Monday, May 31, 2010

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

Wise BloodMy rating: 3 of 5 stars
From the author's note to the second edition:
That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great importance. For them Hazel Motes' integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to.

You can run but you can't hide. Lord knows, Hazel Motes tried. Haze came from a long line of southern preachers, and he had, it seems, every intention of falling in line. But something between boyhood and the place where we first meet him -- on a green plush train seat headed home from the war -- he lost his faith. That's an oversimplification; he lost his belief in redemption -- in the need for it. So, it simply follows, that he lost his faith in Christ.

That is a lie. Hazel Motes, to the day he died, never stopped believing in Christ. He runs from the "ragged figure who moves from tree to tree" -- this is a book about that running -- but, in an ironic twist that only God could cook up, his efforts to push away only bring him closer. He goes to see a prostitute and she mistakes him for a preacher -- a common occurrence throughout. He forces himself to seduce a 15-year-old girl, Sabbath Lily Hawks -- one day he says something to the effect of "Gee, I really ought to seduce that girl" and writes her a crude note -- but her vigorous affirmative response throws him off. Whereas he is forcing himself into sin, to prove a theological point, she seems to revel in sin for sins' own sake. Nevertheless, he goes through with his plans of "seduction" and his ultimate redemption comes rather dramatically: he blinds himself with quicklime.

This book is preoccupied with the sensation of sight. Why, even the name, "Hazel Motes"..."mote", literally a speck or particle, is familiar through Mathew 7:3 "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" And the character is sometimes called Haze, which is both an Army-like nickname for concealing the girlish "Hazel" and a synonym for fog. Then there is Sabbath's father...we learn through a newspaper clipping that he tried to blind himself in the name of the Lord, as a public spectacle. A second article proclaims that he chickened out.

From a relatively simplistic perspective, Wise Blood can be seen as one in a line of novels in the Southern Gothic style -- that peculiarly American branch of the Gothic novel that used the grotesque, ironic, and odd to explore deep issues of politics, society, and *surprise* religion. At the fore of this view is the character Enoch Emery (there are some great names in this book), whose ridiculous adventures replicate -- in a grotesque, minstrel show way -- the inner struggles of Hazel. He dresses in bright, day-glow suits; he steals a primitive human mummy from a museum, perhaps perceiving it to be the "new Christ"; and finally, he overtakes a man in a gorilla costume and takes his place. Enoch is the leader of a parade of ridiculous characters, who all jump into Haze's life and quickly jump out again. There is Sabbath and her father (reminiscent of Paper Moon); there is the prostitute; there is a con artist who hijacks Haze's soapbox preaching for a money-making scheme; there is the doppelgänger Hazel that the conman uses in Haze's places (Hazel later kills him with his car); there is the cop who pushes Haze's car off a cliff, smiling; there is even the car, the Essex. Haze and his Essex go through a lot -- it is his home, his soapbox, even his murder weapon; a number of essays have been written about their relationship.

Is this a book of despair? In my mind, not at all. Why, it ends how you would expect any good Christian work to end: with the man finally meeting his maker. Seeing the way so many Christians act towards death, one may be lead to believe it's a bad thing. Life may be absurd, and death even moreso, but please don't despair. This is not a book about, in, or on despair...At times it seems even comical: it brings to my mind a particular type of cheesy religious illustration, depicting ordinary people at their lives while Jesus looks on helpfully. Well, Hazel simply never bothered to turn his head -- in fact, he obstinately refused. There is a kind of pitiful irony to the fact that the only character who claims to reject Christ is the only one who truly believes.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Comics: Are You WEIRD too?

I suppose I could have chosen any number of comic strips I actually like for this post, but that's not the kinda guy I am. No, I'm the type of guy who stumbles onto some random piece of junk and then can't get it out of his mind. I mean, just look at it (click on the image to the left to enlarge it). WEIRD? Well, are ya? Ya know, we're all a little wacky. We're all really original. Just like snow flakes, finger prints and the shoes we wear. Here's an idea: let's chalk up relatively minor variation to some deep and powerful uniqueness...that we all share.

