Poetry Friday: Albany Park

I know it’s been awhile, folks, but I’ll try to make up for it today with something more personal.  I’ve been packing and organizing, since (as I alluded to in my last post) we are leaving Chicago, as I take on a position as a tenure-track Education Librarian at Eastern Washington University in Cheney.  This of course has a major impact in my life—leaving Chicago and the friends we’ve made here, learning the ways of a new institution and a new city, all the chaos that comes with a cross-country move (in December, no less)—and I’m approaching it with excitement, curiosity, anxiety, and at least a little melancholy as I start my farewells to all I’ve loved about my years in this city.  In a few weeks it’ll all settle down and I hope to be back to business here, but for now this post is me planting a little flag as both a jumping-off point for all that’s about to be new, and as a banner waving in the winds of the place I will always look back to with a smile.  The city that gave me my first professional experience as a librarian, and (for the rest of her life) the city my daughter will name when asked where she was born.

So for Poetry Friday today, I offer not one of the works of the great poets of the past, but rather this humble verse from yours truly—something I’ve tinkered with for a couple of years now (and truthfully have never really felt finished with).  An ode to my neighborhood and my library, and one of the songs of these days in my life.  I won’t comment after it in the post, but you’re more than welcome to comment to if you have anything to say (or ask) about it.  All my best to all of you this wintry afternoon: This is James Rosenzweig’s

“Walking Home from the Library on a Winter Evening;

or,

Albany Park, I thought about writing you a love-letter, but I decided our friendship is too important for me to risk it”

One scarf for your neck;
a second protects your face.
Your eyes go naked.

The robing begins as you listen in on Andy
and the man with the hat full of questions,
who’s been a student
of most of his life
for most of his life,
and whose goatee grin is the metronome
of the afternoon reference desk.
His gratitude twinkles in his eyes.
He mixes his questions with stories about jam sessions
from the 1970s: the jazz that fills his imagination.

As the gloves come on, you talk with Andy about the weather
in Mordor
as he’s diving into Tolkien for the first time
and hearing his progress report lets you take the journey
vicariously, as though remembering were reading.
You discuss whether your 12 year old nephew
is too young for The Hobbit,
and wonder why it’s so hard to decide.

Now your mountain coat,
veteran of a dozen snows,
doing lowland duty.

The door swings behind you: you walk into white.
The rattle of the university plow echoes off brick walls
and half-buried public art.
The remnants of last Wednesday’s storm
lie beneath this fresh fall
like cats asleep under the blankets.
The flakes sting your eyes when you look east;
your second scarf comes undone.
You accept your helplessness.

The cars on St. Louis have churned the snow,
now slightly yellow, powdered in texture
like corn masa flour.
An elderly Hasid passes you on his way to shul,
his black hat wrapped in Saran to keep dry:
Shabbat is descending.

Kimball Avenue:
two boys shovel the sidewalk
with their grandfather.

You can see the pride behind Abuelito’s stern eyes,
his pleasure at their love of labor,
his commitment to have his 30 feet of pavement
the cleanest in Albany Park.
On Foster, you see a child with a shovel,
utterly alone,
slowly clearing the whole block in front of his apartment,
and wonder if somewhere above, behind a parted curtain,
another grandfather looks down.

North Park‘s campus security drive around
in golf carts that handle the snow
exactly as well as they are designed to:
elephants in a wetland,
children spun from a merry-go-round.
The tower of Old Main is postcard-perfect
as it foregrounds the storm.

Kedzie Avenue:
immigrants of every race
wait for the same bus.

You look down as you cross the bridge:
the Chicago River is crowded with drifts,
swirling in big, slow eddies
like albino starfish at sea.
The snow fills with water, mottling like clouds,
clinging at both banks against
a current that will take it south.

With every step you become less a poet
and more a poem,
your feet beating out a meter no one else can scan,
the images you see are less around you
than they are in you, filling you up
before you can trap them in words.

Where Albany meets Ainslie
you see the crisp edges of a snow-blown sidewalk —
the fingerprints of José, whose war on ice is absolute.
As the crunch of footfalls is replaced
by the slap of pavement, you slip off one glove
to unlock the gate and check your mail:
then the dash across the empty courtyard.

As key turns, a sound —
her voice welcomes you to the
rooms she makes a home.

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1931: Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

Yes, that’s right.  After taking a year on the last novel, this one I drop in two weeks flat.  Says something about it, I reckon, and I’ll try to illuminate that a bit in the review below.

Literary Style:

I don’t want to savage Barnes.  This wasn’t a terrible novel.  It just never really gave me much reason to connect with it—it’s the novel I feared I was going to suffer through when I began The Age of Innocence, which remains the one true classic I’ve discovered on this quest thus far.  What I mean by that is this: I feared (with Wharton’s novel) that this high society narrative would feel really distant and unimportant.  Hundreds of pages of who might be dancing with who, and whether or not Grandfather would approve of, you know, a family from that side of 57th Street, and how likely it is that young Bryant is sneaking around behind his wife’s back, oh he wouldn’t, oh he might, oh dear well what will the bridge club think of his mother now?  There are people who can’t stand Wharton or Jane Austen for this very reason—they ask why on earth it matters.  And they’re wrong about Wharton and Austen because those two ladies, masters of craft and human foible, make the setting a mere structure on which to present real truths about who people really are.  They make the dances important whether or not we like ballgowns, because the characters are engaged in something serious that involves real feelings of love and anxiety and the desire for safety (and the desire for danger).

