Sunday Soldiers (Poem)

A poem from my new (draft) book of poems, Brown Studies

Sunday Soldiers

In memory of Jake Adam York, poet

(‘Sunday Soldiers’ was Civil War slang for unsuitable soldiers)

1.We drive from Auburn to Columbus

Sunday march to church

He sits in the back seat and studies

My earmarked copy of Descartes’ Meditations

“What a marvelous book!  I want

To clap my hands after every sentence!”

2. Beside me, working for breath

Is his wife, her head pulled

Toward her feet by Parkinson’s 

Cramping her lungs

Her whole body

Making a fist

Against her will

3. She whispers the Preparation for Confession:

Purity of heart is to will one thing

We pass the site of a Sunday morning 

Flea market, a makeshift booth 

Flies a Confederate flag

He sees it, crosses himself, 

Notices me watching

In the rearview mirror

“It’s the flag of my country!”

4. So it is, although he is not so aged

That he can remember that country,

Yet he commemorates it, venerates it,

Notes often that his country died game

Under the heels of well shod Blue Bellies

5. What am I to say?  He is a saint,

An exemplar–in every way 

But this way

May a saint be a Grey Back,

May he venerate the South, that South,

Without damning himself, 

Rendering his soul shoddy?

6. Driving the car,

Meditating on David—and Bathsheba

On Moses—and the rock

On David contrite, forced to leave

Building the Temple to others,

On Moses abashed, on the mountain

Overlooking the Promised Land

7. Driving the car west

Meditating on North and South

Meditating on right and wrong,

Meditating on vision and blindness

And their confederacy in the heart,

–In his heart, in my heart, in your heart:

We venerate hateful flags, 

We are all Sunday Soldiers

Socratic Discipline?

Socratic Discipline?

(A Tongue-in-Cheek Dialogue)

I was standing in front of the library wishing for the old days, a smoking campus, a campus that had not banished Lady Nicotine, when I saw him approaching: Socrates.  

He had on his usual garb, a dark knit cap, a green flannel shirt under ancient bibbed jeans.  His heavy work boots had soles with peculiar wear — no doubt the product of his awkward duck walk, each foot falling as though pissed with the other and determined to find its separate way.  He grinned when he saw me, a Socratic grin, half-ignorance, half-knowledge, and he waved.  

“Kelly,” he started, the rare cold morning air in Auburn making his exhalations visible against the threatening dark sky, “what are you doing outside the library?  Wouldn’t you be better off inside?”

I eyed him cooly.  He was always asking questions with multiple meanings but he would never own up to it.  He just smiled a Cheshire Cat smile while the question, with its hidden questions, vanished away. I wasn’t sure what question I wanted to answer so I kept my mouth shut and endured the vanishment. 

He laughed at me, as he often did, but there was a dollop of frustration in his laugh, since he couldn’t work his magic if I wouldn’t give him words.  He waited for me to speak but I took off my backpack and unzipped it, hunting around in the bottom. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just looking, just hoping he might let his question suffice and move along.

After a moment, the silence seemed to move him to further speech instead of a change of location.  “So, are you writing these days?”

I looked up at him quizzically.  This had always been a sore spot between us.  I wrote. He didn’t. I had tenure. He didn’t.  Never would. He could wipe the floor with me philosophically, but I had a windowed office while he had a darkened carrel in the library, if he was lucky.  I knew he had written a little poetry, but he resisted my one request to see any of it and I never asked again.  

“I am — but mostly fiction.  I have written no philosophy.  Not lately.” I stood up and glanced down at my tennis shoes, “Maybe never again.  Who knows?”

He grinned again at that.  “Not me,” he noted, “I’m not one of those teachers who knows things.  And how goes the fiction? Are you troubled by the thought of writing about what-is-not instead of what-is?”

I groaned and only afterward realized I groaned aloud.  He seemed tempted to smile and then did, and I smiled back.  “Let’s not have that conversation again, Soc, okay? You studied with Elias Stranger at Princeton — and you did that plenum post-doc at the Parmenidean Institute.  You can tie me in knots of what-is-not or knots of what-is, maybe even knots of what-is-and-is-not.”

A flash showed in his eyes.  “Is there anything that is-and-is-not, or is there not?”

I donned my backpack instead of answering.  After a moment, I gave him a teasing glare. “You know, there’s a reason why the other profs hate you.”  

We both laughed at that.  “So,” he added, after the laugh disappeared, “how do you keep yourself at it, fiction writing?  I’ve never been able to get myself to stick to the blank page, to screw my philosophical courage to that sticking-place.  I like conversation — philosophy with no pretensions to draw the limits of things, or to occupy their center, or to have achieved some War Eagle-eye point of view.  I like the on-the-spotness of conversation, the circumscribed, improvisatory exercises of a kind of human wisdom.”

