Review: Marilynne Robinson’s “When I Was a Child I Read Books”

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I’ve been re-reading a book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson, the novelist of Home and Gilead and professor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It’s an informative collection which covers a range of topics relevant to American society – how we think about our country today (the book was published in 2012 as a reaction of sorts to the financial downturn and the shifts in public policy ideology it ‘necessitated’), the spiritual history of the United States (Robinson is a modern liberal Christian and a scholar of the subject), the vanguard of New Atheism, and most notably, a close examination of the ideology of austerity pervading our public universities.

Robinson has clear opinions to assert, and she does so with grace, fluidity, research and with an eye for the wider lens. Her particular method of persuasion invites us to consider other modes of ‘American’ perception before hardening into one kind of savage believer or another.

And how do we reckon ownership? Who owns [the public university]? The generations who first broke ground for them? Who saw them through wars and depressions, when the wealth of this present generation would still have been unimaginable? My university is more than 150 years old. It was built on generosity and good faith. Why should all these hundreds of little farm towns sustain such a thing? They have sustained it heroically. Who should own its resources and its reputation? They are very valuable, so there is money to be squeezed out, certainly. There are corporations ready to rent it or buy it piecemeal. It is as if the very idea of a people, a historical community, has died intestate, and all its wealth is left to plunder.

Her essay, “Who Was Oberlin?” describes the social liberality of the Second Great Awakening, a Baptist and Methodist evangelical movement originating in upstate New York around 1790 and lasting decades in the Midwest. This was a movement which saw the rise of the Protestant pastor as grassroots community organizer, which led to substantial reform movements for education, prison conditions and care for the disabled and mentally ill, and which led to the founding of abolitionist, women-supportive liberal arts colleges like Oberlin, Grinnell, and Knox. Charles Finney, a leader of the 2nd Great Awakening, preached people into a tizzy of the possibility of a true liberation from original sin through repentance, that personal holiness was attainable in this lifetime. In these pastors’ minds, not only was the perfection of society possible, it would be inclusive.

Think about Christian evangelism today. How does one reckon Finney’s wild-eyed, open-armed progressive leadership alongside that of his contemporary counterparts, whose political ideologies formed the Tea Party caucus? In some corner of my imagination, a single charismatic character emerges, but this character’s values  and approach have clearly mutated.

Robinson is also an accomplished Biblical scholar. As a secular-spiritual person (ah, so much of life lived in that dash) who really only went to Church because her mom told her to, I was fascinated by her essay on Calvinism and the notion of charity in American spiritual history, titled “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism”.  It begins with a complicated quote from George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher and essayist in 1911:

America is a young country with an old mentality: it has enjoyed the advantages of a child carefully brought up and thoroughly indoctrinated; it has been a wise child. But a wise child, an old head on young shoulders, always has a comic and unpromising side. The wisdom is a little thin and verbal, not aware of its full meaning and ground; and physical and emotional growth may be stunted by it, or even deranged.

Santayana says that the “old head” is Calvinism, a Old Testament-based form of Christianity (Santayana called it “an expression of the agonized conscience”) often described as zealous and strict, which American writers quite plainly turned away from for the more imaginative and beautiful idea found in the New Testament, the Gospel of Grace. Robinson questions this polemical association of the harsh, foreign Old Testament and the gracious, charitable New Testament formulated by American religious scholars. The aloof, alien Old Testament God-construct of modern dialectic reduces the liberalism of the Old Testament, she argues, and in fact, Calvinism defended “an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity”.

She nerds out on Bible translation here too, tracking how words like “charity” and “generosity” changed in various versions of the Bible, and how different preachers from Calvin to Winthrop used these words deliberately, thus altering the political conception of what congregations of individuals should be doing to help those in great need: does one literally give them the coat off one’s back, or all the money in one’s pocket since they need it? Or is praying broadly for the improvement of their well-being considered ‘loving’ them? When it comes to governance, should conscientious Americans push for a welfare state or “safety net”, or do we trust in the “thousand points of light” charitable institution model to do the work of taking care of our nation’s poorest?

