Love, Thomism, Jews, and Gay Marriage

Love is what you bring into your circle of concern. You value it for your own happiness and the happiness of the other. It’s what you’ve found a way to WORK WITH rather than wall yourself off from, marginalize, and demonize–and this thereby evokes the better angels of your nature. It creates a virtuous cycle of ever greater peace, cooperation, and tolerance in the world.

Pope Francis tried to move recently in the direction of love with gays, attempting to “welcome” them into fellowship, and to recognize their “gifts,” and this received vigorous resistance from those focused, not on love, but on fear of God’s anger at humans not using the essential forms of their sex organs in accordance with their primary function (procreation).

But Francis was trying to avoid Thomas Aquinas’s error with the Jews, which proved a devastating and historic failure of love. Aquinas could not work with Jews as insiders within Christendom, but determined to treat them as outsiders and outside of God’s circle of grace. He referred to Jews specifically as “outsiders” and advised the Countess of Flanders in a 1271 letter to continue an exclusionary policy towards them: “[I]t is good that Jews throughout your province are compelled to wear a sign distinguishing them from Christians. The reply to this is plain: that, according to a statute of the general Council, Jews of each sex in all Christian provinces, and all the time, should be distinguished from other people by some clothing.”

This custom of course blocked assimilation of Jews in Europe. It was a historic “love fail” in the heart of Christian Europe. The Jews’ fellowship and gifts were pushed away by Christians, and the cycle of the worse angels of human nature came to the fore and proceeded from thence.

Distinctions were being made that blocked the workings of love.

Thus when we focus on something other than the circle of love in formulating our ethics, we run the risk of failing to reality test, and of failing to respond with a sense of proportion.

So it is with gay marriage. There is the danger among contemporary Thomists of straining out the gnat to swallow the camel; of making distinctions that block the working of love. By focusing on essentialism as opposed to love, one risks evoking the worse angels of human nature with regard to a whole class of people.

This is potentially a far worse sin than any that married gays or lesbians might (supposedly) commit in the bedroom.

In Aquinas’ letter to the Countess of Flanders is also this sentence: “This [wearing of an identifying marker] is also mandated to them [the Jews] by their own law, namely that they make for themselves fringes on the four corners of their cloaks, through which they are distinguished from others.”

In other words, Thomas justified his callousness and “love-fail” toward Jews by basically saying, “Hey, they have distinguishing manners of dress anyway, so it’s okay to force on them an insignia of our own dominance and control.”

The force of Thomas’ recommendation to the Countess of Flanders is thus not weakened by the additional sentence, but actually illustrates the question-begging entailed in Thomas’s advice. If Jews are already distinguishable by dress, why heighten distinctions even more?

Clearly, the purpose of Christians marking Jews off with a yellow star was to assure that if Jews wanted to ever pass as non-Jews they would be breaking the law. Thomas was boxing Jews in. If the Jewish community, or individual Jews, were to ever seek greater assimilation with Christians, or dress like Christians, the required yellow star would prevent them from doing so. They could never be permitted to pass as part of the “in group.”

This is why the opposition to Pope Francis’s desire to “welcome” gays and acknowledge their “gifts” within the Catholic Church is so noxious. Wherever religion is drawing us away from an expanding circle of love, something is wrong. The very controversy reveals a heart of darkness lurking in the contemporary Catholic Church. Gay equality and marriage is not about trying to sacrifice truth or the right not to associate to one group’s civil rights. People have to come toward each other from both directions, and with a sense of respect, dignity, and equality. Nobody should be forced. Respect for conscience dictates that people should not be forced.

But somebody also has to go first. Francis, in trying to “welcome” gays and recognize their “gifts,” took a step forward. And gay Catholics who want to marry are saying, “We want some formal structure to the expressions of our relationships and sexual desires.” That’s a step as well.

Working with gay people–dialoguing with them, welcoming them, etc.–is work. It’s the work of love. Imagine how different the history of Europe might have gone had Thomas advocated the assimilation of Jews into Christendom, not via conversion, but simply in fellowship, welcoming them with equality and noticing their gifts?

