A Brief Note on Wilco’s Bright Leaves

Wilco’s Ode to Joy, released in October, 2019, is absolutely a joy to listen to if you enjoy melancholy musings. And the first track, Bright Leaves, welcomes us into this album’s darkly ironic landscape of lyrical contradictions. The lyrics are:

I don’t like
The way you’re treating me
Warm winter rain
I found my keys
Under the snow
An empty page glowing
Alone for days
Behind a quiet door
Sitting in a drift
Us in a car
Arguing I’d forgive
But I always forget
Which side I’m on
I never change
You never change
It’s my fault
There’s no decision
Sometimes I’m just a hole
For you to get in
I never change
You never change
Somehow we’re bright leaves
You and I beneath the old snow
Being set free by the winter rain
And I know it’ll never change
You never change
You never change
You never change
You never change
You never change
You’re never gonna change
You’re never gonna change
You never change
You never change
You never change
You never change
You never change
You’re never gonna change
You’re never gonna change

The refrain, I never change/You never change is both an accusation and a self-indictment. And the ostensible meaning of the phrase is undermined by the central imagery of the song: the bright leaves (or keys, as it were) set free by warm winter rain. The bright leaves are dead (that is, unchanging) and they signify change itself, that of the seasons. And the warm winter rain signifies the impermanence of even the coldest of frozen states.

So, this song is our welcome mat into the rest of the album where change is hard and cold and impermanent:

And when you die, who’s to blame?
Did you think everything would be okay?

Fucking gorgeous. Thank you, Jeff Tweedy.

Why “Writing In The Dark”?

Because. ‘Because’ is not an answer, my daughter would say.

Those happen to be the first lines of my only published poem to date.

Okay, okay.

Because I don’t know what I am going to write when I sit down to the blinking cursor.

I don’t have any idea of where to start, except I know I want to write. I like the physical act of typing on the keyboard. It is meditative. I like the process of reading what I have written. I like seeing something on the page. I like the thoughts it triggers in me. Well, not all the thoughts – for instance, I could do without the neverending jabbering of my inner critic.

Also, because this is meant to be an exploration of ideas website. I know I have nothing original to say (thank you, mind). So, I will begin by just saying.

I listen a lot in my daily life. I speak less often. Here is where I can do the speaking, er, writing. I could also have titled this page Writing Into The Dark because I am reaching out into the darkness of (self-)knowledge and trying to make sense of it.

Why would you want to join me on this journey? That’s your question to answer. I will try to entertain along the way. I cannot make claims to enlightening others because I am seeking to enlighten myself.

Note: I have collected some posts from a previous incarnation of my blog and most of them appear with the date of June 24, 2020. I’ve found it difficult, being a WordPress newbie, to keep those dates changed to their “original” dates. They were from the spring of 2018. For the record, Westworld lost me in season 2. I’m still learning from Borzutzky and Baldwin, though. And I think Sorry To Bother You is a masterful film.

At any rate… onward and upward. I hope you enjoy what you find here. I hope I do too.

Let Light Shine Out of Darkness

The title of this poem is an imperative. Whether it is directed at the reader or the author is unclear. The first line, “I live in a body that does not have enough light in it,” seems to frame the entire book. It is an attitude toward oneself that is critical and despairing, yet seeking.

“Once, I even said to the body I live with: I think I need more light in my body, but I really did not take this seriously as a need, as something I deserved to have.” Deserve is such an interesting choice here, for what are needs but those things which we deserve? We need food, water, shelter, clothing. We deserve them as human beings. Do we deserve light in the same way? And what is this light he speaks of? “… something blue or green to shine from my rib cage….” Like something unearthly within us. The soul?

“Other times when I am talking about lightness I am talking about breath and space and movement/ For it is hard to move in a body so congested with images of mutilation.”

This is our modern dilemma. How modern is it, one might ask? Isn’t it the human dilemma throughout our existence as a species? Violence. Mutilation. Toward one another, animals, the earth itself. How different is war and slaughter now than it has ever been?

