29 April 2007

Batter a paradox

A few weeks ago, I came across a quote from John Donne, and had to look up the source. In doing so, I took the time to read through The Holy Sonnets, a collection of 17 sonnets Donne wrote in his later life, after the death of his beloved wife. Of these 17, I had previously only been familiar with two of them: Sonnet X, Death, be not proud and Sonnet XIV, Batter my heart, three-person'd God.

Holy Sonnet XIV is a poem that vexes me. And, yet, it is a poem that I love. It is fitting to have these contrary reactions to Holy Sonnet 14, given that the poem's beauty and truthfulness lies in understanding the paradoxes in Donne's sonnet.

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The images of violence in this poem are overwhelming. The speaker asks his loving God to set aside his gentle, healing ways ("for you/As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;) replacing them with force. The speaker compares himself to a town in battle that will lose to the enemy; the speaker traitorously abandoning his threshold despite reason. (Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,/But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.) Lastly, Donne compares the speaker to an unfaithful bride, loving God, but betrothed to his enemy. (Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,) To be released from this agony, the speaker asks God to batter him, imprison him as his only salvation. And this is where the poem gets really tricky, or perhaps even icky: the speaker asks to be ravished -- the Elizabethan word meaning rape -- in order to be purified, to be defiled in order to be made chaste.

To my modern sensibilities, this conceit is wrong. A God of love and mercy should not be compared with acts of violence, especially rape, a violent act of power and control. To suggest it seems not just inappropriate, but sacrilegious. It is so contrary to what I hold as true, that it is jarring, shocking, even revolting.

And yet...maybe that is exactly Donne's point. By using such brutal and shocking metaphors he makes the point that the easier way is that of the world -- the earthly, and the carnal. In our imperfections we choose things of this world, rather than those of a heavenly one in the guise of freedom. I believe that the spiritual path is one to be found here, not only in some dreamy, cloud like conceit of a heavenly afterlife, but it is only found by abandoning the trappings of this world that likewise enslave us. The speaker in Donne's poem knows which master he should serve, but begs to be bullied into servitude to the more difficult path. As Bob Dylan once penned, (in what had to be one of his worst songwriting phases), "...It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you're gonna have to serve somebody".

And so, I love Donne's poem for the form, the meter, the lyrical way the words play in my head and on my ear, (go read the poem aloud, immersing yourself in its language) and even for its ultimate meaning, but the explicitly violent images distress me. My feelings a paradox, just like Donne's poem.

I prefer the prayer/poem of Rabi'ah al-Adawiyya (an 8th century woman from Basra, Persia) which presents the same paradox. While her images are not of battery, rape and sexual torture, they are no less frightning:

Oh God, If I worship Thee for fear of Hell,
Burn me in Hell.
If I worship Thee for in hopes of Paradise,
Exclude me from it.
But, if I worship Thee for Thy own sake,
Do not keep Thy Everlasting Beauty from me.

25 April 2007

A few things I've been reading

I was thinking about all of the books I've started this year but have yet to finish. Boy, is it a list! No wonder I haven't finished many books; I've started so many.

Related to food: 2 books on wine received during the holidays: Jay McInerney's A Hedonist in the Cellar, and Matt Kramer's Making Sense of Italian Wine, Julia Child's memoir My Life in France and Julie Powell's Julie and Julia. Received a review copy of Patricia Wells' latest, Vegetables at the Center of the Plate. It's the only food-related book I've finished this year. It isn't a vegetarian cookbook, but a vegetable cookbook, with recipes using fresh veggies and herbs. Some of the dishes are scant on vegetables, but it is a nice collection of recipes that are surprising both in taste profile and ease of preparation. Many of the recipes include snippets of folklore, suggestions for wine pairings, or French cooking idioms, which makes it a interesting cookbook to peruse.

