Monthly Archives: October 2014

A Poetical Moderate Leads a Tour of His Contemporaries

Even among avid readers, poetry is often inaccessible. At times it’s a country club, hiding its luxuries behind stanzas we can read but not comprehend; at others, a coffee shop that’s unrelentingly quirky but serves bad coffee.

In Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays, Tony Hoagland—an established poet and author of a previous essay collection—acknowledges that there’s a bit of truth to those perceptions. But if we stick around, he’ll explain the mechanics of poetry, examine skillful and less skillful uses of poetic devices, and introduce us to some of his favorite poets (he defends one, Sharon Olds, from “puritan” critics). He’s neither a traditionalist nor a revolutionary, accepting modern trends in poetry while noting their limitations.

In an essay on the use of disassociation in poetry, he praises its more substantive uses, those which “[give] us a chance not just to be bewildered but to respond,” while criticizing those that don’t quite say anything:

[N]o discourse does accumulate, because in this universe, each moment, each insight, each breath, each memory is transient, anonymous, and oblique; each insight reiterates its instability. The reader waits in vain for something besides the speaker’s disconcertedness to manifest—more “plot” of some kind….Can we praise a book for its intriguing concept, and method, or even its brilliant individual lines, if the method creates monotony?

Throughout, Hoagland reminds us that concepts are not enough. Poems need shape and substance, and, if not certainty, conviction. Poets in the postmodern era aren’t required to be as certain as their predecessors—not when people are questioning everything, including the ability of language to represent whatever this is—but should still say something more than “look at this meaninglessness.”

Hoagland’s stately, affable prose occasionally leaps into joyous poetic flourishes: “pretentious ponderous ponderosa of professional professors will always be drawn to those poems that require a priest.”

Despite Hoagland’s best efforts, it’s hard to imagine poetry being “restored to its position in culture, one of relevance and utility.” But in his appreciation for content as well as concept, and his treatment of poetry as craft rather than magic, he makes poetry accessible to those of us who’d otherwise be, quite literally, prosaic.

–Available November 4th from Graywolf Press


“Crisis Without End: The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Catastrophe” edited by Helen Caldicott

Throughout these articles, drawn from a 2013 symposium organized by the editor, scientists and activists repeat key points with passion and rigor:

1) “Considering the risk of losing half our land and evacuating half our population,” writes Naoto Kan, Prime Minister of Japan during the March 2011 disasters, “my conclusion is that not having nuclear power plants is the safest energy policy.” Kan’s fellow contributors add that the risks of a meltdown, as well as the difficulty of storing nuclear waste, make the technology unsafe.

2) Official reports—whether from governments or international bodies—should be treated with skepticism. Though official estimates of the risks of radioactive fallout after the Fukushima meltdowns assumed that radiation would be evenly distributed throughout the body, research conducted after Chernobyl showed radiation concentrating in certain areas of the body such as the thyroid, thereby increasing risk.

3) Scientists and other experts should “not just…write doctoral papers but…speak out and speak to the layperson.” Honest, open communication between scientists, the public and the government can help ensure that policy is motivated by scientific as well as political concerns.

These articles occasionally lapse into moralizing—“The scientific community should understand that the main threat to research is lack of critical thinking”—but, for the most part, represent the ideal combination of scholarship and activism. They don’t feign objectivity (and shouldn’t), but argue their points with evidence rather than anecdotes or righteous indignation. The data within them is worth a look by proponents of nuclear power.

Such proponents include current Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, who’s called on his government to restart nuclear power plants shut down after March 2011. Last month, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Agency approved the restarting of a two-reactor power plant in Kyushu.

–Published in October by the New Press

“The Way of Serenity” Offers Comfort, Wisdom, and Flimsy Theodicy


Devotionals are simple, unglamorous, and vital works of religious literature. They don’t give detailed instructions or draw us deep into the intricacies of theology, but they offer thoughts for our faith to build off—the gentleness of Jesus, for example—and prayers we can use to keep those thoughts in mind, and turn them to action.