Robinson works the idiom and language well. She has thought deeply about the United States and where we come from – intending not to glorify the past, but to take on the more difficult work of understanding how we discuss and use the past to make arguments. Sure, she wants you to support robust funding for public universities, but readers can tell that this advocacy comes not from any self-interest, but in genuine recognition of the work that went into those schools, reminding us that they were built on the backs of previous generations who believed it deserved priority. To liberals who ask, how did we get here? — these essays may help.

I’ll leave with the prescient, persisting quote that opens the book’s Preface, from Walt Whitman’s essay “Democratic Vistas” (1870):

America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down. But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the States, the ever-overarching American Ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them.

 

 

The Fetish is Everywhere

falcon

Today, a girl in a white dress missed her bus.

She ran to catch it, crowded though it was

—I am not one, well, I haven’t, her thighs.

Ay, this Lolita look is all the rage.

 

She ran to catch the crowded city bus,

I stepped aside, to let her pass me by—

Ay, this Lolita look is all the rage.

How she pounded, pounded on the gliding door.

 

I stepped aside to let her pass me by,

From the cypress came a falcon, leaden winged,

How she pounded alongside the gliding door,

I saw the bird’s black head, its heavy dash.

 

From a cypress came the falcon, leaden winged

To the median of this busy four-lane street.

I saw the bird’s black head, its heavy dash,

It ate from off its talons an impaled thing.

 

In the median of this busy four-lane street,

I watched the falcon eat around its toe,

It ate from off its talons an impaled thing,

The girl in the white dress had missed the bus.

 

I watched the falcon eat around its toe,

Her dress was also there, also the rage,

The girl in the white dress, her legs, the chase—

I can’t decide the meaning of it: “slayed”.

 

Her dress was also there, also the rage,

The falcon flew directly to the sea,

The girl in the white dress sat on the bench

And I was left, to hold the bird with me.

I step outside shaped like a rune

dolni-willendorf-lespugue

I step outside shaped like a rune, my hands up to feel for the sun’s rays and legs bent to scuttle away, to jump back inside my home if need be. If need be I can insulate myself from the weather, the endless weather, and be the same. The sane same, I can be. Today I am shaped like a rune, I’m curious and translatable, the sun touches all. I step outside and then I’m like a battery, my skin charges, two bars, three bars, four, and I’m warm. I’ll carry it away, away inside and in the car, my skin holds the sun. Bursts and waves, the sun. Radiated and clean, my skin. Caressed and beaten, throughout the day, the sun on me. Day of Radiance on the radio.

I step outside shaped like a peg, my arms at my sides, like a Donii, a woman-peg, laden with flesh and bouncing lightly. Bouncing lightly, the sun off the moon, and back onto the grass, into which I root myself. I point down and then all around, I write light to a camera. I am shaped like a peg, I’m unified and useful, the moon is enough in its changes. Just half, just a sip of moon, it’s enough, only leave me desiring.

I step outside and I roam, I’m off from the jamb-go and all the insulation of the house is packed onto my prudish body. I am off, turned on, I look through a visor made of packing tape, at the world or the new walls. Dense grasses and egret limbs overtake me. I have scared a blue heron and another condor retires. The nettles on the hill pull at my faux fur, the fibers drift up in seed pod smoke. Where there’s only a sheer backing left, the wind of all changes rustles over true skin.

My Sister Down a Green Road

sisterroad

I can see my sister walking down a green road in early spring. The ice is in its first thaw. The trees sway, remembering the breeze. The farmer’s fields beside the road are heavy with clodded loam and aching rotted twigs. Black birds flap chilled mist from their wings and swoop.

She is walking down that road, the fingers of one hand flared in the direction of the the moss. She is lumbering; her one foot turns inward with each step. Her head is foremost, propelled by an unwomanly hunch. Loose strands of hair caress her cheek and slap the collar of her jacket.

I can see her on this road, how others might see her. Her fairness encouraged by the fair wind, the heat of her and the cool of all forming their ruddy rouge, the unwanted sign. She holds back a tide with that brave hunch. Her dark eyes are stones, old and everywhere, unbefitting the sweet face.

