Thursday, April 30, 2015

Quilts for Kids Nepal - In the Earthquake’s Aftermath

I imagine most, if not all, of you have been reading and watching the news reports of the horrific earthquake and after shocks that have in recent days devastated the heavily populated Kathmandu Valley of central Nepal.  It has left in its wake unbelievable destruction and a death toll ranging into the thousands and growing by the hour.  Neighboring regions and countries were also impacted by the worst earthquake to hit this area in over 80 years.  This news brought with it fear for the safety and well-being of a dear friend and the many people he helps in Kathmandu. 

James Hopkins is one of the most sincere and humble individuals I have had the pleasure to meet, and we have known each other for a quarter of a century.  He worked for over two decades as an investment broker in New York and here in Washington, DC, prior to an early retirement.  He left his old world behind and moved to Kathmandu to continue his studies in Buddhism and to undertake work on behalf of others less fortunate than himself.  Living in Asia, James was troubled by the quality of life and limited possibilities of the people living around him. He discussed this with a local lama and asked how he might help his new neighbors. The lama gave him a simple answer . . . use whatever skills you have to help the people you encounter.

Wandering the streets of Kathmandu, James discovered an Indian street “begging community” located in the city’s Boudhanath neighborhood.  Even under normal circumstances, its inhabitants, most of whom come from Punjab and Rajasthan, on India’s western border with Pakistan, and from Bihar state, situated along Nepal’s southeastern border, live in  poverty and squalor.  Yet even in these sordid conditions James found the camp’s Hindu women working together to produce amazingly beautiful quilts.  He realized that, with the right guidance and support, these women had a commodity they might sell to benefit their families. Created and operated by James since 2006, “Quilts for Kids Nepal” is a successful micro-finance project which empowers impoverished women while at the same time providing a safe and secure education for their children.  You can read more about this wonderful project at its website:

After days of growing concern for James’ safety, I was relieved to learn that he escaped harm having just returned to the States on a personal matter.   But he left his friends and colleagues behind and I know he must have been heartsick wondering what had happened to everyone in a neighborhood we now know was heavily damaged by the quake.  Fortunately, James and others have been able to confirm that there has been no loss of life in the community from which “Quilts for Kids Nepal” operates.  James reminds us that “those living in poverty are always the hardest hit by natural disasters, and the kids in this community are especially vulnerable.”  Although safe for the moment, food and drinking water are already running short, and soon they will face longer-term needs for rice, medicine, clothing and shelter.

If you would like to make a donation to support this troubled community during this time of uncertainty, there is a “Nepal Earthquake Relief” tab on the organization’s website -  Quilts for Kids is a tax-exempt 501(c)3 charity registered in the United States.  You can donate as much or as little as you would like in multiples of $25.  “Quilts for Kids Nepal” will administer the relief effort; 100% of your donation will go directly to support the needs of this special community.  The kids and their families, indeed everyone in Kathmandu, needs our support right now.  The situation in Nepal is rather serious and its limited resources are being spread very thin.  Any help at all will be greatly appreciated.   And while you are at it, consider purchasing one of the lovely quilts.  The money will go to provide salaries for the women, to purchase cloth and thread for their work, or to provide simple food for them while they work.

Please join me in sending what you can along with our prayers and thoughts to James as he returns home to Nepal to help in the reconstruction efforts and to continue the righteous work of “Quilts for Kids Nepal.”  

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Celebrating ANZAC Day - Another Centennial

It seems like every day of the week there is a new centennial celebration.  Today we celebrate ANZAC Day, perhaps the most important national day of commemoration in both Australia and New Zealand.  And this year is the centenary of the event it commemorates . . . the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps [ANZAC] and other element of the British Mediterranean Force, along the shores of the Dardanelles.  The Gallipoli Campaign of World War I was devised to lay siege to Constantinople and to force the Ottoman Empire to capitulate and abandon its alliance with Imperial German and the Central Powers.  It is ironic that this campaign is looked upon by the modern Turkish state as a defining moment in that nation's history.  Today Turkey is also celebrating the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign as its most significant military victory during that war.  Some say it is an ill-advised attempt to draw attention away from the centenary of the Armenian Genocide which began the day before the ANZAC landing on the Gallipoli peninsula, an event Turkey denies to this very day.  Turkey may have won that battle, but it lost the war; a fact it seems to forget.