Father Jonathan Morris’ The Way of Serenity is best described as a collection of devotionals based on the Serenity Prayer:

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

In the book’s three sections, Morris—a Catholic priest and frequent commentator on radio and television—elaborates on what each line of the prayer means and how Christians can put it into practice. Morris doesn’t hide his Catholicism or conservatism (the latter is especially apparent when he writes about his family’s struggles to love his sister despite her “homosexual behavior”) but his insights are accessible to Christians of all denominations and politics.

Morris’ prose, and ideas, are workaday: “When we pray for the courage to change the things we can, we are already accepting God’s wonderful plan for us to be his hands and feet on this earth.”

This isn’t a bad thing—simplicity is the point of devotionals, and, to a lesser degree, Christianity. God doesn’t set rules on what not to eat or when to rest or what to wear while praying; He sets a standard of selfless love that’s impossible but nonetheless worth striving for.


The Christian faith goes far beyond laws and pragmatic considerations. Yet it also has an intellectual component, one that this book often backs away from.

When Morris grapples with questions of theodicy—how the existence of God as we know Him can be reconciled with the existence of evil—his God starts seeming less like the mysterious Lord of this flawed world and more like the simplistic sky fairy of atheist ridicule.

After pondering instances of evil, including “little children with horrible birth defects,” he assures us that “[t]here can only be one satisfying explanation for all this. Somehow God must be able to turn evil on its head and bring good out of it. Somehow God must be able to take even the most horrific of tragedies and bring them to a happy ending.”

This theodicy works on a small scale: perhaps a child born with birth defects could inspire new heights of selflessness in its parents. On a global scale, however, it falls apart. The tragedies of sectarianism and colonialism in the Middle East have yet to be turned into a “happy ending” by God or man.

(Neither Morris nor I are among those Christians who cheer bad news as a sign of the second coming. “Our health, our environment, our wealth—responsible stewardship of all these things is part of what it means to be a good Christian,” writes Morris. Seriously. The apocalypse cheerleaders display all the sense and maturity of people who burn down their houses hoping to buy mansions with the insurance money.)

In Morris’ depiction, God is the parent of a newborn, who guides our every step and does good even through things that seem senseless and cruel, like making us take a bath, or get our shots. That doesn’t make sense in a world run by grown-ups, however fallible. War, genocide and famine seem senseless and cruel not because of our limited human perspective, but because they are senseless and cruel.

Let me propose another metaphor for our Father, not quite as comforting but better reconciled with the world as we see it and the Fall as we know it.

Heavenly Father is an empty nester. Humanity had the option of staying in His house forever, but, restless and proud, we struck out on our own. “I still love you,” He told us. “How could I not? I am love! I’m always here to answer the phone, but I’m not your ATM anymore, and I can’t always swoop in to save you from the dangers and temptations of the big city.” He came to visit once, at the height of our sin, but we were none too kind. He can work miracles if he wants to, but they are exceedingly rare. While he can part waves or multiply loaves of bread, directly changing someone’s conscience—the kind of miracle that would be necessary to end war—is beyond even Him, because of His gift of free will. I assume He’s shaking His head, appalled at our actions and our taste in music, but needs us to know that, in the natural universe, fucking up has consequences. (The Mormons add that, like many older adults, Heavenly Father took a while to get comfortable around black people.)

God doesn’t always make things right, but is worth worshipping because He created this world, occasionally offers us guidance within it, and will be fully present with us in the next.

Everyone’s journey of spiritual growth, writes Morris, “is as long as life, and it is lined with unique street signs, designed and placed by God, that correspond perfectly to the twists and turns, the bumps and bruises that God allows to come our way.” Our signs, however, don’t always “correspond perfectly” with our trials. The universe can be an immoral place, not because it’s meaningless or random but because its Creator gave it free will. Earlier in the book, Morris writes that free will is the risk God took to enter into a loving relationship with us, but he seems to forget that here.


