What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Rosenthal image

Underlying what’s wrong with this picture is where it resides. Not in a museum of racist caricatures. No, it’s on the popular Dentzel Carousel at Ontario Beach Park in my city: Rochester, New York.

The carousel is a special treasure. Built in 1905, it’s now one of only fourteen operating antique menagerie carousels in the United States; it’s also one of only a few that remain in their original location.

Dentzel Carousels, created by the Philadelphia firm G.A. Dentzel, were famed for their delightful range of animals to ride. Our city’s carousel offers not only the usual horses, but also cats, ostriches, pigs, rabbits, plus a deer, a giraffe, a goat, a lion, and a tiger.

When my granddaughters were young, I took them to ride the carousel. They had fun choosing which animal to climb upon. Did they notice the cartoon-style pickaninnies painted on one of a circle of panels topping the carousel?

Maybe not. Maybe so. Who knows what images a child absorbs unconsciously? And if that child is African-American?

So, what’s wrong with this picture? [Read more...]

Happy Pride Parade

imageI was in tears watching my city’s Gay Pride parade go by this year. Yes, tears. Here’s why.

In the late 1960s, a friend in my graduate school program was gay. But at that time, there was no such thing as “in” or “out” of the closet. There wasn’t even a closet…or there couldn’t have been one huge enough to hold all the gay people who had to keep their sexual lives secret. Not even a barn would have been big enough. Maybe a stadium…

Instead, there were the baths. I don’t know if these gay baths were really baths, or pools, or what. All I know is that this is where my friend Mark would go every evening, picking up each evening a different man to spend the night with. [Read more...]

Poets and Pope Embrace our Planet

5439014802_dc3b80295b_zPoets have no problem seeing the world evolving within God’s care.

Okay, that’s too general a statement. Let’s just take some of the poets in the special issue of Image (#85) on “Evolution and the Imago Dei.” (And since Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Sì came out nearly the same time as Image, I hear the Pope conversing with the poets.)

Poet Pattiann Rogers has for decades traced the minutiae of a natural world alive in unexpected ways. I reach for her collection Song of the World Becoming whenever I want to be drawn afresh into nature’s secret life. Here in Image, in “The Moss Method,” it’s the wondrous protective quality of mosses that Rogers burrows her language into. [Read more...]

My Evolving Identity


10901090303_16118622bb_zI’ve just read a thirty-page article called “Whitman Music: The Problem of Adaptation.” A critical analysis of musical settings of Whitman’s poetry, the article was published in the 1965 issue of Books at Brown, a journal devoted to materials in the Special Collections of Brown University’s library. The author is Peggy Z. Rosenthal.

I turn to the contributors list at the back of the journal to learn more about this author. I see that her article is “based on the honor thesis which Mrs. Rosenthal [this is so long ago that "Ms." hadn't yet been born] contributed to The American Civilization program. Mrs. Rosenthal graduated magna cum laude from Pembroke College in June 1964.”

What the contributors’ bio omits is that Mrs. Rosenthal, as Peggy Zierler, studied music composition all through elementary and high school, while writing poetry for the high school literary magazine. Hence her interest, for her college honors thesis, in musical settings of poetry. (It was her thesis advisor who suggested basing her thesis on the Brown library’s unusual collection of musical settings of Whitman.)

Nor does the bio mention that Peggy Zierler married Mr. Rosenthal just before her senior year of college, commuting to Brown from their apartment at MIT, where he was doing graduate work. In order to get married as a Pembroke student, she needed a permission letter from the Pembroke Dean. The letter also stipulated that Mrs. Rosenthal would not be allowed to spend the night in the Pembroke dorms; her experience as a married woman would not be a good influence on her (supposedly) virginal peers.

After Brown, Mrs. Rosenthal went on for a doctorate in literature, where parts of her dissertation on Whitman’s poetry were published in scholarly journals in the early 1970s, under the name of P. Z. Rosenthal. She chose the initialed name in order to disguise her gender. Women in academia were still few, and considered intellectually inferior by the male majority, so she strategized that a non-gendered name would be more likely to gain acceptance by journal editors. [Read more...]

Wanted: God—Dead or Alive?

305880083_7cf2d7bf10_mIf you practice a religion faithfully—faith-fully—, why do you do this? And why is it this particular religion that you practice?

“The embarrassing fact is that most religious people seem to believe in a religion for no better reason than that their parents believed in it.” So states poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch in his review-essay “Is Reason Enough?” in The New York Review of Books (April 23, 2015). [Read more...]