America again

And now our government has made the abandonment of children an instrument of policy and a means of gaining political leverage. As if those children had not already had more bravery asked of them than most of our leaders have ever shown.

Exhibit A: toddlers in wire cages with no idea where their mothers or fathers are.

Exhibit B: bone spurs.

On and off all day today, listening to the radio as I weeded the patio, made some lunch, napped through a migraine, tears of anger and grief for these kids, also for the men and women they’ll become. They’ll carry the injuries, many of them in silence probably, all their lives.

I don’t get to say “not my president.” I’ve never thought I do, I belong to the body that elected him and am part of this unconscionable mess, I’m implicated, we all are.

I’m appalled to be an American. “Make America Great Again.” You assholes.

I made a bumper sticker – see top of post. In Bellingham, where I live, it’s how you change the world. Want one? Contact me (leave a comment, or through FB) and I’ll send you one. It’s on me.

“Constructions of Whiteness”

Next week I’m moderating a reading and discussion called “Constructions of Whiteness” with the brilliant and talented poets Stephanie Bolster and Barbara Nickel at the Canadian Writers Summit in Toronto. What little I mean to say by way of introduction, follows.


Hello, and welcome to our reading and discussion, “Constructions of Whiteness.” Before we say more we should say that we are meeting on traditional indigenous territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit. Land also with a deep history of use and care by the Haudenosaunee and the Huron-Wendat nations. We are grateful to be able to gather here.

I’m not going to say much by way of introduction. Just that we have taken as our starting point, as invitation and provocation, a passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.

[R]ace is the child of racism, not the father…. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish—and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.

But for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)

He’s talking about his son’s body and his own there, and the African-American body more generally, and the American body politic, including American whiteness, and we’re here in Canada, and our national experience is different. But maybe not altogether different. We each, the three of us, Stephanie Bolster, Barbara Nickel, and myself, Christopher Patton, want to share with you projects that examine the invention of whiteness, its construction, and some of its attendant destructions, examine them in ways we hope are morally alert, if fallible.

I’ll read first, followed by Barb, then Steph, with some time for discussion after. Each reader will introduce the next one, though since I’m going first, I’ll introduce myself, even if it feels a bit weird.


Curious to hear more? If you’re attending the CWS, join us in Toronto!

Saturday, June 16
2:00–3:15
Loft 1, Harbourfront Centre

Repeal the Second Amendment

I am a kombucha-swilling poet smoking his weed as he listens to Fleetwood Mac on Spotify. So you might not take me serious on this point. You might not take the kids serious though you sure as shit should. Maybe you will take a retired Supreme Court Justice serious though when he says

REPEAL THE SECOND AMENDMENT

Questions? Refer them to the dead.

And yeah, so it’s undoable. Start now, wait till doable catches up, if it takes 50 years, 100, all the more reason to have gotten started today.

Take the guns

So the answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, they say.

The more bad guys with guns, the more we need good guys with guns, and the more guns we need. Sounds like a child-slaughtering racket to me.

Just take the guns away already. All of them. The cost would be small. What we save would be so much. And “common sense” would cease to be the obscenity it’s become in the mealy mouths of politicians when they speak of gun control.

Till then. Have the gunsmiths and bulletmakers apologize in person, on their knees, to the mothers and fathers of every child their handiwork kills. I’m as starry-headed an optimist as I am appalled to contemplate this latest, has it become routine yet, schoolyard mass murder, and have to think the weaponmakers would not, if they knew with their own eyes and ears what what they made had done, would still make the things that they do make.

Constructions of Whiteness

A panel proposal put together by the best triangle I’ve ever been a corner to. (Side note, do you know how hard it is to persuade a room of undergrads that a three-legged stool can’t wobble? I do know now. I mean, you get it, or you don’t, how to explain it?) For next summer’s CCWWP convention (that mouthful’s the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs) in Toronto. Has a thematic focus whose statement starts like this

As we live this moment of intensifying racial and gendered violence, discourses and policies of intolerance, and environmental crises, we are also bearing witness to and participating in a broad surge of resistance, resilience and reclamation as evident in movements like Idle No More and Black Lives Matter. Literature has always had a role in responding, intervening and shaping the historical and cultural present. We believe literature is a way to interrogate anew what it means to be human and living in shared humanity on this land and in this time. Literature creates opportunity for the difficult conversations between us that might address our historical present, how we are haunted and how we can proceed.

and can be read whole here. We wanted to speak to the theme without presuming to speak from anywhere other than where we were. And so this.


In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates calls out the people “who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” He suggests that race is a shared fiction, one that served and serves the powers that wrote it, slavers, imperialists, eugenicists, white supremacists. Our ongoing shared belief in the fiction makes it real and lethal to Black kids on American city streets, Indigenous women of Canadian cities and prairies, countless others. This panel consists of three poets who, being white, can’t help but take part in the construction of whiteness. They’ll read from works-in-progress that ask whether whiteness might also be witness – how construction might also be re- or de-construction – and then open the room to questions and discussion.

