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🍔  💀  📸  😭  🕳️  🤠  🎬  🥔 posts about poetry

On Politics and Poetry

a songbird perched on a branch

In order for me to write poetry that isn’t political
I must listen to the birds
and in order to hear the birds
the warplanes must be silent.

Marwan Makhoul

“Letter to the Person Who Carved His Initials into the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America”

a drawing of a longleaf pine

That’s the title of a poem by Matthew Olzmann. It begins:

Tell me what it’s like to live without

curiosity, without awe. To sail

on clear water, rolling your eyes

at the kelp reefs swaying

beneath you, ignoring the flicker

of mermaid scales in the mist,

looking at the world and feeling

only boredom.

You can read the rest at Tin House.

From Lacy M. Johnson in Orion Magazine, The Brutal Legacy of the Longleaf Pine:

The oldest longleaf pine tree in the world, I remember, is a nameless tree in Weymouth Woods in North Carolina. It is roughly 474 years old, taking root around the time Michelangelo took over construction of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, fifty-nine years before European colonizers arrived at Jamestown. In 2016, when the tree turned 468, visitors to the North Carolina State Parks system held a “Party for the Pine.” They celebrated by hiking to the tree, cutting cake, singing it “Happy Birthday.”

Illustration above of a longleaf pine by Edith Zimmerman.

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How Do You Rhyme in Sign Language?

A conversation at dinner with the kids left me wanting to know how to rhyme in sign language and when I found out, it feels like it should have been obvious.

In phonology (the study of the smallest units of language), the parts of a signed word are: handshape, location, palm orientation, movement, and non-manual signal. They are called parameters. Each parameter has a number of primes. In sign language specifically ASL, the same parameter in two or more words (signs) are repeated. The parts may be the same handshape, movement, and/or location, or combined, but the handshape rhyme is the most commonly used.

This explanation of how to rhyme diddle and fiddle in ASL is illustrative.

And here’s an example of ASL poetry where you can clearly see the rhymes and music of the words in her poem. The poet, Christine Marshall, didn’t caption the poem and suggested viewers suggest a translation in the comments. The pinned translation is below.

“Deaf Heart by Christine Marshall
A heartbeat pounds, within me strong
A beat consistent, as a song
But singing yet, does not appease
The world around me, just a tease
They talk, they chat, they have a spat
Without a sound, imagine that!
My heartbeat now, the only tone
I sit, I stare, I’m all alone
The beat it fades, a somber dirge
Then a shocking, shaking surge
My eyes are struck, my senses peaked
I’ve never seen a sight so sweet
A language without metronome
A language I can call my own
These people my experiences share
My whole life passing, unaware
All this time in quiet space
All alone and out of place
Now my heart is torn in two
“Who am I?”, or “I AM WHO?”
I know my heart has made it clear
My reservations disappear
I give myself to their embrace
To ASL my saving grace
My heart beats on and on in me
My heart is Deaf, and now I see”

See also, Jason’s post about ASL ‘Lose Yourself’, ASL Hamilton, and translating music.

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The Tricycle Haiku Contest

In every issue, the quarterly Buddhist magazine Tricycle publishes a winning haiku from its ongoing monthly haiku contest. The poem appears alongside a column written by the contest’s judge, poet and author Clark Strand. This season’s haiku-adjacent column includes the following bit, about one theory on the nature of haiku:

The Japanese haiku critic Kenkichi Yamamoto (1907–1988) believed that the best haiku strike a balance between humor and existential isolation. “Loneliness in life and the comical elements of life are two sides of the same coin,” he wrote. As a genre of literature, haiku thrives on the flip of that coin — the small element of uncertainty that challenges our ordinary understanding of the world.

I hadn’t realized there were such things as haiku critics (!). I also like the idea of loneliness and humor being related somehow.

Read the Spring 2024 winning haiku here. And enter the monthly contest here. (The next round must include the word “turnip.”)


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Ford Motor Company’s “Utopian Turtletop”

a booklet with a drawing of a car called 'Uptopian Turtletop'

a drawing of a car called 'The Intelligent Whale'

In 1955, the Ford Motor Company hired poet Marianne Moore to come up with some names for their revolutionary new car. Moore ended up submitting some amazing names, including “Silver Sword”, “Intelligent Whale”, “Angel Astro”, and “Utopian Turtletop”.

What Moore lacked in corporate nomenclature experience, she made up for in enthusiasm and imagination: she submitted over two dozen names for consideration, each one more delightful — and unlikely — than the last. In the end, the poet’s suggestions were rejected and the company’s chairman himself named the vehicle. Thus was born the notorious car known as the Edsel.

Ford realized perhaps too late that they shouldn’t have, in fact, sent a poet — but we’re sure glad they did.

