European Diary: Courtyard of the British Library, 1:00 p.m., Monday; May 31, 2004; London, England

Just visited the Ritblat Gallery where we saw a first draft of “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen with Siegfried Sasson’s remarks penciled in. Thought I was going to bawl or faint. Also, Finnegan’s Wake, the oldest extant complete copy of the New Testament (Codex Sinaiticus) culled from the collection of the Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai – it is any wonder I’ve always wanted to go there? (See below) Also saw the Gutenburg Bible, the Magna Carta, the First Folio, as well as the bill for Blackfriars and pages from Leonardo’s notebooks.

It was an emotional experience but very powerful physically as well. It made me want to study again, so I can join the British Library and man-handle the manuscripts: HOT INK-ON-VELLUM ACTION!

We need to go to Heathrow soon and take the short flight to Amsterdam and slightly longer one to Riga. Not looking forward to suffocation-by-airplane-seat. Told S. I should have fashioned a traveling garment out of a fitted sheet. She suggested a book: “The Sweatpant Chronicles: 17 Countries in One Pair of Sweatpants.”

***

The initial and terminal poems from “The Sinai Elegies”:

The temple

Once the Temple at Sinai stood fixed in my mind in the shimmering heat

Of the white desert in the stillness of midday. No figure

Marred the emptiness, no bird broke the held breath

Of the sky. The Temple stood silent in the midst of silence.

Like the structure itself, stone shorthand for its own architecture,

This vision stood scrip to the gold of a greater truth.

Like the Incan runner holding speech in a knotted string,

I bore sanctuary in the folds of a luminous dream.

I hurled myself across the erring oceans, rejoicing

At each failure, each mistake I made I blessed,

For every ill wind that ran my ship aground

Marooned me closer to the terrible desert.

And the Temple stood fixed in my mind. The nights were hot

With desire, the roads blazed with it. The names of things

Were strong in my ear, the year long in its shadow. But now,

O, now the Temple is gone. I am lost in the tide of days.

Kingdom come

Now, the Temple at Sinai stands fixed in my mind in the deepening

Dark of the lengthening night with the timbre of starlight,

Possessing the desert like a held breath possesses the body,

Defining by degrees what it is and is not.

The stars revolve with the vault of Heaven, turning like a great

Stone lid. Intangible and infinite space seems

Palpable; Time, finite. This is the instant the anointed voice

Spoke and ceased. And this is the moment right after.

And I no longer care that there within its walls, where a crude

Lamp burns gold, stands the basin of polished

Stone the cut rose floats in and that,

Should I withdraw it from the Water,

The Rose revoke my Exile and my name unfold within me.

Let my Name unfold within me and my body turn to dust!

I have learned nothing but that something remains.

Let thy kingdom come down like water.

European Diary: Courtyard of the British Library; 2:35 p.m., Sunday; May 30, 2004; London, England

The flight and its preparations were a trail, but worth it. London is very comfortable, not at all foreign, though others would probably disagree. Excellent to be in a real city again; things feel possible. London has become much richer, culturally, in the sense of a global culture, than it was the last time I visited – 20 years ago? It may be that I just see it more; I spent only a day or so here before.

The first two days here this time were devoted to rest and Sunday, it appears, is the day on which London becomes a tiny village again and everything shuts up tight. Most of our cultural activities will have to happen when we return oat the end of June. London has more museums, art and theatre than any other city I’ve ever seen, possibly more than NYC. We did wind up taking the Tube to Leicester square and walking through the West End, eating a typically English, yet not horrid, dinner at a restaurant – Brown’s? – in the theatre district. Then, a jog through an open-air drag queen convention on the streets of Covent Garden.

There are too many tourists and immigrants to count here. Many of the hotel and restaurant staff are Spanish, Russian, French, Georgian and Italian. Stores are run by Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Arabs, doing the same work as is done in the U.S. by Mexicans, Salvadorans, Vietnamese and so on. Once, on Oxford Street, S. and I got up from a café (Nero & Great Palace) and as we walked I heard so much French and Arabic I thought for a disorienting moment that I was in Paris instead of London.

Tomorrow we fly to Latvia. I expect it to be interesting and, for S., very emotional, but nine days is quite long. She has already started saying, “Curt, I want to move here.” There is a lot of media here.

***

Added bonus: 70s punk rock hooker look still alive and well here, especially among the middle-aged and unattractive.

One other note: It is a terribly noisy city. British reserve, indeed. I wish they would “reserve” their voices, doors and horns.

“Accidental” Composition in Poetry

Language is neither a wheel barrow nor a playground for theorists. It is not a sterile system nor common sense. It is the moment of transformation, from one thing into another, like the surface of a lake becoming mist, which floats away to tangle in the grass, turn to water, run down the blades, drain into the lake to become mist again, float into a cloud which grounds ashore on a mountaintop and turns into hard ice. Life is movement. Stop movement and life, the cell itself, dies. Language is the movement of meaning in the consciousness, therefore, the “life” of consciousness. Meaning, though ever-shifting, is ever there, so language is rigid and ephemeral, monumental and sliding, at the same time.

Roussel and Ashbery hinge things together on meaning, just not common denotative meaning. There’s a willingness to let the meaning form on non-intentional levels via rhyme, homonyms, puns. But, once done, meaning rises up from the surface of the poem’s lake into mist, breathed in by the reader. The meaning, that is, may not be authorial, but it always is.

These poems may not be “about” anything, but that does not mean they are not meaningful, that they do not “mean” anything. Part of meaning is the feeling of words crashing or meshing together, that ever-shifting feeling that means our clichéd perceptions of the world, our concepts, are dissolving and for a brief instance (C.S. Lewis’ “joy”) we can feel the raw authentic being of the world, our lives, the universe, of being itself, of which The Universe is merely one iteration. This is the alchemic, incantatory part of poetry. The most intentional, formally perfect, traditional, representational poem has it, in varying degrees. In fact fixed form’s demands act as linguistic generators in the same way as Laforgue’s homonyms and puns. They can create meaning in themselves as long as the author does not insist on the fiction of pure intent.

