Poetry is also this

This is from the end of an interview with a writer named Clint Smith about Juneteenth that Amy Goodman conducted on Democracy Now! on Friday. Juneteenth recently became a federal holiday, over the nay votes of fourteen GOP sticklers . Though, in fairness to them, it was fewer than the number (21) who opposed gold medals for the outnumbered officers who defended the Capitol on January 6 and FAR less than the number (all but six of them in the Senate) who opposed the formation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the MAGA riot. The new national holiday commemorates the day in June 1865, two months after the Confederacy surrendered — and two months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — that enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas learned that they’d been freed more than two years earlier.

AMY GOODMAN: Clint, before we end, you are an author, you’re a writer, you’re a teacher, and you are a poet. Can you share a poem with us?

CLINT SMITH: I’d be happy to. And so, when you’re a poet writing nonfiction, that very much animates the way that I approach the text. And so, this is part of the — this is an adaptation or an except from the end of one of my chapters, that originally began as a poem that I wrote when I was trying to think about some of these issues that I brought up.

[reading] Growing up, the iconography of the Confederacy was an ever-present fixture of my daily life. Every day on the way to school, I passed a statue of P.G.T. Beauregard riding on horseback, his Confederate uniform flung over his shoulder and his military cap pulled far down over his eyes. As a child, I did not know who P.G.T. Beauregard was. I did not know he was the man who ordered the first attack that opened the Civil War. I did not know he was one of the architects who designed the Confederate battle flag. I did not know he led an army predicated on maintaining the institution of slavery. What I knew is that he looked like so many of the other statues that ornamented the edges of this city, these copper garlands of a past that saw truth as something that should be buried underground and silenced by the soil.

After the war, the sons and daughters of the Confederacy reshaped the contours of treason into something they could name as honorable. We called it the Lost Cause. And it crept its way into textbooks that attempted to cover up a crime that was still unfolding; that told us that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man, guilty of nothing but fighting for the state and the people that he loved; that the Southern flag was about heritage and remembering those slain fighting to preserve their way of life. But, see, the thing about the Lost Cause is that it’s only lost if you’re not actually looking. The thing about heritage is that it’s a word that also means “I’m ignoring what we did to you.”

I was taught the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but I was never taught how the declarations of Confederate secession had the promise of human bondage carved into its stone. I was taught the war was about economics, but I was never taught that in 1860 the 4 million enslaved Black people were worth more than every bank, factory and railroad combined. I was taught that the Civil War was about states’ rights, but I was never taught how the Fugitive Slave Act could care less about a border and spelled Georgia and Massachusetts the exact same way.

It’s easy to look at a flag and call it heritage when you don’t see the Black bodies buried behind it. It’s easy to look at a statue and call it history when you ignore the laws written in its wake.

I come from a city abounding with statues of white men on pedestals and Black children playing beneath them, where we played trumpets and trombones to drown out the Dixie song that’s still whistled in the wind. In New Orleans, there are over 100 schools, roads and buildings named for Confederates and slaveholders. Every day, Black children walk into buildings named after people who never wanted them to be there. Every time I would return home, I would drive on streets named for those who would have wanted me in chains.

Go straight for two miles on Robert E. Lee, take a left on Jefferson Davis, make the first right on Claiborne. Translation: Go straight for two miles on the general who slaughtered hundreds of Black soldiers who were trying to surrender, take a left on the president of the Confederacy who made the torture of Black bodies the cornerstone of his new nation, make the first right on the man who permitted the heads of rebelling slaves to be put on stakes and spread across the city in order to prevent the others from getting any ideas.

What name is there for this sort of violence? What do you call it when the road you walk on is named for those who imagined you under a noose? What do you call it when the roof over your head is named after people who would have wanted the bricks to crush you?

source

How to Never Heal

Pro tip: NEVER, EVER, ADMIT YOU WERE WRONG!