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What’s Really Essential About Us? Do Thomists Get This Right?

If we’re heterosexual, God, nature, and evolution have conspired heavy against us in terms of what our essential function is from the age of 13 forward, which is to procreate.

But we don’t conform to this aspect of our essential nature BECAUSE WE’VE GOT BIG BRAINS, and most of us choose not to marry and raise children until the age of about 27. Our big brains desire education, sexual novelty, and other adventures, such as travel, that override our more primitive biological natures to get on with reproduction. Many of these delays in marriage and reproduction are grounded in our natural desire to seek pleasure, learning, meaning, aesthetic experience, travel, writing, public esteem, mastery of a skill, cinema, play, sports, social scenes, music, dancing, etc.

These are all fun. They’re not driven by discipline and harshness, but a longing for novelty and joy. That’s our essential nature; it’s what it means to be a young and big brained primate. It’s how God made us (if you want to put it this way). Eros, energy, and exploration are at their heights. We’re in the realm of Walt Whitman from the ages of 13 to 27.

What is therefore most essential about us as humans is our big brained creativity, curiosity, and power to drive cultural and technological evolution much, much faster than old-school evolution. This makes for difficulties keeping up. Thomistic essentializing and grousing about “the culture these days” is a tortoise chasing a speeding train.

Hence Thomism can ludicrously propose no sex–none!–and not even self-stimulation, from 13 to 27 (or longer, if you wait till your 30s to marry). It’s completely out of touch with reality, with what we are most essentially; with WHAT God made us and HOW God made us, which is by evolution building parts onto parts, and modules onto modules. Many of these parts and modules pull in different directions, and our big brains choose from among them, as from a menu of options).

So what’s essential here? Nothing. Evolution and God made one thing in the cosmos (it appears) that strongly, strongly transcends instinct and essence, and can drive evolution much quicker than biology: us.

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Thomas Aquinas Says We Are Children of Wrath. Is He Right?

In the fourth book of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, chapter 52, there is quite a dark vision of the world on display. At one point, for example, Aquinas, echoing the apostle Paul, speaks of all humanity as “children of wrath.” God, in other words, is mad at us and is actively allowing our ongoing punishment for original sin (the sin of Adam and Eve).

According to Thomas, there was a time when God supernaturally and actively protected Adam and Eve from corruption, suffering, and death. It was a grace, a gift that God gave his two new creatures. God didn’t have to do it, but he actively, in each moment, did it.

Then they sinned.

From that point forward, God withdrew this grace from even their descendants, placing the whole species “under wrath.” It’s a bleak view of God. It’s a bleak view of humanity.

And in this same chapter, Aquinas asks whether Jesus got infected (as we have) with Adam and Eve’s corruption. He argues not (the Virgin birth, and all).

Thomas also makes reference to intercourse, and discusses whether it is protected from being a sinful act. He says it is, but only if a person has taken certain personal graces from Christ and the Church.

But what if Thomas has started his reasoning about what’s essential about humanity in the wrong place? What if Thomas’s essentialism is FAKE ESSENTIALISM as opposed to REAL ESSENTIALISM (what we really are, and what things really are)?

So much depends on how you start the engine of your syllogisms to running.

If death has always been in the cosmos (long before Adam and Eve hit the scene), and there was in fact no Adam and Eve who lived in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago (as science clearly tells us), then what’s really essential about us? Really, really essential?

Maybe it’s something quite different from what Aquinas ever imagined. Maybe God’s not mad at us. Maybe God’s not there at all.

Which is worse, to imagine oneself a child of wrath with an escape hatch in salvation through Christ and the Church (however delusional this belief is), or to imagine oneself as a vulnerable primate in a vast and ancient cosmos without design or God?

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Brute Facts and Sufficient Reasons

The most brute fact of all is learning that we will die, which we then cast about for an explanation that will sufficiently account for this fact: “As in, forever? Does someone will this death of mine?”