"There are people who cry when they hear folk music, no matter what."
"There are people who talk to themselves and learn a lot from the conversation."
"There are people who enjoy peanut butter banana bacon sandwiches and always will."
There are people who like to be strangled while dressed in zebra costumes. There are people who get off from the smell of farts. There are people who think they're dogs. Weird? You could be weirder. Get to it!

*pause for laughter*

Aside from the little foray above, my experience with comics lately has been a very positive, reassuring one. There is just so much good shit out there -- I try to sample a bit of everything. Since reading my first graphic novel in late 2008, I have only read a bit over fifty of 'em, but things have started to pick up lately. I published "A Trio of Graphic Novel Reviews" last month and it looks like I could use another in the same vein very soon.

Most eye-opening has been the experience of reading the Best American Comics series -- specifically the installments for 2007, 2008, and (working on) 2009. An excerpt from my review of a similar collection, Flight, sums up this series admirably: "No doubt these authors are... the up-and-coming stars of "underground comics" (that are not especially underground), mixed in with some chaff for good measure." You know the drill: wade through a few comics about the author's cat or that wacky girl he just met; wade through the half-baked stuff that passes for art, next to the half-baked stuff that passes for writing. You will find some gems.

Case in point: Kaz's Underworld. The strip follows characters like "Creep Rat" and "Sam Snuff" and appears regularly in alternative weeklies about the US -- it's the kind of strip that has a "hate mail" section on its website. And it beats the pants off of Derf's The City (though Derf wins in the pseudonym department). I hesitate to place a sampling here on account of imposing legalese, but you can see a few dozen strips in the site's "archive section". It has quickly found itself a place in my heart next to xkcd and Calvin and Hobbes.

Also....I have long understood the magic of both piracy and comics. But, boy, imagine what happens when you put them together! The '00s have seen the emergence of legitimate online comics, from the small-time webcomic operations of the hopeful dreamers, to the larger undertakings of the big boys in the comics world. And with the rise of the legitimate...

Today --right now-- you can find just about any comic you're looking for, online. Now, I'm not the one to rampantly steal; I live by the maxim that stealing sparingly is okay. If want to read The Walking Dead -- the break-out zombie series with a soul -- and no issues have crossed my path; if the library is all out of copies of Ghost World; heck, if I have a sudden urge to read Conan or something similar, the Internet welcomes me with open arms. I'd love to take a closer look at the books on lists like the CBR's top 100 of 2009, or else more general lists like the A.V. Club's best of the '00s. Then...well, I suppose I can investigate some legitimate, public domain stuff from sites like Golden Age Comics.

Also...I must relate the story of Erik Martin, a 13-year-old kid with liver cancer who "always wanted to be a super hero." Well, since he's dying and all, the Make a Wish foundation decided to make it happen. So, they hired a bunch of surely under-worked actors to pose as 1) Spider-Man 2) "Dr. Dark" 3) "Blackout Boy". Turns out the Seattle Sounders, the local soccer team, got themselves locked in their locker room. It was all up to "Electron Boy" to drive to the stadium -- in a Dolorean! -- wave his hands and make it all right... The Seattle Times covered the event, and there's also a short clip from CNN on Youtube. Watch the clip. Honestly, watching a bewildered, speechless, spandex-clad kid get dragged around by over-enthusiastic adults is a wee bit depressing. But-- his genuinely enthusiastic response at the very end of the clip made the whole thing seem worthwhile.

(Before I go I have to mention "Child Bankrupts Make-A-Wish Foundation With Wish". I thought it was genuine for longer than I care to admit -- then I found it hilarious.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Geeks, Nerds, and Liberty

I feel obligated to tell you, guy who's staring at the screen right now, that May 25 is a day of some celebration. More than just a time to nurse those Victoria Day hangovers (Oh, you Canadians and your silly customs), it is a time for celebration in various realms of geekery...