I can see her walking down a green road, crouched from where I am, inside her pocket. Her fist is here with me, in the pocket. Her thumb is chewed and cracked – Beauty’s surprise. I study the pulse at her wrist, even, and test the clench of her fingers, odd.

The green road is a pile behind us. Past the lining of her pocket, past the sockets of my eyes.

Phone

mofone

Hank Skeels stands at the entrance to Club Throb, the hottest, keeping watch over the VIP guests as they ooze in with perfect timing. The regular guests come wide-eyed as they please and Hank can’t blame them. He bars the inelegant riff-raff, the dirty phoneless.

A step inside the club, Ben leans away from Betty’s gooey lipstick advances as they stride in. She’s already at my neck, Ben says into his phone, which is shaped like a stubby black billy club, or is it a small baseball bat. Betty’s phone is in her clutch purse, a pair of lips wrapped in pink satin, buzzing.

Enter Judy and Jim, strolling, his arm at her back. She swats it away with a glance. I’m on the phone, sweetie, she says, and he removes it. Jim can’t take his eyes off of his wife’s shape in her gown, the way her slender fingers grip the roundness of her armadillo phone, commanding an underling to get it out by tomorrow latest. He left his fork phone at home, charging.

The young actress-waitress, daughter of the club owner’s brother, Shayna holds a tray of champagne glasses and circles the room, smiling with perfect teeth in the roaming laser lights, wishing she could get back into her locker in the employee lounge to peek at her phone, a disco ball.

In the alley behind Club Throb, two men and two women are deep in an angst-ridden discussion about phones in society, a conversation that started when one of the guys Tim mocked Bill’s older model. The two friends had almost come to blows, when the woman Aisha quietly suggests that they smash their phones, right here and now, as an act of self-liberation.

Tim, Bill and Aisha do it; they crack the outer cases under their feet, spreading the remains of a red handkerchief, a blue handkerchief, and a dried flower onto the pavement. They separate the inner motherboard from its wires with their heels. Silicone and bits of glass ground into the grime of the pavement make them feel wild, accomplished, for a moment. A thread of loneliness tightens. They watch mutely as Bill struggles to light the blue curlicue cord on fire, a wet fuse of a bomb. The remaining friend, the one who couldn’t smash her phone, Aparna, jogs to catch the bus. Her hands grip tightly inside her pocket around her phone, which is a tin of mints.

The Anderson family – Mom, Dad, Penny, Michael, and baby Alex – stand in a group within the main crowd of guests by the podium, waiting patiently, each holding green pear phones. Penny and Michael are embarrassed to be seen with their parents, who are underdressed. This place is packed, Penny whispers. Michael holds his phone like a platter to his chin, in loudspeaker mode, and says, I think they’re about to get started. Mom texts Dad about Penny’s weight problem. Dad tells her not to worry, in so many words. Baby Alex is in Mom’s arms, her phone covered in slobber.

The beautiful and normal-looking people have all gathered by 10pm, when Hank Skeels hears his boss speak into the phone in his ear, Close the doors, it’s starting.

A cascade of synth bells falls over the eager audience. The dais is positively cinematic, mouths Judy into her armadillo. A large platform, its floor painted in thick black and white stripes and covered to extravagance by a mound of dark red roses. A black velvet cloth has been draped over a glass case that sits atop the flower mound.

That is it, the thing we’ve all been invited to see.

The percolating silence is deafening, maddening, here’s everyone’s attention. They set their phones in camera mode, fingers hovering over the button.

Hank Skeels takes the stage, hands clasped together in front of him, and looks over the crowd. They think he might speak but he does not.

Taking her cue from the silence, the model, Po, emerges from the employee lounge. She is naked, her body painted entirely silver, up to her hairlines. Her nails and lips are a lush red. Shayna, standing in the hallway, gasps when she sees her.

Po enters the main area. Her gait is slow. Slow-motion bullet of a woman. I am a juggernaut, she thinks to herself. Slow, but lacking any inertia.

Po ascends the dais on black and white steps. She turns to face the audience, orienting herself to the street outside, the city beyond, as the boss has instructed her to do in his superstition. She bows to them.

