Since I respect Sybil Smith as a writer and have enjoyed her work in the past, I read her essay “Two Wrongs” [April 2011] twice in an attempt to understand why she would continue smacking an aggressive rooster when there had to be other options. Keeping animals confers a grave responsibility to treat them in a humane fashion. I don’t agree that because a person owns an animal (“He was my rooster,” Smith writes by way of justification) she has the right to do pretty much whatever she wants to it. But, then again, I’m certain my gauzy, pet-loving sentimentality would be regarded as an unaffordable indulgence by those who rely on animals for food or livelihood. And I give Smith credit for her honesty and courage. I’ve done countless things I’m too ashamed of to write about.
Is Smith ashamed? It’s not entirely clear. Would I like it better if she were? I honestly don’t know. I do know that I wish she’d tried harder to explore her willingness to commit violence against such a splendid and complex animal, not just once but over and over. Saying she was afraid doesn’t take it far enough, it seems to me, and the light ending, however effective from a literary standpoint, feels too easy.
Sybil Smith responds:
Al Neipris makes a fair point. I can only say that when a rooster attacks, it is necessary to defend yourself, or you’ll be torn to ribbons. Though things are better with Henry, I still must often push him away. It’s not a friendly interaction. I think it would be worse to kill him, however, or give him away to surely be killed by someone else. So we live on as hostile partners, and Henry carries out his rooster imperative.
Daniel Larson’s “CJ the Prince” [April 2011] is one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever read in The Sun. Thanks for publishing this intensely human, bafflingly tragic, and wonderfully written story.
“CJ the Prince” is one of the finest reflections I have ever read on the rewarding and heart-wrenching experience of working with disadvantaged young people. Daniel Larson shows the loving and inspiring essence of these young men even in the face of horrible oppression. Combine this with Arnie Cooper’s interview with Michelle Alexander [“Throwing Away the Key,” February 2011] on the injustice visited on young men of color by our country’s penal system, and you have a portrait of our society’s oppressive structure.
For a few years I worked as a state supervisor of prison treatment programs. There was a dedicated effort by the state legislature, most of the correctional officers, and the treatment staff to deliver evidence-based programs designed to change criminal thinking. Through this experience I came to see two truths: One is that a privately run prison is a conflict of interest. Profit consistently interferes with delivering programs that help reduce prison populations. The second is that prisons are now, as Michelle Alexander says, the “new Jim Crow,” and biased death-penalty sentencing is the new method of lynching.
I just finished reading Trudy Goldman’s comments [Correspondence April 2011] on Alan Craig’s essay “Everything’s Going to Be OK” [January 2011]. As a previously very athletic person now in my late sixties, I’m in complete accord with Craig, who finds it tough to bear the physical discomforts as he approaches sixty and wonders how he will manage in his seventies and eighties. All those doctors’ appointments and treatments that my elders put up with seem intolerable to me. I keep thinking that people must go through some amazing transformation in their eighties to value whatever life they still have. I hope that is true, because my current mindset will not get me through.
In the April 2011 Correspondence an anonymous author tells of a long struggle with bipolar disorder, during which a psychiatrist prescribed a wide variety of medications to no avail. Finally the author went to another psychiatrist, who developed a drug regimen that was helpful.
I think it is likely that the second doctor used some of the same medications as the first, but he also accepted the patient as a partner in treating the illness. This can make the difference between success and failure in treatment.
Most psychiatrists today receive much training in psychopharmacology but little training in psychotherapy. This is because seeing patients briefly and prescribing pills is more profitable than spending time talking to them.
Alexis Adams’s interview with Krishna Das [“A Joyful Noise,” March 2011] is pure gold. I carefully cut it out of the magazine, copiously underlined it, and have read it over and over as part of my morning spiritual practice. As long as The Sun continues to print gems like this, you will have my fervent support.
I was reading the interview with Krishna Das and feeling happy that my own perspectives were being validated. Then Krishna Das said, “Chant isn’t for everybody. Not everyone likes to sing in a group, or likes to sing with me, for that matter. Fine. I wish them well. Miserable fuckers. [Laughs].”
I felt stung! I’m puzzled that a person like Krishna Das would utter such potentially hurtful words.
Krishna Das contrasts the God “described in Western religious traditions” with the Hindu understanding of God as being within everyone. He also says that Christians are “generally very tense: there’s only one right way to do it and only one God to worship.”
The ancient contemplative tradition within Christianity certainly looks for God within. It may be a minority voice, but it has been present throughout the religion’s history and continues to be a strong part of it today. In addition, many Christians are not “tense” and do not think that there’s “only one right way.” Perhaps Krishna Das was speaking of fundamentalist Christians. If so, it would be helpful to make this clear. The rest of us don’t want to be painted with the same brush.
Krishna Das responds:
To Maia Gay: I apologize if you were stung by my weird sense of humor. I was actually teasing myself about wanting to be liked and caring too much how people react to my chanting, especially since I keep saying that it is a spiritual practice and not a performance. If anyone is a miserable fucker, it’s me!
To Brian Taylor: Of course you are right. I was definitely referring to the more fundamentalist followers of Jesus. The mystic tradition in Christianity is deep and holy. My feelings about conservative Christianity might go back to a day when I was in sixth grade and my Catholic friends returned to school after their first confirmation class and wouldn’t talk to me. When I confronted them, they told me that, as a Jew, I had killed Christ. I haven’t gotten over that yet.
Steve Kowit’s poem “A Prayer” in the March 2011 issue strikes me as the achievement of a present-day Jonathan Swift.
In a culture where killing and death are staples of our entertainment as well as our news, Kowit’s poem affirms life in a way that is both poignant and intellectually acute. The poem is as skillful an example of the rhetorical strategy of miniaturization as I’ve ever seen. In making a case for saving the lives of “minuscule / midges & gnats” it walks a fine line between satire and pathos. Gnats and midges? we ask. Surely you must be joking! But the poem seems very much in earnest as it deepens to its true focus, the absolute and nonnegotiable premium on life. The argument for saving the gnats and midges turns on a powerful, satirical equivalence: that we seem to treat human life as casually as we do the lives of those almost invisible creatures afloat in a dog’s water bowl. Shame on us. If we cannot or will not cherish the lives of our own kind, “let us / save whom we can.” This is socially conscious writing at its finest.
The other day I was sitting in my car at a park close to my workplace, eating my lunch and reading Rob Keast’s essay “The Nature Trail Closest to My House” [February 2011]. As a native of the Los Angeles suburbs I can relate to his longing for nature. I too have felt constricted by the concrete jungle.
After finishing his piece, I decided to get out of my car and take a walk. I spied an old craggy tree I have passed by many times but have mostly ignored. It is a grand old tree with withering branches that has seen decades of life. I didn’t go so far as to caress it, but I did speak to it and let it know how beautiful it was. On that afternoon I felt, like Keast, that I belonged right where I was.
I commend Rob Keast for writing “The Nature Trail Closest to My House.” No matter how sophisticated our understanding of the natural world, it is all too easy for us to overinvest in an elaborate outdoors experience — be it swimming with dolphins, hiking in the Grand Canyon, or watching polar bears in Manitoba. In his lyrical elevation of the quotidian, Keast reminds us that the most rewarding encounters are nearest home.
In our May 2011 issue the last line of John Brehm’s poem “Newborn, Brovetto Farm” contained an error. The ending should have read: “Still I felt her / trapped intelligence, / saw the shoulder-/ shrug look of rotten / luck in her eyes / and the wish to be / elsewhere, the wish to / return and begin / again I’d forgotten / I knew so well.” The Sun regrets the mistake.