Signs! Signs!

In which we examine the subtext of our expressions.

iu82DJHH9FOk, so you’ve put this sign up in front of your house. I can’t find anything to disagree with here.  That’s part of the point though, I know. It’s not terribly deep, the sarcasm implicit in the plain truth of the statements. If you don’t believe these things (and honestly, I’m still looking for someone who doesn’t), then you are The Problem.

It’s creepy how these signs act as ID badges, too, because what about your neighbors, who haven’t put up a sign? What are you saying about them? If I stand on the sidewalk and look first at their house, and then at yours, I have to make a judgment, don’t I? I’m obviously looking at two different kinds of households. At least that’s what your sign is telling me.

And what if your neighbor does put one up? And then the neighbor on the other side of you puts one up, too? Then everyone on the street follows suit? And then the coffee shops and dry cleaners? What am I to believe about the state of my world after a quick jaunt around your block? What can I believe about a world that needs signs like that? And so many? I can only believe that it is a hard, cruel place. That your house, your street, your hood, is the exception, not the rule. A tiny island of kindness in an ocean of violence and hate. Which is the opposite of the truth. The truth of our world, our country especially, is that we are a vast ocean of goodness, with (unfortunately but unavoidably) islands of despair. I would give anything to start shifting public recognition in that direction. But I guess that why I write poems. I digress…

These signs, to put it simply, are why the world seems meaner, not  kinder. Because of what they are saying, silently, about all the spaces where they aren’t. The accusations they are leveling at the world around them.

 

Side note, on the “Love is Love” part: I had a lit class a couple of yeas ago in which the going doctrine was that Shakespeare and his sonnets were gay (queer, whatever I’m given permission to say). Now, lawd hammercy, I can’t remember which sonnet, but the professor mentioned one of them that was popular at weddings. Her point was that, because it was Shakespeare professing his love to another man, it was hilarious that so many straight couples have had it read at their weddings. This of course revealed her to be kind of a bitter and angry person, enjoying the inadvertent embarrassment of others. But also I couldn’t help thinking:

It’s a love poem. If you believe that love is love, there’s nothing to laugh at.

The Hordes of the Invisible

It’s all leading to a mass grave of chickens and eggs.

I get a little thrown sometimes when I realize that I don’t know what things are like anywhere else. I don’t know the vibe in New York or the gestalt in Topeka. I don’t know what Floridians see when they walk down the street. I just don’t know much about how people measure their worlds outside of my own, and have to guard against the tendency to assume that what I know about my home applies everywhere.

I do know what it’s like here. And it’s strange. Seattle. It’s like touching something and not knowing right away whether it’s absolutely searingly hot, or skin-shatteringly cold, because there’s hints of both in the pain. We’re awash in activism. Utterly drowning in it. There isn’t a shop window that isn’t plastered with flyers for this march or that proclamation or that protest. Every author reading at every “local” bookstore – nota bene: everything is local, people. Absolutely everything. it only depends on where you’re standing – every reading is this cultural expression or that identity group’s response to something, or a statement of “this is me climbing proudly out of this miserable social/cultural prison.” In every instance it is billed, at least implicitly, in its subtext, as an exception. A rare opportunity. A victory over something. But you can’t have victory without competition, and you can’t have competition without an opponent, and so without realizing it, the movement itself ossifies the necessity of the opponent.

If you’re still listening to the subtext, you know that here it says that none who suffer do so as a result of their own failings. It is that whatever the nature of their suffering may have been – “invisibility” is a popular one, as well as the closely-related “marginalization,” and of course any word  with “phobia” trailing from its backside like some undigested serpent that can never quite be pinched free – whatever the suffering, these are people who not only are/were down, but were put there, intentionally and perniciously, and are now rising up in spite of “the dominant culture’s” efforts to keep them down. But this raises a question or two for me:

1. Who is the dominant culture?

As far as I can tell, they are. The sign makers, the book writers, the painters and poets. They’re everywhere. But if their claim is that they are resisting the dominant culture, who is it that’s putting them down? In light of their inescapable pervasiveness and influence, are they even down at all? If so, who is trying to keep them there?  Not the athletes and CEO’s – they’re all on board and applauding. They’re hosting fundraisers and lending their celebrity to “awareness.” (Show me, by the way, the unaware. There must be an odd colony of them somewhere that eats garden slugs and are too cut off from civilization to have heard of sexism or Old White Males or Macklemore). Corporations have more people in subcommittees working on fair hiring and balancing corporate skin tones than they have working on their actual bottom lines. Are the oppressors the shopkeepers and their customers, who block out the sun with their storefront virtue signals, and curse the planet-eating Republicans over cupcakes as they wipe pureed kale from their baby’s Che Guevara onesie? Can’t be the teachers and the principals (sorry “Heads of School,” as we can’t say “principal” anymore, and I honestly don’t know why), because they’re as helpful as can be. They organize days for students to leave school to protest climate and corporations (I always thought the protest was supposed to reflect the issue being protested. When I skipped classes, it was to protest school), they encourage multicultural literature and literacy, and are leading the way on efforts for diversity and inclusion. And of course the media and the universities, as well as the music and movie industry, they’re so obviously on the right side of this thing that I don’t need to say any more about them.

In short, every single representation of power and influence of any kind, is dominated by the spirit of charity, inclusion, and diversity. They are populated, organized, and run by people of, to quote Roger Waters, “every race, creed, color, tint, or hue.” So where are these oppressors? If the so-called “invisible” are not the dominant culture, then why are they the only ones I can see?

2. Given all this – given the undeniable momentum and power of movements towards fairness and righteousness and equality, given the ubiquity of this movement in every single aspect and institution of this city, how is it possible that it still feels like such an awful, intolerant, racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-indigenous (sorry if I missed anyone) hell hole of a city?

The answer to that is actually pretty simple. The misery, the injustice, doesn’t exist in spite of all the social justice activism, it exists because of it. And truthfully, as my own subtext from the preceding paragraphs indicates, it doesn’t actually exist at all. The world, this city, as I walk around in it, is simply not in its actions a racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic place. But my God it feels like it, and the activists (or the media, but I repeat myself) won’t have it any other way. What does exist, in a fetid curtain as thick as the sad salmon hauled from the poison Duwamish, is the idea of injustice. The haunting spectre of it. And they have all – high and low, black and white, gay and straight, on and on – risen up in their holy alliance against it, not realizing how adept they have been, all the while, at creating their own need for it. Students are rewarded for writing about it. They are given extra credit for attending poetry readings about it. Their social capital portfolios are almost wholly dependent upon the growth of it. Resist and you’re in. Don’t and you’re dead. It’s a sinister little perpetual motion machine, eating from its own toilet to survive, and knowing on some instinctive, subconscious (dare I say invisible?) level, that achieving its stated purpose would only eliminate its only fuel source.

How oppressed they would feel if someone took their oppressors away!

So no, maybe I don’t know what the rest of the world, or the country, or even the state of Washington looks like. But I do know Seattle. I’m in it on several levels every day. It’s a much nicer, much friendlier, much fairer place individually than the collective seems to want me or anyone else to notice. But I do notice. I certainly hope more people begin to as well. Because all this rallying towards disharmony creates the sensory confusion I mentioned in the beginning. Too hot or too cold? It’s impossible to know, because it encourages an ever-deepening degree of personal guardedness that prevents anyone from staying close enough to each other to find out.

Signs! Signs!

Maybe the first in a series. Probably not though.

IMG_2707I may begin a series of sign interpretations. I probably won’t, so don’t get too excited, but there are a few out there that are certainly saying something other than what they are saying.

This first example comes from our good friend Trader Joe. On the surface, he seems to be letting us know that on Thanksgiving, he will be closing up shop and allowing his workers to enjoy a day off. And indeed, had he stopped at “We Will be Closed Thanksgiving Day,” that’s exactly what the sign would say. And I wouldn’t be here. But as is so often the case with just about everyone everywhere today, he wasn’t content with his sign until he made it contentious. He looked around, saw that nobody was fighting about anything, and decided to change all that. The record-breakingly passive-aggressive addendum that says “So our employees may spend time with their familes” was never, not for a single second, about employees or families. It is a belligerent virtue-signal and a GoFundMe call for social capital. Here’s what Joe’s sign really says:

We will be closed Thanksgiving Day. Any business that is open on Thanksgiving Day is a capitalist greed monster that hates its employees and has no respect for families.

Again, stopping after the first sentence says nothing. Adding the rest says it all. I still bought my groceries there, and will not stop.

Dinner Party

After reading Virginia Woolf

I am not more right.
I do not know better.
I just can’t run with the baton I’m handed
when my leg of the race comes up.
It is gross, the baton.
Slimy, and it smells of rot covered by perfume.
I cannot carry it.
I cannot wield it.
I cannot.

