Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Tag: Books

ALL FROM ONE WHITNEY ANCESTOR

With my interest in subterranean transit systems – remember my novel Subway Hitchhikers? – I found myself fascinated with Doug Most’s The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subways.

His 2014 book is an ambitious project, filled with some detailed but rambling asides as well as more than a few slips I wouldn’t expect from a Boston Globe managing editor. (I doubt the family ever settled into a 16-acre farmhouse, and I know that Springfield is more than an hour from Boston today while in the period he referenced the trip would have taken days. Etc.) But his description of the technological developments, urban congestion, corrupt politics, personal financial empires, and similar forces that led to the creation of what we take for granted in our largest and greatest cities can be a gripping tale.

Equally fascinating for me, though, has been a connection that emerges out of Watertown, a Boston suburb just west of Cambridge. Crucial to Most’s story is John Whitney, a 1635 arrival to the town, which was at one time the second largest settlement in Massachusetts. Two of his descendants, brothers born further west in the state, provide the “incredible rivalry” in Most’s history, but it’s the original Whitney I find suggesting yet another ambitious history. He’s the root of a most remarkable American family.

The Methodist church where my choir rehearses weekly in Watertown was founded by Whitneys, and when the current building was erected in 1895, no expense was spared. There are impressive touches. And when one of the boys from this line moved to Detroit, he became that city’s wealthiest resident by age 28.

The deep pockets that shaped the space we sing in came from the inventor of the paper bag, it turns out – and, more important, the inventor of the machine to make it.

He’s far from being the only significant inventor or investor in the family. Eli Whitney, for one, created the cotton gin that allowed slavery-based plantations to flourish in the American South.

I get the sense that the list of inventions and inventors is a long one.

More recently, the investor John Hay Whitney owned the New York Herald-Tribune in a period when it evolved into my favorite newspaper ever, even if it was the paper’s final five years. (He also owned the Sunday newspaper supplement Parade magazine.)

Don’t overlook the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, another family legacy, or Joan Whitney Payson, an acclaimed collector who left the Portland, Maine, art museum rather than New York’s MOMA a marvelous trove of Impressionist paintings, a move that shocked much of the art world but, well, we live only an hour from Portland – we celebrate her independence.

Come to think of it, there’s one twist of note here. Watertown is still not served by a subway.

OUT IN THE STICKS AND STONES

Reflecting on the locations of my novels reminds me of the out-of-the-way places I’ve lived. Apart from Baltimore (which shows up in my poetry but none of my fiction), I landed in generally obscure locales.

Fiction, of course, lends itself to abstraction and generalization, and sometimes to a blending of several particular models.

Thus, Prairie Depot in Promise as well as Peel (as in apple) and With a Passing Freight Train of 119 Cars and Twin Cabooses reflects any number of farm centers across the Midwest, not all of them county seats, either. They’re once-thriving communities that have been left behind in the shift to the big cities and global economics. Sometimes there’s a factory or two, plus the rail yards and crossings.

The countryside around the campus in Daffodil Sunrise is more rolling and wooded, a landscape that also appears in sections of Promise, St. Helens in the Mix, and my newest novel-in-the-works. Actually, it’s not that different from the rural places in Ashram, Hippie Drum, and Hippie Love, either. While these, too, are economically and politically bypassed, they are more scenic and present more recreational opportunities to explore.

Rehoboth in Hometown News represents the industrial cities hard-hit by globalization and the loss of unionized labor job – places aptly described as the Rust Belt, from Upstate New York and Pennsylvania westward across the Mississippi.

Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider takes place in yrUBbury, a derelict but sufficiently remote mill town somewhere in the Northeast.

Naturally, Subway Hitchhikers and Third Rail run through the big city.

And the desert interior of the Pacific Northwest is the culmination of Promise, Peel (as in apple), St. Helens in the Mix, and Kokopelli’s Hornpipe. It’s a landscape I initially found alien but eventually came to love.

Essentially, I’ve regarded these places as characters in my fiction – as much as the people who move through them.

Popular culture takes place largely in Manhattan, Hollywood, London, Paris, Chicago, or Nashville – with dashes of San Francisco, Seattle, or other trendy backdrops thrown in. I believe the communities where we live influences our outlooks and actions. I want to hear much more from the other places, ones as overlooked as the ones I explore.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE BLACK SPREAD EAGLE ON LUDGATE HILL

Sometimes in exploring a niche of history, you come across an unexpected incidental detail that significantly alters your previous perception. For example, many of the earliest Quaker tracts and books bear the imprint of Giles Calvert, a publisher and bookseller at the Black Spread Eagle on Ludgate Hill near St. Paul Cathedral in London.

