Saturday, March 31, 2007

 

I was pleased to find The Age of Huts (compleat) at Harvard Books in Cambridge the other day. Behind Harvard Books, at 9 Plympton, Grolier Books did not have a copy yet, tho the young man in the bow tie at the cash register (not the new proprietor, Ifeanyi Menkiti) indicated that they had one on order because someone had asked for it the other day. He also explained to another customer while I was there that Grolier was one of two poetry bookstores in the United States. He was not referring to Woodland Pattern, of which he admitted he’d never heard. Nor the store front at Small Press Distribution. Nor Kingdom Books in Vermont. He had heard of Open Books in Seattle. I’ve never been to Kingdom Books, but of the other three, Grolier is the smallest and least well stocked (since you can prowl the stacks of the warehouse at SPD, a process that I’ve found to be an expensive habit to get into). The Grolier website is currently advertising a reading that is scheduled for 2005. Obviously, they take the School of Quietude very seriously in Cambridge. I did buy a copy of Cole Swensen’s The Glass Age while I was there.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

 

Rachel Blau DuPlessis has a fascinating, even disturbing, critical piece in Jacket 31, which is technically the most recent issue of this by-now-fabled online literary project. Called “Manhood and its Poetic Projects,” the essay close-reads texts by Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley & Charles Olson, looking at how their work embodies, indeed creates, a code of masculinity in the 1950s that challenges traditional definitions of what it means to be masculine, but without any ancillary analysis of the role & social position of women. DuPlessis goes so far as to incorporate material concerning Olson’s professional behavior as an academic:

As has been documented, Olson made sexist remarks to women in the classroom (mainly sexual innuendo), and sometimes excluded women from the educational experience. For example, as Michael Davidson has carefully noted, Charles Olson told Nancy Armstrong “that [his] course [at SUNY-Buffalo] was going to be about ‘Men’s Poetry,’ and any women who wanted to attend would have to watch from the hallway” — an incident probably from the first of Olson’s two years at Buffalo, 1963….

DuPlessis goes on to note that Olson was hardly alone in this sort of abject nonsense during that period, nor was it a phenomenon peculiar either to poets or to one kind of poetry.

But I’m not sure that I would have read DuPlessis’ piece when, or how, I did, had it not been for the comments stream that flowed from my note awhile back on the selected poems of Edward Dorn. I may joke from time to time about there being a “Wounded Buffaloschool of American poetics, but it comes as a dousing of ice-water to think at times just how thoroughly gendered some reactions to certain comments and issues can be. I had not thought of Dorn as an index for White Male Rage, nor for that matter of many of my regular comment-stream nabobs as participants therein, but there isn’t much question that the comments stream skews heavily male nor that some of the commentators there seem perfectly content to characterize such behavior as the public wish of “the gift of AIDS” on Allen Ginsberg as merely “provocative.” What is the level of behavior required to cross the line, one wonders, if one is prepared to excuse that away?

I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t read Dorn or Tom Clark. In fact, I think quite the opposite, even when I find it troubling or, as I noted re the last 20 years of Dorn’s writing, disappointing. But I do think one has a responsibility to discuss such events & behavior in any piece of writing one does about them. It’s as much of an 800-pound elephant in the room of their poetics as is Pound’s fascism or the anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot or e.e. cummings. And to say nothing says far more about the critic than it does about the poet in question.

More subtly, tho, DuPlessis’ piece brings up the issue that there are certain poets – Dorn & Olson among them – who are peculiarly men’s poets, by which I mean that not only do they write as men for men but that the vast majority of their readers are guys as well. This is not the same, at least I don’t think so, as seeing the writing, say, of Judy Grahn, Adrienne Rich or Susan Griffin as being women’s poetry in a separatist model of feminism (tho the three did not all take the same position with regards to that, nor always express the same sense of that across time either – as Judy Grahn has said, separatism was a tool, not necessarily an end in itself). Or, for that matter, a somewhat parallel male gay liberation aesthetic that once would have included, say, the early poetry of Aaron Shurin.

