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Micah Robbins Posts

Elise Partridge’s Hyper-Realism and Naming the Unknown

To read Elise Partridge’s 2002 collection Fielder’s Choice is to enter a highly-tuned world of memory and perception. The poems are precise, guided by observational skills and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge that transform even distant memories of childhood into something much more certain and accessible than what many readers may experience when recalling their own childhoods. Similarly, Partridge’s observations of nature are encyclopedic in their attention to detail and naming. The natural world that Partridge represents in these poems is not impressionistic, but is instead rendered scientific, knowable, able to be mastered. Even the collection’s opening poem, “Everglades,” which trains its attention on the submerged, fleeting things of the wetlands, ends with an appeal to the practice of naming: “A bird swaying on a coral bean / sang two notes that might have been ‘Name me’ ” (ll. 14-15). Yet what I find most interesting about these lines is not the poet’s knowledge, which extends to the coral bean, nor her desire to know the name of the bird, which she cleverly suggests is the bird’s desire to be named, but rather the subtle anxiety she seems to experience when confronted with something that resists identification. It’s as if these extraordinarily detailed, taxonomic poems carry within themselves an awareness that every experience contains an element of the unknown and the unknowable. Even the most observant poets must, in the final analysis, stand before a horizon beyond which they cannot see.

A good example of this tension between mastery over nature and the impossible horizon of knowledge comes in the collection’s second poem, “Plague.” Following immediately after “Everglades” and its explicit appeal to naming, “Plague” begins with a catalogue of medicinal herbs: “Heal-all, yarrow, alum root, / sweet annie, angelica, hazel shoots” (ll. 1-2). To this list are added “Lemon verbena, spearmint beds, / feverfew blooms nodding heads,” “a spray of Solomon’s seal,” and “magenta balm, white chamomile” (ll. 7-8, 18, and 26). In all, Partridge names nineteen specific plant species, telling us that they are “herbs renowned for healing power” (l. 6). The herbs’ medicinal properties compliment the poem’s title, which emphasizes illness and suffering, and the poet’s ability to recognize each plant species—even if only by their common names—suggests that she knows something about how to use them against the plague. And she does indeed understand the practical use of at least one of the plants, as she makes clear when she writes: “Medicinal ferns were brewed for tea / to soothe sore throats, cure pleurisy” (ll. 29-30). The impression this encyclopedic approach gives is of a poet who moves through the natural world as an omniscient observer. She knows the names of every plant she sees, and she knows how to transform these wild things into wholesome teas, medicines, and cures.

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Unemployed Fragments

Feelings of exhaustion
passed person to person

ears clogged and Advil PM
a condition
only lying prone can fix
New vision --- a hawk
still, asleep in the tree

a truck idles nearby

no movement, no hawk
my eye - it misunderstands the shape it sees

And then a dove, as if from mist . . .
Gnats amuck in my keyboard
seeking refuge, a place to nest

in this tangle of silicone & light
A cardinal, confident in the brown of its feathers
leaps from mirror to mirror

A moment, a fraction ---
and then up and out and back
again
The water black at dawn, a diadem:
stars die in the light.

The chirp of the frog. The hiss of the owl.

Open your mouth.
Take in a breath --- and out
of all things gold.
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Hot Damn! Vietnam!

Here is something that offended LBJ: The Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) insisted on using his image—presented upside down—on its promotional materials in the days leading up to their attempted march on the Oakland Army Terminal in 1965. These materials clearly intended to mock Johnson by displaying his portrait in a topsy-turvy manner, but what may be less obvious is that turning the president upside down can also be understood as casting a hex on him. The practice of symbolically turning someone upside down as part of a curse can be traced at least as far back as late-antiquity. For example, Christopher A. Faraone and Amina Cropp have shown evidence of Romans using an incantation against their enemies that included an inscription meaning, “turn upside-down!” Similar language is evident in the fourth-century curse that states, in part, “turn him, turn him upside-down!” In this way, VDC activists engaged in the sort of satirical practice outlined in Robert C. Elliott’s foundational study The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art and exemplified most hilariously in Ishmael Reed’s “D Hexorcism of Noxon D Awful,” which is anthologized in the aptly titled 19 Necromancers from Now, and Philip Roth’s Our Gang, two texts that satirically hex Richard Nixon.

The story of how the VDC came to deploy this particular strategy is interesting, especially insofar as it reveals something about the influence of postwar American writers on the symbols that the Anti-War Movement adopted during the mid- to late-Sixties. It is also very funny. Here is what happened . . .

