Thursday, October 18, 2018

“Swept Away”: An Illusion of Affection Stretched Too Thin by Lindsay Knight

Fury curled in my gut when I watched Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away for the first time. I was so angry that my neighbors could probably feel my irritation through the walls. The relationship between Gennarino and Raffaella portrayed almost every terrible stereotype about women that I resent; she was a rude, high-maintenance, unreasonable snob who constantly nagged her husband and the help until a “stronger,” “dominant” man came into her life and taught her the “pleasure” women get from being submissive to men. She started to accept his abusive treatment without question until she eventually gives in to his sexual demands and declares her love for him despite his constant sexual, emotional, and physical abuse in the name of male superiority. Vincent Canby from The New York Times even claimed that “Swept Away is the story of their tumultuous, slapstick courtship, his systematic humiliation of her (as she sees it) until, suddenly, she submits to her love for him and becomes in the process truly liberated” (Canby, par. 8), which only reinforced my original interpretation. I thought that Raffaella was really in love with Gennarino; the only reason, I believed, that she turned down going back to the island with him at the end of the movie was because she wanted to return to her rich life. I immediately wrote the film off as misogynistic propaganda.

After reading Ariana Farajollah’s essay on Raffaella’s possible case of Stockholm Syndrome, though, and discussing the film in class, I realized I may have been missing an essential part of the movie that painted Gennarino and Raffaella’s relationship in a completely different light. Swept Away is not portraying the love between a tamed woman and the dominant man who puts her in her place; rather, it is a story about a cold mockery of love born from fear and abuse meant as a means of survival, not affection. Raffaella is not in love with Gennarino, nor is he in love with her; her affection on the island is an attempt to ensure her own survival that immediately shows its true frailty once they return to the mainland while Gennarino’s narcissism prevents him from actually caring about Raffaella as a human being, let alone as a true romantic partner.

Raffaella’s transition from an outspoken and intelligent woman to a subservient slave is one of most obvious indicators that the affection she displays for Gennarino is actually a survival mechanism she uses to protect herself from more abuse. Raffaella starts the movie as a woman who speaks her mind without fear; she argues with her husband and expresses her opinion without hesitation, not afraid to open her mouth whenever she has something to say. But when her food is suddenly being controlled by Gennarino, and he begins to abuse her whenever she does something he does not like, she starts obeying everything he says without complaint. To some, Raffaella’s change in attitude may seem like the beginnings of love, as she is willing to submit to Gennarino unlike before; but in reality, her strange shift in behavior may be a sign of something more calculated than pure affection. Sharie Stines, psychologist and expert in trauma and abuse recovery, explains what she calls the “eggshell” mentality in her article titled “Victims of Abuse”: “Victims are notorious for being conditioned to ‘walk on eggshells’ in the relationship in order to try to prevent or minimize any future occurrences of upsetting the abuser…They have learned to be hyper-vigilant to the feelings and reactions of others and have stopped focusing on their own internal feelings” (Stine, par.6). Victims of abuse learn to be as unobtrusive as possible to avoid drawing their abuser’s focus, since less attention means that they may escape more punishment. They learn to heavily consider every move they make and every word they say, constantly aware of the possible consequences if they offend or anger their abuser. This mentality is what drives the immense change in Raffaella’s personality that we see throughout the movie. Every time Raffaella speaks her mind or does something without his permission, Gennarino hits her and berates her. Eventually, just as Stines points out, Raffaella learns that in order to continue to survive on the island, she needs to avoid actions that offend Gennarino, so she changes her behavior to match his expectations. One such instance is when Raffaella bends to Gennarino’s wishes and kneels at his feet, laying her head down in submission to possibly gain some of the rabbit that he just killed. She even goes so far to put Gennarino’s hand on her head to appeal to his demands for control rather than face more punishment, which in this case is starvation (Wertmüller, 01:16:23). She modifies her behavior to become what he wants her to be, growing more sexually promiscuous as an appeal to his demands for sex, and stops fighting for her opinions to avoid the physical abuse. Her actions, therefore, are not performed out of love or affection; they are attempts to gain his approval and curtail his abuse by making it seem like their relationship is something stable and healthy. When viewing her transformation through this lens, Raffaella becomes the victim of an abuser rather than a tamed woman who is saved by the power of male superiority, and the validity of any love for him is cast into doubt.

Besides Raffaella’s lack of love for him sinking any chances of any real relationship between them, Gennarino’s narcissism, a trait he displays throughout the film, prevents him from seeing Raffaella as an equal and independent person, let alone as someone to love. Gennarino has several characteristics that match the definition of narcissism; he thinks himself above women, constantly tries to control the lives of those around them, and always needs to feel superior, which is why he gets upset when someone supposedly undermines his “authority.” Dr. Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT, who works with individuals in relationships with narcissist, wrote an article citing the “14 Signs You're Dealing With A Narcissist,” and unsurprisingly, Gennarino fits clearly into no less than nine of the listed symptoms; superiority and entitlement (which is seen in Gennarino’s claims that men are always superior to women), an exaggerated need for attention (his constant want for her to act submissive and loving to him), a great need for control (his demands that Raffaella always refer to him when making any decisions), a lack of responsibility (his insistence that Raffaella is forcing him to abuse her), a focus on emotional reasoning (his abuse is based on the state of his own fragile emotions), splitting (Gennarino blames Raffaella for her punishments all while praising himself for keeping her “in line”), fear (his insistence that Raffaella must prove her love for him by returning to the mainland), and an inability to be truly vulnerable (his belief that being too intimate with his lovers is unmanly and wrong) (Fjelstad, pts. 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13).

Given how many of these characteristics fit Gennarino’s personality and actions perfectly, any affection he possibly has for Raffaella is immediately brought into doubt; if Gennarino actually has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, can he even love Raffaella in the first place? Melissa Schenker has studied love in the home and the workplace, and she warns people away from relationships with narcissists because, “A narcissist acknowledges your existence when you serve a purpose. A person who is not separate from you cannot love you because they cannot see and know you. It’s as if you are one being — the narcissist. You, as a separate, distinct individual cannot be appreciated” (Schenker, par. 4). Schenker writes that narcissists cannot love someone else because they lack the ability to think of others as independent people rather than as tools that exist to serve the narcissist; those with NPD can think they are in love, but because they consider others as extensions of themselves to use for whatever they want, narcissists cannot actually care about anyone as more than an instrument for their own use. Examining Gennarino with this lens brings every instance of “love” between Gennarino and Raffaella into question. Gennarino, therefore, can never love Raffaella because he lacks the ability to think of her as something other than a tool to be used purely for his own pleasure. In class discussion, Professor Gordon stressed the importance of the “power to join” in romantic relationships: a constant combination of trust and working together to grow as one, which can only be accomplished by an equality between the partners (Gordon). Gennarino has no such respect for Raffaella, thinking her as his slave, and it only shows that he is not in love with Raffaella at all. He only wants her as a trophy: a tool for his own pleasure, not someone to love and cherish as his equal in a loving relationship.