Morris’ theodicy may fail, like all theodicy, but The Way of Serenity is not overall simplistic. Morris often reminds us that living our faith is neither easy nor immediately gratifying, as “the Lord is not a God of quick fixes and fifteen-minute spiritual oil changes, but a God of long-term and indeed eternal promises.”

Here he is on the Christian “primacy of persons over things,” acknowledging the difficulty of love rather than reducing it to facile images of shepherds and smiling couples:

“Christianity is not for the faint of heart….Once in a while love comes naturally, and then it is easy. But this is the exception. Most of the time love requires courage, self-sacrifice, and lots of patience. We really need a heart like Christ’s to love people the way he wants us to.”

Morris’ attempts at theodicy are sunny and shallow, but the paragraph above shows The Way of Serenity at its best: a fiercely unpretentious look at Christian love through the lens of a short and crucial prayer.

–Published September 16th by HarperOne


Palahniuk Pokes Around, but Hardly Stimulates

A brief synopsis of Beautiful You, the satirist Chuck Palahniuk’s fourteenth novel, may raise unfounded hopes that it’s a painfully funny (if somewhat prurient) romp through the intersections of sex and power. Penny Harrigan, a wholesome Midwestern girl striving and struggling in New York City, lucks into a date with the famous billionaire C. Linus Maxwell. He treats her to nights of sensational, methodically induced pleasure and tells her he’s testing a new line of sex toys, Beautiful You. Once his products hit the market, women throughout the developed world disappear from public life, and great cities are turned to wastelands in which “blazing dildos [shriek] across the sky.” Maxwell has planned all along to use these products for world domination, and Penny must fight back by harnessing the true power of her sexuality, with some help from a centuries-old mystic.

Palahniuk’s descriptions of men’s and women’s anatomy are at least as detailed—and certainly more vivid—than anything I encountered in sex ed. I won’t quote them here, but will say I was struck by how unflinchingly he details both heights of pleasure and the biology that produces them.

Throughout, Palahniuk attempts statements on the controlling power of pleasure, the ability of true love to overcome that power, and the uncertainties of feminism in the twenty-first century (Penny’s not sure if she truly wants the law career she’s pursuing, as what was a victory for women in the seventies has become unremarkable today). He also makes clear that he understands how irrational and brutal patriarchy can be. As Penny is being violated in a courtroom, the men around her look away, “as if mortified on Penny’s behalf. As if she ought to know better than to scream and bleed in public. As if this attack and her suffering were her own fault.”

The absurd plot and heavy themes of this novel promise comic—and feminist—gold. Unfortunately, they’re buried under clunky prose and contrived plotting. Despite its staleness, Palahniuk could have benefited from the maxim “show, don’t tell. ” He often states things that are already obvious to the reader, and describes characters or the societal havoc wrought by Beautiful You with a textbook writer’s broad, abstract terms rather than a novelist’s intimacy: “[T]he hard-won political progress of all women seemed to be eroding. Vanishing.”

Plot twists appear out of nowhere, or with blatant foreshadowing. The novel’s concluding scenes are so overloaded with revelations—about Penny’s parentage, about the power of her genitals, about Maxwell’s schemes—that they’re neither believable nor funny.

Believability isn’t an arbitrary standard imposed by a finicky reader. A good satirist maintains realism within an absurd setting, telling the reader not “look how crazy this is” but “here’s a world in which this isn’t so crazy. It’s not that different from ours.” Palahniuk has proven himself capable of doing so. In his more successful novel Survivor, he told the story of a cult-member-turned-TV personality in the process of hijacking an airliner. The hijacker was a ridiculous figure who’d lived a ridiculous life, but Palahniuk also got across his loneliness and bewilderment, and poor storytelling never blunted his message.

There’s great satire to be written about sex, power, and feminism, and Palahniuk may well write some. Beautiful You isn’t it.