The Gallipoli Campaign was the first instance of the independent Australian and New Zealand expeditionary troops participating in active combat during World War I.  The campaign was devised to be brief, but it quickly deteriorated into a months-long trench war where little ground was gained at a terrible cost for both sides - of over 150,000 casualties, prisoners and missing matching the Turkish losses.  The ANZAC troops were finally withdrawn in November and December 1915 and returned to their staging bases in Egypt where they were disbanded and where the original ANZAC Day was celebrated on the first anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli.  The former ANZAC units were reorganized and many were transferred to Great Britain and later deployed to the Western Front, in France, while others were deployed in Egypt and in Palestine.

I knew next to nothing about the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or the celebration of ANZAC Day, until I saw Peter Weir’s 1981 film “Gallipoli,” released in both Australia and the United States that August.  SallyAnn, who had quite a big-time jones for Australian cinema (and for almost anything Australian, to be honest), was quick to suggest we see the film as soon as it came out.  The fact that the film starred a very young Mel Gibson in one of his early roles, probably had a great deal to do with it.  He and fellow Australian actor Mark Lee played two young diggers from Western Australia caught up in the nationalism brought on by the war in Europe.  Struck by the popularity of men in uniform, and being rather down and out, they sought new adventure and enlisted in the ANZAC.  Soon they boarded troop transports to training and staging bases near Cairo, Egypt, and we watch them go through their exercises near the pyramids while enjoying youthful debauchery when on leave.  Eventually they are deployed to the Gallipoli Peninsula and finally experience the war up close and personal; boh the boredom and the relentless misery of trench warfare.  Peter Weir had visited the battlefield prior to the film’s production and he was able to capture the senselessness of war; so much death and nothing at all to show for it.  The film demonstrates a lost innocence as the young mens’ youthful esprit de corps quickly disappear as friends die and disappear.  And for what?

Last week SallyAnn and I participated in the annual DC Filmfest and had an opportunity to preview “The Water Diviner,” starring Russell Crowe in his directorial debut; its official release in the USA was yesterday after a record breaking success in Australia.  The film revisits the events of the Gallipoli Campaign, focusing primarily on its aftermath.  Four years after the battle, an Australian farmer and douser played by Crow travels to postwar Turkey in what could only be a vain attempt to locate the bodies of his three sons who died during the ANZAC offensive.  Unlike the intense battle scene in Weir’s film, here we see only brief flashbacks of machine-gun fire from opposing trenches.  And whereas the death of the Mark Lee character is captured in a final freeze frame reminiscent of Robert Capa’s iconic photograph of a Spanish loyalist soldier as a bullet strikes him dead, the almost unbearable scene of the three sons being mowed down by Turkish fire only to lie alone moaning and bleeding to death in no man’s land seems to go on forever.  Such is war.  Death can be unexpected and quick, or it can linger for what seems to be an eternity.

So pin on a sprig of rosemary while we salute those brave young men who fought and died for king and country.  And while we are at it, let us keep all veterans and those currently serving in uniform in our thoughts and prayer as we dream of the day when their sacrifices will no longer be necessary.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Genocide is Genocide is Genocide

Gertrude Stein was perhaps being coy (more likely obtuse) in her frequent references to the qualities of a rose.  Sometimes things and events are just what they are and there is little room for debate.  To call them by any other name is a fool’s errand.  No matter how you spin it, it usually is what it is.

Armenia has prided itself in being one of the first countries to formally adopt Christianity, in the early 4th century.  Yet throughout much of its history its people have been subjugated by the Roman and Byzantine empires, the Arabs, Persians, and finally, by the Ottoman Turkish empire before part of the Armenian homeland was incorporated into the former Soviet Union following the Turkish defeat in World War I.

That war was particularly harsh on the fate of the Armenian people.  The Ottoman Empire had allied itself with Imperial Germany and the Central Powers in November 1914, and by the following spring the Turks were being pressured by the Allies on several fronts.  The British Royal Navy, supported by the Australian-New Zealand Army Corps [ANZAC], had launched an offensive against the Turks along the Dardanelles on April 25, 1915 in the hope of linking up with the Russian navy in the Black Sea, and Russian troops advancing steadily through the Balkans and the Caucasus to the east to force a Turkish capitulation.  The British offensive turned into a trench war stalemate on the Gallipoli Peninsula south of Constantinople, but the Turks largely blamed the Russian advance on the local Armenian population accused of aiding the Turks’ Russian foes.  To compound matters, the Turks faced the prospect of losing their territories in the Middle East and on the Arabian peninsula.

