On Killing Two Crucial Birds With One Pen

by Griffin Irving

22 April 2013

Norman Ball’s How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable? and The Frantic Force are stalked, ever so subtly, by the fraught subtext of a father and daughter’s haltingly convergent kinship. Surely this is a writer Dad and I could break conciliatory bread over.
cover art

How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable?

Norman Ball

(Web del Sol)
US: Nov 2010

cover art

The Frantic Force

Norman Ball

US: Jun 2011

A poet by nature and avocation, I came rather late to knowing my own mind in the comparatively drearier realms of politics and economics. This personal aversion was driven by (Freud might say predicated on) my father’s—the writer, thinker and prodigious researcher G. Edward Griffin—tendency to drench me in the political temporalities of the day.

Through the years, Dad and I rarely saw eye-to-eye. The sheer depth of our temperamental divergence was no better on display than in the tactical wielding of the pen, a device we both came to relish in entirely different fields of operation. I only formed an affinity much later in life for my father’s laissez-faire and libertarian predilections, which are abundantly expressed in his landmark and, may I now say, quite brilliant book The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve (Amer, November 2010). Around this period of intellectual reconciliation, I began encountering the essays of Norman Ball, a once-frequent contributor to Liberty Magazine during the tenure of that magazine’s founder, the late, great libertarian beacon, R. W. Bradford.

Norman Ball’s two recent essay compilations, How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable? (Web del Sol, 2010) and The Frantic Force (Petroglyph, 2011) are stalked, ever so subtly, by the fraught subtext of a father and daughter’s haltingly convergent kinship. For in his killing of two crucial birds with one pen, Ball served as an unwitting familial salve. After all, who else writing today weaves the occasional sonnet into savvy and prescient financial essays? Surely this is a writer Dad and I could break conciliatory bread over.

In The Frantic Force, Ball wastes no time rhetorically posing the far-flung mandate of an avowed dialectician: “Might the admixture of poetry’s dark sublime and modern life’s dark cynicism offer up a bright and shining clue?” The point is, even when Ball is not directly speaking of poetry, he is never far from it. In a brilliant essay on the current financial melt-down and its existential implications for the very existence of what we call money (a concept I am no stranger to in my discussions on the Federal Reserve with my father), Ball manages a humorous poetical aside on the bewildering derivatives complex that seemed poised to swamp all notions of traditional value in the opening months of the financial crisis:

The Bid is the Father of the Ask
When risk conforms by profile or by sleight
of counter-party hand to prop a shoe
that cannot fall, or engineers a flight
to weaker hands—sound bid ‘s been bid adieu.

When ask splits distance value can’t divine
from hubris, moral compassing won’t span
the gulf. Thus marked to market, all resign
to Fate which underwrites the bankers’ plan
of skirting hazard, cheating just reward.

We find ourselves upon a barren field
bankrupted by ill-gotten grains we stored
in abstract, farmers of imagined yield
wound-up by top-down policies unfair,
all engineered to scuttle laissez-faire.

The sonnets, when they occur, are not ornamental, but inform otherwise ‘real-world’ issues with a sublime dimension that shines a humanist light on the dismal science. In another essay, Ball offers one of the clearest explanations of Marxist overproduction I’ve ever read, while at the same time almost comically distancing himself from the programmatic, and catastrophic, permutations of the systems that travelled under that much-maligned name in the 20th century.

These essays are astonishing both in their breadth of inquiry (encompassing economics, politics, culture, poetry, humor/satire and yes, even California forest fires) and their eminently quotable insights. In one of my favorite essays appearing a few years back in Liberty, ‘One Nation, Under Whose God’, Ball starts things in his inimitable style of tongue and cheeky self-deprecation that bears, nonetheless, a very sobering message about the necessity for separation of church and state.

This was a message America needed desperately to hear at a time when its President, George W. Bush, was eyeing Middle East intervention while offering up ominous, possibly evangelic-derived, statements such as “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job”.  Before launching on a sustained church and state tirade, Ball states his own predilection for Christian quietude:

“A social libertarian, I normally avoid judging other people’s religious beliefs. Until the revival tent comes to Washington, that is. Then all reticence can take a hike. The product of a buttoned-down, under-sexed Calvinist upbringing, I was raised to believe banking and religion, properly practiced, shared one crucial similarity: they were boring as hell. Any sense of drama or, God forbid, fun was a portent of looming disaster. This heavy-on-the-starch moral restraint is at odds with the Pentecostals’ penchant for pyrotechnic hyperbole. There’s just no appetite in the Lone Star State for stiff-backed Yankee rectitude. Free beer, wild-catting, fire and brimstone are what pass for a quiet day in Texas. But there I go judging again.”

But wait folks – equal time and all; a social libertarian perhaps, might Ball, in his red-blue aversion (what he mockingly refers to as the ‘NFL frame’ and ‘bad kabuki’) occupy what Amitai Etzioni recently referred to as the radical center, that is, a rejiggering of the “old opposition between statist liberalism and laissez-faire conservatism” to create a pragmatic, energized middle distrustful of both nutty extremes? Such a centrism is anything but milquetoast or, heaven forbid, middle of the road.