So extensive is his Quaker role that I’d assumed Calvert (1612-1663) was a member of the Society of Friends. For one thing, he was the elder brother of Martha Simmonds, an early Quaker convert and a central character in the notorious Bristol Controversy of 1656 that led to the blasphemy trial and conviction in Parliament of a leading Friends’ minister, James Nayler. The connection intensifies when you discover that two years earlier she had joined with Friends and the next year married Thomas Simmonds, who (according to one account) took over the shop from Calvert, by then the leading publisher of Quaker literature. And Martha Simmonds (1624-1665) was hardly shy about public protest and witness on behalf of her faith. She’s a controversial figure in her own right as she challenged much of the male leadership of the emerging Quaker movement.

One earlier connection I’d come across was Calvert’s role as publisher of Gerrard Winstanley’s True Leveller (or Digger) writings from 1648 to 1652, the year the Quaker works begin appearing. Winstanley was a radical religious and political thinker and leader, one who later had an influential role among Friends even if he drifted away for a while – his life leaves many questions and holes for the curious.

Still, it’s enough to strengthen Calvert’s position as a Quaker vanguard.

In my recent reading of Douglas Gwyn’s Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience (Pendle Hill Books, 2000), a broader portrait emerges.

Gwyn makes a critical connection that begins with Parliament’s attempt to impose Presbyterianism on the Church of England. “One factor that doomed the project to failure was the suspension of censorship of the press,” itself a parallel to the suspension of mandatory church attendance amid the waves of civil war. “Religious ideas that before 1642 had circulated only below the surface, if at all, now reeled off presses in exponentially expanding numbers. Propaganda pieces, ranging from one-sheet ‘broadsides’ to tomes hundreds of pages long were printed and sold at low cost.”

This had my mind leaping backward to the sense that many underground religious and spiritual streams had somehow survived in Britain for centuries, in part because of valiant efforts that kept the Roman Catholic Inquisition at bay. Queen Mother Joan of Kent’s influence at the trial of John Wycliffe and the Lollards in 1378 remains a pivotal moment in the history of freedom of religion. We were a long way from tolerance, but it was far superior to the terrors of the papal machine.

Gwyn, though, introduces Calvert at this later point beginning in 1642, “One of the most notorious publishers of dissenting literature … among the first publishers in England who was not also a printer.” (That, in itself, is a fascinating detail. I had assumed he handset the type himself, placed the paper and ink of the flat press, and collated and bound the pages. Instead, he served as a go-between.) “Over the course of his career,” which began in 1643, “he published more than 600 of the most radical tracts and books written in England during that period. … Calvert was questioned, fined, and imprisoned briefly on various occasions for his publishing activities, but he was never really silenced. Once the door was opened for a free press, it was never to be effectively closed again.”

It was enough to send me back to Christopher Hill’s classic The World Turned Upside Down (Penguin, 1975), where Calvert gets two mentions, the first for his Quaker service. In the other, a longer overview, Hill observes, “The printer Giles Calvert’s shop perhaps came the closest to uniting the radicals in spite of themselves – ‘that forge of the devil from whence so many blasphemous, lying scandalous pamphlets for many years past have spread over the land,'” as one critic put it. Hill then notes that A.L. Morton, the leading scholar on the Ranter movement, “stresses the importance of Calvert as a unifying force.” Hill has Calvert working as late as 1662 “still inciting the publication of seditious literature, and after his death in 1663 his widow continued his policy.” Unclear is whether Calvert was still with the Black Spread Eagle or working more independently; either way, he was a force who’s largely unknown today.

It’s heady stuff, of course. Here we have a champion in the history of freedom of the press and the circulation of revolutionary ideas itself. At the moment, Giles Calvert gets a single sentence as his Wikipedia entry – and that notes his publication of John Saltmarsh, another important influence on Quaker thought, as Gwyn delineates.

As a writer and editor, I am as fascinated by the idea of a bookstore that also showcases its own line of books and pamphlets as I am by the existence of a bold publisher of revolution, political, spiritual, or even literary. Think of City Lights Books in San Francisco in our own time, with its line of poetry from the Beat and Hippie years. No doubt there are many others over the centuries.