When writing formal poetry the writer has two options when his intention is at odds with the formal demands or internal insistence of a poem. The first is convention, to use those words and phrases with the rhyme and meter that fill the spot that come most readily to mind due to overexposure (poetic clichés, that which used to be elements of oral formulaic composition, kennings and so on; the difference being that they do not have power in the modern written context). The other option is to trust the poem itself, to yield, at least momentarily, to the currents of language within that poem, to release intent, to not be afraid of losing control. The more often the poet heaves the oars, has his share of successes and failures, the better judge he’ll become of when to let go, knowing he’ll be able to reassert control (if he chooses) by using linguistic elements in the poems as stars to steer by, picking up a thread, reorienting himself by relating some unexpected new element introduced into the poem through the intentionless process both to what came in the previous intentional process and as a path on which to drive the poem forward. Of course, the poet can let go completely, but that is often as exhilarating as it is disappointing and one winds up with a handful of clichéd nonsense (as opposed to clichéd figuration).

The poem whose intent, as it were, or whose author’s intent in writing it, is intentionlessness itself may do this more intensely. In this respect, this intentionless intent is useful most in the service of that alienating moment (derangement of the senses) of cosmic weirdness, that Zen, the “from outside” (H.P. Lovecraft) moment, the feeling rolling like smoke from incense off the lines. It is hard to say whether one can will the poem into that service, or whether it comes merely when no other agenda is present. A willingness to let the words exist for their own sake, for the sounds and associations, and not in thrall to some philosophy (like Surrealism), is paramount, or else the poem is sidetracked, and authorial meaning is reimposed.

Easy Answers to Complicated Questions

The recent election showed a citizenry split almost equally down the middle between two apparent sets of approaches to domestic and international issues. But it’s not just the citizens of the United States who are polarized. It is also the world as a whole.

According to common wisdom Americans are supposed to fall into one of two camps.

Camp one: I believe in the use of unilateral force by the U.S. I believe Iraq was invaded to bring it freedom. I believe in fundamentalist Christianity. I believe in absolute truth. I believe in the U.S. as world boss. I believe in global capitalism. I am conservative. I am from a “red state.”

Camp two: I believe in multilateralism. I am an atheistic humanist. I believe globalism is evil. I believe Iraq was invaded for its oil. I believe the Europeans the source of the shining light of reason. I believe in relativism. I am a liberal. I am from a “blue state.”

Well here’s a shock to the whole world: I do not fit nicely into either of these camps. And I can’t possibly be the only one. But all around the country and the world, people are people. They like tidy answers, straight lines and easy answers:

The U.S. is evil.

The U.S. is good.

Europe is indecisive.

Europe is enlightened.

Honestly. That’s full-on retarded.

The only mental algorithm available today is apparently: if A, then B.

To wit:

If I don’t believe that unilateral action should never be an option, then I must believe in U.S. hegemony.

If I believe in the necessity of individual responsibility, then I must believe Affirmative Action should be abolished.

Who made up these rules? Who decided to divide the world into two columns and then act as though those columns were logical absolutes? Well, as I said, people like easy answers and newspapers and television news editors and programmers are happy to provide them.

Here’s what I believe:

Prosecuting a war in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban was the right thing to do.

The prosecution of the war in Afghanistan was dropped when it became difficult.

The Administration was looking for a reason to invade Iraq. Bush had a family score to settle and his neo-con cronies were looking for a test case for their theories on U.S. power.

The Administration ignored any information that ran counter to their justifications for making war against Iraq.

The desire to find “cheap oil” was demonstrably no part of the equation. Anyone who thinks so is incapable of doing simple math. This was an ideological war, not an economic one, and certainly not one waged out of national self-interest.

The war was not waged with a good faith desire to bring freedom to the Iraqi people. If that had been the case, long-term plans, realistic logistics and sacrifice would have been part of the planning. It was waged to prove that the unilateral use of U.S. military force would be more effective in changing the world for the better and making it safer and that the U.S. alone was responsible for, and had the right to, determine which actions to take and which changes to make.

The avowed reasons for waging war against Iraq were obviously false: no weapons, no terrorists. Even if the Administration had been sincere about the “second-string” reasons for waging the war — freedom, self-determination, stability — this group of people was incapable of producing those results. This Adminstration is duplicitous, self-justifying, drunk on the entitlements of wealth and position, unused to sacrifice, incapable of long-term thinking, poor at organization and unsubtle.

Bombing the living daylights out of anyone who looks at us cross-eyed is not going to make the world safer. It is far more likely to scare the shit out of Americans than their enemies. (This fear is what allowed the Patriot Act to pass and, in part, what allowed Bush to be – barely – reelected.)

“Democracy” consists not just of mob rule but of checks on power and guarantees of the rights of minorities. Neither of which the Administration has the patience or vision to assist in creating.

Real economic freedom consists not simply of unregulated markets but also of guarantees to protect all the participants in it and to protect the environment and thereby the resources necessary to grow a functioning economy that not only accumulates wealth but also distributes it.

Short-sighted pro-globalists are attempting to foist all on developing countries around the world a kind of democracy the U.S. has never tolerated (mob rule) and a kind of capitalism we got rid of over a hundred years ago (unregulated). Globalism has become a kind of pseudo-religious faith. It is not incidental to the kinds of people who support it that it creates new markets, provides cheap labor and cheap resources.

Short-sighted anti-globalists’ gauzy dreams of Oaxacan shamans gathering herbs in the forest and everyone living in the middle of an Henri Rousseau painting is just that, a dream. “Indigenous” agriculture and handicrafts cannot take care of the burgeoning needs of the population of the developing world.

Europe, the font of international violence for two millennia, did not suddenly get religion and see the error of its ways. It exhausted itself. It’s like a smoker who gets hospitalized, quits out of necessity, then starts telling everyone else how they should stop and denying they ever smoked in the first place. Maybe nobody remembers, but when England and France and Germany were working their enlightened will behind the scenes in the Middle East before, during and after World War I, they laughingly dismissed Americans as sentimental for their “immature” moralizing on the rights of the oppressed to self-determination. Congratulations Europe, we learned how to play ball. We’re now doing things in the European manner so kindly shut the fuck up you hypocrites.

