I have two poems in the latest issue of Sin Fronteras. Here is one of them:
WHY EVERYONE’S FAVORITE UNCLE MISSED THE WEDDING
From table to table he goes like stations of the cross,
from meeting to weeping to nailing.
They eat each other’s salt and it tastes like flesh,
they touch each other’s flesh and it feels like salt.
Someone at the table will soon get ill,
someone at the table will die.
He grows tired of playing Prospero
or the Bodhisattva of Perpetual Learning,
but he can’t help himself around family.
He grows tired of playing himself
and the only way to stop is solitude,
but alone he can hear his heart,
and every beat proposes a question
to which he has no answer:
Why one man falls at forty-seven,
while another man persists to ninety
despite his pains and disappointments,
why one man sees the dark in every light,
and another finds the light in darkness.
To see both poems: buy the latest issue and go to page 29:
Countering Culture by Jessica de Koninck
The Brothers Silver by Marc Jampole (Owl Canyon Press, 2021)
Stories of family trauma, parent-child relationships,
and sibling rivalry are part of the human psyche.
They are central to the opening stories of the
Bible as well as to those of earlier traditions. In the
original trauma, God expels Adam and Eve from the
garden. Eve gives birth to two sons. Sibling rivalry
begins, culminating in Cain murdering Abel. Am
I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9) is a question
that continues to repeat. The Book of Genesis is
filled with dysfunctional families and siblings with
difficult relationships – Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob
and Esau, Joseph and his twelve brothers. The
patriarch, Abraham, sets out to kill his son, Isaac.
Death, deception, and betrayal characterize our
Into this tradition enters The Brothers Silver,
the first novel by poet and non-fiction writer Marc
Jampole. The book represents a highwater mark
in the history of stories of family trauma and
sibling rivalry and the kind of book you want to
talk with someone about after reading. It is also a
story of the Baby Boom generation, and the time
period from the late 1940s to the turn of the 21st
century. The story crosses the continent from East
to West and North to South, starting in Queens,
NY, and moving on to Florida, Illinois, California,
parts of the West, and back to the East Coast.
Novels by men about sibling rivalry are not new.
Consider the various intrigues in the similarly titled
The Brothers Karamazov. Parenthetically, one of the
pleasures of reading The Brothers Silver is the many
literary and other references and allusions scattered
throughout. There is no detriment to not recognizing
them, but recognition adds its own thrill. Again, like
Jacob and Esau, The Brothers Silver concerns two
brothers, Jules – the older, and Leon – the younger.
Typical of many families, particularly those with
absent parents, the older son is the caregiver, but also
deeply competitive, fearful of losing his birthright.
Meanwhile, the younger is detached and depressed,
but strong, smart, and handsome.
Less typical of novels written by men, The
Brothers Silver is an in-depth exploration of the
impact of childhood family trauma on the lives of
two boys whose parents are abusive and neglectful.
Their father, Ed Silver, who asserts that “all women
are whores,” is a largely absent narcissist, unwilling
or unable to provide financial or emotional support.
Their mother, Ethel Silver, experiences severe mood
swings and errant behavior, leaving her unable
to hold a job, care for her children, or manage
anything about her life.
Writing about family trauma is also not new
to literature, though it has unfortunately and
often disdainfully been negatively characterized
as confessional writing in both memoir and
poetry, as if certain life experiences were either
too embarrassing or too unworthy for literary
exploration. In conversation, Jampole noted:
Being a victim myself of childhood
abuse and neglect, and someone who
struggled it an adult – the largest part of
the struggle being admitting it, because I
am, of course, male – I basically wanted
to write about this subject.
Jampole writes from the poetic tradition. Despite
the brilliance of the poet Robert Lowell, who may
reasonably be called the progenitor of confessional
writing, there appears to remain a sense that
the exploration of feelings belongs to the realm
of women writers and is less serious or worthy
as subject matter. The Brothers Silver rejects that
negative assessment and unflinchingly explores
the origin and impact of childhood trauma. The
novel explores its lifelong impact and the difficult
and long-term work necessary each day in order
to survive. Childhood trauma, Jampole noted in
conversation, is not like a disease that you cure; it’s a
disability that you learn to live with.