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Singularity and Multitude in Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

The fraught relationship between global capitalism and cultural identity looms large in the work of contemporary Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid. His novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, for example, tells the story of Changez, a young Pakistani man who attends Princeton University on scholarship before going to work for Underwood Samson, a high-powered asset valuation firm in New York City. But when the United States responds to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center with a series of military invasions that throw the global power structure into high relief, Changez must confront the tensions within his personal identity as a transnational global subject. He soon recognizes that he “lacked a stable core,” and he confesses that he could no longer tell if he belonged “in New York, in Lahore, in both, in neither” (168). As the narrative progresses, Changez grows a beard, resigns his post at Underwood Samson, and returns to Pakistan, where he helps organize a series of large scale protests against American involvement in the Middle East and South Asia. What makes Changez’s transformation from pro-American market fundamentalist to anti-American political activist so compelling is that he exists both inside and outside the logic of global capitalism. By embodying both sides of the contemporary conflict between cosmopolitanism and parochialism, his consciousness troubles any clear distinction between “us” and “them”—a key mentality and core contradiction within neoliberal globalization. Like much of Hamid’s work, The Reluctant Fundamentalist asks us to consider the limits of this mentality and to question the extent to which a distinction between inside and outside—or the global and the local—is possible at this point in history.

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Robert F. Williams, Epideictic Rhetoric, and the African American Freedom Struggle

Late in the summer of 1961, an interracial group of Freedom Riders arrived in Monroe, North Carolina, a town long mired in intense racial conflict, to join civil rights activist Robert F. Williams’s campaign to integrate the town’s public facilities, including the schools and the municipal swimming pool. He also wanted to achieve nondiscriminatory hiring practices in local factories, to guarantee the appointment of African American citizens to positions within the city government, and to have all signs indicating white and non-white areas removed from public view. As president of the Union County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Williams had generated considerable controversy two years earlier when, in a moment of frustration over a series of racially-biased court decisions, he claimed that “the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attacker on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching.”1 Although Williams tried to soften his rhetoric by explaining that he had meant only to say that the African American community must consider armed self-defense until such time as the criminal justice system guaranteed the constitutional right to equal protection under the law, the national leadership of the NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins, suspended Williams from his leadership post after a period of high-profile debate over the organization’s position on self-defense. It was in response to his being censured that Williams began to publish The Crusader, a widely-distributed monthly newsletter that served as a platform for his ideas and helped further elevate him as a militant voice within the largely nonviolent Civil Right Movement. The Freedom Riders who descended on Monroe that summer intended to help Williams integrate the town, but they also wanted to counter his position on armed self-defense by demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance in a town that had become notorious for its racist violence.

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The Survivors Will Envy the Dead

The escalating nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea have me thinking of the 1965 film The War Game, a mock-documentary that dramatizes a thermonuclear attack on a small British city. The film, directed by Peter Watkins, won an Academy Award for best documentary, though it was ultimately denied airtime by the BBC because of its violent content. The experience of watching the film is disturbing, not only because it recalls how deeply the threat of nuclear war had penetrated global consciousness during the Cold War, but also because it draws attention to how disconnected our contemporary cultural sphere is from the species-level threat of nuclear war. We just don’t seem to care anymore. This is precisely why The War Game is still worth watching. It not only illustrates the danger of nuclear proliferation, but it also serves as a reminder that the international community has failed to address the persistent danger of nuclear arms.

There are many aspects of The War Game that remain relevant today. For example, the nuclear strike depicted in the film is provoked by a conflict between the United States and China over American military involvement in South Vietnam. The United States threatens to strike the Chinese military with tactical nuclear missiles, which in turn provokes the Soviet Union to assist the East Germans in unifying Berlin under the Communist regime. In an effort to defend Berlin from Communist aggression, the United States and Britain strike Soviet forces with a nuclear missile, thus initiating a full-scale thermonuclear conflict. This was a likely enough scenario when the film was released, and it should give us pause regarding how easily the threat of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea can explode into a larger conflict between any number of nuclear powers.

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Accused = Guilty; Or, How to Write about Terrorism in a Country with a 99% Conviction Rate

A few weeks ago, the website Literary Hub published a brief overview of Chinese crime writing under the title “Shanghai Noir: How to Write Crime Fiction in a City with a 100% Conviction Rate.” Written by British journalist and true crime author Paul French, the survey touches on how difficult it can be to write about crime in a society that denies crime’s existence and/or cultivates the myth of a flawless judicial system. French notes that in nations such as China, where the conviction rate for murder stands at 99.9%, and where maintaining such a rate is crucial to the state’s political project, one’s ability to write about crime critically and honestly is fundamentally compromised. He writes: “The truth is crime in China is a problematic genre—it all too often raises tricky political issues, when it appears the censors [sic.] axe falls swiftly; local politicians are powerful and prickly. Crime shows on TV are no better—showing valiant and incorruptible policemen and women in a cardboard cut-out way that would have been laughed at in America in the 1950s!”

I haven’t been able to shake this statistic—a 99.9% conviction rate. It seems to me that this statistic cuts two ways. First, it contributes to the appearance of social harmony underwritten by a diligent and expert police state. The appearance of peace and security is key here, for it offers the peace-of-mind that things are exactly as they should be. Everything is under control. This is one reason why authoritarian regimes suppress crime statistics while so radically inflating conviction rates. But this peace-of-mind is only available to those who are unlikely to be accused. This leads us to the second way in which the statistic cuts: For those who belong to one of the groups that find themselves subject to routine scapegoating—one group French mentions as falling within this category is Shanghai’s “population of migrant workers”—a 99.9% conviction rate no doubt compounds a difficult and pervasive sense of insecurity. When no statistical difference exists between being accused and convicted, the only statistic that matters is the rate of accusation.

