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White Peonies

Peonies in blue bowl

The peony, a very old emblem of China, has a role in European mythology as well, for the ancient Greeks named the flower after Paeon, one of Asclepius’s students. Asclepius, the god of medicine, grew jealous of his pupil and would have killed him, had not Zeus saved him by turning him into the peony flower —  a curious kind of salvation. But the record is confused. Paeon appears as a great healer in the Iliad and Hesiod counts him among the gods. Fortunately,  we have the flower itself. Peonies are gorgeous, the large blossoms suggest abundance and their scent is as lush as the blossom. That’s enough.

A Change of Scene

Sometimes life makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes that matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you get the most unexpected surprise gifts for your birthday. Or maybe it’s not your birthday and you receive gifts anyway. Or maybe you simply receive surprises.  The poet and songwriter Marilyn Robertson  isn’t fazed by any such surprises, as she tells us in her poem “A Change of Scene.”

I  was sitting in the comfortable chair —
the green one — and I remember
someone had come in from the kitchen
with a cake — chocolate with white frosting —
and a pinball machine w rapped in yellow paper.

It was the only thing I’d really wanted
for my birthday. That and the set of law books
an aunt wheeled in later on a trolley.
It  was always a comfort to know there would be
plenty of small print nearby.

After that there was ice cream —
And after that I began to play.
My game had improved considerably in the last year.
Everyone called me the Pinball Queen.

But then, well, things started happening
and I stumbled in to another story.
This one has a mahogany sideboard
and four kinds of cheese.

—Marilyn Robertson

The Giving Tree

Shel Silverstein
Shel Silverstein

Maybe you had The Giving Tree read to you when you were a kid, or maybe you’ve read it to your children. Jo Page used to read it to her children when they were little, but she’s had some second thoughts. Here she is in her own words.

The last time my older daughter visited, she and her younger sister had a conversation about Shel Silverstein’s renowned book, The Giving Tree.

Whether you’re five, 45 or much older, you probably know The Giving Tree.

But if you’ve been living under a rock somewhere since it was published in 1964, here’s the plot: There’s a tree and a boy. The tree loves the boy very much and gives him whatever he needs to provide for his happiness: juicy apples, shade from the hot sun, branches on which to swing. As he grows he carves the initials of the girls he fancies on the bark of the tree. Eventually, of course, he grows—more or less—into adulthood and seeks to leave the tree. Only how will he, having no means by which he can survive without the tree?

So the tree offers to be chopped down so that the boy can make a boat and sail away. The boy, satisfied once more by the tree’s inventiveness and generosity, chops it down and sails away, leaving the tree a branchless, fruitless stump.

And many years pass.

In time, though, the boy comes back, no longer young but stooped with age and weary of life. The tree, in sadness, explains that she has nothing left that she can give him. The boy assures her: he needs little now. All he needs is a place to rest.

A stump can be a place of rest, she offers. Come, boy, come and rest.

Which is what the boy does. And the tree is happy.

I first read The Giving Tree when I was a teen-ager, fatherless, angry at my mother for her distracted passions, her vanity, her self-absorption. (Naturally I saw her with the total objectivity of an adolescent girl.)

So I loved the book. It made me feel sorry for myself. Why didn’t I have a giving tree for a mother? Why didn’t I have a mother who would put my needs ahead of hers? I would never be that kind of parent.

What kind of parent would I be? The kind who gave her daughters a copy of The Giving Tree, of course. The kind who read it to them in the regular rotation of the dozens of children’s books I read to them before bed.

But then, one day when I read it, it made my skin crawl.

This happened when my children were still very young; I hadn’t been made jaded or cynical by their adolescence. And I never wavered in my commitment to be anything other than the best of mothers to them. They were the loves of my life. However, this time when I read the book I saw a boy who really had remained a boy. I saw a one-sided relationship based on selfless giving that seemed to somehow endorse this as the ideal model for parenthood: the parent rightly fulfilling her role as a decimated stump.

As it happens, it’s been interpreted that way. Timothy P. Jackson, a former professor of religious studies at Stanford observed of it:

“Is it a sad tale? Well, it is sad in the same way that life is depressing. . . . The more you blame the boy, the more you have to fault human existence. The more you blame the tree, the more you have to fault the very idea of parenting. Should the tree’s giving be contingent on the boy’s gratitude? If it were, if fathers and mothers waited on reciprocity before caring for their young, then we would all be doomed.”

