Mar 29, 2020
Despite the fact that the Sunday service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston has moved online, we are continuing some bilingual elements in our service. This week we included a reading by the Uruguayan poet Amanda Berenguer (1921-2010). The author of many books, she was an honorary member of Uruguayan National Academy of Letters. “Limo” can be found in antología de la poesía hispanoamericana actual, ed. Julio Ortega (Mexico City: siglo veintiuno editores, s.a. de c.v., 1987).
I worked with Alma Viscarra, First Houston’s Membership and Communications Coordinator, to translate the poem. Alma’s a native Spanish speaker and while my Spanish is reasonably good, it is wonderful to be able to collaborate with someone who is both fluent in the language and has a terrific poetic sensibility. We went through three drafts. I did a first translation, trying to pay attention to not just the literal meaning of the words but the overall sense of the poem. Alma then read my translation alongside the original and suggested alternative interpretations and pointed out things I might not have understood because they are colloquial expressions. I then went back and made the final edits. I think that working together we got a much better English version than I would have produced by myself. It is an enjoyable process for both of us.
I have included the Spanish version below the English translation, in case anyone is interested.
Silt by Amanda Berenguer
The fire tells me that the flame is the truth,
and the ancient sea, that seafoam is the truth:
the truth of the song that is the wind,
the truth of the dying river.
The sky tells me that the cloud is the truth,
and the sailor tells me
that the star is truth:
the truth of blood’s everyday journey through the body,
the truth of the soul fleeing in darkness.
That the truth is hope--they told me.
Let the heart soar! Let the dream soar!
Let scarves and oblivion soar!
What is the truth--I ask myself again--
since dawn, I have asked myself...
And nighttime has slowly crawled up,
And I wanted to say it, and I haven’t known how.
Limo por Amanda Berenguer
Me dice el fuego que es verdad la llama,
y el mar antiguo que es verdad la espuma:
verdad del canto que es lleva el viento,
verdad del río que se va perdiendo.
Me dice el cielo que es verdad la nube,
y el marinero que es verdad la estrella:
verdad del viaje usual de toda sangre,
verdad del alma huyendo en las tinieblas.
Que es verdad--me dijeron--la esperanza.
¡Al aire el corazón! ¡Al aire el sueño!
¡Al aire los pañuelos y el olvido!
Que es verdad--me repito--desde el alba...
Y ha llegado la noche despacito,
y lo quise decir, y no he sabido.
Oct 20, 2019
Recently at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston we've started doing a bilingual reading once a month. It is part of a larger project of using more Spanish in the service. We have a small community in the congregation who are native speakers and Houston has a very large population of who speaks primarily Spanish. Our small effort is an attempt to be a bit more welcoming and inclusive. For our October 20, 2019 we used "Dice Que No Sabe Del Miedo..." by Alejandra Pizarnik. There wasn't an English version available so I did my own translation. Here it is (the orginal version is below for reference):
She Says That She Doesn’t Know Fear...
by Alejandra Pizarnik
She says that she doesn’t know the fear of the death of love
She says she does not have fear of the death of love
She says that love is death is fear
She says that death is fear is love
She says that she doesn’t know
Dice Que No Sabe Del Miedo...
por Alejandra Pizarnik
dice que no sabe del miedo de la muerte del amor
dice que no tiene miedo de la muerte del amor
dice que el amor es muerte es miedo
dice que la muerte es miedo es amor
dice que no sabe
Aug 7, 2019
London is the city that looms largest in my childhood. I spent almost every summer of my youth here and have many memories about time in the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, Camden Town, and so many other places. I remember going to the theater and seeing Dustin Hoffman in the Merchant of Venice and both Starlight Express and Les Miserables with the original London casts. I remember staying in a flat several summers in a row near Michael Palin’s place on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I never saw the Monty Python member, but I did pass by the Laurel and Hardy statues he had outside his home on numerous occasions. And I remember playing in parks with my brother and enjoying British television—Doctor Who and Rowan Atkinson’s Black Adder on the BBC—and, most of all, British comic books.
My brother and I were huge fans of the fortnightly 2000 AD. When we were kids, we could get it at almost any newsstand. My parents bought us copies to keep us happy while they spent time with their friends at the local pubs. Each summer when we would stock up on as many copies as we could before we went back to Michigan. Through 2000 AD we were first introduced to writers like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. We also became familiar with the comic’s tradition of dystopian political critique and techno skepticism.
