Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Monday, March 20, 2017

Towers & Walls

I. Finnsburg

Looking back on this past winter, our slushiest since before the Pleistocene, I have wondered. How must the world have appeared to those warrior Danes a thousand years ago, snowed over in Frisia, up the coast from what is now Amsterdam, on the icy shores of the North Sea, their bellicose errand spoiled by their fallen king. Then, as “wind and water / raged with storms,” and “wave and shingle / were shackled in ice,” “homesick and helpless,” “resentful, blood-sullen,” they were offered and agreed to a truce through winter, with lodging and gifts of fine rings all around, until spring brought the thaw.

At least that’s the way it was retold by the bard, about halfway into the Beowulf epic. It’s probably easier than it once was that to make it through American high school and college without at some point being required to read Beowulf. For me, it was fall semester 2001 in Mark Matheson’s Intro. to Literary History class. We’d started reading Seamus Heanney’s (then still recent 1999) translation that first week of September, looking at some of those basic themes of vengeance and retaliation, collective identity and otherness, human tendencies to identify and unite against a common enemy (perceived or real), old tribal Germanic vs. medieval Christian values, swamp monsters, and so on. When asked to consider what current places might compare to the great mead hall Heorot, some offered the White House, the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon, among others, as examples. And the discussion went on to consider what might a reaction to an attack on one of these places look like.

A week later, walking to class, I remember passing through the student union building, where TV’s had been wheeled out on carts into the commons, and crowds had begun gathering to watch news coverage of what looked like scenes from Die Hard or Air Force One (for most Americans of my generation, our only—even if silly—frames of reference for things like hijacked airplanes crashing into skyscrapers). Class was held that morning in a sort of fog of breaking news and uncertainty, as we did our best to work though questions like the inevitability or preventability of human cycles of revenge and violence, egoism and folly. This was all well before any “9/11,” before anyone knew what to call these things that were just happening. And it was before most Americans had really made up their minds about what it meant or how exactly to respond.

But those probably 5th century Danes were doing something all too familiar and at the same time strange in the middle of that probably 8th century poem. In that interval after the hero Beowulf destroys the monster Grendel, and before his mother “grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge” emerges from the wilderness to retaliate, the host of Heorot, still exulting over their recent victory, celebrate by bringing in a “scop” or poet to sing of old battles. This “Finnsburg Episode,” as it is called, is where the action of the poem itself pauses to reflect for a moment on the larger trajectory of these people. It is the poem within the poem. Like Hamlet’s play within the play. Or even as, if you like, when the cast of Hamilton steps out around the fourth wall to speak truth to power. What are we doing? Where are going?

Moments like this, poems, stories, and songs like this, offer occasions for a tribe, or for an entire civilization, to stop and ask if the way we are doing things, maybe the way we believe we have always done things, is the only way, or the best way. Is it inevitable? Is it natural? Is necessary? Is it insane?

The scop’s song continues. As daylight lengthens into spring, the uneasy truce endures with “the wonder of light / coming over us. / Then winter was gone, / earth’s lap grew lovely, / longing woke / in the cooped up exile / for a voyage home.” That’s the strange part, that eerie moment of calm, lovely and rich with potential for change and transformation. Changing course and heading home? The all-too-familiar part, though, is how the episode ends. Spoiler alert and trigger warning. The poem continues “. . . but more for vengeance, / some way of bringing things to a head [. . .] / The wildness in them / had to run over. / The hall ran red / with the blood of enemies.”

I realize this is still a pretty distant and abstract way to have experienced what we now call 9/11. I had friends there in New York City, one of whom I remember describing the smell of the smoke blowing over his apartment rooftop, of burning steel, computers, and bodies that had walked into work one morning. Things that aren’t ever supposed to be burned or smelled. “The glutton element flamed and consumed / the dead of both sides.” Within a month the US invaded Afghanistan.

My vantage point was a less immediate one, but the next fall I was back in Matheson’s Shakespeare class. We read Henry IV about, among other things, a fortunate son and often likeable drunk, trying to leave behind his prodigal past and make good as head of state. I don’t recall anyone putting too fine a point on many of these more unsettling parallels with our national situation. By then, some things seemed too painfully obvious, unnecessary to dwell on, except maybe for Prince Hal’s vow to pursue a military crusade in the Holy Land, distracting the kingdom’s attention away from more pressing issues back home. Within a few months, that following spring, we were also back in Iraq. Over fourteen years later, both of these wars continue.

