Friday, January 30, 2009

land of lost content


That is the land of lost content,
I see it through a scrim
of memory that time has bent,
both indistinct and dim.

Where has the content disappeared,
I wonder? Can I find
some remnants that are less than weird
within my aging mind?

The content, so it seems to be,
has been replaced by dis-
content. Within its lost debris
are treasures that I miss.

No Shropshire lad, I come from Hen-
don, Golders Green
the continent and mise-en-scène
that I see through a screen.

These are the places where I lost
the content of the life
I had before my Pentecost
epiphany, my wife.

This is the place where I would waste
my time in useless prayer.
Although for both I’ve lost my taste,
my content is still there.

My sister Esther writes to me this morning from Israel that at a concert performance of “Don Giovanni” in Jerusalem a lady came up to her and told her: “My name is Sandra. The first time I ever saw ‘Don Giovanni’ was with your brother in the Royal Festival Hall.”

I have no memory of that event, but it connects me to a verse by A. E. Housman that Kenneth Turan quotes on the same day in his LA Times review of Terence Davies’ poetic documentary looking at life, loss and Liverpool, “Of Time and the City”:

On one level, the tone of "Of Time and the City" is one of regret, sadness at the disappearance of the working-class city the filmmaker grew up in. Davies begins the film with a quote from A.E. Housman's "A Shropshire Lad" that emphasizes this melancholy that the past is no more: "That is the land of lost content / I see it shining plain/ The happy highways where I went / And cannot come again." But filmmaker Davies, who narrates the film himself in a gruff, acerbic voice, is not one for sentimental nostalgia. Yes, he loves and misses the Liverpool of his youth, on display in that lovely black-and-white newsreel footage, but he still boils with fury at some of what he experienced there, and he's far from shy about expressing his resentments. Sometimes that anger sounds grating and overwrought, but it also provides a stern counterpoint to the beautiful images and melodies it accompanies. Davies, raised Catholic, is especially vocal about his experiences with organized religion, striking out against "the years wasted in useless prayer." He's none too happy with the monarchy either, lambasting the extravagances of the future Queen Elizabeth's wedding, calling it "The Betty and Phil Show."

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/30/09

land of lost content


That is the land of lost content,
I see it through a scrim
of memory that time has bent,
both indistinct and dim.

Where has the content disappeared,
I wonder? Can I find
some remnants that are less than weird
within my aging mind?

The content, so it seems to be,
has been replaced by dis-
content. Within its lost debris
are treasures that I miss.

No Shropshire lad, I come from Hen-
don, Golders Green
the continent and mise-en-scène
that I see through a screen.

These are the places where I lost
the content of the life
I had before my Pentecost
epiphany, my wife.

This is the place where I would waste
my time in useless prayer.
Although for both I’ve lost my taste,
my content is still there.

My sister Esther writes to me this morning from Israel that at a concert performance of “Don Giovanni” in Jerusalem a lady came up to her and told her: “My name is Sandra. The first time I ever saw ‘Don Giovanni’ was with your brother in the Royal Festival Hall.”

I have no memory of that event, but it connects me to a verse by A. E. Housman that Kenneth Turan quotes on the same day in his LA Times review of Terence Davies’ poetic documentary looking at life, loss and Liverpool, “Of Time and the City”:

On one level, the tone of "Of Time and the City" is one of regret, sadness at the disappearance of the working-class city the filmmaker grew up in. Davies begins the film with a quote from A.E. Housman's "A Shropshire Lad" that emphasizes this melancholy that the past is no more: "That is the land of lost content / I see it shining plain/ The happy highways where I went / And cannot come again." But filmmaker Davies, who narrates the film himself in a gruff, acerbic voice, is not one for sentimental nostalgia. Yes, he loves and misses the Liverpool of his youth, on display in that lovely black-and-white newsreel footage, but he still boils with fury at some of what he experienced there, and he's far from shy about expressing his resentments. Sometimes that anger sounds grating and overwrought, but it also provides a stern counterpoint to the beautiful images and melodies it accompanies. Davies, raised Catholic, is especially vocal about his experiences with organized religion, striking out against "the years wasted in useless prayer." He's none too happy with the monarchy either, lambasting the extravagances of the future Queen Elizabeth's wedding, calling it "The Betty and Phil Show."

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/30/09

Thursday, January 29, 2009

giving the mundane its beautiful due


Giving the mundane its beautiful due
he achieved when he strewed like confetti
his books and short stories, plus poems I view
as arias to his fine libretti,
not forgetting reviews of a large range of fiction,
and art that allowed him to show
erudition as well as his great predilection
for images he caused to glow
with words that illuminate until today,
and will to the end of all time,
engaging our minds from which words ricochet,
as they do in this tribute in rhyme,
though mostly confined to amiddle-class grid,
not solving irrational riddles
created by conflicts of ego and id,
his favorite places the middles.
Neither hare nor a tortoise, I’m merely a rabbit
who’s running to keep up with him,
just sharing one thing with this master: his habit
of filling wordcups to the brim,
though only in his case can we say his cup
runneth over with goodness. Bookbalm
cannot sooth us in Gilead, or now make up
bewitched, for the loss of his charm.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in his obituary of John Updike in the NYT, January 28, 2009 (“John Updike, A Lyrical Writer of the Middle-Class Mn, Dies at 76” and Michiko Kakutani (“A Relentless Updike Mapped America’s Mysteries”) both write obituaries of John Updike in the NYT, January 28, 2009:

Lehmann-Haupt writes:

Of Mr. Updike’s many novels and stories, perhaps none captured the imagination of the book-reading public more than his precisely observed tales about ordinary citizens in small-town and urban settings. His best-known protagonist, Harry Rabbit Angstrom, first appears as a former high-school basketball star trapped in a loveless marriage and a sales job he hates. Through the four novels whose titles bear his nickname — “Rabbit, Run,” “Rabbit Redux,” “Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit at Rest” — the author traces the funny, restless and questing life of this middle-American against the background of the last half-century’s major events. “My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” From his earliest short stories, he found his subject in the everyday dramas of marriage, sex and divorce, setting them most often in the fictional town of Olinger, Pa., which he described as “a square mile of middle-class homes physically distinguished by a bend in the central avenue that compels some side streets to deviate from the grid.” He wrote about America with boundless curiosity and wit in prose so careful and attentive that it burnished the ordinary with a painterly gleam.

Kakutani writes:

Endowed with an art student’s pictorial imagination, a journalist’s sociological eye and a poet’s gift for metaphor, John Updike — who died on Tuesday at 76 — was arguably this country’s one true all-around man of letters. He moved fluently from fiction to criticism, from light verse to short stories to the long-distance form of the novel: a literary decathlete in our age of electronic distraction and willful specialization, Victorian in his industriousness and almost blogger-like in his determination to turn every scrap of knowledge and experience into words. It is as a novelist who opened a big picture window on the American middle class in the second half of the 20th century, however, that he will be best remembered. In his most resonant work, Mr. Updike gave “the mundane its beautiful due,” as he once put it, memorializing the everyday mysteries of love and faith and domesticity with extraordinary nuance and precision. In Kodachrome-sharp snapshots, he gave us the 50’s and early 60’s of suburban adultery, big cars and wide lawns, radios and hi-fi sets, and he charted the changing landscape of the 70’s and 80’s, as malls and subdivisions swallowed up small towns and sexual and social mores underwent a bewildering metamorphosis….In one of these collections, Mr. Updike summed up his love of his vocation: “From earliest childhood I was charmed by the materials of my craft, by pencils and paper and, later, by the typewriter and the entire apparatus of printing. To condense from one’s memories and fantasies and small discoveries dark marks on paper which become handsomely reproducible many times over still seems to me, after nearly 30 years concerned with the making of books, a magical act, and a delightful technical process. To distribute oneself thus, as a kind of confetti shower falling upon the heads and shoulders of mankind out of bookstores and the pages of magazines is surely a great privilege and a defiance of the usual earthbound laws whereby human beings make themselves known to one another.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/28/09

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

old testament wrath


Maureen Dowd has suggested Obama should spread
no more balm from the New Testament,
but turn to God’s wrath in the One that is said
to be older, and from Sinai-sent,
containing the message that God can get mad
at the people who’re greedy and covet
the wife of their neighbor, and to the list add
their wife, ox and ass––don’t you love it,
the list of the things that Lord God says you oughtn’t
to covet? Today there are things
that, coveted, seem to be far more important,
like planes with executive wings,
and curtains and baskets and Regency chairs,
side tables; of course chandeliers,
retaining thei value far longer than shares
that are sold by these gray marketeers
to help them live up to the fabulous style
to which they are drawn like a moth
attracted to light, while they flit as agile
as a bull or Wall Street behemoth.
Sweet Jesus, who wouldn’t be seen in a limo
either dead or alive, cannot cope
like Presidents, with such a problem, but Primo
his Father sure can––well, I hope!