I was excited to introduce my son to 2000 AD when we arrived in London. I went to look for a copy in the Gatwick airport only to discover that newsstands don’t carry it anymore. When I was a child it was so ubiquitous that many of the longstanding comic book shops in London refer to it in their store names. Camden Town’s excellent shop Mega City Comics is a direct reference to 2000 AD’s disturbing vision that in the future the vast majority of humanity will crowd into a handful of urban conglomerations. But now Marvel and DC seem to have largely pushed out the independent, and political, 2000 AD. So it was to Mega City Comics that I ultimately had to go to buy a solid set of 2000 ADs. I bought a run of the most recent issues and another run of issues from the early 1990s.
On my way out of the store the clerk told me, “Many Happy Future Shocks to You.” The phrase is a reference to the short vignettes that appear throughout the comics—brief stories with surprise endings. They are creative and often push one to imagine a horrifying, totalitarian, future, as something that might be on the horizon. When I was a child, the comics usually celebrated the plucky bands of misfits and outsiders who struggled against thinly veiled illustrations of futuristic version of Thatcher’s Britain.
The clerk’s invocation of the classic phrase got me to thinking about how much London has changed since I was a kid. In many ways, the future of environmental degradation and rising totalitarianism that some of those 1980s comics warned about appears to have arrived—perhaps partially in the form of a corporate monoculture that won’t stock subversive comics. In other ways, London still feels like a familiar city in a familiar world. Pock marks from German ordnance still line the edge of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Tube is still way too hot in the summer. Double decker buses are still a really fun way to travel. A bits of Victorian, or even Roman, Britain keep popping up in unexpected places. I suppose that’s the way cities, and countries, are, the shocking future comes but often it overlays, rather than entirely replaces, whatever existed before.
Aug 5, 2019
My parents and I had dinner in the Exmouth Market with R and S, two of their oldest friends in London—people that they’ve known for forty years. There was quite a bit of storytelling, including one episode that involved R almost being thrown into a canal in Belgium. When they told the story, I thought it was from thirty years ago. Turns out it was from about five years ago—which surprised me since my parents and their friends would have been in their late sixties or early seventies then. The basic gist is that they went out for a meal in Belgium that turned out to be quite mediocre. After the meal, there was some dispute over check. During the course of it, R unwisely told the proprietor, “Your beer is shite.” I was a little unclear on exactly why he felt this was appropriate. The proprietor apparently didn’t think it was and began backing R towards the canal they were all standing near while threatening to deposit R in it. Catastrophe was averted when my Mom and S hustled R off and my father settled up with the proprietor. It is a little hard to imagine the four of them—grizzled and opinionated—getting into a significant enough dispute that someone—presumably a good thirty or forty years younger—would threaten to deposit one of them in the nearby canal.
That story was far from the most interesting one told over the course of the evening. That honor goes to one that R and S recounted about their mutual friend, the journalist and academic Henry Clother. Henry died almost twenty years ago, earning obituaries in the Guardian and elsewhere.
I have vague memories of Henry from my youth. He loved to sail, and I remember going to see the tall ships with him. I hadn’t thought of him in more than twenty years and if it wasn’t for our dinner with R and S I probably wouldn’t have thought of him ever again. He was a notable eccentric. He never married nor had kids. His closest friend was the well known BBC commentator Margaret Howard. The two of them served as each other’s journalist review companions—one accompanying the other to the theater or a restaurant or whatever when one of them had been assigned to write a review.
Henry’s greatest eccentricity might have been connected to the flat in which he lived in London (he also owned a home in Gillingham). Apparently, it was owned by a cat.
S took great relish in describing the flat, the sight of many, I can only presume, somewhat wild parties from her and my parents not quite youth (early middle age?). It was an old Victorian flat which she repeatedly labelled “grotty.” It hadn’t been remodeled since sometime in the 1880s or 1890s. The kitchen doubled as the bathroom (in Britain the toilet is where you go do your business while the bathroom is where you bathe). There was an old claw bathtub in the middle of it. When Henry had parties, or presumably when he cooked, he put some boards on top of the tub as a makeshift counter and chopped vegetables, sliced bread, and prepared the meat.
Anyway, Henry wasn’t the owner of the flat. It belonged to a cat. Some years prior one of Henry’s equally eccentric friends had died. She had been a cat lover and organized a Society for the Protection of Cat, not cats in general, cat in particular. Specifically, the purpose of the society was to protect her cat. On the occasion of her death, the Society for the Protection of Cat became the owner of her flat. Henry was allowed to live there—rent free as I understand it—provided he saw to it that the cat was fed and received its daily injection (in addition to being, the owner of a flat, the cat was also diabetic).
It is unclear to me exactly how long Henry lived in that flat as a tenant of the cat. But it sounds like a long time—quite probably much longer than the cat itself lived.
