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DEEP KRITIK with Dr. NATALIE SUZELIS, Assistant Professor of Literature

Professor Natalie Suzelis stands with a raised fist next to the massive marble tombstone of Karl Marx

Natalie Suzelis visiting the final resting place of Karl Marx.

Interview by Matt Walker ’04.

Natalie Suzelis is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Antioch College. She holds a Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies from Carnegie Mellon University, where she was a Schaffer and A. W. Mellon fellow. Her research synthesizes environmental and economic history with cultural theory in order to construct a cultural studies account of capitalist transition in early modern literature. She is interested in the intersection of capitalist development with environmental and ecological change, and with formations of race, class, and gender across social landscapes from the early modern period to the present. In addition to her research and teaching in medieval and early modern literature, she researches and teaches on subjects in gender and feminist studies, commercial popular culture, subculture, queer theory, media studies, utopian fiction, and climate change in the Anthropocene. She is a contributing editor of Uneven Earth and her research has been published in Mediations, Shakespeare Studies, Uneven Earth, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1800, and Law, Culture, and Humanities.

Matt Walker (MW): “Thank you for doing this interview, congratulations on joining the faculty here!”

Natalie Suzelis (NS): “It’s my pleasure, and thank you!”

MW: “What are your impressions of Antioch and why did you choose to accept the position here?”

NS: “I had a lot of expectations for Antioch given what I had researched about the school and its history. I knew that it was a school driven by social justice values as well as environmental justice. I first noticed, for example, the Coretta Scott King Center and the Antioch farm. I also noticed that the research and teaching interests of the faculty aligned with those two core values pretty well. I saw courses in Environmental Science, Sustainability, Environmental Justice, Dialogue Across Difference, etc. I haven’t really run into anyone yet who *doesn’t* seem to be driven by those values. I also expected the students to be driven by a certain kind of progressive value system, or even radical value system in both social justice and environmental sustainability, and I’ve also found that to be the case. So my impressions are that the things that initially brought me here are still alive and kicking.”

MW: “What have you learned from students and faculty?”

NS: “The thing that I’ve learned is that Community Governance is something that everybody here seems to be very familiar with, and I’ve learned this the most from students at the ComCil meetings. As I’ve watched students interact with each other, I’ve noticed a real sense of responsibility for the college. And it’s kind of a stunning process to see just how invested students are in creating and maintaining an atmosphere on their own. At the last Council meeting, for example, I was taking in the voting procedures and observed students being completely comfortable and at ease with all of the different processes, knowing exactly where to intervene when they wanted to have their voices heard. It seems like it becomes an almost intuitive thing after you’re here for just a short time. That’s something that I found in political organizations, but I never saw it so active on a college campus before, and I think it’s amazing.”

MW: “Do you have any political affiliations?”

NS: “Oh, yes, I’m a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). But I guess just more broadly, I’ve been interested in and involved in more local political groups and organizations fighting for different reforms on a city policy level with lots of coalitions of different groups.

MW: “In Pittsburgh?”

NS: “Yeah, so in Pittsburgh for example, I was part of the Pittsburgh Coalition of the International Women’s Strike. That was a coalition between DSA members, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, and members of the International Socialist Organization, which is not really active anymore but, at the time, they were. I’m most affiliated with DSA but I would say, in terms of active politics, I prefer to work across organizations and organizational boundaries.”

MW: “Do you have any impressions you’d like to share about DSA: what it’s like, where it’s going?”

NS: “I didn’t notice any DSA members here in Yellow Springs so I guess one thing that I’m noticing is that it seems to have more support in bigger cities. I’ve met some members here of Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL). DSA has experienced a lot of growing pains over the past couple of years. And I think it still has a lot to figure out. But it does seem to be an interesting driving political force, particularly among millennials.”

MW: “Do you think you might start a (DSA) chapter out here?”

NS: “I think I’d rather listen to students and what they’re interested in. Meeting students who are already part of PSL, students who are interested in taking down the flag and doing different political actions… I think it would be cool to be involved to the extent that whatever direction students wanted to take political activism or organization. I would just like to help facilitate that.”

MW: “That’s awesome. So the flag gets taken down, no flag, or which flag?

NS: “You’re asking me?”

MW: “Yeah. If the flag comes down, which I think is a great idea… this is kind of a silly question but what flag would go up, or no flag?”

NS: “It seems the students wrote on the base of the flagpole that they would like to see something like Black Lives Matter, Pride flag, some combination of all the things that students can be proud of, or organizations or activism they’ve been involved in. I think it’s a great idea to put a couple of different flags or different signifiers at the intersection of those different political stances. So, once again, I think the students have a good idea of what they might want.”

MW: I really appreciate how supportive you are of the students. Maybe a new flag could be created collaboratively or something? Next question: what are your impressions of Yellow Springs or anything that you’re enjoying about that village?”

