Help

Nation Topics - Books and the Arts

Topic Page

Nation Topics - Books and the Arts

Subsections:

Arts and Entertainment Books and Ideas

Articles

News and Features

They're looking for help with college and a reason to believe in government.

You may have read, in these pages and elsewhere [see Danny Goldberg, "Harvard Raps West," February 4], about the flap that Harvard University's president, Lawrence Summers, kicked off in a meeting with Cornel West, a professor of African-American studies and philosophy. Among other things, Summers implied that hip-hop had little street cred at the university--West had made a rap CD--and suggested that some serious scholarship was in order instead. West, miffed, mused about leaving for Princeton, and other prominent scholars in his department--Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chair, and Anthony Appiah--seemed ready to follow suit. While subsequent meetings have apparently tempered tempers, we thought a look at the CD itself might prove illuminating.

Whatever Cornel West's Sketches of My Culture (Artemis Records) is (or isn't), this experiment in hip-hop and homily doesn't warrant a stuffy fusillade of rabbit punches and groin kicks to West's academic standing. Harvard University is still in America, where an educator, at whatever position in relation to her nation's cultural elite, has the right to throw down, shout out, make a joyful noise and/or public display (if she does no serious psychic or physical harm to others) without being hassled about it by her boss.

That said...

Well, wait a moment. Let's try to step into this mess with, you know, a "positive" attitude, as the uplift posses like to put it.

"The Journey," the opening track on Sketches of My Culture, is also the only one whose words aren't conspicuously flattened against a throbbing beat. And thus it's the only track that foregrounds what Cornel West does best: Preach. As anyone who's heard him speak can attest, West can bring the raucous intimacy of a storefront church into the toniest lecture hall. The slashing cadences, rolling timbres and freewheeling alliteration that are standard equipment for the fiercest pulpit orators cleave to West's rhetorical style as crisply as his three-piece suits cling to his frame. He is never more a rhythm master than when he sermonizes with the abandon of a cocktail-lounge organist playing blues-funk variations after midnight.

But there's nothing in the content of "The Journey" that's original or provocative--unless it's news to you that people of African descent have managed to create a profound musical tradition against tremendous odds. The information conveyed on this track and those that follow is intended to comfort, to reinforce, to (you know) be positive and bring uplift to African-American listeners.

West and his collaborators have fashioned a serviceable black product, the digitally mastered equivalent of one of those needlepoint samplers that grandmothers kept--still keep?--on their kitchen walls. If this be insurrection, then I want an extra marshmallow in my hot chocolate before I take a nap.

Public Enemy's Chuck D once proclaimed that rap music is the black community's CNN. Riding this analogy, you could say that Sketches of My Culture transmits its news along frequencies that are practically threadbare from overuse. Once the overdubs, beat machines and vocal riffs settle in for the disc's duration, the obsolescence of thought, the repetitiveness of sentimentality become more pronounced, skating the edges of embarrassment.

Take (or leave) "3Ms" as an example. Now it's possible, though unlikely, that the memories of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X have become wispy and frail more than thirty years after their murders, especially to 20-something-and-under citizens of Hip-Hop Nation. But if "Martin, Medgar and Malcolm/Keep on keeping on/Keep on staying strong" is the best that these martyrs can expect as a chorus on a tribute presided over by one of the leading African-American public intellectuals of the present day (and the rest of the track is barely less banal), then consider yourself challenged to make yourself a better T-shirt.

Mahmoud Darwish burst on the Arab poetic scene in the mid-1960s with the publication in Beirut of poems written while he was living in Haifa, Israel, and working as a translator and editor for the Israeli Communist Party, Rakah. As Munir Akash points out in his introduction to this volume of selections from Darwish's recent work, with their fiery intensity and assuredness, the early poems touched a raw nerve in Arab readers. In a matter of a few years Darwish had become the most vocal and eloquent poetic spokesman of the Palestinians, and the foremost practitioner of what had come to be known as "the poetry of resistance."

Among poets writing in Arabic today, in fact, Darwish is the most widely translated. His work has made a home for itself in more than twenty-two languages, the bulk of it in some twenty books in French, which are bestsellers. By contrast, English has so far been less receptive to Darwish's poetry, except for a handful of volumes mostly out of print and a number of individual poems published in English-language literary magazines and anthologies. The Adam of Two Edens is only the second book-length volume of translations into English currently available to readers in the United States. Adam invites into our midst a deeply lyrical, sorrowful and unforgettable poetic voice.

The selections in The Adam of Two Edens are from Darwish's later works, mainly Ahad Ashar Kawkaban (Eleven Planets, 1992) and Limatha Tarakta al-Hissana Waheedan (Why Have You Left the Horse Alone?, 1995). Both collections were occasioned by a constellation of historic and personal events, at the center of which was the flawed Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993. That year Darwish resigned from the PLO Executive Committee in protest and returned to the Middle East after an eleven-year exile in Paris. He settled first in Amman, the Jordanian capital, and then in the Palestinian town of Ramallah, where he also edits the Modernist Arabic literary journal al-Karmel, which he founded in 1981 in Beirut and continued editing in France.

