Moving on from “After the Lecture at Yale”

After the Lecture at Yale

Whether or not there are bobcats
in Southbury is up for debate.
But I will concede as we turn onto Old Farm Road
that here there are MAGA partisans
and that demagogues can woo quiet neighbors
even in the State of Steady Habits.

Because lawn signs don’t lie.
Neither do lengths of charming stone walls
laid in the time of charters and King George.
According to the Nobel laureate, first there was rock,
then protoplasm, then an ingenious race of hominids
milling wheat and clicking away on abaci
in a time-lapse compendium
paused just past ENIAC and ballpoint pens.
He said that slime-slicked granite deep in the Precambrian
was the first cooperative community.

But that was last night in Sterling Library,
and now I’m sketching plans at the table
between rulers and a stack of The New Yorker
as you brew chai tea, prime the nail gun,
unfurl stenciled blueprints of our barn-cum-studio
in the making. With renovations, we can sell our land
for a premium our Brooklyn friends tell us.

But it’s charming here, and the afternoon
is a pleasant exasperation of tape measures
and twine as October wind works its way
through chinks and cools our sweat.
We can paint our canvasses here 
and impress our Chicago friends
with our view of the Taconic Mountains.
Yet still my eyes linger on the “Make America Great Again” signs
down the road.

“It’s class solipsism,” our sociologist friend
tells me, and reminds me
that not everyone reads The New Yorker
or has a chance to go to graduate school.
And true, I haven’t gotten around to reading
J.D. Vance, so I still wonder.

We call it a day as the sun lowers over the valley,
and we’re strolling along the stone wall.
I’m thinking about the slime-covered rocks,
of the wriggling amoebas, the blooming lichen,
the goatherds speaking Sumerian on the banks
of the Tigris. And soon enough there are charters 
directing our ancestors to form towns and harvest
sassafras for shipment back to England.
There’s the brief blip of ENIAC, but not before Nagasaki,
and followed by Darfur and Srebrenica
along with Timothy McVeigh and the 16th Street Baptist Church.   	
And it all started with the protoplasm.

We don’t think of crossing those granite rocks,
approaching our neighbors, and getting a sense
of why exactly they’re casting their lot with
“the greatest existential threat to liberal democracy”
(according to our professor friend in Seattle).
You’re making quinoa paella for dinner,
and besides, I want to finish sketching.

I wrote this poem on the eve of the 2016 US presidential election. I think it’s still relevant to today’s news landscape. It also still captures how I feel about collective responsibility and the consequences of community atomization.

The catalog of explosive historical events in the sixth stanza might be clichéd and a bit overwrought, but that’s why I’m publishing this poem; I’m trying to exorcise my former interest in collapse. In my late teens and early twenties I was a bit of a “kollapsnik” and was fascinated by societal calamity, as epitomized in Thomas Cole’s painting Destruction in his Course of Empire series.

Thomas Cole, Destruction (1836)

What we focus on grows, so it’s no surprise that my fixation on cataclysm led to a period of suicidal depression. I’ve matured a lot since then. But the presence of poems like “After the Lecture at Yale” in my electronic archive kept that fascination smoldering; when drafts of poems like this came to mind, I’d start thinking of whether I should make revisions and spend money to submit them to literary magazines. By posting this poem and others like it, though, the tantalization of publication is eliminated since most literary magazines won’t print works that were previously published on a personal website. Then I can more fully move on to my new commitment to renewal and the Great Turning.

This is the first of several old self-authored poems I will unload here in order to create more mental space for myself (this website is as much for me as it is for you). And since pieces of writing are transmuted when they are read by an audience, perhaps these pieces will stop being mere artifacts of a gloomy stage in my life and become progressive stepping stones towards my later realization that humanity is poised on the precipice of a new era of abundance and unity.