NS: “Yeah, just as one of the first things I noticed when stepping foot on the campus was that the college seems to be driven by community, I’ve really seen to be reflected in the town. I recently went to a little neighborhood party just down the street and I didn’t know anybody there except for my neighbor. But pretty much everyone in close proximity with me introduced themselves asked me where I was coming from, and it was just very warm and friendly and generally that’s my impression of Yellow Springs.”

MW: “Are you registered to vote out here? Are you involved in this whole levy situation?”

NS: “I am not registered here yet. I just got my new driver’s license and I checked the box to re-register here. So I think I’m waiting for something to come in the mail.”

MW: “What are some of your teaching interests?”

NS: “My teaching interests are pretty broad because I like to be guided by students. I love teaching plays, poetry, prose, novels… There’s not really a genre of literature, or a time period really, that I feel bound by. My research interests were more focused on early modernity, Shakespeare, drama, poetry, and prose. But my teaching has always been much broader in terms of texts and different forms of media, and I like to incorporate lots of contemporary literature and philosophy. I’ve always found that being adaptive to what students are interested in has sort of forced me to learn as much as I can as a teacher. That’s just generally the attitude that I take to pedagogy. So I hope my teaching interests become even more broad as I meet more students. That’s just kind of how I’ve always operated.”

MW: “Cool. Thank you. What about your service interests?”

NS: “On campus here at Antioch, I have become involved in ComCil, College Council, and I’m also participating on the search committee for the Social Science Psychology professor. I’ve been trying to get pretty involved in the inner workings of the college. When I was at a previous institution, I also did a lot of colloquia and public-facing panels and lectures. I really love inviting speakers and organizing events and I’m excited to do things like that in the future. I hope to work with Michael Casselli on a Herndon speaker and/or performance series for the winter quarter.”

MW: “Any themes emerging with that potential Casselli collaboration?”

NS: “Yeah, we talked a little bit about it. I think one of the things we’re throwing around was about abolition futurism. Thinking about how to envision a world without so many of these systemic harms that we’re often talking about on campus; being able to think about eradicating or abolishing those systems behind everything from the prison industrial complex, to the environmental harms that we’re seeing inflicted daily. So providing new frames for how you might think differently and creatively in imagining alternative futures, and having different speakers, artists, performers, or literary figures who can help us do that. But I’d like to get some student feedback and see who students are interested in or what sub-themes might align with this general topic. But that’s basically the first brainstorming session we had.”

MW: “Cool, that’s exciting. What about research topics – what are your research interests?”

NS: “Recently I’ve been reading a lot about different climate policy agendas. I’m writing a book review right now with a colleague for a book called A People’s Green New Deal which is really about critiquing most of the green New Deal proposals that have been put forth. A lot of the proposals are based on this idea of pragmatism in an effort to reach the widest audience possible. So this book I’m reading is arguing that so many of those pragmatic stances are not only are they inadequate in actually addressing climate change, they’re not really winning either. And since we’re already in a political situation where we have to push really hard just to get basic reforms, we might as well push to demand what we really want. And what we think people deserve. I’ve been thinking about different agendas and policies for how to restructure the global energy system and how that needs to be fundamentally transformed in a very radical way if we’re actually going to meet the crisis where we need to. Those research interests are very near and dear to me, and not necessarily as close to my dissertation research as they are to my teaching. But I’ve met a lot of amazing colleagues who’ve really sparked that collaborative sort of research interest in me.”

MW: “I’m wondering if you think there are any policy proposals out there that might be more effective than the Green New Deal?”

NS: “Yes – I’ve been thinking about this because I was talking to Professor Mittias about maybe teaching an environmental ethics course at some point. And I was thinking about how that could be structured around the Cochabamba agreement which was a climate accord that was reached, I think, in 2010, I might have to look that up. But I think, basically, it was a document, it’s only about 10 pages I think, but it’s about the rights of human and non-human creatures on the planet to access life-sustaining things like water and food, while also protecting and nurturing the environment to be reciprocal in that relationship. I’d vote for that kind of agreement.”

MW: “Right on! That makes me think of this dichotomy between Deep Ecology and Social Ecology. My understanding of Deep Ecology is that we have to heal our relationship with the earth first. Before we can solve social problems, we must solve the problem of our relationship with the environment. Whereas, what I understand from Social Ecology, is that we have to solve our human-to-human problems before we can even address the greater ecological problems. I know it’s a bit of a false dichotomy but I’m wondering if you can speak on that a bit please?”

NS: “Yeah, I mean I think they’re fundamentally connected. So if the greatest enemy to the environment is the fossil fuel industry, the global energy system as it currently operates, then that’s both. It’s an issue of Social Ecology and Deep Ecology because we can point to all the social and political factors that have made it the primary enemy of both people and the environment. Here are human actors who are harming the human and nonhuman world ecologically, but also socially, economically, and politically. You also can’t really solve any deep ecological problems without using social tools and social forces to build power to change the political structure. The ecological problem is a social one and vice versa. And I think that’s actually the only way we can approach the social and political issues because they’re so long-standing and go back so far into centuries of human-nonhuman relations.”

