The Forehead Egg, Biopolitics, Disability

When I was in my early twenties I read a lot of poems by James Tate. If you’re an American who’s interested in poetry and you’re over forty there’s a good chance you’ve visited Tate’s poignant, Da-da universe where dark alleys and cemetery willows remind a man to have a cigarette; where Sam Beckett’s people enter cereal naming contests; where only a dish of blueberries can pull you out of a lingering funk. Somewhere in my reading I saw a line about a man who feels like a fried egg has been glued to his forehead, which is to say, he walked around that way. There I was, blind, in college, cross eyed, the streets before me erasing themselves as I moved, lonesome, stamped by the U.S. Department of Alienation, hyper-aware that a cutting remark would be coming my way any moment. I knew Tate’s fried egg was my third eye, my sunny side up stigma. Disability can feel like that.

When we, the disabled discuss the biopolitics of disability, which is to say, the economic and political performances and entrapments of disablement, it often seems, at least to me, we’re talking about eggs and foreheads as much as anything else. What kind of egg will it be? Will you cook it yourself or will someone do it for you? Just so, will you self-apply your egg or have it done professionally? (I’m not metaphorically describing disability but the stances one must take because of it.) And there’s more: will it be a free range organic egg or from a factory? Perhaps if you’re lucky it will be cooked just right.

The neoliberal egg-on-forehead (hereafter NEOF) is like the cereal naming contest above–you have to pay to win and while you may be named Estragon you’re reliably in the game because it’s now an inclusive economy. In the bad old days you’d have been forced to live in the NEOF asylum but suddenly you have putative value. A productive, non-normative worth has either been declared or assigned. You round up your pals who once lived in the ward with you and together you create a federation. You’re online. Christ, you even blog. You belong to a Single Condition User Group. You’re no longer just a person with egg on the unibrow, you’re informed, itchy, talkative, contrary, ardent if not militant.

In their groundbreaking book The Biopolitics or Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder point out that: “as medical citizens within neoliberal biopolitics we are expected to take active control of our health management regimes to a greater extent than in any time in history. This active control taking health represents the double-edged sword of biopolitics and results in the desperate necessity of participating in funding initiatives on behalf of physicians and researchers to provide the missing profit motive for future investigations of potential medical treatments for members of rare condition groups.”

You were in a special hospital not so very long ago but now you’re an anguished expert on forehead eggism because you must be. You must be because either you’ve a job and want to keep it (you’ll need an accommodation—you can’t wear standard issue hats) or you hope to have a job—or jobless, you wish to have community relevance, which means among other things you should have the right script memorized.

I for one commit to memory a lot of self-declarative language. Yesterday I went to the ophthalmologist. I told him all about my eyes. In ophthalmology land I’m a failure. You mustn’t imagine eye doctors view low-to-no vision patients as successful and autonomous citizens. I felt the need to take care of myself and control the medical narrative to the best of my ability. I wasn’t an uninformed blind person. I wasn’t in need of rehab. No. That’s not a laser scar on my left retina, that’s what it looks like. You see, I don’t need to be cured, and even if that’s something in the cards it’s not happening today. I like the eggs. Yeah you can call me Estragon.

 

 

 

Notebook, October 2017 

King worm drops to the floor having taken too much Beethoven. There are no loudspeakers in nature. At first he thrilled to the sensations—moisty liminal guts buzzing with the string section,

all that rum ti tum zithing the straight line of his pooper but then Ludwig nackered him with tympani and you know, the poor bastard’s just a worm who’s lost. “How to you paint music?” he thinks, scooching his way on lemon-lime linoleum.

**

You breathed right up against the windowpane. Drew your mother from memory. Breathed again. She was gone.

**

Sometimes when I go to a funeral I’m aware the dead man knows my thoughts and there’s no blinking it away. This is why I don’t like ministers. They don’t get this.

**

Everything I touched today belonged to Rimsky Korsakov.

**

Last night I slept walked to the river.

All rivers wear black coats days, evenings, doesn’t matter.

Gave the river my white sleep shirt

Just to cheer it.

“You know,” I said, “textiles…”

**

I have always hated the laughter of drunks. Their mirth is terrifying, like the sounds we’ve recorded from the sun.

**

The water shining through trees. Lake of childhood.

Long ago I saw despair on the surface.

Don’t cry anymore!

**

King worm has a pair of wooden clogs which he uses as his winter and summer palaces. Wind blows darkness outside.