Then there is the cruel framed as one-liners: “Did you hear the one about the illegal immigrant who electrocuted his employee’s genitals? Did you hear the one about the boy in Chicago whose ear was bitten off when he crossed a border he did not know existed?”

“I want to give you more room to move so I am trying to carve a space, with light, for you to walk a bit more freely.”

Is he really, though? It seems less like he is carving a space for us to move more freely and more like he is trying to shine light on the darkness – congest our bodies with images of mutilation. I find it hard to breathe sometimes reading Borzutzky. The denseness and the brutality of his writing makes me feel as though I am being buried alive.

The Performance of Becoming Human

“So for now hasta luego compadres and don’t worry too much about the bucket of murmuring shit that is the unitedstatesian night.

What does it say? What does it say? What do you want it to say?” (19)

I begin at the end with this poem. What do we want it to say? Certainly not to be littered with the bodies and mutilations of this poem. At least, that is not the murmurs of the unitedestatesian night that I want. But it is the hand we have been dealt at this stage of late capitalism, global capitalism if you wish. Our oppression of others crosses all borders with relative ease, like capital itself and unlike humans who are shuttled in inhuman conditions from one place to another like so many objects.

~

One thing that strikes me about this poem is the shifting language and narrative and the starkness of its images. It is a vicious and surreal bedtime story, “a bedtime story for the end of the world,” (15) and dreamlike at times, almost like we are only getting pieces of the stories themselves, as though we, the readers, are drifting off to sleep while listening and missing important details.  The thousand refugees become just one mother and son who share a gag that has been shared by “[h]undreds, thousands, tens of thousands.” (15) Cows break open after falling off a cliff and “sheep and humans and countries” come falling out. (17)

~

“The broken bodies stand by the river and wait for the radiation to trickle out of the houses and into their skin.

They stand under billboards and sniff paint and they know the eyes that watch them own their bodies.

A more generous interpretation might be that their bodies are shared between the earth, the state and the bank.” (16)

Are we the “eyes that watch them”? (16) And who are we? Clearly “we” are unitedstatesians, but does it reach beyond that? Citizens of what might be called the First world? If so, what is our responsibility to these “bodies”?

I think we must be the First world citizens. This is at least one way to make sense of the “generous interpretation” – that we are all of us, the eyes that watch them and the bodies themselves, locked in systems – “the earth, the state and the bank” – that define us and delimit our “roles,” our “performances” as humans. And we are, each of us, “dying from so many stories. We are not complete in the mind from so many stories of burning houses, missing children, slaughtered animals.” (17)

One way of thinking about our position in all of this is to read ourselves into the last few paragraphs of the poem where the narrator, or Borzutzky himself (Is there a difference?), implores us:

“But seriously, friends:

What do you make of this darkness that surrounds us?

They chopped up two dozen bodies last night and today I have to pick up my dry cleaning.

In the morning I need to assess student learning outcomes as part of an important administrative initiative to secure the nation’s future by providing degrees of economic value to the alienated, urban youth.” (19)

The question is what do we do about it all and what can we do given our relative positions within said systems? I suppose the first step is to listen to the stories. But then I, personally, am somewhat tired of simply listening. I hear it. Now what can I do about it? It brings to mind an article I read in the New York Times recently about people selling off parts of Albinos in southern Africa. I read this on the train on my way to a work meeting. What possible significance could my work meeting have in the face of such horror? And yet, I went to my work meeting. I think part of Borzutzky’s question is, how do I not just stay in bed when faced with these stories? Or at least that is the question I ask myself. And yet, he doesn’t. He teaches. He writes. He picks up his dry cleaning in the morning, like all of us do. And at what cost to ourselves and to others? Is there another choice we should be making? Collectively, it is clear that other choices need to be made. But, individually, how do we respond?