Akash notes that the differences between Darwish's early, more declarative "poems of resistance" and the later works are striking--in thematic complexity and expressive sophistication. The curve of Darwish's poetic progress is little short of staggering--not only in the volume of his writerly and editorial output but also in the ways in which his writing has enlarged itself, consciously and systematically. For more than a decade now, the poet has slowly steered toward more open spaces and brought into his poetic sphere voices from other literary traditions and grafted their symbols, concerns and directions onto the trunk of Arabic poetry. His aim has been to create a poetic community of cultures, especially those that have been obliterated or are threatened with erasure--from the Native American to the Andalusian to the Palestinian and beyond.

Paradoxically, the expansion has also made Darwish's poetry more interior and personal. In this newly crafted lyrical space, atop the Palestinian soil, the experience of migration and the longing for solidarity with those who have embarked on the same trail have found an enduring anchor:

In migration we remember shirt buttons we lost,
forget the glittering crowns of our days,
recall the scent of apricot sweat,
forget the dancing horses on our wedding nights.
         ("In the Great Migration, I Love You More")

But even in its most intimate moments, his lyrical voice is often tempered with irony and seasoned with the salt of many departures. The intensity is always held in check, somewhat distanced and detached. Like the birds that inhabit Darwish's Mediterranean sky, his poems often flutter between poetic assertion and its difficulty in the face of the Palestinian national narrative of the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948:

I illuminate tomorrow's present in the moment.
Time separates me from my place.
My place separates me from my time.
All the prophets are my kin.
But heaven is still far from its earth
and I am still far from my words.
         ("On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea")

The distance and separation are geographical, historical and personal. The Edenic title of the collection reverberates from poem to poem, as Darwish weaves symbolic nets that connect the biblical expulsion with the expulsion of the Arabs from Andalusia in "Ruba'yat":

I've seen all I want to see of the sea:
gulls flying through sunset.
I close my eyes:
this loss leads to Andalusia--
this sail is doves' prayers
pouring down on me.

And centuries later, with the migration of the poet from his native village of Birweh in the Upper Galilee, which the Israelis set ablaze and razed in 1948:

Do you remember our migration route to Lebanon?
Where you forgot me in a sack of bread
         (it was wheat bread).
I kept quiet so as not to wake the guards.
The scent of morning dew lifted me onto your shoulders.
         ("Hooriyya's Teaching")

The metaphor of migration wanders the entire universe of Darwish's poetry. It crosses cities, cultures, regions, landscapes and historic periods, reproducing itself in an abundance of doubles and ironic twists to finally return home to the most bitter and prophetic irony of all: Home is another form of occupation, which robs people of their ability to dream of paradise. In a poem in 1982, Darwish asked, "Where should we go after the last frontiers?" In the poems of this collection, he tries to describe that rudderless, shadowy territory where everything has been co-opted by the mirage and rhetoric of peace.

Still, in these later works Darwish knows that the best the poet can do is populate these shadowy territories with the products of the only tools he has at his disposal--imagination and language:

My mother illuminates Canaan's last stars
         around my mirror
and throws her shawl across my last poem.
         ("Hooriyya's Teaching")

In a poem dedicated to an Iraqi poet, he writes:

I'll remove the fingers of my dead from your body,
the buttons of their shirts and their birth certificates.
You'll take the letters of your dead to Jerusalem.
We'll wipe the blood from our glasses, my friend,
and reread our Kafka,
and open two windows onto a street of shadows.
         ("A Horse for the Stranger")

The image of two Arab poets rereading Kafka against the open window of uncertainty is a telling example of the kind of grafting that is common in Darwish's poetry: The poetic voice is also a communal voice--of García Lorca and Yeats, Homer and the bards of ancient cultures.

But these alliances, which Darwish weaves so masterfully, are also emblematic of the direction of his more recent poetry. Borrowing Adorno's term, Edward Said has noted that Darwish's "late style" opens onto a realm of irresolution and fracture, where poetry itself becomes the tenuous terrain of a lost homeland and an imagined community. Evoking the Arab expulsion from Granada in 1492, Darwish writes:

One day I'll pass by her moons and
      scent my desires with lemon.
Embrace me, so I can be reborn
from aromas, from sunlight, from the river
         thrown over your shoulders.
From two feet scratching the twilight
to make it weep milk tears
      for a night of poetry!
         ("One Day I'll Sit on the Sidewalk")