Writing about the profligate spending of the Wall Streeet financiers who have caused the recent economic collapse, Maureen Dowd writes, in the NYT, January 28, 2009 (“Wall Street Jet Setters”):

As President Obama spreads his New Testament balm over the capital, I’m longing for a bit of Old Testament wrath. Couldn’t he throw down his BlackBerry tablet and smash it in anger over the feckless financiers, the gods of gold and their idols — in this case not a gilt calf but an $87,000 area rug, a cache of diamond Tiffany and Cartier watches and a French-made luxury corporate jet? Now that we’re nationalizing, couldn’t we fire any obtuse bankers and auto executives who cling to perks and bonuses even as the economy is following John Thain down his antique commode? How could Citigroup be so dumb as to go ahead with plans to get a new $50 million corporate jet, the exclusive Dassault Falcon 7X seating 12, after losing $28.5 billion in the past 15 months and receiving $345 billion in government investments and guarantees?...
New York’s attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, always gratifying on the issue of clawing back money from the greedy creeps on Wall Street, on Tuesday subpoenaed Thain, the former Merrill Lynch chief executive, over $4 billion in bonuses he handed out as the failing firm was bought by Bank of America. In an interview with Maria Bartiromo on CNBC, Thain used the specious, contemptible reasoning that other executives use to rationalize why they’re keeping their bonuses as profits are plunging. “If you don’t pay your best people, you will destroy your franchise” and they’ll go elsewhere, he said. Hello? They destroyed the franchise. Let’s call their bluff. Let’s see what a great job market it is for the geniuses of capitalism who lost $15 billion in three months and helped usher in socialism. Bartiromo also asked Thain to explain, when jobs and salaries were being cut at his firm, how he could justify spending $1 million to renovate his office. As The Daily Beast and CNBC reported, big-ticket items included curtains for $28,000, a pair of chairs for $87,000, fabric for a “Roman Shade” for $11,000, Regency chairs for $24,000, six wall sconces for $2,700, a $13,000 chandelier in the private dining room and six dining chairs for $37,000, a “custom coffee table” for $16,000, an antique commode “on legs” for $35,000, and a $1,400 “parchment waste can.” Does that mean you can only throw used parchment in it or is it made of parchment? It’s psychopathic to spend a million redoing your office when the folks outside it are losing jobs, homes, pensions and savings. Thain should never rise above the level of stocking the money in A.T.M.’s again. Just think: This guy could well have been Treasury secretary if John McCain had won. Bartiromo pressed: What was wrong with the office of his predecessor, Stanley O’Neal?“Well — his office was very different — than — the — the general décor of — Merrill’s offices,” Thain replied. “It really would have been — very difficult — for — me to use it in the form that it was in.” Did it have a desk and a phone? How are these ruthless, careless ghouls who murdered the economy still walking around (not to mention that sociopathic sadist Bernie Madoff?) — and not as perps? Bring on the shackles. Let the show trials begin.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/28/09

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

unlike marie-antoinette


Marie-Antoinette had a lot more class
than the fraudsters of greed who beset us
avant le déluge, when the flood came, alas,
and made all rich creditors debtors.
It’s said Marie-Antoinette offered cake
to the peasants who clamored for bread:
I’ve heard that this legend’s a dreadful mistake,
but who cares? The lady is dead!

In contrast, the fraudsters are mainly alive,
and have paid themselves all a great bonus,
and still in their mansions appear to survive
quite free of remorse, since the onus
of guilt, they all claim, should be on all suckers
who trusted them. When you’re the tempter
who makes a great living by fooling hard-luckers
your motto is caveat emptor.

What makes man unique, said Mark Twain, is the fact
that when he’s ashamed he’ll start blushing,
except for these fraudsters, who when they’re attacked
tell accusers it’s wrong to go rushing
to judgment. They’re right. Like Marie-Antoinette,
they deserve a fair trial, which she never
received, but they will. And they won’t have to sweat
when this happens––their lawyers are clever!

If only Marie-Antoinette had assistance
from lawyers like theirs we’d be saying
the diet she offered––above what’s subsistence––
should have saved her from slovenly slaying.
Far less greedy was she than the men of Wall Street,
though a few who were as unmyopic
appeared to be even more kindly and sweet,
and were famously thought philanthropic.

Clyde Haberman writes, in “Imparting Some Shame in Those Who Trade in Greed,” NYT, January 27, 2009:
Mark Twain, who came up with pretty much every good line not ascribed to Oscar Wilde or Yogi Berra, said of human nature that “man is the only animal that blushes.” “Or needs to,” he added. New York is not quite living up to the Twain dictum. We’ve had a string of prominent people behaving in ways that many others consider shameful. Though they ought to be blushing, they show no sign of doing so. A question, then, is how to make them feel a sense of shame. There is no shortage of examples. Feel free to create your own list, even tossing in a few journalists if you feel like it. What sets us down this path is the greed that some on Wall Street continue to display even as their world crumbles around them. A leading character in this regard is John A. Thain. He has just been bounced as the chief executive of Merrill Lynch, now part of Bank of America, which has received $45 billion in taxpayer bailout money. While Merrill was losing $15.3 billion merely in the last quarter of 2008, Mr. Thain scurried around paying huge bonuses to executives. At one point, according to news reports, he suggested that he himself be paid $30 million or more as a bonus for having done such a splendid job. (In the end, he got no bonus at all, poor devil.) For those who have trouble thinking in terms of billions, the topper was the $1.2 million that Mr. Thain is said to have spent to redecorate his office — purchases like an $87,784 area rug, a $68,179 19th-century credenza, a $35,115 commode and an $18,468 George IV chair. The rug alone cost the equivalent of nearly two years’ pay for the average worker in New York State. If anyone should blush, you’d think it would be Mr. Thain. Or perhaps Richard S. Fuld Jr., who presided over the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, then went around blaming everyone else for what went wrong.Now it turns out that Mr. Fuld has sold his $13 million mansion in Florida to his wife, Kathleen, for — hold onto your hat — $10. The reason for this bit of legerdemain is not clear. But if you don’t sense some sort of dodge, you have a saint’s faith in the nobility of mankind. Twain would have been very disappointed in you. Of course, at the upper reaches of the shameless we have Bernard L. Madoff, no further identification required and no blushing detected.
If they have no bread, let them eat cake!" ("S'ils n'ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche.") — Marie Antoinette [M or A]
The original quote comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions: "I recalled the make-shift of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread and who replied: ‘Let them eat brioche’." ("Je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit, qu’ils mangent de la brioche.") He was referring to an incident in Grenoble, 1740, ten years before Marie Antoinette was born. It has been speculated that he was actually writing of Maria Theresa of Spain or one of various other aristocrats though no evidence has ever been offered for this. In the meantime, Marie Antoinette's attribution to the quote was current in her time in antiroyalist propaganda, most likely to hasten her way to the guillotine.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/27/09

ideas as comfortable as chairs


Chagall liked chairs and tables overturned,
but not the right way up. I think that old
ideas should all be similarly spurned,
because they lead to paths that are potholed.
It’s possible to polish them like fur-
niture, provided that you first remove
their legs, and view them like a connoisseur,
objectively, as ready to disprove
the premises on which they have been based
as you are to upend your chairs and tables,
which very often need to be replaced,
not fashionable for ever like old fables.
When your ideas are comfortable as chairs,
they may need, like old furniture, repairs.

Linda’s suggestion for the first four lines is:

Chagall liked chairs and tables overturned,
but not the right way up. I think that glutted
concepts should be similarly spurned,
because they lead to pitted paths all rutted.

Inspired by a quotation by Chagall that inspired “The Tables Freed,” by Kay Ryan, one of the poems in her collection “Flamingo Watching”. I cite below the poem and the Chagall quotation that inspired it:


The presence of real objects is a nightmare for me. I have always overturned objects. A chair or a table turned upside down gives me peace and satisfaction. Chagall.

A companionable flood can
make things wobble. The
sober table at last enjoys
the bubbles locked in her
grain, straining together
good as Egyptians to shift
the predictable plane.
Dense plates and books
slide off and dive or bloat
but she floats, a legged
boat nosing the helpless
stationeries, the bolted
basin, the metal reliquaries––
in short, the nouns. All over
town tables are bumping
out of doors, negotiating
streets and beginning to
meet at water corners
like packs of mustangs,
blue, red, yellow, stenciled,
enlivened by swells as
wild horses are stretched
liquid and elegant by hills.

The day after I wrote this poem, David Brooks wrote an article (“What Life Asks of Us,” NYT, January 27, 2009), underscoring the importance of institutional thinkingg. The implication of his article is that one should study furniture before throwing out old tables and chairs. Brooks writes:
A few years ago, a faculty committee at Harvard produced a report on the purpose of education. “The aim of a liberal education” the report declared, “is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.” The report implied an entire way of living. Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values. This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness. But there is another, older way of living, and it was discussed in a neglected book that came out last summer called “On Thinking Institutionally” by the political scientist Hugh Heclo. In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are. New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/26/09

Monday, January 26, 2009



Perishability provides
an opportunity to relish
the moment. Time won’t wait, and tides
force us to move, so we embellish
all things that we create, including
relationships, attempting to
ensure that they’ll endure, deluding
ourselves, though what we ought to do
is seize the moment, and forget
the poignancy of passing days,
while giving, hardly with regret,
to all that perishes our praise.

We must not, grieving, show our sorrow
for the loss of all things we
must give to time and tides tomorrow:
tomorrow is another sea
on which we’ll sail until we die,
each day a journey that is new.
I propose no more to sigh,
saying to the past adieu.

