March 7, 2010
What I Learned from Obama's Pop
"Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!"
- Alice in Wonderland
A little more than a month ago, I began my first descent into the rabbit hole of Barack Obama's origins, a place known to swallow reputations whole. What prompted my inquiry was an e-mail from a correspondent asking my opinion of "Pop," a poem published under the 19-year-old Obama's name in the spring 1981 edition of Occidental College's literary magazine, Feast. Having no prior bias going in, here is what I have concluded coming out.
- Questioning Obama's origins is a legitimate enterprise. Even by their own humble standards, the major media -- including Obama's biographers -- have done an impressively slack job in tracing the president's uncertain roots.
- Obama was almost assuredly born in Hawaii. There is no evidence that puts him elsewhere. Undoing the Kenyan possibility is the high likelihood that the "marriage" between Barack Sr. and Ann Dunham was a sham.
- Much depends on that marriage. "My parents shared not only an improbable love, they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation," said Obama, establishing the romantic narrative in his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His father was from Kenya. His mother was from "a town on the other side of the world, in Kansas."
- To paraphrase Harry Reid, Obama was no ordinary "Negro." Said Joe Biden of Obama's background, "I mean, that's a storybook, man." Enough depends on this story that Team Obama would and has dissembled to preserve it.
- For starters, Ann Dunham spent her formative years in Washington State, several of them in the progressive cocoon of Mercer Island. It was to Washington that she returned for a year immediately after Obama's birth, a fact missed by every Obama biography I could find.
- Baby Barack spent most of his first year in Washington as well, another fact overlooked by the biographers.
- There is not much storybook to a romance in which the mother leaves home immediately after her son's birth. Barack Sr.'s close friends have no memory even of a relationship between him and Dunham.
- When Barack Sr. left Hawaii a year after Obama's birth, Ann's father Stanley was there to see him off with smiles. He would always speak well of the black man who knocked up his daughter and then abandoned wife and child -- mighty unusual behavior from a father-in-law.
- There was a marriage license from another county, Maui -- a classic way to avoid local notification -- and a divorce, but if there was a wedding, then no one attended it. There was no ring, no photos, no leis.
- Ann Dunham met Barack Sr. in Russian class. (In 1960, people like Lee Harvey Oswald took Russian classes.) The possibility that the Dunhams recruited Barack Sr. to front for a less savory impregnation of Ann by a black man makes more sense than the fabled romance. Obama looks nothing like Barack Sr.
- No, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the father was Malcolm X.
- This brings us back to "Pop." Every mainstream reviewer I could find has argued that the subject of the poem was Obama's grandfather, Stanley Dunham. None of them asked why Obama would write a poem about his "Gramps" and title it "Pop." None addressed the questions of paternity implicit in the title and in the confrontation between son and father figure.
- On closer examination, the poem is almost assuredly about Obama's African-American mentor, the communist Frank Marshall Davis. There are two good reasons to assert this. One is that "Pop" recites a poem that he had written. Davis was a poet. Dunham was not.
- The second reason is that "Pop" actually appears to have been written by Davis about his own relationship with Obama.
- A stronger case can be made for Davis's authorship than for Obama's. For one, "Pop" has a different style altogether from a silly adolescent poem called "Underground" published under Obama's name along with "Pop" in Feast. Critic Warwick Collins rightly describes "Pop" as "by far the more powerful and complex" of the two, and his is the consensus opinion.
- For another, "Pop" closely resembles in style, language, and subject a matter a poem published by Davis in 1975 called "To A Young Man." The literary analyst who unearthed this poem -- I have referred to him as "Mr. West" -- has argued for Davis as "Pop" from the beginning.
- In each of the two poems in question, the young man is the narrator. In each, the old man, the Davis character, is discussed in the third person. In the 1981 poem, the narrator calls him "Pop," in the 1975 poem "the old man." In each poem, when this older character speaks to the young man, he does so without benefit of quotation marks.
- In "To A Young Man," the Davis character says on one occasion, "Since then I have drunk/ Hal a hundred liquid years/ Distilled Through restless coils of wisdom."
- Note the similar flow of language in "Pop": "Pop switches channels, takes another/ Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks/ What to do with me, a green young man."
- As is evident in these two short samples, both poems are written in free verse and make ready use of what is called "enjambment" -- that is the abrupt continuation of a sentence from one line into the next.
- There are parallels in word choice as well as style. "Neat" means without water or ice. "Neat" and "distilled" both suggest a kind of alcoholic purity. Each of these words is emphasized by isolating it from the flow of the text.