“I just taught this essay from Kyle Whyte, for example, about Indigenous justice and climate justice, which shows a longer history of environmental degradation as the history of settler colonialism. So that’s a place where I would see Deep Ecology meeting Social Ecology: because the history of settler-colonialism is a history of ecological violence. And it’s a social-political but also an ecological problem. It’s also a cultural problem in that it relates to the ways in which  people have conceptualized their relationship with the environment for hundreds of years from a culture of settlerism. You’d be addressing both issues at once if you followed this idea of climate justice and the kind of social resilience that Kyle Whyte is talking about. Which is also, for Whyte, an ecological resilience.”

MW: “All of this leads me to the topic and questions of: Are we natural? Are we a part of Nature or separate from it? Is what’s happening with us natural? What is natural in terms of climate change, etc?”

NS: “Well, the lines are so blurred to me. I do think it is a false dichotomy because nature is very social. Animals are very social with each other and plants grow together and interact socially. Even in the most pristine, untouched view of the natural world, if that even really exists anymore… it’s a false dichotomy because we’re constantly interacting with the nonhuman world and the human world while the nonhuman world is also interacting socially with itself.”

“This is where I think the literary perspective can be helpful. The stories that we tell about the environment, and the stories we sometimes tell ourselves about pristine and untouched natural worlds, I think that those stories have their own purpose and can sometimes be nefarious in creating dichotomies. But other stories that you can tell about our social environments, built environments, and natural environments can actually bridge gaps between them. And I would be more on the side of the latter. Stories can help us conceptualize how we can establish more mutual and reciprocal relationships between human beings and non-human beings.”

MW: “Regarding the future, the Anthropocene, Capitalism, the internet – what’s going to happen?”

NS: “I don’t want to be a climate-doomer but I do think it’s stunning that we have come so far in the acceleration of our timeline without mass movement and action stopping things from continuing in such a dark direction. But I hope, I think and I hope, that it’s becoming more clear that there are human actors who have an extreme amount of economic and political power who are doing the most damage. It’s traceable. And there’s been a lot of work done to obscure the actual power relations in terms of who’s making the decisions that do the most harm, who’s sort of at the top of these chains or hierarchies that do the most damage to the environment. I hope that it’s becoming clear to people. I think it’s probably more clear to the kind of students on campus here. It also seems like the most recent generation has dealt with a lot of pretty obvious information about climate change and a lot of climate disasters that are pretty hard to ignore. I think it’s tragic and a bit disheartening that we’ve managed to come this far without a giant push in the other direction. But I’m still so hopeful that that can happen. And I think that new ideas are being circulated about just how international and global an issue this is… so we have to act and think with global solidarity. And my hope is that this younger generation thinks that and feels that we’re all in this together on one planet, even though there are definite actors and enemies of the people and the environment. I’m hoping that we’re moving in the direction where people feel more international planetary global solidarity against those actors.”

MW: “I’m curious to hear you speak about if there is a more nuanced view towards humans and our detrimental effects on nature; something beyond Thomas Robert Malthus?”

NS: “There are two kinds of approaches you can take, even on the left. It isn’t just a right-wing reactionary thing that we need fewer humans on the planet, which would help us combat climate change. There’s this reactionary tendency to blame all human beings and say we need less of them as opposed to examining the power structure. There are even tendencies that are more austere in the way that we think of the quality of life for people. And I think that that’s a political stance. That’s a decision that’s could play out in really harmful ways. If you don’t try to think about fighting for quality of life and abundance that people deserve equally, in an evenly distributed way, which is possible if we’re not living under these capitalistic elements of exploitation of human beings and the planet, that’s an entirely different stance. People like Bill Gates and these rich, capitalist, very harmful actors act as if we can come up with the solutions that will be imposed from above, from the top of the economic and political hierarchy, that will decide who gets to live, how many people, and how. That’s the most harmful direction we could probably go in because people with power are going to act in their class interest. I don’t want to live in that world and I think that’s a real danger in climate discourse.”

MW: “Bringing the conversation back towards literature and storytelling – what are some of the possible stories we can tell in regards to climate change and the fall of capitalism that don’t rely on the ‘crisis spurs the change’ idea?”

NS: “The power and meaning behind storytelling is that you can imagine possible futures and action points that might help you get there. I think there might be an expectation that capitalism itself – because it’s so unsustainable, exploitative, and harmful – might end on its own end because it will continue until it destroys everything unless it sort of crumbles from within. I think there are expectations that maybe the global market system itself is so up and down and volatile that maybe it might just crumble. So I guess the story that I would try to create and get behind is us being able to scale back this really harmful system and dismantle it in the interest of the people it’s been exploiting the most. But to do so effectively, we would also have to focus on rebuilding the alternative. Disaster Capitalism is pretty resilient; I’d like to think that it might fall or crumble on its own, but that’s somewhat unlikely. Against the idea of waiting for a Deus Ex Maxina, something I think people do well here at Antioch is try to envision new and different community structures, social organizations, and different kinds of stories about themselves and their relationships to other people. And also imagine different, possible futures. I think that’s probably the best way, the best place to put our energies is trying to build those alternative structures and futures.”