However powerful the U.S. is, for reasons of international amity, not to mention economics, as well as in the interest of building peace that lasts, our government needs to make every effort, all the time, to make as many of its moves as possible – not just military ones – in concert with the nations of the world.

Diplomacy and dialogue are not tools to be lightly dismissed when attempting to create a safe world. The threat of violence alone is not a threat, it’s terrorism.

The U.S. should not rule out all unilateral action in all situations. We’re a sovereign country and we have our own interests. Not to mention, under some circumstances, waiting for Europe, in particular, to coalesce around an emergency would be foolish, considering their response to the death camps in Bosnia and the current situation in the Sudan.

That while all violence is evil, not all war is avoidable. There have been times in the past when a war’s evil was less than peace’s. Left in peace, Germany could have finished its program to exterminate every single Jew, Gypsy, homosexual, communist, modern artist and physically and mentally handicapped person from the face of Europe.

That a government has a responsibility to shape the society as an instrument of the collective will of the governed. That opportunities should be guaranteed and safety and rights assured by the government.

That everyone has their own personal responsibility.

My point is simply this: You beggar the truth when you yield to the impulse to reduce it. Don’t let some hen-witted talking head, some thumbtack-dicked politician, some European blowhard or some home-grown hillbilly preacher delude you into thinking the unnerving but beautiful complexity of our world can be solved by a prefabricated slogan or one-size-fits-all posture.

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Forensic Anthropologists to Exhume 14 Mass Graves in Iraq

Archaeologists for Human Rights, a group formed in Muenster, Germany, last year, is bringing a team of forensic anthropologists to Iraq to excavate 14 mass graves.

Since September of last year, co-founders Ursula Janssen and Sinje Stoyke have been in Erbil, where they have been working to arrange the exhumations in concert with Dr. Muhammed Ihsan, Minister of Human Rights in the Kurdish Regional Government. The 14 initial sites were identified on September 14 at the first Iraqi human rights congress in Dohuk. These sites were identified as “particularly vital to eventual criminal proceedings.”

The group was formed in response to uncontrolled digging begun by aggrieved relatives of missing Iraqi citizens in the wake of the U.S. invasion and the slowness of allied governments to provide help.

The initial excavation/exhumation project is slated to last six months, from March to September. In addition to forensic anthropologists, the project will also include archaeologists and physical anthropologists. All the information found will be added to a database currently being developed in Iraq under the “Genocide in Iraq, Missing Persons and Mass Graves Campaign.”

As well as excavating the sites, exhuming and hopefully identifying the bodies and documenting their efforts, the organization will be training Iraqis to continue the work of professionally excavating such sites. There are a great many for them to work on over the next few years. A total of over 260 mass graves were identified in a provisional survey by the Kurdish Ministry of Human Rights. Amnesty International has evidence of 17,000 disappearances in the last 20 years. The actual number may be as high as 300,000, according to Sandy Hodgkinson, director of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s human rights office. Other groups put it as high as 1.3 million.

Among the specific activities of the group are the matching of bones, so that complete skeletons may be put together; identifying the bodies through physical features, clothing, tattoos, scars and dental records; tallying the number of bodies in a site; identifying causes of death; excavation of physical evidence such as bullets, jewelry, written materials and clothing; and dating the sites.

These activities will hopefully lead to identifying the missing and providing bodies for funerals and providing evidence for criminal charges. Courts may be able to assign responsibility for some of the deaths using the findings of the group. For instance, if a missing civilian, known to have been detained by a certain army unit, was found in a mass grave near the unit headquarters and was determined to have been killed at a time consistent with the time of his arrest, and can be shown to have been killed with the kind of bullet used by the army, it may provide evidence for charges against that unit’s commander.

The group’s activities are not being embraced by leaders in the field, however. Dr. William Haglund, the director of the International Forensics Program of the non-governmental organization, Physicians for Human Rights, is a forensic scientist who has been present at every major exhumation since modern post-conflict forensics began on a large scale in Argentina in 1984. He fears the group may not possess the experience or the patience to lay proper groundwork for exhumation.

“(Exhumation) requires a systematic approach, the post-mortem examination of bodies, the collection of ante-mortem data and blood samples from families,” said Haglund. “If you say ‘we’re just going to exhume and identify the bodies’ well, no you’re not.” In order to undertake that process, Haglund said, you first need to establish a central repository for bodies, secure funding and undertake the centralization of looted documents that can help to identify the corpses. “These things take time, it has to done under a uniform protocol. New groups entering the field may not have answered these question.”

Eric Stover, the director of the Berkeley-based Human Rights Center, a co-founder of Physicians for Human Rights and the man responsible for bringing Haglund into the organization, agrees.

“When you have a crime this massive, with so many victims, so many perpetrators,” he said, “you have to have a comprehensive approach to exhuming graves because you don’t want a piecemeal approach, which is what I’m concerned is happening here.”

In addition to the relative inexperience of groups like Archaeologists for Human Rights, Haglund and Stover are also worried about the rush to judgment that may hurry the process excessively.

The original plan was for the American military, and the Coalition Provisional Authority, to remain in Iraq for at least a year, providing the forensics and human rights specialists with a single governmental body.

“Now, given the Americans want out by June 30, there may be a push to have trials sooner rather than later,” leading the prosecuting authorities to bear down on the scientists for results, or to go to trial without physical evidence. This could compromise effective prosecution of responsible parties, and taint the process in the eyes of the Iraqis. It could also rush the identification of bodies, which can be incomplete in the best of circumstances.

It took forensic scientists five years in Bosnia, Haglund said, to ID the majority of one mass grave containing 7,000 people. That grave contained only about one quarter of the 30,000 Bosnian missing, as compared to possibly 300,000 or more in Iraq.

The reason for what may look like an extraordinary amount of time for this process is the care that must be taken. Exhuming a single body from a grave is one thing, to disinter a mass grave, while retaining the information necessary for identification and for possible prosecution, is quite another.

