Personal/Political

While I don’t necessarily agree with the old feminist notion that the personal is inescapably political, I do try and write about politics mainly through a personal or literary lens. For the rare exceptions, see Rants.

“The heart of Leeds should expect to suffer again.”
UK Environment Agency, 27 December 2015

Each house an island in roiling water where the streets should be – we’ve been seeing, from town after town in the North, these biblical images of floods. Last time I was in Leeds, oddly enough, it rained and rained, though not nearly like this. A disappointing trip that was, with so much that had changed too much, and then the rain. I took rueful photos that surprisingly turned out not too badly – the light at least was propitious, the colours saturated (in both senses of the word), the scenarios nicely quirky. It was nearly forty years earlier that the city had entered my heart, and my heart still catches when I hear now that its centre is under water. Looking now, too, at these photos, which still please me, I thought back over all those years and wondered: would things have been different if I’d had this back then to fall back on, this unfailing pleasure and need and obscure satisfaction in making pictures and making word-pictures, this sense of beauty, surprise, composition, irony? And faced with this week’s unbeautiful pictures of flooded streets, shops and houses threatened by the rising water, I remembered how threatened, how all at sea, I used often to feel all those years ago in Leeds, although I really liked living there, and was shocked at first that my thoughts were of this, my own history with the city, and not of people whose lives had been turned upside down by the floods, or of wider and urgent questions of why and of what can we do. And yet, our connections are complex and on many levels. While exposing the travesty of recent climate talks, the Tory cuts in funding for flood defences, the crying need for more trees and less concrete, don’t we also need to expose our own feelings and motivations, how we hate or love this place, my place, my life, my past, my present, to reclaim a sense of home and self as something wider and less purely immediate than the nuclear family and the tiny world behind our own front doors? Isn’t it all one, the turning both inwards and outwards, the personal and the political? This street in the TV news footage that touches me so, that is somehow familiar even under water: wasn’t it here that, a lifetime ago, I ran crying and calling your name?

Where there’s fire
there’s smoke and tear gas
burning eyes
a burning in the gut.

Where there’s fire
there’s a smokescreen
the CNN reporter saying
of course he smells marijuana
the grand-jury white-out
the felonious cigarillos.

Where there’s fire
there’s a smoking gun
trajectories inescapable as the weather
in upraised arms that couldn’t
surrender enough.

Where there’s fire
there’s a cross we keep handy
for special occasions.
Look how quickly its outstretched arms
go up in smoke.

I used to think I had something in common with the coffee-shop crowd, but now I’m coming to realize that my true place, if I have one, is at the public library. You know, that odd refuge from consumerism where you can’t buy things, only borrow them. Where people come to read or doze rather than to see and be seen and get wired on expensive, caffeinated beverages. I may not borrow many books — largely because public libraries aren’t very well stocked with the kind of obscure things I read — but I like knowing that the place is run by free-speech radicals who make an effort to welcome everybody, even those who cart their spare clothes around in shopping bags.

The library is full of my kind of weirdos: people who read books. You could say that about people at the local Barnes & Noble, too, but here in the library it’s quiet in a way few other public spaces can ever be, and I’m sure that freaks out people who require constant stimulation. Also, from what I’ve seen, the crowd at B&N and other bookstores skews toward the upwardly mobile. As for coffee shops, I’ve noticed they tend to cater to distinct segments of the population: businessmen in one, Christian conservatives in another, liberals and leftists in a third. In the public library, by contrast, you can meet almost anyone — but in an introvert-friendly atmosphere that discourages much beyond friendly nods and murmured greetings.

I suppose in part because of where I grew up and went to school, I’ve always been pretty comfortable among people with whom I have little in common, and I’ve been surprised by the extent to which Americans have retreated into tribal enclaves, afraid to rub shoulders with “Rethuglicans” or “Dumbocrats.” Me? I’m a little wary of going out in public at all, to be honest, knowing that 65 percent of Americans support drone warfare, 51.8 percent believe that shopping constitutes a form of therapy, and 74 percent believe a better place awaits them when they die.

But my sense of alienation retreats a bit when I read (at the library) that 57 percent of American adults also apparently still read books for pleasure, and about 50 percent visit a library or bookmobile at least once a year. Then again, if libraries weren’t popular, those who advocate their elimination probably wouldn’t work so hard to cut off their funding. Along with national parks and Social Security (also both threatened by privatization schemes), they are one of the last great bastions of democratic socialism in this country.

That said, my caffeine levels have dropped to a dangerous low. And the ragged looking man (worse even than me) on the other side of the Quiet Zone has really begun to snore.

The thing I think I’ll remember most about this summer in northwest London is the constant sound of gunfire. Fortunately it’s all from video games.

