On power and dignity in defeat.

On power and dignity in defeat.

Winning is pretty easy.  It takes effort to get there, but once we’ve done it, most people can act with grace.

It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat.  In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh.  Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.

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So, sure, Jesus loses his temper.  Don’t we all?  It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.

Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character.  But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty.  After all, Yahweh is omniscient.  Omnipotent.  He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.

In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat.  The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.

In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:

image (7)Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.  Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world.  In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.  And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose.  Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison.  Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir.  Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other.  Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.

The gods know this is going to happen.  That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in.  Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast. 

The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.

Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained.  Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will.  But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides.  Refusal to give in is what’s important.  It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.

All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours.  To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting.  This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport.  All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions.  Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins.   So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.

Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth.  Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.

Vikings were wiser.  They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.  Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck.  That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’  To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.  And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset. 

The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously.  Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks.  To them, the throwaway line was another artform.  They had no sense of their own dignity.  Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.

Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation.  What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.

People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt.  If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.

Viking humor.  Their secret weapon.  Part of their mindset.  Take warning, though!  There’s a mean streak running through it.

The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any.  White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate.  I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories.  And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.

In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:

It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house

in a beautiful city.

Things have worked out nicely for you,

and you think everyone can agree

this is the greatest country on earth.

illustration

 The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else.  Their patriotism costs little.  Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?

deadpool_by_steelstrugglin-d9stlbzThere’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now.  After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile.  He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.

From Shippey:

A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat.  Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of.  Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.  That’s why the gods have to die as well.  If they did not die, how could they show true courage?  If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?

At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling.  Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.

Especially for people in prison and jail.  Many were born into crummy situations.  After they’re released, they’ll have to navigate the world with huge additional burdens impeding their efforts – if you haven’t read it, you should check out poet Reginald Dwayne Betts’s lovely essay about trying to become a lawyer despite having been convicted of a felony when he was a kid.

I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success.  We should want that for everyone.  People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?

But maybe these people will not win.  Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews.  Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.

That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.

Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too?  And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension.  What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?

George Patton said, quite accurately,

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there.  Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

This post briefly touches on sexual assault and child abuse.

Many of the men in jail have struggled with interpersonal relationships.

After reading Bruce Weigl’s “The Impossible,” a poem about being sexually assaulted as a child, somebody stayed after class to ask if there were resources to help somebody recover from that sort of experience.  The next week, he brought a two-page account of his own abuse.

After reading Ai’s “Child Beater,” many men proffered their own horror stories.  Sometimes they offered excuses for their parents: “My mom, she had me when she was thirteen, I guess what you’d call it now would be ‘statutory rape.’  So she didn’t know what to do with us.  But there were plenty of times, I’d be mouthing off, she’d tie my arms to rafters in the basement with an extension cord, and … “

Seriously, you don’t need to hear the rest of that story.  Nor the conversation (we’ve read “Child Beater” about once a year) when the men discussed which objects they’d been hit with.  They appraised concussions and trauma with the nuance of oenophiles.

Consider this gorgeous poem by Mouse:

 

THAT CAT

– Mouse

 

We had this cat

Small gray and frantic

Always knocking over my mother’s lamps

 

Me and my sister can’t sit on my mother’s furniture

But that cat can

My mother would whoop my ass for her lamps

Knocked over and broken

 

One day my mom bought me a dollar sign belt

Made of leather and metal

I put that belt to use every time I

Got my own ass whooped

 

We humans evolved to hunt.  By nature, we are a rather violent species.  But these cycles – people’s crummy childhoods; institutional violence during schooling and incarceration – amplify aggression.  Our world “nurtures” many into malice.

If you ask people in jail why they’re in, almost everybody will say that they were busted for drugs or alcohol.  But if you look at bookings, or hear from somebody what sort of case he’s fighting, about half the time it’s domestic violence.

So we’ve been reading poems from Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, a charming volume that uses abundant animal imagery to elucidate human relationships.  The men need a safe space to discuss love and romance.  Obviously, a dingy classroom inside a jail is not the ideal place, but this is what we’ve got.

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Kelly’s “Bower” opens with:

 

Consider the bowerbird and his obsession

of blue,

 

… then catalogs some of the strange objects that a male bowerbird might use to construct his pleasure dome.  They are artists, meticulously arraying flowers, berries, beetles, even colorful bits of plastic, striving to create an arch sufficiently beautiful that a visiting female will feel inclined to mate.

