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Of blood and song

Sunday, April 10th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — what carves memory? blood is spilled, song carries grief and anger across centuries ]

One hundred years ago, Irish blood was spilled in the Easter Uprising of 1916, as Sinéad O’Connor & The Chieftains call us to remember in The Foggy Dew:

As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
There armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
No pipe did hum no battle drum did sound it’s loud tattoo
But the Angelus bell o’er the Liffey swell rang out through the foggy dew

The bravest fell, and the Requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Easter-tide in the spring of the year
While the world did gaze in deep amaze at those fearless men but few
Who bore the fight that freedom’s light might shine through the foggy dew

While some may see in the Uprising a merely political fight, in song the religious element — Easter morn, the Angelus bell, the Requiem bell — add Catholic poignancy to memory.


One hundred years.

Memory can linger long past a hundred years, as we in our rush to be the first into the future may forget. Let the Chieftains again remind us, with O’Sullivan’s March:

Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare marched in 1602 — as Shakespeare was penning All’s Well That Ends Well and Othello?

A doff of the cap is due here to blog-friend Pundita , who pointed me in the direction of this post with her own Don’t ask me why, because..:


Ah, but Pundita also deerves a bow for her most recent post, Can the griots lead us home? — wherein she pointed me to a music of great joy, that of Oumou Sangaré:

If you watch enough videos of Oumou singing (there must be a zillion of them posted to YouTube) you’ll see that in many of her performances she has a highly conversational way of singing. You feel as if she’s talking directly to you. Sometimes it’s as if she’s talking to you in the manner of a defense attorney making an argument to a judge; others as if she’s chatting about something over lunch with you.

Here is a hunting song:

Pundita notes:

I think the ability to set up a very personal communication through song is the mark of a real griot, although after watching about 50 of her videos I think Oumou represents a tradition that I suspect goes back much earlier even than the griot clans — to a time when certain people in a tribe were interlocutors between humans and natural forces and helped settle disputes between members of tribes, and did so through the power of their voices to project a wide range of emotions.

Mali, at a time of violent upheaval — yet such joy in dance and song:


We have statistics for which nations suffer the most losses in war and terror, which export the most weapons, which nations invade, and which are invaded — but what of joy?

Years ago, in a book that sank like a stone, I suggested the concept of a Subtle National Product. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan apparently beat me to it, when he declared in the 1970s:

Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.

His Majesty came up with the idea first, I now see and gladly admit — but I still prefer my own pohrasing!

Joy, it seems to me, isn;t easily quantified, although Bhutan does have an Index:

Bhiutan Gross Natiuonal Happiness

Here are some conparative stats across nations, ethnicities and faiths I’d be interested in:

  • deaths in warfare, civilian, irregular, and military
  • numbers of children pressed into war
  • numbers of those maimed, displaced and or grossly mentally disturbed by war
  • depth of grief, as meaaured in forms of keening and ululation
  • degree of exuberance, as found in music and dance, popular and professional
  • ritual solemnity and grandeur, on religious and state occasions
  • quantity of written poetry bought or borrowed from libraries
  • size of audiences for spoken poetry readings
  • number of poets (in particular) imprisoned for their writings
  • Qualitative equivalents of these values would also be of interest, though even harder to obtain and verify in any objective manner..

    Poems, 20-30 March 2016

    Friday, April 1st, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron ]

    As I’ve said on rare occasions before, Madhu, a wonderful friend of this blog, encouraged me some while back to post some of my poems here. I don’t do it often, and I hope you will at least tolerate it when I do.


    Staring at a gravestone

    Staring at a gravestone as though the dead might —
    contrary to science, in line with hope – break through death,
    through death writ in stone, to speak, loom
    grey under the sun like a hard silk ghost emerging
    from granite, half nowhere half here, speak
    out of beyond the thoughts of ever and one and no-one,
    chant, perhaps, in some dead tongue, language
    of the dead, of death, of one’s own family, intimate,

    vast and impersonal.. staring with hope, grief,
    a touch of rage perhaps, melded in incomprehension,
    listening without hearing, seeing, though
    dumb, by doubt and shroud clouded, deluded:
    and all this observed from that all-knowing other place, by
    the all-giving nothing to which galaxies are specks, lives speak.