In our searching for a sufficient explanation, we immediately discover three grave difficulties to confident investigation:

(1) God is not talking.

(2) If God made us and lets us die for a purpose, it seems to be an opaque one, for we are quite belated, arriving late on the cosmic scene, an evolved primate adrift precariously on an unfriendly planet in a vast ocean of lifeless and empty space.

(3) Being evolved primates of limited intelligence with powerful instinctual desires and aversions–among them, the fear of death and a longing to live forever–we have trouble thinking clearly. (Orwell famously said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort.” He said this precisely because it is so difficult to eliminate the static of our desires, aversions, biases, etc.)

Add to these difficulties the problem of seemingly senseless suffering, illustrated most vividly in the contemplation of evolution, the Holocaust, and tsunamis that can wash away 100,000 people in a single hour (240,000 people died in the Indian Ocean Christmas tsunami of 2004 alone).

So this is the great brute fact: we die, and we must face this in the presence of other facts: (1) the evolutionary cosmos is vast and old, and will go on quite fine without us; (2) there is great suffering; (3) our cognitive capacities are severely limited; and (4) God is not speaking. We search for a sufficient reason for our life and approaching death, and find the ones on offer deficient.

Maybe there is no ultimate or sufficient reason at all. What then?

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Is God A Brute Fact Or Does God Not Exist?

If God exists, why is there some Being rather than no Being?

Put another way, with regard to the existence of contingent beings (“Why is there something rather than nothing?”), God presumably functions as the necessary and sufficient cause for those contingent beings. But on the principle of sufficient reason, God has no reason for being Herself.

So the answer to the question, “Why is there some Being rather than no Being?” has no answer. If God exists, God is a brute fact.

Thus wherever there are contingent beings, THEN it would appear that a singular, unified, necessary Being must exist to end the infinite regress of causes. There must be a necessary cause of some sort. But that necessary Being itself has no reason to exist prior to the creation of those contingent beings. There could have been no Being rather than that one Being.

Therefore, the existence of God does not square with the principle of sufficient reason. God is either a brute fact without a sufficient cause Herself, or She simply does not exist.

But then what is the necessary cause for contingent beings?

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Could Gay Marriage Drive A Revolution In Thomistic Thought?

At his blog, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser quotes Michael Levin as saying: “What homosexual rights activists really want [from anti-discrimination laws] is not [merely] access to jobs but legitimation of their homosexuality.”

This is a distraction. The motive of activists is not what should be at issue, but what is right and true.

Perhaps Thomists should reevaluate the premises underlying their current opposition to homosexuality. Maybe the reasoning supporting the traditional view is wrong. And scientists increasingly inform these discussions, and need to be consulted.

Feser thinks the approval of gay marriage would require a revolution within Thomistic thought. But maybe that revolution is overdue.

In any case, the issue is far too serious to make it a face-off between liberal and conservative. Creative intellectual work needs to be done on whether a Thomistic case for same sex marriage is feasible and defensible.

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Sexual Prohibitions Require Justification

At his blog, Thomist philosopher Edward Feser recently wrote the following: “Sexual desire is extremely powerful and the demands of sexual morality an especially irksome imposition on the will. Hence the tendency of liberalism is to try as far as possible to eliminate or at least soften and minimize the importance of such demands.”

But who cares what liberals are trying to do in terms of eliminating or softening sexual moral demands?

The questions that should not be lost here are these:

(1) Are the sexual prohibitions placed on people justified (from masturbation, to contraception, to gay marriage)?

(2) Are Thomists begging the question when they essentialize marriage as centered in reproduction, raising children, and promoting family?

(3) Can marriage be redefined under Thomist assumptions in a way that is oriented toward love as the essential core of it? And if it can be, why shouldn’t it be done?

The focus on liberalism and the Church’s inside baseball in Feser’s post distracts from a direct grappling with these questions. If you oppose sex for pleasure and gay marriage, you need to justify those positions, not obscure the issues by gaming the motives and politics surrounding the debate. That’s blue pipe smoke cast over the intellectual chessboard.