Inspired by Holland Cotter’s review of “Raphael to Renoir: Drawings From the Collection of Jean Bonna” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“Where Lines Become a Kind of Language,” NYT, January 23, 2009):
In short, a wonderful drawing can be many things, which is true of most of the work in the Bonna collection, though not all. Mythological tableaus by the likes of Giulio Campi and Giovanni Battista Franco, called il Semolei, have little to offer now, with their rote eroticism and brittle virtuosity. And pretty-pretty, smooth-as-butter religious images, of which the collector seems fond, leave me cold, no matter whose hands they’re from. At the same time, even second-tier or odd-duck pictures come with delicious details. I’m thinking of the tiny feet, sharp as pen-points, on the commedia dell’arte figures in a costume study by Claude Gillot, and of the Aretha Franklin chapeau, worn with an air of preposterous hauteur, by the fashion plate in a drawing by Henry Fuseli. And great is great. In Watteau’s colored chalk drawings of three female heads, and in Degas’s sketch of an all but disembodied tutu, as tumultuous as an avalanche, many things come together: drawing, painting, writing, reality, fantasy, sweetness and something else. It’s the something else — perishability maybe; the idea that you could crumple these things up and toss them away — that gives drawing its peculiar distinction as a medium, and turns even a dessert tray of a show into a nourishing meal.

© 209 Gershon Hepner 1/23/09

Sunday, January 25, 2009

nixon vs. frost


Richard Nixon vs. David Frost:
who d’you think deserved to be the winner,
the man interrogated, looking lost,
because the world condemned him as a sinner,
or the British novice who surprised
the former President why he did not
deep-six the tapes? The President capsized.
Perhaps he should have told him, “I forgot,”
since that explains more frequently than all
the other explanations for our folly,
why we don’t do the things we should, and fall,
like Atreus’ house, with deepest melancholy.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars,
that when we’re high we fall as underlings,
the reason why we fall upon our arse
is that our brains are cabbages, not kings.

Frank Langella has deservedly been nominated for an Oscar for his role of Nixon in the Oscar-nominated move “Frost-Nixon”.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/8/09

Saturday, January 24, 2009

pastel colors for the hoi polloi


Pastel colors for the hoi polloi,
ultramarine and white reserved for saints,
the Virgin, and a most important goy
called Pontius Pilate. Colors of the paint
used by the brothers, Jean and Paul and Herman,
distinguish characters, the highlights in
the Book of Hours, illustrated sermon
designed to keep the readers far from sin,
but now delighting eyes of sinners who
can see the pictures in a darkened room
inside museums, where they are on view,
not warning people that they all face doom
if they do not believe the gory tale.
Different audience now, the Limbourg brothers
would have been proud their colors did not pale,
confined to books, unlike the art of others,
although their messages are mainly lost
to those who by their beauty are enticed
because they are less heartwarming than frost
to those locked in their skeptical Zeitgeist.

Inspired by a review in the WSJ on January 21, 2009 by David Littlejohn of an exhibition of the Limbourg brothers’ “The Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry” at the Getty Museum that Linda and I went to see January 25, 2009. It was one of the most moving exhibitions either of us had ever seen. The imagery is artistically exquisite and narratively fascinating, but, as I imply in the final quatrain, it is difficult to engage cognitively with works whose religious rationale is so foreign to our own. Littlejohn writes:

When the billion-dollar Getty Center opened on its hilltop here 11 years ago, I found myself resisting the museum's skylit galleries upstairs, full of paintings by old and new masters. Instead, I was drawn to two small, dark galleries downstairs on the east side of the central court. These galleries were kept dark because their contents -- drawings and watercolors in one, illuminated manuscripts in the other -- would be wounded by an excess of light. Pinpoint spotlights lit up each small work on display, inviting the viewer to an intimate communion with both art and artist.
Since 1983, the Getty has owned a treasure trove of illuminated European manuscripts made between the 10th and the 16th century. Some of these are shown in rotation every few months, along with prize loans from other collections. On first viewing a sample of the Getty's medieval manuscripts in 1997, I wrote, "Letting your eye course around the intricate lines and details, feasting on the gold and the brighter-than-life colors, trying to get inside the rapturous imaginations of these meticulous miniaturists felt like going to heaven." Now the Getty's manuscript rooms house what may be the most important exhibition of handwritten, hand-painted medieval manuscript pages ever displayed.
On the walls of these two rooms hang framed pairs of small illustrated pages created in France between 1405 and 1409. In free-standing, double-sided glass cases in the middle of the rooms seven more bifolios are shown, allowing viewers to see 26 more paintings on both the front and back of vellum sheets. Altogether, one can see at the Getty 84 of the 172 paintings made by Herman, Paul and Jean de Limbourg -- three brothers born in what is now the Netherlands -- for an illustrated devotional book, or Book of Hours, called "Les Belles Heures du Duc de Berry." Most of the paintings are about 3¼ by 4 inches in size, captioned by four lines of Latin text with oversize, illuminated capitals and surrounded by wide borders of tiny bryony leaves on coiling vines. Four are the size of a large postage stamp, and nine -- inserted into columns of text -- about the size of a business card. But even these can be filled with minute, intricate detail. Thoughtfully, the museum leaves magnifying glasses about in wall racks.
The "Belles Heures" is the second most beautiful book I know of, surpassed only by the "Très Riches Heures," half-completed by the same three brothers for the same royal duke -- before all four died, presumably from the plague, in 1416.
The "Belles Heures" was bought in 1954 from the Paris branch of the Rothschild banking family by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1996 the Met had the pages removed from their bindings to allow a Swiss publisher to make a posh limited-edition facsimile, copies of which currently go for $13,000 to $14,000. Good color reproductions of all the paintings also appear in the $65 book that accompanies this exhibition, ably composed by curator Timothy Husband.
When the folios were separated in 1996, conservators at the Met discovered that many of the paintings were succumbing to the passage of time. Over several years, many square millimeters of flaking paint were painstakingly fixed back in place.
In addition to the sheer beauty, finesse and detail of so many of their miniature paintings, a part of the miracle of the "Belles Heures" is the artists themselves. Herman, Paul and Jean de Limbourg were first hired when they were 17, 16 and 14 years old, to illustrate a Bible for the Duke of Burgundy, the Duke of Berry's brother. When Burgundy died two years later, his wealthy, art-mad brother took on these teenage prodigies to create the "Belles Heures" -- and, after that, all or part of 72 paintings for his incomparable "Très Riches Heures."
The most memorable pages in the first room here are those bearing painted scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and a nearly complete series of 14 images of the passion and death of Christ. Many of these intimate human/divine dramas are framed in detailed architectural fragments, set in buildings out of scale with their occupants or backed by gilt-patterned wallpaper, castellated cities and steep, twisting, conical mountains.
The characters in each scene convey inner emotion both by the postures and curves of their bodies (the naked Christ, both suffering and dead, is long, lean and real) and the individualized expressions on their faces. Most of these characters wear beautifully draped and molded pastel-colored robes -- lavender, lemon, pale green, pale blue and rose. Bright white and dazzling ultramarine (made from ground lapis lazuli) are saved for special people, like the Virgin, the high priest and Pontius Pilate. Gold leaf or gold powder in emulsion (sparkling under the spotlights) is saved for halos, the crowns and gifts of the three kings, bits of armor and rays coming down from heaven. Special prizes include the tender, close-up "Flight Into Egypt"; "The Flagellation," with the stripped Christ impassive before his flailing tormentors; the even more poignant "Christ Nailed to the Cross," with its wild angles, complex cast, and flashes of red-orange; the dark, near monotone "Death of Christ"; and the sublime "Lamentation." The broad leap toward physical and emotional realism presented in these paintings gives the Limbourgs -- who come between Giotto and Van Eyck -- an essential role in the 15th-century shift from medieval symbolism and simplicity to the full-scale humanism of the Italian Renaissance. One great painting -- "Heavenly Hosts," illustrating the feast of All Saints -- retains the patterned symmetry and hierarchy of the earlier tradition, while giving individual features to a multitude of saints honoring Mary and her son in a sumptuously bordered heaven.
In the room across the hall are displayed paintings that seem to me of slightly less artistic ingenuity and importance, and of less compelling emotional impact on the average modern viewer. These include 14 images of individual saints as well as portions of extensive cycles devoted to St. Catherine, St. Jerome and other early Christian worthies. The room does contain impressive storms at sea, bloody tortures and beheadings, plague victims in convulsions and moving images of favorite Christian saints, in the Limbourgs' usual blend of well-chosen colors sprinkled with gold.
When their display here ends Feb. 8, these 600-year-old sheets of inscribed and painted cowhide will be put back to sleep for seven months. They will then be exposed in a once-in-a-millennium show of all 172 images -- in two-sided cases -- at the Lehman Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is scheduled to open Sept. 2. A selection of unbound pages will be sent to the Louvre in Paris in 2011.
Once rebound, this unique book will return to the locked archives of The Cloisters (the Medieval wing of the Metropolitan), to be viewed -- apart from a short annual showing of the volume opened to one pair of pages -- only by bona-fide scholars wearing white gloves. See it while you have the chance.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/25/09

Friday, January 23, 2009

louise bourgeois

This poem contains six poems inspired by works by Louise Bourgeois during a visit Linda and I paid to her works at the LA MOCA on January 22, 2009:


Faceless lovers, one who has a leg
that’s an above-the-knee prosthesis,
in the missionary position beg
for sex that must be anesthetic
since neither of them has a head. We gaze
and wonder how this couple came
to meet, while asking if they can amaze
each other, since the sex seems lame.

