Thursday, September 11, 2014

On Income Inequality and Poetry




A wise friend told me that the class war was finally over. History has ended, but not as Marx expected: the rich, my friend maintained, have won the class war completely and irrevocably. I don’t know enough about economics to comment on this intelligently. However, most of what I see around me confirms that the game is rigged, that the middle class is doomed, and that our politics is an oligarchy dominated by moneyed interests. Legislation and foreign affairs are not democratically managed; rather the wealthy purchase those laws and wars necessary to serve their interests.

There are two factors that dramatize the victory of wealth over the rest of us. First, money now dominates politics and other aspects of the res publica with an impunity and shamelessness that seems unprecedented to me: greed is openly celebrated and the Supreme Court has declared that money is speech, a conclusion that may have always obtained to some extent, but that was never publicly declared as a political principle. (In this analysis, I follow Slavoj Zizek’s notion that to speak a truth that was hitherto operative, but discretely veiled, is a quantum shift in consciousness; it is one thing to torture people secretly in the cellars of an autocratic state – it is another thing entirely to declare publicly that torture is acceptable.) The second symptom of income equality is the imminent collapse of the middle class. Income inequality squeezes the middle class downward – society is increasingly imagined as a tiny minority of oligarchs managing a vast class of minimally educated, impoverished proles. Among industrialized nations, the United States has become less like Germany and Scandinavian countries and more like Chile and Mexico. Indeed, statistical studies suggest that the American division of wealth is rapidly eroding the middle class – in 2014, families with income in the top ten percent saw their wealth increase significantly; by contrast, the families with the least, the lowest 40 % saw their wages and earning capacity decrease substantially.

Of course, the dissolution of the American middle class is a cause of concern. Most politicians promise that they will debate the issue. But, of course, in a society in which all journalism, as well as all other media, are controlled by plutocrats, debate is a form of Kabuki-theater. Democracies debate problems that they are helpless to solve. Indeed, debate is a means of social control. The more thoroughly a subject is debated, the less likely that there will be any solution. Public debate simply lulls the poor into false security: someone somewhere is talking about our problem and so, therefore, we may accept the status quo as natural, ordained and inevitable. In modern America, debate authorized and empowered by media outlets is typically limited: everyone agrees that income inequality exists, is destructive to our institutions, and dangerous; but everyone also agrees that the problem is inexorable and that the only way to ameliorate this peril is to slow its progress – there is no one really suggesting that measures should be taken to redistribute wealth or do anything that would reverse the trend.

One of the most pointed and effective comments about income equality appeared recently in a magazine that is, as it were, the house organ for very rich, The New Yorker. In the September 8, 2014 issue of that magazine, there is published a poem entitled Nursing Assistant: Chapter Review. I think that poem is worth a dozen treatises and tracts on income inequality, its causes and effects. The poem appears over the name C. Malcolm Ellsworth. Ms. Ellsworth is an Iowa poet and on the evidence of this verse, a great writer. (She has published a volume of poems called that I will have to obtain.) It is curious that this excellent poem is printed in a magazine that features an advertisement for Tiffany & Co. on its back cover, cheek by jowl with other ads for expensive vacations, luxury hotels, and Broadway musicals with tickets that cost $250 dollars per seat. Because this poem is superb and, even, important, I think, I shall quote it in full:


After we shave balloons,

but before the test on decubitus ulcers,

a shamelessly bellied

Venus of Willendorf talks trash

and recounts every detail of her long-past pregnancy,

her meltdown in a family photograph at age ten,

and the recent transgressions of a drunken live-in.

In the chapter on mobility,

two h’s are silent, eschar,

as in necrotic tissue, a black wound,

and trochanter, as in trochanter prominence,

as in there are many ways to be broken.

In keeping with its ostensible subject, the poem divides neatly into two stanzas – one of them is descriptive and the other analytical: we are presented with a symptom and, then, diagnosis or commentary on that symptom. The poem replicates the way that medical practitioners are trained: we are taught to see something clearly and without sentimentality and, then, provided with scientific analysis of that phenomenon. The portrait in the first stanza is labeled and described in the second part of the poem.

