Tuesday, September 25, 2007

God Drunk

The novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is pretty great. (She also wrote one of my other favorite novels: Housekeeping.)

The voice in Gilead is wonderfully convincing. The narrator is a minister in his 70’s who’s got a bad heart and is writing to his 7 year old son who will never probably be able to know his father really, know what his father was like. So the minister starts telling his life story which involves telling about his father who was also a minister and his grandfather who was also a minister, one who rode with the abolitionist John Brown. The book is a sort of history of religion in America across the last 150 years, talking about Karl Barth and Sartre, and talking about how God gave the American people visions back then to encourage us to break the chains that bound the Africans to the mud of slavery.

And this novel also gives a beautiful evocation of life in Kansas and Iowa since the middle of the 19th century. Robinson, who's from small town Idaho I believe, really knows how to write down what it's like to live the kind of quiet life you get in places like Charleston, Illinois, a town I lived in for 25 years. The minister's son in the novel is 7 years old in 1956. So, for me, there are also lots of charming moments that remind me of my growing up. The boy’s watching the Cisco Kid (one of my favorites) on a tiny TV set, going to movie theaters to see movies about US Marshalls in wide brimmed sombreros rounding up bad guys riding hard-tracking mustangs, etc. It does take me back.

I like the history and the prairieness and the popular culture references a lot, but I’m not sure what I make of the novel finally. It is so Christian, so God taken and God drunk. I figure that maybe Robinson is arguing that Christianity should return itself to the sort of humility it had at some point in the past when it was beset by existentialism. But I’m not sure if Christianity ever had that sort of humility. I know that the Catholicism I knew in the 50’s was never humble. It was pretty muscular. The Pope was a sort of ecclesiastical Uncle Sam rolling his sleeves back to punch the God-cursing Commie specter of Joe Stalin in the nose.

Are there any humble religions? I know there are humble people inside (and outside) religions, but humble religions? Self effacing religions? Head bowing religions?

I'm not sure.

(That's a picture of Marilynne Robinson back in 2005 when she won the Pulitzer for Gilead. If you want to read some reviews of the book, you can click on the link on the right margin of this page, toward the bottom.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Update on "The Short View"

I’m getting a lot of comments about the blog I posted yesterday about Sept. 11. Some of them were sent into the comments space, and some have come directly to me. I’ve tried to encourage the folks who sent directly to me to post to the comment space, or let me post for them. I’ve succeeded in some cases, but not in others.

The comments have generally been of two kinds. There are the people who wrote in and said they too were thinking about where they were and what their friends were doing that day in 2001. Some of them wrote about the friends they had lost. These are the people who, I guess, felt the way I did yesterday.

For me, it was a day of mourning and remembering the trauma that ripped through my family. My wife Linda’s from Brooklyn, and she has a lot of relatives in the New York area. We were both thinking about them yesterday, and thinking too about their friends and their friends’ friends, all that wide and complex set of connections we all worried about on 9/11 and the weeks after.

Like I said, it was a day of mourning for me, and I think it was a day of mourning too for some of the people who wrote in and told about their friends and family.

The other letters I got were from the people who felt that this anniversary of 9/11 called for something more than mourning. These letters suggested that the kind of emotions I was talking about in my piece “The Short View” were the kind of emotions that have gotten us into trouble politically, militarily, socially, and culturally. These letters suggested that politicians use the kind of emotions I was showing to their own ends, and that in this case, the ends were terrible, the continuation of a war in which there are more and more deaths each day with little accomplished and less in sight.

I really can’t argue with that bleak assessment of the war. The deaths are in fact terrible. I haven’t done much research but I’ve done some, and the numbers of dead and wounded suggest that there are a lot of people here and in Iraq who are mourning.

As of today, the Iraqi military and civilian death count since 2005 when the Iraqi Coalition Casaulties site (
http://icasualties.org/oif/default.aspx) started counting is about 43,000. That’s about 37,000 Iraqi civilians.

As of September 10, 2007, the site reports 3,765 confirmed US military deaths with 9 pending confirmation. The Department of Defense has confirmed a little less than 37,000 military people wounded or medically evacuated. The DoD also reports 122 US suicides.

I really don’t know how to begin thinking about all of the human cost in misery and pain. About 48,000 people dead and a country that’s been chopped up and blasted apart? I was talking to a mathematician yesterday, and she told me that a person generally can’t imagine more than a thousand of anything. 48,000 deaths of US and Coalition Forces and Iraqis? It’s difficult to imagine a number of dead people that high. And the number of wounded on both sides? And the number of people touched by those deaths and those wounds? That’s harder still to imagine.

