Monday, January 16, 2017
This winter, our slushiest since before the Pleistocene, I wonder. 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 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 not as rare as it once was that someone makes 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 the 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?
As daylight lengthens into spring, the uneasy truce continues 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.”
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 back in Iraq.
II. Fearful Symmetries
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 15 years later, 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 tower 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 semester, 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.”
III. “The Best Words”
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 is because we know wolves are real.
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 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.”
“this is so important to me”
I don’t know what drastic truths are called for here, 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 25 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, rubber bullets.
They can navigate 21st 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 tell their horse shit from their bat shit, and when and more precisely how to, themselves, stand up and say “that’s some bullshit.” For example, when we say (or shout) “not my president,” the harder work begins when we are then compelled to articulate just what that means moving forward, for us as individuals, and collectively as a viable democracy.
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. The chance to work with roughly 100 students each semester (many first-generation) at a rural, open-admissions school in red-state America is a position I love and don’t take lightly. For instance, last week I was 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 1 and 2 plastics from paper 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.
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 the rest of us respond? With intensified surveillance, higher walls, and hardened borders? With reinforced denial, detention, and deportation? For the moment—looking at the cards and looking at the cabinet—this at least appears to be so in many cases. Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will. But where do we go form here?
Percy Shelley declared poets to be the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” And studying Walt Whitman toward the end of last semester, we considered his claim 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, film, and art? Absolutely. Though perhaps cold comfort for the near term, I find one heartening example in last fall’s recognition (the committee working from a wonderfully expanded notion of “literature”) of our folk poet and electric bard as Nobel laureate, and one such force in singing and shaping our world in his time.
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
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
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
It’s all over now, baby blue.
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.
Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.
As one of my students in this class observed in her final essay exam, “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.
Monday, December 26, 2016
Some versions of the “Wren Song” say three miles, some say ten.
I guess it would just depend on the given morning, how long the boys had to run, in their ragged drag, cheeks and noses flushed red in the cold, under the blackening of burnt cork, before catching the exhausted wren.
Then parading the thing through the neighborhood, dead or alive, for whatever ransom they might scrape.
A kind of very small lynching, you might say, very carefully. Cruel, indeed.
One admires—I mean I admit that I, in a certain way, admire—the act as a thing now long past. And the reasons invented:
That the wren, with his cascading song, betrayed Saint Stephen to stoning.
That he, or a distant grandfather, ruined a surprise attack on Viking raiders, pecking a drum or drumming a shield. Another treason.
Or for the ancient treachery of Tehi Tegi. Fairy queen, witch, and river siren.
Or even that it was to save the robin, to whom the new year must soon belong, the trouble of doing the dirty work.
We should all do so well, to avenge and protect a thing we love.
Stay up late, or get up early. Build it up or cut it down, as the case may require.
Rage and Sing. Pebbles on the window. A stick from the shed.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
is among the unexpected benefits of using a burner phone:
this is Forrest I was just wondering if you was around somewhere I got a new rifle I’d really like to show you I think you’d love it
Did you send me an email about savvy women’s guide???
What’s going on? Is this guy going to give me trouble at the motel?
Friday, October 14, 2016
Monday, October 10, 2016
Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation address to the UN Human Rights Council - September 20, 2016
Human Rights Council President Choi Kyong-lim: I give the floor to the distinguished representative of Indian Law Resource Center.
Chairman Dave Archambault II: Thank you, Mr. President.
I am here because oil companies are causing the deliberate destruction of our sacred places and burials. Dakota Access Pipeline [Dakota Access, LLC, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners; a.k.a. "Dakota Access"] wants to build an oil pipeline under the river that is the source of our nation's drinking water. This pipeline threatens our communities, the river, and the earth.
Our nation is working to protect our waters and our sacred places for the benefit of our children not yet born. But the oil companies and the government of the United States have failed to respect our sovereign rights. Today, the pipeline construction continues. Although it has temporarily stopped near our nation, this company has knowingly destroyed sacred sites and our ancestral graves with bulldozers. This company has also used attack dogs to harm individuals who tried to protect our water and our sacred sites.
I condemn all violence, including the use of guard dogs.
While we have gone to the court in the United States, our courts have failed to protect our sovereign rights, our sacred places, and our water. We call upon the Human Rights Council and all Member States to condemn the destruction of our sacred places and to support our nation's efforts to ensure that our sovereign rights are respected. We ask that you call upon all parties to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and to protect the environment, our nation's future, our culture, and our way of life.
Thank you, Mr. President.
Just to think, I may be the first.
I walk through the small iron door,
small like an Anasazi opening.
There on the stool
a bearded English man pours sour ale.
The stained glass windows speak a story:
a running rabbit, a human caterpillar,
a disappearing cat, and a queen of hearts.
