Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Art of Losing

I have just finished reading a biography of the poet Elizabeth Bishop (by Megan Marshall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2017). It has put me in mind, aided by a new Chris Hedges piece, of what poets might have to offer us in this time of political chaos and the sorrow that comes with having a psychopath in charge of our nation. In fact, what such a time does is not only to bedevil us with constant anxiety over the daily outrages emanating from the White House, but also to incite in us deeper fears about the long-range prospects for our nation, ourselves, and those close to us. The rumblings, that is, involve not just this one term of this one absurd president. They go deeper to arouse fears about the entire democratic project that is the United States, and about its reigning orthodoxy of imperial capitalism as the one and only economic/world system worth thinking about. Is our empire fraying at the edges, and beginning to come apart? Is our short reign as leaders of the “free world” about to come to an end? And has the system known as corporate capitalism grown so obscene, so unbalanced, that it, too, must begin to totter on its foundations, and yield finally to some new system as yet unimagined?
            The truth is that even were such eventualities to be desired by those of us critical of them, no one can look forward to breakdowns in society, in culture, in systems of banking and trade and hegemony without dreading the pain and dislocation that always accompany such fundamental changes. Systems do not simply evolve easily and smoothly into new systems. Systems in the early days of change usually sputter and misfire and explode—as our financial system did in 2007—and cause great hardship and pain to millions. And even beyond another implosion of our economic system, it is impossible not to imagine that other, deeper systems are also beginning to show ominous signs of collapse. The global climate system; all ocean systems including bleaching reefs; the food systems that have brought unparalleled prosperity to the western world; the global ecosystem that has, over billions of years, managed to precisely balance itself regarding predators and prey, trees and grasses, land and shore, forest and plain and desert, ice caps and torrid zones. All are at risk, mostly due to the interference of our human-centric systems of travel, transport, manufacture, agriculture, animal husbandry, and dangerously-expanding habitation patterns. Are they all tottering in the same way as we sense our political system is? And what can possibly be the result?
            No one really knows. All we know for sure is that fake optimism of the kind preached by our redoubtable leaders—fake hymns to the success they (and Donald Trump is the hyperbole of all hyperboles when it comes to ranting about “winning”) assure us are right over the horizon if only we agree to their reign—are just that: fake. Whistling in the graveyard. Public relations bullshit designed to achieve a short-term end: power to one faction, and more profits for those already bloated with criminal profits like the president himself.
            Yes, we all know the story. And that is why I here present something diametrically opposed to bullshit and bluster. Something we can feel is true, and needed, and because of its beauty—notwithstanding its subject matter of loss—because of all the life making up its beauty, comprises something real to treasure in these fake, plastic times.
            So here it is, without comment, Elizabeth Bishop’s late poem, One Art. It was written in 1975, at a time when she was generally recognized as one of America’s great poets, but also a woman who had lost, or thought she had, the last love of her life, Alice Methfessel. It is in the form of a villanelle (note the repetitions, the intricate rhyme scheme, both part of the form).

One Art
The art of losing isn’t hard to master; 
so many things seem filled with the intent 
to be lost that their loss is no disaster. 

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster 
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. 
The art of losing isn’t hard to master. 

Then practice losing farther, losing faster: 
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster. 

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or 
next-to-last, of three loved houses went. 
The art of losing isn’t hard to master. 

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, 
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. 
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. 

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture 
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident 
the art of losing’s not too hard to master 
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Perhaps what we’re losing, and will soon lose, won’t be (though it may look like it) a disaster either.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Death Watch

