You can’t use the word “longing” in poetry anymore…

But leaves fall 

They whirl under street-lamps

“Death’s butterflies”

As my friend Jarkko

Called them—and

He’s gone now.

Try talking about life

Without clear desire

Also known

As tenderness—also

Called yearning

Aching, pining,

And for what?

The day held meaning,

We felt accomplished, 

We swept up the children’s hair.

More About Being Disabled in the Faculty Ranks….

There are many ways to fail at your chosen profession and lord knows if you’re a reader of fiction you’ve seen how this is inevitably a feature of narrative. Ahab chases whales but he’s not a leader; Vronsky; Charles Bovary; the novels of Dreiser; Fitzgerald; Faulkner; Edith Wharton; George Eliot–the list is necessarily long.

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor,” Truman Capote once said and why not? For every tragic tale there’s a comedy where things work out for the losers but let’s be honest: tragedy is the thing that sells. Comedy is simply desert. Boiled Billy Budd is always the main course.

Writers know better than Human Resources types that in America working is about the damp squib as the British like to put it. It’s the prospect of fizzle that keeps laborers in a nearly endless state of productive terror. The drama rests in ascertaining how long the victim can endure. The characters in Richard Russo’s excellent novels come to mind. Faced with a hundred collapsing structures–dying towns, rural drug abuse, prison pipelines, insufficient employment, broken marriages, shell shocked existentially ruined children, how long will the main character last?

As a disabled man who’s had his share of employment pain it’s this last question I find most interesting not because I think I know the answer but simply because the disabled who are lucky enough to have jobs in the United States must endure hostility from the structural dynamic that employs them. We call it ableism nowadays, signaling the overt and structural disdain for disability itself, a matter that functions like racism and all other bigotries–offering an “off stage” narrative that the cripple really shouldn’t have her job at all. And then: “let’s watch her fail.” And then: “let’s help her fail.”

In July of 2000 I took a job as a teacher of creative non-fiction writing in the graduate school at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. What I didn’t know was that my job offer came as a result of larger influences–the faculty of the overlord English department wanted me, for I was famous, and yes, I’d add to diversity awareness. The creative writing faculty with whom I’d be working didn’t want me at all. They were outvoted. Generally job applicants don’t know these things. I certainly didn’t.

Ah but what came next was the incitement premium as Freud calls it–the thing–the pendulum that sets the story going. A woman on the creative writing faculty spread the rumor that since I’d been “out of the academy” for five years (raising money for a major non-profit after a decade of distinguished teaching) that it would clearly prove to be the case I didn’t know how to teach. She still works there and she’s still a gossip. She’ll gossip about the love lives of her grad students; tell stories about other faculty, many of them as hopeless as any of Trump’s “alternative facts” but I digress.

She asked her “besty” grad student, her most obedient hench-woman to take my very first grad class in nonfiction. She essentially took the class as a spy.

Back to disability: if you’re blind you need technology to do your job. I didn’t get my talking laptop and scanner for about two weeks. I taught for two weeks by having students read aloud their work.

The grad student spy quit the class after one week for her mission was done. She reported to her doyen of discrimination that I didn’t know how to teach for I was asking the students to read aloud.

The narrative that I was insufficiently sophisticated, nuanced, skilled, and discerning was now official. Gossip Queen spread it like lice in a locker room.

The grad student in question has gone on to have a career as a writer and professor with a special focus on queerness. But she’s a rank and file ableist and therefore nothing more than a single issue politician. When tragedy is the dominant vehicle you need single issue politicians as part of the plot. Billy Budd is not possible without such characters.

Meantime it’s been twenty years and I’ve had a fairly good run of it. I left Ohio State for a senior post at the U of Iowa and now hold a professorship of some merit at Syracuse University. Compared to the 80 per cent of the disabled who remain unemployed I’ve been damned lucky.

But I still feel the unjust, sinful, predatory, moist fish of academic ableism. And as I look around me I see very very few disabled faculty in the ranks.

Several of my former students both at Ohio State and Iowa have gone on to have careers in the academy. I wonder how much they know about being disabled in the fog factory as Kenneth Rexroth called the University?

If you’re disabled make sure that the MFA program you attend isn’t crammed with fatuous, self-promoting, third rate stuffed shirts and blouses who think the only place for disability in writing lies in the veneration of cheap tragedy in some novel somewhere.

Soliloquy

Now he’s getting old he wants Bach. A balloon flies over the farm and he knows this is Bach anticipating the enlightenment. He pulls a blue corn flower. (Alright, alright, it’s me getting old.) I kick a clod of earth and talk to myself. Poor Bach. He had to dine with Frederick the Great who made fun of him. “How it is,” I think, bending to pick yet another blazing flower which one supposes is a thing that cannot be done in heaven.
“Come in Bach, over. Tell me of the galant flourishes as we leave this life? Over.”

Thinking of Gore Vidal

In his book “Inventing a Nation” Gore Vidal noted: “from the beginning, Jefferson wanted a new constitutional convention every twenty years or so, while Franklin himself went boldly on record with the prediction that our people would drift into so deep a corruption that only despots could rule them.”

Well, we’re here, later than Franklin might have imagined, but one thinks of Jefferson in this instance as we need a new set of human rights and environmental rights enshrined in our government.

Alas a democratic constitutional convention would be ill advised perhaps, one pictures red state-blue state animus, the MAGA crowd vs. calls for racial justice, equal pay for women and environmental protections…just to name a few.

