March 16, 2016KR BlogReadingUncategorizedWriting

More Light, More Light

For a while, I’ve been meaning to review Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. It is a book for our times, and, better, a masterful writerly performance. But I keep getting distracted. It’s possible I get distracted because I know a book this good needs nothing from me. It’s possible, too, that I get distracted simply because I’m distractible.

In reading and researching Coates, I came across three hour-long interviews he’s given to the great podcast Longform. They are terrific conversations. In the last of them, he talks about comic books, about their influence on him as a kid and about being in the midst right now of authoring a re-issue of a comic book called Black Panther. He also writes about all this on his Atlantic blog.

Photo Credit: Alex Ross
Photo Credit: Alex Ross

In my capacity working in a college English department, I run across countless students, mostly, but not all, male, still immersed in comics. My school built not long ago what is considered the premier comics research center in the country, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library. We have graduate students writing dissertations on comics, working with renowned professors. We’ve added undergraduate courses featuring the academic study of comic books. When Michael Chabon, whose The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay Coates mentions on the podcast as getting the love of comic books just right, gave a lecture at the art school downtown, a heathy chunk of the city beyond the regular literary crowd turned up, including academics, artists, hipsters, and middle-aged men in khaki Dockers.

What exactly is afoot? Instinctively, I want to make the connection between the resurgence of comic books and comic book movies with the current state of American cultural and political affairs. But that seems too easy. On the other hand, though, it’s hard not to notice the weaknesses of the comic book genre, which, compared to even moderately successful textual writing, seem both glaring and, again, a condition of our times: a lack of reflection and analysis. Plus, the imagery is just so . . . juvenile? So why are so many grown-ups, including a great number of grown-ups with extraordinary artistic and intellectual gifts, so enamored, post-adolescence, of comic books? And Star Wars, for that matter. And video games. Indeed, what the fuck’s afoot?

All of which is to say two things: 1. I am a grump, and 2. the other night I couldn’t bear to sit on the couch with the kids any more, watching Disney. So I moved to the dining room, where Brandon, high school freshperson, was working on his History project. The project involved choosing and then contextualizing five “events” from World War II.  He’d chosen the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Midway, D-Day, the Holocaust, and the U.S. dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We worked on the project together, choosing images from the internet and composing text. We’d just seen the movie Race together, and Brandon had been moved by the film’s characterization of Jesse Owens. I wasn’t sure, really, whether he was moved more by Owens’ athletic prowess (Brandon is on the track team) or his racial bravery or his friendships with his coach, and then, in the end, his fiercest German competitor, the Aryan long jumper Luz Long. But I figured the film likely helped Brandon contextualize the times, match human, or at least celluloid, faces to his History textbook reading.

 photo credit: © 2016 Jesse Owens Trust c/o Luminary Group LLC
photo credit: © 2016 Jesse Owens Trust c/o Luminary Group LLC

Let me pause here and say that sometimes I get really down on poetry. I think it worthless in the scheme of things. Children starve, I think, long latent volcanos erupt near towns, viruses infect entire populations. Donald Freakin’ Trump—I think, aghast—may be the next POTUS.  And here is poetry, with its impossible-to-understand-clearly meanings, its weird syntax, its very inaccessibility. I mean, I read the New Yorker for years before I could begin to make sense of its poems. Maybe that’s just dumb ol’ me, but I was a pretty regular person, if, yes, damaged a bit from the booze and drugs. But I read like a motherfucker, is what I’m saying, even in the midst of the nonsense, and still I couldn’t understand what Charles Simic or Louise Glück or, Christ-to-all-Hell, John Ashbery, were saying. What could

Oh evenings! Learning where to look it up
became an end in itself. To this purpose
trained fleas were engaged to do sums.
Ants on their way to happiness paused
over the numbers: Did it seem like three
or was it just three? Is this where I came in?

possibly mean? And meanwhile the Towers are crashing down, workers jumping from the windows. Priests are raping boys. Kids all over the world are killing themselves, by gun, by rope, by needle and exploding vest. What role, O Merciful One, could poetry play amidst all this?

The second part of Brandon’s homework that night was an English assignment tied to the History project. He was to take one of the five events he’d chosen from World War II, find three poems about it, and explicate the poems in relation to the event. His class had been given a handy tool to begin the explications: a process called SOAPStone, which asks the reader to give an answer, supported by evidence from the text, to the following prompts: Subject, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Speaker, and Tone. For his event, Brandon chose the Holocaust.