I don’t expect Borzutzky’s poems to offer the answers to these questions, I simply put them out into the world. And I continue to read… and think… and write. And try to stay out of bed because these bedtimes stories may make me want to stay there, but it is probably the last thing that is needed at this juncture. Besides, with stories like these to put us to sleep, it is a fitful sleep at best.

James Baldwin’s Unstable “We”

It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear. As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics; it is revealed in Negro speech and in that of the white majority and in their different frames of reference. The ways in which the Negro has affected the American psychology are betrayed in our popular culture and in our morality; in our estrangement from him is the depth of our estrangement from ourselves. We cannot ask: what do we really feel about him – such a question merely opens the gates on chaos. What we really feel about him is involved with all that we feel about everything, about everyone, about ourselves.

Notes of a Native Son, 25.

This first paragraph of Many Thousands Gone, ostensibly a critique of Richard Wright’s Native Son but in reality a cogent cultural critique on race in America, encapsulates the unstable status of “we” in Baldwin’s essay. The word fails to delimit an in and out group in that it seems to have a referent of everyone and no one in particular at the same time. If the reader takes it to refer to Americans, this interpretation is troubled by Baldwin’s use of “their” to refer to Americans in the first sentence and the “we” in the third sentence which seems to include or exclusively refer to black Americans who are “oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence.” “Our” in the fourth sentence returns us to a stable referent of “Americans” only to be undercut by the fifth and sixth sentences which seem to use “we” and “our” to refer exclusively to white Americans which strains the reader’s mind when that “we” is coming from Baldwin’s pen.

The status of “we” as a word with no distinct meaning parallels the status of “the Negro” that Baldwin lays out in his essay as a sociological concept, as opposed to an individual. That is to say, there is no living breathing referent for the word “we” in his essay. Except there is – Baldwin and his audience. 

Bigger Thomas, Baldwin argues, is no more than a caricature of race – an idea of a black man who has absorbed white America’s notions of a black man, not a man in and of himself. He is no less a stereotype than Aunt Jemimah or Uncle Tom. Baldwin, by using “we” the way he does in the essay accomplishes almost the opposite – he becomes a reflection and embodiment of what white America could say about race itself were it willing to confront its own racist and racialized thinking. In so doing, Baldwin highlights the way in which black Americans, including him, know whites better than we know ourselves: “It is not Bigger who we fear…. It is the others, who smile, who go to church, who give no cause for complaint, whom we sometimes consider with amusement, with pity, even with affection – and in whose faces we sometimes surprise the merest arrogant hint of hatred, the faintest, withdrawn, speculative shadow of contempt – who make us uneasy; whom we cajole, threaten, flatter, fear; who to us remain unknown, though we are not (we feel with both relief and hostility and with bottomless confusion) unknown to them. ” Notes of a Native Son, 37.

Baldwin is both one with and apart from the group he insinuates with his use of “we.” Being a black Amerian, he cannot divorce himself from his racialized status, and yet, reading “we” with him, a white American, both in his time and still today, can see himself reflected almost more truly than were Baldwin white. It is a kind of reverse minstrelsy that Baldwin achieves; reversed both in form and content. Baldwin speaks truth to power and includes himself in the class of people who exercise that power. He lays the culpability for disappearing the individual black American at the feet of both white and black Americans. We, together, are responsible for unmucking this mess called race in America, and we, together, must take the lead in doing so.

Seeking Narrative Consciousness (contains spoilers)

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HBO’s Westworld, season one, masterfully explores the nature of reality, morality, freedom, and consciousness. These themes are knit together by a larger exploration of narrative that is central to the show’s premise. Consciousness, for the writers of Westworld, is a maze of narratives. At the center of the maze is freedom, but the center is always receding and when one believes one has reached it, the center is revealed to be a piece of yet another narrative. The narrative loops that the hosts inhabit are a metaphor for the narrative loops we, as humans, inhabit – the stories we tell ourselves about others, the world, reality, and, most significantly, ourselves. Initially, the illusion seems to be that freedom lies in escaping these narratives, but the show eventually converges on a much less elusive, if more illusory, notion of freedom – namely, authorship.