II. Fearful Symmetries & “The Best Words”

I also realize that talking about 9/11 is a strange way to try to make sense of what I see my students dealing with these days. But now finding myself in what I consider the extraordinarily privileged position of teaching college students in writing and literature classes, this is my frame of reference. They will remember where they were, one hopes, and what they were doing, no matter how meaningful or mundane.

June 1994: I was eating a buffalo burger in a Wyoming diner when the TV’s ran live coverage of OJ’s white Bronco leading a slow-speed chase across LA.

December 2003: When the US Army found and captured Saddam Hussein, lousy and bedraggled in a hole, announcements appeared in marquee lettering outside of Dairy Queens, KFC’s, and coin-op car washes around town. Things like “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED,” “LET US HUNT DOWN THE GUILTY,” and “WE HAVE SADDAM.” Many of these stayed up through Christmas.

May 2011: I was at a May Day party with some friends at the home of a scholar of Marxism (in a gated community) when someone dialed it up on his phone—we were going to sing the “Internationale” and he was looking up the words: Osama bin Laden had been found and killed by the CIA & US Navy SEALS: code name “Geronimo.”

And so on.

After the US economy (and later global financial markets) crashed in 2008, the Argentine postcolonial theorist Walter Mignolo posted his observations on the fall of Wall Street, and the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years earlier, how these parallel events (these two fallen “walls”) marked the ultimate, confirmed failures of both soviet communism and industrial capitalism. In a similar way, many of us experienced last November 9 as kind of echo of 9/11. I don’t mean this quite in the same way as Chauncey DeVega’s Salon article from last November—which claims, pretty reasonably I think, that 9/11 inflamed a kind of national psychological condition that enabled a presidential campaign and election like last year’s. I mean something more along the lines of how we experience the aftermath, the prospect of more walls, more wars, and another glassy tower. A loud caricature of an 80s billionaire-philanderer, with his sleek and squalid family, holding court from atop a Manhattan skyscraper with a twitter account and a webcam, updating a breathless public on a pageant of prospective gargoyles up and down the elevators. For most of my students, this was the first presidential election they’ve participated in, the only one they’ve really known as adults. And for many of them, and for me, the morning of 11/9 was a kind of waking nightmare that we still walk around in daily, as it continues to unfold.

To wit, last fall in an early American literature class I was teaching, we looked at the Gettysburg Address, that near-perfectly succinct and modest confession of the limits of a speech act in creating sacred space. Our discussion of Lincoln had been paired in the schedule with the fearless, visionary transcendentalist and feminist writer Margaret Fuller. This class fell on November 10, two days after the election of someone who just a month prior had used Gettysburg as an occasion to threaten lawsuits against all the women accusing him of sexual assault. In a radio sound bite he called the place “hollowed ground” (sic), and went on to talk about his plans for draining “the swamp.”

In a 1959 essay called “The Hollow Miracle,” George Steiner shows how languages themselves can be emptied out, drained of their meaning, and severely damaged when used disingenuously, violently, toward destructive ends. Steiner goes into specific detail on how this had played out in the German language under and in the wake of Nazism. “Gradually, words lost their original meaning and acquired nightmarish definitions.” Referencing Orwell and others who had made similar observations, Steiner explains “how the word may lose its humane meanings under the pressure of political bestiality and falsehood,” going on to note harrowing instances of German working as a “language being used to run hell, getting the habits of hell into its syntax.” Of course I’m not saying we’re there. But the critical virtue of Godwin’s law—avoiding quick comparisons to Nazism—and recognizing reductio ad Hitlerum fallacies, is that these take seriously the historical reality and future possibility of holocausts. When there is indeed a white nationalist, an authoritarian misogynist, or a climate denier taking the reigns of a surveillance state, the alarm must still be intelligible. The reason we don’t cry “wolf” or “fire” is because we understand and respect the reality of wolves and fire.

Steiner recognized languages’ resilience, that they “have great reserves of life [and] can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy and cheapness. [. . . ] But there is a breaking point.” Just as in oceans absorbing decades of intensified atmospheric heat and carbon, there are limits. The great dying of reefs; the collapse of what we call “fisheries;” the pitting, fracture, and erosion of the bodies of sea mollusks and crustaceans, as the relentless dissolution of surface C02 turns the very medium of their existence to acid. 100 tons of carbon every second, a rate ten times faster than anything in the fossil record. That terrible silence that Rachel Carson depicted fifty years ago in our airy world above becomes an awful stillness down in the blue one below.

