Reading the Epics in the Trump Era

by John Poch

I have returned to the United States from a study abroad trip in Spain where once again I read The Odyssey with my students. I often have students in my classes who are fraternity or sorority members. They call themselves Greeks, but most of them know little of Greek society or culture. This is your chance, I tell them. Let’s get to know what this Greek thing is all about. One of our sorority members in this study abroad class proclaimed she knew the Greek alphabet. It’s a start, I suppose. But the classics impact our lives more than we might think. Of the primary themes I tend to focus on, hospitality and the guest/host relationship come up nearly every day in our conversations. After the Trojan War, having been away for nearly twenty years, Odysseus is trying to return home. His story is constructed of one travel adventure after another. The ancient bards who recited the Homeric poems, literally singing for their room and board, had good reason to be concerned with the treatment of travelers. It is no coincidence that these poems again and again lay out the way in which a stranger should be received safely and generously on his journeys. We ask ourselves how are Odysseus and Telemachus treated as travelers, and how does this guest/host relationship work? We come to understand that guest and host are two sides of a coin, as even the words themselves come from the same root. Meaning: souls: ghosts or at least someone inhabited by one.

Now I’m in Taos, New Mexico, for the summer, and I am reading Virgil’s Aeneid for the first time in twenty years. Just a few decades before Jesus brought his good news, Virgil was finishing his great epic. Aeneas is traveling, but his wanders have a different impetus than Odysseus’s. “Wars and a man I sing” begins Fagles’s translation. Aeneas’s betrayal of the passionate Dido in pursuit of his duty to found the Roman Empire is less interesting to me than Odysseus’s desire to get home to his family. Aeneas is not as interesting or complicated a man as Odysseus. But Aeneas has no home to go back to, so that’s not an option for him. He can’t afford to be as complex, driven by the Fates as he is. He has familial duties to fulfill (his son before him and his father on his back) that are vaguely and precisely forecast in all kinds of signs, omens, prophecies, artwork he doesn’t understand, and mere high hopes of being his own man. People in his way will have to die or be overcome.

Besides re-reading The Aeneid and a few other books, I’m trying to write some poems, hike (though they just closed the forests until further notice due to severe drought), and spend time with my family. The other day we dropped our kids off at a place called High Altitude for open gym, and my wife and I had a lunch-date. Looking up at me from her sandwich, she suggested I not wear my Texas Tech baseball cap. It took me a second, and then it dawned on me. Rosy-fingered dawn. Some of our TTU Greeks (namely, the head of our interfraternity council, codename Cocaine Cowboy!) just made national news when they were exposed for their racist social media posts having to do with shooting Mexicans on the border for sport. They were just joking, they claim, but their fear and intolerance of strangers, their racism, lurks beneath the surface of their tasteless and menacing insults.

While the misogyny and violent nationalism inherent in The Odyssey and The Aeneid are apparent to a modern reader, the heroes’ finer qualities can teach us a few things about noble behavior if not plain manners. And though I live in the Bible belt, it seems lost on so many of my fellow citizens that, around three dozen times, the Torah suggests to God’s people that they should not oppress or vex a stranger, “as you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” And everyone knows that the teachings of Jesus command and teach how to love thy neighbor and even enemy. A few decades after Jesus’ ministry, Hebrews 13:2 instructs: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” In both The Aeneid and The Odyssey, we see Aeneas and Odysseus in disguise, and how they are treated by their unwitting hosts during these visits provides the reader with great dramatic irony. It’s a thrill to open up these classical texts to discover with the students the best and the worst of who we might be, and all the complexities, beauty, comedy, romance, and tragedy in between.

Reading about these persecuted hero-wanderers and their troops, one might consider the plight of migrants all over the globe, even the Latinos in our own backyard, looking for a better life in this world of extremities. Due to irrational fear of the stranger and Rumor and Discord (see The Aeneid), many Americans hunker down into a defensive patriotism and exclusive nationalism, when many of our own families are made up of immigrants who were at one point persecuted, exiled, or just looking for a better life. We’d have the Statue of Liberty hold a sword against the air rather than a torch to light the way to shore. This summer, our Supreme Court held up an immigration ban that anyone can see is based on religious difference.

