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Poem of Disconnected Parts

May 3, 2017

“Who do you write for?” This is the blogger’s perennial question. Lately blog writing has slipped farther down than usual on the weekly list of things I think I need to accomplish.

A friend of mine recently told me that he’s tired of everything being political. But it seems inescapable that everything is political these days. Maybe that’s partly because I have always sought out and celebrated satire, although never thought I would live in such a fertile era for it.

My thoughts are disconnected but keep coming around to the same topics, like in Robert Pinsky’s “Poem of Disconnected Parts”:

At Robben Island the political prisoners studied.
They coined the motto Each one Teach one.

In Argentina the torturers demanded the prisoners
Address them always as “Profesor.”

Many of my friends are moved by guilt, but I
Am a creature of shame, I am ashamed to say.

Culture the lock, culture the key. Imagination
That calls boiled sheep heads “Smileys.”

The first year at Guantánamo, Abdul Rahim Dost
Incised his Pashto poems into styrofoam cups.

“The Sangomo says in our Zulu culture we do not
Worship our ancestors: we consult them.”

Becky is abandoned in 1902 and Rose dies giving
Birth in 1924 and Sylvia falls in 1951.

Still falling still dying still abandoned in 2005
Still nothing finished among the descendants.

I support the War, says the comic, it’s just the Troops
I’m against: can’t stand those Young People.

Proud of the fallen, proud of her son the bomber.
Ashamed of the government. Skeptical.

After the Klansman was found Not Guilty one juror
Said she just couldn’t vote to convict a pastor.

Who do you write for? I write for dead people:
For Emily Dickinson, for my grandfather.

“The Ancestors say the problem with your Knees
Began in your Feet. It could move up your Back.”

But later the Americans gave Dost not only paper
And pen but books. Hemingway, Dickens.

Old Aegyptius said Whoever has called this Assembly,
For whatever reason—it is a good in itself.

O thirsty shades who regard the offering, O stained earth.
There are many fake Sangomos. This one is real.

Coloured prisoners got different meals and could wear
Long pants and underwear, Blacks got only shorts.

No he says he cannot regret the three years in prison:
Otherwise he would not have written those poems.

I have a small-town mind. Like the Greeks and Trojans.
Shame. Pride. Importance of looking bad or good.

Did he see anything like the prisoner on a leash? Yes,
In Afghanistan. In Guantánamo he was isolated.

Our enemies “disassemble” says the President.
Not that anyone at all couldn’t mis-speak.

The profesores created nicknames for torture devices:
The Airplane. The Frog. Burping the Baby.

Not that those who behead the helpless in the name
Of God or tradition don’t also write poetry.

Guilts, metaphors, traditions. Hunger strikes.
Culture the penalty. Culture the escape.

What could your children boast about you? What
Will your father say, down among the shades?

The Sangomo told Marvin, “You are crushed by some
Weight. Only your own Ancestors can help you.”

Right now it’s difficult for me to figure out how to pack each day with the most urgent optional activities on top of the required ones, to spend my energy on things that could possibly lead to results that will benefit my children, much less give them anything to “boast about.”

For whatever reason, my zeal for talking about books has flagged, for the moment. It’s a loss of faith in the thing that has always been of paramount importance but now seems more…frivolous.

What do you think?

Is this thing on?

27 Comments leave one →
  1. Rebecca permalink
    May 3, 2017 1:44 pm

    First, and selfishly, don’t quit. I love your blog.

    Second, I imagine you are familiar with the studies that show the importance of reading to developing empathy. If it weren’t for passionate readers such as you, guiding the rest of us to good books, would the world have as many readers? Would the world have as much empathy?

    I understand the need to protest things that are so wrong, but fighting AGAINST something is exhausting. It might be necessary, but in the end, all we do is stop something from happening. I think it is better—for our own sanity and energy—to continue fighting FOR something.

    I teach at a small community college in California’s San Joaquin Valley. We had, completely by coincidence because who knew the election would turn out like this, selected The Tortilla Curtain as our One Book, One College project this year. For those not familiar, in the book, immigrants are unfairly characterized as criminals and a community builds a wall to keep them out. Not all of the students came to oppose immigration reform, but all of them came to a more complex and more humane treatment of immigrants than what is being proposed by our non-reading President. All of them. Reading matters. Getting people, especially my students, to read is where I am putting my energy because I think that is where I can make a lasting difference.

    • May 4, 2017 10:18 am

      Thanks, Rebecca.
      I’m one of the organizers of a local political group called Gibbs Watch, and we’re affiliated with Indivisible and supporting candidates to run against Gibbs and our governor, who is sometimes considered “moderate” but only in this exceptional political climate (and not by many Ohioans). So we’re fighting for a lot of things, which I find just about as exhausting as fighting against them; perhaps it’s the amount of extroversion required as much as anything.
      After I read your comment, I went to order a book by the candidate we hope will run against Gibbs, Ken Harbaugh, and saw a link to a blog written by him and his wife, and I was stoked to see two posts about books they’ve read and books they buy for their kids and kids’ friends.
      Reading does matter; I never lose faith in that. It’s actually just making the time to write about it for free that I’m pushing further down my list of priorities.