One hundred years ago today, the day before the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign, the Ottoman Turks initiated the deportation of its ethnic Armenian population out of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Anatolia and into the deserts of Syria and beyond.  It began quite innocuously with the arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople, but this policy eventually resulted in the systematic extermination of approximately 1.5 million Armenian Christians between 1915 and 1922 through mass slaughter, starvation and deportation.  Over 50,000 were murdered in a single day - May 1, 1915 - in the Van province in Eastern Anatolia where Armenians had lived for over two millennia.  Today this atrocity is known as the Armenian Genocide which gave rise to the Armenian diaspora communities throughout the world.  There were also large-scale Turkish massacres of the Greek, Assyrian and Kurdish minorities as part of the same campaign of ethnic cleansing.  The Armenian church sent a plea for help to President Woodrow Wilson and the United States, yet sadly nothing was done as it might appear to violate strict American neutrality in the war.  The Armenian Genocide and related programs of ethnic cleansing are today acknowledged by historians and much of the international community to have been one of the first modern genocides - the greatest atrocity of World War I which was an immense atrocity in its own right.  How quick we forget as it was soon to be followed by the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.

To this day the government of the Republic of Turkey, the legal successor state to the Ottoman Empire, refuses to recognize the suffering of the Armenians and other minorities as “genocide;” they were simply the unfortunate victims of war and internecine fighting.  How can this be?   It has been pointed out that, if you accept the events in Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda as genocide, how is it possible to call what happened to the Armenians at the hands of Turkey anything else?   I have learned though my own decades-long research into the evolution of the Jewish Holocaust that denial of genocide is, in fact, the final stage of genocide.  The Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has said: “Denial of genocide, whether that of the Turks against the Armenians, or the Nazis against the Jews, is not an act of historical reinterpretation . . . the deniers sow confusion by appearing to be engaged in a genuine scholarly effort.  The deniers aim at convincing innocent third parties that there is ‘another side of the story’ when there is [none]; denial of genocide strives to reshape history in order to demonise [sic] the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators.”  Once you have killed the people, you must also destroy the memory and understanding of the killings.  Perpetrators become the victims in this revisionist history which creates what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called "a morally counterfeit universe for the survivors and their legacy."

Thankfully not everyone in modern Turkey is ignorant of their past and the complicity of their government in its denial of the atrocities committed against the Armenians and others.  Turkish scholar and journalist Cengiz Aktar speaks for many of his fellow citizens: "The Armenian genocide is the Great Catastrophe of Anatolia, and the mother of all taboos in this land.  Its curse will continue to haunt us as long as we fail to talk about, recognize, understand and reckon with it."   But there is a very real danger in today’s Turkey for anyone who does so.  Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was a victim of telling the truth.  Following a 2005 Swiss interview in which he alluded to the suffering of the Armenian people during the Genocide, the Turkish press attacked Pamuk, accusing him of being a traitor and urging all good Turks to “silence” him.  He went into hiding abroad for several months after receiving death threats.  He eventually returned to his home in Istanbul only to be charged by the city’s public prosecutor with the “public denigration of Turkish identity.”  He faced three years in prison if convicted.   Pamuk shared Aktar’s position.  “What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to talk about the past."  Turkey must come to terms with its history and this would only be possible through freedom of speech.  Fortunately for Pamuk, the charges were eventually dropped.  Others have not been so fortunate with the continuing break down of civil and human rights in Turkey under the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  But there is always hope.  Today, on the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian deportations from Constantinople, Turks are standing up for what they know to be true, gathering in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, site of last year’s government crackdown on free speech and human rights, to honor the victims of the Genocide.  The Erdoğan regime in Ankara will not participate in any of the memorials being held throughout Turkey.  Instead, it has scheduled a centennial commemoration of the Ottoman Turkish victory in the Gallipoli Campaign.  It is a shame that Prince Charles and Prince Harry of Great Britain have agreed to attend this “commemoration” in Ankara designed to draw attention away from the centenary of the Armenian Genocide.  This denial will only perpetuate the sad memories and ill-feeling that has lasted a century. 

The fate of the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks is responsible for the coining of the word “genocide.”  Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who escaped the Nazi subjugation of his homeland, emigrated to the United States in 1941 where in 1943, when the scale of the Nazi extermination of the Jews was gradually coming to light, he used the word “genocide” – the wholesale and premeditated exterminations of an entire race of people – to describe the massacre of the Armenian during World War I, and its legal implications.  Following the war, Lemkin drafted a resolution for a genocide convention to persuade the new United Nations to ban and punish future acts of genocide. With the support of the United States, who had failed to address the massacres in 1915, the resolution was placed before the General Assembly for consideration.  The United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the General Assembly in late 1948 in Paris.  It went into effect in January 1951.  Its definition of “genocide” in Article II is simple - “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group . . . ” which are punishable under the provisions of the convention.  The United States was one of several nations that signed the Convention on December 11, 1948 with reservation; it opposed granting consent to trial of its citizenry before an international court for the crime of genocide.  The US did not fully ratify the Convention for four decades, until November 4, 1988.  Not a very stirring act of moral courage.

