Monday, April 17, 2017
But that comfort with abstraction is not without drawbacks. Just because something can be shifted into an abstract idea, does not mean the best way to think about it is as an abstraction. In fact, one could argue that if abstraction is our greatest intellectual strength it is also our most dangerous intellectual ability, as pretty much every grand tragedy humanity has inflicted upon itself happened because of our ability to create abstractions out of people. For some reason, the ability to turn an understanding of numbers into the fucking internet includes the ability to turn people into numbers.
As a reader, I've almost always thought of books as one of the best ways to cultivate that innate human ability for abstraction, developing it, deepening it, expanding it to realms of thought we would normally prefer to be concrete. In some ways, empathy--that great superpower of reading--is an exercise in developing our abilities of abstraction by building connections to that and those which we have not directly experienced. Reading is often the crackle of electricity across that synapse between experience and emotion.
But there's a reason why Anne Frank is important. That abstraction of empathy through reading can also be an antidote to the catastrophic dehumanizing abstraction. Somehow, along with firing across that synapse, reading can bring other people; foreign people, distant people, out of the realm of historical, statistical, or numerical abstraction and closer to something real. Despite often being an engine for our abstract understanding, books can turn numbers back into people.
Valeria Luiselli's latest, Tell Me How It Ends is a book that turns numbers back into people. Tell Me How It Ends is an essay using the questionnaire undocumented immigrant children must answer when seeking one of the more permanent residency options in the United States.
From starting his campaign with a racist tirade, through his attempted Muslim bans, his silence on hate crimes committed against American Jews, Muslims, and people brown enough to look like Muslims, and his horrific “unshackling” of ICE, Trump has politically survived entirely on two fundamental principles; fear of otherness and (and I think I'm being very generous here by breaking this into a separate principle) Republican indifference to the consequences of that fear. To put this another way; there is absolutely no data that makes mass deportation practical, there is no illegal immigration crisis, there is no crime wave coming from Latin America. The only reason to tear families apart, turn communities upside down, and greatly destabilize or even endanger whole industries, including our food production and distribution industry, is abstract fear.
And we know it is abstract fear of otherness, because we have seen instances when person-to-person connection breaks through that abstraction and turns “Muslim” into “my neighbors” and a conservative community questions the new anti-immigrant push when a pillar of their community is arrested for potential deportation. (Just a bitter side note here about how frequently “conservatives” adopt more liberal viewpoints about shit that affects them. Anyway...) So let's use Luiselli's book, the story of Manu, her students who became activists, and the other children to de-abstract the South American refugee crisis. Let's use Luiselli's substance to turn numbers back into people.
Think about the pressure on your brain, the whisker of anxiety that brushes across your chin by fundamental questions posed by the best books: why are we here, what does it mean to be safe, who is your family, what dangers face you...Then, imagine your life depended on those answers. Then imagine you had to answer them when you were ten years old.
Picture a child in your life smiling at a balloon they've been given. That smile is about to be shipped back to Honduras like a defective product.
Imagine you were willing to ride on top of a train for hundreds of miles, a train known as La Bestia because so many people were hurt or killed while riding it, for something and then someone threatened to take it all away.
Explain to your child why their best friend's father was taken away.
Would your child survive in the desert with a coyote?
What if you had to put a piece of paper in your child's pocket to maybe save their life? And not even just maybe save their life. What if it was a police report on the shooting and killing of their best friend? What if they were so afraid they could not attend their best friend's funeral? What if they escaped the gang that threatened them, made it to safety, and their life hung by the thread of that piece of paper that had been in their pocket for thousands of miles.
Luiselli is writing about your child, your niece, your child's best friend.
Finally, why the fuck does Luiselli and all the other advocates have to do work to get you to empathize with fucking children?
