Wednesday, November 22, 2006

XMAS LIST (books)

Well, I wrote a sweet post, best ever, greater than anything... But, my usual techno-dyslexia (a friend created this blog for me and basically I just type and post) led me to hit "tab" to indent and when I didn't notice that "tab" moved the cursor to the next box, I hit it again and WOOPS the little beach ball starts spinning, meaning the machine is working hard to find the next box, not on the page which has no more, but somewhere in infinity, and for the next hour I wait for it to find it...but alas...

So, I had to "force quit" finally losing the greatest blog ever posted anywhere. Or not. About my suggestions for books to buy for gifts this holiday season, with the interjection before that list of a tangent on the controversies that have cropped up in recent years surrounding the "holiday season".

Actually those arguments have been going on forever, or nearly. People fighting over what exactly they're celebrating, or commemorating, or whose interpretation or actual event that's being memorialized. (Check out any "Holiday Hell" as I refer to it in a poem in CANT BE WRONG.) But in recent years, in my neck of the woods, the controversy has revolved around references to the birth of a certain religious historical-or-not figure. Which birth gave rise to the original meaning in "Western culture" of the "holiday season".

In fact, last "holiday season" our local high school became the focus of national TV newscast ridicule and rightwing radio diatribes about "liberal" "political correctness" having gone the way of, well they didn't quite put it this way, but the way of all other extremist positions, as in literal interpretations of the Bible (except where it would inconvenience believers in terms of their own divorces or lies or materialism etc.) or certain select excerpts from the Koran or the writings of Milton Friedman, et. al. The reason for this ridicule from commentators around the country was the latest local official school policy which dictated that the high school chorus was not allowed to sing any song that had any reference to the word "Christmas" or what it might represent. Not even "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" because it mentions "Christmas Eve".

Meanwhile, in the same school district, my little boy in his second grade class learned the rituals and meaning and history of Hanukkah, the rituals and meaning of Kwanza (but interestingly not the history, which only extends back into the 1960s and the guy who invented it, Ron Karenga if I remember correctly), and the story and performance of The Nutcracker. That was their way of covering the "holidays" in the "season". No references to anyone's birth, nor any singing of anything that had any reference to anyone's birth.

I listened to some elderly Jewish folk passionately support this ban by recalling how uncomfortable and oppressed they felt as children in the public school system being forced to sing Christmas carols and take part in performances of traditional renderings of the story of the birth of someone they didn't believe in or care about, for the most part, except in the ways the religion based on his supposed teachings ended up oppressing and even killing their ancestors and 20th-century relatives.

I remember from my own youth, battles between Jewish and Christian families over whether the town decorations should say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" and whether nativity scenes should be allowed on public property or in store windows. Some of my Jewish and non-Jewish friends defend recent forms of "politically correct" retaliation by pointing out that my little boy can get the story of the birth of Jesus anywhere, that it permeates the culture and the media during this season. But hey, guess what, he hasn't got a clue.

In fact, most of the time he asks me, "Are we Jewish?" He rarely goes to church, and obviously when he does hasn't paid attention, and there's nothing on TV that refers to the actual nativity story like when I was a kid, except for the Charlie Brown cartoon which depended when it was made on the supposedly "universal" knowledge of the birth of Jesus story so it could riff on how it applied to these cartoon kids' lives. But since my son hasn't really been exposed much to the story, like I was in movies and TV specials and in church and in traditional Christmas carols and so on, he really doesn't get it.

Not that school should neccesarily be the place where he does get it, but why not? I studied all the religious traditions I could from my boyhood on, because I love history and ritual and a lot of the art that has been inspired or influenced by religions. Like I loved the rituals of the Catholic church when I was a kid, as I did Jesus and his mother Mary and his later exemplar (in the other meaning of that word, not the one copied but the copy) Saint Francis—because of their compassion.

But I also despised the hypocrisy of many in the church, especially those in authority, and disagreed with their distortion of what I believed was the original message of its founder—love. So I explored other possibilities, falling in love as a teenager with the Tao Te Ching and Lao Tsu's (or Tse, depending on the translation) 81 prescriptions for a well-led life (like it is not the size or shape or design of a bowl that makes it useful, but the emptiness within it, etc.). However, encountering real life followers of the Taoist traditional "religion", I discovered they could be as hypocritical and rigid and authoritarian as the Catholic church.

I went on to study as many of the great books of world religions and spiritual movements as I could get my hands on, some with masters of those traditions, like Confucianism, Buddhism, the Bahai faith (when the only place that was integrated in Greenville, South Carolina, while I was stationed there in 1962 was the living room of some local followers of that "modern" religion based on the precept of universal spiritual unity so therefore no segregation in a time and place when any integration was against the law), The Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita, the Koran and Tibetan Book of the Dead, the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, Mao Tse-Tung (oh wait, that was another "path"), etc. and discovered that though there were deep truths and great guidance in aspects of all of them, there were also aspects of all of them that could be used to justify prejudice and elitism and blind allegiance and all the rest of the negative aspects of "tradition" and "religion".