  2. May 3, 2017 1:59 pm

    I love Rebecca’s comment and I also love your blog. One reason is your love of poetry!

    I am sorry you’re feeling downtrodden about writing about books. But I am convinced that reading is invaluable in this time, and writing about reading good, smart, compassionate books can only inspire others to pick them up, and so the ripples spread outward.

    I wish our current POTUS had had someone kind and intelligent in his childhood who could have inspired him to read with zeal and curiosity. Can you imagine how different the world would be now if they had? I honestly don’t know if the man has ever read a book in his life. It’s clear that our last POTUS grew up in a family that valued reading.

    Also, if we quit reading and writing then we’re letting the bastards WIN. 🙂

    • May 4, 2017 10:36 am

      Thanks, Laila.
      “Downtrodden” is exactly the right word for how I’m feeling.
      And your comment about letting the bastards win is exactly the right way to help snap me out of it sooner: “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (from The Handmaid’s Tale)

      • May 6, 2017 12:04 pm

        I considered using the F Word in response to the bastards, but I went the classier route instead. But in my head it’s “F Them!” all day long.

  3. May 4, 2017 7:46 am

    I’m here!! I find i ebb and flow in posting and I’ve decided just to live with that. Like, I took lost of 2014 off. But I love your blog and I’m reading if not commenting!!

    • May 4, 2017 10:37 am

      Glad to know it, Carrie. I’ve resisted too much “ebb and flow” here, but it could be that other kids of resistance might necessitate a little ebb now, at least this week. Part of it must be that it’s the last week of classes, wearying for everyone (even those like me who get paid for “part-time” work).

  4. May 4, 2017 10:38 am

    Count me in as one of those who loves your blog too. Like Carrie above, I too have made my peace with the fact that there is ebb and flow in my posting (and also in my reading).

    It’s ok if you find yourself not wanting to write so much anymore. I’m sure there are going to be books that you WILL simply want to talk about! Or I hope so anyway! 😛

    At any rate, thank you for everything you share with us!

    • May 4, 2017 10:49 am

      You’re undoubtedly right; there are always books that I simply have to say something about, and this is the place for that.
      You remind me that there are people listening here, so thank you for that, too.

  5. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    May 4, 2017 11:27 am

    It’s on! And it’s valued. I know what you mean: even from outside the U.S., it is hard not to feel overwhelmed. It sounds like a cliche to say that books are more important than ever — and maybe it’s a form of self-justification. But I do believe it’s worth not forgetting the things we want to flourish and the positive values we stand for, including everything we know we get from talking about books.

    There are no rules for this blogging thing, right? That we do it when and how we want to is why it’s worth doing, for most of us.

    • May 4, 2017 2:35 pm

      As usual, you put your finger squarely on one of the issues that bothers me–it does seem like self-justification to go on making time to talk about books and fiddle (yes, literally; I’m in a Celtic Fiddlers group) while Rome is burning. I feel a little like I did when President Reagan said the US economy would improve if we all went out shopping, and many people happily went on doing what they liked to do already.
      No rules. That’s a positive way to think about it.

  6. May 4, 2017 12:54 pm

    Great poem! thanks for sharing it!

    I totally understand about the still reading just don’t feel much like writing about the reading. I’ve noticed lately my reading has veered to be more and more about current issues whether I am reading fiction or nonfiction and I am excited by that but when it comes to writing, worry that I am getting too political and turning people off. But then another part of me thinks, I need to write this because it is important to me and if someone else doesn’t like it, too bad. I’m looking for a balance and a way to express the things that are important to me through my reading and my blogging and maybe, hopefully, help educate and enlighten and encourage thinking and learn something myself. Maybe you could find a way to tie your resistance work to your reading and your blog? I would be totally on board reading what you had to say 🙂

    • May 4, 2017 2:41 pm

      Part of the problem is that I want to escape into fiction, to have a corner of my life that’s not affected by cruelty and despair. So writing about it would be pretty frivolous. There’s only so much of the day I can dedicate to fighting without getting the kind of mad that isn’t productive. I’m quite leery of getting angry about politics, after seeing the harm that anger can do.

      • May 4, 2017 3:22 pm

        Anger about an issue that you use to make things better is good but angry politics, definitely bad. I understand your desire to escape into fiction, we have to be able to get away from things somehow in order to recharge and keep sane. I hope you decide to keep blogging even if it is only once a week or once a month. If you stop completely my TBR pile would probably be happy but I wouldn’t. 🙂

        • May 4, 2017 5:01 pm

          I’m never going to stop completely. Those who know me in person will tell you that I rarely give up entirely on anything. This is why reducing diets are so hard 😉

  7. May 4, 2017 7:58 pm

    This thing is still on, but I don’t have any answers. For a lot of reasons, including family ones and job ones, I haven’t felt as urgent about blogging as in the past, and I’ve let it slip in my priorities. And for a lot of reasons, primarily political, I need good books and other bloggers more than ever. I haven’t figured out how to bridge that disconnect yet, really. I will let you know if I do.

