Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tranströmer's Full Universe

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, which makes it a great day for those of us who have stood in awe of Tranströmer's unflinching depths for decades. We owe that experience to Minnesota's own Robert Bly, who published the first English translation of Tranströmer's work back in the early '70s.

I like to think my Swedish genes make me particularly vulnerable to Tranströmer's quietly innervated universe. Reading Bly's translation for the first time in my twenties reinforced my fragile wiring because the life Tranströmer beholds in objects validated my sense of things. Then, like now, his poems sounded a gong in my pantheistic heart.

After hearing the announcement, I pulled one of my most prized possessions from my bookshelf, Bly's Friends, You Drank Some Darkness, a translation of three Swedish poets, including Tranströmer. I remembered having it with me that hour or so in Stockholm when Tranströmer sat at the table in my friend's apartment in Gamla Stan, chatting with me about Bly (whom I hadn't met) and poetry. I brought a package of books for him that Bly had mailed to me upon my invitation to deliver it to Tranströmer during my trip. I was bold in my correspondence to poets in those days.

Tranströmer signed my copy of Friends that afternoon, thanking me for the package and commenting on the July heat above his signature. I think I served him ice water, but I'm not sure. I know there wasn't any air conditioning in my friend's place, a centuries-old building with wide, shallow staircases and in which, according to the neighbors, Queen Christina once lived. I remember the heat, my nervousness and Tranströmer's delight in seeing the inside of such an interesting building on Västerlånggatan. If I sounded ridiculous trying to talk about poetry, he never let on.

As I read some of the poems in this collection again, I'm more grateful than ever for Tranströmer's universe, in which we're given permission to ponder our machines as sentient companions and promise ourselves that we will stop and look more often:

Excerpt from "Morning Bird Songs"
(translated by Robert Bly)

I wake up my car;
pollen covers the windshield.
I put my dark glasses on.
The bird songs all turn dark.

Meanwhile someone is buying a paper
at the railroad station
not far from a big freight car
reddened all over with rust.
It shimmers in the sun.

The whole universe is full.
The Nobel Academy stated that it awarded the prize to Tranströmer "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality." I'm keeping that on file for the day I find myself in the classroom again, searching for a way to convince college sophomores that poetry matters. "It gives us fresh access to reality," I'll say. Everything is relatively fresh to nineteen year olds, some of them, anyway, so the point may be lost. But if they take notes, they may read it years later, when nothing that is supposed to matter seems to matter at all, and be inspired to look up a poem or two by Tranströmer, which will change everything.

Robert Bly

Thursday, July 14, 2011

July 2011: The Move to Home Sweet Home

HELLO, MINNEAPOLIS--it's great to be permanently back in my hometown!

The Pelli-designed Wells Fargo Center, taken from the top floor of the IDS Center in 2010 while presenting a speech on SCOTUS Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the Minneapolis Rotary Club.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Just Published: A Jungian Perspective on Sofia Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION

"Lost in Individuation: Elements of Archetypes and Individuation in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation," my archetypal analysis of the film, has been published in the International Journal of the Image, Vol. 1, Number 2 (Summer 2011). Click here for an abstract and ordering info (print and electronic).

Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) embody each other's soul figures of anima and animus when their paths cross in Tokyo.

From the abstract:

Processing images like those generated by dreams and myth, film can express symbolic language that speaks to universal human issues. Writer/director Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation is rich in symbols that arise on the journey toward maturity and wholeness that psychiatrist Carl Jung called individuation. Several elements of the setting reflect the “de-souled” world that propels us into individuation, such as phony lounge music, karaoke, rock-star video games and a superficial young actress staying at Bob and Charlotte’s hotel. Tokyo skyscrapers and elevators correspond to the mythological idea of the cosmic tree, a symbol of modern humanity’s yearning for connection to its roots in the unconscious. Billboards and Bob’s movies on TV symbolize his midlife crisis—an actor who has sold out to making lucrative commercials and now feels the pull toward more artistic work.

From image to multilayered image, this movie is a dreamlike trip into our deepest foreign territory and all-too-real confrontation with issues we bury at our own risk.

By viewing this film with an eye on the universal symbols that accompany individuation, Lost in Translation becomes even more compelling and primes us to look for similar imagery in other films.

Monday, February 28, 2011


"Readers looking for a RIVETING AND METICULOUSLY RESEARCHED book on the Supreme Court Justice will be engrossed."
--Publishers Weekly

--Library Journal

Now Available as a NOOKBOOK from Barnes and Noble:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Meeting Sotomayor

Those who have read my biography of Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor know that I was not able to interview her for the project due to her schedule of confirmation hearings and subsequent new post. Other than the C-Span series on the Court, she diplomatically steered clear of interviews across the board.

I had the great fortune to finally meet her when I attended an invitation-only event at the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas on January 28th. In a morning Q&A session with law students from KU and Washburn, she spoke about changes in her life since joining the Court, accepted a Native American student's invitation to have a meal with his people and advised the young women to develop a healthy mix of assertiveness and feminine-style cooperation.

I introduced myself just before she left and was thrilled, but not at all surprised, to find her as warm, approachable and gracious as all my sources had described her. In our brief exchange she thanked me for taking an interest in writing about her. Forget assertiveness and cooperation (I learned that pretty well being self-employed in NYC); my new aspiration is to achieve her combination of humility, openness, self-confidence, straightforwardness and warmth that nimbly knocks people off their feet. There's not an ounce of pretension in her.

