Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Provincialism



TLS November 9, 2012

from Stephen Brown's review of Beth E. Levy's Frontier Figures: American music and the mythology of the American West:

Writing in 1974, the art historian Terry Smith said that provincialism, "far from encouraging innocent art of naive purity ... in fact produces highly self-conscious art obsessed with the problem of what its identity ought to be".

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cloud Atlas and Family Matters



During the Thanksgiving break, at GH's parents' home in Cincinnati, I spotted a heavily discounted copy of Cloud Atlas at Kroger's and could not resist getting it. Sorry, take a number, Laura Riding. David Mitchell's novel is ingeniously constructed, six stories nestled in one another like Matryoshka dolls. Each story plays with the conventions of a particular genre, so "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" is a Melvillian sea yarn, "Letters from Zedelghem" is an epistolary novel about a young music genius, "Half Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery" proclaims it is a thriller in its title, "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" is a Borgesian story about intertexuality, "An Orison of Sonmi-451" is a piece of dystopian sci-fi, and "Sloosha's Crossin' an Ev'rything After" is a post-apocalypse island tale.

Though the overall construction is brilliant, the individual stories run the risk of sounding overly familiar, and so lose the reader. The ingenuity also tends to over-shadow genuine human passions. Of the six stories, only the relationship between Robert Frobisch and his correspondent Rufus Sixsmith in "Letters" sounds any depth. The ending of the novel, in which Adam Ewing preaches about the need for cooperation if the human race is to survive, sounds didactic and simplistic, if it is not intended to be ironical in a postmodernist way.

*

I finished reading Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters at the end of summer. I have been meaning to blog about it but kept putting it off. It's hard to do justice to the delicacy with which Mistry depicts the humilations of growing old and useless, and the tragicomedy of seeing a family cope with an aged father. Suffice to say, perhaps, that Family Matters may lack the scope of his A Fine Balance, but it trains its microscope to detect all our human squirmings.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Pack of Nobodies



I watched my last two White Light Festival events this week. On Wednesday LW and I watched "I went to the house but did not enter," a staged concert in three tableaux, at the Rose Theater. Conceived by German composer Heiner Goebbels, the production staged three modernist texts, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Maurice Blanchot's "The Madness of the Day," and Samuel Beckett's "Worstward Ho," with Kafka's short story "Excursion into the Mountains" functioning as an interlude between Blanchot and Beckett. The Hillard ensemble, a British early and modern music group, sang. Of the three tableaux, I found Blanchot most interesting. The fragmentation of self into "a pack of nobodies" (Kafka's phrase) was given dramatic and visual force by the isolation of the men in separate rooms of an ordinary-looking house. The gurgle of a washing machine, the siren of a passing ambulance, the clang of a dumpster lid punctuated the music with a ghastly wit.

Last night, at the Baryshnikov, TB and I watched Malavika Sarukkai perform in "The Spirit of the Body." The classical Indian dancer presented four dances of her own choreography, showing her versatility and skill. She was a forceful and precise dancer, more light than fire. Some of the lighting effects were unnecessarily theatrical, and detracted from the dancing. I thought the musicians were wonderful. I could hear Chitrambari Krishnakumar sing vocals for hours. Srilatha Shamshuddin played the nattuvangam, Balaji Azhwar the mridangam, Sai Shravanam Ramani the tabla, and Srilakshmi Venkataramani the violin.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Six Books of Poetry



Internet is back up after going down for four days. This post is a composite of things.

First off, I just finished reading Cyril's new book Straw, Sticks and Bricks. As the title suggests, this collection of prose poems is built on the idea of language as a possible home. Each poem is a "protracted" sentence, joining clauses and phrases with the useful glue of semi-colons. Formally, the book is the the most unified sequence that Cyril has written. That formal unity undergirds an expansion of subject matter. These poems venture from meditations on self to criticism of society. "Notes from a Religious Mind" and "Programme for Transcending Acquisitiveness" aims at social deformations indicated in the poems' titles. The more relaxed form of the prose poem permits Cyril, it seems to me, to experiment with other tones besides the  fiercely and exquisitely lyrical voice that he has perfected. My favorites of the collection are "Telephone," "Da Capo," "On Reading," "Lies that Build a Marriage" and the summative poem "Zero Hour."

