Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hell

The sinners of the last round
lie completely sealed in ice…
--Canto XXXIV, Circle 9: The Inferno


You’ve heard the jokes
about the insurance salesman and some guy
locked in a soundproof eight-by-ten cell,
or the one about being stalled in traffic
with your mother-in-law and her choir of tongues,
the windows cranked up and with no heat.

In grammar school, the old Irish priest
told us the walls were
four thousand miles thick,
that the fire was without seam and everlasting
like a Latin teacher’s conjugation of verbs.

But I always thought it was the way
Hieronymus Bosch saw it with special effects,
vapors and strobe lights, or like being trapped
with an eternity of Munch’s screamers,
their faces dripping that dripless wax.

Today it’s a used car salesman
who won’t give you back your car keys,
or the hail of Have a nice day from the cashier
who is buffing her nails and snapping her gum,
you looking up from the circle of ice,
the defroster in your car still not working.


“Hell” was originally published in Spoon River Poetry Review.

Monday, December 26, 2011

After His Witnessing an Argument with My Father

(for Geoffrey Glen)

I tell my son there are things
one should never say, hurtful words,
like liar and cheat.

The heart holds whatever it hears
for a long time,
I say.
The tongue is the mind’s fist.

I want to find the right words
to make a difference
for the wrong ones,

if recovering from them is possible,
to tell him some things about my heart
I have never said to anyone.

I can tell him what it felt like
to carry his grandmother
down the stairs after she died,

how once while sitting by her bedside
I was punched into silence
as I watched her sip

from an imaginary teacup,
how each day is an act of forgiveness,
and that the mind will know

only what it has learned
but is last to discover
what the heart has known forever.

But I know this talk is for me.
Metaphor bleeds through the words
while he stares out the passenger’s window.

(1992)

“After His Witnessing an Argument...” was originally published in Poet & Critic.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Postscript to an Elegy


















 

A Small Plot in the Short Story of Our Lives

We went to her home to celebrate
her sixty-fourth.
My father made dinner,
and when my sister arrived
we sang Happy Birthday.

We looked for signs,
without knowing what to look for.
We ate her favorite cake, pineapple cheese, 
disguised with whipped cream.
She opened gifts,
and my sister’s youngest son
brought a bright burst
of red-and-white carnations
in a small blue vase,
delicate as our hope.

I read a few poems
about Elizabeth and Race Street,
a small plot in the short story of our lives,
and we believed that we once lived recklessly
but in a more sensible time,
that sorrow will belong to all of us
at the end of our lives.

She was wearing her new wig,
and I thought about her
lying on the gurney, the long tube in her nose
that filled her lungs with water,
and how they rinsed her kidneys for four hours
before they dripped Cisplatin and Vinblastine
through a needle in her vein,
slowly as an hourglass.

She did not want to tell us
about her headaches and nausea,
that her arms bruised easily as peaches,
and how her fingertips tingled.

But we asked her,
and we trespassed on her life,
not knowing that the denouement
lay just beyond her birthday 
on which nothing else would be written.


Somewhere between Pain and Forgetting

Hope slammed its door
behind my mother’s right ear
where tumors grew like broadleaf weeds.
Her hands, even more frail now,
trembled from a fractured life.

These were the hands that once pulled a die
from a small child’s nose,
pushed slivers out of his fingers
with straight pins,
and soothed fevers and bad dreams.

Betrayal had converted her hands
to a light-blue thinness—
unable to do the things required of the living—
and her eyes that stared too long
at the discord of medicine bottles,
impassive icons, and votive candles
on her bedroom dresser.

Black branches spread across her lungs 
and welded to her cerebellum.
Her faced distended.
Her mouth erupted with tiny sores.
Her eyes held the tell-tale sign
while she lay uselessly
like a bird with broken wings,
somewhere between pain and forgetting.


Hanging in the Balance

My mother, 
her head sinking into pillows,
cursed squirrels—their high-wire acts,
these other lives hanging in the balance,
crossing telephone cable 
high above her bedroom window.
For days, they made her flash accents of life.
“They keep me awake all day long,
running on the roof,” she’d say.