Part of what makes DuPlessis’ piece worth reading is the inclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” as one of the texts she takes on, and the ways in which she demonstrates how the homosocial construct of the New American poetry plays out “the same but different” in the hands of at least one gay man. She notes, of course, that it would have been different had, say, she focused on Jack Spicer rather than Ginsberg, although it might have been interesting to look further and ask how it might have been different in the hands of John Ashbery or Frank O’Hara, or of Robert Duncan. Or, for that matter, Amiri Baraka or Steve Jonas. Or if she had looked at other poetry by Ginsberg that touched on his relationships with women, most notably his mother in “Kaddish” or his Aunt Rose.

One of the dynamics that DuPlessis is most interested in – troubled by – is precisely the double-nature of this male critique of masculinity that could be shared by such poets while at the same time not expanding its reach to incorporate women. She quotes Susan Howe from a conference on Olson to drive home the implication:

After hearing conference papers by two of Olson’s committed commentators, Don Byrd and John Clarke, Howe remarked: “I am a poet. I know that Charles Olson’s writing encouraged me to be a radical poet. When I was writing my first poems I recall he showed me what to do. Had he been my teacher in real life, I know he would have stopped my voice.” Then, playing on her status as a “respondent” to conference papers: “Can daughters ever truly respond to factors that come into play in such a patronymic discourse?” (S. Howe, 166, 168). She follows with a cited catalogue of intensely misogynist passages by Olson and then balances this impression with some other citations. “When he is at his best, frontiers are in constant flux” (S. Howe, 172).

Howe’s point here strikes me as very much on target because it acknowledges the degree to which writers, including the most problematic among us, are not continuous monoliths, but indeed ensembles of complex layerings, some of which can be at complete odds with one another. There is the Gertrude Stein whose writing completely flung open the doors of possibility for women & especially lesbian women in poetics, whose attitude toward other Jews could best be characterized as ambiguous, and whose attitudes on all issues of class & privilege are cringe-worthy. Her presentation of African American female voices in her early prose is generous, but it is also condescending. She is always all of these writers. Leaving one or two of them aside robs you of the whole of Gertrude Stein, even if including all of them might not be as much inspirational or as much fun.

As the absolute number of poetry books expands so dramatically as it has in the U.S. over the past 20 years, it increasingly becomes possible for younger poets & readers to self-select & even balkanize their own reading, to become enmeshed almost exclusively in this particular branch of the post-New American poetries or that particular variant of the School of Quietude. And while it is certainly the case that it is better to be passionate about something than merely a tepid sampler of everything, I do worry about the ease with which these problems can all be avoided through the worst of all solutions, selective ignorance.

There’s no question in my mind that I think every woman writer needs to have both the collected Olson and The Maximus Poems on her bookshelf. Just as every male poet needs to have a comprehensive collection of the work of Judy Grahn on his. Even if her later poetry is, to my reading, as problematic as that of Ed Dorn’s. But it also means dealing with all these issues, whenever & however they arise, with some generosity one hopes (Susan Howe & Rachel Blau DuPlessis are both good examples of this, frankly), but always with eyes wide open.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

 

Another New York School poet who would do very well to have a big, well-edited, selected poems from a publisher with good distribution (you listening, Penguin?) is Lewis Warsh. For four decades now, Warsh has been one of the prime movers of that tradition’s third generation, alongside David Shapiro, the late Joe Ceravolo, Bernadette Mayer, Anne Waldman & the ghost-in-the-machine that is Larry Fagin – that’s a pretty terrific list of poetic talent – but as central as he has been, as writer & as publisher of United Artists books & such journals as Angel Hair, Warsh seems never to have been a hustler when it comes to pushing his own wares. There is no page for Warsh at the Academy of American Poets, the Electronic Poetry Center or the Modern American Poetry websites, which is really scandalous. The best you can do, besides the link above to his site at “day job” Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, is the search engine at Small Press Distribution, which at least will get you to 11 of his books that can be had there.