For months now I have been dipping into Hyam Plutzik's Apples from Shinar in bed. The opening poem "Because the Red Osier Dogwood" inspired me to write a poem after its repetition of "because." All the poems in the book are finely weighed, with lush imagery and alluring music. Many poems are written in regular quatrains. "A New Explanation of the Quietitude and Talkativeness of Trees" convinces me that trees "belong to the genus thunder." There is an angry poem written "For T.S.E. Only" that tries to see the latter's pain in his anti-Semitism. The refrain "Come, let us weep together for our exile" tries to find common cause. The metaphysical and image-making powers of the book come together most dizzyingly, for me, in the ten-line poem "The Geese." The "miscellaneous screaming" of the birds raises the speaker's eyes to the geese pressing southward. Seeing the hopeless will of the birds to prevail against time, the poem concludes, "Value the intermediate splendor of birds."

Marina Tsvetaeva is, pardon the cliche, a force of nature. In the translations of Elaine Feinstein, that force also shows its formal intelligence. I read "POEM OF THE MOUNTAIN" in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and the poem transported me elsewhere, to the mountain, on the mountain, away from the mountain. Her passion ennobles her, as the poet is very well aware:

Let now some neighbour say whether your
hair is black or fair, for he can tell.
I leave that to physicians or watchmakers.
What passion has a use for such details.

No American poet could have written this. The American poet, and those poets influenced by the American tradition, will feel as an ethical imperative the compulsion to express her passion through details. Tsvetaeva brushes such details aside, because they belong to the common world of gossip, medicine and work.

I finished reading Natalya Gorbanevskaya's Selected Poems a while ago. She is a poet very much to my taste. Perhaps she is less passionate than Marina Tsvetaeva but she is intelligent, restrained and concise. She writes a poetry of clear statements, enlivened by surprising turns of thought or phrase. The translation by Daniel Weissbort does not reproduce her rhymes, but seems to have caught her directness. In Last Poems of the Last Century, she advises,

A citizen?
So, live independently.
A poet?
So, travel the world...

That tough matter-of-factness is very attractive. After arousing the ire of the Soviet authorities, she escaped to France and lived among the Russian emigre community in Paris. She lived there long enough to see the city change.

How few pinball machines now in Paris,
what's more, no smoking in cafés,
you screw up your eyes, like a half corpse,
insufficiently cooled.

I picked up Zhang Er's book of poems Translating Rivers and Cities at the Brooklyn Book Festival in September. The book brings together a selection of poems from three earlier books. A modern Chinese poet, Zhang writes in free verse, with surrealistic imagery to depict some interior landscape. She has been living in New York City since 1986. The poems go on for too long, too loosely, to hold my attention. The translations, done by six different people, render the foreign in all-too-familiar English. I like best the poems in her first book The Autumn of GuYao. In those poems, she re-writes Chinese legends by inhabiting imaginatively the minds of female protagonists: NuChou (Ugly Girl) from The Legend of the Western Lands; NuWa Jing Wei (Baby Girl, Jing Wei) from The Legend of the Northern Mountains; Princess NuShi from The Legend of the Central Mountains; and XiHe, the wife of the Emperor Zun, from The Legend of the Great Beyond to the South.

