Fog, Rain — an antonymic adaptation

Fog, Rain
by Charles Baudelaire, trans. Keith Waldrop

O ends of autumn, winter, springtime, steeped in slush, opiate of seasons! I love and honor you for thus enveloping my heart and brain in a shroud of vapor and a vague grave.

On this great plain where a cold wind from the south plays games, where through long nights the weathervane rasps, my soul more easily than at spring thaw opens its broad raven wings.

To a heart brimming with funeral fare, long laden with hoar-frost–you pallid seasons who rule our clime–nothing is sweeter than

the changeless sight of your pale shadows.–Except, on moonless nights, two by two, to put pain to sleep in a hazardous bed.

Fog, Rain — an antonymic adaptation

A mere declension of sun orbits its way into my waiting game,
something I play when I have gone without it
just to help me fluoresce a little more steady.

But what I don’t know as an end to that confectionary dream
still isn’t a reason for faith, and what it was that cast a shadow
cross my face must have shaken you too, at least a little:

a standard reaction to the miscellany hobbling forth from the ruins
of their own interiors, people of the moth-eaten cardigan,
themselves fluorescing so violently as if I could not

grovel at their feet in worship, scattering plumage I hope to be
unmarketable before going back to whatever it was I was doing,
unattended to by the memory of it all, to my industry’s relief.

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Media Grievance of the Week

I’ve been thinking about the Invisible Children campaign and their most recent KONY 2012 video. There are claims being made all over the place about how Invisible Children is either financially responsible or irresponsible, whether they help fund the corrupt Ugandan military or not, and whether the campaign is, in fact, a legitimate avenue for positive change in Central and East Africa. I am not going to address these claims directly, but rather think about what it means to be an activist and to advocate for political change in a highly complex situation that you are not directly a part of.

One of my primary concerns regarding specific issues of ethics like this is whether I am well-informed enough to make a measured, morally justifiable response or not. A common criticism (that I endorse) about the Invisible Children campaign is that they are not a balanced or even reliable source of information. They paint the conflict in Central and East Africa as one-dimensional: there is a bad man and you can help stop him doing bad things. Go out and do something. They explicitly want people in the United States to poster their cities and pressure the government to take action in a part of the world that almost none of them have been to or have any direct knowledge of. The good intentions are clear, but I am strongly opposed to isolating the moral worth of an action to its intentions and saying nothing of the effects. As I understand it, the area that Kony and the LRA operates in is highly sensitive and potential responses to direct military action against Kony could do much more harm than good. (Such military action is, by the way, what Invisible Children supports). I can’t pretend to fully comprehend the wars going on in Central and East Africa, but I do know that by answering Invisible Children’s call to duty, many people are (likely unknowingly) advocating for what could be a devastating move in a dangerously unstable region. This is why I see the Invisible Children campaign’s call to action as potentially harmful and morally irresponsible.

But let’s say that there was no call for military intervention. Let’s say that they simply wanted to make people aware of an issue that had affected them emotionally, and they are not heroically shouldering the white man’s burden to solve all the problems in Africa. Let’s assume the intent is purely raising awareness for its own sake. I’m not one to downplay the importance of knowing what’s going on in the world. In fact, I think it’s crucial to one’s moral character to be politically conscious and up to date on current events. In light of this bandwagon, then, I would have to ask: Why Kony? Why are we focusing so heavily (over 32,000,000 views for a video about Kony and the LRA in four days) on someone who plays a relatively small role in a massive conflict with many complex and moving parts? Why do we temporarily repurpose ourselves to make Kony known around the world? What is it about him and the LRA, specifically, that makes them of the utmost importance to our nations’ ethical agendas when there are baffling atrocities being committed in many other places on this planet, many of which are as equally appalling as Kony’s use of child soldiers? In the scope of all this, the Kony 2012 movement seems like a rather arbitrary cause to put one’s weight behind.

