Myrna Stone’s The Art of Loss

By all rights I really shouldn’t like Myrna Stone’s The Art of Loss nearly as much as I do.  In fact, if I had happened  to read this online review before buying it:

“The poet’s capacious vocabulary, sensitivity to the etymological implications of her word choices, ear for phonemic subtleties and hunger for verbal precision, apparent everywhere, give her unique access to the overlap of world and word that we are so often told is merely linguistic illusion. But for Stone, like Keats, the truth is proved ‘upon the pulse,’ and her truths, in their syntactical rhythms and syllabic music, are proven through a rhetoric of pulsations.”— B. H. Fairchild, from his Introduction to How Else to Love the World

I probably would not have bought the book which would have been too bad because I really liked  several of the poems, like this one: 

Rosalie


Taller and older than the rest of us, she arrived twice held
back, her past present in her eyes the way
the early-Winter light was


that December-—brutal, brilliantly clear, clarifying everything
and nothing. And we called her nothing
as real as her name, nothing


as benign as Rosie or Rose, nothing we could resist repeating
in covert whispers as we passed her desk
in the last row at the back


of the room, as though we understood even then that she-
with her waist, with her breasts and hips—
thought of herself as anything


but a child, as the sum of all we could and couldn’t imagine
her to be, as though we knew as well as she
how negligible, how transient


she was, that as she moved among us through the parochial
halls of St. Denis, dressed day after day
in the same washed—out


blouse while the boys openly mimicked her every motion
she was someone merely passing through
who would not be passed over.


I’m pretty sure this poem resonates with me because of an incident that happened when I was in the 5th or 6th grade in Concord, California.  A truant officer escorted a boy into our class who had to be at least three to four or five years older than anyone in our class. He was tall, muscular and had beard stubble.  I’m sure the whole class was dumbfounded by his appearance.  At recess, everyone avoided him, and even the boys gathered and gossiped instead of playing dodge ball.  Luckily for the boy, he wasn’t subjected to the embarrassment of being in that class for long as he left after a week or so.  

It wasn’t until later that I realized, or was told, that he must have been one of the gypsy boys who traveled around the country with his parents picking fruit. Perhaps it wasn’t even until our family spent weekends picking walnuts that I realized this.  Gypsy children often worked in the fields next to their parents and seldom attended school unless rounded up by truant officers.  When they did go to school, it was often only for short periods of time because once the fruit crops were picked they left for the next crop.  No wonder the boy was behind in his schooling.  

The fact that I acted no differently than the rest of the class was particularly embarrassing in retrospect because all too often I was the outsider since my father was constantly transferred as he got promoted.  Naturally an introvert, we often moved about the time I started to make friends at a new school.  In fact, when I entered the fourth grade in a previous school I got into several fights because it was cool to pick on the new kid, and the only person I allowed to pick on me was my big brother who was four years older than me and who I eventually learned it was unwise to challenge unless driven to the point of despair.

Unfortunately, having taught high school for thirty years, I observed this phenomena all too regularly.  I’d like to think that adults are wiser and  more considerate of others than teenagers, but, unfortunately, current events would seem to suggest otherwise.  Tribalism seems genetically ingrained and is too often culturally reinforced even by religions that seem to theologically promote the love of our fellow mankind.  

In fact, the title poem, “The Art of Loss,” depicts Botticelli devastated by the burning at the stake of Savonarola, Botticelli’s inspiration,  for heresy. I was a little surprised that Stone’s poetry, like Pastan’s, contained several poems that referenced famous artists since I seldom encounter that in the poetry I read.  

Not surprisingly, “Love” often causes the greatest loss of all, but it’s not just romantic love that leads to loss.  Stone’s “Camera Obscura” depicts how even the best-intended love can limit people, causing them to miss out on some of life’s greatest opportunities.  

I’ll have to admit that several of the poems are too formal and too literary for my taste.  That said, though I’m not ready to pronounce this great poetry, like all great literary works it leads us to empathize with others by seeing the world from a different point of view than we are used to.  Our world definitely needs more of that right now.  

