Monday, November 30, 2015


The idea of humans evolving from “apes” is horrifying in particular to the Abrahamic religions. One of the insults meant to control unwanted behavior is to call it “bestial”  Religion says that God chose only humans (and only the ones who are members of the sponsoring institution, namely theirs) to have souls and go to heaven.  It is heresy to deny that; it is worrying if some people don’t care.  But we like the shiver of considering it in movies.

It’s more arousing if the male half of a couple is the ape.  As a gift for my husband, I once bought a tiny ivory Japanese figure of an ape clasping a nude woman.  He loved it, esp. since it was so easily hidden.  Bears, which can be seen as humanoid, fill the same role, but a bear might be the female, maternal.  Japanese are quite frank about such matters.

If Jane Goodall had been less of a nun-like figure, she might have been in trouble, living with chimps as though they were human, even though they were in family groups. Indeed Dian Fossey, a more passionate sort of woman, got into trouble that caused her death by machete in her bedroom, imposed by emotionally threatened human males acting bestial.

Jane Goodall and friend


From Wikipedia:

The humanzee (Homo sapiens sapiens × Pan troglodytes) (also known as the Chuman or Manpanzee) is a hypothetical chimpanzee/human hybrid. Chimpanzees and humans are closely related (sharing 95% of their DNA sequence and 99% of coding DNA sequences[1]), leading to contested speculation that a hybrid is possible. However, such a human-animal hybrid has not actually existed outside of fictional works that have explored the concept.

Humans have one pair fewer chromosomes than other apes, with ape chromosomes 2 and 4 fusing into a large chromosome. 

A mix of human and primate would almost certainly require artificial insemination such as using a pipette to insert a sperm into an ovum in a petri dish.  No hot sex.  (Anyway, primates and bears have small penises.)  However, when the chimps and humans diverged from a common ancestor sometime between 8 million and 25 million years ago, they could produce fertile hybrids for another million years or so.  This is not linear descent, evolution is a bush rather than a tree, and we’re working on fossil bone morphology more than DNA, with almost unimaginable time spans.  It’s barely short of fantasy.

But chimps themselves are such compelling personalities and interact with us in such humanoid ways, that they are always suspected of knowing more than they let on.  The point is that if HIV had been a disease of ungulates or big cats, the dynamics would have been entirely different.  Of course the blood machinery of those animals is entirely different.  You can’t catch HIV from a sheep, nor would it catch HIV from you.  There are plenty of other diseases a human could catch from a sheep, most of them bacterial zoonoses.  Leprosy can be caught from an armadillo and is stigmatized not from its source but from its ability to reduce a human to looking like a strange animal with eerie human qualities.  Un-treated AIDS is along those lines, with emaciation and Kaposi’s sarcoma acting as disfiguring markers, though they are not directly caused by HIV -- they are opportunists, like pneumocystis pneumonia fungus.

Bonobos are even more humanoid than chimps and have the added feature of using sexual intercourse as a social element: greeting, comforting, just fooling around.  Film of them acting like humans -- walking through the door on two feet, wearing clothes, getting a beer out of the fridge, sitting on the sofa with legs crossed . . .  eeks!  What might they do next?  Adult male apes are so much stronger than humans that they could tear a person limb-from-limb.  Maybe you’ve seen a photo of a woman whose face was snatched off by a friend’s “pet”.  Therefore, what you see interacting with humans is mostly immature apes, kids.

There are cultures and “sub-cultures” that consider women sub-human and feel free to confine, abuse, and infect them -- then not allow them medical care.  Children likewise. These are cultures of HIV death, often based in drugs as much as sex.  Isolated, alienated people might turn to needles for comfort.  “Chemsex” combines drugs with sex, trying to go “over the top”.  It’s a steep drop on the other side.  

The fantasy is that somehow there must be a way to escape the troublesome social and emotional consequences of sexual relationships, which are not just a matter of desire -- though they are that, too.  In fact, they are a strong drive and it’s lucky that most human arms are just long enough to reach the crotch.  I’m working on a followup about sexual emotions derived from the recent Mark Holms lecture about the unconscious.  This link will take you to the lecture I’m trying to digest.

This post is meant to illustrate that a big part of our panic over HIV-AIDS is worry that it might mean we are not human, or that being human is NOT being chosen, being elevated among other animals, but having to suffer the same consequences as being just mammals, another kind of ape.  It was a big shock to find out that at some point Neanderthals, always considered barely superior to gorillas, interbred with modern humans.  We do have some neanderthal genes.