Back here in the present day, Pentagram commissioned the legendary Seymour Chwast to turn Moore’s amazing collection of names into a booklet of illustrations that imagine what these cars might look like.

Feynman’s Ode to the Wonder of Life

In the last installment of a video series called The Universe in Verse, Maria Popova, Yo-Yo Ma, and Kelli Anderson have collaborated on a video that features words spoken by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman in a 1955 speech, a poem of sorts on the wonder of life.

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves… and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity… living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein… dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle onto the dry land… here it is standing… atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity.

Lovely. And of course I love the visuals by Kelli Anderson.

Gil Scott-Heron: Whitey on the Moon

Inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landing, musician & poet Gil Scott-Heron wrote a spoken word poem called Whitey on the Moon. You can hear him recite it in the video above; here are the first few lines:

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)

Back in 2011, shortly after Scott-Heron’s death, Alexis Madrigal wrote a short appreciation of the poem:

Let me just say that his track, “Whitey on the Moon,” changed the way I thought about the space race forever. It anchored the flight into the heavens, tethering it to the persistence of racial inequality, and pulling it out of the abstract, universal realm in which we like to place our technical achievements. Though I still think the hunger for the technological sublime crosses racial boundaries, it destabilized the ease with which people could use “our” in that kind of sentence. To which America went the glory of the moon landing? And what did it cost our nation to put whitey on the moon?

Earthrise: A Poem About Climate Change by Amanda Gorman

At the Biden/Harris inauguration on Wednesday, poet Amanda Gorman, dressed in the yellow of the Sun, realigned the planets with her recitation of a poem called The Hill We Climb. In 2018 for The Climate Reality Project, riffing off of the iconic photo of the Earth rising over the surface of the Moon taken by Apollo 8 astronauts, Gorman wrote a poem called Earthrise about the climate emergency and the action we must take to end it. From the text of the poem:

Where despite disparities
We all care to protect this world,
This riddled blue marble, this little true marvel
To muster the verve and the nerve
To see how we can serve
Our planet. You don’t need to be a politician
To make it your mission to conserve, to protect,
To preserve that one and only home
That is ours,
To use your unique power
To give next generations the planet they deserve.

We are demonstrating, creating, advocating
We heed this inconvenient truth, because we need to be anything but lenient
With the future of our youth.

And while this is a training,
in sustaining the future of our planet,
There is no rehearsal. The time is
Because the reversal of harm,
And protection of a future so universal
Should be anything but controversial.

So, earth, pale blue dot
We will fail you not.

Watch Gorman’s recitation of it above — you might get some goosebumps. (via eric holthaus)

Amanda Gorman: The Hill We Climb

The rhetorical highlight of the Biden/Harris inauguration was Amanda Gorman reciting her poem, The Hill We Climb — I thought it was fantastic. It begins:

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one

Here’s a transcript courtesy of CNN. You can read about how Gorman composed the poem in the NY Times:

“I had this huge thing, probably one of the most important things I’ll ever do in my career,” she said in an interview. “It was like, if I try to climb this mountain all at once, I’m just going to pass out.”

Gorman managed to write a few lines a day and was about halfway through the poem on Jan. 6, when pro-Trump rioters stormed into the halls of Congress, some bearing weapons and Confederate flags. She stayed awake late into the night and finished the poem, adding verses about the apocalyptic scene that unfolded at the Capitol that day.

The Times also has a lesson for students about Gorman and her poem. And from NPR:

Gorman is no stranger to having to change her work midstream. Like Biden, who has spoken openly about having stuttered as a child, Gorman grew up with a childhood speech impediment of her own. She had difficulty saying certain letters of the alphabet — the letter R was especially tough — which caused her to have to constantly “self-edit and self-police.”

Her delivery was amazing — powerful and lyrical. Brava!

Update: I included a link to a transcript of the poem above. I also wanted to include this illustration by Samantha Dion Baker because art inspires art.

Amanda Gorman

Update: A book version of Gorman’s inaugural poem will be out in April and is available for preorder.

How to Be at Home

For the National Film Board of Canada, director Andrea Dorfman and poet Tanya Davis collaborated on this short film about how to stay connected with ourselves and feel a connection with others while spending time physically apart from other people. I liked this bit about hugging a tree:

Go outside if you’re able, breathe the air
there are trees for hugging
don’t be embarrassed
it’s your friend, it’s your mother, it’s your new crush
lay your cheek against the bark, it’s a living thing to touch

See also Davis and Dorfman’s previous collaboration: How to Be Alone. (thx, scotty)

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

A group of creative folks recently came together to produce a 40-day-long Big Read of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 18th century epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Readings on sections of the poem from people like Jeremy Irons, Tilda Swinton, Hilary Mantel, and Iggy Pop were paired with artworks from Marina Abramovic, William Kentridge, Cornelia Parker, and Yinka Shonibare. I was struck right off the bat by the first piece, Glenn Brown’s The Shallow End.

