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.”
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.
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.
5. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.
— Teju Cole (@tejucole) January 14, 2013
Teju Cole has gotten big on Twitter the right way (in my humble view): using Twitter as a creative medium. His growing follower count is an indication that there’s a real hunger for this kind of thing; I do hope more writers will follow his lead. While I’ve personally grown a little weary of his relentlessly grim small fates, there’s no denying their literary quality and inventiveness. And I do love his occasional Twitter essays (or whatever you want to call the above, which is less polemic but more devastating than its predecessors). A just-published essay, “Twitter>The Novel? @tejucole>Teju Cole?” by Sam Twyford-Moore cites and quotes from a couple of Cole’s other Twitter essays, in case you missed them.
Before this farce of a
n apocalypse spiritual awakening passes from memory, I’d like to take a little more time to think about what the end of the world means for a civilization. One of the odd things about the New Age obsession with misinterpreted Mayan “prophecies” is the unwillingness to actually learn from the Maya themselves, who are not only still with us but who have managed to preserve an impressive amount of their traditional knowledge, and have not been especially shy about sharing it with curious anthropologists. New Agers like to see themselves as freed from the shackles of Judeo-Christian thinking, and love to pay lip service to indigenous wisdom. But reading books like Time and the Highland Maya, by an anthropologist who apprenticed herself to K’iche’ Maya priests, or the Popol Vuh, translated by her husband with the same priests as consultants, might challenge one’s preconceptions, and definitely requires sustained grappling with a very different worldview.
This unwillingness to learn from other cultures is deeply rooted in Western Christian culture. There’s a good Christian/Greek word for that sort of willfully ignorant pride: hubris. And for at least one outpost of Western civilization, such hubris — along with rigid conservatism, extreme religiosity, environmental degradation and a changing climate — brought about the end of the world as they knew it. I’m talking about the Norse settlements on Greenland.
If you’ve read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (which I don’t necessarily recommend — it’s full of facile argumentation and poor scholarship), you already know the outlines of this story. But this documentary, produced for the PBS series Secrets of the Dead back in the millennial year, does an excellent job telling the story in the words of the scientists who finally pieced it together. And it was great to hear from the Greenland Inuit, who arrived a little later than the Norse but survived the Little Ice Age just fine. “Apocalypse? What apocalypse?” Which, come to think of it, is probably also what the Mayan peasants were saying when their parasitic city-states were collapsing 1000 years ago.
(By the way, if you’re interested in documentaries about the vikings, there are a number of other good ones collected on the new sagalicious page over at Twisted Rib.)
the melancholy of a straight line of same-sized trees
the principal’s chair like a golden cloak
how many roads
running toward the shooter, shouting
the vacuum of grief quickly fills with kitsch
I went to bed hungry & woke up full
“Would you like ketchup with your freedom fries?”
survivors at Virginia Tech described him as looking almost innocent in his scout uniform
I dreamt about writing a book titled war canoe
dried wildflowers could be incorporated into a quilt full of names
all young males in the target area are presumed to be terrorists
the terrible coolness of indifference
how many roads must a man
both of them running, pitching forward
according to the Washington Post, the expanded kill list is known as the “disposition matrix”
the melancholy of angels that never learned how to pollinate
“How many bees would you like?”
in my dream I loved how the deserted street felt to my bare feet
the children hidden like stowaways in lavatories & closets
coats from the Army-Navy store
a fisherman’s sweater knitted to look like fish scales
just as bullet points rarely liven up a slide presentation, the sound of a gun is far duller than you’d expect from the movies
it was dark before I reached the end of the block
“How would you prefer we got rid of the crows?”
after the power comes back, the clock can’t stop blinking
There’s just one particular form of mental illness that’s been found to be shared by a significant number of spree killers. It’s depression. At least a tenth of people in the U.S. have it, or have had it, myself among them. And there’s no conclusive causal link between the depression and spree killing.
You are not normal.
There is no normal. You may well be happy and well adjusted. I hope you are. I often am as well. But every single person is neurologically distinct. Normal is semantic, an arbitrary boundary on the bell curve between peak and long tail. Mentally ill, if it means anything at all, just means landing on the wrong side of that arbitrary line.
Today I happened to remember I’d written a poem in the voice of a hero from a previous school shooting. Romanian holocaust survivor Liviu Librescu, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, blocked the doorway to keep the gunman from entering while his students got out through the windows, “into the garden.”
Let’s get real, you say. What good can poetry possibly do, faced with these kinds of horrific acts? I’d reply that anything that helps to deemphasize and demythologize the role of the killer can’t hurt. I tend to think that the mass media’s focus on the killers not only ensures that they will be remembered, but also encourages other violent, antisocial types to emulate them knowing they’ll get the same kind of notoriety. And notoriety might sometimes be just what such troubled young men are after. I love old-time murder ballads as much as anyone, but I think it’s time to put those behind us and stop feeding a gun culture that romanticizes lone killers and vigilantes.
I don’t believe that news reports should be censored, so how to combat the sensationalism? By elevating and memorializing those like Librescu who resisted, and who led truly exemplary lives besides. I hope it’s only a matter of time before we start hearing songs and poems about Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung and the other heroes of the massacre.
More than poems of mourning — which are also necessary, and which we poets are always Johnny-on-the-spot with after every major cataclysm — we need poems of celebration and defiance. We can’t allow the killers to dominate our memories of these events, just as we can’t allow the gun fetishists to continue to hijack public discussion of the role of violence in our culture and how to change it. If we do, to coin a phrase: the terrorists will have won.
A little slow on the draw.