What American Independence Day Means to Me

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FireworksIn my latest entry for The Huffington Post, I take a look at the American tradition of celebrating our independence from Britain on the Fourth of July. As you can imagine, though I do miss the hot dogs and sparklers, living in Britain now causes me to question much of what I once took for granted as unquestionably true.

Beyond the way one might root for a local sporting team, why might this particular national celebration still matter? I took a look around me for suitable metaphors to characterise the promise of the American spirit, and found one in the very place that I have spent most of my technology career: the start-up company.

Happy (Almost) Fourth of July to my fellow countrymen.

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The Power and Peril of Written Words

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America, A Prophecy by William BlakeI believe that it is important to intelligently question the modern relevance of our ancestors’ words. It is as important to literature as it is to government. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution was enacted on December 15th, 1791, exactly 221 years ago today.

I currently live in England — a country with no written constitution. Upon discovering this, the American comedian Jon Stewart laughed out loud, insinuating that the British were “too polite” to set their thoughts on government down in a single document. In reality, countless legal documents, and their interpretation, make up the “unwritten constitution” — allowing it to be continually debated, updated, and adapted to the practicalities of modern times by parliament.

After a hard-won Revolutionary War against a British government that restricted freedom of speech and assembly, only permitted firearms to be purchased through them in limited quantities, and also forced Colonists to quarter soldiers without warning, it makes sense that the First, Second, and Third Amendments to the US Constitution were soon passed. The First one has proved vital to a healthy democracy; the Third one seems pretty irrelevant these days.

However, as soon as you suggest that the Second Amendment, and its subsequent interpretation allowing citizens to own firearms for self-defence independent of a militia, might not be well-suited to the Twenty-First Century, you will probably be called “unpatriotic” or even “un-American.” Continue reading…

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Citizen of Poetry

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Cactus BlossomI spent fourteen months in England, working hard to make the odd feel normal. When what is foreign feels odd, it is understandable. But when what was formerly normal now feels odd, that is perhaps the oddest feeling of all.

I now find myself, back in the US for a brief visit, ambling through coastal California towns taking snapshots — both mentally and with my iPhone — that a British tourist might take: cactus blossom, stars and stripes, the shimmering coastline. The very scenery of my childhood and early adulthood has become an archaeological dig.

The “shock” in the phenomenon of reverse culture shock occurs while driving, when I turn at an empty intersection and there is a momentary flash, in that between-lanes space, where I have to think hard to remember which side of the road I should be turning into.

Yet I always make the turn. There is a way in which intersection has become more the norm, and made the counter-shock less shocking than I feared. Sucking on a chili-covered lollipop from Jalisco, Mexico while sipping a mug of English tea, it occurs to me that I have always lived in the interstices of cultures — first on the US-Mexico border, and now as an American in England.

More and more, I feel both “at home” and “on vacation” wherever I go. Although my formative experiences will always make me an American, the context through which I relate to the world has expanded beyond my sun-drenched beginnings. For me, this is the place where poems come from — in fascinated relation to the world at large, through moments of specificity.

Perhaps, in this sense, my travels have made me a citizen of Poetry — that state governed by aesthetic appreciation of human affairs, where the tax is repaid on one’s attention by the ability to abide in liminal mysteries, living deeply, line by line.

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Christopher Reid’s Elegiac Scattering

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“Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend; / nor even the jobsworth slob / with a slow sly scheme to rob / my darling of her mind / that I imagined; / just a tumour.”

-Christopher Reid, “The Unfinished”, from A Scattering

A Scattering by Christopher ReidChristopher Reid’s A Scattering is a moving tribute to his wife Lucinda, who died of cancer. A respected English poet recommended it to me after reading my piece contrasting Douglass Dunn and Donald Hall, both of whom also wrote elegies under very similar circumstances. In addition to fine poems, in this book I also found certain insights into how a culture grieves, and what it considers good art.

Whereas Douglass Dunn’s elegies take root in his working-class background, Reid signals his place in the upper class early on in the book when, on the island of Crete, he invokes “ghosts of old schoolmasters” whose lessons, in his mouth, have become, “scraps of misremembered Classical Greek.”

In The Daily Telegraph, a periodical more typically aligned with those who studied Classics as school, Tom Payne assessed, “It is a collection that defies criticism in two ways — first, because it feels wrong to pick over such poignant elegies, and also, because so many of these poems are impossible to fault.” What makes this book seem flawless to this particular slice of Britain — and especially when the topic is such a difficult one?

Two elements more common in American expressions of grief are entirely off limits to Reid: invoking religious faith, and outpouring emotion. Instead, educated fascination with the world, and particularly the natural world, takes the place of religion; and self-consciousness and self-deprecation take the place of emotive self-expression.
Continue reading…

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First Year in London: Lessons in Negative Capability

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“Not wrong, just different.”

 — Valerie‘s mantra for overcoming culture shock

Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of my arrival in London. This afternoon I attended a reading at Keats House in Hampstead. Four volunteers read poems and excerpts from his letters dealing with the concept of Negative Capability. This ability to remain “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” is something I have cultivated in my writing process, and admired in the work of others. However, it occurs to me that living in London has exercised this quality in my life as well.

My first time living abroad has also been my first time living outside of California. Stepping off the curb while looking in the habitual (but wrong!) direction can cause a visceral shock. But the same can happen in conversation. Learning to navigate the labyrinthine streets of London can feel stressful and overwhelming. Likewise, the literary terrain. And semiotic estrangement produced at least one new poem.

Challenged with startling newness, the temptation is to make a split-second decision: either “they” are doing it wrong, or I am. But neither decision is sustainable, or leads to positive adjustment (for there are more of “them” than me, but in the end, I have to live with myself). So instead, I have been repeating my English wife’s third-way statement, which she used extensively while living in California: “not wrong, just different.” This in itself expands my capacity to abide the contradictory.

Also, faced with so much newness, the temptation is often to compartmentalise. Continue reading…

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Transatlantic Elegies: Dunn and Hall

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Donald Hall’s keen observations on grief in Without had a profound impact on my understanding of the possibilities of elegiac poems. Since relocating to London, Douglas Dunn’s slim volume Elegies has deepened my understanding of the form, and some of its specific cultural implications. Both collections were written in the wake of the poet’s wife’s death from cancer. And each, in its way, is a remarkable achievement of transcending loss to make art. But here the similarities end, and certain differences — ones I find illustrative of the subtle divide in Anglo-American poetics — begin.

Whereas Hall’s poems are largely confessional, Dunn’s might be called archaeological. Taking the first poems from each book as examples, we find in “Her Long Illness” an account in the third-person that is none-the-less told in scene, revealing intimate details of the couple’s final moments together. By contrast, Dunn’s “Re-Reading Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories” takes us through an examination of the stains on a book’s pages, invokes Robert Frost’s “A Considerable Speck” in addressing a fly, and only obliquely touches on the matter of grief itself in the final words of the poem: “one dry tear punctuating ‘Bliss’.”

Some of this stems from the vantage point taken up by the speaker — whereas Hall is re-living experience, going back to the hospital scenes in his mind, Dunn is reflecting, rooted in the present, casting forward and back. How each poet chooses to reflect or relive, however, and the effect this produces in the poems, brings colour to certain value differences between the two poetics.
Continue reading…

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