Thursday, May 10, 2018

Those Keys’re Rolling: A Review of David Cope’s The Invisible Keys: New and Selected Poems by Jim Cohn

David Cope. The Invisible Keys: New and Selected Poems. Madison, Wisconsin: Ghost Pony Press, Spring 2018. ISBN: 0-941160-18- 1 and 798-0- 941160-18- 6. $16.00.

I first came in contact with David Cope and his poetry while a teaching assistant to Allen Ginsberg at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in 1980. Ginsberg was much taken with the poems that the then-younger Cope had sent him from the heartland. The poet Charles Reznikoff had just died and there was much to do with Cope’s poetry that struck Ginsberg as a continuation of the direct and clear objectivist style for which Reznikoff was known. I also saw up close that Ginsberg found some relief in the articulate, well-read Michigan poet. After all, once the Kerouac School opened in 1974, hordes of young novice writers descended upon Ginsberg and other Beat Generation writers at Naropa to create what at times appeared to be a kind of night-of-the-living-dead, unbeat, zombie poetry scene.

Cope was a distinct and singular exception to the poets that flocked to Ginsberg insofar as he had no intellectual or emotional affinity to the Beat notion of improvisational “First Thought, Best Thought” mind. “First Thought, Best Thought” was the phrase that Ginsberg used to describe spontaneous and fearless writing, a way of telling the truth that arises from naked and authentic experience. David Cope took exception to this methodology in favor of the basic tenets of Objectivist poetry, championed by early 20th century American poets Luis Zukofsky, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Reznikoff, among others. As defined by Zukofsky, Objectivist poets were to treat the poem as an object, and to emphasize sincerity, intelligence and the poet's ability to look clearly at the world. This view of the world, as well as poetry, is the world of Cope’s sturdy compilation of selected poems, The Invisible Keys.

Fast forward to today, a good 100 years past the deposition of the Objectivist School. Today, we have more schools of poetry and poetics discourse than perhaps in any other time in history. We also have a president who does not distinguish between truth and untruth, who openly argues against “fake” media, “so called” judges, “alternative facts” and so forth. As Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA wrote in “The End of Intelligence,” a New York Times op-ed piece, “These are truly uncharted waters for the country. We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality, or occasionally over what constituted objective reality, but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself” (29 April 2018, 1,6). You won’t find in David Cope’s Invisible Keys a universe unmoored from its objectivist foundation as you’ll find on any given day at the Oval Office. That’s a very good thing.

Another distinction between Cope, who Ginsberg first invited to teach at the Kerouac School in the summer of 1980, and most of the Naropa student poets with whom he would meet at this still relatively early juncture in his poetics journey, was that he was already living a blue-collar family life and working as school custodian. Perhaps there are certain kinds of objective reality that may be harder to ignore than others. Earning enough money to raise a family of four comes immediately to mind. Maybe Yosemite Sam (a name ascribed to Donald Trump by his biographer, Tim O’Brien, after the cartoon character) can get away with a life seemingly dedicated to overriding objective reality. But a janitor? It would be a cold day in hell before a clogged up toilet gets fixed by insulting it, calling it all kinds of awful names. And unlike the Syrian government, whose leader seems to enjoy chemical warfare assaults on his own people with relative impunity, mostly invisible custodians live their day-to-day lives exposed to a variety of toxins in oft invisible benefit to others. Cope was fully aware of objective reality when, in considering his legacy of blue collar employment, he used Whitman’s catalog technique to write the poem, “AP Wire Story: ‘Janitors at Risk’”:

For years I breathed spray paint, toluol, methanol,

xylene & hi-lo fumes under roaring fans

in the factory,

then coal dust in aging boiler rooms, pulled

hot clinkers & breathed the fumes,


diatomaceous earth, muriatic acid & chlorine

vapors 6 years at Lincoln Pool, breathed

asbestos in boiler rooms,

in tunnels & mechanical rooms across the city,

inhaled chlordane, wood dust, germicide

fumes, stone cleaners,

boric acid dust, ammonia vapors––almost my whole

adult life––exposed myself daily to

shit, piss,

vomit, mucus, hair, congealed sweat, menstrual

blood, as every janitor does. Today,

meetings to save the planet

fill auditoria as janitors wheel chemicals for the

air conditioning right past

the door where

the speakers have worked themselves into a

righteous frenzy! [...] (42)

What David Cope’s catalog of real toxic substances signify is that while people in power, people with great privilege, people with enormous wealth and fixers may get elected as president of the United States throughout American history, the only silver lining in our current president’s language is that Trump’s post-truth misuses shine a light on everyone else’s awareness of their own communication, behavior, truthfulness of speech and written words. So the first thing for which I want to praise Invisible Keys is its dedication to facts, sanity, and to its dedication to the Objectivist Way.

