Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

From Greece: Putting What's Ours Back

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch'd thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!

Lord Byron, "Childe Harold"

Now I've seen it, our Western Root Temple, monument to reason, proportion, and the polis as an ideal of human culture: The Parthenon, its 4 by 17 Doric columns glowing in sunlight and floodlight 24-7 atop the Acropolis of Athens. And just as we've been trying in our own American experiment to perfect a democracy founded on empire, so modern Greece has struggled to redeem the empire's plunder of its heritage, exemplified in the so-called Elgin Marbles. In 1801, Lord Elgin conspired with the occupying Ottomans to loot the Parthenon's frieze, which now graces the walls of the British Museum, accompanying hoards of other imperial booty. The Parnathon Marbles, as they are more properly called, portray the Panatheniac Procession, a quadrennial festival glorious with lowing cattle led to the sacrifice, maidens bearing libations, musicians, and girls of noble birth carrying the safron-collored peplos, or shawl, to be place on the Goddess Athena's statue in the Erectheum (that's the one with the caryatids, columns in the shape of women).

The Brits argue that they have cared for the freize better than could have the Greeks, plagued by 20 decades of instability, poverty, and acidic smog. Let's chalk that up as a happy accident. The new Acropolis Museum is a state-of the-art repository. On the top floor are the remaining fragments of the Parthenon's pediments, friezes, and metopes combined with casts to replicate the original arrangement of the various high and low relief sculptures. In glass-walled and steel columned splendor, the works present themselves to the visitor in exact proportion to the original, which the visitor can gaze on where it sits aloft the Acropolis nearby.

Lord Elgin's was not the last insult Empire imposed on modern Greece. Like the Arabs, the Greeks were betrayed by the Brits after joining them against Turkey in WWI and then abandoned in their efforts to secure Ottoman precincts like Cyprus. Then there was the Great Depression, the Metaxis dictatorship, Nazi occupation, the post-WWII thwarted revolution and civil war, the military junta of 1967-73, and, finally, after an irrational exuberance of neoliberal growth, new disasters with the globalized Great Recession.

While tourists can still enjoy pampering and great food, the signs are there. 300 employees of the Metro were just fired, precipitating a series of one-day strikes, inconveniencing mildly the traveler compelled to take the bus or taxi from the airport.

At the eastern end of Avenue Ermou, which divides the city north from south, we encounter Avenue Persefonis, which is, indeed, a kind of ghostly incarnation from another world. It is a former industrial area, complete with giant oil tanks, brick factories, and towering chimneys, now illuminated in the red floodlamps of gentrification. The Athens Fringe Festival has taken over these formerly productive environs, now throbbing with disco beats and (always) English lyrics. Stylish young women emerge from the Metro or ride up rear seated, bare legged, and stilleto shod on motorcycles to sample the neo-Greek cuisine at Cafe Sardellis or Mamacas. For a festival weekend, however, the district is hardly mobbed.

A couple days later we are to see more signs of an economic collapse, this time in Crete. Some 20 kilometers the wrong way along the northern highway, we exit to get directions from one of the many hotels that surround the CretAquarium and nearby beaches. The area was deserted like a ghost town. Still, anyone contemplating a visit to Greece should not hesitate. The Euro is down, the bargains are up, and the chance of rain is zero. 

Pundits stateside pontificate cheerily how Greece, like General Motors, made promises to their workers that they could not keep. For example, I am blogging from a comfortable government-run free internet cafe in Heraklion, complete with software and tech assistance. Greeks should have made provision for the day it would rain credit default swaps.

But the land that first envisioned the polis failed to adapt to worldwid corporate governance. They faild to surrender willingly their heritage of Parthenon Marbles and social democracy and dared to proclaim in strikes and the "Bring Them Home" campaign that they will not surrender.

Now, when do we Americans get our social contract back? Where is our culture that envisions an American polis?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Talks Too Much

Last Saturday June 12 the 2nd Saturday Poets Reading ( enjoyed as its featured reader Judy Kronenfeld, an accomplished professional writer and scholar from California. I clapped along with pretty much everyone else, yet privately was offended by frustration.

Commonly readers intro and outro their works, often to good effect, clarifying a theme, touching on a critical fact, concept or connnection, or brightening with humor. But please, how about let your poem stand up on its own two legs and do its own walking? Kronenfeld prefaced almost every poem with, "I just want to say one thing first," and then went on to say any number of additional things for minutes at a stretch, mostly more of the story of her life, leaving me wondering: if this extra story of your life is so worth my attention, how come it's not inside the poem? She mentioned at one point that she often edits her poetry as much as 30 times. Well, good. Too bad she didn't so edit her comments. She should have, since they were nearly half of the reading. I felt like shouting, "Stop competing with yourself and let me hear your poetry!"