Effigies collects the work of four Indigenous poets, selected and introduced by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. dg nanouk okpik is an Inupiat-Inuit from Anchorage Alaska, Cathy Tagnak Rexford is Inupiaq, French/German and English from Anchorage too, Brandy Nalani McDougall, from Upcountry Maui, is of Kanaka Maoli, Chinese and Scottish ancestry, and Mahealani Perez-Wendt, from Hawaii, is of Spanish, Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry. The danger in such a book is exoticization, and it is a danger that poets and editor do not successfully overcome, in my opinion. The problem is knotty: how does one who live among "baleen row, razor clam edge, rabid willow ptarmigan plume ... white buds of plumeria, gardenia, lei, shaded grave of dried lauhala and graying niu" (from Editor's Note) write about these things without sounding exotic to readers from the American mainland? The best poems in the book treat these wonderful images as background to an unfolding human drama that readers can understand from their own lives. So in "Oblong Moon," Perez-Wendt writes,

The night Harry Pahukoa died
He was driving up from Honomanu
After laying net
He had to lay the net
Before the full moon.

The poem also succeeds in reaching out to the reader because it does not assume that its reader will understand the timing of laying a net. It explains without condescension or servility. The opening is also a skilful exercise of suspense.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Mo Yan's "Red Sorghum"



These ancestors are larger than life. In their loves and infidelities, in their fight against the Japanese army, in their endurance of horrific tragedies, they are the stuff of legend. In the depiction of Northeast Gaomi Township, where these ancestors lived and fought, the novel brought a sense of place in the 1930's and 40's thrillingly to life. The red sorghum that surrounded the village became a potent metaphor for blood and passion. The bridge over Black Water River was the setting for unforgettable scenes of confrontation. It was a time when people were not only fighting off corpse-eating dogs but were dogs themselves. A milita dressed itself in dog pelts. Living under later Communist rule, the narrator, who records the heroism of his grandparents and parents and fellow villagers, is ashamed to be a mere rabbit. One who repeats the words and wishes of others, with no voice of his own.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Julith Jedamus's "E.T. in the Isère"



If I have been "diligent" in analyzing the poems, the effort has been due to the poems' knottiness, in both thought and language. I am a city mouse, not a country mouse, and so many of Jedamus's natural terms are new to me. I had to look up "combes" and "cols," for instance. The poems collect such terms together quite lovingly, for their images and sounds, the way a hiker rescues brown leaves or a beachcomber picks up bits of shell. Also, a British reader would probably be familiar with Belle Tout, Rievaulx Abbey and the Lucombe Oak, and so did not have to research them. I only had the advantage of having seen the Uffington White Horse, which was a marvelous and unforgettable sight. It always brings back the memory of a girl of whom I was very fond.

I am not bothered by the poems' loose meter or slant rhymes. I found myself more troubled by the occasional lack of line integrity, the way two different phrases having little to do with each other beyond plot are jammed together into a line. The poems also do not follow the structure of a sonnet, with a turn from a larger section (usually an octave) to a smaller section (usually a sestet). Lacking that internal dynamism of a sonnet, the poems feel more to me like a block of fourteen lines, capped with a sonnet's rhyme scheme.

"E.T. in the Isère" is the last poem of this opening sequence of eight sonnets. It is interesting that the sequence ends outside of England. Isère is a department in the Rhône-Alpes region in the east of France. The places names are given in French, but they are strongly reminiscent of England. For instance, terre calcaire reminds me of the limestone landscape of southern England, the landscape of the White Horse and the Dover cliffs. The poem refers to Bois Noir and Arras but the flora and fauna--beeches, cirrus, yarrow, sloe, nettle, black boars, crows--can be found in England too. The effect is that of an Englishwoman abroad, who finds in the French landscape echoes of England. If that is the intended effect, the sequence ends with the suggestion of successful transplantion of a Colorado native to southern England. The name of the addressee of the poem, E.T., may clinch the effect, for few names are more English than Edward.