    • May 8, 2017 8:50 am

      You put your finger on another part of it–there is a disconnect between making less time for blogging and responding and needing more good books and the reassurance of hearing from smart people.
      I’ve been realizing that it’s ironic how fed up I am with people telling me their paying jobs make them much too busy and important to do anything else–whether it’s political or just social–when at the same time I’m less sure about my own priorities, the importance of what I’m spending time on and trying to make more time for.

  8. May 4, 2017 8:15 pm

    I’ve found in the last year that I have a tendency to overdose on political commentary, so I’ve been reading more than usual as an antidote. I try to read a book instead of yet another article that will infuriate me without telling me anything new. But I’m not sure what the right balance is.

    I do know I’m not *doing* much these days, but I’m in a weird place where it feels like there’s not much to do, even those there’s heaps that ought to be done. Most of my local politicians are doing exactly what I want, so there’s no urgency to pressure them. I want to use what energy I have in useful ways. We have a governor’s race this year, so I’ll expend some energy there, and I’m giving to candidates around the state, but it’s hard for me to know what’s really helpful.

    • May 8, 2017 8:54 am

      I’m in the opposite situation. Living deep in a poor and rural area, I’m surrounded by people who I suspect voted out of anger, and I’m having a hard time tamping down my own anger about ignorance, which is not useful, in order to be more kind and patient.
      What’s helpful to me is when I see people who think like you and live where you live trying to pitch in on being more kind and patient about the people who live where I live. I don’t have a lot of ideas about how you should be reaching out, but I know you should be looking for opportunities.

  9. May 6, 2017 10:06 am

    Oh boy, I have ebbed and flowed so much over writing about books. There have been times when I’ve done it enthusiastically, and times when I’ve done it dutifully and plenty of times when I haven’t done it at all. What I do think is that blogging is better when you just follow the energy wherever it takes you. I love your writing about books and I also love your writing about going places and seeing things and thinking about anything and everything going on in the world. The political situation is such a hypnotic draw at present, but that can be bad as well as good. I feel like I need books to recalibrate me towards truth, otherwise I’ll start thinking that all the shit I read in the media has any meaning, lol! But seriously, I’ve found that I can only write what I really feel like writing on the blog, and that is just fine. Whatever you write is fine by me.

    • May 8, 2017 8:58 am

      That’s a very good phrase, “to recalibrate me towards truth.” Yes, that’s a big part of it. I see people so misled by anger and emotion that I’m having trouble trusting myself when I want to lead with anger or emotion. I have less to say, because I’m trying to understand more; I’m not ready to make many pronouncements about how people are, how the world is, or the extent to which “survival is insufficient.”

      • May 8, 2017 9:49 am

        You know, that is very, very wise to be saying less about how things ‘are’. I am SO drawn to that at the moment, wanting to tie it all up and designate it all neatly, and this is a complex situation that doesn’t really warrant that approach. I have such an urge to tell people things they don’t want to hear… It’s always been a big thing with me and you may imagine how insistent the urge is right now. But you’re right – it’s not the approach.

  10. Jenny permalink
    May 11, 2017 5:11 pm

    Even when I have the most to do, even when I’m not writing myself, I read here. It’s because you have both common sense and a sense of humor; you have experience with literature and with human beings; you like a wide variety of things to read and you take real pleasure in reading them.

    Personally, I don’t think reading and writing about what you read are frivolous things to do, not if you’re enjoying them. Even first responders and day-care workers get a day off now and then. Even Mary Poppins. Even the Queen. Do what you like, do what rests you and what pleases you. I love what you give here, and I hope it will continue to give you joy.

    • May 11, 2017 5:17 pm

      Thanks, Jenny.
      I’m reassessing the personal approach, to some extent; re-considering some of the things that Tom, at Wuthering Expectations, has said over the years.
      What’s making me feel like writing again, though, as always, is personal. I think I just need a week or two to take a deep breath. I’ve been so angry, and that’s an impossible way to live for too long.

      • Jenny permalink
        May 11, 2017 8:28 pm

        I’d be interested to hear some of those musings, actually, about reconsidering the personal approach.

        I, too, have been much too angry (and stressed for other reasons as well), and deeply grieved. Maybe that’s why I think reading will help: it approximates listening, and a posture of listening is, or can be, a posture of humility. Which is refreshing. It reminds me of Mary Karr’s poem “Who the Meek are Not”.

        • May 12, 2017 5:04 pm

          Oh, I like that poem; I hadn’t read it before.
          I have been doing a lot of reading and listening, and I think what you say about how it can be a “posture of humility” is what I’m considering in terms of what I understand about Tom’s position, over the years, on how we can (maybe should) take a less personal perspective on the books we discuss. Because right now I’m focused on listening, I feel less inclined and somewhat less able to give my personal perspective. Also it seems less important.

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