All posts by Phil Holland

“Robert Frost in Bennington County” (2018)

Works consulted

Cox, James M., ed., Robert Frost, A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall, 1962

Frost, Robert, The Letters of Robert Frost, vol. 1, ed. Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson, Robert Faggen, Harvard University Press, 2014, and vol. 2, ed. Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson, Robert Bernard Hass, Henry Atmore, HUP, 2017.

Hart, Henry,Robert Frost: A Critical Biography, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.

Kaufman, Ellen, Robert Frost’s Favorite Poem: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

http://www.talkativeman.com/robert-frost-favorite-poem/posted Aug. 6, 2017, accessed July 1, 2018.

Mertins, Louis, Robert Frost: Life and Talks-Walking, University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

Metcalf, Stephen, “Frost and the Rural Authentic,” lecture at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum, May 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iT2AmqpebUc&t=170s

“On Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” (excerpts from writings by Reuben A. Brower, Richard Gray, Thomas C. Harrison, Karen L. Kilcup, Jeffrey Meyers, George Montiero, John T. Ogilvie, Richard Poirier, William H. Pritchard, Mark Richardson,Guy Rotella, Clint Stevens, and Derek Walcott); http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/frost/woods.htm(accessed July 1, 2018)

Parini, Jay, Robert Frost, A Life, Henry Holt and Co., 1999.

Thompson, Lawrance, Robert Frost, The Years of Triumph 1915-1938, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley, Robert Frost, Trial by Existence, Holt Rinehart and Winston,1960.

upinvermont, May 24, 2009, by Patrick Gillespie, https://poemshape.wordpress.com/2009/05/24/interpreting-robert-frosts-stopping-by-woods/

Tuten, Nancy Lewis and Zubizarreta, John, The Robert Frost Encyclopedia,Greenwood Publishing, 2001.

Untermeyer, Louis, Robert Frost, A Backward Look, The Library of Congress, 1964.

The website http://www.bennington.edu/robert-frost-stone-house-museumand exhibits at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in South Shaftsbury, VT.

Thanks to current Stone House Museum Director Megan Mayhew Bergman and Founding Director Carole Thompson for information on apple trees. Also to Peter Gilbert, Executor of the Frost Estate, for his editorial suggestions.

Hip Hip Hooray!

I had my right hip replaced ten weeks ago. This is what it looked like a month ago when I went in for my first post-op check-up. I had become a (partially) bionic man.

And here’s the funny thing. It was arthritis in my right hip that doomed my natural joint, and I had it in my left hip too, though it wasn’t as bad. A couple of weeks ago, when my new hip had settled in and my leg muscles had repaired themselves, I realized that my man-made right hip was outperforming my aging left one.  The words “Better, stronger, faster than before” from the old “Bionic Man” series came back to me. I began to think of replacing other parts; I was taking an increasingly sympathetic view of Brigadier General A.B.C. Smith in Poe’s story “The Man Who Was Used Up,” which, if you don’t know it, you can read about below.

 

The New Hip Thing

[I should have posted this three months ago, when I wrote it, but… I didn’t]

When I returned to Vermont three years ago after 20 years of teaching English in Greece, I was surprised to hear my old friends talking about new hips and new knees and who to go to for one or the other. I was a fit and healthy 65-year old, then, with no medical complaints except perhaps a little tightness in the groin on the right side when I got on or off my bicycle. My only contribution to the conversation was something to the effect that I would never choose go through with something like that.

I am scheduled – you saw it coming – for hip replacement surgery (on the right side) later this month. Degenerative arthritis, it had been going on for some time, it seems, but I may have made it worse when on my return I cleared the field of trees, again, and laid up all that firewood and went dancing with Amelia to the Dread Resistors at the Old First Church Barn in Old Bennington. They’re a great band, by the way. Amelia, she’s great too. I had to admit it: the body I had taken for granted all my life was showing signs of wear. The tightness was getting tighter, and there were flashes of pain or weakness. I began to limp. I tried cortisone shots and did get some relief, but the effect wore off, as I had been told it would.