“A ‘mass’ grave involves remains in contact with each other,” Haglund and co-author Marcella Sorg wrote in a paper on the topic. “When exposed, such a body mass presents a jolting, chaotic vision that assaults all sensibilities… There is the danger that weakened articulations, especially the knee joint, ankles, wrists or fingers, may separate, leaving the disarticulated body portion trapped beneath other remains.”

In such a situation, Haglund said, it is easy to mix up parts in such a way that bodies are misidentified, as the Greek military did in Cyprus 30 years ago, handing out the wrong bodies, or bodies made up of several persons, to families with missing members.

When a mass grave is opened, a documentation team must photograph and map the grave, sometimes using digital mapping equipment, sometimes a tape-measure and string-grid and sometimes a combination. Each body is itself photographed and mapped and a case number is assigned to it. Full-body shots are supplemented with close-ups that might include “tattoos, obvious trauma, or unusual clothing.” Then the body may be removed. This is planned in advance, like a puzzle, removing each body in the order least likely to cause further trauma to it and others. The case number and date of removal are written on the body bag at each end.

According to Haglund’s paper, “The bag is unzipped, opened, and moved adjacent to the body. If the body is face up the arms are moved close to the body and placed on the chest. The legs are lifted together. One excavator is positioned at the head, one in the middle of the body, and one at the legs. As these people lift, an additional person holds open the body bag and helps to slide it beneath the body. Once the body is inside, the bag is placed to the side while the team examines the soil underneath the body to ensure that no body parts or associated evidence is left behind. Any loose disassociated portions of the remains are separately bagged and included in the body bag.”

Because of the complexity of the process, it is important that the disinterments occur carefully and systematically and that the bodies and body parts are stored coherently so that they may be regarded in terms of the ante-mortem data.

This ante-mortem data can consist of medical records, x-rays, dental charts, employment and military records and personal interviews and blood samples from family members for DNA matching. It must be as extensive as possible and accessible later by investigators. Therefore, it must be stably housed.

Once the process of identification begins – and this may be long after the bodies are removed to a morgue – the forensic scientists and other investigators evaluate the evidence using a variety of competencies and tools. After determining that the remains are human and not animal, sex, height, age and other elements are determined by observation. Remains are checked for wounds, broken bones, teeth and medical conditions that leave lasting effects, like polio. These may be matched against the ante-mortem data to establish identification. Otherwise, the ability to pronounce that a certain number of men, of a certain age, likely of a certain ethnic group died in a certain place at a certain time, may provide evidence in judicial proceedings.

Additionally, there must be adequate staff, from forensic scientists and other investigators to laborers, administrators and security guards. All of these things take funding, and the cooperation of the supervising government. Any rush to judgment, any rush into returning the bodies, most of which are unlikely to be identified anyway, may compromise the very reason for hurrying in the first place.

Afghanistan’s New PEN Group

“My heart rouses

thinking to bring you news

of something that concerns you

and concerns many men. Look at

what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

despised poems.

It is difficult to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack of what is found there.

Hear me out

for I too am concerned and every man

who wants to die at peace in his bed

besides.”

— William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

Poetry is like a weed: the last plant to die, the first to grow again after a fire. It unfurls in garden and forest alike, indiscriminant, sprouting in the cracks of broken sidewalks and pushing up to light through fields of rubble and minefields. When it finally flowers it is as good a sign as any that a society has retained or recovered some part of its vitality. In Afghanistan, with poetic traditions stretching back to the 6th century BC and peaking in the 14th AD, the sturdy weed of poetry is growing again.

Last year, a group of Afghani poets, journalists, critics and novelists opened the first Afghan office of the international writers organization, PEN International. With the help of the chairman of PEN International’s Writers in Prison program, the Norwegian novelist Eugene Schoulgin, and fellow Norwegian PEN member and professor, Elizabeth Eide, an Afghan PEN Centre was sanctioned and a house in Kabul secured and designated the Afghan Writers House. This house, Schoulgin said, will provide writers with a library, rooms for writers from other parts of the country to stay in while visiting the capital, writing and meeting space, kitchen, rooms for a nascent publishing house and bookstore, and a garden for readings.

Last March, Schoulgin and Eide, with the help of a translator, visited the capital of Kabul, with its Pasto-language literary traditions, and the western city of Herat, the old Persia-facing capital of the Timurid dynasty and a city of venerable literary history. In Kabul, with only two hours notice, one of their Afghani contacts was able to convene a meeting with a group of 49 writers, ranging in age from an 18-year-old woman to an 82-year-old man.

“It was one of the big moments in my life,” said Schoulgin. “I have never been in a country where writers have touched my heart in such a profound way.”

This group represented most major ethnic groups in the country and included 8 women. The mission of PEN, including its utility as a window into the work and lives of writers in other countries, was enthusiastically embraced and a preliminary board was elected.

“It is the only good news that we have in the field of literature in last two years,” said Partaw Naderi, a poet and the president of PEN Afghan Centre. Naderi is a poet who operates within, and against, the Dari (Afghan Persian) poetic traditions of western Afghanistan. “We hope we could establish good, friendly relationships to international cultural communities via PEN International. I think the PEN Centre in Kabul should be such a open window that we can see through the world.”

During the Soviet, Mujahadeen and Taliban years, writers were routinely censured, beaten, tortured and imprisoned. Naderi was able to list 15 poets and writers who had been murdered by the regimes and another 21 who had been held in the notorious Pul-e-Charhi prison, including himself.

Although fiction and critical writing are part of Afghan life, the heart of the country’s literary sensibility is poetry. “Ask anyone, ask the shoeshine boy, he will know poetry by heart,” said Schoulgin. “Poets are highly regarded in Afghanistan.”

Under the Taliban, writing was considered not merely a seditions act, as it had been intermittently throughout Afghanistan’s history depending on who was in power, but a sinful one as well. As mixed as the reaction has been to the US invasion of the country, and the continued presence of US and UN soldiery, there is no conflict regarding what the end of the Taliban has meant for writing. But the current situation is not a sea-change. In some areas, especially under the warlord Ismail Khan in Herat, writers have been occasionally threatened and their publications shut down, allowed to reopen, shut down again.