–Available from Doubleday October 21st

A Scientist Finds Meaning On His Own Narrow Ground


Say what you will about New Atheism: that it requires the leaps of faith it claims to disdain, that it uses the worst of believers to categorize all, that underneath their liberating rhetoric its adherents often harbor bigotry rivaling that of religious conservatives. Much of it is true. But one common criticism of the philosophy—that its view of the universe has no place for morality or awe—is false.

Eminent biologist E.O. Wilson makes as much clear in The Meaning of Human Existence. Wilson doesn’t merely explain the complexity of the chemical signals most species use to communicate, or debunk a once-popular theory on the mechanics of natural selection; he revels in doing so, appreciating the glory of the natural universe and relating scientific facts to philosophical questions. (The scope of this book, of course, should be apparent from its title.)

He explains the tension between our better and worse natures, a central contradiction of the human condition, in evolutionary terms. The answer lies in multilevel selection—in other words, natural selection occurring among both individuals and groups. Selfish individuals tend to be more likely to pass down their genes within a group, while groups of altruistic individuals tend to do better overall. “Risking oversimplification,” he writes, “individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue…So it came to pass that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of natural selection.”

Wilson sees humanity, with the help of both science and the humanities, reaching a healthy medium between both natures, as “[t]o give in completely to instinctual urgings born from individual selection would be to dissolve humanity. At the opposite extreme, to surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots—the outsized equivalent of ants.”

This is The Meaning of Human Existence at its best: Wilson explains a scientific concept and applies it to philosophical questions. In doing so, he makes a convincing case that science, like the humanities, can play an important role in our search for meaning.

Too often, though, Wilson denigrates what the humanities and our quest for God can offer to that search, making the leap from science (the process of learning about the world through observation and experiment) to scientism (an unfounded faith in the power of that process to explain not just the natural universe, but everything). Here, Wilson’s book starts to unravel.


Wilson calls for a “more fruitful contact” between science and the humanities, which would involve, among other things, the former exploring phenomena traditionally left to the latter, such as consciousness. The humanities, he claims, are limited to rehashing the same topics, and ignore the vast range of senses (such as chemical trails) recognized by science:

“We are a very special species, perhaps the chosen species if you prefer, but the humanities by themselves cannot explain why this is the case. They don’t even pose the question in a matter that can be answered. Confined to a small box of awareness, they celebrate the tiny segments of the continua they know, in minute detail and over and over again in endless permutations. These segments alone do not address the origins of the traits we fundamentally possess—our overbearing instincts, our moderate intelligence, our dangerously limited wisdom, even, critics will insist, the limits of our science.”

In short, the humanities can’t explain how humanity reached its current state as effectively as science can. That’s true, in the same way it’s true that a psychologist can’t probe human fallibility with as much compassion and humor as Anton Chekhov.

The humanities don’t try (not primarily, at least) to answer “How did we get this way?” Rather, they say, “Here we are, full of contradictions—both angels and demons, geniuses and fools, running toward and away from God, the future, and our better natures. What do we do about it?” Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night doesn’t analyze the historical factors that led to the Holocaust, or the evolutionary psychology attempting to explain how supposedly civilized people can take part in such an atrocity. Instead, it captures one man’s experiences in the midst of Auschwitz and his struggles going forward.

Wiesel’s exploration of tragedy is only one facet of the supposedly “small box of awareness” that the humanities grapple with. With each “endless permutation” of the humanities, we push the boundaries further by asking new questions and finding new ways to answer them.

While science can explain how we got here and can give us the tools to move forward, it’s primarily the humanities through which we decide what direction to move forward in.

Wilson occasionally acknowledges this, as when he writes that the question of whether humans should use brain implants is “best solved within the humanities, and one more reason the humanities are all-important.” Yet he more often demonstrates his misunderstanding of the humanities through laughable statements such as “the history of philosophy when boiled down consists mostly of failed models of the brain.”