Every immigration statistic is a reduction of people. And not just any people but quite often children, minors, people who have (for good reason) limited legal responsibility for their actions. Not just any people and children either; but people who risked their lives and endured hardships no native-born American would likely tolerate, all so they could work twice as hard for half as much money as native-born Americans would make because, whether it's delusional, relative, or true, they believe in the promise of opportunity America makes to the world. One fact becomes abundantly clear from Luiselli's book: whenever we go after immigrants (whether they followed all of the procedures or not) we attack people who are both utterly vulnerable and have demonstrated remarkable courage. In many ways, in most ways, in damn near every single way, the refugees fleeing violence in Central and South America for the safety and economic opportunity are exactly like the pioneers we valorize in our mythology as having built this nation.
It matters what we call people, even beyond the legal ramifications of calling the people fleeing the crime and violence engendered in large part by U.S policies, “refugees” instead of “immigrants.” I wonder what the state of our debate would be if Republicans, conservatives, and other immigration hardliners had to refer to the people they wish to deport back to the dangerous lives they fled, as “children.” This is, of course, another aspect of how reading is resistance. Sometimes in the direct ways here and sometimes in more subtle ways, books affect the language we use, they affect our lexicon, our diction, our word associations and thus, how we talk about and to each other.
Of course, there are problems here, too. The children who do get more permanent residency still have to contend with gangs and drugs and other forms of violence. They still have to navigate our education system and our employment system and, if they don't do well enough in those systems, potentially our criminal justice system, all three of which infected with systemic racism that disadvantages them. And, now, they have to do it in a country whose racists have been emboldened by an incompetent man getting three million fewer votes than his opponent. They have to survive in a country that constantly, relentlessly brags about its wealth and power while being the only nation in its economic class that doesn't provide universal healthcare and paid parental leave and has an essentially meaningless minimum wage and many of them will have to do it without having access to the thin shroud we call a social safety net.
Perhaps, our goal shouldn't be sifting through children to decide which of them deserves to stay. Perhaps we shouldn't be spending our time and money arresting and deporting people who just want to work hard for their families. Perhaps we shouldn't turn our backs on the consequences of three or four decades of meddling in the governments of Central and South America.
Instead, perhaps we should strive to become the place all these children were imagining while they road La Bestia.
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
Once again, I find myself with a stack of great books and not enough time to support all of them as much as they deserve. On the one hand, this is always a good problem to have; despite everything like [insert today's daily fucking disaster], the world is producing and publishing a ton of great literature. I'd always rather be pulling my hair out trying to find a way to write about all the books that deserve attention than scratching my head trying to come up with content. But on the other hand, I'm surrounded by books that deserve support (feel free to read this as “writers who deserve money,”) and I know there just isn't the media space for it.
Perhaps with the resurgence of indie bookstores, newspapers and other media outlets will also begin realizing that the coverage of books does more for their communities than helping book clubs make their next selection. Book coverage provides space for a broader exchange of ideas, a starting point for wider conversations about important issues, and an avenue for providing in depth information and context for events, ideas, and controversies. Perhaps the success of online book coverage and podcasts along with the return of independent bookstores will motivate local media to return to book coverage and writers will no longer have to sacrifice adorable woodland creatures in the hopes of inducing a mention on NPR. Perhaps the state of political discourse in this country and the obvious catastrophic consequences of that discourse, will awaken managing editors to how important book-type thinking is to making smart political decisions and show them they have a responsibility to bring books and book-type thinking to their communities.
But, until then, I'll do what little I can, including these round ups. One important note: I haven't read every story in the collections mentioned below, but I was excited by what I did read. If you're a fan of short fiction, you'll find a lot to be excited about in this list. (Though, if you're a fan of short fiction you might already have heard of these.) If you're not, I'm sure there will be a book in here you might want to try.
Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar
This is one of the books that I was reading and enjoying when the election shattered my reading brain for, oh, let's say a quarter. For a few years, I kept reading short stories in lit mags and anthologies that seemed to cram moments of magical realism into their narrative because...I don't know, maybe there was a trend I missed or maybe the authors hadn't figured out a better way to imply the magic inherent in daily life when viewed through the lens of literature, or maybe they were just sick of all the wannabe Carvers cluttering their workshops with long, hard talks, over rapidly diminishing whiskey bottles.
But Jarrar's magical realism is successful, feeling natural in the moment that you're reading, while also revealing the fundamental strangeness of existence. And it's good enough to be the conference read for Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace.
Massive Cleansing Fire by Dave Housley
Dave Housley's collection is like a cross between Cormac McCarthy and Lydia Davis. (Yes, that is a sentence you just read.) Mixing the flash fiction form and occasional analytical narrative distance of Davis, with the scorched-earth lyricism of McCarthy, while using the narrative frame of always encroaching flames, Housley's stories create a new and piercing perspective on our current slow-motion apocalypse. I mean, one of the longer stories is called “Seven Clowns Before the Explosion,” for fuck's sake. That alone is worth the price of admission.
The collection also has an interesting structure, as Housley circles around and re-approaches ideas, images, and situations. “The Fires” series examines the last moments before a mysterious and relentless fire consumes the situation. “Those People” and “You People” examine a black man on a celebrity cruise featuring a Paula Deen style character, complete with public racist remarks, and “The Combat Photographer” series looks at a combat photographer adjusting and not adjusting to life without the constant approach of fire. Too often, the phrase “linked stories,” is marketing speak using either tenuous connections or repeated characters to grasp at novel-level sales, but Massive Cleansing Fire does it the right way, using the variety inherent in a collection of short-stories to explore topics in a way the singular perspective of a novel really can't.
A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
I've been circling Evenson's short fiction for awhile now after reading his dark, cynical, depressing, can't-tear-your-eyes-away sci-fi novel Immobility (I also recently read and really enjoyed his novella on “identity in a poisoned world where the remaining 'people' (if they can be called that) exist as identities in single brain” sci fi novel The Warren). And they're published by Coffee House, so you know they're going to be good. As someone who has dabbled in, but never executed, pulpy genre writing, I'm intrigued by someone who can move between such different styles of thinking.
You can tell they're written by the same brain however, as the stories in A Collapse of Horses have a similar darkness and cynicism, just without the narrative shield of a radiation poisoned planet. In the short stories, you have to confront the grimness head on. But, there is a kind of beauty to this darkness, something in the marks left on the world by the struggle of life that transfixes the eye. Evenson's stories are like those black and white pictures of the elderly who wear the contours of their lives in the wrinkles on their faces or like aerial photographs of abandoned quarries.
(Oh, I once tweeted that I would love to write a video-game with Evenson. I stand by that wild flight of fancy.)
Kingdom of the Young by Edi Meidav
The first couple of stories in Meidav's collection immediately reminded me of Donald Barthelme. There are lots of different ways to be weird, and I've always believed that freedom for weirdness can be most easily explored in short fiction where you aren't required to sustain your weirdness for the length of the novel. In short stories (and poetry but in a different way, and also essays, but in an even more different way) you can present something that is both complete and just a dabble into some weird idea you had.
The same probably also goes for the emotion of “unsettling.” There aren't that many novels that explore that slightly off-kilter emotion of being “unsettled,” and those that do, tend use it as a precursor or component of fear rather than as a complete emotion in itself. Meidav's short stories are the best kind of weird and unsettling.
Calamities by Renee Gladman
I'm still not sure I've figured out what Calamities is a collection of, or even, if it's a collection at all. Each little “prose object” could be a self-contained short story or a chapter in a novel. Or a chapter in a book-length essay. Or all three. Or something else I haven't imagined. But whatever they are they're brilliant and I've been wanting to tell you all about it.