Once Raffaella finally has the chance to examine their relationship without Gennarino around, the lack of love in their relationship comes out. When the pair is rescued from the island and brought back to the mainland, Raffaella is freed from constantly being under Gennarino’s influence, and almost immediately the façade of their relationship falls apart. Raffaella realizes that nothing about their life on the island was healthy once she is no longer relying on Gennarino for food. She knows that she can have a life of freedom instead of staying under the control of a man who sexually, verbally, emotionally, and physically abuses her, so she decides to leave him. In her essay, “An Abused Woman’s Colonization and Declaration of Independence in SWEPT AWAY,” Ariana Farajollah perfectly sums up Raffaella’s reason for leaving Gennarino behind: “Thus, Rafaella chooses to desert her suitor, evidencing the notion that she never truly loved him, and that her mind was, in fact, merely colonized by the influence of Stockholm Syndrome” (Farajollah, par. 4). As Ariana points out, Raffaella’s brief time away from Gennarino proved to her that what she was expressing on the island was not love at all; it was an appeal to his demands for submission and sex in order to avoid more punishment, and that any affection he was expressing was not love for her, but his own twisted approval of her subservient actions. Once she has the chance to escape him, Raffaella runs as far away as she can, flying away in a helicopter as he shouts obscenities at her (Wertmüller, 01:59:50). She does not have to rely on Gennarino for survival anymore, so she does not need to pretend to love him in order and can finally leave him. If she had truly loved him, she would have given up her life on the mainland and returned to the island with Gennarino. Instead, she shows their relationship’s true colors as a mockery of love born from Raffaella’s need to survive and Gennarino's narcissistic belief that she is his property top control and abuse.

If there was any sort of actual love between Raffaella and Gennarino, Swept Away would have been a very different movie; Raffaella likely would have gone back to the island with him instead of choosing to leave him if she had any real feelings for him, and Gennarino would not have treated her like a slave if he actually cared about her. Gennarino and Raffaella’s actions prove that what they had between them was never love; it was a relationship built on abuse and narcissism that created a twisted and damaged illusion of affection that can never truly be called love. His narcissistic treatment of Raffaella reveals he never loved her, and that any affection that she may have shown in return was a farce built on her attempts at survival.

When I watched Swept Away for the first time, I thought that Wertmüller was suggesting this kind of relationship was the norm: that women are supposed to be subservient and can only be satisfied when dominated by a man, who has the right to treat her as he wishes. I believed that the blasé attitude that the film has towards abuse and rape was Wertmüller claiming that this was the way that women should be treated when they are being “unruly” by speaking their minds and going against men. But now, I see that Wertmüller is not suggesting that this is the norm; rather, she is pointing out how the twisted circumstances that bring the two together and Gennarino’s narcissistic demand for control is what determined the kind of relationship they had. Raffaella’s actions are not Wertmüller’s way of saying that women should fall in love with men that abuse them; instead, she is suggesting that victims have the ability to leave their abusers and regain their freedom, and that women do not have to be tethered down by men that wish to control them. Swept Away should be seen as an example of how people like Gennarino take abuse people like Raffaella, preying on any form of weakness for their own gain and claiming affection before taking advantage of them.

Any relationship like Raffaella’s and Gennarino’s, as Wertmüller so glaringly shows, is doomed from the start, and Wertmüller does not shy away from this implication. In fact, the film seems like Wertmüller’s own call of action to humanity; if we allow people like Gennarino to get away with their actions, and we do not help those in Raffaella’s position regain their freedom by providing them with the help they need, we are little more than accomplices in the recurring abuse cycle that still plagues society. Gennarino and Raffaella’s circumstances may be unique, but there are still men who follow the same beliefs as Gennarino and treat women like their tools to be used, bruised, and abused at their whim. Women still feel the need to be silent about their abuse in order to survive, whether it is domestic or in the workplace. Wertmüller is dragging the reality of the disease that abuse, both on the part of the victim and the abuser, back into our consciousness. We cannot turn the other cheek now that we have seen the truth; victims deserve the same freedom to live and love as we do, without those that poison affection with their desire for power and control.

Works Cited

Canby, Vincent. “'Swept Away' Is a Wertmuller Film with Solid Appeal.” The New York Times, 18 Sept. 1975, 52DFBF66838E669EDE

Farajollah, Ariana. “An Abused Woman’s Colonization and Declaration of Independence in SWEPT AWAY by Ariana Farajollah.” Taking Giant Steps, 7 June 2017,

Fjelstad, Margalis. “14 Signs You’re Dealing With A Narcissist.” Mind Body Green,

Gordon, Paul. Class Discussion. 5 Mar. 2018.

Schenker, Melissa. “Can a Narcissist Love Me?” The Huffington Post, 22 Sept. 2014,

Stines, Sharie. “Victims of Emotional Abuse.” Psych Central Professional, 30 Aug. 2016,

Swept Away. Directed by Lina Wertmüller, performances by Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangela Melato, Medusa Distribuzione, 1974. YouTube.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Life Worth Living: Reflections on "The Gods Must Be Crazy" by Danny Giancioppo

The sun peeked through the trees, and birds chirped softly against the whistling wind as the last of the long, August days came to a close. My chest rose and fell heavily, as my eyes slowly but surely fogged up with warm and stinging tears. My voice trembled, my hands shook, and I stared right at my best friend, feeling exactly the same way, as we attempted to find the words to say goodbye for the first time in our lives. We would see each other again, and talk on the phone almost every day, but we still knew that this was the end of a chapter in our lives. So, as I mustered the strength, I told him he was my best friend in life, I loved him like a brother, and I’d miss him, and he said the same; the beautiful sadness of course was that we felt such grief then due to equally positive, if not more powerful, experiences in our past. It was this ability to love one another, even simply as friends, that so much raw emotion could arise, as well as so much good being done for one another. Looking back, I realize that this is the case in so many other scenarios, not the least of which is Jamie Uys’s The Gods Must Be Crazy. Whether it was Steyn, Kate, Mpudi, or even just Xi with all living things, they provided irrefutable evidence in their words and actions that love is not only a driving force for goodness, but a powerful enemy to evil, and through its strength one can find a life truly worth living.

It’s almost too glaringly obvious to say that there are good guys and bad guys in this movie, but the more interesting fact to explore is the way in which the characters are depicted as members on polar ends of the spectrum. The Kalahari Bushmen are characterized as being “pretty, dainty, small and graceful” (Uys, 1:33). They know only peace and an unselfish love for most, if not all, living things around them. They allow time for conversation, leisurely activities, and even when they work, they do so both happily and cooperatively. Additionally, when the Coke bottle falls to the earth and disrupts this contented and fulfilling lifestyle, the Bushmen know enough, and more specifically love one another enough, to openly discuss their issues with this “evil thing” and decide to be rid of it. This purity they share, and the strength found within it, is more than enough to combat the nefarious Coke bottle, and achieve their goal of removing it from the earth. Alternatively, however, those without such kind-hearted emotions come to less than positive outcomes.

