Essay — September 16, 2019, 10:30 am

Poem for Harm

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

1.

A few years ago, I read a news article about a graduate student in music at Northwestern, Timothy McNair, who refused to perform a musical adaptation of Walt Whitman’s poems in celebration of democracy. As an undergraduate, McNair had read racist writing by Whitman, including this passage from an essay about suffrage for African Americans:

As if we had not strained the voting and digestive caliber of American Democracy to the utmost for the last fifty years with the millions of ignorant foreigners, we have now infused a powerful percentage of blacks, with about as much intellect and calibre (in the mass) as so many baboons.

This quote, which I had never read, greatly disturbed me. I had always thought of Whitman as enlightened—especially for his time period—when it came to race, class, gender, sexuality. More than this, his poetry had always seemed to me radically generous, the best of our admittedly fantastical American ideals. I loved Whitman’s ghostly confidence that he belonged everywhere. In his poems, he drifts around with intention, seeing and hearing and absorbing and celebrating everything, equally. In both form and content, his poems had seemed to embody a democratic egalitarianism.

Now I began to wonder whether Whitman’s willingness to inhabit anyone might be less a sign of egalitarianism than a contradiction of it, even a form of appropriation. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that there was something weirdly invasive, even creepy, about his seemingly benign invasion of every aspect of life, from the public to the deeply personal, and his confidence that because he loves everyone, it’s okay for him to watch or sometimes even become them bathing, working, hanging out, sleeping, even dead. That idea was the start of a poem:

Poem for Appropriation

Walt Whitman
you cannot know

how a live oak feels
much less a woman

or one sold
does it help

anyone to think that way
to wander

into everyone’s experience
with love you tell yourself

and therefore believe
is innocent

to break off a twig
and bring it back to your room

in dark times
to listen to you

has helped me
your whole life you made

one book some people 
now take out into the forest

to ritually burn
because elsewhere you wrote 

“blacks have as much
intellect as baboons”

I could not believe
it was you

Walt Whitman
you should have known better

and probably did
you are my favorite poet

sometimes but what poison 
can you drink and live

is the question I ask
in the few moments I have

before my son 
currently lying in bed

singing about feeling like a volcano
slams open the door

and demands to be loved

The poem became part of a manuscript in progress. In the course of the final editing for my new book, one of my editors raised a concern about how I used Whitman’s racist remark. What, she wondered, would the impact be on a non-white reader of my “repeating something so vile inside a short poem which eventually (though self-critically) walks away from dealing with the questions it raises”?

My first reaction to the criticism was defensiveness. It seemed clear that I didn’t approve of what Whitman said, and I took the suggestion that I was being careless with his words personally. I also had a vague sense that some matter of principle was at stake. Was my “artistic freedom” being curtailed to protect the feelings of others? It reminded me of what has become an endemic problem in discussions around poetry, and art in general, as well as in academia (I am a professor): the immediate conflation of something that is difficult or troubling with “harm” (Sarah Schulman’s excellent book Conflict is not Abuse has been extremely helpful and influential on my thinking about this).

Yet, when I looked at the poem again, I could see that there was indeed something sudden, even casual, about the way that quote was dropped in. Initially, I had thought of this as aesthetically productive. That experience of shock is part of the very nature of poetry itself. As Virginia Woolf writes:

The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then—how sudden and complete is our immersion! There is nothing here to catch hold of; nothing to stay us in our flight. … The poet is always our contemporary.

That suddenness is inextricable from the nature of a poem, but it is also what can make it feel really painful. In prose it is easier to prepare the reader, to explain, to contextualize. You gain something with that—the ability to embrace the reader and the context—but you lose the sudden shock, the “impact of poetry” that “is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation.”

But poetic shock creates certain problems, especially when one is dealing with incendiary language and ideas. As I reread the poem, my paraphrase of Whitman’s remark started to feel cavalier, as though I didn’t really think that his language was hurtful, or I thought that my own explorations were more important than the immense historical fact of racism. In the poem, Whitman’s words feel mostly about my own personal surprise that one of my literary heroes turned out to be a racist. I began to wonder: Is there any larger purpose in repeating them?

2.

It is impossible for me to think of this situation and not remember the controversy at the 2011 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference over a poem by Tony Hoagland, “The Change.” (You can read the exchange between Hoagland and Claudia Rankine, who was his colleague at the University of Houston, here.)