Personally impacted by the horrific death machine that was the Vietnam War, as were many of his generation coming of age in the 1960s, Cope dropped out of college before completing his undergraduate degree after an antiwar demonstration in Ann Arbor turned violent and the police began busting heads, but not before studying at the University of Michigan with the African American poet Robert Hayden to whom he dedicated Invisible Keys. In the poem “Peace,” Cope recorded what that form of anti-war desperation looked like for those whom Vietnam was a living nightmare. He writes of one custodial coworker named Benny who “talks of piles of bodies, / corpses with arms, heads, legs ripped off”:

he speaks without passion,

regretting the wasted effort, the needless deaths,

yet he accepts his part in it,

still amazed people could live like this for years,

from attack to counter-attack

hiding in fields & ditches,

finding uncles & sons blasted to pieces

more often than children are born. (8)

Cope eventually dreamed himself out of the janitorial employment he done for 18 years to become a professor-poet for the next 22 years. That is, he taught Shakespeare and worked on curriculum development at Grand Rapids Community College after having previously cleaned the college’s toilets and mopped its floors. In his life, there were no shortages of improbable juxtapositions such as his unusual leap from janitor to professor within the same physical workspace. Here was a living blue collar working man who in his invisible, secret life as a poet was a voracious reader of history, a devotee of art, culture, film and music, a literary multiculturalist, and a person attuned to the natural world in which he reveled and later channeled its most healing and joyous qualities.

Dreaming holds a special place throughout Cope’s Invisible Keys and it is worth investigating why the word, or some form of it, appears again and again in his poems. It may have been that without dream activism, or acting upon one’s dreaming, as Martin Luther King demonstrated in his “I Have a Dream” speech given on 28 August 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that so captured the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement in America, Cope would have never made the leap that he did, the leap that ended the interruption of his academic career during the height of the Vietnam War and resulted in him entering the academy as a professor of Shakespeare.


It may well be with an Elizabethan eye that Cope also uses the word dream repeatedly in his poems for, like Shakespeare, dream is a central and dominating image in Cope’s poetry, encompassing at once the terrors of the irrational and the creative powers of the imagination, humanity’s deepest fears and highest aspirations. The Shakespeare dream world is peopled by ghosts, witches, fairies and spirits and governed not by reason, but by omen and prophecy, vision and daydream, coincidence and disguise. Shakespeare’s dream world is shown to be a key indicator of symbol and meaning, sometimes even a metaphor for the plays themselves. By the time of the late romances, including The Tempest, Shakespeare’s dream and dramatic worlds are virtually indistinguishable, and the vision of life as a dream achieves its fullest reality.

Consider how Cope chose to open his selected poems––with the dark incandescence of the poem “American Dream,” a vision of the raging hellfire that was as if the Vietnam War had been imported lock, stock and barrel to the homeland in a manner of brutality that we have come to accept for its numbingly raw cinematic portrayal of our own country’s pervasive shock and awe violent tendencies:

the house was all in flames,

orange billows bursting up into the sunlight.

FBI agents & police were laid up

behind walls, sheds & other building

armed with M-16s & rocket launchers.

the firemen were kept back.

the battle had gone on for some time

when the fire exploded thruout the house.

one of the bodies could be seen inside the house,

loaded with ammunition bullets,

the bullets exploding from the heat.

While the poem remains as raw today as it did at first reading in 1980––with its Objectivist realism, it’s Hemingway-like minimalist language, vivid cinematic accents and close-up detail, in the context of Invisible Keys, “American Dream” plays a part, as does each poem that follows, as a statement of meaning that says the essence of gesture is invisible, is symbolic. This essence of gesture depends on images and the ability of language to evoke the inner qualities of perceived objects in the absence of those objects.

Gestural images, portrayed as passing characters, parade across Cope’s poems. There’s a “crone [wheeling] a battered pram, empty” (“Abandoned Hotel,” 2), a “small boy [who] tried to strangle a pigeon” (“Chinese Calligraphy,” 11), a funeral cortege with “sun [shining] over the hearse, thru the windows/onto their laps where their hands are folded” (“Labor Day,” 13), an “old bum [who] scratches his back beneath his coat” (“Modern Art,” 15), imaginations of Civil War dead “where bodies were heaped up waist-high” (“Antietam,” 16), a “Sikh [standing] near the back of the room” (“The Liberty Bell,” 17), and a “neighbor’s hanging out his laundry” (“Alone,” 18).