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Does The Cosmos Have A Purpose?

I see no evidence that the cosmos has an end to which it is tending. It’s vast and old, violent and evolving. It appears to care not for us. (Auden captured this beautifully in his poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts.”)

Gravity, for example, brings new stars into existence even as others die and explode. The cosmos doesn’t seem to be tending toward any purpose. And we’re late comers to the whole process. Even our star is a late comer. Others stars came and went long before ours even got here. So the cosmos’ end, if it has one, certainly does not appear to be us. The Holocaust doesn’t help the purpose thesis here. (I’m thinking of Camus’ perspective after WWII.)

If God exists, there may be some inscrutable goal and value to which the cosmos is tending, but again, it doesn’t appear to be focused on us, or anything we can understand. Why, for example, did God use three billion years of death and competition to generate life’s current complexity on our planet? Why make such exquisite cellular machines only to have them EAT one another? Why bring into existence whole species and ecosystems, then wipe them out? (There have been numerous mass extinctions in Earth’s history.) It just makes no sense.

If there was evidence that the cosmos was: (1) young, (2) small, (3) revolved around planet Earth, and (4) daily produced inexplicable and miraculous events, one would reasonably conclude that something purposeful and supernatural was up, even with God not talking. And if each animal appeared to be specially created, that would be interesting. But none of this is the case. And God isn’t talking.

Nevertheless, the fact that there is life and mind in the material cosmos at all is stunning, so maybe something purposeful is up after all. I don’t know.

What evidence would you point to that ought to incline one to believe the cosmos tends to some supernatural purpose?

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If You Oppose Gay Marriage, Justify Your Position

Gay marriage is not just an abstract question. We’re talking about the lives of real gay people, their equality and dignity, and their right to flourish openly as who they are.

Are you in solidarity with gay people’s assertions of equality, dignity, autonomy, and marriage equality or not? It’s as much an existential question as a procedural and inside baseball question for this or that religious or political institution.

In the 1960s, it wouldn’t have been reasonable to discuss the inside baseball of the black civil rights movement and the women’s equality movement without expecting someone to raise the issue, if you opposed them, of your own justification for doing so. You wouldn’t get the luxury to just game the state of play. By your very resistance to the full equality and dignity of others, you wouldn’t have earned that. You couldn’t have expected that.

It’s the same today.

The very pressing of the issue of gay marriage by gay people insists on justification from those who oppose them and support the status quo.

Gays have experienced millenia of discrimination, violence, and closeting, and we are now living at a moment in history in which gays are asserting their equality and declaring that their essence and inclinations are neither evil nor disordered. If you say that they are, that needs justification.

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Gay Marriage and Thomism

At Catholic philosopher Edward Feser’s blog, a poster in the threads wrote the following: “If I start with a conclusion, then perhaps I can manufacture a theory (or modify an existing theory) to arrive at my desired conclusion, but that is hardly philosophy.”

Exactly. And that’s what Thomism does again and again, pretending to use the intellect to hit a target it already has drawn a circle around with Church doctrine. I’m starting to agree with Bertrand Russell’s estimate of Aquinas, that in the end he is less of a philosopher and more an apologist.

In other words, when the use of philosophy suits the Thomist, the philosophy is emphasized. But when the philosophy fails of its own accord to reach the doctrines of the Church, it gets hijacked to those purposes. Thomism is a handmaiden of the Church.

Thus in the case of essentialism and gay marriage, the Thomist pretends that only the INTELLECT and not the WILL are engaged in appraising what marriage really is most essentially, when in reality the traditional and conservative WILL is driving the INTELLECT exactly in the way that Feser claims liberals are guilty of.

Gay people believe that they are born gay, that there is something sui generis and essential about their condition. Science supports this conclusion.

Gay marriage, therefore, could be oriented to Thomistic essentialism if Thomists wanted this to happen. But they don’t. They’re temperamentally conservative people using philosophy to arrive at temperamentally conservative (and in this case, Church oriented) conclusions.

