The Nation, 5 January 2009


A few things stand out in this issue.  Two pieces by A. C. Thompson, the cover story with a general focus and another about one particular case, detail acts of violence committed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by groups of white homeowners who banded together to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods. 

On a happier note, Katha Pollitt offers her annual list of do-gooders who deserve our financial support.  Each of the ten she cites sounds terrific, I’d single out Iraq Veterans Against the War as the group with the most urgent agenda. 

A collection of poems by the late Jack Spicer includes some love letters Spicer wrote, an editorial decision which moves the reviewer to comment on Spicer’s views about the relationship between poetry and correspondence.  While Spicer often compared poems to personal correspondence, and “the idea or form of the letter underlies much of his published work,” in practice he always maintained a sharp distinction between the two genres.  “What Spicer recognized as poetry was always fierce and contentious and, despite the devices that feign otherwise, written to no one and for no one. ”  Indeed, Spicer’s discussion of Emily Dickinson centered on the difficulty of distinguishing between letters and poems, taking it for granted that this distinction was a needful one.


The Nation, 8 December 2008

The Fall Books Issue“- it seems a bit late this year… but worth the wait.

Torie Osborn wonders how California could have passed anti-same sex marriage Proposition 8.  Her view is that No on 8 forces neglected Los Angeles County, despite decades of experience showing that antigay measures win or lose based on the margins in that county.  She also has some harsh words for the Obama campaign for allowing voters to believe (mistakenly!) that Mr O backed Proposition 8. 

Christine Smallwood reviews a new edition of George R. Stewart’s 1945 book Names on the Land.  A collection of anecdotes about how various places in the USA got their names, this highly regarded work inspires Smallwood’s unreserved praise.  She goes on at some length about Stewart’s other works, including environmental fiction like Earth Abides, “the first American postapocalyptic thriller,” and Ordeal by Hunger, a novelization of the Donner Party.  She tells us that Names on the Land was Stewart’s own favorite of his books.  It raises no less a question than “what is America?,” Smallwood says.  And answers that question: “Not the leader of the Free World and not the scourge of the world, but a history of settlement.”  This answer would hardly have been extraordinary in 1945.  The book does sound interesting.   The cover of the first edition illustrates Smallwood’s review, and is reproduced below.



The Nation, 17 November 2008

This issue includes a note by Robert Pollin about the late economist Hyman Minsky, noting a recent vogue for Minsky and praising him as “his generation’s most insightful analyst of financial markets and the causes of financial crises.”   So he may have been, but Pollin doesn’t show why.  I suspect he would have needed more space to do that.  For example, Pollin writes that for Minsky, “financial crises and recessions actually serve a purpose in the operations of a free-market economy… Minsky’s point is that without crises, a free-market economy has no way of discouraging investors’ natural proclivities towards ever greater risks in pursuit of ever higher profits.”  Minsky may have had original ideas on this point, but this statement doesn’t bring them out- what Pollin has given as “Minsky’s point” is precisely the Austrian economists’ theory of malinvestment.  Indeed, what Pollin presents as “another of Minsky’s major insights- that in the absence of a complimentary regulatory system, the effectiveness of bailouts will diminish over time”- is a statement of another aspect of the Austrian theory of malinvestment, that regulation and subsidy imply one another.  I’m willing to believe that Minsky had original insights.  Perhaps Pollin made it clear how Minsky advanced on the work of Hayek & co. in the article he submitted and the Nation‘s editors cut the key parts for space.  What sticks in my mind is Pollin’s closing quote from Minsky’s 1986 book Stabilizing an Unstable Economy,  “Only an economics that is critical of capitalism can be a guide to successful policy for capitalism.”

Ange Mlinko reviews Susan Stewart’s poetry collection, Red Rover, praising the humanity of Stewart’s dirge for the Amish girls killed in the October 2006 massacre at their schoolhouse near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the austere simplicity of her nature poems, and her commitment to slowness.  Mlinko quotes from Sterwart’s poem “The Forest”; Stewart posted “The Forest” in full at the Academy of American Poets website, and it’s worth reading a few times.