Sam Boga, arguably the most blatant and dangerous antagonist of the film, holds very little love in his heart, at least when viewed through the perspective of how he treats those around him. Whether it be those who he crosses paths with, the children he takes hostage, or even the very men working for him, Sam Boga is consistently unhappy, shouting and barking orders in an almost crazed sort of tone. His disregard for the lives of essentially everyone other than himself leads to his ultimate downfall. In fact, it is because of the love the other characters share for one another, even in a general sense, that they are able to outwit Sam Boga. Kate’s devotion to keeping her students safe as well as Steyn, Mpudi, and Xi’s need to save both Kate and the students and their general trust in and care for each other allows them to overcome the ferocity of Sam Boga and his criminal underlings. Even relationships that are not perfect, such as Steyn and Kate, for instance, can maintain a level of love which defeats the thought that isolation is key. I would know.

My car came to a puttering halt, and as I unbuckled, and turned to face my oldest friend, who had been my neighbor since birth, I felt my stomach doing flips and swirls the likes of which would make a roller coaster seem like a carousel. We stepped outside, the stars shining through a clear August sky, and despite the warmth the night still provided, I could feel a bitter chill with my every move. For the first time in our lives, he and I hugged and promised we would see each other again soon. I told him he was my brother; not that he was like a brother, but that he was my brother. I was always the more openly emotional of the two of us, so he didn’t say much, but from what he did and from what I could see, I knew the feeling was mutual. And as I rode back to my friend’s house, where we had left just minutes before, I felt the same kind of sweet sting I’d feel in departing my best friend weeks later.

My mom once said to me: “You’re so close with the other guys, you hardly ever fight, but you and [my oldest friend] always argue. How can you say you’re really that close?” (Giancioppo, 2016). I understood her trepidation, but as I’d always tell her, close friends don’t argue that much, but brothers always bother each other and they always get over it. We fought all our lives, and constantly had ups and downs; we had periods of time where we would not want to even see each other, let alone talk. Sometimes it was my fault, other times his, and some issues were more serious than others, but all the same, despite almost everyone claiming disbelief we would ever fix things, we always did. We loved each other, even with all the complications through the road we walked, because we walked through it together. We always made things better, and better was always good enough to keep an almost nineteen-year friendship going strong. Yet, despite better being just that, good enough, it seems that for society as a whole, it never can be. Instead, the world strives for perfection through cultural conformity, and in that search finds only reluctance, emptiness, a lack of love, and thusly, a lack of strength.

As Morgan Morrill explained in her own essay, “The Ironic Hospitality of the Kalahari Desert,” society, or rather the “industrialized world,” is going through a “happiness famine” (Morrill, Par. 5). She states that even smiles are few and far between in the modern world, whereas the Kalahari Bushmen are living a much more joyful, albeit simpler kind of life. Morrill goes on to provide statistics of the rising rate of diagnosed individuals suffering with depression in the United States alone, and she claims it’s highly due to the stress humanity puts upon itself to further society rather than their own necessities in life. With such a lack of empathy and such a focus on success and progress, we allow ourselves neither the time nor the love for what really matters in this world: each other. “No wonder some people go off the rails a bit” (Uys, 8:08).

Speaking of going off the rails, the rather disconnected members of society in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout share a strikingly similar mindset. Morrill suggests that not only the urbanized members of The Gods Must Be Crazy do, but that many of us in the real world do as well. The father of the two children, who is arguably the most far gone of any character in the film, has such a distinct lack of love for his children, it’s painfully obvious: inappropriate glances at his daughter, attempting to kill both her and his son, and then taking his own life, all within a matter of minutes! Alternatively, the hunter, brother, and sister all come to care quite deeply for each other. Through this devotion to one another, they are able to travel a great distance, learn a great deal, and survive the dangers of the outback, all while forming a strong bond, and even enjoying themselves throughout. To be certain, this idea of love---and with that, a lack of it---carries over in a number of scenes and only exemplifies the power it may hold in either direction.

Life can be hard, and there is no getting around that. It can feel so easily like it gives more than it takes, and it is much easier to just fall into autopilot and leave emotion out of the equation altogether just to get by. However, if you allow yourself to open your heart and see the virtue in true love---not just romantic but familial and platonic as well---the world and those within it may in turn open themselves up to you. Just as Xi, a leader of the Bushmen, does with all he comes across, we too can use the power of love to drive us toward a better, more fulfilling life. So far as I’m concerned, doing so in my own life has brought me more than I could ever have asked for; it has given me a life worth living, filled with people worth loving. Not only has it made me a stronger person, but more importantly, loving has made me a better person more than any kind of hate or ignorance ever could. After all, better may not be perfect, but it’s good enough, and good enough is better than a life without love to begin with. When you carry such strength, you may find that’s all you ever need things to be: good enough.

Aaron Frongillo and author Danny Giancioppo

Works Cited

Giancioppo, Karen. Conversation. 2016.

Morrill, Morgan. “The Ironic Hospitality of the Kalahari Desert.” 

Taking Giant Steps. N.p., 14 Mar. 2018.

Roeg, Nicolas, Dir. Walkabout. 20th Century Fox, 1971, 

Uys, Jamie, Dir. The Gods Must Be Crazy. 20th Century Fox, 1980.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Revolution Is Love 2.0 by Betty Araya

I remember so vividly the day my naïve, fifteen-year-old mind woke up to the awful truth that I was merely a product of socialization. My style was that of the photoshopped model, whose insincere smile plastered on the cover of the catalogue fooled me into claiming as my own. At school I chose to show the world a person who was exactly like my classmates, and the opinions I claimed as my own were an act of rebellion against my parents as another way of denying my true identity. It was not only the bureaucracy I was rejecting; it was my culture as well. Until the light bulb turned on.

Smothered by the values I forced myself to adopt, I felt cornered in what Lawrence Kohlberg calls Stage Three, the Good Girl level of moral development: “People make decisions based on what actions will please others, especially authority figures and other individuals with high status (e.g., teachers, popular peers). They are concerned about maintaining relationships through sharing, trust, and loyalty, and they take other people’s perspectives and intentions into account when making decisions” (Kohlberg, par 3). At fifteen the light went off, and a seed was planted in the back of my mind I could not shake for the years that followed. I asked myself, “How can I grow my own value rather than have it be determined by those who do not know me?” Weeds of self-doubt prevented that seed of self-determination from sprouting. For three years, I continued to live without sunlight.

As I entered adulthood, the darkness was encompassing my heart, slowly leaving me a shell of who I once was.  It was not until that hole in my chest I fought to fill with relative things grew larger than my entire being, and I was sinking weightlessly in my own misery, I realized I was being fooled. After all, a sailor could mend a hole in a boat with tissue paper day and night, but eventually she would get pulled into the water for paper is no match to the sea. The tissue paper was what western civilization had to offer, and the sinking ship was my life. My unexplainable, unbearable, unholy sadness clouded me from my values, sense of self, and motivation. Instead I was being carnally guided, ignoring what I needed, and chasing what gained me the approval of those who had little concern for my well-being. The world I was living in was a false reality of useless tissue paper that even lacked the abundance to soak up the tears I grew tired of shedding every night. After wasting the final years of my childhood striving to please my peers, I softened the hardened soil that was my heart to allow the seed to grow, the thought that first forced me to swim through the depths of my soul. It was not until my suffering proved to be greater than myself, I humbled myself before the one I spent my adolescent years ignoring. I asked God for understanding. I needed to understand who I am, and what my purpose was. All these years, I knew He was the one that planted the seed, and I knew He was the one who turned on the light. So now I needed to know why.