Turkey is behind the curve as the world community continues to stand up for the truth borne on historical facts about the Armenian Genocide.  At least 25 countries, including Germany, Austria, France, and Russia, call the atrocity against the Armenians a genocide.  The Council of Europe and the European Parliament (of the European Union), have passed resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide. The United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has also described what happened to the Armenians as genocide.   Some countries, including Switzerland and Greece, have gone so far as to make the denial of these facts a criminal offense.  

In a recent mass celebrated at the Vatican to commemorate the centenary of the  Armenian Genocide, Pope Francis joined a large community of historians and nations who have characterized the killings and the mass persecution as the first modern genocide of the 20th century.  “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”  Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Holy See.  Not to be intimidated by Turkish intransigence, the Holy Father furthermore urged the international community to recognize the Armenian Genocide for what it was and not simply some unfortunate collateral damage as suggested by the current Turkish government who believes the Holy Father’s rhetoric will only perpetuate a crisis between Muslims and Christians.  “The 1915 events took place during World War I when a portion of the Armenian population living in the Ottoman Empire sided with the invading Russians and revolted against the empire,” the Turkish news agency Anadolu reported earlier this week.  “The Ottoman Empire relocated Armenians in eastern Anatolia following the revolts and there were Armenian casualties during the relocation process.”  Nothing less, but certainly nothing more.  A little truth, but not enough truth.  Some say a little truth can go a long way.  I am sorry.  Not in this instance.

In the wake of Pope Francis’s pronouncement, the parliament of the European Union  passed a new resolution calling on the Erdoğan regime, which at one time sought entry into the EU, to accept its responsibility as the successor state to the former Ottoman Empire, and to recognize Ottoman/Turkish complicity in the Armenian Genocide of a century ago.  Turkey responded by suggesting that European countries should look to their own histories and their own complicities in so-called “genocide” before condemning Turkey.  Volkan Bozkir, Turkey’s minister for European affairs, went further and took a pot shot at Pope Francis and his fellow countrymen in Argentina by suggesting that they had been brainwashed by Armenians in their midst, noting that “Argentina was a country that welcomed the leading executors of the Jewish Holocaust, Nazi torturers, with open arms.”   The pot calling the kettle black?

It is time for the current government of Turkey to recognize the historic reality of the genocide perpetrated against the Armenian people throughout eastern Anatolia one hundred years ago.  It is history and should be recognized as such.  It was genocide and to call it anything else is ignorance in its purest form.  It is time to move on just as Germany has moved on by recognizing its complicity in the Holocaust.  It has been said that there can be no reconciliation until the truth is told.  Here is an opportunity for Mr. Erdoğan to make the history he so much wants to be a part of.

And while we are at it, perhaps it is time for the United States to join other countries and come down on the right side of history as it has promised to do so many times.  Realpolitik should not dictate that we remain silent on the truth about the Armenian Genocide.  Still, Turkey continues to assert pressure on successive American administrations to keep silent in order to maintain good relations with an important and influential ally in a region boiling over with secular and religious conflicts.  Turkey is reported to be spending millions of dollars to lobby against scholarly and cultural events about the genocide in the United States, and to defeat congressional resolutions on the genocide. Turkey has threatened several times to close US NATO facilities in Turkey, if Congress passes as much as a non-binding statement acknowledging the events of 1915 as genocide.  On April 10, 2014, on the eve of the 99th anniversary, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations reported on a Senate Resolution 410 condemning and commemorating the Armenian Genocide, describing it as an act of "elimination of the over 2,500-year presence of Armenians in their historic homeland".  It was approved by a committee vote of 12-5. The resolution had enough votes to pass the full Senate yet it was killed at the recommendation of the State Department.  It seems that truth plays a second fiddle in this country when the chips are down.

There is still hope.  Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), a lead sponsor of a new House resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, trusts that Pope Francis’ pleas from the Vatican will "inspire our president and Congress to demonstrate a like commitment to speaking the truth about the Armenian genocide and to renounce Turkey's campaign of concealment and denial."  Let us keep our fingers crossed that braver souls in Congress will prevail and not acquiesce to pressures from a country who only acts like a loyal American ally when it fits its own world view, a position reinforced yesterday by two former US ambassadors and other American experts on Turkey at a panel discussion I attended at the Bipartisan Policy Institute here in Washington, DC.