So I ended up making "the creative act" my religion, finding in poetry and music, movies and paintings and performance, all kinds of literature and art, the spiritual solace I was seeking and the means of expressing it. Even if many of the people I encountered who practiced these arts turned out to be just as narrow-minded and rigid in their own factional ways—including me at times—as the followers of many religions and gurus and paths to supposed enlightenment.

I settled on my own way, an amalgamation of things from all these spiritual traditions and art—and science at its most speculative and creative—to comfort me and guide me and help me to express the connection to the eternal I believe we all have inside us, even if just in the impetus of our genes to extend their existence through millenniums of progeny, or of our minds to extend the life of our thoughts and mental imagery into the future of humanity or whatever survives it. And even in the more humble and simple desire to feel connected to the universe we are close to insignificant in, except by the ways we influence or change or accept the other parts of it we come in contact with.

Woops, got carried away. Here's the list of books that you can buy to give to others and in that way make a small dent in the usual commercial juggernaut that overwhelms a lot of us during the "holiday season". You'll be supporting overlooked artists and those who make their work available. I assume if you got to a blog you can locate these on the internet somewhere.

Three books of poetry:

FICKLE SONNETS by Geoffrey Young, poetry by a master of mixture of high and low, direct and skewed, hysterical and hip.

BREAD & FISH by Mark Terrill, a small collection of prose poems, each with a deep insight into what it means to be alive and overwhelmed by the capacity of life for epiphanies of the highest order, no matter how humble the experience.

RED SNOW FENCE by Harry E. Northup, poems of dailiness by an actor/poet whose work in both arts starts you out confused, wondering if he's revealing too much or withholding too much and then halfway through—your heart breaks open and you feel like this is a guy you always wanted to know and are so grateful he's giving you the chance to.

Three books of prose:

THAT SPECIAL PLACE by Terence Winch, a memoir of his life as an Irish Musician, poignant, funny, and usually profound in an honest and generous way, like most of what Terence writes, including his much praised—deservedly so—poetry and lyrics.

GRASSHOPPER FALLS by Merrill Gilfillan, a collection of short stories that are worth it if only for one called "One Summer by the River" except that they are all as good, from a poet and prose writer whose work is among the best of his generation.

RECOLLECTIONS OF MY LIFE AS A WOMAN by Diane di Prima, the only woman among the Beat generation to have a wide impact at the time, whose first book DINNERS AND NIGHTMARES is the best expression of what it meant to be Beat as it was happening, and in this first volume of a projected extended autobiography a more reflective take on being in the trenches of the Beat generation rather than the boys club that garnered all the attention.

Three other recent books of poetry by friends I recommend:

MORE WINNOWED FRAGMENTS by Simon Pettet, the first beautifully concise poem in the book is the best response I've read to the madness of the past few years, the rest is more of Simon's sweetly precise takes on the way language defines his, and our, world.

RAPID DEPARTURES by Vincent Katz, a poet I still think of as "young" but whose maturing voice comes through with unique style in this paean to Sao Paulo and New York, and the life of the artist and poet who believe in the redemptive power of the real.

CAPER by Ray Di Palma, more of the original "language" poet's mastery, eccentrically erudite, humbly in service to the word. (There is a companion book from the same publisher by L. A. poet Paul Vangelisti, a companion in every way to Ray's.)

And one slightly more expensive tome for good measure:

THE COLLECTED POEMS OF TED BERRIGAN, the most influential poet to come out of the New York scene of the 1960s, hardly a poem in this book won't make you smile, even if only a nervous one of bewilderment, but more likely of recognition and pure enjoyment. His mastery of the juxtaposition of the "found" and the original predates "sampling" and makes him a master of poesy in the way Fred Astaire was a master of "swing".


suzanne b.g. said...

The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan is a must have. Dear sweet Ted. It is poignant to reflect that he left us at only 43. I didn't know that Merrill also wrote stories. Looking forward to reading them, and reading Ray's book. Thanks for the good tips. And thank you for writing such a thoughtful and stimulating blog. Reading lallysalley is rapidly becoming a habit.

Lally said...

Merill has several collections of stories and other prose. The first book of prose, mostly recountings of his adventures driving and camping and stopping in diners around the Great Plains and other parts of the middle and West of the country, and what he observes so precisely and expresses so clearly you feel you are experiencing it with him, is called MAGPIE RISING and is on my alltime favorite books list.