“Most of the high ranking officers in the government and warlords are still not ready to accept any criticism,” said Naderi. “Writers don’t have their own association; there is not any agency to protect the right of writers.” Perhaps the Afghan Centre will act as a catalyst for the development of further organizations for writers. Naderi said that the lack of publishing houses, the scattering of poets and publishers over the last three decades and the disconnection from the larger world of readers has had a debilitating effect on the writing life of the country.

But the visit by the PEN Afghan Centre delegation to the international meeting of PEN in Mexico City in November may have been a further step back into a worldwide literary community. Afghanistan has always been at the crossroads of cultures, between Central Asia and Persia, between the Greek and the Asian, the horseman and cultivators. For thousands of years Afghanistan has been a spice market of culture. The last 30 years of isolation have been an anomalous alternation in its long history. If the peace can be kept, it is possible that this will be a fertile period in Afghani cultural life; that rude weed turned flower.

Due to continued violence, in May Afghanistan canceled the first international writers’ conference held there in modern times. To have been hosted by Afghan PEN and sponsored by the arts group Forum 2004, Writing in War: Coming Out of Isolation was to have welcomed 20 featured writers from around the world. Afghani writers from Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Kandahar as well as Kabul; expatriate writers from Toronto, Iran and Kyrgyzstan in addition to Kyrgyzi and Irani writers, and writers from Denmark, Australia and the U.S. were to have given readings and lectures and take part in round-table discussions. Perhaps the elections there will help to calm things and the conference will be able to be rescheduled.

A project that has not been cancelled is the publication of an anthology of Afghan writers. The anthology of 18 writers, 8 women and 10 men, will be another step out into the world for Afghan writers. The anthology will be translated first into Norwegian and Swedish, then into English and German.

“Poetry in Afghanistan today looks like an orphan,” said Naderi.

If that is true, perhaps the Afghan PEN Centre is its orphanage. Naderi said expatriate Afghani publishers who fled the country for Pakistan and Europe are starting to return. Over the last several years expatriate writers have returned from Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and elsewhere. Perhaps together they can adopt and care for Naderi’s orphan.

***

Since I first wrote this article, Schoulgin and his associate, Elizabeth Eide, have published a book of 18 interviews with Afghani writers. The book, titled “Bitre mandler” or “Bitter Almonds,” has hit the number two position on the Norwegian best-seller list. It is available from the publisher, Aschehougs forlag. Schoulgin and Eide are heading back to Kabul on November 31 for 10 days to survey the progress of the Afghan PEN chapter.

American Monster V: Going Dutch

The murder of Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh on Tuesday, November 2 has proven the catalyst for an epidemic of violence that has deeply damaged the image of the Dutch, both domestically and abroad, as a tolerant people.

In the almost three weeks since the murder, on a daylight street in Amsterdam, mosques and churches have been bombed and a 15 hour shoot-out took place between Islamists and the police in The Hague, which resulted in the wounding of one suspect and two police officers.

But Van Gogh’s murder is only the latest in a series of violent actions by Islamists in this small country. When S. and I visited Amsterdam this summer, our friend, C., an American graphic designer who had lived in the city for five years, commented that the country’s tradition of tolerance had produced unforeseen results. Namely, Islamic religious leaders, who had gained entrance to Holland due to that country’s liberal immigration laws, were preaching violence against the unrighteous, that is, against those whose culture and laws had allowed them to be there in the first place. The Dutch.

The enormous amount of immigrants, many from Islamic countries, have been welcomed into Holland over the past decades. Holland’s tradition of asylum extends back at least to the 16th century when many thousands of Sephardic Jews were welcomed into the country after they had been expelled from first Spain and then Portugal.

The problem is that these latest immigrants were provided with the necessities for life but were not required to become a part of the Dutch society that they felt alienated from and, with the encouragement of some imams, grew to hate. There were no economic forces driving them into the mainstream, they were frequently physically isolated in ghettos, and there were no languages requirements, resulting in second generation Dutch of Islamic heritage who speak no Dutch.

The earlier (May 6, 2002) murder of the anti-immigrant demagogic politician Pim Fortuyn was the first high-profile shot fired in this conflict. Although Fortuyn’s murderer was not a Muslim, many believed his strident condemnation of Holland’s immigration policy was a factor in creating the atmosphere in which he was killed.

In her September, 2002 paper, “The Netherlands: Tolerance Under Pressure,” Joanne Van Selm of the Migration Policy Institute said, “The atmosphere seems increasingly unwelcoming. Tolerance is clearly showing its limits.” It seems she was on to something.

Holland has the highest population density in the European Union: 388 people per square kilometer according to a 2000 United Nations estimate. As of 2003, 18.4 % of Dutch, almost 3,000,000, were foreign born. By 2002, according to the Dutch Central Office for Statistics, the population of the Netherlands was growing by 329 people per day. (Admittedly, it is always difficult to wade purposefully through the mass of data each government and organization provides, much of which is contradictory.)

At any rate, Holland has a great many immigrants, virtually no breaks on the process; they are coming at an increasing rate and are becoming a higher percentage of the country’s inhabitants and they seem increasingly to be at odds with Dutch society as a whole.

I wrote C., asking him simply, “What in the hell is going on over there?”

He said:

“It would take quite some time for me to respond properly, and you probably know as much as I do.

“While the hubbub over the last weeks’ events — first van Gogh’s murder, then the appalling ‘revenge’ attacks on a mosque and a school, and finally an unrelated but terrifying siege by the police of an apartment block in the center of the Hague which turned out to be housing a group of grenade-tossing terrorists (yup, they were Muslims, too), and which was accompanied by a disturbance on the street by a group of very white teenagers — has died down for the time being (we haven’t started an war in a show of righteous indignation), everyone is saying that the Dutch tradition of enlightened tolerance is deeply wounded.