In the end, what remains, what is permanent and real, is something as fleeting as a night of poetry whose fragile shoulders must carry not only the poet's longing for return but also the load of history, the long trail of expulsion and migration. In these dark, plaintive poems, though, poetry performs its essential task:

I'll shed my skin and from my language
words of love
will filter down through the poetry of García Lorca
who'll dwell in my bedroom
and see what I've seen of the bedouin moon.
         ("A sky Beyond sky for Me")

As an introduction to Darwish's later poetry, The Adam of Two Edens is an indispensable source. Akash's introduction --part memoir, part tribute, part analysis, part historical context--is both moving and effective in bringing Darwish and his poetry to life for American readers. Even those who have never read Darwish will know that they are in the company of a great poet whose imagined worlds are informed by great erudition, mythic sweep and meticulous lyricism.

Despite its noble aims, The Adam of Two Edens is limited in one key area. It lacks the translator's deliberate self-consciousness about the project at hand. We are told that several writers who are themselves versed in Arabic and English translated the individual poems, which were later "polished" by the American poet Daniel Moore to make them "harmonious in a single voice." But a translation's primary aim is to recast the music of the original in a wholly new expressive context, and to do so in bold ways. The collection would have benefited immensely from a discussion of the issues that the translators and Moore faced in this passage from Arabic to English, and how these issues were resolved, dodged or reframed.

Every translation renews the language of the original as well as the adopted language. So, too, with every poem. Darwish is well versed not only in Arabic and Hebrew poetry but also poetry written in English and French. The range of his poetic concerns is evident in a groundbreaking book of conversations with Arab and Israeli interviewers, La Palestine comme métaphore (Palestine as Metaphor, 1997; alas, not available in English). Part argument, part meditation, part analysis, it outlines not only Darwish's literary biography and the ways in which Palestinian and Israeli literatures have shaped his writing but also his efforts at forging an alliance between his native Arabic poetic tradition and the currents of Modernist poetry. But the introduction of The Adam of Two Edens merely notes that Darwish's "sense of cadence is symphonically structured," which, says Akash, has few equivalents in American poetry. That begs the question: What are the hurdles that a translator of Darwish's poetry faces in executing a translation into a poetic tradition and idiom that seems to lack what is so essential in the original?

Darwish's poetry, for example, sometimes displays instances where a line or a phrase or a word is repeated, and language seems to fold in on itself. This kind of creasing, which has its sources in the classical Arabic tradition of recitation, is a very effective device in giving the writing a pause, a suspended quality. A poetry reading by Darwish is always a huge cultural event in the Arab world, and this attribute places him in a line of poets who were also great reciters of their poetry--with Yeats, Ginsberg, Voznesensky, Dylan Thomas and others. But Darwish's Modernist impulses subvert the traditional comforts of this kind of creasing, turning this poetic device of classical Arabic into a source of both pleasure and anxiety. English, by contrast, does not tolerate repetition as well as Arabic does, and the translator has a huge problem in reinventing the original. It may be that with the best of intentions, the translators of the present volume have ended up being too loyal to the original, too willing to assume that there is a natural congruity between Arabic and English poetic cultures. The result is that sometimes the creases and folds seem clunky and pull the poem down.

The cadence of Darwish's Arabic sometimes has an eerie, miragelike feel to it, as if the lines were about to go into nothingness. Often the progress of the poetic line is musical; it seems to hover at the edge of something unknown, at the point where it can quickly become other than itself--a whisper, a silence, perhaps even a muffled sob. Darwish has argued at some length for the fraternity of music and poetry in the Arabic poetic tradition, even describing himself as something of a "reactionary," who, unlike some of his Arab contemporaries, has neither destroyed the poetic meter nor chosen prose over poetry. In the translations of The Adam of Two Edens we often do not have this sense of impending loss; the lines sometimes have a prosaic security that is at odds with the fragility of Darwish's poetry--reading it, writing it, listening to it.

In 1945 Czeslaw Milosz asked:

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?

Against hope, Darwish's poetry still speaks of coexistence and a shared culture:

Stranger, hang your weapons in our palm tree
and let me plant my wheat in Canaan's sacred soil.
         ("On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea")

His vision of peace is the poet's prerogative, of course, but it may, in the end, be the only one that stands a chance--if not of saving nations, then at least of perspective and moderation:

All I want of love is a beginning.
Doves flew above the roof of the last sky,
      flew off and kept flying...
After we're gone there'll be plenty of wine in the jars.

A little land is land enough for us for a place to meet,
enough for peace to descend...
         ("All I Want of Love is a Beginning")

In this most emotionally charged of times, I think that many of the moral issues we face are overlaid by an oft-expressed tension between the need for security and the full protections of human rights. It is always expressed as a tension, freedom as opposed to security. It is a false dichotomy but understandable, given how afraid we all are. And so we limit our sights to the need for good policy, good intelligence and strong, democratically inclined, diplomatically gifted leaders.