MW: “What about non-state actors? The government, the state, always seems to corrupt even the best ideas. So it seems like that’s something that you’re speaking to with community-oriented solutions?”

NS: “Yeah, I’m thinking about David Graeber right now who passed away not so long ago, and is probably most famous for the “We are the 99%” phrase from Occupy. Before he passed away he was writing this alternative story about human history and social organization called The Dawn of Everything, and it gets at the fact that we tell all these stories about, like, hunter-gatherer societies and primitive societies and different sorts of social, cultural organizations and how that all just funneled into this linear timeline of progress until we get to the modern state and capitalism. This book is against that story and attempts to show how there are so many examples of really complex social organizations throughout human history that look more like a decentralized, municipal, or localized kind of structure. So, yeah, I think the power of being able to point to different ways that humans have been organized against these more dominant models like that can help us see all of the possibilities and different ways that we can relate to each other, different ways we can build lots of alternative kinds of communities that are accountable to one another and more reciprocal, mutual, etc. And I think that it’s something that human beings are actually pretty good at doing when given the space to do so.”

MW: “You’ve mentioned different views of time. I’m curious to hear you talk about how a different view of time would look and how that would influence us? Also, I’m curious about your work, your dissertation studying the past and what from the part of history that you’ve dealt with informs our present moment? Is there anything to learn from those feudal Shakespearian histories that you’ve really dug deeply into? I’d love to hear you talk about either of those things: the time model or the history reflection.”

NS: “Probably the most dominant one is in the early modern period, where my research is set. I think that kind of nomenclature – “early modern” is interesting. It invokes the idea that there was a break with pre-modern times and this is where modernity started. And so, in terms of temporality and storytelling, I think that there’s been a dominant narrative in Western culture that the birth of capitalism and the birth of modernity is this linear timeline of progress that begins there. And what I appreciate about a lot of early modern literature is that goes against the grain and tells stories about time that think through temporality in different ways. It’s not just a march of progress moving forward. I think that narrative has been pretty harmful. Especially in terms of colonialism and imperialism bringing so-called civilizing ideas of progress to the rest of the world and acting like they originated in Europe. I think that’s very harmful. There’s a lot of really great authors, philosophers, scholars – like Leslie Marmon Silko, Kyle Whyte, Maria Lugones, Nick Estes, etc., who think about time in a much different way. Going back to the early modern period allows you to see how that myth and those narratives were constructed in the first place. I think it allows you to be pretty critical of them and watch as they just explode in Western literature. It also allows you to be able to trace it in a very critical way that helps you see that there are other ways of thinking about progress.”

MW: “That’s super thought-provoking. Thank you. Okay, two more questions. Is that ok? We’ve got to touch on Walter Benjamin. What do we need to know?”

NS: “Haha. Well I wrote my dissertation on Shakespeare and the stories he tells in his plays about the transition from feudalism to capitalism because I was inspired by Benjamin’s dissertation, which traced that through German baroque drama. So the concept of Trauerspiel, which comes from these tragic plays, is also a concept of history against dominant forms of temporality. Benjamin is really important to me as a literary person but also as a philosopher. The reason why he’s important in thinking about history and temporality and politics, leftism, revolution, etc. is that he has a really, really compelling view of time that goes against this whole ‘history is progress’ narrative” in, for example, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

MW: “Excellent! Thank you. I’m also curious what your writing process is like?”

NS: “It’s funny that you asked me this because I keep getting back these brainstorming templates that I gave my students which are both structured and free-form. They’re an attempt to ask structured questions but also to be open about how wacky the writing process can be. So the short and honest answer is that my writing process can be pretty messy because I try to be creative and allow room for flow. If you get into something and you’re inspired, you don’t want to stop because things are just coming to you… Since that doesn’t happen as often as anyone would like I often try to be structured as well. So these templates have basic things like the ‘why does this matter’, probing questions about the stakes and kind of intro conclusion sections, and then kind of filling in different examples and important quotes in an outline form. Like lots of people, if I’m inspired, I can just sit down and write, but I think we all need quite a bit of help in the structuring of the brainstorming process. So, I use a lot of outlines and different kinds of templates to organize my thoughts.”

MW: “Thank you for answering that. Any other thoughts? Anything else you want to add?”

NS: “I’m just really happy to be here. I’ve been learning a lot from the students every single day. It’s made me think about all the ways that I’m trying to grow and expand all of those teaching and research interests and it’s felt like a very inspiring place to do that.”

Doctor Natalie Suzelis harvesting tomatoes from her garden. She's smiling and wearing a yellow dress. She's holding a wicker basket which is full of tomatoes.

Dr. Natalie Suzelis harvesting tomatoes in her garden.