One of the final lessons of The Aeneid is that human violence rages unending. The Odyssey ends with a kind of peace, but that’s only because the gods tire of the bloodshed and descend (deus ex machina) to stop it themselves by making the Ithakans oblivious. I teach my students that the failure of language often results in violence. The inability to describe, develop pathos, realize complexities (of language and life), or negotiate leaves a vacuum that physical might tries to fill. How awfully ironic that the recent American epidemic of gun violence has been aimed at our schools. I am against the increase of armed guards in our places of education because I know that the antidote to violence is more fluent practice of language, not weaponry. Violence is costly. The Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts (we can’t even legitimately call these wars because of our spineless politicians) have cost close to three trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, millions of maimed bodies and broken souls, much more if you consider how all this has spilled over into Syria. The gods of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Halliburton preside, sometimes competing among themselves as in ancient times, and they call it good. Their less-than-fleet-footed messenger with the winged-hair and fake tan, our flag in his lapel, daily tweets us the bad news from on high. I shouldn’t insult Hermes, the Thief, by comparison. The new gospel we are hearing from Mount Pentagon via the White House is less than theological. It’s not poetry. It is not even good grammar. When I think of mythic leaders, I am reminded how far our President is from being a man who knows war firsthand (bone spurs) or one who could understand poetry. Not that these days anyone sane wants a man of war, mind you. Our representative man of war, our current commander-in-chief, tweets his empty threats almost daily against other national leaders and the free press. Trash-talking is an art, and one might look to the Aeneid, if only for this instruction. I should mention that of his military deferments, only one was for bone spurs, and four were for education. The irony.

At the end of The Aeneid, after their epic one-on-one battle, Turnus finally reaches for the words of peace, but it is too late for mercy. Aeneas’s final move is sometimes characterized as savage, but the way I see it, Turnus could not possibly be trusted. Forgiven perhaps, but not trusted. Maybe this scenario of Aeneas achieving his wrath finally can teach us something. There is no hope for any of us if we ultimately live quid pro quo. As I mentioned earlier, hard on the heels of Virgil’s epic, a radically different hero emerges in world history, and His epic is told by a host of unlikely writers in a collection of stories called gospels. Like the heroes of The Aeneid and The Odyssey (or more recently in The Sopranos or Breaking Bad), the actions of the central protagonist are for the purposes of safeguarding both a nuclear family (in his case, a group of disciples) and a larger kingdom rooted in nonviolent revolution. If you don’t know the other epics, you might not understand the radical nature of the New Testament story that would, as Luke said in The Acts of the Apostles, “turn the world upside down.” If you don’t know these stories that have lasted the longest, your first reaction might be to fear a stranger rather than to see in him or her a soul and a destiny.

AGNI Monkey

John_Poch_4John Poch’s most recent book, Fix Quiet, won the 2014 New Criterion Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared widely in journals such as Paris Review, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, and Five Points. He teaches in English Department at Texas Tech University. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


Writing and the Tibetan Book of the Dead

by Ann Tashi Slater

I think a lot about death and faith and the creative process. This started some years back when I began writing a novel related to the Tibetan Buddhist belief in bardos, between-states when everyday life is suspended. Or maybe it started long before: on a winter day in 1912, my Tibetan great-grandfather was coming down to India from Tibet by pony. He and some of his party were buried in an avalanche. My great-grandfather thrust his arm up through the snow and waved his prayer beads, calling to his beloved Guru Rinpoche: “Save me, Guru Rinpoche, save me!” The men aboveground saw him and he was saved.

Guru Rinpoche, the eighth-century Indian saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet, is believed to have concealed his teachings under rocks and in lakes, in trees and the sky and the mindstream, to be revealed to future generations when most needed. The Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, is one of these teachings; when someone dies, monks sit next to the body and read from the text, exhorting the deceased to acknowledge reality but not give up as she journeys through the terrifying after-death bardo, wondering what will happen. Intended as much for the living as the dead, the Book of the Dead encourages all of us to persevere, whether in the after-death bardo or one of the difficult bardos experienced in life, like accident or illness.

In 2010 I lay in a hospital near death, an experience I write about in “Traveling in Bardo” (AGNI 86). I remembered the story of how my great-grandfather survived in the snow, and this helped me to accept what was happening yet not despair. The Book of the Dead was discovered centuries after being buried in Tibet; in a similar way, I felt, my great-grandfather’s lesson about faith came to me from where it had remained hidden in our family’s mindstream.

The Book of the Dead says that in bardo, we encounter blood-drinking, flame-spouting wrathful deities as big as the sky. Holding human corpses and brandishing axes, they shriek and howl. We’re told not to abandon hope: the deities are only emanations from our subconscious. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, editor of the first English translation of the Bardo Thodol (1927), called the deities “airy nothings woven into dreams”; the moment we recognize their true nature, they dissolve. Thus, we are the creators of our experience in bardo. As the Buddha said, “All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.”

Writing is a kind of bardo because ordinary life recedes as we create a universe on the page. The fears and doubts that can derail us while writing are like the wrathful deities. The uncertainty about where our hours at the desk will lead; whether, or how, a poem or an essay or a book will be realized. Recognizing that our worries are only our own “thought-forms,” as the Book of the Dead says, we have the chance to break free of them and engage fully with our creative work. In the bardo of writing, we make our experience.

