Accidents of Bread in Cheese: Trump at Table

by David Gewanter

Washington is both a city and a metaphor. In most ways, it is livelier as metaphor, a shining civics lesson, and a swamp of scandal. Day and night it gobbles and spews information, papers, and policies. The city’s residents live near unfolding history and important people—I walk by Senator John Kerry’s house daily—yet we exist, for the most part, outside of history. How many DC residents have real access to insider knowledge: 5,000? 500? As FBI man James Comey explained: “people talking about [classified information] often don’t really know what’s going on. And those of us who actually know what’s going on are not talking about it.” So, 699,500 city-dwellers must imagine the rest of the narrative, weaving together hunches, shreds of gossip, and speculation into some hazy image, a “what’s going on” that only the powerful know.

Washington insiders operate in political terms; DC residents are relegated to work in imaginative—that is, literary—terms. Now, literary thinking may seem a weak sister of political debate and machpolitik. Yet it has gathered new force in the Age of Trump: for even as terms are being thrown out to describe his presidency—from “autocrat” to “idiot”—the powerful sense grows that we have entered the realm of the absurd. A new healthcare law will deprive 23 million people of healthcare—millions of them Trump supporters. Russia meddled in the election; Trump fires FBI director Comey investigating it; the Kremlin, unasked, renews Trump’s copyright privileges in Russia. George Orwell’s 1984, with its “doublethink,” “newspeak,” and alternate math “two and two is five,” is back on the best-seller list. Absurd realities pile up daily, reporters can hardly keep pace. Some people, binge-watching the several investigations and reports, complain of a “Trump Ten” weight gain.

Are we ushered into the absurd by such local paradoxes? Paradox after paradox, stacked like lumber until we face a “big bundle of unified nonsense,” as today’s Washington Post wrote about healthcare deprivations. In art, the pleasure of accepting paradox is acknowledged by John Keats as Negative Capability: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Here, perhaps, stands the fault-line between our political instincts for debate, news, “fact & reason,” and our more loose-jointed art impulses, seeking symbols, hidden byways, “Mysteries, doubts.”

These two modes of thinking—political and literary—compete to dominate the Washington narrative. Does the city employ them equally? Not really: the literary remains Washington’s Unacknowledged Legislator, disliked and distrusted by the political. Demanding facts and logical coherence, today’s news-hunting Gradgrinds are irritated by paradox, dreams, or visions. They consider literary thinking, which does commerce with Mysteries and uncertainties, as feckless and soft, like Leslie Howard in the old movies: a sensitive, wan aesthete searching for a light at the end of the tunnel. But that light comes from a train about to barrel him over.

To be sure, literary “doubt” indicates doubleness, and that can include “doublethink.” But doubt and paradox are accepted elements of literary judgments, interesting and useful—even necessary. Why resolve them? But Washington politics sees doubt only as ignorance and weakness; as for paradox, it is called “contradiction,” and treated as a kind of hypocrisy. Both ignorance and contradiction must be resolved in debate.

Political thinking readily offers dark visions about the outcomes of literary, fanciful thinking. If we drift to sleep wondering how a cow jumps over the moon, well, we might wake up inside Kafka’s Metamorphosis, punished for our dreams by becoming a cockroach. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes warns us not to tolerate absurd nonsense terms such as “round quadrangle” or “accidents of bread in cheese.” From this view, artistic double-thinking—the “this-yet-that” capability that delighted Keats—leads to moral catastrophe. The actual, painful world will pop your dream-bubble. Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” Similarly, Orwell: “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

The battlefield, certainly, provides a first home for the absurd, as literary novels from The Red Badge of Courage through Catch 22 have shown. Orwell, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, refused to shoot a fascist whose pants had fallen down. A battle-cry of that war: ¡Viva Muerte!, Long live Death. But it is a more civil war—fought jaw to jaw—that makes Washington’s daily bread. In James Comey’s recent senate testimony, political fact-finding and literary hunches would each contend for dominance: whichever narrative was persuasive, the other one would seem false, and absurd. It was not a moment when, as F. Scott Fitzgerald supposed, you can easily hold two opposing ideas in your head. Over 20 million people watched his testimony, more than the NBA finals (whose outcome was less in doubt).

By dawn, people started waiting in line at DC bars broadcasting the hearings. Comey quickly gave patrons their money’s worth: he claimed that President Trump told “lies, plain and simple” about the FBI, and that, at their White House intimate dinner pour deux, Trump spoke of Comey’s investigation of Gen. Michael Flynn, who had just resigned: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Comey said he wrote down notes immediately after every private meeting he held with Trump. Why? “The circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with,” Comey answered. Regarding the nature of the person Comey was interacting with: “I was honestly concerned that he [Trump] might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document.”

So Comey, before meeting with Trump, had worried that Trump might later lie; months later, he claims that Trump did indeed lie. The core issue in this narrative, then, is the question of character. To gauge character, Comey weaves together several literary strands—the setting, the dialogue, the tone, and his hunches about the man. Comey is finding his path through the realm of Mysteries, doubt, subtle readings of character—and yes, supplementing them with reasoning and fact: for Trump’s public lies had been well-catalogued before the January inauguration, and now number in the hundreds.

Can imagination work in tandem with practical knowledge? It seems so here. Perhaps the quaint notion of reading “character” has re-emerged as a master coin in Washington. It certainly held value a hundred years ago, when banker J.P. Morgan—who once bailed out Wall Street—testified before a Congressional committee on trusts. Morgan was asked how a person qualifies for loans—how someone’s ability to get credit is determined.

Q: Is not [someone’s] commercial credit based primarily upon [his] money or property
A: No, sir; the first thing is character.
Q: Before money or property?
A: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it.

For Morgan, character brought loans, credit:

A: I have known men to come into my office, and I have given them a check for a million dollars when I knew they had not a cent in the world.