The book opens with the two young boys, Jules
and Leon, wrestling, on the dusty floor of what
turns out to be the courtroom chambers of the
judge in their parents’ divorce hearing. The scene
is heartbreaking. The nightmarishness worsens as
their mother, popping pills, drives the boys home
and, in a stupor, must be persuaded out of the car.
There is an argument in the kitchen with their
father about signing the divorce papers. Sometimes
the house is clean, and meals are available. Often the
boys are left to fend for themselves. Their situation,
contrasted with Jules’s happier recollections and
hopes that things may change for the better, only
gets worse. The brothers remain helpless in the
face of their mother’s repeated suicide attempts
and inability to hold a job and their father’s
physical absence and emotional unavailability.
The Brothers Silver is also a literary novel. As a
result of both the authenticity of the child’s voice
and Jampole’s use of language, the opening chapter
is extremely powerful in establishing the source of
trauma. For those who read for writing, the Brothers
Silver is a glorious adventure. While the remaining
chapters are not as fluid or compelling as the
opening one, each drives the narrative, explores the
possibilities of language and form, and mixes genres
with fluidity. The text is keenly attuned to music,
from the rhythms that permeate the chapters to the
songs playing in the background or on the radio.
Indeed, music, chess, politics, and philosophy are
just a few of Jampole’s interests that The Brothers
Silver has sufficient gravitas to explore.
The Brothers Silver contains twelve chapters,
each of which can be read as an individual work,
But the whole is larger than the sum of its parts.
The opening chapter, “On the Cold Hill’s Side,”
is particularly effective as a stand-alone piece.
“Hashmal,” a hilarious drug-crazed romp through
a soon-to-be-closed Mikvah (Jewish ritual bath)
appeared in publication previously. Each chapter
is written in a distinct voice and style. It is a work
of literary fiction in the best tradition thereof. It
harkens back to the mixed genre explorations of
John Dos Passos, one of Jampole’s early influences.
As noted, “On the Cold Hill’s Side” is recounted in the
voice of a pre-adolescent child. Jampole carefully
employs the language and diction of childhood. At
the same time, the adult reader’s understanding of
the consequences of Ethel and Ed Silver’s behavior
makes the experience for the reader and the reader’s
compassion for the children that much more intense.
While set forth on the page in prose format, the
opening chapter is largely written in rhyme and
meter. The attention to sound has a trance-like effect,
pulling the reader along into the childhood world of
Jules and Leon. Jampole, in conversation, emphasized
his interest in writing novels using rhyme and the
relationship between rhyme and meter to create
emphasis. His use of poetic strategies to drive the
narrative voice, with each phrase amplifying the
next, contributes significantly to the effect of the
opening chapter as a whole.
For example, this excerpt finds the Silver boys in
Inside, sleeves above my elbows, tie
unclipped, I search the fridge and cabinets
for something we can eat. Eggs to scramble,
grated cheese, some onion dip, a box of
Cream of Wheat. I talk of Mantle’s injuries
to Lee, Howard at the plate replacing Yogi,
how Whitey with a mighty curveball put
a collar on Sherm Lollar, why I think the
Reds will tank, why Matthews is as good
as Ernie Banks, Cepeda, McCovey, other
Giants. I speak to fill my brother’s silence.
Not only has Jampole established the setting
of a boy working to feed himself and his brother
and provided a time frame with the use of
baseball examples, but, significantly, the hypnotic
iambicpace filled with rhyme – “Lee” and “Yogi,”
“collar” and “Lollar,” “tank” and “Banks” –
creates an immersive experience for the reader.
