Imitating the Saints

Heaven's gatesSt. Therese once wished aloud that her own mother would die. When her mother scolded her, Therese explained that then she could sooner go to heaven.

My children received this anecdote with perverse joy, telling their siblings to jump off a bridge, run out in the street, and let go of the tree branch…that you may sooner see paradise, of course.

Given a choice between heaven and hell, they will gladly choose heaven. But faced with a choice between heaven and earth, they start hedging: Are there Legos in heaven? Who’s going to be there? Is the music any good? Why do they have a gate that keeps all the fun people out?

They’ve already noticed the problem that villains are usually the most interesting character in any novel or movie. It’s far more troubling to envision characters who are not completely wicked, characters who struggle with temptation but don’t succumb.

I tend to love my heroes too much to attribute them with serious flaws. Or I imagine there is a class of unsullied souls, anointed souls who somehow, magically, don’t sin. They may have sinned in the past, but no more. They meet Jesus, they fall off their horse, or maybe they’re just born with an incredible endowment of piety, and sin can’t touch them. A heaven full of such insufferable people really doesn’t sound appealing. [Read more…]

A Space Program

2spaceprogramcvrThe tenth item on a list entitled “How to Watch This Film,” which accompanies Tom Sachs’ A Space Program, says that the film is “a love letter to the analog era.”

That obsession with all things handmade and non-digital was obvious as I watched the film—even though I was sitting on my couch, streaming a digital screener on my iPhone and beaming it over WiFi to my Apple TV, which is about the least analog thing a person can do.

But Sachs loves this stuff. He’s a sculptor, sort of—playing with all kinds of things from the natural and human-made world to form whimsical new objects, like boomboxes and in this case, fake planets and massive mission control centers and even the credits roll for the film, which looks like it’s rolling by on taped-together black construction paper. [Read more…]

Changing Positions: A Meditation for Campaign Season

Mount Ranier photo(With help from Donovan, D. T. Suzuki, Qingyuan Weixin, Wallace Stevens, democracy, REM, Bonnie Raitt, David Bowie, Stanley Kunitz, neuroscience, Torah, Ben Bag Bag, The Rabbis, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, you.)

First there is a mountain then there is no mountain then there is. Donovan, are you flip-flopping? Or is it you, mountain?

It was snowing / And it was going to snow. Which is it, Mr. Stevens, the actual weather or the forecast? You want it both ways?


It’s primary season in America. I don’t know who to fear more, Trump or his supporters.

All the chest-pounding, bullying, demonizing, dissembling, threats: they’re going to pay for it; I’d like to punch that protester in the face.

Do you disavow?

And the crowds cheer, how they cheer.


That’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion. Choosing my confession.


A long time in the spotlight.

Someone stands on a stage in a field, a hall, an arena and feeds a crowd what they hunger for.

Someone’s been too long at the fair. Eating data. [Read more…]

Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry

Detroit Industry. South Wall Detail.

Detroit Industry. South Wall Detail.

The Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) is obviously not a religious institution. But damn if its Rivera Court doesn’t feel like sacred space.

The Rivera Court consists of wall murals, floor to ceiling, around an indoor courtyard. The murals were painted by Diego Rivera (1886-1957), the famous Mexican muralist. Rivera himself was not an especially religious man, to put it mildly. He was pretty clear about this fact. “I am an atheist,” he once said, “and I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis.”

The content of the murals is as secular as the man. Rivera began painting them in 1932 (finishing in 1933), an era when the auto industry in Detroit was pumping out product full throttle. The murals portray, for the most part, working people hard at work. That’s probably why they are known as the Detroit Industry murals.

Why was a Mexican muralist—known at the time mostly for works portraying the history and everyday lives of people in his home country—commissioned to make art about Detroit’s manufacturing economy? A couple of sentences on the DIA website do a succinct job of explaining the project.

In Mexico, Rivera’s murals tied modern Mexican culture to its indigenous roots, revealing the ancient Indian cultures as Mexico’s true heritage. Similarly, Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals depict industry and technology as the indigenous culture of Detroit.

You can understand, then, why the industrialists of Detroit would pay good money for a mural by Rivera. They, too, saw “industry and technology as the indigenous culture of Detroit.” But this does not explain why the murals create—perhaps despite themselves—a sacred feeling. [Read more…]

Poetry in a Season of Lament, Part 2

Two Poets Laureate On Grief, Detachment, and Finding New Ways to Live, Part 2

By Sarah Arthur

Continued from yesterday. Read Part 1 here

By the Rivers of Babylon by Gebhard Fugel. 1920.

By the Rivers of Babylon by Gebhard Fugel. 1920.

Sarah Arthur: As Poet Laureate of Ohio, in what ways do you see the bardic role of the poet as “lamenter-in-chief” having changed over time? What role do you see a contemporary American poet laureate playing in a time of communal/national grief?

Amit Majmudar: This is an interesting question because of the question it begs: Is a poet laureate, or a poet otherwise in the public eye, obliged to lament on behalf of the nation? This is a culturally determined role, clearly; history has seen cultures in which the poet is meant to exhort to battle or record deeds of military prowess, and in which the poet is supposed to extol the emperor. Yet Virgil is said to have moved Octavia, Augustus’s sister, to faint with grief when he described her beloved son Marcellus, who died young, in the underworld; the great destiny of Rome didn’t quite hit her as hard. [Read more…]