Towel Day - On May 25, 2001, two weeks after the death of science fiction writer and all around funny guy Douglas Adams, his supporters decided it would be a pretty good idea to carry around towels all day while heroically pointing their thumbs at the sky. All this in the name of commemoration of the man, whose The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series is the greatest absurdest comedy science fiction by a British man the world has ever seen, probably. Why the towel motif? Well, in Adam's humble opinion, a towel "is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have." Along with the number 42 and the urgent plea, DON'T PANIC, towels are an integral part of the series. How absurd! (See, that's exactly why I don't watch British television...)

In reality, the celebration of Towel Day leads to no more than a few hundred minor events scattered around the world -- everything from parties, to lectures, to giveaways. And one can't forget about the few thousand photos on Flickr or the many exciting contributions from the Youtube crowd. Finally, that guy with the intentionally thick-rimmed glasses has an opportunity to forgo his Abercrombie & Fitch scarfs in favor of a towel -- if only for one day. And the heavyset dad type can wrap a towel around his neck before heads off to his IT job. And then there are the real fans...

Geek Pride Day - This is a similar, apparently non-copycat event that is also precisely 15.3% more annoying to me. Some guy was trying to get the holiday off the ground since 1998, originally in honor of the anniversary of the opening of the first Star Wars film, but it only really took off in 2006, when geek chic was in full swing. It's cool to be a geek, I guess -- my little mind don't understand. A random blog has more:
To the gadget-obsessed, math & science savvy, sci-fi fanatic who hyperventilates with excitement the moment you step into an Apple store – today is for you. And even if your geek colors only run as deep as being a Tina Fey devotee and Glee-k (fan of the tv show Glee), revel unashamedly in your geekiness.
Revel! damn you. Just what are you supposed to do on this day? Well, there's a list going around -- apparently part of some manifesto gobbledygook -- but I suggest quoting without attribution. "Just what makes you a geek? [Reverse?] plagiarism" -- Neil Gaiman.

Glorious 25th of May - In honor of Terry Pratchett's long-running and absolutely massive fantasy comedy series Discworld, which is also a lot less funny than H2G2 because I never read it. I don't get the significance of May 25 to this series; I don't want to... I've been meaning to read at least one of those books, but there are like, uh, fifty of them, man.

Argentina's bicentennial, Lebanon's Liberation Day, Jordan's Independence Day and Integrity Day, "a day of contemplation of L. Ron Hubbard's 1965 study on Scientology Ethics." (yay!)

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Faces of Mark Antony

I have recently been re-reading the Life of Antony, a perhaps 40-page biography of Mark Antony written by the first century Greek historian and moralist Plutarch. The work is a part of Plutarch's Parallel Lives, "a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, arranged in pairs to illuminate their common moral virtues and vices." Plutarch, besides being a great writer and a virtual fountain of anecdotes, is also the source of some potential answers to a question that has long been bothering me: Who is Mark Antony?

Surely similar questions tickled the mind of Shakespeare as he wrote his plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. And no doubt Ivan Turgenev had in mind the nature of Antony, perhaps the most famous of lovers, when he wrote his autobiographical novella First Love. I have read all of these works, and yet the true identity of Antony remains a mystery. Unfortunately, these great writers were working with the same information that we all have: the dead and decaying words of a handful of classical historians. The true nature of the real Mark Antony is doomed to remain a mystery, but writers like Cassius Dio, Appian, and Plutarch, together with the many fictional works they have spawned, afford a basically complete, if unverifiable tableau.

Antony's life can be neatly divided into three main segments:

--Julius Caesar's second in command - After a rocky early manhood of wild parties and large debts, Antony fell in with the famous future dictator and proved to be a perfect fit for Caesar's regime of blunt militarism and blatant populism. Plutarch writes of Antony, "What may seem to some very insupportable, his vaunting, his raillery, his drinking in public, sitting down by the men as they were taking their food, and eating, as he stood, off the common soldiers' tables made him the delight and pleasure of the army." He proved himself regularly on the battlefield as a good commander and soldier -- courageous, energetic, and tactically skilled, if occasionally rash -- and he fell easily into the hardships and deprivations of soldierly life, though he lived opulently when not at war.