Each of the untitled sections begins with the line “I began the day,” and goes, well, somewhere. Sometimes through a relatively banal almost “Dear Diary,” series of events, sometimes through critical, narrative, or creative considerations, and sometimes to places that don't fit into any neat categorization. But that's why I love Gladman's work. We naturally categorize things and there are good and bad results at that tendency to sift, organize, and label. On top of all the self-contained ideas and images, Calamities forces us to examine that drive.
Prose-poem-essays? Grammar-tized thought-chunks? Or maybe I'll just stick with “prose objects.”
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
“Now you know how we felt for the last eight years.”
There's a lot of baffling shit going on, a lot of people doing and saying a lot of things (New things! Every day!) that just fucking baffle me, but for some reason, this idea that I've seen expressed here and there in social media has stuck in my brain like a burr.
On the one hand, your feelings are your feelings and I have no right and really no ability to contradict you. On the other hand, what the fuck is wrong with you? How could a conversation about gun control that lead to roughly zero policy change, feel like watching human lives torn apart because of a compulsion to deport people who did not come to this country in your preferred manner? How could “I think we should talk about guns after twenty children were murdered,” feel as bad as watching a father get arrested and deported after dropping his kids off for school, or watching a foreign scientist or student potentially have her career ended by a hasty and unconstitutional travel ban? At most, over the course of the eight years of Obama's administration, some of you might have had to buy health insurance, but also, some of you who had lost jobs, got them back. How does that compare to watching a President openly fleece taxpayers for trips to Florida, while using the office of the president to enrich his own family, while quite likely having an unsavory, probably unethical, perhaps even illegal relationship with a tyrant? Is this just a misunderstanding of scale? Do you not believe that we could feel this anxiety for the lives of strangers? Do you not believe we are worried about the solvency of this nation? Or were you really this afraid that someone would take your guns, even though no one threatened to take your guns?
Like so many other book clubs, my book club recently read The Handmaid's Tale. A few things stood out to me on this re-read; the lyricism of the prose that I did not appreciate the first time, how exhausting it was to read as the empathetic stress of its world is so close to the real stress of our world, and how Atwood described the conservative mindset through the Commander. Through the Commander (or rather through Atwood's portrayal) I feel the gap between my mind and that mind has closed somewhat.
You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.The idea of society as zero-sum is old and whether it takes the form of social Darwinism, nationalism, or various and sundry justifications for hyper-capitalism and other economic theories dressing themselves up as market based, it is still bullshit. But it is compelling bullshit. There are zero-sum gain situations in our lives and humans have--at times and even in some places today--lived in zero-sum societies, but today, the United States is not a zero-sum society, nor has it been for ages.
Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?
Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse for some.
But the validity of the idea of a zero-sum society isn't what struck me about this quote and isn't why I've included it in a post about how conservatives felt under Obama. If you believe that idea, then “If someone's life is getting better, someone else's life must be getting worse,” logically follows. And if we follow that, we get “If someone who is not me is doing better, there is a chance I am doing worse.” From there you get, “The lives of gay people just got better, and I am not gay, therefore there is a chance my life got worse,” and “The lives of some undocumented immigrants just got better and I am not an undocumented immigrant, therefore there is a chance my life got worse,” and “The lives of some transgendered people just got better, and I am not a transgender person therefore, there is a chance my life got worse.”
Or think about how the Black Lives Matter movement was perceived. Nothing about Black Lives Matter was necessarily opposed to law-enforcement or police officers. Critique is very different from opposition. I would argue that adopting the reforms in Campaign Zero would actually be good for many if not all police officers, making their jobs easier and safer. But the zero-sum lens creates opposition when there is none or, when the dynamics are complicated, reduces them to opposed forces. So conservatives saw the movement as anti-police because to be “pro” something, even if that something is “pro-no-more-black-men -being-extrajudicially-executed” means you must be “anti” something else.
The end result is that even though, to my thinking, the civil rights and other policy advancements under the Obama administration (limited as they were), broadly improved American society or, at worst, had no negative effects on those who were not directly impacted by them, the fact of an other's benefit made them feel as though something must have been taken from them.
