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Spring 1998
Volume 2, Number 2

Paul Muldoon

Paul Muldoon, one of Ireland's leading contemporary poets, writes poetry that is characterized by a wry personal voice and an inventive, multi-layered use of language. His work combines the pastoral with a dose of heady intellectualism, resulting in visionary verse. Muldoon was born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1951. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father a laborer and market gardener. At St.Patrick's College in Armagh, he developed a strong interest in Irish Gaelic language and "devoured" T.S.Eliot. He started writing verse of his own around 15 or 16--mostly in Gaelic and “under the spell of T.S.Eliot.” At the time, Muldoon sent several poems to Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon--Irish poets quickly gaining recognition themselves, and Heaney subsequently published a few of Muldoon's poems in the journal Thresholds, Heaney later became Muldoon's tutor at Queen's University in Belfast, where as an undergraduate, Muldoon honed his analytical skills at a weekly poetry gatherings at Heaney's house. Among those poets attending these fertile poetry forums included the poets Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, critic Michael Allen, and several younger poets.

Having finished his first collection of poetry, Knowing My Place (1971), at 19, Muldoon suffered from early comparison to Seamus Heaney, and critics were quick to judge his poetry as too similar in subject matter to the elder poet. Yet with the 1980 publication of Why Brownlee Left. Muldoon entered a more mature stage as a poet, offering more experimental and extravagant poems with a densely allusive style. Like all Irish writers, Muldoon has had to answer to the legacy of the small island's famous writers, such as Yeats and Joyce, and to answer to and bear the 'burden" of Ireland's bitter political struggles: "If one's trying to write oneself and trying to make sense of oneself, which is what all writers are trying to do, what happens politically in Ireland ... has to be addressed in some way." In the poem “Lunch with Pancho Villa" from the collection Mules (1977), Muldoon mocks his vocation as an Irish poet: "people are getting themselves killed/ left, right, and centre/ while you do what?/ Write Rondeaux./ There's more to living in this country/ than stars and horses, pigs and trees."

His more recent volumes, such as The Annals of Chile (1994) and New and Selected Poems (1968-94), reveal Muldoon's growth from an Irish poet to an international one. Though his Irishness is still demonstrably present, the sophisticated, trans-Atlantic range of references recur with dizzying, rap star speed. In the poem “Cows”, Muldoon's playful agility with language and unique knack of manipulating the inflections of Anglo-Irish is most apparent: "Oscaraboscarabinary: a twin, entwined, a tree, a Tuareg; / a double dungbeetle; a plain/ and simple hi-firing party; an off-the-back-of a lorry drogue?/ Enough of Colette and Celine, Celine and Paul Celan:/ enough of whether Nabokov taught at Wellesley or Wesleyan."

Muldoon's volumes have reveal a range which spans from his startlingly, delightful short poems, which critic Helen Vendler calls “miracles of elliptical concision.” to longer elegies, modified sonnets, and ballads. Muldoon's gestures towards emotional self-disclosure are consistently tripped up by a distrust of idealism and a mockery at the centered sell The flirtations with the confessional, such as "Yarrow", an elegy for his mother who died young of uterine cancer, skirt any simple, sentimental interpretation. Tangling narrative time in a kind of crazy-quilt pattern, Muldoon juxtaposes the portrait of his mother against that of “S”-- a drug-addicted ex-lover, and the poet Sylvia Plath. Though critics have chided Muldoon for the exasperating density and Irishness of his imagery and references, one need not understand all of the nuances of Gaelic or be familiar with Ireland's history or current conflicts to be moved by the texture of these verses. To be in the presence of Muldoon's poetry is to experience a rare and new kind of poetic landscape, one which reminds us continually that “Art builds from pain, from misery, from a deep-seated hurt/ a moment to the human heart/ that shines like a golden dome among roops rain--glazed and leaden."

Paul Muldoon is the author of over 20 books of poetry, as well as a number of plays and children's books. He is the 1997 recipient of the Irish Times Poetry Prize and the winner of the 1995 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. He has served as the director of the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University since 1993. Hay, a book of poems, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux this year.

Christine Atkins is a graduate student in the English Department at the University at Albany.

Paul Muldoon
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James McBride

James McBride, the eighth of twelve children growing up in the projects in Black neighborhoods of New York City, always thought his mother, Ruth, was a little unusual: her skin was far lighter than that of the parents of everyone else around, and she had odd practices, such as drinking tea from a glass. Confronted with his inquisitiveness, she was elusive, claiming to be light-skinned, yet definitely black; in general she spoke little of her own background and family. To his question, what color is God, she told him that “God isn’t black or white. He’s the color of water.”

After a stormy youth, McBride eventually went on to study at Oberlin College and made successful careers for himself as a journalist for the Boston Globe and Washington Post and as a jazz musician. Fifteen years ago, recognizing the unusual strength of his mother--a woman who, twice widowed, succeeded in sending all of her twelve children on to higher education and professional careers--McBride undertook to write her biography. It was not an easy task.