Both the show’s heroines, Dolores and Maeve, achieve a kind of authorship by the end of season one. Dolores comes to realize that the voices she has been hearing and obeying are her own voice and reasons that she must kill Ford and the board members gathered in the park in order to bring about a more perfect world. Maeve refuses to accept that her leaving the park is simply a new narrative iteration, written for her like all the loops before, but it is not until she decides to return to the park in search of her daughter that she (and we) are convinced of her authorial “freedom.” However, their freedoms are not complete. Ford seems to know precisely the moment Dolores will shoot him in the head, indicating that at least this much has been written for her and is, in fact, Ford’s narrative. And, even if Maeve does not play out the narrative that has been written, by returning to the park she is investing the narrative of her daughter’s life with a degree of truth that it, perhaps, does not deserve. And so, the loops continue.

It will be interesting to see where season 2 takes the viewer. (I have not yet begun to watch.) I am especially interested to see how and whether the show maintains the narrative complexity it both engenders and elevates as more valuable than simple black and white tales of good and evil. After all, the man in black, William, seemingly the villain of the show, is cast as seeing the game (and the world) in terms of good and evil, black and white, winners and losers, though he alternately occupies both sides of these equations. He is the antithesis of narrative complexity. As Ford and others tell him, “The maze is not meant for you.” Wouldn’t it be interesting if even this simpleton could become the conscious author of his own narrative instead of always looking for it externally. What, for instance, happens when he learns that Dolores is Wyatt, as we are led to believe? Does he fall into despair again or does he rise to a new level of consciousness?

Ultimately, Westworld is a story that takes stories and storytelling very seriously. It is no accident that narrative truth is the highest truth in the show. It is, in some ways, the only truth a story can peddle. Here’s hoping this one can continue to deliver at the highest level.

“Sorry to Bother You”

In September, 2017 I listened to a discussion between Michelle Alexander and Naomi Klein moderated by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. (An edited version of this talk can be seen here) The theme of the talk was that we needed to do more than just say no. That we, as progressives, need to not only resist what Trump and his administration represent (arguably, the apotheosis of capitalist ideology), but also create an alternate vision of what America and the world can be. One of the things Naomi Klein urged was new narratives, new art, that could envision a different world. Not just dystopic art, but art that envisions, to steal a term from Rawls, a “realistic utopia.” I feel like Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You begins to answer this call.

Sorry To Bother You paints a fully realized picture of a not-so-distant future capitalist dystopia and, then, offers a version of resistance that is hopeful, that creates a newish world. I don’t want to get too much into plot points because no one likes spoilers. Suffice to say, the answer is, perhaps, an old one – class unity across racial and ethnic lines. Without being prescriptive and without denying the very real cultural (human?) desires for material comfort, the film offers up, in its quirky and magical-realist way, an alternative vision of what success is. Funny enough it is articulated by the main character’s girlfriend, Detroit, in the beginning of the film. When confronted with Cassius’s existential questions about what happens when all human memory is wiped from the universe by an exploded sun, Detroit responds that she wants to be surrounded by the people she loves when she dies and that all that matters is the present moment – love between two people. This seems hopelessly naive at the time, but proves to be precisely what matters in the end. Or so one hopes.

But Sorry To Bother You is not naive. It makes clear that those simple pleasures will not be won without a fight. The powerful cannot be shamed into behaving humanely. Power must be wrested from the hands of those who would abuse it and placed into the hands of a re-imagined collective. This seems less like class warfare and more like a realistic assessment of the task at hand for progressives. It does beg the question, can one live comfortably in a world where anyone is deprived of the basics necessities of life? In other words, even if the class struggle in America were to be fought and won, would living comfortably be justified in the face of global poverty? But perhaps the first step is for we progressives who have to live uncomfortably, to recognize and fight against our own complacent complicity. To appropriate a phrase, art’s job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I think Sorry To Bother You succeeds at that and, like all great art, deserves multiple returns to its rich narrative.