    Of, by and for itself: the poem

    Let me write a poem that has music to it, that conjures
    images out of ink, that echoes into silence,
    let it flow from me as the mind waves in the wind,
    here and there, yet tethered, tethered, yet hither and yon,
    veering away from and towards rhymes, swaying
    itself, myself and the reader – your self, yourselves –
    my son was pillowing his head on a weight-bar
    a few minutes ago – drifting off topic and weaving

    back in, let me write in such a way you will wonder,
    will wander into wonder, whither wonder yonder hither,
    torn, and suddenly so, asunder – may the poem
    wrench me, wrench itself, wrench syntax, yourself, selves,
    in the sheer mind play of itself on self, in the sheer
    wind play, grass on grass, of itselves on our all selves..


    Unbreakable mirror
    There is such ghastly blood spurting at home and abroad
    I must get back to Pasadena, walk again down Marengo, take joy
    in the living shoots breaking up the concrete paving.
    There are such foolish beheadings, blood spurting, abroad
    I must close my eyelids like rose petals, discern petal from thorn.
    There is so much hatred spurting blood lost to kin flesh and blood
    in the passing down of abuse across generations here at home
    I must get to the pool in mind where breath moves, motion is still.

    I must get clear past understanding to peace, wherein the face
    of understanding is seen in the beloved face, mirror, love, lake:
    and what if yours is the divine face, and yourself at war, in grief,
    broken in broken marriage, fragmented by frag-grenade, lost
    in self-esteem high or low, in alcohol, lost in lust or unloved,
    if it should be your broken face i see, in the unbreakable mirror?


    On the Thursday before All and Everything

    How sad can that woman be, painted, whose son’s eyes
    know and convey that those creatures with bird wings and
    Botticelli features who once told her “Fear Not”
    arrived from a court or realm in which a higher octave
    of fear named awe is the only octave ever sung,
    came visiting a realm where the mother’s torn flesh
    is the only sacrifice sufficient for the birth of the young,

    how sad, seeing those eyes, can a woman be, her son next
    to crucifixion, next to resurrection, next to literary
    criticism, next to demythologization, next to indifference
    by all but Bach, El Greco, Hopkins, Grunewald, how
    lanced with grief can that mother be to see her son broken
    and spilled, bones and blood, flesh and spirit, wine
    and unleavened bread that is nonetheless risen, risen, risen?


    One frail voice in a whirlwind

    Okay I am joyed to overflowing that enough dust gathers
    and swirls here to formulate a momentary dervish,
    crying “for love’s sake, love” against the world’s maelstrom,
    one frail voice in a whirlwind, one small silence
    amidst such shouting, shooting, eardrum-piercing sound.
    I will love you before and after I am gone, I will echo
    love on the drumbeat of your heart, I will dance to Bach’s
    bacchanalian orgy of the divine love crucified, seated

    in lotus, absolute, incarnate, flexible to each soul’s need,
    tireless, fatigued unto death, l will dance my dust
    into full-throated voice for you, quiver or quaver my wings
    faster than birds hum, stretch like the night, warm
    your heart at my hearth, I am none and gone, I am here
    only to toll and tell you, you are beyond boundlessly dear.


    How best to crumple your face

    Aging offers no guarantee of the desired effect
    so clearly displayed in that photo of Jim Harrison — a poet
    I’m told, and now I’ve seen that image a poet
    I shall seek out and read – half blind, half drunk?
    Withered as an old oak stump? Gnarly? A grump?

    Attack through the voice, it strikes me, would be
    the fast, best strategy – dumbfound but not dumb down
    or out, soak voice in whiskies, wreathe it in smoke —
    sing it — above all, doubtless and doubting — SHOUT!!

    Zen it. Turn your head into the headwinds, face whatever
    sandblasts you back to your original face. You, I
    are forever baby-faced, mirror-faced, and wizened.
    How best to crumple your face? How dare you even ask?
    You think that life’s a whaddayacallit goddam task?