I nodded.  I’d been improvised on often enough, shown to lack a kind of human wisdom, dragged dizzy and dithering from Socrates’ vortex of dialectic.  But even so, I couldn’t help liking the guy, even if he was a pain in the ass.  

I threw caution to the wind— it’s that tendency that made me into a philosopher — and I bit:  “I guess I keep at it because I’m disciplined.”

He smiled and leaned in.  “You know, I have often wondered about discipline…”

I groaned but kept it wholly internal this time.  I set the hook in my own jaw: “And…”

He leaned further, one of his eyes drifting outward as it often did when he concentrated, as though he was focused on me and lost in thought.   It was disconcerting. I braced myself for a beating.

“And I wonder — is discipline just habit or is it more than a habit, or is it habit at all?”

We stood for a moment in low-hanging cumulus clouds of our visible breaths.  

I yielded.  Spoke. “Well, I guess it depends. If you compare my discipline in writing to, I don’t know, a habit like smoking or nail-biting, it seems distant from that, but if you compare it to something like map-reading, it seems closer to that.”

“Yes, but map-reading is a skill, that kind of habit.  Nail-biting, unless it is a tip of the finger form of topiary, isn’t.  Some habits you just have: you can’t be good or bad at them. Others, skills, you can be good or bad at.”

I considered myself.  “But if you are bad enough, can you be said to have the skill?”

His eyes shined — or at least the one focused on me did.  I couldn’t quite describe what happened with the other.  

“Good question.  I think the answer is that only someone with the skill can be said to be bad at it, but that’s a discussion for another day.”

I blew out a breath in relief, hoping that maybe he had to be somewhere else.  I had heard some gossip about him being called to the President’s office — some parent had accused him of uprooting her son’s faith in the God of the Presbyterians.  Maybe I would be spared a long conversation after all. 

He rocked back on his feet.  Then he leaned in again. Shit.  

“But isn’t it true that discipline is required to learn a skill?”

“Um, yeah, I guess, usually.  Unless the skill is really easy.”

“Ah, yes, but if it is easy enough, does it count as a skill?  You can zip your backpack; I just witnessed it. Is that a skill?”

I shrugged.  “No, I don’t think so.  I mean, it is something I know how to do, but not every knowing-how counts as a skill, does it?”

He gaped at me.  “You’re asking me?  Me? Why? You know I don’t know.  I am an ignorant man.”

Jesus, I think, sometimes I want to punch him right in his good eye.  Ignorant! He’s like an X-Man mutant. Doctor Ignorance.  Maybe he could borrow half of Cyclops’ visor!

I realized I was being mean-spirited.  

He believed all that ignorance mumbo-jumbo, I think, as much as he believed anything, or at least as much as anyone could tell he believed anything.  At any rate, it was no overt parrot belief, no mere ventriloquized form of someone else’s words. It meant something to him; it was rooted in him. He said once it had something to do with his mother, but I couldn’t tell if that was some darkling Freudian comment or a was claim about the family business.  

“Can’t we say, at least provisionally,” — and as soon as I used that phrase I sank a little inside, because I knew he had me — “that there are kinds of know-how that are skills, things we do well or poorly, and forms of know-how that are not skills, things we can just do, but where evaluation seems otiose.”

He stared at me for a moment.  “Provisionally? I would rather like to know what you really do believe.”

“Yeah,” I added, and gave him a defensive, one-shoulder shrug, “I’d like to know what I really believe too, but I don’t.  You’re going to have to deal in half-measures. No full-scale, ad hominem, you’ve-refuted-yourself in the offing today, Soc.”  

He let me slide.  “So, operating a zipper doesn’t seem like a skill even though it is a kind of know-how?”

“Yeah, at least around these parts.”

“So, is a skill then a kind of know-how that you need discipline to gain?”

“Let’s say, yes.”

I could tell he wasn’t happy about my flippancy, but, hey, no one — except him, apparently — could spend the day in argument.

“Ookay.  So, could we say that discipline is the habit needed to gain skills?”

“Would that make it the habit habit?”

He chuckled.  “And you complained about my is and is-not.”


He gave me a flat look, hard to do with one eye straying toward the heavens.  


I sighed.  This is how it always went, no steps forward, countless steps back, a marathon to the starting line.  

“I dunno,” I murmured, finally, putting all my higher learning to work, “how can there be a habit habit — short of a nunnery?”

