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Patriots Day

11 Sep

America, Seen Through Poems, Radiantly or Led From The Slaughter

It is raining in America, and I am turning the Camry onto Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis as Garrison Keillor, playing through the tape deck, tells me about the loss of ritual. We don’t get to see the hog slaughter any more, he tells me, and this is a terrible thing, because we have lost a sense of momentousness and diligence, the purpose of death. He calls it “A life in which people made do and made it their own, where people lived off the land and were independent on that account. A life where people lived between the ground and God.” I love that phrase, “lived between the ground and God”, unsure as I often am about the latter and sometimes only tenuously connected to the former, because it carries with it both a certitude of living, and infinite possibility.

It is Friday the 10th of September, 2010, I was born in 1984, and this radio segment was recorded in 1983, making it older than I am. Keillor goes on about men made hardy by the solemn killing of animals for food. “I think about it like the good old days when life was simple, and it’s just not true. It’s a terrible disservice to them. Life was simple for me because I was child, my happiness was looked after. It was not simple for the others…I can think of people who were terribly angry and people who were terribly hurt.” It is also comforting, in a solemn, saddening way, to know that nostalgia for a halcyon day extends past my brief existence, to know that people have been bitter and angry at their present situation for as long as present situations have existed. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes most famously called the natural condition of mankind “nasty, brutish and short,” which it for so long was, and still is, for so many. This thought gets stuck in me around the 11th of September, a date which, in America, has become shorthand for all sorts of nasty brutishness, and like Hobbes’ argument in Leviathan, a justification for strong-armed rule by fear and flame, by paranoia and predator drone.

I nose the Camry into a streetside spot and make my way into the Playwrights’ Center, a converted old church, I assume from the architecture and the remnant lectern in the lobby. I am there to see LEAVES by Savage Umbrella, an intrepid company of collaborators and artists who have created a new work inspired by that American godfather Walt Whitman and his great epic, Leaves of Grass. Ah, Whitman, who Ginsburg called “dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher”, what thoughts would you have tonight? Would you have a Twitter account I could follow from which to glean insight, direction and courage? Courage-teaching is what LEAVES is all about. It is, as co-director Laura Leffler-McCabe promised, “…a show about America, but America is you, so it’s a show about you,” a show that looks plainly but with mad poetry at the difficulties of life and of love for six American characters. The characters mourn the passing of a uniting figure and come through affirming that it is indeed, important to live and love themselves and others. This may seem like a naïve and foolish thing to say, but it is true, for me and for you, and it is the sweet and central role of poets and artists to say foolish things to test for truth.


But “you” is one of those terribly difficult things to quantify in the America that coalesced after a Tuesday nine years ago. “You” is no longer a part of a “me and you” love song, but more often a part of the “you are either with us or against us” battle cry. The division of “you” goes deep, to the fundamental separation of “me, not you” that allows us to easily, handily and to demagogic and violent ends view someone else as another. An artist who brilliantly exploited this was Diane Arbus, whose arresting images shock, jar and fix, because they seem to place other humans so strangely and far away from us as viewers. Susan Sontag, in her essay “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly” from On Photography casts the atomized work of Arbus up against the Whitmanesque ideals of democratic and open grandeur, majesty and beauty. The work and popularity of Arbus, it seems to Sontag, is the end of the end of Whitman’s ideal of a popular art that could be open to all as a democratic celebration of individuals in America, of the pioneers and inventors. Her photographs are reducible to otherness. The America of Arbus separates, highlights the brutish and the nasty with a pathos that makes it palatable and justifiable as art. In Arbus’ photographs, Sontag notes, “Hobbesian man roams the street, quite visible, with glitter in his hair.”

In America, though, Hobbesian man is free to be in the streets, to wear glitter in his hair. You are free to be angry, bitter and hurt about the events of your life and the time you live in. You are free to be nasty, brutish and short about it, I am free to be be expansive, golden and tall. That we are tied together is the America of Whitman, the great democratic experiment, the living Constitution and the evolving social contract and a civil society based on the equality and rights of all. To see the humanity of our enemies is to have heroic compassion, is the moral arc of the universe. That is the ideal that is so precious and celebrated in Leaves of Grass, in LEAVES, and should be on 9/11. That living “between ground and God” ought not be, cannot be reduced down to “between my ground and my God” without failing the whole grand endeavor. For those whose bindings of certitude are on so tight that there can be no growth, the people threatening to burn Qur’ans, whose mourning has them blinkered and hateful, the people daring to dictate the religious freedom, for those denying that our fortunes rise and fall together, these are not pioneers. The ground of hate has already been broken, encamped, entrenched, sown and reaped in this country. Whitman championed the individual, but the individual as part of a connected whole, which is critical to the survival of this great nation. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, which rings across decades, wrote that “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture, but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

In times like these, the poets, artists and actors have words for you, for the individuals making up the groups that are these United States. “I want to believe a poem could stop a war” the actors say in LEAVES. If a poem could stop a war, fix the foundation and remind us of our purpose, a good candidate would be Whitman’s “America”, here in full:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

Those words are ritual, they are ideals that passed through generations of Americans and we should do more with them then just sell jeans. Whitman knew that as with every generation, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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