**

Do you ever see something innocent in the faces of old men and women? It’s the pink undamaged. Always a miracle since mostly we’re all ashes in rain.

**

I make mistakes over and over because I believe in assisting powerless human beings and animals. This means I argue with bureaucrats, sometimes noisily. The organizers don’t like me much. I sit opposite them, at a big table, trying to see myself as an organ, a stomach in a larger body.

**

Missing the daily mail. Cutting open letters with a horse head knife.

**

Dogs know the heavens do not turn in silence and they’re simultaneously cheerful.

**

Put on my little “peace hat” and pepper the aborning hour with words—names—Isaac Bashevis Singer, entelechy, sea cucumber, yellow mittens, mother-world. No one is about in my neighborhood. No one’s awake. The houses are all buttoned, windows dark. My feet love the wet road. I think I need to pardon my youth. I hear the Phoebe bird. The age I live in has a dark taste. I’m seldom prone to this but I do sometimes wish I was a bird.

**

Count on me

Says the pea-stalk reindeer

**

Birches clouds books

 

**

“Embraceable You”—Bill Evans

**

Up and down the museum stairs above the physical museum. That’s the ticket.

 

Teaching in the Age of Trump

When I was very small I didn’t know that I’d meet people who wouldn’t like me until one day, climbing stairs with my father, my hand in his, we met an elderly Swedish woman who lived just below us and who said, “Tsk, Tsk” because I was blind. I was only four and it was winter in Helsinki, Finland. This was a foundational moment for me as such moments are for all sentient beings, its the very second we sense we’re not who we’ve met in the mirror, or having no mirror, we’re not exactly who our parents say we are. Cruelty is one way we arrive. It comes without warning like branches tapping a window. “She’s a fool,” my father said as if that solved the riddle of human embarrassment.

If you teach at the post-secondary level and care about soul (not all teaching concerns itself overtly with soulful things, nor should this be the case per se) you’re likely a stair climbing contrarian, the kind of professor who knows the Swedish dowagers both of history and the ones living next door. Knowing we’re incontestably faced with deviant personalities, people who, according to private or political history, have been rendered un-civic-minded is central to narrative literature and when properly encountered this can strengthen the ironies of  compassion. I swear, as a boy I felt sorry for my grey Swedish matron. She’s still (for me) the image of absolute loneliness. The reach of dramatic irony is broad in poetry and fiction and while it’s not my intention to sound new age-y the human soul needs all the nutrients it can get. Who hurt the old Swedish woman who lived downstairs? Was it her White Russian husband who beat her and her children and then died in middle age having drunk away her dowry?

No one should have the power to steal our compassion. Books alone won’t prevent the theft but they’re the perfect anodyne for thin skinned covetousness and envy, the two conditions most prevalent in hyper-consumerist, post-industrial economies. No one’s reading John Bunyan these days but he’s worth quoting: “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” Compassion is a muscle. It’s flexible when used. Employing it we enter wider circles.

In the Age of Trump we’ll need help with compassionate climbing. I do not single out students any more than faculty or administrators—all people of conscience are rightly confused by the wide and unrelenting brutishness we’re now seeing.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries, as the Dalai Lama has often said. Our survival both as individuals and communities will now depend on understanding this. Again, echoing the Dalai Lama, compassion is the radicalism of our time. It’s a radicalism that can be practiced daily. It’s also the hardest thing to put into action. “You must not hate those who do wrong or harmful things; but with compassion, you must do what you can to stop them — for they are harming themselves, as well as those who suffer from their actions.” (Dalai Lama)

Over the past few days I’ve been putting together a literary reading list for our present moment. I’ve been culling books that highlight the radicalism of what, for lack of a better term I’m calling compassionate irony. These poets, non-fictionists and fiction writers are assembled here in no discernible order—their work has come to me as I’ve walked in the public square. The public square is a steeper place now. I believe the following books are now necessities:

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer

James Lecesne:  Absolute Brightness

Toni Morrison:  Sula

Anne Finger:  Elegy for a Disease

Gail Godwin:  Father Melancholy’s Daughter

Colson Whitehead:  The Underground Railroad

Adrienne Rich:  An Atlas for the Difficult World

Jacqueline Woodson:  Another Brooklyn

Kurt Vonnegut Jr:  Slaughterhouse Five or The Children’s Crusade

Kwame Alexander:   The Crossover

James Baldwin:   Giovanni’s Room

Dorothy Allison:   One or Two Things I Know for Sure

Ralph Ellison:  Invisible Man

Saul Bellow:   The Adventures of Augie March

Azar Nafisi:    Reading Lolita in Tehran

Naguib Mahfouz:  The Cairo Trilogy

Sam Hamill: Habitations

Walt Whitman:  Leaves of Grass

Pema Chodron:  The Places That Scare You

Kenneth Rexroth:  Collected Poems

Deborah Tall:  A Family of Strangers

Kwame Dawes:  Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems

Mark Doty:  Fire to Fire

Wang Ping:  The Last Communist Virgin

Robert Bly:  My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy

Pablo Neruda:  Selected Poems

Bernard Malamud:  The Stories of Bernard Malamud

Anita Desai:  Clear Light of Day

John Banville:  The Sea

Thomas Hardy:  The Mayor of Casterbridge

John Irving:  The Cider House Rules

Richard Yates: A Good School

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Paule Marshall:  The Fisher King

W. H. Auden:  Collected Poems

Evelyn Waugh:  Brideshead Revisited

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:  Americanah

Salman Rushdie:  Midnight’s Children

Naoki Higashida:  The Reason I Jump

W. B. Yeats:  Collected Poems

Per Petterson:  Out Stealing Horses

Magda Szabo:   The Door

Tove Jansson:  The Summer Book

Majgull Axelsson:  April Witch

Jean-Dominique Bauby:  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Bruno Schulz:  Sanitarium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

Jerzy Ficowski:  Waiting for the Dog to Sleep

Gyula Krudy:  Sunflower

Chris Abani:  The Secret History of Las Vegas

Binyavanga Wainaina:  How to Write About Africa

Joan Didion:  The Year of Magical Thinking

Carlos Fuentes:  The Death of Artemio Cruz

Mo Yan:  Life and Death are Wearing Me Out

The list above is my start—a syllabus of the compassionate climb. You’ll notice I’ve left Kafka off but include Bruno Schultz. Left off Camus but included Carl Jung. One prefers the early Rushdie and Thomas Hardy before he elevated his wife to sainthood. Compassion resists Aristotelian templates—it doesn’t like being talked about. Like a milk snake it shines in its own way. Compassion is more than fellow feeling or empathy—it is mercy. All the books listed here are merciful. Please, start your own lists. Share them. The literatures of compassion are necessarily shared in a university without walls.

 

 

 

 

Free Cookies, Evident Dignities

No one gets a free cookie in the work camp called America. You kids get back to work. Get on your scabby knees and scrub the jetsam.

Last night two cabs in Brooklyn refused to give me a ride. No to the guide dog. No to the man.

The man was told, despite the ardor evident in his heart, and perhaps observable on his smiling face to get back on his scabby knees.

No taxi. No cookie. Same old.

I never get used to it.

This came after a beautiful poetry reading honoring the late poet Deborah Tall at Bookcourt, a lovely indie bookshop. We had a good turnout and wonderful readers and wisdom and lyrical intelligence were all about us. About. We were about together honoring a poet who passed away young and who’s posthumously published final book is now out.

I said to someone, “well they can’t take our souls” in reference to Trump. Later I had to say it about the taxi men. You can’t have my big plush heart you bastards. And I’m terribly sorry no one gave you a free cookie. I haven’t gotten mine either.

Meanwhile I almost got run over yesterday while walking down Sixth Avenue when a bicycle messenger ran a red light and almost struck me, save that my guide dog made a quick maneuver and saved us both.

Meanwhile strangers, pedestrians, witnesses jeered the bicyclist who fell of his damned bike and was scrambling to get to his feet.

Meanwhile I thought he’s just another guy who didn’t get his cookie. I couldn’t be angry. I was alive. He was alive. We went our separate ways.

Meanwhile I like this recipe for the free cookie:

I part Walt Whitman’s breakfast (whatever he was having)

2 parts reexamined opinion (almost anything by Naomi Wolf)

3 generous doses of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and—

3 equally generous doses of Susan Sontag

Garnish with Christopher Hitchens “Notes to a Young Contrarian”

You can tinker with this recipe. It will accept many ingredients but the caveat is that the input, the human sine qua non must represent ardor and a history of assisting others. So, for instance, Ayn Rand doesn’t quality. No also to Norman Podhoretz.

