Review of Quenton Baker’s “This Glittering Republic” at Full Stop

Hi friends, a review I wrote of Quenton Baker’s rich, dark, polyvocal first collection of poems, This Glittering Republic, is up now at Full Stop.

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Readings

It’s easy for me to devour news analysis and critical writing online, respond to it with a strong emotional flare (“Yes!” “How awful!”), then forget about it. Trying to check that consumerist impulse by taking time here to share notes on things I’ve read online that affected or struck me, whether or not I agreed with the author’s arguments.

Philip Blond reviews John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future. Blond is a conservative Catholic; his review favorably examines Milbank and Pabst’s assertion that liberalism is responsible for both dissolving social ties and duties on an individual level and creating a market authoritarianism on the social level. The authors argue that social liberalism, asserting that the most important freedoms are negative (“freedom from“), and economic liberalism, giving every realm of social life over to the market, are inextricably linked. But how to imagine a post-liberal politics that not just, say, reactionary populism or proto-fascism? These particular conservative authors are stumped. Too bad the review doesn’t meaningfully engage liberalism’s critics on the left.

Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Why Claudia Jones Will Always Be More Relevant than Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Burden-Stelly critiques what she sees in Coates’s writing on whiteness as a metaphysics– an unbreakable magic spell, intrinsic to America– rather than as one instrument of an oppressive social and economic order. “[A]ntiblackness is inextricable from the suppression of labor, the deportation of ‘alien’ progressives, the incarceration of anti-capitalists, the indictment of communists and ‘fellow travellers,’ the censure of demands for fundamental redistribution, and the overall repression of the left.” If racism is primarily an innate American wound instantiated in individual racist behaviors, there is no room for a structural analysis of inequality or the development of counterpower. Burden-Stelly paraphrases Claudia Jones, a 50s intellectual, that “white supremacy was not a matter of attitude or morals, but rather of property rights, access to resources, and the hierarchical organization of American society.”

Robert Cottrell reviews Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History, a study of Russian society under Putin seen through the lives of seven contemporary Russians. Gessen claims that Russia’s society has retained an orientation toward totalitarianism, which persists even in the absence of a totalitarian leader; Putin’s government is instead closer to a “Mafia state.” And in modern Russia the persecution of gays serves a similar purpose to Russia’s persecution of Jews: destroying an “enemy within” to strengthen state control of the social order.

Ross Douthat, “Is There an Evangelical Crisis?” Douthat looks at the white evangelicals who elected Trump even though he was a Godless bully and sexual predator. Won’t Trump drive away young evangelicals who care deeply about character and orthodoxy, and fissure white conservative political power? Douthat has his doubts. Many seem to be sticking with white Christian tribalism, no matter how partisan and anti-intellectual its results. And perhaps, in fact, it’s in this ghastly tribalism that evangelicalism had its strength all along.

Henry Louis Gates, “Let Them Talk: Why Civil Liberties Pose No Threat to Civil Rights.” From (of all places) The New Republic, originally published in the late ’90s. This is the most thorough and detailed argument against the idea of criminalizing/censoring “hate speech” I’ve ever read by an intellectual conversant in critical race theory.

Kenan Malik, “In Search of the Common Good.” Malik examines the notion of the “common good” and the role it plays in underpinning the possibility of solidarity. He notes that the common good has traditionally been defined by who it otherizes and excludes; and he also notes how liberalism has both weakened and widened this concept. “[L]iberal individualism has helped both undermine the idea of community, and hence of the common good, and expand our conception of the moral community which defines the common good.” In the US and England, both the left and right are currently deeply critical of the concept of the common good. We live in a very socially fragmented society, which makes solidarity across lines of ethnicity, culture, and faith (and meaningful engagement with one’s opponents) increasingly difficult. Where do we go from here?