 

A Special Welcome to Antioch’s New President, Jane Fernandes, Who Believes in ‘Eating Poetry’

A Special Welcome to Antioch’s New President, Jane Fernandes, Who Believes in ‘Eating Poetry’

Home » Community

by | Aug 11, 2021

"Strandlines" by Tom Manley, Dedicated to Jane Fernandes

Tom Manley
“Strandlines”
Dedicated to Jane Fernandes
Watercolor on canvas, 12 X 10, 2021


Last week Maureen Lynch, Antioch College Board Chair, called me with a true “breaking news alert”. She told me—without the Wolf Blitzer affect—that the College’s trustees had elected Dr. Jane Fernandes to be the new president of Antioch, thus concluding a six month plus search with wonderful success.

By now, if you are in any way connected to the College you would have read about this great result and learned something of the exceptional qualifications and experience Dr. Fernandes brings to the job. (In case you haven’t, follow this link to the announcement on the Antioch website.)

Among the many reasons I am celebrating Jane—she told me I could call her Jane, by the way—and her appointment to lead Antioch is her high regard, deep knowledge and firsthand engagement with the incantatory world of poetry. From where I stand (and have stood) reading, writing and, as we shall see, even eating poetry, affords us all, but especially college presidents, a renewing pool of human insight and possibility. This lends Jane additional super powers, which I have no doubt she will draw upon in service to the Antioch community and the wider world, just as she did at Guilford College and just as she has done routinely for each of the communities she has served professionally and personally.

Jane Fernandes is precisely the right person to pilot Antioch College. I am more than confident about such a forecast because, you may remember, I live in the future. Technically, it is only a time zone advantage, but nevertheless, Malaysia is twelve hours ahead of Yellow Springs, and being much closer to the equator, ought to give more gravitational pull to my pronouncements. Believe it or not.  But try to keep up, because there is a line of thought that connects our new poet president to Antioch that you may not have dreamed.

Here goes.

Several years ago, I learned through another phone call that my maternal grandmother, Minerva Evelyn Stine, was the daughter of Mary and David Stein, making my mother, me and my siblings all Jewish. How this came to be and why I learned about it by phone, is a story for another time. You may want to know, however, that it was all confirmed by a DNA test and further substantiated by a visit to the graves of my maternal great, great grandparents in the small, well-kept Hebrew cemetery in Norfolk, Virginia, accompanied by a second cousin, a couple of times removed, who, incidentally, looks a lot like my grandmother Minerva.

Since receiving this news, my lines of thinking have followed any number of paths, mostly about my great grandmother, Mary, who early in her marriage was separated from her husband, David Stein. Their three older children remained with their father, while their youngest child, my grandmother, remained with her mother. Who or what could have caused such a break? More recently though, I’ve been thinking about my great grandfather, David, who grew up in Baltimore, where I grew up (and who went to the same high school as my Irish Catholic father).  I had learned very little about David Stein other than receiving an image from the local newspaper that gave his occupation as a commercial representative with an address on a street that no longer has residential buildings.

I googled the address and recognized the location from surrounding landmarks, which I had passed dozens of times during my childhood with my family, none of us mindful of the significance. I began to think that each of these trips past the place where David Stein had lived was like the strandlines left by oceans, lakes and rivers on their shores; the sweeping action of waves and tides, their residues impermanent yet imaginable and lightly traceable in the mind. The fact that the real strandlines of these places often left the most unpleasant, if biologically interesting, environments for walking or laying out beach towels, only enlivened the metaphor of overlapping lives, erasure, and storm-churned discovery.

It occurred to me (maybe wildly) that while there are many Steins in Baltimore, perhaps David was distantly connected to a famous Stein, like Gertrude, who was from Pittsburgh, where the great poet Gerald Stein is alive (and I hope still well). A Lines of Thinking piece about Gertrude and Gerald? A poem of strandlines? And, because my mind works through lateral associations of ideas and plays on words, what about a long overdue piece on Antioch’s own, Mark Strand? A plan for the August LoT was starting to form, you see, when Maureen called with the good news about Jane.

Mark Strand, Antioch class of 1957, was a most extraordinary poet (and by the telling of his classmates and many who came to know his body of work, a true Antiochian of his vintage). Oddly, some might think, he left Antioch for Yale to study painting with the iconic educator and colorist Josef Albers. But after completing his MFA, he decided to move from painting to poetry and thus began his long career as one of the nation’s and world’s most productive and gifted writers. The author or editor of more than forty books and the winner of nearly all the top awards for writing, Mark was appointed US poet laureate in 1990. He received a Pulitzer in 1999 for Blizzard of One. Mark was a generous teacher of poetry and literature (something he has in common with our new president as well).

Settling on a small selection of Mark Strand poems is no easy task. I share five that I have returned to frequently over the years; poems that enfold me within them, that startle me with their original language, that bring me to laughter often and tears as well. I have incorporated the chosen works into a watercolor study, “Strandlines,” an image, which is shown above or below or somewhere in the vicinity of these words. I dedicate this small work to Jane (and will hand it over when I can), a “poetry eating” comrade, to whom I am sure, Mark Strand extends a special greeting and membership to his rare club.