This is a love poem. Love acquires a local habitation and a name, to steal Master Shakespeare's words. The landscape is harsh, flinty. The beeches are scored with "old injuries" like the carving of lovers' names, the "blaze of axe or of lightning." The speaker pays her love, Edward, a high compliment by asking him, "What figure/would you find in their scars?" and so making him the poet. She anticipates his poem-response eagerly, for "no beauty's too slight, no fear too deep to escape your notice." His chief virtue is one of attentiveness. Which makes him the perfect reader of her poem too.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The next five poems in "The Swerve"



I am posting here only my parts of a discussion thread on Julith Jedamus's The Swerve. Read the complete thread here.

I enjoyed your keen analysis of "Bob-Mill." I agree that its intent is much clearer than the first two sonnets. It has a dense, alliterative music that reminds me of Hopkins. The children's hands are "numb, thumb thick as thimbles." They live "close-clipped lives." Jedamus's opening line "Down the dean they came on skim-milk/mornings" echoes, to my ear, Hopkins's "I caught this morning morning's minion, king-/dom of daylight's dauphin" ("The Windhover"). The religious note may not be so irrelevant: it comes into play in the next poem. "Bob-Mill" could have come across as sentimental (Ah, poor chillun) but the final question is tough-minded: "who grieves for you now...?" The point here is that to grieve for these dead children now is mere sentimentality, when grief for them while they were still living might have saved them from hell. Who are the children for whom we should grieve now? 

The next poem "The White Horse" describes the Bronze Age figure of a horse carved into the upper slope of a hill in the parish of Uffington, Oxfordshire. The poem is divided into three parts: (1) in L1-6, the poet asks herself what she is looking at; (2) the next four lines give the literal answer: grooves in the ground. This literal answer reminds me of the literal eyes of the gulls in the first poem "The White Cliff." But, whereas the earlier poem wishes for the gull's literal eyes, this later poem is not satisfied with the literal answer; (3) in the last four lines, the poem pulls back from the site to stand on a ridge or to fly "hawk-high" in order to see all the grooves forming into the "harrowed grace" of the horse. 

So, the poem is a puzzle that can only be solved by looking from a further or higher perspective. But what does the puzzle of the horse stand for? The initial description gives some clues:

xxxxxWhat is this broken body? Flesh
xxxxxdissolves, bones fill green charnels,
xxxxxxxxxxxxblood's washed 
xxxxxinto grooves and channels.

Looked at too closely, the horse is human decay, human mortality. No one will remember us, just as "No one/remembers the battles fought here." The language at the start is sacramental: broken body, blood. So, the solution to the puzzle is redemptive in nature. When we see the horse whole, we see her harrowed "grace." 

My problem (I must have one, musnt't I?) with this narrative is that even as the speaker asks herself "Who can read this poem?" she is already imposing Christian symbolism on the horse. The figure has been dated between 1400 - 600 BC, i.e. very much pre-Christian. Nothing about the horse supports a Christian meaning, however secularized. So to ask "Who can read this poem" is to be disingenuous. The poem knows the answer even before it has asked the question. 

Besides the mention of long-forgotten battles, the other attempt to situate the horse historically is perfunctory. 

xxxxxWhite runnels run. They are a kind
xxxxxof rune.

Ha! Rune! Ha! Druids! The sound-patterning here--runnels, run, rune--comes off as comical, not what the poem intends. I think the poet has allowed her hope for grace to run off with the horse.


Perhaps because the next pair of poems is about ruins (I am a diehard Romantic) and same-sex desire (I am a diehard romantic), it moved me far more than the poems that we have read so far. The two poems “Rievaulx I: The Abbey” and “Rievaulx II: Aelred” are related to one another as an institution and an individual are related, that is to say, in a complicated manner. Jedamus asks “The Abbey,” “Where is … your stronghold of love?” A humane institution should be a stronghold of love, protecting those who love it and those who love each other inside it. The Abbey failed on both counts: it did not protect its adherents nor did it sanction its adhesive brothers. 