AGNI Monkey

Ann Tashi Slater--AGNI blogAnn Tashi Slater’s work has been published by The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, and Granta en español. Her writing appears in Women in Clothes (Penguin) and American Dragons (HarperCollins), and her translation of fiction by Reinaldo Arenas was published in Old Rosa (Grove). Current projects include a bardo-related novel based on her Tibetan family history, a memoir about a pilgrimage to her ancestral homeland, and multimedia events at NYC’s Rubin Museum, including an October 2018 talk about her AGNI essay, “Traveling in Bardo,” and Tibetan wisdom in everyday life. A longtime resident of Tokyo, she teaches at a Japanese university. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

Frost and Gilmore: Poets of Humanity

I’ve always liked Robert Frost as a poet of humanity but, until very recently, I didn’t understand how important his poems were to me. When I write poems I want to stand in that little horse’s shoes (“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”) and feel an easy wind and downy flake and wonder why my owner has stopped in the woods. I want the surprise ending that emanates from “The Road Not Taken.” The one that made all the difference! Surely, if I can create these sensations, my reader will experience them, too?

This came to me as I made an early spring walk around The Point, a piece of land that juts out from my town into Long Island Sound. The pathway is edged by sea water on one side and forest growth on the other. Both absorb my attention. There are migratory birds checking in but, right now, the trees and shrubs on my right are bare. Where do the deer, usually hidden by summer foliage, go in winter? Why can’t I see them?

Robert Frost would be able to skilfully capture my questions and observations, but I must find another way, not a Frost way, but my own way. How could I pen something like these lines below, which bring my senses to a standstill? There is nothing complicated here, yet my heart almost stops in contemplation of their perfection.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The mind wanders when one walks, sometimes creatively. There are many contemporaries of Frost whom I admire but I tried to think of women poets who also captured an identical humanity. Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson certainly delve into a well-spring of emotion in their individual ways but, because I was born in Australia, I recalled an Australian poet of the twentieth century, Mary Gilmore (1865-1962). Her insightful poetry addresses down-under life, landscape and history.

Gilmore was born nine years before Frost and they died within a year of each other yet I doubt they ever met. Without going into their respective experiences, suffice it to say they were both a product of rural life, of travel (he to U.K, she to Paraguay), and of the two world wars that consumed the literary mind of the twentieth century. Each of these familiarities gave them plenty of writing material and became the poetry tangle and mesh of their lives. Both wrote hundreds of poems, some more brilliant than others. Many are truly memorable. I rushed home to see what I could find. Would I hear Frost in Gilmore or vice versa?

It is a lovely thing to hear a bird,
And hear it through the leafy shadow of
The night! To seek a wing that goes unheard,
And trace its flight through some dim place above!
“The Mopoke”

Here’s a similar stanza:

The west was getting out of gold,
The breath of air had died of cold,
When shoeing home across the white,
I thought I saw a bird alight.
“Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter”

Which poet wrote each stanza? The rhyme schemes for both are standard for poems of that era, and both poems describe the beauty of a particular landscape as a bird takes flight, using the senses to appreciate the act. In fact, there is very little to differentiate each writer. However, the Mopoke is an Australian bird, while Frost’s reference to snow in the third line of the second stanza gives away his northern location. One cannot distil the complete oeuvre of the two poets in these small examples but there is ample evidence in each body of work to show how similar they were in their writing styles and subjects.

In “The Soldier,” Robert Frost writes:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust
But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

The poem goes on to say that, despite the man falling too soon in battle, the forward trajectory of his spirit is a far greater accomplishment.

Gilmore’s patriotism is equally moving:

And we swear by the dead who bore us,
By the heroes who blazed the trail,
No foe shall gather our harvest,
Or sit on our stockyard rail
“No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest”

Significantly, the two poets dovetail in their use of language itself—language that could be described as unsophisticated but which exhibits a superb mastery of technique. Both poets capture the core of human nature, while simultaneously exploring more obscure concerns. In “Devotion,” Robert Frost recognises the infinite relationship between shore and ocean, but also appears to question a life spent upholding a single idea

The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to ocean—
Holding the curve of one position
Counting and endless repetition

In her poem “Nationality,” Mary Gilmore recognises the value of the unity of mankind but, when it comes to sharing, her kin must come first.

All men at god’s round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

Both poets were members of literary groups: Frost of the Dymock group, which included Edward Thomas and Ezra Pound, and Gilmore of the Bulletin school, a radical literary group in Sydney. It is clear that the influence of other writers was a factor in their work. Frost’s mark was made early though his volume “North of Boston” published in 1914. He received four Pulitzer Prizes, and the Congressional Medal in 1960.

Gilmore’s rise to fame took longer although she published about the same amount of poetry as Frost. Her patriotic poems ensured her popular place in Australia’s history, and in 1937 she became the first Australian to be awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to literature.

