What Goodness Knows: Ed Simon’s “Furnace of this World; or, 36 Observations About Goodness”

When Mark Twain’s Huck decides to help Jim, an illegal immigrant of his time, a runaway slave, Huck believes he’ll go to hell for his goodness. Huck knows that by helping Jim escape he’ll be breaking the law. He’ll bring the wrath of local public opinion so forcefully down upon his head, this time it’ll probably fall off. He feels good, though, having sat down and thought it out and making his decision to help Jim with deliberation and good reason. Huck does not argue that he should not go to hell for helping Jim.

Central to Ed Simon’s 100 page immersion in goodness is a discussion of Judas, who betrayed Jesus. It’s a little forced, but the idea is that without the betrayal, Jesus can’t save the world. One would think the Grand Master of Plots would come up with a work-around if Judas doesn’t cooperate, but we get the idea. Out of this betrayal, for which Judas knows he’ll go to hell, where his 30 pieces of silver won’t buy him much of anything, comes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. So why has Judas, over time, been treated as such a heel?

For Simon, goodness is no easy matter. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” you knew you were not going to a party. Is goodness even possible for an embodied, fallen soul? Where along the spectrum from doing good to doing nothing to breaking bad does empathy require altruistic behavior? In other words, what good is it if you don’t have some skin in the game? Simon clarifies the question in his introduction:

“Looming over my concerns is clearly the current political climate in both Europe and the United States, particularly the increasing economic disparity, the emboldening of extremism and zealotry, and especially the casual cruelty. The desire to reflect on what goodness might mean and how to be an embodied individual implicated in systems of oppression who nonetheless wishes to stand against those systems is hopefully underscored through the entire book” (8).

from Intro. to “Furnace of This World; Or, 36 Observations About Goodness,” by Ed Simon, Zero Books, 2019.

Why does it sometimes seem easier to follow evil than good? Easier to describe and to write. Good comedy is much harder to write, and more rare, than good tragedy. And why does comedy so often rely on someone else’s pain? Any discussion of good and evil falls quickly into the Western dichotomy zone, where so much bad would not have befallen you had you simply been more good. It’s not as easy as choosing right over wrong when any choice implicates others and sets forth what might quickly become a random course of events over which you just as quickly lose control. You make a good shot, but unfortunately you end up sinking the 8 ball and give away the match. Simon is aware of that, and handles it carefully:

“I neither know what is right or wrong, nor how to prove which one a given action is, but I do know fear, anxiety, pain, relief, peace, love, and the visceral, physical, psychological experience of those states, and that must be the basis for any ethic of goodness to our fellow humans” (14).

Goodness begins, for Simon, with compassion. But can the good one does redeem one who does not? Is there a quorum of good necessary to save those not in attendance? Why does the Black Christ keep getting whitewashed over? Simon does not go it alone in navigating his theme. What good would a totalitarian good be? What does it mean to sin for good? As Dylan sang, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” A little kindness for those who fail might be a good place to begin a path toward goodness.

While his Judas discussion might seem a bit forced, so too do some of Simon’s examples of evil seem extreme. They are the tabloid stories that have gone historically viral. But they are carefully placed to support the claim that evil is not a mistake. Depravity does not necessarily follow from deprivation, contrary to social studies myth:

“My Daddy beats my Mommy
My Mommy clobbers me
My Grandpa is a Commie
My Grandma pushes tea
My sister wears a mustache
My brother wears a dress
Goodness Gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!

from “Gee, Officer Krupke,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story,” 1957.

In fact, goodness might come from poverty, the road of excess not leading to Blake’s “palace of wisdom,” but to a white house of exploitation and gluttony, avarice and vainglory. The swamp might be a necessary mess.

“I apologize for the macabre nature of my observations,” Simon begins observation XXIV, “but any discussion of good implies a consideration of evil” (60). Apology accepted as we read on, for by the end of his observations, I was gobsmacked by this book. It is perfectly paced and accessible to the common reader. It’s full of researched materials from antiquity to modern times, but it’s scholarly without being pedantic or smugly academic. It does not pander to a peer group. Yet it could be used as a guide toward further reading, study, caring. It contains both the sacred and the profane. It does not preach nor profess nor confess nor hide.