One book that you won’t find listed there is The Flea Market in Kiel, published as a fine art chapbook by The Rest Press, the micropublisher founded by Patrick Masterson & Ryan Murphy. Like a lot of Warsh’s best work, Flea Market is quiet, observant, meditative. In spite of the allusion in the title to the city on the German Baltic that is known to most Americans, if it is known at all, merely as the root to kielbasa, there is nothing exotic in Warsh’ content, much of which could as easily be set in Kiel, Wisconsin:

My dental insurance doesn’t cover my family.
But today I found out I can borrow on my retirement plan.
My heart is still beating, but I don’t know for whom.
For an encore, I’ll sing “Some Enchanted Evening”
or “Up on the Roof.”

It’s remarkable just how much context can be gleaned from these four simple sentences, not the least of which is the tension between the image of family in the first line & the lovelorn tone of the third.

Many of Warsh’s poems apply techniques that may have origins elsewhere, as the one above does the leaps of surrealism. One can imagine poets as diverse as Bill Berkson & Robert Bly using this same four-part exoskeletal structure & coming up with something very different. In the following, I certainly caught the Pound in the first line & heard the irritated tone of Jack Spicer in the last, but it was the ambience of Frank O’Hara, rising up almost as an echo, that lingered the most:

And then Diana Ross & The Supremes were singing “Stop! In the Name of Blub

But as I was leaving the theater I realized I could no longer understand the words

Because all of the people in the audience who were singing along

Or possibly we can say it was a faulty sound system

Or more to the point maybe all the words began to blur in my head.

The way people look alike when you see them from a distance

So the words & the sounds never convey the same meaning

Or when I thought they meant something it was really the opposite

The glitter in Diana Ross’s hair, for instance, or her dress which consisted

Of thousands of tiny sequins (blinding, really, as she tottered onto the stage)

Each sequin a tiny mirror reflecting the sun, the stars & the planets

That make up a galaxy where existence is a bad dream

From which you wake up in a cold sweat, hair matted to the sides of your face

The indentation of your head on the pillow –

Diana, shut up.

Here Warsh uses the additional spacing between lines to permit him to stretch them out without seeming somehow dense as he builds this satire predicated on two different O’Hara poems, “The Day Lady Died” & “Lana Turner Has Collapsed!” His image of Diana Ross as “tottering” turns tragedy into farce – and recalls, as much as the tone of the last line, the way in Spicer characterizes the Beatles as corporatist bubblegum rock in Book of Magazine Verse.

Each section here is built with such care, deliberately aimed at limited effects, but with an overall cumulative impact far more powerful than any of this book’s individual sections. That seems to be a particularly Warshian virtue.

Flea Market is printed in an edition of 350 copies, exquisitely produced by Masterson with great attention to detail & a clean design. Ryan Murphy, who co-founded A Rest Press with Masterson¹, told me that his Ori is the New Apple Press, which does editions of just 75 copies, can only be reliably found at one bookstore – McNally Robinson Booksellers in New York’s SoHo, a purveyor with an active interest in small and independent presses. Given that we’re about to embark on our annual Bad Poetry Month, it might be worth your while to check out a store dedicated to something more than the lowest common denominator. Hopefully you will find The Flea Market in Kiel & give it a good home.

.

¹ Making me wonder if the shift from A to The Rest press is an indication that Murphy’s no longer directly involved.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

 

Influencing Paul Muldoon
(tho it still misses
the Jim Morrison allusion
in Horse Latitudes)

§

Borders bails on Britain
(also
Ireland, Australia & New Zealand)

When they’re bemoaning
the loss of
Borders
,
you know the bookstores
of Britain
are in deep weeds

§

Baraka loses split decision

§

Politics & prose
in
Africa

§

Divisions in Nigerian literature

§

The making of Gilgamesh

§

Dream of the Poem:
500 years of
of Hebrew poetry
from
Spain,
reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

§

The whole of Divagations
reviewed by Wayne Koestenbaum

§

One perspective
from Buffalo

§

Ring composition

§

The other shoe drops
at the
Los Angeles Times

§

Writing for the SAT

§

Doc Pomus wrote the words

§

Bright Eyes
has other ideas

§

L.A. as the center
for the visual arts scene

§

Martìn Ramìrez
& self-taught art

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

 