“Isn’t discipline taught?  That was what I was taught back in my Marine training.  Oohrah.”

I winced.  I couldn’t seem to keep in mind that he was not always an academic, that he was a military man once, that he somehow tucked that lifetime into his other lifetimes as a bricklayer and as a programmer for Oracle Corporation before he became a professor.  He seemed younger than his seventy years, didn’t seem to be unhappily married, though I knew he was, didn’t seem to be a father, although I knew he was that too.  

“So, if I understand, you mean that my discipline, if I have it, started as someone else’s discipline?”

He shrugged.  “Yes, although when you put it that way it seems more paradoxical than it is.  If you are lucky, your parents were disciplined people and instilled that discipline in you, raised you to be disciplined, rewarding and punishing you when you were too young to be reasoned with concerning the need for discipline, later explaining to you why the brief displeasures of discipline were key to life’s durable pleasures.”

My childhood had been about discipline; I was unconvinced that ‘brief displeasure’ was quite apt as phrases went, but I left it alone.  I got the point, his point, as I got my father’s.

The point was that we have to internalize external discipline — that’s the making yours mine part of it — and all too often, parents didn’t have enough of it to pass it onto their children.  Luckily, there were other sources, but it was still unlucky when that normal source turned out to be empty.  

“This all sounds like Aristotle to me,” I finally said, a non-sequitur of truly non-stunning non-grossness. 

He blinked.  “Aristotle? Must be a new guy.  Should I read him?”

Another shrug, my gesture of the day.  “I don’t know. He’s a student of that student of yours, Plato.”

Socrates shakes his head.  “Don’t blame me for Plato. Like you,” he says, glancing at me and narrowing the eye focused on me, “he can’t decide if he is writing fiction or philosophy.  I tried to beat the fiction out of him, you know, dialectically, but he’s hard to pin down.  Who knows what he actually thinks?”

“But in that,” I say, and somehow felt the gleam in own my eye, “isn’t he a chip off the old brick?  After all, he says he’s your disciple.”

Socrates shook his head more emphatically.  “I don’t have disciples. How could I? I have got nothing to teach.”

I pressed my lips into a line, sealing in a string of curses.  

He seemed to expect a comment.  “Well?”

“Well,” I echo, pausing, “isn’t your sort of ignorance itself a discipline? It’s not like you just don’t know, like a child just doesn’t know — and you know it.” 

He closes his eyes and seems to drift off into existential abstraction, communing with his Unknown God.  I waited, no interest in interrupting his moment, glad for a moment to recollect myself.  

It took a little while, but Socrates returned to where he was.  “I suppose,” he said in a slightly concessive tone, “that you are right.  I know that I’m ignorant, I’m not just ignorant.”

“Yeah,” I added, “but even that’s not enough.  You know it and you…embrace it, or something like that…Anyway, you don’t seem alarmed by it or ashamed of it…Being ignorant the way you are requires discipline, right, is itself a discipline?”

We stood there for a moment.  He shifted his weight from one foot to another, an externalization of some inward motion.  “You can’t learn if you think you know.”

“True,” I say, nodding, “but you won’t learn if you think you can’t.”

He seemed to agree with that, and I fought down a sudden desire to follow-up my remark with, “It must be so, Kelly,” to philosophize with myself in the third-person.  

“But you shouldn’t confuse my ignorance with skepticism; I’m no skeptic.”

“No, you aren’t simply ignorant and you aren’t a skeptic.  You’re in-between.”

He seemed to like that phrase although his quick grin turned down just as quickly.  “Yes, but don’t plot me in two dimensions, I’m both in between them and behind them.”

“Thanks for that, ” I say, thanking him for nothing, “it’s a big help.”

He ducked his head a bit and shrugged and smirked — a mockery turtle.  “I guess I have to go. I have to meet with President Gogue. Some well-meaning parent claims I made her son impious.”

We stood there for a moment, him delaying, me unsure what else to say.  I glanced at him.  

“Do you ever tire of philosophy?”

He scratched his scraggly beard, shaking his head.  “I have to be about my father’s business.”

“Your father?” I asked, confused.

“Apollo.”  It occured to me for the first time in several minutes that I could see his answer and not just hear it.  

“Hell, Socrates.”  I shouldered my backpack into a more comfortable position.  “Good luck with the President. I’d…um…keep the Apollo stuff to myself.”

We parted company.  I headed toward Haley Center.  He headed toward Samford Hall.  

Gogue fired Socrates later that dark, cold day.



I’ve been working on a new book on Transcendentalism, an attempt to think through Emerson and Thoreau in relation to Kant, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty.   The book centers, unsurprisingly, on the concept of ‘experience’ and opens with an extended reading of Emerson’s essay, Experience.  