You can put in Hilda Doolittle or Roberto Clemente if you like.

And of course we’re talking about spirits, so it’s up to you how you’re going to get this into cookies.

See? I’ve nearly forgotten being almost killed and then denied my rights.

 

 

The Poets of Coffee

Who are the great poets of coffee? Everyone knows William Carlos Williams was the poet of plums, Keats the poet of urns. Elizabeth Bishop, fish; Robert Bly had snowy fields; Ginsberg had cocks and balls; Emily Dickinson had the soul.

There’s Ron Padgett’s prose poem “The Morning Coffee” which is pretty good, though it’s not about coffee at all—you’ll have to read it, no spoiler here.

There’s the old nursery rhyme:

Molly, my sister and I fell out,

And what do you think it was all about?

She loved coffee and I loved tea,

And that was the reason we couldn’t agree.

Now there are plenty of poems that feature coffee and we’ll have a look—but there are no poems of coffee, the hot tropic wind of coffee’s phenomenology—in poem after poem, all written by excellent poets, coffee is a minor thing, lacking salience, like pillows on a couch. I do not dislike these poems. I’ll trade coffee for a pillow most of the time. Here are some of my favorite “almost coffee” poems:

“The Fight”

—Russell Edson

A man is fighting with a cup of coffee.

The rules: he must not

break the cup nor spill its coffee; nor must the cup break the

man’s bones or spill his blood.

The man said, oh the hell with it, as he swept the cup to

the floor.

The cup did not break but its coffee poured out

of its open self.

The cup cried, don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me; I am

without mobility, I have no defense save my utility; use

me to hold your coffee.

**

“Recipe for Happiness Khaborovsk or Anyplace”

—Lawrence Ferlinghetti

One grand boulevard with trees

with one grand cafe in sun

with strong black coffee in very small cups.

One not necessarily very beautiful

man or woman who loves you.

One fine day.

**

“How Did You Meet Your Wife?”

—Richard Jones

Swimming the English Channel,

struggling to make it to Calais,

I swam into Laura halfway across.

My body oiled for warmth,

black rubber cap on my head,

eyes hidden behind goggles,

I was exhausted, ready to drown,

when I saw her coming toward me,

bobbing up and down between waves,

effortlessly doing a breaststroke,

heading for Dover.

Treading water

I asked in French if she spoke English,

and she said, “Yes, I’m an American.”

I said, “Hey, me too,” then asked her out for coffee.

**

Coffee is a stage prop in poetry—Wallace Stevens—“Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair…”

Gary Snyder: “There are those who love to get dirty and fix things./They drink coffee at dawn, beer after work./And those who stay clean, just appreciate things./At breakfast they have milk and juice at night./There are those who do both, they drink tea.”

 

Some poets get closer to coffee’s fizz in the nervous system. Neruda:

Take it all back. Life is boring, except for flowers, sunshine, your perfect legs. A glass of cold water when you are really thirsty. The way bodies fit together. Fresh and young and sweet. Coffee in the morning. These are just moments. I struggle with the in-betweens. I just want to never stop loving like there is nothing else to do, because what else is there to do?

**

The coffee plays in my coarse hair.

When it gets to my tongue it takes the rust off old family stories.

Regarding the premise of life, coffee entered me.

I breathed its steam; wrote with my finger when it found a window.

Coffee: a stop in midair.

—these are my lines, just off the top of my head, be-coffeed, quick, still trying to reach the world….

 

Freaky Angels

In one of his early poems entitled “Contagion” James Tate wrote: So this is the dark street/where only an angel lives/I never saw anything like it. I read that poem when I was twenty and saw the “dark street” as Emerson—saw the angel as Emerson’s strange angel which is also D.H. Lawrence’s strange angel, the wings are too much like ours; the wings are possibly sinister. In any case, we never saw anything like it and yet we always knew they were there—the wings, the humanoid specter, and our expectation they are a completion, one answer to the betrayals of phenomenology. Such a view is not Romantic, though plenty have said so. Its tougher. It took Freud and Jung to show us what the figurines mean: they’re neither enemy or friend, but fact. How you will live, in what manner you will live, depends on what you can challenge yourself to admit about the angels. The ones I’m talking about are freakish angels and not the sanitized “idea” of the angel that Wallace Stevens preferred. Stevens’ angels are like those paper wrapped seats in the washroom—sanitized for your protection—and so they are not angels at all. Here is what the angels felt like to Lawrence:

 

 

The Song of a Man Who has Come Through

 

 

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.