Glenn Brown Shallow End

As one of the organizers, writer Philip Hoare, writes in The Guardian, Coleridge’s poem is particularly suited for the present situation, with its subject matter touching on isolation, plague, abolition, and the human impact on the natural world.

Roaring out of the radical 1790s, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a founding fable for our time. A fable must by definition revolve around an animal, and in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s nightmare the slain albatross hangs around the fated sailor’s neck like a broken cross, an emblem of his sin against nature. It is all too relevant today, as a statement of isolation and despair: “Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide, wide sea!” Yet in that forlorn expression is great power; the power of art to change us.

You can watch the entire 41-minute read in this video (embedded above).

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man

Former NFL linebacker and sports media personality Emmanuel Acho has started a video series on YouTube called Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. From the first episode (of two), here’s his mission statement:

In the midst of all this chaos in our world, so many of y’all have reached out to me. And by y’all, I mean white people have reached out to me asking, “How can I help? How can I join in? How can I stand with you?” So I’ve created this for you because in order to stand with us and people that look like me, you have to be educated on issues that pertain to me. And fully educated so that you can feel the full level of pain so that you can have full understanding. I fervently believe that if the white person is your problem only the white person can be your solution. And so this is made for you my white brothers and sisters to increase your level of understanding so that you can increase your level of compassion and lead ultimately to change.

For the second episode, Acho sat down with fellow Austin resident Matthew McConaughey and yes, the conversation is a little cringe-y at times:

After watching that, you might be interested in reading Langston Hughes’ poem Let America Be America Again.

O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be-the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine-the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

The Odyssey in Limerick Form

Emily Wilson, whose translation of The Odyssey recently reintroduced the epic to a wider non-classics audience, has now cheekily translated the tale of Odysseus into a series of limericks. She starts off:

There was a young man called Telemachus
who was bullied and in a dilemma ‘cause
he missed his lost dad
and his mom made him mad
and he almost got killed by Eurymachus.

And here’s the bit about Odysseus’ men eating the cattle of Helios, which earns them a thunderbolt from Zeus.

The men were fed up with their boss,
the rich guy, who’d gone for a doss.
They ate up the cattle,
which shortly proved fatal,
and all of their short lives were lost.

So good.


I read a short poem by Wendell Berry this morning called Questionnaire that has relevance to some of the things our society and culture have been chewing on over the past few years. The last two stanzas read:

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

Questionnaire is from Berry’s 2009 collection, Leavings. (via fave 5)

The quotable Ursula Le Guin

Brain Pickings is surfacing some gems from their archives in honor of what would have been Ursula Le Guin’s 89th birthday. The novelist, poet, and essayist died in January.
Le Guin on conversation:

“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”

Le Guin on libraries:

“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.”

Le Guin on time (hear astrophysicist Janna Levin read the full poem):

Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.

Le Guin on loyalty:

To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.

Le Guin on the environment:

“To use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it.”

Remembering Apollo 8’s Iconic Earthrise Photo

Earthrise Apollo 8

In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first ever humans to leave the cozy confines of Earth orbit. From Wikipedia:

The three-astronaut crew — Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders — became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit; see Earth as a whole planet; enter the gravity well of another celestial body (Earth’s moon); orbit another celestial body (Earth’s moon); directly see the far side of the Moon with their own eyes; witness an Earthrise; escape the gravity of another celestial body (Earth’s moon); and re-enter the gravitational well of Earth.

That’s a substantial list of firsts. But before setting out on the mission, neither the crew or anyone else at NASA gave much thought to perhaps the most significant and long-lasting achievements on that list: “see Earth as a whole planet” and “witness an Earthrise”. In this gem of a short film by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, Anders, Borman, and Lovell recall what it was like for them to be the first of only 24 people to see, with their own eyes, the Earth from that distance, a blue marble hanging in the inky blackness of space.

What they should have sent was poets, because I don’t think we captured the grandeur of what we’d seen.

The day after Apollo 8 orbited the Moon, a poem by Archibald Macleish published on the front page of the NY Times tried to capture that grandeur: Riders on Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold.

Men’s conception of themselves and of each other has always depended on their notion of the earth. When the earth was the World — all the world there was — and the stars were lights in Dante’s heaven, and the ground beneath men’s feet roofed Hell, they saw themselves as creatures at the center of the universe, the sole, particular concern of God — and from that high place they ruled and killed and conquered as they pleased.