Among tropical birds with female mate choice, most males will remain celibate.  They try to woo each visitor, but fail.  Usually one single male – he of the most impressive aerial gymnastics (among manakins) or he of the most impressive bower – will be chosen by every female in an area.  Because the males don’t actually raise their young (their contribution ends after the ten or twenty seconds needed to copulate), any given male will have more than enough time for everyone who wants him.

Every male bowerbird devotes his life to the craft, but most of their creations will be deemed insufficiently beautiful.

 

And

how the female finds him,

lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

best

I love the irony of this ending.  This bird’s bower has failed.  The bits of blue that he collected were not sufficient to rouse anyone’s interest in him as a mate.

But life will generally seem pointless if we focus only on goals.  Most bowerbirds won’t mate; Sisyphus will never get that boulder up; you and I will die.    This poem is heartbreaking unless we imagine that the bowerbird takes some pleasure in the very act of creation.

(The natural world is not known for its kindness, but in this case it probably is – because every male bowerbird feels compelled to build these structures, it’s likely that their artistic endeavors feed their brains with dopamine.)

Indeed, most poems that we humans write will go unread.  Even for published poets, it’s probably rare that their words woo a future mate.  But even if Kelly’s own creation did not bring her love (and, based on what little I know about the publishing industry, it almost certainly did not bring her great fortune), it’s clear that all that effort was not for naught.

She made something beautiful.  Sometimes, that alone has to be enough.

At another class, we read Kelly’s “What Gay Porn Has Done for Me.”

Thanks to the internet, many people learn about sexuality from pornography.  One flaw with this “education” is that even when the female actors mime pleasure, they do so while gazing outward.

 

Kelly writes:

 

Call it comfort, or truth, how they look,

not at the camera, as women do,

but at one another.

 

In generic heterosexual pornography, there is a distance.  There is no “relationship” shown between the actors – they’re not even looking at one another.  Instead, the female actor is expected to gaze at a camera, and the (likely male) consumer is gazing at a computer or telephone screen to make some simulacrum of eye contact.

 

Each body is a body on display,

and one I am meant to see and desire.

 

Generic heterosexual pornography seems to objectify the actors much more than gay pornography because the focus is on a performer’s body more than the romantic acts depicted.  Because so much of this pornography is consumed by a homophobic audience, male bodies are depicted minimally – usually only a single organ within the frame – which prevents couples from being shown.

The pleasure offered isn’t quite voyeurism, pretending to watch another pair make love.  It’s fantasy, the chance to imagine being the bearer of the male genitalia.  But this fantasy, independent a fantasy of conversation and mutual seduction, makes others’ bodies seem a thing to be used, not a carriage for the partner’s personality.

 

I am learning

 

what to do with my face,

and I come on anything I like.

 

To desire, and to be desired, need not be degrading for anyone involved.  This is a hard lesson to square with the sort of “sex education” that I received in school, which was sufficiently Christian that sex was presented as both desirable and bad.  If a person thinks that he or she is wicked for wanting, it’ll be hard to discuss what each person wants.

There’s no way to pretend “I’m a good person who just got carried away!” if you make a sober, premeditated, consensual decision to do something bad.

Of course, sexuality isn’t bad.  But many people still posture as thought it is.  When these people feel (totally natural!) desire, they’re forced to create dangerous situations that might excuse their subsequent behavior.

Which, because of those excuse-enabling contortions, often winds up being bad.

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On neural plasticity.

On neural plasticity.

After discussing several forms of parasitic mind control during our poetry class in the local jail, somebody asked – somebody always asks – whether there’s some sort of parasite that makes people want to use drugs.

A few guys looked down at the table and nodded.  People are in there for a variety of reasons – domestic violence, burglary, DWIs, dealing or possession – but no matter the charge, many of the guys in jail were dealing with substance use that got out of hand.

I gave the same answer as always.

“Drugs do it on their own.  Chemicals can remodel your brain to make you want them again.  Like cocaine, it’s a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, so if something makes you happy after coke, it’ll make you more happy than it would’ve … but your body responds by down-regulating the receptors, and then you’re stuck feeling less happy all the time unless you take it again.”

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But it’s not all bleak.  Drug addiction takes hold because the brain is plastic – our minds change and we want that rush again, potentially to the exclusion of all else – but neural plasticity allows people to recover, too.  Dopamine receptor levels fall during periods of excessive drug use, but they’ll rebound during sobriety … and this rebound should attenuate the desire to use again.

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Repeated exposure to drugs depletes the brain’s dopamine receptors, which are critical for one’s ability to experience pleasure and reward. From Wikimedia Commons.