Poets send me work all the time asking me if I will comment on what they’re doing. It’s something to which I can seldom reply, simply because I lack the time. I do, however, often read, or at least read over, whatever they have sent. In the process, I’ve concluded that the surest quick test of whether or not a poet has anything going for them as a writer is specificity. And the quickest test of specificity lies in description. I pick up any new book that’s come in the mail, open it and just let my eyes drift down a page:

Quickening footsteps on wide oak planks, on palatial
slabs of marble.

Check. My eyes drift down further:

Water splashes
and plays at the center of circled

columns, the pale
sunlit dome.

Double check: not only is this language specific, but I immediately realize just how much I like the play of the language, the decisions as when to pause & break the line. So I flip randomly to another page:

A new catalog of roses,
thirty rosebushes in a box
on the front porch
in time for spring,
bare of all but thorns.

Again, specificity. Again, I realize how much I like the sense of line here. This writer’s touch is light & remarkably accurate. By now I realize that I’m going to have to (not really the right word: going to want to, need to) read this book. Which was sent to me not by the poet, but the publisher, tho it is by a poet I’ve been reading now for decades.

Begin At Once admonishes the title, some of the best advice I’ve gotten from a cover of a volume of poetry. The author is Beth Joselow, whom I think of as a “DC poet,” tho she’s been living far enough out on the eastern shore in Delaware for a few years now that I probably need to revisit that notion. The book is out brand new from Chax, so new in fact that it’s still listed on the website there as forthcoming.

Joselow is also a poet whom I think of as something of a DC (Delaware?) parallel, say, to Beverly Dahlen, another Chax author whose work I like enormously. Dahlen is perhaps the poet of my generation most deeply engaged with Freud & the consequences of his work; Joselow is a professional therapist who trained at Johns Hopkins (where Gertrude Stein also once studied psychology). Also like Dahlen, Joselow has been around language poetry for decades now but has kept her own work & identity separate from the hoo-haw & the poetry wars attending that phenomenon. I think an outsider looking at her work in general, or this book in particular, wouldn’t think “langpo” any more than they would if they were reading Maxine Chernoff, Joel Lewis or Elaine Equi. In an editorial forum on gender & editing that appeared back in the very first issue of Chain, thirteen years ago, Joselow explained her perspective, which I suspect probably still applies, and not just to the poetry of gender:

I am always drawn to work by women, and to collections of women's work. At the same time, I am dedicated to the idea of mainstreaming everyone in order to more quickly blur the boundaries between us, if that is possible. I'm not sure that it is possible, but I recall how frustrated I felt when my friends were wearing shirts that said, "It's a black thing. You wouldn't understand." I want to. And I want to keep the dialogue open and lively.

As readers of this blog will realize, blurring the boundaries is not a perspective I’ve shared over the years. I’ve felt – with just cause I must say – that being identified with the language poets has had an enormous, positive impact on my work and on its ability to find a broader audience than I might otherwise have. My own t-shirt would probably read “It’s a language thing. Let me explain….”

One real consequence of her position is that Joselow’s work, like that of Dahlen, is something that should be much more widely known, appreciated & celebrated than has heretofore been the case. Consider this concise piece, which takes its title from the first phrase of the last stanza, that being the one “in prose”:

The elusive optimism
skin of ice on the pond
early morning
all water by
noon.

Imagine a different fate
one less repetitive
mild insistence pursuing
the same mistaken path.

When we were violent they were more violent so we became still more violent until all of the rocks and blades were gone over to the other side for further use and so on and so forth and so on.

There are so many things that are terrific here. I love, for example, the uses Joselow makes of grammar throughout, from the deliberate omission of the key verb phrase in the first stanza – highlighted in fact by the presence of the period – through the “perfect” syntax of the second to the trailing, deliberately repetitive & “violently” general use of language in the prose sentence. Equally fascinating is how well she balances the concreteness of the first stanza and the first half of the paragraph with the deliberate abstractness of the second stanza & end of the paragraph. Indeed, this push-pull dynamic between abstract & concrete reminds me more than a little of strategies Rae Armantrout deploys in her poetry, tho the overall feel here is different perhaps because of the framing in the first stanza, which can be read as “rural” or “natural.”