In a world where we all make mistakes, sometimes very hurtful ones, I’m glad to have a disposition that allows me to forgive people. That may sound funny coming from a man who felt he had to cast many old friends adrift over the years, but it’s true. All I need to be able to forgive is a sincere expression of regret when somebody I care about hurts me, their understanding of why I was upset and an assurance they will try hard not to act that way again. Reconciliation can’t happen without truth. If I won’t even acknowledge that I acted badly toward you, when you spell out exactly why you were hurt by my actions, repeated actions in many cases, what hope can you have about the comfort of our friendship going forward? Think about it.

How not to heal: refuse to hear what the other person is concerned with, no matter what, focus on your own counter-grievance, press it over and over. When they complain, tell them they are whining snowflakes, oversensitive, passive aggressive pussies. “I elbowed you in the Adam’s Apple for the fifth time this week — BY ACCIDENT, ASSHOLE, as I already fucking told you!” is an explanation that attempts to bully you into accepting your powerless in the relationship. “I’m not wrong, YOU ARE,” is an asshole’s first response most of the time.

People who are not comfortable apologizing will often “double down” in the sickening gambler’s phrase we all learned during Mr. Trump’s regime. Apology, admittedly, requires a moment of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, recognizing that you too would feel hurt, followed by an act of humility — contritely asking forgiveness — that makes you vulnerable. Ironically, it takes a certain amount of strength and self-confidence to apologize, even when you know you’ve hurt someone.

Insecure people have a very hard time admitting they are ever wrong, especially when the result of their actions is set in front of them. By reflex they feel attacked, become defensive, counterattack. It is the only play of someone too insecure to acknowledge the possibility of being mistaken. We are living through a prime public example of what I am thinking about in interpersonal terms and it has us at the brink of being angry enough to actually begin murdering one another.

In the case of the many Republican politicians continuing to support the president (many by their silence) in his endlessly repeated lying claims of massive electoral fraud (he made the same claim when he narrowly “won” in 2016, millions of dead people voted then too), they are sticking to their stories [1].

That their story may make little or no sense, less important than having a story. As more and more terrible facts emerge, like sickening details of the violent riot incited by their leader, seen by everyone, the stupid cover-stories about the sudden need for unity, or Antifa, or Trump learning the first lesson of his life, become more and more ridiculous. They simply can’t stop now, not after their tireless, valiant campaign has finally brought us to to bring about this sickening, anti-democratic zero-sum political moment. Now even a violent riot by insurrectionists planned and fomented by the president can be … a… a teachable moment? — a step forward on the road together? They need a story. Any story is better than no story, wait, here we go.

To hold Trump accountable for planning and inciting a riot, inviting an angry mob to D.C. on January 6th to STOP THE STEAL!, sending the stirred up mob down to the Capitol while he instructed federal law enforcement to stand down, in hopes of seeing Mike Pence (so disappointing!!) swinging from the gallows and the heads of his other enemies on pikes (“Hi Nancy, hi Chuck!! Hi, Shifty Schiff! who’s laughing now?”), would– eh, DIVIDE THE COUNTRY! That’s it — yeah, Democrat traitors, look who’s trying to divide the country now, shameless partisan hypocrite zealots!! We’re trying to heal here, you libtard commie fucktards, and you’re… so… goddamn mean and hypocritical — and vindictive! Admit you’d do the exactly the same thing if you had the election stolen from you, or even claimed repeatedly and falsely that it was stolen from you!

As I watch this heart-sickening theater, personal feelings are being vigorously stirred. Two friends from childhood did exactly this move in recent years. One simply by refusing to admit that his reflex to make me angry had anything to do with him, the other by telling me he had no idea why I was upset with him, repeatedly asking for an explanation for why I was so hurt and then attacking me for explaining it in such a brutal way. In short, two smart people incapable of great insight into themselves, unable to behave any better than they did and angry at being unfairly expected to. Each now has the consolation of knowing that I was finally the cruelly self-righteous, heartlessly unforgiving asshole who put an end to a long, beautiful friendship. I don’t begrudge them, it’s all they’ve got.