It’s true, the movie Race seemed to be terrific in so many ways. For example, Brandon, who is African American, learned the basics of Owens’ life: that he grew up poor, suffered for the color of his skin, and yet, still, in large part by the force of his own will, won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That’s a powerful lesson, perhaps a profound one, especially for a fourteen-year-old. And not only did he win four gold medals, he did it for his country, and, in doing it, the movie tells us, showed up not just the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels but also evil figure #1, Adolph Hitler himself.

photo found at: fa12phl301.providence.wikispaces.net
Courtesy of Wikispaces

Brandon learned also that in addition to Owens’ own indomitable will, his success was made possible, indeed his very access to big-time track and field was made possible, by the largesse of a single white man, the Ohio State track coach Larry Snyder. Although others in the Ohio State athletic family, according to a couple painful scenes in the film, were against the notion of black athletes competing for the Buckeyes, Snyder fought for Owens. This earned Snyder Owens’ trust, and that trust allowed Snyder to push Owens not as a powerful white man pushing a vulnerable black man but as a coach pushing an athlete. I’m not sure that Brandon, at fourteen, made much more of this than met the eye, but it was not lost on me for a second the similarity to our own lives, or, as they say in the academy, our own subject positions. Here was I, a white man, pushing Brandon, an African American boy, night after night, all through this first year of high school, to read and write, to study, to learn the world. The implication, of course, is that if he follows my advice, if he does what I say, he’ll achieve success. Just like Jesse Owens.

But Race is problematic, especially as a “race” film, largely because of its almost unbearable lack of complexity. Unlike the characters Owens and Snyder, Brandon and I—as did, surely, the real Owens and the real Snyder—have rich inner lives. Sometimes our interiors overlap, sometimes they don’t. But our relationship is complicated. Much of this is because we are, simply, two human beings in a relationship with each other. But much of it is also because of our wildly differing subject positions. And this is where I’d hoped for more from Race. It did so little work illuminating or even exploring the complications inherent in such an arrangement. I didn’t expect the movie to take on race-writ-large in America. But I did expect a far more nuanced view of the relationship between Owens and his coach. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of a movie that calls itself Race. I wanted to walk with Brandon through the wide glass doors of the multiplex back out into the Ohio rain enriched. I wanted the movie—naively, it turns out—to teach us something about ourselves.

After the History, as I say, Brandon and I moved to the English, where we chose three poems concerning the Holocaust. The third was Anthony Hecht’s “More Light, More Light.” It’s why, I was reminded, people give their lives for the word. And it teaches us, O Merciful One does it ever, everything we need to know about ourselves.

More Light, More Light

Composed in the Tower before his execution
These moving verses, and being brought at that time
Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:
“I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.”

Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible,
The sack of gunpowder failing to ignite.
His legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap
Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light.

And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst;
Permitted at least his pitiful dignity;
And such as were by made prayers in the name of Christ,
That shall judge all men, for his soul’s tranquillity.

We move now to outside a German wood.
Three men are there commanded to dig a hole
In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down
And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.

Not light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill
Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.
A Lüger settled back deeply in its glove.
He was ordered to change places with the Jews.

Much casual death had drained away their souls.
The thick dirt mounted toward the quivering chin.
When only the head was exposed the order came
To dig him out again and to get back in.

No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.
When he finished a riding boot packed down the earth.
The Lüger hovered lightly in its glove.
He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.

No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.

Brandon
Poem “More Light, More Light”
By Anthony Hecht
SOAPStone

Subject: A. Holocaust; B. Line 13: “We move now to outside a German wood” & the characters of the two Jews, the Pole, and the Nazi, who is represented only by the Luger (famous German gun) in line 19 and the “riding boot” in line 26.

Occasion: A. Written to show us the peculiar horror of the Holocaust, as opposed to other execution systems; B. the comparing of  two scenes—the first 3 stanzas refer to an execution in old England, and the last 5 refer to the Holocaust. We are meant to compare.

Audience: A. the poem is written for people who want to try to understand how the Holocaust could have happened;  B. because it shows the Holocaust in personal terms, in a single scene.

Purpose: A. To show that all the light in the world ended with the Holocaust; B. the final line says the opposite of the the title. The title is “More Light, More Light.” The last line is: “And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.” The black soot is the ashes from the ovens, where Nazis burned Jews after gassing them to death.

Speaker: A. Maybe a teacher, or like a helper in a museum, moving the audience from one scene (the London Tower) to the next (the murder/burial scene). B. Line 13, which separates the scenes, sounds like it’s coming from a teacher: “We move now to outside a German wood.”

Tone:  A. Plain, matter-of-fact, without passion; B. Told in the 3rd person; there’s no “I” in the poem; maybe because the Holocaust was so awful that the only way to describe it is with the factual details.