The response came quicker than I ever dreamed imaginable. He handed me a handkerchief, and broke the shackles keeping me prisoner to western civilization as I began my journey to reach LK-6. Like the film of the same name, a walkabout in Australian Aboriginal society is a rite of passage during which males undergo a journey during adolescence, typically ages 10 to 16, and live in the wilderness for a period as long as six months to make the spiritual and traditional transition into manhood (Wikipedia, par. 1). I set off on my own walkabout, only I refused to accept the life of discontent The Girl in the film sentenced herself to. I was someone’s daughter and someone’s sister, and I was in preparation to be some man’s wife. There had to be more, and there was. Love. Unconditional love.

The question “who is God” is one I will never understand. His ranking as the most high keeps a distance between He and I must respect. The question “what is God,” however, is simple. My God is love. While watching Swept Away, and viewing the toxicity of the couple’s relationship, it is easy to find justification for our own pitfalls, thinking they could never compare to the despicable way the two main characters, Rafaella and Gennarino, treat one another. In reality, are any of us any different? When contemplating the various social issues raised in the controversial film, one might be quick to blame gender roles or social status. It would be unfair to impose blame on Raffaella, a wealthy, beautiful socialite or to judge the oppressed communist Gennarino for the evil seen throughout the film. Society, on either side, is quick to point a finger at the other party, but afraid to look within. Suppose there was a man, forty years old, living in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Suppose this man works in a factory that creates airplane parts, making just above minimum wage working over fifty hours a week. Suppose this man has been living on welfare, struggling to make ends meet, unable to get a white color job due to his criminal record- caused by the unfair system desperate to contain “rabble.” Suppose this man, African American, was given the opportunity to switch lives with another man who comes from old money, lives in a mansion, and born with a silver spoon. Could one confidently argue the black man wouldn't switch lives? We like to hate the white man for his privilege. We burn with fury when we think of his sports car, and designer suit. We are filled with rage cashing are four figure paychecks whilst he cashes his five. We tremble with resentment at the notion he will always have the upper hand. This anger is not justified. Until the day marginalized communities, colonized nations, and natives, forced to bow to their conqueror can assert, given the opportunity, they would not switch positions with their social superior, the problem will never be them. The problem is the values so many of us hold: power over loyalty, hidden agendas over sincerity, money and everything over love. What this world is missing is a love so high it reaches the heavens. A love so wide we can never get around it. A love that will never run out. A love that does not distinguish between the wealthy and the poor. A love that does not see the difference between political parties, or skin color. A love offered to Christians, atheists, and Muslims all the same. A love that erases “because” and puts “in spite.” An unconditional love.

The issues that Rafaella and Gennarino depict go beyond their social status to the warped definition of love they practice. Almost all of my relationships in the past followed a tragic pattern similar to theirs. I would drag the pain I could no longer keep buried and project it on every new connection I made. I would suppress who I really am habitually and continuously question if the love the other person had for me was real. This maddening doubt would continue until the day my pride took over, and I would exit the life of that person to avoid them inevitably hurting me. Like Rafaella and Gennarino, we refuse to turn the other cheek in any given situation and allow our hidden narcissism to take over by blaming the world for our loneliness instead of looking within. We watch films like Swept Away as a way of justifying our unhealthy behavior. The fear the two lovers felt caused them to continuously hurt one another. If Genarinno had been able to forget about how his masculinity had been tested by the wealthy, he could have loved another. If Rafaella had been able to ask for forgiveness and humble herself for her sins, she could have loved another. If one of them had put their own agenda and past betrayals away for just a second and believed they were worthy of true affection, they could have loved each other.

It is the same mistake The Girl in Walkabout made, and it is the downfall of many couples today. We engage in relationships out of our own selfish desire to not be alone. We are focused on being accepted by society that we never show who we truly are. How can you expect someone to truly love you when they don’t truly know you? Then out of fear that what we believe is true, that the love isn't real, we sabotage it in search of something more. We search for it in a tub of ice cream and develop an unhealthy relationship with food. We search for it in drugs, for just a moment of solace from the emptiness we endure until we find the next man or women, who says all the right things, and suddenly we don’t feel so alone and we have a source for validation. Until we find ourselves in a loveless marriage built around an image we fight to uphold, in a house we hate, staring at reflection we don’t recognize. Regretting letting go of the life we could have had: our moment of freedom swimming by a waterfall with the people who actually loved us. At least that was the fate of The Girl in Walkabout. Or alternatively, allowing our pride and self-hatred to take over, as we curse the ones who we secretly yearn for and submit ourselves to the only sign we can believe in, the dollar sign, which is the fate of the lovers in Swept Away. Unless we learn what love actually means.

Where many see love as a noun, something they feel, I’ve been taught to view it as a verb. We must love someone when they wrong us. We must love when they betray us. We must love them when they lie to us. We must love them when they beat us. We must love them through their sins and soften their hearts and compel it to open so that one day, they won’t betray us. So that one day the truth is what rolls off their tongues. So that one day, they dedicate their souls to protecting us where they once hurt us. We must love them even when they don’t deserve it, because nobody can ever earn the love they deserve.  Love can never be given because of what someone has to offer you. Love is a choice one makes for the benefit of another, never for oneself. That’s how it becomes unconditional. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away”(1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV). There was a reason all the things I fought to fill my heart with never satisfied me. This love was what I was looking for, but it's true what they say: you cannot love anyone, until you love yourself.

When I began learning of a virtuous love, I also learned I must direct that love inward. I moved from Ethiopia to America when I was four years old. Ethiopia, one of the earliest civilizations, is more known for poverty than its overwhelming communal culture. I moved to America, a melting pot of different cultures, with little preparation for the culture shock I would face in society that stresses individualism and a country that defines one's value by one’s ability to contribute to the federal reserve, then who one is as person. During my adolescent years, I was not striving to find myself but rather to paint over all that made me me. I wanted to paint my caramel-colored skin, distinct features, and curls to match the white girl who sat next to me in elementary school. The white girl who snickered on the first day of middle school when the teacher called out my full name. The white girl who insisted on touching my hair at lunch junior year, only to further emphasize my difference. The white girl who was never ridiculed for who she is because at the end of the day, America was hers and I was the alien who chose to invade. To make matters worse, we added social media to the mix. Soon, I was not only striving for the approval of my peers, but the hundreds of false social media personalities that worked tirelessly to paint their lives as perfect, and ridicule others, only showing a reflection of their own insecurities. I was sucked into a web of lies, literally, without knowledge of the photoshop and self-loathing that went into a smiling selfie that insisted that life was perfect and left me wondering why mine was not. It left me asking daily “why am I not perfect?” Then I realized I am. Every girl dreams of being a princess, and the only qualification is having a father that is a king. Well, my Father is a king. He is the King of kings, and the Lord of lords. He is God. I realized it is okay if this world does not love me because God does. Uncovering the lie the enemy infested my mind with “you are less than” opened a world of opportunities. The opportunity to eat that extra slice of cake, because I am not defined by my figure. The opportunity to pass on going out Friday night, because I am not defined by my social life. It gave me the freedom to stop pretending to be someone I am not and accept myself for who I am.  In Wings of Desire, the children are able to see and feel the comforting presence of the angels. Through inner inquiry I discovered what sparked my deep lack of self-acceptance; it was rather simple. It was the little girl in me who was told she was wrong by other little girls who did not know any better. So I forgive them, too, because I now see that maybe they could not feel the presence of the benevolent force of love either.