(Unfortunately, the lecturers in our area’s court-mandated rehab courses have been telling people that, “After you take methamphetamines, it takes eight years of sobriety before your dopamine receptor levels come back.”  This sounds wrong to me – I don’t know the half-life of dopamine receptors, but the timing of sensitization and de-sensitization in conditions like bipolar disorder and antidepressant-induced mania suggests that it’s on the order of a month or so, not years – and it’s definitely unhelpful to say.  If you’re trying to help someone quit taking drugs, you want their goals to be feasible.

A former co-teacher tattooed “Day By Day” on his arm because quitting forever seemed impossible, but getting through one more day without drugs sounded like something he could do.  He’s now weathered five years of single days.  But if I felt like garbage and an instructor told me, “You’ll only feel like this for eight more years!”, I’d give up immediately.)

I don’t really understand Scientology – all my current knowledge comes from a single episode of South Park and a few minutes spent skimming through the Wikipedia article – but I was intrigued by the practice of using “E-meters” to measure a person’s cognitive development in the faith.  It made me wonder whether the sort of person who was interested in biofeedback and numerical metrics – somebody who tracks steps with a Fitbit or the gasoline saved on a Prius console – could use self-administered polygraphs for cognitive behavioral therapy.

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An E-meter.

It’s well-known that polygraphs are fallible – you can fail them when you’re telling the truth, and you can learn to pass them while lying – but I imagine that the easiest ways to pass a polygraph is to convince yourself that whatever you’re saying is true.  There many physiological correlates to dishonesty – skin voltage, electroencephalogram patterns, eye movement, vocal tones – and by convincing yourself to earnestly believe whatever you happen to be saying, you could pass any of them.

Because you can cheat, U.S. courts generally don’t trust the results of lie detector tests.  In the pursuit of justice, cheating would be bad.  But as self-administered therapy, cheating is the whole point.  You cheat at lying until the lie becomes the truth.

“I like myself and I am worthy of love and self-respect.”

Rig up your polygraph and say something like that until the machine stops dinging you.  Do it daily.  Your brain is plastic, designed to learn and change.  Your words will become true.

On nature.

On nature.

The modern world is a stressful place – some medical doctors advocate “therapeutic” nature walks.  Surround yourself with trees, wildlife, a babbling stream or waterfall, and your body will remember what it means to be alive.

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Image by Steven Depolo on Flickr.

For millions of years, our ancestors needed specific environments in order to survive.  Almost every animal species experiences instinctual urges toward healthful habitats – it would be surprising if our own minds didn’t have a residual response toward landscapes that provide what our forebears needed.  Running water, trees for shelter, grassy meadows to hunt, fecund animal life suggesting a thriving ecosystem.

But people who need to heal are cut off from these environs.

When somebody doesn’t fit in our world, they wind up in jail.  Maybe this person has trouble holding down a job and so forged checks, or counterfeited money, or robbed a store.  Maybe somebody is plagued by nightmares and takes methamphetamine to forgo sleep.  Or shoots opiates to stave off the pain of withdrawal.  Maybe somebody has so much tension and anger that he threw a television at his girlfriend.

These are people who’d probably benefit from a de-stressing stroll through the woods.

Instead, they’re surrounded by concrete, in a clanging, reverberating room with 25-foot-high ceilings, locked doors stacked atop each other, steel tables, boaters crowding the floor (with two tiers of 8 double-occupancy cells, the jail could hold 32 per block … but most have wobbled between 35 and 40 people all year, with the excess sleeping on plastic “boats” on the common area floor.  Things were worst in July, when they were so many inmates that the jail ran out of boats – then people slept on a blanket spread directly over the concrete), toilets overflowing with the excreta of many men shitting their way through withdrawal.

grow posterIn the classroom where I teach poetry, there’s a picture of a redwood forest.  It’s shot from the ground, the trunks soaring up to the canopy overhead, and at the bottom of the poster there’s the word “GROW” above a corny quote from Ronald Reagan.

Stephen “Greazy” Sapp wrote the following poem at the end of class one day; he’d spent almost the whole hour staring at the picture of those trees:

 

GROW

Greazy

 

I want to live to see things grow –

From the fury of a great storm, started from

A single drop –

To the ten foot tree from one tiny seed, one sheet

Of paper as from any other tree

Knocked down by a great storm –

The child who grew from a seed in the spouse

Of the man who held paper from the tree –

Maybe the seed buried in his mind could become

Greater in life than the tree that withstood

The storm, now given opportunity to transform

Into stories – of future, generations who dwell

In the single rain drop in

The forest of days to come –

 

Greazy told me that he loves plants.

