Monday, September 6, 2010

the country i remember, part i


It’s autumn in the country I remember.


This is the opening line of Trumbull Stickney’s poem “Mnemosyne,” an elegiac meditation dedicated to the titular Titaness, the Greek personification of memory and mother of the nine Muses. A few weeks ago I memorized this poem with the help of my friend, Jason Daniel Baker. Learning poetry, like learning to sing a song, helps me to experience the musical and emotional effect of a poem's craft in a way that is visceral, rather than intellectual. I'm going to start saying/writing "learning" rather than "memorizing," because memorization smacks most of rote duty and accumulated detail (dare I say trivia?), and less of the dynamic process to which memorization is but an aid.

I bet many of us can recite a few lines we were forced to regurgitate as kids--let us chant "Full fathom five thy father lies" or "Whose woods these are I think I know" in chorus!--without necessarily having a sense of what the lines mean to us, if they mean anything at all. I know this has been true for me when I learn by rote, rather than by heart--two clich├ęs that touch on the canyon that lies between knowledge acquired through instruction, and the richer stuff we become acquainted with when instruction shines its small, pointed light into the dim universe surrounding us. Much like a star, instruction can lead us to discoveries, but it cannot illuminate the entire field of our experience at once. (Even the sun only touches on one half of the Earth at a time.)

In the process of learning a poem, I notice things I don't notice on the page. In the case of "Mnemosyne," for example, how Stickney's shifty verb tenses spin a web of emotional resonance. One of the most striking tense shifts in the poem comes in the penultimate stanza:

But that I knew these places are my own,
I'd ask myself how came such wretchedness to cumber
The Earth, and I to people it alone.

(Lines 20-22)

In line 20, the speaker acknowledges that, in spite of the contrasts between the country he romantically recalls in the poem's tercets, and the destroyed, desolate space he witnesses in the present-tense refrains, both "countries" exist in the perpetual present of his memory. Regardless of whether the mountains he gestures toward are where he once "lived" (see line 16), line 20's jostling return to the present reminds the reader that all the elegies ever written are incapable of erasing the eternal return played out in our memory. Mnemosyne, as an invocation of memory and artistic birth, shows us the two sides of Stickney's inspiration——the sorrowful corners, the persistent longings, the compulsion toward beauty, its succour and inadequacy. Even as the speaker bemoans the loss and decay of his mythic country (political, geographic, however you may read that), it belongs to him as much as he belongs to it.

These thoughts lead me to ask whether national and regional identity are not similarly dynamic, and impossible, relationships.

....to be continued....

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Taste Intervention for Ladies Everywhere*

*Now with 50% More White Male Gaze

Sure, rolling out the trope of the male gaze can be tiresome in this post-feminist age where all gazes are equal (cue tweeting songbirds and gamboling puppies), but some days that gaze’s good works in the community demand recognition.

Exhibit A:


A recent commercial for Sabra’s (admittedly tasty) hummus:





I can hear what you’re thinking.

“But it’s FUNNY!”

“Oh, come on, that Chinese guy’s hilarious!!”


Of course it’s funny! Didn’t Freud teach us that nothing makes us laugh like uncomfortable revelations? What could be funnier than a bald admission to (white, middle-class breeding) women, “Yes, we really are watching what you’re eating. And judging you. ALL of us. Even the Asian food service worker whose livelihood depends on your ‘bad’ taste—for yes, he also recognizes that his ‘Chinese’ taste is bad, and secretly wishes to join the ranks of the white, button-down-wearing, hummus-eating master class!”

What’s that you say? That I’m missing the irony? That the commercial is a parody targeted at dudes, who stereotypically DO need taste interventions, NOT ladies, especially thin, white middle-class moms? That the fantasy of being married to a man with good taste who raises his children in the path of good-taste righteousness, in spite of his wife’s sad “addiction” to “junk” (poor soul!), is but a gentle satire?

The OED defines parody as “a composition in which the characteristic style and themes of a particular author or genre are satirized by being applied to inappropriate or unlikely subjects, or are otherwise exaggerated for comic effect.”


The genre being satirized is clearly that of rehab interventions, the same cultural script that gave birth to catchwords like “carefrontation” and television abominations like Celebrity Rehab. That this script is exaggerated for comic effect I can’t deny. That’s what makes it funny! We recognize the trope, which tells us, “hey, we’re doing this for her own good,” even as we also recognize the ridiculousness of the “problem.”


Or do we? With obesity both a statistical epidemic and a media obsession, with foodie-ism and Alice Waters holding court, IS the parodied “problem” not a problem we identify as a real one? And can’t Sabra count on viewers’—particularly a demographic like thin, white middle-class moms or their aspirational counterparts—to make that connection?

To my mind, the commercial is parodic, but fails to be true parody because irony is not the point. We are not invited to laugh at the accusations Janet Reidel’s family and neighbor (I use this term loosely, given the problematic class/race dimensions of the deliveryman’s character) bring against her in the name of her own “well-being.” Neither does the parody show us anything new—rather, it chases it’s own tale (pun intended) like the tautological monster much advertising is.


Rather, we are invited to become uncomfortable, in the Freudian sense. And that “we,” the commercial let’s us know all too clearly, is a certain category of women, represented by Janet Reidel. (I say “category,” lest all those aspirational Janet Reidel’s who don’t happen to be female, white, middle-class or breeders feel left out.) The commercial acknowledges a system already in place, pokes fun at it in order raise anxiety in the viewer about her eating habits, and then ends with the product in question restoring order to the known universe.


Not only is the empowered male gaze, represented by the husband, son and deliveryman, watching, that gaze apparently is taking notes and conferencing about the “problem,” all the while Janet’s young daughter stands idly by with the dish of hummus. Like a timid alter boy, she hesitantly passes the hummus to her mother as she glances at her father. Accessory to her “recovery,” schlepping the goods of man, and most surely internalizing the message that she too must maintain vigilance over her food intake, this little girl knows the price of being found to have “bad taste,” as should her mother, if she wants her own daughter to consider her (Janet’s) image one of aspirational value.


Saved! Without Sabra and the male gaze, poor Janet Reidel might never have thought of her health or her “tastes” in quite the same way.

The food police are real, my friends. Take heed, and hide the Goober Grape.