William Shakespeare: Grimdark by any Other Name

Right now, the genre folks have taken to calling “Grimdark” is all the literary and popular rage. One need look no further than Cable TV. As people the world over continuously decry the gore, guts, and sexual violence inherent in programs like Hannibal, True Detective, and the televised adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—“Game of Thrones”—(yet continue to watch it unrepentantly, in numbers yearly growing), and the awards roll out, the global lust for the more, shall we say, “gritty realist” tones to fiction and fantasy has never been more apparent.

Romanticism? Eat your heart out.

a691ee0ace063a9602d851f5c25825e4_yousaytomesetblackfires-meme-hannibal_500-281.jpegSorry about that one, Hannibal.

Yet even as people boldly proclaim the genre as a rebuttal of the age-old idealism of more classic fiction, a boy that loves a bard must take a moment to turn these modern cross bearers to the classics as well. See, Grimdark is, in truth, nothing new. Writers like Joe Abercrombie, George R.R. Martin and R. Scott Bakker might be heaping fuel on the flames, but the darkness has been broached before, by an age old master. We don’t tend to associate him with the term, but I can assure: William Shakespeare—poet, playwright, bane of many a high schooler’s days—was bringing darkness to fiction well before any dragons were lighting up a TV screen.

Writer Genevieve Valentine has called the Grimdark phenomenon “shorthand for a subgenre of fantasy fiction that claims to trade on the psychology of those sword-toting heroes, and the dark realism behind all those kingdom politics.”

The Bard is often remembered for his flowery speeches and sharp wit. Why, many are those who can turn to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, and bawdily recall such gems as: “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” There’s no denying it was an amusing, fairy filled and silly little play, utterly ridiculous by even modern standards. Yet if one looks at a few of the events even in this comedy of yore, I think those focusing on feistiness would be a little offset.

A handful of characters are essentially drugged and made to fall in love with others against their will. Another character, by the name of Hermia, is not only threatened with death for failure to marry the character Demetrius, but threatened with rape for following the fellow in the woods over the course of the play. It kind of gets lost in all the silliness, but that’s pretty dark, wouldn’t you say?

Then there is the case of Hamlet. Madness, mistaken stabbings, poisoning, suicide, and an ending that can only be described as a bloodbath of epic proportions are not only the order of the day, they’re the very things which drive the plot. In King Lear? The Earl of Gloucester is blinded on stage, and I don’t mean by sudden, painless, divine inspiration.

Yet if one really wishes to prove the case of the Grimdark to a modern enthusiast, one need look no further than one of Shakespeare’s presently most overlooked and least understood plays: The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. I say “presently” because Titus Andronicus was actually quite the hit back in Shakespeare’s day.

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Titus Andronicus is, truly, darkness for darkness’s sake.

In true bardic fashion, allow me to build the hype a bit. People like to read juicy reviews, right? Think of these as the back cover blurbs. The writer Samuel Johnson, about 250 years ago, denounced the play as being little more than a “barbarity of spectacles and the general massacre which are exhibited can scarcely be conceived.” Following in his shoes 100 years later, German poet and translator August Wilhelm Schlegel labeled it “framed according to a false idea of the tragic, which by an accumulation of cruelties and enormities, degenerated into the horrible.” Both meant their labels in terms of scathing rebukes, but it does give one a feel for the level of depravity they were dealing with therein.

Titus Andronicus is, truly, darkness for darkness’s sake. Politics and revenge drive the beast onward. Set in Rome, and being entirely fantasy—no, really, the Bard may have liked to draw from historical sources for many of his works, but this one was off the rails—it follows the namesake general in his triumphant return to Rome, Goths defeated and all the world at his fingertips. Which is to say: the beginning was the high point of the whole piece. From there, Titus makes the error in judgement of bringing the Queen of the Goths back to Rome in chains, sacrificing many of her sons along the way, and in turn, deciding to get himself involved in the drama of imperial politics, choosing one brother over another for the august spot at the helm of the Empire. Unfortunately, that brother also becomes besotted with Tamora, that captive Queen of the Goths, and marries her, while she thirsts for nothing but revenge against Titus.

