HUBBUB, Volume XXVI, Special Vern Rutsala Issue
“While the poetry written over the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st has been rich and various, there are few other writers who have produced as sustained and consistent a body of rewarding work as Vern Rutsala ’56.” So write the editors of the latest issue of Hubbub, which includes several of Vern’s marvelous poems along with essays by writers Carlos Reyes, Mark Jarman, Charles Baxter, and Maura Stanton, who demonstrate how Vern has proved an inspiration to several generations of poets. The issue has a strong Reed connection, with submissions from former instructor Maxine Scates [English, 1989–2006], and from writers featured in the Visiting Writers series, including Paulann Petersen, Christopher Howell, and Dorianne Laux.
Vern’s career as a writer included 43 years of teaching at Lewis & Clark College and 17 published books. Acknowledged as a master of the prose poem, Vern has published work in numerous journals and garnered a respectable list of awards, including recognition of The Moment’s Equation as a 2005 National Book Award finalist. His poem “Living” begins thus:
No one tells you how it’s done—
you are expected to know—
to say, be able to get up every day
at an hour when rising is like pulling gauze from a wounded eye,
and then laugh, scratch, greedily eat eggs
without ever mentioning those sad lakes, the yolks.
Worse, it’s assumed you know who you are right away
and have a name printed on the tip of your tongue, ready.
For a look at Vern’s career, see “Writing Life,” in Reed, Winter 2006. He and his wife, Joan Colby Rutsala ’55, have three children, including writer Matthew R. Rutsala ’89.
Hubbub was founded in 1983 by poets Lisa M. Steinman (Kenan Professor of English & Humanities at Reed), Jim Shugrue (former trade book buyer for the Reed bookstore), and Carlos Reyes. The journal is an independent, self-funded publication, relying on subscriptions—a bargain at $7 per year. Some information is available at www.reed.edu/
hubbub, but, as Lisa maintains, Hubbub is “a stubbornly print-oriented journal.”
Craig Clinton Professor of theatre emeritus
Cora Urquhart Potter: The Victorian Actress as Provocateur
The unlacing of Victorian morality is often seen as the product of irresistible historical forces such as the rise of the middle class and the advent of the moving picture. But social values are also shaped by singular individuals who, by force of their writing, their art, or their personality, can melt hearts—or harden them.
One such provocateur was the actress Cora Urquhart Potter (1857–1936), whose life is a virtual mirror of the changing role of women. Born to a wealthy family in New Orleans, she married a prominent New York businessman in 1876; social convention dictated that she devote herself to home and family. But Mrs. Potter rebelled. Unwilling to play the dull, dutiful wife, she took to the stage and became a professional actress, scandalizing New York society. At a time when upper-class women were practically forbidden to work, she declared, “Labor is sacred. It is prayer . . . . Work puts a woman beyond the necessity of asking favors—work makes her independent.”
This free spirit, combined with raw talent and sex appeal, made Potter a surefire draw at the box office. It also made her a magnet for spluttering indignation. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of this book is sampling the vitriolic theatrical reviews of the era. Take, for example, this savage take-down: “When passion and power were required of the Queen it was almost painful to see how clearly Mrs. Potter realized the necessity and how feebly she obeyed it… It was like watching a mute conveying his thoughts by means of signs.”
Or this: “She threw her attenuated frame at the breast of [the protagonist] with a precision and force that almost staggered him, although he prepared himself with great determination to receive the onslaught; she wound herself about his knees with serpentine grace and fondly toyed with his ambrosial locks, and she finally perched upon his knee, and from that eminence looked lovingly down upon him as he nestled in the recesses of a stage settee.”
Or my favorite: “She coiled herself about her lover and panted like a locomotive on the upgrade.”
Despite the brickbats, Potter hung on, seeking provocative roles and costumes that drove her critics to outrage verging on the apoplectic. Eventually, however, she won many of them over, redefining the boundaries of what was acceptable on stage. When she died, one newspaper wrote that she “probably accomplished more for the cause of feminism than the efforts of all the equal rights organizations of her day.”
With lively narration and meticulous research, Clinton delivers a compelling biography of a pioneer who defied convention and reaped the consequences. Like the prophet, the provocateur is seldom recognized in her own time.—Chris Lydgate ’90
Barbara Ehrenreich ’63
Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
(Henry Holt, 2009)
If you’ve ever been told to smile—for no particular reason—you’ll appreciate this mordant dissection of the cult of optimism in American life, as exemplified by motivational coaches, prosperity ministries, pop psychology, and the credit crisis of 2007.
