Just had occasion to hear, and read a bit, of Jordan Peterson, who’s made a great splash in public intellectual circles, especially right-wing circles, it appears. (Can a wing have a circle?)
He’s written several books, the first, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, an encyclopedic inquiry into the stories that identify and bind societies, and the second a lay reader’s approach to conduct, both personal and social, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
I read a sample of 12 Rules, the introduction to which, by a friend and fellow academic, made me feel uneasy, it was so laudatory, even sycophantic. Peterson’s own introduction was more interesting … and pretty compelling … until I got to the part about lobsters, hmmmm.
Seems in the dog-eat-dog and lobster-eat-lobster world, the alpha animal not only vanquishes the underdog (-lobster) in a fight, he causes the latter, the loser, to shed his macho brain and develop a sniveling and craven underling’s brain. Hoooo! Is that so?
If the example from the natural world is correct, still the question remains how far it applies to the human world. You can’t simply cite the lobster and say his story is the human story, can you, not without a whole lot of proof? Because loser lobsters sink in brain power and achievement, the same does not necessarily follow with human. Sorry, Jordan, that dog, or lobster, of an argument won’t hunt, not as it now stands.
(Who preeminently is it that cites this bullying language of winning and losing, winner take all, all the time, besides, hmmmm, Donald J. Trump? That loser!)
Googling Peterson, I got an academic paper on him from a distinctly Marxist point of view, and felt compelled in my usual diplomatic manner to write the author, who, I suspect, is very young and devoted to the overlord Herr Marx:
Really, how hard is it to write without recourse to cliches and jargon? To make intelligence itself, and writing skill, your MO? Come clean, Prof. Bellemare, come clean. Think for yourself.
So I responded to him, again in my usual diplomatic way:
Ha ha! That’s a good one. I’m 75, and like you got a PhD when I was 15. They were, and evidently still are, giving them away like candy, yes? Especially, these days, when you suck on Karl Marx’s titty!
In my efforts to promote a first book of poetry just published, I drafted a press release and sent it off to a couple of arts groups. Without blowing my own horn or strumming my own lute too much, I have to say that this analytic exercise was illuminating for me.
The collection is called Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989, and is available at Amazon in both paperback and epub formats. With a name like Transitions, long the working title for poems I wrote in the 1980s, it shouldn’t be surprising that the poems deal with passages or rites of passage in one’s life. But readers and reviewers have readily discerned the theme of growing up or awakening in these poems.
To quote myself (sorry) in the press release:
As several readers have pointed out … the collection is a coming of age series. The struggles to find a voice are enacted against the background of conforming institutions — church, family, marriage, and academe. “I failed to get tenure at the college where I was teaching,” Zeck says, “and began through the 1980s, when I was in my thirties, a struggle to find out just who I was, unmoored from institutional supports or detaching from them. There were the night sweats, and the day sweats, as John Berryman might have said, and the constant if unconscious need to make something of myself and to make it on my own.”
There’s nothing particularly novel about such a theme. We all struggle, in one way or another, to come of age, to mature, to grow into our own skin. What makes my struggle different, could be, is the confluence of these particular pressures: the church, family, marriage, and academe coming together to produce a collection of particular utterances about the struggle, which results in or enacts a voice and an identity, finally, of my own.
The poems testify to the Catholic puritanism of my upbringing, a streak that runs through my dad’s Polish-American family like a toxic vein. He himself was very reticent about sex, and his father guiltily mourned his bastardy to the end of his life. This kind of childhood was not Blake’s Garden, where the happy childhood is succeeded by “Thou shalt not writ over the door.” The childhood itself was marked by fears and doubts of ever being worthy, of ever escaping the all-seeing eye.
One poem, “Something for My Cousin,” testifies to the complacencies of faith purveyed by the church. At the funeral of a first cousin who died by her own hand,
… the goateed priest, half through the mass,
capered to the lectern. Ours, he said, comfortably,
not to question why this dread thing happened
but to know the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Capon! Mumbling of resurrection and eternal life,
he got on with the job, hoisted the chalice, wiped
his dribbling chops, handed out communion, leading
the faithful up faith’s candy-coated mountain.
In “Suburban Sacraments,” an elegy for a youthful friend,
Machinegun-style, our alcoholic pastor spat out the Latin
of the Mass: “Introibo ad altare Dei.” And, hands folded,
Mark and I fired back: “Ad Dei qui laetificat juventutem
meam.” It was not the ideal preparation for life the cataclysm.
But the church and family were not all dregs and disappointments. Humor leavens this bitter loaf, often in things sexual. In “Physical,” the examining Catholic family doctor intones, writing on his chart, “No signs of impurity,” and the kid wonders how the doctor has not seen or suspected his masturbatory habits.
Had I been suspect? How could
he know? Would it show?
Crossing myself, I crossed
the good physician’s threshold,
sped out into the suburban dusk,
and made bold to think several
impure thoughts about his twin
blonde pubescent daughters.