Steven Mithen reviews James C. Scott’s Against the Grain. Humans’ transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was messy, often disastrous: it increased the spread of disease among animals and humans; it wore down laborers’ bodies; and it promoted centralized hierarchy (made possible by taxation of grain), slavery, and war. By contrast, many centers of hunter-gatherer activity (Scott discusses Hongzhou Bay and Mesopotamia) had abundant resources, sometimes enough to permit a sedentary lifestyle. So why switch? Mithen’s review doesn’t mention Marvin Harris’s thesis in Cannibals and Kings, that most hunter-gatherer societies intensified their resource extraction until non-farmable resources were exhausted; they were thus forced to adopt agriculture. Mithen and Scott focus instead mostly on massive sites of worship as a justification for a transition to cereal-based agriculture. One aside from the article I loved: the term “Dark Age” is an elite invention. Before around 400 years ago— when there were still non-city-state areas left for outcasts and rebels to flee to— democracy, culture, and overall human health flourished precisely when city-states collapsed.

Charles Mudede, “Vancouver Study Shows Why Seattle’s HALA Is Doomed to Fail.” HALA– the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda– is a Band-Aid on a huge problem: that Seattle’s bonkers housing boom is fueled, not by supply and demand, but by debt-driven finance. New condos are a speculative commodity making developers tons of money, and mandating that 10% of them be “affordable” will do nothing to slow an upcycling of all of Seattle’s new housing stock. The only realistic way to dampen this would be a high tax on speculation, something Seattle doesn’t have the power to enact.

Keeange-Yamahtta Taylor, “No More Charlottesvilles.” As the racist right enjoys unprecedented sympathy and moral support from federal government, anti-racist resistance needs to turn up, without the belief that the state will play any role in dampening reactionary violence.

Michael Wear, “Pro-Life Voters and Pro-Choice Politicians.” Wear’s political background is obviously not mine, but he makes a point about voting that has stuck with me. It’s tempting, and common, to think of voting as primarily a personal expression, a statement about our identity (as in “voting one’s conscience”). But if we really believe that our engagement with politics can be a form of loving one’s neighbor, our voting should reflect not primarily what we believe about ourselves, but about how we want peace, well-being, and empowerment to come to our communities.

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Sanford Thompson, 1946-2017

Hi friends: Had the personal grief and cosmic honor of being present and holding my dad’s hand as, after a six-year journey with prostate cancer, he died at home.

I’m feeling, still, the terrible intimacy of final illness and death— a second infancy out of which, if we’re lucky, we can be midwifed by our loved ones and caregivers.

My dad was my first teacher, someone who was thrilled to learn anything new about the world. One of my first memories is of him passing me his tinted sunglasses on a drive so I could really appreciate the mountainous pileup of the cumulus clouds out the window; in the last month of his life, he couldn’t wait to ask my brother what he’d learned in lab about how a mess spectrometer works. He loved being a parent; he also believed that learning is moral work. He largely turned away from the privileges his Ivy League diploma offered him to instead provide legal aid and safe spaces to GI’s seeking conscientous-objector status; to work for free clinics; to organize medical supplies for victims of our Latin American guerrilla wars; to do mental health work with poor and struggling kids; and to devote thousands of hours to supporting community media. And he took notes on every damn book he read after turning 25, so if– as he urged me ever since I committed myself to liberatory politics– I ever read Marx’s Capital (“especially chapters 24 and 25”) and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, I’ll have his voice as my teacher.

I’m feeling so much love and gratitude for Kathy, his companion and wife for his last decade and more, who was devoted, imaginative, and tender as a caregiver in the months of 24-7 labor needed as my dad became less and less able. Love too for Charlotte, the caregiver and CNA who was here to give him his last bath and diaper change and sponge of water, and who called us over, as his breathing slowed and thickened, to hold his hands and tell him it was OK, tell him he could go.

After eighteen months and seven days, I’m again mourning a parent, feeling like an adult, feeling like there’s nothing now between myself and the sky.

(My dad’s obituary ran in his hometown paper on November 26; here it is.)

Photos: My dad in his last week; my dad with scowling newborn me; my dad politely enduring the 1940s.

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Reflection on the Parable of the Tenants

Here is the reflection I gave at St. Mary’s about a month ago, on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, on Christ’s Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46).

I almost didn’t have the heart to complete this reflection. After a 6-year journey with prostate cancer, my dad, Sanford, moved to hospice care in June and is near the end of his long goodbye with his wife Kathy, his family, his years of reading and thinking, and the birds that come to the feeder in his garden. A sudden death is a painful shock, but a slow death grinds us down: this loss erodes my strength, drains my hope, and isolates me from my usual gifts and comforts. My grief has more often felt crushing than illuminating. But, in praying on this gospel and writing this reflection, I re-learned a lesson that I’ve gotten over and over as a parent: it is comforting to give comfort. Seeking the soul-nourishing meaning I could uncover and share here in Christ’s parable nourished my own soul.