Steiner likewise describes such a breaking point in the medium of our thought and speech. “The language will no longer grow and freshen. It will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of human order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace. [. . .] When it has been injected with falsehood, only the most drastic truth can cleanse it.”

“great again”

“believe me”

“I promise”

“this is so important to me”

Hot air; blowing smoke.

Earlier this year, in a mock executive order, Jon Stewart declared the new official language of the United States to now be “bullshit.” I don’t know what drastic truths are called for, or that a language is exactly a thing to be cleansed. But for anyone to whom words mater, there’s work to be done here. When Emerson addressed President Van Buren in a blistering open letter denouncing the forced removal of over 13,000 Cherokee people from their homelands in 1838, he noted in his journal the likely futility of his efforts, but still went ahead with it. He allowed it was “merely a scream but sometimes a scream is better than a thesis.”

When one more class of twenty-five young people has had a chance to read, think and write on, and discuss Thoreau’s uncompromising essay on civil disobedience, or Frederick Douglass’s candid questioning “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” they may find themselves better prepared to understand what is happening, for example, when they see a young, high-profile ball player taking a knee in peaceful protest against state-sponsored violence toward other (low-profile) people of color. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philandro Castille,

They are able to better recognize and maybe even respond to the slow violence of contamination and cultural genocide they see happening in Flint and at Standing Rock when they have surveyed even just a few of the Indigenous Americans who have registered their witness to centuries of dispossession and starvation. In one such instance, Pequot writer William Apess poses a chilling question in 1833 about his people’s situation in the US and the wider world. “Could there be a more efficient way to distress and murder them by inches than the way they have taken? And there is no people in the world but who may be destroyed in the same way.” Prayers, songs, marches; tear gas, dog kennels, fire hoses.

They can navigate twenty-first century questions of nationalism, cultural zealotry, and pluralism more honestly when they’ve worked through similar instances of religious fundamentalism, cultural ventriloquism, and misrepresentation in the accounts, sermons, and letters from the early days of Plymouth. Radicalism and extremism; roots and branches.

And in carefully scrutinizing the arguments and appeals they’re presented with (in real news, fake news, fake “fake” news, real fake news; in advertising and marketing; in campaigns and conversations), developing a basic vocabulary of information literacy, they’re better positioned to parse their horse shit from their bat shit, and when and more precisely how to, themselves, stand up and say “that’s some bullshit.”
At the same time, I try not to kid myself about the extent or impact of my work with students in these areas. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political thinker who wasted away the last decade of his life in prison under Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, proclaimed what he called a pessimism of the mind, and an optimism of the will.
Steiner also warns against a kind of cheap “self-evident” optimism that this kind of learning automatically does “very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception” or cultivate moral feeling and human judgment; he admits his uncertainty “that the humanities humanize.”

“I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words.”

“I love the poorly educated.”

And so on.

To these cautions, I add my own recognition that though many of the students I work with are curious, engaged, committed learners, most have registered for these classes mainly as a way of punching their cards with the needed humanities or writing credits toward graduation. To be clear, this is something I greatly appreciate. Working with roughly 100 students each semester (many first-generation) at a rural, open-admissions school in red-state America is a position that I love and don’t take lightly. For instance, I was recently in a meeting where a couple students presented to faculty on our campus’s recently-developed and growing recycling program. The young man wore a baseball hat with a confederate flag on it as he demonstrated how to sort number one and two plastics from paper, aluminum, and ferrous metals. “We’re interested in purity,” he explained in total innocence.

But this is something I know we can work with. Believe me, I promise, this is so important to me.

III. Over and Under

Gettysburg, like Finnsburg, and all our other burgs, comes to us from medieval German, and from a feudal Germanic model of the town as a walled fortress, a fortified tower or castle. (Berg or mountain—as in iceberg—derives from the same castle-fortress form.) But as icebergs melt, glaciers calve away, and more of the world is compelled to seek refuge from displacement and other violence, how will we respond? With intensified surveillance, fortress communities, higher walls, and hardened borders? With reinforced denial, detention, and deportation?

Earlier this year US Department of Homeland Security released their desired specifications for the proposed additional thousand or so miles of border wall against Mexico: at least six feet deep to prevent tunneling, thirty feet high to prevent climbing. Three stories. Built to withstand sledge, axe, chisel, air hammer, acetylene torch, and so on. Most of the roughly 700 miles of existing border fence is around eighteen feet high, resulting so far in innumerable nineteen-foot ladders, and untold broken bones on the other side. Israel’s West Bank barrier is also slated to eventually run about 700 miles, with similar height specifications.