Joselow’s work shows both a remarkable range – from the jazz scat start of “Tantrum,” which begins

Bellyfish lobster-lolly
craydaddy bang
hoopla benny burden
crack crinkle spine

before revealing itself a few stanzas in as a litany of military ordnance-related proper names –

Osprey Atlas
ICBM
Centaur hydrazine
Dragon Javelin

Bushmaster Chain Gun
Walther carbine
Grenade launcher Browning
M16

Kalashnikov Tomahawk
Bradleys Abrams Scout
Peacekeeper Gatling
Sparrow Phoenix Harm

Polaris Poseidon
Nike Stinger SLAM
M4 MP5
Maverick Harpoon

a roster that continues literally for three pages, becoming a hypnotic (if profoundly & deliberately “ugly”) satire a la Ginsberg’s classic¹ “Hum Bom!” – from this all the way over to dour dramatic monolog, such as one hears in the first stanza of “Genes”:

I come from
A family of artists
And bedwetters.
I wanted to be
Poor but honest,
But it didn’t work out.

The risk in poetry with this wide a range is that it can feel amorphous, the work of a talented writer without a strong sense of direction. In this regard, Joselow feels much closer to the New York School. In fact, the presence of a single longer poem – “Self Regard,” first published by Chax as an exquisite chapbook back in 2000 – almost suggests John Ashbery’s books from the mid-1970s (with their echo of the Wesleyan formula for its School of Quietude editions from the 1960s) of the 100-plus page volume with a single long poem usually either first (the way “Litany” leads off As We Know) or last (as with the title poem of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror).

But Ashbery isn’t Joselow’s model, and the real key to the organization of Begin at Once is, I think, its three divisions, entitled “One,” “More” & “Time.” The seventeen-page “Self Regard” is the ninth of the 13 poems in “One,” whereas most of what I’ve quoted above thus far comes from “More,” none of whose 17 poems reaches five pages. Two of the six poems in the final sequence, “Jackpot!” and the book’s title piece, are at least that long.

It may seem, given what I’ve quoted here, that I prefer Joselow’s shorter poems. Of the lines cited above, only the very first two passages, which are both from “Self Regard,” come from any of Joselow’s more extended work. The shorter pieces do seem to be the ones best suited for the kinds of treatment I’m giving these lines here. But I actually think that Joselow is at her very best in the longer poems, where tone, image & affect all accumulate over several pages to create a really luminescent meditative space. There is just no way in a form like a brief review, however, to give a sense of what a single one-line stanza, such as

It is my name.

can mean without an enormous amount of context, the sort of thing that never translates well when cast into five or six dense paragraphs of critical prose. So you’re going to have to trust me on this. When freed of the need to have an immediate payoff for this line or that phrase, Joselow soars. Both “Self Regard” and “Begin at Once” make me wonder what she would do over the course of 40 or 100 pages. My gut sense is that it would be awesome. Begin at Once is a terrific collection because Beth Joselow is a writer with a great gift, but it’s also a tease. Because this is a book, all 104 pages of it, that leaves you wanting to read so very much more.

 

¹ A poem that appears twice in Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, albeit in slightly different versions, tho with the same dates.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

 


1961 US Figure Skating Team
boarding flight to
Brussels

I took just enough time out over the weekend from some projects, ferrying the kids to & from their jobs, fencing & theater, plus attempting to write up some end-notes for The Alphabet to watch the women’s competition of the World Figure Skating Championships, held this year in Tokyo. I may have mentioned before that, outside of a couple of World Series games (thank you Oakland A’s), the only other sport championship I’ve ever actually attended in person was the Women’s Worlds Figure Skating competition, which was in Oakland in 1992, won that year by Kristi Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi had a clean sweep that year, winning the U.S. championship, the World’s and the Olympics. The other female skaters on the American team at the World’s were two up-&-comers, Nancy Kerrigan & Tonya Harding, each of whom was hoping to become the next Kristi Yamaguchi.