Those years were just an anomaly, historically speaking, the Commander said. Just a fluke. All we've done is return to Nature's norm.
If you believe there is a natural way of living, then anything that intrudes on that way of being isn't just an inconvenience, it is an assault on your humanity. If you believe marriage as recognized by the secular government is, naturally, only between a man and a woman, then allowing any other type of civil union to be recognized by the secular government is not a tangential policy change, but a de-humanizing of the system of government. In terms of this value system, exactly the same kind of de-humanizing I see when they threaten to separate families caught at the the border.
Perhaps he's reached that state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything, absolutely anything you feel like, anything at all.
Of course, in our society, white men don't necessarily need to do anything to reach this state in their minds; from how heroes are portrayed in mass media, to how specific leadership styles are valued or not, to more overt reactionary thinking, the message every white man receives every day is some of version of “you have earned this.” When combined with an idea of a “natural order” and as assumption of a zero-sum society, “not getting everything you want” or “being asked to do something you might not want to,” or sometimes even “seeing other people publicly disagree with you” or even “seeing other people get something you are not right this very fucking second also getting” regardless of the motivation and intentions of those experiences, amount to an attack on or perhaps even a trauma inflicted on their fundamental being. So universalizing background check policy for all ways a gun might be bought and sold isn't a rather banal common-sense policy tweak to decrease the opportunities for criminals to legally purchase guns, but a negation of their very being.
The point of this kind of exercise, of using a character presented in fiction as material for hashing out the expressed feelings of those I disagree with, is to help build some kind of common language, a starting point, or some basic agreements from which a broader dialog works. This is a major part of why book clubs work and why books are such a powerful tool in generating discussion and personal growth. Every book is a potential common language, starting point, or basic agreement. Every book has the kind of critical discourse that helps us grow as people and citizens, built in, waiting to be engaged.
But it's hard to see how what I've hashed out might help me communicate with someone who claims they felt like this while unemployment dropped at record rates. When a natural order is assumed, it's almost impossible to prove that no such thing exists or has ever existed. When you start from different, perhaps even opposed, fundamental assumptions about the state of the world, logic won't help you talk across those assumptions. Regardless of how well we employ the techniques of logic, I'll walk away feeling like you were completely irrational and you'll walk away feeling like I was completely irrational, because logic renders different conclusions when it starts from different assumptions.
Perhaps then, it would be better, somehow to start with a book. What would happen if someone who “felt like that for eight years,” read The Handmaid's Tale? What would they see in the Commander? Would they see any reflection of themselves? Would they see how there is almost no gap between contemporary anti-choice ideology and the status of Handmaids in the society? Or would they latch on to subtle distinctions to prove that, sure they're all for “traditional American values,” but they'd never let something like that happen? And what if they said that, and you looked them in the eye and said “Tell, me how Trump is different?” And then they laughed at you for not seeing what was so obvious to them. What do we learn if they simply refuse to engage in the text, dismiss it out of hand, insult it as snowflake literature for SJWs? Of course, no mind is ever so simple. Most likely the reaction would be completely different from what I'm imagining. Which would probably be the best possible outcome. Books have a way of drawing out what we never realized was there in the first place, revealing fears, prejudices, assumptions, and even strengths we didn't know we had.
P.S. I was trying to be generous in my interpretation of that expressed emotion. Some of the people who believe we feel now as they did under Obama are racists, homophobes, and general bigots. I didn't spend any time thinking about their feelings and their motivations for their feelings, because, frankly, I don't fucking care what they think or feel. Sure, no human is a monolith and no human is without the potential for future redemption, but we've been coddling these fucking assholes for as long as we've had a United States of America and I'm done with that particular extension of empathy.