But I am also a lawyer, and a child of the civil rights era, which was, a bit like these times, a dangerous time, troubled by terrorizing outlaw behavior, a violent time. Yet what guided us, black and white, men and women, minority and majority, through that time was a determined appeal and, ultimately, adherence to principles of morality, justice and law. Dr. King's appeal to a transformative progressive society, to what he referred to as The Beloved Community, was of course an overtly theological argument, grounded in a love of all humanity. But it was also a metaphor, and that metaphor was grounded in a legal case, in a series of legal cases that held steadfastly to notions of fairness, equality and due process of law. The legal and political triumphs of the civil rights era remain a monument to America's best ideals.

Those times too were fraught with passion and grief. There were those who thought that Dr. King's work for racial equality was too radical, too deeply subversive, or unpatriotic. There were those who thought his opposition to American policy in Vietnam merited the response Love it or leave it. Similarly, there are those who have taken George W. Bush's oft-repeated statement--originally a warning to Iraq, as I recall--of "you're either with us or against us" and applied it broadly and inappropriately to men and women of conscience who express their concern that international conventions and norms of human rights be scrupulously applied in the battle against Al Qaeda.

Trust, don't ask, some have said. Say something positive or shut up. I worry a lot about the predominance of flat "either-or" dualisms that by their very syntax eliminate the middle ground so necessary to political debate. Love it or leave it. But Dr. King loved his country, and there was no "or" about it. He did not leave America but worked to impart a legacy that changed it and the world for the better. He appealed to a society that is committed to unity and yet vaunts individual freedom, including the freedom to dissent.

These tensions are often placed like roadblocks: security versus freedom, community versus dissent. That pervasive sense of opposition was a challenge for Americans in Dr. King's time, and it is a challenge for Americans now. And because the United States is a model others copy as well as a global force to be reckoned with, the citizens of the world are, one by one, having to resolve these tensions as well. As Dr. King said, "Civil rights"--or human rights I think he would add in today's global context--"civil rights is an eternal moral issue..."

Whatever the issue, whatever the time, we must resist a mindset that defines those who are "with us" as those who accept all policies as untouchable, all military action as automatically legitimate, all criticism as giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Otherwise we consign people who are engaged in the essence of democratic debate to the conceptual dustbin of those who are "against us." You're either on board as a team player or (according to the last few days of the New York Post alone) you're a brainless, overintellectualizing, group-thinking, anarchist, socialist, communist, stalinist, nihilistic, solipsistic, atheistic, politically correct, race-card-playing feminazi crackpot.

I sometimes wonder if we've forgotten who the enemy is.

But it is not unpatriotic to question and argue about our public policy; it's a duty of citizenship. It is not disrespectful to the Republic to ask, when our Defense Secretary says the men held in Guantánamo Bay are receiving better treatment than the Taliban ever gave their prisoners, what that means precisely. That they have not yet been beheaded? Or that the norms of the Geneva Convention and the Constitution are being rigorously observed?

I worry too about the degree to which we keep referring to these enemies as The Evil Ones or The Bad Guys--such odd terms, as though our leaders were speaking to very young children. By this, Al Qaeda is placed in an almost biblical narrative, ready to be smote and cast out. In this model, giving The Evil Ones so mundane a forum as a trial is literally "courting" the devil. While this sort of embedded language has certainly galvanized the people in a time of great crisis, I don't believe it's a useful long-term model for a democratic secular government trying to fight real political foes, particularly stateless enemies who are religious zealots in their own right. This sort of narrative obscures the adult reality that they are enemies, not viruses. They are humans, not demons. They are criminals, not satanic extraterrestrials. They may indeed be our New Age Goebbelses and Goerings, but we did not put Nazi war criminals in cages. We brought them to justice.

Given all this we will need all the thoughtful voices we can get to help our beleaguered leaders figure out a world that is growing more mobile, more diasporic, more riven by racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism (and I mean anti-Semitism in the broad sense of prejudice against all Semitic peoples, including Jews, Arabs and some Asians), religious intolerance, economic disparity and struggles for land. Indeed, recent tensions are such that some are calling this a "clash of civilizations." This too is something we should be wary of. Organized crime syndicates--whether the Ku Klux Klan in the civil rights era or Al Qaeda now--do not a civilization make.

As we move into Black History Month, it is good to remember that Dr. King's message was far more complex than the naïve rosiness to which he's often reduced. He insisted on equal protection even for those we do not like. He insisted on due process of law even for those whom we have reason to fear. And he demanded that we respect the humanity even of those we despise.