Richard Sapolsky

Going back to chimp genes, it is said that we are separated only by 2% of genes.  I’ve added a chart. The following quote is by Sapolsky, a male expert hairy enough to compete with orangutans but smarter by far.

“Yet that tiny portion of unshared DNA makes a world of difference: it gives us, for instance, our bipedal stance and the ability to plan missions to Mars. Scientists do not yet know how most of the DNA that is uniquely ours affects gene function. But they can conduct whole-genome analyses—with intriguing results. For example, comparing the 33 percent of our genome that codes for proteins with our relatives' genomes reveals that although the sum total of our genetic differences is small, the individual differences pervade the genome, affecting each of our chromosomes in numerous ways.”

When we read that humans have only 2% more genes than chimps or bonobos, we think of a line (maybe a chromosome?) in which the last 2 units of measurement are a different color and we try to think which 2% makes us superior: bipedalism?  less hair?  reading?  But genes don’t code for such things.  Genes are about proteins that interact, making more proteins (the proteome) producing different results in different situations (epigenomes can record results), and different results if there is more than one copy of the gene, or if it’s in a different place on the chromosome, or if the epigenome has turned it off or if a gene that codes for timing turns the gene for, say, a prominent larynx on or off at the wrong time.  

The proteome (list of possible proteins) is so long and complex we may never complete it, computer or no computer.  Then beyond that, there is the impact of social systems and the plain old environment.  And now we add the biome of parasites on and in us.  There seems to be no end to it, but that’s not what we want anyway, is it?  HIV and the pressure of AIDS can take us on a journey.  Far along the human path, or maybe we are evolving as we go.

The point remains that we are animals, a specialized sort of primate, which we have not sorted out yet.  Therefore we get excessively worried over issues that mix our essential molecular plan with religious rules from ancient times and also sexual desire, no matter the object.  The larger culture is vitally interested and entitled to interfere in order to preserve their own existence.


Of course, he didn't create it -- only found and defined it.
Humans are such sloppy thinkers!  Esp. when they are scared.

To write about HIV-AIDS is not the same as writing about the impact on human beings, whether gays or not.  Writing about HIV-AIDS is writing about a virus, which is what this disease (dis-ease) really is.  But a virus is so small that it’s a matter of molecules interacting, which is the way life functions as well as the map of what they should do.  Molecules, of course, are assembled from atoms in various ways and the arrangement and isotopes of atoms in the molecules make a difference -- things like “folding” and other mysterious bonds and reactions.  The virus itself is not human and will not respond to being stigmatized, punished, incarcerated, or denounced.  It can infect ANY human except for a very few who have a mutation, a gene that will prevent the virus from attaching.  

HIV-AIDS attacks the immune system that constantly sweeps the blood system to eliminate disease.  The result is a vulnerability disease, often killing because it prevents the body from healing itself.  One can die from something normally shrugged off.  It doesn't attack the fort, merely opens the gates to the hostiles.

A virus is the nucleus of a cell that has no cell, so goes seeking cells it can kidnap in order to reproduce.  It is a pirate virus that started as SIV [Simian Immunodeficiency Virus], then jumped to humans who hunted them.  HIV versions come in “strains” with slightly different genomes, some that are not pathogenic -- won’t make the victims sick.  Pygmies have antibodies for several of these immunodeficiency strains, probably because their hunting is arboreal: monkeys and apes.  HIV and SIV can kill gorillas and bonobos, but those strains have only affected local humans, mostly.  

One of the protections of remote communities that stay in one place is that there are few vectors in or out.  (Airline travel was one of the factors that made gays such efficient carriers.)  More drastic is quarantine: total isolation of infected individuals.  Like fire, a virus can burn itself out when there are no new ways to spread.  This is the origin of our tendency to stigmatize and shun infected people.  It works fine if you have no conscience or empathy for suffering.  But only if you really CAN isolate the carrier absolutely -- no one sneaking and and out on mercy missions.  If the carrier does suss the intention and run for it, thus spreading the virus.

The rest of this post is basic information about research into the tiny and puzzling interacting molecules of both the virus and our bodily defenses.  They cannot be seen without powerful equipment.  The appearance or suspected practices of humans will not reveal the presence of HIV.  Only tests can tell.  But the best defense against a virus of any kind is basic good health produced by nutrition, shelter, sleep, social support and so on.  Normally that will be enough for the immune system to take care of business.

