I am a scholar and teacher of Spanish and Portuguese. I am also a poet.
The several books of poetry I have published in English, Spanish and Guarani (an indigenous South American language and one of the official languages of Paraguay), plus numerous readings of my work, both in Paraguay and at home in New York, have taught me the artistic joys of the poetic word and its efficacy in public discourse.
The poem, obviously, is a work of imagination, but it is my contention that such a work can be an alternative way of understanding and therefore an alternative form of editorial journalism.
The most fundamental source of the educational vision portrayed in the poem I have written for The Conversation is the many thousands of hours I have spent with students over a long teaching career.
Having said that, I hasten to add that no resemblance is intended, even remotely, between the narrative situation presented and any of the educational institutions with which I have been associated, including my long-time much-beloved employer, SUNY-Oswego.
The forces to which the poem alludes are much broader.
The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the inroads technology can make in the basic human relationship between teacher and learner – these and similar developments are at work in our society as a whole, and the debate surrounding them is global in scope.
Using the elevated tone and deliberately archaic language of epic verse, the poem’s intent is to write those forces larger in the imagination than they are in present reality, to exaggerate their current profile in order to dramatize what they could become.
As to its style and tone, the poem’s roots are in various epic traditions but readers will also find echoes of the tech writer Nicholas Carr; of movies like Dead Poets’ Society and Good Will Hunting; of Paraguayan literary masters like Augusto Roa Bastos and Juan Manuel Marcos (novel and poetry) and, in its playful parts, even a hint of Dr Seuss. (A full list of my literary “credits” follows the poem.)
(Note on pronunciation: In observance of the poem’s rhythm, the protagonist’s middle names “Ignatius Gene” may be pronounced as normal in English, ig-NAY-shus jeen, but the Paraguayan name from which this derives, Ignacio Genes, should be said as in Spanish, eeg-NAHS-yo HAY-nays.)
Channeling Homer, Among Others… I Not the song of siren-seekers washed in gore upon a reef, or Hector on the Trojan plain, or Cid who risking body in the horse-loud crowd of battle-drum and scimitar made victory out of blood, no epic song is this of these, but rather epic of the mind, no less dangerous than all their battlefields, but fought upon the blood- drenched plains and trenches of book and classroom, where courage of the intellect meets scimitar of budget cut and mindless fiat of endless plutocrats intoning measurement of that which has no measure. II His name, Juan Emmanuel Ignatius Gene O'Higgins, PhD in code of résumé and memo, expert in forgotten holocausts and vast interstices unseen between the lines upon the map, Paraguay, in other words, Paraguay his theme, his passion, mission, demise, redemption. Son he was of Irish guy from Southie and mom from shantytown hard by the Paraná who met and loved in the father’s Fulbright-funded bed beneath the fullness of a fattening moon. Jasy henyhe she said in Guarani and coitus wrote the words in English on his brain, the moon is full, and Juan Emmanuel began in semen spilled upon her river, hard upon the Paraná. Thus was made and grew the boy, precursor of the man, in summers by the Paraná and winters in the gritty Boston snow piled against the chain-link playground fence, his fists hard as curbstones fending tires from the ragged Southie sidewalks and the green-beer-sucking drunks in foreplay of St Patty’s Day, grew he here, and there, and came to know man’s state is not the metropole, the evanescing center swelled in fad soon gone and power soon dispersed, but one of Paraguays, of Southies, of margins where persists the warmth of human flesh, fencerows where persist the weeds of truths the tractor long despised, each of us a Paraguay, a body among bodies, a voice not of device disembodied but of palpitations of the living throat, came he to know this, swore he to make it known and chose the teacher’s way. III Jasy henyhe she’d said, and his moon waxed full in love of students, each a Paraguay hard by the Paraná descending to whatever sea, each a voice he sang in chorus with, farm kids avid for the world beyond manure pond and feedlot, grocer’s children wanting other than a daily ledger of hams and lettuces, would-be gangbangers saved by book and dream of something more from stink of prison john and sameness of the pavements. Told he them in class about his namesake of the Paraguayan War Ignacio Genes, hero who in combat lost an eye and used his other one to shield his brothers, his single Cyclops eye a waxing moon for them and us; told he also them of Barrett, Roa Bastos, Emiliano, Chaco thirst, Cerro Korá, Ramona Martínez, residentas, Ortiz Guerrero, de la Mora, Jesuit and Guarani, and thousand million un-named feet of un-named walkers stumbling in dark of exile, greed, depravity and grief to greet again the dawn upon a shoeless blister. You, he said, are these if you but knew. Rise he said to stoop to drink the water that I lead you to. The stinking mud is yours no matter what, be hero in it, let your single eye be waxing moon for northern farm and pavement, grocer’s shelf and banker’s vault. That distant Paraguay be metaphor for here, for now, for you. IV Powerpoint was not his thing, nor leaned he overly on Wiki-factoids gleaned from Google’s vast and churning cloud upon a screen for user- friendly access antiquating memory; no enemy was he of such, but rather foe of opiated overuse in detriment of man. Thus read he them from books and spun his magic out of alchemy of word and print and mind, and bid he them put on persona of the Other and leave their desks and move as actors in the theater of learning, and laughter and movement were their language. And made he them traverse the dog-piss snow of January in the parking lots to fetch the printed word of libraries, bodily traverse the campus air that they might know that body and mind are lovers, nor holds the mind to anything not sifted through the efforts of the flesh; it was his body’s eye that Genes gave to spur the waxing moon of freedom in the mind of many. Nor resented they his call to book and library, but loved him for it more, nor called they more for apps and Wiki-screens and disembodied