Nov. 2, 2005

The Bleeding Mind

by James Tate

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Poem: "The Bleeding Mind" by James Tate from Return to the City of White Donkeys: Poems.© Ecco Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Bleeding Mind

A great man was giving a lecture in a town
about thirty miles from here. The lecture was called
"Modern and Contemporary Documented Cases of Stigmata,
or, The Bleeding Mind." Cheryl and I were excited
about going, We managed to make several wrong turns
at poorly marked junctures, and arrived at the church
just in time. There were hundreds of cars parked
up and down Main Street, and a line of people
greater than anything we could have imaged. "Who
would have thought this many people would have been
interested in stigmata?" I said. "It's the whole
crucifixion thing," Cheryl said. "You know, people
say they don't want to be crucified, but then they
go around being obsessed with it. Look at this line,
they all want to know if they're candidates for the
stigmata." "That's crazy," I said, "that's not why
we're here, is it?" "Speak for yourself," she said.
"And, besides, this man, Ian Wilson, is supposed to
be very sexy. He's eighty years old, but with this
long white hair that he whips back and forth as he
speaks. At the end he goes out into the audience
actually weeping as he touches the two or three
people he believes may become stigmatic in their
lifetimes." "Cheryl," I said, "I don't think we're
going to get in. It's a very long line. And, besides,
the looks on some of these peoples' faces are beginning
to scare me." "My god, Aaron, I don't know what you
thought we were going to, a lecture on flatboats of
the Mississippi? This is all or nothing at all. Of
course people are terrified out of their minds,"
she said. "Flatboats of the Mississippi sounds
good to me," I said.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1889 that North Dakota and South Dakota became the 39th and 40th states of the Union. The two states had long been one of the remotest regions of the country, and one of the least explored by European settlers. The early surveyors labeled the Dakota territories "Indian Country," and that had scared off most travelers. But Lewis and Clark did spend the winter there in 1804. It's where they saw their first grizzly bear. Lewis wrote, "[The grizzly bear is] a most tremendious looking anamal, and extreemly hard to kill. I find that the curiossity of our party is pretty well satisfyed with rispect to this anamal." [sic]

The barren landscape of the Dakota territories didn't help attract settlers either. General Alfred Sully patrolled the area in 1864 and described it as "Hell with the fires out."

In 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and a flood of prospectors poured in from the east, battling and displacing the Dakota people as they came. There were numerous battles between setters and Indians over the next decade and a half, but by 1881, most native people had been forced to live on reservations. The Northern Pacific Railway brought in 100,000 more people to settle in the Dakota Territory.

Today, the Dakotas are still pretty remote to most Americans. The population of each state is about the same as it was almost a century ago. North Dakota is still the least visited state in the nation. South Dakota is home to half of the wild buffalo left in this country.

It's the birthday of the journalist Paul Johnson, born in Barton, Lancashire, in northwestern England (1928). One of the most well known right-wing commentators in England, he started out as a liberal. He worked for years as a journalist for the left-wing New Statesman magazine in London, and he was a chairman of his local chapter of the left-wing Labor Party, when he suddenly made a dramatic political swing to the Right, supporting the Conservative Party and Margaret Thatcher in 1979. He said at the time, "I once thought liberty was divisible--that you could have very great personal liberty within the framework of substantial state control of the economy....And I don't mind admitting I was quite wrong."

He wrote about his change of heart in his book The Recovery of Freedom (1980). He has since gone on to argue that most of the worst political movements of the 20th Century came from the Left, including the regimes of Stalin, Lenin, and Pol Pot. He has criticized everything from feminism and third-world independence movements, to the evils of pop music. H e once said, "Pop music is the most evil instrument ever aimed at the heart and soul of youth." More than anything else, he has criticized intellectuals.

Johnson is also one of the most prolific historians of our time. He writes about 6,000 words a day, every day. But he says, "That's nothing to a chap like Sartre! Sartre could do 20,000 words a day! That's why in my essay on him I call him a little ball of fur and ink!" His books include A History of Christianity (1976), A History of the Modern World (1983), A History of the Jews (1987), and A History of the American People (1997).

It's the birthday of critic and novelist Thomas Mallon, born in Glen Cove, New York (1951). He said, "[I had] the kind of happy childhood that is so damaging to a writer…where our fathers were all World War II veterans and our mothers were always at home."

He was the first member of his family to go to college, and he became a professor of literature. He had been teaching for several years, writing academic essays on the side, when he decided to write a book about diaries. He assumed it would be an academic work, with a small audience, but as he read the personal diaries of many important writers, he began to develop his own personal writing voice. The book he wrote, called A Book of One's Own (1984) included diary entries from Virginia Woolf, Dostoyevsky, pioneer farmers, and even Thomas Mallon himself. It became a big success, and Mallon was suddenly able to quit teaching and become a literary journalist.

His other novels include Henry and Clara (1994) and Dewey Defeats Truman (1997). His most recent novel Bandbox, about a 1920's men's magazine, came out last year (2004).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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