My father—
his old legs wobbling on rungs,
the cage held tightly in one hand,
the trip wire set and smeared with peanut butter—  
trapped squirrels off the pitched roof.
“I caught eleven and one robin,” he said.
“I brought them to the cemetery and let them go.”

The robin remained, 
its bold breast blazing through the bony tree.
My father and I listened for gray squirrels.
“They’ll never come back,” I said.


And the World Kept on Living

It was as easy as withholding food and water
from someone whose world had turned
to migraines and morphine.

So why do I have to know 
if she floated above me like some magical act
while the vinyl bag zipped closed 
over her swollen face,  
and if death is more than what it seems?

Why do I have to know 

whether her prayers helped,
and if her long suffering 
and Catholic indulgences
paid dividends like mutual funds,
and whether dreamless sleep 
is just a short rehearsal
for the only afterlife we will never know?

And why do I have to know
the endings to unfinished stories,
and if all her collections were meaningful 
to her at the end of her life
like the passive, religious figurines
that had nothing but cheap plaster for souls?

The day she died, billions of white crystals
buried her home 
in a cold fusion of free-falling light,
and the world kept on living.


Wishing for No Afterlife

It hardly matters
that someone can come to believe 
in nothing.
Watching my mother die,
I understand the absurdity of suffering 
and the illusions we devise
to cope with our sorrows.


Dorothy Brown (December 1925 - December 1990)



Monday, December 12, 2011

Bartleby the Scrivener

Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!
--Herman Melville

Perhaps he lost the language of desire,
hope checking out first
with its twin baggage of want and need,
hunger leaving no forwarding address.

Or maybe the language of etiquette
surrendered its meaning,
the tongue holding diplomacy hostage
behind a green folding screen.

Let’s presume he was stunned into silence
by God’s loneliness, by the fixed glare
of the black wall just beyond
the small side-window courting a dim light.

So much to prefer not to while the grass
and sky stitched together a singular void,
and the bud of Existentialism took root
deep within his heart, denial sprouting

against the dead letters and bricks
that merged into a mortuary of self-interest.
He knew nothingness soon becomes a stranger
to no one; preferring it was his last resistance.


“Bartleby the Scrivener” was originally published by Lake Shore Publishing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Biopsy of a Free-Lance Writer’s Attack on Teachers

Recently, I received an email about someone who had attempted to satirically criticize a few questions that I had about progressive tax reform as a solution to the state’s budget deficits, but his attempt at mockery turned into an ad hominem attack on Illinois teachers. For your perusal, here is a few of Mr. BZ's Deceptive and Uneducated Manipulative Bull (BZDUMB).

To begin, consider one of Mr. BZDUMB’s introductory statements: “Why for example should WI have only one teacher with a salary over $100,000 when in 2010 IL had 6,855 teachers with salaries over $100,000?…”

There are over 171,000 active teachers in Illinois (Teachers Retirement System). Even if Mr. BZDUMB is correct about 6,855 teachers that have salaries over $100,000, besides committing the fallacy of composition (to reason that the properties or minority of individuals are necessarily the properties of the whole which they constitute – in other words, four percent of a population is not representative of the whole), what has he established except for his conspicuously-deep prejudice against teachers who have earned a constitutionally-promised pension that they have consistently contributed to throughout their careers and was under-funded by the State of Illinois in the amount of nearly $15 billion (TRS)?