Did I mention the brother that wasn’t picked also happens to be in love with Titus’s daughter? Silly me.

It’s a downward spiral from start to finish. The level of anarchy and bloodshed this play reaches is in excess—at times, one might even call it downright absurd. Fighting is a fairly standard facet of Shakespearean plays, but nobody’s just biting thumbs at anyone in this piece. At one point, two of Tamora’s sons not only rape Titus’s daughter, they then cut off her hands and tongue so she can’t reveal who did it to her. If that doesn’t sound like a Game of Thrones scene, or something from 13 Assassins, then I don’t think we’re on the same page of darkness. Throughout this play murder, mutilation, and people being baked into pies (ala Sweeney Todd) are all legitimate and commonplace grotesqueries abundantly inflicted upon the plot. There is not an act in the play in which someone is not introduced to the afterlife. It’s so commonplace one could be forgiven for mistaking the play for an American slasher film. One becomes dulled to the violence, because it starts to feel like gore for gore’s sake. It becomes a set piece.

Shakespeare was never one to shy from violence in his works, but for most, the piece stirred the violence, rather than violence necessarily stirring the piece. Titus Andronicus was at once an offspring of bloody history and a forebear to another age, a sort of degenerate toss to the days of the Coliseum, when folk liked to indulge in nothing more than pure, unadulterated violence. It dispensed with the grand oratory for which many often recognize the Bard, the philosophy, the black comedy, and drove itself forward largely on action. In other words, it removed itself utterly from the romanticism we more often associate with Shakespeare’s name, surrendering to what he no doubt hoped would be an appealing grab at a more worldly public opinion. Bear in mind, bear baiting and public executions were the order of the day in his time.

Of course, between now and then, that public attitude has gone through a few shifts. Elizabethan became Victorian, Free Love turned to Cold War and the Lost Generation twisted and turned into the Millennial Generation, and so on and so forth. What might be taken for crude in one generation becomes simple reality in another, and comical in still another; what was, is forgotten over time, cast aside, only to be revived and renewed in another age. So it is with so many motifs of life, so it is with literary trends.

Romantic chivalry is not the state of the modern world. Rather, we live in a period where aggression and violence has once more come under scrutiny. No longer hidden under a rug, with folk pretending it simply does not exist in any meaningful sense, it is met head on. Thus the resurrection of Grimdark, albeit under the rather shadowy new title. As reviewer Liz Bourke noted, Grimdark is essentially “a retreat into the valorisation of darkness for darkness’s sake, into a kind of nihilism that portrays right action…as either impossible or futile.” Grimdark, then, is an answer to the desensitized, and were plays like Titus Andronicus truly any different? Crank up the CGI, make liberal with the acting bug, and it would fit right in with the modern aesthetic of media.

Cue Frank Underwood slapping the desk with his “FU” rings.

Ascendant Moon

Legs dangling

the dominance

of the Palace of the Moon

stirs ripples

in the night sky

our star stuff spilling

into the Milky Way

with our shoes off

dipping our toes

into cascade

of lovers’ hearts

we’re at the edge

we are the return

gilded surfaces

of molten rock

hiding

our Beginning.

Half-Truths

When truth is halved

the world is become half-night

the obscuration of fractal glitter

behind uncertainty dusted

in ruin, in dewdrop gravity

webbing across our atmosphere:

no more to see, no more to know

where the light falls on

silhouettes of disappointment.

 

When truth is halved

we might think in terms of

pulling punches, holding own

but the flesh remembers

and the world is pink reduced

to crackling horizons blood knew

like a soubriquet of sorrow

friends named in bereft absolution

of the craving for promises never realized

Sun in your Eyes

My humble contribution to World Poetry Day…

 

20170313_145157Contrary to popular belief

the sun rises and falls on all the land

in its time: the advantages of

a globe not being flat.