The poem’s first seen lines describe the kind of person not ordinarily portrayed in verse: she is a student, vulgar, fat, and garrulous. The text’s heroine is not reticent, intelligent, elegant or blessed with a refined artistic sensibility. Her training seems oddly pointless – she is tested on her ability to shave a balloon, presumably one slathered with lubricant cream, without puncturing the latex. (Shaving balloons was intended to educate nurses to use razors safely. Surgical sites on hairy patients have to be shaved in preparation for incision and, presumably, bedridden men also need to have their cheeks, lip and jaws dewhiskered. This work is ordinarily done by electric razor, but some nursing programs still require that students complete this exercise – this is a nice photograph on the internet of two handsome nurses in cap and white dress shaving a balloon sometime during World War Two. The Nevada School of Nursing posts two pictures of contemporary nursing students using razors to carefully scrape shaving cream off a balloon on which a face has been drawn in magic-marker.) We are told that the nursing assistant student will also be tested on decubitus ulcers – that is pressure or bed sores. These ulcers are a condition arising from immobility. Patients who are paralyzed or too weak to move are prone to develop penetrating ulcers at pressure points where their motionless body rests upon the bed in which they are lying. Accordingly, the student is being prepared for menial labor, presumably shifting or turning bedridden elderly patients to keep them from suffering decubitus ulcers as a consequence of their immobility. The ballooning latex mirrors the student’s rotund and slovenly body, her "shamelessly bellied" form. The razor poised over the swollen balloon threatens it with deflation, just as the decubitus ulcer pierces the body of the motionless patient inflicting injury upon his or her flesh.

From description, we imagine the nursing student as heavy-set, a niece to Dr. William Carlos Williams’ "Elsie" in his great poem that begins with the lines "the pure products of America/go crazy":

some Elsie –

voluptuous water

expressing with broken

brain the truth about us

her great

ungainly hips and flopping breasts...

Ellsworth’s nursing assistant student looks like the "Venus of Willendorf," a prehistoric figurine showing a voluptuous female figure with broad, fat hips and pendulous breasts. The birth of her child (or children) has been the principal event in her life and she regales those listening to her with "every detail of her long-past pregnancy" – presumably a gory and intimate narrative. We understand that she may have had an unhappy childhood, although this is not clear – perhaps, she has impulse control problems that resulted in "meltdown" when posing for a family photograph. She "talks trash" about her boyfriend, described in the demotic, as her "live-in," a man who is apparently a drunk and, also, perhaps abusive. These details serve to delineate a specific type of woman. She is middle-aged. After an impoverished and chaotic youth, she now seeks training to do the menial and backbreaking work of nursing assistant. The pathos in her situation is that she is engaged in seeking certification for dead-end, low paid employment that no one else desires. She can’t afford to care about her appearance. She lives in a world of drunkenness, casual male abuse, and difficult pregnancies. Her horizons are defined by violent drunken men and reproduction. When certified, she will work with dying patients and the demented, paralyzed elderly. Her plight is essentially hopeless although she doesn’t see her situation in those terms – indeed, she seems cheerful, robust, even, vibrant, talking trash about her uterus, unhappy childhood, and drunken boyfriend.

Ellsworth’s accomplishment in the first stanza of the poem is noteworthy. She must describe her female subject and her milieu without condescension. The poet treads a rhetorical tightrope in the text’s opening lines – she has to be accurate but not condemnatory, truthful without being patronizing. In part, this trick is accomplished by cunning deployment of the pronoun "we" – like William Carlos Williams’ poem, this Venus of Willendorf expresses "the truth about us" – she is shown to tell us something important about American society.

The last five lines of the poem are Ellsworth’s oblique commentary on the plight of her heroine. The poem is a "chapter on mobility." If we are unable to move, then, certain pathologies will afflict us. These pathologies include decubitus ulcers that appear as "necrotic tissue," or "black wounds." In medicine, it is important to call things by their proper names – this is Ellsworth’s ethic in first half of the poem and applies as well to her analysis. "Eschar" is the scab covering an open wound, in this case an injury caused by immobility. (Ellsworth’s diagnostic language here departs slightly from clinical reality – eschar is not always dire and may, in fact, be symptomatic of the body healing itself; however, the emotional valence of the word "eschar" in this poem is controlled by the words "necrotic" and "black wound. The injury here is not one from which anyone recovers.) The "chapter on mobility" teaches us that a person who has fractured their "trochanter," that is the bony prominence at the upper end of the femur, will be seriously immobilized. A fractured trochanter is a hip-fracture, a frequently fatal disease of old age. "Trochanter" is the Greek word for "runner" – if we can’t "run," if our hip is broken, then, we will be immobilized and, presumably, exposed to the risk of diseases of immobility, including, most notably, decubitus ulcers.