It is also time for President Obama to show some backbone and to honor a pledge he made when first running for President.  Many of his predecessors from both parties have continually skirted the issue.  After all, it happened long ago and now Turkey is a NATO ally and an influential political and economic power in a very unstable region of the world.  The term “genocide” was avoided as it angered Turkish sensitivities.  When Obama first campaigned for president in 2008, he used the term “genocide” when speaking on the Armenian atrocities.  A year later, after his election and during a visit to Ankara, he asked the Turks to deal honestly with the events of a century ago . . . without honoring his campaign promise to refer to Armenian genocide as just that . . . a genocide!  "My firmly held conviction [is] that the Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence."  Unfortunately, Obama has moderated his language since taking office, calling that dark era “an atrocity,” but resisting all efforts by Congress to bring a resolution on the question to a vote.  Why???  He knows what happened and he knows what it is called and what it should be called.  Why censor himself against conventional wisdom?  Why placate a so-called ally who act less and less like one with each passing day? 

Pope Francis’ use of the term “genocide” in a mass of commemoration of that sad chapter of human history raised speculation that Mr. Obama might honor his old pre-election promise and tell Erdoğan he will no longer be bullied from doing the right thing.  Sadly, President Obama has chosen to be cautious yet again, to be cajoled rather than to take the moral high ground and lead.  In a statement released from the White House last night, he referred to the Armenian Genocide only as “the first mass atrocity of the 20th century."  Obama explained what happened.  “Beginning in 1915, the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire were deported, massacred, and marched to their deaths,” Obama said in his official statement. “Their culture and heritage in their ancient homeland were erased. Amid horrific violence that saw suffering on all sides, one and a half million Armenians perished.”  Is that not genocide???  “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” the president said.  But yes it has Mr. President!  Why not call it what is was.   Genocide is genocide is genocide.

As I watch the world community stand up to Turkey and its revisionist view of history, I continue to wonder why my own country, my president, refuses to do what is morally correct.  Why won’t they step up to the plate?  I join the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee in expressing our mutual deep disappoint that “President Obama has chosen to break his promise and stand apart from the global community on speaking the truth about the Armenian Genocide on its 100th Anniversary.”   Once again a broken Obama promise.  For seven years in a row he has failed to keep his promise.  A follower, not a leader.  He has chosen to turn "a blind eye to genocide for political expediency."  How ironic that his current Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power won a Pulitzer Prize for her book on the Armenian Genocide.  She has constantly taken US policy makers to task for failing to  acknowledge such atrocities.  "No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence,” she wrote. “It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on."  

How can we expect Turkey to respect and acknowledge historical truth when our own leaders here in the United States - especially our president - do not have the moral courage to honor their promises to speak the truth.  The Erdoğan regime has no more loyal friend than Mr. Obama and the United States government.  What a shame it continues to spit in our eye and those of the world at large.

In closing, let me say that I see no change in American policy in future administrations.  What about Hillary Clinton, you ask?   As Secretary of State in 2012, she cautioned against calling the Armenian Genocide just that . . . “because whatever the terrible event might be or the high emotions that it represents, to try to use government power to resolve historical issues, I think, opens a door that is a very dangerous one to go through.  So the issue is a very emotional one; I recognize that and I have great sympathy for those who are just so incredibly passionate about it.”   Another follower.  Not a leader.

We must remember that not calling it a genocide also stirs passions among persons of all nationalities and ethnicities who have vowed not to be silent about what they see as attempts to liquidate entire peoples. 

Let’s not mince words, OK?  If it looks and smells like a genocide, it most certainly is.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

The Man from Big Sky Country - Remembering Ivan Doig

It was Ivan Doig who first introduced me to the true wonders of Montana.  I crossed the breadth of that Big Sky Country during the summer of 1970 when a good friend and I were returning home to Milwaukee after a trek across Canada from Manitoba to British Columbia.  I recall being impressed with the long, lonesome highways and the far distant horizons in almost any direction I cared to look.  Not only a land of endless sky, but a vast emptiness bearing little evidence that man ever passed this way.

It was not until three decades later, as I prepared for my first return to the Treasure State, that I truly came to appreciate these many wonders, having read Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, first published in 1979.  Wright Morris, in his review of the book in the New York Times, described how Doig “reinforces our diminishing conviction that there is something special in American earth, in American experience and in the harrowing terms of American survival.”  For it is in these western landscapes that one finds something that is uniquely American.  Hard as I have tried, even now I cannot put my finger squarely on what this singular quality might be.  If you visit the west, more specifically Montana, you will feel it, too.  This is what made Doig a special writer.  The bottom line is his pure love of language, and the creation of something that did not exist before.  He broke down the old stereotypes of the American West and those who choose to live there.  His sense of place became as broad and distant as the horizons of his native Big Sky Country, not only the distance to the horizons, but the “walls of high country” and the “windswept floor where shadows ascent deep valleys” that become a part of Doig’s heart and soul. 