The final image of “The Abbey” is haunting:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxIn recent rain,
xxxxxstone basins fill near mossy crevices
xxxxxwhere abbots dried the feet of novices. 

The stone basins still fill up, with rain coming through its missing roof, but there are no longer any abbots serving novices in the way that Jesus recommended Mary Magdalene to his disciples. 

The theme of love is carried over to the next poem, “The Lucombe Oak.” Named after William Lucombe (before 1720 – after 1785) who bred the oak by crossing Turkey Oak and Cork Oak, the tree was, in Jedamus’s lovely phrase, “this evergreen error.” It was also an “accident” and its parent was found “by chance” in a garden in Devon. The emphasis on accident is pertinent, of course, to the theme of love. Lovers find each other and come together by chance. Even parenthood is by chance: one may decide to have a baby but one cannot choose the kind of baby that one gets, at least that was what my sister, who have two beautiful girls, told me. 

The middle portion of the sonnet is devoted to the story of the man who found the oak’s parent. He loved the tree so much that he cut it down so as to save the boards for his coffin. But he lived longer than the boards. They rotted before he died. The lesson? You can’t take love with you. Trying to do so only kills it. 

The sonnet ends with the speaker asking her lover to listen to the creaking of the Lucombe Oak. The tree is falling, it is “no lesson.” Still, the speaker begs her lover to listen to the falling tree, for, really, its falling is a lesson for those who listen.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Picasso Black and White



"Picasso Black and White," now on at the Guggenheim, is worth every cent of the $22 entrance fee, and more. The exhibition showed the Spanish master deploying the stark colors in every phase of his career. And he did so not only in his nudes, but also in his still-lifes and political works, most famously in "Guernica," represented in the show by two harrowing studies made for the final painting.. By stripping his paintings of color, he wished to display more clearly the anatomy and structure of his work.

This concern for volume answered a question I always had about his investigations into Cubism. For a painter who was so sensuous in his apprehension of the world, Cubism seemed overly analytical and angular. The apparent contradiction is resolved, for me, in the understanding that Picasso's sensuousness is a matter of the handling of volumes, not of fingers running over surfaces, and even less of eyes drinking in the hues of objects. The range of ways in which he perceived the volume of the female head and body is astonishing. It makes Matisse look very conservative.

Unforgettable are "Woman with Flowers Writing," with its spare yet graceful graphic lines, "The Milliner's Workshop," a dancing mosaic, and "Dead Cock and Pot," a very late work, which I read as a meditation on human mortality.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Steve Fellner's review of "The Pillow Book"



Steve Fellner reviews The Pillow Book on his blog, Pansy Poetics. The review is generous and kind, although it strangely links me to Joe Brainard and Charles Simic, poets to whom I bear no resemblance and owe no debt. What it calls aphoristic is actually written in the form of a tanka, for instance, "The sun casts shadows, and so why am I surprised that love makes darkness, as if I am not in its way?" Perhaps laying the tanka out as a single line hides the form from sight.

Like another reviewer of my previous book, he raises the question of whether the book is too "highly structured ... to give unequivocal respect to the form." The form refered to here is zuihitsu, or, in translation, following the brush, taken to mean a kind of casual jotting. I am no expert in zuihitsu but Sei Shōnagon, whom I took for my model, revised her Pillow Book for years after retiring from court, before releasing it to the world. The spontaneity of the form is more apparent than real. Whether my book appears spontaneous is, of course, a question of readerly judgment. In Steve's view, the brevity of my entries in the book--the longest is less than two pages--counts against its spontaneity. This is an interesting insight into American poetics.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Stolen Apples"



When Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked ten of the best American poets to translate a collection of his poems that he had assembled for Doubleday and Company in 1971, he gave his translators "full freedom" in their work, for only "a free and unrestricted translation can in any way claim to be poetry." The translators would only translate the poems that they liked and translate them in the manner that they chose. So it is apt to call the English poems that resulted from this remarkable Cold War collaboration "translation adaptations," as the front cover does. The Yevtushenko obtained in Stolen Apples is not the man himself, but the image of the man as seen through the lensing personalities of James Dickey, Geoffrey Dutton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Anthony Kahn, Stanley Kunitz, George Reavey, John Updike and Richard Wilbur.