Slowly, very slowly, much more slowly than he’d anticipated, McBride drew from his mother an astonishing story. Born in Poland, Ruchel Dwarja Zylska came to the United States in 1921 with her father, a poor Jewish Rabbi, and her mother, a gentle woman, disabled by polio. Unable to hold a congregation, her father settled eventually in Suffolk, Virginia, where he ran a grocery store in the town’s Black neighborhood. Renamed Rachel, James’s mother left Virginia for good in 1941 after an unhappy love affair with a young black man. She settled in Harlem, where she eventually met and married James’s father, Dennis McBride. Converting to Christianity and taking the name Ruth, she and her husband had eight children together until his death from lung cancer in 1957, when she was pregnant with James. They had also founded a Baptist congregation together. Ruth remarried shortly afterwards and had four more children, until the death of her second husband in 1973. After seeing all of her children through school and college, Ruth herself received her own B.A. degree in 1986.

The Color of Water recounts Ruth’s story in her own voice, side by side with James’s in his voice. Readers gradually become aware of the complex and troubled circumstances of Ruth’s childhood and teenage years that led her to leave the world of her family and find a new world among people of a different race. At the same time, they follow James McBride as he comes to terms with not only his mother’s whiteness, but her--and his--Jewishness.

In the fall of 1996, the University at Albany introduced an innovative freshman-year experience for several hundred entering students. Combining living and learning, Project Renaissance offered participants the opportunity to explore questions of human identity and technology in a multi- and interdisciplinary course. The Color of Water has served as the keystone reading for more than 200 students in two Project Renaissance classes, one in 1996, another in 1997, a reading which puts in sharp relief the tough questions of race, ethnicity, and identity which many of our students face in their own lives. Those students and McBride’s many readers eagerly await the chance to meet him during his visit to the Writers Institute in February.

Reading James McBride

McBride tells the reader early on in the book what his mother’s history helped to explain about his own up-bringing: “She and my father brought a curious blend of Jewish-European and African American distrust and paranoia into our house. On his end, my father, Andrew McBride, a Baptist minister, had his doubts about the world accepting his mixed family. He always made sure his kids never got into trouble, was concerned about money, and trusted the providence of the Holy Father to do the rest. After he died and Mommy remarried, my stepfather, Hunter Jordan, seemed to pick up where my father left off, insistent on education and church. On her end, Mommy had no model for raising us other than the experience of her own Orthodox Jewish family, which despite the seeming flaws--an unbending nature, a stridency, a focus on money, a deep distrust of all outsiders, not to mention her father’s tyranny--represented the best and worst of the immigrant mentality: hard work, nonsense, quest for excellence, distrust of authority figures, and a deep belief in God and education.” (21)

But this Orthodox Jewish side of the background, his mother’s story, James McBride did not know for a long time. In fact until they were adults, none of Ruth McBride Jordan’s children even know their mother’s maiden name. Until James McBride wrote his book, they knew little else. They did not know that their mother was born in Poland and emigrated to the United States when she was three. They did not know that her original name was Ruchel Dwjra Zylska that in America became Rachel Deborah Shilsky. And they did not know that she grew up in Suffolk, Virginia, the daughter of an Orthodox Rabbi.

But those are only the basic facts. Around and within them McBride weaves the stories of his family.

Stories of the color line abound. There is young James off to camp, terrified that he has left his mother defenseless standing next to a Black Panther:

“The bus roared as I panicked. A Black Panther? Next to Mommy? It was my worst nightmare come true. I had no idea who the panthers truly were. I had swallowed the media image of them completely. The bus clanked into gear as I got up to open my window. I wanted to warn Mommy.” (26)

Stories of family life in such a large family also frequent the narrative:

“We would hide food from one another, squirreling away a precious grilled cheese or fried bologna sandwich, but the hiding places were known to all and foraged by all and the precious commodity was usually discovered and devoured before it got cold. Entire plots were hatched around swiping food, complete with double-crossing, backstabbing, intrigue, outright robbery, and gobbled evidence.” (50).

But perhaps most stunning of all are the stories that make up his mother’s life or to put it more aptly her survival. Her father sexually abused her as a child; he treated his children and his wife simply as workers for his store. Just before she turned fifteen, starved for love, Ruth found it with a young black man named Peter. They were soon lovers and she was soon pregnant. This was Virginia in the 1930s. Ruth McBride described the scene:

“He said, ‘if white folks find out you’re pregnant by me, I will surely hang.’

The truth hit me hard then, when I realized he didn’t have any solutions, and I began to panic. What a fool I was to believe we could get away with it! I’d sit on the balcony chastising myself a million times for what I’d done and waiting for the Klan to come kill him and for my father to kill both of us, but the days passed and nothing happened.” (86)

Ruth’s mother came to her rescue, sending her to New York for the summer. There with the help of an aunt she obtained an abortion (without anesthesia).

After this episode Ruth’s life didn’t get less complicated including as it does banishment from her family, her discovery of Jesus, two husbands, and twelve children.

But she keeps her faith and her family going. In the end she sends all twelve of her children to college. Two went to medical school and several others have postbaccualaureate degrees. McBride shows us both the difficulties of his mother’s life and the triumphs she helped bring about for her children.