Likewise, the question for Comey’s testimony became one of character, personal credibility. The committee senators, their faces dewy with Arnoldian high seriousness, focused on the primal political issue: what did Trump’s comments mean? Was he sharing a wan personal desire, or was he trying to press Comey to do his bidding?

Comey testified that Trump was pressuring him: “I took it as a direction.” Conservative and progressive senators divided on this question in predictable fashion, but each of them became, briefly, what Marianne Moore called “literalists of the imagination”: they tried to imagine tone, context, and intent for the term “hope,” a word echoing Bill Clinton’s home town in Arkansas, and Barack Obama’s bestselling The Audacity of Hope. Given that the country remains battered by an election filled with personal accusation, resentment, and cultivated fears, it was perversely satisfying to hear our public servants parse this term.

We needed John Le Carré or Thomas Carlyle to join the inquiry. Instead, we were left with Senator James Risch who, with a litigator’s precise reductionism, tried to maneuver Comey. “Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where this—they said, or thought, they hoped for an outcome?”

Comey didn’t know of a case one way or another, but legal scholars later found cases where people have indeed been prosecuted for this. Senator Kamala Harris suggested that we certainly would understand a gunman telling us, “I hope you will give me your wallet.” As for tone: perhaps Trump was being playful, as he was when boasting of grabbing pussy, or shooting someone on the streets of New York. The anecdotes provided by juridical questioners couldn’t firmly establish the tone and context of Trump’s “hope” comments: they shrank the question to a prosecutor’s either/or. Dialogue, tone, context, character: can they be treated as essentially factual, or should they remain the stuff that literary Mysteries and hunches are made on?

Senator Angus King, though a lawyer, tried the literary route.

KING: When a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like “I hope” or “I suggest” or—or “would you,” do you take that as a—as a—as a directive?

COMEY: Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

KING: I was just going to quote that. In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and then, the next day, he was killed—Thomas Becket. That’s exactly the same situation. You’re—we’re thinking along the same lines.

Briefly, imaginative and literary thinking took center stage at the senate hearing: a shared cultural memory showed how an autocrat would stage a sly command. He said this; he meant that. It presented, in Marianne Moore’s metaphor, an imaginary garden with a real toad in it. Jobless English majors across the nation cheered, gratified for having taken their SAT prep course. There it was: a literary topos, not a political disclosure, that had finally spanned the DC knowledge gap—the gap between insider knowledge and the public’s general ignorance. It displayed how literary thinking, even as it seeks the marks and methods of human behavior, must weigh its observations against memory and misleading associations. Literary insights tempered by doubt and self-correction are not double-think absurdities, not political contradictions, but efforts at mature judgment.

With Comey’s exchange with King, the humanists had their day; yet within weeks of the hearing, Trump boasted that his tweets and remarks had forced Comey to tell his story, not—as most everyone else saw—that Trump’s lying about FBI morale had prompted Comey to disclose the “hope” comment publically, and thus to induce the FBI to hire a special investigator. And with that, Washington had shifted back: two and two might be five. Trump complains of “fake news”; meanwhile, his golf resorts have posted fake Time Magazine covers featuring his picture.

Hobbes contended that absurd statements should not be called “error,” but “nonsense.” Yet our experience with the absurd, after Beckett, Camus, and Co., has broadened beyond that; the absurd now offers a consonant world view one can live within. In Orwell’s geography of the mind, this should not be possible. “Plain, unmistakable facts [are] being shirked,” he complained, “by people who in another part of their mind are aware of those facts.” In Washington terms, this means that the 70% of Fox viewers who thought Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attacks were somehow, somewhere aware of the fact that he wasn’t. But cognitive dissonance may now be easier to suppress, given our divided, self-reinforcing news-watching habits. There is not “another part of their mind” where true facts are found. Orwell, curiously, was being optimistic.

Political and literary thinking move in parallel; sometimes they collaborate, and sometimes, as in the Comey hearing, they provide vastly different answers. Facts can pop the dream-balloon; but art, in its turn, can needle the bloated body politic. Each has its task. From political research we get Barbara Tuchman’s detailed narrative on the causes and vanities leading to the Great War: The Guns of August. From literary imagination we get Thomas Hardy’s ironic ballad “Channel Firing,” with its startling image of skeletons waking up to cannons roaring their “readiness to avenge” the attacks that have yet to happen. Hardy rhymes “avenge” with “starlit Stonehenge,” casting together the present political, the musical, and the mythic. And the prophetic: Hardy wrote the poem in April, 1914, four months before the war. Beyond the realm of reason lies a shadowland of doubt and uncertainty; we can only traverse it in sudden, leaping assumptions: of character, tone, dialogue, literary reference, and metaphor.

How reliable are such materials? Robert Frost warns us not to take metaphors too far. He lauds the “tantalizing vagueness” of poetry, its “way of saying one thing and meaning another”; yet he advises us first to gain “the proper poetical education in the metaphor” and, more broadly, in “figurative values.” We should “know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness,” Frost notes. Otherwise, “you are not safe anywhere”: “you are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.” Nor safe in the prosaic, treacherous city.

The avenging arts of poetry may be figured like that ancient, circle of sacrifice, Hardy’s Stonehenge; or like the circling ditches of Dante’s Inferno, found in the woods near the city that exiled him. Dante may have lost the political battles of his day, but he then created a literary, and post-mortal payback for evil action. After your death, your body will suffer endless punishment—punishment that is figured as a metaphor of your crime, but that has become as real and physical as fact. For Dante’s Ugolino, it was to eat the brains of the man who forced him to eat his children. What lies ahead for Trump? There may be some outcome beyond the body’s last meal, the “ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink” (David Ferry). Perhaps Trump will be gorged on the suppurating diseases of 23 million sick people, and become the “infinitely suffering thing” that appeases “the conscience of a blackened street” (T.S. Eliot). Mr. Trump, welcome to your table.

