©2002 A.D. Sullivan
|My patriotism||rich quatrone|
|A trip to the Dodge||Al Sullivan|
|Fear of fire||Al Sullivan|
|Looking for a good war||A.D. Sullivan|
|I followed William Stafford||Larry Greene|
|Time and Again: History of New York||Dan Newhaul|
i wrote in earlier email poem
that i was glad as a kid no one taught
me to be a patriot.
but, of course, this is untrue.
i was indeed taught to be a patriot by
the likes of john kennedy and dr king.
and there were many others: my elementary
and high school teachers, a good number
of them. who taught me the meaning of
learning, the beginnings of a profound love
for words and books, of self-discipline
and of the importance of an orderly
all of these were my lessons in patriotism.
my lessons in the necessity and obligation
to serve my community, my nation, and the
so that i stepped into a classroom in
1968 and stepped out, or was kicked out
in 2001. that's 33 years of serving the
children of america. i'd call this a very
intense and devoted patriotism.
i taught my students these things: the
crucial importance of learning as a way
to save themselves; the importance of
language, the american language, to
express themselves into completion;
the need to know history (not a nation's
official mythology, although that too
must be known to understand the dynamics
and character of one's own nation) so that
they may know who they are; i taught my
students how to learn, the very process of
learning, of thinking, and finally, and most
importantly, of writing.
this was, along with my poetry, my service
to my nation and to humanity. and this, my
devoted teaching of america's children at
the risk of alienating less devoted colleagues
and bosses, at the risk of losing financial
security, and at one point at the risk of
my freedom, was and is my patriotism,
my love for america, and for the common
humanity of the world. i did not teach my
students that war is a solution to anything.
i did not teach them that killing is justified
in service to one's state. i taught, instead,
to fight for truth with words, with study,
with expression, and with teaching.
this was, is my patriotism.
A trip to the Dodge
by Al Sullivan
We had to get up early, shedding Jersey City Heights for an hour and a half ride to Waterloo Village, Beach Boys Pets Sound reverberating on the CD player like the sound track of our lives. My life was marked out in Beatlefests and Geraldine Dodge Foundation Poetry Festivals, each seeming to turn up at the most disturbing times in my life, then lingering for years a reminder of the turmoil, like my children inability to resist yanking off scabs.
We witnessed Allen Gingberg's swan song at the Dodge in 1996, a romantic conclusion to an uncomfortable relationship I had with the man over the years. Whereas Sharon, my wife, glorified the Beats, I blamed them for my bohemian attitudes, thinking for years that if the Beats had not done all they had to transform my culture, I might have grown up normal. My few encounters with Ginsberg left an even more sour taste in my mouth, so that by 1996, I was ready to crucify him, only to learn how much I owed him, and later mourned him.
The Dodge was always part of a regeneration for me, although I never laid claim to being a poet. So much poetic energy vibrating in one place, I could not help but catch some of its vibrancy.
Unlike the Beatlefest that allowed me to mourn my best friend Frank -- who died at 45 in 1995 -- the Dodge did not occur every year or even in nearby Secaucus. The Dodge's two year gap made us desperate to capture as much of it as possible, so that we got up early two of the three days, drove the forty-odd miles to its remote and wooded location, then parked our car in one of the distant grass-covered lots for the walk into Waterloo Village -- where we had to wait on line to purchase tickets.
Poets called it "Wordstock" as a kind of reference point to the monumental rock and roll show "Woodstock" in 1969. But these events were not so dedicated to the young as rock model was, despite the two days and one night focused on teachers and students. People from nine to ninety attended the combination of readings, lectures and talks, and then spread out blankets or hopped inside the central gazebo to read their own.
The accumulation of historic buildings and the numerous tents set up throughout the grounds reflected the Renaissance-like feeling each year managed to produce, as if history and culture remained so closely align it might take a war to tear them asunder.