So, I have a surgeon. One of my neighbors has one of his knees and is happy with it. I liked the way he put it to me after examining my x-rays: he said I was a candidate for hip replacement. That may be standard language, but (as my surgeon explained) it means that the decision to go ahead is on the patient. If I elect, I will have surgery.

So, here I am, trying out the walker lent to me by a friend (it’s like one of those nice shopping carts, but slower), and reading up on joint replacement on the good old Internet. I can still surf!

Maybe you saw the op-ed in the New York Times not long ago with the title “Can Your Hip Replacement Kill You?” (it was about inadequately tested medical devices). It gave me second thoughts, but they passed. My surgeon is a specialist, and you might as well just sign the consent form. I don’t remember “death” being on the list of warnings, but never mind. This year, more than 300,000 Americans will get new hips. I’m going to join the herd.

I never watched the Six Million Dollar Man, a TV series of the mid-1970s, but it goes like this: an astronaut crash-lands his re-entry vehicle, suffering life-threatening injuries, but NASA doctors are undaunted: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him,” their leader says. “We have the technology.” And so they create the first cyborg or bionic man, composed of artificial limbs and organs, and the result is a being who is even “better, stronger, faster” than before. Soon there was a Bionic woman with her own series. Alexa, did the Six Million Dollar Man ever get married to the Bionic Woman? Yes, they got married in a movie in the 90s. In any case, science fiction has shown the way: the Times reports that one in ten Americans now has some kind of implanted medical device, from pacemakers and defibrillators to joints made of metal and plastic.

One in ten, and that’s not even counting devices attached to the outside of the body. Those go back to ancient Egypt, where it seems that a noblewoman was once fitted with a wooden big toe. A Roman general got a hook long before the Captain did, and the Rig-Veda, written in Sanskrit three thousand years ago, tells of Queen Vishpala who lost a leg in battle, was fitted with an iron prosthesis, by a pair of gods, and returned to the fight. She sounds like a good role model for me. Then there’s the Aztec god who had a foot made of obsidian to replace the one he lost in a battle with another god during the creation of the world. Or take the case of Nuada, a Celtic god who got a silver arm.

My new femoral stem will be made of titanium. Pistorius has carbon fiber calves and feet. Bionic hands are now controlled by nerve impulses from the brain. They are 3-D printing plastic limbs in war-torn Africa. The Internet tells of the coming fusion of technology, biology, and society. My right hip will be doing its part.

II

Edgar Allan Poe saw it all coming in 1839. That was the year he published his comic tale (comic, with a touch of the macabre) “The Man Who Was Used Up.” It’s a story about a man’s successful recovery, by means of prosthetics, from injuries sustained in one of the Indian Wars then raging in the South. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, of 1818, involves the creation of a human-like creature out of organic materials supplied by “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house.” Poe’s reconstituted man, like those of today, is the product of “mechanical invention.”

Poe’s tale turns on the attempts of the narrator to learn the story behind Brevet-Brigadier General John A.B.C. Smith. The General is introduced at a social gathering as “one of the most remarkable men of the age.” He is six feet tall with flowing black hair, magnificent whiskers, “large and lustrous” eyes, and other exemplary physical attributes. But such physical perfection doesn’t, it seems, adequately account for the somehow mysterious impression Smith produces.

“There was a primness, not to say stiffness, in his carriage; a degree of measured, and if I may so express it, of rectangular precision, attending his every movement.”

A friend whispers a few words in the narrator’s ear about the General’s reputation for courage:
“Showed that, I should say, to some purpose, in the late tremendous swamp-fight with the Bugaboo and Kickapoo Indians. Bless my soul – blood and thunder and all that – prodigies of valor – heard of him, of course? You know, he’s the man –“ And here comes the first of many interruptions in the middle of this particular phrase, and the solution to the mystery remains unspoken.

The narrator gets a chance to chat with the General himself, who turns out to be a most fluent talker and a man of the greatest general information, one of whose favorite topics is the “truly useful mechanical contrivances daily springing up like mushrooms — or grasshoppers – around us.” But what happened during the Bugaboo and Kickapoo campaigns is left unsaid.