(My inclination is to use people’s first names as a sign of respect, but he told me not to – “nobody calls me ‘Stephen’ unless they’re mad about something.  You know, like, my grandma, if she was pissed, I might hear her yell, like, Stephen!  Even the cops.  They pulled up one day, they were like, ‘Greazy, come here, we want to talk to you,’ I knew everything was fine.  They were like, ‘look, man, we know you’re selling pot … but stay up near 17th street or something.  We don’t want you downtown, selling it to college kids.’  But then, another day, they came down, spotted me, said ‘Stephen, get over here!’ I was like, ‘man, I know they’re gonna haul me in.’ ”)

Greazy was in the jail all through autumn, waiting on his trial, and he told me that one day he was sitting in his cell on the fourth floor, watching a leaf blowing around on the sidewalk down below, and he found himself thinking, “Man, I’d sign whatever, I’d take whatever plea they wanted, if they’d just let me out there, get to look up close at that little leaf.”

Another man told me that he felt so starved for the world that he started gardening inside the jail.  He didn’t want for me to include his name but graciously allowed me to share his story.  Here’s a poem I wrote:

 

OUR MAN GROWS AN ORANGE TREE

 

by sprouting seeds in a paper towel,

planting one in dust & dirt

he collected scraping his fingers along

each corner of the concrete walls,

& using an Irish Spring soap box as a shelf

to lift his sapling to the light.

 

Our man only wanted to

oxygenate his air

but soon the whole block shuffles by

checking on the tree each day.

They’re surprised that it survived,

but proud to see it grow

until the warden declares it contraband.

 

Young_orange_tree

On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

On asymmetry and ‘The Hatred of Poetry.’

hatredIn The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner posits that many people dislike poems for falling short of an ideal.  We hold a vision of the glory that poetry could be: we want crackling verses that would, per Rilke, inspire us to change our lives; we want phrases that speak to all without resorting to postcard platitudes; we want poems to be universal, yet firmly rooted in a particular writer’s lived experience.

But the particular is never universal.  The catacombs of memory ensure that words convey slightly different meanings to us all; the best poems revel in this private language. And we, the readers, are stubborn, inertial creatures.  It is unlikely that any page’s worth of written words will change us, no matter how magnificent.

And so actual poems fail.  The ones we read seem little different from any other set of words.  As do those we write – if you are one of the few people who reached adulthood yet still writes poems.  All children do, just as all children draw, but the world trains us to slough off artistic expression as we age.  What’s worse, many of us are taught in elementary school that poetry – the ideal again – is the deepest possible expression of self.  Language is the medium of thought, and poetry is the art of language.  Lerner suggests that, in giving up on poems, there comes a nagging sensation that we are giving up on ourselves.

Why wouldn’t we hate an art that hurts us this way?

In Lerner’s words,

Great poets confront the limits of actual poems, tactically defeat or at least suspend that actuality, sometimes quit writing altogether, becoming celebrated for their silence; truly horrible poets unwittingly provide a glimmer of virtual possibility via the extremity of their failure; avant-garde poets hate poems for remaining poems instead of becoming bombs; and nostalgists hate poems for failing to do what they wrongly, vaguely claim poetry once did. one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems.  Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too.

I can understand why a published poet like Lerner would put forward these arguments.  But I don’t agree, in large part because most people I’ve talked to sincerely enjoy poetry – ever since graduating from high school, that is, when poems were hated for being foisted upon us.  Among adults, I’ve found a dislike of poetry to be exceedingly rare.

Not many people gravitate specifically toward lyric poetry, though, especially not the sort that is featured alongside Lerner’s bio for the Poetry Foundation website.  But I believe the unpopularity of this type of poetry, with lines like “Emulsions with / Then circled the lake like / This is it.” (from Lerner’s “[By any measure]”) or “jumpsuits, they have changed / painting, I / behind the concertina wire / can’t look at it anymore …” (from Lerner’s “[jumpsuits]”), is not caused primarily by dissonance between actual poems and a reader’s pedestaled ideal.  I’d add an asymmetry of trust to the litany of offenses of which poetry stands accused in Lerner’s monograph.

#

janaI do not mean to impugn asymmetry in general.  For instance, consider this beautiful passage from Jana Prikryl’s “Thirty Thousand Islands”:

Because the moon’s mass is a considerable fraction

of the earth’s, it exerts a gravitational force

on oceans as it orbits overhead, producing the

tides, or put another way, you can stand

on the shore twice daily and witness the very

water flinging itself upwards.