Wilson makes his humanism clear early on: “[t]he accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.” I’ll concede this point to him, not because it’s true but because I can’t refute it. Belief in God requires a leap of faith—something that can be evoked and justified, but not, even in the highest of human thought, explained. (Some philosophy has brought us to the very edge; this is one of the many things other than “failed models of the brain” the discipline has provided us.) I’ll also concede that good works and a semblance of meaning are possible without belief in God.

I’ve made a leap of faith. But Wilson isn’t entirely obedient to rationalism, either, committing the classic atheist fallacies of 1) assuming that mechanical explanations of natural phenomena preclude a creator, and 2) using the most unthinking of believers to characterize us all.

“With the coming of science,” he explains, “more and more natural phenomena have come to be understood as effects linked to other analyzable phenomena, and supernatural explanations of cause-and-effect have receded.” That’s true. I, and many believers more conservative than myself, will readily acknowledge that lightning is a result of electricity building up in clouds, not an expression of God’s displeasure at our sins.

But we don’t look to God asking why lightning strikes, or why the tides ebb and flow, or even why tectonic plates shift. We look to Him for guidance in how to respond to these often devastating natural phenomena, and thank Him for creating a world in which these exist for us to enjoy and suffer through—and explore through science. C.S. Lewis wrote that looking for the presence of God within the natural world is akin to looking for the presence of an architect within the walls of a building. The metaphor can be made a bit more apt, and messier, by adding that the building in question sprang seemingly at random from raw materials lying around.

Wilson also characterizes religion as a “tribal” force that prevents people from working in unity. Religion can be tribal, and human beings continue to do terrible things in the name of God, as a glance at headlines from the Middle East shows. But religion is hardly the only thing that divides people—God’s name is often invoked to justify hatred based on race or politics—and can be used to unite people as well.

And not all people of faith are “led by men who claim supernatural power to in order to compete for the obedience and resources of the faithful.” Religious institutions, like any other, have hierarchies and fallible leaders, but the most honest of these don’t claim to be any more the voice of God than the average citizen. Protestants are perfectly capable of wrongdoing—look at the Klan—but in stressing scripture and faith over the edicts of mortal men, we’ve gotten something right. (Many of Wilson’s arguments in this vein would make more sense had they been written before the Reformation.)

“The best way to live in this real world,” writes Wilson, “is to rid ourselves of demons and tribal gods.” Absolutely! Let’s do this not by losing faith but by recognizing that God is not tribal. People of faith can reach out and work together with those of different faiths or no faith—not because all religion is metaphor, but because God is universal, and we all can agree of the necessity of good works on this earth.


Throughout The Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson makes clear humanity’s potential for progress despite our worse natures. “We have enough intelligence, goodwill, generosity and enterprise to turn Earth into a paradise,” he writes, “both for ourselves and for the biosphere that gave us birth.”

In the same spirit, I think he’d agree with all but the last of Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians: “Rejoice. Change your ways. Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the love of God and peace will be with you.”

Have people of faith lived up to this ethos? Have the secular societies of the last century? Hardly. But we try. As humanity moves forward, we’ll need our quest for God (not just the cultural accouterments of religion) to keep in touch with our ultimate concerns, the humanities to explore those concerns and our relationship with them, and science to provide us tools and a limited measure of self-knowledge. Denigrating any part of this earthly trinity brings us closer to neither truth nor peace.

–Published in October by W.W. Norton

“Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine

This farrago of prose, images, and free verse attempts to delve into the relationship between black Americans and the racism they face, as found in the memory of murdered young black men, the on-court tribulations of Serena Williams, and Rankine’s psyche, shaped by everyday encounters with racism. Unfortunately, any substance the author can contribute to this worthwhile task is obscured by the opacity of her style. Citizen is a caricature of both theory’s abstractness and free verse’s disdain for coherence: “Memory is a tough place. You were there. If this is not the truth, it is also not a lie. There are benefits to being without nostalgia. Certainly nostalgia and being without nostalgia relieve the past.” (Some of the material is adapted from performance art pieces; perhaps it was more compelling in its original form.)  Citizen fails not because it isn’t an easy read—difficult topics warrant difficult books—but because, for all its murky atmosphere, it offers nothing to be challenged by.