-- A triumvir with Octavian and Lepidus - When Caesar was assassinated by the group of senatorial conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius, Antony came immediately to the fore as a ruthless, conniving and capable statesman in his own right. Cicero, in fact, reportedly lamented their failure to kill the errand boy along with the master. Their over-careful squeamishness proved to be the downfall of both the senate's power and the Roman Republic. For a while, Antony ruled all of Rome together with Octavian (who later became the first emperor and gave himself the honorific of Augustus), with a much weaker man, Lepidus, luckily yet unluckily stuck in there as the third wheel.

--Cleopatra's lover/bitch - Ah, but there were too many roosters in the hen house that was Rome, so Antony, as the stronger and older triumvir, went off to the eastern provinces, home of much of the empire's wealth and grain. But he fell under the spell of Lust, Love, or a queen named Cleopatra. Cleopatra encountered Caesar and Pompey in her "salad days," as Shakespeare put it, "but she was to meet Antony in the time of life when women's beauty is most splendid, and their intellects are in full maturity." (she was about 28; the average life expectancy throughout the Ancient World has been estimated at 35) However, she was apparently no great looker, according to Plutarch and according to her extant sculptures. Did she woo those foreign envoys with intelligence? Power? Or even drugs? This last ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, this perfect symbol of foreignness and mystery continues to intrigue, often at the expense of Antony.

From this vague outline, I suppose, I could begin to sketch a character. Luckily, great writers who have come before have already done the lifting. Shakespeare -- great at many things, but particularly great at constructing characters -- has given us not one but two distinct portrayals of Antony. There is the very capable, even conniving statesman of Julius Caesar and the hapless frat boy, hopelessly in love with an exotic queen in Antony and Cleopatra. The same Antony who holds up Caesar's bloody, holey toga to incite the mob to riot later watches in awe as Cleopatra sails down the Nile on her golden barge. Shakespeare lifted both scenes directly from Plutarch.

Cicero offers a third view in his Philippics, a series of fiery, damning speeches against Antony. Cicero describes Antony as an ignorant buffoon, a hedonistic drunkard, and -- worst of all -- a womanly dandy. However, Cicero was about as "fair and balanced" as Fox News. He also used the Philippics to praise the relatively young and harmless Octavian to the heavens. A lot of good that did: during the proscription, when the triumvirs drew up a long list of people to kill, Antony put Cicero first on the list, and Octavian made no objection. Cicero's hands and head were nailed to the doors of the senate house, as if to say, "Big Brother is watching" (or something like that).

My last impression of Antony comes from a very different source: from Ivan Turgenev's short novel First Love. The narrator is a young man, modeled after Turgenev himself, who falls desperately in love with his neighbor, Zinaïda, a woman five or six years his senior. Unfortunately, he is just one of about a half dozen suitors, ranging in age from the sixteen years of the narrator to the forty or fifty of the mature old bachelor. Zinaïda takes advantage of them all, though her real love is revealed in a surprise ending. In the below scene, there can be no doubt who represents Cleopatra. There is, however, some discrepancy over who is the real Antony.

She went up to the window. The sun was just setting; high up in the sky were large red clouds.

'What are those clouds like?' questioned Zinaïda; and without waiting for our answer, she said, 'I think they are like the purple sails on the golden ship of Cleopatra, when she sailed to meet Antony. Do you remember, Meidanov, you were telling me about it not long ago?'

All of us, like Polonius in Hamlet, opined that the clouds recalled nothing so much as those sails, and that not one of us could discover a better comparison.

'And how old was Antony then?' inquired Zinaïda.

'A young man, no doubt,' observed Malevsky.

'Yes, a young man,' Meidanov chimed in in confirmation.

'Excuse me,' cried Lushin, 'he was over forty.'

'Over forty,' repeated Zinaïda, giving him a rapid glance....

I soon went home. 'She is in love,' my lips unconsciously repeated.... 'But with whom?'