If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!

If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!

If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed

By the fine, fine wind that takes its course though the chaos of the world

Like a fine, and exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;

If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge

Driven by invisible split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

 

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,

I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,

Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

 

What is the knocking?

What is the knocking at the door in the night?

It’s somebody wants to do us harm.

 

No, no, it is the three strange angels.

Admit them, admit them.

 

 

Notice Lawrence’s angel is both the man or woman who feels wind blowing inside the body and then the angel is, when more fully realized, like a fine chisel, a wedge that rents chaos—a dangerous tool to be sure. Lawrence’s angel is a wire that pierces. Oh its imagination alright. Its your dream. Its your fear about the future. Its your regret about the past. Its your dead father tuning a piano in the underworld. As Robert Bly would say: Its the distance between the head and the feet as we lie down. The freaky angel is us and not us unless we reckon with time. Its our ambition. Our completion. Its the hard work of consciousness which must admit what’s under the boat. (Ahab) or cry because space has pierced us with a sharp tip (Emerson’s cosmological Boston Commons). I like the word “freaky” better than strange. Freaky can’t be domesticated though we build churches or sideshows and put angels on pedestals so the frightened gazers can gaze and then go home saying, “well, I saw it—good thing it is not me.” 

 

But of course the “freaky angel” turns up. It knocks if you’re lucky. Lawrence was lucky. His angels passed right through his carapace of fear, the lobster back of the psyche, and then he was stronger, undoubtedly weirder, perhaps thinner, maybe with the taste of honey and excrement in his mouth, happy to the point of rending his garments, and sharp, very sharp. 

 

  

 

Freaky Angels

In one of his early poems entitled “Contagion” James Tate wrote: So this is the dark street/where only an angel lives/I never saw anything like it. I read that poem when I was twenty and saw the “dark street” as Emerson—saw the angel as Emerson’s strange angel which is also D.H. Lawrence’s strange angel, the wings are too much like ours; the wings are possibly sinister. In any case, we never saw anything like it and yet we always knew they were there—the wings, the humanoid specter, and our expectation they are a completion, one answer to the betrayals of phenomenology. Such a view is not Romantic, though plenty have said so. Its tougher. It took Freud and Jung to show us what the figurines mean: they’re neither enemy or friend, but fact. How you will live, in what manner you will live, depends on what you can challenge yourself to admit about the angels. The ones I’m talking about are freakish angels and not the sanitized “idea” of the angel that Wallace Stevens preferred. Stevens’ angels are like those paper wrapped seats in the washroom—sanitized for your protection—and so they are not angels at all. Here is what the angels felt like to Lawrence:

 

 

The Song of a Man Who has Come Through

 

 

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.

If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!

If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!

If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed

By the fine, fine wind that takes its course though the chaos of the world

Like a fine, and exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;

If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge

Driven by invisible split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

 

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,

I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,

Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

 

What is the knocking?

What is the knocking at the door in the night?

It’s somebody wants to do us harm.

 

No, no, it is the three strange angels.

Admit them, admit them.

 

 

Notice Lawrence’s angel is both the man or woman who feels wind blowing inside the body and then the angel is, when more fully realized, like a fine chisel, a wedge that rents chaos—a dangerous tool to be sure. Lawrence’s angel is a wire that pierces. Oh its imagination alright. Its your dream. Its your fear about the future. Its your regret about the past. Its your dead father tuning a piano in the underworld. As Robert Bly would say: Its the distance between the head and the feet as we lie down. The freaky angel is us and not us unless we reckon with time. Its our ambition. Our completion. Its the hard work of consciousness which must admit what’s under the boat. (Ahab) or cry because space has pierced us with a sharp tip (Emerson’s cosmological Boston Commons). I like the word “freaky” better than strange. Freaky can’t be domesticated though we build churches or sideshows and put angels on pedestals so the frightened gazers can gaze and then go home saying, “well, I saw it—good thing it is not me.” 

 

But of course the “freaky angel” turns up. It knocks if you’re lucky. Lawrence was lucky. His angels passed right through his carapace of fear, the lobster back of the psyche, and then he was stronger, undoubtedly weirder, perhaps thinner, maybe with the taste of honey and excrement in his mouth, happy to the point of rending his garments, and sharp, very sharp.