Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Muse of Fractured Times

The Poetry of Resistance IV

The time is out of joint.

Whose Country?
the haters will crawl out from under their rocks
the “white only” nation come out of the woodwork
You won’t know whose country you’re in

—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, “Wishing in the Woods with Hillary”
Do you remember the night of the election, November 8, 2016? We probably each have our own story, as we always do about catastrophic events. I remember driving home from work, looking forward to drinking the champagne Dan had put on ice for us to celebrate the election of our first woman president. When I drove into the garage Dan came out to greet me with an eye roll I will never forget. He knew what I was still denying, though the radio had given me inklings. We were not going to drink that champagne.

I think we’re all still reeling from that moment. It is hard to find words to describe how we felt. Often it takes a poem to express the inexpressible. My friend Bruce Bagnell wrote such a poem, the fourth in the Poetry of Resistance series. The poem is very short, and very potent. It gives us three images in three stanzas that brilliantly elucidate our scary times. Here’s the poem:

November 11, 2016, Grey Dawn

After the election I took a selfie;
flesh ripped to the bone,
tangled neurons,
knots of muscles.

Imagine if it had been a bomb
this sudden drop of words;
this acid rain
is not Aleppo.

I still have the silver spoon called America
bent as it may be.
I renew my vows to straighten it,
polish it until I can see myself again.

Those bodily images of rupture and brokenness in the opening stanza are shocking and accurate. Bagnell is a Vietnam Vet. He knows the realm of war, in which people are shattered, physically and psychologically. His just published poetry collection, The Self–Evolution Spa, which I highly recommend, has a number of poems on this theme.

I Took a Selfie
We wander to the center of the earth
shattered by our own hands.
We seek ourselves on the other side…
There is a war within us,
the one stalking meaning.

—Bruce Bagnell, “Questions for Dante”
    in The Self–Evolution Spa
Bagnell learned about the dread side of life when he was young, in his service as an Air Force Captain in the Vietnam War. I learned about it in my nightmares when I was young, chased by the Nazis who would have murdered my family, had they not fled Hitler’s Europe. In the long journey of seeking myself “on the other side,” I faced those inner Nazis, and was reassured by the relative lack of anti–Semitism in my American life. When I saw that Heil Hitler salute to Trump after the election, I felt shattered, ripped up, tangled up, in knots. It happened again, even more intensely, just recently when the Neo–Nazis showed up in Charlottesville, Virginia chanting anti-Semitic slogans. I’m sure many of you have versions of this story, how the selfie you took after the election showed you in pieces.

Bagnell describes one of the dangers of war—a loss of feeling, of soul, a Medusa complex:
We the still–flesh,
conquered by Nam’s disease,
slowly yielded to Medusa,
our souls turned to stone

—Bruce Bagnell “Those Were Strange Times”
in The Self–Evolution Spa
Those words are pertinent to the second stanza of Bagnell’s Election Day poem in which we are invited to imagine the “sudden drop of words” as a bomb. For those of us who have not gone to war, not contracted Nam’s disease or had our lives shattered in Aleppo, it seemed like a bomb had gone off, tearing down everything we thought we knew about America.

But Bagnell is a veteran. He knows that bad as things are, “this acid rain/is not Aleppo.” Words are not sticks and stones, or bombs. The “sudden drop of words,” though it won’t break our bones, will damage our spirits and run the risk of turning our souls to stone. The phrase resonates with many meanings—as in the lowering of standards of civility, integrity, factuality, as in the President’s twitter storms, in which he indulges in temper tantrums, untruths, bullying and rabble rousing, as in the torrents of words in the media and online responding to his every taunt and tirade. The man is a walking time bomb, with access to the nuclear code. He sets off explosions in the press, on TV, on Facebook, in the blogosphere, in the White House, in Congress, in bedrooms all over America where people awake to yell at the radio about yet another outrage, another early morning provocation from our bad boy president. And yet, Bagnell reminds us, he is not an autocratic ruler bombing his own people, like Assad.

Nevertheless, did you have any idea things could get so bad? That we’d have so much to lose, from health care, to women’s rights, to civil rights, to environmental policies, to our very democracy? Do you, like me, feel whiplashed between the maturity and grace of our “no drama” President Obama, and the soulless greed and rapaciousness of the current regime, which steals from the poor to further enrich the rich. Do you, like me, feel traumatized, afraid of what acid, what bomb of words, or worse, will drop next?

The Silver Spoon Called America
The question that wakes you in the night is
What if your worst fears are the story of our time?