As the chairman of Artemis Records, the company that released Cornel West's CD, Sketches of My Culture, I considered criticizing Cornel for his association with Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard. Without ever listening to it, Summers attacked West merely for having released a CD, dismissing the entire universe of recorded music as being "unworthy of a Harvard professor." But like most record executives, I'm more tolerant of unorthodox associations than Summers, so I'll continue to judge West by his work and the inspiration it provides.

Among the flurry of press reports sparked by the controversy--most of which alluded to the alleged "rap CD"--quite a few couldn't get the facts straight. The New Republic claimed that West "has spent more time recording a rap CD and stumping for Al Sharpton than doing academic work." In fact, West has canceled only one class in twenty-six years of teaching, and that was several years ago, to deliver a lecture in Ethiopia. West recorded the CD during a leave--a long-established privilege in academia. (Summers himself took a leave from a professorship at Harvard to work for the World Bank.)

A Summers aide has said that the confrontation with West was a "terrible misunderstanding," but it's possible that Summers knew exactly what he was doing, using West the way Bill Clinton used Sister Souljah: to placate conservative elements of his constituency. Not only did Summers harshly criticize West's published work, he acknowledged that he had not read any of it or listened to the CD. Moreover, it's obvious that what disturbs Summers is not the notion of a Harvard professor engaging in political activity but West's particular beliefs: He criticized West's involvement with Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader and Al Sharpton, but Summers himself supported Al Gore (as did West's friend and supporter Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of the Afro-American studies department). Summers has been silent as his supporters have misrepresented West's record and called him names. Two examples: The National Review's Rod Dreher referred to West as a "clownish minstrel" and the New York Daily News's Zev Chafetz called him "a self-promoting lightweight with a militant head of hair."

West's decision to record a CD is in keeping with a commitment to spread his ideals and ideas as far and wide as possible. His book Race Matters has sold more than 350,000 copies and is one of the most influential books on race of the past couple of decades. His other works are used as texts in college classes around the world. There is no other public figure who is welcome in academia, in the media, in both conventional and activist politics and in the religious world.

By the way, Sketches of My Culture is not a "rap" CD. West, like most contemporary music critics, acknowledges that hip-hop is a vital cultural language. But Sketches itself is a concept album that is predominantly spoken word surrounded by r&b music, a montage that includes limited and focused uses of hip-hop language. Like any work of art, it's open to legitimate criticism, but it is clearly a serious attempt to use a modern art form to grapple with the themes that have animated West's career: black history, spirituality and political morality. There is not a word of profanity on it.

The indefatigable West has reached out to poor communities, moderating the crucial final panel at a recent "Rap Summit" and appearing on urban radio shows that had never been graced by the presence of an academic. I have seen the faces of young people inspired by West's linking of their own aspirations to the civil rights struggle and to the great philosophical and religious traditions. He urges them to live up to those examples. It has said something to the broader American community about Harvard that Cornel West is a professor there, and it will say something about Harvard if he is not.

A review of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul.

*

Zero built a nest
In my navel. Incurable
Longing. Blood too--

From violent actions
It's a nest belonging to one
But zero uses it
And its pleasure is its own.

         
(from The Quietist)

*

The limits have wintered me
as if white trees were there to be written on.

It must be purgatory
there are so many letters and things.

Faith, hope and charity rise in the night
like the stations of an accountant.

And I remember my office, sufficiency.

         
(from O'Clock)

*

The stains of blackberries near Marx's grave
do to color what eyes do to everything.
Help me survive my own presence, open to the elements.

Fog mist palloring greens, no demarcations,
but communitarian gravestones.

Celts lost to Anglo Saxons who endlessly defended marks.
Guerrilla war, terror:
the tactics for landless neo-realists.

         
(from O'Clock)

When The Majestic was about to be released--it's the movie, you will recall, in which Jim Carrey plays a blacklisted screenwriter who suffers from amnesia--someone asked me to tote up the other films that touch on the Hollywood inquisition. I eliminated the allegories, such as Johnny Guitar, and the pictures that deal with other branches of show business (the music industry in Sweet Smell of Success, television in A King in New York and The Front) and calculated that all of two features--The Way We Were and Guilty by Suspicion--pay attention to the blacklist.

The number is also two with The Majestic included.

Talk about suffering from amnesia! Of course the movie industry feigned ignorance when the witch hunt was on--among its other unmentionable traits, the blacklist was illegal--and you can see how a certain forgetfulness was convenient afterward. But as Hollywood moved into the 1970s and '80s, with new corporate masters taking over the studios and old decision-makers dying off, the subject of the blacklist might have seemed ripe for exploiting. The industry has always loved to dramatize itself; and here, lying unexplored, was an episode that had convulsed all of Hollywood, and much of America with it.

Two films--if you feel generous toward Carrey, three. But now the count has risen significantly with One of the Hollywood Ten, the most honest movie of its very small group and arguably the best. It is not, however, an American picture. To our shame, it has taken a Welsh writer-director, Karl Francis, and producers based in Britain and Spain to film the true story of a blacklisted couple, Herbert Biberman and Gale Sondergaard, and their making of that remarkable movie, Salt of the Earth.

