Tom Pickard, “anabatic”

anabatic (from Poetry)
Tom Pickard

at first they recce,
      easy,
around the edge of  breath

then gathered gangs unleash
and breach

but the wind has no objective,
riding the slope of my roof

Comment:

Recently, a lot of discussion about class and inequality. From what little I’ve glanced, the data on the subject is strange. It may not be the case that inequality hurts economic growth; we can certainly see that getting more (by implication: some have less) can be an incentive for productivity. And no one is saying that things should be perfectly equal. But I don’t know how much the data can actually help one know whether there is a problem or not. The effects of inequality are political and immediate. If you feel marginalized, you necessarily have to work from your gut and less with the data.

“Your gut,” in this case, would have two rather strong propositions working for it. First, “meritocracy” in its pure form is unjust in some ways. When you tie people’s worth to merit, you don’t just push others aside for a task or reward. You cut off their opportunities to do anything worthwhile. Since we don’t run a pure meritocracy, things can get worse. People get to the top and then find ways of rigging things slightly in their favor. Those small advantages turn into the biggest gains especially if all other things are equal. We continually exaggerate how little others work in our own minds to justify ourselves.

I think this poem speaks to another proposition/problem. That starts from this question: do we know what we want? Like birds who perform reconnaissance of a sort (“recce”), we dance a bit, in a way huddling together. “Around the edge of breath:” not just that the birds are within each other’s breath, but maybe the speaker’s breath is visible, leading his line of sight to the birds.

So maybe the birds are getting ready to escape winter. That is a necessary good which would aid them all. They gather, unleash their force, breach the wind and fly. It sounds like they’ve harnessed their power for an end. It should impress.

Instead, the speaker muses that “the wind has no objective / riding the slope of my roof.” The wind has to carry those birds to a degree; it is a mark of guidance. The speaker sees it as “riding the slope of my roof,” as something other than a construct. We’re back to the famous nature/convention distinction, with survival and fortune for the birds holding court in “nature.” Those birds are powerful, free, together and still have quite a trek ahead of them.

The poem refuses to romanticize this. It focuses on the simplicity of rising (“anabatic”), how one is almost inebriated for a moment with power. It’s natural and at the same time not something that might achieve anything for the creature involved.

Going back to class and inequality: we try to conceive of merit abstractly. There are people with higher SAT scores, businesses that make more money, values that achieve goods. But merit is defined with regard to specific ends; it’s not quite a general ability. And, regarding our survival or our good, we don’t really know what we need or even what means are available at a specific time. That might be the best libertarian argument, that a market has to flourish in order to get a diversity of goods and services for a number of needs. But it is undercut by the lack of respect given to the very concept of equality; those goods and services need to actually get to people. The birds speak to a natural equality that our conventionality never properly accounts for. It would be nice to hear people respect each other for trying.

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