Of course, the word "mobility" alerts us to a common usage of that term: a healthy society is one in which there is "upward mobility" – that is, people are rewarded for their labor by improved wages and social advancement. But Ellsworth’s nursing assistant occupies a world in which there is no meaningful mobility – if you are born poor and had a baby when you were young and unmarried and if you live with an abusive drunk, you will stay poor. This woman is studying to achieve a certificate authorizing her to do a minimum wage job. Her employment will not lift her out of poverty and will probably not improve her situation economically – she might well do better to simply remain on the dole. Furthermore, it’s likely that her children and their children will be mired in same poverty. The "trochanter" of our society is broken, the "runner" doesn’t work any more – there is a "black wound" festering at the center of our economic system.

Why does the poem emphasize the silent "h" in "eschar" and "trochanter?" The "h" in the spelling of the two words is a relic of the medical terms linguistic prehistory. Once the "h" was pronounced but now it remains in the words as an artifact of their past. In this way, the "h" in "eschar" and "trochanter" is like the Venus of Willendorf, and, also, an attribute of the nursing assistant – once people like her were integral to the world and the source of its fertility and life. But, now, no one needs her; she has no skills that can be profitably transferred to the modern world. She is a person that history has passed-by. A poignant aspect of the poem is Ellsworth’s protagonist is loquacious – she likes to talk. But her voice is silenced both in our society and culture at large. No one writes poetry or novels about nursing assistants working with old ladies with broken hips in nursing homes. There are no TV shows about such people, no movies, no representations as to their lives. Like the "h," they are unvoiced – nursing assistants are an important part of the social integument, they hold certain parts of the world together, but no one talks about them.

Ellsworth’s poem probably has other meanings as well. The two parts of the verse resonate against one another and each stanza illumines the other in a complex dialogue. The poem attracts our attention with its exotic and intriguing elements – shaving balloons, the Venus of Willendorf, curious specimens of medical jargon. The poem is challenging; on first reading, the relationship between the two stanzas is unclear. But a moment’s reflection suggests an interpretive strategy linking the first stanza portrait of the student to the lines diagnostic as to her condition. The reader experiences a shock of recognition and a sense that the poem has revealed something that was previously hidden. In my estimation, "Nursing Assistant; Chapter Review" is an exceptionally good poem and deserves to be anthologized.

A critic who praises should be prepared to blame as well. I think it illustrative to examine a poem that is similar in many respects to Ellsworth’s lapidary gem but that seems unsuccessful to me. For this exercise, I suggest consideration of a very late poem by Paul Celan, a Rumanian who wrote his verse in his mother-tongue, German. Celan’s lyrics are highly regarded, but I think much of his late poetry is overrated. The poem that I have chosen for analysis is untitled but called "Was bittert" or "What embitters" after its first words. Like Ellsworth’s verse, the poem is very short: it is only fifteen truncated lines to Ellsworth’s 12 line verse. (Neither poem cleaves to any obvious structural form – they don’t t rhyme and seem idiosyncratically constructed.) Both poems reference medical textbooks and use recondite clinical jargon. Furthermore, both poems require the reader to solve a riddle: in each case, the challenge posed by the poem is to establish meaning by construing links between radically disparate elements – for instance, the Venus of Willendorf and eschar in Ellworth’s poem; the auditory cerebral cortex and thumbscrews in Celan’s poem. Although the poem’s inhabit very different contexts, I think it is useful to compare them.

Celan was the pseudonym for Paul Antschel, a Rumanian-born Jew who spent much of later life in Paris. Celan was a survivor of the Holocaust in which all other members of his family perished. Certainly, he was badly damaged by his wartime experiences and, probably, seriously mentally ill as well. (Celan drowned himself in the Seine in 1970; he seems to have attempted suicide in the context of the attempted murder of his French wife, Gisele Lesestrang, on at least two prior occasions.) Celan’s principal subject is the extermination of the European Jews, a subject to which he returns with obsessive and, sometimes, tiresome frequency. In my view, many of Celan’s last poems are gibberish. However, I should remark that this is a distinctly dissenting view. Indeed, Celan’s late work is often praised exorbitantly and said to verge on the ineffable. Furthermore, I must declare that a couple dozen of Celan’s poems, including the astounding "Todesfuge" ("Death-Fugue"), are among the very greatest German lyrics. But I don’t count "What embitters" in that number.

Here is the poem in my translation in its entirety:

What embitters

going in

The great solitudes

are dwarfed

in auditory cortex hymns


the thumbscrews mutter in

more cheerful

rack-torture heights,

the deciding




in the counting room

the rings

worship rebelliously

what remains.