Indeed, Zinaïda and by extension Cleopatra, is an enchanting woman. Yet I am quick to dismiss such characters -- as I said in my mini-review of Antony and Cleopatra: 'The Big C' herself. The real fascination with First Love is the picking apart of Antony -- in all his forms.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Untitled #1 by Abe Kurp

I've been having a wee bit o' trouble getting the creative juices flowing lately, so here is a poem I wrote a few months back. There is much I could say about this poem -- I have already gone through much of that in my head -- but now I am resigned. So please allow me to simply say I like it, present the poem below, and metamorphicly pray for a change in mental climate. Ahem. Ta-da:

It is 12 o'clock noon in the countryside,
And nothing of worth has been done:
The cows are not milked,
The cheese is not hung,
– A weakling would call it a day –
But the ones newly risen
Know not of such prisons
While enjoying the singe of the Sun,
The burnings and turnings of the high-level'd Orb,
The trees and the grass of the One.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Review: Black Boy by Richard Wright

Black Boy (The Restored Text Established by The Library of America) My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I love (yet hate) this book and its ilk because they are so eventful, so full of (unpleasant) happenings. And the best (or worst) part is that it all happened -- our predecessors really did struggle and strain to give us the pleasant, even uneventful lives they always wanted -- not withstanding occasional straying from the strictest truth in this particular book, but I'll get to that later. These journeys, particularly those of African Americans, have elements of both the attractive and the repulsive. Odi et amo* as Catullus put it (Sing it, Daddy-O! Sing it!) or as Wright himself puts it, "The Horror and the Glory."

By page 22 of the narrative, when Richard is only six years old, he has already been through a horrible array of experiences. The book opens with a four-year-old Richard accidentally burning down the family house while playing with matches. At the same age he hangs and kills a cat because his father, in anger, "told" him to. His father does not punish Richard so as not to seem as going back on his word. His mother, however, is outraged on moral grounds and forces Richard to bury the cat; needless to say, he is very remorseful and never commits such acts of wanton violence again. This is the first example in a long line, however, of Richard's manipulation of language for his own ends.

Richard's father soon separates from his mother and abandons the family to live with another woman. Richard was to meet his father again only after some fifteen years in hopes of reconciliation; the gorge between them, however, proved to be too wide and perilous. At age six, Richard was in the habit of wandering the neighborhood while his mother was at work; he liked especially to hang around on the doorstep of a saloon. One day, a man grabs him by the shoulder, brings him into the bar, and buys him a drink. Soon he is quite drunk and people are giving him small coins to blurt out lewd things that he does not understand. This went on for some time, it seems: "I was a drunkard in my sixth year, before I had begun school." This unpleasant ordeal finally ends when his mother puts him and his brother under the watchful care of an old black woman. "The craving for alcohol finally left and I forgot the taste of it."

Oh, how horrible! How awful! Yet I can't look away... The book continues in this fashion, a parade of horrible happenings underscored by a near-constant hunger, throughout the first section, "Southern Night." Richard bounces around, or rather gets bounced around, the South and experiences a series of setbacks -- just when life seems decent enough, livable even, his circumstances change and he is swiftly moved onward. The second and final part, "The Horror and the Glory," tells of Wright's experiences in Chicago after moving out of the South, in his early manhood. This last one hundred or so pages was cut by Wright for the initial publication in 1945 at the instigation of the Book of the Month Club. Only in 1990 were the two parts reunited as the whole the author originally intended.

At first hearing of this, I assumed the motivations to be entirely political and social. Chicago, I assumed, was not the land of milk and honey Wright had expected. The average white Northerner of the 1940s -- ie the primary Book of the Month Club audience -- surely had no such complications in their black-and-white, North-and-South worldview. ("On a cold and gray Chicago morning/a poor little baby child is born...") Then there is Communism: the majority of this second section deals with Wright's joining the John Reed Club and the Communist Party, and his later struggles with the leadership of these organizations. In 1945, the First Red Scare was not too long ago and the age of McCarthyism was just around the corner. "The 'C' Word" has long had a chilling effect on many a middle- and upper-class spine.