While these characters make only brief appearances, one character in particular seems to haunt the mind long after reading this tender and sturdy selection––the old jazz pianist who “looks at his hands, palms down, fingers spread” (“At the Croyden,” 20). This aging musician who “played everywhere, all these big joints downtown, / an’ he played Detroit, & up in Canada, too. / he knew all the good numbers–– [...] looks back up into my eyes / & I see the invisible keys.” It’s as though Cope plotted his book in the context of a Dantean journey and the aging jazz musician is his guide. It’s also fair to say that the gesture of “dead, old John, premiere piano player, / found sitting up on his toilet after / 3 days not answering his bell” that begins the title poem of this collection marks an epiphany of symbol and meaning in its conclusion:


that old tune’s floating up

in a dingy hallway

one bare bulb hanging

& those keys’re

rolling, waves under fast fingers––

& two floors up

a woman sobs alone on rumpled sheets

shattered glass

on the floor, picture on her pillow––

two lovers

in white, with a red rose––

hearing those notes

again, she’ll rise & look out at

the empty street,

streetlights going off in the

lavender dawn,

& she’ll remember an embrace, a

tender moment

in a room like this, & sighing,

wipe her eyes

& fix her hair, who knows who

might turn up today,

toes still tapping to that old song.

(“The Invisible Keys,” 24)

The American poet Antler (for whom Cope wrote “For Antler, after the storm,” 74) has written of David Cope’s poetry that his poems are “Majestic condensed narratives, each a short story” and that to fully understand Cope’s achievement is to see this poet as “tenderness incarnate.” In his comments on The Invisible Keys, Antler also noted how Cope’s poetry transformed over time and celebrated the sense of change, of growth, from an “apocalyptic rebel youth” to “the bard of today invoking love and hope.” You see that both epic narrative compression and tenderness incarnate with particular clarity in the book’s title poem.

There is great density of poetic weaving of the personal and political, the religious and sexual in The Invisible Keys. There’s also the sense that Cope has presented a universe of poesy just as Pound suggested: news that’s stays news. There is an alignment with tradition and lineage that goes back through time across the span of these poems. While Cope’s allusions have heavy anchoring in Shakespeare and Dante, the comparative literature scholar and translator Dr. Hong Sun wrote in a 2017 review of Invisible Keys that “Cope’s poems collected here present a panorama of over two millennia of world history. They run the gamut of dramatic events from ancient Greece, through 15th-century Inca, to the world of our own century.”

With the pandora’s box of Trump as president unleashed on the world, a man who is a liar and who abuses words as much as he does people, this book of selected poems by David Cope reads like an antidote against all things authoritarian. There’s the complex, varied, subtle and richly multilayered poem “Tiananmen Square Sequence” (28) that zeroes in on China’s domination over its people. There’s “Fireball in the Clouds” (38) with its juxtapositions between the visible and unseen, the living and dead, woke and asleep “as / gassed Kurds & blasted Iraqis/mingle in the silent screams / that rend tender springtime’s/sleeping buds.” There’s “Ghazal of The High Plateau” (41) with its “one tiny yellow flower, an unearthly flower, nameless, a / crooked flower once signed to you by a long-dead sage. / this is the sign you were to wait for.” There’s the strange and surrealistic sutra-like historical poem “Catching Nothing” in which Cope imagines “the dinosaur bone collector, / efficient & ambitious, / whose skull is now some / professor’s paperweight” (44). There’s “In Silence” (65) that portrays the extreme calamity of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center by focusing on Cope’s cousin, Ann Barber, who was a doctor stationed at an NYC emergency room “expecting the onrush / of wounded,” but found “only the silence & / the realization at last / that none would come / thru the open door.”

Over the course of the four plus decades Cope has produced his body of work (1975-2017), his writing style began to shift away from the grit of Reznikoff and more toward a tender lyricism. As he aged, the blazing darkness of Reznikoff began to lift and something like the sweet honey variability of William Carlos Williams began to emerge. This shift in the poems toward a more pronounced compassion, one cleansed by the frustrations and angers of youth, comes into focus during his mid-life work most clearly with the poem “Tender Petals for Calm Crossing” (62), a poem that sets the stage for the elegiac poems of his later period:

along this silent path among cliffs thru terraced green

you’ll sing beneath your breath where the poet dreamed

his escape thru the clouds, where whole populations fled

to rebuild shattered dreams, hands in the moist earth––

stone masons who shaped the rock attentively, that it

interlock & honor earth that gave both seed & harvest

in the sweep of seasons––ghosts today, they wander here,

picking your pockets, to know what dreams you bring

to this place, what breath you leave among these rocks,

what song you gather in your backpack & basket of silence...


where arms & legs of the dead clutch & kick at heaven,

vanishing dreams of hungry ghosts. so you come, bringing

blessings & eyes to flush the tears that still pool in the world’s

grief thru all the rages of lost centuries, all the weeping sisters

crying for lovers who never appeared, all the lost brothers

marched thru barbed wire to death’s final anonymity

in the last burst they’d ever hear, minds turned inward

to their mother’s cries on the day they forced their way

into this light, compassion now for them all: that your dream

be clear when you come to this pass, I send you this wish

where tender petals turn, open in both darkness and light.