I wonder, too, about the bookstore itself. Was it more like a newsstand, with the latest blast hot-off-the-press as must-have material? (That has me thinking of record stores back in the Beatles era!) Think, too, of the audience hungry for the most recent release – in contrast to our surfeit of information today. What were the discussions like, too, in deciding whether to publish a piece or edit it or, perhaps, in gathering customers around a table to debate the merits of the most current issues? Who frequented the shop, for that matter?

Imagine, if you will, the movie version. I want the key characters to be ink-stained, for starters, and maybe tobacco smokers.

Actually, I’m beginning to wonder. Would this be more like a porn shop? At least before the Internet took over? Customers entering surreptitiously, hoping not to be seen? And then slip away again?

Well, Quaker was a term of derision. As well as one of scandal. Bear it as we may.

OUT OF A WHIRLWIND IN A GUST OF PASSION

Composing my Braided Double-Cross collection marked a turning point, one that came as I was getting my feet back on the ground as a poet after getting sidetracked into the demands at a shirt-sleeves management level and later focusing on novel-length fiction. Up to this point, my poems and, for that matter, much of my fiction focused on place – the outdoors, especially.

Personally, recovering from the collapse of a marriage and what I thought was better tomorrow on the horizon, I hunkered down back in the ranks of my career rather than trying to climb the proverbial ladder. I needed to catch my breath and nurse my wounds. This included a deep review of my life, the nature of relationships, the meanings of being male, connecting in contemporary society – and somehow, that all came into play when I came across an announcement for a book-length poetry competition by a university press. In some flash of intuition, I decided to do a 60-page collection based on notes I’d been gathering. Two weeks later, I was exhausted – but the draft was done.

It wasn’t the first time I’d done a poetry manuscript based on a focused theme. My American Olympus, conceived as a longpoem, had earlier tackled the Olympic Peninsula. But this was the first time I chose to work with individual poems of a general length and style, and it was a leap into love, not in the traditional vein but of a more brutal, realistic take on today’s interactions.

While I had already drafted a novel that would break out into Promise, Peel (as in apple), St. Helens in the Mix, and Kokopelli’s Hornpipe, its focus was more on marriage and trying to work as a couple or with other couples.

Now I was venturing into fresh territory. With Braided Double-Cross – and the subsequent Blue Rock and Long Stemmed Roses in a Shattered Mirror, each of which tackles the same subject in its own unique structure – you could say I was taking the “inner child” concept a step further. These look at love and loving from the perspective of an “inner teen” – one full of adolescent passion, defiance, anger, hunger, raging hormones, overwhelming loneliness. I wanted to record it in its fullness.

At the time, readers and editors under the age of 45 seemed to rave about the work. Those older were largely appalled. Somehow, I still find that telling.

Over the years, the material has also worked itself into many of my other poems; I do have a fondness for Baroque and a respect for the way Bach and Handel recycled so much of their composition. I think, too, that much of the graffiti mosaic or jazz infused energy found in my poetry takes off from this point.

Well, about three decades have transpired since all that. I’m glad I wrote the poems when I did, the way I did. Today would be a different story.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

TRACING THE BRAIDS

In the early 1990s, when my writing focus returned with a vengeance to poetry, I found myself drafting in a fevered few weeks the 60 pieces that span the Braided Double-Cross collection.

Soon, I was drawing on many of the images and phrases for two alternative series, one of them being Blue Rock, with its own structure and style, and the other being Long Stemmed Roses in a Shattered Mirror, released last year.

Many of the poems, presented as “Crossings,” have appeared widely in small literary journals around the world. Now, for the first time, they’re presented complete, as originally intended.

~*~

Braided Double-Cross

Braided Double-Cross

Enjoy this collection and more at Thistle/Flinch editions.

 

OUT OF OBSESSION INTO THE BLAZE

Words or appearances often mask deeper, contradictory currents. Sometimes, as they tangle, each knot becomes an aching triangle.

In the throes of romantic passion, a participant will choose one line of argument over the evidence of another. To call him or her a victim is hardly accurate, no matter the pain, even after the heart and mind conflict.

The poems of Braided Double-Cross arise in such obsession, the white-hot tension rather than in some cool quietude years later – the pursuit of a golden ideal and then falling. Call them love poems if you dare.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

IN THE OVERLAPPING KNOTS

What the heart hears and sees may be quite different from what the mind observes and records, much less decides. These may be considered two strands in a braid, into which a third is woven. As for the third? It may be the beloved Other or some Unknown factor or even the undisclosed Rival. Each possibility leads to some distinct  tension in the series of overlapping knots.

