Tag Archives: Christopher Hitchens

“A Hurricane of Thoughts and Comment”

Jim Bakker I Was Wrong

Jim Bakker’s confession: ‘Or have I mixed my Jim with Jimmy? / They’re all the same. They make sweet noise / then falter with their altar boys.’

Shot in the back, one of his ears blown off, Kamal looks up to see a missile falling from the sky, directly toward the Astrodome. In this episode, our narrator describes the differing views about the events of that terrible day — the Cessna airplane that crashed outside the stadium, the security forces and so forth — and why a missile was fired in the first place.

                                       A flash. And then…

But what, I hear you ask, has happened?
Depends on who you are, whose eyes
unwrap ideas events are wrapped in.
For each a singular surprise.
Here’s what the President related:
By his account, he’d ‘duly waited’
and listened to the Pentagon
and heard the stark conclusions drawn
by aides. The bomb, they said, was ‘dirty’.
Or might have been. Who knows for sure?
And though, in retrospect, the cure
out-harmed the ailment, ‘War ain’t purdy!
When cities might be gassed, you know,
it’s better we think fast than slow.’

That’s true. For Time is indecisive!
Each line it writes is soon crossed out.
For every word it sacrifices,
another one is cast in doubt.
It starts with, ‘Terror Strike on Houston,’
then puts a tiny pinch of Proust in,
then rolling-pins and stretches it
into the clearer, ‘Missiles Hit
the Astrodome.’ And then expanding
still further, ‘Missiles Were Our Own,
Admits U.S.’ ‘A “Known Unknown”
Results in President Commanding
Preemptive Strike.’ ‘The Cessna May
Have Had a Nuke, Officials Say.’

Above these searching, cooked-up phrases
parading cross the TV screen,
the experts speak in verbal mazes
explaining what the facts must mean.
A hurricane of thoughts and comment:
On what a certain type of bomb meant
(supposing it was used); or why
so many people had to die.
And yes, it may have been an error
to launch those missiles. Then again,
attacks are not an ‘if’, but ‘when’.
And we must win the war on terror!
At least by blowing up the hive,
no killer bees come out alive.

Noam Chomsky

The brilliant Noam Chomsky: ‘But let me not disgrace a poem / with world affairs and those who choose / – like Rush, or Chris, or even Noam – / to be the groupies of the news.’

But let me not disgrace a poem
with world affairs and those who choose
– like Rush, or Chris, or even Noam –
to be the groupies of the news.
This world is a great performer!
And like her fans, these pundits swarm her,
request an autograph, then boast
that they’re the ones who know her most.
That they – so different from the masses –
were sitting in a privileged row.
That they not only saw her show
but afterward, with backstage passes,
engaged her in some repartee,
and pumped the hand of Destiny!

Stay back! Stay back, enticing diva.
I’ve seen what mischief you can cause!
Send B-grade actors to Geneva
so they can hear the world’s applause.
A diplomat you made of Bono!
An artist out of widowed Ono.
And though the world, no doubt, has gained
from these strange titles you ordained
and craves to know – much like a goalie
before a shot – which corner space,
of which unknown, impoverished place
will land the offspring of Ms. Jolie,

stay back! For I’m a weak believer
in anything I write with true
belief! (A perfect rhyme – ‘deceiver’.)
We see the lights, but shadows do.
In every righteous, preachy braggart
resides (an easy rhyme) a Swaggart,
who sings the proselytizer’s song,
then writes a book called, I Was Wrong.
(Or have I mixed my Jim with Jimmy?
They’re all the same. They make sweet noise
then falter with their altar boys.)
So, too, some sleeper spy within me,
it seems, emphatically condemns
the inverse of my stratagems.