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This verse is secretly a paean to asymmetry.  Water has an electric dipole moment – it is asymmetric – with oppositely-charged ends attracting each other like so many microscopic magnets.  This allows water to move and flow cohesively, one molecule tugging the next along their shared path.  But the physicist and Nobel laureate Philip Warren Anderson, who made great advances in our understanding of asymmetry, writes that, as a graduate student, “this seemed very strange to me, because I was just being taught that nothing has an electric dipole moment.

Anderson elaborates:

The professor was really proving that no nucleus has a dipole moment, because he was teaching nuclear physics, but as his arguments were based on the symmetry of space and time they should have been correct in general.

I soon learned that, in fact, they were correct (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say not incorrect) because he had been careful to say that no stationary state of a system (that is, one which does not change in time) has an electric dipole moment. 

In quantum mechanics there is always a way, unless symmetry forbids, to get from one state to another.  Thus, if we start from any one unsymmetrical state, the system will make transitions to others, so only by adding up all the possible unsymmetrical states in a symmetrical way can we get a stationary state.

According to the laws of physics, the world should be symmetric.  And in the long run – on time scales that leave us dead and the Earth barren and the sun cold, impossibly far from any other source of light – the world is.  At any moment, however, objects may exhibit a temporary asymmetry (with this temporary state sustained perhaps for billions of years).  This asymmetry gives us our world.  Water that flows.  Water capable of “flinging itself upward” with the tides.

The very stars in the sky depend upon asymmetry.  According to the laws of physics, the Big Bang should’ve birthed equal amounts matter and antimatter, rapidly coalescing into nothing.  And yet, in our universe, matter predominates.  We live.

orlando-sentinelBut asymmetry in human relations can be harder to bear than the (world-enabling) asymmetries of nature.  At first blush, we thought the internet would be a great equalizer, giving a voice to all.  Instead, the increasing quantity of stuff out there has served to concentrate attention further on a dwindling number of foci.  So many in the modern world flail, shouting into the void, aspiring to fame.  The Orlando shooter checked Facebook during his crime, verifying that his humanity (at its worst) had finally been recognized.  For a moment – gun in his hand, eyes on his phone – he was as important as Beyonce.

This asymmetry is stark in poetry.  The greatest poets use language in idiosyncratic ways: they bend the rules of grammar, they use words as though their definitions were somewhat skew to those organized dissections found in dictionaries.  And readers of these poems work to understand why.  Readers at times treat great poems as puzzles: told that this combination of words is beautiful, a reader might dust and scrape with the care of an archaeologist, searching for the wellspring of that beauty.

Consider the lines I quoted from Lerner’s own work above, with constructions like “emulsions with then circled the lake” and “they have changed painting, I behind the concertina wire can’t look at it anymore.”  This is not the grammar of high school English teachers.

gilbertLerner, of course, has reasons for employing these constructions.  Just as Jack Gilbert had reasons for his choice of the adverb “commonly” in the line, “commonly I prepare for death” (from “In Between Poems”).  Just as William Shakespeare had reasons for inventing language when no existing words fit his needs.

But if average people – the uncredentialed readers of poetry – were to use words in these ways, their choices would be considered mistakes.  They are taught to trust established poets, to presume positive intent and tease out why a published poem sounds the way it does, but their own idiosyncrasies would not receive the same presumption.

This seems especially true for the people with whom I read poems most often.  Twice a week, some dozen inmates at the county jail join a co-teacher and me for poetry class.  Not every poem we bring has immediate, intuitive appeal.  But even when discussing difficult material, the men work to understand why a piece might have been written the way it was.  Then, when given paper and pencils, these men pour themselves into their own writing, for reasons Lerner well understands:

I also received multiple letters from prisoners who felt poetry publication was their best available method for asserting they were human beings, not merely criminals.  I’m not mocking these poets; I’m offering them as examples of the strength of the implicit connection between poetry and the social recognition of the poet’s humanity.  It’s an association so strong that the writers in question observe no contradiction in the fact that they are attempting to secure and preserve their personhood in a magazine that no one they know will see.

Incarcerated writers do dream that their words could allow someone to see them as human.  During one of our recent classes, TC told me that he’d seen a commercial on the jail television showing caged dogs in the pound with a voiceover saying “No animal deserves to be treated this way.”  He looked left, looked right, and started wondering: where is our commercial?