Opposition to gay marriage is an expression of the conservative will, not the philosophical intellect.

But here is all a Thomist would have to do to approve gay marriage (in and outside of the Church):

(1) Admit that it’s okay to change one’s mind. One needn’t be King Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, rigidly holding to a position out of fear of losing “authority.” As Robert F. Kennedy said, reflecting on the unbending Creon, “The only sin is pride.”

(2) Define marriage, in its essential nature, more broadly than just surrounding reproduction, the rearing of children, and promoting the heterosexual family. This could be done by placing its essential aim at love between partners setting out to build a life together (with or without children). The light of love and human bonding could thus be treated as what is most essential to marriage.

(3) Acknowledge the fact that Thomas himself did not reason in a vacuum, and that history and culture influenced his premises and conclusions, one of which was putting reproduction front and center in family life at a time when maintaining population was a serious issue. This is no longer a problem.

(4) Acknowledge the fact that when God gave humans big brains, this changed the equations surrounding what organs are “essentially for.”

(5) Affirm that the treatment of homosexuals throughout the millenia has been cruel, humiliating, murderous, and evil–a historic, inter-generational crime–and that humans now mean to remedy it by removing the stigma surrounding homosexuality. There is nothing disordered or otherwise wrong surrounding homosexual desire or commitment within gay marriage. Nothing. Society can incorporate a broader and essential definition of marriage.

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Two Arguments Against Thomism

I think of metaphysics as akin to poetry. If you can’t ground arguments in empiricism and experience, you can’t really say with certainty whether what you’re claiming is in fact true or merely clever.

So my first argument against metaphysical philosophy of the Thomistic sort is that it is poetry. It’s a way of framing the world; of narrating it; of making some parts of it central and seen, and other parts marginal or not seen. This is what poetry, especially epic poetry, does.

And this is fine if you aren’t under the spell of your metaphysical system. But when you translate your metaphysics into dogma, you’ve stopped taking your poetry with a light touch, and you’re now in the realm of treating your deductions and system with 100% certainty. This is akin to the way a fundamentalist reads the Bible or Quran. The system is impermeable to reality testing even in principle, and you believe it 100%.

But this is folly because of our existential situation. We are evolved primates on a tiny planet adrift in the vast ocean of space. We necessarily inhabit the realm of probability; a realm of fog; of life “beneath the moon” (the sublunary).

Shakespeare, for this reason, is a better philosopher than Aquinas. And even Charlton Heston gets closer to the truth than Aquinas in the 1960s version of Planet of the Apes (“It’s a mad house! A mad house!”).

Camus is also superior to Aquinas. The cosmos is absurd from our vantage; it does not answer to human longing. But Camus tells us that we still have solidarity and rebellion against the absurd (making collective and private meaning for ourselves). Camus’ The Plague is a better guide for living than Aquinas’ Summa.

And we’ve got reason as a tool to help us along. We know, for instance, that if the premises of a deductive argument are true, the conclusion is 100% certain. That’s a great tool to have for coming at the world. But it’s often difficult to know, absent experience and empiricism, whether the premises put forward in an argument really are true. And this means that a philosophical system that cannot reality test even in principle is akin to speculating about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

My second argument against Thomism is that it pretends to transcend history. For example, I think it’s quite obvious that the starting point for Thomistic reasoning about sex is a contingent historical byproduct of an age in which maintaining population size was difficult and the priests writing the laws of sexual conduct were sexual innocents themselves (and all male). Rather than procreation, Thomistic philosophizing about sex could be started with love and (gender and orientation) equality.

So what Thomists don’t seem to acknowledge is that the premises from which their reasoning proceeds is historically situated. Aquinas started his project as an attempt to escape the contingent and transcend it with an act of pure reasoning. He appealed to divine authority (the Bible, etc.) absent experience, and this was an early mistake.

I like the way Bertrand Russell contrasts the theologian with the scientist in his A History of Western Philosophy (1945, p. 517 in the 2007 Touchstone edition): “[I]t is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it. His beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic; they are based on evidence, not on authority or intuition.”