Did they read each other’s work? I tend to think that Gilmore would have been aware of Frost’s poetry, especially through his early volumes published in the U.K., which would have been available in Sydney bookshops. Still, I can’t be certain of this. Did Frost read Gilmore’s work? Perhaps. As she became more famous down under, her work would have reached the eyes and ears of Frost’s literary circle. Even so, she was, and still is, largely unknown in the United States.

While there are a number of parallels in their poems in terms of topics and technique, Frost is undeniably American, Gilmore as equally Australian. Frost speaks of northern seasons: of trees, of birds of the East coast, of farms and stone walls. Gilmore’s work is peppered with indigenous words, with Australian native birds, with outback life and the seasons of the southern hemisphere.

But it’s the merging of their resemblances that stirred me to return to these poets and inspires me to write in a way that is unpretentious yet distinct from them. A paradox of a goal, I must admit. But a writer must write in his or her own way. The language of Frost and Gilmore has moved on, even the many things they were concerned about have changed, but it is not difficult to find examples of their practical language with regard to issues of importance.

In “Mending Wall,” Frost takes us on a journey with his neighbour as they walk each side of their wall, replacing fallen stones as needed. Frost’s speaker speculates as to why they need to do this—

My apple tree will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says “Good fences make good neighbors.”

As the poem progresses, we learn that the neighbor inherited this phrase from his own father and the time spent rebuilding parts of the wall, while not truly necessary to the well-being of the farm, is what binds each man to the other and, consequentially, each following generation to his neighbor.

The desire to be a good friend is also the theme of Gilmore’s much shorter poem, “The Wish,” in which the poet asks not for “wealth, nor length of days, nor pride, nor power, nor worldly praise”—

But just a little quiet place
Where a friend may come
Laying his hand on the door
As though it were home.

Both poems demonstrate very simply how friendship is reinforced, Frost with his refrain of “Good fences make good neighbors” and Gilmore with her quiet welcome to a friend “as though it were home.”

Those deer in winter. I’ve been told they’re hidden in forest depths. They’re conserving their energy, waiting for Spring; waiting for me to reflect on how best to describe not theirs but any quandary. Putting the finger on the keyboard is only one step. Reading Gilmore and Frost can ensure that we don’t lose what we already have—a way of engaging with the world using language that is both unaffected and lasting.

AGNI Monkey

Rowley406612007-010Judy Rowley, who was born in Australia, began her writing life while living in South Korea as a “trailing spouse.” To deepen her commitment to poetry and literature she completed a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at Manhattanville, NY, and an MFA in Poetry at Bennington Writing Seminars, VT. She writes poetry and essays, which have been published in several journals, and has recently published a memoir called Expected Home, A Memoir and a Mystery. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

The Progress of Reading

by Sven Birkerts

In the last while I’ve come to see that our way of reading conforms quite closely to our lives, changing as we change, and showing how our inner lives and priorities evolve over time. I say “our, ” but I should not presume—this is how it’s been for me.

Reading has been my center since childhood—reading, and then the writing that has been its natural outgrowth. My earliest reading was absolute. When I started in on certain books, I could feel everything around me fading as the ulterior world took on definition. It was like watching an image in the photographer’s developing tray. My imaginative projection would never be so strong again, though of course I didn’t know this.

As I grew into my teens, my reading naturally became more directed, less driven by these all-powerful identifications, though they still happened on occasion. There were now the books to be read for courses, but also the other, more personal ones— books that offered the compelling scenarios of unease and dislocation that somehow echoed me back to myself. A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye…And then, before long, there came the books that helped create the fantasies of the life I would lead: The Tropic of Cancer, The Alexandria Quartet, On the Road…As Kerouac’s Sal Paradise proclaimed: “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn…”

When that romantically grandiose phase of reading eased off, a different voraciousness took over. I graduated college and began what would be a decade or more of working in bookstores. When people sometimes ask me why I didn’t go on to get a Master’s degree, I tell them that bookstores were my masters. It’s almost impossible to work in a good bookstore and not catch the contagion. And I was lucky enough to start in at the very first Borders in Ann Arbor, one of the best.

Everything seemed to happen at once at this time. I was starting to write short stories, and at the same time trying to read most every book I shelved. Taking advantage of my employee discount, I went home every week with a bag of things I had to read. My syllabus was improvisatory—I followed the line of chance, one reference sending me here, another there. I wanted to know everything. I would make lists and draw elaborate charts showing how various writers were connected: Garcia-Marquez, Claude Levi-Strauss, Saint-Exupery—and those are just the ones with hyphens.

In the abbreviated version of my life, this decade-long phase shaded naturally into the next, which featured another version of omnivorousness. I began reviewing books. This was back when there were print outlets everywhere, and with some persistence and follow-through I eventually had all the reviewing assignments I could hope for. In the pre-Internet world—my pre-Internet world—reviewing often meant a good deal of prowling for references and quotes in books related to the one under consideration.

