Two translations of Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas

I’ve blogged before about the writing advice Robert Bly once gave me, and since then, I’ve translated pieces by Norwegian poet Julius B. Baumann (1869-1923; here) and Danish writer Ernesto Dalgas (1871-1899). Like Baumann, even though Dalgas is well-recognized in the canon of his country’s literature, none of his work exists in English. So, this is my attempt to fix that. (Let me know what you think!)

Both of these first appeared on my Instagram page, where I tend to accompany writing with my own drawings/illustrations. The story “Milkwort” is from Chronicles and Fairytales (1896), and the “Life and Death” excerpt is from Poems and Drama (1904).

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“American Dystopia”: Read My Review of Claire Sprague’s “It Can Happen Here.”

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It Can Happen Here by Claire Sprague

With the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there’s been a renewed interest in Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here (1935). For those unfamiliar with it, it’s about the rise-to-power of a Depression-era demagogue named Sen. “Buzz” Windrip who becomes president with a campaign based on religious zeal, patriotic fervor, and economic distress. Once in office Windrip exercises broad executive authority, going so far as to create a paramilitary force a la the Nazi SS. This he uses to, among other things, terrorize and suppress the media. To put it briefly, It Can’t Happen Here is the story of how “when Fascism comes to America, it’ll come as a cross wrapped in the American flag.”

One wishes the circumstances were different, but I think it’s exciting to see more people engaging with Lewis’ novel. Several bookstores I’ve been to recently have it placed prominently in their “staff picks” sections, and, in Berkeley, a stage adaptation is gaining a lot of media attention. Hopefully all of this will lead readers to see that American fascism was just one of many things Lewis scrutinized–after all, he also addressed American provincialismcapitalism, and (my favorite) evangelism.

Although It Can’t Happen Here is one of the most-famous American dystopian novels, Lewis is not the only author (nor even the first) to have written about this topic. In fact, this is something I once discussed in a short review-essay published in the Sinclair Lewis Society Newsletter (Spring 2015). The book I reviewed was titled It Can Happen Here, a literary study that compares and contrasts Lewis’ novel with the works of Jack London (The Iron Heel, 1908) and Philip Roth (The Plot Against America, 2004). I have included below an excerpt, though you can read the full essay here.

With Election Day approaching, I’m optimistic our country will make the right choice, but as Lewis argued (and which Sprague expands upon in her own book), we should never be so bold as to say “It can’t happen here.”

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My review of Bill Berkson’s “Expect Delays” in Rain Taxi Review

expectdelays-181x271My review of Bill Berkson’s latest book of poems, Expect Delays (Coffee House Press, 2014) was published in the Fall 2015 online edition of Rain Taxi Review of Books:

There are few poets writing today with the range and talent of Bill Berkson. The author of more than thirty books of poetry, collaborations, and criticism, his latest volume—Expect Delays—is typical of Berkson’s work in that there is nothing typical about it. One finds here Dante-inspired cantos, New York School-style prose, and excerpts from his diary—and while this gives his book a sense of scatter, it also keeps things fresh. Where other poets find a formula that works and then promptly poison themselves with it, Expect Delays is anything but formulaic.

You can read the full review here.

The Wilderness of Big Bend National Park

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Big Bend National Park

Covering more than 801,000 acres, Big Bend National Park is Texas’ largest park and one of its last untouched wildernesses. On the southern part of the state’s mountain and basin region, 118 miles of the Rio Grande River forms a natural border with Mexico. Of the fourteen national parks with mountains, Big Bend is distinguished for being the only one to have within its confines an entire range – the Chisos Mountains. Driving the winding roads, one never loses sight of the Chisos, and in the distance, in late-afternoon against the otherwise flat landscape, the strip of faded purple ribbon can be mistaken for distant clouds. The sight can be breathtaking when at last they break into the foreground to encompass all views.