And when, centuries later, the earth was no longer the World but a small, wet spinning planet in the solar system of a minor star off at the edge of an inconsiderable galaxy in the immeasurable distances of space — when Dante’s heaven had disappeared and there was no Hell (at least no Hell beneath the feet) — men began to see themselves not as God-directed actors at the center of a noble drama, but as helpless victims of a senseless farce where all the rest were helpless victims also and millions could be killed in world-wide wars or in blasted cities or in concentration camps without a thought or reason but the reason — if we call it one — of force.

Now, in the last few hours, the notion may have changed again. For the first time in all of time men have seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depth of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small as even Dante — that “first imagination of Christendom” — had never dreamed of seeing it; as the Twentieth Century philosophers of absurdity and despair were incapable of guessing that it might be seen. And seeing it so, one question came to the minds of those who looked at it. “Is it inhabited?” they said to each other and laughed — and then they did not laugh. What came to their minds a hundred thousand miles and more into space — “half way to the moon” they put it — what came to their minds was the life on that little, lonely, floating planet; that tiny raft in the enormous, empty night. “Is it inhabited?”

The medieval notion of the earth put man at the center of everything. The nuclear notion of the earth put him nowhere — beyond the range of reason even — lost in absurdity and war. This latest notion may have other consequences. Formed as it was in the minds of heroic voyagers who were also men, it may remake our image of mankind. No longer that preposterous figure at the center, no longer that degraded and degrading victim off at the margins of reality and blind with blood, man may at last become himself.

To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.

New No’s by Paul Chan

After the 2016 election, artist and writer Paul Chan wrote the following poem that he called “New No’s”.

No to racists
No to fascists
No to taxes funding racists and fascists

No mercy for rapists
No pity for bigots
No forgiveness for nativists
No to all those

No hope without rage
No rage without teeth
No separate peace
No easy feat

No to bounds by genders
No to clickbait as culture
No to news as truths
No to art as untruths

No anti-Semitic anything
No Islamophobic anything
No progress without others
No meaning without meaning

No means no
No means no
No means no
No means no

I ran across this several times at The Whitney; it’s part of their great exhibition An Incomplete History of Protest. The exhibition is closing next week and the poem is difficult to find online (Chan’s own publishing company, which was selling posters of the poem, seems to be defunct at the moment), so I wanted to preserve a copy here.

Update: The notable prior art for this piece includes Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto, Ad Reinhardt’s No War, and The No Manifesto for Poetry Readings and LISTSERVs and Magazine and ‘Open Versatile Spaces Where Cultural Production Flourishes’. (via @joeld)


For the Universe in Verse 2018 poetry event, Kelli Anderson created this wonderful papercraft stop motion animation to accompany Jane Hirshfield’s reading of her short poem, Optimism.

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.

The music is by Zoë Keating…a song called Optimist. Here’s more on the project from Maria Popova.

Poetry in America series on PBS

Poetry in America is an upcoming 12-part series exploring poetry on a variety of topics. Each episode features the discussion of a single poem — “I cannot dance upon my toes” by Emily Dickinson, “Skyscraper” by Carl Sandburg, “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas — with a collection of notable people — Samantha Power, Shaquille O’Neal, E.O. Wilson, Yo Yo Ma, Bill Clinton. The first episode airs this week but is already available on Amazon.

The experience of time in Dante’s Inferno

The Map of Hell by Sandro Botticelli.
“The Map of Hell,” by Sandro Botticelli. Wikimedia Commons.


It was either shortly before or just after November 8, 2016 that I began to wonder whether I had died and gone to Hell.

This reads as a joke, and I may have originally said it as a joke. But as the days and weeks went on, I started to reconstruct the events. I had nearly died in an accident in September 2009. The events between that date and November 2016, both good and bad ones, did not always seem to have the clear and distinct feeling of reality I’d experienced beforehand. Normally, most traditional conceptions of the afterlife suggest, the soul moves from a purgatorial or threshold state to a final reward. Was it possible that I had done this in the opposite direction, and crossed from Purgatory into Hell?

America’s history of white supremacy, gender chauvinism, and reactionary counterpolitics was clearly the most likely explanation. But an individual or collective journey through Hell was a hypothesis I couldn’t completely rule out. It was a decent enough joke, but I was no longer so sure I was kidding. So I began to read.


If you really want to read about Hell, you’ve got to go back to Islam and Catholicism in the Middle Ages. That was a time, a place, and a set of overlapping cultures that truly knew how to thoroughly, carefully, and beautifully discuss intellectual topics without any positive knowledge about the subject whatsoever. They turned scraps of text and groping attempts at reason into fully imagined traditions. And all of these traditions come together in the person of Dante Alighieri.