The poems of Braided Double-Cross move through sexual attraction and passion into obsession, rejection, even betrayal. In the heated accusations and arguments between lovers, the dialogue – reaching into childhood, history, geography, career aspirations, and the future – invokes an absent, silent third participant, a recognition of the inequality emerging in the core relationship itself. Details of confession mount quietly. Truth becomes unbearable. At times a scream is silent. The braid ultimately becomes a whip. As Diane Wakoski has observed, “Rapunzel and the witch were always one / and the same.”

It’s what Ted Berrigan, in the American sonnets this set emulates, called belly-to-belly white heat.

~*~

Braided Double-Cross

Braided Double-Cross

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

FROM HIPPIE TO HOLY

Reading Douglas Gwyn’s 2000 book, Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience, in light of America’s recent political campaigns has him looking downright prophetic. Even though he focuses most of his pages on the emerging Quaker movement in the turbulence of 17th century Britain, his opening chapter looks closely at the 1960s, when “crises of conscience rocked American institutions and authorities.” While the counterculture revolution spanned the political and economic scene, “Religious institutions and authorities were no exception. The postwar religious consensus, one of the strongest in American history, began to flounder.”

As regular readers of the Red Barn will recognize, he’s leading straight into some of my central concerns, especially as he attempts to make sense of the era’s impact over the subsequent years. I like his introduction of sociologist Steven Tipton, who “has argued that, in different ways, Americans continue trying to get ‘saved from the ’60s.’ For some, it is the search for final deliverance from the religious conformism of the early ’60s, which they found personally stifling and morally bankrupt. Meanwhile, others seek deliverance from the legacies of the ‘counterculture,’ from the moral chaos and personal confusion they found so disturbing in the late ’60s.”

Of course, it wasn’t just religion. “Tipton characterizes the countercultural revolt of the ’60s as a crisis of meaning and morality in the face of accelerating technological innovation and bureaucratic organization in American society.” Gwyn then goes on to examine a whole range of currents unleashed at the end of World War II and then transformed in the baby boom generation – way too much to encapsulate here.

Quite simply, these are matters that remain largely unresolved, especially for those of us who came of age during the upheaval and for our children and now, for many, our grandchildren. It remains a mixed bag of continuing portent.

As someone whose hippie openings led to living in a yoga ashram, or monastic community, which then pointed me on a journey to affiliating with the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I can see religion as both “saving” me from the ’60s and simultaneously enhancing its vision. And I am deeply concerned about the marginalization of religious discourse from general society – especially when it comes to the left.

Gwyn picks up on this track in his final chapter, especially as he looks at a touchy topic labeled truth. It was one I had been forced to face in examining the basic early Quaker metaphors of the Light and the Seed and, as it turned out, the Truth. My own efforts soon had me exploring ways to engage truth as a verb, but trying to find an appropriate visual image remained elusive, no matter how intriguing the options. Gwyn solves this quite eloquently:

By recognizing truth as a living, moving being, we may better remember that truth is a someone we must serve, not a static entity we can master. Hence, the four-part framework we have defined is not a “cage” designed to capture truth. Rather, it offers a guide to the dynamics of a faithful conversation of truth. By being accountable to one another in that conversation, we form communities accountable to truth.

That is, Gwyn turns to the life of Jesus. In doing so, he could have saved me a lot of effort! (We’ll likely get to his four-part framework in a future post.) He then turns to O.A. Piper, who

contrasts the truth witnessed in John’s gospel and letters with the static Platonic ideal. For Plato, truth always lies beyond words; its concrete expression will always be flawed. For John, truth is an active, creative, temporal reality; it moves from provisional to final expression. Therefore, Christ is not the essence of all truths. Rather, he reveals the goal for which the world is destined. The provisional expressions of truth given final expression in the incarnate Word include not only the revelation of Moses (e.g., John 6:3) but also the Greek philosophical traditions more implicitly evoked along the way. For John, truth has an eschatological character, since it unfolds in history, moving toward final expression. Through the life of Jesus, the Gospel of John portrays the struggle of truth against falsehood. 

This approach to truth, as Gwyn observes, is hardly confined to religion. It is an ongoing conversation. Without it

we live in one another’s unexamined “shadow” of projected fears and secret desires. Too often, we “seek” mainly to avoid those we fear and loath.

And then, Gwyn’s words leap far ahead to events far in the future of when he wrote them:

Not only does our seeking become self-referential and esoteric, but our continued indulgence in stereotypical versions of the “others” fuels alienated, paranoid politics of mutual aversion that will only breed more trouble in the future.