Since even Nation readers might be unaware of these events--and since truthfulness is a large part of Francis's merit--here's a quick synopsis:

Biberman was called before HUAC in 1947, among the committee's first group of unfriendly witnesses. Until that time his work as a writer and director had been so sparse, and so lackluster, that no one could have rationally accused him of transmitting ideology through the movies. That he had an ideology was unquestionable; Biberman was a committed Communist. But his greatest distinction was his marriage to Sondergaard, a hard-working, Oscar-winning actress.

Citing his First Amendment rights, Biberman refused to testify before HUAC, whereupon he was charged with contempt of Congress and sent to prison. When Sondergaard insisted on standing by him, she too was blacklisted. She found herself, upon his release, running a household of the dual unemployed.

It was at this point that their friends and fellow blacklistees Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico came up with the idea of making an independent film about a labor uprising in New Mexico. The members of Local 890 of the Mine-Mill Workers, most of them Mexican-American, had gone on strike against Empire Zinc, demanding the same pay and conditions as Anglo workers received. The company's response was to get an injunction against the union, forbidding the miners from picketing. But the injunction said nothing about the miners' wives. In a brave and ingenious improvisation, the women came forward to walk the line, and did it so effectively that Empire Zinc finally settled.

Wilson turned this episode into the screenplay for Salt of the Earth. Jarrico took on the producer's duties, and Biberman signed on as director. Sondergaard had expected to play the lead--she was the cooperative's only bankable property--but at Biberman's request she stepped aside in favor of a Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. Most of the other parts, including the male lead, were also cast with an eye for authenticity (and budgetary restraint), with the people of Local 890 playing themselves.

I said that One of the Hollywood Ten is a rare movie. Salt of the Earth is unique. It would have stood alone in its era just for having been made by movie industry veterans, but shot on location and acted by a largely nonprofessional cast. But, even more extraordinary, Salt of the Earth was a story about the problems of Mexican-American workers, as told by a Mexican-American woman. You'd have trouble finding such a movie today, when independent filmmaking is well established in America. Salt of the Earth was released in 1954.

Of course, neither unique nor pioneering is a synonym for good. And though the filmmakers faced extraordinary hardships, those, too, must remain external to any judgment of Salt of the Earth. The government deported Rosaura Revueltas in the midst of production, discouraged labs from processing the film, accused the crew of wanting to spy on atomic secrets at Los Alamos, kept theaters from booking the completed Salt of the Earth and warned projectionists away from showing it. This was an impressive show of force to mount against one little movie; but the harassment, in itself, doesn't justify what you see on the screen.

Biberman and his many collaborators justified Salt of the Earth. They managed to imbue the film with the feelings of a living community: at house parties and on picket lines, in the saloon and the church. Scenes percolate with the natural interplay of friends and neighbors, giving rise to a barely suppressed boisterousness. (The ruckus breaks into the open after the women are arrested for picketing. They mount a protest in their cell, with undisguised glee.) The ease of the group interaction makes up for the occasional awkwardness in individual performances--an awkwardness that at any rate has its own charm. And no excuses are needed for Revueltas, with her finely nuanced movements toward self-assertion; for the pace of the film, which keeps building and building; or for Biberman's eye, which seems to have been delighted with every face, landscape feature and stick of furniture in New Mexico.

To the eyes of present-day viewers, who may be accustomed to strains of neorealism developed everywhere from Italy to Iran, Salt of the Earth looks surprisingly good. It is not a based-on-a-true-story movie but something more valuable: the chief American prototype for those films that are simultaneously fiction and documentary. As for the virtue of its uniqueness: Doesn't a special honor accrue to the one film to have done something that was well worth doing?

I believe One of the Hollywood Ten has earned a similar distinction--though its internal, cinematic merits are entirely different. That's as it should be. The two films take entirely different approaches to their medium.

Biberman and his partners made a movie that barely acknowledges the existence of the entertainment business; the only evidence of pop culture in Salt of the Earth is a radio, bought on the installment plan. One of the Hollywood Ten, by contrast, reminds you at every turn that you're watching a movie, and that movies are (among other things) a business and a site of ideological contest. Francis opens his film with a prologue set in 1937, in which he tosses up two opposing forms of movie politics: the opening in New York City of Triumph of the Will, and the announcement by Gale Sondergaard (in the midst of the Academy Awards broadcast) of the formation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Once Francis jumps into 1947, he continues this theme, showing the HUAC hearings as newsreel fodder (which they were). Everybody in One of the Hollywood Ten is playing for the camera and the microphone.