Last summer, as Christopher Patton wrote the critical introduction to his book of translations from Old English, white nationalists were marching in Charlottesville, VA, and the air in Bellingham, WA, where he lives, was white with cross-border forest-fire smoke. His thinking sharpened some about ties between those thousand-year-old poems and white supremacy and climate change. Race wasn’t a thing when the poems were composed – tribe and ethnicity, yes, foreignness yes, but not race as we live in it now. And yet what were their warrior ethos and fear of the other, their love of gold and roiling suppressed anxieties, but raw material for the later construction of whiteness? Add profit motive and oceangoing ships and stir. Can a translator put such values back out in the world without validating them? What help is it, that other values run countercurrent in the poems, self-inquiry, dialogue, empathy for the outsider?

In the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori entered hundreds of ruined homes alone, with his camera. Stephanie Bolster resisted writing about these haunting, voyeuristic images for years, before accepting that the only way out was through; her project, Long Exposure, began in the interrogative mode, with her own voyeurism-once-removed. Evolving politics intensified the questioning and made her see her witnessing as white. In the New Orleans thread of her manuscript, she writes from empathy with the (mostly poor, mostly Black) former residents of these homes, but her recognition of her own subject position means she knows others may see that empathy as trespassing – or, worse, slumming. Can good art arise from, even overcome, guilt? How to strive for aesthetic authenticity amidst this complexity? How to write while wondering what one has the right to see, to say, to feel? Yet how much worse to be silent.

Barbara Nickel witnesses daily the loss of a body of water; she lives on lake-bottom land. The former Sumas Lake in the Upper Fraser Valley of British Columbia was drained in the 1920’s to create farmland. Named “reclamation,” the drainage was an act of irrevocable violence against the land and the Stó:lo people whose lives had depended on the lake. When Barbara discovered that Mennonite settlers from the prairies were some of the first to farm the newly drained land, the tension of her own witness was increased to include the complicity of her own people. Her response is made from vestiges – poems found in historical and contemporary voices, texts and other more visible remains –sandpiper in a museum drawer. As she writes over/in/of the lake’s ghost, she questions her right to do so, asks which roles are authentically hers – inquirer, trespasser, artist, friend?


I was browsing Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, hoping for something with enough texture visible to work in that upper heaven, top of the post, and came to this. Am caught by how all context is. Context of Black Lives Matter, the image is wake-up appalling. Context of Black Mountain, it’s American mid-century innocence enterprising. Phaidon‘s text on its generation, the painter collaborating with John Cage composer:

Rauschenberg said that Cage was the only driver in Manhattan willing to collaborate on such an unusual scheme. Perhaps this is a suitably flip comment to accompany so brisk a work. When asked if the work is a little like a musical stave, the artist demurred, preferring to compare it to a Tibetan prayer scroll. Yet, Cage drove over Rauschenberg’s scroll in the very same Model A Ford that he had carried him to Black Mountain College in a few years earlier; and doesn’t this single track bring to mind a little something of Cage’s featureless score for 4’33” – the silent work that’s never quite rid of the world’s noise?

A few closeups from it:

Road music. Rowed music. Rode music.

That innocence, it’s not gone, it ne’er was.

Stray thought on a cat

Sitting last night with my cat, who is dying of cancer, in my lap. Wondered, Am I doing this right? A voice came to say, There is no doing this right. Was such a relief.

Does that make sense? Do other people have the same overseer in them I do?

Am I being present in the right way? am I letting these last moments with her in fully? am I not clinging to her? All this stuff, just below the threshold of awareness, about living up to some ideal I’ve got, where it came from who knows. Saw it for the load of crap it was.

Wasabi, my dying scrappy streetfighter, is a good teacher. She’s not worried about dying right, she’s just dying. Slowing down, drawing inward.

There’s no doing it right, there’s just doing it.

Found her outside a sushi restaurant in a blizzard the day after Christmas, year of 2000 in Philadelphia. She’s been with me to Salt Spring Island, Salt Lake City, Bellingham WA. A whole lot of mice met their maker in her. She’s been companion comfort irritant playmate and source of many forearm scratches. When I have to let her go I’m going to bawl like a little baby.

Say a prayer – whatever that means to you – that her last weeks are easy for her?

 

 

 

John Ashbery, 1927–2017

A great one gone from us today. Ashbery dead at 90.

His extraordinary proposition: that a poem is a poem.

So many years before I got that. When I did I saw in hindsight he had helped me to. (Haven’t yet managed to write one, but now I know what one looks like.)

No time for the post I want to write. So just this sweet bit from the NYT obit

Asked once about a poet’s proper relationship with his audience, Mr. Ashbery rejected the idea of deliberately “shocking” the reader, a tactic he compared to wearing deliberately outlandish clothing and which he dismissed as “merely aggressive.”

“At the same time,” he said, “I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress.”

And this photo from same. Imagine the conversation they’d have had! or not!

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Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Marianne Moore. At a party in 1967. Photo by Jill Krementz.

Take care of each other. We don’t get a lot of time.