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And I’m by no means arguing that the poems written by men in jail are all great, or even good.  Drug addiction in southern Indiana has swept up all sorts, but people with money can bond out, lawyer up, and fight their cases from the outside.  They tend to win, landing treatment instead of time.  Our pay-to-play criminal justice system reserves jail for the poor.  Given the paucity of services our nation offers to impoverished children, and the underfunded state of our public schools, shunting un-aided kids straight from uncomfortable desk to uncomfortable cell, jails are full of luckless individuals who never had much scholastic success.

When inmates write, many of their poems are utter clunkmonsters, vague and sloppy and misspelled.  The men force rhymes, having conflated the concepts “poem” and “children’s book.”  Sometimes they’ll pour out saccharine repentance as though my co-teacher and I were allied with the state, rather than volunteering our time simply because this country inflicts mass incarceration on our behalf and has made us feel ashamed.  And it can be a battle convincing dudes who’ve been told over and over again “You’re bad!” that when we suggest they revise a poem, it means we liked it.

But sometimes their work is lovely.

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On a Friday afternoon last August, the men were in a particularly rotten mood.  Technological doodads break in the jail just like anywhere else, and a security camera on the fritz meant they’d been on lockdown all week.  Usually they have access to a common area and can play cards or pace back and forth, but “lockdown” means being confined to those little cells twenty-four hours a day.

Tensions were high.  And when we decided to take a few minutes for a writing prompt, they snapped.

“Nobody’s gonna read anything I write!  This won’t change shit!”

Grim.  And arguably untrue.  But…

“They’re not gonna do anything till we pull some ISIS shit, start taking off people’s heads!”

At which point my co-teacher flipped: “Fuck you, man, no.  You say shit like that, they’re gonna cancel this class.  And it’s not even fucking true.  I mean, look at this… we’re here, right?  And Frank and I are here because of shit we read.  You write it well, people will read, it will change things.”

I was nodding, although I have to admit: there’s a lot out there to read.  It’s hard for any writer to be noticed, let alone somebody pegged as an uneducated fuck-up – a criminal from southern Indiana – right off the bat.  The battle for attention can be nightmarish, giving rise to phenomena like that Orlando shooting… or the election of Donald Trump.

I have to admit: even if people do read the poems written by incarcerated men from our classes, nobody will work to understand.  These men are forced to write with one hand behind their backs, so to say.  Linguistic flourishes that would seem striking from another would be considered mistakes.

A reader must extend trust to be willing to work.  But if we trusted these men, they wouldn’t live like they do: mired in cages not fit for dogs.  Then booted out broke, job-less, home-less, med-less, into a probationary existence with far more rules than other citizens must abide by.

And yet these men dig poems.

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Lerner is correct: they’re not always keen on the abstruse lyrical sort.  That distaste seems fair.  I pray that they can one day write compelling narratives that will help change the world.  But if these uncredentialed, MFA-less men wrote tricksy lyrics, flaunting rules like Lerner does?  Then they’d be right.  Nobody would read their shit.

In their shoes (lace-less orange crocs, hosed down and issued to some new sap straight from the off-putting feet of the recently released), I too might hate lyric poetry.

On love and physics.

On love and physics.
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Portrait of Max from 812 Magazine.

I recently attended a singer-songwriter’s performance with my buddy Max.  I have difficulty sitting still, so I’d brought paper and some markers to draw horrible cartoons while we listened.

After the show, Max and I caught up.  We briefly mentioned our work (he is building things; I am alternating between typing, reading children’s books, and spraying down my popsicle-sticky kids with a hose) and started hashing philosophy.  Max digs the old stuff – he’s currently reading Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, which speculates on both the existence of atoms and reasons why we are conscious.

I told him once that K won’t let me talk about free will at parties, so Max often goads me into it.  He’s always loved the image of K hovering with a flyswatter, waiting for me to broach her ire by describing the experiment that would disprove the existence of free will.  “We can’t do it yet, but if a non-destructive brain scan at sufficient molecular accuracy … “ SWAT!

Hugh-EverettI described Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum wave-function collapse – the idea that with every coin-flip, the universe splits into two and time keeps marching on with the coin having landed both heads and tails.  A lot of physicists like dispensing with probability and randomness.  Not me – I think the world needs a little chaos.  Even if our choices were totally unpredictable, we might not have free will, but if the universe was predictable, sensible and orderly, then we definitely wouldn’t be free.

If you feel like you have free will, that’s almost the same as having it – but how free would you feel if researchers could strap you into a scanner and predict your fate more impeccably than any fortuneteller?

