Poem Exchange on Statues

I had an exchange with a friend several weeks ago on the tearing down of statues; we only wrote to one another, at first, in poems, and we wrote our poems in under an hour, so excuse us the flaws in our work. I offer it to you here as an interruption in programming, before the event recedes too much in the rearview mirror.

I am not an iconoclast, although I wholeheartedly endorse removing statues to Confederate generals and those whose purpose was wrapped up in the institution of slavery. This trend can, of course, go far past the original target. I feel this awkward need simultaneously to apologize for the poem and to explain it and even (at least in part) to justify it.

Here are the poems; I will say a few words of explanation after them.

My friend offered me this:

Splintered pate;
It takes an Etruscan
to stand up straight —
since none of us can.

A leper’s alone —
but you are much more,
Roman emperor,
chipped out of stone.

Easier to eschew,
harder to fathom
the hanging Jew,
the crux of the matter.

What if
He broke the loaf
for us both —
leper and monolith?

To which I replied:

The crucified Jew
ascended the tree
to offer atonement
and to open (for me,
and also for you)
hard firmament.
–but there is nothing up there.

Peirce the floodgates of ‘olam ha-ba
with a spear, watch flow river justice
–long she’s been lordly freedom’s kin–
and uproot from throat the Pharaoh’s ka;
the deep’s his flesh’s true home, it’s not this
monument polished by arid wind
that marks his rightful dwelling. His bling
is the missives of mauled, maltreated men: mournful manacles as his mound
in the deep, from the leashes of them that died unredeemed, without a sound
of riot. (Be sheeply, good flock, and let God redeem you.)

The walk across the red sea floor
cannot raise the face or frame
of slaves face-down in Egypt’s mud;
Miriam sings on the trail to more
and new Pharaohs, still the same,
and oceans of blood.

No dead slaves sing in Zion’s hall;
all Pharaohs must die, all statues fall.

The great ones think the sky kingdom they image;
the lepers, though flawed, know they only will pillage
–so no exhortation to peace
will secure the release
of the vandalizing statues.

I do not think it takes a discerning reader to detect the recent themes of investigation here impinging upon the poem. –and note: I wrote the poem response in a bad mood, and I do not advocate for the guillotine or its analogues. I do not think that tactic tends to lead to good places; the goals of revolutionaries are very rarely achieved by violent rebellion. The obvious exception proves the rule — America, which was basically trying to justify its M.O., rather than to make a new thing by violence. One can only destroy chains if one knows how to build, and few iconoclasts strike me as builders; most simply seem like kids that are, as Nietzsche noted, powder kegs who are not attracted to reason, but to the match, because what they really want is to explode. Hopefully these kids can be guided by people who are builders.

I worry that the opportunities for justice in the present moment will be squandered by bad actors, busybodies who really wish they could have been part of the Spanish Inquisition, fair-weather activists who basically want the analogue to a concert, and upwardly mobile bourgeoisie who want to perform their virtue. I hope we can do better than to succumb to these, but the places and people who need to be seen and heard and understood and in whom we need to recognize ourselves are not the people being platformed, and the actual mechanisms of oppression are often occluded by hack theorists with platforms and coalitions (to say nothing of the outrage industry that reacts to these, and so manages to keep attention off of the people who deserve it). Differences are real, but mutual recognition is possible, even though it leaves everyone changed — for the better, transfigured. If people are not seen, and if seen we cannot recognize ourselves in others, it is difficult to mobilize to share resources, and to change existing systems to be actually, and not just “tokenly” (to coin a word), inclusive. The possibility of mutual recognition is often undermined by a strange effort to balkanize people into racial groups. It is undermined by the limited worlds in which we live (where the life situations of others are “off stage” to us), and our limited attention spans (the media feeds us so much distraction, and not much that would be civically useful for the cause of justice), our consumer habits (we usually look for more of the same, and usually that does not mean exposing ourselves to novelty in any substantial sense), our consumer-driven tendencies to comfort over achieving hard things (“it is bad for digestion”, Nietzsche’s “Last Men” say, “and blink”). It is limited by a number of things.

Color me skeptical, I guess. The establishment doesn’t actually want to fix anything, but to sell you tickets to the protest, and to sell you books about how you can crusade (on a war that can never actually be finished), or self-flagellate (in a penance that can never finally expiate your sins), and to populate corporations with consultants to further these aims — rather than address the legacy injuries caused by slavery and racist policies. The system hardly wants justice for anyone, regardless of their race — it wants profit. For capitalism, bad situations are tolerable if they occur in places where the bottom line is not affected, and insofar as those ugly situations create business opportunities.

So now I swing to defending my language in the poem, which has biblical precedent: “he has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” is the song of Mary in the Magnificat, and “my mouth is open wide to bolt down my foes” (Alter transl.), is the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel; so there is something to the sentiment. In both cases, life and new horizons open to them by the arrival of a child that brings life and freedom and a new future, when any future had been closed by barrenness and its social and cosmic analogues (a rival spouse and her lineage, political corruption, the threat of death as a final horizon, cosmic corruption — can we, today, add ecological decline to the list, as well as classism, and the legacy effects of institutional racism?). Importantly, this future is given; neither Hannah nor Mary make it themselves. They are, however, prepared, and desire it. They are not purely passive, even if they can’t make that future themselves.

Any iconoclasm that seeks to accomplish anything good must keep life and freedom and a life-filled common future as the object of its concern, rather than throwing stones and destroying evil. Can this mean life and freedom even for Pharaohs (if so, they cannot be liberated as Pharaohs, though, I suspect), or does this necessarily lead to their destruction? Power differences seem ineliminable in society; do we object to their abuse, or their presence?


Header image found here.

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