If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration – Bryan Borland, ed. (Sibling Rivalry Press)

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As I’ve said before, one of the reasons I reopened Out in Print was because of a changing political landscape and the resulting need to provide a forum for queer voices to be heard. Bryan Borland’s compendium of protest poetry, If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration, dealing with the installation of the T—-reich makes a perfect entry–which is why I rushed to get this review out. But another consequence of reading this book is the realization that the need never went away.

Indeed, one of the takeaways from this excellent volume is that the issues of institutionalized racism and the marginalization of “others” have continued and will continue–only now on a much bolder and more pronounced scale. Though many of these poems do address T—- and his infamous deeds and phraseology directly, not as many do as you’d think. The effect is one of a generalized demoralization and an all-purpose call to arms, which is as it should be. T—- is not the problem. The problem is the systemic rot that has allowed him to rise as close to the top as he has.

He does, however, provide a lightning rod for anger as in Nickole Brown’s “Trump’s Tic-Tacs,” Candice M. Kelsy’s “The Birth of President Trump (after Mary Shelley),” Claire Paniccia’s “Letter Beginning With Two Lines by Donald Trump  (after Matthew Olzmann),” and my favorite of this lot, Karen Head’s “Listening to Michelle Obama Denounce Donald Trump’s Abuse of Women,” which relates her reaction to a chauvinist watching the news in a hotel restaurant:

Something buried deep beneath/my whiteness, maybe ancient marrow/within the Cherokee cheekbones I inherited/from great-great-grandmother, Hester,/begins to leach/out, surface./Jostling his table, his hot coffee,/isn’t hard with my woman’s hips—/revolutions begin this way.

In many other places, the world-weary protesters who have gone before lament a society that won’t allow them to rest, Miguel Morales’s excellent “Elders” and Christopher Bakka’s disaffected “Are You the President?” among them. But Mary E. Cronin has the last word on the subject (and in the book) with her wonderfully said “We Know How to Do This”:

We know how to do this—/To breathe in a house with no oxygen/to drive in a township where you run us off the road/to dance in a hall where you leer,/assess,/grab./We know how to do this—/To speak in code/as you blunder and bluster,/smashing all the china/as you try to break us. … We are smoke./We swirl around you/fill your eyes,/your nostrils,/your mouth,/as you flail/in vain.

Others look to the means of protest itself, as does Breana Steele in her poignant “Safety Pin,” or Liz Ahl’s incredible “Others Carried Milk” (which decontaminates pepper spray):

Others carried milk—tactical milk defensive milk mother’s milk of human kindness—/And the milk was spilled, all the milk was spilled upon all the scalded eyes, and oh how we cried over it./And even those milky, non-tactical tears were gathered up. We pressed them into shards, into service. We carried them.

From Bryan Borland’s incendiary title poem, “If You Can Hear This,” to Collin Kelly’s call for unity in “From the Air” to Guy Traiber’s brief yet beautiful “All the Squares Turned to Houses,” and so many more, this book serves as a reminder that nothing is more dangerous than words and those who know how to wield them. Power is useless without someone who buckles under to it, and as we have time and time again, we’ll represent those who stand up and scream at the face of adversity. It’s what we do. It’s who we are.

Grab that if you can.

JW

 ©, 2017, Jerry Wheeler

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Equality: What Do You Think About When You Think of Equality? – Paul Alan Fahey, ed. (Vine Leaves Press)

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Paul Alan Fahey’s collection of essays about equality tasks twenty-four other writers with this question. Given the topic of this collection, I wondered how the contributors reflected this concept.  The anthology has roughly an equal number of female and male writers (twelve and thirteen, respectively, since Fahey includes an essay of his own), and a majority of the contributors fall on the LGBT spectrum, but not all aspects of the LGBT rainbow are equally represented.   Most of the authors appear to be American, with one Canadian and two British; and with a couple of exceptions, they also appear to be overwhelmingly of European descent.