And then, because Max and I always bring up Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus when we discuss the meaning of life, we had to talk about the experiment that would let you prove Everett’s theory (but only to yourself).  I’ve written about this previously, in an essay on my father-in-law and the science of resurrection, but the shorthand description of the experiment is “quantum-mechanical suicide.”

If every coin flip created a new world, and inside one your consciousness would be extinguished before you learned the result of the flip, then you could only consciously perceive yourself as experiencing the other outcome.  Someone could flip a coin hundreds of times and you’d always see it landing heads, if the you inside every tails world was instantly ablated.

I was scribbling out diagrams, jotting numbers, and drawing an experimental apparatus with a research subject exploding into flames.  Max leaned back, folded his arms over his chest, and mused, “But what I want to know is where love comes into it.”

I added a few more jagged flames, then set down my pen.

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Photo by Shena Pamela on Flickr.

Look, I’m a clever dude.  I’ve always been good at math, despite having taken very few math classes.  I’m well read, hard working, and adept at solving puzzles.  But I was never the best with emotions.  Before I had kids, nobody would’ve mistaken me for any sort of love expert.

I stuttered a little, then described quantum entanglement (also referred to as “spooky action at a distance” – Jim Holt wrote a lovely essay for the New York Review of Books about it).  Particles that are linked stay linked.

Max shook his head.  We both knew that wasn’t really love.

But I’m a cold, rational scientist.  Max trusts his intuition that something mystical is happening in the world.  What kind of explanation might satisfy us both?

So we tried again.  The world is real.  There is, as best we can tell, a single, objective reality surrounding us.  But our consciousness has no access to that world.

In reality, the computer I’m typing this essay on is composed of mostly empty space.  Electrons flit blurrily around atomic nuclei – when I reach toward the keys, electrons in my fingertips are repelled, giving me the illusion that the computer is solid.  One by one receptors in the cone cells of my eyes interact with incident photons, letting me believe that I am constantly seeing a room full of smooth, hard surfaces.  My consciousness gobbles sensory data and creates a representation of the world.

And it’s within those representations that we live.  Some philosophers question why humans are conscious.  Others speculate that iPhones have consciousness as well.  Just like us, a modern telephone integrates a wide variety of external perceptions into its conception of the world.

In any case, because we live within our perception of the world, as opposed to the world per se, love really does change the universe.  By opening ourselves up to the world, we suddenly find ourselves to be inside a different world.  A physicist might not notice the difference after you let yourself love – but that physicist isn’t inside your head.  A physicist’s truth is not always the truth that matters.

Which I am very grateful to Max for teaching me.

Header image from The Scientific Cartoonist.

On drinking.

On drinking.

In our poetry classes, we’ve had a lot of guys doing time or awaiting trial for domestic.  As you might expect, their troubles are often wrapped up with alcohol.  Nobody wants to think of himself as the kind of dude who’d hit his partner, but booze saps self-control.  Sober, we feel angry; drunk, we lash out.

Screen Shot 2018-05-24 at 7.20.19 PMWe began a recent class with Dave Johnson’s “Dave Gibson Makes His Way Down.”  Johnson teaches poetry in probation office waiting rooms, and he cares deeply about the ways so many of us struggle to be good.  His poem opens with the line,

image         Seven Sundays in a row he fell

         on his knees at the altar

         of Rocky Creek Presbyterian.

Each week, the protagonist of Johnson’s poem slips again.  He drinks then he repents.  At church, he’s “shaking his head / crying for forgiveness.”  But everyone knows that it won’t last, until one day his wife has had enough.  He staggered home drunk; she sewed him up inside a rug.

         And she beat him blue.  He swore he’d never

         drink anymore, and she beat him.

         And then he swore he’d go to church every Sunday.

         And she still beat him.

         He told her he’d love her forever.

         She kept on.

         And he said he’d repent.  She beat him harder.

         And he said he wanted to die.

         She beat him.

         And he said he’d never repent again.

         She stopped.

A man in class – back inside after only nine days out because he drank the night before a visit with his parole officer – hung his head.  “I should send this to my wife,” he said.  “I’m always telling her, I’ll stop, I’ll stop.  But then I hit that bottle.”

Apologizing isn’t enough.  We have to make sure we won’t apologize again.  “Sorry” doesn’t mean much if you have to say it again and again.