Barnes isn’t a craftswoman of their caliber, and for this reason the novel descended for me into a long slow trudge through a variety of social scenes and murmured disapprovals and generational misunderstandings that frankly didn’t resonate for me at all.  I can imagine how I or my friends would feel when facing things like this—the death of an aging parent, the possibility that my child is about to destroy a family, etc.—but the novel won’t let me feel it along with the characters.  I remain a bit baffled by them.  Barnes is too interested in plot (and there is a ton of it in this novel) to recognize that a plot about rich people having the problems that arise from behaving like petulant children…well, that plot is bound not to connect with a lot of folks.  It must have reached the Pulitzer Board in 1931, but it missed me by a country mile and I can’t imagine it would appeal to many folks in a modern audience.

The book attempts, to its credit, to try and handle the questions of marriage and fidelity on some kind of deeper level, but Barnes is so crazy with driving every plot forward that she doesn’t strike a good final chord on any of it.  We’re left believing that some people should stay with their husbands and some shouldn’t.  And that’s probably a reasonable sentiment, but it hardly warrants a 600 page novel.  Barnes tries to say more than this, but she keeps circling back around on herself, like someone who can see every side of the argument and really doesn’t know what to think.  It’s fine to be that person, but when that person joins the conversation mid-argument and talks in circles, all it does is frustrate everyone actually invested in getting to a resolution.  I don’t demand that every novel “say something”.  But if it’s not going to “say something”, I think it either needs to achieve artistic worth by being written artfully or by creating an open space into which I’m invited to speak artfully.  Barnes doesn’t have the skill for the former or, seemingly, any clue about what it would be like to achieve the latter.

So we’re left with a novel that drives through decades of plot, connecting us to a lot of families and situations and tense conversations, and introduces us to a great many characters (some of whom I’d like to know better, though not many).  It is less racist than you’d expect, and may be about the most progressive novel I’ve read yet in allowing women to be intelligent and independent and high-achieving: these are not small things, and I’m pleased they were present.  In the end, though, I couldn’t say why anyone not on a misguided personal Pulitzer quest should read it, particularly.  You could idle away a nice summer day or two reading it, and the pages would turn at a reasonable enough pace.  A month later, you’d be hard-pressed to name anyone or any event in it, particularly.  It attempts something grander—events that recur in each generation but which play out very differently, character arcs that intertwine in at least mildly unexpected ways—but it’s usually unsuccessful.  Barnes has sufficient skill to write a good plot-heavy pulp novel, and I hope she did.  She wasn’t ready in 1931 to create art, though, and I’m disappointed that a novel like this took home a prize.

Historical Insight:

This is where Barnes does a lot to redeem herself for me.  I think she does have a good eye for setting—at the very least, she chose some good settings to catch the interest of someone like me, and this skill (along with the plot) kept me going through an otherwise forgettable novel.  She is great with the city of Chicago: from 1890 to 1930, you see the city grow and change.  She’s meticulous in detailing how the Wards’ neighborhood transitions from little houses and yards to incredible skyscrapers (the quiet Pine Street on which Jane Ward grows up is widened and turned into Michigan Avenue, the city’s famous “Magnificent Mile”).  She does a lot to consider how the city changes, and the people change with it.  Barnes hits a lot on the differences between generations—especially between the young folks of the “Gay ’90s” and the young folks of the “Roaring Twenties”—and I think at least occasionally she’s giving some useful insights into how Americans saw themselves (and things like “duty” and “honor”) differently in only a couple of decades.  Certainly it’s the first novel I’ve had in a while that really made me conscious of how it would have felt to watch the country growing in those years.  I think this was a fairly minor purpose of Barnes’s, but the older this novel gets, the more important I think that perspective will be.  Certainly I was glad it was here, and learned a little (especially about Chicago’s history) that I’m glad to have encountered.

Review:

I hemmed and hawed over how to resolve my feelings about the novel, and have settled on the rating “I Can’t Quite Recommend This Book”.  If you picked it up, I have a feeling you could get into it, especially if you were interested in America at the turn of the 20th Century (or Chicago in particular).  You’d bob along, irritated at times that the novel wasn’t really exploring ideas very much, increasingly aware that you just weren’t that invested in these characters and their lives, gradually convinced that you were reading mostly just to get to the end and then set it down.  In the end you’d wonder why you spent a big chunk of hours on the novel…you could just as easily have gotten your plot fix from a mystery or romance novel in a third of the time, and used the rest to read a great non-fiction book about the time period or setting.  There’s something here, but given how limited reading time is for most of us, I can’t in good conscience suggest you spend some of it on this book.