Inspired by Couple IV, 1977. In what looks like an old wood and glass display cabinet from a provincial museum the exhibit displays two headless fabric bodies attempting to make love, but there is an emotional distance between the two. Bourgeois explains this piece as her confusion as a child after accidentally witnessing her parents making love, but the overriding sensation is of failure in general.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/23/09


Femme maison, woman with a house
where normally you find a head.
This is not a perfect spouse––
I would rather see a bed.

Inspired by three oil and ink paintings by Louise Bourgeois, depicting a woman with a naked torso and a house replacing the head.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/23/09


It isn’t where my motivation
comes from, but how it survives.
Don’t ask me about inspiration––
it breaks out sometimes, just like hives.

Inspired by a 2007 painting by the 95-year old Louise Bourgeois on which she writes: “It’s not so much where my motivation comes from but how it survives.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/23/09


Art, a guarantee of sanity.
Under arches of hysteria
we search for our humanity
to which we tend to be inferior.

This poem was inspired by two works by Louise Bourgeois. The first is a painting on which she has painted the words: “Art, a guaranty (sic) of sanity.” The second is a gorgeous and extremely sensuous bronze polished sculpture created in 1993, looking like a Brancusi that was sculpted under the influence of LSD called “Arches of Hysteria”.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/23/09


She has turned into a lair
the fortress where she once could not
be harmed, and lies within it bare,
while hoping love won’t hurt a lot.

Inspired by a pyramidal sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, “Lair” (1966). Concerning this piece Marina Warner commented: “She has turned into a fortress her lair.” Warner may be correct in her appraisal of this work, but it strikes me that in many of her other works Louise Bourgeois is working in a lair in which she seeks to be simultaneously loved and hurt.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/23/09


When shove comes to push
I pull for Brancusi,
whose muse when asleep
is more than skin-deep,
assuming a shape
more abstract than grape,
and drier than wine.
That’s why I align
myself, subterranean,
with this great Romanian,
though anti-Semitic,

Inspired by a 1993 work by Louise Bourgeois, “Arches of Hysteria." While that work inspired my poem “Guarantee of Sanity,” it also reminded me of many Brancusis I have seen. I was writing poems prolifically during the exhibition, which made me think about Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse” (1909–10), which is at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/23/09

Thursday, January 22, 2009

splitting infinitives


Chief Justice Roberts hates to split
infinitives and verbs, and goes
towards the future without wit,
as boldly prim as that prim rose,
the path Polonius boldly took,
advising Laertes not to dally.
The Constitution almost shook
when he refused to shilly-shally,
and tried to wander in a way
that was unfaithful to the text––
the oath of office. The next day
the problem was resolved, and now,
Queen’s English and our own Unregal
language must agree that splitting
of infinitives is legal,
although pedantically unfitting,
since we’ve a President who swore
appropriately, and a Justice
who like Polonius is a bore
and clearly just as dry as dust is.

Inspired by Stephen Pinker’s Op-Ed article in the NYT, January 22, 2009, appropriately titled “Oaf of Office,” commenting on the fiasco created by Chief Justice Roberts when administering the oath of office to President Obama according togrammatical rules that conflict with the original text of the oath:
In 1969, Neil Armstrong appeared to have omitted an indefinite article as he stepped onto the moon and left earthlings puzzled over the difference between “man” and “mankind.” In 1980, Jimmy Carter, accepting his party’s nomination, paid homage to a former vice president he called Hubert Horatio Hornblower. A year later, Diana Spencer reversed the first two names of her betrothed in her wedding vows, and thus, as Prince Charles Philip supposedly later joked, actually married his father. On Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Flubber Hall of Fame when he administered the presidential oath of office apparently without notes. Instead of having Barack Obama “solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States,” Chief Justice Roberts had him “solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully.” When Mr. Obama paused after “execute,” the chief justice prompted him to continue with “faithfully the office of president of the United States.” (To ensure that the president was properly sworn in, the chief justice re-administered the oath Wednesday evening.)
How could a famous stickler for grammar have bungled that 35-word passage, among the best-known words in the Constitution? Conspiracy theorists and connoisseurs of Freudian slips have surmised that it was unconscious retaliation for Senator Obama’s vote against the chief justice’s confirmation in 2005. But a simpler explanation is that the wayward adverb in the passage is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts’s habit of grammatical niggling. Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual. Nonetheless, they refuse to go away, perpetuated by the Gotcha! Gang and meekly obeyed by insecure writers. Among these fetishes is the prohibition against “split verbs,” in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like “to,” or an auxiliary like “will,” and the main verb of the sentence. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before”; it should have been “to go boldly.” Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared that “I will always love you” but “I always will love you” or “I will love you always.”
Any speaker who has not been brainwashed by the split-verb myth can sense that these corrections go against the rhythm and logic of English phrasing. The myth originated centuries ago in a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split an infinitive because it consists of a single word, like dicere, “to say.” But in English, infinitives like “to go” and future-tense forms like “will go” are two words, not one, and there is not the slightest reason to interdict adverbs from the position between them.
Though the ungrammaticality of split verbs is an urban legend, it found its way into The Texas Law Review Manual on Style, which is the arbiter of usage for many law review journals. James Lindgren, a critic of the manual, has found that many lawyers have “internalized the bogus rule so that they actually believe that a split verb should be avoided,” adding, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers has succeeded so well that many can no longer distinguish alien speech from native speech.” In his legal opinions, Chief Justice Roberts has altered quotations to conform to his notions of grammaticality, as when he excised the “ain’t” from Bob Dylan’s line “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” On Tuesday his inner copy editor overrode any instincts toward strict constructionism and unilaterally amended the Constitution by moving the adverb “faithfully” away from the verb. President Obama, whose attention to language is obvious in his speeches and writings, smiled at the chief justice’s hypercorrection, then gamely repeated it. Let’s hope that during the next four years he will always challenge dogma and boldly lead the nation in new directions.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/22/09

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

deeds and relationships


Deeds that you perform have life
like living beings. Every action
is virtually the deed’s midwife
whose job is to prevent retraction
of something that may either lead
to benefit or punishment,
the punishment part of the deed,
like an investment, spent
long after it has been performed.

We reap from deeds what we have sown
not as a measure made for measure,
but because the deed has grown,
and finally provides displeasure
if the deed was wrong, and when
correct and virtuous can provide
a benefit like interest men
deserve––and God does not deride.

Relationships are forms of deeds––
we reap what’s sown in them, the joy
or pain that they provide not seeds
but capital that we enjoy.
For what is wrong in them we must
not judge, but must remember they
are built with tendencies to bust,
like people whom God built from clay.

Inspired by Klaus Koch’s explanation of retribution (“Is there a Doctrine of Retribution on the Old Testament?” in James L. Crenshaw, ed. Theodicy in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 57–87, p. 59, cited in Vince Endris, “Yahweh versus Baal: A Narrative-Critical Reading of the Gideon-Abimelech Narrative,” JSOT 33( 2008): 173–95, p. 187. Endris writes:While modern views tend to believe that actions are judged (by Yahweh) either good or bad according to a previously established norm, in the Israelite understanding there was no ‘norm’ and actions were not judged. Rather, there was a built-in and inherent connection between an action and its consequences’. Yahweh’s role, then, is not as a judge who ‘deals out reward and punishment on the basis of an established norm, but rather somewhat like a “mid-wife who assists at birth” by facilitating the completion of something which previous human action had already set into action’.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/21/09

minding heaven and hell


Flat minds in a bony shell
mostly tend to dream of hell,
but when brain cells start to leaven
they start instead to dream of heaven.
In the brainflesh they are cloven,
vibrating while the chords they thrum
accompany old texts, unproven,
pointing towards kingdom come.

The world is flat, Tom Friedman claims,
perhaps that’s why it clearly aims
to lead us all to hell. If round,
it might have raised us from the ground
to reach a heaven men conceived
as plausible when they believed
the world was flat, but since it’s not,
keep cool, since it is getting hot.