Immediately before recounting the trauma
that closes “On the Cold Hill’s Side,” Jules recites a
lengthy lyric daydream in an attempt to fit together
the broken pieces of his life. The reader understands
that nothing makes sense to Jules and that, though
he has been warned not to, he will blame himself for
whatever has happened or will happen.
As with each succeeding chapter, the second
chapter shifts tone, voice, and writing style. Jampole
believes it essential to tell the story in different voices
in order to gain a more complete perspective on the
characters and their situation. Chapter Two is a
soliloquy in the voice of Ed Silver, father of Jules and
Leon. The boys are now on the verge of adulthood,
Jules is in college, and Leon has taken off for San
Francisco. This claustrophobic use of monologue
is a particularly apt vehicle for a character with a
limited world view who is deeply narcissistic. He
understands neither his older son’s idealism nor the
The third chapter moves to dialogue in the
voice of secondary characters, an aunt and uncle.
This may be the least successful of the chapters
as an experiment in the use of language. Its
emphasis on Southern dialect often feels forced
and the characters one-dimensional. Yet the next
chapter, a third-person dramatic dialogue, skillfully
personifies Jules’s feelings by affording each one of
the characters a literal voice. Here’s a brief sample in
which the language feels fresh and satisfying.
Guilt: Unconscious mother, barking
television, plastic vials, glass half filled with water, knew it was all my fault.
Shame: Stupid, stupid, stupid, not to see
her breathing. Not to see she was still alive.
Anger: I knew she was alive. I wanted her
Another chapter is in the form of a letter.
Like the first chapter, the final chapter is lengthy,
approximately one-third of the entire book. It, too, is
in the voice of Jules, now an adult, forty or so years
after the first chapter. Like the opening chapter,
the final one, titled “Along an Unknown Highway,”
employs poetic strategies, but here the vocabulary,
syntax, and diction are those of an adult in which
Jules takes a lengthy road trip.
Jampole pays homage to the long tradition of road
trip stories with a quote from among the earliest,
and certainly the best-known, opening with a quote
from the beginning of Dante’s Inferno. The epigraph
reminds the reader that it may be necessary to go
through Hell to have any hope of getting even as far
as Purgatory, let alone Heaven.
The extended road trip affords the opportunity to
explore the turn of 21st-century American Zeitgeist.
It’s a lamentation for the promise of the 1960s and
the disappointing realities of the 2000s. Jules,
driving alone, traverses the country to visit with an
assortment of characters from his past, including
people met while hitchhiking. Indeed, hitchhiking, a
largely lost 20th-century phenomenon, is a central
metaphor of The Brothers Silver. What would Jack
Kerouac have had to say had he repeated his own
The opening paragraphs of the chapter,
through their use of poetic tropes as well as literal
language, make Jules’s road trip one that occurs
both within and transcending space and time:
The tumbling sky shivers like my bleary
body from the wind of speeding cars
and trucks. Squinting drivers steer into a
quivering solar ball that singes roads and
signs, sears the fences, flames the crows
and ducks. In my sight, glowing malls cross
horizon’s edge and welkin squid-ink stains
the spurge and sedge, leaches roofs and
building cranes, dims the city structures
into specks of light.
The birth of night releases cicada
humming, beetle scuffles, wind and spider
throws. Moisture stumbles over dell. Wind
song and cricket clatter swell and grow to
ostentatious silence. A white noise knells.
Time ceases giving hints of its existence.
Jules’s journey is most compelling when it
affords him the opportunity to meditate or advances
the narrative. His trip is less interesting when the
characters begin to feel more like stereotypes than
archetypes, and the narration becomes didactic
rather than revealing.
There’s one of almost everyone – the drug
dealer turned physician or politician, a lawyer who
represented draft evaders now a management labor
lawyer, a born-again Christian, black, white, gay,
straight, inhibited, uptight. More men than women.
