The Public, a Buffalo, New York, alternative newspaper and web site with a circulation of 35,000, published my article about José Coyote Pérez, an immigrant laborer and labor activist in upstate New York, who was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), earlier today.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Kampf zwischen Fasching und Fasten (The Fight Between Carnival and Lent) depicts today, the day before Lent. Today is an important enough day in the Christian calendar to go by a few nicknames: Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” “Pancake Day.”
Any day that is associated with food, whether because restrictions are about to be imposed or restrictions are to be erased for one special day, by rights ought to have as many nicknames as it can bear.
The Invention of Love …
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Because of the rampant commercialism associated with the holiday, Valentine’s Day is considered a “Hallmark holiday,” a day selected by a blindfolded intern at Hallmark HQ and pegged as one we consumers are told to celebrate by spending. It isn’t.
In the grocery store last week, the center of which is holiday-red right now and overstuffed with heart-shaped balloons and streamers, as if the store manager himself demanded a ticket-tape parade for Cupid, I walked past a fellow shopper who, shaking her head, declared out loud, “Valentine’s Day! Already?” because that is what we say when we view holiday decorations in stores nowadays. (Each reminder of time’s passage is responded to as a newly experienced emotional trauma in our culture, each time we encounter it.) It was February 10, the decorations had been up in this particular store since January 2, and there was no hint of irony in the person’s exclamation.
Starting in the late 1700s, publishers started to print and sell Valentine’s Day-oriented books, usually guides for young men to use in composing their love notes. On this much, most cultural historians seem to agree. The disagreements begin with who Valentine might have been and why February 14 is his feast day and extend to the question about what any of this has to do with chalky heart-shaped candies and smooching.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.—James Joyce, the conclusion of “The Dead,” Dubliners
Cemeteries are cram-packed full with people who had other plans that day. Reservations for dinner, a movie ticket in the pocket. A refrigerator with new groceries. A sink with dirty dishes.
We all know this deep down, but the occasional reminders can nonetheless surprise. “Always wear clean underwear,” a cliché cartoon version of a mother tells a cliché cartoon version of ourselves in a cliché cartoon version of a conversation that never happens in real life. But the end comes in a moment, and it is always dramatic, even when it is mundane.
(I suppose it is never mundane for the person who experiences it, but I have not yet been there, not even been near it, and no one who has had the end moment has made a verifiable report about it. Tsk-tsk. Where are their priorities?)
The poet and critic John Greening sums up the career of James Merrill, who conversed with the inhabitants of other planes of reality, in a 2010 essay, “Ouija”:
James Merrill made a point of breaking all the rules, of remaining recklessly formal when all about him were casting off their chains, of being incorrigibly discursive and elitist, shunning the rhythms of speech for something more refinedly musical, and unswerving in his determination to squeeze every last pun out of a line.—John Greening, “Ouija,” The Dark Horse, Summer 2010
Merrill was a rebel in his adherence to rules in a rule-breaking era. He wrote dazzling, perfect poems, and he employed almost every verse form available to him, as an actor might use accents. Greening quotes George Bradley: “Reading James Merrill is enough to make the rest of us suspect we’re not smart enough to write poetry.” Even at his smartest, he is engaging and not impenetrable. His pleasure in the sounds of words and the poetic effects he creates and his many puns are always evident. He compliments his readers in his implied assumption that we must know what he is writing about at least as well as he does.
February 2, 2017, is the 135th anniversary of the birth of James Joyce (above).
In his huge biography, Richard Ellmann notes in several places that Joyce found his own birthday to be a topic most fascinating (he made certain that his novel Ulysses was published on his 40th, in 1922) and he tells how this affected his relationship with another writer, James Stephens.
He was already a distinguished professor, both in title and in fact, when I was his student for the first time, in the early 1990s. Dr. Arthur H. Cash had earned the rare title of “Distinguished Professor” from the State University of New York system in 1989, and I do not know if that title is what gave him the clout to hold classes in his dining room and kitchen rather than in whichever campus building the pesky registrar had located the class, or if I am getting it all backwards and his clout, with or without a title, brought us to his kitchen.
I learned this morning that Dr. Cash died Thursday, December 29, at the age of 94. His obituary appeared in he New York Times on December 30 but only today did it start to make the rounds of social media among his students. He retired in 1997 (a memorable party that I actually remember) but his retirement was an active one: his most recent book, John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty, was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
To have love, one must give love; to give love, one must have it to give. That may be life’s deepest catch-22—any of those logical situations whose suppositions exist only to support the logic that requires them. Love is illogical, or at least it has its own logic.
The moment love is not pursued, there it is; advice to a young lover often follows that logic. “When you stop looking for it or needing it, you will find love.” (It only took about three decades of hearing that for it to sink in for me.)