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David Gewanter‘s new poetry book, Fort Necessity (U. Chicago Press), will appear in March 2018. Previous books: War Bird, The Sleep of Reason, and In the Belly (all U. Chicago Press); co-editor, Robert Lowell: Collected Poems (FSG & Faber). Awards include: the Zacharis First Book Prize, Whiting Writer’s Fellowship, Ambassador Book Award, Witter Bynner Fellowship, James Laughlin Prize (finalist), Academy of American Poets prizes, Hopwood Award, and “Book of the Year” (Contemporary Poetry Review). He teaches at Georgetown and lives in DC. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

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Poetry Is Dissent

by Richard Hoffman

Poetry is political. Period. It has often been remarked that the so-called “apolitical” poem, the objet d’art, is of course political in its acceptance of the status quo. But while I agree with that view, that’s not quite what I’m getting at here. I believe poetry is political because a poet is always both working with and straining against language. That may seem like a truism, and you may ask “What’s political about that?” Well, for starters, the question of what to accept about how the world is represented in words, and what to reject. In some respects it is a poet’s duty to reject the verbal and rhetorical formulations of his or her moment in time. In other words, a poet is always on a quest for originality, which is not a question of trying not to sound like anyone else, a question of what these days is called “branding,” but a return to the great storehouse of language, to see what can be found there that is useful and true to this moment.

The part of me engaged in that process is the oldest part of me—or maybe I should say the youngest since I started doing it before I can remember anything else.

As a child, words come from a world that was there before you arrived, and you presume, because you must, that there is some correlation between the words and the things and actions and qualities for which they stand. This is the original suspension of disbelief required to acquire language in the first place. And then you go about choosing among the words offered. You try to match the right one with the right thing. You try to say it correctly. You test out the words on other people, usually your parents. Sometimes they think you’re cute, other times they threaten to wash out your mouth with soap!

But soon enough and before you’re even aware of it, you are toughening your spirit on the successive disappointments that you suffer as you learn, again and again, that the words are inadequate. You must find new ones, or combine them in a new way. Many, if not most people, make some peace with the inadequacy of language. I think what makes a person a poet (whether they write in verse or prose) is an abiding commitment to try again, all the while knowing that it is in the nature of language, and of the essence of the whole enterprise, that you will fail.

This is, at heart, a moral commitment, or so I believe, because one of the reasons words have come to disappoint has to do with their deliberate misuse, with their having been poisoned by dishonesty. Here is where I could rant about the ubiquity of advertisers’ and politicians’ designs on us, but it is enough, I think, to simply make the point.

Let me give you a favorite poem of mine, by the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, as a way of describing the act, the ethical and political act, of writing poetry:

A KNOCKER
by Zbigniew Herbert
translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott

There are those who grow
gardens in their heads
paths lead from their hair
to sunny and white cities

it’s easy for them to write
they close their eyes
immediately schools of images
stream down from their foreheads

my imagination
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I strike the board
it answers me
yes—yes
no—no

for others the green bell of a tree
the blue bell of water
I have a knocker
from unprotected gardens

I thump on the board
and it prompts me
with the moralist’s dry poem
yes—yes
no—no

Maybe in another time, a time when the world had not been poisoned by a century of genocides and mechanized murder, and before the continuing threat of ecocide, a poet could trust his or her culture’s assumptions about what it means to be good, or powerful, or heroic, or simply human. We do not live in a time like that. And so, we are “moralists” or ought to be, as Herbert unapologetically suggests he is. But it is not the finger-wagging moralism of the self-righteous Herbert’s talking about here; it is instead the weighing of words, and a rigorous attention to how these same words have been used before. Because the discourses of the past have brought us to a sorry spiritual state, we can take nothing for granted, nor can we be silent.

Here’s a recent poem of my own — not great, way too simple, but at least short—that asks a similar question about the poet’s relation to the received world:

PERPLEXITY

In my seventh decade
I have not been able to decide
if we have made a mess of everything

because we have turned away
from what the old stories, poems, rituals
sought to preserve by teaching us,

or if we’ve learned those lessons all too well.

Though I’ve railed against Caesar
and raged against the gods,

I am still unable to decide.

If, as poets, we do not fear the misrepresentation of the world, if we do not guard against it, work against it when hunched over the page, then what are we doing? What is being accomplished, and whom does it serve?

It seems to me that poets are of little value who aren’t trying to see through the fog of stereotypes, untruths, half-truths, and alienating narratives that profit a few at the expense of the rest of us. How do we address the racism, or racialized oppression, that has deeply injured our ability to see one another clearly in America? Why should we continue, as writers, to acquiesce in our own infantilization, as if literature were a playground where what happens is of no consequence in the world?

Here’s how the post-WWII critic George Steiner put it “…any thesis that would, either theoretically or practically, put literature and the arts beyond good and evil is spurious. The archaic torso in Rilke’s famous poem says to us ‘change your life.’ So does any poem, novel, play, painting, musical composition, worth meeting.”

And yet, without beauty—in the case of poetry the satisfying and pleasurable play of language, the bodily, erotic tongue caressing the thrilled ear—the soul remains asleep while the intellect goes on chewing its flavorless daily bread. I’m reminded of Yeats’ comment that some poets have pulpits but no altars and others have altars but no pulpit—his version of Aristotle’s charge to the poet to both “delight and instruct.” The temptation is to try to oppose the pulpit-less deco-poets by leaning way out over your own pulpit with an excoriating index finger in the air. But the real alternative is to enact the poem in beauty’s sanctuary, the heart thereby opened to hear words that challenge, inform, and refresh us in the struggle for a just future.

Far from being a luxury, poetry is the essential medium. It is because poetry is handmade, because it does not require a great deal of money to perform its artistry and effect its influence, that it can save us. Most people find poets archaic, quaint, maybe charming, like candle-light. But think how useful candles are when the power goes out. And think about the gathering storm, and the darkness that has begun to fall.

