Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My year's best

As every year, this year's list of the best books I read ranges from new releases back through the previous two centuries. I've read 73 so far, will probably finish one or two more by year's end, not quite up to my record-breaking 80 of last year but they do say there's more to life than reading …

I have no doubt Medical Apartheid will be on 2012's list. However, I'm moving through it quite slowly. This is not a book you can rush.

Anyway. Here's the best of my 2011 reading life. Seventeen fiction, one poetry, one history. In no order.

Cellophane by Marie Arana
The Price of a Child by Lorene Cary
Spartina by John Casey
We the Animals by Justin Torres
Wading Home by Rosalyn Story
Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton
Pym by Mat Johnson
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Poetic Injustice by Remi Kanazi

Century of the Wind by Eduardo Galeano

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I'll be buying The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry

I'm not a fan of the New York Review of Books, why would I be? Today, though, I found myself pointed there after hearing that the poetry world has joined a battle prompted by a negative review of a new anthology. Negative, it turns out, is a euphemism. The review, by the venerable Helen Vendler in the NYRB's November 24 issue, heaps scorn on The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry and reviles its editor, Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove—and does so in a breathtakingly blatant racist spew, the latest in the endless chorus of yowls and yelps that issue like clockwork from the we-love-dead-white-men literary establishment whenever and wherever other voices, especially those of people of color, are brought to the fore.

In this, the latest such case, Vendler excoriates Dove for, among others, the crimes of (1) deeming such voices worthy of inclusion in a century's collection; (2) asserting that Black women, in one passage that has Vendler sputtering with oppressor-lackey outrage, "can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race"; (3) noting the social-historical context of the poems; (4) celebrating the Harlem Renaissance. And (5)—this criticism deserves special attention because of its brazen white-supremacist sensibility—Vendler accuses Dove of "tipping the balance" toward poets of color because they, according to Vendler, make up 15 of the 20 born between 1954 and 1971 whose work closes the anthology. "Tipping the balance" against whites, that is. That is, Dove is here indicted for the crime of daring to flip the standard equation. For when have any of these characters ever been outraged by an anthology or section of an anthology in which most of the poets were white? Yeah, right.

Of course there are occasional feeble efforts to couch the crux. To no effect. The thrust is so clear. The cheek of these people, you can almost hear Grande Dame Vendler sniff … why, in my day those people knew their place …

I haven't linked to her scuzz because it's so offensive but you can get to it easily enough. Here is Rita Dove's reply, published as a letter to the editor in the latest, December 22, issue of the NYRB. And here, in an interview with Dove and poet Jericho Brown on the Best American Poetry blog, Dove says in part:
I don't know if this line of attack is a sign of despair or fury on part of some critics who define themselves as white -- whatever that means in our mongrel society. Are they trying to make a last stand against the hordes of up-and-coming poets of different skin complexions and different eye slants? Were we -- African Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans -- only acceptable as long as these critics could stand guard by the door to examine our credentials and let us in one by one?
Toward the end of her review, Helen Vendler reveals much about the skewed thought processes that seem to inform these critics when she writes: "Of the twenty poets born between 1954 and 1971 (closing the anthology), fifteen are from minority communities (Hispanic, Black, Native American, or Asian-American), and five are white (two men, three women).” My husband was in Germany tending to his sick mother when the review came out, so I emailed him a scan. Half an hour later, he emailed me back. "I can't believe Vendler topped off her diatribe with bean counting so offensive, she’s put herself in league with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan", he wrote. "Has she lost all historical perspective? In juxtaposing 'white' with 'minority communities', counting among the latter everybody who does not adhere to her imaginary Caucasian purity principles, she incriminates herself. Just like the Nazis tagged every German as Jewish who had a Jewish grandparent, just like the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk ascribed to the 'one drop rule', she lumps together everybody who is not 'rassenrein' [racially pure] white, including all those of the 'fifteen from minority communities' who are of mixed racial heritage."

Friday, December 16, 2011

Heroes & martyrs, defiled

I've been reading Harriet A. Washington's searing, infuriating, important book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Although you'd think it would be naïve to be shocked by any given piece of information, any new revelation, about the depraved depths this country's racism has reached, I can't come up with any other word but shocking for what Washington presents here. Over years of painstaking research that must have been extremely difficult on many levels, she unearthed indisputable evidence of massive systemic institutionalized crimes against Black people from slavery times right up through today—crimes committed by and in the name of medical science, most of which had been until now either forgotten or deliberately concealed. These crimes are horrific. They range from unethical experimentation to malign neglect to forced medical and surgical treatments to intentional inducement of illness or injury to outright murder to grave robbing and unauthorized post-mortem uses of the stolen cadavers for training and even entertainment.

