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Booked Up

Ain’t My America. By Bill Kauffman. Metropolitan Books. 2008.

In his deranged speech before the Israeli Knesset, Bush sounded to me like a man who is once again planning to run for office. Perhaps he’s gearing up to challenge Netanyahu from the neocon right. Among his many American targets, President Bush ripped into the nearly forgotten Senator William Borah, the Lion of Idaho, as an exemplar of appeasement, as evidenced by his rigidly non-interventionist stance during World War I and World War II. (Though Bush, almost certainly, hasn’t the faintest idea about Borah’s life and politics.) Borah was fiercely anti-imperialist and fiercely Republican. In other words, there should be an image of him chasing the mastodons in the Museum of Natural History. Known as the Great Opposer, Borah despised Woodrow Wilson and used his rhetorical skills to try block US entry into both European wars, the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. On the other hand, the Republican helped create the Department of Labor (despite once prosecuting Big Bill Haywood for murder) and the Childrens Bureau, backed many parts of the New Deal and was openly pro-Soviet.

Of course, Borah wasn’t an “appeaser.” He was simply a non-interventionist, particularly when it came to European entanglements. In this respect, he is a beacon of principle in comparison with Bush’s grandfather Prescott, who went beyond Nazi appeasement to collaboration in the name of profit.

It is this conservative anti-imperialist tradition that Bill Kauffman seeks to revive in his energetic new book, Ain’t My America. And rarely has a tradition been more in need of radical defibrillation, except, perhaps, for the non-interventionist Left. Kauffman has a caustic wit and he needs it to chart the steady erosion of conservative anti-imperialism to the Total Spectrum Dominance of the neoconservatives.

For all the aspersions cast Borah’s direction, his named is affixed to Idaho’s tallest mountain, 12,668 foot tall Borah Peak in the Challis Range, which is usually reached via the perilous “Chickenout Ridge”. Bush will be lucky to find his name on a sand trap at a par three golf course–not that Bush would ever break his pledge to give up the links as greatest his personal sacrifice for the Iraq War mind you.

 

Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound. By David Rothenberg. Basic Books. 2008.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I don’t like Paul Winter and David Rothenberg does. When I go into the wilderness, what’s left of it, the last thing I want to do is run into a Paul Winter combo playing new age jazz in a remote box canyon in Utah. It’s the canyon wren I want to hear, not Winter’s clarinet.

Rothenberg is also an accomplished clarinetist, a professor of philosophy and music and a journalist. Like Winter, he is interested in inter-species artistic communication. A few years ago, he published an intriguing book on bird songs titled Why Birds Sing, which found him engaging in collaborations with warblers and finches.

Now his focus is whales, the singing mammals of the deep. The eerie songs of the humpback whales were first recorded in the 1960s. At first, oceanographers believed the songs were mating calls. Apparently, this isn’t so. Female humpback whales seem impervious to the songs. It’s a male thing. And not in a competitive or confrontation sense. The singing humpbacks seem if not harmonize with each other at least cooperate. The songs are longer than Wagnerian operas, often lasting 23 hours without interruption. And the songs change day to day, week to week.

Rothenberg didn’t simply record whalesongs and lay down tracks over them. He actually improvised with the whales on board a ship. He played his clarinet into a microphone plugged into an underwater speaker, then used an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, to record his own music and the whales’ response. The book comes with a CD of 12 whale/Rothenberg collaborations. The music is strange and ethereal, like Sun Ra and the Arkestra at their most far-out. Needlesstosay, the humpback solos beat the hell out of Kenny G.

 

Laugh at the End of the World: Comic Poems 1969-1999. By Bill Knott. BOA Edition. 2000.

Bill Knott is the funniest poet since J.V. Cunningham and, like Cunninghan, at times his humor can have a deliciously vicious edge. Whereas Cunningham (Exclusion of Rhyme) seems to have been something of a rightwinger, Knott resides on anarchist left. Many of his most lethal barbs are aimed at other poets, such as his famous evisceration of Galway Kinnell (one of my favorite poets, by the way). Knott is a master of form and much of the comedy of his poems comes from complex metrical hijinks. Then again Knott’s also a sucker for a crude pun.

Here’s one of my favorite Knott poems:

ANOTHER FIRST KISS: TO X

A first kiss can occur anywhere: two pairs
Of lips might meet as ingredients for
A cannibal’s chowder; or on the shore of
A nightclub at ebb. Preferably the latter—

Though there are no more nightclubs, or cannibals,
As such: I mean the first kiss is passé,
Archaic, obsolete. Pre-Global Village,
It rests in wrinkles, in blinking memories . . .

Ours came in bed, but after we’d undressed;
Preceded by hugs. And so the question
Of using the tongue—that old hesitation—
Didn’t apply. We plunged right in. At

Our age you get naked and then you neck,
The opposite of how it was done young.
But the hunger is still there. The thirst
Is like in a bar, when they yell out Last Round.

Note:Line 13: “Our age”—the lovers are 53 and 61.

Many of Knott’s poems are posted on his excellent website.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

 

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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