—Naomi Ruth Lowinsky “In the Wild Wake of the Election”
America has been a silver spoon in the mouths of many of us lucky enough to be born here. Those of us who are first generation Americans, the children of refugees, like Dan on his father’s side, like me on both sides, really value that spoon. I don’t think African–Americans feel this way, however; their ancestors came here against their will, stolen from their lives and culture. That silver spoon is after all, a symbol of privilege—part of our delusions about American exceptionalism. As James Baldwin put it in his marvelous essay, “Down At the Cross,” from The Fire Next Time, his people tend to “dismiss white people as slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”

That said, I love how elegantly Bagnell uses the image in his final stanza. The spoon has been bent by the election, perhaps by many earlier events we can think of, that batter its shape and dim its luster. The poem’s speaker renews his “vows to straighten it.” This is a familiar American spirit—practical, no–nonsense, can do. The poem has taken us from the horror of the first stanza, in which the damage, the trauma, is reflected in a selfie, to the capacity for thoughtful differentiation in the second stanzas—“This is not Aleppo”— to the solution suggested in the third stanza—to straighten and polish that spoon. Bagnell’s speaker is a no Hamlet, crying: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” He’s an American. He plans to fix it.

The Portal of Despond

     The nightly news is a hike through the Book of Revelations.—Al Gore

As happens with a potent image, well expressed in a poem, that silver spoon set up residence in my imagination. It’s what we Jungians call a living symbol. I watched it tarnish, shape shift into a dark portal, an opening that lets in evil spirits, lets all our worst fears come flooding in. As in the first stanza of Bagnell’s poem, we feel overwhelmed, frightened, traumatized, impotent, don’t know where to turn or what to do. It’s a syndrome many of us are suffering these days. We have to learn how to manage the unspeakable specters that arise from the tarnished spoon we call America. Here are some of mine:

The Russians have invaded our elections. We can no longer trust our voting process.

The New York Times of Sept. 1, 2017, ran this headline “Russian Election Hacking Efforts, Wider than Previously known, Draw Little Scrutiny.” The Times has produced an in–depth report on this issue. Their research shows that Russians hackers targeted voting systems in at least 21 states. For example, in North Carolina, some people were denied their right to vote despite having current registration cards. This was mostly an issue in Durham—a blue–leaning county in a swing state, which Trump won. One has to wonder, did he, really? Has a foreign power manipulated our election process? Can this be America?

The New York Times of Sept. 1, 2017, ran this headline “Russian Election Hacking Efforts, Wider than Previously known, Draw Little Scrutiny.” The Times has produced an in–depth report on this issue. Their research shows that Russians hackers targeted voting systems in at least 21 states. For example, in North Carolina, some people were denied their right to vote despite having current registration cards. This was mostly an issue in Durham—a blue–leaning county in a swing state, which Trump won. One has to wonder, did he, really? Has a foreign power manipulated our election process? Can this be America?
Lining up to vote in Durham, NC

But here’s the thing: if you watch that dark portal carefully, if you read and listen to our blessed American press, you will see people emerge from that underworld opening who stand for the America my parents believed in, the America in which people believe they can fix things. Take Susan Greenhalgh, “a troubleshooter at a nonpartisan election monitoring group,” according to the Times (9/1/17) “The problems involved electronic poll books—tablets and laptops, loaded with check–in software, that have increasingly replaced the thick binders of paper used to verify voters’ identities and registration status.” On November 10th Greenhalgh sensed something rotten in the state of N. Carolina. “‘It felt like tampering, or some sort of cyberattack,’ Ms. Greenhalgh said about the voting troubles in Durham.” She asked a colleague at the Election Protection agency in North Carolina “to warn the state Board of Elections of a cyber attack and suggest that it call in the FBI and the Dept. of Homeland Security.” She was told the state didn’t view this as a problem and wanted to move on, Greenhalgh recalled. “Meanwhile I’m thinking, ‘What could be more important to move on to?’” She hasn’t given up. She’s still worried, and so she talked to the New York Times for their in–depth report.

Susan Greenhalgh

Susan Greenhalgh is America; she’s a fixer, and so is Verified Voting, the non–profit she works for. They stand between the Russian hackers and us.

Mother Earth is in a fury and will never forgive us for pulling out of the Paris Climate Accords.

Hurricane Harvey has dumped more water on the U.S. than any other weather event in history. So said Politifact, on August 31, 2017. Since science is fact based and precise, scientists disagree on whether climate change and specific weather events connect. But here are some helpful summary statements from Politifact: 

As Earth’s temperature warms, land-based ice melts and ocean water expands, causing sea levels to rise. This in turn increases the risks that the sea will rise with the atmospheric pressures of a storm, causing more waves and flooding. 

Scientists may disagree on the degree to which anthropogenic (or human-caused) climate change intensified Harvey, but almost all concurred that Houston’s lack of preparation for it magnified its ramifications. 

Urbanization turned prairies and forests into concrete, reducing the land’s capacity to absorb rainfall, and lax zoning codes gave way to development more prone to cave to the flooding. 