Is happiness necessary to goodness? Studies over the last two decades have shown Americans are not a happy bunch. Could it be that’s because we are not sufficiently good to be really happy? Simon anticipates rebuttal. Each observation carries forward naturally and thematically. He’s not without contradictions. We learn of Margery Kempe and her autobiography. We meet, if we’ve not already, the poet Jack Gilbert. Kempe says, “Wheresoever God is, heaven is; and God is in your soul, and many an angel is round about your soul to guard it both night and day” (80). But if God is in your soul, why does it need protecting, protection from what? Protection from the world He created for you? Is that how religion came to be such a protection racket? Meanwhile, we’ve Jack Gilbert telling us “we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants” (78). Then why didn’t God make life more enjoyable, the cynic responds. But Simon stops the merry-go-round: “We laugh and enjoy and smile not in spite of the suffering implicit in all life, we laugh and enjoy and smile because of that suffering. We laugh and enjoy and smile not because we are inhuman, we laugh and enjoy and smile because we are human” (78).

Simon’s human examples of goodness are not so tabloid as his examples of evil. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Flannery O’Connor, from Augustine through Judas to Margaret Edson’s W;t, to Kempe and Nietzsche and on to Fr Mychal, 911’s “Victim 0001,” whose last act of love signalled that God does not hate us, we learn, if nothing else, why we are given goodness.

Simon has written a good book. We learn about the things that make poetry: kindness, fellowship, pencils. “Such is the kernel of resistance, the ethic of kindness and delight, to ‘accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world,'” Simon says, the “ruthless furnace” bit coming from Jack Gilbert (79). Simon’s last observation, number XXXVI, is a brilliant, modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, a way to think about goodness.

The House in Summer (for ZZ & Chloe)

The house is not a mystery
that’s made from trees and history
from every old nook and cranny
you hear the voice of a nanny.

Papa pops up to make early
the coffee and lets out Zoe
the cat points like a unicorn
the approach of a vacuum horn.

The grand girls all day play
pretend puzzles of their world
while the board games nap
gathering light into a lens.

At night the windows fly
boat sails lift the sky
climb the moon high
and breath falls to a sigh.

Elephant Garlic Honey and “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle”

We’ve been growing more herbs these last few years. The Salsa Garden is lost, as well as most of the activities that used to surround it. Yesterday, walking with a beer through the brick bordered herb garden (used bricks salvaged from lost projects, saved from taken down chimneys – we’ve one clinker brick), I noticed three honey bees working the flowers of two elephant garlic plants. The flowers are round, purple and white balls of blossoms, about the size of a swollen baseball, blossoming one each at the top of five foot stalks.

It’s difficult of course to identify the plant a honey comes from, and these bees are foraging freely in urban wild yards up and down the block. And the elephant garlic is on its own, hardly a crop. I don’t know where the bees call home. The rampant peppermint growing up along the south facing wall will bloom soon, and will bring more bees, and butterflies, and hummingbirds. If our yard were a poem, it would be free verse.

I pulled out a prize find foraging in the neighborhood book box down on the corner this week: “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…And Other Modern Verse.” This is the 1966 edition that was welcomed in schools for a few years. It’s a textbook, but unlike most intro tos we see nowadays. There’s little discussion, and just one or a few questions for each poem gathered in a rear appendix. The title comes from one of the poems, written by John Tobias: “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity.” The book includes black and white photos scattered throughout. All of the poems are cast in italics, but not their titles.

This copy is a discard from “School District No. 1: Cleveland High School.” The “issued to” slip pasted on the inside front cover shows 10/15/71 as the first date, issued to a Donald Scott. There is a name ahead of Scott’s, Gene Brown, but no date. There are other dates and student names: Shirley Moe (undated); Felicia Tracy (undated); 4/6/76 Marie Dee. There are eleven names, one crossed out with blue ink such that it’s unreadable. The last date reads 5-15-2000. And seemingly out of place, “Iris Little 6th per” appears at the top of the slip, no date. There is a note “To the student:” which mentions how the book comes into the student’s hands, and includes a schedule of “charges” should the book be found damaged in some way upon return, including: “4. Defacing by pencil…1.00; and “5. General mistreatment (water soiled, burned, dirty, ink, lipstick, paint)…1.50.” This copy is in good condition, the only “defacing” done by school ink stamps: “Property of….” And the slip, pasted to the inside cover, which has so fascinated me I’ve barely looked at the poems yet. 160 pages.

Paintings and Poems: City on a Hill

“You are the light
of the world.
A city
set upon a hill
cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).

Not to mention something you’ve put up online. What’s posted online can’t be deleted or hidden. That is the poet’s dilemma, who craves publication but still has changes, or will have. But that is only a matter or problem of print. Oral poetry, or song, allows, invites, indeed wants variations. Covers. Over time, cities get covered up. The earth rises, and falls.