Keeping Things Whole

In a field

I am the absence

of field.

This is

always the case.

Wherever I am

I am what is missing.

When I walk

I part the air

and always

the air moves in   

to fill the spaces

where my body’s been.

We all have reasons

for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.

* * *

The Garden

(for Robert Penn Warren)

It shines in the garden,

in the white foliage of the chestnut tree,   

in the brim of my father’s hat

as he walks on the gravel.

In the garden suspended in time   

my mother sits in a redwood chair:   

light fills the sky,

the folds of her dress,

the roses tangled beside her.

And when my father bends

to whisper in her ear,

when they rise to leave

and the swallows dart

and the moon and stars

have drifted off together, it shines.

Even as you lean over this page,   

late and alone, it shines: even now   

in the moment before it disappears.

* * *

Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.

There is no happiness like mine.

I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.

Her eyes are sad

and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.

The light is dim.

The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,

their blond legs burn like brush.

The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.

When I get on my knees and lick her hand,

she screams.

I am a new man.

I snarl at her and bark.

I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

* * *

The Idea

(for Nolan Miller)

For us, too, there was a wish to possess

Something beyond the world we knew, beyond ourselves,

Beyond our power to imagine, something nevertheless

In which we might see ourselves; and this desire

Came always in passing, in waning light, and in such cold

That ice on the valley’s lakes cracked and rolled,

And blowing snow covered what earth we saw,

And scenes from the past, when they surfaced again,

Looked not as they had, but ghostly and white

Among false curves and hidden erasures;

And never once did we feel we were close

Until the night wind said, “Why do this,

Especially now? Go back to the place you belong;”

And there appeared, with its windows glowing, small,

In the distance, in the frozen reaches, a cabin;

And we stood before it, amazed at its being there,

And would have gone forward and opened the door,

And stepped into the glow and warmed ourselves there,

But that it was ours by not being ours,

And should remain empty. That was the idea.

* * *

The New Poetry Handbook

1 If a man understands a poem,
he shall have troubles.

2 If a man lives with a poem,
he shall die lonely.

3 If a man lives with two poems,
he shall be unfaithful to one.

4 If a man conceives of a poem,
he shall have one less child.

5 If a man conceives of two poems,
he shall have two children less.

6 If a man wears a crown on his head as he writes,
he shall be found out.

7 If a man wears no crown on his head as he writes,
he shall deceive no one but himself.

8 If a man gets angry at a poem,
he shall be scorned by men.

9 If a man continues to be angry at a poem,
he shall be scorned by women.

10 If a man publicly denounces poetry,
his shoes will fill with urine.

11 If a man gives up poetry for power,
he shall have lots of power.

12 If a man brags about his poems,
he shall be loved by fools.

13 If a man brags about his poems and loves fools,
he shall write no more.

14 If a man craves attention because of his poems,
he shall be like a jackass in moonlight.

15 If a man writes a poem and praises the poem of a fellow,
he shall have a beautiful mistress.

16 If a man writes a poem and praises the poem of a fellow overly,
he shall drive his mistress away.

17 If a man claims the poem of another,
his heart shall double in size.

18 If a man lets his poems go naked,
he shall fear death.

19 If a man fears death,
he shall be saved by his poems.

20 If a man does not fear death,
he may or may not be saved by his poems.

21 If a man finishes a poem,
he shall bathe in the blank wake of his passion
and be kissed by white paper.

* * *

Addendum from us all:

Welcome to Antioch, Jane Fernandes.

About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Emeritus Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.

CAMPUS NEWS

“The Dangers of Tropical Fruits” Victor Hernández Cruz

“The Dangers of Tropical Fruits” Victor Hernández Cruz

Home » Community

by | Jul 7, 2021

Once, a friend sent me a poem by Victor Hernández Cruz. I remember that it was deadpan funny and seriously deadly at the same time. True life is that, of course.

Victor Hernandez Cruz, who makes culture rather than autobiography his central subject has used language as a palette knife to scrape, mix and move the color and lines of his poetry and prose in fresh ways from the time his voice first helped power the Nuyorican movement in the 1960’s. Allen Ginsberg heard that voice and commented:

“…spontaneous urban American language as Williams wished, high school street consciousness transparent, original soul looking out intelligent Bronx windows.”

Born in Puerto Rico, raised in New York City from an early age, Cruz committed to his art form early—in high school as Ginsberg suggests—and since seems to have never missed a beat, as it were.

A year or so ago, if I remember correctly, Antioch faculty member Dr. Teofilo Espada, mentioned Cruz to me when we were speaking of another Puerto Rican poet. I made a note then to include him (Cruz) in a future Lines of Thinking. (It’s taken a while, Teo, but here are two poems by Victor Hernandez Cruz, both of which I identify with even more from my current vantage point in Malaysia.