Inspired by a poem, “Last Robot Song,” by Robert Pinsky, in the January 26, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, which follows an article “The Dystopians: Bad times are boom times for some,” by Ben McGrath:

A year and a half ago, Dmitry Orlov, a forty-six-year-old software engineer from Leningrad, sold his apartment and bought a boat, on which he and his wife now live, in Boston. Orlov moved to the U.S. when he was twelve, and returned to the Soviet Union for the first time in 1989. Over the course of several visits, he observed the social effects of the Soviet economic breakdown. His 2008 book, “Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects,” identifies the ingredients of what he calls “superpower collapse soup”—a severe shortfall in production of crude oil, a worsening foreign-trade deficit, an oversized military budget, and massive foreign debt—and he argues that the U.S. is not only vulnerable but likely to fare worse. Until recently, Orlov identified the readers of his book, and of a blog he maintains, Club Orlov, as belonging to one of three basic cultural categories: “back-to-the-land types,” “peak oilers,” and all-around Cassandras, or doomers. But in the past few months, he has acquired a fourth audience, composed of financial professionals, who have been bolstering his “gut feeling that the United States is bankrupt.” One of Orlov’s greatest fans is the author James Howard Kunstler, who also writes a weekly blog column. His latest contribution to the doomersphere is the novel “World Made by Hand,” set in the post-collapse future. The writer met with Kunstler in Saratoga Springs, where he lives. In Kunstler’s view, the American economy since Second World War has essentially been one of continuous sprawl-building, and, given what we’ve built, it amounts to “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” Thomas Malthus first lent rational philosophy to the apocalyptic inklings of religious prophets with his “Essay on the Principle of Population,” in 1798, and secular doom booms have tended to coincide with periods of political upheaval or economic breakdown ever since. The Malthusian movement has expanded with time into a kind of peaknik diaspora. Peak oil and peak carbon (i.e., global warming) are the heaviest. The bank and auto industry bailouts have thrust a new concern to the front: peak dollars. Jim Sinclair, a currency and commodities trader, is the king of goldbugs, an intermediate class of doomer. He posts daily commentary on his Web site, Mentions Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the best-selling book “The Black Swan,” about the inevitability of unforeseeable events. Three days after the Presidential election, Kunstler addressed the audience at a Vermont Independence Convention, sponsored by the pro-secessionist group Second Vermont Republic. Mentions Gerald Celente, Kirkpatrick Sale, Chellis Glendinning, Lynette Clark, Rob Williams, Thomas Naylor, and Dennis Steele.

The second half of “Last Robot Song” reads as follows:

Mind, mind, mind;
Itself a capable vibration
Thrumming from here to there
In the cloven brainflesh
Contained in the helmet of bone—
Like an electronic boxful
Of channels and filaments
Bundled inside its case,
A little musical robot

Dreamed up by the mind
Embedded to the brain
With its blood-warm channels
And its humming network
Of neurons, engendering

The resident baby god—
As clever and violent
As his own instrument
Of sweet, all-consuming
Imagination, held
By its own vibration,

Mind, mind, mind pulled
Taut in its bony shell,
Dreaming up Heaven and Hell.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/21/09

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

barack's our headman now


Obama is our headman, now,
not a red man, or lowbrow,
but highbrow who pulled ahead
thanks to what is in his head,
ignoring musclepower that’s
associated with hard hats,
and black men who compete in sports
like lawyers specialized in torts.
Blacks whom white men would attack
unless they lingered at the back
must all feel now extremely mellow
being led by this bright fellow,
a man who’s proved that he can move
white people to do right. Once you’ve
experienced the euphoria
that he produces, gloria
won’t be just in excelsis. We
can celebrate it being free
from burdens of past evils, ready
for leadership that feels most heady.
(I sign off with enthusiasm,
as I conclude with a chiasm.)

Written after hearing the blessing given by the Rev. Joseph Lowery at the inauguration of Barack Obama:
Amid the outpouring of inaugural joy over the racial progress represented by President Barack Obama, there was a single, humorous mention of work still to be done. After the first black president had been sworn in, Rev. Joseph Lowery' ended his benediction with a rhyme familiar to black churchgoers: “We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around...” There was laughter from the enormous crowd. The 87-year-old civil rights pioneer continued: “When yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/20/09

kisses that aren't saccharine


Everything tastes sweet as coke
when eaten after artichoke:
they say its cynarin can fool
the taste buds on the tongue––how cool!
But there’s another way that you can treat
yourself with something that’s as sweet,
and that’s to savor, slowly, kisses
that you are given by your missus;
if you’re as lucky as I’ve been,
her kisses won’t be saccharine.

My wife, who is a lovely wench,
once kissed me in the way called French;
by Cupid's arrow I was stung
and could not find another tongue
like hers, or taste a winner in
my mouth as sweet as cynarin,
and when I'd recapitulate
she'd never once acidulate.
That's why I am her party bloke,
her petit chou and artichoke.

I wrote the first version of this poem in 1999, and added six lines to the first verse after the inauguration of President Obama, when Linda was being particularly sweet to me.

Amanda Hesser, in "from Out of the Mists, the Artichoke" (NYT, March 10, 1999), writes about the artichokes that grow in the Salinas valley just north of Santa Cruz, near Castroville and Davenport. At Yale University, Linda Bartoshuk found that cynarin, an organic compound in artichokes, causes everything eaten after artichokes to taste sweet. Cynarin inhibits sweet receptors on the tongue. When they wash away, the inhibiting effect is release, and the taste receptors interpret their disappearance as sweetness. Dr. Bartoshuk says that the effect, which is genetic, is more prevalent in women. There have been few studies to determine whether the incidence of French kissing is genetic or sex-related although anecdotal information certainly suggests that the latter is true.

© 1999 Gershon Hepner 3/10/99, 1/20/09

Monday, January 19, 2009

books barack obama reads


The books Barack Obama reads can teach us
far more about the man than all the speeches
with which he in the past has tried to reach us,
since he, by making his selections, reaches
beyond both Shakespeare and the Bible and
the Emersonian tract called “Self-Reliance,”
to Reinhold Niebuhr. He must understand
the dangers that beset us from defiance
of innocence when we espouse infall-
ibility, ignoring the ambiv-
alence of good and evil, though banal,
two factors with which we must learn to live.
One small step for mankind, we surely hope,
though he’ll just be the President, not Pope.

Michiko Kakutani writes about the books that President-elect Barack Obama reads (“From Books, New President Found Voice,” NYT, January 19, 2009):
In college, as he was getting involved in protests against the apartheid government in South Africa, Barack Obama noticed, he has written, “that people had begun to listen to my opinions.” Words, the young Mr. Obama realized, had the power “to transform”: “with the right words everything could change -— South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.” Much has been made of Mr. Obama’s eloquence — his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world. Mr. Obama’s first book, “Dreams From My Father” (which surely stands as the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president), suggests that throughout his life he has turned to books as a way of acquiring insights and information from others — as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood and, more recently, the bubble of power and fame. He recalls that he read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and W. E. B. Du Bois when he was an adolescent in an effort to come to terms with his racial identity and that later, during an ascetic phase in college, he immersed himself in the works of thinkers like Nietzsche and St. Augustine in a spiritual-intellectual search to figure out what he truly believed…. What’s more, Mr. Obama’s love of fiction and poetry — Shakespeare’s plays, Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and Marilynne Robinson‘s “Gilead” are mentioned on his Facebook page, along with the Bible, Lincoln’s collected writings and Emerson’s “Self Reliance“ — has not only given him a heightened awareness of language. It has also imbued him with a tragic sense of history and a sense of the ambiguities of the human condition quite unlike the Manichean view of the world so often invoked by Mr. Bush.
Note that Reinhold Niebuhr is the alleged author of the words that formulate the twelve-step program, first used by Alcoholics Anonymous and now adopted by many similar groups.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/19/09

Sunday, January 18, 2009

rumpole, hilda and god


He believed in religion, except about God;
his Rumpole obeyed only Hilda.
Of cases that he never tried the most odd
is God’s death and the people who killed Her.

One senses for Rumpole the secret of life
was absorbing what Hilda had taught him––a
belief less in God than in words of one’s wife,
which I learned without help from John Mortimer.

Sir John Mortimer, creator of Horace Rumpole, died on January 16, 2009, I wrote a number of poems inspired by Rumpole, a character who outfoxed his opponents in the courtroom, but at home he was constantly browbeaten by his formidable wife, Hilda, better known as "She Who Must Be Obeyed." "Rumpole has customarily been described as a great comic creation," lawyer and critic Marcel Berlins wrote in London's Sunday Times. "He deserves to lose the limiting adjective, comic. He is simply one of the great fictional characters of modern English literature." Sir John Mortimer wrote to me twice to tell me how much how he enjoyed them. Tim Ruttten writes in the LA Times, January 19, 2009:

In the end, Mortimer was––like Rumpole––constant but unafraid of contradiction. He was a lifelong socialist who drank Champagne before breakfast, was "all for" homosexuality and disdained feminism. He defended free speech and loathed political correctness. He held conservative politicians in contempt but supported the monarchy and fox hunting. He was an atheist who supported the established church because he "approved everything about it, but God." In a celebrated public exchange, Basil Hume, the former Benedictine abbot who was then cardinal of Westminster, said to Mortimer that, if there were no God, "life would be absurd." "Well, exactly," Mortimer replied.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/17/09

Friday, January 16, 2009

entropy in europe


Entropy in Europe is no hoax.
Europe is Entropa, one Czech jokes,
in the spirit of good soldier Schwejk,
insisting that all fools should take a hike,
describing Italy as somewhere where
autoerotic climaxes are rare,
while France, less like an auto than a bike,
likes sex au pair, except when it’s on strike.
Germany’s a land of highways shaped
like swastikas, fascistically landscaped
wherever Germans drive to look for bargains
in their Mercedes, Porsches and Volkswagens.
Bulgaria is a toilet on the ground
with holes, while Holland, which is drowned,
has only minarets because the dikes
have leaked, except for those a lesbian likes.
Luxembourg’s depicted as a lump
of gold, and has a sign that says, “For sale,”
while Lithuanians standing near a dump
called Russia use it as a urine pail.
Britain’s been removed, perhaps for re-
construction now it doesn’t rule the sea.
Laughing at itself, can Europe be
a continent where everyone is free?
It can, I think, unless someone upsets
the people listening to minarets
when they are broadcasting calls of their muezzins
whose programs are not European lessons.