Civilians die by the hundreds in Gaza, Syria, and countless other conflicts, but in the “realistic” MMORPGs, the casualties are mainly if not exclusively other players. The bombed-out hellscapes are a given. It feels almost innocent.

But while the teenagers played war, Rachel and I watched all four seasons of Game of Thrones, which our mutual friend Jean Morris — a fan of the show — aptly described as “adrenalin porn for aging hippies.” The graphic violence and frequent nudity and sex did feel gratuitous, though the show was gritty in many other ways as well. What we perceive as realistic helped the supernatural elements from seeming too wildly improbable most of the time. It all added up to good, escapist fun.

But last year on Facebook I remember Dylan Tweney pointing out in reference to Game of Thrones that the drug cartels in Mexico are also fond of putting enemies’ heads on pikes. It made him uncomfortable, he said, that we would take pleasure in such a spectacle.

What does it say about us that we are so entranced by violence… and that we conflate graphic violence with realism? Perhaps there’s some law that states that the grimmer the world becomes that one is trying to ignore or escape, the grimmer the escapism too must become. Perhaps we are locked in a new kind of arms race: between reality and imagination. But if so, is another world still possible? And do the still, small voices of a greater-than-human, numinous reality still stand a chance?

Is there anything that hasn’t already been said about the man whom mainstream media organizations now routinely refer to as “Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor”? Of course there is! On his excellent serif of nottingblog, the surrealist Canadian poet Gary Barwin recently posted “Dear Mayor.” It begins:

I imagine skinning you
and you romp around the city
guts only

we won’t save taxes
think of the costs
protecting your insides

dear Mayor we stretch your skin
a blanket around us
keeps us warm for winter

Where other farmers sell grain, I sell soil, attractively packaged in ornamental coffins. Though this is the middle of Iowa, urban hipsters drive hours to buy it — “Heated, not treated, to remove Monsanto’s seed.” They pose for pictures next to my two-story tractor. I dress the part and don’t mention the ground-penetrating radar, how it shows me all the lies of the land as I drive my specially modified harvester. Instead, I talk about the healing properties of a mud mask, especially when it cracks in midsummer to let in the sun. My Lithuanian grandmother swore by it! When the soil is gone, will I sell rocks, they want to know. No, I want to say, I will sell the empty space to you to put all your goddamn garbage in. It’ll be the last landfill you’ll ever need. Instead I laugh and say in my best hick drawl: This here’s Iowa loess, son. Ain’t nothing but soil all the way down.

Parmanu:

In the days that followed, I found myself thinking often of the common man on the street and the gap between us. I imagined people – the elevator boy, the waiter in a restaurant, the pizza delivery guy – looking at me, sizing up my net value, and comparing it to their own. On streets I often hid my camera. I sensed a strange notion of guilt, for things I possessed and they did not. I found this condition disturbing, and I wondered how others like me coped. I spoke with some friends.

“We know inequality as an abstraction, and we think we understand it. But putting a number to it, not statistically but in the context of an everyday situation, is something else.”

I was with an ex-colleague who now divided his time between the corporate and social sector.

I continued: “This is what happened when I gave that figure to the barber – I put down a number that made the gap between us explicit. Before this incident I ignored these people, now I think of them everyday.”

“I see what you mean,” he said.

“You live here – how do you cope with this on a daily basis?”

“I deal with it by contributing to social causes. And I tell myself that to do this, I need to keep a certain level of prosperity – good clothes, a car, an apartment, and so on. I need to keep myself satisfied, so that I can have an impact on others.”

“Hmmm.”

Hoarded Ordinaries:

The Boston Marathon is Massachusetts’ annual holiday of helping, and it’s that willingness to help, I’ve decided, that chokes me up every year. All of us, deep down, have the urge to help others: to feel like we have made a difference. Cheering on a marathon runner—especially the ordinary folks at the back of the pack who need encouragement—makes you feel like you’re somehow contributing. Maybe someone is beginning to tire or cramp; maybe someone’s inner enemy is saying “Quit” or “I can’t.” When you cheer on a marathon runner—when you hold out a cup of water, an orange slice, or a freezer pop, or when you wave your sign or hit your drum or hold out your hand for a high five—you’re holding out hope that we, collectively, can somehow help a stranger. Maybe at a particular moment of need, you can offer exactly what’s needed: the right words, or a heartfelt bit of encouragement.

Craig Santos Perez (Kenyon Review blog):

Why banish poets from the empire if empire can use poets towards its own ends? Use poets to wash over the empire’s crimes, use poets to feign respect for humanity, use poets to poeticize the ideology of empire. Blanco’s poem, “One Today”, is a poem of American exceptionalism and immigrant exceptionalism—of “one empire” built by many settlers on native lands. There it is, Mr. President, sitting there, for USE.