But no: all my speculation seems to have been for nought. Though I may never know for sure -- unpublished correspondence between Wright and a Book of the Month club higher-up remains firmly locked behind ivory in the archives of Princeton and Yale -- I see the motives of chopping off the second section 'fore publication as merely stylistic. The second part drags -- it's boring -- and as a consequence, it tends to drag the rest of the book with it.

The only part of the second section I found entirely worthwhile is that which describes Wright's time working as a janitor at a high-class Chicago hospital. Once, two old, black colleagues got into a fight in the break room which ultimately resulted in them knocking down and opening dozens of cages of testing animals. They, with Richard's help, put the things back in their cages and were never caught, though they could never be sure if they placed them correctly, if they botched or else temporarily reprieved the research of their white doctor employers. Then there is the telling tale of Richard's step cleaning. Always he is called upon to clean the steps of the institution, always the white passers-by step onto the steps he is working on, spreading dirty water onto other steps, making more work for him; never in his tenure did a person politely step over. And last there is the allegory of the silently barking dogs: Wright often had to hold testing dogs down while doctors snipped their vocal cords; often he would see them howling silently towards the ceiling. The comparisons were too tantalizingly appropriate to pass up.

All talks of Communism, particularly of the petty in-fighting and quibbling Wright had with his superiors and fellows in the Party, are simply tedious and against the overall impression of the book. I understand: the Party whole-heartedly accepted him; I understand: this was the first group (of predominantly whites, no less) that accepted him as a person, as a comrade even. But the quibbling overpowers these undercurrents -- perhaps they could have been brought to the fore through careful, proper pruning.

Despite my own quibbling over the second half, I cannot but love this book. We are so much alike, the author and I, it is uncanny. We have been shaped by very different lives, but we both turned out atheist yet morally firm, sensitive, strong-willed...naively altruistic. No. We know it is impossible, yet it is necessary: the people of the world must unite and see each other as the siblings they are. Someday...

Our feet back on the ground... Wright and I even have almost identical views of American race relations. He was made to suffer the indignities from white individuals, and even came to see whites as one angry mass, yet he never came to hate them. All those who have been fired by the aggressive, even militant words of Malcolm X should have this book second on their reading list. Malcolm taught me the phrase "self-degradation" and told me to hate it, while Richard has given me new eyes on the subject. He was well aware of these black-on-black crimes instigated by white oppression, but instead of working himself into a blind rage, instead of driving a wedge further between the two races, Wright manipulated the system, to get what he wanted. The most striking and memorable example comes when the young Richard forges a note so he can borrow some books from the library: "Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy -- I used the word 'nigger' to make the librarian feel I could not possibly be the author of the note -- have some books by H.L. Mencken?" Where is your X now?

But enough about me! Let's hear about the "Every Man!" Black Boy and the original title American Hunger are titles that make no claim to autobiography. Instead, they are general titles, "Every Man" titles -- the first a hearkening to the eternal boy-ness of American black men of the day, the second an evocation of the eternal hunger, both physical and metaphorical, of all poor, Southern blacks. In this view it is the story of a non-particular person of a particular time and place.

In this view, Wright is justified in his bending, twisting, and even outright contamination of Fact. One story, for example, wherein one of Richard's uncles drives a horse cart into a (shallow part of) a river as a kind of practical joke on Richard, in Fact happened to Ralph Ellison. An even more outrageous fib comes later, when Richard is chosen as valedictorian of his class and is asked to write a speech. He does so but his principal decides that he ought to recite a speech he wrote, instead. Richard, in the story, refuses and gives his own speech in full; in reality, he capitulated. Fact checking: because Louis Armstrong didn't really land on the moon or win the Tour de France.

Taken as fiction all anxieties about the truthfulness of Black Boy can be disregarded. That is the route William Faulkner took, when he wrote to Wright shortly after the book's publication, and here I must agree. Though I sharply question the term "Every Man," though I have always been indifferent at best toward the political and social impact of literature, here I must agree. Taken as literature, as merely a piece of art, this book simply shines. To that I can say "amo" all by itself and leave the "odi et" to Catullus.