This reading phase—and now I’m really telescoping—went on until I was about fifty. I read and reviewed, and eventually began writing longer, more reflective essays on the books that were important to me. For me this was the richest engagement—lingering, following thematic paths, taking apart key passages as I tried to get to the beating heart of a favorite book. Virginia Woolf, Shirley Hazzard, Nabokov, James…

Things changed again as I took up teaching and, later, editing AGNI. Now I had a steady flow of student papers to study and grade, and submissions to read. There was also my late arrival in front of the digital screen, with its scrolling text and multiple hyperlinks, not to mention the add-on distractions. The beam of attention began to fracture. The reading life, that vale of soul-making, could not but register the change. The full-on plunge into alternate worlds was becoming less and less frequent. And also more taxing. I felt it. The will to imaginative projection was not as strong as it had been, and it was diminishing steadily.

I tried to blame the Internet culture, its way of deforming old patterns, causing distraction and compromising attention. But there was something else, too. As I got older, I found myself with less and less desire to gain entry into those other places that novels offer. I’d entered so many already. I would say to myself, “Why take up with yet another character when my own life feels so interesting?” My father’s words almost exactly when I asked him years ago why he did not read.

I see this now as another change of consciousness, one very much suited to this latest phase of life. “There is too much to read” has become, to take Saul Bellow’s book title: “There is simply too much to think about.”

I’m not saying that I don’t read—I do. But differently. It’s not the old Seven-League-Boots style of reading, impelled by some obscure desire for mastery. My reading now marks a change of scale and, correspondingly, ambition. What I want in this stage is, quite simply, to work through my experience and figure my life out. I look to get myself back to the writers I remember as having some genuine wisdom. I no longer read quickly or with the wide-angle lens. Instead, it’s like I’m bent over a loupe—studying passages, reading sentences slowly to get their deeper yield. I’m narrowing the aperture, looking for my own version of Borges’ Aleph, what he fancied as one point in space that miraculously contains all others. Except the point I seek out is more about time than space—a compression of the life I’ve lived from its very start to the present.

AGNI Monkey

FullSizeRenderSven Birkerts is the editor of AGNI. He is the former director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. He has published ten books, most recently Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf). 

A Brief and Possibly Pointless Disquisition on Truth and its Place in a Writer’s Life

by Patricia Traxler

Ever since Donald Trump took office, I’ve had endless questions about truth, beginning with the most basic of them all: What is it? What the hell is it? I know what Keats said, but let’s just deep-six the whole Truth is beauty trope right now, because it’s bullshit. Judging by the revealed truths in all of our lives, who can fail to see that truth is at least as often ugly as it is beautiful? (Yeah, it’s true that Andre Gide said, “The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty never,” but if that’s the best argument to bolster Keats’ claim, then let me just stop right here and promise not to offer any more quotes. Lies have more to do with truth than aphorisms do.)

Of course I realize it was the concept of truth—idealized truth, rather than its content—that Keats was describing. An aesthetic and ethical standard. And, sure, truth as an ideal does sound beautiful—but isn’t the concept of a non-negotiable and universal truth the refuge of insecure wankers, horseshit evangelists, and reactionary control freaks? After all, who is actually the arbiter of truth in our world? Surely not the current President of the United States, who is said to have told over 3,500 verified lies during his first eighteen months in office, and yet no one in his party has seemed a bit worried about it.

There are so many pretenders to the truth that rather than defining it or elaborating on it, it might make more sense to talk about its qualities or features, its virtues and limitations. Its application. Its place in our lives, if indeed it even has one anymore.

Some say truth is a function of time. Maybe. But if that’s correct and truth is mutable, should it really hold such sway over us? Can lying be justified on the basis of truth’s temporal aspect? I’m choosing to give truth its station for the purposes of this contemplation, because otherwise our entire world would seem to be in question, and that’s far too big a bite for me to tear off at the moment. Or, okay, ever.

I’m working on a collection of autobiographical essays, and I struggle daily to be certain that I have my facts straight. Of course, I have to—there are witnesses: I have seven siblings. And one of them is a lawyer. Another a linguist. Still another is a scholarly genealogist with a formidable memory and records to back her up.

Onward. Is there a difference between truth and fact? Can you be correct as to fact and still deeply mistaken as to truth? Let me hazard a guess….Yes.

Does each of us own our personal truth, in the way that an author owns the copyright to a fictional story? Do we have the right to prevent others from learning our truth? If so, is it wrong to do that by deceiving them? Could such deception simply be seen as the editing of our truth? Or does everyone have the right to an honest reply when they question us about our personal matters? And if not everyone, then who?

