Amy King, “Perspective”

for X., because you need to stop being racist and apologizing for all that is wrong in the world. There are harsher consequences than my words or anger. There have to be.

When this age only lives as a topic of academic interest, years from now, I don’t think it will be possible to communicate how central the concept of race was to us. I don’t even know the remote past would understand our obsession, as it looks to me like Ancient Greece would be vicious to anyone who was a stranger, but not directly because of skin color. The future will probably take note of our bigotry and racism the way we do of superstitions we’ve rejected. “People really believed that?” they’ll gasp, and then they’ll get into their self-driving cars and be amused by an assortment of fully automated fidget spinners, thinking no more of our silly opinions.

It is up to us, then, to understand our obsession with indulging stereotypes and prejudice. It isn’t as simple as mere ignorance — it’s about wielding power. White nationalism translates into material gains for some, status gains for others. But even that is not sufficient to explain its appeal. The only thing I know, something I must try to communicate to the future, is that a more complex and fatal humor defines the body politic. Amy King’s “Perspective” helps illustrate just how nasty and troubling it is:

Perspective (from Poetry)
Amy King

When I see the two cops laughing 
after one of them gets shot
because this is TV and one says
while putting pressure on the wound,
Haha, you're going to be fine,
and the other says, I know, haha!, 
as the ambulance arrives—
I know the men are white.
I think of a clip from the hours 
of amateur footage I've seen
when another man at an intersection
gets shot, falls, and bleeds from a hole
the viewer knows exists only by the way 
the dark red pools by the standing cop's feet,
gun now holstered, who
yells the audience back to the sidewalk.
I know which one is dying 
while black and which one stands by white. 
I think this morning about the student 
in my class who wrote a free write line 
on the video I played
that showed a man pouring water
on his own chest, "...the homoerotic 
scene against a white sky" with no other men 
present. Who gets to see and who follows
what script? I ask my students. 
Whose lines are these and by what hand
are they written?

The perspective King starts with is well-documented, and it is safe to say America knows it, though many try to deny it. One will find her first 8 lines contentious. Cops on TV laughing about a gunshot wound sounds absurd for those unaware of years of police militarization. Flag-waving, romanticizing instruments of state violence, makes a lot of money for media organizations not formally tied to the government. Precisely because of this, one might argue that the motives of those who are never critical of police or soldiers are purer. They see a powerful country with serious devotion to law, order, security, and love media that praise what is ordinarily praiseworthy. They don’t see the below as insanity, but as strength, if they admit it ever happened at all:

When I see the two cops laughing
after one of them gets shot
because this is TV and one says
while putting pressure on the wound,
Haha, you’re going to be fine,
and the other says, I know, haha!,
as the ambulance arrives—
I know the men are white.

On the one hand, King invites us into her subjectivity. “I know the men are white,” she declares after verse documenting no less than a literal violent fantasy. On the other hand, she bears witness. She sees what the TV presents, and the television shows an officer saying he knows he’ll be fine after a deadly confrontation. She all but says outright that some do not have to bear the costs of deadly violence while inflicting it on others. America is more than a violent place: it’s a playground for killers.

Against this, many will argue. They’ll say this is jaundiced, influenced by identity politics. They’ll insist on the impartiality of law and order, claiming that no one gets abused by the law if they’re not doing anything wrong already. King cuts off these arguments, though, through three simple words: this is TV. There’s no way you could show this unless it was shocking or acceptable. Everyone in America knows it isn’t shocking — the arguments against critics of police violence simply seek to discredit the critics. There’s only trying to justify violence, never trying to make peace or insist on deescalation. America belongs to a few who can do whatever they like with it. The Spartans, we note, used to mount ferocious campaigns of ritual slaughter against the Helots to keep their skills sharp and keep the Helots in line.

It isn’t just the television, though. We have hours upon hours of abuse of power documented by amateurs. We don’t care that it tells the exact same story:

I think of a clip from the hours
of amateur footage I’ve seen
when another man at an intersection
gets shot, falls, and bleeds from a hole
the viewer knows exists only by the way
the dark red pools by the standing cop’s feet,
gun now holstered, who
yells the audience back to the sidewalk.
I know which one is dying
while black and which one stands by white.