Sarah Lyall writes about a mosaic that has been installed in the European Council building in Brussels, symbolizing the glory of a united Europe (“Art Hoax United Europe in Displeasure,” NYT, January 15, 2009):
Why didn’t anyone realize right away that there was something seriously weird about the new piece of art in Brussels? The piece, an enormous mosaic installed in the European Council building over the weekend, was meant to symbolize the glory of a unified Europe by reflecting something special about each country in the European Union. But wait. Here is Bulgaria, represented as a series of crude, hole-in-the-floor toilets. Here is the Netherlands, subsumed by floods, with only a few minarets peeping out from the water. Luxembourg is depicted as a tiny lump of gold marked by a “for sale” sign, while five Lithuanian soldiers are apparently urinating on Russia. France? On strike. The 172-square-foot, eight-ton installation, titled “Entropa,” consists of a sort of puzzle formed by the geographical shapes of European countries. It was proudly commissioned by the Czech Republic to mark the start of its six-month presidency of the European Union. But the Czechs made the mistake of hiring the artist David Cerny to put together the project. Mr. Cerny is notorious for thumbing his nose at the establishment. He was arrested in 1991 for painting a tank, a Soviet war memorial in a Prague square, bright pink. In the case of “Entropa,” Mr. Cerny presented the piece as the work of 27 artists, one from each country. But it was all a huge hoax… After being challenged by reporters this week, Mr. Cerny admitted that he and two of his friends constructed the whole thing themselves, making up the names of artists, giving some of them Web sites and writing pretentious, absurd statements to go with their supposed contributions. For example, next to the piece for Italy — depicted as a huge soccer field with little soccer players on it — it says, “It appears to be an autoerotic system of sensational spectacle with no climax in sight.” The fake British entry, a kit of Europe in which the piece representing Britain has been taken out, says, “This improvement of exactness means that its individual selective sieve can cover the so-called objective sieve.”….The work has undoubtedly upset other people, too. The Germans are probably not too thrilled that their country is represented as a series of highways that, looked at a certain way, possibly bring to mind a swastika. Spain has to settle with being a huge construction site, while Romania is shown as a Dracula-themed amusement park….According to the Czech News Agency, the Bulgarian government — the one whose country is shown as a bunch of toilets — summoned the Czech ambassador in Sofia to lodge an official protest. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian permanent representative to the European Union was quoted as saying: “It is preposterous, a disgrace. It is a humiliation for the Bulgarian nation and an offense to our national dignity.” The Czechs have said that they are not sure what steps they will take before the official unveiling, scheduled for Thursday. As for Mr. Cerny, on his Web site he said, “We knew the truth would come out.” He added, “But before that we wanted to find out if Europe is able to laugh at itself.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/15/09

Thursday, January 15, 2009



Survivors state with great insistence
that proof of physical existence
is spiritual, a living Jew
providing virtually a view
of God’s imprimatured imperative:
survival of the moral narrative
of man’s creation from the time
of Adam, made from primal slime,
as physical as filthy earth,
enabling God to bring to birth
a being that resembles Him
far more than any seraphim,
for unlike God, who is man’s mentor
but does not penetrate his center,
man’s body is the evidence
of spiritual coincidence.

Inspired by a remark made by Leon Wieseltier, when interviewed by Charlie Rose on January 13, 2009 together with the two main protagonists of “Defiance,” Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, and the director Ed Zwick. Discussing the survival of about twelve hundred people in the forests of Byelorussia. Wieseltier said: “For survivors, physical existence is spiritual existence.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/14/09

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

foreplay, orgasms and lifelong love


This poem is about a hormone which
may help prevent in seven years your itch.

Oxytocin tends to be released
during foreplay, and becomes increased
with orgasm, that demonstrates our trust
of him or her who triggered in us lust.
It is the hormone helping male voles bond
female voles of whom they’re rather fond.
When oxytocined, male voles will excite
one female, staying with her every night,
whereas most other species play the field
with other partners who to them will yield.

Some human males are much like voles, but some
prefer to play around before they come––
enjoying “sin” combined with “oxyto.”
Though they may keep their partners in escrow,
they generally abscond from females once
they’ve had the pleasure of their willing c-nts.
A lack of oxytocin always wrecks
intensity and quality of sex,
inducing males to look around and cheat.
The problem is they can’t go into heat
unless they’re first toned up by oxytocin.
Though if they lack it they commit no sin,
most people would prefer to take their chances
with it, hoping vainly for romances.
Though sex is always better after wine,
we need a chemical that’s endocrine
to have a climax and in love remain
for ever, if you think that’s not insane.

Inspired by John Tierney’s article on oxytocin in the Science Times of the NYT, January 13, 2009 (“Anti-Love Drug May Be Ticket to Bliss”):

Love was correctly identified as a potentially fatal chemical imbalance in the medieval tale of Tristan and Isolde, who accidentally consumed a love potion and turned into hopeless addicts. Even though they realized that her husband, the king, would punish adultery with death, they had to have their love fix. They couldn’t guess what was in the potion, but then, they didn’t have the benefit of Dr. Young’s research with prairie voles at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. These mouselike creatures are among the small minority of mammals — less than 5 percent — who share humans’ propensity for monogamy. When a female prairie vole’s brain is artificially infused with oxytocin, a hormone that produces some of the same neural rewards as nicotine and cocaine, she’ll quickly become attached to the nearest male. A related hormone, vasopressin, creates urges for bonding and nesting when it is injected in male voles (or naturally activated by sex). After Dr. Young found that male voles with a genetically limited vasopressin response were less likely to find mates, Swedish researchers reported that men with a similar genetic tendency were less likely to get married. In his Nature essay, Dr. Young speculates that human love is set off by a “biochemical chain of events” that originally evolved in ancient brain circuits involving mother-child bonding, which is stimulated in mammals by the release of oxytocin during labor, delivery and nursing. “Some of our sexuality has evolved to stimulate that same oxytocin system to create female-male bonds,” Dr. Young said, noting that sexual foreplay and intercourse stimulate the same parts of a woman’s body that are involved in giving birth and nursing. This hormonal hypothesis, which is by no means proven fact, would help explain a couple of differences between humans and less monogamous mammals: females’ desire to have sex even when they are not fertile, and males’ erotic fascination with breasts. More frequent sex and more attention to breasts, Dr. Young said, could help build long-term bonds through a “cocktail of ancient neuropeptides,” like the oxytocin released during foreplay or orgasm.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/14/09

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

we are museums


Museums sometimes find a silver lining
to poverty––the treasures in their vault
that they dig out, and save, gold miners mining
their heritage, thus staving off default.
They don’t sell off treasures, God forbid,
but unearth what had for long lain buried,
like mummies that from all the living hid,
till like Euridyce from Hades ferried.
Looking back at them curators gaze
like Orpheus, and like him risk the loss
of all the hidden treasures that amaze,
stones that have not rolled or gathered moss.
We all possess some heirlooms that, if sold,
might help us keep the bailiffs from the door,
but though their price may be as great as gold,
they have more value to us than the ore
that miners dig with shovels from the ground.
No treasures in museums ever may
be sold to make financial statements sound;
the donors gave them trustingly away
as gifts no beneficiary may sell.
Our heirlooms that are close to us as wives
have stories we to grandchildren must tell.
Museums do not mine their vaults to trade
the past in order to ensure that they
survive. Our past would surely be betrayed
if we made catalogues––not raisonnés!––
in order that, before our mortal coils
are shuffled, we allow to go to waste
what we in youth accumulated, spoils
that show the world we always had good taste.
We are museums, if you like, with treasures
that give the context of our life, and thus
enable us to vault with vaunted pleasures
worth more than objects traded for cost-plus.

Holland Cotter writes an article about three great museums that have fallen on hard times, despite the treasures in their vaults (“Museums Look Inward for their Own Bailouts,” January 12, 2009):
Major art museums in Detroit, Newark and Brooklyn are prime examples. Forged a century ago or more from idealism and dollars, they are American classics, monuments to Yankee can-do and, in the case of Detroit and Brooklyn, can-do-better-than-Europe. As latecomers to the culture game, American museums had to buy art fast and big, and they did. Their fabulous collections are our national treasures. But times and fortunes — we all know the story — changed. Depression, recession and politics brought powerful cities to their knees. Populations shifted. Whites left as blacks and new immigrants came; a once predominantly European culture became African, Asian, Latino…. In the mid-1990s, when money was scarce, a team of staff curators (of the Brooklyn Museum) went into the vaults, pulled out the museum’s long unseen collection of Spanish colonial material and created a cross-departmental show, “Converging Cultures: Art and Identity in Spanish America.” People who saw it were stunned. Who knew that this fabulous stuff — textiles, portrait painting, furniture, glowing religious icons, high art and low art, elitist and popular — had been there in the dark all that time? Clearly, everyone said, this museum is sitting on a gold mine. It is. Mr. Lehman should start digging now. Sooner rather than later, given the state of the economy, he may not have any choice. For our older, underprivileged, underloved museums, this is the silver lining of hard times. These institutions have the art, the real thing. They have the space; if not much. With luck they have scholarly expertise and curatorial imagination, which they should value like gold. Now is the time, if ever there was one, to look within and bring forth what’s there. People will come. And bigger, richer, less adventurous museums will follow.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/12/09

Monday, January 12, 2009

putin's poison


Peter the Third by Catherine the Great
was strangled, though they claimed he died
of piles, while her son Paul the First had his pate
by an inkwell both shattered and drastically dyed.
The Bolsheviks shot all the Romanovs, and
went on to kill many rogue Bolsheviks too,
after show-trials that Koestler helped us understand,
in a darkness at noon, an état with no coup.