Essays: I've started a few collections so far this year. I like reading essays, but I rarely read an entire book at one time. Rather, I like dipping in, reading an essay here and there, especially with collections authored by various writers. Even if there is a central theme, I find it best to read different essays separately, allowing each to stand on it's own. The Best American Spiritual Writings 2006 (edited by P. Zaleski), and The Best American Essays 2006 (edited by Lauren Slater) are two volumes I've been reading recently. I've also been perusing a book titled Spiritual Men: Story, Soul and Substance, by Brian Doyle, that I originally picked up because I was intrigued by a book that contained essays about Van Morrison and William Blake. A fourth book of essays that I've started is Bookmark Now: Writing in the Age of Information Overload, edited by Kevin Smokler. The dust jacket claims that this book is Smokler's reaction to NEA's "Reading at Risk" report that claimed that literary reading was dropping among all age groups. To briefly quote Smokler: "The sky is not caving in on American Literature. Instead, it is opening above us, and in that unknown lie infinite possibilities". I've only read the introduction, so I can't make a judgement of whether this collection lives up to the dust jacket hype, but it looks promising. If that wasn't enough, waiting for me to begin next, after I complete or tire of these collections is Ayun Halliday's No Touch Monkey, a collection of travel writing that looks hilarious.

Novels: One of my book groups read Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon a few months ago. I started the book but didn't have time to finish it before the group met. I had read this book when I was in Jr. High and had seen the movie. Re-reading this, I was intrigued by how skillfully Keyes adapted the first person narration to match the increasing, and subsequently decreasing mental ability of Charlie. I'm not in a hurry to return to this, but I would like to finish it since I started it. Another book I've started, but then set aside is Russel Banks' The Sweet Hereafter. I bought this book at a bargain sale about 3 years ago and it has sat on the bookcase shelf since then. I don't know what possessed me a few weeks ago to pull this off the shelf well after midnight. I had difficulty putting it down but at 2am, I knew I had to stop and get some sleep. Besides, I didn't think I could take any more sadness that evening. One thing that struck me is, like Flowers for Algernon this book handles changes in first person narration very well, with each chapter told from another character's viewpoint. Last month this group read Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro. I really like Munro's stories. Sitting on the bookshelf is an issue of the VQR from last year that focused on Munro. I'd like to read that too. And, since I was the only one in my book group that liked Munro, one of the participants gave me a copy of Lives of Girls and Women, Munro's only novel. Before I start that, I should start reading The Memory Keeper's Daughter. It is the May selection for my reading group and I'd like to have it finished by the time we meet in a few weeks.

Non-fiction: I've started reading Bait and Switched, by Barbara Ehrenreich. I was to post on this at the beginning of April when Emily did (and (Un)RelaxedDad). I've been remiss in doing so. I did see Ehrenreich at a panel discussion at CUNY a few weeks ago. She wasn't talking about this book specifically, although she did talk about issues of fair and equitable pay. I picked up a copy of her latest book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Maybe I'll post more about this soon. I have three review copies to finish: Crazy 8, by Cait Murphy, about the 1908 baseball season, 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania (the longest title in this list I think!), by Matthew Chapman, and Louis Theroux's The Call of the Weird.

Non-fiction/theological/spiritual theme:I just finished NT Wright's Evil and the Justice of God, a book that I both enjoyed reading and detested parts of. Wright is very readable and is adept at distilling complex theological arguments into readable prose; yet sometimes he throws out ideas without fully supporting his argument. This drives me crazy, even when I agree with him. For example, in this book he criticizes the US response to the 9/11 attacks as being premature and immature. In the aftermath of our flawed policies in the Middle East, it is too easy -- especially for a European -- to blame the US and the Bush administration; but Wright doesn't offer an alternative for what should have been done. Likewise, I think his discussion of the concept of "natural evil" is weak in this book. As someone who thinks that this particular theological concept is unfounded, superstitious, and bizarre, I would like to read a good theological explanation of it. Maybe I just don't get it, but I don't see scientific phenomena like earthquakes and hurricanes as being evil. Wright mentions it, but didn't define or defend it adequately for me.

I'm also in the middle of reading Michael Mayne's The Enduring Melody. I haven't read very far in this book, but in reading the journal entries from when Mayne was first diagnosed with cancer, I was struck by his courage in facing such horrible and painful circumstances. It's especially difficult reading knowing the Mayne died shortly after the book was published. I'm sure I'll post more about this book after I finish it.

Last fall, I read Francis Collins' book The Language of God and I re-read it in January for a discussion group. Based on that discussion, I promised an acquaintance I would read Dawkins The God Delusion. I plan to write about both of these books when I finish Dawkins. What I will say now is that after reading Collins (head of the Genome Project) and having heard him lecture, I think that he is fair, balanced, and respectful in his criticism of those with whom he disagrees. He approaches the discussion of science and faith (which he sees as complimentary, not contradictory) as a scientist, particularly when it comes to debunking errant ideas that try to pass as science (e.g., Intelligent Design). My opinion of Dawkins is not as positive. I haven't read The God Delusion yet, but in reading excerpts and interviews he seems to have an almost zealous, religious fervor in his approach to disproving that there is a god. Such zealotry is something that I don't like -- whether it is a believer in God, or a believer in atheism. Nevertheless, I will try to keep an open mind in reading his book.