It's fitting, then, that Francis's movie should feature three star performances. The biggest of them is Jeff Goldblum's, as Biberman. Much of the usual Goldblum shtick is in evidence: the talking with dark eyes unfocused, the bursting forth of little phrases after unpredictable, Miles Davis pauses. But, also as usual, Goldblum feels his way deep into the character. He shows us Biberman as a chronic empathizer, someone who's always draping his big hands reassuringly over anyone he talks to. The voice is low, patient, thoughtful; and then, when Biberman doesn't get his way, he jumps without transition to a full bellow.

Greta Scacchi, as Gale Sondergaard, makes good use of a certain brittleness in her screen personality. Here she's playing a Hollywood star of the old school--a woman with perfectly groomed vowels, who keeps her well-powdered face turned toward the key light in any room--which allows her to find authentic feeling, even gutsiness, within her pose. But the movie's biggest star turn, the one that steals One of the Hollywood Ten, is Angela Molina's performance as Rosaura Revueltas. Molina looks older than Revueltas did in Salt of the Earth; whereas Revueltas had smooth, freckled features, Molina's face is lined and sunken. When Molina begins to play Esperanza, the central character in Salt of the Earth, her eyes take on the outsize look of hunger. And the voice! Molina puts a weariness, and a wariness, all her own into Esperanza's lines, using intonations that cut into your bones.

One of the Hollywood Ten thrives on these performances, and on Francis's fascination with movies themselves--how they're made, how they work on their audiences. (In one of the picture's truest moments, Biberman bubbles over with enthusiasm at his own cleverness, talking about the best way to shoot and edit Salt of the Earth.) Where the movie strays from these strengths, it also falters. Among its several glaring faults, One of the Hollywood Ten gives us an FBI agent who is so monotonally nasty that he seems to have strayed in from a bus-and-truck tour of Les Miz, and a Gale Sondergaard who is indomitably firm, except when she's not. When her husband tells her she won't play the lead in Salt of the Earth--her husband, who wouldn't have gotten to direct the picture without her intervention--she needs only a brief walk on the beach to calm her down. And, of course, there's music on the beach. There's music everywhere in One of the Hollywood Ten, poured out of a can of creamed corn.

This is merely to say that no one has yet made a masterpiece about the Hollywood blacklist. Karl Francis has made a good, intelligent movie about the subject, and a largely truthful one. Let's see somebody try to top him.

One of the Hollywood Ten has just been shown in the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $10,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered mutually by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. In the past decade, winners have been David Ferry (2000), Wanda Coleman (1999), Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997), Charles Wright (1996), Marilyn Hacker (1995), W.S. Merwin (1994), Thom Gunn (1993), Adrienne Rich (1992), John Haines (1991) and Michael Ryan (1990). This year the award goes to Fanny Howe for her Selected Poems. Jurors were Elaine Equi, Bob Perelman and Ann Lauterbach, who contributed the following essay. Other finalists for the award were Your Name Here, by John Ashbery (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); Republics of Reality 1975-1995, by Charles Bernstein (Sun & Moon); Atmosphere Conditions, by Ed Roberson (Sun & Moon); Plasticville, by David Trinidad (Turtle Point); and The Annotated 'Here' and Selected Poems, by Marjorie Welish (Coffee House).

In the days and weeks following the events of September 11, one poet, one poem by one poet, seemed to come into circulation: W.H. Auden's searing "September 1st, 1939." Set in New York, the poem's narrator, chastened by events into chill eloquence, speaks in slow rhymes, as formally reassuring as they are devastating in content. Like other Modernists, Auden cultivated a poetics of narrative statement that gave public voice to private perception. It is a voice that turned the unruly emotions of sorrow, fear and rage into ideas of order. But just as hot war tactics and cold war rhetoric feel outdated and dangerous in our terrible new world, the pacifying sonorities of Auden seem strangely out of tune.

On the evening of September 10, my colleagues and co-judges, Elaine Equi and Bob Perelman, and I met at my loft on Duane Street in TriBeCa to converse about our choices for finalists for the Lenore Marshall Prize. Over the summer, we had each read more than 200 books, some, but by no means all, of the collections of poetry published in 2000. These books were written by poets of national stature and poets of only local repute; they included hefty life-works and first slim volumes. It was a daunting task, by turns exhilarating and infuriating. To choose from among them the "most outstanding" tested not only our individual judgments but our shared belief in a poetics responsive to the contemporary moment.

The six finalists, John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Fanny Howe, Ed Roberson, David Trinidad and Marjorie Welish, are remarkable writers. Together, they have contributed immeasurably to contemporary poetry in America: expanding formal range, resisting reductive subjectivity and its narrative claims, attending to the exigencies of both language and world. To chose one from among them seems arbitrary, but there is only one prize to give. We have awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize for the most outstanding book of 2000 to Fanny Howe for her Selected Poems.