Montana life, its joys and its griefs, came alive in his pen.

I don’t think of myself as a "Western" writer. To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate "region," the true home, for a writer. Specific geographies, but galaxies of imaginative expression—we’ve seen them both exist in William Faulkner’s postage stamp-size Yoknapatawpha County, and in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s nowhere village of Macondo, dreaming in its hundred years of solitude. If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life.

Ivan Doig has left us far too soon.  The silence of his pen will be measured by the echo of his words as they vanish into that illimitable emptiness of the American West.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Never Again - Holocaust Remembrance Day

Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) begins this evening and runs through tomorrow evening. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war and the liberation of the camps. I spent almost my entire career documenting the crimes of the Holocaust to ensure "Never again."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Poetry of Earth is Never Dead - On the Passing of Tomas Tranströmer”

  The poetry of earth is never dead.
     –Tomas Tranströmer, Östersjöar
I was deeply saddened to learn of the March 19 passing of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, in Stockholm at the age of 83.  He was one of my very favorite poets, and in tribute to his memory I am including here an essay I first posted on October 16, 2010 on my literary blog, Epiphanies in the Rue Sansregret, at a time when Tranströmer was on the short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  He finally received the long-awaited honor in 2011.

In fact, Tranströmer had been a candidate for the prize for over a decade, and each year his fellow Swedes (and so many more of us) anxiously awaited the decision by the Swedish Academy, whose headquarters were just a short distance from Tranströmer’s apartment in Stockholm.  And each year we were disappointed while recognizing the honor bestowed on another deserving writer.  Unfortunately for myself and others, he did not win in 2010, the prize going to Mario Vargas Llosa "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat."  Still, I think my sentiments expressed in 2010 continued to ring true the following year when Tranströmer was finally recognized by the Swedish Academy "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality."  So many of us who had come to respect Tranströmer and his work were deeply gratified.  The late Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who won the Prize in 1995, perhaps said it best. “Everybody was hoping for that. For years.”  He was the first poet in almost two decades to be so honored, and the first Swede since 1974, the year I first met Tranströmer, in Tucson of all places, and began to read his poetry in earnest.

Here is the original 2010 posting.  I will conclude with a few more recent thoughts in the wake of the honor presented by the Swedish Academy.
“A Tip of the Hat to Tomas Tranströmer”
Epiphanies in the rue Sansregret, October 16, 2010

Earlier this month British bookmakers offered Tomas Tranströmer, perhaps Sweden’s most noted poet, as a 5/1 favorite to win this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, placing him ahead of three other poets ranked at 8/1 - Adam Zagajewski of Poland, South Korea’s Ko Un and Syria’s Adonis - as well as the Paraguayan playwright Nestor Amarilla. Tranströmer, born in Stockholm in 1931 has, in addition to his career as a noted poet, critic and translator, worked as a psychologist providing vocational guidance to Sweden’s incarcerated juvenile offenders.  This year is not the first time that he has been on the bookies’ shortlist for this prestigious honor.  I welcomed this news but suspected that Tranströmer would not win since last year’s laureate was a European - the Romanian-born German novelist, poet and essayist, Herta Müller.  One hopes that geopolitics would not influence the judges, but it does.  A Hispanic writer had not won since 1998, when José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist and playwright who passed away in June, took home the Nobel laurels.  But when you think about it, no Swede - no Scandinavian - has won the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1974 when Harry Martinson and Eyvind Johnson, both members of the Swedish Academy, shared the prize.  So I was not surprised when the Academy anointed Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa as this year’s winner.  He was not the bookmakers choice - his chances were listed as 45/1 - but there can be little argument that Llosa is deserving of the honor.

I will admit that I was pulling for Tranströmer.  I have been reading his poetry since I was first introduced to it in English translation almost 40 years ago.  Robert Bly, his longtime friend and translator, writing in the introduction to his 1980 translation of Tranströmer’s Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers (1978)], has perhaps captured the essence of Tranströmer’s importance and appeal to readers.  His “poems are a luminous example of the ability of poetry that inhabits one culture to travel to another culture and arrive.”  I felt an immediate connection to his poems when I first heard him read in the spring of 1974 when I was attending graduate school at the University of Arizona, in Tucson.