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AGNI HoffmanRichard Hoffman is the author of seven books, including the celebrated Half the House: a Memoir, published in a 20th Anniversary Edition last year, and the 2014 memoir Love & Fury. In addition to the volume Interference and Other Stories, he has published four collections of poetry: Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Sheila Motton Award from The New England Poetry Club; Emblem; and Noon until Night. A former Chair of Pen New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

 

Save the NEA: One Poet’s Story of How the Arts Build Community

by Patricia Traxler

I wish the Trump administration had some understanding of how essential the arts and humanities are to civilization, but I don’t have a lot of hope for this realization to strike them, because Trump is a philistine and he’s got a lot of company these days—philistinism seems to be a burgeoning thing in America. Several years ago, Kansas (the state I live in) became the only state in the Union to have abolished its arts commission (one of the first acts of far-right Tea Party pet Gov. Sam Brownback, whose tax cuts for the rich have also decimated the public schools in this state). Now the US may end up the only developed nation in the world to have axed its national arts endowment. The White House budget office has drafted a hit list of programs that Trump and his advisors would like to eliminate, and that list includes the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps, and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

Just to give some idea of what killing the NEA will (or more aptly, will not) accomplish, the $146 million budget of the National Endowment for the Arts represents just 0.012% (about one one-hundredth of one percent) of our federal discretionary spending. According to 2012 NEA figures, the annual budget for the arts per capita (in dollars) in Germany was $19.81; in England, $13.54; in Australia, $8.16; in Canada, $5.19, and in the United States just $0.47. Yes, 47 cents annually per capita. For all the arts combined. And the new POTUS feels that’s too much.

It would be impossible to enumerate all the programs that will likely die when the NEA and the NEH are killed, and the many people these cuts will deprive of things like public television programming and National Public Radio; school enrichment programs in the arts; and community programs to encourage music, dance, theater, visual art and literary art, literacy, and the pleasure of reading.

Just speaking from my own experiences as a poet and a teacher of poetry in the wide-ranging community work that I’ve been privileged to do in California, Kansas, and other states across America over my long (I’m old!) career as a poet, nearly all of my community work has been supported directly or indirectly by the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities through local, state, or regional arts organizations.

Contrary to popular perceptions, artists working in their communities all across the US are not doing “fluffy” projects. Here’s a list of just some of the work that I’ve had the opportunity to do as a poet in my community, with support from the NEA, NEH, and state or local arts agencies:

  • For four years in the late ‘70s, I ran poetry workshops for inner city San Diego kids, the message of which was that poetry can be an expression of personal power. (Funded by the California Arts Council’s Poets in the Schools Program and the NEA.)
  • A five-year project teaching deaf and hearing-impaired elementary school students in Salina, Kansas, that writing is the great equalizer. Had to learn sign language for this job (although, according to the kids, my hands never quite lost their “accent”). (Funded by the Kansas Arts Commission and Salina Arts & Humanities, with support from the NEA.)
  • A writing class I taught for nearly twenty years at a local senior center in Salina. These people, ranging in age from sixty to their nineties, were eager to tell their stories in both poetry and prose, describing lives of making do during the Great Depression, the devastating Midwest dust storms of the Dirty Thirties, and two world wars. Fresh into Kansas from California, I learned more about my new community and its history from those seniors than from any other source. The end result: the publication of Vintage, an anthology collecting their vivid memories in both prose and poetry, dating back to World War One. Yes, One. All of these people have since died, so I love that their memories are on the record. (Local and state arts commissions, with support from the NEA.)
  • A second personal history project, this one for people of all ages and from all over the state, resulting in the publication of another anthology, In Our Time, which was reviewed in and lauded by the Chicago Tribune. (Funding: local and state arts commissions and local public library, with support from the NEA and the NEH.)
  • Decades of writing projects in the Kansas public schools, K thru 12, including individual writing sessions for students with learning difficulties, as well as classes for gifted and mainstream students, and one-on-one mentoring sessions with students who already had their own writing projects in progress. (Local, state, and NEA funding.)
  • As an outreach project during my stint as Thurber Poet at Ohio State University, a 2-month workshop with nine formerly-homeless women who had been given shelter at the Columbus, Ohio, YWCA. Most of these women had previously been incarcerated or institutionalized for mental health disorders. I’ll never forget the pride on their faces at the end of our two months together when they read their poetry on a National Public Radio station in Columbus. (NPR: another of Trump’s targets.)
  • A five-year project in which I was privileged to work with inpatients and outpatients at Salina’s large regional hospital, using creative writing exercises I had designed to fit their particular issues: stroke patients who were experiencing memory problems and expressive difficulties as well as depression; people in recovery from substance addiction; clinically depressed mental health inpatients who were in many cases emotionally isolated and suicidal but found hope and strength in expressing their most difficult and private feelings in writing; terminally ill patients who felt alone and frightened but found a measure of peace in writing or recording their thoughts, feelings, and memories for their families during our sessions. Patients’ families often read those last words from their loved ones later at their memorial services. (Funding from local and state arts commissions and the NEA, with matching funds from the hospital.)
  • Classes at an extension school called Opportunity Now for at-risk teens who have dropped out of public schools (or have been expelled), the goal of which has been to show these struggling kids that in writing they can find a trusted companion, an outlet for their fears and angers, and an expression of their own very real personal power. (Sponsored by the local art center, with funding from local and NEA sources. By the time this project began, there was no longer a state arts commission.)
  • Poetry-writing sessions for boys at a local military school, many of whom had been transferred there from across the US against their wills, sometimes because of their own behavioral issues, but just as often because of the break-up of their families by divorce, a family tradition in the military, or the world travel of wealthy parents. Many if not most of these boys were suffering feelings of abandonment and loss, and they approached the unfamiliar process of poetry-writing as if it were a weapon of self-defense, coming to see their finished work as a source of deep pride. (Sponsored by the local art center, with funding from local and NEA sources.)
  • Salina’s Spring Poetry Series, which I founded in 1983, and which has brought national and international literary figures into this small community each April for thirty-four years. More than one US Poet Laureate has read in the series, as have state poets laureate from around the US and an impressive number of Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winning poets. John Villani’s The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America listed this annual poetry series as one of the five reasons for Salina’s inclusion in the book. (Series sponsored by Salina Arts & Humanities and the Salina Public Library, with funding from the NEA and the NEH.)