And now it’s time to cool this thermal
digression, calm its upward draft.
Though poets feel no spine or dermal
adjustments, wings adorn their craft.
And stretching out one’s verbal feathers
in warm and philosophic weather
beside a canto’s cliff can shrink
one’s story down to insects’ ink
(while we drift up into the heavens).
But reader! How these lofty planes
provide their gifts to you! Some grains
of manna for Kamal to leaven,
like lessons Wendy gained from Pan,
or brainy Lane from Superman.

So let’s move on. A poet. That’s all.
I have a purpose. To write Kamal.

A billion pairs of eyes were sure
their TVs showed a massacre.
And many more would see the sordid
broadcasts of that day’s nightmare.
So many Camera Joes were there,
so many twitching limbs recorded,
and screams for help and plaintive groans,
and calm last words on telephones.

'A diplomat you made of Bono!'

‘A diplomat you made of Bono!’

So many witnesses, so many
reports and so much evidence;
survivors, wounded, dead aplenty –
all members of the common sense
that when I give my own rendition
of what occurred (the demolition,
or terror strike, or accident,
or metaphysical event
that turned the Astro into Ash-tro
and launched the world into war)
I’m sure to meet a seasoned corps
of criticasters and their cash-flow.
And every fact I write will be
dismissed by those who disagree.

And some will say that Houston’s bombing
was good or evil, smart or dumb,
defensive, vital, terror-calming,
or just ‘performance art’; and some
will say the witnesses are liars
and some – the ‘Astrodome Deniers’ –
will have the solipsistic gall
to say it didn’t occur at all!
(Ignore their treachery, protestors!
They crave the frottage in your fight;
Your ‘no’s and ‘stop’s will just excite
more lechery from truth-molesters).
And some self-righteous ones will nod
and give all credit to their God.

_____
Published as part of the dVerse poets open mike and the Tuesday Poetry group, a blog founded by New Zealand poets, but which includes poets from around the world.

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The Survival of Hitchenism — To Christopher (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011)

I never met Christopher Hitchens, but I once knew a doppelganger of his, a world away from England.

So similar were they — their body shape, their oratory styles, the deadpan facial expressions, their inability to produce anything of grace (dance, music, sport, nothing) apart from the astonishing fluidity of their speech — so similar were these two people that I’m inclined to consider “Hitchenism” as a kind of condition, a one-in-a-million genetic mutation, with a Hitchens holding fort in every metropolis.

A difference, though, is that this Hitchens (the famous one) had the work ethic of an ox, the doggedness of a Tasmanian devil, and most of all, the good fortune to mingle with masters in London. I’m thinking of his New Statemen chums — Amis, Barnes, Fenton, and later McEwan, Rushdie, and many others. Coming from such a pedigree, the bar of political discourse in America can’t appear any lower; or more appropriately — pugilism instead of high-jump — the Americans wear kid-gloves compared to the bare-knuckled brawls in which Hitchens was trained. His method was simple. He would out-read, out-write, out-punch you.

A mediocre stylist, said Amis of Hitchens’s early days, and when it comes to literary output, I’d agree with that. Hitchens knew art better than anyone, but like an old eunuch gazing quizzically — and often admiringly — at another man’s genitals, he could never quite produce it himself. Besides, Hitchens showed that style is one thing, sitting in the chair and writing is another. It’s not enough to think original thoughts; you must be out there fighting for territory.

At The Nation, he ground out article after article, exciting, soldierly stuff. But he was speaking to readers. His real calling, it turned out, was speaking to listeners. Jumping into the noisy American political fray, he was right at home. A “news groupie” my narrator calls him in Kamal, Book One.

Now let us not disgrace a poem
with world affairs and those who choose
– like Rush, or Chris, or even Noam –
to be the groupies of the news.

Not sure I like seeing Rush Limbaugh and Chris Hitchens in the same disparaging tetrameter, but then again, that’s where we wanted Chris to be — right in Rush’s face.