I was telling a friend recently that I’d truly have no problem forgiving either of them, if they would only own up to what they’d done, and kept doing, that was so hurtful to me, promised to try to do better. If the first guy had a breakthrough in psychoanalysis and called to tell me he realized that he was actually, unconsciously, often trying to provoke me to rage and was sorry about it, I’d be playing guitar with him the next day. The second guy is a slightly harder case, because although he initially thanked me for my mildness in stating my grievance without accusation the first couple of times, he remained specifically unapologetic (he claimed to have no understanding of why, exactly, I’d been so upset) and non-responsive, repeatedly telling me I still hadn’t made myself clear, pushing me for clarification, and then blaming me for clarifying things, which was very hurtful and made him feel terrible! A more complicated kind of asshole than the first guy, still, I’d be glad to forgive him, if he contacted me with even a soupçon of insight into how his actions, and his constant doubling down, had finally aggravated me beyond endurance.

Politics is personal, its roots go back into our formative childhoods. Social scientists have run tests to determine the basic personality types of the typical liberal and the typical conservative. Here’s a test. Take these traits and assign them to one side of the political spectrum or the other: obedience, loyalty, harsh punishment, self-sufficiency, individualism. If you said “liberal” you pass the test. How about these: fairness, reconciliation, mutual help, community. If you picked “conservative”– how right you are!

We embrace the worldview that comports with our upbringing, or sometimes rebel against it hard, like Stephen Miller (whose family, survivors of Hitler, is anti-fascist). If dad taught you that the Bible said “spare the rod, spoil the child” and took every opportunity to not spare the rod, well, you are more likely to have a certain view of the righteousness of harsh punishment and retribution. If mom instilled a conviction that food should be shared equally by everyone at the table, that no-one should ever go hungry, or get less than somebody else, there’s a different fundamental lesson about what is truly important in life.

I knew the families of these two guys I grew up with quite well. The home life of the first was an endless exercise in restraining and repressing very understandable anger. The mother, a woman of great charm and intelligence, is a compulsive (though often harmless) liar and something of a manipulator. The father, an equally charming person, was treated like a rebellious child in their home, and acted chastened much of the time. This daily humiliation was disguised as a deep love that nobody could deny. The second kid was raised by an openly autocratic father and a narcissistic mother who worshipped his uncompromising dad without question. My friends had little chance to learn any life lessons at home but what they did. Both of these boys, as men, endured rough marriages that ended in ugly divorces.

You can understand these unfortunate backstories and, still, it doesn’t sit right (my home life was as bad or worse in many ways), in a world where we can work to gain more insight and change things about our lives that torment us the most.

I am prone to anger, and it is my daily work to get better at not succumbing to it, work I consciously do. One thing I’ve learned is that when you cannot solve an interpersonal problem with someone, it is crucial to simply walk away. That applies in the moment you are getting mad as well as longterm, of your decision to stay in an aggravating arrangement with little emotional counterbalance. To conclude that proneness to anger is simply my nature, and there is nothing I can do about it, would be an abdication of any moral responsibility or agency on my part. What they used to call a “cop out” in the sixties — it’s not me, man, it’s undeniable, immutable genetic-social necessity!

To return to my personal examples of the problem of making peace with people who have lost the ability to see things from your point of view: the first guy will endlessly deny his anger and his unconscious provocations, make it everybody else’s problem that they are so angry all the time — a stance that is, frankly, infuriating. The second guy will do pretty much the same, actually, though in a much more sophisticated way. They will both be right, eternally. And so be it.

It is beyond our powers to change any of that, least of all in someone else, particularly a person who sincerely believes we can really not do anything differently, or better, than we’ve always done. It reminds us of the role our native dispositions play in our outlook, I guess, and whether you’ve had the luck to have at least one parent love you unconditionally.