I re-read this week’s gospel on a sunny early morning in our neighborhood’s P-Patch: a community garden full of squash, greens, tomatoes, huckleberries, a beehive with a few last bees circling, and a sweet hanging smell of jasmine. It was easy, in that garden, to feel close to the love and labor of the prophet’s friend in Isaiah, or of the landowner in Christ’s parable: the P-Patch was busy but quiet, charged with its own inner life and eager for the care of its gardeners.

In one of my favorite books, Kathleen’s Norris’s memoir The Cloister Walk, a Benedictine nun tells the author that the “enemies” spoken of in the Psalms and the parables—the unbelievers and mockers and military foes who humiliate or overpower the psalmist; the “wretched men” in today’s parable—are best understood not as external enemies to vanquish, but as aspects of ourselves we must overcome. Hearing this relieved the troubled feeling I’ve often had at the harsh, and final, punishments the psalmist asks God for. The psalmist is speaking of an inner struggle.

This reframing also gave me a clearer understanding of today’s parable. In the beauty of the morning garden, I had no problem understanding the vineyard in Christ’s parable as our magnificent creation. This world is a free gift of God, and we’re called to be grateful stewards of this gift. But I see now that Christ is also speaking to us of our inner garden. Our humanity is also a free gift. As Father Armando said last week, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having, for the duration of our lives, a human experience. How might we tend these spirits of ours if we believed this?—If we felt the incredible good fortune of receiving this magnificent inner garden to tend?

I don’t know about you, but I can identify with the “wretched men” of this parable. I’m often painfully aware of the wretched, possessive, fearful, jealous sides of my spirit: my love hesitates, my courage falters, my faith flows out under me like sand, my sense of solidarity shrivels.

I’m also wretchedly aware of all the ways I participate in what St. John Paul II called “structural sin”: how, by my silence and inaction, I too often consent to a society that pulls apart families based on immigration status; sells bombs to the world’s warlords; degrades and excludes women; robs the dignity of LGBTQ people for how they express their love, their gender, and their sexuality; riddles poor communities with opioid addiction, joblessness, and despair; and consigns young men of color to police violence and mass incarceration.

To work for justice in our relationships and in our society is to labor in the vineyard of God’s creation. But to do so is also to tend our inner vineyard. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a natural thing you find beautiful: a bed of jasmine, a field of undisturbed snow, a great blue heron, a sleeping cat, a clear forest stream. Now imagine that, in God’s eyes, each of our small acts of courage, tenderness, or solidarity are that beautiful. These are the fruits and blossoms of our inner garden, and God sees them and loves them and loves us for them. To cultivate these qualities in ourselves is to lead a more beautiful life. But it is also to say thank you to the first gardener, of whose work we are the stewards.

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The Largest Named Thing in the Universe

is Laniakea, measureless heaven in Hawaiian: the 500-million-light-year-wide fibrous structure which contains the Milky Way and 100,000 other galaxies in clusters like knots in a spilled skein of yarn.

It’s a structure so vast that no one thought to look for it—to look past the Virgo supercluster which contains the Milky Way for any sort of larger shape or order governing the movement of our galaxy—until 2014, when astronomers in Hawaii and Lyon announced their discovery. Its name, chosen to honor the Polynesian navigators whose astronomical knowledge guided them across the Pacific, was suggested by Nawa’a Napoleon, a community college professor of the Hawaiian language.

(Speaking of Hawaii and astronomy: a word about the struggle of indigenous Hawaiian people against the construction of a giant telescope atop Mauna Kea, the most sacred mountain to indigenous practitioners of pre-conquest Hawaiian religion. Arrests, public actions, court conflicts, and the experience of years of repression of indigenous spirituality are at work here. For now, a judge has ruled that construction can go ahead, with “mandatory cultural and natural resources training” for the telescope’s employees. This is small comfort for communities who have seen their sacred lands despoiled and occupied for centuries, and certainly not the challenge activists were hoping for to the colonialist presumptions of many American scientific institutions.)