I think the above lists 24 books, of which I have only finished 3, 4 I haven't yet started. And I haven't mentioned the several books I'm been reading (both completed and in process) about Africa, particulary about extreme poverty and the AIDS epidemic, and efforts to achieve the UN Millenium Development Goals -- a topic that I have been immersed in for the last 3 months since reading Jeffry Sach's The End of Poverty. I will post on these separately. If you don't know about the MDG's, read this from the UN or the Make Poverty History website or the One Campaign website. I'm not an American Idol fan (in fact, I've never seen the show), but I understand that they are focusing on the issue of Extreme Poverty on the shows this week, and that Bono will make an appeal on the show tomorrow. But, do not think that this is a celebrity fad; this is the clarion call to action for those of us in a position to do something.

I think I have plenty to keep me busy for awhile.

21 April 2007

What books would you give?

I want to donate books to a project that is aiming to provide every child in a local elementary school with 2 books at the end of the school year. Children's books are not my area of expertise, so I need your suggestions. If you were to buy two books for a child, Pre-K to Grade 6, what two books would you buy? Leave your suggestions in the comments and please indicate grade and/or reading level.

I challenge you to find a way to do something like this in your own community. How cool would it be to receive books for summer reading, especially if you live in a home where reading isn't a common activity or where books are an expense that can't fit into the family budget.

Thanks for your suggestions.

20 April 2007

Colbert & Penn & Pinsky & Poetry

A million giggles..... Meta-Free-Phor-All. Colbert's tribute to National Poetry Month.

And to think that some say that poetry is dying.....

Loved the reference to Pat Benetar! Loved all this.

As Spicoli would say "Oh Yeahhh!"

03 April 2007


Item #1: Following up on my 'what I did for fun' post: yesterday I went for a bike ride. The intention was to ride to Butler U, meet up with a walking group, and then walk through the gardens. Here is a picture that I snapped while there:

What I like about this photograph is that you can see the blooms on the redbud tree framed by the green bush below and the blue sky above. If you look closely, you can see the leaves on the tree are about ready to burst forth, but for now, it is the smaller bushes and trees that reign with their early foliage and blooms.

What was fun about the ride was that my son rode with me. For those of you who don't know or have forgotten the teenage syndrome of 'can't be seen in proximity to a parental unit', I must explain how rare and unexpected of an occurrence this was.

What we didn't plan for was how heavy the winds were yesterday and how much it would slow us down. We didn't arrive at our destination until an hour after the group was to depart -- 3 times longer than we estimated. Didn't matter though; the fun was in the journey. Not so much fun was the return trip home. Rode about 15 or 16 miles, which is far more than my usual bike trip around the neighborhood. And it wasn't all flat! Ack! My legs are killing me today!

Item #2: Biking to Butler reminded me that we're going to hear a lecture on 4/27, given by this guy, probably the best-known writer originally from Indianapolis. I've heard Vonnegut speak twice, the last time about 25 years ago. It will be interesting to see if he still rambles on and on in a way that surely must be unique to him -- rambling, yet interesting. There was a nice article in the local paper a few months ago in which Vonnegut said he was honored to be recognized in this manner by his home town -- a recognition that he said that none of his peers had received from their hometowns.

Item #3: Categorizing films
My husband told me this evening about a podcast he heard today that posed the question: Can you name 10 great movies about women's friendships with other women? This was aired on Filmspotting; although I don't have time to listen to podcasts often, I really like this one. A listener response to a show last week challenged the hosts to come up with 10 movies revolving around friendship between two women that aren't also about women's dysfunctional relationship with men (rules out Thelma and Louise), or about lesbianism.

When my husband asked me this, I found it difficult to name more than one. I begrudingly named Beaches, although I never thought it was a great movie. Beyond that, I'm at a loss to name other movies. Spouse's comment was that women aren't able to cut through the Hollywood boundaries to get recognized in the film industry and that there are no good parts for women because male writers don't know how to write about the average female.

What about you? Can you think of any movies that fit this category?