Back to “politics”, the sword hanging over all of our heads. As the US nears 375,000 dead of the pandemic, it’s clear that the president, who has snapped that he has no responsibility for it, doesn’t care. He cares about overturning a rigged election he has produced zero proof was in any way improper. He clearly DOESN’T CARE IF YOU DIE and he’s not going to address taking reasonable steps to prevent the wild spread of COVID-19, in fact, he’ll weaponize disease prevention itself and insist on super-spreader events like that mask-free tour de force of domestic terrorism he hosted last week then inflicted on the Capitol.

The plain fact that the leader of the wealthiest nation in the world, whose infection and death rates are 5X higher, by population (4% of world population, 20% of infections) than anywhere else, clearly doesn’t care about stopping the spread of this deadly plague, by itself, should be a compelling argument for removing him under the 25th Amendment. It’s depraved, if not outright insane.

Oops, there I go again, angrily dividing this poor, ravaged country!

Back to the promise of the title: How to Never Heal. Focus on a grievance and being the victim. Nurture those painful feelings, no matter what.

In the case of aggrieved Trump followers, let’s take one major strand of their belief system — that the unreasonable, pushy demands of America’s coloreds endlessly claiming racism in America are a crock of crap. Here’s what you do, Trumpie, hit back with history. FACT: the ones who were slaves, the black ones, were freed more than 150 years ago. Fucking get over it! You people are fucking animals, look at you! That’s why we had a phalanx of National Guardsmen in full anti-riot gear guarding the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as you passed by in your protest march — because you are insane, violent savages who will never be satisfied no matter how many rights we give you and you would have attacked even the sacred statue of Abraham Lincoln, the best friend you ever had until LBJ, if given the chance. Nothing will be enough for you, until we are your slaves. Now get out of our way so we can go hang Mike Fucking Pence.

There you go, it is as easy as that. If you are determined to be right, even with a grievous self-inflicted wound, even if it means being a moronic, self-deluding puppet screaming against your own best interests, it is very simple to do. Take the three easy steps again: focus on a grievance, nurture it, justify it, no matter what; repeat as necessary. You can thank me later.

On the other hand, if you want to heal, for some reason, there are a few necessary steps. You have to be honest. You need to honestly discuss the things in the past that have led to the harmful situation we find ourselves in now. You have to acknowledge terrible things that happened (beyond a nonchalant “we uh tortured some folks”, if you know what I mean) and commit to fixing them. You have to listen carefully, be open to all proposals for improving things, if you want to have real reconciliation. If you want to correct injustice you have to first look at it fairly, listen to the voices of those who are being hurt by it, remove from the conversation those who are intent on perpetuating unjust practices.

If you want to be right, of course, just blame the pitiful losers for wanting to be victims when YOU ARE ACTUALLY THEIR VICTIM! You know what I’m saying?

USA! USA!!!!

[1]

The New York Times, channeling The Onion (America’s Finest News Source), reported on its front page earlier today (they removed the headline in the last hour, during updates, so I paraphrase:) Supreme Court Declines to Fast-track Trump Election Case. I was too slow to click on it while it was up, and it can’t be easily found (searching “Supreme Court” on the buggy NYT phone app doesn’t do it) but, seriously– WHAT THE FUCK? What fucking Trump election case?

Best Case Scenario

Only four years accelerating the doomsday clock,
melting all the arctic ice,
giving the greediest ever more,
a few strong new laws needed to prevent a repeat

no violent second Civil War to save the Leader

fought by the same passionate men who waged —

— and never lost —

the first bloody uprising against

the tyranny of angry,
lawless
slaves.

Inevitable

Teeth made of sugar
dissolve,
stiff, heavy legs
piles of curds
I could not have imagined
trying to walk on,
my beautiful young friend
now made of crepe paper.

That guy in the photo
trying to smile
what the fuck?
When did that decrepit
old fart commandeer my
young soul?
No hint of joy
eyes dull and glassy,
set deep in that haggard,
death-haunted face

seriously, my love,
what the fuck?