It’s odd. There’s a sense in which I have a notion to write and gloat about the past week’s horror show at the White House, but at the same time a kind of repulsion about even getting into the cesspool with this guy. There’s so much to rail about: the flailings of the President and his hapless crew are so brazen and amateurish; the lies and coverup are so transparent and infuriating--that the urge to join the outraged mob almost exhausts itself before one begins.
            Nonetheless, let’s try to find some general principles in what’s happening—first, though it shouldn’t be necessary, with a quick rundown of the major ‘events.’ The massacre began on Tuesday, May 9, with the announcement that Trump had fired FBI director James Comey, at first with the explanation that the President had responded to his Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, and his assistant AG, Rod Rosenstein’s complaint that Comey had failed in his duties, specifically in his treatment of Hillary Clinton regarding the email scandal. Trump surrogates and communications people, including the Vice President, then went out and hyped that official story: Comey had been fired over his mishandling of the Clinton email violations, and had lost the confidence of his FBI agents. But within hours, especially after widespread skepticism and outrage met this move and the story behind it, the President began undermining his surrogates by insisting that he had long been planning to fire Comey, and it basically had nothing to do with Clinton’s emails but probably more to do with Comey’s intransigence when asked to pledge his loyalty. Then came days of trying to get the story straight, including parsing of the President’s actual firing letter, in which he, incredibly, included a clause about how Comey had told him three times that he wasn’t being investigated in the collusion-with-Russian interference-in-the-election scandal. This, of course, only served to highlight Comey’s recent testimony before Congress that he was, in fact, investigating administration figures in the Russia scandal. At this point the President seemed unable to shut up about the whole mess, and gave several interviews in which he dug deeper holes for himself and his staff with the growing conviction that the heat he was feeling from the several Russia investigations were in fact what had prompted the President’s panic about Comey and all the others he’d fired recently (acting AG Sally Yates as soon as she informed him about the vulnerability to Russian blackmail posed by already-installed National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn, since fired; and Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of NY, who was investigating the Russian money-laundering scandal that appears to involve Trump and his businesses).
            This is where things now stand (with some side scandals such as the President indicating that he no longer trusts his front men like Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and might have to suspend daily press briefings and brief the press himself). And for those Americans watching from the outside (and who isn’t?), it is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. Or rather more to the point, the slow self-destruction of an unlikely and/or undeserving success story, the sinking of the most powerful man in the world unable to keep the ball of his sensational power afloat. And what comes to mind is that great soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard II:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humor’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Yes, that is it exactly: the catalogue of every Big Man’s hubris, thinking himself invincible, free to “monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks/ Infusing him with self and vain conceit,” until some incident, some false move, like a “little pin” turns into a battering ram that “Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!” And even more deeply, we are reminded of James Frazier’s Golden Bough Chapter 24: “The Killing of the Divine King.” There we read that in primal cultures, the weakening and natural death of the King/man-god represents a danger or catastrophe not only to the king but to his entire culture. This being the case, Frazier tells us, “The man-god must be killed as soon as he shows symptoms that his powers are beginning to fail, and his soul must be transferred to a vigorous successor before it has been seriously impaired,” thereby assuring that “the world should not fall into decay with the decay of the man-god.” Which means that even earlier than the Greek idea of hubris and its perils, there is this idea: that the leader must be put to death by his own people so as to avoid the natural senility and decay and death that would comprise a contagion to all around him.
            Watching what is happening in Trumpland right now—admitting, first, that we are surely granting a bit too much dignity and legitimacy to Donald Trump’s Presidency—reminds us that we are all alerted now and watching, some eagerly, some with trepidation, for signs of decay in the head of state. We are attending, with the same fascination we bestow on a multiple-car wreck on the highway, or a suicide attempt from a skyscraper, or a live video of a suicide by gunshot, to what appears to be a great unraveling of the existing order. I remember when Lyndon Johnson, beset on all sides by protest marchers chanting “Hey Hey LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?”, appeared on television to announce to a stunned nation that he would not seek, and would not accept the nomination for President in 1968. The fall of a President. The same was repeated during Watergate. Nixon Agonistes, reportedly drunk and talking to the portraits of previous presidents in his White House, announces finally, with the imminent release of those damning tapes, that though he was “not a crook,” he would resign from the Presidency. And we watched, transfixed with both joy and dread, at what would come next.
            Now we seem to be on a similar death watch. It looks as if the Drumpf has gone a step too far. He’s fired every honorable official who refused to pledge loyalty, who insisted on doing his or her investigative job without fear or favor, and who was coming too close to the secrets that this pathological president has kept hidden in his basement, in the tangled web that must be his tax forms, in the dark web of loans from darker Russian money—laundered through Deutsche Bank and god knows what other laundering schemes to give him the loans he couldn’t get from legitimate banks for his increasingly grandiose real estate deals, including the hundreds of Russian oligarchs and crime figures who have bought apartments in his buildings as a way of hiding their ill-gotten gains (see Bloomberg Business Week: “Behind Trump’s Russia Romance, There’s a Tower Full of Oligarchs” March 16, 2017). Yes. The guy is a crime syndicate all on his own, one that makes mafia legends seem like penny-ante poker players. The Donald has made his bones on crooked scams, and it seems preposterous that he actually thought he could get away with obscuring the deals with criminal Russian oligarchs “As if this flesh which walls about our life/ Were brass impregnable.” But the bravado and the byzantine money schemes are turning out not to be “impregnable.” A little prick is all it will take to make the whole sorry scheme come undone. And then little Donald will be exposed for the fraud he’s always been. No old man to protect him with an infusion of cash. Nothing but his already compromised Attorney General, his Russian friends, and the rest of the fakirs he’s appointed, to keep him company—if they don’t run for the exits with all the rest of the rats.

            And we are compulsive, all of us, in watching it. Compulsive, all of us (even aware that we are keeping his damned TV ratings high), in reading and hearing the latest drivel that comes spilling out of his foul, pathological, lying mouth. Hoping, like those primitives of old, that we will soon be renewed; that we will be able, in coming years, to “sit on the ground and tell sad tales of the death of kings.” Only this tale of the Donald won’t be sad. It will be triumphant. A tale of the downfall of a would-be dictator who thought himself clever, and tough, and threatening enough to his underlings to be invulnerable, but who couldn’t control his hubris, his rapid-fire mouth, his realityTV-bred conviction that he could bluff and bludgeon his way out of any controversy he’d got himself into—as he always had before. And finally, pathetically, and joyfully to most of us, simply…could…not.

Lawrence DiStasi