I’m here to attest to the fact that there are some damn bad parents out there. I’m sure they’re doing their best and all that. Or maybe they’re not. But the point is more that if self-immolation is the best model of parenthood, what are our children learning? What are we learning about ourselves? Is Shel Silverstein positing that the best parenting is a kind of personal crucifixion in which our selfhood is poured out to our children’s benefit and at peril to our own?

Yet our children don’t remain young. They age, even if they don’t grow up. Do parents have a responsibility to enable their growth or to mainly meet their present needs? It’s not a black-and-white question.

And take note: I’m not endorsing any position. I’m not going to do that in print. Not about something as incendiary as how to be a good parent. Lots of people love The Giving Tree. I think my girls do (I decided not to listen to their conversation since I didn’t want to know how I measured up against the tree or even what they thought of the tree) though I’m not really sure why. Neither of them seemed inclined to follow the tree’s extreme—neurotic?—selflessness, for which I am grateful.

Maybe the point is that The Giving Tree is a parable; it doesn’t make transparent sense even in its apparent transparency. And just like Jesus’ parables, The Giving Tree makes a lot of people uncomfortable. We’d just as soon forget those kinds of stories. And aren’t those just the kind of ones we can’t?

—Jo Page


“The Scream”

Munch  - The Scream
Oh, my God! I just spent $120 million on a pastel drawing!

It’s hard to say which is better known, “The Scream” or “Mona Lisa.” The DaVinci has been called priceless, Munch’s painting has the more exact price of $119,922,500.00, which is getting up there toward priceless.

You may wonder why anyone would pay around $120 million for a piece of board, no matter what was portrayed on it in pastel. Of course, this is more than a board with a pastel drawing on it. It’s a figure of a man screaming under a blood red sky.  Furthermore, it’s a fine example of Expressionist art, and in the view of some critics Expressionism was the bridge between Impressionism and abstract art, so this work has historical value as well.

It’s also true — and this may contribute more to answer the question of why pay so much for this portrait — that the image is remarkably recognizable, hence famous.  OK, so it looks like the crayon work of a talented but deeply troubled adolescent.  But people who have seen any of the artist’s four versions of “The Scream” remember it.  It’s been reproduced on mugs, in cartoons, T-shirts and even an inflatable toy the size of a small child.  It doesn’t matter whether you see it in a book or tacked on a college dormitory wall, the image is wholly different from what you’ve seen before.

So, like a celebrity who is famous for being simply famous, the painting has become famous, ubiquitous. Social critics and pop psychologists have contributed their heavy insights, saying that “The Scream” embodies contemporary angst and that the 1895 art work was prescient, forecasting the dreadful times that lay ahead.  And maybe you’ve learned that Munch wrote about the inspiration for the work and later painted it on the frame, as a poem: I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

That helps.

Finally, during the past few months Sotheby’s, the auction house which handled the sale, pumped the media full of curious information about the work and it’s probable sale price.  And Sotheby’s did well.  Every report from those who were at the auction sounds as if the auction was a spectacular theatrical event all of its own.

There’s been some speculation that whoever bought “The Scream” — and the Mona Lisa 200price rules out the notion that a museum purchased it — sought it simply as a way to bank some of his or her millions. I mean, you have to put your money someplace, after all.  The idea in this instance is that no matter the vagaries of the stock market, the painting will go up in value.  We skeptics at Critical Pages don’t think so. We think paintings have a hard time getting big bucks at auction when the stock market has collapsed and, furthermore, there are fashions in art just as surely as there are fashions in clothing.

There’s no telling why whoever bought it wanted it so fiercely that he or she was willing to pay so much. We doubt it was a lust for art.  Anyway, it’s more colorful than the “Mona Lisa.” And “Mona Lisa” wasn’t up for auction.

Go Buy a Book

The Reader by Renoir
The Reader by Renoir

Yes, yes, the Pulitzer Prize Board didn’t make an award for fiction this year. According to the Pulitzer website, “If in any year all the competitors in any category shall fall below the standard of excellence fixed by The Pulitzer Prize Board, the amount of such prize or prizes may be withheld.”