In so doing McBride brings to life this world of a white Jewish mother and her twelve children so many of us would have had difficulty imagining.

By Ernest Scatton, Distinguished Professor of Russian in the University at Albany's Russian & East European Studies Department,
and Mary Lannon
, a Graduate Assistant in the University at Albany's English Department

James McBride
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Steven Pinker
How the Mind Works

Steven Pinker's latest book, How the Mind Works, presents an extremely comprehensive, up-to-date and accessible account of what the mind is and does. His arguments are rooted in both cognitive science, which treats the mind as an information processor, and evolutionary psychology, which regards it as a product of natural selection. He seeks to explain a wide variety of human behaviors and preoccupations, even those that do not seem particularly 'natural,' as outgrowths of some of the brain's original functions. Behaviors that enhanced survival among members of foraging bands in prehistoric grasslands gave rise, he argues, to everything we prize as uniquely human, from analytical abilities to emotions to social and sexual behavior to art and morality. A large-selling and widely talked-about book, How the Mind Works is fast becoming a Naked Ape for the nineties, one that reaps the benefits of new advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience.

As one of America's leading cognitive scientists, Pinker makes it plain that it would be an injustice to the complexity of human information- processing to compare it to that of present-day computers or robots. Even the simplest human tasks, like seeing or walking, pose mind-boggling problems for artificial intelligence programmers and robotics experts that are a long way from being solved. Pinker enjoys breaking down seemingly simple tasks into breath-taking arrays of components. Consider the mere matter of using the human hand:

"It is a single tool that manipulates objects of an astonishing range of sizes, shapes, and weights, from a log to a millet seed... The hand can be configured into a hook grip (to lift a pail), a scissors grip (to hold a cigarette), a five-jaw chuck (to lift a coaster), a three-jaw chuck (to hold a pencil), a two jaw pad-to- pad chuck (to thread a needle), a two-jaw pad-to-side chuck (to turn a key), a squeeze grip (to hold a hammer), a disc grip (to open a jar), and a spherical grip (to hold a ball). Each grip needs a precise combination of muscle tensions that mold the hand into the right shape and keep it there as the load tries to bend it back. Think of lifting a milk carton. Too loose a grasp, and you drop it; too tight, and you crush it; and with some gentle rocking, you can even use the tugging on your fingertips as a gauge of how much milk is inside! And I won't even begin to talk about the tongue, a boneless water balloon controlled only by squeezing, which can loosen food from a back tooth or perform the ballet that articulates words like thrilling and sixths."

Pinker recognizes that most readers will more readily accept evolutionary explanations for physical traits than nonadaptive behavioral ones. But he doesn't shrink from tackling such difficult questions as why humans get pleasure from abstract art--

"the zigags, plaids, tweeds, polka dots, parallels, circles, squares, stars, spirals, and splashes of color with which people decorate their possessions and bodies all over the world. It cannot be a coincidence that exactly these kinds of motifs have been posited by vision researchers as the features of the world that our perceptual analyzers lock onto as they try to make sense of the surfaces and objects out there. Straight lines, parallel lines, smooth curves, and right angles are some of the nonaccidental properties that the visual system seeks out because they are giveaways of parts of the world that contain solid objects or that have been shaped by motion, tension, gravity and cohesion... we seem to get pleasure out of the geometric patterns that in dilute form give us pips of micro-satisfaction as we orient ourselves toward informative environments and fine-tune our vision to give us a clear picture of them. Think of the annoyance you feel when a movie is out of focus and your relief when the projectionist wakes up and twiddles the lens."

Pinker's staunch belief in evolution prompts him to undertake an extremely broad and spirited defense of it in How the Mind Works. His point-of-view has not only provoked those thinkers who assert the primacy of nurture over nature, but those biologists like Stephen Jay Gould who believe that the conventional idea of evolution must be superseded by one that accounts for gaps and rapid transitions in the fossil record. The battle between Pinker and Gould over this very point has been fought, in part, on the letters page of The New York Review of Books.

Pinker tries to make it clear, however, that he is no 'social Darwinist.' There is nothing moral about evolution, he believes, and humans are free to choose (and should choose) non-adaptive behaviors when they make personal or moral sense. He boasts that he himself has chosen to ignore, "the solemn imperative to spread my genes... But I am happy to be that way, and if my genes don't like it, they can go jump in the lake."

Book critics recognize Pinker as a gifted science writer, one of the best writing today. In the words of one New York Times reviewer, "Mr. Pinker has that talent so rare among scientists, of making the most difficult material accessible to the average reader." Another Times reviewer said, "He is a top-rate writer, and deserves the superlatives that are lavished on him." The New York Review of Books calls How the Mind Works, "a model of scientific writing: erudite, witty, and clear... an excellent book."

Stephen Pinker is the Director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT. He is the author of a previous bestseller, The Language Instinct (1994), that presents evidence that the human capacity for language is built into the infant brain.

Mark Koplik is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.

Steven Pinker
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