 

Meteorologists smile as they chirp

prayers to Celestia in asphalt temples

doused in snow, and aborted fields

left flat as spiritualists in the dust.

 

Sunlight looks different mirrored in clouds

than hazed by the shutters of a cardboard box

but it is still there, lapping at the waves

which sing it to sleep each night.

 

Bugs answer to the sun.

They revel in the eroticism of its

muggy kisses on the water, or when it cries

through grey-streaked embraces.

 

There is no mountain on which it does not smile

balanced like a ballerina, poised

for an insistent flight above the tree line

out of the shadows memories cast.

 

It burns with its desires for men

warming their small, dark rock

in the hopes that they will look

yet cursed to see the blindness

 

in their eyes, the meager shades

which cultivate absences in history:

they speak in whispers of the sun

like to each it is their own dark secret.

Betsy DeVos and the now-Institutionalized Assault on Education

Processing, Analyzing and Responding to what the new Education Secretary Represents

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Betsy DeVos

Remember this day. On Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Education Secretary of the United States of America, by the slimmest of margins and the bitterest of battles, which finally had to be settled by a historic tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.

Because Republican Senators let money come before people, they took a hammer and drove a nail firmly into the coffin of American education. There are those who will say this may be a battle loss, but a strategic win for progressives — the need to have the Vice President cast the deciding vote will mean it’s tricky to push big reforms when you had absolutely no majority consensus on your methods or qualifications to do so — and that may be so, but everything we’ve witnessed up until now indicates a contrary point. Senate offices were pounded by phone calls this week by constituents absolutely freaking out over the voucher advocate’s potential to become Education Secretary. Two Republican Senators jumped ship. Others spoke out against her policy ideals — like Jerry Moran of Kansas — but did absolutely nothing to stop her.

Even without a majority support, once you’re in power, you can do a surprising amount of damage, even in the short term. Bureaucracy is there to make it harder, to pull back on the brakes like a terrified Student Driving Instructor watching his student pump the gas, but this whole administration has shown a remarkable disregard for following anything like traditional bureaucracy.

But let’s pull back and look at that bureaucracy a moment, shall we?

What IS the Secretary of Education?

The Department of Education has one stated goal: to endure education in the United States is of a good quality and fairly accessible by everyone. To that end, according to learn.org, the department tends to focus on “creating policies about financial aid and distributing financial aid, collecting data on education in the U.S., bringing attention to key education issues and preventing discrimination.”

The Secretary of Education is in charge of those efforts. She sets their course and relays them to the president. She will oversee educational reform and determine the best techniques for advancing them — much as previous secretaries pivoted to the problematic “Common Core” structure. In practice, the department handles a lot of research and sets the basic educational momentum for the country.

For that reason, nominees tend to, at the least, have a history in education.

From Michigan to the Heartland of America

Betsy DeVos, let us be clear, does not have a background in education. Her supporters say this makes her an outsider like “the Don,” a reformer with big ideas and the momentum — or more importantly cash — to see them done.

The cash, at least, she has put to the good use of her influence. Personally worth about $5.1 billion according to Forbes, sitting Republican senators have received around $115,000 from the heiress herself, and around $950,000 from the entire DeVos family since 1980. Furthermore, as reported by MLive, “Betsy DeVos has detailed her $5.3 million in political donations over the last five years as part of the vetting process for the U.S. Education Secretary post,” and in a back and forth with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), she admitted it was possible her family at large had donated collectively around $200 million to Republican election efforts. Such donations were enhanced by the fact that in the last two election cycles alone, her family donated $8.3 million to super PACs devoted to assuring Republican dominance.

Despite that, even Sens. Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted against the woman, based on the volume of opposition her nomination elicited from constituents and what they saw as limited qualifications for the job, along with the fact that she does not support public education.