Dante draws on everything. Classical literature, obviously: his guide through Hell and Purgatory is Virgil, author of the Aeneid, whose Aeneas likewise visited the land of the dead. The best theology and philosophy available to him, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or pagan, including knowledge of the Earth’s geography and history, and the movements of the celestial spheres. European vernacular poetry, from Italy and France to Scandinavia and the British Isles. And — while not everyone agrees — Dante seems to have borrowed heavily from Muslim narratives of the prophet Muhammed traveling from Hell to Heaven, probably via Italian and Sicilian scholars who were fluent in both traditions.

But Dante is also innovative. I’ve always been interested in the history of time travel stories and the different mechanisms writers and artists use to try to understand how it might work. (In Back to the Future, the key technologies are cars, mechanical clocks, nuclear energy, videotape, and Polaroid photographs.) Last year, I started to wonder whether you could think of the Commedia as a time travel story. Dante didn’t have a plutonium-powered DeLorean or a Newtonian conception of spacetime. He had Hell, Heaven, Purgatory, and the stories we told about them. He used the materials at hand. And even H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine involves a journey underground.


It’s generally agreed that Dante was inventing all-new theology when he populated the Inferno’s antechamber Limbo with virtuous non-Christians. Before the Commedia, Limbo was reserved for unbaptized infants and Jewish kings and prophets (whom Jesus rescues after the crucifixion). But how else was Dante supposed to meet Homer, Ovid, Aristotle, and all the poets, heroes, and scholars of the classical and Muslim worlds? How else could he meet again his friends and enemies, teachers and rivals, from before his banishment in Florence? How else could he meet Beatrice, who transforms into the personification of Christian love and virtue? Dante built a machine.

In Dantean time travel, you can’t change the past or the future. It has all in some sense already happened. But you can greet the dead, gain wisdom from them, know their love, and maybe redeem your soul.

Limbo, like the other circles of Dante’s Hell, is not wholly separate from time, but unmoored from it. He describes it as a place of blindness:

in the dark (where only hearing told)
there were no tears, no weeping, only sighs
that caused a trembling in the eternal air -
sighs drawn from sorrowing, although no pain.1

The souls in the Inferno suffer, but they do not experience the passage of time. Somehow, though, they remember the past, both on Earth and in Hell. Virgil can tell Dante about Jesus’s rescue of Noah, Moses, David, Rachel, and the Jewish prophets. Others can tell Dante exactly how many years, months, and days ago they died. Some offer to prophecy Dante’s future. It’s as if Hell has History, but not Time.

In a famous scene in the tenth Canto, Dante asks his fellow Florentine Farinata degli Uberti to explain this contradiction:

‘Well (may your seed find sometime true repose!)
untie the knot for me,’ I now besought,
‘so tightly twined around my searching thoughts.
You see, it seems (to judge from what I hear)
far in advance what time will bring to pass,
but otherwise in terms of present things.’
‘We see like those who suffer from ill light.
We are,’ he said, ‘aware of distant things.
Thus far He shines in us, the Lord on high.
But when a thing draws near to us, our minds
go blank. So if no other brings us news,
then nothing of your human state is known to us.
You will from this be able to deduce
that all our knowledge will be wholly dead
when all the doors of future time are closed.’

This is the feeling I cannot seem to shake, before the election and after. Like the shades of the Inferno, we suffer; and like them, we are desperate for change, for respite, for news, and for something new. Yet everything new is a calamity. The present seems further away from us than the past and future. Every day is a week, every week a month, every month a year. Our memories and our dread have a sudden clarity. But the present… the present is somewhere else. Dante, too, is in his own country, but in exile. And so are we.


Erich Auerbach, my favorite Dante scholar, explains the representation of time in Hell in this way in his great book Mimesis:The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

Farinata’s and Cavalcante’s lives on earth are over; the vicissitudes of their destinies have ceased; their state is definitive and immutable except that it will be affected by one single change, their ultimate recovery of their physical bodies at the Resurrection on the Last Day. As we find them here, then, they are souls parted from their bodies. Dante does, however, give them a sort of phantom body, so that they can be seen and can communicate and suffer (cf., in this connection, Purg., 3). Their only link to life on earth is memory. In addition they have—as Dante explains in the very canto with which we are concerned—a measure of knowledge of past and future which goes beyond the earthly norm. Their vision is hyperopic: they clearly see earthly events of the somewhat distant past or future, and hence can foretell the future, but they are blind to the earthly present. (This explains Dante’s hesitation when Cavalcante asks him whether his son is still alive; Cavalcante’s ignorance surprises him, the more so because other souls had prophesied future events to him.) Their own earthly lives, then, they still possess completely, through their memories, although those lives are ended. And although they are in a situation which differs from any imaginable situation on earth not only in practical terms (they lie in flaming tombs) but also in principle by virtue of their temporal and spatial immutability, the impression they produce is not that they are dead — though that is what they are — but alive…

[Here Auerbach gives the quote in the screenshot above.]