Let’s consider his next statements: “…Tax credits for jobs continues [sic] to be the Hail Mary pass of progressive economic thinking. Like Obama and Geithner, Brown has no experience in the business world and obviously has no idea why businessmen hire new employees. They hire because business is expanding not because they might get a small tax credit. So what would happen if this type of law were passed would be [sic] tax credits going to employers who were going to hire anyway. In other words a complete waste of taxpayer dollars [sic]. This is another in a long line of progressive ad verecundiam fallacies i.e. ‘appeal to improper authority.’ Examples of these fallacious arguments would be asking [sic] Mike Ditka to explain the Theory of Relativity or asking Einstein to predict the Super Bowl winner or asking Obama/Geithner/Brown to devise effective business tax policy…”

Indeed, companies hire because they want to increase their profits and meet their customers’ demands. (Mr. BZDUMB must have had a lemonade stand as a child). But does Mr. BZDUMB fully understand the ad verecundiam fallacy and assume, for instance, that his readers will not recognize a claim that employs a ludicrous faulty analogy to make a point? It is ironical that he refers to ad verecundiam, (the fallacy of substantive distraction through various appeals to pedantic words and phrases, detail and specificity, references, quotations, length, or mathematical symbols), when he uses no creditable references or any appeal to ethos in his disagreement. Moreover, his comments about “the Hail Mary pass of progressive economic thinking” announce his unwillingness to examine questions and evidence fairly.

Now examine his following statements: “…Mr. Brown’s position represents that of a large group of entitled political elitists, usually public employees, who think all solutions lead to tax increases and/or targeted Progressive tax credits which is the same thing. In spite of Solyandra [sic] he wants more tax money for ineffective and unworkable green projects; in spite of $6.8 billion in new taxes in IL he wants more taxes on the ‘rich’ and new sales taxes on services; without any experience in business matters he wants tax credits for hiring even though it is useless as a job creating function.”

Besides Mr. BZDUMB’s attempt to conjure a “now I got ‘em” emotional response from his conservative tea-party comrades through use of such terms as “elitist” and “progressive,” he simplifies a set of circumstances and prefers an erroneous response to a complicated issue. He presents an irrelevant allusion to Solyndra that establishes another of his disconnected generalizations. Mr. BZDUMB failed to note that the questions I had asked explored a broader-based taxation system that would provide a decrease in taxes for low-income and many middle-income families. Let us imagine for a moment how much money would be available for services for ninety-nine percent of the state’s population if the top one percent of the populace paid its “fair share,” and corporations paid their “full taxes” to the state. Moreover, “[a state that does not tax services, such as Illinois], probably could increase [its] sales tax revenue by more than one-third if [it] taxed services purchased by households comprehensively” (the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, July 2009).

Ponder these next claims: “…pension sustainability is eating the budget alive… note that the $6.8 billion tax increase implemented last year will just cover the pension obligation next year. Then also notice that in 2015 when the supposedly 'temporary' tax increase expires [sic] the pension obligation jumps to $7.9 billion. The $6.8 billion for next year represents about 20% of the General Fund Revenue. That’s 20% of the budget to pay for pensions for 5% of Illinois workers…,” [and] “…how big are those (taxpayer) pension liabilities? At the end of 2010 they were $135 billion according [sic] the state actuaries but perhaps as much as $270 billion by critics. And those numbers do not include taxpayer liabilities of $17 billion for Pension Obligation Bonds and perhaps another $40 billion for retiree health care. Notice that all of these liabilities, somewhere in the range of $200 to $325 billion, are TAXPAYER liabilities and not employee/retiree liabilities. That is the problem…”

Mr. BZDUMB subscribes to the Chicago Tribune and, though the unfunded liabilities of the pension systems remain in perpetuity, what he also fails to acknowledge is that they grew exponentially because of the state’s deliberate and inconsistent funding methods, the state’s unreliable accounting methods, and the state’s deceitful “backroom deals” that were to be funded with future monies (they occurred without teachers’ knowledge or approval). Furthermore, what he conveniently fails to remember is that the scapegoating of public employees began when greed and corruption, particularly flagrant in the financial sector, ignited the Great Recession. This, of course, came after eight years of inordinate military spending for two costly wars, deregulation and unprecedented tax cuts for the wealthy by the federal government. This tsunami of debt contributed to every state’s budget deficits.