I wish I could credit the people who wrote the wikipedia entries below.  I try to mark quotes with italic print.  I’ve left most of the links and url’s.

Simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIVs) are retroviruses able to infect at least 45 species of African non-human primates.[1][2] Based on analysis of strains found in four species of monkeys from Bioko Island, which was isolated from the mainland by rising sea levels about 11,000 years ago, it has been concluded that SIV has been present in monkeys and apes for at least 32,000 years, and probably much longer.[3][4]

Virus strains from two of these primate species, SIVsmm in sooty mangabeys and SIVcpz in chimpanzees, are believed to have crossed the species barrier into humans, resulting in HIV-2 and HIV-1, respectively.

The human HIV-1 is “number one” because it was the first detected since it set off the epidemic among world humans.  Evidently simians and monkeys have been quietly dying in the jungle all along. This virus morphs as much as flu so it doubles back on itself and can affect a human with several versions at once, maybe even creating a hybrid, evolving to escape medicinal molecules.  Scientists have deliberately invented a hybrid virus, partly HIV and partly SIV.  They call it SHIV.  It’s a lab virus that never goes anywhere else.
The origins of viruses in the evolutionary history of life are unclear: some may have evolved from plasmids—pieces of DNA that can move between cells—while others may have evolved from bacteria. In evolution, viruses are an important means of horizontal gene transfer, which increases genetic diversity.[7] Viruses are considered by some to be a life form, because they carry genetic material, reproduce, and evolve through natural selection. However they lack key characteristics (such as cell structure) that are generally considered necessary to count as life. Because they possess some but not all such qualities, viruses have been described as "organisms at the edge of life".[8]

While not inside an infected cell or in the process of infecting a cell, viruses exist in the form of independent particles. These viral particles, also known as virions, consist of two or three parts: (i) the genetic material made from either DNA or RNA, long molecules that carry genetic information; (ii) a protein coat, called the capsid, which surrounds and protects the genetic material; and in some cases (iii) an envelope of lipids that surrounds the protein coat when they are outside a cell.


HIV is able to meddle with the epigenome to disguise itself or even turn off the host’s defenses, but it’s real goal is to insert itself into the chromosomes of the human cell itself.  It doesn’t wiggle into the same position each time.  Or necessarily in the same way.  Or it could settle into the epigenome itself. 

[You’ll need to keep the misspelling for this link to work.]

HIV infection also exploits the epigenome to achieve its viral latency, although its mechanism is through modifying DNA methylation.  HIV is capable of remaining latent during the most brutal of anti-viral assaults which led to investigations into the mechanism behind this. Researchers were able to show that HIV uses two CpG islands that flank its transcription start site in order to recruit the hosts MBD2 and HDAC2 and use it to achieve its deadly silencing. The team was able to add the icing to their cake by coaxing the virus out of hiding by treatment with 5aza (which leads to a loss of methylation).
[Methylation is how the epigenome turns genes on and off.]

Ultimately, it appears that epigenetic exploits are common and important molecular mechanisms that viruses rely on. While they don’t have their own epigenomes, viruses are more than capable of taking over for their host at every level of the epigenetic landscape to achieve some of their most devastating features, particularly viral latency.

A group at the Salk Institute pitted CRISPR against HIV. HIV is particularly hard to fight because it integrates into target cell genomes, where it can lie in wait, safe from standard drugs. What we really need to get rid of HIV is some way to specifically target its DNA sequence inside cells… oh wait, CRISPR!

The real challenge in HIV, though, is getting rid of viruses already integrated and hiding inside cells. The team tested Cas9 against these particularly dastardly proviruses by using cells with pre-integrated reporter viruses. Fourteen day after transient Cas9 transfection, about half the cells were GFP-free, and a second round of Cas9 expression cured about half of the remainder. This could be good for potential therapies, since multiple low-dose treatments may have fewer side effects for the patient. 