Neither DeVos nor any of her children ever attended, worked in, or were sent to public schools. DeVos herself has no government experience outside of lobbying, which she has always extensively pushed to grant conservative religious schools vouchers for access to public funds with no strings attached. Similar facts saw her husband, Dick DeVos, run and get stomped in the midst of the 2006 race for governor of Michigan.

In her own hearing, she proved a complete lack of preparedness for the role she now will attempt to fill. She dodged every question she could, danced around the idea of standing up for students with disabilities, and while she seems to have a vague notion of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s existence, she was utterly confused in regards to it, seemingly mixing it up with state efforts. She had no idea what the concept of proficiency versus growth entailed — a core tenet of modern education efforts. She would not commit to enforcing sexual assault prevention and protection on college campuses because she called them, “premature.”

She has said in the past, when addressing Christian schools’ reliance on vouchers, that “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Her family has notably supported conversion therapy for LGBTQ people over the years, backed anti-same sex marriage efforts, and her own husband, during the previously mentioned governor run, advocated for “the ideas of intelligent design that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory” in science curricula.

Our nation recognized very early on that public education was necessary for democracy or republics to thrive, but all Betsy DeVos has ever wished to do is divert taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools with no oversight. She has always wanted them to gain the benefits without dealing with the costs. She calls it “choices and options,” and “innovation,” but in practice demonstrates the exact opposite.

Here, in Michigan, DeVos is a former Republican Party chairwoman and former chair of the pro-school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children. She very much helped to spread charter schools throughout the state, and the results were this: “most of which have recorded student test scores in reading and math below the state average.” Innovation, indeed. She believes in choices but has never cared much for quality.

One need look no further than Detroit to see that — a city Republicans have always lauded as a prime example of Democrat failures. Thanks to DeVos, however, the city is littered with choices for schools. An excellent article by Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press examined the results of that choice including this sobering analysis: “failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children.”

But so long as there is profit, that is all that has ever mattered to the DeVos family.

So-called “School Choice” as the Death of Education

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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer

Desperate to hold Trump’s nominee at bay, Democrats in the Senate held an all night session protesting her nomination leading up to Tuesday’s vote. At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hit out at all those who would eventually vote for her.

“The president’s decision to ask Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education should offend every single American man, woman, and child who has benefitted from the public education system in this country,” Schumer said in a statement.

The United Federation of Teachers called DeVos a “danger to special education.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said her confirmation would threaten the very “existence of public education.”

Why?

I’ll be the first to admit there are some quality Charter School options out in the world. Yet, there are also quality Public School options. In the course of my own lifetime, I’ve seen behind the walls of both public and private institutions, and benefited from each. Yet when it comes down to it, the supposed medical balm of school choice for schools is, in truth, a poison for the entire public education system. Options, as I said before, often come at the expense of quality.

Charter schools could indeed be a force to nod about — if they also allowed accountability of their programs. They do not. They want the carrot — taxpayer funds provided to the public school system — without having to deal with the stick portion of the equation — accountability for how they use them and examination of what they teach. You simply can’t have it both ways, but DeVos has always advocated for it. She pushes a system that says: instead of helping underperforming schools, those who have the means should get out and leave the rest to rot.

Everyone wants what is best for their children. They fight tooth and nail to give them, in some cases, what they never had, and in others, to guarantee simply that they are ready to meet the world. Yet the question that DeVos represents is if you care enough to look beyond your own interests or care only for yourself — regardless of the consequences. Because there are always consequences. And when public institutions are broken down to benefit a few, more and more of those few always feel the squeeze with time. The few become fewer, and tighter entrenched. The many lament more and more. The separation, and the problem, grows.

The question is: does America wish to inflict such things on generations to come, locking the nation into a downward intellect spiral? Senators have already voted yes. There’s no changing that now. At this point, it’s on the hands of the people to punish them for it, and fight back against a broken system that has gone to benefit private agendas over public good.

