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Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice, ed. by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Back to residency today, and so here is one of the assigned readings, for a seminar entitled “Boy Breaking Glass: Political and Protest Poetry,” taught by Mary Carroll-Hackett. (She assigned a good-sized packet of poetry and articles, additionally.)

You know that poetry often mystifies me. I struggle to release my need to understand or dissect every line and choice; but I’m getting better at that (and of course I’m in school to help me understand such choices). This collection was easier than usual for me to get behind. For one thing, it begins with a lovely foreword by Juan Filpe Herrera, and introduction by editors Alarcón and Rodríguez. These gave clarity, context and passion to the poems that follow; they made clear the backstory that yielded these works, and made their point matter to me. In a word: this collection began when nine Latino students chained themselves to the Arizona State Capitol building in 2010, in protest of Arizona’s SB 1070, the “reasonable suspicion” bill. The students’ civil disobedience was followed immediately by a poem Alarcón wrote in response; and then by the Facebook page, “Poets Responding to SB 2070,” which in turn gave birth to a spreading protest poetry movement. This book is one of the many results of that movement.

The poems selected for this collection were voted on by poet-moderators; their authors are diverse in geography and ethnic/national backgrounds; some are new and emerging writers and others are well-established. Most of the book’s contents are printed in English. Some are in both Spanish and English (and one, in Irish, Spanish and English). A minority are printed only in Spanish, so those of us less than fluent in that language will miss a few pieces, or struggle over them. I appreciated this as an effect, though.

I feel less confident about my ability to write about these poems’ content. I don’t generally review poetry. But I found this reading engaging: politically moving, thought-provoking, stimulating, and comprehensible in a way poetry isn’t always for me. I’d recommend this book to anyone, for its artistic value as well as for its political worth. That’s all I have to offer today; Poetry of Resistance has it all.


Rating: 7 poems become bread or water.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

animal farmOn my way out the door headed for the airport, I realized at the last minute that I might not have enough reading material for a medium-long flight to Seattle. I’m so glad I grabbed this slim volume – the closest appropriately-sized book to hand, off my TBR shelf. I did indeed finish the one book and start and finish this one on that flight; and I enjoyed it very much and found it thought-provoking.

Animal Farm is a classic, chilling allegory from the author of 1984, whose voice I most definitely recognized in this earlier novel. My 50th anniversary edition, from Signet Classic in 1996 (pictured), includes a preface by Russell Baker (new in 1996) and a 1954 introduction by C. M. Woodhouse of The Times Literary Supplement. I found these starting pieces noteworthy. I know a little about Orwell, have read 1984 several times, and am familiar with other early dystopian novels like Brave New World, which Baker refers to (he calls these authors pessimists), so I had a little background. Interestingly, Baker makes the very optimistic statement that the pessimists were wrong, that our current leaders (in 1996) did not resemble dictators, that technology has been a liberating force. I think there is some validity to the last argument; but there is plenty of room to criticize the power of the state today, and I find Baker a trifle breezy in his reassurances. To be fair, he is right to point out that the state has turned out to be less efficient than Orwell feared: drones and wiretaps today do not approach the effectiveness of Big Brother in 1984. At least, that’s what we think… I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but I’m not particularly optimistic about the virtues of our government leaders.

Woodhouse’s introduction is more straightforwardly academic in its analysis of Animal Farm as literature and in culture and politics, and of Orwell as an artist. He considers him a prose poet, in fact. This article was informative and critical but still accessible, and I recommend it. (I recommend Baker’s preface, too, but with salt.) The most useful part, for me, was the specific placement of Animal Farm in time: it was published in August of 1945, the same month as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Orwell had begun writing it in 1943, following his disquieting experience in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930’s. As a criticism of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Animal Farm was not particularly welcome in the Britain of the early 1940’s.

And now the novel itself. Orwell (or rather Eric Blair, who used a pen name) calls it a fairy story; but I find the allegory blaring through loud and clear. Mr. Jones is a drunken farmer who does not always treat his farm animals with great respect or tenderness. An elder statesman of a pig (no, literally) makes a speech shortly before his death in which he predicts to his fellow four-legged residents an uprising of the animals against the people. This prediction will be carried out by the animals of Manor Farm: they kick Mr. Jones off, rename their property Animal Farm, and begin working for themselves, cooperatively. Aside from the anthropomorphism of the animals, it’s a straightforward and absolutely real tale. The pigs are the smartest – are in charge – assisted by the dogs; horses & a donkey are thinkers as well, while the birds and the sheep are followers. They come up with a list of Seven Commandments: no animal shall wear clothes, no animal shall sleep in a bed, etc. and finishing with “All animals are equal.” They make committees and call one another “comrade.” Two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, struggle for power; Snowball is a better speaker, but Napoleon marshals the power of a few big, strong, brainwashed dogs, and eventually runs Snowball off the farm. The pigs begin to relish their power and to take advantage. Gradually, the rules of Animal Farm change; the Seven Commandments are amended (“no animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets”), but because very few of the subjects are literate, the pigs in charge have little trouble changing history too. Thus, it’s not that the state has changed its policies; these have always been the policies of the state. This is precisely the case in 1984 as well, where