I’m with Russell.

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Soft on Islam?

Andrew Sullivan notes an irony in the Islam debate:

It’s a little amazing to me to watch some liberals who get extremely upset at religious people refusing to bake a cake for someone else’s wedding on religious grounds, suddenly seeing nuance when a religion believes that anyone who leaves it should be executed. If you’re against fundamentalism of the mildest variety here, why are you so forgiving of it elsewhere?

Good question.

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Jeremy England on the Origin of Life

__________

More on Jeremy England here.

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Your Genes Made You Do (Half) Of It

Relax a bit. Much less than we probably imagine is really under our control. Note this quote, for instance, from two psychologists recently summarizing at Slate some findings on genes vs. environment: “Genes influence not only our abilities, but the environments we create for ourselves and the activities we prefer—a phenomenon known as gene-environment correlation. For example, yet another recent twin study (and the Karolinska Institute study) found that there was a genetic influence on practicing music. Pushing someone into a career for which he or she is genetically unsuited will likely not work.”

In other words, genetic factors significantly influence not only the degree of talent we’re likely to display in a particular discipline (music, math, literature, etc.), but the temperamental energy and patience that we’re likely to bring to it in the first place.

So chill out. Less guilt seems to be in order if you’re a parent, or if you’re berating yourself for not rising to what you believe is your potential. It’s okay that you’re temperamentally anxious, or not a scientist or screenwriter. It’s not your fault. You did your best. Let it go.

I like this (I think I recall it from one of Jack Kornfield’s books): “I’m not okay, you’re not okay, and that’s okay.”

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Fox News’ “boobs on the ground” vs. Fox News’ “balls on the ground”

Fox News anchors apparently refer to women in the military as boobs on the ground, but if the old farts at Fox News were in the military they’d be balls on the ground.

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A Modest Multiverse Proposal

Start with lemon,

olive oil,

salt.

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The Elijah Song: American Marines Mix Religion and War

I’m conflicted about the below video. On the one hand, it’s great to see the free exercise of religion. These American Marines are obviously wonderful human beings, and the world is fortunate to have them. And it’s crucial to democracy that the religious and irreligious are free to live their lives exactly as they please, and according to their own sensibilities.

And this is obviously not a military sponsored event, so there’s no mixing of church and state. On the other hand, history has taught us that wedding religion with war is highly problematic; it can generate vast suffering and destruction.

Ideally, just as there is a separation of church and state, there should also be a separation of religion and war, for being pro-social and protective of one’s religious group can lead to the demonizing of outsiders. (Who would Jesus or Mohammad bomb? etc.)

Lastly, the Elijah song calls to mind a rather ugly biblical passage, in which Elijah is in a contest with the priests of Baal. The story ends with cultural extermination (hundreds of priests from a non-Israelite culture destroyed by fire from heaven). So too often, eliminationist mentalities accompany religious enthusiasm. And with regard to the war on terror, the United States is not (and should not consider itself to be) at war with Islamic civilization as such, but the video can leave one with that impression.

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An Honest Religious Believer

I sometimes ask people who tell me they believe in this or that religion the following question: “When you doubt, what do you doubt, and what do you say to yourself to make the doubt go away?” The most common reply is, “I never doubt.” This answer used to bewilder me. Whence the unwarranted certainty? I still don’t understand it. But I am no longer surprised by it.

And this is why I like the below story. The Archbishop of Canterbury doubts. Of course he does. His honesty is like coming up for air. How in the 21st century can one not doubt the ludicrous claims of religion?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, tells an audience that he too has moments of doubt VIDEO
SALON.COM
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FOUND POEM

Somebody on Crenshaw

Hit on a bicycle

And they are dead.

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Awareness (A Poem for Michael Graziano)

Still pond of attention.

Frog represents it,

announces it,

jumps in.

Reverberations.

Strange loops.

From the deep dive,

frog breath rises,

bubbles to the

surface. Pops.

Poet represents it,

announces it,

jumps in. 

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