–Published October 7th by Graywolf Press

Straight Talk on Death

Rather than run from death or challenge him to a duel, Caitlin Doughty looks him in the eye and shakes his hand, whispering “I’m not afraid of you,” and, more importantly, “thanks.” In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (and Other Lessons From the Crematory), she recalls her experiences working at a mortuary and advocates a more honest view of death, condemning an America that tries its darnedest to ignore it.

Death, she reminds us, is neither an obstacle to be overcome nor a mere unpleasantness to be ignored until the end of our lives. Rather, it’s a vital part of the human experience, “the very source of our creativity.”

The topic is serious, but this book is hilarious, often disgustingly so. The bodies Doughty encounters as a mortician aren’t the dignified figures of a wake or, she points out, the unnaturally beautiful corpses of a crime procedural. These bodies bloat, grow mold, become discolored, have their faces peeled down for autopsies, and make a mess. While cremating a larger woman, Doughty’s dress was stained by “a sluice of gushing molten fat” (emphasis in original).

I caught myself laughing out loud at that image, then remembered that hardly a page before, Doughty writes tenderly of how the deceased’s “permed white hair and soft hands” reminded her of her grandmother, “who raised seven children and made cinnamon rolls from scratch.” The author doesn’t flinch from describing dead bodies, but she never revels in death, or fails to consider what the bodies (or body parts) were in life. Her fascination with death is not morbid or psychotic, but realistic, even compassionate.

Doughty bemoans our separation from death, particularly as she sees it manifested in embalming—“decorating our dead as lurid, painted props on fluffy pillows.” Describing an embalmed relative, she writes “[h]er mouth had been pulled into a grimace with wires and superglue.” The “naturalness” embalming aims at is not natural at all. She argues that the practice evolved not for medical or religious reasons but to add a veneer of medical professionalism to undertaking. (Throughout, Doughty offers tidbits on how other cultures have dealt with death.)

Her view of death is, she admits, “secular to a fault.” She looks forward to an afterlife not in a spiritual realm but in the natural one, as her body is broken into parts for the planet that sustained it. However, as she acknowledges, both atheists and people of faith—including Christians—can participate in more honest conversations about death.

Faith is often misused as a reason not to think about death, as its unpleasant realities are overlooked in favor of the imagery that’s been used to evoke the ineffable afterlife—palaces on clouds, streets of gold, righteous crowds in white robes. (This misuse doesn’t refute faith claims any more than eugenics refutes evolution.)

But the defeat of death central to Christianity doesn’t mean that our deaths won’t be painful, or that they won’t hurt others, or that our bodies won’t rot afterwards (only one escaped that fate). It means there’s something on the other side—not something we’re very certain about, but something to look forward to—and that at an unexpected but inevitable time, death will cease to matter.  And spiritual immortality can surely be reconciled with physical decomposition—the cells you were born with won’t be present at your death, anyway, so why would it matter if our bodies’ last cells are no longer with us? These are reasons to be more honest about death, not to cloak it in euphemism or prolong the last years of our lives via costly medical battles.

For her own death, Doughty has decided on a green burial, one that embraces decomposition rather than stalling it. She’s also a founder of the Order of the Good Death, a “death acceptance collective.”

The straight-up memoir leading up to this founding is unremarkable. I’m sure your scorned love caused you pain, Caitlin, but it you don’t give it the humor and insight you give your time in the mortuary.

Thankfully, this dull patch is a rare misstep in an uproarious, tragicomic narrative. Doughty’s description of the cremation mentioned earlier, which left her “drenched in lard,” applies just as aptly to reading this book: “I was horrified…but it would be a lie to describe the experience as anything less than exhilarating, the repulsive going hand in hand with the wondrous.”

–Published September 15th by W.W. Norton