Who’d host such a convention? Who’d actually represent the interests of honest women and men?

Asking for a friend…

As it is, we’re being ruled by a despot and there’s no way around it.

Irony and Negation

Writing in 2003 of the US occupation of Baghdad Christopher Hitchens noted that “irony and negation are the everyday currencies” which puts me in mind of “blow back” for now we’re reaping what we’ve sowed or the chickens have come home to roost or shock and awe has come to your own backyard–yes language can be cheap. Yet there’s no doubt that neoliberal hubris with its adventurism, its uncivil disdain for facts, (weapons of mass destruction anyone?) disdain for human rights, environmental destruction of Mesopotamia–is there enough time for the whole litany? There can be no doubt that Trump’s dismantling of government, with its ironies and negations of facts had its birth shortly after 9-11.

It is too shallow I think to say Trump ascended owing to a personal grudge with Barack Obama–certainly it was an ingredient, but organized disdain (birtherism) the idea that sinister foreigners are out to get you, that’s the work of Paul Wolfowitz post 9-11. Add a fomented disavowal of facts and you’ve got the blueprint from Trumpism straight from the W. Bush administration. Irony and negation are the everyday currencies now, right here in the homeland.

Charon, being illiterate…

Charon took dead souls across the river of death but only for profit. As far as I know Karl Marx never wrote about that. He did however write about the body as machine but where the soul’s concerned Marx had little to say except to point out that religion is the soul of soulless conditions which is unhelpful if Charon is hanging around outside your house and waiting for his obolus.

I visited Marx’s tomb once. It’s adjacent to George Eliot’s eternal resting place. She wrote:

“O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence; live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude…”

I love “daring rectitude” which somehow reminds me of darling reticule but never mind, Charon doesn’t have it, demanding his payment in order that your eternal soul won’t be lonely.

Which means Charon was illiterate.

The time has come the walrus said…

The time has come the walrus said, or saith, to speak of Bishop Berkeley. Get your three legged stools folks.

Berkeley didn’t like Newton and didn’t trust materialism. But like the old joke, you can’t live with it and can’t live without it. In this way he invented proleptic phenomenology and thought the mind could influence dull matter. His two greatest descendants are Carl Jung (who arrived at this via a different tradition) and Walt Whitman (who as far as I know never read a line of Berkeley.)

Why on earth am I “on” about this? My nation state has lost its mind–the ye olde United States no longer believes in “can do” pragmatism nor does it believe in the future. All the writers listed above believed in the future.

**

Blame Donald Trump if you like. Blame the evangelicals. Blame the academy. Blame diminished resources. Blame those who do not resemble you. Blame the Koch brothers and everyone with money. Blame Herman Melville and Moms Mabele. Blame Yoko Ono.

But when people can no longer imagine a good future they generally have three deficiencies:

  1. Zero curiosity about human beings and the natural world.
  2. A cocksure belief they’ve figured out the secret of life.
  3. Number two is ideologically driven and has zero to do with life’s troubling complexities.

**

In 2013 while flying to Central Asia I read George Packer’s “Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” which attempts to diagnose how and why the US came to its already apparent collapse. I found the book unpersuasive, thin on nuance, not unscrupulous but “of or pertaining” to number two above. In other words I finished it and thought of how convinced Packer was that American liberalism had collapsed and America’s citizens were correspondingly and collectively helpless.

If you want to sell a book in the US that’s a winning formula. Early on Packer writes:

“If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition—ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.”

**

I don’t know much about organized money but I’ve a winning record at the race track and I know how to read the betting sheets. Packer presumably means Wall Street and corporate America when he speaks of organization and while I don’t believe corporations are people in the Mitt Romney way I also don’t think they’re terribly well organized. Packer’s vision of unwinding is essentially modeled on a poorly articulated conspiracy theory. He’d be better off saying like old Berkeley he doesn’t believe in gravity. I’d like him better for it.

Anyway it’s a problem for Packer that nowhere in his book does he mention Batman. I mean it. I’m talking about early 1990’s Batman movies with their slicked up supersonic death spiral vision of America’s cities even as there’s plenty of money to go around.

Americans are being fed doomsday visions even as the streets are clean. Or they were before the pandemic.

**

This is a good moment to stop reading if you want to blame Yoko or Reagan.

As for me I think Americans are now so addled by conspiracy theories and fast food (Twinkie defense?) that they really don’t care Putin now runs the joint.

**

“The only things we perceive are our perceptions,” Berkeley said. That we cannot now interrogate them in America is the tragedy of our moment.

Berkeley again: “The same principles which at first view lead to skepticism, pursued to a certain point, bring men back to common sense.”

I Wish the Wood-Cutter Would Wake Up…

Like Diogenes the Cynic I throw excrement though it’s not real, just words, words and words. All I want is your attention, like the sad student who sat beside me in the Writer’s Workshop who pulled from his pocket a deck of “serial killer trading cards.” He ignored the poets in the room. He was fixated on Doo Doo Dahmer. That’s not me. I want you to have a better life than the one you’re forced to live so I toss words around like my drunk uncle who was a never do well plumber who’d throw hammers in the garage. “Anaphylactic”; “suborning”; “misieracordia”; “Stalinist suitcase”; “Mac & Cheese”–(you don’t pay extra for the insect parts.)

Diogenes threw real turds.