I’m a hopeless talker. When it comes to articulation, I think of myself as one those people you occasionally see trying to walk multiple dogs. A tangle of leads. Hitchens’s verbal rhetoric was a single attack dog on a vastly extendable leash, relentless, ferocious, sometimes let loose completely; and people like me admired those fangs, the carnassial tearing apart of dopey belief. We appreciated the vigilance, the bite he gave to our occasional barking thoughts.

Once the jaws clamped down, that was it. He never let go.

When it comes to death, however, one has to let go. Although if anyone could win that argument, it was Hitch (which is another reason his death is so disappointing). Then again, if “Hitchenism” is really more of a genetic condition than a character — and I think it may well be — our species is evolving his direction anyway. Toward a braver kind of thinking. We’re right behind the charge he’s led.

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“My Poetry Tour of South India (Continued)” by Zireaux

Limbaugh, Hitchens, Chomsky, Bono, Ono, Jolie

Now let us not disgrace a poem
with world affairs and those who choose
— like Rush, or Chris, or even Noam —
to be the groupies of the news.
This world is a great performer.
And like her fans, these pundits swarm her,
request an autograph, then boast
that they’re the ones who know her most.
That they – so different from the masses –
were sitting in a privileged row.
That they not only saw her show
but afterward, with backstage passes,
engaged her in some repartee,
and pumped the hand of Destiny!

Stay back! Stay back, enticing diva.
I’ve seen what mischief you can cause!
Send B-grade actors to Geneva
so they can hear the world’s applause.
A diplomat you made of Bono.
An artist out of widowed Ono.
And though the world, no doubt, has gained
from these strange titles you ordained
and craves to know – much like a goalie
before a shot – which corner space,
of which unknown, impoverished place
will land the offspring of Ms. Jolie,

I’m just a poet, a weak believer
in anything I write with true
belief. (A perfect rhyme – “deceiver.”)
Each light we see, its shadow do.
In every righteous, preachy braggart
resides (an easy rhyme) a Swaggart,
who sings the proselytizer’s song,
then writes a book called, I Was Wrong.
(Or have I mixed my Jim with Jimmy?
They’re all the same. They make sweet noise
then falter with their alter boys.)
So, too, some sleeper spy within me,
it seems, emphatically condemns
the inverse of my stratagems.

For how can I deny my recent
activities with CaPP, and my
attempts to stopple those indecent,
municipal esophagi
which feast beneath each flooded alley;
my sympathies with protest rallies
— like that which I addressed last week.
in Kerala, amidst a clique
of writers like myself, including
a one-time novelist who now
would rather plot a grand gherao1
in protest of a land’s denuding.
(Like Hulme or a Harper Lee,
her first work was her apogee).

Bakker, Lee, Hulme, Langur, Man in STD Booth

And there I stood, palm trees assembled
like ladies holding fans of green
and dressed in collars that resembled
the pleated manes of Shakespeare’s queen.
And there beneath these spiky giants
beside a shadowed, calm, compliant
canal — all shade and treacle — I
espoused my cause, the “what” and “why,”
to mustached men who kept on flaring
their floral, knee-length lungis out
like flying lizards just about
to soar – but then, no longer caring,
or tempered by a second thought,
re-twisting them into a knot.

And women, too, observed my talents,
their plaited hair with jasmine lures
to hook the senses, or to balance
unspoken whims – just as langurs
are by their long black tails steadied.
Some held umbrellas; shops were readied
with blue and yellow tarps for rain.
The sky would grunt as from the strain
of holding heavy clouds; or flicker
the way a tube light does when its
too weak and merely sparks in fits
of failed florescence. Then a snicker
of drops upon the mud would spawn
a howling torrent.