All this is to say that equality is an ideal, and thus elusive and rarely encountered (it also is not the same thing as diversity).  It is therefore not at all surprising that most of the contributors do not dwell on what equality is, so much as what it is not.  Few people have experienced equality, but everyone has certainly experienced inequality, whether it is a result of one’s actual (or perceived) race, gender, age, and/or sexual orientation.  Most of the contributors reflect on when they first encountered inequality (usually when directed at themselves, but also when they first noticed it directed at others; and some, even from the height of privilege, realized that there were not as “equal” as they thought, since others were higher than they).  As a result, most of the essays in this volume are deeply personal in nature, and focus on inequality as a result of race (“Lani Silver: A Voice for Equality” by David Congalton), gender (“Give Us Our Birthright: Why the Equal Rights Amendment Needs to Be Revived—and Ratified” by Susan Reynolds), or age (“The Last Acceptable Prejudice” by Barbara Abercrombie; “Inequality” by Felice Picano).  And several essays examine inequality as a result of sexual orientation, especially as it relates to marriage equality (“Limit” by `Nathan Burgoine; “Have You Met My Husband?” by Larry Duplechan; “Ambiguously Ever After” by Jeffrey Ricker; “Two Mountain Weddings” by Jeff Mann), or how it intersects with other inequalities (e.g., “Equality in High Def” by Jewelle Gomez, which examines inequality both via race and sexual orientation).

Although the contributors are all equally adept writers, several essays stand out in this collection.  Christopher Bram’s contribution, “The Magic Words,” a meditation on the beginning of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”), examines the paradoxes inherent in these words (i.e., that the “men” named in this famous quote were strictly defined as only literal men, and moreover white, land-owning men) and how this narrow notion of “equality” gradually grew more encompassing, a point expounded upon by other essays in this collection.

Two thought-provoking essays examine equality through the prism of the Golden Rule.  Barbara Jacksha’s contribution,”Everyday Equality,” examines her own thoughts and attitudes to determine whether she treats people equally; no surprise, she doesn’t.  But then she turns her experiment on herself and then learns that she doesn’t treat herself as equal to others, either.  Similarly, Catherine Ryan Hyde tries to “Imagine a world in which we all applied our beliefs to our own lives and left everybody else the hell alone” in “When I Think of Equality.”  Doing so is especially difficult when it means letting another person make a choice that appears entirely and egregiously wrong.

Despite the fact that equality remains elusive, and the long road to achieving it has no obvious end, this collection chooses to be hopeful, stressing the strides already made along that road.  Released on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2017, before the inauguration of the 45th American president, this collection is especially timely.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Lily – Michael Thomas Ford (Lethe Press)

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The world of fairy tales is not a happy one. Their lessons were cruel and their plots turned on acts as malicious and vengeful as they were physically deforming. In the earliest written versions of Cinderella, for example, the wicked stepsisters hacked off toes and cut away parts of their heels to fit into those glass slippers. Since then, modern parenting and Disney have sanitized them for our protection. In Lily, Michael Thomas Ford takes the fairy tale back to its darker roots.

Lily is a girl who discovers, through her father’s demise, that she can see how anyone who touches her will die. Needless to say, this seems less a gift than a curse and once her mother takes her away from home, Lily tries to rid herself of the ability. This brings her to the Reverend Silas Everyman’s traveling tent revival show. Dangling that promise in front of Lily, Everyman uses her to enhance his own reputation—despite the presence of Baba Yaga, who follows Lily on her quest. Can her love for Star, the tattooed girl, cure her? Telling would be churlish.

Ford draws this wonderfully dreamt and detailed story together from familiar strands and foreign threads, weaving a deeply contrasted tapestry of myth and harsh reality. Lily is an innocent who yearns for the truth she also fears. She knows deep down that nothing will rid her of the gift she possesses, but she achieves a delicate peace with it once she sees how her own end is tied to someone she touches.