Mr. BZDUMB fails to admit that Wall Street bankers and hedge fund thieves created the crisis; he does not comment upon the fact that deregulation, derivatives and two costly wars have contributed to state deficits. In addition, he says nothing about the state’s underfunding of the pension systems and its resultant benefits reaped by Illinois taxpayers for several decades because he prefers the fallacy of begging the question (assuming as true what has yet to be proved) and to arouse fear (a fallacy of argument ad metum), resentment (a fallacy of argument ad odium) and ignorance instead. We have heard the often skewed allegation that “it’s unfair for the ninety-five percent to pay for the pensions of the five percent” when, in fact, according to TRS, for the past 20 years, approximately seventy-five percent of the teachers’ pension system has been funded by long-term investments, teachers’ contributions, and the State (from FY 1991-FY 2010, excluding FY 2004 pension obligation bond proceeds). Two-thirds of the state’s contributions are for the debt service or interest that the State of Illinois owes because of delinquent payments to the teachers’ pension system.

Reflect upon his concluding remarks: “…we should implement taxes on all IL public pensions and restore the $456 million in cuts to student transportation, Dept. of Aging, mental health and disabilities, Public Health, Children and Family Services and the homeless. In fact taxing and suspending the COLA only on teachers with pensions over $100,000 would provide enough funds to restore the $17 million in cuts to the Department of Aging and the $6 million in cuts to the Department of Children and Family Services…

“What the rest of us want is fewer Mr. Brown’s in public ‘service’; lower salaries for the fewer Mr. Brown’s that remain; lesser pensions and health care cost for the fewer Mr. Brown’s that remain; more work (hrs. /day, days per year) from the Mr. Brown’s that remain: fewer public functions (regulations) for the fewer Mr. Brown’s to perform/monitor/watch.”


Ah! Now we finally discover his real intentions for writing his squabble. Mr. BZDUMB’s “zavist” (a fallacy of argument ad invidiam or, in this case, an extreme envy of a teacher’s pension) obscures any objective attempt to respond to the salient questions that I had presented for serious discussion regarding pension and tax reform in Illinois. Perhaps he had a few traumatic experiences in his formative years (Was he bullied by his classmates or a teacher in grade school?). Though it is difficult to assume whether he ever went to college based upon his attempt at writing, he is indubitably “without any experience” in logic, ethics, and legality.

What Mr. BZDUMB fails to understand (because of his provincial ideas and partiality) is that pension reform is an educational issue and that an essential goal for any state when considering pension reform is to attract and retain the finest possible teacher candidates available through salaries that are commensurate with their education and experience (just like remunerations for college-educated employees in the private sector). Unfortunately, many school districts in Illinois are dependent upon an antiquated and inequitable system of property taxes for most of their schools’ revenue; thus, injustices abound. What’s more, pension reform is a political and financial issue that will affect hundreds of thousands of people; it must be evaluated not only for affordability, but for fairness, sustainability and constitutionality.

We can assume that Mr. BZDUMB does not believe that pension reform should concur with the State and U.S. Constitutions and, therefore, be defended. We can also assume that he watches Fox News (which ironically pointed out at one time that the bankers’ “bonuses” should be honored notwithstanding of the taxpayers’ bailout because “they were contractual agreements” and “that we have to attract the brightest” among them with future guarantees). Of course, if anyone were to default on a contractual promise to Mr. BZDUMB, we could perhaps imagine an improved and deductive response from him.

Like the Civic Committee's Illinois Is Broke and its spawns, Mr. BZDUMB offers his readers a fallacy of non sequitur (the conclusion is not necessitated by the premises); he finds it self-serving to confound the facts of the matter and to shift the blame on teachers for the resultant economic debacle occurring in Illinois. He does not consider the fact that claims are most effective when supported by evidence that is sufficient, accurate, and relevant, and that arguments are not substantiated when they are buoyed by deleterious and fallacious reasoning, tabloid thinking, questionable statistics, inapt allusions, and appeals to intolerance and prejudice. Insightful questioning is meant to stimulate an authentic debate; Mr. BZDUMB’s fallacious and condescending quips (many of which I did not bother to address) are designed to terminate further analysis and synthesis of a crucial and complex argument.

-Glen Brown