Wary of unity

It’s true that I appreciate a somewhat calmer political/media cycle, in part because I sense slightly lower levels of anxiety from my friends. I love my friends and feel sad when they express fear and exhaustion. The social and environmental messes we humans have made continue, however, as the pandemic stretches on (my region is still in “extremely high risk” covid territory, though most of the people I know personally have been vaccinated). Many of us continue to endure losses of all sorts. Even if the losses are small ones, cumulatively they aggregate, intensified by the spectre of climate change and virus spread and whatever local bogeymen trawl through people’s lives.

In response to the current difficulties, we keep hearing calls for “unity.” One way politicians and community advocates of all stripes and ideologies endeavor to “make nice” is through the concept of unifying people. It sounds like a good thing, to invoke our similarities and our common human bond in order to achieve…[insert goal here].

I’m wary of calls for unity. It’s not that I’m cynical (maybe a little), and I’ve certainly been idealistic in my time; but long experience and lots of stories and histories and my father’s background in how people behave in groups have led to feeling circumspect about unity. It works with people, yes, but it also leads to the worst aspects of tribalism. To the fostering of rigid ideologies. To acts against outliers, to the construct of evil Others. I’ve recently re-read Reinhold Niebuhr’s prescient and insightful Moral Man and Immoral Society, and his analysis of how humans behave individually versus in groups strikes me as relevant today as it was in 1932. My dad studied with Niebuhr during the latter’s last years at Union Theological Seminary and, reading this book, I find I’m reflecting on the ways this philosopher/theologian influenced my then-young father’s views on humanity.

My dad was an optimist, a Pollyanna, a great believer that God loved each human equally and that there exists in each person the promise of Good (because his God is Good). As my dad matured and experienced more of life and a lot of death, injury, backbiting, illness, pain, misery, in-fighting, and scapegoating–even in the Church–he examined more closely the dynamics of people in groups. Here’s where Niebuhr gets it right, as far as I can tell: people in groups suck.

No, he never says that, and perhaps I overstate. People in groups tend toward tribalism, shunning those who differ in opinion, perspective, or other ways. People in groups lean inexorably toward immoral behavior, even when the group is made up of individually moral people. Again and again, under differing social perspectives, Niebuhr demonstrates that unity thwarts diversity even when group intentions are moral. And, all too often, with immoral results.

My dad never really gave up on the idea that people could successfully deal with different perspectives and goals even in the same group, that there were approaches to group dynamics that would produce win-win outcomes or compromises without sore feelings. In this respect, he was an Enlightenment thinker like Locke. Optimistic, as I’ve said, though I suppose there were times he despaired; indeed, I know there were. Perhaps he recited the Serenity Prayer* to himself when he felt powerless to make a difference. Perhaps the way people in groups behave is one of those things we cannot change and must somehow accept.

For myself, I choose diversity. The earth manages its diversity wonderfully, even when human beings thwart it. Milkweed seeds and thistle find their ways into monoculture cornfields. Plants and insects gradually populate the rubble we make.

When circumstances keep me in a tribe-like bubble, I read books and poems that show me other perspectives, other climes, other social cultures, cities, classes, geographies–other histories than my own. I find ways to explore, in person or virtually, artwork and film work, drama, music, and dances from places I may never visit but without which I would be less attuned to the World. To its wonders, which are many. Insert here, instead of a unified goal all people “should” achieve, Whitman’s “Kosmos” or Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” with its line “All things counter, original, spare, strange;” or, more contemporary, Vievee Francis’ glorious “Another Antipastoral” that states:

Don’t you see? I am shedding my skins. I am a paper hive, a wolf spider,
the creeping ivy, the ache of a birch, a heifer, a doc.


The World, that great unity. That global balancing act. That paradox: Outliers and Others being necessary, and Beloved.

Happy Earth Day, a day late.


* You may be familiar with the Serenity Prayer, which Niebuhr composed.

Hinges, Hopkins, “Buckle! AND…”

Thinking about poetry again, at long last. A colleague directed me to a lovely little online post in which poet Catherine Barnett describes her attempts to create a physical analogy of poetry as hinge: here on the University of Arizona site.

Barnett writes:

As a poet, what interests me about a hinge is its two defining qualities: a hinge—like other devices—connects objects; it serves as a point of connection, a joining, a joint. But so is glue, a screw, a nail, a hasp, a clasp, a knot, a lock. What distinguishes a hinge from most other forms of connecting is the fact that it allows relative movement between two (or more) solid objects that share an axis.

In a poem, a hinge word or moment or gesture allows you to have both continuity and gap; unity and difference; such “hinges” keep the parts of the poem in some working relationship to one another and at the same time allow the poem to retain some of what Aristotle calls the unities of time and place.

How radically or loosely you want the hinge to open is a matter of temperament.

I love that idea of temperament juxtaposed with relative movement, continuity and gap. I’ve long mulled over the concept of joinery as a metaphor for some of the things that happen in poetry (even if “poetry makes nothing happen,” I do wish people would remember Auden’s next phrase that “it survives/In the valley of its making”). The hinge offers another analogy that Barnett hints at though doesn’t fully develop in her brief piece. I felt inspired to explore a poem that I think demonstrates the concept of the hinge.

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Aside from the fabulous alliterative sound-joy and astonishing rhythms of this poem, it offers powerful, realistic description of a bird that manages to operate symbolically if the reader chooses to interpret it that way (as Hopkins surely meant his readers to do). I propose that there are several hinges in this poem, most spectacularly the center line in the center stanza, exclamation and capitalization marking the spot. It is at this point in the poet’s observation that pride, plume, brute beauty suddenly buckle: the falcon wings fold, plunge, AND…the bird breaks into the dangerous shine that makes the viewer’s heart leap at the sight.