The Nation, 14 April 2008

An article titled “Who Are They Calling Elitist?” leans on Geoffrey Nunberg’s book Talking Right to analyze the way rightists have used the image of a “liberal elite” to discredit any opinion with which they disagree.  The best lines come from Nunberg: 

Just look, for example, at the way liberals are referred to in the media, even in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.  Wherever you look, the liberal label is almost exclusively reserved for middle-class whites.  Phrases like ‘working-class liberals,’ ‘Hispanic liberals,’ and ‘black liberals’ are virtually nonexistent, though ‘conservative is frequently used to describe members of all those groups.  When the media are referring to members of the working class or minority groups who vote left-of-center, they invariably describe them as Democrats, with the implication that their political choices are shaped by economic self-interest or traditional party loyalty rather than by any deep commitment to liberal ideals.” 

Thus the idea of a “liberal elite” becomes not only defensible, but tautological- if only members of the (affluent white) elite can be called liberals, then liberalism is solely an elite phenomenon. 

Reviewers take on the collected poetry of Philip Whalen and of Helen Adam.  The Whalen review starts with some rather hostile epigrams of his (e.g., “Not a word/ Not for love or money/ Not a single word from me, nor music/ [These are not words but signs/ They carry no charge.]/ Make your own speech./ You’ll get none of mine.”)  interlaced with facts about the history of Zen Buddhism, then concludes with a look at Whalen’s unfortunate “political” poems, the only substantial theme of which is the stupidity of his neighbors.  So, “Almost all Americans aged 4 to 100/ Have the mentality of Chicago policemen.”  Here we see the flip side of the “liberal elite” trope- a left-liberal who believes that most Americans are hopelessly reactionary and congratulates himself on his superiority to them.  The Adam review paints a far more appealing portrait of the poet, closing with these lines from “Counting Out Rhyme” that have been stuck in my head for the last couple of days:

Then cam’ the unicorn, brichter than the mune, 

Prancing frae the wave wi’ his braw crystal croon. 

Up the crisp and shelly strand he trotted unafraid.

Agin’ the lanesome lassie’s knee his comely head he laid.

Upon the youngest sister’s lap he leaned his royal head.

She stabbed him to the heart- and

Oh!  How eagerly he bled!

The Nation, 31 March 2008

Alex Cockburn’s column treats the NY Governor prostitution scandal, characterizing Spitzer’s behavior as “various rendezvous with consenting adults.”  I suppose I should familiarize myself with scholarship like that of somebody’s mother, but it strikes me that this phrase doesn’t capture what goes on with prostitution- mutual consent means that both parties consent to the same thing.  When men like Spitzer consent to a sex act, women like “Kristen” consent to sleeping indoors, having enough to eat, and not being so badly beaten by their pimps that they need reconstructive surgery to breathe.   

An editorial points out that it used to be routine in the USA for botched elections to be redone.  Several articles document the economic cost of the Iraq war, both in terms of lost wealth and of increased income inequality.  Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky collect statements powerful Washington types made in 2002-2004 predicting that the Iraq War would pay for itself. 

 Three reviews treat the work of Chilean writer Roberto Bolano.  Carmen Bullosa analyzes the assemblage of pseudo-biographical vignettes known as Nazi Literature in the Americas; Marcela Valdes surveys Bolano’s life and work; and Forrest Gander tries to decide which of Bolano’s works is best.  Catching my attention, Valdes quotes Nicanor Parra’s remark:

The four great poets of Chile

Are three

Alonso de Ercilla and Ruben Dario.

While Gander mentions that “Bolano considered Tres (Three), a book of poems published in 2000, to be ‘one of my two best works.'”  So the two best works of Bolano/ Are one/ Three.