“Democrats are trying to humiliate and embarrass some of these nominees,” White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway has told Fox News.

The fact is: candidates like Betsy DeVos embarrass themselves. On the practical end, though, humiliation is no longer enough. Humiliation only hurts those it’s directed at; it doesn’t save those who will suffer their wrath, or still be forced to endure their policies snark did little to block. Quality education and no less than the future of a nation depend on something more.

Pundits have gotten one thing right so far: it really is time to put what is best for children above all else.

Chemical Submission for Star*Line

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Join me, fellow injections of imagination, in welcoming to the world the latest issue of Star*Line–the official magazine of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. I happen to be in this issue. Or rather my poem, “Chemical Submission,” is in this issue. They have not yet managed to figure out the technological specks for digitizing me personally into a more print-friendly form.

This did not stop them from digitizing old Jörmundgandr into an artistic debut (care of Joshua Chapman), however. Heed the snake. Read the collection. The World Serpent eats those who can but refuse to read.

As for my contribution…it’s essentially futurism broken down into a vision. Evolution is part of the human process, but unlike other species, we have taken it upon ourselves to alter that process and lend our own contributions to it. What will come of it? Will technology, genetic manipulation, all these little twists and tweaks, lead to preservation, or destruction? Artists ponder; scientists answer…

Star*Line is a quarterly print journal of poetry, in-publication since 1978. and you can purchase your own copy of the Winter 2017 issue HERE.

Sand Castle Oracles

An oracle set a castle in my palm.

It was the blessing, she said, for old souls

writ childish by a world that no longer

valued stories or fortunes.

 

I kept my hands cupped for hours after

she called the next old soul and the next

and I stared at the castle I had longed for

as the wind ate it away, grain by grain.

 

It reminded me of the sea,

10 dollars for a glimpse of childhood

misbegotten, when the waves carried me

away, and the world never knew my name.

Yesterday, I Walked

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From the Women’s March on Lansing, Michigan

Yesterday I walked along

what I expected to be a lonely road.

The fog was thick, the dawn was grey

and everywhere the voices, distant

ringing from a moon-blanched land

where winter gripped the roots.

 

Yet not a snowflake fell.

The ground was naked where I walked

stripped bare by the marching feet of folk—

men, women, the breaths of all those

cast aside by category and by creed,

a tremulous cadence striding by ones and twos

into a mass where silence could not reach.

 

I stood a while, by and by,

listening to the notes that misery had stirred,

and in the notes I hear the tearing cries

of history’s ebb and flow,

which built upon a thought suppressed

by years of doubt and faith.

 

No longer.

The dam has broken,

stripped away the vast edged lips that said

“Look at all the Other Things that you could do

Listen to the stillness and know that you are one

In an endless sea.”

 

Well they were right, weren’t they?

But the vastness does not belong to them,

it is a gathered voice, built of tears and edged

by staggered breaths no longer afraid to roar:

we have clothed ourselves for winter

and found that we have stamped it into spring.

 

Let it be true, let the world open its dreams

to you and I, the various, the beautiful, the bold

no longer alone, but crying out

not for the world they know but a world demanded

from the ignorant and the certain empowered

by an army built on hope.

 

Come away, come away from the lash of false praise

they dig out to divert; come away, come away

from the salt they sprinkle to tire and divide;

come away, come away with diligence,

listen to the voices of the sea, to the sirens singing

each to each, and know:

you are not alone.

(Yesterday, I walked with the thousands who converged for the Women’s March on Lansing, a part of the international Women’s March movement–something that turned out to be the largest protest in the history of the United States. But the actions cannot stop there. It is a beginning. But one that should demonstrate to all those who could make it and all those who watched that they are not alone. It showed millions how to forge connections beyond the bubbles we so often throw up, and learn how to effect real change: together.)