I am grateful to the Dole Institute for giving me the opportunity to meet her face to face and to Justice Sotomayor for remaining who she has always been, as she promised President Obama she would do. Since joining the Court, her commitment to inspiring young people to follow their passion no matter how many obstacles may stand in their way has only grown stronger, as seen in the many appearances she has made at schools and universities. The job doesn't require it of her, but she does. And we will all be better for it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Americana amabile

A Sunday afternoon stroll in Council Grove, Kansas, led to an unmarked door and a square-dancing club in full swing, much to everyone's delight, especially our friend visiting from South Africa.

Whatever precautions you take so the photograph will look like this or that, there comes a moment when the photograph surprises you. It is the other's gaze that wins out and decides. --Jacques Derrida

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Climate Cranks

Green State Column, Emporia Gazette, 2.4.11:

The conservative uproar over greenhouse gas regulations that are to be implemented by the EPA this year harkens back to the auto industry’s outrage over the Clean Air Act four decades ago.
Now, like then, the rallying cries complain about “too much government” telling companies what to do and the impossible cost of applying new technology. All this bluster threatens to push back implementation of the regulations.

It’s got a familiar ring.

In the battle against the Clean Air Act in 1970, the leaders of Ford, Chrysler and GM claimed that retooling for cleaner-running cars would break not only their companies but also the national economy. Ford’s Lee Iacocca predicted that making changes to drastically cut down emissions could shut down car production completely and “do irreparable damage to the American economy.”

Last week, the Kansas House Committee on Energy and Utilities sounded the same alarms. House Resolution No. 6008 supports the current anti-EPA movement spearheaded nationally by coal-state Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).

The resolution states that the EPA’s regulations are a “train wreck” with “potentially devastating consequences” on the U.S. “economy, jobs and competitiveness.” Sound familiar?

For all their doomsday protests, Iacocca and his friends were wrong about the price tag of building cleaner cars. As it turned out, the auto industry’s estimates of the cost of adding catalytic converters (the U.S. technology breakthrough spurred by the Clean Air Act) were two times higher than reality: they claimed it would come to about $3,000 per car, when it actually turned out to cost only $1,300.

The car companies survived and the national economy thrived. As U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) recently reflected on the first 20 years of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. cut air pollution “by 690 percent when our economy was growing 200 percent. . . . The environmental laws have not been a threat to our economic development. They’ve shown that it’s not a choice between economic growth and environmental protection; the two go hand in hand.”

A 2008 study from the research group Management Information Services, Inc., backs up Waxman’s observations: “Our major finding is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, EP [environmental protection], economic growth, and jobs creation are complementary and compatible: Investments in EP create jobs and displace jobs, but the net effect on employment is positive.”

The study firmly contradicts the “job-killer” argument against EPA regulations: “Environment protection has grown rapidly to become a major sales-generating, job-creating industry—$300 billion/year and 5 million jobs in 2003.”

Tell that to the Kansas Energy and Utilities Committee that resolved that “over-regulation by the EPA is driving jobs and industry out of the United States.” Block those greenhouse gas regulations for two years, they say, and instead launch a “multi-agency study” to hammer out a cost-benefit analysis of “all of the EPA’s current and planned regulations together.”

Representative Forrest Knox (R-Dist. 13), vice chair of the committee who introduced the resolution, told me that the EPA "really has you over a barrel if you don’t go along with what they say. It would take some action in Congress to change this, and that’s what this resolution is encouraging Congress to do."

Representative Annie Kuether (D-Dist. 55), one of five Democrats on the committee of 19, was the sole "no" vote on the resolution. She told me in an email that "there is an 'understanding' when a bill is introduced that it is unanimously approved. I broke the rules on this one and voted no."

The resolution states that economic recovery is the only thing the federal government should concern itself with at the moment--forget about regulating industries or promoting the public health and safety. And it assumes that EPA regulations are job killers: “The primary goal of government at the present time must be to . . . foster a stable and predictable business environment” that will create jobs.

It’s hard to find a clearer statement about the conservative ideology that the free market is the sacred and only solution to every challenge the nation faces. If Americans had believed that in 1970 and not demanded that auto makers do the right thing, we wouldn’t have a 98 percent decrease in lead emissions, 71 percent decrease in particulate matter, 27 percent decrease in sulfur dioxide, and 31 percent decrease in carbon monoxide (2000 figures).

The Gulf oil spill last year reconfirmed that corporate cultures like BP are driven by profit at the expense of health and safety: the company’s proven track record of refusing to comply with safety regulations helped sweeten their $4.4 billion fourth-quarter profit at the end of 2009, a 70 percent increase over the profit in that quarter the previous year.

Oil and gas companies don’t want to cut into any fraction of profit, so they are going to fight the EPA with everything they’ve got to delay or all-out destroy greenhouse gas rules. We can expect an aggressive anti-EPA campaign from the “climate cranks,” as author Mark Hertsgaard calls them, “the corporate lobbyists and right-wing ideologues who for twenty years have done all in their power to keep this country, especially the government, from seriously addressing the problem” of climate change.

Powerful opponents of the Clean Air Act couldn’t overcome the public’s demand for cleaning up smog-choked cities and towns. The question now is: do Americans still care enough, or do too many believe in the doctrine of a free market free-for-all, the failed theory that everyone will benefit when profit comes at any cost, especially at the expense of an individual’s life, liberty and right to a livable environment?