Our media, which will outlast us, stands as record of what we did and consumed, revels in presenting raw violence and fear as legitimate authority. Still, the viewer only knows the man is dying because of pools of blood; the actual violence done to a black body is invisible to us. It’s insane that we live in the 21st century and people genuinely believe others are less human than they are, but that’s what it takes to not see violence done to others and retch. That the officer with gun now holstered… yells the audience back to the sidewalk might seem a frightening detail, and to some in this country, it is. To many though, it is the essence of morality.

The romanticizing of state violence goes hand-in-hand with violence in the name of sect. What ails America now is the same thing Jefferson once warned us about: the religious wars of Europe are here. Only, instead of Protestant vs. Catholic, we kill in the name of morality itself. People genuinely believe that without guns they cannot be free, as apparently Jesus wasn’t free. They believe that without the willingness to kill, to defend something sacred, they will be destroyed from within. To purge themselves of their own sin, they kill minorities; morality is the ability to use one’s arms for a supposed good. The disease is diversity, everything around you that could be a foreign thought. Everything is idolatry except devotion to the holy sword.

You could say this is an NRA/KKK fantasy come to life, and it certainly is. You might even say it is a minority of Americans. There I would stop you. It’s not a minority. It’s the product of having everything and not having any real values. That it is contentious to link Christianity with peace on earth shows how far we have fallen. No Jeremiah will show up this time, as the prophets spoke to this ages ago. We are the authors of our own decline, and we secretly know we replaced God with ethno-nationalist hatred. Like anyone devoted to the craft of bullying, we double-down. The fervor of our belief will save us — God will save the ignorant, will He not? I have news, and it isn’t good: I’m pretty sure God doesn’t like seeing people gun others down and then call anyone critical “the real racists.” I’m pretty sure that’s a one way ticket to Hell. But what do I know: I read Nietzsche and Marx, both of whom Tom DeLay told me were the anti-Christ (apparently there’s two).

America is a free country, and that means there will always be a debate over values. Can that debate, though, be allowed to dictate the value of human life? The strange thing is that in this environment, any observation will become part of that debate, and thus any observation could determine, directly or indirectly, the value of life. “Judge not that you will not be judged.” Underneath all our violence is some kind of erotic longing, but that eros does not promise peace. It promises confusion, where we don’t know how we see, how others see, and trust is lacking all over:

I think this morning about the student
in my class who wrote a free write line
on the video I played
that showed a man pouring water
on his own chest, “…the homoerotic
scene against a white sky” with no other men
present. Who gets to see and who follows
what script?
I ask my students.
Whose lines are these and by what hand
are they written?

Maybe a homoerotic image was shown on the video during class; maybe there was something devoid of any eroticism. “Pouring water” might indicate some kind of cleansing. What is sacred to one is outrageous to another. Instead of looking to resolve confusion, restore trust, King preaches responsibility. The student is to reflect on who gets to see, what script she followed. If you say something, why did you say it, but also how did you say it? Are certain statements — certain perspectives — privileged? This is not simply Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority,” where the majority limit opinions because they hold fast to a few. This is the problem of tyranny, pure and simple. If you can throw entire religious and ethnic groups out of the country based on your paranoia only, you’re not quite the worst sort of tyrant — you’re not a genocidal maniac, necessarily — but holy, you’re pretty bad. One has to take responsibility for one’s perspective, and yes, that includes me, too: Whose lines are these and by what hand are they written? The failure of modern democracy is that moral responsibility really is one’s domain, and unfortunately, people would rather create cults than work to accept others.

Ha Jin, “Missed Time”

I want to write about joy, but I wonder how other people conceive their legacies. I realize this sounds like a strange combination. For not a few of us, though, the relation between one’s personal happiness and a legacy is direct. You may think you’re leaving this world in a slightly better state than you were born into, or your life has been marked by the fight against some evil. You may feel you took advantage of what life had to offer, doing so cheerily, or that you bequeathed your family and friends all you could possibly give.

Yet even if you’re nodding along with my descriptions, how do we know we’re truly in agreement? A legacy encompasses every facet of our lives, and happiness is a state that should not have to be recalled. You and I know plenty of people who have road rage that could turn murderous or would lock themselves in a basement for 30 years if they heard a news report which confirmed their paranoia. If I ask someone about to take a bat to the head of the guy in front of him on I-35 “Hey, do you think your life has helped make this world a better place?”, I wager he’ll angrily mumble “yes” before at least breaking a car window.