Hoagland’s poem is ostensibly about confessing his own internalized, and mostly unprocessed, racism, though confessing to whom—and for what reason—remains unclear. After reading the poem, Rankine asked Hoagland what he was thinking when he wrote it. She writes about the interaction that followed in a way that is quite fair, while also illuminating problems of which Hoagland seems unaware: first, his unwillingness even to acknowledge that someone could feel hurt by his language, even if it is being used ironically or meant to bring forth a problem; and second, that there might be something careless and limited in the way that he just assumes that this poem is a meaningful contribution to the conversation about racism. Rankine says that Hoagland told her that he’d written the poem “for white people,” though he didn’t clarify what this meant. Did he mean to say that his poem was written to challenge white readers, and that the racist views expressed in it needed to be read in this context? Or did he mean to say that he didn’t have to worry about offending black readers, because they were not his audience?

After Rankine spoke about the exchange at A.W.P., Hoagland wrote a response to her remarks. His explanation is defensive. He tells Rankine, an African-American woman, that she is “naïve” about American racism, then without a drop of self-consciousness gives her a lecture about systemic racism and how it has permeated white American consciousness. To further insulate himself he uses a lot of lofty-sounding rhetoric about freedom and complexity and the creative imagination. This incident was part of the impetus for Rankine’s Citizen, the most visible, culturally important, and influential poetry book published over the past decade, if not longer.

Tony was an excellent poet and critic. However, there is something so disturbingly careless and entitled about not only the way that he presented the explosive and difficult ideas of this poem, but also how he responded to Claudia’s objections. He’s far too easy in his conscience. A mere willingness to bring an explosive issue forward (especially one that does not directly affect you) is not the same as an actual acceptance of responsibility or even culpability. Weirdly, in such situations, the shock can itself become a kind of insulation, a protection from actually having to acknowledge the realities of the situation: I have a right to say this, and let’s just all deal with what I’ve said now. One becomes an edgelord of poetry.

The issue becomes one of artistic boldness, or freedom, vs. safety and harm, and the conversation closes down and becomes the same old tired, angry positionings, shunnings, and attacks, which don’t generate any new understanding, just a release of anger. For the white writer, that conflict becomes substitute for acknowledging the deeper and more troubling recognition of how white privilege permeates our culture and lives. There can be something self-satisfied in bringing up the issue of racism in such an overt way, as if by the very fact of doing so one is somehow exonerated. It’s a paradoxical logic, something about a blanket immunity based on the fact that I “know” what I’m doing, and therefore can’t be accused of hurting anyone.

The more I think about the original version of my poem, the more I feel that, however well-meant, there is something I have assumed (“what I assume you shall assume”) and not actually explored, and that this very thing might be what is most important in the poem to bring forth.

How to write a poem that does not make assumptions about readership? Was I unconsciously thinking of my readers as being like me, and not imagining what it might be like to read this poem if one were not white? And how to write a poem that does not reinscribe the very problems it is supposedly trying to investigate and perhaps even, incrementally, solve, if only for the poet?

3.

In a 2008 essay, “A Mystifying Silence,” the poet Major Jackson wrote: “what seems odd to me (and this I find most appalling about contemporary American poetry) is the dearth of poems written by white poets that address racial issues, that chronicle our struggle as a democracy to find tranquility and harmony as a nation containing many nations. Why is this?”

Is it possible, or necessary, or helpful, to discuss these issues as a white person, without doing more damage, creating more misunderstanding? Or, without making it all about white people yet again? Teju Cole (via Claudia Rankine, in the introduction to her play The White Card), writes: “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Is that what the poem was doing? Is that the secret agenda of this very essay?

Often I think the answer is for white people to just be quiet. It’s a nice idea, and a relief to consider. Unfortunately, obviously, racism and white supremacy live in white people. One solution is to declare that, unlike other people, one does not have a racist bone in one’s body (begging the question of whether it is bones that are racist, rather than assumptions or words or actions). Or, like so many aggrieved writers, to loudly assert one’s “rights” to imagine the lives of others, as if those rights are in danger of being taken away.

The question is not whether I as a white person am completely innocent, or whether I am “allowed” to say certain things. The question is, what can I do, as a writer and person, to help? And what are the possible consequences of my efforts? In this case, asserting my “right” to quote Whitman, my blamelessness and exemption to racist thinking, is not helpful. Deciding beforehand what I think of the quote is not helpful. Staying altogether silent is safe, and not enough.

4.

I grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which is as wealthy an area as it sounds, and I went to what was, for most of my elementary school years in the Seventies, a more or less all-white public school. Right around the middle school years, in the early Eighties, a busing program was introduced into our school district. I don’t know the details, but our schools suddenly had some percentage of black students. This was a shock to everyone, and no one seemed prepared for it. My dim impression at the time was that most of the kids being bused in lived several miles away, up East West Highway near Silver Spring. I never went to their homes, and they never came to mine. Issues of race and class were intermixed in ways that I cannot begin to untangle. I only know that when these kids showed up in “our” school, we were mostly proud, because it supposedly proved that we were tolerant.

Never mind that very few, if any, of those kids ever appeared in the advanced or “gifted and talented” classes that my friends and I took, regardless of whether we were actually prepared or qualified. (I barely made it through tenth grade math but somehow bullshitted my way into calculus, whatever that is.) Never mind that we never socialized or ate lunch together. Never mind that the white kids got the best recommendations, headed all the clubs, ran the student government, and therefore went to “good” colleges. No one in a position of authority ever said a word about this situation. It was only much later that I realized, sickeningly, that a smug, self-satisfied white liberal pride and a systematic racism had permeated not only every aspect of the power structure of the school, but the worldviews of the white students, as well as the teachers, parents, and administrators.

I do vaguely remember some students of color protesting our senior year that the white students ran the student government and all the clubs. I also remember that we all completely rejected this view, reacting with absolute outrage at the suggestion that the white people in the school were contributing to a situation of racial bias.

5.

For a long time, the issue of harm in language didn’t feel immediately relevant to me as a poet. I had been taught to think that everything was allowed in literature. This was easy for me to believe, because other than the occasional appearance of a laughably exaggerated and unthreatening anti-Semitism by canonized authors (Pound, Eliot) there was nothing in the literature that made me feel directly bad because of who I was: a white, heterosexual man who grew up in economic and cultural privilege. The threat of late twentieth-century anti-Semitism in America was in no way comparable to the ongoing persistence of racial discrimination and violence. It was easy for me to accept as unapproachable gospel, without thinking too hard about it, the idea that the harm of repressing the imagination always outweighed whatever pain it might cause.

This was more than just a personal issue. It had to do with an orthodox humanism that was completely woven into the fabric of upper-middle-class educated society. For instance, when I was a child, Nazis got a permit to march down the middle of the street in Skokie, Illinois, a town populated by Holocaust survivors. Jews all over America were proud that they had not tried to prevent this. We considered it a badge of honor that we were willing to tolerate that sort of threat in exchange for a liberal society. Of course, if you had asked me or my parents, I think we would have admitted that in our hearts we didn’t actually feel threatened by a few hundred cartoonish Nazis with their sad fake outfits. Obviously, we underestimated their persistence.

Humanism meant allowing everyone to say whatever they wanted. This was especially true in the sacred precincts of literature. I personally was also deeply influenced by my experience studying Russian literature and then living in the Soviet Union during its death throes. I knew firsthand something about the brutalizing effects of the imposition of values on the creation of art. There was a reason the Soviet state spent so much time caring about what its poets wrote, and imprisoning and killing the ones who insisted on autonomy: to continue to be free to imagine was a threat to the progressive march toward a certain version of paradise. People had died for insisting they were free to write what they wanted in their poems. They were my heroes.

Of course, I was aware of the larger social forces that continue to shape our country—the original sins of Native-American genocide and of slavery, as well as ongoing racism and economic inequality. But that awareness was merely intellectual. I did not understand how I had internalized these forces, drunk and eaten and breathed them in, and how my own successes and seemingly impervious ease upward and onward through the ranks of whatever career and life I had chosen were at every moment supported by the system I lived in. Even as I grew more aware of these forces, it still always seemed to me like it was someone else’s problem.

All of this became suddenly personal after my son was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. What had long been hidden to me became painfully obvious: ableist attitudes and jokes, the way that behavior that is not “normal” is often mockingly attributed to a difference like autism, and how pervasively our society is organized for the benefit of people whose bodies and brains work as generally expected. Some of my closest friends often made such remarks and jokes. Worst of all, to my absolute despair, I realized that I myself, out of ignorance and a false, smug sense of security, had made those same sorts of jokes, a horror to remember that literally keeps me awake.

Of course it was painful to me, as a parent, to experience these things. But it also became clear that this wasn’t just personal. These weren’t just jokes or harmless prejudices: it was now easy to see how the perpetuation of certain attitudes was going to make my son’s life actually harder. The incorrect things people believe about neurodivergent individuals limits the possibilities those people have to fully participate in our society. I suddenly understood what so many people had been shouting about for so many years. The structure of society is influenced by our speech, as well as our small, everyday actions.