    Rough me up, chisel, throw me down, rampart, cliff,
    brine me in and dry me out, season me, in and out and about
    in all seasons, snow me under, bake, broil me, boil,
    blister, shell-shock, shake, shellac me, chain, drain on me,
    break, bust me, cake me in excremental blood, curse,
    catcall me, caterwaul, blame, shame me, if I protest, bluster,
    I am naked, spare, your slings and arrows wound me, you
    have nothing on me, I am but better for your battering, bruising.

    Brush me, wash, bathe, comb, coax me, clean me, I
    shall remain pliant to your pleasing, soap, soft soap, sponge
    me up and down, inside and within, I will respond
    in response, loathe me — but clothe me, rob me
    but robe me, foist your delusions on me, I am hoist
    on my own penis, pride, flagpole, priesthood, petard.


    Of Diotima and Beatrice

    Who spawned Diotima of Mantinea? For Socrates
    drank wisdom at her teats, Plato from Socrates, Aristotle
    from Plato, Alexander from Aristotle, so who
    was Diotima, what her thoughts, and who spawned
    the thoughts which taught her? I have asked Siri,
    I have interrogated Wolfram’s Alpha, have challenged
    Googles AI to fight Wittgenstein’s PI to the death —
    yet for me it suffices that she, Diotima was no he but a

    she, female, a woman. To say more would be to
    slather it on, mansplain, overtell, sell, hence overkill,
    to say less would leave Aristotle with the boys,
    and what could be worse? Think you on this: peace
    outshines war by far; Venus is brighter than Mars.
    Love’s gravity it is, spins hearts, the sun, all other stars.


    I was writing these over Holy Week, four of them on Maundy Thursday, and the most recent one came through yesterday. Jim Morrison’s death was the occasion for th poem in which he is named.

    Your comments are welcome.

    Umberto Eco, RIP

    Saturday, February 20th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — he was a man of word, wit and wisdom ]

    The world was chastened last evening to learn of the passing from among us of Umberto Eco.


    Zen has long admired Eco, as readers here will know, if for no other reason then as the original exponent of the concept of the antilibrary, here described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, The Black Swan:

    The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

    beato liebana

    My own taste, as you know, runs to th apocalyptic, and I have long lusted for his sumptuous edition for Franco Maria Ricci of the Beatus of Liebana commentary on the Book of Revelation. I am grateful to discover I do have in my possession the second issue of FMR magazine, with Eco’s essay Waiting for the Millennium (pp 63-92) containing a number of the plates from that larger work.

    It was blog-friend Laura Walker who alerted me to Eco’s passing, with the graceful comment:

    He is the best ambassador of the Middle Ages – thought, aesthetics, philosophy, humor, humanity – it’s as if he sends his works from there..

    Indeed. We lament his passing.

    Tim Furnish update, new book just out

    Saturday, November 28th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — this just out from Tim Furnish, author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden ]

    I’m looking forward to reviewing this, from my friend and our blog-friend Tim Furnish:

    A second volume of Tim’s recent writings should be out shortly.

    Military Reform through Education

    Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
    Photo of Don Vandergriff instructing with a map

    Don Vandergriff facilitating Adaptive Soldier/Leader exercises at Fort Benning

    Fred Leland at LESC Blog recently had a guest post up by Dan Grazier from the Project on Government Oversight regarding the important work Don Vandergriff is doing to reform professional military education and training:

    Military Reform Through Education: From The Straus Military Reform Project, Something We In Policing Can Learn From

    ….I had the privilege of experiencing this process with a group of 30 soldiers and Department of Defense (DoD) civilians learning about adaptive leadership and mission command. All were teachers from various courses at Fort Benning sent by their senior leaders seeking to infuse new ideas into their organizations. They spent a week learning how to incorporate adaptability into their courses during a seminar taught by CDI military advisor Don Vandergriff and his colleagues with Yorktown Systems Group.

    The Adaptive Soldier/Leader Training & Education (ASLTE) seminar aims to move the Army away from outdated assembly-line training methods that teach soldiers to mindlessly execute checklists. Instead, the seminar shows soldiers how to incorporate creative and interactive methods that challenge both students and teachers. This results in empowered soldiers at all levels able to adapt to any situation. [….]

    ….Don Vandergriff, a retired Army major, has been on the front lines of personnel reform for many years. While he is most noted for his work at the service level, these seminars seek to transform the Army from the bottom up.