The narrator plies his inquiries among his other acquaintances, all of whom remark on the savageries of the Indians and the progress of mechanical invention, but who are always interrupted after the words “why, he’s the man…” – until the frustrated narrator calls on the General directly at his residence. Pleading urgent business, he is shown into the bedroom as the General is about to dress, or rather be dressed by his valet.

But the General is not in sight, and when the impatient visitor kicks a “large and odd-looking bundle” on the floor, a voice “between a squeak and a whistle” protests the indignity, then orders, “Pompey, bring me that leg.” The servant brings over a “capital cork leg” and screws it in.

As the strange voice reflects on the “bloody action” of the Bugaboo and Kickapoo affair, where a man shouldn’t think of “coming off with a mere scratch,” the voice also asks for his other parts to be brought and attached, and so they are, like “the drawing on of a stocking.” Meanwhile, this artificial man-in-progress offers medical endorsements. “Thomas is decidedly the best hand at a cork leg, but if you ever want an arm, my dear fellow, you must really let me recommend you to Bishop.” And so it goes through hair and teeth and eyes (because “those Kickapoos are not so very slow at a gouge”), as the narrator watches in astonishment.

The final touch is “a singular looking machine” that is inserted into the General’s mouth. Immediately come the words, delivered in a voice of “melody and strength,” “Damn the vagabonds! They not only knocked in the roof of my mouth, but took the trouble to cut off at least seven-eighths of my tongue. There isn’t Bonfanti’s equal, however, in America, for really good articles of this description.” The mystery now solved, the narrator spells it out for us: “Brevet-Brigadier General John A.B.C. Smith was the man – was the man who was used up.”

Literature is equipment for living, said Kenneth Burke. No surgery required. Having now put myself in the General’s shoes, I don’t feel so bad. It’s just a used up hip. Lighthart will make me a new one.

Europe

Ε – Epsilon is for Europe

Never mind what you learned in school, Europe isn’t really a continent, it’s just the westernmost part of the landmass of Eurasia. It’s above all an idea that has been in flux since the time of Herodotus. 60 years ago, Europe became an Economic Community, joined by Greece in 1981, and later, in 1993, it became the European Union with broader purposes. It pioneeered the euro currency in 1999, which Greece adopted in 2001.

The EU is a bold experiment, and overall I would say it’s been successful, especially compared to the disaster of the first half of the European 20th century. The EU is now made up of 28 countries (many of them former adversaries at one time or another), with 23 different official languages, with different national histories, but with enough of a common cultural past to induce member states to give up some of their sovereignty in order, for one thing, to stand up to the other economic heavyweights of the world – and also not to fight each other any more. Former French president Giscard d’Estaing spoke of the “Dream of Europe. Let us imagine a continent at peace, freed of its barriers and obstacles, where history and geography are finally reconciled.”

Economic and political union hasn’t been easy, and it may not last (witness Brexit), but (with the exception of a contained fire in the Balkans in the 1990s), the center has held. Greece, dangling down there in the SE corner, is both at the periphery (the strategic periphery) and – thanks to ancient Athens – also at the center of the Europe. As we in this country know so well, e pluribus unum is forever a work in progress. The majority of Greeks want to remain in the EU. Whether they’ll retain the common currency is another matter.

 

Diasporas

Δ – Delta is for Diaspora

It’s a Greek word meaning dispersion, literally, the scattering of seed in sowing, and it’s applied metaphorically (but not altogether) to human populations. You may have seen references to the Greek Diaspora, the emigration of Greeks from their homelands to start new lives in North and South America, Egypt, Australia, and Europe beginning in the 1890s – when prices for currants plunged in the Peloponnesian peninsula – and continuing into the early 20th century, when one in four young men left the country, with a second wave after World War Two, including to countries in Europe such as Germany and to Astoria in Queens, New York. And there is a third wave going on right now, a brain drain, unfortunately, as many of the educated leave the country in search of jobs in Europe, the Arab states, Australia, and to a modest degree the US.