Everyone bows back, even Mom and Dad, though it is not their custom.

Po takes three steps backwards to stand beside the covered case. She lifts her silver arm and places her hand on the black velvet. In a slash, she whips the cloth away. The lights swirl and land on the case upon the dais.

It is a new phone.

Its body is chrome silver and gleaming with a dark radiance, like mercury, molten in the lights. It is wider at the base, then narrows into a soft point. A bullet.

Loud clicks of photographs being taken.

The light of individual phones pulled from above the heads of the crowd, down to the chest, dispersed in messages, reaching out to the other side of earth.

Hank Skeels stares at the bullet, motionless. I believe you’re in love, Hank.

Barbara Heard at the Lake

craylay

Sporty windbreaker, fitted pants, strap sandals, trader joe’s bag and a canvas bag, cane with a strap, large sunglasses

 

“Protect our fair streets of Oakland

Isn’t she beautiful, isn’t she fair

We must do something

She’s so beautiful

And those who die

Physically and mentally

Will be lifted up by the

Lord of the people

Into the hands of the Asian race

Except there’s always pussy

Isn’t it beautiful

It’s always pussy and

Don’t you think mine is beautiful

And Barbara

They thought hers was beautiful and

She’s in the prison

Locked up in a cell

San Quentin Santa Rita

Pussy isn’t remembered

We must do something for Barbara

Isn’t she beautiful

Pussy forgotten, cock stays around

We must do something

For Barbara

Locked up in San Quentin Santa Rita Napa Sonoma

From the streets of Oakland

Barbara isn’t she beautiful”

Alien Prayer Flag

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I.

 

 

For those who’ve heard a loved one gone

To visit that city and take the drive that got them lost

Visit here

 

 

The city has a name, but it’s different for everyone

I pronounce it in this way:

Ning like ning – that’s easy

Bo like bwuoh – that presents a challenge

You may know it in another way entirely.

 

 

Ah, the billion nameless hungry faces

And one lonely greasy girl steps forward

“Stay here while I fetch you a drink of water”

“Make yourself comfortable”

Drink it fast,

The cup won’t last long…

Faster, I mean it!

“This is the city of the thinnest paper.”

 

Once there, she’ll ask you to please

Not to disrupt the ritual

With your visible, drippy sobs

 

 

Eat any food that is offered to you and you’ll enjoy this

First contact, congratulations, explorer!

In this moment you are a superhero – God Grief – that’s it

Serious, staid and steadfast over all things human, in the famed city

 

 

 

 

 

 

II.

 

 

A shortening. A quickening.

Hot throat and all the internal vomits

The effect of speed on the inner ear and the return…to…stationary.

 

 

The ocular lens-clock tightens

Makes any music inappropriate

As sense bandwidth is strictly rationed

By burlap monks with spiny fingers, dirty nails

 

 

They crave silence and nobody minds skin irritation

They work on narrowing, calibrating a beam of laser light

However an occasional peek at cartoons is forgivable,

Especially since the one who is dead cannot be reached via laser

 

 

These negotiations continue

While flash is as small as starlight

 

 

“This is what it feels like” is stupidum say the monks

Torture, torch you’re, the tortured

 

 

Blank plank adrift upon furious frothy action

Then the risen smack of the real moment (y) and real place (x)

 

 

God Grief is lost in Ning (ning) Bo (bwuoh)

Stretching his hamstrings like an oblivious runner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

III.

 

 

My sister is too beautiful for most

Her goatherd tragedy spoken in smooth lines that dilate

I weep to hear her latest news

 

 

She walks around the blind city

A city of too many rabbit holes

“This is the city of the most ways to get lost”

 

She is my walking talking potential eternal sadness

The child whose smiley-face egg, once broken, shatters me

The huddled woman whom God Grief has sworn to protect

 

 

One glance into her eyes deletes the Hero’s mechanism

And sends them tumbling down a taxi-cab, flying in a light cascade

One glance spits them out into the river

 

 

(Escape is a delicious apple

A moondance Gravitron whirl of limbs

Wide, wide open to the free flow of esteem-less sex

 

 

Drink to smoke to breathe to bathe

Negating pent up penthos pours

If all are lost along the way, that’s fine)

 

 

Grief visits Beauty

The combination is deadly swollen

Each offering the other’s knife sharpener

Metal running along stone

 

 

The city towers were never so high as tonight

Each one wears a different fascinator

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IV.