It is a remarkable characteristic of the Russian's work that poets as different as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Richard Wilbur responded so strongly to it. The angry protestor is heard in Ferlinghetti's translation of "Flowers & Bullets." Wilbur translated one of my favorite poems in the book, "Procession with the Madonna." In simple, precise quatrains, rhyming abcb, the poem looks at the hopeful young girls at the front of the procession, before looking at their "fates impending," the strong but cynical women at the back. The speaker turns out to be not a spectator but a marcher too. She marches beside the Madonna, between the girls in their white dresses and the women in their black attire, finding in the candles no "glad radiance," but "a muddled vision/Full of sweet hope and bitterness at once."

The poem shows a poet strongly self-divided, between styles, between political engagement and lyrical introspection, between manic exuberance and despairing acuity. The poem also shows a poet dramatizing powerfully the life lived in that division. His own foreword to the book is an uneasy mixture of inordinate pride and chastizing humility. He quotes Pasternak's line "Being famous isn't pretty" for the title of his foreword, but claims that by doing so "I've acted without arrogance or self-disparagement, a thing far worse than pride." These are not the words of a man who had arrived at a serene judgment of himself, but speak of constant tiring and tiresome evaluations and re-evaluations.

This sense of being both the judge and the object of judgement is expressed through the trope of hunting in another favorite poem, "Mating Flight of the Woodcock," translated by Stanley Kunitz. The poem is in four quatrians. The last two lines of every quatrain end with the same word, creating a doubling effect. This effect is explicitly stated in the third stanza, which doubles the word "double" itself. "Hunter, he is your unarmed double./You are his doomed and wingless double." Hunter and woodcock are mirrors of each other. Kunitz translated another poem that I like very much, "Incantation," with its haunting repetition at the beginning and end of the poem.

Think of me on spring nights
and think of me on summer nights,
think of me on autumn nights
and think of me on winter nights.

I don't much care for the free-verse poems with long lines that descend like steps across the page. But one, translated by James Dickey who had a taste for the grotesque, is riveting for its premise. "Doing the Twist on Nails" pictures not Jesus but Mary Magdalene dancing on nails "shot through" the stage. At the end of the poem, the speaker wishes to wash the wounded feet, not like a brother would do for a sister, but "like a sister for a sister." This doubling casts the poet as both the dancing Magdalene (the suffering artist) and Magdalene the healer.

One of the most moving poems in this collection approaches the death of Anna Akhmatova with the idea of the double too. "In Memory of Akhmatova," translated by Anthony Kahn, is in two parts. The first part is a hyperbolic elegy for one of Russia's best-loved poets. It ends with a conventional use of the double to praise Akhmatova's uniqueness.

For, certainly, two Russians cannot ever
exist or two Akhmatovas be made.

The second part, by undercutting that assertion, veers into new territory. It describes the funeral of a peasant woman "near Akhmatova in age." She has "nothing left to darn or wipe or sweep." She lies "absolvingly serene," in a telling detail, "her dry hands folded on her breast." She cannot be more different from Akhmatova, "disdainful, droll," an "Aristocrat." The two women belong to two different Russias, "a Russia of the hands and of the soul."

Then the poem begins to draw out their similarities. Akhmatova's hands, in writing, too "labored to their limit." In her funeral posture, she, too, lies "absolvingly serene," "resigned/and fragrant with a peasant girl's fatigue," with "fingers met upon her breast." The nameless peasant woman never looked on Nice but "on her brow/appeared Akhmatova's stern grace." She was not only a reader of the Russian poet but a worshipper, for above her body hung "Akhmatova's patrician profile."