But you and I know that the board simply deadlocked and weren’t able to choose a winner from the three nominated books. And maybe that’s best. Maybe the concept that there’s one very best novel is childish. Which is the best novel,   Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations? Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov or Tolstoy’s War and Peace?  Now, here are the three Pulitzer fiction finalists:

  • Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a novella about a day laborer in the old American West, bearing witness to terrors and glories with compassionate, heartbreaking calm.
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, an adventure tale about an eccentric family adrift in its failing alligator-wrestling theme park, told by a 13-year-old heroine wise beyond her years.
  • The Pale King, by the late David Foster Wallace, a posthumously completed novel, animated by grand ambition, that explores boredom and bureaucracy in the American workplace.

We suggest you go around to your local book store, check out the three nominated novels (go ahead, pick them up, read the jacket copy, look at the author’s photograph, read a few pages — you can do that in a real book store), then buy one of the books. Or maybe you’ll find something the Pulitzer people didn’t even notice.  You’re the best critic of what you like to read.

Intergalactic Alien

Intergalactic vehicle
Read Intergalactic Vehicle Fake Photo

Have you ever listened to radio programs that broadcast late at night, very  late at night? At that hour your mind is open to all sorts of strange thoughts, and some pretty strange thoughts get broadcast in those small hours. Once, when Marilyn Robertson couldn’t get to sleep, she tuned in and heard an interesting story which she reports to us in her poem, “Alien”

Last night, a man on the radio was reminiscing
about the time he was touched by an alien.
He was sitting in his carport, shooting the breeze
with an ex-Marine buddy,
when a woman passed by the house.

She was making a kind of humming sound
and she stopped and asked him for a cigarette.
Well, he gave her one and when their fingers touched,
that’s when he felt the electric current in his stomach.
That’s how he knew.
She told him her name was Tomorrow.

Elsewhere on the dial, the usual mayhem:
hurricanes, robberies, runaway trucks, a warning
not to eat certain vegetables…but nothing more
about the humming woman from another galaxy,
bumming cigarettes along a country road.

 —Marilyn Robertson


April Is National Poetry & Financial Literacy Month

April is National Poetry Month and National Financial Literacy Month, too. If you knew about the one, you probably didn’t know about the other, so we’re spreading the word about these national observances.

National Poetry Month was started by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. It’s relatively well established, kept alive and vigorous by booksellers, publishers, libraries, schools and poets. According to the Academy of American Poets, “Thousands of businesses and non-profit organizations participate through readings, festivals, book displays, workshops, and other events.” And if you go to the Academy’s website you can find a good list to this year’s programs.

National Financial Literacy Month was born as Financial Literacy for Youth Month in 2000, inaugurated by the The Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. In 2003 it received the imprimatur of the US Senate, and in 2004 the Senate dropped the youth part and passed a Resolution naming April as our National Financial Literacy Month. Apparently, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) has become the leading organization to celebrate and promote Financial Literacy Month.

We thought it would be nice to merge Poetry and Financial Literacy and we’ve come up with two quite different songs. The first is “The Banks Are Made of Marble,” sung by The Weavers, with that rousing chorus:
But the banks are made of marble
with a guard at every door
and the vaults are stuffed with silver
that the farmer sweated for.

Unfortunately, though you’ll hear a great song by the Weavers, there are no visuals to accompany it. By the way, you’ll hear Pete Seeger singing the first stanzas. It’s a great little song and always comes back during hard times. Take a listen.

The other song, quite different in sentiment, is “The Fear,” sung by Lily Allen. Lily Allen’s songs are generally characterized as “explicit,” as is this one. We warn you of that, and warn you also that the video is one of the silliest we’ve ever seen. The song begins with:

I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them.

You see how it goes. We like Lily Allen for her cheerful vulgarity and we don’t know what she’s doing dancing around in that stupid dress in this lame pastel video.

Easter and Rebirth

Quem Quaeritis manuscript
Quem Quaeritis mss from Bodleian Library

Scripture tells of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion, the day we call Easter. And the celebration of Easter in the church gave birth to, or resurrected, theatrical drama in the western world. Drama as a living art had perished with the collapse and break up of the Christianized Roman Empire. But at an Easter service which took place in the decades shortly before the year 1000 the people in charge devised a very brief skit to dramatize the events of that third day. After the execution of Jesus, when “the three Marys” went to the tomb to anoint the body, they found an angel seated on the edge of the tomb. The little drama, enacted by church singers, went like this —

[Angeli]: Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?
Responsio: Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
Angeli: Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro.

