Oldest Lingo

I am silent in the learned languages and speak under my breath
In the ones I’m still learning. How do I call you?
So much lost hope singing these pop tunes.

**

Old enough to see the forest isn’t a church.
There are however dropped hymnals which we call mushrooms.
Sometimes lake-blue through trees…

**

Two catbirds call in rain
Cup of coffee in hand
Dog pleased with himself
& books on a table
With accumulated
Natterings—Kierkegaard
Especially, all that desire
For a God
Of the mind
I think
There was no God
In his Danish shoes
No God
In the silver birches
& when he lit a fire
It was simply a fire
So much pressure
On the written word
Like a child’s game—
You know
The one where
Walking
Your footfalls must be perfect
Or someone dies

**

I’m an irreverent fellow. But I can’t laugh at the unbidden, constant sadnesses of happenstance people. This morning however It’s a Mardis Gras moment. I feel like throwing beads like the firemen in New Orleans. 

Heart flying but still attached
One makes up stories
With many animals
I find coins
In the grass—
Nunc dimittis
This blindness of mine
King of eyelashes

**

One night I talked with birches
Saying: “I’m not oppressed!”

There was an evening wind, branches rustled,
It seemed they answered me:
“We are incomplete also…”

**

I’m too childish for grief
As a boy I was
Harmed

So I’m a creature of the amygdala—
A a plough-man of sorts
With agoraphobia

I mean grief
Is for adults their losses
Stack neatly like sour cans

In fear daily I cry
Drop to my knees seeing
A dog’s pink mouth

Dangerous as A Sliver of the Moon

I come from several provincial cultures. I’m the small town kid, the blind kid, the one who spent time alone; who went to a rural high school; a tier two college. I belong to the provincially privileged as I see it now, able to think in the sunbeams and motes. I love artists from outlier places: Toni Morrison; William Faulkner; Jackson Pollock; Langston Hughes; Ella Fitzgerald; James Wright; D.H.Lawrence–the list is nearly endless.

Just so I’ve always admired this poem by James Wright:

“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

**

Certainly the poem is dated. It was written sometime around 1960. Martins Ferry, Ohio was then and still remains a deeply sectoral and impoverished place. (In fact, now that the coal and steel plants are gone, it is arguably worse.) Yet for all that, despite its dated racist language and its decidedly un-feminist depiction of housewives–what? We see alcoholism, despair, wantonness, the strippling boys, children of drunks growing suicidally beautiful and playing a violent sport that is really no sport at all.

I admire the poem for its keen edges; its refusal to play the American game of small town sentimentality–football is rendered here as terror.

I was in mind of it when watching the Trump mob storm the US Capitol last week. The Jugalos, Boogaloos, the Q-Anons are the provincial suicidal gallopers, desperate boys and their girls with digital devices on their wrists.

Didn’t it look like a football tailgate party for the fathers ashamed to go home?

Cheap little rhymes
A cheap little tune
Are sometimes as dangerous
As a sliver of the moon.

― Langston Hughes

Il Penseroso

Day is breaking and the moon has run away.
There’s a moon in my wrist a moon in my eye.

I wish I could call you but its time to pray.
Upriver everyone gets his say.

I’ve a moon in my wrist and eye.
I’m drawing with chalk a sun with rays.

Day is breaking and the moon has run away.
See how small the houses are today?

I wish I could call you but its time to pray.
Upriver everyone gets his say.

They’re loosening the nails down by the quay.
Day is breaking and the moon has run away.

And bring all Heav’n before mine eyes.
And may at last my weary age

Find out the peaceful hermitage,
Day is breaking…

Targeted Goodness in the Midst of a Shit Show

As a disability rights activist I’m troubled by the video of a policeman assisting a woman with a cane in the middle of last Wednesday’s mob attack on the US Capitol. Like so many iconic news images it produces multiple dizzying meanings. I can’t get the video out of my mind.

Two years ago Capitol Police were dreadfully efficient removing disabled protestors from the premises, zip tying them in their wheelchairs and trundling them out because they were peacefully protesting cuts to health care. Contrast a cop helping an elderly woman flee a seditious riot and you’ve got good old fashioned cognitive dissonance. But you don’t have to be a scholar of dignity studies to understand the very function of a mob is to sow absolute dissonance.

In the middle of an attack on American democracy there was a Boy Scout assisting an old lady as if nothing else was happening.

I’m not an investigative reporter. I don’t know the story behind this. I’ve no idea who the officer and the woman are. Perhaps the woman reminded the cop of his own mother; maybe she begged him for help saying “I have no idea how I got here.” (You know, playing the white privilege dementia card?)

Perhaps she said she needed a port a-potty? Maybe the cop just turned her around and started walking her down the stairs without asking her anything. I’ve been grabbed by strangers while walking blind. Was it as simple as that? The video suggests otherwise. They appear to be communicating. He seems to be reassuring her as he gently guides her.