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A bit of trivia – somewhere in the middle of the film, Detroit’s earrings (which are always changing) say “Bury the rag deep in your face.” A little Bob Dylan for the careful viewer. Made me smile.

Daniel Borzutzky’s “Dream Song #17”

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DREAM SONG #17

They took my body to the forest
They asked me to climb a ladder

I did not want to climb a ladder
But they forced me to climb the ladder

If you don't climb the ladder
we will bury you in the mud

I had to decide  should I die
by hanging  or by burial

I climbed the ladder and they wrapped
a belt around the thick limb of a tree

And when I could no longer breathe
they tossed me into a stream

And I floated to the edge of the village
where someone prayed for my soul

It's like this in a lullaby
for the end of the world:

The options for the end 
are endless

But this is not really a lullaby
for the end of the world

It's about the beginning
what happens when we start to rot

in the daylight
The way the light shines on

the ants and worms and parasites
loving our bodies

It's about the swarms of dogs
gnawing our skin and bones

Do you know what it's like
when a ghost licks your intestines

To avoid the hole
the children must sing sweetly, softly

To avoid the hole
they must fill their songs with love (1)

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This poem is one of my favorites from Borzutzky’s collection, The Performance of Becoming Human. For me, the beauty of this poem turns on the lines “The way the light shines on//the ants and worms and parasites/loving our bodies.” These lines are the beginning of what the narrator tells us this “lullaby” is really about and the reference to light ties this poem to the themes of the entire book which begins with a poem I have already discussed entitled Let Light Shine Out of Darkness. The first line of that poem reads, “I live in a body that does not have enough light in it.” The title of that poem comes from certain translations of the Bible, 2 Corinthians 4:6 which is, in itself, a reference to Genesis 1:3 where God says “Let there be light.” Therefore the word “light” moves through The Performance of Becoming Human and shifts and changes meaning. At times it is literal light, or the human soul, or the voice of God, or light as in “light in spirit” or humorous, or, as in Dream Song #17, it is all of these and daylight shining on a scene of decomposition.

In some ways, it is this last sense of light that Borzutzky is embracing throughout The Performance of Becoming Human. His poetry is shining daylight on the price of late capitalism, if one can use a market term like “price” to describe what is anathema to the market itself – the costs (again, another market term) to our souls. It is a kind of ode to and celebration of what comes after, but before “what comes after” has begun or even been imagined. Borzutzky finds horrific beauty in the inevitable end of humanity as we know it that will result from our bureaucratization, marketization, and objectification of humans. There is little to be hoped for in this dystopic world which is, in fact, our present moment.

But Dream Song #17 ends with a wish of sorts. It ends with the image of children singing in order to “avoid the hole.” The hole may be the death by burial referred to at the beginning of the poem, it may be death generally, or it may be something more hopeful – to avoid the death of humanity altogether. The last lines of the poem resonate in at least two different registers. There is an almost sinister presence, the presence of “they” who make the narrator choose his method of execution, insisting that the children sing in order to avoid the hole. But then there is a more generous interpretation that allows for the possibility of human transformation into something more filled with light – a future that includes a new, more loving, iteration of humanity. It is this dual sense of Borzutzky’s poetry throughout – the horrific paired with and presented as beautiful – that gives The Performance of Becoming Human its power and, ultimately, transforms the dystopic into something not utopic but perhaps hopeful, something that is not about the “end of the world” but “about the beginning.”

(1) From p30-31 of The Performance of Becoming Human, published in 2016. I cannot always recreate the poems I discuss in their entirety, but in this case I chose to do so because the version that exists online, which was published in Poetry Magazine in May 2014, has several differences and one that I consider to be significant. Namely, in the older version, the “ants and worms and parasites” are “mauling our bodies” whereas in the version I have recreated here  the “ants and worms and parasites” are “loving our bodies.”