 

 

The crowd forms

A long line on the sidewalk

It must be something good

For them to wait so long

Take a look through the shop windows –

Ah, but the sun’s glare.

 

 

One girl in line

Erupts in laughter

Throws her hand on the shoulder of the old man in front of her

And bounces bounce her bosom bounces

 

 

The old man chuckles

At the girl, heaving

At her breasts as they heave

At her buckteeth

At her breasts, at her buckteeth

At the reveal of skin

Above her pants below her shirt

Laughter belting out past

Her buckteeth and pouring

From her forged chest

 

 

And now everyone’s laughing

See, the sign on the door says:

“No More -This Is The City of Not Enough”

 

God Grief holds a Chinese churro

Dipped in soymilk

Barely tasting

Sweet, empty flavor.

Grief’s luck is strange like that…

 

 

 

 

 

 


V.

 

 

I held a shirt you wore and

All the time you wore it

 

 

A brooch was pinned to it

I removed it and put it on me

It is a heavy ceramic bust

 

 

I’ve gone through your things so many times

Look at me, I

Jingle with your many cameos

 

 

I found a hideous shell you liked

In your chest of things

Its spiky section hurt to hold

 

 

I’m starting to remember things about you that were less than friendly.

Still,

You.

 

 

The dead flesh speaks in conjugated color

Yell oh

Yel laugh

Yell ow

 

 

God Grief lost his ride along the Inner Ring highway.

Now he walks, carrying carrion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VI.

 

 

Urgency emergence in the final tally

The march away from me

My last moment to haggle:

I would die for you, who is dying

I would live for you, who is dying

 

I cannot, so

I accept the quoted price

I’ll look for firm confirmations later

When it’s still –

 

 

The dam bursts and floods a vein of ochre

Mud coating all

The thinly coated citizens

They hug and scratch and even dance.

 

 

My sister is gone

Beauty is again, ready for anything

She lifts her new hand with a whir of pistons

 

 

God Grief mumbles about a sacred cleanup

 

 

Hopeless to the last transaction,

He wanders the city of Ningbo alone

Leaves the poem

Leaves, the poem, the city

 

 

The Walk Home (a fable)

streetvend

Shanghai, 2008.

A young girl of nine (nearly ten) stands at the metal gate of her school. Her hands are free, her feet sweating in plastic clog sandals punched throughout with holes shaped like Mickey Mouse heads. Her backpack is bubblegum pink and dotted with floating shiny red lips and black high heel shoes. It is heavy with books. She stands at the gate and watches her schoolmates as they’re retrieved by their parents and grandparents, one by one, skipping happily away.

She is alone, which is unusual. Grandmother wasn’t waiting for her at the school’s gate today as she usually does, and although she knows the way home, can trace each curb, drain and slab of the sidewalk leading to her building, the disturbance of the daily, the lifetime routine is puzzling. No one told her; Mama didn’t say mention anything when she dropped her off in front of the gate this morning on her way to the office.

She can feel that her left pigtail is sagging, so while she waits for the corner crosswalk light to show the white walking man, she tucks her sweater between her legs, grabs sections of the hair in her hands and pulls. The tightening of her scalp is oddly comforting. She stands up straight. The light changes.

She takes her sweater from between her knees and crosses the street quickly. The bun vendor looks at her lone figure oddly, and she squeaks at him as she passes, incapable of saying a word. Grandma always bought a custard bun for her after school. He is a nice man, she thinks as the steam from his cart leaves her nostrils. He could help me.

Ah, you don’t need any help, she says to herself, snorting. Home is this way, you’ve walked it a thousand times before.