An innocent young girl, however, has no place in a fairy tale without delicious evil to balance out the story. Reverend Silas Everyman is the quintessential American huckster. Backed by an army of evil clowns and his own quasi-religious fervor, he’s a perfect foil to Lily’s goodness. But the star turn on the dark side belongs to BabaYaga, used as a sort of Greek chorus to follow and comment on Lily’s adventures. A foul, mean-spirited, child-eating crone with bad breath and a worse attitude, she’s absolutely terrific.

What struck me most about Lily was how familiar it all felt. Ford taps in to some mighty well-used archetypes but mashes them up to create a story unique in its own right. Take a bit of Old Scratch, some P.T. Barnum, a dash of evangelical hypocrisy, stir it all up in a cauldron by the light of a midnight moon, and you have a hearty fairytale stew. Discomfort food. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible interior and exterior artwork by Staven Andersen, which adds to the otherworldly mood while it comments on the story itself.

It’s great to have you back, Mr. Ford. What’s next?

JW

©, 2017, Jerry Wheeler

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The Liberators of Willow Run – Marianne K. Martin (Bywater Books)

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One of the reasons I brought this blog back to life is the political climate in our country these days. Queer writing of any sort has always been a rebellious act. Make it romantic, make it raunchy, make it strident, make it sweet, make it so beautiful that even our most vile enemies can’t hold back their tears. But make it count. And the more voices we can muster, the louder our collective cry will be. Marianne K. Martin’s latest, The Liberators of Willow Run, shouts freedom from the rooftops for the disenfranchised of all stripes.

Audrey works at the Willow Run Bomber Plant near Detroit, making B-24 bomber planes essential for victory in WWII. Rose works at a nearby restaurant, having gotten the job after a stay at the Crittenton Home for unwed mothers. Nona is a young black woman also employed at the plant, but she has a plan for her education and a career in mind. Together, they conspire to prevent Amelia, also a Crittenton resident, from returning to a less-than-desireable home situation as Audrey and Rose fall in love.

Martin draws all these plot elements together with a sure, steady hand, creating characters that live and breathe on the page. Moreover, they fight. They fight for respect at work, they fight for love, they fight for the right to do as they please with their bodies and their lives. But most importantly, they fight for each other as they risk bucking the whole white patriarchial system. They are more than cute, scrappy fighters, too. Their struggles are real in ways we are about to become all too well-acquainted with again.

But there is little, if any, polemic here. Instead, Martin serves us people—strong and indomitable, yes, but as fragile as we all can be. Audrey, in an attempt to lay bare her life to Rose, takes her to meet her former lover, Velma, confined to a nursing home as the result of a so-called “cure” for her “condition.” If I take anything away from this book, it will be this scene between these three women. It brought tears to my eyes then and does now as I write about it.

Martin also shows a mastery of suspense as Audrey and Rose concoct and carry out an improbable scheme to rescue Amelia, putting a delicious spin on the title of the book. The event and subsequent investigation by the police is taut and well-spun. And when the plant closes, and the women are again relegated to secondary roles in society, Martin has plans for them. Just as it should be.

The Liberators of Willow Run isn’t just a good read. It’s essential. It’s a primer for struggle, a reminder of what was, and a cautionary tale of what may be around the corner. Highly recommended.

JW

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Next to Nothing: Stories – Keith Banner (Lethe Press)

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“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.” 
― John SteinbeckThe Grapes of Wrath

 These vignettes of life in a place and time where big box stores, fast food, obesity, American Heartland heartthrobs and heartaches, self-pity eased by pitying the pitiful, laundromats, Olive Garden, Ponderosa and Bonanza Steakhouses, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Arby’s, McDonalds, Applebee’s, homo sex with the large lady’s skinny husband, cancer, ambiguous aspirations to become an assistant manager of anything, fathers loving sons in that way, big ideas, trailer parks, miscarriages on the toilet, convenience stores, baldness, Goodwill, Alzheimer’s; this is a place and time where dismalness is a religion to be embraced or rejected, where, as Camus suggested, “Nothing is given to men, and the little they can conquer is paid for with unjust deaths. But man’s greatness lies elsewhere. It lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition. And if his condition is unjust, he has only one way of overcoming it, which is to be just himself.” Yeah, there’s that, “There’s just stuff people do.”