Oh, my, have they! Even in 2000, he saw the two sides

are strongly polarized today. Orthodox traditionalists continue in a reflexive mode we might call fundamentalist universalism, an insistence that the traditionalist truths they have reclaimed (or never abandoned) have absolute, non-negotiable validity for people everywhere. Those who do not respond to those truths are written off as “lost.” … Meanwhile, liberal progressivists continue in an inversely reflexive mode we will term universalist fundamentalism, a Platonic insistence that truth remains beyond the language and spiritual devotion of any group. … Groups … claiming to know and impart truth in any definitive sense are by definition wrong. … Moreover, as we continue to discredit and neutralize one another, the ruling interests of the age will further consolidate their power over all of us. [398]

Both assume that the truth is some static entity. …

Sound familiar?

Turning to “your truth” as distinct from “my truth” won’t get us anywhere, by the way. We require some common ground where we can exchange what we value and envision, along with ways to pursue them.

As the presidential race headed toward the finish line, we heard many accusations and fears about Muslims thrown into the fray – in effect, a challenge from the fundamentalist universalism side regarding its defense of truth as it understood it. The universalist fundamentalist side still hasn’t heard the underlying challenge, at least not in any way I’ve yet heard.

There were all too many lies tossed about in the campaign season. We need to get back to speaking in truth. And that, for me, means the practice of religion, one way or another.

PUTTING HIPPIES IN A FRESH PERSPECTIVE

Regular readers here at the Red Barn know my endeavors to better elucidate the hippie outbreak and its legacy on both the American experience and global culture. As I’ve said, many of us who were caught up in the groundswell have long lived in a kind of psychological denial – something that’s had disastrous impact on public policy and, for some of us, our personal development as well.

The closest parallel I’ve seen in history comes in mid-1600s Britain through the heady years of its civil war and Interregnum before the Restoration. This was a time of radical awakening, apocalyptic faith, youthful yearning, vast social change, and crushed opportunity. Trying to make sense of it all in following its course is mindboggling, at best, as wave after wave of varied political, economic, and religious parties swelled, shattered, scattered, and resurfaced in new form. Even placing an individual within the action can be difficult, especially when the identities overlapped, as they often did, frequently without formal membership, and important voices commonly leave us little biographical substance to draw on today. Christopher Hill’s ambitious overview is aptly titled, The World Turned Upside Down.

This is also the time that the Quaker movement, or what coalesced as the Society of Friends, emerged from the ruins as one after another of the factions were crushed. As someone who became a Friend as a consequence of my hippie encounters, the English history has had a personal fascination, even before learning of my Quaker ancestry within it.

Now I’m delighted – and a tad embarrassed, actually – to discover another Friend who shares that dual investigation. It wasn’t that he was unknown to me; I’d read many of his other books, but had somehow overlooked Douglas Gwyn’s Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience (Pendle Hill Books, 2000). OK, the title gives no clue of the hippie angle, and the Seekers are commonly cast as yet one more radical group – a turning point once its members rallied around George Fox when he carried his mission into northern England in 1652. My focus had been more on the Mennonite-infused General Baptists and their previous influence on Fox, especially through Elizabeth Hooten. Oh, my, we can get technical. Besides, many hippie-influenced Quakers simply love that word “seeker” used in a religious context, and that had somehow made me wary. Still, in conversations last summer, Doug left me realizing I needed to find out what else he was up to in this angle.

Wow, am I glad! His opening chapter rips straight through the hippie explosion, with a special focus on the streams it’s stimulated in religious identity and the consequences. It’s not that he’s unsympathetic. We were both at Indiana University in the freewheeling time of protest, and he went on to Berkeley, California, as pastor of its Friends Church. What he presents is a profound, nuanced examination that needs to be pondered in its fullness, along with its applications today. But I’ll offer this excerpt as a starting point:

… much of the resentment, conflict, and occasional violence generated by our current culture wars emerges from our own unexamined internal shadows. If we would seek a fuller vision of the truth, we must also seek one another. Religious and moral reconstruction in America will necessarily involve some kind of atonement across present battle lines. Toward that reconciliation and restoration of covenantal wholeness, it is important to remember that the dialectic of seeking and finding, of standing still and wandering, is greater than any of us.

If anything, this has become all the truer in the years since this was published.

A SHELF OF NEW RELEASES

Here are the 12 books released by my Thistle/Flinch imprint in the year 2016. I think it’s an impressive list. Oh, my …

~*~

For these collections and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.