So many signifiers, so little time! Perhaps he thought “she’s an old lady, therefore, she has to be innocent of hatred.” Maybe he thought “this is going to explode our of control in a few minutes, so like the Titanic, I’ll save the women and children first?” Maybe he was escorting her to safety and then he was going to flee the scene. Maybe he was just a good man in a bad moment, his goodness inspired by white sentimentality which overcame his sense of duty to defend the “people’s house.”

That cop was performing targeted goodness in the middle of a shit show. His empathy for an infirm protestor affects to affirm human dignity while all around him fascists and racists are attacking the institutions of liberty designed to guarantee dignity for all.

The thing I know for sure is that dignity for all was not on the menu.

Human meaning is in part created by the quality of our relationships. Democracy is designed to make it possible for everyone to have equal opportunity. Behind Trump’s mob is the assertion that only some should have human meaning. And so the video of tenderness is as ironic as Charles Foster Kane’s hall of mirrors.

Things I’ve learned this week…

Things I’ve learned this week…

  1. Human beings evolved hands in order to work with wood.
  2. James Atlas’ biography of Delmore Schwartz is tedious.

Time out.

Now I’m back.

Puccini loved duck hunting. The great tenor Enrico Caruso once joked that Puccini had eaten all the ducks in Italy.

  1. Speculation: football (American) is bad for the human neck. Therefore, according to the intelligent design crowd, football is ungodly.
  2. Speculation: I think god prefers basketball.

More things I’ve learned this week…

  1. If you punch Michelangelo in the nose you’re gonna get run out of town.
  2. It is a fact: there aren’t many ducks left in Italy.

Toward Economies of Living Questions, a Disability Perspective

If you’re a college professor and you want to get the attention of your students, especially on the first day of class, ask them to define a chair. (It doesn’t matter what the class is about, this works whether the subject is physics or post-modernism in literature.)

As philosophers will tell you, almost everything you say about “chair-ness” can be refuted. “It’s a piece of furniture for sitting.” So is a stool and a stool is not a chair. “It has a back.” So does a car seat and it’s not a chair.

The point is that good teaching requires contrarianism whether we’re talking about science or art. What’s wrong with what we’ve proposed? In the end we may conclude nothing is wrong but we will have engaged in rigorous thinking.

If all you want is confirmation bias—to imagine the world is precisely as you believe it to be, then a university education isn’t for you.

Trouble lies this way: professors who only know how to critique things may be themselves insufficiently contrarian, even as they think themselves, well, contrarian.

A few years back I heard an undergraduate announce that capitalism creates disability. It’s a compelling argument since the advent of the industrial revolution did in fact lead to the devaluation of disabled people. Unfit for life in the factories they were taken out of circulation if you will, assigned to asylums. Though this narrative is simplistic it’s not without merit.

No one taught this student to define a chair. Capitalism also produces amazing technologies that allow the disabled to thrive. (I’m blind and writing on a talking Mac computer.)

Capitalism has been horrible for all of us who hail from historically marginalized positions. In fact the marginalization is what makes colonialism and all forms of exploitation possible.

But defining a chair, one must ask, what about moral capitalism? Is capitalism static or does it evolve? If the latter is true then what’s your investment, your attraction, to believing that an economic system creates disability? As the writer Gore Vidal once said, politics is knowing who’s paying for your lunch. Who was the professor who taught the student in question that capitalism is the manufacturer of cripples?

What questions should we ask? I’m an admirer of Sarah Ahmed’s book “Living a Feminist Life” and here’s something I like:

“To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable. The question of how to live a feminist life is alive as a question as well as being a life question.”

What’s a chair? What’s a good life? What’s a moral life?

Questions are crucial. But here’s a question for disability culture: what can we make? It’s not easy to answer but the moral universe demands we ask it.

Back to the chair and what it is. The disabled remain unemployed in staggering numbers even as the technology which should allow them to work with dignity is now widely available.

New economies need to embrace living questions.

Go Build Something and Shut Up

My maternal grandfather was a man who, fighting with capitalism and losing more than he ever won, managed, almost daily to outwit bitterness. In temperament he was split straight down the middle by two centuries. His “can do” optimism was of the late 19th century; his mechanical aptitude was a thing of the 20th. He built motor cars and motorcycles before World War I, first in Cleveland and then in Brockton, Massachusetts. By the time the war ended Henry Ford had put him out of business and his fortune was gone because he’d invested in the Russian Czarist government.

It’s not my intention to sentimentalize him. He was broke by the roaring twenties. He patented some gizmos that became integral to the manufacture of airplanes and so he hung on. He was able to keep a roof over his head and feed his family. And during the depression my mother remembered him saying over breakfast, “what can be done today?”