Neither would, tho they were about to introduce the years of gloom for figure skating, first with the brouhaha caused by Harding’s husband’s inept attempt to cripple Kerrigan at the 1994 U.S. championships, then a series of international judging scandals that forced the international federations to adopt a far more complex – nearly impenetrable – point system that appears to have taken the favoritism and vote-trading out of the judging process.

The actual inheritor of Yamaguchi’s throne turned out to be another Asian-American, Michelle Kwan, who, between 1994 and 2005, won the U.S. championships nine times, finishing second the three other times, won the World’s five times, finishing second three times, and third once. While Kwan hasn’t skated competitively since withdrawing from the 2006 Olympics, she has not said that she has retired. By the time of the 2010 Olympics, Kwan will be 29, the same age at which Maria Butarskaya won the European championships in 2002. But the real story here is that skating has simply passed Kwan by. She has never won under the new scoring system, which assigns points and difficulty levels for everything, making jumping a far more important part of the sport than the graceful aesthetic spirals that are Kwan’s trademark move.

Kwan, for all of her dominance of the sport, never has won the Olympics, finishing second in 1998, third in 2002. During this same period, no other female skater matched Kwan’s overall dominance, tho Irina Slutskaya of Russia and Chen Lu of China clearly dominated the sport in their own countries. None of the three ever won Olympic gold, tho Slutskaya, a six-time European champion, won silver in 2002, bronze in 2006, while Chen Lu earned bronze in 1998 & 2002.

During these years, the sport as seen far too many one-hit wonders, skaters who won gold at the Olympics or other major events, then quickly turned pro & cashed in on one of the touring ice shows where skaters can make millions without ever having to do a jump more difficult than a double. The last four Olympic champions – Oksana Biaul, Tara Lipinsky, Sarah Hughes & Shizuka Arakawa – are not skating competitively any more. Biaul, whose 1994 Olympic long program is still the single best performance I’ve ever seen, never competed again, unless you count an appearance on Celebrity Poker.

All of this points up the relationship between competitive skating and global capital. Skating is a sport that requires an enormous investment early on, which privileges hegemonic nations. Either the state pays by taking toddlers into national training academies, as I believe may be still done in the People’s Republic of China, or else parents put down 50 grand a year, year after year, often moving from state to state in search of the right coach in the hopes that little Tiffany will grow up to become more than just another ice rat. Not every parent can do that, so it helps to live in a society where enough of them can.

Thus it’s not an accident that seven of the last 14 Olympic champions in women’s skating have been Americans. Americans have won the silver six times during that span, bronze five times. Combined, that’s 43 percent of all possible medals since 1956 in a sport in which several dozen nations compete. But since women’s skating was brought back into Olympic competition in 1920, only two women have won gold more than once, Sonje Henie of Norway three times in the 1920s & ‘30s, & Katarina Witt of the German Democratic Republic twice in the 1980s.

So anyone who chooses to compete on a continuing basis – as did Yamaguchi & Kwan did & as, apparently, reigning U.S. champ Kimmie Meissner is choosing to do – has an enormous long-term value for the sport in this country, even if only in attracting small children & their parents into one of America’s dwindling number of ice rinks to get some exercise.

Because the global geography of women’s skating clearly is changing. Skating commentators for years now have been talking about the “coming wave” of Chinese & Japanese skaters and finally it’s arrived. Chinese skaters in particular have been strong in the pairs competition now for several years, having won 12 medals at the Worlds since 1999, seven by the couple who won this weekend, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo. During that same period, Russia, once the flat-out dominant pairs nation, has won ten medals, tho none the last two years. The U.S. has won just one bronze during this same period.