The reality of the appearances of Farinata and Cavalcante is perceived in the situation in which they are placed and in their utterances. In their position as inhabitants of flaming tombs is expressed God’s judgment upon the entire category of sinners to which they belong, upon heretics and infidels. But in their utterances, their individual character is manifest in all its force. This is especially striking with Farinata and Cavalcante because they are sinners of the same category and hence find themselves in the same situation. Yet as individuals of different personalities, of different lots in their former lives, and of different inclinations, they are most sharply contrasted. Their eternal and changeless fate is the same; but only in the sense that they have to suffer the same punishment, only in an objective sense. For they accept their fate in very different ways. Farinata wholly disregards his situation; Cavalcante, in his blind prison, mourns for the beauty of light; and each, in gesture and word, completely reveals the nature proper to each, which can be and is none other than that which each possessed in his life upon earth. And still more: from the fact that earthly life has ceased so that it cannot change or grow, whereas the passions and inclinations which animated it still persist without ever being released in action, there results as it were a tremendous concentration. We behold an intensified image of the essence of their being, fixed for all eternity in gigantic dimensions, behold it in a purity and distinctness which could never for one moment have been possible during their lives upon earth.

Achewood Police Blotter.png

Zito Madu is a writer at SB Nation, where he heroically mixes high literary references into smart, funny, passionate stories, mostly about soccer and basketball. He’s also a former pro soccer player and a devoted reader of Dante. I asked him what he finds most noteworthy in the Inferno.

I was reading a paper called “Dante’s definition of life” when I encountered this amazing little passage about the crime of seeing the human body as merely a material thing. It explains one of my favorite things about The Inferno, which is that all the condemned souls still have their spiritual capacities. They are not reduced in death, they still maintain their self even after the great terror. Even in their eternal punishment. There’s a death of the body, but not of the soul:

“As Christain Moevs notes, sin is self-identification with the body. Inflicting two deaths upon themselves, the death of the body and the so-called death of the soul (the condemnation to hell), they have taken a terrifying slide down the great chain of being, revealing the infernal nature of seeing that chain as continuity.

“Pier delle Vigne explains: ‘L’animo mio, per disdegnoso gutso, / credendo col morir fuggir disdegno, / ingiusto fece me contra me ingiusto .’ He has understood his existence as something material that can be away with. He has divided himself, “me contra me,” in turning his soul against his body. In doing so, he has radically misunderstood the nature of his being.”

This comes after an explanation of Dante’s “Trinitarian thought” on the human soul. That the soul is a product that’s a combination of nature, the parents, and of God. “The human soul possesses components that are both meditated and unmeditated…it is a point that reveals itself eventually to be a trinity.”

To think that the soul is immediate and refined in the body at conception then is to err by conflating them. “To conflate them is to commit to a materialistic understanding of life.” And the opposite, to think of the soul only as separate from nature, is to have a dualistic vision of life. Each failing to understand the “distinction between, and union between, body and the spirit, nature and God.”

I think this is such a wonderful thing and a great way to look at human existence. The view asserts that human beings have a natural godliness. So that, if someone were at their lowest, when they have nothing at all, when they’re a Job, they are still divine. A person is never nothing. Not even the worst of us. “Easy to know that diamonds are precious. Good to learn that rubies have depth. But more to see that pebbles are miraculous.”


Generally, Dante is stricken with pity at the souls he encounters in the Inferno. It’s Virgil, the symbol of reason, who explains the justification for the sufferings they undergo. He borrows from established Christian theology the notion that the saved benefit from seeing sinners suffer justly.

I don’t believe in God, Paradise, Purgatory, or Hell, or prisons and most forms of punishment, except as figures for human experience. There are times, though, when the thought that traitors, the corrupt, thieves, hypocrites, warmongers, gluttons, and those incapable of keeping themselves from inflicting their lust on others have been weighed, measured, and found wanting — that their evil is elemental, ancient, but far from eternal — is some consolation for this half-real mockery of life.

Circles and Punishments in the Inferno. Via Lapham’s Quarterly.

  1. All quotations of Dante in English are from Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation of the Inferno.


And now, a poem from my daughter.

Minna Snowflakes

To play

Yes play!
So if i have not made that clear,
I will make it clear.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

Whitman, Alabama

Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall has spent the past two years travelling all around Alabama, collecting short video vignettes of people’s lives — “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?” — and now she’s posting the videos on the Whitman, Alabama site.

I believe in listening and I believe in creating spaces intimate enough for voices to be heard. I believe in Alabama and her people. So I wanted to try to amplify her voices. To do this, a patchwork team of us set out and began to make a 52-part documentary film.

