Monday, February 6, 2017

Reading Is Resistance: In Praise of Defeat

I, like so many other Americans, spent January 20, 2017, in a depressed funk. Which is strange in a way, because, it's not like the inauguration was a surprise. Somehow, even after the last few potential legal opportunities to prevent a Trump presidency were wasted, it didn't feel as real as it should have. But still, knowing the Obamas had to welcome this man, knowing Hillary Clinton had to sit there and watch this catastrophically unqualified charlatan take the oath for the office the majority of Americans wanted her to hold, knowing that all those other catastrophically unqualified people were in line to take charge of the various federal departments, knowing that white supremacists had something to celebrate, knowing that vulnerable people would suffer and die...

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.