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Locusts and Wild Honey

When I think of the word “ecology,” images of rainforests leap immediately to mind. The dense canopy, the intense diversity of flora and fauna, the screeching monkeys and brilliantly colored birds. If I dwell on the word a bit longer, my imagination expands to include rivers, mountains, deserts, coral reefs, and even the frozen expanses of the arctic. These are the sorts of settings that make nature documentaries such as the BBC’s Planet Earth so compelling to watch. But world ecology encompasses so much more, including human beings (people are notably absent from Planet Earth). In his essay “The Three Ecologies,” Félix Guattari identifies three “ecological registers”: “the environment, social relations and human subjectivity,” all of which are intimately interconnected and mutually contingent (18). Where there are rainforests, rivers, mountains, and deserts, there are also social relations and the complexities of human subjectivity. To suggest that humanity and nature exist in separate spheres is to engage in a fallacy, just as it’s naive to neglect the extent to which natural ecology penetrates the human species.

Food is one of the most important means by which natural ecology enters human experience. We eat, and in so doing we incorporate nature into our biology. It enriches our bodies as it passes through them. As philosopher and literary critic Timothy Morton argues, “All life-forms, along with the environments they compose and inhabit, defy boundaries between inside and outside at every level” (274). The most obvious way this is true is that we consume aspects of the biological world when we eat, and in turn we produce organic matter (including our own bodies) that feeds back into the biosphere. But eating is also a key aspect of human sociability. What occurs at mealtime is responsible, in significant and far-reaching ways, for human culture, and even for civilization itself. The fact that natural ecology is reflected in every plate of food puts nature at the center of culture. And this, it seems to me, opens up possibilities for shared recognition between distant and sometimes unfamiliar cultures, as well as opportunities to exchange knowledge and experiences that may prove crucial to our survival in an age of ecological crisis.

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The Last Chapter of Genesis

Christian theology is at odds with itself when it comes to the natural world. On the one hand, it promotes a deep-seated aversion to nature, which is said to be corrupted by sin. Joseph Campbell makes this point clear in The Power of Myth, his famed series of interviews with Bill Moyers, noting that “it’s in the biblical tradition, all the way, in Christianity and Islam as well. This business of not being with nature, and we speak with a sort of derogation of the ‘nature religions.’ You see, with that fall in the garden, nature was regarded as corrupt. There’s a myth for you that corrupts the whole world for us. And every spontaneous act is sinful, because nature is corrupt and has to be corrected, must not be yielded to.” The contempt for nature, including the natural functions of the human body, permeates the cannon of Christian myth and has done much to condition western attitudes toward the environment.

On the other hand, Christianity teaches that human beings have a responsibility to care for the earth. The bounty of nature is figured as a trust, with humanity acting as both trustee and beneficiary. The theology of environmental stewardship has received renewed attention following Pope Francis’s second encyclical, Laudato si, a document that urges environmental protection as a Christian duty. Francis summarized the Christian position vis-à-vis environmental stewardship in his 2014 address to the European Parliament: “Each of us has a personal responsibility to care for creation, this precious gift which God has entrusted to us. This means, on the one hand, that nature is at our disposal, to enjoy and use properly. Yet it also means that we are not its masters. Stewards, but not masters. We need to love and respect nature, but instead we are often guided by the pride of dominating, possessing, manipulating, exploiting.”

The contradictions between these two positions seem intractable. How are we meant to reconcile the idea of nature as a gift with the belief that nature is “fallen” and corrupt? It’s worth remembering that the myth of the fall imagines Eden as containing within itself the source of sin, and thus also our own deaths, just as it shames the natural condition of the human body. Much loathing of ourselves and our environment grows from this root. And yet there is indeed a Christian imperative to care for what Pope Francis, quoting his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi, identifies as “our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.”

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The Year of Ecological Thinking

The first time I entered a desert was fourteen years ago, in the winter of 2002. I drove west from New Jersey to Indiana, and then southwest to Gallup, New Mexico, where I rested for the first time since leaving home. From Gallup I continued west into the Painted and Sonoran Deserts, before cutting back through the Chihuahuan Desert on my way east through Texas to Alabama, and then northeast to New Jersey.

Looking back on that journey, I’m certain I entered the desert without realizing I had even arrived. My concept of desert landscapes owed more to illustrated stories of Moses wandering the Sinai, or The Road Runner leaving Wile E. Coyote in a cloud of dust, than it did to any actually existing desert. My imagined deserts were barren landscapes full of danger and desolation, the palettes bleak, and death abounding. But what I found in the American Southwest was vibrant and full of life.

America’s deserts are rugged, but they also capture color. The reds and browns of the soil. The blues and purples of the distant mountains. The sky often rich with clouds, fast moving and prone to sudden showers you can see as swathes of gray against the horizon. But what surprised me most were the varied greens and yellows: A landscape alive with flora fed by those intermittent rains.

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