OK, but let’s take the long view. Here’s a picture of Greece and its colonies in the 7th century BC.You can see how dispersed they were, from Marseille to the fringes of the Black Sea. Individual Greek city states had colonies or stations, and this dispersion was the result of economic activity based on maritime trade. There was no Greece as such, but there was a more or less common culture. The city states consulted the same oracles and sent athletes to the Olympic Games, founded in 776 BC in Olympia. And they could mostly understand each other’s dialects of Greek. Many of those Greek settlements lasted into the 20th century.

Here’s another diaspora. It’s now the 4th century BC, Philip of Macedon has conquered the other Greek mainland city states and his son Alexander has conquered everything in his path eastward all the way to the Hydaspes River in India. This territory becomes the Hellenic world, a series of Macedonian colonies where Greek became the common language. This was the world into which Christianity emerged and why the New Testament was written in Greek.

So dispersion is part of Greek cultural DNA from way back. It was economic opportunity that that induced a man named Panagiotis Panagiotopoulos — Peter Panos as he or an immigration officer at Ellis Island shortened it — to join his elder brother George in America in 1910. He was only 12 years old. He came over with his grandmother, and he brought with him his mandolin. After a stay in Schenectady, NY, the brothers moved to North Bennington, where they were the only Greeks in what had become a mostly Catholic village, the result of 19th century European immigration to the area, where factories were then thriving and in need of laborers. Peter and George did not wish to work in a factory, however, and like so many other Greeks, they set up an eating establishment.

They must have prospered, because they soon expanded to new quarters in the heart of the little Main Street commercial district. They made candy, sold cigars, had a soda fountain and served ice cream, did some short order cooking, had at one time a pool hall and some pinball machines – Norman Rockwell’s world, but with Greeks behind the counter. George moved to Bennington, but Pete stayed where he was and, with his new Greek wife had three daughters and a son, Louis. But the son had no taste for serving ice cream. He wanted to become a musician (in fact, all the children became musicians, and one played in the Boston Symphony). He and his North Bennington friend Laurie Hyman, son of Shirley Jackson and Stanley Edgar Hyman, formed a jazz band (I believe it was called the Root-toot-tooters) and toured in Europe at one point.

Louis served in the Air Force during the Korean War and then studied Music at Bennington College on the GI Bill. He married a Greek girl from Athens named Eleni and became a teacher, and when their elder daughter Ourania was 16 years old I got a call from Eleni requesting that she be admitted to the summer program (the July Program) I was directing at Bennington College. The program was already full, but I couldn’t resist the story and found a place for her. Ourania flourished at the program, especially in Alba de Leon’s painting class. Here is a painting she executed as the program drew to a close. I was so impressed that I purchased it for the College’s collection. It now hangs in the Visual and Performing Arts Center, and I doubt few suspect that it was painted by a 16-year-old.

In any case, I got to know the family, and when Bennington College blew up in the mid-90s, my wife and I thought that a break would do us good. The Panoses provided the tip that sent us and our two children off for a three-year adventure at an American-founded school in Greece.

Now, how did that school get to be there? There’s another local connection and another diaspora. In 1806 a group of devout young Williams College students went for a walk in the fields near the College. A thunderstorm struck, and they took refuge under the eaves of a haystack. By the time the thunder had finished speaking to them, the young men had decided to bring the Gospel to every corner of the world. Their movement, the American Protestant missionary movement, later based in Boston, was a kind of global American diaspora of liberally educated men of the cloth. One of their targets was the Ottoman Empire.

They failed to convert the Muslims, but they were welcomed by the Christian minorities of what is now Turkey, that is, by the Armenians and the Greeks, to whom they provided a general American-style education in schools and colleges and from whose population they recruited and trained native Protestant priests. The schools flourished, but things didn’t end happily: in the early 20th century Anatolia College was witness to the Armenian genocide and the genocide of the Greeks of the Pontus region in Turkey, near which the College was located. American schools and missions were expelled from that part of Turkey in 1922,  but Anatolia re-established itself in Thessaloniki as a wholly secular institution. Seventy-some years later, my family and I arrived there as one small result of all the diasporas I’ve mentioned.