Barbara traces today’s positive thinking to the “New Thought” of the late 19th century, itself a reaction to Calvinism’s dour insistence on our inescapable depravity. New Thought envisioned a fundamentally benevolent universal spirit, promising health and abundance for those who believe. Embraced in various forms by transcendentalists, Christian Scientists, and pioneering psychologist William James, New Thought was a direct precursor to the Depression-era best seller Think and Grow Rich. From there, Barbara charts a direct line to Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 The Power of Positive Thinking (still in print) and Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, which posits a “law of attraction” with supposed roots in quantum physics.
Bright-Sided is very good on the burden that the cult of optimism places on the already vulnerable—something the author experienced firsthand during her bout with breast cancer. The health care community’s pink-ribboned insistence on treating cancer as an opportunity for personal growth drove her to her keyboard in sheer self-defense. Paraphrasing Nietszche, she was astonished to learn that, among the cheerleaders for cancer survival, “What does not destroy you . . . makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of person.”
She colorfully documents the replacement of rational business management with mystical shamanic journeys for top-floor executives, who embrace positive thinking as a way of deflecting responsibility for downsizing away from themselves and onto the workers they have displaced.
Where Bright-Sided seems to overreach is in suggesting that the Iraq war can be traced to a surfeit of positive thinking and that the mortgage meltdown stems directly from the same blinkered optimism. One could equally well pin both disasters on ambition, greed, and hubris. The book lacks the immediacy of Nickel and Dimed, Barbara’s classic account of life as a minimum-wage worker. But it bluntly and bracingly argues a sensible notion: that for nations and individuals alike, it takes more than a positive attitude to create sustained success; it takes clear analysis and appropriate action. Sometimes it even takes anger.
—Angie Jabine ’79
Lauri Ramey ’74
Slave Songs and the Birth of African American Poetry
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
“Oh when the saints, when the saints go marching in.”
We hear the words that African American slaves sang on Southern plantations long ago and we’re inclined, usually, to imagine a simpler time—and simpler souls entrapped in an earthly hell, yearning for freedom in the next life. The yearning can manifest as happy pandemonium (think “Go Tell it on the Mountain”) or as wistful longing (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”). But we seldom read slave song as complex, layered, or subversive.
In this groundbreaking book, Lauri Ramey ’74 seeks to restore to the songs’ anonymous authors “a complete human identity.” She argues that slave songs constitute “some of our finest and earliest American poems,” and takes a fresh look at them as potent political statements rich with nuance and otherworldly metaphor.
When slaves sang “spirituals,” extolling a sweet afterlife, Lauri suggests they were also covertly dreaming of an earthly escape—to New England, say, or Canada. She notes that the song “Steal Away” begins with an exhortation: “Steal away, steal away, steal away,” before adding, in deference to white overseers, the words “to Jesus.”
Black poet Paul Dunbar remarked on this guile in 1896, writing, “We wear the mask/With torn and bleeding hearts, we smile,” and Lauri works her best scholarly magic when she demonstrates how Americans have systematically blinded themselves to such cunning. She shows how the slaves’ Yankee advocates were invested in painting blacks as “Christ-like” and playing up their churchgoing piety. Guided by such a goody-two-shoes notion of Negro spirituals, musicologists typically steered away from the incendiary when composing anthologies. We rarely hear about “Many Thousands Gone,” with its explicit protest: “No more driver’s lash for me.”
Nineteenth-century racists dismissed the songs as degenerate imitations of white hymns. But in fact, Lauri writes, “two-thirds of slave songs are in the structure of call-and-response whereas there are no examples of white spirituals using this form.” Slave songs are also distinctly African in their metaphysics. They take place in material reality, but are exempt “from the laws of motion and optics.” For example: “I’ve got a home in-a dat Rock, don’t you see/Between de earth an’ sky.” The world of the ancestors—and of ancient Biblical figures—is somehow immediate, present: “I’m goin’ away to see good ol’ Daniel/I’m goin’ away to see my Lord.”
You can’t help wishing this book came with a CD—these songs were meant to be sung, not simply read. But maybe the music can shake our bones a little more now that Lauri, a literature professor at California State University–Los Angeles, has illuminated the hidden depths of this uniquely American art form. —Bill Donahue