Centered within the Chihuahuan Desert, it is worth stating for the armchair traveler that the desert looks nothing as one expects (images of dunes surely just mirages of the Saraha). Instead, the whole landscape is full of flora and fauna, its own delicate ecosystem. Everywhere prickly pear cacti mix with blossoming yucca, seven-foot-tall sotols, and Texas madrones. Along the roads bluebonnets poke out of the grasses. At night one can hear the high-pitched yelps of coyotes and in the cool hours of morning follow in the dust the prints of jackrabbits and lizards.

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A pair of wild javelinas.

Visiting, as I hiked the trails I thought of how much has been invested to turn deserts into productive grasslands. The thought of land being “wasted” because it is not in use is a mindset I will never sympathize with. After all, the javelinas and mountain lions seem to be making excellent use of it already. No need to ruin a good thing. It is only within the last 150 years, really, that the west has recognized the need to set land aside for nonuse. It is only within half that time we’ve gone further to accept this land not as a resource but an entity not requiring but deserving preservation. The land has a right to free existence, untouched not only by the mechanical hands of industry but the flesh and bone of man’s. Wilderness has its own value beyond its “productivity.”

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Naturalist John Muir (1838-1914)

Though not legally-recognized as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964, Big Bend National Park is functionally so (due to a very particular loophole). It is my hope that it and other lands achieve this designation because as the naturalist John Muir observed: So much of the national identity is engaged with wilderness and it is something to be experienced rather than read about. To stand at the base of a mountain and watch the shadows ascend, chasing the light so the contrast of every stone becomes sharper, each cave deeper and darker. To hear one’s voice echo within the 1,500 foot walls of the Santa Elena Canyon. To, in those moments, be a vessel of the old dream that knew there were unknown lands to be explored and witnessed and reported on. Each of these things are now words on the page but live in parts of me words cannot reach.

After experiencing the wilderness, when one returns to the city, it is apparent how we are primed to regard the land as built within the city, another structure as manmade as a skyscraper, as though each park and river were carefully layered onto city blueprints. The land, it feels, exists on pavement and not vice-versa. But to witness the less than 5% of wilderness that is unsettled by the United States supplants this delusion. Everywhere man inhabits exists within the landscape; beneath it will never be a city but beneath all cities will be it. Returning home from a visit to Big Bend National Park, the world feels a little larger, unknown.

Read “Exodus of the Dead” in Popshot Magazine (UK)

 

“Exodus of the Dead” appears in Popshot Magazine Issue 13. Purchase a copy here.

What if the freshly-dead refused to drop as gravity intended — and instead, simply floated away? In my latest short story, “Exodus of the Dead,” I answer this question, envisioning a world where crime scenes are harder to discern without a victim and nobody fights over the airplane window seat. Written in the magical realist tradition of Italo Calvino and David Eagleman, the story is playful yet serious, fantastic but deeply human. Here’s an excerpt:

Death is tragic enough without having to get the dead down from the ceiling. No one knew why it happened, but starting one late-summer afternoon, the freshly-dead refused to drop as gravity intended. As though the last breath was wind in their sails, steadily they ascended like balloons, disappearing into the clouds. All across the world, patients lifted from their hospital beds and families came home to loved ones bumping the ceiling fan.

Support small presses and magazines! Issue 13 of Popshot Magazine (UK) can be purchased here.

Read my review of “Ivy League Bohemians” on Empty Mirror

Ivy League Bohemians (2015)

As part of our “research” for an upcoming trip, my friend Elliot and I decided to read Alison Winfield Burns’ Ivy League Bohemians (2015), a self-published memoir of her time at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. While failing to deliver, it is a book I think ought to be on every Beat aficionados’ radar (even if it’s only on the periphery). So to this end, I reviewed it for Empty Mirror:

It is an irony of the Beat Generation and New York Schools that little is written about the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Founded at Naropa University in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, the school aspires to cultivate “contemplative and experimental approaches to writing,” and to this end, for the last forty years the school’s been the gathering grounds for the serious avant-garde. Yet the number of memoirs written about the place can be counted on two thumbs. That is, there is Sam Kashner’s When I Was Cool: My Life at the Kerouac School (2004), which is about his time as the school’s first student, and now his fiancé Alison Winfield Burns’ Ivy League Bohemians (2015).