Consider these: “He has the sense of optimism it takes to not have a job and yet be able to belly laugh at Home Improvement and eat a whole pizza and smoke dope and play on his sons’ Xbox all day.”

“Robert’s mom turned lesbian last year…”

“He understood he could get away with things, and he also understood that people like me and Elaine would always be there, the kind of people who liked the feeling of being used.”

“He loves me back like he loves everybody else, quick grunts and long pauses.”

“The apartment complex parking lot is filled with just-bought used cars.”

“I was always on the verge of being a good guy—I had the smile, the look, the feelings, I was ready to be activated. But then something stopped me. My human-being card was always being spit out of the ATM.”

“This is the secret nobody tells you: there is so much happiness when you finally give in, a kind of happiness you can’t imagine until you hit the very bottom.”

I will tell you that Banner captures the underbelly of American life in the heartland with an eye for the exquisite subtleties of it. One of my favorite lines is, “The apartment complex parking lot is filled with just-bought used cars.” No, it’s not brilliant, and probably not something most would hone in on. But, when I read that line I said, “Yes! He’s got it.” The purest essence of observation. It was as if he and I had spent an afternoon with beer and Fritos, trading our catalogs of taglines for what we’ve seen in our life experience as representing the subtleties of living on the edge—a place where life is lived from hand to mouth, where life is confronted with the desperate humility of an aged dog tied to a tree. What else is there to do but just simply deal with it?

The dark picture of the American Heartland Banner gives us, is peppered with the kind of off-color humor that, at times, causes you to stifle your amusement, put your hand to your mouth, and sincerely enjoy the giggle inside. His storytelling is contagious. It infects that part of you that you don’t often want to acknowledge is there, but it is, and sometimes it’s good to just release the defenses and let it in. I did that, and I’m happy I did.

You wrote a good book here, Mister Banner. Thank you for that.

“They were trying to save their souls- and who but a fool could fail to see that all that was the matter with their souls was that they had not been able to get a decent existence for their bodies?” 
― Upton SinclairThe Jungle

© 2015 George Seaton

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3-Pack Jack Performance Art Book Set – Steven Reigns, ed.

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I believe in the flesh and the appetites;
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from;
The scent of these arm-pits, aroma finer than prayer;
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.”

–Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass

Okay, then…

Here’s the deal: The Deluxe Edition of The 3-Pack Jack Performance Art Set  is now sold out. A pity, because for forty bucks you could have gotten the full-color three-book set, bound with a hand-sewn, sparkly jockstrap elastic band. However, you need not despair. You can still get the three-book set, bound with a fold-out poster of a vintage jockstrap advertisement, for only twenty bucks.

This work, this set of three chapbooks, this cut-and-paste collection of supposedly the best moments from performance art presentations in Los Angeles—West Hollywood, I will assume—is notable for its silliness, for the most part, with snippets of seriousness intertwined. Here’s a review that lauds the project in such a way that is, for me, a little too lofty. But hey…that’s just me.

“In an era when gay men increasingly strive for assimilation and normalcy, these artists shamelessly insist on their perverse erotics and subcultural difference. How thrilling to see a new generation of queer men who believe that radical sexual politics are at the core of gay liberation and who, even more audaciously, see the literary and performing arts as its primary cultural practice. This is a book immediately necessary for our times.”

–David Roman, author of O Solo Homo, Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS, and Performance in America: Contemporary U.S. Culture and the Performing Arts

Steven Reigns, who is noted as the curator of the performance art from which these chapbooks originated, is, according to his bio, the first City Poet of West Hollywood, an educator, and is credentialed in creative writing and clinical psychology. He is currently touring The Gay Rub, an exhibition of rubbings from LGBT landmarks.

So… Mister Wheeler, the owner of this review site, was kind enough to share a review copy—sans the sparkly jockstrap—for my perusal of this, as it’s described, ‘cum’ pilation of stories. What I found was silly, delightful, disturbing, and thought-provoking.