If I was an Occam’s Razor girl, I’d say Ball just hates everyone. Yes, he goes hard on the Bush gang. But here’s his take on President Obama I might add, months before he had even clinched the nomination. If this isn’t an eerily prescient indictment of America’s great narcissistic swoons and the Chauncey Gardiner-esque perils these fanciful flights install, then I don’t know what is:

“America has a yen for the change thing. We entertain change so much because few things entertain us quite so much as change. The question that needs asking is, are we indulging change for its own sake or are we making well-considered strides towards a more promising regime? Bringing this philosophical preamble down to the earthly realm of presidential politics, is Obama – and to a lesser extent Huckabee—the logical beneficiary of a cathartic change in the body politic or are they the latest straw-men in America’s all-out pursuit of the pleasure principle… is Obama only the latest dirigible, America’s ‘grandiosity bubble’ almost certain to meet a Hindenburgian fate when the daily reality of holding office, with its myriad compromises, takes hold?”

Oh Ball, the myriad compromises we’ve come to witness, from indefinite detention to Guantanamo to uninterrupted war-mongering to bankster ring-kissing to overhead drone monitoring of Kansans to… well, you get the dystopic picture.

Now, onto things a little closer to my heart: poetry. Anyone who can swing a mean political axe and have this to say about poor wee Johnnie Keats gets my vote on all things great, small and negatively capable. This excerpt comes from an essay that first appeared in the perennially gorgeous The New Renaissance  magazine:

“God love Keats; dead at 26, his life a blotted collage of consumptive loved ones, stern patrons, larcenous relations and unremitting financial calamities. No wonder he sought to erase the determinate edges of his existence, tucking his head in like a stoic ox plowing a rock-strewn field. Keats never tasted the self-indulgent fruits of neurotic despair like a Plath or a Sexton. Such teeth-gnashing is the province of weekenders bored with the city life of relative comfort. For Keats, life never troubled itself with peaks and valleys. Practically every day was a Death Valley postcard. Jim Morrison, himself dead at 27, once wailed, “I’ve been down so goddamned long it looks like up to me.” Well, Keats was so damned down his poetry seemed to have already left the building.”

But that’s Ball. Even when he’s walking through the Great Meeting Hall, he’s tracking in guffaws. Defending difficulty in poetry, Ball revives in an essay ‘Being Difficult’ that first appeared in Rattle, T. S. Eliot’s belief that poetic enjoyment often precedes a full understanding of the meat in the stanzas. Indeed, Ball suggests comprehensibility is an aspiration more akin to prose. Poetry excels at stubbornly withheld mystery, whereas prose offers explicit prescriptions, polemics, shopping lists, book reviews.

War isn’t spared the mightiest sword, either. Describing the castration of language in service to militarism and profit, Ball manages a tone that exudes creepiness, pathology and irreverent humor all at once. This is from a stream-of-consciousness broadside called ‘Suspicious White Powder’ that appeared originally in Bright Lights Film Journal:

“Sold on pastoral endings and the coy backward glance, America, the world’s autist, insists on its own terms: civil war, insurgency, pockets of resistance, dead-enders, a few bad eggs. But the world, sold on nothing in particular, gives nothing up.

This clash of civilizations resounds in warring factions that seek to define war on another man’s turf, using sound bites market-tested in a Beltway think tank. Columns of contractors shield millions from the whites of another man’s eyes. For this, steep tribute is paid, feeding a shell-game of letterheads. Drones are the crystallizing emblem, the empty casings of outsourced character; the actor who emerges, unscathed, slathered in movie-blood, claiming to do his own stunts. Unmanned wars loom like the next brave frontier claiming the New American Century while freeing-up the best and brightest for movie-lot tours of duty. Zipperless fucks in impregnable titanium tanks are every techie’s wet dream. But is this bold embrace of absence a clandestine departure?”

Ball can be flat-out hilarious when he wants. Eavesdropping on a conversation between the cosmetically disfigured Heidi Montag and her main man, Lucifer, the reader is treated to a Dantean inner-circle of previously unrecorded zaniness. Here, the Dark Angel comments on the efficacy of Soul Reductive Surgery (SRS), a procedure he has apparently put his forked tongue behind with devilish conviction. Is it safe? an interviewer wonders:

“It all depends on your time horizon,” Lucifer sniffed.

“From the long view, say eternity, the equation gets a little more infernal. But as I advise all my clients, life’s too short. And as I tried to tell Job, let me and God handle the existential stuff. Man, that dude was a glutton for boils and sores.”

“Eww gross!” Heidi groaned before wincing from apparent discomfort. “Isn’t my Overlord the shits?”

No stranger to fawning sycophants, Lucifer appeared unfazed. “God’s cleverest angel didn’t fall off the back of a turnip truck. I may have let my halo sag. But I’m still smart as hell. Now wipe that smile off your face young lady and go drop another pound of flesh for Daddy.”

Worn high enough atop the sleeve
the spirit will evaporate.
This leaves all garments vulnerable
to envy, gluttony and hate.”

Contrary to the versified postscript that concludes the essay, Ball’s spirit is in no danger of evaporating. If anything, he’s awash in the stuff. How Can We Make Your Power More Comfortable? is more politically and economically focused, while The Frantic Force tends more towards cultural and poetry matters. However, both volumes travel beneath the broadest banner of all-things-interesting and seem to be more chronologically arranged than thematically exclusive.

Humor and turn-of-phrase typify the rules of the road as I imagine they must in Ball’s frenetic crossroads of a brain. I’m on board for the next compilation should there be one. Maybe I’ll get my dad a copy, too.

Griffin Irving (a nom de plume that reverses her surname) is a California poet residing in Hawaii who honed her craft with Terry Wolverton in the ‘90s. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Mills College, she is a recipient of The Ardella Prize for Excellence in Fiction, The Elizabeth Pope Service Award and The Woman’s Studies Essay Prize. A cross-section of her work appeared in New Zealand’s Blackmail Press (Issue 9). She can be reached at [email protected]

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