One of my favorite categories of discovery is the one which changes our sense of cosmic scale. Edwin Hubble discovering that the Milky Way wasn’t alone in the dark but was one of at-the-time-uncountable galaxies; the 1964 hypothesis and then discovery of quarks; the 1998 discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating over time. We feel a change like this in our body, a tug at the fibers that constitute our sense of self and place. The feeling is awe. One of my favorite Jesuits, astronomer (and former chair of the Pontifical Sciences Council) George Coyne, was asked, “When you pray, does it make any difference that the universe has 10,000 billion billion stars?” Coyne replied:

Absolutely. When I pray to God, it’s a totally different God than I prayed to as a kid. The God that I pray to now is a God who not only made me but brought me to be in a universe that is dynamic and creative. The universe is not itself a living being, but it is a universe that has thus far given birth to human beings who can pray to God.
I pray to a God that, from my scientific knowledge, has made a universe in which people have come to be and are still coming to be, even from a scientific perspective. The universe is continuing to expand. Just in the past 50 years, look at what the human being has come to be.

The awe of these sorts of discoveries is sublime, but it’s not exactly comforting, especially considering the mounting scientific evidence that worlds like Earth, congenial to life, are not common as once thought, but are probably very rare in the Milky Way, in Laniakea, and in the universe as a whole.

Why are Earth-like planets rare? (I sponged up much of this information is from two popular-science books I adore, Peter Ward and Don Brownlee’s beautiful downer Rare Earth and John Hand’s breathtaking summary-of-everything Cosmosapiens. Hurry up and read them both.)

First, our sun is in perfect galactic real estate—far from the crowded, explosive environment of the galactic core and the sterilizing lashes of radiation that emanate from the black hole at the Milky Way’s center; far too from the obscuring clouds of unaggregated cosmic dust at the Milky Way’s edge—and it’s stayed in this sweet spot for its full lifespan. The Sun is a G2 star, not too big or small, and stable (few flares, no surprise expansion) over its multi-billion-year life. Both of these factors mean that life has has 4 billion relatively undisturbed years to flourish on Earth.

Earth also had a lucky collision early in its existence: fewer than a billion years after it was formed from loose rock and dust, our young hot planet was struck by a meteor the size of Mars.

This meteor’s iron core sank and was absorbed into Earth’s, enlarging and strengthening our magnetic field, which protects our planet’s surface from the scouring, cancerous effects of solar radiation. The rubble blown off from this collision also collected into one satellite: the Moon. The Moon’s mass considerably slowed Earth’s rotation (its day), so our nightside surface can shed heat that could otherwise collect into a planet-wide greenhouse effect. The Moon also stabilized Earth’s axial tilt: this means our planet is spared what would otherwise be a violently wobbling axis periodically turning the Arctic tropical and vice versa. Tilted now at 23.4 degrees, our planet instead enjoys steady, regular seasonal change: great for life.

Earth is also blessed with a helpful big brother, Jupiter. The immense mass of Jupiter draws in most meteors and comets that come charging through our solar system. Instead of crashing into Earth, these meteors and comets collide with Jupiter. It’d be much harder for life to flourish on Earth if our planet was struck every few million years by a dinosaur-killing-sized meteor.

Our earliest ancestors likewise got lucky with where and how life first appeared. (First learned about this from, of all places, the appendix of a wonderful Natural Geographic book my dad got for Finn.) As simple proto-algae creatures spread throughout the ocean, they absorbed CO2 (which further limited the greenhouse effect), and breathed out oxygen. This oxygen rose from the ocean and was fused into ozone, creating an additional buffer against the Sun’s radiation for the life that did eventually creep onto land. If life had appeared on land first, solar radiation through Earth’s early ozone-less atmosphere would have introduced mutations so severe that evolution over time may never have taken off.

No one knows exactly how life itself first appeared, but it now seems likely that there are billions of near-miss planets in the universe: nice, temperate worlds with liquid water that never got a chance for life (or where life could never spread) because of galactic or solar radiation, a too-short or too-long day, a veering axis, or meteor bombardment. We now have strong enough telescopes that we can find evidence of planets around other stars. We can detect their mass and movement by how their gravity causes stars to wobble, and by how their transits slightly dim the stars they circle. The vast majority of the planets we’ve found are not even near-misses: they’re just no good for life. They’re “hot Jupiters,” gas giants squeezed up closer to their stars than Mercury is to the Sun, or they’re rocky but tidally locked, with the same side facing their star (and cooking into lava).