My emotions ebb like those of Alice's, out of place.
Outside the window—
a green hill supporting Windsor castle.
It stands like an adobe village atop a mesa.
The ground is black soil,
No signs of the red reservation dirt.
A small black bird perches on the wooden sill.
Is it a corn-stealing reservation chicken?
No. It's a Scottish raven, and Indian crow mirage.
No frybread with mutton stew.
I order Yorkshire pudding,
A meat pie.
Around the pub
spreads the spired city of learning: Oxford.
Like tipis of the annual Crow Fair,
these colleges choke the town:
Pembroke, Old Crow; St. Peters, Black Eagle; Christ Church,
Red Wolf: Magdalen, Old Coyote . . . .
Here in the pub
Queen Elizabeth rules by her crown.
Across the great diving lakes,
Within the sacred mountains,
Grandmother Little Owl weaves her loom.
In this room,
I am the red Columbus.
There are no Indian brothers.
I hear the echo of an eagle,
The sun dance drums,
But the wailing spirits of Stonehenge
silence their chants.
I truly am the first Navajo in the Wooden Duck.
Hershman John, I Swallow Turquoise for Courage (2007)
I see him as a funnel and through this funnel the New World pours into my genes and becomes, perhaps, the saving remnant. For what this discovered hemisphere gave us is a chance to recover the irrational, the illogical, and the powerful. The forests that overwhelm us, the mountains that dwarf us, the forces that crush us. Here the drums were not yet stilled. Here God still lived, though at times God drank copious goblets of blood, or was a stone, or a buffalo skull, or a mountain.
But the mess we lament, that is the thing that part of me celebrates. The strange mongrel mixture of races, ideas, seeds, spores, viruses, bacteria.
The landmass we call Europe had been butchered, all the forests made groves, all the meadows made fields, all the ground made tame. All the signs of decadence were present and this failure of the heart was seen as innovation. A new burst was occurring in writing, in painting, in machines. The things scholars for the coming centuries would celebrate and call a rebirth, these things were actually signs of a vast dying of the spirit. Of this I am convinced because five centuries later I live at a similar moment in the history of my breed. We too live in a dead culture with dead gods and yet we are flailing outward into space, the depths of the seas, the secret crevices of the earth, the once sacrosanct gardens of our cells. We are mining the double helix, poking about in the strange codes of life itself. We sail on our clumsy caravels and galleons just as Christopher himself once did.
What the jungles and plains and mountains and deserts and forests of the New World accomplished is this: they permanently poisoned the faith of Europeans in rationality. They brought us back the night.
Friday, August 19, 2016
You might be easily forgiven for at first mistaking the Ruby Crest with a kind of cloying, sweetsy kids’ toothpaste, or a new flavor in the vending machine (“Crystal Pepsi,” “Sierra Mist,” “Shasta Twist,” etc.)
Peruvian forests range from the coast, to the Andes, to the Amazon: palms, orchids, bromeliads, lianas, bread nut, fig, innumerable and untold. But no quaking aspen, shimmering like the surface of a pool stirred by an unseen hand at certain seasons. Or like a mirage in the memory after returning home.
hyperobjects of the basin and range
Other migrants, transplants, fellow wanderers, pilgrims, and visitors to the Rubies that week included:
hundred of small, hungry cutthroat trout
Himalayan Snowcock (who we did not see)
a young day hiker, two weeks missing (who we also did not see)
Perseid meteor shower (which we did see)
Perseid meteor shower (which we did see)
several small companies of solemn bow hunters
the state game warden
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem is that we cannot imagine a future where we possess less, but are more. Imagine the problem is a future that terrifies us, because we lose our machines, but gain our feet and pounding hearts.
Then, what is to be done? We do not want to learn another way to live. We would rather die.
Or, perhaps a voice will come down from the mountain, a bush will burn, new tablets of stone will heave into view like spacecraft. We could turn it all around. Take power. The answers are as simple as the questions.
We are an exceptional model of the human race. We no longer know how to produce food. We no longer can heal ourselves. We no longer really raise our young. We have forgotten the names of the stars, fail to notice the phases of the moon. We do not know the plants and they no longer protect us. We tell ourselves we are the most powerful specimens of our kind who have ever lived. But when the lights are off we are helpless. We cannot move without traffic signals. We must attend classes in order to learn by rote numbered steps toward how to love or how to breast-feed our baby. We justify anything, anything at all, by the need to maintain our way of life. We have a simple test for making decisions: our way of life, which we cleverly call our standard of living, must not change except to grow yet more grand. We have a simple reality we live with each and every day: our way of life is killing us.
Still we could be free. We could walk out the door. We can still walk a little or at least crawl.
We can, actually, do anything. Anything at all.