Jul 20, 2019
Like a lot of other people, I enjoy shopping in Paris. Unlike the United States, there are only big sales twice a year—in July and January. I have learned that if you know where to go you can get some pretty extraordinary deals. As a minister and an academic I routinely show up in all sorts of circumstances wearing a suit and tie—or at the very least a sports jacket and nice slacks–and professional clothes cost a lot of money. A nice suit can easily set me back several hundred dollars.
The summer sales in Paris are good enough that it is possible to actually save a fair bit of money. The place I like to go is Rue de Turenne. It is a famous area for men’s shops in the Marais, a neighborhood in Paris that is a center for Paris’s Jewish and LGBT communities, fashion, and art. A lot of the men’s shops are small boutique designers or custom tailors. When the fashion seasons turn over they dramatically reduce their prices.
Three places I like to go are Johann, where I have bought several suits, Sam Daniel, which has wonderful light weight slacks, and Danyberd, where I have bought some nice shirts. The real deals are generally to be found on the suits. Both Sam Daniel and Johann typically have summer sales where they sell their suits for significantly less than I might be able to get them in the United States. Johann, for instance, sells Ermenegildo Zegna for about 25% of the price it would cost in the United States. This year I got a couple of nice suits from them and a really fantastic sports jacket. The pants and suit I got at Sam Daniel would have cost probably two or three times as much in the United States.
This brief rundown of my favorite men’s shops in Paris might come as a bit of a surprise to some people who know me well. An interest in high end men’s fashion and a commitment to Left radicalism don’t usually go together. In fact, there’s a variety of pejoratives that are sometimes hurled at people like me for the hypocrisy often supposed to be found in enjoying quality things and partaking of a privileged life—radical chic or champagne socialist to offer two. There is truth in those critiques, but hypocrisy is a fundamental condition that anyone with a moral compass must suffer under capitalism. Though Marx was thinking of the labor process when he wrote about alienation, I think that his insight that alienation is central to capitalism was a crucial one. In a capitalist system, based on consumerism and the exploitation of labor, we are all, in some way, alienated.
One example of this is the way in which churches have to function. Many religious communities aspire to be outside of the capitalist system. Many Unitarian Universalists are to some extent anti-capitalist. Yet in order to run a congregation of any scale, congregations have to hire employees—administrators, sextons, religious educators, musicians, ministers, and the like. As soon as they do this, they become employers and are forced to operate within the logic of capitalist employment schemes. Productive workers—those who further the mission of the congregation—need to be kept happy so that they won’t go somewhere else. Unproductive workers—those who don’t further the mission—have to be encouraged towards greater productivity or fired. But as all of this is happening congregations espouse, struggle to uphold, and advocate for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Except, when it comes to an employment situation under capitalism, they can’t. The logic of the system requires that workers in a church be treated by the church like workers in any other industry—as a means to an end. This a fundamental contradiction that cannot be overcome and it creates an alienation, a distance, between the values of the religious community and the community’s actions.
This brings me back to the question of men’s clothes. My choice is ultimately how I am going to position myself to best advocate for the transformation of the system. As I have written about in the past, I have a certain amount of privilege. One way I can leverage this privilege is by dressing a certain way—wearing a suit and tie for instance. Over the years, I have found that a lot of upper middle-income white people will be more accepting of radical ideas—and might even begin to adopt them—if I present myself as well educated, integrated into upper middle-income culture, and well dressed. My Minns lectures, for instance, both offer a blistering critique of progressivism and liberalism while advocating for Unitarian Universalism to draw more from anarchist, anti-fascist, and radical sources in articulating a theology to oppose the rising neo-Confederate totalitarianism of the current President. So, I buy nice cloths knowing that by putting on a certain persona I can better reach a certain segment of the population. Is this hypocritical or manipulative? Probably, but no more so than anyone else—be they performer, banker, or organizer--who adopts, consciously or not, a persona—a set of cloths, a particular aesthetic—to communicate that they are part of a particular community or advocate for a certain set of politics. Call it champagne socialism, if you like, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment and it seems to make me more effective.
Aug 17, 2014
Sandra Elizabeth Borja Armero
My name is Sandra Elizabeth Borja Armero. Before I was deported, I worked with the Teatro Jornalero Sin Fronteras (Day Labor Theater Without Borders). My husband and son still live in Los Angeles. My son is five. We named Barack, I would love to show you his picture. He is such a beautiful boy.
His name is ironic. Like many people I though the election of the first black President would bring a better life for undocumented immigrants. Instead President Obama has deported more brown people than any of the white Presidents who preceded him. He has deported more than two million people.