So by comparing the funerals of these two women, otherwise so different in social situation, the poem brings them together. It elevates the death of this unknown domestic while underscoring the humanity of the dead poet. In doing so, the poem also reconciles the doubleness in Yevtushenko's poetry, between high and low, between cosmopolitan and local, between writer and reader, concluding that "between them there was no frontier."

Thursday, November 01, 2012

John Henry Mackay's "The Anarchists"



I was selling my books at this year's Rainbow Books Fair, when someone came by who seemed to recognize me but whom I didn't recognize. Too embarrassed to ask him about himself, I watched speechlessly as he signed a book and gave it to me. The book was a centenary edition of The Anarchists by John Henry Mackay. The man was, as I just this week discovered from the signature in the book, the editor Mark A. Sullivan. Tired of reading poetry and wanting to immerse myself in prose, I picked up the book and read it over two days.

The Anarchists is the first of a pair of books that Mackay himself called propaganda, not novels. (The other book is called The Dreamseeker.) The polemic advocating Anarchism is thinly fictionalized. Carrard Auban, the intellectual who walks with a limp, clearly represents Mackay and his political philosophy. His best friend Otto Trupp, always described as a well-built fellow, is the Communist agitator whom Auban tries to convert. Mackay is at pains in this book to distinguish Individualist Anarchism from so-called Anarchic Communism.

The former proceeds on the fact and value of egoism, whereas the latter, in Mackay's, and so in Auban's, view, builds Utopia on the false idea of human altruism. According to the Individualist Anarchist, the State is the problem because it protects the oppressors against the oppressed. His solution is to get rid of the state, in order to free competition not only in labor but also in capital. To the Anarchic Communist, the problem is the market. His solution is to get rid of the market and then get people to behave according to their noblest impulse, as captured in the formula, from each his best, to each his need. The breach between the two friends, Auban and Trupp, is inevitable. The unspoken attraction of Auban for Trupp, who is in a way a younger, better, version of himself, lends that breach some poignancy.

I have been influenced by my life in the States in a too-unthinking manner to question the current link between anti-statism and rightwing politics. The call to reduce Government seems to come from either the rich who are resentful of taxation, or from social conservatives who reject top-down changes to their social beliefs. The progressives, on the other hand, see the government as a bulwark against economic and social injustice. What Mackay's book argues is that the State protects the status quo, which always favors the powerful and the privilege. Whatever little redistributive justice that it performs is a mere sop to the exploited who cannot obtain the full value of their labor as long as there is no full competition in capital markets as welll.

The Anarchists accompanies its social arguments with horrifying pictures of the condition of the poor in London in the 1880's. On his own, and also led by Trupp, Auban wanders through hellish neighborhoods in the East End. He sees the corpse of a homeless man who died of starvation. A group of children, so morally distorted by their misery, torture a cat by gouging out its eyes and hanging it up by its tail. Mackay also records the radical workingmen's clubs of the time, hospitable to German, Russian and Jewish immigrants. He is very good at giving a sense of the heated discussions that swirled around the Haymarket trial in Chicago of the eight anarchists accused of throwing a bomb against the police. A chapter is devoted to a vivid account of the clash between protestors and police around Trafalgar Square when the authorities suspended the freedom of assembly at the square.

What comes through these descriptions is a deep compassion for the poor and oppressed. Anarchism must be understood as a political philosophy rooted in that compassion, and not in the winner-takes-all mentality too often associated with American libertarianism. But is the State really the source of all evil, as Mackay contends? Will its dissolution bring about not just liberty, but equality of opportunities, as he seems to promise? Even without the help of the State, what is to stop the rich and powerful from forming their own private army to guard the gains that they have made or inherited? It would be nice if everyone respects the liberty of others, as they wish their own liberty to be respected. But isn't that wish as idealistic as the Communist hope for altruism? Who will guarantee our liberties?