Time Zones

Time is crying upon the backs of lizards,
Through the white stone of the medieval city
They dash.
The houses that are walking up the stairs,
Flowers out of ruins,
Further into the fortress,
The sounds of a language registers
In our dreams.

Words which are my hat in the city,
Coming through the bamboo
The shadows of lost meaning—
Tilted light making slivers
Through the forest of the mambo
Behind the eyes.

Time will shine your head into skull
The circle song will come again and again,
If we forget how to lay out a village,
Just open a guayaba in half,
These seeds are perfect,
And can guide you back,
Your hands the electric of the ghosts.

In the Persia of shining alfombras,
A belly button silks upon a horse,
Enters a tent of rhythms,
Makes the trees dance into shape,
Rubén Darío saw them in the river,
Bathing in the echoes of the castles,
His Indio head,
Clean enough to measure
The tempo of a camel,
The first string that vibrated
The Rock of Gibraltar,
To sway Greco-Roman lips,
Arising fire of Gypsy song,
Was making Castile dress and undress,
With the sounds that were hitting the moon
And falling down unto earth as colors.

Of boats that were my shoes.
Atlantic chachachá.
Splicing through 101st Street brick.
Which covered dancing verdure green
Rectangular mangos,
Cylindric bananas
Sounds in the sky blue tropic: mind.

Trees are making maracas
That will soon make you dance.

Water is their god of cadence,
As I sea walk through coconut heights,
Legs of tamarind,
Purple orchids arranged like syllables,
Insects of the morning dew sting verses on café.
In embroidery of Italians,
Garcilaso came to José Martí,
Who ducked Spanish spies
In Manhattan
And hugged Walt Whitman’s beard in Philadelphia
As the Cuban Habaneras’ Shango
Made it south to tango.

Boats are ages sailing on water,
Parrots are flying out of castanets,
Flamenco peeling pineapples
That go up the river,
The water that became El Quijote’s language,
As a cane field disappears into a bottle,
To awake in a little town
With molasses orbiting the cathedral,
A wooden saint slicing through the
Mountain full of potassium radiation,
Slanted plátanos pointing into medieval
Liturgy,
Bongo and ocean waves carving
Phantasmal antiquity
Through the fabulous language
That has taken the shape of
An Andalusian rhyming door,
One after the other.
Perfume pagano
Sailing out of the archways,
As Ricardo Ray turns into a centipede,
Marching across a Brooklyn piano,
For dancers to Sanskrit their
Gypsy feet,
Upon Albaicín ceramic tile.
Caribbean sun melts the caramel,
Making our first national flag:
White skirts waving in the air.
Machetes taking off like helicopters
Chopping off branches for timbale sticks,
The hands of the sun hitting the
Moon like a drum—
Making the atmosphere of moisture
Heat up,
For the chorus of the song
To come back down upon us polinizando
The carnival flower,
A serenade walkilipiando.

Sliding upon seashells,
That disappear into the foam of time,
One age living next to another,
We are both living things at once,
We are the cadaver that is
About to be born.

* * *

The piece my friend shared years ago was “The Problems with Hurricanes,” which you can hear Cruz recite in an interview with Bill Moyers if you follow the link at the end of the poem.

The Problems with Hurricanes

TA campesino looked at the air
And told me:
With hurricanes it’s not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I’ll tell you he said:
it’s the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.
How would your family
feel if they had to tell
The generations that you
got killed by a flying
Banana.
Death by drowning has honor
If the wind picked you up
and slammed you
Against a mountain boulder
This would not carry shame
But
to suffer a mango smashing
Your skull
or a plantain hitting your
Temple at 70 miles per hour
is the ultimate disgrace.
The campesino takes off his hat—
As a sign of respect
toward the fury of the wind
And says:
Don’t worry about the noise
Don’t worry about the water
Don’t worry about the wind—
If you are going out
beware of mangoes
And all such beautiful
sweet things.

* * *

Not all dangerous and sweet objects in the tropics are propelled by mighty storms. Some, equally ignoble if rarely as fatal, might present themselves on placid days and through more mischievous means. Throughout Southeast Asia, durian, the “king of fruit”, is prized for its creamy sweet richness and abhorred, by some, for its strong bouquet. During the twice annual harvest seasons, durian madness overcomes the local populations as folks seek out the most delectable varieties to buy or otherwise acquire. Cruz’s hurricane poem inspired the following work-in-progress on durian.

The Problem with Durian Trees

By Tom Manley (After Victor Hernandez Cruz)

All Sunday morning
the thud and roll of durian fruit
on the metal roof beneath the tree.

Full size, durians grow heavy,
as large as American footballs
sturdy with cactus spines.

Gratefully, from the roof’s
perspective, these are smaller,
rather akin to large handballs

Or perhaps softballs for pool-play
costumed like yellow-green
land mines afloat in an enemy harbor.

Earlier the two dogs fulfilled
their sentry duties alerting us
to the arrival of the troop of macaques

Notorious in the neighborhood
habitual visitors to this house
and it’s long neglected fruit trees.