What interests me in particular are the changes I take Emerson to ring on Kant’s concept of ‘experience’.  While I take Emerson generally to agree with Kant that “the concept of ‘experience’…is not an empirical concept” (Royce), I do not take him to agree with Kant about how the details go, on what, specifically, the denial means.  

When we take Emerson to be thinking of Kant — or anyway to be thinking as a Kantian — his opening question in “Experience” becomes even more arresting:  

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes and believe it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.

The Kantian confidence that reflection will yield the extremes, show us the (our) limits, has been shaken. This shaken state is revealed in the Table of Categories Emerson supplies in the poem epigraph for the essay (he calls them “the Lords of Life”):

Use and Surprise,
Surface and Dream,
Succession swift, and spectral Wrong,
Temperament without a tongue,
And the inventor of the game
Omnipresent without name; —
Some to see, some to be guessed,
They marched from east to west:

What are we supposed to make of such categories, to ‘make’ with them? To what sort of completeness, if any, could such a Table pretend? What happens to the supposed a priori if it turns out that one of its categories is: suprise?

Does that make surprises more or less surprising?

More soon…

Magical Kissing? (Chuck, TV)


It’s no secret that the end of Chuck was, for most of its fans, disappointing.  It is not just that the ending can seem to leave the crucial question between the show’s central pair–Chuck and Sarah–without a definitive answer, it is that it does so without good dramatic cause.  Nothing in the specific plot of the final season or in the overarching logic of the show ‘justified’ the ending.  It is just there–apparently because someone fell in love with the idea of the finale at the expense of the show and its characters.

As I have argued elsewhere, the ending distressingly resembles the desperate gambit of the beginning writer who ends a story with “And it was all just a dream”.  Such an ending can be earned, but it really must be earned, not just tacked on in a short-sighted attempt to be ‘deep’ or ‘artistic’.  (The idea that art is ambiguous is a notoriously shallow one, as is the idea that happy endings are cheap or easy–they may be, but they need not be.)


Now, there is no doubt that (1) the Will They/Won’t They? was an essential feature of the show, part of its identity conditions, so to speak.  But that feature of the show had its time and its time ended:  They Did.  One of the wonders of the show was that for over two seasons it allowed that to be so–allowed them to be together–while following their growth as a couple and their growth as individuals, the latter growth inextricably tied to the former.

There is also no doubt that (2) the memory loss finale is dramatic, heart-wrenching.  Anyone invested in the show will find himself or herself swamped by the finale.

Finally, there is no doubt that (3) the memory loss finale allows for a clever device:  Chuck and Sarah ‘live through’ a miniaturized version of their long, 2 1/2-year WT/WT? courtship, allowing the show to recapitulate itself in a way that is rewarding.  But none of these except perhaps the third was something that could only have been secured by the memory loss idea.  (And even (3) could have been managed without the memory loss idea.)

But it is not just that the memory loss idea is a bad idea, but it is also handled confusingly.

Consider (3) again.  The recap should have been used not only to establish that Sarah did still have some memories of the previous five years but to have shown her falling for Chuck again more clearly than it did.  I don’t deny that it does a bit of that, especially in the dance scene–but it also complicates it with Sarah’s later attempt to escape from Castle without Chuck.  I take it that her attempt to escape is meant to echo her ‘running’ from her feelings for Chuck back in S1, but that is never made clear–and it renders murky the fact that Sarah has been ‘homing’ on Chuck all along, even in the finale, when she keeps coming back to him or to places that mattered to them (the beach).  She had told Chuck in S4 that he is her home.

But maybe the worst error in the handling of the memory loss idea was allowing Morgan to suggest a ‘magic’ cure.

This is more complicated than it initially sounds. Let me explain briefly.

Recall how things go.  Morgan suggests that one magic kiss from Chuck will restore Sarah’s memories.  Chuck calls the idea crazy, but his response is not simply to scoff at it:  he is also intrigued.  He starts to mention it to Sarah yet stops when she is climbing the stairs out of Castle, but he will bring it up again on the beach.

Morgan is thinking, not only of Disney movies, but of the moment in which Chuck, his mind almost eliminated by a computer program, is brought back from the brink by Sarah’s tearful, impassioned kiss. (The end of the great S4 episode of the show, Chuck vs. Phase Three.)  Call that a magic kiss.   (The scientist overseeing the elimination of Chuck’s mind tells Sarah in effect that there is nothing anyone can do for Chuck, Chuck is too far gone (he is in ‘Phase Three’).  So that kiss does seem like magic)

I take Chuck to think of that moment too, like Morgan–that is one important reason he is intrigued by the idea.  (The viewer is meant to think of it, I’m sure.)   So, it might seem like the magic kiss is a good idea, one organically tied to the previous episodes of the show.  Perhaps one even justified by the general complementary structure of the show. (what happens for Chuck happens for Sarah and vice versa).   And it is.  But it was still confusingly handled.