The Conceit of Linearity

In her essay “The Reveal,” Charlotte du Cann characterizes civilizations as “fixed systems within vast non-linear systems.”1 I’d say this description is accurate. At some point the mounds of Cahokia and citadels of Mohenjo-daro crossed the line from being integral, maintained facets of living communities to being mere ruins. What happened? We in fact know that Cahokia was abandoned due to deforestation-induced flooding, political infighting, and finally a massive earthquake,2 while the (probable) salinization of crop fields around Mohenjo-daro was accompanied by shifts in the course of the Indus River plus a series of earthquakes.3 In effect, the vast nonlinear systems of climate and geology confounded the linear assumptions of continued agricultural sustenance that engender cultures to become sedentary. So the ancients of the Mississippi and Indus valleys pulled up stakes and left. 

We’ve all gotten a taste lately of what it’s like when sedentary culture’s expectation of linearity runs up against the biophysical vicissitudes of Earth. COVID-19 has scrambled global supply chains, and what began as a run on hygiene products has rippled out to shortages of computer chips, manufacturing parts, food items, and other consumer goods as factories worldwide contend with rolling waves of covid-related closures.4 The grounding of the Ever Given container ship this spring in the Suez Canal seemed to be a metaphor for the breakdown of commercial normalcy while literally deepening the supply chain morass further.5 But beyond the material realm, COVID-19 has also undermined the ecosystem of human services we in the industrial world depend on. I can’t speak for other countries, but in the US a deficit of healthcare workers6 and childcare workers7 has grown to acute levels since the pandemic began. Even celebratory fixtures of modern life like the Olympic Games have not been spared. The “Tokyo 2020” graphics at this summer’s Olympiad served as an omnipresent reminder to TV viewers that one of our most vaunted gathering of nations was also waylaid by invisible lifeforms likely unleashed by disregard for wild animals and the nonhuman realm.8

Ever Given grounded in the Suez Canal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I went deaf in my left ear at the age of 18. At the time I was already experiencing progressive hearing loss in my right ear, and I was making plans for my life that depended on me not experiencing anything as drastic as sudden hearing loss. I’ve also had to contend with other unexpected health complications. So I’m intimately familiar with the ways in which expectations of linearity become a conceit. This sustained exposure to disruption is why I don’t think the covid-related convulsions afflicting the world are temporary hiccups. Rather, they feel like dress rehearsals for the more significant discontinuities we will have to adjust to as the exponential processes of global warming ramp up. So it could be well advised to get used to disruption rather than long for a golden pre-covid era when the flows of labor, commerce, and our familiar modes of living were seemingly unimpeded.

This cognitive shift towards an expectation of further upheaval does not have to be prep for some sort of atavistic low-tech future. In conversation I’ve been referring to my experience of these years of cultural and personal transition as a ride, as in “I’m riding the tumult.” Only lately have I noticed how this choice of verb aligns my subjective experience with how a surfer regards the ocean. Surfers paddle towards one of the most recognizably nonlinear manifestations of nature—an ocean wave—with relatively little assurance that they will emerge unscathed. Yet if they do catch a swell and ride it in full, they can get exhilaration out of the process and find that, once the water has calmed, they are better for the experience. 

It all comes down to perception, which is an exercise of free will. Choosing to “ride” tumult does not deny instances of devastation or mass casualty (we are in the middle of a pandemic after all). But while the media goes into histrionics about the disintegration of normal and many people further broadcast this narrative of fear by demonizing something as trivial as a face mask, the rest of us can choose to transmute something frightening into a learning experience. When a critical mass of people turns the unknown into an opportunity for growth, then we are laying the groundwork for that longed-for societal metamorphosis process. 

The disintegration of predictability—our conceit of linearity—is not the end of the world. It’s the end of the world as we know it, where our institutions are okay with proceeding with business as usual while atmospheric carbon dioxide rises to its highest level in 3 million years9 and we careen further into the planet’s sixth mass extinction. Unlike the people of Cahokia or Mohenjo-daro, we know where environmental despoliation and political dysfunction is taking us. So treating our paradigm’s loss of predictability as a learning opportunity is a matter of societal survival. If we do in fact turn the current global tremors to our advatage, we may look back on these years as the invitation to the more beautiful world we ended up creating.