                      I spoke on:

“The prick of dignity demands us
to rail against these deadly drains”

— and so forth. I read some stanzas
from my poems which might pertain
to civil rights and social duty,
then ducked into our blue Maruti;
then beaten, frazzled, rattling roads
and tilting buses, trucks with loads
all burlap-bound like dough unkneaded
with “Blow” and “Horn” their rear command,
and on the walls where scythes (not hands)2
bestow salutes; and strange, unheeded
equations, “Safe is Death’s Delay,”
“Polluting Takes Your Breath Away;”

and yellow signs that tout diseases
(or rather, tell the traveler where
a telephone for STDs is);3
and drawings showing ladies fair
in face, with ebon hair two petals
devoutly parted, precious metals
and gems and soaps and lingerie
ignite their eyes; and men like gay

Maqbool, Hero, Vincent Van Gogh, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy

Gestapo, debonair, mustaches
all trimmed to match that male motif
of movie stars in socks and briefs
with razors, Bata shoes, a Fascist
Bajaj, a Hero Honda – O!
What vanities these young men show!

Just see those posters multi-pasted
as though to please a compound eye
(or to ensure no space is wasted);
Baghban, Maqbool and Munna Bhai!
What dreams! What fantasies they feed on!
Reality is never agreed on.
A million worlds are born each day
and every set of eyes conveys
a world distinct from any other.

There’s Sheela in her private bus
which drives an hour ahead of us,
my manager-cum-poet-mother,
to whom the world is a place
for art to bloom – and she’s the vase,

the water pail, the disentangler
of bundled buds, inserter of
the baby’s breath, the scissor-angler
of stems to help what sprouts above.
To her “all art requires arrangement,”
for nothing’s worse that its estrangement
from mass appeal – and true enough.
I can’t but help respect the stuff
of fame, the stir of its concoction,
the way a monkish mind consorts
with pricey wardrobes, posh resorts.
(To wit — until that Sotheby auction,
the irises Van Gogh once saw
attracted insufficient awe).

So Sheela, by her florist-snippings,
perceives the world in costs and trends,
in viewerships and paper clippings,
in calls from sponsors, gifts from friends;
an ear pressed to the latest cell-phone,
each word well-weighed and clientele-prone.
The sapphire pins of damsel flies,
the drumstick trees with white bowties,
the water-sleeves cuff-linked with lotus;
bananas clumped like emerald quartz,
the silver gleam of seaside ports
— these riches pass her by, unnoticed!
(“A hornbill! Look!”) while she’d delight,
“We’re meeting Vikram Seth tonight.

A panel at the Malabar Palace.
And Naipaul says you are a fraud
— but that’s a good thing. All those callous,
disdainful books of his, O god
how much he’s hated here!”

Rushdie, Naipaul

                            “Really?
I quite admire — ”

                         “O don’t be silly,
Zireaux! Rushdie likes you. Roy
adores you. But Naipaul won’t enjoy
a work that doesn’t worship Hindus.
I’ve booked us at the Taj Hotel
in Kochi — wait…”

                          And while I’d smell
the sweet enchantments of the Wind-Muse
— the clove and night-queen in her broth —
or note the spasms of a moth

upon a pool’s cyanic surface
beside a floodlit night’s buffet
she’d ponder what might be the purpose
behind the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
her cellphone chirps and chimes.

                                                “That must be
Rajindar of the Times. I trust he
remembers what he promised. Hello?”

And in my mind, a chaste rondeau
would form — the inclines of her figure
enhancing hip’s and bosom’s rise;
and how her torpid teakwood eyes
can stay so calm above the vigor
of white-glossed teeth, hardworking lips
arranging dates for business trips.

…continued on January 25, 2011

1A Hindi word meaning encirclement, referring to a typical South Asian form of protest whereby a group of people surround a politician or a government building until certain demands are met, or answers given.
2The “hand” refers to the symbol of India’s Congress Party, while the “scythe,” of course, symbolizes the Communist Party.
3STD stands for Subscriber Trunk Dialing, that is, inter-state phone calls.

Start from the beginning…How I met Sheela Ray at Orbit’s Restaurant.