Or in English —

Angels: Whom do you seek in the tomb, O followers of Christ?
Response: The crucified Jesus of Nazareth, O heavenly beings.
Angels: He isn’t here; he’s risen, as he foretold. Go and announce that he has risen from the tomb.

From this slight beginning, drama was reborn.

Amazon Vs. Writers & Publishers

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos

Book buyers like to shop Amazon.Com. You could even go so far as to say they love it. Consumers don’t know much about Amazon’s top man, Jeff Bezos, but they do know that Amazon is the world’s largest bookstore. Best of all, you can buy a book with a few clocks of your computer mouse. And if you don’t want to buy it at full price, you can see right there beside it some second hand copies for sale at a lower price. (That might be hard on the writer but, hey, we’re poor readers, not starving writers.)

Furthermore, the book will arrive at your home the very next day, or in a few days if you’re not in a rush. And if you’re in a big hurry and want something right now you can download a book to your Amazon Kindle reader. But maybe you don’t want a book. Maybe you’d like a movie. Amazon has lots of those. And lots of music, too. As Amazon says: “20 million movies, TV shows, songs, magazines, and books.” And dresses. And shoes. And crockpots and shovels and tomato sauce and banjos. Amazon is amazing!

So it’s interesting that writers and publishers loath Amazon, the world’s largest bookstore. How can that be? (OK, we’ve already given you a hint. But please keep reading anyway.) Publishers don’t sell books to directly readers, they sell them to booksellers who then sell them to readers. Now online shoppers in the United States will spend $327 billion in 2016, up 45% from $226 billion this year and 62% from $202 billion in 2011, according to a projection by Forrester Research, Inc. And Amazon dominates the online book selling world.

Here’s what you do when you dominate the market, if you’re Jeff Bezos.  A couple of years ago Amazon decided to sell MacMillan’s e-books, and e-book of every publisher, for $9.99 or less. (Great for customers, right?) That meant Amazon would lose money on every sale, but Jeff Bezos has money to burn and selling at a loss would knock out other e-book sellers, such as Barnes & Noble, whereupon Jeff and Amazon could monopolize the market.

But MacMillan objected to Amazon’s pricing and said that only MacMillan had the right to determine pricing for MacMillan’s books.  So Amazon simply turned off the little buttons that permit you to buy MacMillan books  at Amazon, thereby shutting the publisher out of the biggest online market. (more…)

Two Poems About The Imagination

Marilyn Robertson lives in California where,  in addition to  writing poems,  she also composes songs, plays the piano (ragtime) and the guitar, and sings. Maybe she also teaches in a  grammar school. Here are two of her poems about the imagination.

After Reading Rilke to the Class

It’ is still possible, I tell my students as I collect their essays,
for you to find the place that Rilke talks about:

the repository of unlived lives.
Don’t let these desks limit your imagination.

For example, I say, and I bang my pointer
against the wall map for dramatic effect,

you could be here — in Spain — tossing dogs in blankets
as the wool gatherers do in Cordoba at Shrovetide.

They look blank. But just before the bell,
a cocker spaniel sails up out of a blue bedspread.

gyrating slowly in the stuffy air, barely missing
the light fixture on its chain in the middle of the ceiling.


The Drummer

A different drummer was seen in Portland this week.
He was marching by an elementary school when
a boy, sitting at the kindergarten art table,
happened to look up as he passed.

After that, the boy could no longer follow
the teacher’s instructions: to make
a collage of colored squares on white paper.

Instead, he made a long chain of squares,
adding red to green to blue to yellow —
and gluing that chain to the very edge of his paper.

Imagine the joy of it.
The sound of the drum growing louder.
The way the man in the bright coat
swung his arms high  in the air with each beat.

And the quick smile he gave the boy at the window,
as if he knew him from another time…
long before kindergarten.

More Notes

The World Happiness Report, released by the United Nations, ranks countries on six key variables that support well-being: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. This year, Finland is first, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland, followed by Netherlands, Canada,New Zealand, Sweden, Australia. The United States, which has never been in the top ten, silpped down four places from last year and is now 18th. President Trump may make American Great Again, but apparently not happier.