“Whether this is the case or not, is yet to be seen. Most people would say that van Gogh was not a beloved figure, and few actually saw his films or read his other work. The clips of Submission which I saw were indeed outrageously insensitive, and I would imagine that many would find the film highly insulting. Not nearly as insulting, however, as the work of the fool who killed van Gogh, or the work of the imam who urged him to action.

“There’s a growing trifold split between the radical Muslims in one corner, the reactionary Dutch in another corner, and the ‘enlightened’ Dutch, many of whom represent the government, but many more just normal people, in the other corner.

“I have a feeling that a logical, legal solution will be found for the imams who incite their associates to violence. And that reconciliation with the rest of Islamic Holland is possible. But at the same time, the reactionary segment of the population is a sort of powder keg. They were the one’s who elected the Pim Fortuyn party into a minority government.

“And speaking of Fortuyn, an annual survey (conducted by one of the newspapers? I’m not sure, really) to select the Greatest Nederlander of All Time, revealed the bald-headed nincompoop Fortuyn to be the winner this year. Never mind Rembrandt, Erasmus, William of Orange, Admiral de Ruyter, etc….”

I responded:

“That’s a good point, that you have stabby-stabbies on one side, meatheads on the other and the regular Dutch in the middle and, arguably, enabling the meatheads to whack on the stabbies and vice versa. Hopefully, unfashionable as it is, and in some way counter to Dutch sensibility, you’ll take the imams to task and require a little come-along as opposed to really dropping the hammer. One of the things I took away from my safe European home this summer was a weird feeling about the change in culture and the potential for civil strife due to immigration. This situation and dynamic bei euch is a good example of this.

“I think this will be Europe’s number one challenge in the coming years. All-in-all, the whole world’s freaking me out. And as for self-righteous wars, don’t count your chickens before they’re ethnically cleansed.”

C. wrote back:

“The police and the government have been busy for years now trying to figure out how to ‘deal’ with certain religious leaders who not only preach revolution, but who urge their congregation to react violently toward sinners, which of course includes all of the infidel West. (Instructions given recently by one sage for dealing with homosexuality — something which they surely claim only occurs outside the Islamic world — are simple: hunt them down and push them off a building.) That they simplify matters by describing the citizens of their host country as “firewood for hell” only makes this business of tidying up Allah’s world easier.

”It seems to me that the simple laws prohibiting incitement to violence would be sufficient grounds for prosecution. Sure some people will decry this as undermining the right to free speech. But surely freedom of speech does not include directly urging organized groups of people to attack and kill others. As far as I’m concerned, once one crazy acts on this speech, then the speaker is liable. At any rate, I’d rather see simple measures to maintain the peace used, than for everyone to get so alarmed that they start setting up death camps.

“Yeah, Europe’s been dealing with this stuff for a while now, and will continue at an accelerated rate, now that our borders are open. The reason France and Germany are so quiet about it all these days is not, I think, out of anti-American spite, but because for them Islamic revolutionary violence is a real yawner. Been there done that, and still being there.”

I responded:

“I wonder re. the free speech limitations. I wonder that is, if structural laws, that don’t impinge those rights, might be as effective and less morally dicey. I mean things like language requirements, limitation of social services (or hinging them on certain actions, like language acquisition, etc.), employment requirements, immigration limitations and so on. But I am the first to admit, I am not a policy pro. Very complex. And may require someone with vision. Unfortunately, most Men of Vision envision themselves as heroic statues. “

C. said:

“The question of structural limitations is what the Netherlands is currently working through. Minister of Immigration Verdonk has, over the last few years, rolled out a policy of integration, which is the focus of a great deal of discussion and anger.

“Under her policies, those who wish to immigrate must take a language test, and a cultural test to prove that they are integrated into Dutch society. There are several problems with this approach. First, the cost of the imburgerings classes are high, and must be paid by the immigrant/refugee. Second, the criteria for knowledge of the Dutch culture are hard to pin down, to put it mildly. Can you imagine an American Cultural Test which would be equally applicable to someone from the Lower East Side in New York as someone from, say, rural Red State America?

“Verdonk’s moves are essentially an effort to discourage immigration. And they have worked. The rate of immigration has actually slowed substantially from its peak in 2000, largely due to her policies. But the liberal majority still finds this sort of tactic repugnant. The First Public Mock-Imburgerings Test was held in October in the Paradiso, and received a large turnout. The idea is that Dutch people gather en masse at a nightclub and attempt to pass the test. Most expressing shock and bewilderment at the bizarre questions. I’ll have a look and see if I can find any record of the questions/answers and reactions from the public.

“For some reason, I have neither been asked to take the real test, nor ordered to attend the integration classes. I was told that these are for people from other cultures and not for me. Perhaps it only applies to those who are classified as refugees? Maybe this gap in my own knowledge is proof that I’m not well-enough integrated. I have read the literature on how to obtain Dutch citizenship, and it does say that ‘a sufficient knowledge of the Dutch language and culture are required,’ so I’m diligently taking Dutch classes at night, and hoping that I understand enough of the culture to squeak by.”

The Internationalist Manifesto

The Internationalist is a group of poets, painters, novelists, historians, sculptors, scholars, designers, stylists, trade-paper sub-editors, interior decorators, wolves, fairies, millionaire patrons of art, sadists, nymphomaniacs, bridge sharks, anarchists, women living on alimony, tire formers, educational cranks, economists, hopheads, dipsomaniac playwrights, nudists, restaurant keepers, stockbrokers and dentists who have banded together in a loose confederation for the purposes of pissing on the door-handles of what passes for art and society in this sub-human rookery of modern life.

We are not by nature joiners so we made our own engine of commerce and malfeasance. We are the cast iron weathercock loose in the snowstorm of the andiron.

We are materialists. We believe in G)d, we just believe he is akin to a green crystal flickering in the world’s cave. We believe in consciousness, but we think it is made of chocolate bark. We have faith in love, which we think is a kind of ham – occasionally slimy when too tightly wrapped but delicious and nourishing most of the time. Tube Forging is hiring.

WE ARE ANTI-AMERICAN!