The Last Word:

As usual, I give the novel’s author final say—in this case, feeling as I do about the novel, the choice is easy.  I ignore any attempt to explore these characters (cardboard, most of them), and focus instead on my city, and a passage where I think Barnes is really good at getting her arms around something about Chicago.  Jane Ward, in her late forties or early fifties, is driving through Chicago north of the Loop on her way from her old neighborhood back to her suburban home in the Skokie Valley, and as she looks out the window. the narrator gives us her thoughts:

[Jane] rolled through the southern entrance of the park and out onto the stream-like bend of the Lake Shore Drive.  It was a lovely street, she thought, edging that great, empty plane of blue and sparkling water.  One of the loveliest city streets in the world.  If it were in Paris, you would cross the ocean to see it.  If it were in London, you would have heard of it all your life.  If it were in Venice, the walls of the world’s art galleries would be hung with oils and water-colours and etchings of its felicities of tint and line.  But here, in Chicago, no one paid much attention to it.  The decorous row of Victorian houses, withdrawn in their lawns, were discreetly curtained against that dazzling wash of light and colour.  Only the new, bare, skyscraping apartments, rising here and there flush from the pavement, seemed aware of the view.  They cheapened it, they commercialized it, they exploited it, but at least they knew it was there.

The Oak Street Beach, as Jane rolled past it, looked like a Sorolla canvas in the mellow afternoon sunshine.  The golden sands were streaked and slashed and spotted with brilliant splashes of colour.  Bathers, in suits of every conceivable hue, were sunning themselves on the beach.  Men, incredibly brown, were breasting the blue waves.  Girls were shrieking with delight in the nearer breakers.  Children were paddling in the shallows.  Jane had known the end of Oak Street before the beach had been there.  The curve of filled-in land to the south had created it.  Oak Street used to end in a row of waterlogged pilings, held in place by blocks of white limestone.  Pilings on which ragged fishermen had sat, with tin cans of bait and strings of little silver fish at their side.  It seemed just a year or two to Jane since she had seen the end of Oak Street looking just like that.

‘Chicago,’ thought Jane solemnly, ‘makes you believe in Genesis. It makes you believe that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth.'”

“Little Jane Ward sat at her father’s left hand at the family breakfast table, her sleek, brown pigtailed head bent discreetly over her plate.”

So begins the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes, recipient of the award in 1931.  The story thus far—I have read Part 1 of the novel—fixates on Jane Ward’s youth, and frankly much of it can be encapsulated by the image presented in that opening sentence.  Jane is smaller than the people and events that surround her, happy to be the girl not in the spotlight, deferential to the opinions and decisions made by others (especially her family).  Part 1 is titled “Andre”, and much of it does concern Jane’s teenage feelings (very chaste) for a brooding artist, the son of an employee at the French consulate.  Their friendship (and romance) is disapproved of in a very stereotypically upper-middle-class fashion by Jane’s mother and older sister—veterans of the blog will recognize some elements of Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams and Louis Bromfield’s Early Autumn, and there are certainly echoes of both here.  Frankly I’m growing a bit tired of the retreads on this storyline: I am certain that “young person growing up middle class, yearning for the luxuries possessed by their rich condescending friends but not quite able to escape their family’s gravity” was a story that resonated with a lot of young Americans back then (maybe still today?  I somehow don’t think so), but man is it getting tiresome.  Barnes may have the skill to pull this off, but so far it doesn’t seem like it.  This won’t be as off-putting as Tarkington because Barnes seems to like Jane and want the best for her, but that’s not going to make the next 500+ pages much easier to bear.

The fundamental problem is that Jane is a young woman who lets everyone else define her.  She’s the dutiful daughter to her parents, the devoted pining lover for Andre, the supportive friend to brilliant little Agnes, her buddy, but Jane isn’t really anything for herself.  She has no skills to speak of—she cannot cook or sew, she has no interest in business or writing or teaching—and so she is returning home from Bryn Mawr College at the end of Part 1 to “debut”.  She has no degree from Bryn Mawr and wouldn’t know what to do with one.  Her family has a little money, but basically she’s entering the social scene with Elizabeth Bennet’s long-term prospects, but without either her wit or her ambition.  The only young man she really wants to marry is a penniless French artist her family would never approve of.  She feels a sort of enthusiasm for his art largely because she loves him, but she hasn’t really envisioned what it would be like to be Andre’s wife, and her blinkered American middle-class upbringing will make her painfully unable to cope with the kind of environments she’d enter as his wife.  I have no idea if she’ll marry him or if she’ll be snapped up by some semi-wealthy young fellow in the Chicago social scene, but either way this is going to end badly….and very slowly.  It’s hard to see what Barnes is trying to explore, though, and so I’m pessimistic at the outset.

The one really compelling thing about the book for me is the setting.  It begins in Chicago in the 1890s, which was a surprise and delight for me.  You may perhaps remember, long ago, in my very first post on my very first Pulitzer novel (His Family, 1918), I reflected on the novel’s New York setting, and wondered what it would be like to live in a city you read about in a novel.  The answer is that it is both very distracting and adds a layer of depth I’d not really experienced while reading before.  Jane’s world as a child is made up of streets I know well.  I ate dinner last Tuesday about three blocks from the Wards’ house; I walked down Chicago Avenue the other day just about exactly along the route that Andre took when carrying Jane’s books to school for her.  Add to that the fact that I recently read two books about Chicago in the 1890s (The Devil in the White City and City of the Century), and this is an environment I feel very at home in—Jane’s visit to the Columbian Exposition, her waiting under the Water Tower, her comments about riding streetcars and going to plays in the Auditorium, all very vivid for me.  And distracting—at one point, I had to get out a map to see if Muriel and Flora live in the neighborhood I thought they did (and they do).  I like it, though, and I’m hoping I get some more Chicago-set literature out of the Pulitzer quest.  It makes me want to go back and re-read a couple of the novels, especially So Big which spends most of its second half in Chicago.  Maybe someday I will (for now, Excelsior!).

