Monday, May 20, 2019

Venustas Ergo Venustas

I find the world much more difficult and obscure than most people do. I have friends to whom it seems obvious that a person belongs to herself: a statement which I find fascinating, bizarre and indefensible. But to them it is self-evident. I have friends for whom it is self-evident that there is a God who created people, and who believe that they therefore belong to Her: again fascinating, again bizarre, again indefensible. 

It's not clear to me that we exist, in any way similar to the way we imagine we exist, anyway: so Descartes' clear starting principle is for me the iffy conclusion of a dubious chain of assumptions. What are my responsibilities, even if I was created, even if by some unknowable fiat I not only exist, but belong to myself, even if "I" and "myself" are meaningful categories that can be meaningfully linked by a property relationship? That's not clear to me either. To me these are speculations in the outermost spheres of wild hypothesis. To my friends, they're daily realities worth killing and dying for.

Really. I'm not making this up, I'm not trying to invent difficulties. I'm just saying it's dark, to me: I stumble through an obscure world of shifting shapes and dissolving outlines, punctuated by moments of brilliant, wounding, transcendent beauty. 

Which vanish almost at once, leaving behind longings, traces, puzzlements. Descartes, bless his heart, was sure that he existed. For my part, I'm sure that the experience of beauty can exist, momentarily at least, however we conceive of the experiencer. And that's about as far as I get with first principles. This is why I'm so fun at parties.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Afterwards

gently to the water
the hierarchs recede
and the old men of the forest lift their heads
gently to the water
rain and rain
forty-seven days
and the drift of abandoned boats
but all that behind us now
gently to the water

You spoke and the dazzle is around us still
you felt and our own bones ached
you saw and the darkness fell
gently to the water

Crusted with bits of colored glass and shell
criss-crossed with scars that are old and white
or young and angry red and damped with sand
bring these unsteady hands
gently to the water

they undo the webbing
and the cinch under your trembling arms
begins to ease the breath comes back to your chest
where some small white-furred creature lifts its head
and with infinite caution makes its way
gently to the water.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Just Beginning to Breathe

for Jarrett on his birthday

So I was thinking today
how much I admire your work:
the attention to what ordinary people
want and need, to making the conversation
general. I was thinking about
the love of cities, where strangers
bring what they have and find what they need:
the glory of civilization, and its shame,
which are the same thing (generally) and I was thinking
of how hard and necessary it is to help people
go where they need to go
when they need to go there
and how the City is the whole human problem
and solution
at the same time.
General. Trafficking has a bad name, 
but I remember your earnestness when I said
if those people in Vancouver didn't want to pay the cost
they shouldn't come to Portland: you said, 
"But we want them to come!"
You lit up. We want them to come.
I was thinking that today 
is your birthday and how much better the world is
how much better my world is
because you are in it: of the wild,
unreasonable generosity that opens 
the gates and makes the streets a necklace
threading the shops and the houses: the jewelry of 
a barely imagined giant
just beginning to breathe.

Friday, April 26, 2019

About that Presidency

Edited to add: This was written just before Biden officially declared -- very early days in the primary race. As my Dad reminded me, there's a lot we don't know yet, and we should view our assumptions with a lot of skepticism.

---

Here's how I see the next presidential administration, should the Democrats win it (I give them a fifty-fifty chance; maybe sixty-forty.)

The Senate will still be firmly in Republican hands. The House will probably remain Democratic. It's four more years of legislative deadlock, head-butting, name-calling, maneuvering. In office or out of it, Trump will still be tweeting like a lunatic, with a devoted following and a Fox News amplifier. He'll be slightly discredited, but he'll also be back where he loves to be, flinging dung from the outside. It will be very, very hard to get anything at all done. The fighting will not be clean. It will be an ugly four years, regardless. The Senate Republicans will resume their obstruct-the-president-at-whatever-cost approach.

What will the president's role be, then? What will be required of her?

Two things. First: she'll need to present a coherent and appealing picture of the path forward, so that people -- especially people in states that presently field Republican senators -- will want to give the Democratic Party a chance. The vision thing.

Second: she'll need to fight hard, scrappily, ferociously and continuously. It's going to be a fight from day one, an exhausting one. She's going to have to know where all the levers of power are and how to pull them. And she's going to be heading up a vast bureaucracy, the Federal Government, that will be depleted and demoralized, largely paralyzed by the legislative deadlock. So she will need high-level managerial skills, and extraordinary discipline.

Then perhaps we win the 2022 and 2024 elections. Perhaps we don't. That's a long ways out. At that point maybe we can implement some version of the Green New Deal. But that's not what we're doing right now. Right now, we're picking our champion for a brutal, four year slugfest.

To lay my cards on the table: right now my favorite candidate, by far, is Elizabeth Warren. She's become the de facto Democratic policy engine. She's laying out what we need to do, and she's doing it well. I have a soft spot for wonks, after all. I made phone calls for Dukakis. But: I doubt I'll be voting for her in the primaries. I don't think she's a particularly good campaigner. She's nearly as old as Joe Biden. I think she'd struggle to win back the midwestern states that we lost last time. And if she did win -- she's never managed anything larger than a Senatorial office. She knows the legislative process up and down, but I'm not sure how much good that will do us if Congress remains paralyzed.