This is the system endemic to in Russia
autocracy tempered by killing the ruler,
succession befalling, like houses of Usher,
where violent acts are believed to be cooler
than transfer of power that’s peaceful. Be grateful
that they now have given up stranglin’ and shootin’,
using methods more secret, but surely as hateful,
like poison that’s ordered by Vladimir Putin.

Simon Sebag Montefiore (“In russia, Power Has no Heirs,” NYT, January 12, 2009) explains Russia’s inability to develop a system of peaceful succession like the one that prevails in western democracies:
SUCCESSION — the handover of power from one leader to another — is the moment of truth for a political system. The American presidential election, for all its magnificent hucksterism, was once again a confirmation of the messy but noble dynamism of democracy — America does its handover of power with dignity (barring a few dubious presidential pardons). Yet in the 21st century there are three Great Powers, and two — Russia and China — boast authoritarian systems ruled by tiny cabals that decide the succession of political power through mysterious, invisible and almost magical rites. The succession in China is shamelessly undemocratic and secretive — but firm and orderly. Moscow is different, if only because the absence of working mechanisms for succession are a real threat to the international order… Catherine, a German with no claim to the throne, in 1762 overthrew her own husband, Peter III, who was subsequently strangled by two courtiers, Aleksei Orlov and his brother Grigory (who was also Catherine’s lover) in a drunken frenzy. The official announcement was that he had died of piles — prompting the French philosopher d’Alembert to joke, when invited by Catherine to visit, that he couldn’t go since he suffered from hemorrhoids, potentially fatal in Russia. Catherine’s heir, Paul I, so hated his mother that he created his law of strict male succession. He was a despotic, half-mad emperor with a fixation on military parades, and in 1801 was strangled and brained with an inkwell by his own courtiers. Yet his decision to codify the turnover of power ushered in an era of stable successions that lasted until 1917…Russia has had a functioning system for handing over power for only 121 years in its entire history: during the later years of the Romanov autocracy. Before Emperor Paul I established a legal structure in 1797, there was no law of succession: Czars simply chose their heirs. Both Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible undermined their own achievements by killing their sons and chosen heirs. After Peter’s death in 1725, the succession was decided through 70 years of palace coups and regicide, a system oft described by the witty phrase “autocracy tempered by assassination.” Strong, intelligent empresses like Elizabeth and Catherine the Great seized power, creating an age of omnipotent petticoats…. Having reached the old term limit last year, Mr. Putin chose and installed a trusted protégé, Mr. Medvedev, as successor. Now many expect the president to return the favor by resigning and permitting Mr. Putin’s return to office. In contortion worthy of medieval Byzantium, Mr. Putin, having handed over power but actually not handed it over at all, may imminently be officially restored to it. Vladimir Putin personifies the successes and flaws of today’s Russia. However superficial the nation’s “sovereign democracy” may be, his popularity is enormous and real. Any politician would envy his association with stability, prosperity, security, restored imperial power and vigorous state authority. It was always presumptuous to expect Russia, an ancient nation-state and proud empire of distinct culture with a tradition of autocracy, to become an Anglo-American democracy overnight — just as it is naïve to expect it in other parts of the world. The unspoken contract between ruler and subject is that in return for safety, prosperity and prestige, the Russians entrust power and cede democratic freedoms to their leaders.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/12/09

Sunday, January 11, 2009

kashering obama


Jimmy, and two Bushes, Bill,
all against Obama rub,
in a season of good will
when it’s wrong to give a snub
to the man who’ll occupy
the office each one has disgraced,
each in his own way forced to try
avoiding signs of their distaste
for new-boy-on-the-block, whose glamour
exceeds theirs now. This is the hour
for all for making nice. Obama,
unlike each one of them, has power,
and power is so sexy, as
Bill proved, though Jimmy and the Bushes
avoided such a meshugas,
against which Barack surely pushes,
clean living man, who’ll save us all
from the embarrassment we had
when Bill, as we can all recall,
was in the office very baaaad.
A photo shows that Jimmy might
resent Bill’s love of busty beauties
by staying far from him, a sight
suggesting he has got the cooties.
Now in our lusting hearts we’re safe
from scandal surely. If Michelle
should see the White House turning trayf,
she won’t shitewash it, but give hell,
so though four Presidents dismay
Americans who’re not a fan,
the fifth one’s bound to be OK,
O-for-Obama Kosher man.

Inspired by an article by Sheryl Gay Stolberg (“The Very Elite Club That Never Meets,” NYT, January 11, 2009), describing a lunch meeting in which President George W. Bush invited his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinto to meet BArack Obama before his inauguration. In a photo accompanying the event Jimmy Carter keeps his distance from Bill Clinton in a manner Maureen Dowd, writing about Dick Cheney in “An Extremist Makeover” (NYT, January 11, 2009), describes the Stay-away-from-me-you’ve-got-cooties stance.
For those who do not know some of the terms I use in this poem, kashering means to make something kosher, trayf means non-kosher and OK, with a capital K inside a capital O, is a logo that certifies food as kosher. Jimmy Carter, of course, once admitted in an interview he gave to Playboy that he lusted in his heart, a more forthright confession than any Bill Clinton gave concerning his extra-cardiac lust. Shitewash was originally a typo, but after I made it I decided to keep it rather than “whitewash,” which I had originally intended to write.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/11/09

Friday, January 9, 2009

back jack


If you like to get things done,
Jack’s the guy you ought to back
since he does this with such fun,
always ready to attack
those who want to undermine
these United States, abusing
the Bill of Rights, and tend to whine
in ways that victims find confusing
after 9/11, and
a lot of other quite outrageous
terror acts that demand
decisive acts by the courageous
against those planning major hurt
to us, and take advantage of
our Constitution and subvert
its small print while they loudly scoff
at all our laws, and try to plunge
the world into a darkness like
the darkness of a deep-sea sponge,
and tell their foes to take a hike.
Though Jack makes politicians cringe,
and causes liberals to scream,
while lawyers of the loony fringe
use words about him that blaspheme,
and doesn’t ever seem to nurture
the feminine side that he expels,
and isn’t squeamish about torture
when fighting for us infidels,
I like the things he does, and fear
that if he doesn’t get them done
should men abort his fine career
we’ll have to say goodbye to fun
and make our peace with faith fanatics,
compelled to choose between our way
of life and hiding in our attics
until those cavemen go away.

Inspired by Mary McNamara’s article about the forthcoming season of “24” (“A Hero’s back, just when we need him,” LA Times, January 9, 2009):

Thank heaven for Kiefer Sutherland. What with all the big-changes-afoot brouhaha about the writers-strike-delatd return of “24” ––Did a stinky Season 6 mean the writers had run out of steam? Could a show based on torture survive in a Gitmo-outraged world? Were the creators out of their flipping minds when they claimed that the silent stopped clock made it clear that Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) wasn’t really dead? ––one had to wonder if Jack Bauer’s next assignment would be to save the baby from the upwardly arching bathwater…But Sutherland, bless his soul, plays Jack absolutely and brilliantly straight. All super-spies have broken hearts, which they camouflage with martinis or dames or icy blue eyes, but Jack Bauer wears his right on his sleeve, even as he picks up his pen and heads for the first available eardrum. So when he’s yanked out of his Senate hearing to aid the FBI in the investigation of a major security breach, he gives his little speech about how he can’t help them because he’s been deactivated, but then he gets down to work. Because it’s Tony, man, and what’s he doing playing for the bad guys? FBI agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching), as steely as she is lovely. Her boss (Jeffrey Nordling) may be the biggest by-the-book, anti-Bauer speech-giver around, but Walker, well, she’s not so sure. She likes a man who gets things done.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/9/09

Thursday, January 8, 2009

traveling without god


With London Transport I won’t cavil,
although their message seems most odd,
declaring to the folk who travel
on buses that there is no God.
They’ve other slogans, e.g: “Stay
in bed on Sunday mornings,” chorus
a Jew on Sabbath might obey
if he were a great apikorus.
Stop worrying, and enjoy your life,
is what these transporters purvey.
“If you do not believe your wife
can see you, why not play
around?” is what I’d like to see
on London buses and the trains,
and if the Lord not agree,
I’d like to see if He complains
if this appears, because it seems
He’s just a figment in the mind
of so-called thinkers, who’ve had dreams
about Him, and yet cannot find
the place where He hangs out. My wife
believes He does exist. I think
she says this to control my life,
and keep me far from demon drink,
all other women, all the sort
of things of which He disapproves.
I will, if He exists, report
Him to His enemy with hooves,
The one who got a great-up
in Milton’s book on Paradise.
With such a one I'd love love to sup,
perhaps with other devil guys,
and tell him to take care of God,
so I can live my life without Him.
If you believe my wish is odd
it means, unlike me, you don’t doubt Him.