David Cope is a poet of vital occasions––“occasion” in its meaning as a juncture, “a place where things join. His poems bear witness to time beings, humanity dreams, invisible signs, traditions held fast and close. His poems are set to circumstances of which Cope bore witness. Looking at this first major retrospective of his work, The Invisible Keys: New and Selected Poems contain significant occasions in which the primary impulse is one of consecration, even if the arc traveled reveal a desecrated world strung out on destruction and suffering.

The finest example of Cope’s later work is “A Dream of Jerusalem,” a poem inspired by an installation by the Spanish painter and sculptor Jaume Plensa. Cope’s “A Dream of Jerusalem” appeared alongside Plensa’s Jerusalem (2006), an installation that featured 18 bronze sculpted gongs, each fifty-two inches diameter, at the Frederik Meijer Gardens of Grand Rapids on 7 November 2008. In comments on the process involved in the making of the poem, Cope wrote this rare and expansive discussion into and about his writing process:

“A Dream of Jerusalem” begins with my own associations with the city through William Blake's prophetic “Jerusalem”—the city itself as a metaphor for imaginative redemption—and through childhood reflection on Jerusalem as locus for both spiritual journey and holocaust, the latter including the Lamentations—the fall of the city, destruction of the temple, and the Babylonian captivity—as well as the slaughter of the population and destruction of the second temple c. 70 CE. as recounted by Josephus in The Jewish War.

There were also countervailing associations: Plensa's inscription of lines from the Song of Songs on the two parallel rows of giant gongs which with their sounding hammers form the sculpture. Song of Songs is a woman's book, a book of love and longing, and of the spiritual sexuality of love itself, and in thinking about the poem I would write, I recalled the woman's search and the famous refrain in 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4, which I rendered freely as “none may turn to Love until it descends in morning dew and in calling doves.”

While this line would become the refrain for the poem, I did not begin by thinking of it as such; in the initial composition, the line repeated itself in the 9th line-it just seemed to fit there—and it came up again as the final line of the poem. Later, I reworked a lot of the lines in the middle sections, largely for condensation of phrasing and for specificity of image, and in this process repeated the line as the 21st line, thus framing the poem up with two refrains at the beginning (lines 3 and 9) and two at the end (lines 21 and 27).


When I came to Plensa's notion of the gongs, this binary concept of stillness/action found its form in the idea of the shofar untouched and of the “presence that could in a soundless tomb shiver the dark with hammers, sound the call in waves shimmering in all the wheels turning across the universe & make seraphs weep.” Silence thus became the meditative center of the poem, a priori the “unheard music of spheres” which cannot be heard in a fallen age.

The last major association was the idea of the woman herself-in Song of Songs, fairly obviously a young woman in the prime of her youth—yet I also thought of her as the elder she would finally become, of Time itself. I had lost my own mother this year, thus the importance of the child reaching out to touch the mother's cheek, the bone where the mother's vision once stirred, and finally the ashes which “swirl in shining waves, sink into dark murk & are gone”—an image from the final ceremony after my mother's death, wherein my siblings cast my mother's ashes into the river where she raised us. The poem is thus the central poem in that sequence of works exploring my mother's passage from this life and my own self-discovery borne of that passage.

In the associations which come with my mother's passing, there is also the image of the “scattered bones chirping in dry day”—that astounding image from the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel, wherein the voice asks the prophet whether these bones shall live (Ezekiel 37:3). The part of my mind that was revolving on the associations with my mother's death picked up on the chirping bones, an image I had previously combined with the notion of Christ as “the word made flesh,” turning the phrases in my 1993 poem “For Martin King”—“who sang the flesh made word that bones may walk.” The image returned here as a rebirth, as the city itself has been reborn.

All these associations were activated when I first encountered Plensa's Jerusalem; when it came to the composition, the words came quickly. [...] The work quite naturally fell into the pattern of long-lined tercets, a format I have been very comfortable with ever since my extensive interrogation of Dante's Commedia.*

“A Dream of Jerusalem” embodies Cope’s later-life poetics perception of the long and deep poetics history of “the great lyric dream,” a history of which the poet, upon the death of his mother, has this epiphany: “we are creatures made of words rounded by incantation / & the great lyric dream...” The poem continues:

in this heart shaped by words there is a presence that could

in a soundless tomb shiver the dark with hammers, sound

the call in waves shimmering in all the wheels turning across

the universe & make seraphs weep. yet there is the stillness of

the word, the child’s mind that turns to her mother & touches

her skin made of words: words that measure breath to be

shared as tender touch in passing time: brothers cry out

at the prison door, women sigh in their last dank beds, boys

turned men shoulder rifles behind dusty tanks. blood is the cry

thru a thousand cities. here there is silence: here light & form

where words ring the lovers together, here a dream of soft bodies

moving together, the dream at once the child’s cry & the mother’s

last gasp exhaled in fierce sunset as if none may turn to Love

until it descends in morning dew and in calling doves

here the desolate city, deserted temple, the lost tribe: here

the dream wrapped in words that round the breath in silent air:

here ashes that once were man, the bright dream & endless night,

here sun disc’s eternal round, silence, unheard music of spheres...