Perhaps there is a moment when the bird’s shape resembles a cross in the sky. Perhaps the sun behind the gleaming feathers sends out shimmers like flames, the glory of God illuminated. Or it’s just a falcon, handsome and gliding on the big wind, but that hinge in the poem’s line serves to alert us to the gap (the hinge-like action of wings an unintended simile) and the continuity of the poet’s observation.

There are other hinges that work in the piece, such as the hyphen in its odd place at the end of the first line, promising “king” but leading instead to the string of D sounds that drum through the second line; the closed hinge of “Stirred for a bird” opening wide into the surprising exclamation that hangs of the axis of a long dash “–the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”

I’m not sure I’m going to attempt Barnett’s original idea of making a poem physically into a hinge (though I have some tantalizing thoughts about ways one could accomplish that); I hope eventually to write about the joinery analogy. Meanwhile, however, I’m spending the evening with Hopkins’ “Windhover” in my mind. A pleasant way to open, or to close, a mild day late in autumn.



middle island ~

Human beings crave control. We want to be the masters of our own fate or to believe that there is a master of our fates who can be entreated or persuaded, propitiated or cajoled into helping us to gain control of our lives or the lives of others. We want to change the weather so that the rain falls when the soil needs rain, wetting the seeds we’ve sown, and so that the warmth comes when our plants need warmth. We want the sea to be calm and the fog to lift when we are ready to set sail. We want fine, sunny days when we visit the beach to swim or head out for a picnic. We want just enough snow so that school’s canceled, but not so much that our power goes out. We pray. We dance. We chant. We invent little private rituals and participate in community rituals.

We want to control our health. It does not seem to be an unreasonable aim. We want to control our relationships–just enough to keep ourselves happy. We want control over our careers and  our income–not so much to ask. We want to be able to make our own decisions. We want choices so that we feel we have control over our lives.

My gardens are my analogy today. I’m still endeavoring to exert some control over my vegetable garden, but I kept my purposes modest this year; I planted fewer beans, fewer tomatoes, fewer peppers, fewer potatoes, no onions, no peas, no edamame, no radishes…the walk-through rows are wider so it is easier to weed. Beginning with the dry warm winter and some assemblies of challenges that do not pertain to the garden, the season looked “iffy.” Then came lashings of showers in May. A challenging season, but not insurmountable. I have been gardening a long time, and I have methods of adapting to things I cannot control. It comes with the territory.

The ornamental beds have presented the most difficult struggle with my need to control the space I (somewhat ridiculously) consider my own. When the beds get overgrown–as they are now–I know that I can accept their exuberant rioting with the successful weeds. I can say, “This is what nature intends. There is beauty here.”


I do know that. But the controlling mind–the monkey mind–says, “Too much penstemon; it’s gotten aggressive. Deadhead the peonies. Pull up the plantian, the wild asters, fleabane, wild garlic, crabgrass, bermuda grass, creeping charlie, five-leaf vine. Get the seedlings out of there (mulberry, redbud, oak). Mulch. Keep the rabbits off the hostas. Move the marybells. Get the weeds out of the alchemilla…”

My head clouds with fog. The seas get rough and I despair, because I cannot control things. Not even a small garden.

Instead, I could be meditating on green. On the amazing variety of leaf-shapes, on dappledness (like G. M. Hopkins):

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:

Práise hím.


Here is one aspect of my ornamental garden. Overgrown, yes. Lush, diverse, lovely in its unrefined way. Until I have the wherewithal to tear through and divide and move and mulch, this is not a bad view, the definition of … lack of restraint, ornamentals gone wild. Freedom, I suppose.

A little too much of some good things.

As we grow, we learn to let go. So I am told. Garden, you have a chance to go wild!

And I guess I have the opportunity to learn to live with that.

Speech Therapy

My long-time friend and fellow writer Chris Peditto stopped by for a visit yesterday. The day was cold and rainy here, and he was complaining about the gardening challenges of cutting back and cleaning up after the big ficus tree, date palms, and bougainvillea around his Echo Park home. I kind of envy him the bougainvillea, though.

Our conversations ranged over many subjects–art, music, poets, friends–but one story he related stays with me today. Early in 2010, after some surgery, Chris lost his ability to speak, read, and write. A poet, avid reader, reviewer, teacher of rhetoric and writing, the irony of that loss did not escape him; and he was determined to regain his ability to communicate. Reading and writing returned fairly quickly, but the speech deficit hung on. He told me that as he lay in bed recuperating, and frustrated, he tried to figure out a way to get his speech back. How had he learned to speak in the first place, more than 50 years earlier? Could he return to that process?

Nursery rhymes.

“I sat up in bed and recited ‘Humpty Dumpty,'” Chris said, “And it all came through. Every word. And understandably, too.”

From that point onward, he incorporated poetry into his speech practice and therapeutic exercises. His observation is that what we learn by heart–and he stresses the metaphor there, of the heart doing the “knowing”–integrates more thoroughly, makes up the much-touted “mind/body connection.” Poetry, he stresses, has speech-rhythm and pulse-rhythm. He uses daily recitations of poems to help improve the speech he has regained.

We talked for four hours, so I’d say he’s regained his speech. He doesn’t feel satisfied with the gains yet, because he still slurs and sometimes can’t pronounce a word without a couple of tries. He isn’t giving up; and what a joy his daily practice is! For while he varies his oral readings when he practices poetry, he always begins with this Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, one he’s known by heart for decades, and on which note I will leave my readers:

Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.