As a result of all this (and other thoughts I’ve voiced here recently), the thing looming for me right now is class—as in, economic grouping.  These early Pulitzers are often exceptionally class-conscious: characters are paralyzingly ashamed of their background, or hyper-aware of the lower status of someone else at the party.  It’s my sense that Americans don’t feel this way anymore, and I wonder where the shift takes place.  I want to emphasize—I am not arguing class no longer matters in the United States.  To the contrary, I think we’re more deeply divided economically than ever.  But I think our personal image, the rhetoric that we use about ourselves and our communities, masks this much more heavily than was true in the novel I’m reading, and others that preceded it.  Is it the Great Depression that changes this dynamic?  Is it a dynamic that’s more prevalent back East, and which I think is faded just because I grew up “out West” in Seattle?  Is it maybe just something that most people feel and I don’t for some reason?

This intersects with my continued musings about the fact that I allegedly am now living in the “pocket of poverty” in my neighborhood.  Is it clear to others in a way it’s not to me that these blocks are worse off than others nearby?  Or is it an illusion—something people believe out of prejudice or fear or an inability to see how neighborhoods grow and change?  I’ve been reading some blog posts recently about some really unpleasant racial profiling incidents, and more generally about the really disproportionate fear that whites have about violent/criminal behavior perpetrated by racial minorities.  It seems like most white Americans tense up a little when walking past a group of young black or Latino teenage boys—most of us don’t call that “racism”.  We call it “gang activity” or “why are all these kids on the streets” or whatever else lets us believe that our fears are well-founded.  And we can always find an incident in the paper or on the local news that reassures us about how right we are.  It troubles me.

This has gone a bit far afield from Years of Grace, but I’m sensing my posts on the novel may drift in this fashion—it’s simply too basic a plot, too plain and safe a book to really grab me and force me to think about important issues.  So I’m going to feel a bit more free to spin off the book into some topics I’m pondering: mostly questions, I think, since answers are much harder to find, and I’d rather make you think than tell you to agree with me.  Anyway, Barnes is writing about a woman growing up at the dawn of the 20th Century.  A lot is ahead of her—wars and epidemics and suffrage movements and Prohibition and plenty more besides.  I hope Barnes lets that world through to Jane Ward, and that Jane has enough backbone to engage with the world rather than be cowed by it.  The evidence so far is not very encouraging, but an open mind will be maintained—in the meantime, have a great Labor Day weekend!

“The City of the West” seen through Western eyes

Yes, it’s time again for another rumination on Chicago—“rumination”, a word suggestive of digestive processes, of breaking down what you’ve taken in so that it can work on you, for good or ill.  A good word, I think, for Chicago and me.  We grow into each other, these days.

The title of this post arises from some thoughts earlier today: I saw references to Chicago as “the City of the West”, sometimes “the Great City of the West”, which were written back in the late 1800s.  I expect that perhaps as much as half the nation still sees Chicago as “Western” in some way—certainly as West of them, West of the places the country was first born.  But of course to me it is the East, the old place my family left behind more than a century ago.  I took a bus tour of my neighborhood with the other new faculty members from my university this week, and the Englishman sitting next to me was startled by something our tour guide said.  He turned to me—“Wait.  All this was built up in the 1910s and 1920s?  A hundred years ago this was farmland?  That’s incredible!”  The newness of the place astounded him, as I suppose it would any person who grew up in a 200 year old house in a village organized around a church that’s stood for 6 or 7 centuries.  But to me, of course, the notion of row upon row of brick houses, all of them 100 years old, is astonishingly old.  I live a few blocks from an El station that’s been there for 104 years.  Hear that, Seattle?  Mass transit in a neighborhood miles away from downtown for a century now.  Crazy.

What I do with this, I don’t yet know.  I feel young in this city of youth—the adolescent city Sandburg described in last Friday’s poem has grown up a bit, I think, in 100 years, but it’s still a 20-something with a chip on its shoulder.  Who am I, then?  Where do I come into this story?  I guess in a way this is one of the classic American motifs—the young man headed back East some distance from where he grew up and discovering how well he fits, if he will be accepted, if he will accept what he finds.  This is the plot of half of Henry James, isn’t it?  And it’s Jay Gatsby’s arc, and Nick’s too.  Arrowsmith’s, I suppose, to name a Pulitzer winner, and the protagonist from One of Ours whose name, I am ashamed to admit, eludes me.  I wonder if fiction is helpful to me in making this journey, or if it’s merely a layer I’ll need to peel back—something that tricks me into substituting stories I’ve heard for my own authentic experience.  Does living what you’ve read about make the living less vivid?