The enduring significance of the lyric impulse is central to “Dream of Jerusalem.” This lyric impulse––its essential compassionate nature––underlies much of the arc of Cope’s development as framed by The Invisible Keys. The application of the lyric to his art is also a signaling of the importance of the genre’s roots to him, as well as the evolution of meter and song, going back to the ancient Greeks, the classical Roman poets, the Chinese poets of the Songs of Chu collected by Qu Yuan and Song Yu, the 10th century Persian ghazal form, the 11th and 12th century courtly love poetry of the French Troubadours, the Middle ages Hebrew singer-poets, and Dante’s Vitae Nuova. I would argue that if it had been Cope’s mission to update and reinvigorate the lyric impulse in this era, he, unlike the president, can honestly say, “Mission accomplished.”

Jim Cohn

8 May 2018

Louisville, CO

*For Cope’s complete discussion on the making of his poem, “A Dream of Jerusalem,” and to view Jaume Plensa’s sculpture/installation Jerusalem (2006) on exhibit at the Frederik Meijer Gardens of Grand Rapids, Michigan, on 7 November 2008, see,

In regards to any head-scratching by readers wondering about David’s statement: “The work quite naturally fell into the pattern of long-lined tercets, a format I have been very comfortable with ever since my extensive interrogation of Dante's Commedia,” and the fact that “A Dream of Jerusalem” is formatted into quatrains, he noted in a private email discussion with the reviewer (11 May 2018) that “the poem was indeed composed on the dantescan tercet model reconfigured in vers libre, but I later modified it to quatrains, primarily because the long lines wouldn't fit in the space available in a printed 6 X 9 book."

Friday, March 16, 2018

"America Is Coping with Black Excellence" by Madison Spence-Moore

Approximately twelve percent of the people living in the United States of America are black, but as a child growing up in the tiny hamlet of Boyertown, Pennsylvania, I could have sworn my family was the only black family in the world. Then, of course, I got a little older; my world got a little bigger. I found out that there is much more to the color spectrum than just black and white. I realized just how different I truly was, and I was unwilling to accept it. It was difficult for such a shy girl to stand apart from everybody in such a way that I could not hide. It took my entire childhood to grow into my identity. My personal sense of self was constantly being challenged as I was surrounded by people who just did not look like me; this helped me to build endurance when faced with racism and injustice. My identity grew once I stopped holding certain elements of the color spectrum to such a high standard.

It was nearly impossible for me not to notice that my dreadlocks and tanned complexion were so different from the blond strands and pale skin that surrounded me. It had been this way from kindergarten through second grade. I was sick of it. I did not like all of the random kids touching my hair without asking, or the adults in the mall asking me how I washed it. All of this attention simply did not appeal to me, which led to a very little Madison marching up to Mom and proudly stating, “I want straight hair,” which led to my very confused mom replying, “What?” However, she could not refuse me for she had been straightening her hair all of my life. So the next day we bought a box of relaxer, chopped off my dreads, and straightened out my hair.

At the time the change was fantastic. I could brush and style my own hair, I felt like I was more like my peers than ever before. Little did I know what I was really doing to my true identity. As stated by Rosheen Awais, a brilliant Hijab-wearing Muslim,“We are victims of our own conscience. We work for this audience, we earn for this audience and often we do what we hate to do in order to reach the infinite expectations of this audience. However, we should not fall victim to these expectations and the expectorants, who hide us from our true self” (Awais).  I was never trying to be more like me; I was trying to be more like them. I was putting on a mask; I was performing to fit a mold that simply was not meant for me. It was not until the end of junior high school that I was able to let the curls grow and cut the broken ends.

Now I had entered high school with brown skin made darker by the sun and curly hair that I did not know how to style. This is one of the troubles with being a brown girl attending a dominantly white school. I had no one to turn to for help within my school and no one who could give me any advice on how to take care of it. No one within my school shared the same struggles. The loneliness stung. As Muslim writer Arbaaz Khan, who was born and raised on Long Island, wrote: “This oppression is something that I dealt with throughout my high school years, which aided in masking my true self” (Khan). What questions would they ask? What racist remarks would be made? My overwhelming fear of judgement and ridicule caused me to keep my curls out of sight. I usually kept it braided, twisted, in a bun or in a ponytail. I could deal with the fact that I could not hide my skin, but I kept trying my hardest to hide my hair. I was holding on to fitting in for a little bit longer.  

