Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Last Books I Bought Xmas Gift Card Edition

As I'm sure applies to many booksellers, I always get gift certificates to Porter Square Books as Xmas presents and this year was no different. Ergo, welcome to another exciting installment of my semi-frequent blog series about books I have bought. (Rather than grabbed the galleys of, begged for comp copies for, or only gotten out of the library.)

Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis

A debut collection of poetry won the National Book Award, you say? A collection anchored by a long narrative poem? Well, then sign me the fuck up. I got this one out of library and halfway through said long narrative poem, the titular "Voyage of the Sable Venus" I knew I had to own it, because the poem is amazing (more on that later) but also because I want to live in a world where debut collections of poetry in hardcover are bought in meaningful numbers (more on that later as well) and one of the ways I can contribute to that world is buying debut collections of poetry in hardcover.

On to "Voyage of the Sable Venus" itself. As described in an author's note that's pretty remarkable in its own right, the poem was composed using only the titles and descriptions of works of art and other museum pieces in which "black female figure is present." The explanation of her formula, in about a page, grapples with the nature of art, identity, history, erasure, appropriation, the white gaze, the white museum gaze, and the nature of poetry to transform descriptive, critical, faux-critical, and accidentally-critical prose into an entirely different and powerful from of expression.

Blue Laws by Kevin Young

I cannot describe to you, even with my penchant for vulgarity, how much I hate contemporary short-line, short-stanza poetry. Few things make me want to extricate my eyeballs with a dull spork to stab at the searing pain in my thinking brain, than a poem that is clearly nothing more than a boring sentence about a bird you saw driving to work Cuisinarted into something that looks like a poem if you don't think about it for a goddamn second. Which is not to say that I think long-line and long-stanza poetry is inherently better—there is plenty of terrible poetry in every form to go around--but that, in my reading experience, longer forms attract a little less laziness than the “Oh, the white space is my way of communing with the silences of the universe,” “my work seeks to elevate the spirituality of the mundane through verse,” “Well, Bukowski did it and so did Emily Dickinson,” bullshit Like-A-Poems so prevalent in so much contemporary poetry.

Except for Kevin Young. He writes mostly in short-line, short-stanza poems and he's a fucking genius. His short lines sing. His white space vibrates. He dashes like Dickinson. He goes long when he needs to. I want to live in a world where people buy their favorite poets' books in hardcover and so when I can, I buy my favorite poets' books in hardcover.

The Road Beneath My Feet by Frank Turner

Frank Turner is my Bruce Springsteen. (Don't get me wrong, Bruce Springsteen is also my Bruce Springsteen, but, well, you know what I mean.) His political consciousness, his sense of irony and humor, his exuberant atheism. I got to meet him very briefly when I bought a t-shirt from him after his opening set for the Dropkick Murphys and I told him that it felt like he crawled inside my brain and wrote songs about what he found there. And his live shows are singalong revivals. I follow him on social media so I've known this book existed and have been waiting for it to be available in the states (he's much bigger in the UK) for ages.

In related news:

Dear Overlook,

Frank Turner plays in Boston all the time. His shows always sell-out, often months in advance, and he often adds shows. It's just leaving sales on the table if you don't piggy back a signing/reading/event at a local independent bookstore the next time he's in town. And I'd give him one hell of an introduction.

Sincerely Yours,


A few other notable purchases not previously discussed that I am just now noticing on my desk: The Mirror Empire, Rails Under My Back, and The Lost Art of Finding Our Way.

Nope. The gift card did not last very long indeed, did it, Precious. Not very long  indeed.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The False Distinction of “Realistic.”

One of the critiques I've seen leveled against Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, is that his platform is completely unrealistic, that there is no chance our current Republican Congress (barring an unprecedented electoral swing) will pass any legislation drawing from Sanders's platform. Clinton supporters have been quick to point out that Sanders can say anything he wants, but even if he is elected president, we are not going to get universal single-payer health care, we are not going to get free tuition for secondary education and we are not going to get the massive infrastructure investment our country so badly needs, and we certainly aren't going to get the tax raises needed to pay for any of it.

They are, of course, correct. Even the more moderate incarnation of the Republican Party from the Reagan and even Bill Clinton, eras were fundamentally opposed to the kind of federally driven social and economic support structures that Sanders is suggesting and even more fundamentally opposed to the taxes he would raise to pay for them. I doubt our current crop of Republicans have even bothered to look at his actual policies. He's a socialist, therefore he is a threat to the American way of life. Full stop. The critics are correct when they say a Sanders presidency will be, at best, a legislative slog.

Thus, they argue, that Clinton's more moderate policies will have a much greater chance of getting through, in some meaningful form, our Republican Congress. Starting closer to the middle and presenting less radical policy goals will increase the kind of conversation that leads to compromise and passes laws. It's a rational argument, if you completely ignore the last eight years.

Congressional Republicans have negotiated in bad faith, abused the filibuster, refused to compromise on moderate policies, refused to support policies that were once Republican ideas, blocked nominees, held legislation, flaunted their disrespect for Barack Obama at nearly every opportunity, and ran John Boener out of the Speakership, all with no clear legislative or policy alternatives to replace the, again, very moderate, policies offered by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats. Why would we assume Clinton's more moderate policies would inspire the Republican party of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to suddenly and miraculously grow the fuck up and govern like fucking adults? Simply put, we have no reason to believe that Congressional Republicans will work with any Democratic president regardless of their platform. It is true that Clinton's policies proposals are more moderate than Sanders's and if you agree with those more moderate polices, great, but it is not true that those more moderate policies will be treated any differently by congressional Republicans than Sanders's more radical policies. You can argue that Clinton's policies are better for the country, but you cannot argue that they are any more realistic than Sanders's policies.

The best either Sanders or Clinton could hope for in their first term as president is to replicate the success of the Obama administration; vetoing the worst nonsense the Republicans churn up, using their appointments wisely, and (as we're seeing now) using precise but not radical looking executive actions to drive progress. Bernie will have to do that and as a bill writer for the last couple of decades, I think he is capable. Hillary will have to do that and as an effective executive in various capacities over her long career in politics, I think she is capable.

Unfortunately, there won't be any major legislative policy shifts (unless something really crazy happens in the 2016 elections) until after the next redistricting in 2020, at which point, hopefully, we can create an electoral map that actually represents the American people, rather than contorting itself to elect Republicans whose policies represent a radical minority of American thought. If we want to talk about “realism” and “electability” in terms of Clinton and Sanders, perhaps our target shouldn't be this coming presidential election, but the 2020 state elections. Which presidency is most likely to lead to the kind of turnout at the local level Democrats will need to gain enough re-districting power to undo to gross distortions created by the Republicans in 2010? Who has the best long-term ground game? Who will be most able to leverage the organizing structure Barack Obama created? Whose re-election will inspire voters?

There are many good reasons to vote for Hillary Clinton in the primary. If she is the Democratic nominee, I will vote for her in the general election. But I think it's important that we distinguish these two candidates on their actual policy differences, rather than on the weird and problematic political calculus of “electability” and “realistic proposals.” (In the book length version of this post, I might argue that Bill Clinton's “triangulation” calculus of “electability” is major reason we have the Republican party we do today.) Ultimately, whoever is elected and whatever their national campaign platform is, they'll have to deal with our congressional Republicans and our congressional Republicans haven't given a fuck about reality for eight years.