War, indeed, was in the air, this fall, and my ache for the Dodge grew more and more intense in the days following the first Anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
For years before the attack, Pier A in Hoboken had served as an inspiration point, the place to which I went each morning with my note pad to jot down ideas. I did not write about the river as I was once wont to do when I hung out at the side of the Passaic River, but about anything that came into my head. The massive New York Skyline lay before me as a powerful friend, yet a friend that knew not to intrude on my private dialogue with paper and pen.
All this changed after the Sept. 11 attack. I bore witness to the mourning of stranger as they filed passed me each day at dawn to light their candles, to lay their wreathes, to cast their glances towards the still-smoldering skyline. Waves of their pain flowed over me in a way I could not have anticipated. As a reporter, I had hated my duty in interviewing survivors; this was worse. In this I became a participant in their grief.
The grief grew no better in the year that followed as if the world edged up to the first anniversary. I unfortunately expected great things from America's leaders, statements of public mourning that would help us all heal -- and received instead out of date sayings that pertained to other times and other tragedies. In my one attempt to read my scribblings at a public poetry event put on by a Hoboken-based magazine, Long Shots, I bubbled over unable to maintain the distance needed to communicate. Other poets tried, each taking a shard of the disaster, polishing it as best they could, yet could not bring together the majestic moment of horror for me, some waxed too nostalgic, others too politically patriotic, others too bitter at our own government. They could not find the great words to equal the massive moment in which our world got ripped apart.
In driving to the Dodge, I hoped to find the words I needed there, knowing that five U.S. poet laureates would be presenting their humble efforts before the massive crowds. Surely one of these great voices in our time could find the words to help put shape to the disaster and to create a public scab we could not inadvertently peal away: Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz.
As we walked onto the grounds and saw the generations of poets past, present and future, I felt certain someone would have the necessary language my pitiful talents could not find. We saw sensitive Robert Bly. He was not naked in the woods beating a drum. We saw powerful Amiri Baraka and heard his wail out outrage. We saw and heard a hundred poets reciting hundreds of poems, all of them fragmented and as fractured as my essays, all of them pieces to the two tower-high jigsaw puzzle I saw as my life.
Many recited vaguely anti-war poems. Some were no vague at all. Others read the powerful poetry of a Middle Eastern culture our nation professed to bomb. Pinsky in his Sunday night speech refused to give up his patriotic beliefs because they did not coincide with this particular vision of war -- his, the most articulated anti-war message outside of Baraka's.
For two days, we wandered through the caravans of poetic culture, digging out the roots of things, searching out some thread that might lead me to resolution. On Sunday morning, we came to Pinski's tent that sat like an oasis along the side of the Morris Canal -- the same canal that connected this distant place with the park that overlooked the World Trade Center towers, this the source, that the mouth, both tied to the same amazing tragedy.
Pinsky spoke about his Washington Post commission for a Sept. 11 poem. He read the powerful poem, his words floating in the air in the same way the fumes had over my memory of the distant skyline, in the same way the first fluttering brown leaves did on the canal water behind him, each image sharp with the shards of the disaster, but not made whole.
Then, I asked him if politicians lacked faith in our poets to provide the nation with adequate words for the occasion. Pinsky gave a side-glance at me, one of those odd looks I could not make out, and then repeated my question, shaping it better than my desperation for an answer could.
No, he said, it was not lack of faith. Not every great moment in time inspired great poems, and he rattled off numerous events lacking such poetry.
Pinsky recalled a book published in 1964 after the death of JFK, poems written by prominent poets, but rarely read today. This point resounding in me with the rock and roll poets that had desperately sought to shape a response after Sept. 11 and could not.
I heard no Sept. 11 poems over those two days -- save one in the open reading at the gristmill. Most poetry focused darkly ahead, fearful of what might come, not what was, of a hazy future filled with smoke of firing guns, not smoldering ruins.
Their poetry did not seem to look back. Their poetry seemed to study the microcosm of our current existence and the speculate on what might become of this frail, frail thing we call consciousness.
We rode home -- the shards of the poetry still alive in my head, my mind still struggling to put all the pieces together, even as the miles of road back to Jersey City told me I never could.