In reading about this latter issue, how the bodies of deceased people of African descent have been taken without their or their families' consent and used for everything from medical-school education to circus display—and not merely on occasion, no, systematically, such that most U.S. doctors right up through to the present day can assume that these were the bones and tissue they trained on—I came across two particularly devastating instances that filled me with rage.

The first was in 1859. This paragraph comes in a discussion of how bodies were procured for 19th-century medical schools:
Newspaper descriptions of executions regularly noted that as a matter of course, the bodies of black, but not white, criminals were to be dissected. One account read: "The execution of Cook and Coppic, white men, Copeland and Green, colored, took place at Charleston [Virginia] on Friday last. … The bodies of Cook and Coppic were taken to Harper's Ferry in a train which was waiting at the depot. The bodies of the negroes have been given to surgeons and medical students."
Cook and Coppic, Copeland and Green! Even before the reference to Harper's Ferry I recognized the names. For these are four of the heroes of the historic October 1859 raid on the U.S. Army arsenal at Harper's Ferry, planned as the initial attack in what was hoped would swell into a widespread guerrilla war to end slavery and led by the great abolitionist John Brown. Black and white lived, planned, fought and died together—only to have the bodies of the Black heroes desecrated. You can find more details about this despicable final affront here.

Lest anyone think this practice is a thing of the past, Washington's book also reports this, perhaps even more upsetting: In 1998, almost 35 years after 13-year-old Addie Mae Collins was murdered, one of the four little girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., two of her sisters arranged to move her grave to a better-maintained cemetery.
However, workers who opened the grave recoiled in shock: It was empty, devoid of casket and corpse. Addie Mae's body, like so many buried in black cemeteries throughout the South, is missing. No one can know with certainty who took the body or why, but many are convinced that her body joined the untold thousands of anonymous black cadavers on anatomists' tables.
In the book's introduction Washington tells of how she was warned off this project by various powers that be in the medical establishment. She courageously carried on and has made a major contribution to the anti-racist struggle.

Friday, December 2, 2011

On the town

Last week my best friend was in town visiting so I got to take in some culture. Including:

1. Teresa, Rosemary and I saw the play Venus in Fur, written by David Ives and starring the extraordinary Nina Arianda. Amazing. This is one of those rare instances when I agree with all the raves even though they emanate from bourgeois sources. Well, not quite, for I've discovered, since seeing it and upon delving further into the critical commentary, that while the adoration of Arianda is unanimous opinion is more divided on the play itself, and furthermore that there are, it seems, varied interpretations of what it all means, what it's about, most of all what's up with that ending. Hmm. So methinks the bourgeois sources have screwed up here after all. Arianda in all her glory aside, the play itself is, yuk yuk inside joke you'll only get if you've seen it, divine. Brilliant writing that had me on the edge of my seat straining to catch every word only to be whipsawed about this way and that by them up to the very last moment, and that moment is breathtakingly perfect. Hilarious too, as well as discomfiting in a good way.

Playwriting strikes me, every time I get to see a production, as a mysterious art. I always come out wishing I could do it but convinced that I haven't a clue about how to try. Bravo to David Ives and, yes, to the mighty Aphrodite herself, Nina Arianda.

2. Spent an hour or so later that evening at a grand old Village gay dive piano bar with a grand old name, Marie's Crisis Café. Fun, except for our chagrin at the group of young men who seemed to know only tunes from Disney musicals. Egads! This was the first time I've ever been there when I couldn't join in on the singing, for Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, Sondheim, Bernstein, Gershwin, Porter and all that lot were, sadly, not in the house.

3. I took Rosemary to the Queens Museum for a perambulation around the Panorama of the City of New York. It is a glorious thing. And she permitted me to be in my glory, pointing here and there orienting her, showing off my fabulous town.

4. We went to the Brooklyn Museum, where we were very satisfied with the new exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. AKA The Gay Show. Really interesting on many levels.

Now my sister- and brother-in-law are in town from Texas and after they come from Radio City Musical Hall where they're seeing the Rockettes do their holiday thing, we're meeting for a sushi dinner at one of the best Japanese restaurants in the city. Phew! Ain't I got fun?