But it is women’s singles that is the focal point of competitive figure skating and this weekend saw Japanese skaters finish first, second and fifth, with Korea’s Yu Na Kim, having set the world record for highest score on her short program, finishing third after two falls in her long program. Only defending world champ Meissner managed to get into the top five from anywhere other than Asia. And clearly they deserved it. One might have had an argument that Meissner deserved third as her program had fewer errors than Kim’s, but it also attempted considerably less. And, under the new scoring system, jumping once again bested aesthetics. Ando, the best female jumper in the world, finished second in both competitions that make up the championship, but with Kim dropping to fourth in the point-rich free skate and Asada having finished fifth in the short program, Ando’s total score beat Asada’s by less than a point. Had Asada won, the Sunday sports sections would have been speculating what might have been had Ando, the only woman with a quad in her repertoire, attempted one in the free program.

So the long view of women’s figure skating would see its center moving from the countries where it was long an indigenous local sport, such as Sonje Henie’s Norway, to the nations at the center of the Cold War – The Soviet Union, the U.S. and Germany – and now toward the economic center of the next century, Asia. One wonders if Americans register this indicator of the shift in global relations for what it signals.

Empires are notoriously fragile constructs and there is no question that the U.S. alone is sole military superpower remaining in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc sixteen years ago. But as we have been learning the hard way in both Iraq & Afghanistan of late, being a global superpower doesn’t count for as much as it used to if one’s worst military enemies have abandoned the state as a construct altogether.

There are a lot of conflicting indices of hegemony in the contemporary world, international sport being pretty close to the bottom when it comes to explanatory importance. But at the same time, it is an index and the message is reasonably clear. “Our” time, if by our we mean the big rubber finger that reads “U.S.A., No. 1,” has passed. I wonder just how many other indicators out there right now are giving out this same information. More than a few, I suspect.

Five hundred years from now, it would be very interesting to see at what moment historians would identify the peak of the American empire, the moment beyond which the various roads downhill began to overtake those still on the rise. My guess is that it would be sometime around 1961, when the long post-World War 2 expansion had just a few more years to run, and when John F. Kennedy took over from Eisenhower. The Eisenhower-Kennedy transition represents the moment when the ability of the United States to “quietly” change regimes elsewhere in the world without a lot of mess back home started to implode, first with the Bay of Pigs, then Vietnam & more recently Afghanistan & Iraq. Not that Ike was good & JFK bad – they were a lot more similar than anyone made them out to be, actually – but that, starting with the Kennedy administration, it became necessary to go public with many of our foreign interventions, and that fewer & fewer of them actually worked. Ike’s one big success of installing the Shah as the leader of Iran doesn’t look so good from this perspective either, but at least that one took 25 years to implode.

Depending on which index you use, the U.S. expansion after WW2 came to an end in the mid-1960s or early 1970s, and by the 1980s per capita inflation-indexed earnings had peaked. Since then the concentration of wealth into fewer & fewer hands is not a scenario that shows the U.S.A. getting stronger. If it were not for the rise of the computer industry starting in the 1970s, the situation in this country might be quite a bit dicier than it is.

One could argue, in fact, that our current experiment in government by malevolent incompetence is a serious symptom of what happens to any hegemon as it tends downward. The former Soviet empire ditto. The problem is that countries that are visibly sliding in the wrong direction are often prey to the worst impulses of an increasingly desperate population. It’s not a formula for optimism.

Coincidentally, 1961 was also the only year since the end of the Second World War when there was no world figure skating championship. The competition that year was to have been held in Prague, but was cancelled after the flight carrying the U.S. skating team crashed & burned as it was attempting to land in Brussels. The entire U.S. team that year died, including 18 skaters, plus 16 coaches, officials & family members. In the 1960s, the U.S. had the resources to build a world-class skating program literally from nothing. In 1966, Peggy Fleming won the first of three consecutive world championships and the disaster of just five years earlier began to fade.

In 2007, it’s increasingly self-evident that the U.S.’s ability to compete on a global scale in figure skating, especially in the hyper-competitive women’s division, is under serious strain.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

 

I’m going to be on the road for the next week. I hope to keep posting, but one never knows. At least the snow has finally melted here in Chester County.

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