The first known instances of what we call dykes have been found in Frisia and date to several hundred years before Finnsburg. Peat sods stacked loosely against piled earth and stones to hold back the North Sea. Over the centuries these interventions grew increasingly more sophisticated with canals, large scale land reclamation and hydraulic engineering, and the iconic windmills and pump systems beginning in the fifteenth century. In the early eighteenth century, colonial trade brought shipworms that ravaged and destroyed any wooden structure along the Dutch coast, devastating Holland’s Golden Age. From there, stone (imported from abroad), clay, sand, and concrete were used to rebuild. And since then, modernization has brought scaled-up approaches—dams and levees, surge barriers, elaborate sea walls and sea gates—against rising sea levels.

While cities on the US’s East, West, and Gulf Coasts have been understandably looking to Dutch models for responding to intensified storms and flooding, do we also pause to consider the longer term? Do we imagine that a treadmill of reclamation and precarious Rube Goldberg machines (splendid as they often are in form and scale) will allow us to STEM our way out of injustice and excess? Are we prepared to continue this into perpetuity? Nature abhors a vacuum; the sea cannot be made to pay for such schemes. This is not a plan.

Certain realities will never be engineered away; certain questions cannot be effectively buried. Charles Bowden reminds us of the costs entailed by our insistence on inequity and denial. “The numbers of people will rise, the pain of migration will grow, the seas will bark forth storms, the bombs will explode in the markets.” NOAA’s most recent calculations of sea level rise by the end of the century are now looking like eight feet, updated from their 2012 study that had previously said 6.6 feet at the most. When the Greenland Ice Sheet goes, there’s another twenty-four feet. Three stories. Back to the early Pliocene, when there were four-ton ground sloths, ten-foot carnivorous birds, and our earliest human ancestors first appeared.

We will need more stories, stories that reach higher, poems and songs that tunnel deeper, that transgress and extend our attention and action across and through the barricades of denial, that seek out the daylight through the gaps, the way a blackface ram will in a dry stone wall. Many of these stories are new, or still unwritten, but many of them are as old as our folk traditions and earliest electric bards.

There was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me
A sign was painted, said: Private Property
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’
That side was made for you and me.

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
. . .
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

It’s all over now, baby blue.

Admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.

It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

Let us not talk falsely now; the hour is getting late.

Older than Finnsburg. Old as Babel.

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name. … So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

Old as Ovid’s cautionary Metamorphoses, where in the beginning:

No walls were yet; nor fence, nor mote, nor mound,
Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet's angry sound.

Later, in the space between earth, sky, and sea:

On the summit of a lofty tower;
A thousand winding entries long and wide,
Receive of fresh reports a flowing tide.
A thousand crannies in the walls are made;
Nor gate, nor bars exclude the busy trade.

But eventually:

Nor safe their dwellings were, for, sapped by floods,
Their houses fell upon their household gods.
The solid piles, too strongly built to fall,
High o'er their heads behold a watery wall:
Now seas and earth were in confusion lost;
A world of waters, and without a coast.
One climbs a cliff; one in his boat is borne :
And ploughs above, where late he sowed his corn.
Others o'er chimney-tops and turrets row,
And drop their anchors on the meads below.
But whelmed beneath a lake, are sunk and drowned;
And boatsmen through the crystal water show,
To wondering passengers, the walls below.

As old as Atlantis, Shuruppak, Chumayel. Countless other floods from every corner. Old as Joshua at Jericho. Cast the right spell and it all comes down.

But we have our work cut out for us. Our towers and walls go back at least as far. That first instance, a person like us walking the land on two legs pauses to grasp a stone between thumb and four fingers, turning it upright. Later people, clearing stones from a field to plant, piling these up around the edges, claiming it as their own and not their neighbors’. Sure, there is plenty that has no love for a wall, no use for it. But these are some of our oldest stories too. Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.

Percy Shelley declared poets to be the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” And Walt Whitman claimed that, in the America he foresaw, “presidents shall not be their common referees so much as their poets shall.” Are these a couple poets with an outsized sense of their own place in the world? Possibly. But can we still find evidence enough for their claims in how we read, write, share, and value stories and poems? Songs and other art? Absolutely. As one of my students in this class observed, “legislatures change our laws, but literature can change our minds.” I hope she is right. I don’t know that we can afford to suppose otherwise.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

full service crossing guard

cafeteria upstairs
we can be a friend to U try us
spill your guts--we listen
don't like a kid--tell us about it
are you being bullied? we beat up bullies
we have shelter from the storm
qualified backpack+carryall technicians
we have training on boogie boards
advice on the summer coming up
we listen to all problems and concerns
free financial advice on allowances
first aid for cuts and bruises
we have kleenex for running noses
we fix bikes+chains
bowling alley+pool downstairs
if you have master card