I get that Kony deserves to be condemned in strongest possible terms. But if we have a moral obligation to raise awareness about what is happening in the world, don’t we also have an obligation to actually understand the issues we are getting fired up about and realize that things like this cannot be solved as a series of isolated cases? Isn’t it imperative—now that Kony is about as famous as any minor warlord can expect to be—that we focus on other people in his game that are having a bigger impact and try to figure out how to solve this multi-faceted issue in tandem? What I see is a knee jerk reaction to propaganda that plays on peoples’ altruistic fantasies of “making a difference” in the world. But knowledge is paralyzing. The more you learn about almost any issue of this magnitude, the more complex it becomes and the more moral grey areas there are to sketch out. I want my emotional connectivity to other people on this planet to matter in some way as much as the next person, and I want to feel that I am promoting the well being of others, but I refuse to act without proper knowledge of the possibilities those actions might precipitate.

And I’ll admit, the greatest good I feel that I am getting out of this whole frenzy is having something to think about as I go on with my day. I try very hard not to be a dogmatic person, as I think that is the root of many of our problems. But what I see in a movement like this is a reflection of some of our encultured values—namely, convenience. Invisible Children presents change as something readily available and all we need to do is spend a weekend to do our part towards enacting justice. This method of procuring a heightened sense of morality is, in my view, entirely unjustified. On top of this, I find an odd and unsettling narcissism present in the whole thing. I won’t deny my own occasional narcissistic tendencies, but there is a sentimental and exploitative nature in this campaign that irks whatever sense of humility I may have. Pity is a sensitive subject for those on the receiving end, and it seems to me that this campaign is directing a tidal wave of it at Uganda and surrounding territories, and then collecting brownie points for the effort. I am not the kind of person who believes that altruism doesn’t exist in the world—I think altruism is very real and it is not difficult for me to imagine people advocating for someone other than themselves—but I do not get that vibe here in the least. It seems to me like we are trying to benefit from the privation of a stereotyped people, consuming their poverty and destitution for our own moral profits, and this is something I refuse to participate in.

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New poem

This piece kind of goes against my general instincts to not write poems specifically about anything, but it turned into something far more than I originally thought it would (and taking up far more time than I anticipated). Please read it here, and even enjoy if you like: Standard by Which to Measure My Success, According to Current Trends

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Simple Social Graces

I was thinking about what would happen if I got up and left the surgery pavilion waiting room, which I was fully prepared to do after a few hours of being asked how I was or if someone could get me something, which was never the case. Each time I would say I was fine, and in my answer I could feel the asker searching for a hint of some incommunicable depths of sorrow they must have expected were opening up inside me. My father was on an operating table with his chest cut open for the third time, surgeons doing surgeon things to his heart that were supposed to save his life, or, more accurately, extend it. Meanwhile, I was making a conscious effort to not become a caricature of one whose entire history dissolves in a fit of existential anguish upon learning of their father’s death, so I tried to answer their questions as concisely as possible before returning to my book. The fact was that I didn’t enjoy talking to some of these people under even joyous circumstances, and would have preferred if everyone besides my mom and brother left altogether.

Most of them barely knew my father, but some liked to conjecture that he was their friend and made it their purpose for the day to comfort his family. James and Theresa both skipped work on this clear day in early December to sit in the waiting room with us, though they had only met my father a few times at most. They were oppressively sympathetic people, peppering me and my brother with questions about our lives and offering information about themselves freely, even when no one had asked. James was older than my father, and had made it known during Thanksgiving dinner at our house that his father passed away years ago. There was also Adam and his wife Nicole. Adam was a metal head and horror enthusiast who could never seem to understand that others didn’t share his particular media fetishes. He had the remarkable ability to be as inappropriate as possible under dramatic circumstances, which I found more humorous in a pitiful way than offensive. He would sometimes try to talk about music or film with me, but our tastes so rarely aligned that it would usually turn into a monologue where one person would give a synopsis of a movie that the other had no real interest in. There were a few others with our party scattered around room, sitting in chairs provided by the hospital—including two Gnostic priests of my mom’s invitation—who didn’t say much, for which I was thankful.