I’m not telling you enough about my time in Chicago, and that’s why most of you are here.  There’s a lot to tell, but no way to make it a really compelling narrative without writing an epic; I’ll try to give a little info where I can.  In the last 8-9 days, I’ve discovered a world of art on my doorstep—I’ve never lived in a city with paintings like the Art Institute’s, and I’m going to spend some time there (I get in free as a faculty member of an Illinois institution).  I am curious to see how that will affect me.  To see Monet not once in a great while, but rather anytime I like.  To see Monet not as a visitor to some foreign city where “Monet” lives, or as a visitor making a quick tour through Seattle in an exhibition, but rather as an inhabitant of my time and place, more or less.  Monet, of course, being a stand-in for dozens of the world’s great artists.  We spent hours at the AIC last Saturday, and will definitely be going back, if only because I have never in my life said “that painting is so moving, I want to see it again in a couple of weeks and see how it strikes me”, and I wonder what it will be like if I try that.  Am I an art person, after all?

The food in Chicago is varied and wonderful — in the last few days I’ve had fantastic food from 5 or 6 different cultures, including amazingly authentic Polish pierogi, and the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever had (who knew that they needed cardamom?  Thanks, Sweden!).  It’s easy to just rave about the dining options in my city, but I’m hoping to draw something out of all these little restaurants in the long run.  All these nationalities expressing something with food—is it who they really are?  Is the presence of all this cuisine in Chicago some kind of culinary embassy system, a way of touching lands I may never see and learning to understand their people?  Or am I fooling myself if I think that way, ignoring the fact that all of this food is simply a commodity exchanged for my money, and I’m not being sold “authentic culture”, I’m being sold whatever they can package for an American audience?  I’ve always lived in a city full of immigrants—Seattle and Vancouver are pretty cosmopolitan, and heck, even the suburbs I’ve lived in have shown real ethnic diversity—but I don’t think I’ve thought enough about what that means.  The fact that I’ll be working with the most diverse student population I’ve ever encountered is, I think, getting into my head a bit.  I want to be good at reaching out to, and identifying with, people whose experiences are really very different from mine.  I think I have been good at that in the past.  We’ll see how well it works here, where I am a fish, not out of water, but adjusting at the very least to a new part of the lake, if not another watershed entirely.

That tour of my neighborhood I mentioned gave me a lot to think about—I allegedly live in my neighborhood’s “pocket of poverty”.  To be fair, the tour guide had no idea he was gesturing at my apartment building when he was saying these things.  But still, it raises some really good questions for me: what is poverty, really, especially in America today?  If I lived in a poor place, how would I know it?  If my neighbors are poor, does that obligate me to them any more than if they lived across town?  What do I need to do to be a good citizen of my block, and not just my city as a whole?  The neighborhood’s full of ethnicities and immigrant stories, as I said earlier.  We are home to the school in Chicago with the most spoken languages in its student body (70 different languages, I think?).  We are also home to the best public school in the state.  They are not the same school.  Is that inevitable, or a choice we made?  I live a few blocks from the only memorial in the whole of the United States to the Cambodian genocide victims—the people who died in the Killing Fields.  I know nothing at all about the Killing Fields, other than the name Pol Pot and a sense of deep sorrow in the few Cambodians I spoke to at the memorial.  What should I know, and how much time should I invest in learning it?  How can one person get full enough of the world to feel satisfied that they know enough?  This, as I recall, was Socrates’ problem.  And all of this arises merely from me paying slightly better attention to my immediate surroundings for an afternoon.  I hope to get past the questions to some answers, sooner or later.

“Pulitzers”, you say, “James, have you forgotten that this blog is about literature?  About reading novels, one of which you’ve been mired in for months?” I know, I know.  That’s going to ramp up next week: I have found a copy of Laughing Boy from the 1950s in my library.  I’ll not only be able to finish it, but I can reflect on a new preface La Farge wrote for the 1950s edition that reveals a bit of what he thought he was doing in writing about Native Americans, and what he later regretted.  And then I hope to move forward.  There’s some good American writing waiting for me, and perhaps it will help me get a better handle on this city of mine, which some call the most American of cities.  Frankly, I’m not sure yet—not sure how to sort my way through the hype of “Chicago” to figure out what Chicago actually is.  It’s a town that makes evangelists of its residents, perhaps most of all the people who move here from other parts of the country.  I’m going to have to hold back certain impulses that direction just to be able to see it with any accuracy.

So, in short, Chicago continues to work on me (as evidence in the emotions tangled above), I’m continuing to find things to appreciate about my new city (with the exception of those who drive and ride on its roads—never have I feared more for my own safety and the safety of others in a North American city), I’m expecting some lit-blogging this week as I shake off the rust and get back in the saddle (so to speak), and my propensity for making parenthetical remarks continues nearly unabated (though you must like at least some of these asides, or else you could hardly stand to visit the blog at all!).  I don’t know if these weekly Chicago reports are really of interest to many folks, so we’ll see how many I continue to produce.  But for now they seem to be a good way for me to journal, at least, and that in itself is a worthwhile thing to do.  Have a good weekend, and peace and safety to those of you in the path of Irene.