Some of the many other community projects I’ve had the opportunity to do with arts funding have included grief-journal workshops for children who have lost a parent or adults who have lost a spouse; a breast-cancer survivors’ writing workshop that left me moved and inspired anew after each session; a journaling workshop for recent amputees who were struggling to feel fully themselves again after the surgery that had profoundly changed their physical sense of themselves; a reminiscence-visitation program to assist seniors in nursing homes with memory issues and their social isolation.

These are just some of the community projects that one poet has been allowed to do, thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both of which have been suggested for elimination by the Trump administration.

I feel such an urgent need to say this: Art isn’t just dessert, the cookie at the end of life’s daily meal—it’s an essential nutrient for the human spirit, and for the spirit of community that is really what makes America great. Not great again, mind you, but always and ever great, just as communities all around the globe are great in their own individual ways. We never needed anyone to come along and presume to make us great again—our communities have never stopped being great, and the collective sum of those distinct and cohesive communities is America itself. We just need the new administration to leave in place the agencies whose function it is to feed and enrich the human spirit that thrives all across our land. Leave us our NEA, NEH, and other vital programs. We can take it from there.

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TraxlerPatricia Traxler was born and raised in San Diego and now lives in Salina, Kansas. She has served as Hugo Poet at the University of Montana, Thurber Poet at Ohio State, and was twice named Bunting Poetry Fellow at Radcliffe. Her poetry has appeared in The Nation, The Boston Review, Agni, Ploughshares, Ms., Slate, The LA Times Literary Supplement, and in numerous anthologies including Best American Poetry. She has published a novel and four poetry collections, most recently Naming the Fires (Hanging Loose Press, 2016). Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

(photo by Stephen Hébert, Newsweek)

The Pistol Sign Pointed Right at Me

by Peter LaSalle

It’s happened to me twice recently. And in light of the ongoing and always loud controversy about gun control turning louder now with our utter political polarization, it seems to haunt me even more.

The first time was in Istanbul, where I’d traveled to meet with the translator and also with the Turkish publisher of one of my books of fiction, a short story collection. I’d set myself up in small family-run hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, a yellow-stuccoed place on a quiet dead-end street thick with flowers blooming and not far from the almost bluer-than-blue waters of the Sea of Marmara. The spot proved perfect for my blending some taking in of the nearby sights of Istanbul’s landmark mosques and the ancient Grand Bazaar, as well as conducting my literary business via a short walk across the Galata Bridge to the city’s commercial center.

There was a shop, the equivalent of a corner deli, in Sultanahmet that sold cold beer. At the end of one day of much walking, heading to the hotel, I stopped by. I figured I would take the can back to my room and relax for a bit, sip a refreshing beer and read some before dinner.

Mustached, toothily smiling, the guy behind the counter asked me with what little English he had where in America I was from. While I am, in fact, from Rhode Island and usually spend summer months in the state, I’ve lived a good part of my adult life in Austin, where I teach creative writing. To make things easy, I replied, “Texas,” as in many years of traveling I’ve learned that to say Rhode Island will only elicit bafflement from most people abroad.

Handing the blue can of Efes Pilsner in a plastic sack to me, the guy grinned, just looked at me with a larger smile; he said “Texas,” nodding, then offered me the universally understood pistol sign with his hand—thumb cocked for the hammer and forefinger out straight for the barrel, nodding some more.

And then, just last summer, I was in Lisbon. I was on another literary errand. This time it was to match up some of the places in that true gem of a city of steep hills, endless red-tiled roofs, and such impressive imperial architecture on the wide Tagus River with the work of Portugal’s giant of modernist literature, Fernando Pessoa, who died relatively young in 1936 and near thoroughly unknown then. I planned to write an essay for a literary magazine of the sort I have been writing lately on going to a place where a favorite author’s books are set, to see, through exploration of the setting, if I can better experience the work that way.

With Pessoa proudly honored by Portugal today, he has emerged as perhaps the defining cultural image for Lisbon itself, site of much of his poetry as well as the eerie, posthumously published prose ruminations of a fictitious Lisbon office worker, his acknowledged masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet. There’s now a much-photographed life-size bronze statue of Pessoa seated amid the umbrella tables outside the popular Café A Brasileira. Pessoa had been a regular there, often discussing literature with friends at the ornately classic place in the heart of the city’s Chiado district, today a busy pocket of trendy shops and usually clogged with tourists.

In my reading about Pessoa, an odd fact I came across was that the Café A Brasileira, famous for its literary ties, once had also been frequented by members of Portugal’s feared secret police. During the repressive 36-year rule of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, they operated under different names, the most notorious acronym being PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado); their headquarters had been only a street or so away, back then known as “The House of Torture.” After some checking around online, it was easy enough to find the exact location of that former headquarters on Rua António Maria Cardoso, a narrow street with gleaming rails for the yellow Lisbon trolleys, sloping steeply down toward the city’s extensively redeveloped dockside.

As I stood in front of the building on this hot and deserted summer Sunday late afternoon, I took notes on the look of the place, thinking I might use such details in my future writing. The four-story stone edifice—impeccably sandblasted and with fine, iron-railed balconies—was now, after complete remodeling, the home to (and this is pretty ironic) very chic central-Lisbon condos; an upscale designer furniture store occupied the ground level. Which was when a barrel-chested guy approached me, seemingly of African ancestry and thirty-five or so, in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals. Friendly, quite animated, he asked in his melodically bellowing voice if he could help me, maybe answer any questions.

Bic and little red-marbleized notebook in hand, I said I was just looking at the building, checking the plaque now affixed there by the government, which, with proper repudiation, does fully own up to a most tragic chapter in the nation’s past.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “this is it, and this is where people were locked up in cells, where they were tortured in all sorts of ways for too long, even murdered, and now look at it”—he histrionically waved his hand as if to take in the whole street—”a home for the rich.”