I notice in her book, for sale at the reading (my wife bought a copy:"light lowering in diminished sevenths"--The Litchfield Review Press.) that the poems are dutifully in lines and stanzas surrounded by much paper space, and so, read by my eyes, seem a bit more like poetry than they had sounded. Out loud of course poems lose their paper spaces, and so the sense of preciousness and definition conferred thereby. Out loud a poem must work harder for its preciousness and definition. Kronenfeld's mostly don't. They rely mostly not on the cherishing of details, but on their careful accummulation, which is the mainstay of prose.

A local woman I know, also a writer and scholar, took issue with the 2nd Saturday Readings a few years back when it mixed poetry with prose. She claimed she could not readily switch her head over from poetry to prose and back again from one reader to the next. Her problem puzzled me at the time, but I'm finding some utility in it here. To my ears Kronenfeld, heard as poetry, is far too wordy, but as prose essay is comfortably compact. As soon as I switched my head over, about halfway through the reading, and pretended she was an essayist, I felt better.

For this listener it was a shame. Kronenfeld has much worth saying, and often says it very well indeed. But she talks too much, and good poets don't need to.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Grumbling and Ruminating Memoir

Memoir makes me grumble. It is a form I have come to despise. It is to literature as infotainment is to news: focused on celebrity and dysfunction-of-the-month kitsch and easier to write about than the complexities of human events or the mysteries of the heart. It is suited to the over-corporatized literary marketplace with its emphasis on the velocity by which hysteria is disseminated more than the patience with which wisdom is contemplated. The audience, dulled by decades of TV, has lost the ability to imagine and thus “crave[s] the literal.” With such prejudices, I approached Memoir: A History, by Ben Yagoda, my colleague at the University of Delaware.

Yagoda is a full professor of journalism at UD and like a scholar with a nose for news, he combines taxonomy, history, analysis, and evaluation of the form with exposés and human interest anecdotes. From the Confessions of Augustine and Rousseau to Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Yagoda places a particular emphasis on memory and its relationship to truth.

The taxonomy of American memoirs divides, says Yagoda with a coy reference to the fraudulent James Frey, into “a million little subgenres.”

There is “shtick lit,” for example, “perpetrated by people who undertook an unusual project with the express purpose of writing about it.” Beginning with Thoreau’s Walden, and continuing with Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House and Jack London’s People of the Abyss, the form engineered by these masters was followed by works of lesser bricoleurs whose “projects [. . . became] ever more stuntlike.” Ever more successful, too, apparently, considering Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, which recounts Powell’s year of blogging about and cooking from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and which became a big movie with a shorter title and staring Meryl Streep. Yagoda always fills us in with the titles and casts of the films made from these sometimes otherwise inconsequential tomes.

Yet as I read on I began to notice how many of these works I had read and had contributed to my literary and personal consciousness, even such now forgotten bestsellers as See Here, Private Hargrove, Marion Hargrove’s memoir of pre-WWII basic training. See Here, along with Clarence Day’s Life With Father and Ruth McKenney’s My Sister Eileen, was an example of “light memoir,” which exemplified “the shared sense that the United States was the best place on earth, capable of overcoming any setbacks and fixing any flaws.” All of these were on my family bookshelf when I was a child.

As Yagoda traced the categories, I recognized more old friends. For instruction and vanity: Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin; third person: Education of Henry Adams; verse: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Robert Lowell’s Life Studies; slave narrative: Autobiography of Frederick Douglas; exposé: Charles Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast; 20th Century African American (and ghost-written): Autobiography of Malcom X; celebrity: Alexander King’s Mine Enemy Grows Older (which was also a recovery memoir); Holocaust: Elie Wiesel's Night; impersonated: Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird (actually about Roman Polanski); fake: Go Ask Alice; and Indigenous communal memory: I, Rogoberta Menchú. I have happily avoided misery memoirs like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the fraud Oprah fell for.

Yagoda conludes that the memoir makes for a lot of good literature that otherwise would not have been written. He even provides a scale to evaluate memoirs morally and literarily, which he schematized for us at a discussion of his work at the University of Delaware: subtract points for inaccuracies, trashing living people, political or moral agenda (ahem!), lack of corroboration, excessive dialogue (accuracy improbable), bad writing (up to 15 points), and failure to own up to fallibility. Add points for self-deprecation.

While I find that Memoir: A History succeeds in deepening our understanding of the genre and even justifying it, my inner subversive percolates to the surface to wonder how we can use this knowledge to overcome the atomization of humanity, inspire solidarity, and build a sustainable future.

I’ve gone on too long in a blog post to elaborate the answer.  But thanks to Ben Yagoda, I am now grumbling about memoirs less and ruminating more.