With the exception of Ethel Silver, the female
characters, including Jules’s former girlfriend
Elaine, whom he calls El, are, for the most part,
less fully realized than the male. There’s nothing
particularly fresh about a drug dealer who grows up
to be a psychiatrist. In light of the serious psychiatric
problems among his family, more interesting is Jules’s
aversion to medication for ADHD, and, by implication,
other medications for psychiatric disorders.
The adult Jules, like most of the characters he
encounters, has given up the idealism and hedonism
of youth for financial security, routine, and certainty,
but he was never an actor who tried to effect change.
His principal and most important skill is survival,
while his observations about complacency border
on the trite:
But I was, nevertheless, part of the obscene
machine that ground down the dream of a
social democracy that we seemed on the
path to reaching in the mid-seventies. I
once believed fervently in the possibilities
of a social democracy overseen by a real
meritocracy, where everyone had a chance
to thrive, a green land that provided a
minimum standard of living, and free
healthcare and education to all, financed
by taxes on the wealthy, something like
France or Scandinavia. That was then. Has
my later apathy been any different from
Dean’s? Yet his occasional focus on who has gained too
much weight is entertaining and creates a sense of
Jules’s reactions to, and coming to terms with,
who each of these characters both was and has
become ground the story and maintain momentum,
even when the people themselves begin to become
repetitive. Similarly, Jules maintains his feeling of
being an outsider throughout.
While the ideological/political thread in the
story of Jules’s trip feels somewhat forced and
superficial, his continuing meditation about his
failed relationship with Elaine provides a deeper
understanding of Jules’s character. The reader
is left almost as baffled as Jules himself at his
subsequent ability to establish and maintain a long-term marriage
and a stable relationship with his daughter. He believes it relates
to his ability to view himself as the perpetual outsider.
His outsider status is the wall Jules has created
to distance himself from his emotions. Yet his ability
to connect with people he has not seen for years, his
successful career as well as the family relationships
of his adulthood, feel grounded and real and speak
of a level of hard work and commitment for which
Jules never gives himself credit. That lack of
acknowledgment of self-worth resonates as the
residue of a traumatic childhood. It is a corollary to
taking on the perpetual role of outsider.
None of us is truly our brother’s keeper. We
can offer help or guidance, but, in the end, we
can only live our own lives. And none of us can
escape whatever trauma life has brought us. The
challenge is how to live with trauma. Do we live in
denial, build walls to shut out feelings? Do we live in
perpetual adolescence without daring to explore the
possibilities of adulthood? The damage of childhood
trauma, will, to a greater or lesser extent, always be
permanent. The challenge presented by The Brothers
Silver is the challenge to survive.
In the “State News” section of the latest AARP Bulletin, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) solicits volunteer advocates in New York, Vermont, and other states to speak with state legislatures about a variety of issues. But nowhere in the publication does AARP ask for volunteers in the national fight to preserve Social Security benefits. That’s because AARP doesn’t have any program to fight for Social Security, either by its staff or with volunteers.
I pored over the AARP website and found plenty of useful information about who’s eligible to receive Social Security, what the potential benefits are, how to apply for Social Security, how to compute whether you have to pay taxes on Social Security benefits and how much you’ll have to pay, and other important consumer information that people need to know about the program. (arp.org)
But nothing about preserving Social Security.
And yet twice in the same AARP Bulletin asking for volunteer advocates are two—count them, two!—explicit references to Social Security’s trust fund running out of money in 2033. Both times, AARP focuses on the possible reduction of benefits to 78% of what they currently are if nothing is done. AARP treats the future gutting of Social Security benefits almost as if it’s a fait accompli.
Of course, AARP isn’t the only organization to be ignoring a dire problem that will affect virtually every non-wealthy American in 12 years: how to live with reduced benefits after planning that Social Security would be a major retirement income source? The Democratic Platform expatiates at length in pious generalities about making Social Security more progressive and rejecting “every effort to cut, privatize, or weaken Social Security, including attempts to raise the retirement age, diminish benefits by cutting cost-of-living adjustments, or reduce earned benefits.” But not one single concrete proposal about keeping Social Security financially solvent.