We casually chatted. He explained that his mother was Portuguese and his father from Angola, the former Portuguese colony that suffered in the 1960-70s through a drawn-out war of independence, a foreign conflict unpopular at home and for many the equivalent of our painful Vietnam episode. He said he’d learned most of his English, very good, from TV, and he offered more of his opinion on how the rich were indeed ruining the world, how his dear Lisbon itself was being bought up by the rich, and “Money, money, money!” Eventually he introduced himself as João; I gave him my name. And when he asked me where I was from in the U.S., I again, without thinking, simply said, “Texas.”

And with that it did happen again, more or less an automatic response on his part. He pronounced “Texas” slowly, as if tasting the syllables on his palate, and, yes, slowly he raised his hand to make the pistol sign, now not with a nod but just a rather hopeless, apparently pitying shaking of the head.

I really didn’t know how to answer, to be honest. Or, to put it another way, in Lisbon on such a pristine sunny Sunday afternoon and in Istanbul that other day, both times the exchanges left me embarrassed, if not a little depressed.

OK, here’s where I am going with all of this.

I don’t think that what appears an automatic reaction from people abroad linking guns and Texas can be summarily dismissed and just pegged to the influence of Hollywood’s Western movies over the years, though that obviously is part of it. Still, in a larger sense, it could be more that Texas, loud and brash as it is sometimes seen, does become for many outside our country an icon for much of what they consider wrong in America in general. (It’s a recurring trope in movies and literature, admittedly a cliché, to portray a noisy American buying up artifacts of old world culture, with no understanding of that culture, as a drawling, ten-gallon-topped Texas oil millionaire). And I suppose there is a certain sadness in the way that frequently when those abroad do think of America in general, easily tagged with that stock image of Texas, they readily associate it with guns.

I mean, concerning gun control in general, it wasn’t just these instances. And how often I have found myself with friends in France, where I have taught at universities on faculty exchanges, or in Brazil, where I have gone a couple of times to do research for my writing and give lectures, and when the subject of life in America came up, it was soon accompanied by amazement, or incredulity, about a situation that to those in other countries can be the sheer absurdity of the full availability of firearms here—anything from the cheap Saturday-night specials used to bloodily resolve family arguments to high-tech, military-style assault weapons capable of wiping out entire classrooms of school children in mere minutes. It does little good to attempt to explain the enormous power of lobbies in America, also to say how a good number of my faculty colleagues and I have vocally opposed the Texas legislature’s enthusiastic recent decision to allow “campus carry” at my own university: explanations—or outright excuses—fail.

So, as grateful as I am to a state that has provided me with a fulfilling university job that has allowed me exposure to bright, wonderful students in a long teaching career, plus the so many good people I’ve known throughout Texas and the countless other undeniably fine things about the state, too, I think I’ve learned my lesson—in travel abroad from now on I don’t need an accusatory pistol finger pointed directly at me anymore. When somebody asks me where I am from, I will always say emphatically “Rhode Island,” granting that experience has taught me that my very small New England native state will more than likely be confused with—if recognized at all—New York and, well, Long Island.

Further, and maybe more seriously, I will keep trying, both as a writer—with whatever outlets for words are at my disposal—and merely as an everyday citizen, to take a stand the best I can against the madness of present gun laws, or shameful lack of them, as the effort clearly does become increasingly challenging amid this current political rockiness.

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lasalle-photo-for-usp-brazil-visiting-lecture-1Peter LaSalle’s most recent books are a story collection, Sleeping Mask: Fictions (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017), and a collection of travel essays, The City at Three PM: Writing, Reading, and Traveling (Dzanc Books, 2015). A longtime AGNI contributor, he has a short story, “Where I Was When My Older Brother Died,” in the current issue (84), and his essay “Walking: An Essay on Writing,” which appeared in AGNI 70, was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, both in the English department and the Michener Center for Writers. See all of what he’s published in AGNI here.

The Mouse That Scored

by Megan Marshall

Desperate for distraction in the wake of Trump’s election, I fell back on an old habit, reading children’s books at a rate unmatched since I was a grade-schooler. In those far-off days, my family was headed by an unemployed manic-depressive. My father also drank too much, but he wasn’t mean, only unpredictable and out of touch with the grim reality of our negligible finances, or convinced they didn’t matter in his case. He’d taken me with him once when he visited the downtown office of the gas company to which we must have owed a mint; he chatted up the receptionist, who responded to his charms and accepted his check for a fraction of the bill. The check may have bounced, but the heat stayed on. Back home, I kept reading.

With Hillary’s loss, I was too disheartened to resort to my old favorites, Little Women, The Little Princess, or A Wrinkle in Time—tales of brave bookish girls triumphing over adversity. That dream was dead. Instead I looked to stories like The Borrowers, in which tiny people living beneath the kitchen floorboards made do with items scavenged from the big folks above. Another favorite, The Saturdays, by Elizabeth Enright, featured a family of four children in Depression-era Manhattan who pooled their allowances each week to fund one of the kids in a trip to the opera, an art museum, the circus. I thought Stuart Little might offer the best of both fantasy worlds: I remembered how the two-inch tall mouse, mysteriously born into a family of full-sized humans living on the Upper East Side (as far as I could make out), slept in an empty cigarette box, used a doll’s toothbrush and comb when washing up, and piloted a model boat in Central Park through a sudden squall. But re-reading White’s classic only heightened my anxiety.

It’s been said that Donald Trump may never have read a book all the way through in his adult life, and I doubt he was an avid reader as a child. But someone must have read Stuart Little to the little Donald. The boy and the mouse grew up together in the city, albeit in different boroughs; the novel was published the year before Donald was born.