Is this a proper bombing,
just a warning off by simian brothers,
or a generations old strategy

For separating wheat from chaff
eatable from not yet?
durian trees grow tall, fruit

Dropping from top branches,
even unassisted by other animals,
would do damage to any skull

Happening by below; surely
some lives have been lost; warnings posted;
statistics on seasonal injuries tracked?

We sit and drink the left-over coffee
with ice and almond milk whilst
pondering this from a covered terrace.

Looking out on a bright day,
a patch of city shows through
the eaves of a large mango tree,

Past the fronds of the full coconut
palm at the bottom of the drive
and gate, where in a month’s time

A mature durian will appear
having on its own accord
let go from its berth in the morning darkness.

Eventually the dogs’ fascination
Is overtaken by heat and the ubiquity
of monkey branch-snapping, wire-walking

And tree-shaking. With us now,
they lay on the stone floor listening for
the next thump and spiky trundle

Over the corrugated surface above,
to the roof’s edge and then,
radio silence to an unbroken,

Groundward fall,
heads and hands clear! no
grabbing for these delectable bombs,

Which, when the macaques
move on, we will collect,
with wary fingertips, hopeful

As we line them stems up
on the wall outside the kitchen,
that they ripen within.

(7-7-21, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

 

Malaysian Durian, photo by Tom Manley

About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Emeritus Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.

CAMPUS NEWS

LoVerne Brown and Ed Ruscha

LoVerne Brown and Ed Ruscha

Home » Community

by | Jun 9, 2021

Steve Kowit (1938-2015), author of one of my favorite books about poetry, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poets’ Portable Workshop, was a big fan of writer LoVerne Brown (1912-2000), the subject of this month’s Lines of Thinking. (Ed Ruscha, the LA painter, works into the story shortly). About her he wrote:

“Her poems are brilliantly made, often bitingly incisive portraits, often politically engaged. She had a wonderfully sharp wit and a keen sense of the underbelly of human behavior. Her poetry, like her life, was full of love, but her poems were much more sharply edged and never sentimental or simplistic.”

Brown and Kowit were transplants to the San Diego area, he from Brooklyn via San Francisco and she from North Dakota by way of Alaska. They came to know each other through poetry workshops and activist circles they supported and developed in the area. Kowit included three pieces by Brown in Palm of Your Hand. I was reading that book and those pieces coincidentally on a bench in La Jolla just north of San Diego. It was a favorite retreat for me—La Jolla not the bench—back in the days when I lived in smoggy Southern California. The bench overlooked the ocean, just outside the Museum of Contemporary Art, and it was also in sight of the Ed Ruscha mural of a ship tossing in high seas, captioned “BRAVE MEN RUN IN MY FAMILY.” Thinking back on it now, I suspect Brown saw that mural before she passed away and approved of the principle as both honest and wise for all concerned. A former journalist she once noted, “Journalism is often factual but not always honest; poetry is not necessarily factual but should always be honest.”

Here are two of the poems by Brown I read that day while seated between art and the ocean.

A Very Wet Leavetaking

Comrades, I regret to inform you
I’m about to abandon this project.
The city cannot be saved,
does not want to be saved —
since our warning cries went unanswered,
since, though the night was clear
they chose to remain
with Merv and Johnny and carcinogenic beer.
Our own involvement was simple,
a matter of timing.
These holes appeared in this dike
and we were here.
We remembered that big-thumbed kid,
the hero of Holland,
and thought we could hold back the sea
till the townsmen came.
Well, the night’s half over;
it’s plain that they’re not coming;
the tide is high and
the holes in the dike grow larger.
My arm is too small a cork
and floats in the flood,
and I must tell you
with shame but in all honesty
I am not yet fully committed
to sticking my head in.

Meeting of Mavericks

Milkweed grows by the fence.
Don’t ask me to pull it.
Weeds were my friends in childhood —
emerald explosions
in the dull cinders of train track,
green lace at the sleeves
of our water trough.
Eyes starved for color
were well fed by fireweed
elbowing tin cans aside
to take over the dump.
I live in the city now,
but claim kinship whenever
the uncombed head of a dandelion
pops up like a gopher
in the midst of a groomed lawn,
or a purple thistle —
remembered from roadside ditches —
looms insolent
in an enclave of roses.
Today a prickly thing
I don’t know the name of
is exploiting a crack
in our sidewalk.
I greet it as friend:
“Hello I too
like to challenge the fissures
in my firmament,
squeeze through, sometimes,
more often fracture my skull.”
My new acquaintance braces his spine
along the crack, and shoves.
Cement crumbles.
I think tonight
I will sneak out and water
this one!
About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Emeritus Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.

CAMPUS NEWS

Honor Code

Antioch College is a community dedicated to the search for truth, the development of individual potential, and the pursuit of social justice. In order to fulfill our objectives, freedom must be matched by responsibility.

As a member of the Antioch College Community, I affirm that I will be honest and respectful in all my relationships, and I will advance these standards of behavior in others.

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