I was working on a Master’s degree in German Literature at the time and had been involved with the University’s Ruth Stephan’s Poetry Center since my arrival in Tucson.  I was especially drawn to its venerable reading series and the small poetry library located in a house donated by Ms. Stephan (a second donated residence, a small cottage, housed the noted poets visiting the Center).  Tranströmer came to Tucson in late February 1974 to give a campus reading.  He was also interviewed for the new student literary magazine, Window Rock, which also reprinted a couple of his more recent poems.  I was there that evening sitting in the front row.  Admittedly, I knew very little about the poet and his work when he took to the stage. He came before us as a relatively new presence and voice.  Although he rose to prominence as a promising new voice in his native Sweden in 1954 with the publication of 17 dikter [17 Poems], at the age of 23, it was not until the early 1970s, with the publication of Robert Bly’s translation of 20 Poems (1970), and May Swenson’s translations in Windows and Stones: Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (1972), that English-speaking readers were first introduced to the work of this fine Swedish poet. I read some of these translations prior to that evening, especially after hearing Swenson read in Tucson the previous month when she offered effusive praise for Tranströmer’s poetry.  I cannot say that I fully understood them, but  I was nevertheless intrigued as I felt he was a new and important poetic voice. There was an inborn authority underlying ever word, every phrase.  

Now the evening star burns through cloud.
Trees, fences and houses grow, grow larger
with the dark’s soundless, steepening fall.
And under the star is outlined clear and clearer
the other, secret landscape that lives
the life of contour on night’s X-ray plate.
A shadow draws its sled between the houses,
They wait.

[“Epilogue,” from 17 dikter, translated by May Swenson]

What I recall from the poems read that evening, and what I have taken from all of his poetry I have read since, is Tranströmer’s very strong sense of place, even when it tends toward the surrealistic at times - Sweden, of course (he has continued to reside in Västerås near Stockholm), but more particularly the islands of Södermalm and Runmarö and the east-central coastal archipelago of his ancestors where Tranströmer spent the summers during his youth.  The audience was enwrapped from start to finish and I left that evening a convert.

Tranströmer’s long poem Östersjöar was published in the autumn of 1974, and Samuel Charters acclaimed English translation Baltics was brought out by the Berkeley publisher Oyez in 1975.  I read it as soon as I could lay my hands on a copy (which, I recall, was not very easy).  It provided entree into an entirely new understanding of Tranströmer’s poetics and use of metaphor, and I agree with the poet Bill Coyle who later wrote that this collection “ is in some ways the best place for a new reader of Tranströmer to start; it develops more slowly than his shorter pieces, and his metaphors, though as striking here as elsewhere, reveal themselves more gradually.”  Again, the strong sense of place - the Stockholm Archipelago, and the Baltic Sea.

In the middle of the forest the Baltic also sighs, deep in the
    forest you’re out on the open sea.

[Baltics, II]

“The Baltic is Tranströmer’s archetypal environment,” Coyle writes, “with its mixture of sea and islands, of sweet and salt water and, at least during the Cold War, of democracies and dictatorships.”  The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had been under Soviet domination since the end of World War II, and this long poem reflects the geopolitical realities of the Baltic region and their impact on the poet and his work.

Now, a hundred years later. The waves come in from no man’s
and break against the stone.

[Baltics, III]

Transtömer returned to Tucson in November 1975 for a reading at which he presented Baltics in its entirety.  I had an opportunity to speak with the poet at some length afterwards and he graciously inscribed my copy of the Charters translation of Baltics as well as my copy (one of 600) of the inaugural 1974 number of Window Rock with it’s interview of the poet and the reprints of two of his poems.  I went home that evening with a deeper admiration for the poet and his work, but also a better understanding of the plight of these small nations so close to the poet’s native Baltic Archipelago yet suffering under the oppressive Soviet thumb.

And now: the stretch of open water, without doors, the open
that grow broader and broader
the farther you stretch out.
[. . . ]
But it’s a long way to Liepaja.

[Baltics, IV]

Baltics came up a few years later, in the autumn of 1979, when I had an opportunity to discuss Tranströmer’s poetry and the plight of the Baltic states with the noted Estonian poet Ivar Ivask (1927-1992), and the Lithuanian historian Vitas S. Vardys (1924-1993) .  We shared dinner at the faculty club at the University of Oklahoma, in Norman, Oklahoma, and my long conversation with Ivask, who was then the editor-in-chief of World Literature Today and the founder of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature which Tranströmer would win in 1990, opened my eyes to other approaches to the poem, including those by Baltic writers in exile.  

Tranströmer’s English speaking audience has continued to grow as has his influence on other poets.  His work in translation appeared in Robert Bly’s Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets: - Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, Tomas Tranströmer (1975).   Bly’s translation of Sanningsbarriären [Truth Barriers, 1978] appeared in 1980, and an entire issue of Michael Cuddihy’s fine journal, Ironwood 13, was devoted to Tranströmer in 1979 (published in Tucson, by the way).  Tranströmer’s Selected Poems, containing the work of several of his noted translators and edited by Robert Haas, was published in 1987, and New Collected Poems, translated by Robert Fulton, appeared in 1997.  This volume was greatly expanded in 2006 under the title The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems which represents the first time all of Tranströmer’s poems to date have been available in one volume in English.