To make Cas9 an even more efficient HIV fighter, the group screened different target sites in the HIV genome and targeted two sites at once. With these improved versions, they not only cut the number of cells expressing viral GFP by 90%, they also saw about 4 times more cells surviving and thriving, suggesting the cells really had kicked the virus. HIV-immune Hematopoietic Stem Cells To test the system in even more relevant situations, the group stably integrated Cas9 into a human T-cell line and bathed them in HIV. Again, Cas9 protected the cells, even though most control cells were GFP-positive and/or dead within 14 days. Finally, they stably integrated Cas9 into human stem cells, differentiated them into white blood cells, and showed 90% immunity to HIV. These results suggest that where our own immune system fails, at least against HIV, maybe we can help it with one stolen from bacteria. 

AIDS remains incurable due to the permanent integration of HIV-1 into the host genome, imparting risk of viral reactivation even after antiretroviral therapy. New strategies are needed to ablate the viral genome from latently infected cells, because current methods are too inefficient and prone to adverse off-target effects. To eliminate the integrated HIV-1 genome, we used the Cas9/guide RNA (gRNA) system, in single and multiplex configurations. We identified highly specific targets within the HIV-1 LTR U3 region that were efficiently edited by Cas9/gRNA, inactivating viral gene expression and replication in latently infected microglial, promonocytic, and T cells. Cas9/gRNAs caused neither genotoxicity nor off-target editing to the host cells, and completely excised a 9,709-bp fragment of integrated proviral DNA that spanned from its 5′ to 3′ LTRs. Furthermore, the presence of multiplex gRNAs within Cas9-expressing cells prevented HIV-1 infection. Our results suggest that Cas9/gRNA can be engineered to provide a specific, efficacious prophylactic and therapeutic approach against AIDS.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


I have a hard time addressing the issue of HIV-AIDS for a number of reasons. One is that I care too much, but that's more a result than a reason.  Another reason is the irrationality of it all.  I do not understand the stigma.  It does not match my experience.

These elegant gay men did not attend NU, because they were black.

The first gay men I knew were people studying theatre at Northwestern University.  Subterraneously, the School of Speech in the late Fifties had become welcoming to closeted young gay theatre people, partly because of a half-acknowledged and extremely effective acting teacher who was female-partnered.  I say partnered because it’s impossible to imagine these dignified persons rolling around on a bed waving sex toys, which is usually how people see non-conforming identities.  Theirs was truly a partnership.  They didn’t live together until retirement but traveled together on vacations.  In summer they cooperated to manage a repertory resort theatre.

The gay men, frankly, were using me as a disguise.  Eager, childish, introverted, I made no demands.  They were prosperous, handsome, gifted, generous people.  I thought all gays were like that.  Even now very few of them will talk about it but most seem in good health.

The first person I knew personally who had AIDS was a fellow Unitarian minister from Canada in 1987.  He was young, but we collaborated on a theology of Landscape: the Prairie, and that brought us together.  At ministers’ meetings he had a little pill box with a timer in it and we grew used to its beeping.  In spite of an MD partner and an important minister father who knew how to use clout, he died.  It has not been a secret.  The meds simply were not developed in time to save him.

Over the years since, I’ve heard rumors now and then about former students -- often the most gifted ones, dying of AIDS.  It almost seemed to be a natural consequence due to being exceptional, independent, creative.  Especially because of the Unitarian connection to the Transcendentalists, I related it to the plague of tuberculosis that killed so many prominent New England thinkers. Thoreau, for instance, and the sister of Louisa May Alcott.

Ho-Chunk Girls with smallpox

Because much of my life has been involved with the Blackfeet reservation, I know lots of poor, alcoholic, mentally damaged, lost souls, but few of them are alone unless they fight off everyone, which some do.  To be Indian or affiliated with Indians is to be in community.  When one reads Indian history, one meets the grisly ghost of smallpox.  It was a disease of Indians, a racist disease, because Indians genetically had no immunity.  Another epidemic nearly claimed my mother as a child: the Spanish Flu, named for a country that was blameless, a viral killer of the young and healthy.  The death toll exceeded that of WWI.

When I became an animal control officer in Portland, going door to door to solve problems, I met isolated old people, drunks, loonies, teen mothers, parolees, and a whole household of cheerful transvestites.  Because AC officers were technically part of the sheriff’s department, specialized deputies, the curtain that ordinarily keeps people from knowing about extreme events was pulled back, and fucking the Thanksgiving turkey was the least of it.  We saw death in all its animalness, including human.  We saw deadly living conditions.  The street kids in Portland -- who have the advantage of public fountains big enough to bathe in downtown -- clustered up, sometimes in plain sight.  One old woman lived in the women’s restroom of the Portlandia Building through the winter.  Some called her “the Bride” because she wrapped herself in white plastic.