We believe realism is a dreadful convention that needs to be beaten to death with a bowling trophy and we’re just the creeps for the job. We’re not going to be nice to a world that has allowed “creative non-fiction” to exist. A room full of rocks is not art. Neo-classicism is the poetic equivalent of Civil War reenactment. It’s just embarrassing.

THERE ARE NO RULES, ONLY TOOLS!

America is a whirlwind of greedy little troglodytes, dreamy-eyed natural food peddlers and professional victims eating each others’ babies. The third world is a roar of blood and fire in the midst of which barbarians chop each other to pieces with hatchets at the point of melting. The countries of Europe take turns sodomizing barbeques in public toilets. The Internationalist is the smell of unease.

The Internationalist is international and multilingual. We have knocked all the Fatherlands into the culvert together and are busy emptying our enormous acidic bladders into their squeaking eyes. The Internationalist is a pea-brained reptile in a day-caked sock, knee smashed, bleeding, near an artificial rock. It does, therefore, issue invitations. Perhaps you will be so lucky as to receive one. And perhaps ice cream socials will come back into fashion. The Internationalist will only invite to join those people certain to decline.

THE INTERNATIONALIST IS A FLASHPOT IN A CAVE FULL OF BATS!

We are indifferent to your sincerity. We are unmoved by your plight. Your outrage is a paperback novel we read on the toilet.

The Internationalist is based on the realization that we’re all going to die. This is not a concept, it’s a terrible fact and it governs everything The Internationalist does and doesn’t do. We’re sorry we’re going to die and we’re sorry you’re going to die too. We will do what we can to make the best of our time. We hope you will do the same.

Twice a year Internationalist members in the literary, artistic, musical and scholarly world will get together, wrap themselves in tinfoil and scream at the top of their lungs till everyone else leaves. Oh, how we’ll laugh. Then we’ll turn to the serious business, the business at hand. New ideas in cellos, woodcuts, assonance. An essay on the concept of ‘ens rationis’, a poem about Iceland, a story set in Paraguay, the schematic for a machine to kill Daniel Boorstein, photos of a cactus, an article on the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo.

WE ARE PROTO-AMERICAN!

The Internationalist is a celebration of sensationalism, hero-worship and victorious criminality.

May we humbly suggest that you cease consulting your muse?

The Internationalist opposes:

Ø Identity

Ø “Caring about” things

Ø Listening sympathetically

Ø Nodding thoughtfully

Ø Picking on people littler than you

Ø Sincere fakery of every species

Ø Awards

Gardens belong in the back yard – NEVER in poetry!

The Internationalist supports:

Ø The fucked up geometry

Ø Horseradish

Ø Compassion without attribution

Ø The magnificent spray of sparks visible over the top of the Pyrenees

Ø Columbia nocturne of embedded diamonds and the great force of water moving

Ø The fact of the soul made of planks of crystal joined together with big pig iron hinges

Every poem should be about GARDENS!

[Between a little bit of sense and sense itself, it makes sense, it’s sensible.]

WE ARE DEDICATED TO THE APPEARANCE OF LEISURE AT ANY COST!

An Introduction to the Poetry of a Non-Existent Magazine

One time, not long ago, as an exercise, I wrote a biography for a fictional poet, Roberto Butterick. A few of us had created Roberto, and had written a handful of poems to be attributed to him, as an exemplar of everything unappealing to us about contemporary poets and published poetry. He was unfamiliar with the history of his art and with poets of other countries and cultures, he had not mastered any of the technical tools of prosody, he was academic, uninventive and obsessed with the niceties of his own life. He proclaimed a vague political radicalism and was intoxicated by the notion of ethnicity, which he claimed rather unconvincingly for himself. When I wrote up this biography, I sent it to Roberto’s co-creators, explaining the intent of the joke and suggesting we attempt to get Roberto published, which I asserted would be a far easier task than getting ourselves published had proven to be. All those I sent the bio to responded with the same objection: It was so unrealistic, so over the top, that no editor, not even of the predominant university-sponsored journal, would fall for it. One friend said I had, in “making up” the biography, obviously also made up the awards and journals he claimed to have won and been published in. I had not. Aside from the publishing house, every thing I wrote about Roberto existed.

Here is the biography in question.

Roberto Butterick teaches creative writing at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, where he lives with his life partner and two dogs, Cody and Topaz. He received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. He has published poems in New England Review, Colorado Review, Sewanee Review, Double Take and Ploughshares, among other journals. His first book-length collection of poems, Lumpia, devoted to poems about his Pilipina heritage, is scheduled to be published in 2003 by Oak Tree Press. He is also a winner of the New Millennium Poetry Award, and was named to the George Starbuck Fellowship at Boston University. He has attended the Breadloaf Writers Conference, Southwestern Writers Conference and the Squaw Valley Writers Conference.

In fact, I had cribbed his bio from a half dozen people who had their biographies published in conjunction with winning the Agnes Starett Lynch Prize at Pittsburg, the Walt Whitman Award from the American Academy of Poets and other prizes or had otherwise recently published their first book of poetry. I had noticed that each and every bio I looked at was identical. They had gotten the same degrees at the same places, published the same poems in the same journals in the same order, had attended the same conferences and been awarded the same fellowships.

Through the primacy of the creative writing programs, poetry in America has become so identical it could have been produced in a factory or generated by a computer program. When every poet has done the same things in the same order it is foolish to expect differences. Poetry is the application of the technology of verse to the drama of individual lives. Technology has not been taught in decades and the life experiences vary only in ethnic seasoning.

Additionally, the overwhelming majority of literary journals are published by the same universities whose creative writing departments produce the above-mentioned poets. If you are a student of poetry who wishes to receive good grades and letters of recommendation you must do as the teachers in charge wish for you to do, that is, you must write the kind of poems, about the kind of things, in the same way, that they themselves do. If you hope to become a teacher yourself, you must do as those in the hiring committees expect you to do. If you wish to get those positions you must serve your time as an assistant editor at those journals. If you wish to get published, you must provide writing that is appealing to those in charge of approving publication in those journals. If you wish to receive tenure you must win the awards administrated by the creative writing teachers that run them. If you wish to benefit from this system, you must produce poetry that the participants in this system approve of and you, in your turn, must require the same from your students, applicants and candidates.