It is there,
the tinder box
built in rows,
1812, 1923, 1901
printed over the
the curtains flap,
at the street,
junk dealers and
in guise of stores,
a spark waiting
for the press,
and jobs for
six square acres
in `87 it took
we living with
dread of smelling
to the distant
"Is it here,
this time? Are
Looking for a good war
by A.D. Sullivan
I saw him in the rearview mirror, his grim face like a mad dog's, and his scarred fingers gripping the wheel to his car as if he wished it a weapon.
He was about my age, although he had weathered worse than I had, bearing the haggard look I had seen on other Vietnam era veterans to whom life had been less than kind. He hadn't shaved recently, gray stubble that only added to his disheveled appearance.
He reminded me of the working men I used to see in Paterson when I was 17, World War Two and Korean veterans, struggling to make ends meet in an era when many white males were making their fortunes, part of that class of people who struggled to keep up payments on houses they had purchased as part of veterans packages, with flag poles on the front lawn and a VFW stickers on the windows of their cars.
Like those characters in Paterson, this one glared at me as we weaved through the thick traffic of central Jersey City, his 1970s car testimony to the era he still lived in, a rusting monstrosity with a front hood large enough to serve as a airport runway. He kept his bumper close to mind, as if fearful I might slip away from him, traffic lights often separating cars. He ran more than one light just to keep up with me as I drove my usual route towards Hoboken.
I didn't have to look back more than once to see his outrage. While he displayed no flag on his car, he was clearly upset with the peace signs I had installed on mine, huffing and puffing as we made our way down the Palisades -- he waiting for his opportunity to confront me.
His kind in Paterson had often threatened to beat me up for displaying such symbols during the Vietnam conflict, as if I betrayed some fundamental belief to which all Americans were expected to subscribe. Indeed, the 2001 rebirth of patriotism seemed to echo those men's sentiments, giving them credence they lacked during the height of the 1960s protests.
My shadow through Jersey City seemed consumed with my individual protest. While I agreed that the terrorists were bad people and should be punished, I had no other way to protest the fact that our administration -- President Bush and his collection of Washington D.C. hawks -- also bore responsibility for the disaster, following a policy that helped encourage such violent characters. Each public enemy during the 1990s seemed to have receive their start from CIA operatives, and the World Trade Center disaster could be traced back to policies that started under Ronald Reagan and continued under King George the First during the Gulf War. King George the Second seemed determine to erase his father's errors by drumming up support for a never-ending war against anyone and everyone.
My peace sign wasn't free speech to this man, but a violation of faith.
Vietnam veterans suffered under the cloud of having fought a bad war. Even Ronald Reagan's term of office could not remove the shadow of doubt that hung over many soldiers, for whom no marches were held, and no proclamations for heroism were made. Some vets I met found themselves hurt by the attention the public paid to soldiers going off to the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, a subtle display of envy they were reluctant to admit.
Over the years after Vietnam, some veterans became embittered at the war and the policies that led up to it; others turned into hawks, hoping for the day when the country would come to understand their values. All seemed to count on a "good war" that would erase the tarnish the peace movement put on the profession of soldiering.
Even as we drove, I could read from the face of the man who followed me his stream of thoughts -- how no war could be so righteous as the one into which America now plunged, and how anyone daring to question American policies must approve of the slaughter the terrorists caused in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
The long ride through traffic seemed to increase his outrage, so did the fact that when he finally pulled up beside me to give me the finger, I laughed and gave him the peace sign back. My laugh probably hurt him most -- as vicious an assault on his dignity as the bastard hippies who spit on returning Vietnam veterans three decades past. I didn't mean the laugh to hurt. It was merely a reaction to how little had changed from Paterson, and how little such people really believed in my right to free speech. I was required to wave a flag or face violence. Indeed, the character pulled his car over and fully intended to get out and catch me. I pulled back into traffic, and saw him pull back behind me, this time bent on catching me in the narrow streets of Hoboken. I turned and turned again, more concerned with his damaging my car than me, since he looked too out of shape to do much damage to anyone -- his large belly a testimony to his lack of exercise since those days when the military had whipped him into shape.