And in “Transitional,” part of “Onan Suite,” the longest poem in the collection, the narrator wonders about the futility of the sacrament of penance. He confesses his lusts, his impurities, and is forgiven, but knows he will once more be “beating off” when he sees the girls in the neighborhood:
I could go on and
on counting the ways,
telling the beads
of my onanistic rosary,
a sly and unrepentant
teenage Catholic boy
who could never quite
make it across.
It’s not only the content, of course, but the form of the poem that gets it across, that makes a bridge, or a transition, for the poet and, he would hope, his readers. In my case, the Latin of the mass and sacraments instilled in me a love of language, a love of form, that became transmuted into a secular but still, in a way, hieratic voice, if only the voice of the fallen priest or angel — and then professor — and then one who had to come up with his own words entirely to profess and convince, without institutional support of any kind.
The large question here is how do any of us make it across, wherever it is we end up going? What kind of transitions can we make, if we’re left largely on our own, the mysteries and terrors of institutions like church and state and family pushing us away not embracing us?
Poems themselves, or other art objects, may become “transitional objects,” in the terms of W. D. Winnicott. They stand for mother and family, of comfort, of home, and at the same time are the means of moving away into one’s own sphere of being and accomplishing. They are home and not home, mother and not mother, finally altogether, if the bearer of these objects is lucky, an other.
I pushed through a difficult boyhood, did well in Catholic school and then at the university (I was too afraid not to), where I earned a B.A. in English and German and a Ph.D. in American literature. Such an education naturally immersed me in language, especially poetry, which proved as rich as, no, richer than, the Latin of the mass and the sacraments. But when I began to teach college, in Detroit, in the 1970s, academe became for me, a reiteration of the authority of church, family, marriage.
No, I didn’t get tenure at Wayne State University, where I taught from 1972 to 1979 (tenure: meaning the ability or capacity to hold on, as for dear life). I was too young, too immature. I didn’t write enough, or enough of the right kind of thing, using the right “methodology” (the totem of the English Department, which yearned for the power and responsibility not to mention salary of the sciences). I didn’t make connections, or pretend friendships, with those in the department who had the power to confer tenure. I did, however, get immersed in the alchemy of language, anxiety, identity, so that when I would try out an academic paper on my colleagues I’d hear back I didn’t know what I was talking about … but sure could write. By the time I was ejected from Wayne, and then after a Fulbright year teaching in Serbia, trying to make a living through freelance business writing, I was ready to remember and record the occasions, and gifts, that led to my being me, including, if I may conclude thus, this love poem to my wife and apologia for the poetic vocation too.
Poem on the Beautiful Hands of Jennifer
In the half-light of the marriage bed
you take from under the sheets and show me
your incredibly beautiful hands —
small, slim, tapering into flame —
and hold me then to the heat of your breast,
your heart which is choiring in this milky
light, and tell me with your erotically
articulate fingers how close we can be.
As I unfurl from doubt’s tight fist,
from the fetal dark, it dawns on me
how wholly unclenched and open you are —
your fingers which know so well how to sew
and cook and tease a balky piano into music
and stroke a lover ecstatically, a wand
of subtle light and heat that binds me gently
to you, this early hour of the morning,
in the half-light of the marriage bed.
First book about to be published. Don’t expect to get rich or famous. But to give back and so get.
On the eve of my 73rd birthday, in early October, I have published 50 poems, about 100 pages’ worth, via Kindle Direct Publishing, Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989. (Available in both paperback and ebook versions from Amazon. You can download a sample of the ebook version free and see a few of the poems. Or just write to me.)
The book may not soon be a major motion picture, and may not sell in the hundreds of thousands. Still, launching such a boat even at this late date makes me a bit giddy.
The main point, at this point in my life, is neither financial success nor personal validation per se. It’s not to prove that I’m rich, a great poet, or admired by legions. It’s simply to show what I have done with a bit of my life, now that I’m entering the home stretch. And to leave something behind. (The way the astronauts on the moon, I read in today’s New York Times, left bags of poop? Well, poop and footprints and various other detritus, which some would safeguard as historical heritage like earthbound artifacts.)
When my older brother Gerry died a few years ago, of brain cancer, he regretted especially not publishing a book of his photos and illustrations. He was an excellent and zany sketcher of the mythical and impossible. I have a few of his sketches and his notebooks to establish the point, so may show you examples from time to time. (Or some day launch a postmortem collaboration of some kind.) But Gerseybro, as he called himself, regretted not publishing more on his own.
Gerry wanted to make an account, I think, or to settle accounts, it could be. He’d been given this gift, and needed to give back. To show the world, at any rate, what he could do and, in fact, did.
And isn’t that enough?
Naked come we into the world, but it would be a shame to leave without a stitch on, a garment we have woven, however modest, of the gifts we have been accorded and, in our own sweet time, developed. As Lewis Hyde suggests in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (a book I gave Gerry, and he gave another copy back to me), nothing is so giving, and fulfilling, as giving back.