Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Poems & blunders: Metamorphoses & Jeff Smith

I see that The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts has now published its list of readers for A Marathon Metamorphoses, a two-day live performance of Ovid's twisted epic (Saturday and Sunday, August 29 and 30). I am listed as reader 61 in a field of 74, starting with my one-time teacher William H. Gass and concluding with the Rev. Frank Krebs, a pastor in the Old Catholic tradition that separated from Rome after the First Vatican Council of 1870.

It makes sense to start with Bill Gass, who ranks as a sort of eminence grise of St. Louis letters; and why not end with a pastor in a faith that ditched Rome? After all, after wowwing the metropolis with his verse, Ovid was involuntarily separated from Rome and died in somewhat mysterious exile on the Black Sea.

The Pulitzer people tell us to "keep checking back for up-to-date listings," and it is only fitting to recognize the likelihood of change when we are talking about Ovid's great epic of change. But I wonder if we will see any changes in the number five slot? As of now, state Senator Jeff Smith is scheduled to read in that hole, at 11 a.m. on Saturday.

But a lot has changed for Jeff Smith since he accepted that invitation to read from the great poem of change. As Tony Messenger of The Post-Dispatch reported in detail on Sunday, Smith is now considering resigning from the state Senate as old allegations about election fraud may come back to haunt him.

Jeff Smith told me an investigation is ongoing and he can't comment, but my Jefferson City sources told me much of what Messenger heard (from sources he didn't name either). They went one further to suggest Smith may be indicted for obstruction of justice charges. They say he may have lied in affidavits submitted during the voter fraud investigation, which was concluded in 2007 without any judgment against him.

The initial claim was that Smith did not properly acknowledge that his campaign paid for postcards and flyers delivering an ad hominen attack against Russ Carnahan, his opponent in the 2004 Democratic primary for Missouri's 3rd Congressional seat. These campaign tools attacked Carnahan for allegedly being lazy and missing "more votes than all but 4 of his 163 colleagues in the State House" that year.

Carnahan won the primary and general elections, of course, and now serves in the congressional seat once held by Missouri political legend Dick Gephardt. Jeff Smith won his next political campaign, for state Senate, and his future has been a subject of speculation ever since - with the presumption that he would only continue to rise.

Now the young state senator's name is all abuzz in St. Louis, and not in a good way, what with his possible resignation and rumored-to-be-pending indictment appearing on the front page of the daily paper. Will he still read Ovid in public in August?

If he does, doing the rough math and guesstimation, the ambitious young man would likely read the first few pages of the Phaethon story. This is the story of the young son of the Sun God who tries to drive the Sun God's chariot when he is too young and reckless and perishes in the attempt.

If he reads at The Pulitzer, Jeff Smith - who ran for Congress at age 30 with no previous political experience outside of the classroom - could find the following speech from the Sun God to his son in his mouth:
What you want,
My son, is dangerous; you ask for power
Beyond your strength and years.
By the way, Ovid was exiled before his time, by his own admission, for "a poem and a blunder".


Painting of Phaethon flaming out by Gustave Moreau.

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