We crisscrossed the state, made acquaintances with strangers and asked: “Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?”

And people said yes! (This still surprises me every time.)

And then we said: “There’s a catch. Can we do it while you read some poetry?”

I have to say, you Alabamians stepped up to the plate. You said, “Yes, I believe that’d still be all right.”

Each of her 52 subjects recites a verse from Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself. Why Whitman and not a poem by a southern poet?

I like the idea of cheekily co-opting the work of a dead white Yankee and re-envisioning it through contemporary Southern voices. I think we’ve found a neat way of mixing DNA here by joining these voices with Whitman’s. We’ve taken Whitman up on his offer to be co-creators, co-authors, of “Song of Myself.”

The Sullivan family read verse 16:

Some people just hit you in the heart. I was at Yen Restaurant in Mobile, looking for a hit of comfort food—Vietnamese food — and Cathy, Samantha and Brandon walked in.

Samantha reminded me of myself — half-Asian, half-white, sort of a tomboy. I approached them. Immediately they were open and warm. I asked Cathy if they might want to read for the project.

She said sure. No hesitation. She appreciated art and music. Samantha did, too. Cathy stenciled boats for a living. Samantha wanted to be an illustrator or graphic designer someday.

Sometimes if people think something isn’t going to look good to other people, they won’t let you see it, let alone film it. But Cathy threw open the doors in full welcome.

Spend some time with the project, meet some of your fellow Americans you might not know that well. (via @alainabrowne)

Update: Jia Tolentino interviewed Crandall about the project for the New Yorker.

The first time Crandall read “Song of Myself,” it was 1990, and she was sixteen, standing in a bookstore in McLean, Virginia, having just moved back to the United States. Because of her father’s job, with U.S.A.I.D., she had spent most of her childhood in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Pakistan. “My mom is Chinese, from Vietnam, and my dad’s a white dude from Denver, and at that moment I just felt that I did not understand America,” she said. She pulled a paperback anthology of poetry off the shelf, and Whitman stuck out right away. “Though I wouldn’t have articulated it then, what I responded to was this idea that everyone embodies diversity, not just the country. That many people are negotiating multiple social contracts, the way I’d been doing since I was born.”

Map showing the homeland of every character in Homer’s Iliad

Homer Iliad Map

This is a map showing where all of the characters originated in Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. I know Greece is small by today’s standards, but it was surprising to me how geographically widespread the hometowns of the characters were. The Iliad is set sometime in the 11th or 12th century BC, about 400 years before Homer lived. I wonder if that level of mobility was accurate for the time or if Homer simply populated his poem with folks from all over Greece as a way of making listeners from many areas feel connected to the story — sort of the “hello, Cleveland!” of its time. (thx, adriana)

Update: I’ve gotten lots of feedback saying that not every character is represented in this map (particularly the women) and that some of the locations and hometowns are incorrect. Seems like Wikipedia might need to take a second look at it.

Update: The map was made using the Catalogue of Ships, a list of Achaean ships that sailed to Troy, and the Trojan Catalogue, a list of battle contingents that fought for Troy. That’s why it’s incomplete. An excerpt:

Now will I tell the captains of the ships and the ships in their order. Of the Boeotians Peneleos and Leïtus were captains, and Arcesilaus and Prothoënor and Clonius; these were they that dwelt in Hyria and rocky Aulis and Schoenus and Scolus and Eteonus with its many ridges, Thespeia, Graea, and spacious Mycalessus; and that dwelt about Harma and Eilesium and Erythrae; and that held Eleon and Hyle and Peteon, Ocalea and Medeon, the well-built citadel, Copae, Eutresis, and Thisbe, the haunt of doves; that dwelt in Coroneia and grassy Haliartus, and that held Plataea and dwelt in Glisas; that held lower Thebe, the well-built citadel, and holy Onchestus, the bright grove of Poseidon; and that held Arne, rich in vines, and Mideia and sacred Nisa and Anthedon on the seaboard.

(via @po8crg)

What are we but a fire?

An excerpt from Elisa Chavez’s poem “Revenge” in the Seattle Review of Books:

Since you mention it, I think I will start that race war.

I could’ve swung either way? But now I’m definitely spending
the next 4 years converting your daughters to lesbianism;
I’m gonna eat all your guns. Swallow them lock stock and barrel
and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table;

I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies.
With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars,
my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck
and your swastikas will not be enough to save you,

This is a powerful poem, and I laughed out loud so hard to the “This is a taco truck rally and all you have is cole slaw” line.

Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

In this video, American poet Maya Angelou recites her poem Still I Rise, which was published in 1978. The recitation includes some opening remarks…the poem begins like so:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Wonderful. That little chuckle after “Does my sassiness upset you?” — amazing. And it’s interesting to see how she deviates from the written text in her performance, a reminder that even the finest things in the world — like freedom, like liberty, like democracy — need to be refreshed and remade anew in order to remain vital. (via swiss miss)

The Adjective Word Order We All Follow Without Realizing It

From Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence, a reminder of the rules of adjective order that fluent English speakers follow without quite knowing why.

…adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.

The Cambridge Dictionary lists a slightly different order: opinion, size, physical quality, shape, age, colour, origin, material, type, purpose. A poem by Alexandra Teague explores the topic in a creative way:

That summer, she had a student who was obsessed
with the order of adjectives. A soldier in the South
Vietnamese army, he had been taken prisoner when

Saigon fell. He wanted to know why the order
could not be altered. The sweltering city streets shook
with rockets and helicopters. The city sweltering


Did anyone learn this in school? I sure didn’t. How do we all know then? My daughter’s kindergarten teacher had a great phrase she used when things got a bit tricky as her students learned to read: “the English language is a rascal”. (via @MattAndersonBBC)

Update: Language Log’s post on adjective order is worth reading. (thx, stephen & margaret)

Kanye West’s poem about McDonald’s


Frank Ocean dropped his long-awaited album the other day and to go along with it, he gave away a magazine called Boys Don’t Cry for free at four pop-up locations in LA, NYC, Chicago, and London. Kanye West contributed to the album and magazine, penning a poem about McDonald’s for the latter. Here’s the poem:

McDonald’s man
McDonald’s man
The French fries had a plan
The French fries had a plan
The salad bar and the ketchup made a band
Cus the French Fries had a plan
The French fries had a plan
McDonald’s man
I know them French fries have a plan
I know them French fries have a plan
The cheeseburger and the shakes formed a band
To overthrow the French fries plan
I always knew them French fries was evil man
Smelling all good and shit
I don’t trust no food that smells that good man
I don’t trust it
I just can’t
McDonald’s man
McDonald’s man
McDonald’s, man
Them French fries look good tho
I knew the Diet Coke was jealous of the fries
I knew the McNuggets was jealous of the fries
Even the McRib was jealous of the fries
I could see it through his artificial meat eyes
And he only be there some of the time
Everybody was jealous of them French fries
Except for that one special guy
That smooth apple pie

Man, I can’t help but like Kanye. Just when you think he takes himself way too seriously, he does something like this and you can’t tell if he’s taking himself way WAY too seriously or not seriously at all. McDonald’s, man. Kanye drawing courtesy of Chris Piascik. (via @gavinpurcell)

I Am - Somebody

From 1971, here’s Jessie Jackson on Sesame Street doing a call-and-response with the children of the poem I Am - Somebody.

I Am
I Am
I May Be Poor
But I Am
I May Be Young
But I Am
I May Be On Welfare
But I Am

It’s difficult to imagine something like this airing on the show now. Sesame Street was originally designed to serve the needs of children in low-income homes, but now the newest episodes of the show air first on HBO…a trickle-down educational experience. (via @kathrynyu)

The Human Family

A new commercial from Apple pairs photos & videos shot on iPhone 6 with a poem from Maya Angelou called Human Family.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

You can hear Angelou recite the entire poem here:

The Epic of Gilgamesh grows by 20 lines

Gilgamesh Stone Tablet

The Epic of Gilgamesh just got more epic. A recent find of a stone tablet dating back to the neo-Babylonian period (2000-1500 BCE) has added 20 new lines to the ancient Mesopotamian poem.

The tablet adds new verses to the story of how Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew the forest demigod Humbaba. Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, gets the idea to kill the giant Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, home of the gods, in Tablet II. He thinks accomplishing such a feat of strength will gain him eternal fame. His wise companion (and former wild man) Enkidu tries to talk him out of it — Humbaba was set to his task by the god Enlil — but stubborn Gilgamesh won’t budge, so Enkidu agrees to go with him on this quest. Together they overpower the giant. When the defeated Humbaba begs for mercy, offering to serve Gilgamesh forever and give him every sacred tree in the forest, Gilgamesh is moved to pity, but Enkidu’s blood is up now and he exhorts his friend to go through with the original plan to kill the giant and get that eternal renown he craves. Gilgamesh cuts Humbaba’s head off and then cuts down the sacred forest. The companions return to Uruk with the trophy head and lots of aromatic timber.

How the tablet was discovered is notable as well. Since 2011, the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq was been paying smugglers to intercept artifacts leaving the country, no questions asked. The tablet was likely illegally excavated from the southern part of Iraq, and the museum paid the seller of this particular tablet $800 to keep it in the country.