I feel strongly that any discussion of these matters has to be thoughtful and educated and compassionate and genuine—not to protect my feelings, but to protect my son’s future, and the future of anyone whose brain and body work differently from what most of us have been taught to call “normal.” I do not feel that my experience as a parent of a neurodivergent child is equivalent to the systematic oppression that so many people have faced. But I am, I am ashamed to say belatedly, far more sympathetic to the idea that language can be not just unpleasant or challenging in a productive way, but actually harmful. It’s embarrassing to admit that it took something happening in my own life for me to truly hear what so many people who are not white and straight and abled have been saying about the connection between language and everyday experience.

6.

I was coming to understand, at last, how important it is to think about the very real harm language can do. Yet, if there is danger in pretending that one’s words have no consequences and cannot hurt anyone, there is also danger in attributing potential harm to every statement that challenges or disturbs. We run the risk of becoming intolerant of each other’s real human failings, and our own. If we are not careful, we will end up living in an unreal situation where we only reveal what is safe and hide the worst parts of our natures, never giving them space to grow and change.

Working on the poem, I felt, instinctively, that I and so many of my well-meaning white liberal friends are currently replicating the situation of my public school in the Eighties, becoming so sure of our own fundamental righteousness, and so focused on appearing correct to each other and ourselves, that we may end up missing the actual harm we are doing. These contradictions, not easily resolved, interested me far more than the discussion about literary appropriation, which seems to end up always in the same place, with people yelling at each other about who is “allowed” to do what, when what each of us really should be asking is: Why am I doing what I am doing as a writer, and for whom?

I am not sure what changing our perspective, while also being vigilant not to be heedless and harmful with language, actually entails. I really wish I knew. But I know that a self-satisfied, reactive certainty is a danger to the complexities of human relations. I also have the instinct that such a certainty, at least when it is unrelenting, is not compatible with writing true poetry. Certainty, polemics, political outrage—all of these feelings are authentic and demonstrably can be present in the greatest poetry. But when those feelings dominate everything, without admitting a different point of view or the possibility of challenge, they become, however well-meant, totalitarian, and totalitarianism is inherently opposed to poetic activity.

7.

When I was gently and proactively called out about this poem, after an initial defensiveness, I tried to go the other way: not to retreat, but to go deeper into it. Instead of resisting, I tried to think, okay, clearly there is something I don’t understand. What would it be like to bring that lack of understanding, my own confusion, into the poem? Would that be more honest that pretending that I had resolved something that I have not resolved at all?

Perhaps the very issue of whether or not to repeat Whitman’s racist words, a decision that I was making outside the poem, was actually central to the poem itself. I had the strong sense that this was what had originally and intuitively connected my thoughts about Whitman to my thoughts about my child. This felt right, but I couldn’t yet say why.

Lorca wrote, “The poetic imagination travels and transforms things, giving them their purest meaning, and it defines relationships no one had suspected.” This is, in the end, why I write poetry: to discover something I do not yet know. There are things that we think and feel, without knowing their relations to each other, and their true significance. The writing of poems can reveal those things for the poet, and hopefully for the reader as well.

It seems that the process of writing a poem is really often about balancing the intuitive leaps that unexpectedly connect certain ideas, sometimes leaving those leaps in the poem, the intuitions and instinctive understandings, so the reader can make them too, in their own way, and sometimes bringing other things out more, putting the questions and problems in the poem, where the reader can experience them too. I don’t think it’s possible to make a rule or principle around when you should try to be more explicit, and when you should leave something latent and associatively connected. Probably it has to do with music, both sound and somehow the conceptual rhyme of the poem: if it sounds so beautiful to you that it cannot be changed, then it probably should not be. Ultimately it might have to do with the purpose of the poem, which cannot be determined until it has been written.

In this case, I started asking myself whether I was really doing everything I could with that quote from Whitman. Was I satisfied merely with the shock? Was it better to leave the connections unexplored? Was there more literal or conceptual music there that should not be disturbed, or was there something deeper, truer, stranger, and more interesting, that was waiting be brought out? It was possible that I would ruin the poem with overexplaining and overmanaging too. There was no way to be sure. All I could do is try, and find out.