Friday, March 10, 2017
As I've pointed out before, I get more galleys than I can read, let alone write about and too often, great books don't get nearly as much attention or as many sales as they deserve. So, if for no other reason than to slightly assuage my readerly guilt, here is a raft of galleys (the astute bookseller can probably guess when I started compiling this list, but, well, I had a book I wanted to finish writing, so this post got bumped down a bit.) I'm really excited about even if I don't get to write about them. (Some of which might even be available for purchase now.)
O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno
I've written about Zambreno's brilliant and archetypal postmodern novel Green Girl before so I was excited to see this galley come through the store. The description is even more intriguing as O Fall Angel is apparently inspired by a Francis Bacon painting.
Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America's Origins to the Twenty-First Century by Geoffrey R. Stone
So much of the momentum for the misogyny and homophobia in our society are drawn from the various Christian views and sex and sexuality. Our framers didn't get everything right, but they were absolutely right when they (despite what some might say) went to great length to separate church and state. But does historical truth, logical empathy, fair jurisprudence, and basic respect for the lives of one's fellows humans stop them? Of course not, there's a chance someone somewhere might be enjoying sex. So far, what is most fascinating about this history is how fluid the conservative ideologies are. Conservatives like to pretend that their beliefs are steadfast bedrocks with long lineages, but really it took Christianity a long time to figure out how it felt about sex and many of those things, homosexuality and abortion in particular, were assessed differently over time. In fact, the prohibition against abortion in the United States is actually fairly new, not really gaining momentum until the mid-1800s.
Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life by Nato Thompson
Seeing Power was so good, Thompson's latest was already on my pile, but then we had to form, lead, participate in, and maintain a resistance movement (perhaps even revolution) against a nascent kleptocracy. Given how brilliant Thompson is about the way art arts in our contemporary world (and that I started my Reading is Resistance column on this blog) this is now a must read.
The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson
This one came to me as a bound manuscript (which is still, irrationally, a little exciting) along with a note, not from the publicity assistant or someone from marketing (not to knock those publicity and marketing letters as they can often be very helpful) but from the editor who describes the book as “what I believe to be the best book I've ever edited, out next year.” I don't know anything else about the book, but I do know that editors, as a genus of humanity, tend to value honesty. That's all I need to know to put this on my list.
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radke
This is a graphic memoir by one of my publishing friends and has steadily (and rightly I think) been building buzz and momentum. What I especially like about it, is that, even though there are a few big and a few painful moments, as there are in every life, the idea of a search for identity is essentially assumed. You don't need a traumatic moment to put some effort and thought into figuring out who you are and how to be the best version of that person you can be.
The One-Eyed Man by Ron Currie
Everything Matters! is one of the books I've been handselling for years. It is perhaps the only optimistic story about the end of the world and, along with its exploration of relationship, drug abuse, mental illness, and economic stagnation, and thus, an important book, one that I think is a major step towards whatever happens after postmodernism. I also, really liked his next novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles with its exploration of authorship, identity, and fame. Given that his publisher is reissuing Everything Matters! with a new cover and his sending him to the West Coast to reach a new audience, hopefully it will get the support and attention a writer of Currie's caliber deserves.
Recitation by Bae Suah
It had been a while since I'd read a Deep Vellum book, so I asked twitter which of the handful I should read next. Kenny Coble said I should read Bae Suah. He answered first and somehow I haven't read anything from Korea yet.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Lockwood wrote two of my favorite recent poetry collections and is producing some of the strangest and most unsettling poems in English. She has also cultivated a really interesting social media presence. For those facts along her new book, which is a memoir, would go on the pile. But the title. And look at that cover. You'd think it was an Alissa Nutting novel.