There comes a time when it all becomes too much. Pretending to be somebody you are not just to please everybody else is actually quite exhausting. Dr. King expresses it best in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” stating, “If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work” (King). King’s words truly helped to deal with criticisms in a smarter way. For my whole life I had only been doing what was expected of me based on the critical eyes of the white people who surrounded me. I never took the time to focus on myself and understand who I really was or what I actually wanted. I was offering less time for my own self work. I had to understand that my true identity is more important than the identity expected of me by others. For my situation, the only way that I would be able to focus on my own identity was by first blocking out any and all hateful and ignorant comments. I had to stop seeing white people as white people, and just see them as people.

I thought all of the white people around me were the same, and I was the only different one. However, I realized that I was only categorizing white people the way they had been categorizing me. We are not all only black or white. We try to divide ourselves, attempting to fit into these different boxes labeled by shape, color and size. I needed to understand that each individual person is different and should not be characterized based on things like race and gender. I had to look into one of the most well known Martin Luther King quotes for help: “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” (King). In a way, I was creating barriers around myself as my peers had been creating barriers around me. I was believing that I was the only one who was different, but in reality we all are. At face value I was seen as different in my small town, but I came to appreciate that the ignorant people who stared at me in the hall or made racist remarks are just as different to each other as to me.

This realization led to my curls coming out of the cave and into the light. At first it was difficult wearing my hair in an Afro style surrounded by such flat strands. However, by the end of the day, it truly felt right. I was more confident than ever. I focused on the love and support of my close friends, and the hateful ignorant comments slowly started to fade away. It was only after I stepped into this part of my identity that I became able to inspire my mom to go natural and for my sisters to stay natural. It took a little while, but once I was secure with myself, I could, like Raymond Chappan, a Syrian Jew growing up in Brooklyn, focus on leading others (Chappan). My mom cut her relaxed hair a few months after me, so we actually embarked on our curly hair journeys together. My younger sisters did not really have much of an opinion on the state of their hair. I was happy to know that they had our curls to look at and be inspired by.

Watching my sisters grow up in that same neighborhood I did, I realized just how much black community culture I missed out on as a child, especially music and dancing and food. An interesting question arose in my writing class: “Do you think you’ll be able to experience the culture that you missed out on now? Will the experiences have the same impact as they would have when you were younger?” Yes and yes. I did miss out on a lot culturally growing up, but that does not mean that I cannot grow to become a part of the culture. “...My sense of freedom came from going to college. I left my 'bubble' cave and went on to learn things on my own. It took me some time to adjust to the light, but now that I see clearly, I am learning a lot about the world and can finally begin to morph into my own” (Chappan).

I repeated the words of Malcolm X in his speech, "The Ballot or the Bullet" to myself: “So, where do we go from here? First, we need some friends. We need some new allies” (X). At Hofstra University, I have been able to do just that. My number of black friends has grown tremendously from high school (zero) to now (eight), four of whom live in my building. I know it does not seem like much, but after growing up in an all white area, I will take what I can get and be grateful for what I have. My new black friends do not even realize how much they are helping me to grow my identity as a black woman. Ditto the many clubs and organizations centered around black culture, such as the NAACP and the Black Student Union.

I was shocked at how perfectly Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” mimicked my situation so well. As a child I was ridiculed for how my hair looked, so I changed it. I was being chained inside of the cave, and when the shadows told me to change it because that is not how it was supposed to be, I did. I then became more aware of just how unhealthy my habits were for my hair and my health overall. I had to break free of the chains and walk out into the sun. It took my eyes a long time to adjust to the brightness and beauty of the sunshine, but soon enough, I was able to proudly walk into the sun. After I made it out, it was all Brother Malcolm. I was now able to accept myself, even though some of the white people around me could not. I had pulled my chair up to the table, but I was still unable to eat. Does this mean that I should sit back, relax and watch as Caucasians eat at the table while I stare down to an empty plate? (X) Of course not. Only when I ignore the hateful comments and embrace the color of my skin will I break down my barriers. Only when my hair grows so high that it touches the sky will I truly be satisfied. Only when my sisters can grow up to fully embody their curls as I have will I have done my job. We are all different. However, more importantly, we are all people. Only when we embrace our perfections and imperfections can we come together as one and really be happy.

Unfortunately, America was only designed for the success and prosperity of white people. It is even worse because they know just how powerful black people are, but they refuse to give up any of the credit. They cope with my excellence by telling me that how I look is wrong, and how my appearance should be changed to something less intimidating. Many folks are going to have a rude awakening once they learn that they are just as different from me as I am different from them. However, it will be a good thing. Their world will grow to be a little bit bigger, and the color spectrum will not matter as much. The chip will fall right off of their shoulder. My brown skin and curly hair are a huge part of my personal identity, and I recognize that I am different, but I also understand that we are all members of one cohesive unit, and that “every individual is an expression of the realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe” (Watts).