Every time I had another thought, a question, a concern, I tried to just find a place for it to go in the poem, and then to work with it, deepening it, figuring out what was really behind the thought. I was trying to keep it extremely simple but also exactly accurate, as if it were the first time it had ever been said, which reminds me of Rilke giving advice to the young poet: “Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose.” 

In the final version, many things have come and gone. In the end, I removed the quote from Whitman, though I did choose to include it in full as a note separate from the poem. I’m sure I would have left it in, if I had felt that it made the poem more real. But it feels far more real to me to foreground the unresolved conflict between what Whitman says in his poems and what he says in his prose, and the equally unresolved conflict in me about how harm in language should be balanced against other necessities. Without the quote, the final version of the poem feels to me like more of a real critique, not just of Whitman, but of myself. It feels necessarily unresolved, but in a clear way, one that makes considering the problem unavoidable. It’s a question that remains in the poem and opens up into further questions.

8.

Wouldn’t it be generative to think of a poem not as the last statement about something, but as part of an ongoing process of conversation? To imagine that the poem wouldn’t have the responsibility of resolving, but of further illuminating? Here is how Fanny Howe puts it in her inexhaustibly interesting, mystically precise “Bewilderment”:

A big error comes when you believe that a form, name or position in which the subject is viewed is the only way that the subject can be viewed. That is called “binding” and it leads directly to painful contradiction and clashes.

No monolithic answers that are not soon disproved are allowed into a bewildered poetry or life.

According to a Kabbalistic rabbi, in the Messianic age people will no longer quarrel with others but only with themselves.

This is what poets are doing already.

I am thinking here about the way readers think of poems, but also about how poets write them. I’ve heard Bob Hass say, when talking about what to do when a poem feels stuck, to “put the problem in the poem.” Bring the ongoing conflicts you are feeling, the limits of your understanding, into it. Articulate those struggles. Open yourself to the reader. Most likely what we need are not poems that resolve our greatest problems for us, but poems that will clarify them, or help us see them in new ways. If you can bring those problems forth for readers and yourselves in a new or at least useful way, that is a great service. And it might even be something like a new form of humanism. Perhaps the problem with our species right now is not merely that we are not coming up with the right solutions, but that we are not asking the right questions.

To pose something as a question brings the matter into the poem not as something resolved, but as an ongoing difficulty, which is almost always far more honest. And practically, therefore, as a poet, it gives you a place to go. It is the difference between saying

You are like a summer’s day

and asking

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

The question creates momentum that the statement does not.

What was missing in my original poem were questions. I tried to bring them into this final version. What survived was my ongoing admiration for Whitman’s lines. I stole the branch he broke off from a live oak in Louisiana, and his marvelous comparison of the grass to a “uniform hieroglyphic,” a language that can be read by everyone. I brought his hope for common love into my poem, and his betrayal of it. I admit he is still sometimes my favorite poet, that this troubles me, and that I do not know what to do with that all-too-familiar feeling.

Poem for Harm

Walt Whitman
you cannot know

how a live oak feels
much less a woman

or anyone sold
does it help

to think that way
to wander

into everyone’s experience
with love you told yourself

and therefore believed
was innocent

to break off a twig
and bring it back to your room

then write
by its harmless light

to listen to you
has helped me

in dark times
and when you said

you were like the grass
a uniform hieroglyphic

growing with equal
distant affection

“among black folks
as among white”

I believed you
your whole life you made

one book some people
now take out into the forest

to ritually burn
because elsewhere you wrote

when you were more than
old enough to know

what you truly thought
of the intellect

of black folks who
were not inside your song

Walt Whitman
should your words

here be said
in pain and shame

or left for only dead wind
to hear

if we keep it
like a secret does its dark

force grow
for my whole life

I thought words
could not harm

I too looked down
but then I had a son

about whom people say
what even I once said

Walt Whitman you are still
my favorite poet sometimes

but what poison
can you drink and live

is the question I ask
in the few moments I have

before my son
lying in bed singing

about feeling like a volcano
slams open the door

and demands
of everyone to be loved

(appears in Father’s Day, by Matthew Zapruder. Originally published in Tin House)

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how high? that high

He had his stick that was used mostly to point at your head if your head wasn’t held up proudly.

I still like that man—Holger! He had been an orphan!

He came up to me once because there was something about how I was moving my feet that wasn’t according to the regulations or his expectations.

The room was a short wide room with a short wide window with plenty of artificial light.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The limited edition Nike Air Max 97s, white sneakers that have holy water from the Jordan River in their soles and have frankincense-scented insoles, sold out in minutes.

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At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

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