Realizing the detrimental impact that a lack of self-love can has allowed me to have compassion for those who previously rejected me. Receiving the unconditional love of Christ inspired me to work to recognize hate is often a reflection of pain. They reject me because they too have been rejected, or they reject themselves. I believe every human being is like a tree. To see what grounds the tree, one must look at the roots. Morals come from how deeply the roots of our being are placed in the ground we come from. A lack of morals is not caused by the individual, but a lack of sturdy roots. If someone has not had the opportunity to develop a strong sense of self, their behavior reflects that. As a tree grows, the rings around the trunk tell its story. The first ring might look normal. Most humans start out life that way. Many forget to acknowledge what the lack of normality can have on a person’s identity or what that can mean for their roots. Who would have been there to plant them? The rings on a tree expose where lightning may have struck at the same same spot over and over again, revealing why the tree’s trunk and roots may have been permanently hurt. A lack of family can leave one without knowledge of a home, and an unstable household can leave a child with a misconception of family. A disability can cause one to see oneself at a disadvantage, and abuse can cause one to mistrust those who attempt to care. Bullying can generate a feeling of hate in a child, hate not only directed at the bully but themselves. Like all trees have rings, all people have a story. Loving myself, and understanding where my weaknesses come from, allowed me to understand why other have those weaknesses as well. I learned to love others despite the scars on their souls this world has caused and that has manifested into a flaw in their character. Instead of cutting down a tree with a rotting trunk, let us attempt to save it. Let us shower it with love, and remind it that there is always an opportunity to heal and grow.

In the riveting film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, the bushmen of the Kalahari Desert have proven the happiness that can be achieved when one is driven by their spiritual mind. They have graciously accepted the life they have been given and live in harmony with one another. They have no purpose for laws because there is no crime. There is no need for punishment, because there is no violence (Uys, 0.02:47).  Unfortunately, six hundred miles south is the aftermath of the carnal western mindset---the colonized, industrialized, dehumanized mindset. In the film, a Coca Cola bottle is thrown from an airplane landing where the bushmen live. They interpret this as a gift from the Gods, which they thankfully accept and put to great use. This unnatural object soon brings devastation to the bushmen just as industrialization has brought to western civilization. They immediately became obsessed with a material not necessary to their life or inner growth. An object, we know to be man-made. When they began to have conflict, one brave man set off on a mission to throw the “evil thing” off the edge of the world. What the bushman see as “evil” is not one another, but anything that causes them to lose peace among themselves. When the opportunity for division stirs among them, they go, quite literally in their eyes, to the ends of the world to eliminate it. There is only we, no them. This mindset is our way out.

Both The Girl in Walkabout and the couple in Swept Away were so caught up in having the upper hand, they did not realize they were giving up the one thing they craved. They wanted so desperately to find a peace that could satisfy them. Gennarino tried to claim it with power, Rafaella with wealth, and The Girl in Walkabout with status. I learned to find it in unconditional love. I let go of what was owed to me, realizing nothing was owed to me. I stopped trying to right every wrong, once accepting when acting in love, one has no need to keep a record of wrongs. Christ was crucified for the sake of my salvation. This ultimate act of love allowed me to relieve myself of the burden of being the victim and the judge, and this is the way I am able to rejoice in the midst of devastation.

I can accept that it would be very difficult to convince seven billion people of the truth that has brought endless peace and happiness into my life: God is real. What I strive to do is much more difficult. I plan on tearing down the shrine western civilization has built to the dollar sign, which may as well be the most widely practiced religion. I plan on restoring hope in hearts of those who have lost faith in their neighbors to love them as they love themselves. I strive to save as many people from jumping off the edge of a building as Damiel did, because it was done for me. Christ saved me from the false faith I was once convinced was waiting at the bottom, as so many are. He provided a comforting hand on my shoulder, and a weapon only to be described as blind faith, to remind me of my goodness. “Tell me who your God is, and I’ll tell you who you will become.” Christ was my savior. Love can be everyone’s savior. First, we love ourselves. Then we love the world.

Works Cited

Doorey, Marie. “Lawrence Kohlberg.” Encyclopædia Britannica , Encyclopædia

Britannica, Inc., 11 Mar. 2016, .

Roeg, Nicholas. Walkabout . Twentieth Century Fox, 1971. Youtube.

Uys, Jamie. The Gods Must Be Crazy . New Realm, 1980. Youtube.

“Walkabout.” Wikipedia , Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Aug. 2018,

Wenders, Wim. Wings of Desire . Perf. Bruno Ganz and Solveig Dommartin. Road

Movies, 1987

Wertmüller, Lena. Swept Away--by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August . Perf.

Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini. Medusa Distribuzione S.R.L., 1974. YouTube.

Friday, September 28, 2018

The Sound of Nature in David Cope's Invisible Keys by Hong Sun

The Invisible Keys: New and Selected Poems covers the poems of David Cope from 1975 to 2017, chosen both from his six previously published books, and from those written more recently.  From these poems of diversified subjects three underpinning traits stand out, i.e., a sense of history, an import of humanity, and a sensibility of nature.

First of all, to quote Wordsworth, “The earliest poets of all nations generally wrote from passion excited by real events.”  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.  In “American Pewter with Burroughs II:  Green is a Man / To Fill is a Boy,” for instance, “Greek warriors lean together, . . . fierce eyes intent on the battle to come, another battle.  /Sappho lamented such beauty one sees in faces like these, marching to war, full of high phrases, valorous tongues, /arms bristling with arms, killers with the faces of angels—/Sappho, who cried out to Anaktoria that her footstep, the light /in her eyes set her heart thrumming more strongly than all /armed killers others might sing” (p. 80).  Anaktoria is the name of a woman mentioned by Sappho as a lover of hers in her Fragment 16, often referred to by the title “To an Army Wife, in Sardis.”  In “Tender Petals for Calm Crossing,” “stone masons”—the talented Indian artist-workers that constructed Machu Picchu in mid-15th century Inca—fell victim to the conquistadors, “warriors cut down like corn on a day as crisp /as this, eyes turning skyward one last time, up to the light /as their blood gushes out on fertile ground, shining path /where arms & legs of the dead clutch & kick at heaven, /vanishing dreams of hungry ghosts” (p. 62).  In “Antietam” Cope sees, through the vision of his wife Sue, the battle in Antietam, Maryland on September 17, 1862 during the Civil War, with 22,717 casualties for both sides—the bloodiest single day of fighting in American history.  Crossing time and space, the poet combines the battle scene with the experience of Sue’s father, who was machine gunned in the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944-25 January 1945), the last major German offensive campaign in its western theater during World War II.  As a survivor, he would “wake up sweating— /wild eyes in the night— /the German officer he had to shoot, point blank— /those eyes, that cringe, /night after night” (p. 16). 

