more or less continuously, more or less forever, — or that if you can once become the Government then you’ll be able to fundamentally change the structures so that you’ll be sure to be the Government forever after, — and never have to think about being in the opposition, or in the resistance, in the future, — then I’d say that is a pretty foolish and short-sighted belief. In the real world, extraordinary powers are not just a rifle that you can just aim at the opposition. They are like setting a fire, which doesn’t always go where you expect it to go, which runs backwards as well as forwards, and which easily burns on with a life of its own, beyond the direction or control of them what set it.
  4. [4]For future reference: the phrase in the title of this post is an allusion to a Slate interview in October 2020, in which the journalist and political commentator Dahlia Lithwick suggested that the thorny issue of court packing wouldn’t be so thorny if proponents of partisan court packing would just call it something other than that, like systemic structural court reform or something similarly anodyne.

What I’ve Been Reading: Rita Dove, “All Souls'” (2004)

From The Best American Poetry: 2004, eds. Lyn Hejinian and David Lehman, pp. 73-74.

All Souls’

Starting up behind them,
all the voices of those they had named:
mink, gander, and marmoset,
crow and cockatiel.
Even the duck-billed platypus,
of late so quiet in its bed,
sent out a feeble cry signifying
grief and confusion, et cetera.

Of course the world had changed
for good. As it would from now on
every day, with every twitch and blink.
Now that change was de rigueur,
man would discover desire, then yearn
for what he would learn to call
distraction. This was the true loss.
And yet in that first

unchanging instant,
the two souls
standing outside the gates
(no more than a break in the hedge;
how had they missed it?) were not
thinking. Already the din was fading.
Before them, a silence
larger than all their ignorance

yawned, and this they walked into
until it was all they knew. In time
they hunkered down to business,
filling the world with sighs–
these anonymous, pompous creatures,
heads tilted as if straining
to make out the words to a song
played long ago, in a foreign land.

— Rita Dove (2004)
from The New Yorker

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