Works Cited
Awais, Rosheen. “A Hijab-Wearing Muslim Reflects on Identity in the Age of Trump.” TakingGiant Steps. February 2017. Web.
Chappan, Raymond. “Bursting One’s Bubble to Discover One’s Identity.” Taking Giant Steps, March 2016. Web.
Khan, Arbaaz. “Internal Jihad: My Identity as a Muslim American.” Taking Giant Steps, December 2016. Web.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” August 1963.
Plato. “The Allegory of the Cave.”
X, Malcolm. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” 1964.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

“The Ironic Hospitality of the Kalahari Desert” by Morgan Morrill

Today, members of the modern world rush past in a whirl of color and noise, too concerned with busy schedules rather than with their quality of life. People live their lives in a strict fashion with every minute of every day planned out. There is barely time to breath in this machine-like world with the amount of meetings and activities that everyone has written on to their calendars. This is an extreme way to live, but people brush it off believing that it is the only way.  After all, it is the new and improved method of advancing civilization. This image deeply contrasts with the lifestyle of the Kalahari Bushmen that Jamie Uys presents in his 1980 film, The Gods Must Be Crazy. Deep in the parched Kalahari Desert, these tribes live a simple life devoid of all modern improvements, yet they seem perfectly content. Is there more to life than endless to-do lists? Uys uses the Bushmen in his film to show the benefits of a laid-back lifestyle as opposed to the high-strung chaos of modern life.

When the movie beings, Uys sets up his comparison promptly. Sweet playful notes fill the background as images of African animals flash across the screen. The first people that are shown are the “pretty, dainty, small and graceful” (Uys, 1:33) Bushmen. They are all dark and slender, each with a wide smile on their face. Young and old members of the small tribe are seen helping one another, as well as laughing and playing. Though only 600 miles from a city, the Bushmen live in a completely different world where there is not evil nor vices to poison their lives. As the voiceover remarks, “They must be the most contented people in the world” (Uys, 2:54). The narrator treats this scene, and all other ones, as though the movie is a nature documentary. Most of the insights that the voice makes are over the top and used as a comedic tool. For example, the narrator makes it seem like the Bushmen have no problems in their lives, but that is a strong unlikelihood. The comments do, however, emphasize the fact that these people live a peaceful life and makes it glaringly obvious to the audience.

Just as the voiceover points out the tranquility of the Bushmen, it also illustrates the chaos of modern life. The opening cuts quickly from the joyful tribe of people to the hustle of a loud city with cars speeding along its roads like blood through veins. This is how Uys depicts what the narrator deems “civilized man” (Uys, multiple occasions): fast-paced, raucous, and utterly insane. The last descriptor becomes more apparent as the voice begins to describe the lifestyle of city people. He states that “civilized man refused to adapt himself to his environment, and instead he built his environment to suit him” (Uys, 6:12). Towers, cars, assembly lines, and other inventions whiz past to further prove his point. Not a single piece of nature is seen unless it has been mowed, trimmed, and pruned to perfection. The whole scene moves with a machine-like precision, stopping and starting at just the right times. Everything is by design. Once again these characteristics are emphasized on purpose just like with the Bushmen. The severity of order in the city is being used to make it obvious to the audience and easy to contrast with the ironic hospitality of the Kalahari Desert.

The biggest difference between the Bushmen’s world and that of civilized man were not the blatant alterations, but rather the overall feel of each place. As mentioned previously, the Bushmen all had large grins across their mouths; it is as if they were born with them in place. They have to work hard to survive in the desert, but their faces never falter and they still have time for fun. The Bushmen simply radiate happiness and viewers can sense the warmth these people give off. There is no such feeling with the modern world. Smiles are few and far between in their modern scene and no laughter is heard above the blaring car horns. Everyone keeps their heads down and a bland monotony settles throughout the streets. Despite having almost everything the Bushmen do not, modern man lacks one thing: happiness.

The happiness famine in the industrialized world is nothing new. Looking at worldwide statistics, one will find that the United States has one of the highest depression rates even though it is one of the most developed countries. About 1 in every 10 Americans suffers from depression and the number of people diagnosed increases by 20% every year (“Depression Statistics”). Why is this the case? What is the cause of the robotic population in Uys‘s film and the declining mental state of America? The movie hints at an explanation when the narrator remarks, “The more [civilized man] improved his surrounding to make his life easier, the more complicated he made it” (Uys, 6:26). Modern day people spend most of their time working in order to keep society running and before that children are shoved into schools to prepare for the work. Stress consumes the population as everyone scrabbles for that house with the picket fence which they never truly get to enjoy because work is always hanging over them. As the voiceover correctly points out, “No wonder some people go off the rails a bit” (Uys, 8:08). It is as though ‘civilized’ man is running inside of a wheel, believing that if they run hard enough they will get the treat just outside of their reach, when in reality they are exhausting themselves just to stay in the same place.