You can read the rest here.

The importance of writing a court opinion well

Joshua Preston Supreme Court

The author outside the Supreme Court (c. January 2009)

This month Texas Monthly published an interview with retiring Texas criminal court judge Cathy Cochran, and in it she discusses the top judiciary reforms of the last twenty years. These include the increased use of DNA evidence, compensation for the wrongfully incarcerated, and policies to curtail false eyewitness identifications. All of these are surprisingly progressive reforms in a state that (often deserved) is criticized for its conservatism.

Yet, legal reforms aside, something in the interview stood out. When Cochran was asked how important a judge’s writing abilities are, Cochran answered:

Oh, very important—if you want to motivate people, if you want to make people pay attention, if you want people to do something, you need to say it well. A good politician rouses the crowd with language that people can understand and appreciate. If you want to be a good writer, you need to read good writers. I love reading Churchill, love reading Shakespeare. You need to make simple analogies that make sense to people who aren’t lawyers. When I started, I had my twelve-year-old grandson read some of my opinions.

Although it’s unlikely many laypeople ever read court opinions, we don’t appreciate their literary value (and even when it involves the Supreme Court, many only read excerpts). Contrary to the John Roberts school that supposes a judge is merely an “umpire” calling what they see, the judiciary is a political entity and its opinions are meant as much to inspire as they are to clarify the law of the land. Lines from Brown v. Board of Education (1954) are carved in marble. Justice Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” has become a pithy punchline. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) is a rallying cry for gender equality advocates. Now when was the last time someone quoted a bill?

Yet, increasingly, fewer judges are writing their own court opinions. Instead, they rely upon law clerks to write the first draft, which is then edited. The consequence of this is that, according to legal scholar William Domnarski writing in The New York Times,

[M]uch of importance is lost …. Judge-written opinions require greater intellectual rigor, exhibit more personal style and lend themselves to more honest and transparent conclusions. …

It is no coincidence that Judge [Richard A.] Posner, the most influential (and most widely cited) appellate judge of his generation, writes his own opinions. His judicial voice is marked with stylistic touches, to be sure, shunning (and even lampooning) legalese as well as disregarding the traditional five-part structure on which law clerks typically rely. But what most grabs the reader is the voice of a judge thoroughly engaged with a problem in the law and working through it with enthusiasm, almost joy. As Judge Posner himself has written, “I know that only a few of the readers of my opinions are not lawyers, but the exercise of trying to write judicial opinions in a way that makes them accessible to intelligent lay persons contributes to keeping the law in tune with human and social needs and understandings and avoiding the legal professional’s natural tendency to mandarin obscurity and preciosity.”

Domnarski then adds that in addition to his political and social value, writing is a necessary part of the legal process. It is imperative for understanding the fine details of a case.

Unlike lawyers who are paid to argue for just one side in a case, judges are paid to pursue the truth. The bench is free from the limitations of advocacy; judges get to test arguments and follow a line of reasoning wherever it might take them. They get to explore the law. The opinion, properly done, reveals the judge sorting through the problem, thinking on the page. For similar reasons, judge-written opinions are also less vulnerable to a judge’s reflexive political and ideological leanings. The act of writing brings judges closer to the specific details and relevant issues of a case, forcing them to reckon with the case at hand in all its particulars, rather than seeing it as an instance of some more general theory or problem. [Emphasis mine].

Being able to fully engage with an idea and then clearly articulate one’s conclusions is a fundamental part of the democratic process. When the writing’s bad or judge’s skip out on their duty, everyone loses. So kudos to both Judges Cochran and Posner for recognizing this.