I’d remembered only Stuart’s resourcefulness—in wielding a tiny mallet to turn on the water tap to brush his teeth, in talking down the family cat Snowbell when she bares her teeth at him. I’d forgotten that Stuart’s distracting palaver involved bragging about his toned stomach muscles; that he falls in love with Margalo—a wall-eyed vireo or wren, no one’s sure—because of her voice.

Margalo—Mar-a-lago? I’ve always liked the way certain words turn into others with a quick twirl of an alphabetic kaleidoscope: evil can be vile or veil or live. Did this almost anagram lure Donald to his Florida home, as Stuart follows his emigree sweetheart (“I come from fields once tall with wheat, from pastures deep in fern and thistle”) by toy car into the countryside when she flies away, rather than be consumed by Snowbell? Yet Donald’s stutter-step “Mar-a-lago” has a sinister ring to it, more villain than inamorata. “Mar”—to impair or disfigure—signals harm (add an “h” to “mar” and stir). And “lago” looks suspiciously like Shakespeare’s treacherous “Iago.” “Margalo,” by contrast, burbles and coos like the feathered friend herself. And Stuart wanted more of it. He asks Margalo, as if she were a beauty pageant contestant, to repeat (re-tweet?) what she’s just said in that adorable voice.

I’d also forgotten how, once Margalo has flown out of sight, Stuart falls for the first two-inch-tall girl he meets on his country rambles. He lures the ultra-petite Harriet Ames to a riverside rendezvous with a letter advertising himself as “well-proportioned,” “muscular beyond my years,” and “actually somewhat taller” than two inches in height. His only drawback: “I look something like a mouse.” Wait a minute—Stuart is a mouse!

Most of all I’d forgotten the chapter in which Stuart volunteers as a substitute teacher in a small town schoolhouse. “What’s the first subject you usually take up in the morning?” Stuart asks the class, holding forth from atop the teacher’s desk, small arms akimbo. Arithmetic, the children answer. “Bother arithmetic! . . . Let’s skip it!” Spelling? Consult the dictionary! Writing? “Don’t you children know how to write yet?” A chorus of yeses—“So much for that, then.” Social Studies? “Never heard of them.”

Finally Stuart launches into a lesson of his own devising: “I’ll tell you, let’s talk about the King of the World.” There is no such king, one child informs him. “There ought to be,” Stuart fumes. But kings are old-fashioned, the student protests. “All right then,” Stuart backpedals, “let’s talk about the Chairman of the World. The world gets into a lot of trouble because it has no chairman. I would like to be Chairman of the World myself.” I had to stop reading.

Donald Trump grew to be “somewhat taller” than six feet, but his hypersensitivity to size, in others, in his own appendages, in crowds, makes me think he’s a Stuart Little at heart. Tax returns, budget figures, rising ocean temperatures? Let’s skip it! Social studies? Never heard of them. Trump’s idea of being president seems a lot like “Chairman of the World.” Most telling of all is the self-delusion—the way he carries on as if he really were president, although we all know he’s not, could never be. But then, he is.

Donald. If you swap an o for an i, add an a, and scramble—you get Aladdin.

We’re into the first one hundred days of Trump’s administration. There will be more than a thousand and one nights to follow. The Trump family Scheherezades—Melania and Ivanka—aren’t about to tame their imperious lord. I’m a grownup. It’s time to put aside word games and escape reading and take the full measure of this mouse-of-a-man.

E.B. White ends his tale with Stuart still searching for Margalo: “As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.” There is little to suggest that Trump’s direction as president will be anything other than instinctively “right” in the partisan sense. May he now recall the little people, the powerless—those who voted for him and those who didn’t—to whom he is psychically related, and work for them, rather than rule as the King of the World he may have thirsted to become since someone read him a children’s book about a mouse with a Napoleon complex.

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megan-marshall-2
photo by Gail Samuelson

Megan Marshall received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in biography for Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Her new book, Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, was just published this month. 

Small Grenades: Writing and Politics

by Sydney Lea

Who knows what the presidency of a self-regarding, mendacious, and abysmally ill-informed martinet bodes?

For the moment, however, most of us are lucky enough not to live in a system such as the old USSR’s, say, in which—as Joseph Brodsky once said in a journal I edited—merely to describe a flower accurately felt like a political act.

In much of the west, and particularly in the U.S, we face a subtler difficulty than that posed by authoritarian censorship: namely that the authorities (and the “public at large”) are unlikely to be swayed one way or another by anything like fiction or poetry, simply because those arts go largely unnoticed. To that extent, our better writing strategies likely involve newspapers or, more accurately in our day, social media, as opposed to the so-called creative arts.

But even online activism, to name it that, proves problematic, for at least two reasons. The first is that social media can put Einstein in the same house as the village imbecile: thus, if two disparate accounts of the same thing are broadcast, there is no determining which will strike a broad readership as more compelling. This was, off course, painfully exemplified by the idiotic controversy over President Obama’s birthplace. Those who chose to label him a Kenyan were simply not to be dissuaded by indisputable proof of his birth in Hawaii. The social media’s second great liability is that, just as oppressed parties may use them, so may their oppressors, a sad fact illustrated by the ill-starred Arab Spring and by frequent manipulations of information in China, for instance.

In the end, though here I am surely influenced by when I cut my teeth, it may be that more direct political activism—street demonstrations, working harder for genuinely progressive candidates, and so on—are the likeliest avenues to such success as the kind of people reading this may find.

But let us imagine a literature that was an effective tool of change. My surmise is that, like socialist realism, it would, qua writing, be bad or tepid in any case, simply because art founded primarily on an aprioristic agenda is usually doomed to inferiority in my view. As Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image, has written: “The problem with socially conscious art is that, by attempting to address social ills directly, it begins with the notion that it already has the answers and merely needs to dramatize them. The results are predictably didactic and inert.”