Not only are people working themselves to death, they are also addicted to the stress. Tim Kreider addresses this topic in his article, “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” He explains that people who are constantly busy, which includes most of the population, are that way “because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence” (Kreider, par. 2). Society has come up with the notion that if a person is not running around 24 hours a day then something is terribly wrong. Standard work weeks are 40 hours, but that time is growing exponentially as the internet allows the population to bring work with them wherever they go, provided they can get a signal. It is not just adults who do this. Parents force full schedules on to their children under the pretense that it will get them ahead in life. In his article, “The Disease of Being Busy,” Omid Safi recalls how when he tried to set up a playdate between his daughter and the neighbor’s child the mother responded with this: “She has a 45-minute opening two and half weeks from now. The rest of the time it’s gymnastics, piano, and voice lessons. She’s just…. so busy” (Safi, par. 5). This toxic environment hell-bent on filling up everyone’s planners down to the last second is what produces the fast paced and apathetic society that Uys shows to his audience.

As opposed to the perpetually swamped lifestyle of modern man, the Kalahari Bushmen hold leisure time in high regard. In their small family groups or villages, these people spend a fair amount of time doing, well, nothing. Free time for all ages is available every day and they fill the time based upon actual desires. Children are also not given tasks until they are much older (“San People,” par. 10). These groups deal with something that civilized man appears to be deathly afraid of: unstructured time. Kreider describes the love of being busy as “a hedge against emptiness” (Kreider, par. 6). Modern society equals fullness with meaning so if schedules are always booked then life must be wonderful. A busy schedule blocks and shoves down unpleasant feelings brought on by difficult to answer questions. Those feelings, however, do not go away, but instead manifest themselves in the rampant outbreak of depression. This is why the Bushmen’s freedom is so important; they have the time to reflect and engage with tough topics. It is not as though they are always having deep philosophical discussions, but they are able to if need be. According to Kreider, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets” (Kreider, par. 10). It is a simple thing, open time, but it makes all the difference and it is what allows the Bushmen to have a well-developed relationship with contentment.

Unstructured time is what will save the mental health of modern man.  It is clear enough that the way society is currently structured is detrimental to people of all ages and making them have a morbid attraction to being busy. Uys’s movie does provide an alternative model in the form of the Kalahari Bushmen. They are obviously much happier, despite living in one of the most unforgiving areas on the planet. The goal in the rehabilitation of civilized man, however, is not to relocate them all to the desert. Instead, specific alterations need to be made so that free time is not seen as a cancer to society, but rather a supplement. Certain laws and regulations have already been put into action and the results cannot be argued against. For example, Finland’s school system allots 75 minutes a day for recess and rarely gives homework. This extra time to grow and develop as a person has allowed Finnish students to graduate from high school at a rate of 93% and surpass all other countries on test scores (“There Is No Homework in Finland”). As for adults, France has only a 35 hour work week and has a law preventing workers from checking their work emails after 6 pm. The country is currently one of the top ten happiest countries in the world (Johnson, par. 2). It is clear by this data that free time is beneficial to the over worked, stressed, and tired population of civilized man.

The time to kick the addiction to busyness it now. Uys was aware of this problem when his movie came out almost 40 years ago. He saw the advantages of joy and leisure in the Kalahari Bushmen, but society has ignored its metal decline. Caught up in meetings, classes, and work, modern man has forgotten about its heart. Along the path to improvement, hearts and souls were left to deteriorate in the background, perpetually left off of anyone’s to-do list. Now, the only way to revive humanity from its emotionally diseased state is to nurture the self again. Time is a gift, not a menace breathing down everyone’s neck till they meet the deadline, and it should be celebrated. That is when people get to know themselves and it is where possibility lies. It is time to put down the paperwork, turn off cell phones, and stop being so busy. Life is a meeting that cannot be missed and there is no way to reschedule it when the time has passed.

Works Cited

“Depression Statistics” Infographic. Healthline. Health On The Net. 2012. Web. 2 April. 2017.

Johnson, John. “France bans work e-mail after 6 p.m.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite         Information Network, LLC. 11 April. 2014. Web. 2 April. 2017.

Kreider, Tim. “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company., 30 June.    2012. Web. 2 April. 2017

Safi, Omid. “The Disease of Being Busy.” On Being. Disqus., 6 Nov. 2014. Web. 2 April. 2017.

“San People.” Wikipedia. MediaWiki. 23 March. 2017. Web. 2 April 2017

The Gods Must Be Crazy. Dir. Jamie Uys. Perf. N!xau, Marius Weyers, and Sandra Prinsloo. 20th   Century Fox., 13 July. 1984. Film.

“There’s No Homework In Finland.” Infographic. NeoMam Studios. NeoMam Studios. 4 March.   2013. Web. 2 April. 2017.