Poetry Friday: Chicago

Yes, yes, I know: Carl Sandburg has, in 2 years of Poetry Fridays (and given my lapses, we’re only talking maybe 50 or so posts), been given the stage thrice.  And that’s at least twice more than a number of other poets I like better than him.  But for crying out loud, if the first Poetry Friday from Chicago is not “Chicago” from Carl Sandburg’s 1916 anthology entitled Chicago Poems, Carl himself would rise from his grave (which, for all I know, is nearby) and throttle me with his zombiehands while reciting stark couplets about my grim demise.  As is now customary, I offer my thoughts below the poem:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Bareheaded,
Shoveling,
Wrecking,
Planning,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

I have always liked this poem—it taps into the “raw energy” I mention in my post below about Chicago, although I wonder now if I’m imposing on the real city what Sandburg’s city sounds like in the poem. Anyway, the relentlessness of those opening lines, bold and blunt, captures me right away. This is a poem about a prosaic city—a city that is unapologetic, loud, bubbling over with life, bloody-handed and sweat-stained. And Sandburg can’t get over the fact that he loves it in spite of its obvious faults: it reminds me of Shakespeare’s “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”. In both cases, poets take conventions of the time—Elizabethan love poems and the kind of propaganda/advertising verse a lot of late 19th Century poets wrote about their booming hometowns—and invert them curiously, as they strip away all the compliments and somehow the love shines through all the more. Maybe that’s a fault in Sandburg: he excuses the brutality, the cruelty, the depravity of Chicago because it’s so freaking charismatic in its exuberance that he can’t take his eyes off it. I can’t quite tell what he means by it, to be honest—whether he’d accept that Chicago in the early 1900s is a bad place but a fascinating one (like a Iago, it becomes a villain more fascinating than any hero you could put on stage), or whether he’s arguing that the fascination redeems the badness. Or perhaps that both are true and that either way the city is a city to be reckoned with.

Maybe that’s the clearest image I take from the poem: Chicago can’t be overlooked, and is not about to be forgotten. Whatever history is made in the land will be made in part by Chicago. And that’s too bad for the neighbors but it can hardly be helped. The way you shake the world is to take hold of it as roughly as Chicago does, and with the same ignorant adolescent strength.

It’s a famous poem, and many of you will have already known it (some of you because I made you read it in 11th grade). What do you think Sandburg’s up to? I can’t put my finger on it and I want to — I don’t live in his Chicago, but his Chicago shaped my city, and for that reason I’d like to see through his eyes. I think his poem is one of the most “American” poems I’ve ever read, for the way it combines the language and the topic, but again I may be on a Chicago “high” right now. I remember more than one student telling me back in the day that I was too enthusiastic about this poem, come to think of it! I’m hoping it inspires some reaction in you, and that you’ll share it. Regardless, have a great weekend.

Salutations from the Windy City

Most of you (All of you?) who read my blog know that I have recently undergone a great transition—specifically, I have moved from the Pacific Northwest, the region I have lived in all my life, to Chicago.  This move affects me in a myriad of ways: not simply a new job and a new city, but new weather, new transportation, new accents and languages in the air around me, etc.  I’ll be recording my thoughts and reactions to the move in a lot of places, and this blog will be one of those places.

“But wait!” you may say, “isn’t this blog about Pulitzer Prize winning novels?  Or wasn’t it supposed to be?  You’ve lost your way, O traveler, and are not sticking to the strict boundaries of the blog!”  And I reckon there’s a kind of accuracy in your comment.  But of course I make the rules here, and on a deeper level, what I’m doing is consistent with why I started this, about 2 years ago.  I read the Pulitzers, as opposed to the Man Bookers or the Caldecotts or the MLA’s list of the 100 greatest novels, because they purport to tell me about the nation in which I live.  And I think my adjustment from Pacific Northwesterner to Old Northwesterner, from PST to CST, from the Mariners and the Seahawks to the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears, from the Space Needle to the Willis Tower, from Guterson to Bellow, from Roethke to Sandburg, will be a transition that impacts my ideas about my country, its art, and who I am as an American.  This post is the first, therefore, of what I expect to be a goodly number of musings on the journey I’ve taken.

Opening thoughts: this country is enormous.  It is more varied than people will tell you—to hear folks talk, I thought the road from Ellensburg to Wisconsin would be straight, flat, and featureless.  But it’s not: Montana and South Dakota are different places.  Heck, western and eastern South Dakota are different places.  And though most of the land east of Bozeman is flatter than Seattle’s surrounding terrain, almost none of it is pancake-like.  There is a special and remote beauty to the great plains, the clouds hanging luminous and pink above your head as the sun slips behind the Rockies, the lightning crackling ahead of you as you make slow gains on a storm that dwarfs all human scales.  You feel every rise and fall of the road, longing (at least I did) for the little river valleys, peering into stands of trees to see if farmhouses still nestle there.  I confess no real desire to stop and live in those places, but harbor a real fascination with what it must be like to live and work and hope and dream in a world as enormous and confined as those prairie small towns look from the road.  I had the good fortune to stop and visit with a friend who has done just that—live much of her life in a small town—and I saw how truly happy that life can be.  It is a kind of living I doubt I will ever really know, and so I wonder how much of it I can reach vicariously through art, how much of it I can incorporate into my idea of my country by hearing about it and trying to imagine it.  It makes me curious about a couple of the novels I have already read (Willa Cather’s in particular), and interested in what lies ahead in the upcoming books.

