Thursdays at ClimbingSky feature re-posts from 6+ years of MontanaWriter and ClimbingSky. This post was previously published on July 18, 2011.
In the North Country, it is high summer. The heat and humidity weigh upon us and we live indoors as much as possible… just like we do in January. Again, we wonder for the thousandth time who was the first European who said, “this would be a great place to live” (cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey in January, hot as a hell-hound’s ass in July). But when the weather breaks, we will forget it all and flee out of doors again… happy to breathe clean air and to feel real breezes upon our faces.
A week ago Sue and I drove through Kentucky and blue grass horse country. Each time we saw horses in a field, I thought of this poem by James Wright. That is the way of a great poem. And this is a great poem in every sense of that word… one of the most beautiful ever written by an American poet.
James Wright seems to me to be in the peculiar position of being frequently anthologized and quoted but seldom read. I include myself in this. I know some of his poems by heart but have spent little time with his body of work. Maybe after I finish working through Sandburg’s Collected Poetry I will take some time to study Wright. It seems like it is high past time for me to do that.
In the meantime, on a hot July Minnesota morning with horses on my mind, what poem could be better than “A Blessing.”
Just off the Highway to Rochester, Minnesota
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
The Journal 1837–1861
Say not that Nature is trivial, for to-morrow she will be radiant with beauty.
* * * *
How is it that man always feels like an interloper in nature, as if he had intruded on the domains of bird and beast?
* * * *
The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.
* * * *
It is hard to know rocks. They are crude and inaccessible to our nature. We have not enough of the stony element in us.
* * * *
I thank you, God. I do not deserve anything, I am unworthy of the least regard; and yet I am made to rejoice. I am impure and worthless, and yet the world is gilded for my delight and holidays are prepared for me, and my path is strewn with flowers.
* * * *
The poet must be continually watching the moods of his mind, as the astronomer watches the aspects of the heavens.
Here are a couple of covers of this great Dylan song.
Sunday Sermons: For a brief period early in my life, I preached a Sunday sermon. When I left that vocation behind, I could not imagine ever wanting to write a “sermon” again. The recent election has changed all that. In the face of Post-Truth, Donald Trump, FoxNews, and the intentional de-semination of un-Truth, the best defense we have to redeem ourselves and our world is biblical language. For awhile you will find Sunday Sermons here.
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. 4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-5)
This text is sometimes called a “Warning to Rich Oppressors.” Labeling it that way is meant to take some of the sting out of it.
Since Reformers like Luther have always had a theological quarrel with the book of James, it is a text that is seldom heard on Sunday mornings in most Protestant congregations. When it is heard or preached about it is most likely dealt with in the same manner as it is in most Roman Catholic contexts, as a warning to “Rich Oppressors.”
The inherent incompatibility of wealth and true Faith is a frequent theme for Old Testament prophets like Amos. For Jesus it was even more so.
And yet in Puritan-Influenced America, we esteem nothing more than wealth. It is our ultimate measure of virtue. It is viewed, in the Calvinistic tradition, as a this-world mark of being blessed in the next world by God.
The downplaying of Jesus’ antipathy to wealth has historical rationale. Early on the Christian church was seen by the Roman Empire as a threat. If the early leaders of the church (such as Paul) overly stressed some of the more radical ideas of Jesus like anti-slavery and anti-wealth, Rome would have come down even harder on the new movement. And the ultimate “conversion” of the Empire by the conversion of Constantine ( by extension wealthy Romans and all their slaves) ensured that the truly radical call of Jesus on the subject of the wealth would be permanently downplayed.
And yet the radical ideas of Jesus have remained in scripture. Along with Amos and the prophets and these words from James for “all with ears to hear.”
The economic system we have is clearly broken. In our country people are homeless while others have multiple mansions. One parent is trying to figure out how to put food on the table for their child while another is buying their 16-year-old a BMW.
And in the world at large… Millions starve. Millions are refugees. Children are forced to work or are sold into slavery. Women and girls are sold into sex slavery.
And yet we know that it is not because there are not enough resources on this good earth to go around. It is because so few take so much of the resources for themselves.
This is what has always made the words of James, rooted as they are in the most radical ideas of Jesus, so difficult for Christians to hear and to preach. It is easier to say these are words meant for “Rich Oppressors” than to say they are meant for us and for the people we truly admire and aspire to be ourselves.
And so we come now to Donald Trump and the billionaire class to which he belongs. In a truly “Christian” country, by that I mean a country that truly followed the teachings of Christ, not only could Trump never have been elected, he and his like would not even exist. Because an economic system that concentrates so much wealth into the hands of so few, while the vast majority go without, would not be tolerated.
But since our economic system does allow such injustice, is in all actuality built upon such injustice, listen again to these words of James: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.”
Thursdays at ClimbingSky feature re-posts from 6+ years of MontanaWriter and ClimbingSky. This post was previously published on April 3, 2013.
“The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.”