Again, without self-indulgence, it’s a good question. I ask it daily and this has helped me throughout my disabled life–for I’ve been unemployed, have lived in section 8 housing, have survived on social security disability, have been discriminated against in employment, and throughout it all, and without moist, David Copperfield-ish brio I’ve managed to think like William T.. Marsh, the oddest of men, who, often having next to nothing, saw each day as a potential adventure. He had white privilege, being Boston Irish. He had just enough residual dough to keep the wolves from his door, though once, a tax collector appeared and W.T. offered him a cocktail laced with dynamite–not enough to kill him, but just enough to send him home wiping his brow with a handkerchief. W. T. was rascally and he loved explosives but unlike contemporary white extremists who horde dynamite he didn’t have any grievances. “What can be done today?” His version of this question was optimistic.

Now grievances matter. Knowing how you’re being screwed is a survival skill to be sure. The man in question didn’t think in generalities however. For him, the tax collector didn’t represent the whole government. When he blew up a Western Union telegraph pole (dynamite again) he did it because it was a blight on the landscape–his. And when the telegraph men came around he said he’d never seen the pole and had no idea it was ever there. He didn’t shoot them. Nor did he offer them cocktails.

He didn’t believe in conspiracies. If times were hard they also offered opportunity. In this way he was creative and like all creatives he understood pessimism was his biggest enemy.

George Bernard Shaw wrote: “a pessimist is a man who thinks everybody is as nasty as himself, and hates them for it.”

My grandfather really didn’t hate anyone. And while I’ve no evidence that he ever read Oscar Wilde he’d have agreed “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

He wouldn’t understand contemporary American pessimism and its associated cults of grievance. He’d likely say to the Trump crowd, “go build something and shut up.”

But don’t build a wall, it ruins the view….

Here’s to New Year’s Courage

One of the best known literary quotes about the New Year comes from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Four Quartets”:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”

The invention of a new language is of course the ambition of poets.

Eliot meant well. He meant for us to recognize last year’s language didn’t get the job done–her words failed us. Surely a new voice will be better. Eliot was, among other things, a utopian fatalist. And Christian.

Is there a smattering of white privilege there? Yes, for if you hail from a historically marginalized background–if you’re black or queer or disabled or a woman or you’re all of these, if you’re a refugee, a child caged, you know that last year’s words were excellent. Black Lives Matter; Freedom Now; Me Too; Nothing About Us Without Us–these are the words we carried then and must carry now. And pronounce. Repeat.

I say old words are good words and they get the job done.

Here’s Susan Sontag:

“Kindness, kindness, kindness.

I want to make a New year’s prayer, not a resolution. I’m praying for courage.”

Random Thoughts on New Year’s Eve

I never inquired why my mother named me Stephen. She was an extravagant drunk and there were just too many other things to ask, like, “why did you set fire to our sofa?” Or: “why did you flush little fishy down the toilet?”

Anyway I’m named after a martyr. The word means “torture witness” and that’s that.

As for the new year, let it become itself without infliction.

Random thoughts as 2020 comes to a close.

**

Yes my mother was a drunk and often silent in the house. We always kept that silence, my sister and I, for we understood and felt adult sorrows much as dogs sense the unhappiness of their owners. Silence is always the giveaway in tragedy.

But a weird and wonderful change would come over my mother whenever she was on the telephone. It was a fifties phone: black, made of bake-light and of great density. It was heavy as a paving stone, squat as a porcupine and like an animal it sat in its corner in a nest of paper scraps and broken pencils. Because the phone was stationary my mother stood in the corner and leaned into the instrument and talked in earnest.

That was when she laughed.

While much of her day was spent in retreat, while she slept at midday with the curtains drawn, while she often scowled in her privacies, the horn offered her a district of hilarity. She swayed in the corner, elbows propped on formica and laughed.

In her laughter she was living and open.

I heard names—Doris, Anna, Sonya—the names were the governing order of the laughter.

I was busy whittling the points of pencils with a jackknife. Blind kid with knife working diligently in the adjoining room…and then a windstorm of laughter—high, musical, ascendant, open, rushing forward…

She laughed then listened, laughed again.

The laughter was like soap on the floor.

It was like the light at the end of the garden.

When she put the receiver back in its cradle she went absolutely silent.

I wanted the telephone.

It was a vessel.

There were people below decks.

When I was alone I picked up the heavy receiver. It was heavy as a hammer. I put it to my ear and heard the steady and flawless dial tone. It was like hearing a sound from beneath the house.

And I knew that if I waited a few moments the operator would speak.

She would tell me the time. Call me sweetie. Her voice, distilled from the darkness.

She was just a bit of the shy, unasked for sweetness of things.

**

Is it folly to imagine the best?

What would happen if I discovered folly and optimism are wings?

**

Here’s to the New Year with its starch and flute.

Here’s to no more shut ins.

No more “walking while black” or “shopping while autistic” and no more smug, dishonest lawn sigs proclaiming “all lives matter” which is the biggest social lie of them all.

No more martyrs.

I’ve so many wishes for the New Year.

Here’s the primary one: let people get the help they need, medical, financial, civic, educational, environmental.

Let this be a year of help.