The chapbooks are divided into three categories: The (W)hole Story, Cum As You Are, and Cock Tales.

Book No. 1 – The (W)hole Story, is introduced by Mister Reigns with this observation: “I believe our life story could be told through the lens of our butt. …I want a world void of ass shame.” The book then segues to the performance artists who, for this part of the show, celebrate, yes, the butt.

Martin Matamoros gives us an account of a seventeen-year-old hooks up with a twenty-two year old “old” man. After vodka, and conversation, the “old” man finally whispers: “Mmm, Martin, sweet Martin, can I touch your mangina?” I kinda freaked out! “My, my what? My what!” He went on, “You know: your man-cunt, your boy-pussy, your guy-gash, your male-slot, your manhole, your boy-beaver, your mangina.” At that point I was totally creeped out. I was thinking, “This guy’s totally gonna Jeffery Dahmer my ass! Oh god, I hope I go good with Ranch!” And yet, I looked right at him and said, “Yes, touch my mangina.”  

Well, the “old” man did more than touch that young man’s mangina. The deed done, the young man concludes, and remembers fondly that, “The nice man elevated my anus from pathetic butt hole to a kind of heaven.”

One of the next performers, chronicled in Book 1 with vivid color pictures, explains his performance this way: “For my performance I stood on stage and shot colored water out of the lower end of my colon onto a white swath of fabric, thus dyeing the fabric in bright colors of red, yellow and blue. I was mostly nude except for a jockstrap and footwear. I preserve the resulting dyed fabric by making it into personal garments for me to wear; the jockstrap is never washed again after it has been stained by the remnant of liquid that lingers after the performance. …Creating a rainbow from my anus is a provocative expression, symbolizing beauty, innocence and play created from what many people consider to be filthy.”

Ahem…

Let’s just do a few random quotes from Book 1: “…the cereal and milk of your choice cheerfully splash around in the receptive boy-butt of meta-icon James Franco.”

“The flexibility of the asshole provides a model of creativity, reciprocity and expansion.”

“Is the rectum a gallery?” (Well, yes, in Book 1, you will get a gallery of rectums in color and black and white.)

“Turns out, my anus is a source of glory and enlightenment. Turns out, my anus is a gate­way to the numinous transpersonal gay psyche. Turns out, it’s basically a sacred-slutty, needy-powerful, tight but receptive buzzing hive of pleasure. Sometimes it’s like a bee hive is in my butt buzzing and full of honey, dripping and sweet, gooey and firm and needy!”

On to Book 2 – Cum As You Are. Mister Reigns explains that he curated this portion of the performance because of his feelings about cum: “Cumming is my favorite hobby, cum a byproduct of the heaven that is climax. …There’s a Buddhist saying that you cannot walk through the fog without getting a little bit of mist on your face. I’d like to add: one cannot sit through Cum As You Are without getting a little bit of cum on your face. Here is my honor to some of you in the audience.” Mister Reigns’ honor, then, is to provide, again in living color, photographs of young men with cum on their faces and clothes.

In “Cumming to Terms with Cum or How I Became a Bareback Gangbang Bottom,” by Ben Cuevas, we find a young man who wants, yes, to become a gangbang bottom. For me, this one was a little hard to smile through. The storytelling—perhaps a biography—reveals a young man who wants to become a super-duper bottom, but feels that becoming such a vessel is shameful. Until his leather-daddy explains that if he wants that as his destiny, then that’s okay; the risks of such behavior are secondary to the pride and pleasure of realizing his goal. So, he does it. With ten men, and concludes afterwards, “I’d become more than a super slut. I was a sacred whore, a vessel for the pleasure of others, a container for the creative juices of man. And lying there after the fact, with cum pooling out of my asshole onto the mattress, I thought to myself how blessed I was to receive such pleasure: to see that what I once viewed as transgression had metamorphosized into transcendence.”