I continue reading Spillane. This week I re-read his 5th novel, The Big Kill, published in 1951, four years after I, the Jury.
The formula for The Big Kill is familiar to Mike Hammer fans. Hammer, drinking in a seedy bar, witnesses a murder and vows revenge. In the end, with the help of big, beautiful dames, a battered and beaten Hammer again prevails against evil and the D.A.
By his fifth novel, Spillane has learned a lot as a writer. An undisputed master of hard-boiled character and dialog, Spillane continues building on his legacy as an artist of noir mood and tone.
Between 1947 and 1952, Spillane wrote six Mike Hammer novels before he took a 10-year hiatus.
- I, the Jury (1947)
- My Gun is Quick (1950)
- Vengeance is Mine! (1950)
- One Lonely Night (1951)
- The Big Kill (1951)
- Kiss Me, Deadly (1952)
I have enjoyed these past few weeks re-reading and typing Spillane’s opening lines on my own Smith-Corona Super-Speed. As I assumed I would, I enjoyed typing the opening lines of The Big Kill the most.
The opening paragraphs of The Big Kill have long been one of my favorite openings to any book ever written. They are the kind of lines that I wish every hard-boiled book started with… hell, every book hard-boiled or not. They are enjoyable, fun to read, and quickly set the tone and mood for the reader. They are in two words, great writing. Two words that are not usually associated with Mickey Spillane.
Great writing is as difficult to define as it is to find. It is that rare perfect marriage of tone, mood, and method. It requires inspiration, genius, and a great deal of attention to detail and re-working of language.
Spillane’s sins as a writer are not in the commission of his art (He wrote I, the Jury in an astounding 19 days). They are clearly sins omission. Spillane is a literary mirror of his famous detective character: impulsive, elemental, mouthy, and tough. Mike Hammer does not sweat the details, he sweats the suspects… in fact, he beats the living hell out of them. And that is how Spillane writes.
Here is the beginning of The Big Kill.
Bitter cold has descended again upon the North Country. The spell of sub-zero we experienced in December felt unseasonable, this feels… inevitable.
Sue and I have begun Bullet Journals this year, a new way for us to organize and get things done. That is what January is for, trying new things and new habits.
Each January for awhile now, I have sat down and made lists of goals and strategies for achieving those goals in the new year: for my poetry, my fiction, blogging, health, finances, etc. The Bullet Journal will be another tool in that process.
I have said here before that while prose writers are a disciplined lot, poets are really not. At least this poet. The one discipline though that I am consistent at is getting up early every day and writing. And I suppose that is the most important one of all.
2016 was a tough year for those of us who value the Humanities. Everything we value most has seemingly been sullied, challenged, or overthrown: Reason, Truth, Art…. But like the bitter cold weather of January, this is merely a temporary suffering. Spring is just around the corner. In a Redeemed world, Ignorance and Death never have the last word.
Thoreau occupies a singular place in American Literature. He is usually identified with Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, yet any serious study of his work makes it clear that he is unique in World Literature.
Biographies of Thoreau often describe him as an American philosopher. Yet like Whitman, Thoreau is much more: a prophet, of nature and wilderness and of being truly “American.” It is this quality that makes me pick up Thoreau and Whitman again and again.
Here are some quotes this week from his journals about, the woods, emotion, poetry, and truly seeing things.
The Journal 1837–1861
The season of fruits is arrived. The dog’s-bane has a pretty, delicate bell-like flower. The Jersey tea abounds. I see the marks of the scythes in the fields, showing the breadth of each swath the mowers cut. Filberts are formed, and you may get the berry stains out of your hands with their husks, if you have any. Nightshade is in blossom. Came through the pine plains behind James Baker’s, where late was open pasture. These are among our pleasantest woods,— open, level, with blackberry vines interspersed and flowers, as lady’s-slippers, earlier, and pinks on the outskirts. Each tree has room enough. And now I hear the wood thrush from the shade, who loves these pine woods as well as I. (pp. 61-62).
* * * *
The mind is subject to moods, as the shadows of clouds pass over the earth. Pay not too much heed to them. (p. 63).
* * * *
But this habit of close observation,— in Humboldt, Darwin, and others. Is it to be kept up long, this science? Do not tread on the heels of your experience. Be impressed without making a minute of it. Poetry puts an interval between the impression and the expression,— waits till the seed germinates naturally. (p. 63)
* * * *
Ah, what a poor, dry compilation is the “Annual of Scientific Discovery!” I trust that observations are made during the year which are not chronicled there,— that some mortal may have caught a glimpse of Nature in some corner of the earth during the year 1851. One sentence of perennial poetry would make me forget, would atone for, volumes of mere science. The astronomer is as blind to the significant phenomena, or the significance of phenomena, as the wood-sawyer who wears glasses to defend his eyes from sawdust. The question is not what you look at, but what you see. (p. 65).
With the upcoming presidency of Donald Trump, we can all use as much Grateful Dead as we can get.