As a kid who read a lot of science fiction, I drew comfort from the idea of a universe as busy and amicable as a beehive with intelligent life. This dream now seems unlikely. Some scientists argue that any civilization that develops sufficiently may not choose to explore and populate the planets of other stars; but, in any case, our galaxy seems quieter than my kid self had hoped, and less congenial to life than we’d thought.

So, is Laniakea still beautiful in a universe full of stone and fire, radiation and rainbow dust, but largely empty of life? Yes, but it’s a beauty more like a thundering waterfall than like a garden: a beauty that doesn’t comfort us, but one that, for now, “serenely disdains to annihilate us.”

How does it change your perspective and life to find yourself at home in Laniakea? Or, put in terms closer to me, what prayer is appropriate to this scientific knowledge? The king-and-parent language of my own tradition feels impoverished before these discoveries, but I feel myself drawn toward the simple root prayer of the Orthodox: kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy! Or the open-palmed confession of human smallness and contingency in Islam: allahu akbar, God is greater. Or the recognition, central to Hinduism, that our being and will themselves are grounded in God: “What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore… What cannot be indrawn with breath, but that whereby breath is indrawn: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore” (Kena Upanishad). This prayer says that God–whatever that bare, wonderful word means to you–is the condition, the ground, for our questioning, smallness, curiosity, and fear. Our planet’s cosmic improbability and fragility might provoke the same questions as we face when we think about our own mortality: If it’s so delicate, so brief, what was ever the point? Did it matter that we ever lived if our planet will be boiled by its dying Sun and our universe stretches the fabric of itself into a fizzle of loose, dead particles? Questions like this resist an answer, but demand a response. How do you live, having absorbed knowledge like this into your body?

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Zbigniew Herbert, “From Mythology”

First there was a god of night and tempest, a black idol without eyes, before whom they leaped, naked and smeared with blood. Later on, in the times of the republic, there were many gods with wives, children, creaking beds, and harmlessly exploding thunderbolts. At the end only superstitious neurotics carried in their pockets little statues of salt, representing the god of irony. There was no greater god at that time.

Then came the barbarians. They too valued highly the little god of irony. They would crush it under their heels and add it to their dishes.

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz. From Postwar Polish Poetry: New Edition, one of my very favorite poetry anthologies.

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A Song & a Story #10: Pere Ubu, “Heart of Darkness”

This one goes out to Marc M.

Magenta sun here, air humid, copper-purple sky at sunrise, dark coming early, the city and its many arteries feeling frail until the subtle steady pressure of the fires global warming has set. After a day-long freeway trip back home to Seattle, I had to then catch a bus in the 7 p.m. twilight to pick up a friend’s car. Walking in the dark. Everything in Madison Valley felt drugged, cruelly neat, Stepford Wives-y: I felt around in my pockets for my headphones: this song was the only living thing in 20 blocks.

One of the untold stories of indie rock is its intersection with class. Punk’s chief myth about itself is that it is an organic, realist, proletarian artform, the musical equivalent of a spontaneous revolutionary uprising. But many of the early New York punks were actually suburban kids (Ramones from Queens, New York Dolls from Staten Island) hungry for the dilapidated mystique of an downtown culture they then helped advance: middle-class dreamers chasing a glamorous myth of urban poverty. (Twelve years later, Sonic Youth would then shift post-punk culture into something solidly middle-class-bohemian: a myth of the art-school genius replacing a myth of the junkie poet.)

But, outside of New York, in the netherworlds of tape-loop noise, hardcore, and basement roar, many more of the early indie rockers were actually poor and small-town, part of what SST Records guru Joe Carducci proudly called “new redneck.” Pere Ubu, Cleveland artistes from public housing (the buildings echoing in identical blocks like dub reggae), made music whose scorched buzzy busted rattle reflected an urban decay they’d experienced firsthand, in a city no one mythologized. It could be clownish and violent; it could be pretentious and odd; it could be desperate. It’s a thread not many later bands have picked up. Could class have something to do with it?

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