And, yes, it’s still mind boggling to me that MDMA and psilocybin – two low-risk chemicals that can help turn somebody’s life around – are illegal whereas alcohol, one of the world’s most dangerous drugs, is openly shilled with flashy television ads.

waterThen we read two poems by Raymond Carver.  “Woolworth’s 1954” has long been a favorite of mine – a man slips into reverie while he’s out walking with a buddy and the buddy’s young kids.  The man thinks about when he “was sixteen, working / for six bits an hour” as a stockboy in a department store.  An older man was training him; Carver writes,

        Most important memory

         of that whole time: opening

         the cartons of women’s lingerie.

         Underpants, and soft, clingy things

         like that.  Taking it out

         of cartons by the handful.  Something

         sweet and mysterious about those

         things even then.  Sol called it

         “linger-ey.”  “Linger-ey?”

         What did I know?  I called it

         that for a while, too.  “Linger-ey.”

Poets play with the difference between private and public language.  Some words mean almost the same thing no matter who hears them.  When I write “of,” chances are there are few strong associations in your mind that would cause you to misinterpret my intent.

But many words feel very different from one person to the next.  When the New York Times printed poems alongside photographs they inspired last summer, I brought them in to jail.  I had no idea that a line from Ada Limon’s “What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use” would jolt the men out of reading.

         And how we stood there,

         low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss,

         and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets

But “shard” is slang for methamphetamine, apparently, and once the idea of meth has wormed into their brains, it’s hard to shake away.  That’s the whole problem with addiction. 

Blue_Crystal_Meth
A shard of crystal (in this case, meth).

For Carver, the private meaning of “lingerie” is safer.

        Then I got older.  Quit being

         a stockboy.  Started pronouncing

         that frog word right.

         I knew what I was talking about!

         Went to taking girls out

         in hopes of touching that softness,

         slipping down those underpants.

         And sometimes it happened.  God,

         they let me.  And they were

         linger-ey, those underpants.

         They tended to linger a little

         sometimes, as they slipped down 

Raymond_CarverCarver thinks back to those bright early years, when everything felt charged with possibility.  Dangerous, but navigable.  Undergarments “kicked free / onto the floor of the car and / forgotten about.  Until you had / to look for them.

But his past is gone.  He’s grown up, made mistakes, worked crummy jobs and started drinking.  He has more freedoms now – a house to take dates to, instead of fumbling in the car – and yet fewer possibilities.  Those women he knew have grown up too; they have families and responsibilities.  Or they’ve died.  Some of us find less luck than others. 

Carver is left lamenting his mistakes, knowing that some things he’ll never fix.

Then we read Carver’s “Fear.”  One man read the first half of the poem, but when he reached the line “Fear of my children’s handwriting on envelopes”, he paused, blinked, started again, and found he had no voice.  We sat in silence for about ten seconds, then he said, “Yeah, that one got me.  Somebody else is gonna have to read the rest of this.”

He was too broke for bail and had spent almost a year inside (waiting on a case that would wind up dismissed when the witnesses didn’t show), and each week said something to me about his daughter, seven years old, living a state away, whom he hadn’t seen in years.  On his good days, he’d tell me, “When I get out, I’m gonna get myself on a bus, go up and see her.”

On his bad days, he’d say, “I don’t know if she’s gonna want to see me.  Cause it’s been years, you know?”

After reading the poem, I thought we’d use “Fear” as a writing prompt.  “Jot down five things,” I said.  “What are you afraid of?” 

This was a terrible writing prompt.

Seriously.  Only two people wrote anything (“I’m afraid of being killed by an ex / I’m afraid of dying broke / I’m afraid of dying alone”).  It can’t feel safe to write about your fears in jail. 

Mea culpa.

But some of what the guys said while telling me that they couldn’t write was heartbreaking.  Like the guy with the seven-year-old daughter he wanted to visit:

I’m afraid that when they let me out I’m not gonna want to go, cause I’ll have forgotten how to live any place but here.

Or another guy, who said that his first grandchild was born while he was stuck there.

The only thing I’m scared of is that I’m gonna drink again and my daughter won’t let me see my grandkid.  Because she says that if I get back to drinking, she won’t let me around.  I’m an alcoholic, and I’m a mean alcoholic.

And yet, the week before he left, he told me, “When I get out, first thing I’m gonna do, I’m gonna walk down to that liquor store and buy myself a beer.”

At the end of class I told him, “I don’t have anything against drugs, you know.  But some of us, some drugs, we just don’t mix well.  So I wish you’d go, maybe buy that grandkid a present, go down to see her instead of buying yourself a drink.”

“I know, I know … but it’s something I told myself, to get me through this time here.  That I’d get out, and when I got out, I’d get to have a beer.”

“I mean, if it’s just one …” I said.

“Yeah, but I’m an alcoholic.”