I just want to be with him son. His name, Barack, it is ironic.
The Bus Driver
I am a victim of gang violence. I used to operate a bus with two of my friends. I was the driver. My friends tended to the passengers and collected fares. One day some gang members boarded the bus and killed the fare collector. I was allowed to live. They let my other friend live as well. Soon the gang members changed their minds. They let it be known that they planned to kill us, they did not want any witnesses to the murder. The gang murdered my friend while he ate dinner at a neighborhood pupuseria. That’s when I decided to leave the country. I just called my mother to let her know that I am back. She told me it was not safe to come home. I have no idea what I am going to do next.
Jan 25, 2014
On Seeing Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror”
The cast of blue light on pale
transparent blue water colliding
flecked with dark,
thin blue shadows...
The moment ends.
The lights raise.
out into winter’s cold.
A thousand tattered specks
of stars supervise
ice sharp snow shards.
There is no blue.
Only the colors
in the city.
Aug 5, 2013
I went to my first techno party, or rave, back in the spring of 1993. I consider that event the start of my serious engagement with electronic dance music. I was 16 and before that the only electronic music I listened to was that of industrial bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy. Since then I have something of aficionado and have been to literally thousands of dance parties in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. At the twentieth anniversary event for ele_mental in New York Charles Noel suggested that I share some of my reflections and poetry from the early days. Over the next several months I plan to do that. Here’s poem I wrote when I first heard Robert Hood’s “Minimal Nation” in 1996. It is called “Metamorphism.” Perhaps it captures something of the time.
Steel gray light pours into my head,
a word whispered in imagined silences.
A sudden image
white, black, urban desolate, crimson
thought: I don’t know me, anymore
as if... I ever... did
what was lost?
the connection point
the textual, the real
Am I (we all, perhaps, in this case) just a piled jumble of words
detroit, fission, spaghetti, printer, moog...
spun together in some seemingly coherent pattern
wanting, needing, finding? more I watch something else occur...
a new sort of synthesis
still it (I?) strives to be concrete
wet, moist, firm, tender, rough, gray
whatever it is
it takes me and shoves
Jul 29, 2013
I particularly like my prayer from yesterday's service so I thought I would share it.
the spirit of life,
whirling, changing, transmuting dance
of energy and matter,
all that is,
whatever it is,
however we name it,
be it the atheist’s balancing equations
or the mystics interrupting visions,
let us be present to it,
let us feel its presence,
through our lives
and in our final breaths.
Jun 30, 2013
This morning I led worship at First Parish in Concord. The sermon that I gave was a variation of my "This Land is Your Land?" It appeared to be a success and I enjoyed myself. The building is beautiful and historic. The social hall was filled with portraits of their famous ministers including Ezra Ripley, Dana Greeley and Barzillai Frost, the minister who Emerson makes fun of in his Divinity School Address. I hope that I was a little more inspiring than Emerson found Frost to be. Anyways, here's the call to worship I gave:
wild black raspberries,
summer is here
with all of her joyous
its way through the seasons.
Summer follows spring,
this now is ours,
let us gather
and honor what is,
imagine what might be
and strive to be present
with the all.
Come, let us worship together.
Jun 26, 2013
I spent the end of May and the first week of June in Spain walking the Camino de Santiago and then travelling through Catalonia with my wife. I hope to take time to write up some reflections about my trip, particularly my time on the Camino and my visits with the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist trade union the Confederación General del Trabajo, next month. In the meantime, here's a poem that I wrote while hiking up a mountain outside of the seaside town of Cadaqués.
The sky is rich
with animal sounds.
Frogs, seabirds cackle.
Is that a locust?
May 9, 2013
Here's a new poem inspired by the warmer weather.
The Same Blessed Nothing
The mayfly and I
are the same.
Cellophane wings tear,
as spring arrives.
The mayfly and I
are the same.
is the same blessed
in the space
of the infinite.
The luminescent turning
of star dust to star dust,
the slow lumpy unwinding
of energy into stillness.
The mayfly and I
are the same,
our scales but slightly different.
Apr 6, 2013
One of my undergraduate degrees is essentially in poetry. I still occasionally write poems. Here's one now. It came to me while biking to school this morning.
A Game, Remembered
Now let us praise small things:
spring cerulean sky;
Homer’s words about our star;
wind penetrating bone;
the ball’s unsettled arc, thrown by a small child, my son;
unworded sounds, delight, disappointment, fear, accomplishment;
another toss, a catch, a bounce, a drop;
a list’s connecting pattern;
a final line tying, summing, incomplete conclusion.