Who does that leave? Well, there's Sanders. He does "the vision thing" but I don't see him as a scrapper, or a bulldog. He would keep the vision front and center, and we need that. But he's even older than Warren. Would he be able to get down into the pit and wrestle for the scraps, which are all we're going to get next time? I doubt it. Detail and discipline are not his strong suits. And as far as campaigning goes, we haven't yet seen what happens when the oppo machine gets to work on him. They'll have a lot to work with.

Biden? Well, older again. Not a particularly good campaigner either -- his previous presidential bids have fizzled out ingloriously. He tends to go on and on, and periodically to put his foot in his mouth. He does have the experience of the Obama administration, so he ticks that box. But his vision is locked in to the world of the 1970s (as is Sanders', for that matter: Biden is the 70s "Old Left" -- it was old even then -- and Sanders is the 70s "New Left.")

No. The two I look to, when I look past Warren, are Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris. Buttigieg strikes me as very like candidate Obama: someone who is able to project an aura of being new and exciting while actually being a cautious centrist. Obama won me over by running an incredibly brilliant, disciplined campaign. I never much liked his centrist policies, but his political abilities were astounding. Buttigieg may be a similar wunderkind; I don't know. He has the silver tongue, but whether he has the managerial skills, I don't know. His resume is pretty skimpy. I do think Buttigieg is the only candidate in the field who understands why anyone would have voted for Trump, and has thought constructively about how to bring those people back. We need to bring those people back. They're not going to evaporate just because they lose an election. We're going to be living together from now on, decade after decade. We can't roll the Republic back four years: we're going to have to find a way forward.

Then there's Kamala Harris, whom I suspect I will end up supporting. She has administered a large bureaucracy, as AG of California. She is very smart. She hasn't always done the vision thing terribly well, but she has surprised me lately by her boldness: she seems to have been biding her time, but she has emerged as a genuine Green New Dealer. And she has incredible discipline. She will stay on point, totally focused, for as long as she needs to. She's young enough to be able to pound her way through four years of exhausting fighting. And for what it's worth, I like her, for the same reasons I liked Hillary Clinton. I like that she chose the difficult and murky ways of the inside paths to power. She's understands that it's all trade-offs, if you're going to try to make things happen in the real world. You do the work, and you let people call you names, and you smile.

So there we are. At the moment of going to press, I'm for Harris. I guess like Warren better, but I like Warren mostly as a wonk, not as a fighter or a figurehead. She serves as a wonk as well in the Senate -- or better -- as she would in the White House.

In any case, I will support whoever the Democrats choose. The party is the only thing that really matters, in American politics, and the sooner we understand that the happier we will be. I like the Democratic Party better than I have ever liked it, in my long years of grudging support: so there's that.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Forgetting the Sky

It's not just that joy is joy
though that would be sufficient
it's that joy makes all the rest of life align
sensibly

therefore
a life not focused on 
putting oneself in the way of joy
is not the right one

regardless of whatever else 
may be right about it.

Noted
there is no forcing it
joy comes on its own schedule
at its own hest
as it will; but

Walking hunched, head down,
brooding on wrongs suffered committed & ahead
is sad in itself but more importantly
it is the way to miss joy
which tends to approach

in that space behind the left shoulder, 
where an affectionate spouse would kiss you in passing,
or where a cat would ride if it were accompanying you
on a dumpster dive; where the fringe of an epaulet
might tickle.

for any and all these things it is required
to let the shoulders ride back
and let the sternum
be prow:

We won't spend much time afloat
said and done,
and forgetting the sky is our first
and worst mistake.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Glorious First

A cannon shot in 1794
began a wave that beat upon the shore
and back again, a surge of marbled gray
that ran against the quays of Malabar
and twisted, tangled, ran once more away;

you remember that year
my darling, centuries after, when one small wave
rocked against our hands in seeming play?
The sea was shining then as once before
under the filtered sun at the closing of the day.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Painstaking Letters

Suppose some fluttering thing -- marred by suspicion
but carrying in its claw, neat-folded to its breast,
a scroll of painstaking letters and awkward 
illumination, suppose it is here after all, 
in the cage of my chest, and that is what these furtive
movements and shuddery stillnesses, what these moments
of nausea and grating crumbles of delight, what these
dizzying lurches mean?

I have not fed the birds, but still they come, and still
they grow beside my heart, and still they clutch
messages from some far time when each stroke of the pen
cost someone's blood and overturned a trough. The grinding of
some azure stuff, the mixing of a walnut ink: and all the while
murderous fleets standing off beyond the rocks,
signalling disaster. Still. They wrote; they had to.

Give this message to this one messenger,
(wet-winged, drenched in the throb of the heartspace)
and tell him to come home when he can;
tell him the wind still breaks in unseen foam
over the crest of the hills.