The Honor System

There is nothing to stop
the kid in the angry red baseball hat
from crunching down the gravel path
through an always open gate
to the spot where a large stone
marks my father’s grave

A tempting canvas
for some malicious mischief
a few shakes of the can
the whoosh as a crooked cross
splays itself over the Hebrew words
that remember the skeleton
as a bright and modest man

The boneyard is on the road
where local klansman
hurled fist-sized rocks
to smash the heads of folk singers
when my father was an
idealistic college student,
the moral arch of history finally
bending the right way
if the line could only hold

Seventy years later
no guard or locked gate
defends the graves of
those helpless dead
who are, anyway, beyond harm now

It’s the honor system,
I suppose.

My New Sunday Routine

I pretend now, on Sundays,
that I did what all my friends did years ago:
went to work, for good pay
bought a house in a nice place,
four walls, a roof,  a staircase
A place where nobody can stomp on my ceiling
petulant to find themselves living in a shithole
rented too dearly from an evil entity
in a neighborhood about to be gentrified
with nothing to say about anything.

I pretend, on Sundays, now,
alone in this old house,
as I play the guitar as loud and long as I want,
that I have always lived in the land of the free
and the home of the brave.

Ode to an angry, rapey mean drunk

The nominee wants an immediate fair hearing
by his peers, zealots,
no evidence against him,
only one witness’s
uncorroborated word against his
but a fair process
he wants a fair process, a fair process 
 
Goes on their channel to make his case
says this over and over, and:
Dignity and respect, nothing but dignity
and respect for girls of every age
and fuck those lying teenaged bitches
How dare they?!!  My good name!  The fucking whores.
 
FBI, no thanks, I would, of course,
but you know… the committee
 
“False Acquisitions!” snarls a dotard. 

Grandson of the Awful Ease of Incoherence

The ease of incoherence is awful
because it is so easy.
The idiot ease of it: effortless
no effort needed.

Incoherence makes no demands,
anything you can
pull out of your ass
will do, really,
there is no problem with anything
you might pull out,
the less likely the better,
actually, for purposes of
incoherence.

Meanwhile these affectionate ferals
born with two strikes against them
and five personal fouls,
eight of their nine lives wasted,
spend a few minutes in the sun,
chasing a delicious smell
then gone forever
like the Polar Ice Caps,

like everyone
you’ll ever love.

Can People Change?

People can’t change
my father always insisted.
Fundamentally, he said,
without a shred of doubt,
people cannot change themselves.

Fifty years later
as he was dying
his born-angry baby
standing quietly by his deathbed
listening
with no apparent anger
made him think

Fuck, he thought,
looks like I may have been
wrong about that
I wish I hadn’t been so
goddamned categorical
about it all my life.  

Then he died.

Reverie during a hot shower

The hot water pounding gently
felt so good
it made me close my eyes

I saw suddenly
caramel colored shoulders
the collarbones also caramel
against the brilliant white peasant blouse
I was trying to peer down into

The house where this happened
has long ago been razed
a gothic nightmare stands there now

I was monosyllabic
still in the grips of
a long bout
of what they told me was
a mild form of depression,
I had no interest in anything,
only dread,
but somehow I was seeking
what was down the front of this loose
necked white dress

The girl, for her part
seemed interested in
showing me whatever I
wanted to see, to touch

“Call me,”she said
as she rose to leave the party

“I…” I began
as time turned thick
“I’d… like to…” I said

Her eyes were like
the eyes of a beautiful deer

“Uh, it would be hard to do, though,
since I…
don’t have…
your number”

Apparently she took this
as stylish
and gave me an easy smile

As she bent forward
to write her number
I got to see more of the smooth skin
inside her white peasant dress

it was only a little bit
lighter than her caramel colored shoulders,
face, neck, collarbones, arms,
her perfectly smooth legs.

A few days later
around midnight
we sat on the ledge of a fountain
at Lincoln Center
kissing.

I told her she must
come home with me,
she said she couldn’t
there was a guy in love with her.

Back at my apartment
the little sounds she made
reminded me of a long lost love.