An ironic note resounds through “A Quiet Life,” which concerns a Vietnamese refugee family that the poet sponsored in the mid-1970s for immigration to the US. The titular quietness connotes a sense of Tantalus’ quest.  The way for the family to get out of Vietnam over the stormy sea is a narrow escape from death—“four people die,” even “in good weather.” The protagonist’s name Minh means “light,” but he sinks into darkness upon coming to the US for, among other things, “the Texans treated him badly” (p.3).  How could those home-bound Texans understand the kind of ordeal folks in Vietnam, as well as their fellow American G.I.s there, had gone through?  In “The Train:  Howl in Chicago,” written when Cope took the train to Chicago to teach Howl to his daughter Jane’s high school class four decades later, the poet recalls the memorable scene in in November 1969, with “Allen reading to overflow crowd, /Hill Auditorium, Moratorium Day, Howl singing thru the horror /of those days, bringing so many to tears at last after /friends dead in Nam, others come home with hell in their own minds” (p.106). Just as Larry Abrams, a friend of mine in St. Louis, shared with me his experience in Vietnam:  “I may have been shot by mortar attacks any day, but never knew when.  I destroyed all the photos I took in Vietnam as I never wanted to be reminded of it once I got home.  I lost a good friend before I arrived.  He was in the Army and was killed in combat.  I found out once I got home on leave before I went to Vietnam.  I asked the Red Cross to assist me in extending my leave before I went to Vietnam so I could attend his funeral as a pall bearer.  My leave was extended about two weeks and it was during that two week extension that Ben Hoa got hit during the Tet Offensive in February 1966.  I missed the attack because I was home, still on leave.  Ironically, the death of my friend saved me from being on base during that attack.  It was during that attack that many members of the unit I was eventually assigned to were killed.  Ironic.  The death of my friend may have actually saved my life” (12 January, 2017).   In “Party Talk,” Cope portrays “the severed Vietnamese fingers” (p.14), a reference that reminds me of the description by Dan Roland, a Vietnam War veteran and, two decades later, a classmate in my first doctoral program, of how some South Korean soldiers “would cut off the tongue from the corpse of the Vietnamese to hang on their buttonhole as a trophy of valor” (April 1990).  Similar cruelty and inhumanity are seen in “Emile at the Crossroad,” dream sequence involving a young man forced by Nazis to bury his friends, recently shot down by Nazi gunners, “his eyes now bulging in daily nightmare— /the helmeted gunner, machine gun spraying near-naked /bodies, writhing, wrapped in blood mists jugular spray /as they fall, corpses bulldozed into ditches eyes wide /in death, & he, standing along a ditch—he, spared to /finish the work—he, looking into the blue faces /open mouths disappearing beneath a wave of sand, /neighbors, lovers . . .” (p. 67).

It is with passion, honesty, a commitment to history, and an investment to be understood not only by his contemporaries but by generations to come, that Cope effortlessly pulls the reader in with his descriptive language on this journey with him through history.  In his correspondence with a reader whose nation had been victimized by one of those events, he wrote, “I hope my poem does at least some justice to the victims of the tragedy.  Some of the images (in the accompanying set of photos) are familiar to me, but some—those that are most horrifying—were quite new, as they didn’t get out to us.  Peace to you and to your nation in these latter days” (5 June, 2017).  In Cope’s words to the reader, “Those poems are, in my estimation, among the most tender and heart-broken pieces I’ve written” (6 June, 2017).  In “Fireball in the Clouds,” a poem written on the first days of the Gulf War, January 1990, “soldiers at briefings /describe mass murder in surgical /terms” (p. 38).  The poem juxtaposes two worlds which are distant yet close to each other:   the battlefield of human slaughter where “gassed Kurds & blasted Iraqis /mingle in the silent screams,” and the natural realm of the “tender springtime’s /sleeping buds” (p. 38).  Man can impose his superficial order on nature, but can never share the latter’s tranquil mystery.  Standing aloof from him, nature maintains its solemnity that takes a poet like Cope to decipher for us.  Just as Lao Tzu puts it in The Tao Te Ching, or The Book of the Way, “Nature says few words.”

Even peaceful time is not all that peaceful in Cope’s poetry as well as in reality.  “Ann Arbor” (p.9) is a poetic rendition of the student anti-war riots in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1970.  “In Silence” is a poem written for Cope’s cousin Dr. Ann Barber, who served in Emergency ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital, one of those hospitals put on 24 hour shifts after the 9-11 incident.  The tragedy is perceived through the eyes of doctors and nurses in the Emergency ward: “hour after hour /they waited in the ER, . . . /thru the open door, /beyond the shrieks & sighs /& the endless roar” (p. 66).

“Sierra Madre & North to Oregon” opens with a female narrator’s fantasy of the line of mountains on west coast of the US:  “imagine . . . the mountains beyond— /white smog’s too thick for us to see,” while she addresses the people in the future:  “you unborn /generations curled in liquid dream, I hear /your diapered squalls & aging sighs even now /here where my feet walk & yours will walk” (p.39).

It is with his poetic sagacity that David Cope sees what mise-en-scène in literary classics is sadly missing in the paleness of our own era.  His awareness of history in “Midsummer Night” triggers my memory of some of the observations that I shared with the graduate students taking my course “Shakespeare Studies,” while I perused with them A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  For instance, Hermia, caught in a romantic accident in the Athenian forest, “flails at Helena” (3.2: 298).  To describe Hermia swinging her arm at her childhood friend with the image of “flail,” an instrument for thrashing grain commonly used in the agricultural age, would be unthinkable in this postindustrial era.  But in his poem, Cope miraculously juxtaposes “vast yellow wheatfields & green corn stretching /beyond treelines at the horizon” with “nuclear power lines” humming “in forcefields from /tower to tower,” not forgetting to add to both with a master touch that “farmers herd cows” (p. 49) through such fields of yellow wheat and green corn under the nuclear power lines.  In “Chinese Calligraphy: T’ang Yin,” the poet brings out the drastic contrast between the dim reality and the idyllic past presented in the work of art by T’ang Yin (1470-1524), an artist and poet in the Ming Dynasty.  On the one hand, David Cope writes, “Dreaming of Immortality in a Thatched Cottage— /a man surrounded by the immensity of trees, mountains & sky” (p. 11).  On the other hand, “coming in here:  /car horns, a small boy tried to strangle a pigeon, /throngs sat in the shade, wiping their brows, /taxis slammed on their brakes” (p. 11).  The same jarring clamor recurs in “Modern Art” while, ironically, “an old bum scratches his back beneath his coat, . . . /watching the furious drivers curse each other /in the cool, bright morning” (p. 15).