Economics can easily be a plague.  Get one step down and you’re forced down two more.  When the only thing keeping you alive (food stamps, day care, housing, clinics) is de-funded in order to afford a new sports coliseum, I call it “murder by pencil”.  This economic murder is the withholding of help from anyone stigmatized and the constant effort to stigmatize MORE people.  The idea is that they don’t deserve help, that they are Other, wogs, subhuman, Devil’s spawn, or simply livestock kept only because they are productive in terms of reproduction and work.  They are sacrifices in the name of greed.  The Great Scandal is that the most conservative pencil murderers are the ones who claim to be Christian.  And of course, by underfunding programs meant to help people or by creating impassable thresholds, the government is a big-time killer.

But things are changing, the backlash is beginning.  When the Mormons recently attacked homosexuality thousands simply cleared the pews.  Who expected that?  Clearly not their own leaders.  It happened all at once so onlookers noticed, but it’s been happening gradually to many denominations.  Ever since the Pill separated sex from babies, everything has been “scrambled eggs.”  The old rules had been enforced by unwanted pregnancy.  But we separated sex from love all by ourselves.   One of the worst scrambles has been the abandonment of boys by families who instead of fathers either have nobody or a parade of moochers.

I have not thrown myself into the AIDS fight, at least not exclusively.  I try to keep up by reading, but I confess that I’m not a narrow-issue person.  I look for the deep constants, the biology triggers gone wrong, the constraints of a changing planet.  It seems to me that ebola and HIV and rabies are not so different from each other -- all deadly viruses.  But in our minds they are anchored by their origins in our consciousness.  Rabies in America is still a small town issue, the previously trustworthy dog gone mad.  Ebola plainly “belongs to” Africa.  And HIV is gay, connected to Biblically defined sin and flamboyant licentiousness in SF.  Consciously or not, HIV's early efficiency at killing and the idea that it was a deserved punishment made leaders secretly approach it as surefire death. (“Whew!  Now we’re rid of those troublemakers!”)  Now that science has unraveled the mysteries of the cells almost to the final knots (there's really no such thing), and people can be saved (at great cost for which read “profit” for manufacturers and professional advice-givers), we’re stuck because we still think HIV is not a virus but bad behavior.  If only bad morals would kill the oppressors instead of the wicked.  

By accident and by osmosis, in my mind I have the morality and value of the gay community upside down from what other more conventional people think.  Partly because of the men I knew in an elite, privileged community and partly because of an arts education (haute couture, ballet, post-modern philosophy) that has always valued the European notion that the atypical achiever is liable to be gay and a crusader for justice, I see their situation in regard to AIDS as more like that of the Jewish intellectual -- vulnerability to holocaust by brutes and dictators. aided by public resentment over imagined greater prosperity.

Young, gay Oliver Sacks

Therefore, recovery from the Holocaust (if there can be such a thing), should be relevant to gays.  Needle drugs are an “evil” source of HIV now, quite apart from sex.   But the need to get money for drugs means paid sex (as an alternative to theft and other violence) which spreads the infection that pushes the need for money for drugs again -- both the drugs to address the virus and the drugs to address the addiction -- which is now pressed by the need for relief from providing paid sex.  A knot in an economic rope.

There are two consequences of this knot: distrust of the government and other institutions since they are NOT understanding or responding in any effective way; and more pencil death, defunding.  More and more money for practical solutions is being diverted to high-priced ineffective “research,” guiding money to the already wealthy, paying minimum wage to the resentful clinic clerks who throw drugs into a bag for a customer they despise. More knots.


I am not gay and I am not male and I am not HIV poz.  So?  I’m human.  Maybe that counts.  Maybe if that counted for everyone, we’d at least reliably get HIV meds to everyone who needs them without having to wrap them in contempt.  My problem is that gay poz guys don’t believe I can be sympathetic or even understand.  Just like any guys, they think I’m a nuisance.  And I am.  I’m like that person sitting on a cushion, leaning against the wall, watching, listening, not smoking.  They assume criticism.  They're right.  I am criticizing the whole system.