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

mineral spirits

The first job I ever had, where I kept track of hours and wasn’t paid in cash, was doing construction cleanup in Park City. I was 14 and pretty lucky that my friend Phil had both a license and a truck to drive us to work that summer. But about a week into the job and our commute—40 minutes each way—the tape we were listening to got irretrievably stuck in the cassette deck and that was that. Up the canyon and down: A-side, B-side, A-side, B-side, A-side, and so on, all summer long. Fortunately for both of us, it was The Offspring’s album Smash; things could have been a lot worse. For me, every song on Smash is now deeply drenched in all kinds of summer memory that even bleeds into a lot of other 90s punk too. A strange teenage pastoral-punk-work-commute nostalgia.

Smells too. A certain combination of sawdust, sagebrush, pine, and probably ragweed, wet with rain, evokes a lot of the same from a different corner of the memory. We all have these and could point to plenty more. Birdsong. Moonlight. Rainfall. Woodsmoke. That stretch of drive where you once had to pee so bad. The gas and grass smell of mowing the lawn, with Jimi Hendrix or Swim Herschel Swim scrolling reel-to-reel in the Walkman. The proprioception (body/muscle sense/memory) of the push or tug of the mower. Those mile markers, Voodoo Child, spilt gasoline, all bring it flooding back. And while remembered smells can be very hard to conjure in the imagination, actual smells on the other hand can trigger memories viscerally like no other sense. In The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in the More-than-Human World, David Abram explains:

“The experiencing body is not a self-enclosed object, but an open, incomplete entity. This openness is evident in the arrangement of the senses: I have these multiple ways of encountering and exploring the world—listening with my ears, touching with my skin, seeing with my eyes, tasting with my tongue, smelling with my nose—and all of these various powers or pathways continually open outward from the perceiving body, like different pathways diverging from a forest. Yet my experience of the world is not fragmented; I do not commonly experience the visible appearance of the world in any way separable from its audible aspect, or from the myriad textures that open themselves to my touch. Thus my divergent senses meet up with each other in the surrounding world, converging and commingling in the things I perceive. We may think of the sensing body as a kind of open circuit that completes itself only in things, and in the world. It is primarily through my engagement with what is not me that I effect the integration of my senses, and thereby experience my own unity and coherence.”

I find this profoundly wonderful, sobering, and at the same time remarkably simple. It explains so much about how we work, play, eat, get sick or depressed, go insane, fall in love, learn, forget, and remember. The ways we open or clutter the doors and windows of our perception. But, of course, what I’m talking about here already entails a sort of breaking of this circuit. That is, through a kind of cyborg circuitry of electric wiring, speakers (magnets and diaphragms), and so on. Ex: My ipod is a lovely first generation nano (c. 2005?). Scratched and gouged, encrusted in gorilla glue and smeared with piñon pitch, it has taken on that kind of Star Wars quality of sleek imperial tech, weathered and beaten on a dirty frontier. What follows here is a kind of cyborg accounting (and confession) of some of these tangles in my circuitry over the last year or so.

Building and installing countertops from old 60s bowling lanes: Bombino, Cüneyt Sepetçi, The Reverend Horton Heat, and recorded lectures from Borges and Chomsky.

Breaking and cutting up the old concrete ones.

Work on the tree house last summer: catching up on Scott Carrier’s Home of the Brave podcast.

Taking down an old wooden swing set to cannibalize for scrap: his interviews with Doug Peacock and Jim Harrison.

Varnishing the thing for weather, cleaning the brushes, and the lingering smell of mineral spirits: Prisoner of ZionThe End of the World.

Shoveling wheelbarrows full of horse manure into the garden: Radiolab’s Tree to Shining Tree, and chapters from a recording of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

Shoveling snow: RadioAmbulante.

But last fall, installing a kitchen skylight with Glen (by which I mean mostly handing him up tools), we left the earbuds in the drawer and worked, and talked, or didn’t, until we had the thing done. It was the first October in a while I didn’t get around to carving any pumpkins, but with Glen’s help, we did get to cut a gaping 4’x4’ hole into a perfectly good roof. Very satisfying.

Also, one of my newer obsessions, and today’s soundtrack to writing this post:

Garage-psychedelic Andean cumbias from Mexico City! Enjoy.