Oceania was at war with Eurasias: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past of future agreement with him was impossible.

Chilling, I say!

Also, credit Animal Farm with the oft-quoted amendment to the final Commandment: “All Animals Are Equal. But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.”

This is a short book, just over 100 pages, and easily read in just a part of my flight. And in the “fairy story” about the animals on the farm, it’s fairly straightforward, too. But the underlying message, which doesn’t lie so far beneath the surface at all, is terrifying – and also fairly straightforward, in fact. From a historical perspective, that almost makes it that much more frightening, that these things really happened, right under people’s eyes, and not so long ago either. It’s disconcerting how easily people can be convinced to disbelieve their own minds and memories.

I continue to be a fan of Orwell, of both 1984 and Animal Farm, and despite Baker’s characterization of Orwell and Huxley as “pessimists”, I think these are important books to read today. (To be fair, he agrees: “Orwell left us a lesson about the human contribution to political terror that will always be as up-to-date as next year’s election.”) Also, the writing is pretty wonderful.

Shivers! And go read!


Rating: 9 readjusted rations.

Oil and Honey by Bill McKibben

Highly literate and expert musings on climate change, from home to the global theatre.

oil
Oil and Honey centers partly on climate change, a subject on which Bill McKibben (The End of Nature; Eaarth; founder of 350.org) is expert; but it is also personal in nature, a dualism reflected by the title. McKibben is concerned simultaneously with oil–representing fossil fuel industry practices and climate change–and honey. Having entered into a land-share agreement with his friend, beekeeper Kirk Webster, McKibben finds his home and Webster’s apiaries exerting a gravitational pull just as his political activism draws him far and wide. These two sides of his life–personal and political, local and global, analog and digital–are the focus of this combination memoir and call to action.

The subtitle refers to his journey from writer to activist, by way of 350.org and the Keystone Pipeline–a trip he did not intend but found obligatory. Activist though he may be, McKibben remains a fine writer, evocative, articulate, clever and humble in examining his mistakes. In piercing prose, McKibben unites his longstanding authority on climate change with his novice stature in the world of beekeeping. He muses on the small-scale and private implications of our changing world, which incline him to work with his family and Kirk’s bees in his beloved local community in Vermont; and likewise on the necessity for global action to combat the continuing quest for fossil fuels. Oil and Honey travels the world but always cycles back, like the seasons, to McKibben’s Vermont home, likening global systems to beehives in a manner both profound and lyrical–and important.


This review originally ran in the – issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 degrees.

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris

Lillian Hellman’s paradoxical, powerful personality set against the backdrop of a turbulent century.

Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) was many things: a successful playwright, screenwriter and memoirist; a suspected Communist (maligned as an unrepentant Stalinist) who stood up against political intimidation in the 1950s; a labor organizer and civil rights activist; partner to Dashiell Hammett for more than 30 years; a woman criticized for being manlike and grasping, but simultaneously overly feminine and stylish; a New Orleans-born resident of New York, Hollywood and Martha’s Vineyard who persisted in calling herself a Southerner. She was respected for her literary contributions, hailed as a hero by a feminist movement that she largely rejected, praised and excoriated for her politics and, ultimately, vilified for what came to be seen as the outrageous mendacity of her memoirs. It would be difficult to locate a biographical subject more contradictory or complex. In A Difficult Woman, Alice Kessler-Harris makes an excellent case that Hellman represents the complexities and changing mores of the 20th century.

The contradictions in her personality and politics are brought into relief by her written work–including plays still popular in repertory theater today–which always included strong moral statements. The concepts of truth and deception, or betrayal and loyalty, play large roles in her work and this insightful biography, rich with context, shows how they were also themes that defined her life. Not an apologia, but an exploration of nuances, A Difficult Woman gives us an infinitely more complex Hellman than the popular image that has survived her.


This review originally ran in the May 1, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 ambiguities.
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