A Prayer from Rev. Mark Mosher DeWolfe

A Person Is a Puzzle
A person is a puzzle. Sometimes from the inside, it feels like some pieces are missing.
Perhaps one we love is no longer with us. Perhaps one talent we desire eludes us. Perhaps a moment that required grace found us clumsy. Sometimes, from the inside, it feels like some pieces are missing.
A person is a puzzle. We are puzzles not only to ourselves but to each other.
A puzzle is a mystery we seek to solve—and the mystery is that we are whole even with our missing pieces. Our missing pieces are empty spaces we might long to fill, empty spaces that make us who we are. The mystery is that we are only what we are—and that what we are is enough.
In the gray stillness of this morning, into the accepting peace of a still sky, let us offer our failings, our inadequacies, into the silence. And let us know that we are accepted, by God and by this company, exactly as we are. Accepted—missing pieces, and all.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

CAROL BLY: Domestic Subversive

University of Chicago Divinity School

Instead of an MFA, the degrees I earned were an MDiv and an MA in Religious Studies.  Was this the right decision for a writer to make?  It was for me.  The emphasis was not on proper punctuation or technique, not on shifts of consciousness, but on the most major concepts of history and the deepest dilemmas of being human.  Of course, not every MDiv or MA in Religious Studies is like this.  It takes a fairly major university that can teach the secular study of religion without being dismantled by sub-groups based on faith, inside the circle of believers so thus self-protective.  

The Master of Divinity degree is the professional degree for ministers, which is based on the institutional dimension of religion -- though recently there is a trend to try to escape that context by claiming to be a “public minister” -- but the legal regulation of ministers is based on their sponsorship by an institution at least as big as a congregation.  Just going around doing good is not enough.  Who picks up the check?  Because it is meant to be institutional, this degree should be carefully investigated ahead of time or you’ll find yourself learning how to run a Sunday School or the history of sacred music or how to take bids for a new roof. Not that those are bad things, but in the modern ministry there is rarely time to write for oneself.

The good part is that what you write must be presented on a Sunday morning (or the equivalent) face to face with the people who pay your salary.  Their reaction will be plain before you and, at least in my tradition (the one that awarded me the MDiv) there is freedom for them to talk back on the spot.  And you must write a certain amount EVERY Sunday. I’m grateful for this training, which was often in the moment and from the gut.  It built strong habits.

Rev Mary Scriver preaches in Montana sometime in the Eighties

The MA in Religious Studies is best if it is in an academically traditional university where one must choose a realm (mine was anthropology), then a method, all the while learning the basic canon of thought and writing in that field so that the academic community can respond.  Everything is precedent.  Normally there is no person-to-person conversation; this is a written world.  It is vulnerable to paradigm shift and paradigm freeze; my difficulty was that my method was experiential and phenomenological. The school hadn’t shifted to accept that.  (An earlier version had been stigmatized.)  Also, they were dubious about women.  The professions (professors, doctors, lawyers, clergy) are traditionally male.  But you knew that.

These thoughts are prompted by an article about Carol Bly in the platform on the imprimatur called “Crossing Genres”, edited by Alto.  Alto claims “intentional subversion is the only submission requirement” but Bly is the most conventional subversive ever.  Check out those Barbara Bush pearls.

 Whoever wrote her Wikipedia entry said this:

Bly's short stories are known for their realistic characters and situations, which are fully developed within the small number of pages the story allows. Although many of her stories are set in Minnesota, the people and the situations transcend local boundaries, emphasizing pride in one's work, resourcefulness, the ability to laugh at one's self, and the ability "to hold values beyond one's own immediate welfare."

Perhaps inspired by Robert Bly's co-founding of American Writers Against the Vietnam War in 1966, Bly used her literature to reflect modern-day concerns. Her work is in many ways an ethical treatise, often featuring a "bully", embodied by either a person or a corporation, who takes pleasure in forcing his will on another person or group of people. Some of her stories also explore evil, which, to her, is seen in people or organizations which find enjoyment in enslaving, humiliating, or crushing their opponents. The stories emphasize redemption through empathy, which, to Bly, is the step of deliberately looking at how one's actions impact others.

Early Carol and Robert Bly

Late Robert Bly and Carol Bly

A typical Bly protagonist is a conventional woman who has been content to live in "ignorant complacency," but, through her own strength and intelligence must first identify the moral crisis facing either her or her community and then work to accomplish change. In her best works, the moral center is hard to find, as each character has some claim to the reader's sympathies.