I was anxious about what was happening in the operating room, or what could happen, but didn’t exactly feel like talking it out with the ostensibly available strangers. As I understood it my father was, by most definitions, dead at this moment. His heart was stopped under the pretense it would be able to start again after the necessary repairs to the malfunctioning valve had been made. The surgery was expected to last up to seven hours, the whole time a case of Schrödinger’s Father for me and my brother; Schrödinger’s Husband for my mom. We sat in a room and waited for someone to deliver the news of one of life’s most profound losses, otherwise biding our time with books, music, or light conversation. Through this I found that, despite heightened levels of anxiety, I thought about things more or less how I always did: with a vague anthropological interest in the environment and its inhabitants, and also looking for material to write about.

The mousey old volunteer who ran the desk in the waiting room was accommodating and non-intrusive. She would often get up and leave for intervals of 10-15 minutes—periods of time during which the phone would ring incessantly until either Theresa or my mother picked it up and took a message. There were some paintings on the walls, mostly idyllic landscapes of places that may or may not exist in reality. Knowing very little about painting, I wondered whether the artist they came from was as passionate about art as people like Picasso or Pollock apparently were, or if they just did it to supplement their income, or maybe to garnish their social lives with the declaration of being an artist, even if their work probably never furnished a room more effectively than their ego. It seemed a bit absurd to me that these particular paintings, hung in a room where people wrestled with crises of varying degrees, could be expected to provide any amount of comfort in the immediate presence of loss. Could art do that?

In the middle of this rumination late in the afternoon, a surgeon walked in. He had begun work early in the morning and emerged from his labor—unimaginable to me as one of the ignorant but admiring gadflies orbiting the horse of medical science—at about the expected time. He walked directly to our group and everyone stood to greet him. I quickly scanned his face for signs of failure, horror, or grief, but mostly he just looked tired. He said my father was alive, but remained in critical condition, and they would have to wait before they could close him up and take him to the ICU. The surgeon left and everyone went back to their chairs. People asked me if I was OK, if they could get me anything, taking my silence as a sign of unpronounceable despair at the thought of my father’s condition. I was fine, I said, and picked up my book. About a minute after sitting down, I saw a look on my mother’s face and she got up and went into the hallway. I followed her, saw her burst into tears, lean against the wall, and lower herself down to the floor. I sat next to her, put my arm around her, and rested my head on the wall behind me. Perhaps it was the phrase “close him up” that suddenly cracked her, language that struck me as particularly vivid and confrontational, though I don’t know what kind of language I was expecting the surgeon to use. It was a phrase that forced one to acknowledge that open heart surgery not only required cutting open a person’s chest, but also pushing the chest back together, expecting the person to resume life, and then applying that idea to a person she had seen almost every day for over 25 years. I felt strangely removed from it all in the hallway, as if it simply weren’t happening or if my brain somehow refused to fully process it. I half wondered if there was a standard I could refer to in order that I might judge my expression, or lack thereof, as adequate or not according the circumstances.

My mother cried for about 10 minutes, during which time nobody we knew came to investigate. She was free to experience the crisis, and I was able to escape the projections of those in the waiting room. I thought that maybe my lack of intense feeling had something to do with how I patterned my behavior over the years, which could be described, more or less, as a constant and eager state of observation. I sat next to my mother and watched as hospital employees passed us by, sometimes wheeling equipment, sometimes looking down at us briefly before returning their gaze to the floor in front of them. I almost wanted to tell them not to worry about us, that we were going to be fine and that nobody was dead yet. Somehow I wanted to relieve whatever vicarious grief may have entered them as they went from one place to another on this late afternoon in early December, to them a day not unlike all the others. This, of course, would have been ridiculous.

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A Brief History of English

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Fresh poem in the diwan

Click here to read.

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An Interview with Colin Stetson

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