    Approximately 20 soldiers and 10 civilian educators spent the week learning various teaching methods through experiential learning, which flips the traditional method military students are used to. Most training today follows the “crawl, walk, run” theory all service members are familiar with. Students are generally expected to complete reading assignments, sit through a PowerPoint lecture, and then finally conduct field training to reinforce what they have learned.

    The seminar exposed students to new methods by putting the practical exercises first. For example, the seminar uses several Tactical Decision Games (TDGs) to encourage students to rapidly develop a plan for a military problem presented by the facilitators. TDGs can be created for nearly any kind of a situation, but this course mostly used actual battlefield problems like how to capture a bridge or defeat an enemy force entrenched on a hilltop. While working through these problems, the students are exposed to such concepts as Mission Command and the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act decision cycle, commonly called the OODA Loop or Boyd Cycle.
    It is only after the practical exercises that they receive reading assignments about those concepts. Because they’ve encountered them during the exercises, the concepts become more tangible. The OODA Loop, for instance, explains an individual’s or an organization’s decision-making process. It is a difficult concept to truly understand, but it becomes easier when one first sees how it works and then reads about it. The idea is to give them a moment of discovery, that “Ah ha!” moment. Success using such methods is to have a student say, “So, that’s what you call that,” while reading.

    Don is making use of several powerful learning methodologies in his Adaptive Leadership philosophy – and I saying “learning” and not “teaching” because Don has properly put the emphasis on the student actively thinking and doing rather than on passively listening to a lecture or discussion. Lecture has a place in education, to explain or to set the student up for new learning experiences, but it should be used sparingly and in short bursts of time when the instructor has carefully set up a “teachable moment”. By having the students doing active problem solving first, they come to Vandergriff armed with their own questions, eager to have feedback.

    The use of games are also a very powerful learning tool, perhaps one of the most effective because the situational learning. tends to be transferrable rather than be compartmentalized and isolated information. The right kind of decision games are serious practice for life. This was noted by RAND social scientists way back during the early days of the Cold War:

    “The gamers argued that insights arose from immersion in play. In 1956 Joseph Goldstein noted that the war game demonstrated ‘ the organic nature of complex relationships’ that daily transactions obscured.War-gaming gripped its participants, whipping up the convulsions of diplomacy ‘ more forcefully…than could be experienced through lectures or books’.”

    ” A team from the Social Science Division [ at RAND ] posed a number of questions which they hoped the unfoldig month of gaming would resolve. Chief among them was whether gaming could be used as a forecasting technique ‘ for sharpening our estimates of the probable consequences of policies pursued by various governments’. Would gaming spark “political inventiveness“, and more importantly, how did it compare to conventional policy analysis? Did gaming uncover problems that might otherwise be neglected? And invoking the emerging touchstone of intuition, did the experience impart to policy analysts and researchers “ a heightened sensitivity to problems of political strategy and policy consequences?”

      Sharon Ghamari- Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn

    Back to the article:

    ….Vandergriff’s teaching method incorporates recent research into adult learning, designed “to engage students in direct experiences which are tied to real world problems and situations in which the instructor facilitates rather than directs student progress.” This creates a situation where the students learn from one another. Unlike most other military classes, the ASLTE teachers use very few PowerPoint presentations. They also end up speaking far less than the students themselves.

    Vandergriff ran the class through the first TDG and led the discussion afterward. From that point forward, students took turns leading the class through After Action Reviews. Students gained confidence in leading such an exercise while the rest of the class bounced ideas off each other. The interactive nature of this kept the entire class engaged and gave all of them ownership of their own learning.

    The concept of ownership was a consistent theme throughout the seminar. According to Vandergriff, a good teacher “works to make his students better than himself and encourages them to take ownership of their development, to make them life-long learners.”

    Here Don is making use of the social pressure and reinforcement of a Peer to Peer (P2P) dynamic to maintain maximum student engagement while having them practice critical intellectual reflection, something that is a vital constituent of a professional culture of learning. A true professional embraces an honest discussion of ideas and both accepts and gives critical feedback on performance in hopes of learning and improving.

    Read more regarding Don Vandergriff’s adaptive leadership methods here and here.

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