Such pieces capturing moments in history are reminiscent of those in the Confucian canon, Book of Poetry, for instance, “Yellow Birds” (Huang Niao), which is related to a brief entry in Chunqiu, or The Spring and Autumn Annals.  Confucius records tersely in that canon the event in the pre-imperial state Qin, the death of Duke Mu in 621 BC.  As elaborated by Zuo zhuan, or The Commentary of Zuo, another ancient classic, Duke Mu had decreed that the three sons of the Ziche family, i.e., Yanxi, Zhonghang, and Qianhu be buried alive with him.  Sorrowful for the three men of virtue, Qin people chanted Yellow Birds.’  Confucius edited the dirge into this poem with three stanzas, beginning with Qin people’s grief for Yanxi:

They flit about, the yellow birds,

And rest upon the jujube trees.

Who followed Duke Mu to the grave?

Ziche Yanxi.

And this Yanxi,

Was a man above a hundred.

When he came to the grave,

He looked terrified and trembled.

The two subsequent stanzas lament Zhonghang and Qianhu respectively.  Each stanza winds up with a four-line refrain bemoaning the tragic end of the three virtuous court officials.

Thou azure Heaven there!

Thou art destroying our good men.

Could he have been redeemed,

We should have given a hundred lives for him.

In addition to its historical perspective, the Confucian piece demonstrates a keen import of humanity, which also pervades David Cope’s poetry.  The concept of humanity (人文) first appeared in I Ching or The Book of Changes.  As a set of divinatory symbols in the book has it, “What civilization rests in is humanity. . . .  By observation, it is revealed that humanity constitutes the world.”  The idea is that the human forms a pair of couples, and thus enters into the family, the country, and the world at large which, in the last analysis, is the humanity, i.e. the culture.  In “Rainy Dawn,” for instance, Cope asks, “why think more of living, dying, /this rainy morn, & dream,” while “invisible sun & stars spin beyond /these clouds” (p.31).  But, ironically, all the time the poet is concerned about the human well-being, their “living, dying.”  In “Jane Marie,” he witnesses at close range the birth of his second child, Jane, by Caesarean section.  While his wife “Sue looks up— /the doctors cut /thru flesh wall, /fat layer— /still deeper— /their gloves redden /with her blood” (p. 32).  Thus the poet celebrates the miraculous creation of a new life:  “& now the doctor’s /hand enters her /abdomen, /the aide pushes, /pushes, /a blue head appears /wrinkled, angrily /drawing breath— /a howl /as the whole /blue body appears /cut & clamp, /weigh & check /& suck out nostrils, /hand her to /the father, me, /who sits amazed /as blue flesh turns /slowly pink” (p. 33).

In “The Rhododendron,” Cope quests for the gist of humanity, “who can say /what love is?  you take a friend /in hand & roar down blind road after blind road /wandering thru private rooms /in each other’s hearts, sailing thru whole histories /of pain & rage to find a quiet morning, /dew on the laurel leaves” (p.55).  On the other hand, in “Fran,” the poet records his early experience of bereavement at six: “Aunt Fran’s /husband & son Dutch, my older cousin . . . , a genius at 13, killed, /accident in the Rockies . . . /my first /memory of lives, faces swept away from my life” (p. 58).  The title of another poem “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” is a refrain in one portion of François Villon’s Le Testament, rendered in English as “but where are the snows of yesteryear?”  The poet takes off from the famous line, in a similar refrain fashion, to backtrack the life of his mother, persistently asking, “what became of the girl . . . ,” from “the sixth grader who skipped on sidewalks to French lessons /with Miss Meloche” to “the girl chosen from her dorm to speak to reporters /after Pearl Harbor, summoning words to guess the pain /that lay ahead” (p.72).  In “Last Look,” sitting with his mother’s corpse, Cope laments, “the room is silent, empty but /for the bier.  she lies, sheet /draped over her body— / she is so small in death— / the head tilted back, eyelids, /aquiline nose, cupid’s bow lips, skin /translucent, alabaster /yet still lovely” (p. 73).  In “Flight to Phoenix,” an elegy for his father, the poet chants: “in seat staring out window at clouds, /I look into my empty hands— /think of his face, my own a mirror /thru which I can see him /& in his, the pattern of my being” (p. 74).  It can’t be a coincidence that the word “empty” appears in the very beginning of both of these elegies, specifically, the first line in the former and the second line in the latter, but a master touch with which the poet brings out the bereavement.  For when our parents pass away, a substantial part of our life phases out, leaving with us an indescribable inner emptiness, an aching void in our heart that can never be filled up.  In “Crystal Lake to Beulah,” Cope recalls, “last week, I kayaked at dawn /on my childhood river, /spreading rose petals across /the water three years after /we spread my mother’s ashes, /below the spot where she /sat alone, to collect herself /beyond the wash of sorrows, /job & family needs—here /to hear herself in treetop /winds, in owls calling /tree to tree in the dark” (p. 94).  Furthermore, “In My Father’s House” is a poem with which Cope traces back, from fond memories of his father, to the remote pedigree of the family, “the mirror casts backward thru ancestors /toiling land, turning lathes, scripture ever in their hands” (p. 75).

Cope’s tender feelings are not restricted to his relatives; his heart goes out to his fellow poets likewise.  The book includes Cope’s lamentation of the demise of Kenneth Rexroth, whom he refers to as “another of my fathers” (p. 12).  In “Rexroth Gone,” he pours out his feelings to the dear departed predecessor:  “if I sit tonight in shadows, /the moon’ll be full, the crickets sing /sweet lament.  tenderly now, /this faint gentle breath to you, /Kenneth” (p. 12).  The title “‘the weight of the world is love’” (100) is the opening line of an early poem by Allen Ginsberg, whom Cope calls “my mentor.”  The elegy “for allen” recalls five shared memories, including meeting Allen Ginsberg after the latter’s public poetry reading:  “meeting backstage after Howl  & Kaddish Ann Arbor, /too tired to speak, no need to yakk, comfortable merely /to sit an hour in each other’s silent presence as /stage hands gathered props & instruments” (p. 51).  In “For Anne at 70,” a birthday salute to Anne Waldman, Cope bares his heart to the senior poet, “now seven decades on, now /the wise elder shepherd to flocks of /crazed poets, dreamers with fists of angst” (p. 98).  The phrase “crazed poets” is an allusion to a comparison made by the Athenian Duke Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, “The lunatic, the lover and the poet /Are of imagination all compact: . . . /The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling, /Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; /And as imagination bodies forth /The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen /Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing /A local habitation and a name” (5.1: 8-18).  