I’m a good fit with Carol Bly: rural, mid-continent, a little over-conscientious, and I suppose my moral center is hard to find because it is so obvious: it is the land itself.  But there’s another reason for my affinity: marriage to a remarkable man, so remarkable that marriage cannot be sustained.  The irony is that both these two people -- together and apart -- have been major figures in the MFA world.  But Robert Bly is defined as “mythopoetic” (Joe Campbell for men) and Carol Bly (with her moral concerns) fit easily into religious categories.  Unitarians loved them both and used their work.  The liberal side of religion and literary thought united to fight against the war in Vietnam. 

In a way I stand between the two Blys because of my relationship with Blackfeet which gave me a less “whiteman” sort of center.  I try to find a way to join the mythopoetic with the morally centered.  (U of Chicago Bibfeltian “both/and” doctrine.)  The trouble with being married to “Iron John,” is that it’s all about him.  Looking for a poem from each meant finding all Robert and no Carol.  Here’s a Robert Bly poem.

Surprised by Evening

There is unknown dust that is near us 
Waves breaking on shores just over the hill 
Trees full of birds that we have never seen 
Nets drawn with dark fish.

The evening arrives; we look up and it is there 
It has come through the nets of the stars 
Through the tissues of the grass 
Walking quietly over the asylums of the waters.

The day shall never end we think:
We have hair that seemed born for the daylight;
But at last the quiet waters of the night will rise 
And our skin shall see far off as it does under water.

But I’m sneaky so I found this paragraph from a “talk” of Carol’s that I would count as a poem.

“How can I take the dent in the lid of a canning jar well-sealed, or the plain look of surprise on the face of a cow, when you meet it on the highway and it will not turn aside, or the way snow, when it first falls in the mountains, is so fragile you are afraid to touch it, at all – and turn these things through my writing into something clear enough, and passionate enough, that teen-age boys in America will not have to go do a war somewhere in order to feel alive.” – Carol Bly, as remembered by writer Kim Stafford, of Portland, Ore. -

The difference between myself and Carol is that I am not at all domestic or maternal.  I make either a loner or a skeptical sidekick, categories not recognized lately.  I don’t wear t-shirts with slogans but neither do I worry about publishing.  Mine is a childish way of being, but these are ways to escape Iron John.  They ARE subversive.

Friday, November 27, 2015


Darrell Robes Kipp

The phenomenon of the reading Indian is one I’ve never seen described.  Usually the readers are women, mixed blood or cross tribal, the product of parents who did well at Haskell or American Indian Art Institute (AIAI).  Sometimes they are male gays who have somehow managed to escape from the macho-styled booze and swagger micro-culture version of the mainstream.  Earlier they were veterans who were exposed to the paperback practice of reading-while-waiting.  And then there were the political movers-and-shakers who flew back and forth across the continent, trying to bring change but in the end mostly reinforcing status quo. There was plenty of time to read.

Poverty discourages reading, both because libraries in poor places are poorly stocked and usually run by overprotective white women and because no families can afford to buy books.  Once when I was relatively affluent, I sent books by the Native American Renaissance writers (most of whom began as readers) to the library of a rez school.  That summer I came by to say hello and the librarian thanked me.  I didn’t see the books on the shelf.  She had locked them up because “they’ll only steal them anyway.”  Darrell Kipp’s response was, “Wonderful!  They WANT them!  Let’s give each kid a whole shelf of books!”)

When I had taught there, I posted big maps of the rez and kept out on a counter a very large atlas of the world.  There was almost always a kid trailing his or her finger along the names and lines.  That was reading.  We composed a story about ourselves, “One Windy Day,” and everyone read it.  The ones who couldn’t read got someone to read it to them.  I ordered enough copies of “The Old North Trail” for a class to read together and gave them time to do it.  Each chapter had a puzzle question sheet asking for details to be written inside circles or as lists or under little sketches.  The girls and the readers did it easily, but some had to ask for them to tell the answers.  They did and I didn’t prevent that, because the non-readers remembered the answers, which was the point.

All persons' circle

Darrell Kipp was a reading Indian and the conventional expectation was that he would write a book, but the only one that got “published” was a small stapled book that a benefactor created out of his talks.  She paid to have boxes of them made but didn’t market them.  Darrell gave them away to people who appreciated them.  You could download most of it at this url.  Rather than books, Piegan Institute created videos.  This one was an opera with a libretto by Darrell and music by Rob Kapilow.