The young girl is on the left side of the main road. Up ahead is the long alleyway leading east to her family’s apartment, three blocks north. The bun vendor is the first bright post in a series of small food stalls on this block, one stall sidled up alongside another in an archipelago of stainless steel, dark dirty wood, buckets of water, fallen bits of greenery, old rusty stools and makeshift tables. She navigates the scattered path as she has so many times before. The smell of niu rou mian (beef noodle soup), frying bread, vinegar and the smoke of roasted animal fat lean on her, beckon her, and she becomes aware of her hunger, normally mostly satiated by a steamed bun at this point in her journey. She slows down her pace, considers the variety of each stall’s snacks. Maybe I’ll get something, she dares, quickly calculating that she carries more than enough coins for a snack in a small zipper purse in her backpack. For the first time she can remember, she is without a chaperone, and the world offers her its bounty.

She stops to stare at a young man frying youtiao.  He is sweating along his temples, and his oily hair is spotted with flour. She watches him dip the long, oversized chopsticks used for frying into a large wok of yellow oil, rotating the long sticks of sweet bread. The thin golden loaves resting on the rack looks crispy and delicious. She licks her lips and watches him grab two with a hand gloved in plastic clouded with grease, swing open a brown paper bag with another hand and shove the youtiao in, bending them in the middle as they’re placed inside.

He pushes the bag of bread towards her and she steps back to allow a customer standing beside her to take it. His hand shoves again, and shrinking, she realizes he’s looking directly into her eyes, that she’s the customer, and she should pay.

With a thrill, she takes the bag. His hand, with its long pointed thumbnail, crusted with dough and yellowed, becomes an open palm. She swings her backpack around and rests it on her knee to access her coinpurse. How much is it? The youtiao is hot in her other hand. She’s scared to ask. A steamed bun is always one; she awkwardly places one coin in his palm. He pulls it back, stares down at it and furrows his brow, sticks his palm out again.

“It’s two,” he says, bored. She is slow to react, bag of bread in one hand and coin purse in the other, backpack hanging from her elbow. She wonders if he is trying to take advantage of her. It doesn’t seem worth it now…

With sudden speed, the greasy fry cook extends his arm and puts his thick fingers in her coin purse and digs around. She watches, stunned, while he, sensing the right size and weight, clasps the correct coin and pulls it out. He shows her the coin – he only took one – and adds it to his palm, which tosses them into a small tin on his counter with a dull clank.

She stares at her purse, zips it up with the hand that holds the bread. Without another move, she runs, her backpack hanging heavy at her elbow, knocking into stools and other diners slurping noodles, oblivious. She runs until she feels her arm will fall off, finally sitting down to rest along a small retaining wall just outside the entrance of the small local park, where she’d visited with Grandmother and her parents all her life. How strange she feels now, sitting outside of this park, an extension of her home, alone. She zips up her bag, replacing the coin purse inside, and puts it back on her back. Staring at the youtiao in her hands, she takes an enormous bite and chews. It is crispy on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside, just as it should be. Renewed, she gets up and continues walking home.

Turning into her alley, she smiles at the guard, who’s really just Mr. Gu from upstairs with a red armband on. She runs down the alley at top speed, and when she’d normally have to wait for Grandmother to catch up, this time she can just go right in. On the stairs, she begins to worry…what happened to Grandmother? Why didn’t she pick me up today?

She opens the door to the little apartment. “Grandmother, here I am, I’m back. Grandmother?”

She hears a faint voice. “In here, dear,” she hears the voice of her Grandmother say.

She enters the bedroom, which faces south and is full of light in the afternoons. Grandmother is seated at the edge of the bed, looking out the window to the white haze of a sunny Shanghai sky. The girl goes to the old woman and sits next to her.

“Why didn’t you come pick me up today? I waited for you.”

“I couldn’t come because I wasn’t feeling well today.”

“What’s wrong? Where is it uncomfortable? Did you eat something bad?” the little girl puts her hand on her Grandmother’s back.

“Yes, maybe that’s it. Did you get home without any trouble? You must have done okay huh. You got a snack on your way!”

The youtiao is still in her hand. The girl feels embarrassed, but she isn’t sure why. Everything felt small next to the presence of her Grandmother.

“Yes, it was nothing, I knew the way.”

“I knew you’d be fine, little one,” Grandmother pats her knee. “I knew you could do it by yourself.”