The Democrats do have a Social Security bill before Congress that, among other things, will postpone the 2033 date for the depletion of the Social Security reserves until 2038. But again, no concrete permanent solution to the Trust Fund running out of money.
The Republicans, of course, want to privatize Social Security, so that what people get in benefits depends on how well they maneuver the ever-evolving, ever tempestuous financial markets. Most Republicans express delight at the thought of the Social Security Trust fund going bankrupt.
In the past, experts and politicians have proposed several ways to deal with the impending shortfall, including raising the retirement age, increasing the Social Security tax (known duplicitously as the “payroll” tax), lowering benefits, and borrowing from general funds. The last idea makes some sense since the federal government has been borrowing from the Social Security Trust Fund for years—another 1980’s Reagan move to avoid raising taxes on the wealthy while spending on defense as if we were actively fighting wars on six fronts; the trouble was, it increased the overall federal deficit, so it didn’t really address the underlying fiscal crisis of too few tax revenues.
Little is said about a simple, elegant, and fair solution to the Social Security funding crisis, one that will also go a long way towards addressing the problem of growing income and wealth inequality: remove the cap on income assessed the Social Security tax.
Right now, income—from minimum wage up—is taxed 6.2% that goes into the Social Security Trust Fund. But no 2021 income over $142,800 gets taxed ($147,000 in 2022), making the Social Security tax as regressive as possible, which means it removes fiscal responsibility from those making more than $142,800 and puts it on the back of those making less money. And it’s more regressive than ever, because so much income wealth has collected in the hands of relatively few people, another negative impact of growing wealth and income inequality. The cap has gradually been increasing, by 70.5% in total over the past 20 years, or 8.5% a year.
The Congressional Research Service estimates that if we removed the cap on income assessed the Social Security tax while keeping benefit maximums the same, it would push back the depletion of the Social Security Trust Fund by 30 years. And a lot can happen in 30 years. For one thing, we’ll be through the retirement years of the Baby Boom generation, whose enormous size compared to previous and future generations (save maybe millennials) has created the Social Security shortfall by virtue of so many people retiring compared to the overall population. Another possibility is that we begin accepting immigrants again, replenishing our shrinking population of younger, healthier workers to support retired workers.
Progressives, liberals, and Democrats have all supported a number of causes over the past few years that have been encapsulated into one catch phrase: #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Pride, and Defund the Police all represent traditional and patriotic ideas of fairness and equality, and all propose clusters of viable solutions to pressing social problems. But all have the drawback of being expressed in a way that the right can undermine. The right has distorted the meaning of these slogans—and by implication, all they represent—to feed their base of the uneducated and rural whites with the fresh meat of lies and misrepresentations. The right wing has easily twisted #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Pride, and Defend the Police into the other side of an “us versus them” fight for survival and the soul of America. Progressives and Democrats love these movements and what they represent, but their articulation in sloganeering has made them prone to the right-wing smear. Thus, they have ended up dividing the country, making it harder to address the challenges posed by these movements.
But how could the right wing contort “Remove the Cap and Save Social Security” into something that threatens the culture and financial security of poor and middle class whites, educated or not?
The Democrats have looked desperately for an issue they can use to wedge into the mass of Republican voters and pry off enough votes to build additional strength in the Senate and House and control more state governments. Every issue with which they come up the Republicans use to stoke resentment against some group—minorities, women, immigrants, LGBTQ+ movements, scientists. In the picture they paint for their base, every Democratic initiative threatens to take away the base’s wealth and give it to the undeserving poor or threatens to overwhelm their traditional way of life with immoral city ways.
But what could anyone possibly say against saving Social Security by taxing rich people?