All this may sound as though I urge political or social nonchalance upon the artist, urge him or her to be a little Nero, playing the violin as Rome burns. Not at all. In fact, exactly the contrary. Any poet who stayed innocent of the great migrant crisis of the world, for example, would be no poet at all. An artist must be as open as possible to all manner of observation, and must be jealous of those observatory powers, because the threats to them are myriad. To allow that openness to be usurped by anything—even the noblest political or moral conviction—is by my lights suicidal.

Here is a remark, which resonates with me, by my dear friend, poet Fleda Brown: “I’ve long since quit worrying about whether writing itself is a worthy use of my life. Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t change my inclination to do it. Anyway, I’m positive that it matters, words themselves being small bulbs buried under the soil, small grenades.”

I hope that Fleda is right, but in any case, I know that a willful effort to make my poems “political” or “relevant” in the way my own formative 60s demanded will serve no one: not me, not my reader, and not the causes I passionately subscribe to, including resistance to climate change, women’s right to their own bodies, a sane and compassionate attitude toward those disrupted by violence, which would go hand in glove with the development of a non-hysterical stance toward terrorism.

The only thing I really know to do is to beat at my keyboard. If what results is an explosion, I must accept that. If I am moved by a bloom or a bird or the birth of a grandchild, these are what I need to bring forth. The point is, we writers need to sustain belief in our own voices, and in their autonomy– not to the point of perversity or narcissism, but right up to those points. If we allow our voices to be controlled by dogma, even virtuous dogma (if there be such a thing), we might as well be writing advertisements or propaganda. We need to believe that our sincerest testimonies matter, even if we cannot define how that may be in any definitive way. We need to agree with William Carlos William’s assertion that

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

And again I agree with smart Fleda Brown: “Okay, to be really blunt: What do I—as a writer—do about Donald Trump? Theodore Roethke said, ‘My heart keeps open house.’ Omit nothing. Bombs, bullets, butterflies, beetles, Trump.”

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author photo craftsbury Sydney Lea has recently completed four years as Vermont Poet Laureate. His most recent publications are his fourth collection of personal essays, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long, and his twelfth volume of poems, No Doubt the Nameless. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

On Running a Democracy Without Reading

by Kelly Cherry

I don’t get out much these days. There are two reasons for this: I have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and my husband and I live in the middle of nowhere, which is to say that there is nothing near enough for us to get to. We do, however, have televisions—plural, because Burke has games to watch, especially basketball and tennis. I turn on the TV in the bedroom sometimes even when I’m writing, although I don’t have it on at the moment. We have a couple of shows we watch—The Americans is terrific!—and Designated Survivor, because we are Kiefer Sutherland fans, even though we liked him better when he was defeating enemies and saving lives around the world. But mostly, in these traumatic days, I watch the news.

I was once in Trump Tower, the night it opened. I didn’t meet Trump himself, who was just a blank to me, and all I remember of this event (the opening) is seeing a famous literary figure—the head of a well-known publishing house—stuffing cocaine into his nostrils and sucking it up into his nose. I’d never seen anyone do this before; I was fascinated by the event, or perhaps I should say ritual. I admit I concluded that his ability to tell a good manuscript from a bad was likely impaired—assuming he actually read the manuscripts, and I think that’s doubtful.

I still have not met Donald Trump and I hope it never happens. He is, after all, a liar, a bully, desperately thin-skinned, and foolish. Foolish because he is poorly educated. He doesn’t read books; I doubt he even reads newspapers. Well, he did tell us that The National Inquirer is a factually correct device for finding out what is going on. He said this because the so-called newspaper had put him on their cover. What would be the point in meeting him? He wouldn’t listen to anything I said, nor would he care to know anything about me. He lives in the smallest of worlds and has even less communication with it than we in our isolated house do.

He has now established his team, the people who will serve him in his presidency. He must depend upon them because, despite his many “deals,” he knows very little. Very little of anything. How can someone who doesn’t read books know anything about the world? How much did he learn by dialing Taiwan? How much has he learned from Putin’s hackings? How much has he learned by tweeting?

Pretty much nothing.

And how much has he learned by doing deals in various countries? He has certainly learned about doing deals in those countries, but otherwise, he has learned—let’s all say it together—pretty much nothing.

Why do I think his lack of interest in reading is crucial? Not only because books inform us, though I am glad they do. Not only because books entertain us, though I am glad they do. Not only because books remind us of the beauty and power of writing, though I am glad they do. Books also teach us how to be human. They finely and delicately and forcefully demonstrate for us thoughts we have never thought or only barely thought. They teach us compassion and the need for it, illustrating the excitement of observation, the heartbreak and perpetual grief that occurs in every life, the gorgeous peace of serenity, the exhilaration of discovery. Yes, these experiences happen in people’s lives, and some people manage them and some don’t; but books instruct us in the details, the particularities of events, and thereby strengthen our understanding of love and loss, of being one and multiple, of feeling. They ready us for life and allow us to think on it. Even that publisher snorting coke in Trump Tower would have known this.

Watching our outgoing president presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to his outgoing vice-president, those of us in front of TV sets saw both men cry. That was an exalted moment. In that moment, we knew both men, Obama and Biden, were as human as ourselves. Neither struggled to outdo the other in any way. There was no bullying, only comradeship, two guys who had worked well with each other. There were no lies on their tongues nor any desperation. Neither did or said anything foolish, because both are grown men who are well acquainted with the world and unafraid to acknowledge their limitations.

And now we have this incoming president who knows nothing but “making deals.”

I would be glad to have a writer as a president, or a painter perhaps. I don’t think the best president is necessarily a politician. I’d be glad to have a business man who also reads, or listens to Beethoven’s string quartets.

But Donald Trump is so benighted that he doesn’t understand why some people cry. He doesn’t know what other people feel, what they go through. He can’t allow himself to feel his feelings of inferiority and is unaware that others feel their own. He can’t tell the truth and is unaware that others do speak truth.

How can a man without awareness run a democracy?

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KellyPhoto1EditKelly Cherry’s most recent poetry collection, just published, is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She has also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (SFASUP); A Kind of Dream: Stories (U of Wisconsin); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.