My mother, who had learned the Catholic method of rationalization at around the time she learned the Catholic method of birth control (rhythm—and she ended up with eight children…but I digress) arrived at and passed along her personal standard to me: It’s only a sin to lie if someone has a right to know your truth—and very few have that right. (Even by that standard, Donald Trump is in real trouble, since many of his lies during his time in office relate to the vital interests of every U.S. citizen.)

One thing I’m realizing here is that you can’t really discuss truth without talking about lies. But then you’re back to square one, definition: Beyond the deliberate misstatement of a fact as one knows it at a particular time, what else can or should be classified as a lie? Maybe it all goes to motivation, and if so, secrets are also lies of a sort. Silences, too, can be lies of omission. (See Adrienne Rich’s marvelous On Lies, Secrets, and Silence—her ideas on how the unspoken can become the unspeakable.) It seems as if whatever sort of lie may be at issue, any judgment must be predicated on whether it is willful, and whether it is justified.

But since truth holds a position of preeminence that seems to give order to our universe, what can possibly justify a lie? Maybe the need to shelter others from learning a truth that would be harmful, disturbing, or even destructive to them? Or to protect one’s own privacy, one’s own life? Somewhere, doesn’t a line have to be drawn? And can a lie ever be justified if its primary purpose is to shield one’s own (or someone else’s) private acts from public exposure?

Sometimes now the lies of my life revisit me when I’m alone, and I weigh them individually, trying to decide which were the worst. Or which may have been avoidable. At first I sort them like Tarot cards, separating the lies that I have told from those told to me by others. Then I divide those two categories into Lies of Omission and Lies of Commission. Next, I divide each of those categories into:

  1. Self-protective deceptions
  2. Deceptions whose purpose was to protect others
  3. Cowardly deceptions
  4. Lying for the hell of it
  5. Habitual self-deception

Eventually, I found it pointless and dispiriting to judge the degree of wrongness in the lies that others had told me—or had told about me or others—so I settled on limiting my judgments to my own lies. Even by that measure I fail to reach a clear level of certitude, though—because, first of all, I end up settling on the rationale that most of the lies I’ve told have been lies of omission—secrecy and silence—rather than lies of commission. And I don’t think I’ve ever slandered anyone intentionally or lied just for the hell of it. (Don’t forget, I spent a certain amount of my childhood on a creaky kneeler in a dark confessional, trying to figure out such moral puzzles as, “Is it a sin to try to arouse a boy by touching his necktie?” Father Slattery’s answer to that question was, “My dear, you are what we call ‘over-scrupulous’—the next time you think something might be a sin, just go ahead and do it.” It would be difficult to overstate the degree of relief that reply brought me.)

I seem to have been most often guilty of lies I’ve told myself. Or my mother. My late mother. Now that she’s no longer alive, I always tell her the truth. But I’m still alive and lying to myself.

Yes, I realize self-deception may be the very worst kind of lie, because if truth is what gives order to the universe (and where does that leave us under Trump’s rule?), then by lying to yourself, you’re embracing chaos and pointlessness.

The thousands—imagine that: thousands—of lies that Donald Trump has told the American public during his brief tenure—the lies he seems to tell us every single day—have caused not only a credibility deficit in our society, but also a sort of incredulity fatigue. These days, it’s almost easier simply not to care—but doesn’t that suggest that his promiscuity with the facts has devalued and endangered our former standards of truth? If no one calls him on his deceits and delusions, then what do we have, really? What’s real?

What I seem to be getting around to is this: Trump has actually helped me to see that we should always be scrupulous about telling the truth in our writing—including about things to which there were no witnesses but ourselves. By his egregious and promiscuous use of lies, he has made clear that nothing excuses lying for effect or self-aggrandizement.

I’m still contemplating self-deception, though—because, really, how do you know you’re doing it?

AGNI Monkey

3[1] Stephen Hébert NEWSWEEK 2
photo by Stephen Hébert, Newsweek
Patricia Traxler was twice named Bunting Poetry Fellow at Radcliffe, and has also served as the University of Montana’s Hugo Poet and Ohio State University’s Thurber Poet. Her poetry has appeared widely, including in The Nation, The Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Ms., Slate, Ploughshares, The LA Times Literary Supplement, and in many anthologies, including Best American Poetry. She is the author of four poetry collections and a novel, Blood (St. Martin’s/Macmillan), and she is completing work on a collection of essays, The Eternity Bird. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

Tricycle: On Truth, Memory, and Making Memoir

by Greg Bottoms

IMG_0389When I look this morning at the iconic photograph of a rusted tricycle in a driveway in front of two small brick houses on the cover of William Eggleston’s collection Guide, I consider starting a short memoir with an image of my own tricycle. Here, so it seems, is an object, a referent, from my childhood.

But my childhood doesn’t exist, not really—though, of course, it once did. It is now a set of unfixed images, fading stills of a time and place, which only develop when I call them forth, hold them up in the light of present consciousness, and then only for a second before they morph quickly into a kind of truth/fiction blend—memory’s shards with the help of imagination’s integrative force, pieces of the past repositioned and repurposed in the present.