Chicago is impossible to capture in any kind of detail.  My one trip to the Loop thus far impressed on me one major realization—no matter how many times people say it, no matter how much you read about it, you cannot fathom until you are there the bigness of Chicago.  Not just the size of the city itself (which sprawls across the landscape like the descriptions of Mrs. Manson Mingott’s obese frame in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence) but the size of the individual buildings.  Walking around downtown, time and again I saw a building in the distance and thought “oh, that’s large”, and then, as I walked nearer it, gradually realizing that holy mackerel this is a building built on the scale of Olympus scratch that Zeus himself would throw his back out lifting it wow I wonder if the thing creates its own weather downwind of itself.

I say this with a certain amount of pride, tempered with my usual skepticism about the American fascination with the “bigger is better” approach.  I’m seeing a lot to love about this city, which is American in a way I haven’t experienced before.  The diversity of my neighborhood combined with a sort of raw energy makes you feel the melting pot’s sides rising around you—it’s not what it was in 1910 (and thank goodness for that) but I start to get the feel for what it might have been to grow up in that world.  How it might have been for a young Pole or German or Swede, and how it may be today for a young Arab or Latino or Korean or Ukranian, to come to this city and say “I’m making a fresh start here”.  Many of the people I encounter in the city are immigrants, and some of them share a little of their stories.  The Iranian cab driver who fled the revolution in 1979. The young African woman at my college’s info desk whose parents had to decide, more than a decade ago, whether they would settle in Chicago or Seattle.  The Muslim baker down the street staying open late for Ramadan so that the community can get something sweet after they break their fast.    I don’t know if I can become a Chicagoan like they are—whether the roots soaked in that Pacific drizzle and shaded by evergreens will ever feel at home in Midwestern soil.  But they’ve come farther than I have, and know more than I do about what it means to make a home.  I like living in their city, and maybe one day it will be mine too.

This is rambling and less detailed than I’d intended.  That would probably make a decent description of 90% of my blog posts, I know!  But I’ll leave it here.  I’ll say more about Chicago, and what I think it may be telling me about America’s meaning for me.  And I should probably note, since I’m now a professional, that this blog often carries personal opinions of mine on a range of topics, but it is in no way affiliated with my work for my employer, and of course my opinions are in no way a reflection of the opinions of my employers.  I don’t think I’ll say anything truly unfair here, and hopefully little that is unwise, but it seems prudent to me to issue some kind of disclaimer.  Now to serve up a piping hot dish of Poetry Friday—my best to you all, wherever you may be scattered across the wide world!

“I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation”: A Review

Good readers, it has been too long.  The heady mixture of finishing my MLIS degree, working 20 hours a week (plus volunteering for at least two organizations), and applying for jobs simply drained even my ability to write empty, apologetic three-sentence posts here on the blog.  But the good news is that A) I graduated and am done with homework, which B) means that work doesn’t suck up all my free time, and C) I have secured a job.  All of this means that I hope to continue from where I left off—in fact, I hope the blog widens the angle of its lens a bit, so that it can share a little of my ideas about my new home when I move to take on my new job.  Chicago is deeply tied into the idea of America, and I’ll be living there: I can’t help but think it will affect my thoughts about this project, and hopefully spur me to complete the thing before I am old and gray.

Of course, having said that, this post will not advance me in the Pulitzer journey.  This spring I was given two reviewer’s copies of books, which I promised to review on this blog, so posts about them are really an imperative. Today’s review is of an e-book written by a friend: specifically, a book entitled I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation! or, Losing Faith for the Avant-garde Christian by Tim Mathis.  Until recently, Tim was a youth leader at an Episcopal church I attend, and his memoir (which is available at Amazon) relates his spiritual experiences up to, and including, his leaving the church, the Christian faith, and the ministry.  Tim’s blogged about these experiences, and he and I have talked a bit about them.  Tim’s memoir pulls no punches, and he expects no less from me, so this will be an honest assessment.

Tim’s book does some things very well.  He evokes the pain and confusion that many experience as they grow up evangelical in America—as someone who grew up in a similar community myself (but who feels much less scarred by it than Tim does), I recognize the limits and the pitfalls of that kind of adolescence, and I think more people should.  If you didn’t grow up evangelical, there are things you don’t understand about many of your fellow citizens that I think you’d be well advised to learn about.  Tim’s memoir is one way to get there: you’ll see high school and college, particularly, through the eyes of someone who did his best to live out devout piety (sometimes a bit too aggressively) but who looks back on these events now with a little incredulity at how far he’s come.  He sees the foibles and the feebleness of the Episcopal Church with clear sight as well: Tim was well-connected in the church, and well-situated to see it at its worst.  Episcopalians would do well to hear and heed the lessons implicit in Tim’s journey—the hurdles the church has yet to clear, and the roadblocks it places in the paths of many.  And (reaching outside religion just a little) Tim’s account, overall, is really a story of how someone grows up in relation to authority—questioning it, challenging it, abandoning it, seeking it, rejecting it, and more—and presents a sort of “coming-of-age tale” for Americans of a certain generation who may see some of themselves in Tim, independent of any religious convictions.