In the “Whore of Babylon,” by Keith Hunter, the performance artist pours a white liquid onto his face from a seashell, wears a dildo on his head, is draped in pearls and tells us that, “I have come because my coming precedes the second coming, and as you ejaculate on me so shall Christ. And in the Lord’s sacred cum shall be washed clean even sins such as mine. In that shower of sacred cum I will be reborn! In that pool of hot semen, horse semen, dog semen, I will wallow and become God. For I am a whore, Hallelujah may the world fuck me for three pieces of silver and a kiss upon the cheek!”

The next performer, a young Asian man, Rich Yap, explains, “I cannot change the fact that I am gay, that I am Asian, and that I come across as effeminate. I cannot change someone’s preconceived notions about me. And it’s not going to do me any good to give in and hate those things about myself and to be passively mad at the world for unjustly valuing narrow views of masculinity. My cum no longer represents all the parts of myself I don’t like that I flush down the toilet or watch as it spirals down the shower drain. My cum is a part of me— literally. It carries my DNA. It carries all the love that I have to give to the world, and all the love that I have to give to myself.”

Book 3 – Cock Tales, which is about… (Do I really have to say?)

After Mister Reigns’ introduction, we see a series of pics where a young man in stripping from his noir detective outfit to his jockstrap. Then comes a narrative from Johnny McGovern—Remember? The Big Gay Sketch Show on Logo? The Gay Pimp videos on YouTube?—whose has a lot to say, and ends with a song full of angst because:

“…I Saw yer Cock on Craigslist/You’re telling it’s bullshit/but baby I know yer junk by sight…”

Then, Torrie Gregor reports that, “I’m trapped thinking about cocks past and the promise of cock to cum. Where my cock has been, what he has enjoyed, the cocks that have enjoyed me and the ones who want to. Not only is thought of cock ruining the possibility of my holding down a normal conversation, it’s ruining my life! You gotta help me!” He develops a mantra: “Dear Universe, it is I, cockmatized. I beckon your powers now more than ever. I beg of you, release me from the spell of cock. Allow to me to expend my energy in ways other than getting a 10 incher to explore my pleasure canal. Allow me to move from this incessant need to play with a throbbing rod. Allow me to see beyond the cock. Universe, I beg of you, allow me to move on. I need to move on! Please, give me strength to move on!”

Ian MacKinnon ends this third chapbook with a song and, after a key change, declares, “And one day you will find out that jerking off is spiritual if you do it right. You will see that you are a symbol of the archetypical dick of the universe and that you are the doorway to the new gay spirit revolution which will one day destroy homophobia and destroy sexism and racism and war and the cash-nexus and replace it all with gay love. Penis, make my dreams come true! Hey Penis, Penis”

Well… I don’t know if I’ve ever written a longer review. Actually, the boys who managed to put this thing together wrote it for me. It, ahem, speaks for itself. And, right now as I ponder the meaning of holes, cum, and cock in my own life, I’m not absolutely sure if, as David Roman said, “This is a book immediately necessary for our times.” Maybe. I mean… I mean that right now I’ve got a shitload of logs down the road that need cutting, splitting, and stacked. That’s part of what my “times” consists of. Years ago, I lived in Hollywood, near Hollywood Blvd. and Western, where the “times” were quite different, quite…gay. Now, about the only thing gay about my “times” is getting little missives from Mister Wheeler suggesting that even though I won’t get the jockstrap-bound edition, I might like this one.

“But if I were to venture my own generalizations, I would say that with the collapse of other social values (those of religion, patriotism, the family and so on), sex has been forced to take up the slack, to become our sole mode of transcendence and our only touchstone of authenticity. The cry for scorching, multiple orgasms, the drive toward impeccable and virtuoso performance, the belief that only in complete sexual compatibility lies true intimacy, the insistence that sex is the only mode for experiencing thrills, for achieving love, for assessing and demonstrating personal worth — all these projects are absurd.”

–Edmund White

© 2015 George Seaton

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The Music Teacher – Bob Sennett (Lethe Press)

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“In the Somme valley, the back of language broke. It could no longer carry its former meanings. World War I changed the life of words and images in art, radically and forever. It brought our culture into the age of mass-produced, industrialized death. This, at first, was indescribable.”

–Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New

 

Imagine an event so horrible that words cannot describe it. Consider the Battle of Verdun where an estimated 700,000 souls perished. Or the Battle of the Somme, where over a million men perished. Consider the particular horror of World War I.

More than 200,000 Irishmen served with the British forces during WWI, which occurred at the same time that the Irish were seeking their independence from Great Britain; a decade-long struggle known as the Irish revolutionary period. Irish leaders believed that their struggle for home rule would be enhanced by their participation with Great Britain in the War to End All Wars.

This is the backdrop for Sennett’s The Music Teacher.

We first see the protagonist, Joe Dooley, as a ten-year-old boy, who hears music in the mundanities of everyday life in Dublin and Queenstown. He has a fine voice, too, and is chosen to lead his class in the weekly singing of hymns. When he enters college, he becomes the principle tenor in the Choral Union, a position that provides him with some little status among his peers. He learns to play the piano, and as a young man becomes a piano teacher. Finding that he cannot support himself on the income from music lessons alone, Joe enlists in the British Army reserve force.

Through Joe’s formative years, and once at college, the ambiguousness of his politics, his beliefs about what was going on around him, his heritage, sees him “…In the company of Jesuits, he defended the Church of England; amongst recruits in the Brotherhood [The Irish Republican Brotherhood; a secret fraternal organization pledged to seek the establishment of an independent democratic republic in Ireland], he found common ground with the R.I.C. [The Royal Irish Constabulary was Great Britain’s police presence in Ireland]. When a student committee proposed requiring knowledge of the Gaelic language as a prerequisite for granting a degree, Joe signed up at once and drafted their charge.”

What Joe was certain about, however, is that as a boy and a young man, his love for his friends—his boyhood friend, Heinrich, called Harry, a German boy in Ireland who would later serve in the German Army; Severin, an older boy who became Joe’s mentor, and was an Irish Nationalist; Donal, a college chum, whose brother was a wealthy businessman who encouraged Joe to join English army—yes, his love for his friends was emotionally, and, in all cases but one, physically reciprocated. Later on, in the war, there was Davy, a volunteer ambulance driver, from whom Joe would learn the essential passion of love. The word “friend” became for Joe a mantra, a magical gift surely given by God; much like music, friendship was at the core of Joe’s understanding of the worth of life.

Joe became a good soldier. Promoted to corporal, his duty became, above all else, to protect and care for his small unit of “Dubs,” his band of Irish brothers fighting in a war that eventually became for Joe an incongruity; something not compatible with the more meaningful fight for Irish independence back home. As he led his men to battle on the Western Front, Joe’s priorities became crystallized, leading eventually to desertion from the British army and taking his friends with him in a circuitous journey back home.

Richard McCormak, the man who had urged Joe to join the British Army, and who later was central to bringing the disillusioned Irish soldiers back home, justified his actions—and certainly mirrored Joe’s eventual epiphany—this way: “In every section and in every regiment…everywhere I went I found men full of disillusion. Some were willing to fight on and if they believed in what they were doing I would offer every bit of metériele, money, and support I could muster. In that I am sure we never compromised their bravery or their commitment. But for every man who stayed and fought I found another who was broken or unable to raise his sights to massacre. These were honest and noble men who feared less for their own lives than for the lives of their friends and their fellows and who thought that it was for their cause we were truly fighting and it was for their freedom and dignity that we had to abdicate our roles as soldiers.”

Sennett is a fine writer. This story flows with ease, and provides a good explication of the historical period in which it is set, as well as one man’s struggle to know himself. It would have been helpful if English translations had been provided for the Gaelic passages in the work. Additionally, I would have liked to have seen a more vivid portrayal of the horror of the war in which much of the storytelling occurs. Yes, I know, that probably wasn’t Sennett’s intent, but the horrid specter of an event that, as Robert Hughes notes, was, at first, “indescribable,” and “changed the life of words…forever” is something that would, at least for me, beg a more thorough description.

© 2015 George Seaton

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