I assumed the Queen Mob’s Teahouse poetry editor position back in April, taking over from Erik Kennedy, Queen Mob’s second poetry editor, from May, 2015, who followed Laura A. Warman. The gig is volunteer work, of course, as befits any true poetic enterprise.

I first put up, on April 19, three poems by Jax NTP. It was then the idea came to me to use my own paintings as the header images over the poet’s work. I was struck by Jax NTP’s atmospheric, impressionistic poetry. The poems are packed with energetic images changing with the speed of “Highway 61 Revisited”:

“there’s a giant temple on hazard and new hope street
blue reptile and green mazing skeletons, keepers of time
how long can you sit there with the pain before you try to fix it?”

from “how to pivot when you’re paralyzed,” by Jax NTP

And I had just finished a painting, the impressions of which, the symbols within, the colors, the shapes, I thought might complement Jax NTP’s poetry. I don’t mean to suggest any of the paintings necessarily align with the poetry in any literal way. In any case, I continued to look for images within my collection of painting pic selfies for complementary impressions.

Reading and reflecting on Jessica Sequeira’s poems, and later looking for a painting to go with the posting on QMT, I again felt the suggestion with impressions that seems the essence of poetry, particularly of poetical delight:

“The heavens have promised rain for so many days.
I think of waiting for torrents from the white sky.
But it might be a long time. Or this could be a dream.
Taking your hand, I guide it below, to my cloud.”

from “Eastern Variations, style of Ikkyū Sōjun,” by Jessica Sequeira

I selected for Jessica’s poems a painting from last year, “City on a Hill,” a large painting that had taken some time to complete. Again, the setting of the poems and the painting seemed harmonious:

“lakes shine like mirrors
reflecting tall mountains

rainfalls are unpredictable
innocent changes in the divine mood

birds sing into great holy spaces
the wind whistles its reply

icy glaciers plunge towards sky
green valleys dive into earth”

from “My South,” by Jessica Sequeira

I had taken numerous pics of “City on a Hill” when a work in progress in the basement studio:

And I used an early draft of “City on a Hill” to go with Ashen Venema’s poetry:

I sit still, watch him thin the oil
and restore his long gone love
on canvas, standing in
as the young skin
by the window, sunlit among
lilies, fresh cut, and Persian rugs
casually flung across seats.

from “My Painter,” by Ashen Venema

Well, the setting of Ashen’s “My Painter,” “sunlit among / lilies,” doesn’t quite align with the basement studio, though things are there too “casually flung.”

All my paintings I eventually give away, to family, friends, colleagues, who show an interest and enthusiasm. “City on a Hill” is hanging in my daughter’s den, looking out upon the backyard. The light in the room is perfect. I just want or hope the paintings have a life outside my basement, where, as Ashen puts it in “My Painter”:

“A blaze of light rims his white hair
from under his thick swirl of brows
black humour hides, and surprise”

After all the work on a painting, which isn’t really work, of course, but play, like the work of much poetry, we just might find a true work of art in what we’ve mostly ignored, in the mess we left behind. That tablecloth, for example, now that’s a work of art!

Cliff Notes

ands all sitting
Angst I a T
hangs silently
a long ways down
High Flyer Falls
rip rap cliff walk
Do Not Look Down
Set All Alarms
Valuables
tosses bought stuff
lands rock pine tree
calmly waiting
sea craggy end.

The Noir Hack

Met a hack on her back in the sack lovely but no ears
lugged a sack of socks as winter uncoiled into spring
all summer long rolled up socks & stuffed her bag
till full it was wool tossed socks fool me going barefoot
sandaled sock-less the warm early grasses of summer
by the sidewalks along the seashore in a summer
the weather news said would never end the waves
the summer the ocean beaches & solid gold weekends.

Noir fall & fell fall hard that year markets failed
& on socks tariffs hit feet cold wet & sore toenail
fungus infestation & the wooly cooly hack kneed
trumpet ear tinkered her socks along the esplanade
& came the coldest winter lemonade stands closed
nary a beer at the end of the year she was rich
& to boot boasted the warmest toes so near
impressed in silk slippers she was when I left her.

Horny Theology

A rufous whistled
and hummed
at my open door.

She flew at my heart
picked and snatched
hairs from my chest
for her nest.

Me flat on my back on the floor
while she sits on my face
hooked to my lips
slicing my eyes
like an ophthalmologist.

Her every winged flush
as sweet and powerful
as a rush of butterflies

falling
filling
my coughing joy.

To and fro
true and from
until

‘harumph’! 

she blurted out
and bolted off
as quickly as she came.

I thought she was a unicorn
or a rhinoceros with wings.