How high is it? It’s hard to say, but I know I’ve had students who went to Iraq, fought and were wounded in Iraq. We all know people “on our side” touched by this war. I used to commute a lot when I was teaching in Illinois and living in Georgia. Every week, I would pass through the airport in Atlanta – it was full of soldiers going to Iraqi. The odds are that some of those boys and girls never saw the US again. And the numbers on the other side? Higher still. Higher still.

When I wrote the “Short View” piece in 2001, I was responding to that time and what was going on in America. Am I ready to give up the “Short View” and start thinking only about the “Long View”?

I don’t think so.

I’m not an either/or sort of person. I can’t say I’ll stop being emotional, taking the short view, and start being rational and take the long view. I tend to see things as both/and. I don’t know where that comes from, maybe from my parents who both went through the slave labor camps and came out two very different people, maybe it comes from growing up bi-lingual and bi-cultural and generally confused by how complicated the world is. Whatever the reason, I’m hesitant to pin myself down, choose one side or the other.

I can take the short view, feel grief and mourning, but I can also feel that we need to close the book on America and Iraq, just the way the British did in 1917 when they invaded the country and found themselves fighting a war they could never win, against a country that didn’t want to see anything of them except their backside.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Short View and the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks

I got a letter on Sept. 12, 2001, from my friend Bill Anderson who tended to take a cynical view of people and government and the human animal in general. The following was the response I wrote to him that day:

I wish I could take the long view the way you do, Bill: look at the attack, and see it the way it probably is: Bush seeing this as his way of putting a lock on his second term, Americans showing their true nature by making money on increased gas prices, Hollywood being angry because this will put the next Bruce Willis film on hold for 2 weeks. The long view: we're all self-serving crooks.

I'm not good at the long view. I'm more of a short view guy: One of my wife Linda's cousins saw the first tower go down from her office. Her name is Lisa. She was a wonderfully fat baby. One time her mom, Linda's Aunt Anne, dressed her in a tutu, and Linda's dad Tony laughed and laughed, and still 25 years later the family talks about the tutu and how much we all loved her in her tutu and laughed with joy at her beauty.

Lisa got out okay. She was evacuated, and finally found herself across the river at a phone booth in Hoboken, New Jersey. She called home to Aunt Anne and Uncle Buddy. He’s also a short view guy: He was with Patton's soldiers when they freed the first concentration camps. He still shakes and cries when he remembers the piles of corpses.

My niece is an emergency room nurse at NYU hospital (I think I saw her in the background on an NBC spot about the hospital--but I wasn't sure. She looked old and tired and gray with pain). Her dad, Linda's brother Bruce, was calling her and calling her to make sure she was okay. Finally she got through to him late in the afternoon on Tuesday. He begged her to leave the hospital, said he would drive down from Connecticut and get her. Cried and begged her. He said he was her father and she had to listen to him. (Bruce isn't much of a crier. He's a jokey, tough Brooklyn guy.) But she was his baby and he wanted her away from all of it. And she said she couldn't leave. He cried some more and pleaded, and she hung up on him. She had to get back to work.

And all those people looking for their relatives and friends, holding pictures up to the TV cameras and telling us about how some guy was a great friend, and he was a waiter in a restaurant at the top of the building. And I see this picture of this poor foreign looking schmuck with a big nose and a dopey NY baseball cap that's way too big, who probably came here with a paper suitcase and thought that working up at that restaurant was the greatest thing possible in the world. And the friend hoping to find this guy thinks this guy is alive someplace, maybe in a coma in some hospital.

And I know there's not a chance in hell this guy or any other guy or gal in any of these pictures is alive. They're dead, all dead, but I wouldn't tell this guy holding the picture.

Boy, these are stories that touch me so hard I can't think about the other stuff, the long view.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Upcoming Poetry Readings

I'll be doing some poetry readings over the next couple weeks and I thought I would mention them here and invite everybody to the readings. In all of the readings, I'll be reading from my two new books about my parents and their experiences in the slave labor camps.: Lightning and Ashes and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.

The first reading is for the lecture series sponsored by the Women's and Gender Studies program at VSU. It will be at 7pm, Tuesday, Sept. 11 at the Bailey Science Center at Valdosta State University.

Here's some info about that and the entire series:


The following week I'll be giving a reading at Western Kentucky University, at 7pm, Tuesday, Sept. 18.

The next day, I'll be reading my poems about my parents as part of the Eastern Illinois University conference on World War II and James Jones. The reading is at 3pm, Sept. 19, in the library.

Here's the website with further information:


All of the above are free and open to the public, but if you can't come, you can hear and see me read on line. Janusz Zalewski and Henryk Gajewski put together a website of readings from the January 2007 PAHA conference.

Here's that link: http://gajewski.tv/poets/