Deja Vu All Over Again

In August of 1965 I was in the 2Bn/34th Armor Division stationed at Ft. Irwin, California, 114 miles from L.A. when the Watts Riots broke out.  On Saturday night we were put on alert to be ready to deploy to those riots.  Our M60 tanks were loaded on flat cars in Barstow,  and we stood by in combat gear expecting to be deployed imminently.  

At first we didn’t have time to do anything other than rush trying to get everything ready to go.  Even though we were a STRAC unit, supposedly ready for instant deployment, we definitely weren’t ready for deployment on a day’s notice. When we were finally as ready as we could be and our equipment was stowed, we had time to watch television and see what was actually going on in Watts. Once we watched coverage of the riots, I instantly knew I did not want to be there.  I had signed up to fight Communists, not fellow Americans.  Hell, many of our troops were born and raised in L.A.  We had no training for crowd control; we’d been trained for desert warfare against other tank units. How the hell could we possibly help quell riots? I would undoubtably have gone if we had been ordered but, luckily, in the end President Johnson had sense enough not to threaten to send tanks to stop the rioting and, most of all, from my  perspective, at least, not to send a tank battalion into the middle of an enflamed city.

I felt I had dodged a bullet when we weren’t sent to the riots, but a few months later I learned there were a lot more bullets coming my way when  my unit was notified it was going to be deployed to Vietnam with the 1st Infantry Division out of Ft. Lewis.  Our unit was filled up with new recruits from the L.A. area, and we had 6 months to train them before being put on a ship to Vietnam.  I pulled a short assignment in Vietnam because I finished my two years of active duty while there, but I asked to have my duty extended until my platoon was scheduled to be relieved from duty. When I was told that my replacement was already on the way and if I extended I would be sent to a command  unit in Saigon, that ended my active duty tour.  I’d seen enough of the war to be convinced that we should never have been there; the only loyalty I had at that point was to my platoon.

That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t outraged when I was greeted upon my return to Travis Airforce Base by throngs of war protestors.  When advised not to wear my uniform home because I might be confronted at the airport, all I said was, “Fuck’em” and wore my uniform home.  During the next three months that I spent holed up in my room trying to make sense of my life,  I couldn’t decide whether I was angrier at the protestors or at my government for sending me to a war that, in retrospect, seemed unnecessary and immoral, much less decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  All I know for sure is that I was angry all the time, with the possible exception of when I had too much to drink.  

I drifted through life for awhile, moving from Vancouver to Aberdeen to Seattle and back to Vancouver in less than a year, all the while getting letters from the Army saying that if I didn’t immediately report to an assigned reserve unit I would be called back to active duty.  That would have been a mistake on the Army’s part, but I finally reported to the reserves while working  in Aberdeen as a caseworker, only to find the unit filled with rich, white kids who seemed to have gotten into the reserves and avoided the draft because their parents were influential.  The makeup of the reserve unit was quite different from the mortar platoon I led in Vietnam, which only had three whites if you included me.  White, rich privilege, I guess. I’ll admit that I was naïve enough then to be shocked and even more disillusioned.  

A few months later, I left Aberdeen and was assigned to a unit in Seattle while attending the University of Washington to earn teaching credentials. I was assigned to an infantry unit that was training to control riots and anti-war protests. When told I was to lead a platoon in a 4th of July celebration in downtown Seattle, I replied I would be out of town on the 4th. When told that it was a direct order and I would get an official letter of reprimand if I didn’t show up, I laughed.  Somehow a letter of reprimand didn’t seem nearly as dangerous as what I’d already been through in Vietnam. I’ve never attended a parade since I left the Army and didn’t celebrate the 4th of July until many years later when my kids demanded to see the fireworks that all their classmates were talking about. I’m not sure if I would have been “out-of-town” if the unit had been called up for riot duty while I was still with it, but, at the very least, I would have been faced with a moral dilemma because by then I identified more with the protestors than with the government on our Vietnam involvement.