Due to his admiration for Walt Whitman, a latter-day successor to Shakespeare, Cope deliberately took service as a janitor in schools in poor neighborhoods for many years, largely in imitation of Whitman’s determination to be one of the nondescript people.  In “At the Croyden,” as well as the poem’s companion “The Invisible Keys,” old John was a reclusive widower that, over time, David Cope came to know and befriended when the poet would come to his building for weekend work.  Cope was serving as a janitor at an elementary school at the time—cleaning and maintaining the building—and that job wouldn’t quite cover his bills.  Thus, on weekends, he would supplement his income by working at The Croyden, an old apartment building in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.  He was cleaning apartments and stairs for the landlord so that he could pay his own bills and save money to complete his education.  John was a lonely old man at the end of his life, and he got to know Cope by stepping out of his apartment to talk when the latter was working there.  The poet was a lover of blues and jazz music, and old John had actually played in some famous bands back when he was younger.  As Cope puts it in “At the Croyden”:  “he played everywhere, all these big joints downtown, /an’ he played Detroit, & up in Canada, too. . . . /he looks at his hands, palms down, fingers spread, /& looks back up into my eyes /& I see the invisible keys” (p. 20).  Turning his hands down, as he would to play piano, was old John’s expressive way of sharing both his love of the piano and his sorrow that he could no longer play.  “The Invisible Keys,” Cope’s elegy for him, celebrates his gift of helping people through their troubles, even if only for an evening.  Thus the poet’s lament rises from the piano to a guitar crescendo:

that guitar

out front all alone

burning away sadness & anger, unpaid bills

& careless loves,

burning a bright new fire     

to get them all to that coming dawn,

burning all desire


leaving them





at last.  (p. 25)

The whole section beginning with “leaving them” is heavily indented, the idea being, according to  David Cope, to create the open space, the “step-down” from the “sadness & anger, unpaid bills /& careless loves” to return to the quiet breathing that brings the audience back to its sanity, its sense of quieting the mind.  In our dialogue about such significance of the poem, he explains to me, “I’m pretty certain that I didn’t think of the space after ‘away’ as a stanza break—note that it isn’t as full a spacing as occurs after ‘his funeral’ at the end of the first section or before ‘somewhere’ in the third section; rather, this space indicates the opening to hearing one’s own breath.”  The poet stresses, furthermore, “The comma after ‘away’ and the space before ‘leaving them’ is a spacing indicator, and the entire ‘leaving them’ sequence is a clause dependent on the sentence preceding it.  The entire effect of the stanza (with single line break as part of it) should be music that gives voice to the storms inside the audience, so that they may be left with or reach the point of calm beyond their sorrows” (27 March, 2017).

The storm here and elsewhere, such as in “A Quiet Life,” “Two Hearted River,” and “For Antler, after the storm,” is typical of a keen sensibility of nature that David Cope’s poetry manifests.  Canoeing down the Two Hearted River, for instance, he exclaims, “even the heart /cannot fathom what stillness /rests in this plunge, why men /sing together like choirboys & /stop the gunnel rush & /lay the paddles down in the /whipping breeze where scarred pines bend /thru storm & sigh & rainbow’s end” (p. 56).  As the poet recalls, Hemingway’s stories were really instinctive for him—most of the Nick Adams stories took place in Petoskey and thereabouts, an area not far from his mother’s birthplace in Charlevoix, and as a teenage boy they spoke to him as being from his own world and the peculiar sexual rituals between young men and women.  As an adult, he canoed the Two-Hearted River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan all the way to the place where it empties into Lake Superior, though the geography of “Big Two-Hearted River” is more in keeping with the Fox River, which is the only river that flows within an afternoon’s walk from Seney, the town featured in the story.  “Yoopers”—the unofficial title that folk from the Upper Peninsula call themselves—like to say that Hemingway was hiding his fishing spots on the Fox by putting the story on the Two-Hearted River.

The “sound of nature,” in the words of the 4th century B.C. philosopher Chuang Tzu, is the highest realm of music. To apply to literary criticism the term coined by the Sage in his great Taoist canon Chuang Tzu originally in his comment on music, I find that David Cope is likewise touched by the sound of nature.  For instance, he is thrilled by the opening of the golden gate of a new day in “So the day begins.”  He is literarily a worshipper of such a glorious moment, “I sit, breathing in quiet rhythm, awaiting /the day's fire, the rising winds, /the waves slashing the breakwater, /thunderous, /gulls still above riding the winds, /searching, searching. /I stand & turn on my heel, /bowing in the four directions” (p. 105).  In “Alba:  The Sailors,” the poet employs the genre of old Provençal lyric poetry, which describes the longing of lovers who, having passed a night together, find that the hour has come to separate.  In fact, “alba” means “sunrise” in the Provençal language.  The poet is awe-stricken by morning’s solemn approaching:  “still no sun yet already the dawn waves fill far out with sails /headed out & away . . . /leaning to the window, he looks down at his /stirring companion, dark eyes & lips opening to caresses in first /light, & yet he is at once far away, looking backward at the /receding shore, bright day already rising /to meet dawn’s first rolling breakers” (p. 53).  In “Catching Nothing,” during his camping with Anne, his eldest child, Cope dreams of his paternal grandmother, Helen Cope, and then his father, waking up to “the morning after,” which “is calm, cloudy” (p. 47).  It is here that David Cope describes the glorious morning created by what Shakespeare calls the “sovereign eye,” a miraculous sight that the poet witnesses with Anne:  “the silent heron is still. . . . /even /our hearts beat like /hammers now, sending out waves of sound /over & over— /the breath /is a wind that /stirs up all the world” (p. 47).  In “Early Spring Morn Milwaukee,” Cope portrays “the eagle that flew low over Sue’s head /in Betsie River sunshine” (p. 89).  The poet’s description of the moment of daybreak is in a similar fashion as the canonical approach two thousand years ago in “The Morning Breeze” (Chen Feng) in The Book of Poetry:  “Swift flying birds in the morning breeze, /Lush and thick that northern wood” (鴥彼晨风,郁彼北林).  The Book of Poetry, as the earliest existing collection of Chinese poems likely composed in the 5th century BC, is one of the four ancient Chinese classics edited by Confucius, the other three being Book of History, Book of Rites, and Book of Changes.  In addition, the Sage himself wrote a history book, The Spring and Autumn Annals.  These constitute the five canons of Confucianism.  As Confucius said, “In The Book of Poetry are three hundred pieces, but the design of them all may be embraced in one sentence—‘Having no depraved thoughts.’”  Confucius’ succinct summary also fits Cope’s poetry.  In fact, all the images in his poems discussed above serve the general purpose of creating such immaculateness, for it is through their pursuit of integrity and uprightness that Cope’s poems, like their predecessors in the Confucian canon, have produced the pure and the beautiful out of a cosmos of complexity and confusion.

To be exact, The Book of Poetry has 311 pieces. Cope’s current volume of 78 poems, though a quarter of the size of the canon, with its chronicle of history, concern for humanity, and consonance with nature, is likewise without depraved thoughts, and can be well expected to be as burgeoning and enduring as its millennia-old predecessor in the past and in the future.


Sun Hong Bio Note

Dr. Sun Hong is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Renmin University of China
and, since 2002, a Professor of Literature at The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, an extension
of Loyola University, Chicago.  He has won many awards for the excellence of his academic
research studies, and has compiled an extensive list of books, translations of books with
commentaries, and essays in respected journals.  In recent years, he has taught Shakespearean 
Studies; Willa Cather’s Fiction; British and American Fiction; Modern English Prose; Modern
Chinese Fiction; Ezra Pound and Chinese Culture; Regionalism in American and Chinese