A trip to the John

A trip to the John
Moi moi je parle encore de moi –Jacques Brel (« Les Bourgeois »)

Sometimes when I am thinking too hard
studying the electric fingers of the accordion player
my friends slip their pills into my drink and I become
a philosopher, a gerrymander running up his tab
promising to borrow against the interest

Consider that last statement, Jojo says
when have you ever held an eye longer than
a trip to the John?

Which is all the razzing that I can take since Brel called us
les cochons
though to tell the truth
it is with a warm heart that we compete
for the love of the girls we meet

Out in the open street hailing cabs
like a mariner does his whores
we are bound for our uptown flats
where rooting about on hands and knees
we like to sniff their perfumed hems
then pay their backsides a visit with
the palms of our hands.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

A documentary on George Jackson

There have been a number of writers whose work and experiences have altered my self-perception, my perception of country and culture and have led me to question the very structure of what I like to call the “American idiom.”

George Jackson is one of those writers who has influenced the way in which I think about the State, the prison system and the role of political consciousness in shaping the lives of individuals and their communities. He has also altered the way I understand race, racial consciousness and racial prejudice. I recommend his book Soledad Brother which he wrote at the end of his life while a prisoner at San Quentin in California.

Jackson was an outspoken critic of American life and offered trenchant observations about the way in which prisons operated and how they served the interests of the political and economic elite. His book is filled with an analysis of class and the relationship between class and the stoking of racial animosities. I think his book deserves to be read alongside C. Vann Woodward’s classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow.

Jackson’s insight into the operation of the State’s power resources in the penal system and his ability to tie the operation of those instruments to the highest levels of rhetoric and policy in Sacramento under the leadership of then-Governor Ronald Reagan make for captivating reading. Jackson was very skilled at deconstructing rhetoric and his book serves, in my opinion, as an extensive hermeneutical analysis of American race prejudice and economic injustice.

I do not think I am going out on a limb when I say that Soledad Brother remains relevant and timely reading even if it is fashionable (as always) to dismiss the rhetoric of Black Power and to ignore Marxist class analysis.

Here is a documentary on Jackson’s life for those who are interested:

The Idea of Ancestry -Etheridge Knight

Over the last five years I have become increasingly interested in the idea of prisons: what are they; whom do they serve; what is their mission; what is the prison experience; what is rehabilitation . . . and, ultimately, is prison a legitimate institution?

In the United States a great many literary voices have emerged from behind bars. One of the most powerful of these voices, in my opinion, remains Etheridge Knight (1931-1991) who served in the Indiana penal system because of drug addiction. His poetry, especially his first book Poems from Prison (from which this poem comes) seems to me a unique expression of what it means -how it actually feels- to be under the heel of the American State. But more than that, Knight brings to me a feeling that the past remains present, that his life -and our lives- are always being shaped by forces (institutions, genes, stories, place) which mould us and our relations from the moment we enter the world.

I think one of the most powerful aspects of this poem is actually hearing the poet recite it himself.

The Sand County in transition

Today is The Sand County’s 5th birthday. Five years ago today I published my first piece and began laying out what this blog would be about.

Over 5 years the focus has shifted on more than one occasion but I believe the underlying principles have remained the same. I began with a statement of what this blog is about and what I hoped to accomplish:

At the time, I assumed I would be mostly composing essays on environmental/ecological/animal welfare topics. That focus changed in March of 2012 when I started writing and publishing poetry on similar matters. For the last 3 years poetry has been the focal point of this blog as the poetic form has increasingly become my preferred template for expressing my views and concerns.

When I began writing poetry I started to realize that being a poet is my vocation. In fact, several months ago I enjoyed the elegant realization that poetry is my vocation and that poetry is what I want to do with my life. I was in my car on my way to teach a student when this suddenly came to me with the full force of an epiphany. I instantly felt that after years of professional and personal confusion I had finally returned to my home turf and could, from that moment on, realize my ambitions.

For many years now I have had a tortured relationship with my profession. I set out to pursue a PhD in history because I believed at the time that becoming a professional historian afforded me with the necessary tools and profession to lead a secure life and pursue work that mattered to me. I was completely mistaken on this front and more than two months ago I abandoned my doctoral studies. The final break came in April when I posted on this blog that I was going “on Sabbatical” to complete my dissertation. As soon as I made that commitment I had a near crack up and decided that my priorities had been in reverse for too long. I promptly withdrew from my program even though I have completed more than one draft of my 500+ page manuscript. (I was also prompted by the fact that my university has a policy of charging perpetual tuition. They will charge you thousands of dollars every 4 months so long as you are completing your work.)

My decision to withdraw was the result of a very complicated and emotionally trying process. The pressure I felt to finish and become a “doctor” was immense. I felt compelled to do so as a husband, a father and also because I had invested so many years (and dollars) into my work. I grew up in a very white collar, upper middle class professional world where having an MD or a PhD was highly valued. I also am the son of an MD and know that from the time I was quite young I felt the need to match my father’s intellectual achievements (this was my own doing, not my father’s).

When I was in my teens I knew that I wanted to be a poet. This desire was not taken seriously, nor was there anyone at that time who could give me the encouragement I needed to pursue that course in life. For years I pursued work and studies which I thought I valued but which were my attempt at compensating for feeling unable to pursue my calling. I have agonized over this for years. I also have had a fraught relationship with “work,” always feeling that somehow I was not meeting my potential, not devoting myself to a valuable calling. Throughout my doctoral experience I felt isolated, alienated and increasingly resentful of the time and effort I was spending to work on a project which began to feel more and more like it was a sop to a profession and not a contribution to the world around me. This past April I finally snapped and decided to take the plunge.

Today I am rethinking how The Sand County fits into my current plans. I have decided to pursue a writing career full force which means that I no longer am at liberty to share my pieces on my blog unless I do not intend to publish them. As most of you probably know, publishers do not want pieces you have already posted elsewhere. I accept that I have to keep my work “hidden” so-to-speak until it finds its way into books and magazines. I feel some sadness over this because it is hard to explain the thrill of sharing my work on this blog.

I do not intend to close down The Sand County. I feel a great personal affection for this blog and what it has done to help me realize my true calling in life. I am convinced that without this blog I would not have come this far this quickly. I also know that I am an activist at heart and I intend to keep writing essays and commentaries that I can share here as well as follow the work of others. In other words, I do not want to give up what The Sand County has given me.

I hope my readers will be patient with me during this period of reinvention. It has been a challenging year for many different reasons and I have found, especially in recent days, that it is difficult for me to be online for very long and visit other blogs. I hope to be able to remedy that soon.

If you are reading this post, thank you. If you have ever taken the time to visit this blog and pause over something I have shared: Thank you. My gratitude is genuine.