The relation between a legacy and happiness is not a thought experiment. It depends crucially on how one lives. What we say and what we say we think are not the same as how we live. It’s that discrepancy between what is said and what is lived on which I want to focus. In love, our poet thinks himself so happy that his life cannot be described. Therefore, he has committed his reasoning, um, to paper:

Missed Time (from Poetry)
Ha Jin

My notebook has remained blank for months
thanks to the light you shower
around me. I have no use
for my pen, which lies
languorously without grief.

Nothing is better than to live
a storyless life that needs
no writing for meaning—
when I am gone, let others say
they lost a happy man,
though no one can tell how happy I was.

In more than one way, the poet confesses. Not only is he in love, but he has not been writing: My notebook has remained blank for months thanks to the light you shower around me. Love creates a curious solution to the problem of being joyous and leaving a legacy, as it proclaims itself alone a single joy, a single legacy. No other thought or statement required. Except here we are, reading a love poem. This statement, then, is at once a truth and a lie: I have no use for my pen, which lies languorously without grief.

Why might we accept the poet’s statement about his pen? We’re in love with love. It’s awesome that he’s been blinded by light, not writing anything! If he wrote, the only thing he would write about is grief! We go further: we want to declare this poem an anti-poem, a simple declaration the form of which undoes itself. It’s not really writing, we want to say.

Joy, the insistence of love in the present, is literally incredible. It commands belief to the degree that it cannot be believed. It destroys time. There is no past (“my notebook has remained blank for months”) and there is no future. Nothing is better than to live a storyless life that needs no writing for meaning. Nothing can be conveyed to another human being other than “he was happy.” Again, this is an illusion we want, and while nothing seems wrong with it, it is ironically another story. It did need to be written down for meaning.

No, we object. You can have a love beyond speech! You can have an experience that justifies your existence entirely. The problem with such an experience is fairly obvious, we realize now. You’re insisting on a legacy, a story, with no content whatsoever. Your joy is everyone else’s joy — why you were loved, why you loved, is not communicable. It’s a beautiful thing, but is it good? Let’s just assume it is, as it seems better than rage or a million and one other hatreds: when I am gone, let others say they lost a happy man, though no one can tell how happy I was.

Yosa Buson, “Early summer rain”

In these lazy summer days, I’ve heard of one person — seriously — devoting a considerable amount of time to making Lego Spongebob figures. Sure, a quick glance through my Facebook feed shows plenty at the beach, a few galloping through Europe, many visiting friends and family. I’m more drawn to stranger behavior. For example, what happens when people-watching, my time-honored activity at bars and bookstores, devolves into object-watching? Here’s Buson, staring at two houses for so long that he felt the need to record himself:

Early summer rain (tr. Robert Hass)
Yosa Buson

Early summer rain –
houses facing the river,
two of them.

I guess there are moments in the Dallas area like this. Well, sort of. Early summer rain feels a bit gentle to me. He looks out through it, watches houses across the river. The last time it rained here it felt like a bucket full of the Pacific Ocean was being dumped by Galactus on this city. I could only see sheets of water and I was wondering if my car was going to get carried away and end up in the parking lot of a Dollar General.

Okay, so maybe I can’t directly relate to the weather he describes. I have to imagine his depressed object-watching. In the early summer rain, he stares at houses facing the river, two of them. I don’t think he’s worried about robberies in the neighborhood. Hass says that “two of them” could alternatively be rendered “two lone houses,” and “alone” and “separate,” all of a sudden, emerge as ways of describing what the speaker faces. Hass also makes one of those brief, brilliant, understated comments that I wish I could make: “The houses are seen at a distance, across the river in the rain.”

Across the river, in the rain, the speaker from a distance sees two separate houses. This poem details the relation between distance and closeness, unity and separation. Those two houses are a pair, but they are separate: what comes to mind is that one is technically part of a pair with one’s ex-lover. Water, in various forms, is always the same. In a sense, the water is what he’s contemplating. It’s a bit corny to say he’s distant from his distance, but there he is, watching the houses, thinking about his loneliness, and becoming lonelier dwelling on loneliness. It does not seem inevitable that he would be lonelier — he could work to separate himself from his state of mind — but unity is a strange thing, more present than not.

References

The Essential Haiku. ed. Robert Hass. New York: HarperCollins, 1944.

Kay Ryan, “Crocodile Tears”

Regarding mere humans, “crocodile tears” serves as a put-down. “He’s crying crocodile tears” nowadays means he’s being fake, a drama queen, showing off his grief for his purposes.