Darrell wrote all the time, long impeccably-typed letters about his doin’s that he mailed from around the country.  (There was no Internet.)  He was known as a poet, but I don’t remember seeing any poems.  He sent the beginnings of a novel once but it was ambiguous and a little menacing -- not about Indians at all, very different from the letters.  I didn’t know what to say.

Shirlee Crowshoe

When Darrell died -- all of a sudden and without a diagnosis for a long time though he faithfully attended the “man clinic” at the Indian Hospital -- I searched for his letters and mag clips and put them into red 3-ring binders along with the bits I’d written about him and his work, which includes Cuts Wood School, Piegan Institute, a summer series of August lectures.  He did not work alone but with a loose assemblage of changing people.  Dorothy Still Smoking was the original impetus, Ed Little Plume was the Blackfeet language expert (not just knowing the words but pronouncing them beautifully), and Bill Grant, an architect from back east with roots here, designed buildings both classic and functional.  Rosalyn LaPier brought in academic skills.  Shirley Crowshoe was an endless and dependable supply of information. There were many more whom I can’t name, and a cloud of kids who included some who stand out in every crowd.  I’m confident that they will be productive, maybe not by writing.

The problem now is what to do with these binders.  Darrell’s family will have a huge body of documents to deal with.  They are college-educated and worldly, but they have political and confidentiality issues to deal with.  He had kept journals since high school, by the end enough of them to fill a suitcase.  I never saw them, but he told me about them and I pressed him hard to find an institutional final home for them so that scholars could use them, but I’m no longer confident about ANY institutions being safe protectors.

I could just hoard my dozen binders.  I could try to publish parts, but that would raise copyright issues.  Publishing is dead.  Anyway, how arrogant is it for a white woman to come along and just capture a Blackfeet man’s work, even believing it’s for his benefit and the benefit of others?  I have no degree in Indian Studies.  Aren’t only Indians supposed to write about Indians?

Darrell’s mom was part of a little circle of Blackfeet women who had done well in school and became officer workers employed by various Indian-based governmental offices and agencies.  They had a steady income and shared resources in emergencies.  His father worked for the railroad.  His best friend at graduation was Joe Fisher.  I never did know why the Fisher brothers had educations beyond the norm.  Probably they were trained in WWII.  They were engineers working locally.  Jim Fisher was the Browning school system engineer. I don’t quite know what Emerson did.  

After military service in Korea, Darrell and his friend got the idea they should go to college and to them that meant Eastern Montana in Billings.  They simply presented themselves and in those days all high school graduates could go to college.  They had no idea where they would live or how they would pay their way, but the college was up to the problem and got them located and employed.

At the first summer vacation Darrell planned to hitchhike home -- this was the mid-Sixties -- but his roommate, son of a Great Falls lawyer, offered him a ride to his home.  This was his first taste of upper middle-class affluence and he never forgot.  Instead of having to thumb his way north to the rez, the roommate’s mother bought him a bus ticket.  (In those days there WAS a bus to Browning.)  The family remained his good friends.  This was the beginning of his interfacing between the poorest on the rez with the well-to-do in the cities.  Eventually he earned a degree from Harvard and also an MFA from Goddard.

I don’t want to just dump these red binders.  I might have time to condense them into something chronological or organized by topic.  But what if I don’t?  Who can I trust?  Who would benefit?  Should I put them in with the archives of Piegan Institute?  Do they belong to an account of Blackfeet insight and progress, or ought they to be part of mainstream dialogue?

How he loved to joke!

Dialogue was the real connection between Darrell and me.  Sometimes he got a letter from me, but more likely I stopped by or ran into him on the street and we talked and talked and talked.  Blackfeet is an oral culture, meant to be face-to-face.  I’ll write about the Blackfeet language revival later.  Is culture meant to adapt, to be personal, to begin on the street, to be full of intimacy and challenge?  Is it meant to die bit by bit as tribes do, so as to make room for the future?  In the beginning the People were afraid to learn their own language because their conquerers punished them for it.  It took courage to shake that off, to stop expecting a blow to the head.   Now they INSIST on learning the language.  Even white people know a few words. It's romantic and politically correct.

But the real recovery has been the ideas under the words.  They are stored in the land, pushing up like grass through the old lumber of the past.  That’s great.  Now what do I do with these red binders?

On this blog I wrote about Darrell on November 23, 2013.