It is often alleged that Celan’s works are untranslatable. (This has not prevented writers from attempting translation – indeed, Celan is the most translated of all modern German poets.) However, to avoid any assertion that I have cheated in my translation to make Celan seem more difficult or bizarre, I append the actual German with some comments:

WAS BITTERT (the adjective "bitter" used as a verb)

herein ("herein" suggests motion inward)

Die grossen Alleinigkeiten ("Alleinigkeiten" – the condition of being alone in the plural)

verzwergen (a "Zwerg" is a dwarf– "verzwergen" means to stunt or dwarf)

im Hoerrinden-Hymnus, ("Hoerrind" literally means "edge" or "skin" – as in fruit – of hearing)

tuscheln die Daumschrauben ("Daumschrauben" – thumbscrews)

Streckfolterhoehe (literally "stretch-torture-heights)

die enscheidenden

erhalten ("to give, receive, offer, present")

Zufuhr ("supplies" or "provisions" but with a sense of something brought somewhere)

in der Zaehlkammer ("counting chamber")


beten die Ringe ("the rings worship")

den Rest an. ("Rest" – what’s leftover, the remains or remnant.)

We know that Celan wrote these words in February 1970 about two months before he killed himself. It is possible, of course, that the words are merely sketches for a poem that was never completed. But Celan’s hyper-compressed and cryptic style of utterance is consistent with other late poems that we know the poet considered to be finished. Scholars have discovered the sources for some of the imagery in the poem. Apparently, critics have examined Celan’s copy of books that he was reading at the time and have located underlined passages that correlate to certain words in this lyric. Specifically, Celan seems have been perusing a textbook on physiology, a volume called Leitfaden der Physiologie des Menschen (Introduction to Human Physiology). In that book there is a reference to the auditory cerebral cortex, a portion the brain to which nerves convey signals from the ears. Those signals are received by the "Hoerrinde" – the auditory cerebral cortex – at various locations that may be mapped according to the frequencies of sound experienced at the ear. The last several lines in the poem alludes to another underlined passage several hundred pages later in the textbook. At that location, the book describes the process of using a microscope to count red blood cells – this accomplished by: "in a purified counting room, a convex piece of covering glass is pressed down until the Newtonian rings emerge at the points of contact." The rings of Newton are concentric interference patterns that arise when a convex lens is forced down onto flat plane of glass; tiny angles of refraction in the light passing through the convex lens creates a wave interference pattern apparent as uniformly spaced concentric patterns of shadow or darkness.

The torture imagery in the poem derives from a completely different source, a collection of aphorisms written by the Jesuit priest Balthasar Gratian (d. 1651) in the 17th century. Gratian’s aphorism are collected in The Book of Worldly Wisdom, sometimes called The Pocket Oracle. These aphorisms were highly regarded by Nietzsche and Celan read them in a translation by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. (It’s worth noting that these book, construed as a manual for success in the business world, achieved brief bestseller status in the early years of this millenium. The book was on The New York Times Bestseller list in 2003). One of those aphorisms contains these words: "The malicious cunning of others uses such moments of temptation to search the recesses of the mind: employing such thumbscrews as are wont to test our best intentions." The February 1970 issue of a Rumanian literary magazine (published in German) revived allegations made by the widow of the poet, Yvan Goll, that Celan had plagiarized the French writer’s verse after translating it into German. Celan vehemently denied these charges but seems to have felt that Goll’s widow was part of a cabal of enemies maliciously inflicting "torture" by accusation on him. No doubt exists that these accusations that were fraudulently made seriously unhinged Celan. In a letter to the German poet, Ingeborg Bachmann, Celan said that those responsible for traducing him as a plagiarist were worse than Nazis. (Celan thought of these accusations as anti-Semitic, an attempt to discredit him similar to the Dreyfus Affair in France prior to World War One.)

Armed with this information, can we successfully construe the poem? Celan’s words describe, and, possibly, enact some kind of process. We might hypothesize that Celan imagines the innermost self as a kind of inaccessible fortress of solitude, a place that is lonely but well-defended, "the great solitudes." When sound penetrates to this solitude and is mapped onto the cerebral cortex – described in German as a kind of permeable skin ("Hoerrinde") – the self experiences itself as limited by the outer world impinging upon it: sensory data "dwarfs" the majestic loneliness. The core of consciousness, this dark Ding-an-sich, suffers torture by compression ("thumbscrews") and extension ("rack torture") – a previously unbounded entity is "embittered" by being cast into physical dimensions involving painful compression and torturous extension, that is, a physically material realm. Entrapment in space, which is ultimately an illusion, is painful but the experience of sound encroaching on the "solitudes" of the self also makes possible some sense of the divine – the auditory cortex generates "hymns." (Celan uses the Latin form of the old Greek word humnos – meaning a "song of praise.") The first part of the poem dramatizes the experience of hearing something. The poet’s attitude toward hearing is ambivalent: what is heard destroys the great solitude and tortures, but also makes possible praise. (Rilke said that the poet’s function was "ruhmen" – that is "praising".)