At the very end, seated on the beach, after Chuck has told Sarah their story, he mentions Morgan’s idea.  And then Sarah asks Chuck to kiss her.  Now, while I firmly believe the right reading of that scene is that Sarah is asking for the kiss out of desire for Chuck, out of desire for him to kiss her, having her ask for it immediately after the magic kiss is mentioned obscures that, suggesting instead that the kiss might be a thaumaturgical experiment, not an expression of Sarah’s desire (I’m not saying it can’t be both, but…)

Here’s the crux.

Sarah’s line echoes her famous S3 line when she interrupts Chuck in mid-spiral and tells him to “Shut up and kiss me”.  That command and Chuck’s obedience to it marks the beginning of their time as an official couple.  The ‘shut up’ would not quite fit into the tonality of the final beach scene (Chuck is not spiraling there, really), but I take the writers to have expected the viewers to hear the echo even without the prefixed phrase.

In the earlier S3 scene, Sarah is obviously giving expression to her desire (she is inviting Chuck to join her in the Paris hotel bed), not running any experiment.  (She has kissed Chuck before and remembers those kisses.  She had told him before she left Burbank that it was all going to happen, him and her.)  But on the beach, the possibility of the magic kiss, the possibility that this might an experimental kiss, obscures the echo, making it seem as if Sarah might merely be repeating her earlier words but not using them to give expression to the same (or a similar) desire.  Perhaps she is not so much interested in kissing Chuck but just in the outcome of the kiss; she just wants Chuck to run the experiment–in the words of a Starflyer 59 song, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it don’t. Sarah just wants to find out which.

Now, anyone who watches that kiss closely knows it is no mere experiment.  Morgan set no conditions on the magic kiss, features it had to have to do its magical work.  The beach kiss is deep, grows deeper, becomes passionate.  But if the viewer still has the magical kiss idea too much in mind, it is easy to overlook the passion of the kiss and to wonder–did the experiment work, did the magic kiss work its magic?

But that is the wrong question.  If the viewer attends to the kiss, there is no reason to think that Chuck and Sarah have not been re-established as a couple there on the beach, re-established as husband and wife by the preceding events, by Chuck’s telling of their story, and especially by the kiss.

Maybe the kiss is magic:  maybe all of Sarah’s memories returned en masse after the cutaway (we aren’t shown the result of the kiss).  If so, great.  But maybe it isn’t magic.  Still, her asking for the kiss (out of desire) and her responsiveness to it makes it clear that the magic–while it would be cool and make things easier for them (no road to travel to memory restoration)–is in a way unnecessary:  the real ‘magic’ is between them, and it always has been.  And it has always been enough.

Put the point somewhat differently:  the talk of the magic kiss causes the accent mark in the scene to seem to shift to the outcome of the kiss for Sarah’s memory (which we do not witness) and prevents it from falling clearly where it should–on the kiss itself and what it means (which we do witness).  We are bidden, clumsily, to focus on the wrong thing.

Chuck fell for Sarah knowing nothing of her past.  I see no reason why Sarah could not fall for Chuck knowing nothing (except what she has been told and the little that has come back to her) about their past.

Still, it would have been better, less confusing, for it to be clear that the magic was not necessary for them to become a couple again.  I believe we see that happen on the beach; it is not left up in the air.  What is left up in the air is not whether they are together, but only whether she remembers right then and there, or doesn’t.

However that goes (and I don’t mean to minimize that but rather to contextualize it), Sarah has found her way back to her love for her husband, whether we think of that as her having fallen in love with Chuck again–or as her remembering that she loves him (feeling it, not just believing it).  The kiss works; the ‘magic’ between them works.  Maybe the Morgan magic did too–sometimes the magic works, sometimes it don’t.  That matters, but not for whether they leave the beach together.

Accented correctly, everything speaks for them doing so, nothing against it: in kissing Chuck, Sarah knows him as her husband, whatever the state of her memory after it.

Henry James on Artistic Difficulty

Now to see deep difficulty braved is at any time, for the really addicted artist, to feel almost even as a pang, the beautiful incentive, and to feel it verily in such sort as to wish the danger intensified.  The difficulty most worth tackling can only be for him, in these conditions, the greatest the case permits of.

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