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Terrorist

Terrorist, by John Updike

Terrorist, by John Updike

Terrorist
by John Updike

In a 2006 review for the Atlantic Monthly of John Updike’s last novel, Terrorist (which I read for the first time yesterday), Christopher Hitchens claims to have sent the book “windmilling across the room in a spasm of boredom and annoyance.” This, of course, is a lie; not to mention a cliche. Hardbacks can be heavy and destructive — so why are they always flying across the reading rooms of disgruntled critics?

The quibbles which Hitchens raises, however, are accurate enough: the plot of Terrorist is soap-bubble thin, the characters are patched-up hand-me-downs, several of the pop-cultural phrasings are “pitchy,” as an American Idol judge would put it.  But what sort of spine, I wonder, has the fluids to spasm in boredom over such trivial failings while reading a book about the hydra-headed Pep-Boys: Manny, Moe and Jack?  Or those inflatable attention-getters in front of New Jersey car lots, made of “weirdly lifelike segmented plastic tubes that when blown full of air from underneath wave their arms and jerk back and forth in torment, in constant beckoning agitation.”  Rising, falling, and — God bless America, God bless Levitra — rising again like an old man’s member.

With its “Terrorist” title, yes, the book compels lesser minds (and critics) to look for the same facile “explosions of some latter-day, dumbed down thriller” which 64-year-old Jack Levy watches at the movies, still holding his wife’s hand after 40 years of marriage despite the “coldly calibrated shocks of adolescent script mocking their old age.”  Like his character — and unlike many reviewers who actually misidentified Terrorist as a thriller — Updike always cared less about the popular projection of life than its flesh and blood texture.

Terrorist is a book about insects and worms and slime trails; about long brown stains from dripping faucets, “oval eyes of dubious toilet water,” crumbling macadam and asbestos, sooty churches, painted-over graffiti, the “rusting rails of abandoned freight car spurs,” cattails in brackish water, gutters “mint-green with age,” dying ad-starved daily papers, plastic flyswatters, Shop-a-Secs, Duncin’ Donuts,  Prime Office Suites, 1-800-TEETH-14, shops with tire-flattened styrofoam take-out containers in the driveway, lobster joints with the lobsters “still advertised but no longer served up steaming,” Subaru station wagons with Bondo-patched fenders and “red enamel abraded by years of acid New Jersey air” in another “pathetic attempt to join the easy seventy-mile-an-hour mainstream.”

It’s about the creation one finds in decay — and about Updike’s own decay after 74 years of embodying the golden age of American prosperity (that perfect life-time, 1933 to 2009).  Pressed to find the eponymous terrorist in Terrorist, I’d point to a little black beetle lying on its back, a miniature Gregor Samsa with his kicking legs, which frightens a young boy named Ahmed (the least terrorizing character in the book) the day before he, Ahmed (not Gregor-the-Beetle), sets off to blow up another three-headed, American Hydra — the Lincoln Tunnel.  Ahmed looks around for something with which to flip the little creature over, like “the dark little cardboard, for instance, used to give the two parts of a Mounds bar integrity, or to reinforce a double Reese’s Peaunut Butter Cup.”  Ahmed finally flips the insect over with the very C-class driver’s license he requires to deliver the bomb, but the beetle was already in its death throes, and, upright at last, remains still — “leaving behind a largeness that belongs not to this world.”

Does a mind which reacts to such a brilliantly observed novel, such a fine work of art, by sending it windmilling across a room in annoyance and boredom resemble in some way the mind of a weedy, misguided fundamentalist breaking through the asphalt cracks of America in fits of desecration, or a truckload of explosives?  Probably not.  But let the idea soak in.  “One of the worst pieces of writing since 9/11,” says Hitchens of Terrorist, granting Al Qaeda their calendrical synecdoche (perhaps their greatest conquest of all).  Updike died before Faishal Shazad tried to blow up a seventy-mile-an-hour mainstream Isuzu Trooper in Times Square, or before the events that really did change the world on 4/20, but he — as much as Kafka and the greatest of writers — has left behind a largeness that belongs not to this world.

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