The Monstrous, the Sublime and the Plainly Wondrous

Recall the history of Iraq over the past thirty-six years. Recall its wars, its invasions, its occupation, its no-fly zones, its sectarian slaughter and its dictatorships.  Now imagine this series of conflagrations as if it were the worst possible set of details from a Hieronymus Bosch painting—say from the Hell panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. In other words, grotesquerie at its most gruesome.

Reading Hassam Blasim’s story collection The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq is like walking into that painting.  There’s blood.  There’s gore. There’s death.  There’s illness, both physical and mental.  There’s distress and despair well beyond the tolerable.  There’s grotesquerie beyond the comprehension of those whose militaries are the major cause of the mangled society Blasim’s fictions attempt to tell.  The destruction of human environments is complemented and overrun by the destruction of human relationships these stories relay to the reader.

The book begins with the title story.  This story is about a group of murderers who are also artists.  The individuals in this group submit their ideas for their next art work/murder to an unseen set of judges.  The works themselves are judged on their choice of target, their means of killing and the place and manner in which the corpses are laid out to be discovered.  The story is simultaneously a mockery of war and art; and a cry of despair halflifefrom a severely wounded people who have known too much war and death for too many years.  The other stories in the collect, none of them more than a few pages long in their English translations, satirize and decry the sheer inhumanity of a society that has been destroyed.  The imagery is occasionally subtle, but just as often frighteningly undisguised and even loathsome.  The satire is on par with Jonathan Swift’s bitterest works or, even more descriptively, reminiscent of the drawings of the German twentieth century artist George Grosz.  For those who are unfamiliar with Grosz’s artistic attacks on the Weimar republic and the fascism it preceded but know Hunter S. Thompson, think of his sketch artist Ralph Steadman and multiply Steadman’s twisted efforts to reproduce the repulsive realities of the modern world.

Suicide bombers and corrupt merchants.  Politicians without any sense of allegiance.  Foreign soldiers without compassion or souls.  God’s servants as wielders of some bloody sword pretending sectarian vengeance is holy justice.  This book is a suicide bomb inside the reader’s complacent mind.  Equally dark and beautiful, it should be read by every westerner who gave their tax dollars, their child or spouse, or their vote to a politician to fund or fight the battle waged on the people and society that was/is Iraq.

Wadada Leo Smith is one of a kind.  His compositions epitomize jazz and the structured freedom it demands.  The performances of his numerous ensembles over the years move those compositions towards pure transcendence.  Whether he is writing about the African American freedom movement (Ten Freedom Summers), The Great Lakes (Great Lakes Suites), or US national parks (The National Parks), Smith’s last few years of recordings incorporate his understanding of the trumpet styling of Miles Davis, Don Cherry and Dizzy Gillespie, with a passionate take on world, its people and its places.  I first discovered Smith back in the 1990s when he released Yo! Miles!.  I was reminded of him more recently when Anthony Brown (founder and drummer Asian-American Orchestra from San Francisco), a friend and master in his own right, told me he had been asked to join Smith’s ensemble for their 2010 European tour of Ten Freedom Summers.  That spurred me to go back and discover earlier works and purchase the new ones that came along.  I have not been disappointed.

His latest CD set, titled The National Parks, is about more than just the acreage set aside in the wilderness for national parkland.  It is about more than the majesty and beauty of those lands; more than the animals, both endangered and otherwise, that roam those lands.  It is also about the relationship we as humans have with the land; those who understand its essential nature and those who would sell it all off to the highest bidder they knew.  Furthermore, in this suite, Smith includes cities and the people in his definition of a national park—specifically New Orleans, with its culturally rich history that includes First Nations, stolen Africans, French, Spanish and English men and women.  When one listens to this work, one hears the mighty Mississippi river and its myriad whirlpools and currents; one also hears the songs of its travelers from Injun Joe and Huck Finn to the gamblers and the whores. Elsewhere in the piece, it’s the whisper of the wind hundreds of meters up near the spar of the Sequoia that reveals itself to the ear.  Smith’s ensemble is made up of pianist Anthony Davis, drummer Pheeroan Aklaff, and bassist John Lindberg.  For this recording, it has been expanded to include cellist Ashley Walters. Take the time to listen.

The final work I want to mention in this troika is a 2016 memoir published by longtime peace activist Clare Hanrahan.  Arrested for opposing nuclear weapons and the US military’s School of the Assassins (for which she spent six months in the federal pen), Hanrahan’s story is not so much about her activism, but about childhood experiences and realizations that brought her to that life.  Born and raised in a working class district of Memphis, Tennessee, Hanrahan evocatively describes her childhood, the neighborhood, the racism, the ugliness and the beauty of that life.  Told in a series of interlocking vignettes that mingle events and reflections, Hanrahan’s book, titled The Half Life of a Free Radical: Growing Up Irish Catholic in Jim Crow Memphis paints a vivid picture of a time, a place, and a family.  In telling her story, Hanrahan addresses the US wars on peoples fighting for their freedom, the daily despair of poverty, the disfiguring cost of racism, and the toll of alcoholism.  Simultaneously, she presents a tale of perseverance, a determination to live a life of independence, victories both personal and public, and of love.  There is a tempered rage at the destruction of souls and an unresolved sadness at the failure of relationships. Never sugarcoating anything, The Half Life of a Free Radical acknowledges the costs of living that life—to family and self.  There are immeasurable quantities of sadness in these stories, but also humor, fierce resolve and an understanding attained only by one who has and continues to live their life to its fullest.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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