In other words, I am a memoirist “looking” not through a viewfinder but through a fog of subjectivity, the necessities of linguistic construction, the human meaning-making impulse, and the tunnel of time. At the far end of all this is memory’s chosen topic—my tricycle—potential writing material, a blurry image against a dark background of nothingness, all the things I don’t remember.

From this apprehended image, I can use facts, my personal history, what I know, or think I know—more material from memory—as a context and a backdrop. These, too, can be dubious, however. What about all the forces that warp and bend this context? My protective delusions, my defensiveness, my self-justifications? My biological brain health? My emotional and psychological stability? Is my relationship to reality roughly akin to my intended and mostly imagined reader’s? Neuroscience tells us that it is what we forget as much as what we remember that forms our identity, our ever-evolving self.

So: A few things I can say with certainty as the cursor winks roughly in syncopation with my heartbeat: I lived in a house like the two visible in the photograph until I was seven. I had a tricycle like the one in the photograph. Rust on the bars. Hard rubber wheels. It is as if William Eggleston took hundreds of photographs of my life and memories.

Now as I “look” at my own tricycle in my memory in an attempt to capture it here in writing, make a little story of it, or at the very least describe it, my mind—I’m just letting it (my mind) go where it goes—veers toward a friend of mine from that time, when I lived in that house, named Nicky, a little Italian-American kid with a vocabulary like a hardcore rapper. I’m thinking that Nicky and I rode tricycles together. Must have. Otherwise why remember this? I think we did for a second, but then I realize, in the next second, this second, essentially mid-mental-construction of what could become a sentence, that I probably didn’t know him until first grade when we were too old to be riding tricycles.

I’ve just remembered something else.

Nicky’s dad owned the one pornographic theatre in Newport News, Virginia, (I need to fact-check this) and I used to play with him until my mom put two and two together, as they say, and she realized that this Nicky had a father named Nicky and this father named Nicky had been in the newspaper because some church groups wanted to close his theatre down. Big Nicky was the local champion of porn. I was friends with his kid. My mom was a good Methodist—my family studiously church-going. It was a short relationship.

Thing is, it now emerges out of the attic of my mind that Nicky—little Nicky, I mean—had a copper-orange 70s banana-seat cruiser, and he could ride it even though it was huge, an adult bike really, or a teenage bike anyway, and he was only seven.

I came to believe—this I remember very clearly, though I think we’ve established that in no way makes it so—that anyone who knew the words “fuck” and “dildo” and even “blow job” at seven and could ride an adult bike, a pretty sexy adult bike frankly…that there was a one-to-one correlation—i.e., advanced dirty vocabulary, advanced bike-riding skills. I believed that the fact that I couldn’t say those words because I didn’t know what they meant and my mom wouldn’t let me anyway was keeping me, somehow, on a little kid bike.

Now I love all kinds of language. I love, even, or at least sometimes, filthy language because of its subversive power, and the reason this is so, or at least the reason this is so in the moment of my thinking about it now, probably partly goes back to the times in my driveway and on the sidewalk in front of my house—the house in Eggleston’s photograph, but not quite—when Nicky, filthy-mouthed porn-theatre Nicky, was riding on his big bike, which seemed to me to be powered by his magic and awesomely shocking words.

I sat down an hour ago, looked at the cover of a book of photographs, and tried to remember my tricycle, or to use an image of a tricycle as a stand in for my tricycle and a kind of prompt, as a way to get started writing from memory and in a particular direction about a place and a time in my life, which I do think has rich material to be mined in regards to social class, race, the South, customs, culture, values, mores, beliefs, and the everyday rituals of American life and how they situate us, comfort us, carry us. Instead I ended up with Nicky, dirty words, and a big copper-orange, banana-seat bike. No tricycle anywhere near here. And now I’m not sure the kid’s name was Nicky. Maybe it was Mikey.

The cursor keeps winking on the white plane of the page. I’m thinking now that I’d be better off to write a cultural history essay on the one porn theatre in Newport News in the mid-1970s and the politics and social upheaval that arose around it. Or I could write some kind of more reflective or argumentative essay on the uses and value of foul language.

But I want to delve into the past, I want to write a story, and I want to write from and explore memory. I want to think about memory’s procedures. It is hard, though, to defend memoir, unlike photography, as sturdily “nonfiction” on even the most rudimentary philosophical grounds. Narrative writing from experience does not actually capture life; it replaces it with facsimile, the success of which has a lot to do with how slick this magic trick of facsimile, of creative writing skill, is performed. Again, my childhood doesn’t exist, though it once did. Call it fiction? I can’t. That feels like a bigger, more intentional lie in a different way.