* Note: odi et amo ("I hate and I love") are the opening words of the two-line poem known conventionally as "Catullus 85."

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Tomb Raider, by Grahame Davies

I challenge every empire
I challenge Microsoft:
Rewrite the code controlling
The moves of Lara Croft.

She'll come from our cyber ghetto
With a mission even greater,
No pillager of temples
But a mad museum-raider.

Not swiping ancient treasures,
No English lordship's spawn
But a daughter of oppression
Shouting like a gun.

From every ancient culture
And every ravaged race
She's coming to the capitals,
A fist in the first world's face.

She's blasting through the bookshelves
To take our legends back
With guns of endless ammo,
Fluent in Welsh...and black.

Relics of ancient Egypt
Of Celts and Navaho-
She'll smash each glass display-case
To steal back what you owe.

She'll blow away the watchmen,
Blast down the iron doors.
Yo white boy! Here comes Lara
To take what isn't yours.

The above is a translation of the Welsh (!) original, done by a Mr. A.Z. Foreman for his blog Poems Found in Translation. Mr. Foreman in his own estimation is "a linguistics student with a love of literary translation and a penchant for blogging" -- at least he didn't call himself a polyglot. His blog features dozens of his own English translations of poems originally written in a variety of languages. He claims to be able to read all of the source languages-- and, granted, he must have some proficiency in them -- yet I skeptically assume we have not found the Rosetta Stone just yet.

Each blog post typically includes (1) the translation (2) the original (3) an audio recording of the author reading the original. Foreman, I'm afraid, is snarky and perhaps a bit full of himself -- the following incendiary remark being based, of course, on little to no experience (but he has section on his blog called "Meditations" -- a worser word than "essays" if used in weakling ways). Despite this, and despite having already linked to the main page, I would feel remiss if I did not link directly to the post from which I copied this poem. ("Just because I don't submit to print anthologies doesn't mean I don't like receiving credit for my work. K? Thanks.")

And now... to the poem! (commence appropriate Batman music) This poem centers about Tomb Raider, a long-running and respected series of video games, and its titular character, Lara Croft. The series began in 1996, when computer processing limitations made Lara's improbably large boobs improbably square to boot. Since then the series has become one of the best selling in video game history; Lara Croft has been portrayed by Angelina Jolie in a couple of movies, and is one of the most recognizable video game characters, up there with Mario and Pacman.

But this poem wants none of that. Why, it's just like a Welshman -- focus on the negative, turn a well-loved character into a creature of the damned. You see, Lara Croft does exactly what it says on the box -- raids tombs...and other sites of archaeological significance. And she just so happens to be British, to talk with a cute little British accent (setting aside Angelina Jolie for just a moment). The temptation to make the connection to real life was too strong, it seems, for Davies. Some people just aren't the forgiving type.

So, from Davies' "fever'd imagination" comes a world fantastical, sadly unrealistic, where Lara is the exact opposite of all the empire and tyranny she apparently represents, where she raids museums instead of temples, where she is "fluent in Welsh...and black." And I thought my dreams involving Lara Croft were unrealistic (something with whipped cream and Esperanto). If nothing else it's imaginative...

There is a strong current of oppression through it all, of black people especially. There is the above quote, yes, and then there is the use of the word ghetto. The poet is, by all accounts, very white (I have it on good authority that Levi Coffin was black) and very Welsh, yet the poem seems peculiarly centered on white Americans' racial anxiety towards our darker brothers. Perhaps the translator shoehorned in these hints, or perhaps this poem is exactly the mirror that the author intended. I will probably never know as the Welsh language is almost completely opaque to me. Still, a little something managed to bore its way thru: the sentence Foreman translates as "Yo white boy!", in the second to last line, is written as "Hei, Honci!" in the original. Oh, how exciting is cross-cultural exchange!