You can pass it between each other
because you carry it low
against your thighs
and don’t look at it
and instinct makes the transfer.
Instinct never smelled a corpse to know it.
It hasn’t the time.

The Speed of Belief

(Gah, formatting. The lines are not how I wrote them, and I don’t really know how to make WordPress behave)

I.

I wake up with the news and am in no mood to endure it and come instead to visit with you.

On my way to you a few blocks up from the ferry dock
a car is broken in the road in everyone’s way (the nerve).

It is too broken even to roll – The driver said as much.

Other people in unbroken cars have to be somewhere now always now
so they honk, gesture, wave and blame.
People blame him with their hands and their eyes
People are very good with the things they do with their eyes
Their eyes say that yes they see but they need and
their need cannot be defeated.

Certainly not by him and his broken car

Certainly not by him

II.

This is what people look like to me, when I don’t slow down.
This is what I see of people in my cynical times
what I know of them raging against some poor man’s trials
and what it does to them.
(He is no poor man. He does not suffer)
These people woke up watching the news and they’re listening to it in their cars
where they honk at him and they are believing it, the news.
All the time they are believing it.
Right now as their palms press down on the cold molded
February of steering wheel plastic
and their horns blare the sound of their need they are believing the news because the news moves everything

out of their way.

They think it is real.

But not him or his car.
They don’t believe in him or his car because it is
in front of them and in the way.
They don’t believe in things that are in the way.
They don’t believe in things that the news can’t move out of their way.
They decide not to believe.
They just decide like that.

This is what people look like to me when I don’t slow down.

III.
Someone’s buying him…

…I slow down here…

…and gather myself…

…someone’s buying him a coffee.

She walks a coffee out to him

She reaches
out
He reaches

and in that blesséd beat when both of their hands are on the offering

someone honks.

God damn it.

Paradise, lost

IV.

God damn I go slow

He’s on the hood of his broken car, the half-sit you do sometimes
with one heel cocked up on the bumper.
Looking undefeated with coffee and listening nowhere to the news.

Getting up when he needs to direct traffic and doing it like he’s done it before. With a half-smile and that knife-hand pointing, arm extended,
fingers and thumb pressed together in flat, playful authority.

This way is clear.

You picture the whistle, the white glove

(the traffic cop)

V.

It isn’t a very busy intersection back here in our neighborhood near the bakery.

When I go slow it is his unflappable traffic direction,
all smiles and gifted coffee on a February morning just up the road from the ferry dock

It is his this, his him
his he
he is it, the thing –

he is the thing that hits me right where I need it and when
back here in the corner of the bakery just up the road from the ferry dock.

When the boat comes it will bleed out and he will be busy with people
who will honk their news at him. They will honk what they believe at him
from their unbroken cars full of need.

He will not see his empty paper cup roll half-circle off the hood
when he gets up to be something they don’t believe in.
He will point, and wave, and smile while he slows them down
to show them how to get around him and when.

Briefly, Your News

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find something that happened somewhere but that’s like counting the grains of gunpowder in the bullet with your name on it.

There might be one in there that isn’t going to light when the firing pin strikes, but that’s not going to slow it down any.

All that mad space on the airwaves. A dozen papers a hundred websites a thousand articles a million words.

Each one distinct and identical and individual but fired all together from a three-letter casing that tries to hide its intent. It succeeds wherever we let it and it does what a bullet is supposed to do – it makes a hole in us.

Oh my god I just can’t do it.

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find poetry, though I know I should have known better. By the time I had my breakfast all I knew was exactly what my opinions should be.

All I knew was that it was wrong to stereotype (except by voting preference)
and that it was wrong to discriminate (except by skin color and gender)
and which kind of prejudice would get me high fives
and that love is both love and a very oppressive weapon

and I am far more certain now that there are some very hateful ways to say that hate is a very bad thing.

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find out who we are and it has become very clear that if everything we say we are working so hard to eliminate – the hate the prejudice the racism the sexism the violence

my God I think especially the violence!

if all of those things we march against and wave signs against and rally against and throw rocks at and beat people up over and lie to keep alive were somehow magically eliminated tomorrow

we would bring it back yesterday because we wouldn’t recognize ourselves without it.

If we won we would be lost.

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, and my family still sleeps somewhere above me and I pray that when they wake up I don’t somehow take this all out on them
the way I see everyone else take it out on each other, every day, for love.