She left me
without a prayer.

Ode to Joy

Old monk drunk walk garden
olive way moon path nude
blue light strain powder pouring
bare feet stains red muscatel.

On his rock sits Jesus eyes clear
tell him of your life sans joy
brave Brother Anhidonus oh
fun monk too but without joy.

Hung over herbs your Jesus praying
not an only child was he
resting for the weak of passion
who find no joy in silent being

feel no peace no happiness
no light of joy no sound of joy
for the ears no touch of joy no
raised goosebumps on the skin

no taste of joy sweet salty bitter
no sour bites teeth the tongue
no smell of joy stirs memories
no prayer saturates the temperate.

No joy found in going silent
sing for your soup of certitude
what has brought you not to
here certainly cannot help now.

“The cut worm forgives the plow”
Blake sang now you at least may
forgive yourself and drink to joy
lost to joy abstained all these years.

Walk out of this garden leave
transcend all plants and animals
there above where the angels sing
awaits the turn of your perfect being.

This bud was for you

Across the street from the Estate Sale,
there’s talk if it’s a teardown,
while a couple of bushtits build
a hanging nest in a paperbark maple,
coming and going through the perfect
hole at the top of the sack woven
with string, spider web, tiny twigs
and grassy strands yarned around.

“Go easy,” she yearned. “Go around.”
Then came the night she won’t spring back.
Some do not come back,
even as the buds rise in the rows
heatly lubricated by the bees;
not all the plants pull through
that inscrutable winter stare.

But to turn under? Finished now.
Not to worry, the sun is the poshest one.
His light goes shallow, into the soil,
as easily as through fish water,
a clean singing glow.
The days are gone
this bud was for you.

20190402_183653

Notes: The One They Call the Seventh Poet

They look like anyone, these poets and writers, intellectuals and artists, editors and publishers – filling and milling about the Oregon Convention Center for AWP19, sauntering though the book fair and scurrying off to panels and readings and private receptions. The fact of a book must say something about their ability to write, to argue and persuade, to think and entertain, to talk and listen. But which one is the one, the seventh poet of a seventh poet, the one who can “make your heart feel glad,” “heal the sick and even raise the dead,” “make your flesh quiver”? You know when you meet the one who thinks they’re the one, but how do you know the one who is the one, “in the whole round world, the only one”?

I met the poet Calliope Michail at the Berfrois table. She has a book out, “Along Mosaic Roads,” (2018, 87 Press, UK). She also appears in “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book,” in the form of an interview conducted by the inimitable Vlad Savich. Calliope is refreshingly fresh, able to speak of poetry in clear and concise terms. She gracefully dances around Vlad’s often idiosyncratic questions:

“I think it’s a coy dance with writing. You choose it and it chooses you, but sometimes the feelings aren’t mutual” (126).

She describes with clarity the writing process:

“I tend to see each poem as a pattern. This pattern consists of layers and links, connections to things in various realms – the personal, the political, the aesthetic, the literary, the linguistic and so on. For me, it’s more of a process that may begin with a line, a concept, or some other preoccupation, that then gets built on” (127).

“Along Mosaic Roads” contains five sections, each beginning with a threaded poem, “Standing in the Sun,” Roman numerals I through V following. There are 17 poems in all. The titles of the poems sound like those of classical music tone poems. The book is a movement through time and place and person. Again we find the theme of wandering, “Going.” I’ll be spending more time in Calliope’s book in a later post, after AWP19 and Portland returns to its normal weirdness.

I also met at the Berfrois table veteran poet Dorothy Chan, a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Dorothy has a book just out, “Revenge of the Asian Woman” (Diode Editions, 2019). Dorothy is obviously a capable writer and speaker and advocate for poetry as a means toward understanding one’s place in popular culture and how to take control of a picture others may have of you (probably very different from the picture you have of yourself), as was evidenced in my brief conversation with her amid the distractions at the table, but also as evidenced in her essay written for “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book, “Asian Princesses: Fetishisation, Sexiness, Anime Girls and Poetry” (95).

“The very thing that makes you fetishised, such as ‘Asian girl cuteness’ or kawaii fashion can be turned on its head and become a thing of power” (101).

I’ll also be spending more time with “Revenge of the Asian Woman,” in a future post. The essay is erudite, but the theory behind it is very clearly explained.

“I wonder a lot about the way we command ourselves through how we dress, and how these thoughts can be translated to poetry, since fashion is poetry” (98).

This is the seventh in a series with notes on AWP19 and the concurrent publication of the Berfrois and QM’sT books. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on.