The Earth’s rage takes the form of terrible storms and floods as well as fires. We had an experience with the latter in the usually lovely town of Ashland, Oregon recently. It lived up to its name in a dreadful way—the air was filled with smoke and ash from eight wildfires, surrounding the area. We couldn’t walk to the theaters—the air quality was deemed unhealthy, and people were urged not to spend time outdoors. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival cancelled its outdoor performance of The Odyssey because the air was so bad. The mountains were hidden behind a veil of smoke. People wore masks to walk the streets. After seeing the death of King Henry IV and the ascension to the throne of Prince Hal, who had reformed his rowdy ways, we walked out of the theatre into over 100 degree heat, the air so thick with smoke it was almost unbreathable. There was ash on the car’s windshield. The quarter moon glowed orange and angry. Our lovely little retreat town, with its cultural riches, has turned into a hell realm. There’s the hell of fire, and the hell of water. Ask the people of Houston about the latter. They suffered 70 deaths, major flooding and destruction of their homes.

Are the fires a result of climate change? Here’s a headline from Pacific Northwest News, Oct. 11, 2016: "Climate change doubled size of western forest fires, study says, and it will only get worse." According to the Union of Concerned Scientists higher temperatures cause drought, the soil dries, making wildfires more intense and difficult to put out. Depressing, right? And our fact-denying president doesn’t want to work on this issue? What’s happened to America?

Enter Al Gore, through the portal of despond. He’s been working on this issue for a decade, and has a new movie out, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Carole Cadwalladr, who has interviewed Gore several times, describes it in The Guardian of July 29, 2017.

The film runs through a host of facts – that 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001 is just one. And the accompanying footage is biblical, terrifying: tornadoes, floods, “rain bombs,” exploding glaciers. We see roads falling into rivers and fish swimming through the streets of Miami.

The nightly news, Gore says, has become “a nature hike through the Book of Revelations.” But what his work has shown and continues to show is that evidence is not enough. The film opens with clips from Fox News ridiculing global warming… What becomes clear over the course of several conversations is how entwined he believes it all is – climate change denial, the interests of big capital, “dark money,” billionaire political funders, the ascendancy of Trump and what he calls (he’s written a book on it) “the assault against reason.”

Gore brings a different American spirit into these times. He is a do-gooder, a man on a mission, who intends to change the world by talking to people about climate change one person at a time. He shouts at us: “Couldn’t you hear what Mother Nature was screaming at you?” He sums up what he’s figured out in the phrase, “Our Democracy has been hacked,” this time not by the Russians, but by the rich, particularly the Koch brothers. He speaks Truth to Power and I am grateful.

Until I Can See Myself Again
We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation. The giant forward steps we have taken on civil liberties and civil rights and human rights are being met by a ferocious pushback from the oldest and darkest forces in America.
—Joe Biden on the Atlantic website.
The Evil Spirits that have haunted America since slavery and Jim Crow are back, in full daylight. They feel supported by our rabble–rousing president.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center “Trump’s run for office electrified the radical right, which saw in him a champion of the idea that America is fundamentally a white man’s country.” They came, Neo Nazis and White Supremacists in full force to “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, VA on Saturday Aug. 12th. They were protesting the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee from a city park. The event became a cauldron of rage, Nazi slogans, counter demonstrations, violence erupting between groups, and a young man who ran his car into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, killing one young woman, Heather Heyer. The governor declared a state of emergency. The president refused to condemn the white supremacist provocateurs, preferring to blame both sides, clearly misstating the truth of what had happened. There was a furor of condemnations of the President’s remarks, including from Republican leaders of congress. Was something new emerging from the portal of despond, in horrified response?

I was moved by a story I heard on NPR. In the wake of Charlottesville, a young pastor, Rev. Robert Lee IV, a nephew many generations removed of General Robert E. Lee, was interviewed by Lulu Garcia–Navarro, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. He walked through that portal, illuminated with his moral clarity, and gave me a moment of tearful relief when he said of the monuments:
I do think they need to come down. I think it’s time we have a conversation about how to remember our past without commemorating our past…We have made an idol of Robert E. Lee. We have made him an idol of white supremacy. We have made him an idol of nationalism and of hate and of racism. And that’s unacceptable. And not only for me as a person of goodwill but as for me as a Christian, I can no longer sit by and allow my family’s name to be used as hate–filled speech.
Garcia–Navarro asked him, gently, about the threats he’s been receiving. He responded:
It’s been hard. I mean, I’m a 24-year old. I’m a pastor. I’m not a violent person. I don’t condone violence in any form. And so to see that there are people who wish to be violent against me and my family, against my church community is terrifying.

At the end of the interview Lee says:
I just got an email from a lady who spoke to me about being owned by my family and how her ancestors were owned by my family…and what that means for her now to hear someone speak out against it in the name of the Lees.
The Rev. Robert Lee IV brings a spirit that we have not often seen in America, the courage to face the shadows in our past, and to take responsibility for them. We need many more Americans like him.