I have been lucky to hear Tranströmer read two other times.  First, at an evening reading in Stockholm, in the spring of 1985.  I had a free evening in the city and it was a treat to hear selections of Östersjöar and other poems read in the original Swedish.  Tranströmer was treated like a rock star yet he remained the same humble man I first encountered a decade earlier in Tucson.  The last time was here in Washington, DC, when Tranströmer read at the Folger Library, in April 1986.  The poet and his poetry had reached a new and recognizable maturity, yet his inner voice, and the voice by which he shared his poems in Stockholm and Washington, were still recognizable from that first time I heard him read in Tucson in 1974.  Both, etched by new experiences, remained, spare, clear, and quiet  - the benchmarks of his poetry through the years.. 

Thankfully, Tranströmer at age 79 remains a major poetic voice in the world.  Sadly, however, his own voice has been largely silenced by a stroke he suffered in 1990, an event foretold years earlier toward the end of Baltics.

Something wants to be said, but the words don’t agree.
Something that can’t be said,
there aren’t any words but maybe a style . . .

[. . .]
Then comes the stroke: right side paralysis and aphasia, can only
    grasp short phrases, says wrong words
Can, as a result of this, not be touched by advancement or blame.
But the music’s still there, he still composes in his own style,
he becomes a medical sensation for the time he has left to live
[Baltics, V]

Despite the cruel silence imposed upon him, Tomas Tranströmer continues to practice his craft and sharing it with the world.  We are certainly thankful for his  insights and his ability to help us recognize and transcend the boundaries that encompass us all.

This past December I received an unexpected note from James Wine, a longtime American friend of Tranströmer who now resides in Stockholm, recalling our mutual  attendance at the poet’s 1986 reading at the Folger Library when Wine and his wife, who were living here at the time, played host to Tranströmer and his wife during their visit.  Wine had recently come across my 2010 posting online and shared it with the poet.

Wine, who is also a partner in Longwalks Productions AB, a creative arts company based in Stockholm with the goal of “making poetry work in the world,” introduced me to “Östersjöar - en dikt av Tomas Tranströmer,” his half-hour remake of a 1993 film first broadcast on Swedish television in 1994.  Filmed in Sweden, in the “wonderful labyrinth of islands and water” of the Stockholm Archipelago and on Gotland, Wine states that the remaking of the original film gave him and his partners an opportunity “to dig deeper into the poem, find more authentic materials, lift up passages with fresh perspectives, bringing the imagery to an entirely new level, and all the while maintaining the same distance and character of the original experiment in 1993.”  As part of “Den kan vara alles,” a multi-year film project, it also promoted the idea of “allemannsrātten,” the Swedish belief that everyone has a rightful access to nature. Former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove calls the film “a marvelous piece . . . it almost manages to bring the smell of the sea into the living room.”   Wine provided me with an opportunity to view the new version of the film online and this only reenforced the fact that Tranströmer’s words and music will be missed terribly, that the special place on the bookshelf will never expand. 

 Robert Bly, a prominent translator of Tranströmer, noted that when the poet began to craft his early poems in the 1950s, it was still possible to write a nature poem in which nothing technological entered.  As his career progressed, however, it was not so easy to separate the two, as we see in his 1974 long poem Östersjöar [Baltics] and the mingling of maritime life in that wonderful labyrinth of forested islands and water in his native Stockholm Archipelago.  We marvel that the poetry of earth is never truly dead.

The American poet and critic Stephen Burt tells us: “More than most poets, Tranströmer survives translation, since his effects so often come from metaphors, images and situations.  Other effects come from silence, from negative space: Few readers object to the brevity of his best-known poems.” 

Tranströmer was a hugely popular figure in his home country; an American critic referred to him as “Sweden’s Robert Frost.”  The woods are lovely, dark and deep;  he has shared his music and words, and earned his sleep.

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

My Mother Celebrates Her 90th Birthday

Photograph taken April 4, 2015 at the Pickerington (Ohio) Historical Society
My mother celebrated her 90th birthday on April 3 and my wife and son joined me in a long drive from Washington, DC to her home in Canal Winchester, Ohio, not far outside of Columbus.  We were joined there by my only sister and her family who live in nearby Pickerington.  It was a wonderful opportunity to have the whole family together and to celebrate this landmark occasion.

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