Crocodiles are far more interesting than that. Once upon a time, they were observed crying while eating what they killed. Even if one translates this behavior to human behavior, it reflects a specific person. The first mentions of crocodile tears have to do with politics: one with power can weep publicly for others, even eulogizing them, while being directly responsible for their death. Later, some influenced by a more religious line of thinking argued crocodiles showed repentance, and it is very curious why anyone would think that which provides an obvious good involves any regret. Still others thought that crocodiles cried while eating in order to lure more victims to them, and this strange logic has persisted in the way the expression is used nowadays, though it has been stripped of charm. (1)

Ryan tries to bring the crocodile back in her short lament:

Crocodile Tears (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The one sincere
crocodile has
gone dry eyed
for years. Why
bother crying
crocodile tears.

She starts with a personified crocodile, sure, but it is still a crocodile. The one sincere crocodile has gone dry eyed for years. It knows what it wants, gets it, has no regrets about what it conceives as good. As it is predatory in the extreme, one gets the distinct impression that its thriving has come at the expense of friends. It is the one sincere crocodile, after all, and it has been dry eyed for years. Has it cried for anybody? — I can’t help but think of “Bill and Pete” when I read this poem. Pete, the crocodile’s bird toothbrush, saves his crocodile friend Bill from the evil luggage maker. Bill, we can safely say, is not sincere. —

Back to the poem: Why bother crying crocodile tears? One answer: the perception that we can admit to mistakes makes us social beings. Not repentance, but the illusion of repentance, means one can access social goods. This creates a really nasty trap — if the one sincere crocodile could fake a tear or two, he’d get all the food he wants and then some.

But the one sincere crocodile, alone and unlovable, is perfectly content with what he has. In savagery, lack of civilization, he has peace. Why bother crying crocodile tears laments how complicated everything is. Someone’s a hypocrite, and as a result is flooded with benefits: they can kill and then cry and be praised as moral. Someone else is a hypocrite and gets a fate worse than death: you killed someone, then cried, and now you’re considered fake and murderous. Then there are those who are sincere. We’ve spoken of the crocodile of this poem, content in his constant, relentless killing. But someone else killing all the time for happiness, if aware how the world works, knows he’s perpetually in second place to a crocodile who can cry while eating and be praised for it. In the end, “why bother crying crocodile tears” stands as the speaker’s dissatisfaction with herself. Why can’t I learn to be content with what I have? Why is this, in a way, impossible?

Notes

This paragraph about ancient and medieval views of crocodile tears owes much to Wikipedia:

“Crocodile Tears,” Wikipedia, accessed June 30, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crocodile_tears

Blog in Review: “an extended, elaborate sigh,” 6/30/17

It’s been a busy week, and truth be told, if I were a better thinker and worker, it would have been that much busier.

Ha Jin’s poetry and prose mesmerize me. His style is beautifully understated: simple and direct, he challenges you to reconstruct not just what he’s thinking, but how he’s thinking. It’s masterful work, and I encourage you to read “Because I Will Be Silenced”, a thorough but brief exploration of what it means to stand for freedom of expression.

I love how the commentary on Kay Ryan’s “We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It” came out. I got to talk about what I felt I learned in Aristotle and try to see how it syncs, or didn’t sync, with Ryan’s poem.

Picasso’s “Man with a Violin” and “Man with a Guitar” was an incomprehensible blog entry I had lying around from years past. I knew I had to fix it up, and last week I put in the effort. I hope you have as much fun staring at the paintings as I did. While I’m happy with my prose at the moment, I wonder if I can do justice to Picasso’s playfulness, genius, depth. Picasso was never afraid to speak his mind, I suspect, despite how complicated looking at the world can be.

Emily Dickinson’s “Not so the infinite Relations” is an extended, elaborate sigh. I finished reading the poem with the impression that if I could merely sigh half as well as she does, I would have such a presence of mind I would be Professor X. Her “What I can do — I will” I’ve had memorized for years, and I do recite it to myself when I want to resolve myself.

Eliza Griswold’s “Modern City” is a dark, elegant meditation on how we’ve forgotten the nature of the very world in which we reside.

Finally, I wrote some half-baked thoughts on a book of Bill O’Reilly. First part I wrote, meh, but it’s useful to me. The second and third parts are much better. It needs work, but you might get some use out of it, if you don’t feel it’s too preachy.

Happy Friday, everyone!