Though I have seldom questioned the goodness of most people I have met in real life, my experience in Vietnam and as a caseworker for six months did make me question any faith I might have once had in The Great American Dream. If what America was doing in the world was “Great,” I wanted no part of it.  For a while, at least, I became a man without a country, alienated not only from others who believed in  American Exceptionalism, but also from the part of me that had once believed in and fought for it.  

Like most high school students, I was taught (brainwashed?)  that America was the beacon of Democracy in the world, devoted to promoting democracy and equality throughout the world, and I was “good student;” I could parrot back exactly what I was taught.  Back then I almost certainly would have agreed with Melville when he wrote, “We Americans are the peculiar chosen people, the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” If so, then that ark must have sunk on its way to Vietnam.  It was impossible to reconcile that ideal with what I saw in Vietnam because there was no democracy to promote.  At best, it was an effort to protect Capitalism from Communism. Any faith I had left in America’s “Greatness” was further undermined when I worked as a caseworker and was faced with poverty and despair on a level I had been blind to my whole life.  America masterfully manages to hide the poorest of the poor in retirement homes, dilapidated apartments, or run-down homes in rural areas — until recently when tent-cities seem to bloom throughout our country. 

As the saying goes, time cures all — or, at least, numbs the pain— and I generally managed to be a productive member of society for 30 years while teaching high school. I doubt most of my students ever suspected how much I personally questioned what they were being taught in their history classes or what their government was doing at home and abroad.  At worst, I tried to make them question what they were being taught, even by me.  

Twenty years of retirement mellowed me even further, never really having to personally confront the problems society was ignoring.  Whatever frustration I had with government policies were ameliorated by the blog I started to protest America’s invasion of Afghanistan, which I saw as another Vietnam-like mistake.  Political protest gradually gave way to losing myself in Nature’s beauty, in flowers, scenics, and wildlife. 

The only signs of my discontent that might have been visible to others would be my endorsement and contributions to what many saw as radical environmental groups such as Greenpeace, etc.,  my contributions to radical politicians like Bernie Sanders, and my refusal to donate to mainline organizations like the DNC since I disagreed with some of their candidates.  And, oh yeah,  I (twice) requested to be excused from jury duty because my work as a caseworker and teacher made me doubt the fairness of our legal system. 

When one of my favorite colleagues told me on his deathbed that we had “wasted our lives teaching,” I replied that it could have been worse, I could have been pushing pop my whole life  (Pepsi Cola offered me a job before I became a caseworker and started off on a very different path).  I’m glad Gary didn’t live long enough to see Trump elected to office, or he would have been clinically depressed. Unfortunately, I, too,  have come to see Trump’s election as a sign that our education system has failed.  Our Know-Nothing president prides himself on his ignorance, all the while claiming to know more than the scientists who have devoted their lives to mastering their field. How could an educated public elect him?

I had hoped to drift through my final years here on Planet Earth feeling our nation and our planet were improving, that somehow we would leave future generations with a world that was as good as, or better than, the world we had inherited. How naïve of me. Instead, recent events have left me feeling nearly as alienated from my country as I did 50 years ago when I returned from Vietnam. The Trump Administration’s willingness to sacrifice the environment for short-term economic benefits, to scapegoat desperate, hard-working immigrants, to denigrate American minorities, to blame America’s economic problems on China,  and to mishandle the Covid-19 epidemic was already stressful enough without the added specter of race-riots caused by police brutality filling the news. 

Into the Green

We’ve been walking through Pt. Defiance Park for two to three days a week for the last two months during our state’s lockdown.  When you walk that often, you inevitably end up covering the same trails repeatedly. 

No matter how many times you walk the same path it never gets boring if you spot seldom-seen birds like this Pileated Woodpecker

or encounter patches of Foxglove.

Even without birds or flowers, there is always something new to see if you take the time to really look at your surroundings.


Sometimes it’s so quiet and peaceful here that the walk becomes a walking meditation, lost in a world of green 

where shadow

and light

weave their magic.