Wednesday, June 17, 2015

#168 The Old Poor

and God has many other surprises, like
when the man you fear most in the world marries your mother
and chilling other,
men from far tribes armed in the dark, the dike-
hole, the sudden gash of an old friend’s betrayal,
words that leave one pale, 

milk & honey in the old house, mouth gone bad,
the caress that felt like all the world for a blow,
screams of fear eyeless, wide-eyed loss,
hellish vaudeville turns, promises had
& promises forgotten here below,
the final wound of the Cross. 

I have a story to tell you which is the worst
story to tell that ever once I heard.
What thickens my tongue?
and has me by the throat? I gasp accursed
even for the thought of uttering that word.
I pass to the next song:

Well: Have a nice friggin’ day, huh? J.

I’ve been talking about something this poem brings up from several different angles lately. I was talking with my wife about this kind of thing. I told her, you guys get on me for being cynical sometimes, but wheedling and complaining a little bit for me is the opposite of being cynical. It means there is still hope in my heart that things can change, be better than they are, that they can improve, and from that standpoint, complaining is a way of isolating that which needs to be changed—the first step toward action, and that action is prompted by hope, and by faith that people who step up, set goals, organize into communities, that these people can make change, make progress happen. The opposite is to slow down, come to a stop (sin is a lack of motion), and not care any longer. You just quietly fade away—don’t take care of yourself, smoke too much, have out-of-body experiences that substitute for engaging with life on this planet, dry yourself out until you turn into a two-legged piece of ambient beef jerky. Maybe not even aware of what’s happening. I talked about hope and despair in a meeting today, with the Environmental Action Committee, when we sidetracked a bit from the immediate issues at hand into a discussion of hope, engagement, and anti-environmental propaganda. The Pope is due out tomorrow with a Papal Encyclical, where he intends to push for worldwide recognition of climate change as a moral imperative. His timing is deliberate, with three major conferences arriving this year addressing climate change and its impact on disempowered, disenfranchised people around the world. The pushback against such revolutionary discussions, that threaten the established world economic and energy paradigms, have been effective, concerted, and in sum, monstrous. The propaganda of the status-quo would tell us that all is fine, the reality on the ground, and from voices in science, is that things are bad and getting worse. The overall effect of these discordant messages is confusion, which leads to despair, finally to apathy, which was the goal all along. When apathy gets established then a question arises, about life in general and about one’s life in particular. What’s the point anymore? and the follow up, Why even live? Why bother staying alive? Why not just commit suicide? That’s the word the poet here dares not mention, I believe. Suicide. There are ways to end oneself that don’t necessarily have to end one’s life, like a gunshot or jumping off a bridge. You can just meekly check out. Also a kind of suicide.

So, is this poem a result of engagement or apathy? Engagement in that naming the problem is the first step toward a solution of it. Apathy in that perhaps it’s one last utterance from an overwhelmed psyche, listing the all the reasons that one need not bother anymore. It’s too much.

It’s hard to say, except that the poet was still writing, at least, and was still alive. That’s an engagement with life. But it’s also possible to imagine some future audience, or some kind of abstract posterity, offer it a suicide note, a goodbye cruel world statement, and by the way—a middle finger a round “fuck you”—then check out. Clearly, that’s what is approaching. Maybe he’s not quite there yet. By not naming the word, the final acceptance of despair, he’s still being motivated by hope, even if it’s tenuous grasping at a straw to try and keep himself afloat in the maelstrom of existential muck he lists so clearly.

In the meeting today, once we discussed propaganda, we talked about grief. The old paradigm, folks, is dying before our eyes: The rhetoric is bankrupt, we’re running out of oil, our political system is awash in corruption, people are suffering and dying out of sight of power, or worse, in sight of it and under its contempt. The climate is changing because we haven’t cared, and that’s because we’ve been told not to care. That has led to apathy, a sense of powerlessness, disenfranchisement.

But the apathy is being challenged by activity, organization, communities asserting themselves. We had a ceremony on my campus where we grieved what was being lost. The integrity of the ecological world is unraveling, but also the dominant paradigm—late capitalism—is unravelling too, and that also causes grief. The list of landscapes, species, communities being lost is frightening. The impending loss of what we know is frightening. But moving through that, for all of us who were there that day, has been uplifting. In acting, organizing, making change, speaking out, we’re finding a lot of reason for hope, grounded in the approaching changes. But it has come through a spirit of cooperation, of humility in league with other humble members of a community. You’re not alone, and you’re for sure not some rugged individualist overcoming all challenges, and if you think you are, that’s your ego speaking. Go ahead, be brilliant, get famous, Big Shot. The massive violences of the failing dominant paradigm and its lying propaganda will overwhelm your ego. Depend on it. It will reduce you to apathetic whining. Is that what’s happening here? The absence of forward-looking hope is disturbing, for sure. But I’m an optimist now, now that I’ve faced our collective grief. I’m not ready yet to give up in this particular instance, this poem that records one man’s moment of negativity that threatens to overwhelm him. The word that despair leads to is holding off for now, and that means that the speaker hasn’t succumbed to despair. Yet.

Hamlet was nearly overcome with despair, but in confronting all that business with his mother, he freed himself well enough to get killed honestly. There are references to Hamlet in this poem, especially if one reads the list of the world's ills as being inspired, at least partly, by personal incidents--generally the smart choice with B. In the end, it still seems to me like a pretty outsized ego doing the comparisons, even if he was wrestling all his life with why his father died and wondering what role his mother had in it all.

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