Fanny Howe is the author of more than twenty books (poetry and fiction) published by some of the most adventurous and enduring small presses in America. This beautifully designed and produced book is the third in a series called New California Poetry from the University of California Press, edited by Robert Hass, Calvin Bedient and Brenda Hillman. Until recently, Howe was professor of American writing and American literature at the University of California, San Diego. She has now retired to her native New England.

Howe works in sequences of poems made of minimally punctuated short lines. The individual poems are untitled. This notational, almost diaristic format gives the impression of a seamless intimacy and urgency, as if the reader were present at the act of writing. A spare tonality moves against the density and complexity of her vision, where a classical lyric voice is annealed to a spiritual quest buffeted and embattled by resisting political and social realities. This tension is what gives the poems their power.

Small birds puff their chests and feathers
With the pleasure that they know better
High morning clouds unload themselves
On the world. Blue peeps through
Sunny boys have spacious souls but killers
Build war zones in the sky where they go to die
Blue poems. Blue ozone. A V-sign
Sails into the elements: an old ship
Named Obsolete though Lovely is easier to see
Now visualize heaven as everything around it

         (from Introduction to the World)

Howe's diction is not conventionally poetic, not dressed up, not avuncular, not pretty. It is peculiar, compelling and provocative, with moments of absolute clarity adjacent to moments of mere glimpse. This quixotic, pulsating quality lends a sensuous mystery and scale to the landscape of her work, as if the lines were emanating from a lighthouse whose signal is intensely bright one moment and scanning the horizon at the next. There is an asymmetrical oddness and frailty to her cadence that contributes to the dissonance between private and public event:

If goals create content stealth creates form

The air force hits space
with the velocity of a satanic wrist

How to give birth to children under these conditions
Favor the ghost over the father, maternalist

         (from Q)

Howe stitches into a single poem materials from diverse, often divergent, experience. Affective language is laid beside statement but is not subsumed by it. The voice is personal, but there are no invitations here to bear witness to the concrete details of a life; or rather, that life's details are drawn through the poem as a thread in a variegated fabric. In a world strewn with bare facts, Howe's reflective meditative lines are consoling, not for their content, which is as charged with pessimism as Auden's, but because they invite us, or remind us, to attend. The poems act on us like pilot lights, igniting the receptive synapse of language. Like all true poetry, her work is difficult to excerpt, impossible to paraphrase. Howe is compelled by the distinction between, and proximity of, History and story; her work brings us to the threshold of accountability.

Laughter--or slaughter--outside the door
And inside she was dying
To join in. So she had to go out
--a physical body

With subjective needs
Wing with the post-Christians. Her brow a headline
Reporting news of weather & mood

From masters of the military & amorous arts
Hide in her little close
Off the runway, or step into their story

          (from The Quietist)

On the dust jacket, one person compares Fanny Howe to Emily Dickinson, a comparison all too easily invoked for writings by women. But in this case, there is justification. Like Dickinson, Fanny Howe animates her work with an austere logic, in which aspects of a unique response, spiritual, emotional and intellectual, are held in an uneasy, necessary relation. She makes demands on her readers. If those demands are met, the rewards are as inestimable as they are real.

(after Ghalib)

Just a few return from dust, disguised as roses.

What hopes the earth forever covers, what faces?

I too could recall moonlit roofs, those nights of wine--

But Time has shelved them now in Memory's dimmed places.

She has left forever, let blood flow from my eyes

till my eyes are lamps lit for love's darkest places.

All is his--Sleep, Peace, Night--when on his arm your hair

shines to make him the god whom nothing effaces.

With wine, the palm's lines, believe me, rush to Life's stream--

Look, here's my hand, and here the red glass it raises.

See me! Beaten by sorrow, man is numbed to pain.

Grief has become the pain only pain erases.

World, should Ghalib keep weeping you will see a flood

drown your terraced cities, your marble palaces.

Blogs

In his new book, John Dean finally offers definitive answers to the questions “What did he know, and when did he know it?”
 

August 14, 2014

The quagmire of the Vietnam War was built on a “queasy foundation of fact and myth.”

July 31, 2014

"About nothing does the mob forget so quickly as about war."

July 28, 2014

Eric on this week's concerts and Reed on the media’s coverage of climate change. 

July 21, 2014

Reflections on the meaning of the French Revolution in the shadow of Adolf Hitler.

July 14, 2014

In fact, says theater director Anne Bogart, stories can be “fascistic.”

July 14, 2014

“Have you a city that smells worse than Akron?”

July 11, 2014

These ten songs, taken together, help distill the American experience and make clear both what’s great about the US and what still needs critical attention.

July 2, 2014

On the 25th anniversity of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," America needs to ask itself some hard questions.

June 30, 2014

The Nation’s predictive capacities were pretty mixed.

June 28, 2014