In his large car, he found it equally difficult to keep up with me, as I put several cars between his and mind during the multiple turns, and later, after making a left, he failed to make, I saw his car moving aimlessly through the streets of Hoboken, seeking me just as he had the answers to his own misery, seeking someone to blame for how his country had mistreated him for all he had done in the war -- one among many veterans through many wars America discarded after their military usefulness had been used up.
It's all over
I followed William Stafford
I followed William Stafford
to Pine Cone Country one year
after the moon had become
a bull's eye for wandering rockets,
the sound of chain saws
and falling trees
erupting from the mountain--
Mount Hood awesome with its white dwarf cap
shimmering under a summer sun
while the river, Columbia,
raced beside the highway
as if it could win against the Eastern Establishment
and water pollution,
telephone lines and laser reflectors,
the moon's face looking down
laughing over the frosted waves,
saying rockets must come to all,
and in the Spring of that year,
you and I,
standing on the side of the mountain,
watched them fall.
Time and Again: History of New York
by Dan Newhaul
Jack Finney's science fiction classic novel Time and Again really isn't science fiction, and it really isn't a novel.
It looks like science fiction, in that it is speculative, and it is long as a novel. But both concepts are slightly off when it comes to this book. In some ways, Finney has written a long, fantasy short story that can easily be taken as a history of a particular year of New York, giving us images of what used to be, before there were subways or skyscrapers, before anyone even thought a place like the World Trade Center could exist, let alone knock it down.
While the book has a disaster at the center of it, a massive fire in downtown Manhattan, it is mostly a story of distrust for government, about the misuse of science and the need to maintain the integrity of those charged with overseeing our intelligence-seeking agencies. Published in 1970, Time and Again reflects the healthy skepticism Americans had about their government - a skepticism that has faded from the public consciousness over the decades, but particularly after the World Trade Center attack.
Unlike hard science fiction writers like Larry Niven, Finney gives us no complicated devices to take apart, not elaborate scientific theories, no vision of the future. Instead, he strips us of our modern conveniences, and put the onus of time travel - not on technology - but in our ability to imagine. Instead of presenting us with a picture of the future, he takes us into the past, to reexamine what we lost with the coming of technology.
It is a fantastic journey that begins in the luxurious rooms of The Dakota (the place where John Lennon got shot) and continues through turn of the century Central Park and through streets of a Manhattan devoid of skyscrapers.
The chief driving force in this novel is the idea that if you have the correct psychic ability and find a location that existed relatively unchanged from the past, you can make the transition between the present to some moment during the time line of that structure's history.
While other people have made the trip at various levels of success, Rubin Prien, the book's main character, does it better. He is only supposed to journey back for a glimpse of the past, and for his first visit, that's all he does. But he soon decides to wander around - with the tentative approval of his superiors - and interacts with the people there. In fact, he falls in love with one of the women he encounters.
The book has several layers of mysteries, each leading to various situations Prien is forced to confront. He helps rescue people from a fire. He investigates a historic suicide. He even looks up a personal matter for another person in the program.
But the frame of this tale involves why the government would spend so much cash to sponsor what appears to be largely an noncommercial scientific exploration, and Prien's biggest challenge comes from he discovers the government's true intentions.
The plot of this book lacks the usual complexities found in science fiction. It trips along scene by scene the way a short story might, carried along by the sights and sounds of the past, and the mysteries Prien is forced to investigate. There are subtle subplots, but little varying from the plodding path. But the texture of the language and the sense of place Finney managed to capture more than make up for the lack of elaborate plot complications.
In some ways, the book continues to highlight the dangers of putting too much trust in government to provide answers to today's problems. Sometimes the government is the problem.
Those who wish to comment can
send comments to A.D. Sullivan by e-mail,
or by traditional letter to:
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307
You are visitor number 1386 to this page.