Perhaps the reason the Democrats shy away from discussions of removing the cap is that all of their large contributors and so many other contributors make more than $142, 800 a year. One interesting variation on removing the cap is to do it gradually by creating a donut hole: all income under $142,800 and above $400,000 would be assessed the Social Security tax, exempting the heart of the upper middle class. Over time, as the cap increased, less income would fall into the exempt donut area, until finally the donut would cease to exist; that process would take about 13 years if the cap continues to advance by 8.5% a year. The short-term loss of Social Security revenue would be substantial, but it would make the idea of removing the cap more politically palatable.
For decades, Social Security has been the third rail in American politics—a beloved institution that politicians try to dismantle, privatize, or in other ways harm at their own risk. Putting Social Security front and center is a winning issue for Democrats—either Republicans have to agree to strengthen it or they risk losing lots of votes, even among the fiercest Trumpites.
“Remove the Cap” or “Remove the Cap to Save Social Security” should be one of the rallying cries of Democrats and anyone else wanting to move the country leftward. It’s a winning issue. As a wedge issue, it’s the left’s equivalent of abortion.
I fear that the Democratic party is going to need a little prodding to feature “Remove the Cap” as one the central rally cries of the 2022 and 2024 elections. I implore all readers to contact their Congressional representatives and Senators once a month asking them to develop and support legislation that removes the cap on income assessed the Social Security tax. Also tell your friends. Share this article on Facebook and Twitter. We have to keep the focus on this issue, not just as a means of showing poor and middle class Republican voters that Trumpism is not in their economic best interest. Because if something isn’t done soon, many of us will find themselves in poverty conditions starting in 2033.
Here’s an excerpt from the Fall 2021 issue of Main Street Rag: “Jampole’s experimentation is an intriguing, if sometimes challenging, way to stretch the novel form. Readers who are willing to put in a little work to digest the meandering poetic style will enjoy its freshness. There’s plenty to chew on for anyone curious about the impact of dysfunctional families on children who make it to adulthood.” To order the issue, go to the Main Street Rag website: https://mainstreetragbookstore.com/product/the-main-street-rag-fall-2021/
Buy The Brothers Silver on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Brothers-Silver-Marc-Jampole/dp/1952085071/
At Owl Canyon Press: https://www.owlcanyonpress.com/product-page/the-brothers-silver-a-novel
Here are excerpts from the latest positive review of The Brothers Silver:
“Jampole sees present-day America as a brutal right-wing Inferno, where the sufferers become the opposite of their gentle youthful incarnations… The recent riot/failed coup/insurrection/tantrum/ragefest at the Capitol in Washington, DC, makes Jampole’s warnings look prescient. “
– Your Impossible Voice, September 21, 2021
Buy The Brothers Silver on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Brothers-Silver-Marc-Jampole/dp/1952085071/
At Owl Canyon Press: https://www.owlcanyonpress.com/product-page/the-brothers-silver-a-novel
Included is one of my personal favorites among all the poems I have written over the decades, “The Beach in Winter.” If you like it, buy the issue and see my other two poems: https://snakenationbooks.store/product/snake-nation-review-issue-28
That winter day we didn’t drive
along the shore, didn’t watch the waves
explode berserkly over snow banks,
didn’t stop to take a photo
on a boardwalk bench,
plug quarters into telescope
to track a distant steamer chug towards ocean
underneath a clutch of rising seabirds,
didn’t hurtle snowballs bare-hand at the water,
didn’t wrap our shivers in a shroud of steam,
but stood at window sill and counted taxis
as they lurched through slush
and talked of how we loved
to walk along the beach in winter.
Published in Snake Nation Review #28 (2021)
My new novel, The Brothers Silver, is now available on audiobook: https://www.amazon.com/The-Brothers-Silver-A-Novel/dp/B09CFMMGDW/ref=tmm_aud_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
The reader, Donald Davenport, has a great interview about the joys and challenges of narrating The Brothers Silver in a Dungball Express podcast: https://thedungballexpress.libsyn.com/the-brothers-silvers-silver-tongue