ease, but reveled rather in respect he gave to wholeness of their thinking body-minded selves, they who sported on the green and flaunted skin in spring to drink the frisbee-joyous air en route to class, loved they him for this, and loved he them. V But came one day a lie that slunk in frowsy crannies of curricula and syllabi, and hung upon the winter-weary campus breeze, and bided time in e-mails and the minutes of perfunctory ennui-laden polyester meetings, a multi- visaged lie with roots enough in truth of need to sway the well-intentioned gullible and stroke the greed of cynics, a glib shape-shifting hydra- headed lie part fiat of the bottom line, part flim-flam sales pitch of purveyors, demagogic populism, or wish indeed sincere for good, yet nonetheless, a lie. It said, efficiency is all. It said, make straight the way to drone-dom in diminishment of cost. It said the ancient bargain trading effort of the body-mind for betterment of life, our ancient soaring chant of sacrifice and sweat, is moot, is mothballed in the new millennium of ever-easier machines un-making man. No need, it said, to stir from seat or bed in quest of knowing, nor even need to know, it is known for you. No need to drive a car, it is driven, nor need to flush the toilet, it is flushed, nor need to walk the woods, nor need to read a map, nor need to pit the body-mind against the wanton wind in lofty affirmation of the self. No need, it said, for Paraguay as metaphor for man. No need for man, indeed. Irrelevant, it said, and set the moon to waning on the Paraná. VI Came minions of the lie, came memos, e-mails, texts, reports ad hoc, inquiring why the love of books when all is stocked within the cyber-cloud, inquiring why the gathering of bodies in a class when synchronicity of keyboards and facsimile of voice and face upon a screen will do the job, and the moon waned more while waxed a logic that portrayed itself inevitable. Ad hoc became ad hominem, came minions to his class in guise of friendly observation. And taught he as he always taught, and the class they saw was light, was art, was theater, was Socrates, was dream of every learner keening for the graceful stretch of mind and body into space unknown, was reason why we gather sons and daughters into schools and spur them into plenitude of man and not to lassitude of larva, metal, stone. No drone, said he, was Genes in the groaning eyeball-costing fight, but man, as man aspires to become. Rose the students to ovate, embraced they him, loved they him as loved he them. Rose the minions too in momentary lapse infused by distant memory of dream to teach, reached out also to embrace…, then dropped their arms in tendering instead a squalid shake of hands, their logic of the lie resurgent from its wistful lapse. Your future is assured, they said, tenure and respect are yours they said, if you but… and placed they in contingent clauses all a world of strings attached: if you but… forsake the luddite past of book and pen, your sentimental fondness for the family of class, your notion of the learner as a greater whole than all the petty bell-curve of his résumé and GPA and bank accounts. Access, cost, utility, and ease, be these your shibboleths in this new singularity where man’s machines suck share of his humanity and his blood is but the driver of the bloodless goosestep of electrons, and Paraguay and all the Paraguays and all the Southies and all your farmer’s sons and grocer’s daughters are merely asterisks within the Internet now upper-cased as if a God. They spoke the lie, and waited for his yes, and all he said was no. VII And with that no the eye he lost in battle was his job, his mortgage, colleagues, place within the circle of his students’ arms. Yet also was that no a moon sudden waxing like a fist upon the face of facelessness, his fist as once he used it in the Southie schoolyard slush upon the quisling jaws of thugs. VIII Read I of him one red-eye sweltering night upon my Fulbright-funded bed beneath a moon so white upon the Paraná it spoke to me of snow, and cooled me as I read. And saw I then the moon is more than mere reflector of another’s light as science holds, but marks of its own right, the tides of human blood and tribulations of the human soul. A blurb is all I read, filler in the local rag, page forty-three between an ad for condoms and someone’s invocation of the Virgin, a line or two about a Paraguayan-Yankee hybrid guy who erstwhile taught in university up north and now was eighth-grade teacher here in Paraguay. Odd, said I, and made the obligatory Google search, and found the case of Juan Emmanuel Ignatius Gene O’Higgins, Ph.D., stripped of job for saying no. And the moon that made me think of snow upon the Paraná also gave my mind to know that North and South are two but Man is one, and Juan Emmanuel is Man. And went I when the sun arose, to find, perchance to interview, the man. And as I rode my bike upon the red dirt road beside the crones preparing tereré and lorries painting smoke across an asthma-colored sky, my eyes embraced the toddlers squalid in the clawing dust, the children manning carts en route to chicken-peck the dumps for scraps of bread or metal, the prematurely nubile waiting for a pimp or john, and wondered I what was the measure of our teaching if not for these, and what the way of schooling man if not as man engaging man within that self-same dust, as Genes risking eye against the poison mist of war. No shortcut of machine or screen exists for school, nor found I shortcut on the red dirt road to reach the schoolyard where he was, but came I by my bike upon the gnarled clay and saw his class at recess play and him among them, and watched them at a distance, and saw his easy hand upon their backs was challenge to their better selves, his easy Guarani upon their ears was balm upon their body-mind to be their best in spite of dust, to walk as Man upon the wizened crust of earth, and knew that he was right. And turned I from their schoolyard play, and upward looked, and saw upon the blazoned sky, though it was day, the waxing moon of Paraguay.
This poem draws inspiration from a number of sources including Paraguayan literary masters like Augusto Roa Bastos (fiction and poetry), Juan Manuel Marcos (novel and poetry), Renée Ferrer (poetry) and Susy Delgado(poetry); the Chilean poetic genius Pablo Neruda; the Argentine poet and journalist José Hernández; former professors of mine like John Rassias and Robert Russell; my emeritus Oswego colleague Ivan Brady; and, in the playful tone of parts of the poem, even a hint of Dr Seuss.