Jail, Waters, demons, a war spoof

Books of the Region

September 15, 2002|By James H. Bready | By James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Jail, as an industry, grows and grows. According to Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards, in their book Behind Bars: Surviving Prison (Alpha, 240 pages, $14.95), four new penitentiaries or correctional institutions open in this country every month. As authority stresses jail time for drug convictions (or terrorist suspicion), very many of the newly jailed are young, angry, uncertain and fearful.

Anyone thinking of sending this book to a young relative or friend who is now a fish in the big house should know that before delivery in most prisons, the book's cover will have been slit off (lest contraband be tucked into the spine). No way for the book's recipient to know that Ross, who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, was for three years a prison employee; that Richards, now a Kentucky university professor, spent 11 earlier years as a federal prisoner, on marijuana charges. By now, each has a Ph.D.

In lots of ways, being in jail "is a really bad situation." When a prisoner files suits, or is otherwise a nuisance, the wardens often start moving him from jail to jail -- harder for him to be in touch with people outside. A long-termer shouldn't count on remaining in his family's thoughts. As for fellow cons: "Don't run your mouth" about your concerns or others'. Stand your ground against another prisoner but speak quietly, unthreateningly. Steer clear of the inmate economy: "cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, sex and gambling." Violence is most frequent among the gamblers.

Ross and Richards don't say flatly, stay out of jail. You, reading their tough and valuable book, will tell yourself that.

Fifteen films out as a moviemaker, John Waters now shares in the acclaim for a Broadway musical. But "Hairspray" on the stage is for others to assess. John Waters at 56 is ultimately more interesting for the direction of his career -- "as the world becomes trashier, his films become sweeter." Have we here an instance of anti- culture lag? Meanwhile, adding to the irony, "his reputation as the King of Trash" keeps on growing, Robert L. Pela points out in Filthy: The John Waters Phenomenon, 209 pages, $15.95).

By now, this world is the white, hourly-pay, "Hon" Baltimore, distinctive for its head and body decoration, garments, phrasing, intonation, yearnings and values. If John Waters from Lutherville exaggerates all this, sometimes adding a gay sensibility, his intent has not been to patronize but to highlight; and to horrify (nay, offend) the earnest, proper world in which he grew up.

Filthy follows Waters through his school and college uproars, his years of dubious income, attitude changes, fascination with film and scripts, the forming and heading of a center-city group of actors, their summers in Cape Cod and New York, and the first public showings of "Hag in a Black Jacket" and "Roman Candles" in downtown Baltimore's Emmanuel Church. The major films are then analyzed, in sequence, with detail that will spellbind a film student.

Waters stood still for this portrait -- which is merry and appreciative, but well short of flattery.

When Elizabeth Spires' mother died recently, at least the daughter had a way to express grief. About half of Spires' new volume of poetry, Now the Green Blade Rises (Norton, 80 pages, $21.95), is about her mother. She writes: Words are so small. Words have no weight. / And nothing will ever be the same. As Spires relives scenes and emotions across the years, mourning is as always unable to provide most of the answers; yet hers penetrates the mother-daughter union at its innermost.

Thanks to this and four previous books of poetry, Spires has made herself widely known -- apart from her membership in a husband-and-wife professor combination in Goucher College's English department. Hers is an imagination stirred by many places, many people; a voice that speaks tersely and clearly. At the end, she is addressing her own daughter.

In late medieval and early modern Europe, much of the population was fixated on evil spirits, known as demons, that were counterparts to angels. The heavenly host might or might not be intervening here below, but demons were thought to be dropping by for carnal intercourse with some women, known as witches. From popes on down, the Roman church (and later, Reformation clergymen in the American Colonies) pounced on suspect women, to burn them alive.

An easy way to explain this obsession has been to call it misogyny. But the farther Walter Stephens read in the documents, the clearer another answer grew. As set forth in his book, Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (University of Chicago, 408 pages, $35), punishment of humans was not what the pursuers sought so much as, simply, proof of the existence of creatures from on beyond.

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