I am skeptical about my own explication but it accounts for most features of the poem’s first part. But the last eight lines are wholly indecipherable. There is no way to know what Celan means because the language that he uses is dauntingly abstract and not moored in any kind of physical reality. Celan describes some sort of relationship but we don’t know the nature of the objects or ideas involved in the relationship. Consider this sentence: Fish live in water. Celan’s poem omits the tangible words "fish" and "water" – we are left with "live in"; in other words two things are in a relationship to one another, but Celan doesn’t tell what those things are. (This is exemplified the opening lines of the poem: "What embitters/going in" – so something makes bitter when it goes in; but what is the something and where is going into? "Pauses" offer "provisions" or supplies? And this is decisive? Provisions or supplies for what? The concept of Newton’s rings echoes the imagery of compression ("thumbscrews") in the "counting room". But what is being counted and why? What does it mean for interference rings to "worship" something that "remains?" What remains? Why is it worthy of worship? And how does compression induce worship? Celan might be saying that the experience of torture or martyrdom is related to worship. Celan exegetes always fall back on the Holocaust as their explanation for everything that is problematic in this writer’s poetry – but I’m not sure this glib explanation is always tenable or relevant. One might argue that the destruction of the European Jews leaves a "remnant," so few that they can be readily counted – they have been pressed into extinction and that what remains of them is surrounded by concentric halo-like rings, both the evidence of their slaughter and a kind of aureola of divine glory. But if this is the meaning of the final four lines, then, how does this relate to the "great solitude," the auditory cerebral cortex, and the rack torture. Ultimately Celan suggests that the real location for misery and martyrdom is somewhere buried deep inside us, some intractable zone of incurable wound – but is this implicit in his poem, or am I merely reading the verse in light of Celan’s subsequent suicide? If Celan had lived into a ripe old age like Robert Frost or John Ashberry, we would read his poems in a completely different light.

Further, we must not discount the possibility that Celan’s mental illness, his paranoia, motivates much of the poem. In Celan’s late work, his sense of private grievance often assumes a metaphysical cast. We should remember that Celan hysterically accused his enemies of being "worse than Nazis,’ that he interpreted accusations of plagiarism as being anti-Semitic and evidence of his Dreyfus-style persecution. It’s certainly possible that the sound that "embitters" Celan as it penetrates to his cerebral cortex is false witness, an accusation that he is a plagiarist. The lurid imagery of torture might simply mean that Celan is wounded by allegations made against him by the widow of a man that he thought that he was his friend. Ultimately, it’s impossible to say what the poem is about. We can’t define its meaning and must accept the possibility that the words may be gibberish. Celan himself may not have known what he intended to express. Furthermore, the poem doesn’t repay the labor required to construe it. The allusions are purely private and hermetic – if we didn’t know that Celan had marked words with underlining in the two books identified in his library, the source of the metaphors would be wholly mysterious. Unfortunately, once we are aware of the sources of Celan’s allusions the poem’s difficulty is not ameliorated – if anything, the poem becomes even more impossible to understand. By all criteria, Celan’s untitled 1970 poem is fatally flawed – if it doesn’t communicate anything than why should we read it?

Of course, Celan’s poetic objective is ultimately a foray into the incommunicable. His subject matter is largely inexpressible – it is fortunate that most of us can’t imagine what it would be like to endure a death camp or experience suicidal depression. These experiences are probably beyond words, capable of depiction only by silence and enigmatic bursts of words, inarticulate ejaculations that are meaningful only in the most painful and problematically private way. Further, Celan’s case is complicated by the fact that his sense of historical grievance is blurred by mental illness – ultimately, it is impossible to distinguish between miseries inflicted by genocide and the trauma of Celan’s disabling (and ultimately fatal) depression. As a result much of his verse is private, secretive, and, ultimately, self-defeating in a way that may seem irritatingly self-indulgent. By contrast, Ellsworth’s poem addresses things that we have in common. We can check her description of the nursing assistant against people we might see caring for an elderly relative and her metaphors as to the pathologies of immobility appeal to our actual experience. Poetry is not a political act. Poems don’t vote in elections just as verse can’t set a bone or feed a starving child. But poetry written for others is a public utterance. Poems that are published operate in the world, among people, and guide their thinking. For this reason, Ellsworth’s poem about the nursing assistant and her test is an important and moving commentary on the pathologies of income inequality.

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