The New Nile

The New Nile
Homage to the Egyptian Revolution

When Egypt fed the world with corn,
It sucked the breast-milk of the Nile;
The Pharaoh’s power, the Roman guile
Drank from that plenteous horn.

The new Nile is a Nile of light,
The world’s bright screens, the cellphone’s glow;
The fertile information-flow
Makes fires in the night.

The new Nile is a Nile of tears,
Of mourning for her children who,
Dying in giving, overthrew
The tyranny of years.

The new Nile flows with liberty,
For today tyrants everywhere
Shake in their boots with doubt and fear
They will be swept to sea.


Julia Budenz

Coming immediately after the death of my friend Julius Fraser, the death last week of Julia Budenz, another dear friend, is almost too much for me.

Julia came across my horizon in the mid-1980s when I was co-editing The Kenyon Review. I sometimes think she was one of America’s greatest poets of the time. She was an amazing luminous slender slightly ghostly presence, with a clarinetlike alto voice of great warmth and sadness and humor and power. She had been a nun. She knew more about Rome, ancient and onwards, than anyone I’ve known, translated fluently from Greek, Latin, and the Italian of Petrarch. Talked with the ghost of Tasso. A virtuoso of meter. I only saw her about 4 or 5 times in person, but we corresponded for decades, almost entirely about poetry and philosophical/spiritual matters. Her astonishing poem, The Gardens of Flora Baum, is going to be published in five volumes some time in the next year or so. I’ll give more details when I get them.


In Memoriam, J. T. Fraser

Two days ago one of the great human beings of our time died quietly in Westport, Connecticut. For those who did not have the pleasure and the privilege of knowing Julius Fraser, perhaps you might imagine a sort of combination of Einstein, Yoda, Gandalf, Dr. Johnson, Socrates, the Old Testament God, and Groucho Marx. For me as for many others he came as close to being a guru or roshi as anyone can in this skeptical age.

I believe him to have been the most important philosopher of the last hundred years. He enormously expanded the grasp and writ of philosophy so as to incorporate science with philosophy, for the first time since the often disastrous attempts to do so in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and to grow a live discipline of the humanities upon that newly fertile ground. He was as important an original scientist as scientist as he was a universal thinker. He was a prose stylist of great force and clarity in a language that was not his first, nor even, I believe, his second.

Beyond his astonishing learning in a whole range of disciplines, his almost impossibly ingenious gift for argument, his visionary imagination and his practical understanding of how things work, he possessed many characteristics not always found in great thinkers. He had a huge heart, an effective and genial sociability, a puckish charm (that saved his life many times as a young man hunted as a homeless fugitive through war-torn Europe) and a delightful sunny sense of humor that was not above deserved satire nor beneath tragic irony. He experienced at first hand the worst things that human civilization has ever done and never gave up hope and humanity.

Though his life was long, rich, and fully achieved, and he died surrounded by people who love him, most especially his dear wife Jane, we mourn him, not for his loss but for ours. The more reason to carry on his ideas and especially his spirit in our work.


Gold Sprayed Macaroni

If anyone needed any more proof that the official world of the visual arts is in real trouble, the reality show Work Of Art: The Next Great Artist should settle all doubts. The young artists themselves are quite talented, but their mentors on and off the show are wrecking their native gifts and indoctrinating them with an empty ideology of novelty, stylishness, cheap social cynicism, silly “theory” and self concern. Craft and the meditative insight that comes with it are ignored or discouraged. Even the cleverness is now wretchedly hit or miss: it’s the cleverness of Ms. Brown who gets the fourth grade to make edgy PC Valentines. “Installations,” nude self photos, live cast “sculpture.” I suspect that some of these kids on the show could draw and paint and sculpt like angels if they were given a chance and real training. What a waste. Pardon the rant, but when there’s more art in 5 minutes of the average cooking–or modeling, or styling, or HAIRstyling–reality show than in a whole season of a series devoted to fine art, the wind has started blowing in a new direction.

Further note: actually the eventual winner, Abdi Farah, wasn’t bad. He seems to have survived his art education, and I hope he can keep his vision.

I’ve got to stop watching TV. But the semester–teaching a courses on beauty, epic, and poetry–should take care of that.


The Power of Conversation

My old friend Charles Cameron has become involved with a very interesting conversation with an erstwhile al-Qaeda leader that has been going on in the blogosphere. Al-Masri’s reply to Charles was very interesting. Here is what I said to Charles:

This is an amazing correspondence. Bravo on being part of it.

For me the most significant thing, underlying all the others, is the
Richard/Saladin image. Basically the import of Al-Masri’s writing is
a desire for respect, to be treated as an honorable equal. That was
why he responded with such chivalry to Farrall and with such
enthusiasm to your own revelation of your warrior ancestry.

I think that the Ummah itself wants one symbolic victory, where it has
the moral advantage and the chance for magnanimous action in victory.
It was Egypt’s few days of success in the Yom Kippur war that gave it the
sense of self-respect to make peace with Israel.

[If we allowed] breathing room for the grand, generous, sexist, sentimental sense of
Muslim honor, all or most of our strategic objectives might be
achieved in negotiation.


China Photos

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Goodbye to China

The Traveler Packs His Tent of Words

How quickly Yichang has become my home,
How dear the places where I cooked and slept.
But for us humans, all is to and from,
And nothing can be saved and nothing kept.

Just to sit down and eat we make a place
That is the center of a little world,
And merely the direction of one’s face
Becomes a kind of tie or anchor-hold.

A dream! To waken is to leave behind
The one we were before sleep’s little death:
It is the penalty of humankind,
The rising dark between our every breath.

But always, on a ship or on a plane,
I can put up the tent of poetry,
The flimsy fabric that keeps off the rain
Of loss, loneliness, and mortality.


And Another

At the Source of the Yang Jia Shi River

There’s been no moon since I came to Yichang.
Mist and rain hid her white face from view.
And so the ancient poets of the Tang
Seemed to say: “This was not meant for you.”

But now I’ve reached the place the Yang Jia Shi
Bursts from the mountain in three spouts of white,
Fed by the fog-wreathed crags that roar to me
The same moon-foaminess I missed at night.


Another poem from Yichang

The Girls of China

I see your conscience and your sheer clean hair,
Your graceful carriage, pliant as a feather,
How when a duty of the heart is there,
You press determined little lips together;

I see your stylishness, your quiet chic,
As you walk arm in arm with a girl friend;
I see the trace of color in your cheek,
When there is something that you should defend;

I see you under your light parasol,
Transparent darkness in your clear brown eyes,
I see your odd thought and your forthright soul,
Obscurely simple and naively wise.


The Dam and the Wall

The Three Gorges Dam

In one huge act of unremitting will,
To thirty billion tons this wall says No.
But Yes pours through the turbines of this mill,
As strange thoughts through the Wall of long ago.

(Thirty billion tons, around 30 cubic kilometers, is the amount of water impounded by the dam.)