- Both poems are published with a seeming typo that may, in fact, be a pun. In "To A Young Man," as cited above, the old man says, "Since then I have drunk/ Hal a hundred liquid years/ Distilled." On first reading, I presumed the capitalized "Hal" to be a reference to young Prince Hal of Shakespeare's Henry IV with an allusion to the old man as Hal's wayward guide, Sir John Falstaff. The sentence reads better, however, if the old man, fifty years older than his young friend, says, "I have drunk half a hundred liquid years."
- In "Pop," the older man "Stands, shouts, and asks / For a hug, as I shink." Most reviewers simply dismiss "shink" as a typo, the right word being "shrink." Still, as poet Ian McMillan notes in the U.K. Guardian, "shink" literally means "to be hit in the face with a penis." I am not making this up.
- In each case, too, the older man shares his wisdom with a "young man" who may not be eager to hear it. The young man of "Pop" dismisses that wisdom as a mere "spot" in his brain, "something /that may be squeezed out, like a/ Watermelon seed between/ Two fingers."
- Comparably, the narrator of "To A Young Man" observes that the old man "walked until/ On the slate horizon/ He erased himself." Whether "squeezed out" or "erased" from the young man's consciousness, the Davis character understands just how tenuous is his hold on the lad.
- For all his awareness, however, the older man finds a certain drunken satisfaction in the exchange. Towards the end of "To A Young Man," the old man "turned/ His hammered face/ To the pounding stars/ Smiled/ Like the ring of a gong." "Pop" also concludes on an upbeat note: "I see my face, framed within / Pop's black-framed glasses/ And know he's laughing too."
- There is no reason to believe that the "young man" of the 1975 poem is Obama. The reader is told that the younger fellow is twenty years old and that the old man is fifty years older. Davis was precisely seventy in 1975, but Obama was no more than fourteen. Lacking too in the 1975 poem is the intimacy and anxiety that characterizes "Pop."
- In fact, "Pop" hints at both a blood relationship between the two men and a sexual one. The very name of the poem implies paternity, and in the poem the young man uses reflections and mirrors to show a physical resemblance between himself and the old man.
- As to a possible sexual relationship between Obama and the admittedly bisexual Davis, the poem offers some intriguing evidence: "Pop ... points out the same amber/ Stain on his shorts that I've got on mine, and/ Makes me smell his smell, coming/ From me."
- It is impossible to confirm that Davis either sired Obama or sexually abused him, but this imagery does at the least reek of some unsavory boundary violation.
- As compensation, Davis may well have slipped this "green young man" a poem for publication. Such an everyday fraud would not have seemed unethical to an old man used to the "flim and flam" ("Pop") of a world where "one plus one" does not necessarily make "two or three or four" ("To A Young Man").
- Trained to believe that nothing adds up and the deck is stacked against him, Obama has seemed from the beginning entirely comfortable with his counterfeit literary career.
- This chicanery would reach fruition in Dreams, the acclaimed literary success that laid the foundation of the Obama-as-genius myth. The evidence that Obama pal and mentor Bill Ayers largely ghosted this memoir now overwhelms the objective reviewer.
- In the final analysis, Davis, a pornographer with a stated fondness for young white women, makes as likely a suspect to be Obama's blood father as Barack Sr. Team Obama's evasiveness about the birth certificate and other questions of origins may have something to do with paternity issues.
- Questions about Obama's citizenship remain in play. His seeming adoption by the Muslim Lolo Soetoro and his removal to Indonesia cloud the issue of nationality. Obama was, in fact, registered at school there as "Barry Soetoro," a "Muslim" and an Indonesian citizen.
- Contrary to rumor, Obama could have traveled to Pakistan on an American passport in 1981. Whether he did or not is another question. It was not until April 2008 at a San Francisco fundraiser that Obama casually let it be known that he had traveled to Pakistan at all. Curiously, he had not mentioned this trip in either of his two books or in any prior public discussion of Pakistan.
- Raising suspicions further was the fact that two weeks before the Pakistan admission, someone had improperly accessed Obama's passport on three occasions. That someone worked for John Brennan at Analysis Corp., a company with fewer than a hundred employees. A former CIA operative then advising Obama, Brennan is now Deputy National Security Adviser.
Curiouser and curiouser! Those dependent on the major media for their news know close to none of the above. They have been coached to believe that only Mad Hatters and "birthers" would dare question the self-serving slop of disinformation that the media have dished out in the age of Obama. Well, off now to see Alice -- something of a homecoming for me, as I have lived in Wonderland for the last several years.