Memoir, to me, must use facts, all that is or was real and available, as a skeleton and then adhere to the truth of thought, and of symbolic or felt truth, but it can only be honest, truly honest, if it acknowledges, on the page, in the text, the problematic relationship between memory and the ever-receding lived reality it is meant to describe. What Jean Cocteau said of himself is the best description of literary memoir I know: “I am a lie that always tells the truth.”

A memoir that rigidly abided by the narrow contemporary definitions of “nonfiction”—a word that should probably have a permanent place inside of quotation marks in the 21st century—would look something like the above paragraphs—a stuttering, digressive, self-reflexive anti-memoir, a memoir that progresses while obliterating its own existence.

AGNI Monkey

AGNI GBGreg Bottoms is the author of seven books, including the memoir Angelhead and the travel book The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art, both published by the University of Chicago Press. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Fail Better: How to Succeed at Writing Without Really Succeeding

by David Ebenbach

To be a writer is to give up on any hope of attaining perfection.

And that’s actually a good thing.

As a matter of fact, perfection is the wrong goal in the first place. As psychologist Brad Johnson and sociologist David Smith note, “Perfectionism and the desire to excel are not different locations on the same continuum; they are entirely different constructs….In their quest to avoid mistakes, perfectionists stifle their creativity and avoid taking necessary risks.”

Instead of perfectionism, we’ve got to be open to failure. In her book Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg wrote, “It was important to give myself permission to fail. It is the only way to write. We can’t live up to anyone’s high standards, including our own.” In fact, according to novelist Will Self, “To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail—the disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content, and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short.” And then author Anne Enright: “I have no problem with failure—it is success that makes me sad. Failure is easy. I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people. Even when I am pointed the right way and productive and finally published, I am not satisfied by the results. This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do. It is built in.”

But is this just more perfectionism? Do these authors actually have impossibly high standards that they could never possibly meet? No, and here’s why not: These authors live with imperfection. They don’t only dwell in it as they work; they put that “failed” work out there in the world, which is the kind of thing a perfectionist could never do. And these writers fail because they’re trying to make something real, something living and breathing. Nothing alive is perfect. (Consider this: our food and water pipe is immediately next to our breathing pipe!)

These authors fail because they would rather have something alive than perfect.

I’ve certainly never done anything perfectly. I’m proud of my work, but I’ve never written anything that came out exactly as I’d have hoped. The closest I came was a story I once wrote called “This Is This Story”—I wrote it in one clean go, and once it was out, I thought, “Yes—that’s basically what I was trying to say.” The only problem is that it was a boring story. It was a very boring story because it did what I wanted it to do, like a machine. I ultimately made sure “This Is This Story” did not end up in my collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories.

So there’s the paradox: the perfect is boring, what we already know is boring, and the only interesting thing is the living imperfection.

Again, this is a good thing. According to writer David Zahl: “The mistakes in a work of art are not flaws so much as footholds for identification and sympathy.”

And back to Will Self: “This is the paradox for me: in failure alone is there any possibility of success.”

For her part, Natalie Goldberg tries to reframe the concept: “Failure is a hard word for people to take. Use the word kindness then instead. Let yourself be kind. And this kindness comes from an understanding of what it is to be a human being. Have compassion for yourself when you write. There is no failure—just a big field to wander in.”

Well, then, what does wandering look like? According to Grace Paley, “The writer is not some kind of phony historian who runs around answering everyone’s questions with made-up characters tying up loose ends. She is nothing but a questioner.”

As for which questions, David Zahl offers a few: “Failure reframes the questions the artist asks themselves. Instead of what should I create or who should I be, you ask what am I creating? Who am I? If I can’t say what I should say effectively, what do I want to say? These, by the way, are the more difficult questions—and ones which never receive a complete answer. Which is why they’re also more fructifying.”

So, the second step (the first step was to abandon perfectionism) is to ask yourself: what do you care about? (Feel free to pause and do a twenty minute free-write on the question. This article will still be here when you’re done.)

The third step is to risk diving into the unknown. You’re not looking for something easy to solve. In fact, what you’re looking for might not be solvable at all. One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from painter Philip Pearlstein: “I don’t see why painting should get easier. Someone once said that, in a sense, an artist needs a problem he can’t solve. The lucky ones get into a problem that is unsolvable, so they keep going and there’s a growth, evolution.” Or here’s some additional excellent advice from Paley: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”

(Here you could pause to make a list of all the things you don’t understand about the things you care about.)

Understand that this perspective isn’t cynicism; it’s hope. When you let go of perfectionism, you allow the possibility of something great happening. Or, in the words of Samuel Beckett, from his pretty baffling piece Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

That’s our job: to fail better—more interestingly, more passionately, with more life, getting closer to what we really care about—than we used to fail. That kind of failure is infinitely better than perfection.

AGNI Monkey

2017-03-23 02 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at