It is no wonder, given the institutionalization of an activity once considered too anarchic for systemization, that American poetry in the early 21st century is unrelentingly same and hopelessly uncreative. Here are the strictures I have determined must be obeyed in poetic composition in order for poetry to be considered for publication in the United States in 2004. They have been drawn based on my review of the products of the journals, fellowships, residencies, contests and creative writing departments that currently hold poetry hostage.

The poems must:

Ø Be lyric

Ø Be written in the first-person

Ø Treat subject matter restricted to the personal experience of the poet

Ø Have no discernible rhyme

Ø Have no discernible rhythm

Ø Use no poetic effects except simile and metaphor

Ø Use current, quotidian vocabulary

Ø Employ no poetic forms

Ø Possess a politically and socially liberal tone

Ø Contain no allusions (neither in form nor content)

If a poet defies these rules, that poet simply does not get published, does not win the award, receive the fellowship or residency, get the job, get tenure.

In the past decade there have been a few journals that have risen up in reaction to this situation or gained greater prominence because of it. The now-defunct Reaper, the now-defunct Hellas, the Formalist, the Hudson Review and others attempted to offer a possible alternative, focused on form and narrative. The problem with these predictably feuding publications was that while one group decried rhetorical effects and heightened language as being artificially poetic, the other decried modern language and subject matter as being not poetic enough.

Despite their petty feuding and fetishistic theorizing, these journals drew attention to the problems of contemporary poetry. Along with essayists like Dana Gioia and small publishing houses like Story Line Press, the questions of poetry were raised again, for a time, in the public consciousness. Journals that had always gotten the majority of their materials from outside creative writing departments, like New Criterion and the Paris Review, were getting more attention. Generally, the cry for formal merit in poetry was slandered by the professionals of the creative writing industry as elitist and exclusivist. But at least the issue had been dragged kicking and screaming out of the locked cells of the creative writing priesthood. But as much as new creative writing students may have been inspired for the first time to attempt a sonnet or terza rima, the overall structure of contemporary poetry in America was never seriously challenged. All but a handful of the vehicles for poetry – journals, conferences, fellowships – were, and still are, controlled by the same cabal that walled them off in the first place.

So where does that leave us? Well, there is no us. If there were an us, there would be a place to publish, a public to listen. There are none.

When I first recognized the possibilities of poetry and wrote my first blank verse and amphibrachic tetrameter to the bafflement of the future award winners around me, I felt the elevation and clarity that powerful, formally-focused utterances gave my life, a life which, in so many ways, was at the mercy of forces bigger than myself. I lived through the momentary celebrity of formal writing and watched it find its little niche, as the careerists reestablished their firm control over the public’s awareness and unconcern for poetry. I watched my compatriots try and succeed in finding something else to do with their precious time. I continued to try to find journals and publishing houses and committees that would recognize the worth of what I was doing, regardless of its odd shape and excessive volume. Finally, as I too became an adult and developed a capacity to differentiate between fantasy and reality, I accepted that I was not likely to share what I wrote with the greater public. I accepted that any writing I did from that point on would be done without the hope of public recognition and that I too had neglected too many other areas of my life to pursue a dream that has not been possible, not in the way I wished it to be, since long before I were born.

I kept telling myself, there must be people out there who wish to read poetry that is equally unafraid of greatness and contemporaneity. There must be people who wish to read writing that attempts to explain the elemental challenges of the world, that acknowledges the need for learning, for the research that allows it to consciously take its place in the literature of the world, that is less concerned with programs and theories and camps and schools than with technical achievement and renewal, that is dedicated to wrestling with birth, love, sex, death, war, brotherhood, nature, justice and the structure and purpose of the world and our place within it. And there probably are. But they too have made peace with the impossibility of doing so in the world of contemporary poetry.

That world is largely one of dull people who have practiced poetry as a profession instead of a calling, frightened careerists who scaled back their expectations and did what they were told to do by the people who man the gates at journals, sit on hiring committees and judge poetry contests. All the magazines and prizes and small presses are in the hands of wan little hinterlandish sweater-wearers who teach and care about the poor. The few alternatives to them have staked out their small plots of land, where they tend their gardens, nurse their grudges and refine their programs. The few large houses that still publish poetry are either fed by these journals and small presses, using them as farm teams and filters, or prefer to publish the fortieth edition of another dead Modernist rather than to try to find those few new voices that have half a chance at making the reading of a book something newsworthy again.

But the poetry bosses have become victims of their own success. They have succeeded so thoroughly in walling off and claiming complete control over the world of American poetry that it is not simply the would-be usurper who cannot get in. It is also the educated layman, the searching reader, the audience.

What can I do, faced with these realizations? No doubt, I should take my leave of it completely. But Juvenal captures something of the truth when he says:

No use to try to give it up; the noose of a hopeless infection,

Writer’s itch, has us all by the neck till we’re old and sick-hearted.

Perhaps I will continue to attempt to write poetry that combines technical accomplishment, intellectual honesty and emotional depth, that treats frankly the struggles of human beings to live a full and meaningful life in the world we share; perhaps I will do so because it is one of the small true actions left to a man who wanted to be a poet in an age that has left them behind.

Poetry in the Victorian Era

We must stop talking about poetry. We must start regarding and treating poetry as the children of the Victorian age regarded and treated the insane aunt locked in the attic. Think about her, thrill to the perverted feelings of sickness she creates in us, listen and sniff at the crack in the door she rattles her chains behind and, when a particularly opulent dinner party is in full flower, one on whom the favor, wealth, success and future of the family is dependent, surreptitiously steal the key from the kitchen drawer, unlock the attic door, unfasten the chains, and let her, naked and streaked with filth, etiolated from the darkness, blind-eyed and unshorn, shriek down the stairs and into the midst of the party, screaming and spitting and smashing and gouging, to bolt into the night streets, leaving behind an enraged, horrified and sickened crowd and a broken and shunned family.