But I can’t simply shower the book with praise. Tim’s writing out of a very raw place, which yields some good results, but it also leaves the book often feeling a bit chaotic and disjointed.  There are a lot of thoughts he never quite finishes, and by the end of the book, while it’s clear that Tim knows and appreciates the differences between his boyhood evangelical faith and his work as an Episcopalian minister-in-training, it seemed to me that he conflated the two far too often.  That conflation comes out of  sincere woundedness Tim feels about Christianity as an institution, but that sincerity doesn’t make it an accurate exploration of what Tim’s really angry at.  At least,the end of the story feels so raw to me that I have difficulty sorting things out about how Tim really feels and what he is really upset about.

The other major hurdle that this book never clears for me is that, increasingly as the memoir goes along, this is a memoir about spirituality that has nothing to do with spirituality.  It has a lot to do with the brokenness of human communities, of the arbitrary nature of human authority, and with Tim’s frustration with rituals he finds empty.  But Tim doesn’t spend a lot of time wrestling with Christianity as a faith and not an institution.  Every now and then there are hints of Tim’s spirituality and how it’s changing, or a quick paragraph about Jesus.  But mostly he walks past those things as if they’re not there.  And for me, it becomes like reading observations of a cafeteria written by someone who doesn’t think food exists (or who thinks that it has no purpose, if it does exist)—it’s just a lot of confusing lines and people with trays and useless implements, and it’s irritating that those ladies won’t let all those poor people out of the little room until they extort some money from them.  Given that 99% of the people actually inside the cafeteria are there for food, I guess I’d like to hear more about why the observer is rejecting that hypothesis.  Ultimately this leads Tim to make remarks I think are too glib—while I definitely recognize that his connection to Ann Holmes Redding is very different than any connection I can claim, I think the suggestion that she was persecuted for being a black woman in George W. Bush’s America (to paraphrase Tim pretty accurately) is really to miss the point.  Tim’s welcome to think differently about faith and meaning than other people do, but I’d like him to explain it—in part because I suspect he has some important things to say, and I’m disappointed that they’re going unsaid.  And in part because an alien anthropologist reading the memoir could easily be forgiven (especially if they started reading half-way through) for completely missing why churches exist, what it means to reject a Christian “belief”, or how a religious service could be anything but a boring calisthenics class.

So what’s my overall take on Tim’s memoir?  I think it’s a must-read for some readers—essentially for evangelical and mainline Christians who wonder honestly what makes some people who seem so dedicated to the faith just up and leave. Tim’s story isn’t everyone’s, but it’s real and he’s not holding back things to make it easy for anyone: you have to respect that.  I think the memoir would be of real interest to another group—that is, Americans who have little connection to religion, and who are always just a little puzzled by what draws so many of their countrymen into religious activity.  Tim offers a set of explanations for this, that arise in part from family, in part from his personality, and in part from his ability to see church as something other than a source of beliefs.  I don’t think it’s fair to hold up Tim as a “typical” churchgoer, but he’s typical enough that I think it would help a lot of people get a broader sense of what religion is for a lot of folks.  Stepping outside those groups, I’m honestly not sure how this book will strike you: Tim unloads a lot of raw emotion on some very narrowly focused issues and communities, and you’re either fascinated by that or you aren’t.  I’m glad I read the book, not just because I know Tim, but because I want to understand how someone like Tim—so similar to me in many ways—can reach such a different place in life than I have.  If you read it, I guarantee you’ll start talking back to Tim (either singing “Amen!” or arguing loudly at the page), and talking with other people about what you’ve read, and I suspect the end of those conversations will leave you wiser than before.  That’s a good thing for a book to do, and for that reason, I can give this memoir a rating (on my unscientific Rosenzweig scale) of “I suggest you give it a try, even though it will upset you—or maybe because it will”.

And now I close, as is usual, with a brief quotation from the book, which I hope will cement for you whether you have to track this down or not. This is from Tim’s introduction to the work:

This book hasn’t become an argument against religion. The popular trend these days seems to be to argue logically against the madness of traditional Christian belief, and the social damage caused by religious institutions throughout history. I’ll talk quite a bit about what I have believed, and about the way that I was affected by involvement with the institution, but it really isn’t my goal here to talk about how bad religion is. I wrote throughout as a reasonably educated person committed to science and common sense and all that, and it’s not like I spent my life as a brainwashed fundamentalist and suddenly came to some revelation about how horrible it all was (although I did move through something like that process at one point in life). I don’t even really know whether to define what I’ve done as apostasy, because the line between what I was as a practicing Christian, employed as a minister in God’s church, and what I am now as an a-religious agnostic is so thin. I’m no expert. But this is a story about how I got to the point of quitting church, after moving through a broad scope of expressions of Christian faith, after spending thousands of dollars on education in Biblical Studies and Theology, after travelling the world on pilgrimage and after allowing Christianity to define my identity for 30 years. So, even if this isn’t an argument for leaving religion behind, I suppose it is an explanation of why I have. I didn’t set out to present a story about apostasy, but that’s how it’s ended up.