Monday, February 6, 2017
It felt like we'd come to the end of something. Perhaps, it marked the end of the American century. (Even if he is curtailed or removed from office before he does too much more damage, I don't think our standing in the world will ever be the same.) Perhaps, it marked the end of this particular form of constitutional democracy. (If court issued stays are not honored, I have no idea where we go from there.) Perhaps, given the administration's attitude toward climate change and our compressed timeline to do anything about it, it marked the beginning of the end of this particular form of human society. I think it definitely marked the end of a certain kind of white innocence, as we finally heard what so many other Americans were trying to tell us for so long: our social justice gains are insufficient and fragile, the racism in this country is far deeper than we understood, the “casual” racism in our family we brushed off as harmless wasn't casual but opportunistic, that our country was filled with sleeper cells for white supremacy and white nationalism, and that, no matter who we as individuals voted for, our own voted for Donald Trump and we bear responsibility for that.
Which is a long way of saying I was feeling depressed as shit at work that day. And this massive book of poetry in translation from a wonderful small, independent press had been staring at me all week.
In Praise of Defeat is a career spanning collection of poetry (and a little prose) by the Francophone Moroccan poet, writer, and political activist Abdellatif Laabi, a writer I'd never heard of until this beautiful blue collection of his work published by my friend and yours Archipelago Books showed up at the store. Laabi was one of the founders of the left-wing literary review Souffles, which was banned by the Hassan II regime. Laabi himself was then tortured and imprisoned for eight years. Eight years.
Given his history, it's not terribly surprising that his poems and collections have titles like “Beneath the Gag, the Poem,” “Talk or Be Killed,” “Skinned Alive,” “The Sun is Dying,” and “In Praise of Defeat.” And there is the darkness you would expect; the pain, the comfort with death, the sharp turns of image from the delicate to the grotesque all in the relatively straightforward language you would also expect from a brain made weary by imprisonment and torture, but it is also shot through with moments of the more sophisticated diction you would expect from the founder of a radical avant garde literary magazine. The result is something like Walt Whitman crossed with Jean Genet but with a very different breadth of life in search of expression and a very different beatification of the criminal. With many of his early poems, I had an image of him getting back to his cell or wherever and trying to write on whatever scraps of paper were available with whatever writing utensil was available “Fuck you,” over and over again in a show of brute defiance, but his hand did not quite follow the instructions, something intervened, an unconsciousness poetic current, perhaps, and when he read the scraps again later, he found he'd written these poems instead.
Even without all the swirling context, these poems would have had an impact, but given that context, they punched me in the jaw. But, not in like, a bad way, but in the way how sometimes Rocky gets punched but that only makes him stronger and then he's all like “hit me again,” and Drago hits him again and then we all know it's over for Drago now. Strength from pain. Resilience from attack.
As the Trump administration continues to run roughshod over American democracy, sewing chaos within our vital social and economic systems while threatening even worse, and ruining the lives of Americans, visitors, and immigrants, it is perhaps, most difficult, especially for a white man like me, to get any appreciation of the scale of the carnage he is creating. I am insulated by my privilege and I am insulated by living in Massachusetts, a wealthy, liberal state with the resources to mitigate at least some of the trauma Trump is inflicting on the world. There is a risk, of course, as I watch the horrors unfold on social media, that I fetishize the suffering of others, reducing other people to props in my arguments.
There is, of course, a limit to how I can connect with those Trump will cause to suffer (at least for now); a limit created by my privileged life and by the need to maintain my own emotional and mental health. For me, In Praise of Defeat is part of a solution to that problem, giving me the specific language of someone who has suffered in the past, through the medium of poetry, to apply to the suffering of people today. I can transfer Laabi's poetry and the emotions they create within me to the stories and images I am seeing now so I can act with at least some emotional intelligence or at least awareness.
And this is about emotional awareness. About understanding, on some level, how other people feel or, in the case of our new fascists and their sympathizers and apologists, definitively and intentionally refusing to understand how someone else might feel. Nothing in my life and nothing that I read will give me the experience of someone being arbitrarily turned away from the United States, but the poetry of Laabi still offers an avenue, a bridge between my life and that pain, and even though I am not able to cross that bridge the connection is there. Poetry like Laabi's (or even Whitman's and Genet's) creates connections between the people; the exact connections that eventually defeat fascists.