Inspired by an article by Sarah Lyall in the NYT, January 7, 2009 (“Atheists Send a Message, on 800 British Buses”):
The advertisement on the bus was fairly mild, just a passage from the Bible and the address of a Christian Web site. But when Ariane Sherine, a comedy writer, looked on the Web site in June, she was startled to learn that she and her nonbelieving friends were headed straight to hell, to “spend all eternity in torment.” That’s a bit extreme, she thought, as well as hard to prove. “If I wanted to run a bus ad saying ‘Beware — there is a giant lion from London Zoo on the loose!’ or ‘The “bits” in orange juice aren’t orange but plastic — don’t drink them or you’ll die!’ I think I might be asked to show my working and back up my claims,” Ms. Sherine wrote in a commentary on the web site of The Guardian. And then she thought, how about putting some atheist messages on the bus, as a corrective to the religious ones? And so were planted the seeds of the Atheist Bus Campaign, an effort to disseminate a godless message to the greater public. When the organizers announced the effort in October, they said they hoped to raise a modest $8,000 or so. But something seized people’s imagination. Supported by the scientist and author richard Dawkins, the philosopher A. C. Grayling and the British Humanist Association, among others, the campaign raised nearly $150,000 in four days. Now it has more than $200,000, and on Tuesday it unveiled its advertisements on 800 buses across Britain. “There’s probably no God,” the advertisements say. “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Spotting one of the buses on display at a news conference in Kensington, passers-by were struck by the unusual message.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/8/09

romeo and juliet go shopping


Getting out of cul de sacs
where I’m often forced to stop
sometimes makes me think of Sax
Fifth Avenue, and want to shop,
but if there are no nosey parkers
who watch me going on my spree,
I head instead for Neiman Marcus,
where customers can park for free.
If people watch me in the cul
de sac I choose another market,
and head for somewhere cheap and dull
like Macy’s, Bloomingdale or Target,
for when I’ve got the shopping urge
I don’t want anyone to know
My only motive is to splurge,
like Juliet and Romeo
when buying one another drugs,
shared together, going Dutch,
heart-stopping shopping just for hugs
for which they surely paid too much.
Inspired my e-mail correspondence with my Pennsylvanian cosmic twin, Shelley, who responded to my poem “Barack not AmBushed” by opining that she hoped that the Obama would find “some road to quiet, if not peace”. My response to this delusory aspiration was: “Cul de sac, perhaps.” And then came this poem.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/7/09

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

obama being ambushed


I could see Barack Obama
to a wall (street) being pushed.
If slammed this way by a slammer,
he could claim he’s been amBushed,
but if driven quite insane
by peace processes where none
exist, men might claim that Hussein
a victory at last had won,
becoming not his middle name,
but first. We’ll have to wait and see,
and hope that BHO won’t game
with Jews as does the BBC,
but if we see Obama’s shove
transformed from pseudo-friendly push,
we’ll have to reconsider love,
while reminiscing about Bush.

Inspired by Thomas Friedman’s column in the NYT, January 7, 2009 (“The Mideast’s Ground Zero”):
Hamas’s overthrow of the more secular Fatah organization in Gaza in 2007 is part of a regionwide civil war between Islamists and modernists. In the week that Israel has been slicing through Gaza, Islamist suicide bombers have killed almost 100 Iraqis — first, a group of tribal sheikhs in Yusufiya, who were working on reconciliation between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and, second, mostly women and children gathered at a Shiite shrine. These unprovoked mass murders have not stirred a single protest in Europe or the Middle East. Gaza today is basically ground zero for all three of these struggles, said Martin Indyk, the former Clinton administration’s Middle East adviser whose incisive new book, “Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Diplomacy in the Middle East,” was just published. “This tiny little piece of land, Gaza, has the potential to blow all of these issues wide open and present a huge problem for Barack Obama on Day 1.” Obama’s great potential for America, noted Indyk, is also a great threat to Islamist radicals — because his narrative holds tremendous appeal for Arabs. For eight years Hamas, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda have been surfing on a wave of anti-U.S. anger generated by George W. Bush. And that wave has greatly expanded their base. No doubt, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran are hoping that they can use the Gaza conflict to turn Obama into Bush. They know Barack Hussein Obama must be (am)Bushed — to keep America and its Arab allies on the defensive. Obama has to keep his eye on the prize. His goal — America’s goal — has to be a settlement in Gaza that eliminates the threat of Hamas rockets and opens Gaza economically to the world, under credible international supervision. That’s what will serve U.S. interests, moderate the three great struggles and earn him respect.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/7/09

Tuesday, January 6, 2009



Nobody has ever managed to annex
a single letter in the way that Kafka did.
As Joseph K. (“The Trial”) and K. (“The Castle”), specs
provided by his name conceals that he’s a Yid,
but when he changes how America is spelt,
replacing c with k, he changes what is my land
as well as your land into Jew-viewed jener Welt,
Amerika that is a frightful, fearful island
which represents a troubled world that’s so bizarre
sane men would either stay away from it or wreck it.
It is a place that should be banished from the mind, Hagar
compelled to wander in the wilderness that Beckett
described much later, using as his model not
America, but somewhere where men stand and wait,
with little rhyme or reason, planted without plot,
for something more ineffable than any state.

Inspired by an article by Adam Kirsch on “Der Verschollene,” Kafka first novel, which Schocken Books will publish with a new translation by Mark Harman (“America, ‘Amerika,’” NYT Book Review, January 4, 2009):
Most writers take years to become themselves, to transform their preoccupations and inherited mannerisms into a personal style. For Franz Kafka, who was an exception to so many rules of life and literature, it took a single night. On Sunday, Sept. 22, 1912, the day after Yom Kippur, the 29-year-old Kafka sat down at his desk and wrote “The Judgment,” his first masterpiece, in one all-night session. “Only in this way can writing be done,” he exulted, “only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.” Everyone who reads Kafka reads “The Judgment” and the companion story he wrote less than two months later, “The Metamorphosis.” In those stories, we already find the qualities the world would come to know as “Kafkaesque”: the nonchalant intrusion of the bizarre and horrible into everyday life, the subjection of ordinary people to an inscrutable fate. But readers have never been quite as sure what to make of the third major work Kafka began writing in the fall of 1912 ­— the novel he referred to as “Der Verschollene,” “The Missing Person,” which was published in 1927, three years after his death, by his friend and executor Max Brod, under the title “Amerika.”
The translator Michael Hofmann, whose English version of the book appeared in 1996, correctly called it “the least read, the least written about and the least ‘Kafka’ ” of his three novels. Now Schocken Books, which has been the main publisher of Kafka’s works since the 1930s, hopes to reintroduce his first novel to the world with a new translation, by Mark Harman. “If approached afresh,” Harman promises in his introduction, “this book could bear out the early claim by . . . Brod that ‘precisely this novel . . . will reveal a new way of understanding Kafka.’ ” Harman offers a compromise between Kafka’s intended title and Brod’s more familiar one by calling his version Amerika: The Missing Person ($25). And he follows previous English editions by retaining the German spelling of America, with a “k.” This lends the name, in American eyes, a more ominous and alien quality than it would have for the German reader. That “k” is hard to resist, however, and not just because readers have come to expect it. No writer has ever annexed a single letter the way Kafka did with “k.” Between the two in his own last name, Joseph K. of “The Trial” and K. of “The Castle,” the letter seems imbued with his own angular essence. Amerika is not America; it is a cipher for Kafka’s dream of a country he never visited.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/4/09

Monday, January 5, 2009

choose the jews


Between the chances, you should choose,
say I, not Auden, only Jews
who read New York’s Review of Books,
but if it is beyond your means
to understand it, move to Queens,
and read the Times’s gobbledygooks.

If God would leave the Jews alone,
they couldn’t use the telephone
or Internet to find their Teacher,
but when He’s left alone by them
He’s always got a stratagem
to prove He’s not as dead as Nietzsche.

What here on earth we lowly mortals
perform, God, in high heaven’s portals
observes, and with the greatest mirth
corrects, like editors, the copy
we send, and they consider sloppy––on
heaven it is as on earth.

Be jealous of the God of dreams
whom Jews invented, though His schemes
lead hardly ever to success,
for if you ever call Him liar
He’ll simulate a bush with fire,
creating a god-awful mess.

Inspired by four verses from a poem W.H. Auden wrote for Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa in 1946, “A Reactionary Tract for the Times”:

If he would leave the self alone,
Apollo's welcome to the throne, Fasces and falcons;
He loves to rule, has always done it;
The earth would soon, did Hermes run it,
Be like the Balkans.

But jealous of our god of dreams,
His common-sense in secret schemes
To rule the heart;
Unable to invent the lyre,
Creates with simulated fire
Official art.

Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose
Between the chances, choose the odd;
Read The New Yorker, trust in God; A
nd take short views.

What high immortals do in mirth
Is life and death on Middle Earth;
Their a-historic
Antipathy forever gripes
All ages and somatic types,
The sophomoric.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/4/09