Poem: The state of politics

Poem: The state of politics

Poetry and politics make for strained companions. The politics of poets is unreliable, inclined to the spree of metaphors that makes the overly confident practitioners of practical judgement uneasy in their thrones. The imaginative thought of politicians can be banal and conceited, if not downright oxymoronic.

Oil and water, maybe? Still I have one foot in both camps, which makes for an interesting life. But both sides of my world – both the part that writes and the part that governs – reels back in revulsion at the state of politics today in modern liberal democracies.

In the course of writing the Burning Archive, I have from time to time, put in prose the disappointment and despair I feel from time to time about our republics in distress. In my series 13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat explored many dimensions of this troubled familiarity with how we are governed – beginning here, in the seed of an idea on perspectives planted by Wallace Stevens’ poem, and ending here, in contemplation of the long waits of winter that I must endure until the season of our politics turns again to some ordinary virtues of governing well. I have written of citizenship as a spiritual experience, of democracy’s discontents, the unravelling of empires, and predicted both Donald Trump’s victory and his failure. Politics is for me an ongoing concern, however much I am distancing myself from it in more recent years,

But today, let me share a poem I have written on the state of politics. It was written against the background of serial leadership challenges in the Australian state, a self-destructive debate on a carbon tax, and a creeping loss of faith that we still have the habits and institutions to resolve our differences and so make a civil life together. Instead we are infected with a culture of gotcha journalism and spiteful twitter smart alecs. Amidst this ruin, the ghost of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito rises, and provides his own report from a corrupted city.

The state of politics

Dr Cogito is reborn

Amidst our gadgets,

Displaying pixelated ruin

For ceaseless fireside chats.

 

On a panel two figures say:

Disunity is death is inevitable

Is the pragmatic choice

Because we know

There is no alternative.

 

Dr Cogito jumps to the mike

But the queued questioners

repudiate reason

putting passion first

To complain of taxing the elements.

 

Every questioner must twit the panel

To try 144 characters of fame

To display their chosen name

To win the acid-tongued mobs

 

On the panel two figures say:

We hate our shrunken state

If only clear air would set us free

From all this aimless hate.

 

Dr Cogito taps his tablet – but too slow

The dark grieving for Lycidas begins.

Unforgiven. Blue bloody murder

Patrols these dark Scottish halls.

 

Dr Cogito hears Das Rheingolds opening note,

And so the story goes:

We still dig from deep water’s mud:

The ring, the ring, the ring.

 

Jeff Rich

Image Source: Seattle Opera staging of Wagner’ Das Rheingold, photograph Rozarii Lynch

 

Poem: Nouriel’s Shoes

Poem: Nouriel’s Shoes

The following poem is from my Burning Archive collection.

It had its origins in a strategic leadership program I attended some years ago at the Australian and New Zealand School of Government. We, the participants, sat in a large circle of maybe 30, and were invited by the facilitator to declare something about ourselves, some thing we aspired to do, but had not. It was an exercise in getting out of our comfort zone, and into the kind of psychodynamic group space beloved by the Tavistock Institute.

There were some dull confessions and rote ambitions, and then it came to my turn.  I said, “I had always wanted to be a poet, but never had fully given myself over to it.” I was teetering on the verge of the perpetual crisis of my career – a dichter  lost in the maze of power. I heeded the call of the strange gods that I serve, and set out on my unique path.

Later in the leadership program, we were asked to develop a policy response to the immigration and refugee problem in Australia. We were shipped around Melbourne to meet various stakeholders, including one remarkable community leader of the Afghani refugee community in Melbourne. Nouriel was her name – I have forgotten her surname over the years.

When we presented our proposals to the group we were invited to be as imaginative as possible. I closed out our presentation, with an improvised story about Nouriel’s shoes, the gifts she gave to her home country in the hope that women would be educated, and her society would find peace and no longer need to be a source country for refugees.

Here is the poem.

Nouriel’s Shoes

 

Nouriel does not know time wasting.

She does not know carelessness.

Asylum seekers – she cannot forgive them,

For buying their way to freedom,

For walking past crying millions in the camps.

And the lawyers, who parade

Their bookish rights, like flash cars,

She despises.

 

She fled Kabul in ’79,

An educated woman in a liberal society

that just did not take.

Paris schooled her for a time –

Just like Khomeini, another exile –

Before the Great Southern Land

Gave her freedom,

But not a home.

 

She remembers Kabul:

Its ordered streets and fruit-trees,

The women laughing in the sunshine,

The children dressed in fine cottons,

Playing in the gardens.

Then, the tanks, the shells, the war, the hatred

That brought Afghanis to this kitchen,

At the other end of the world.

 

Here she returned the gift:

Making scarred men into kitchen hands;

Running English classes for the women;

Outwitting the men who would wrap

Their women in silent ignorance

To cocoon their cards and drink and faith;

Nouriel’s freedom must be worked for.

To those many who do, she gives all that she can.

 

Now she returns to Kabul,

after the Taliban

Have fled her city for now.

In abandoned parks, children play bare-footed

Between rubble and shells.

Schools barely hold their girls against poisoned faiths.

To these schools she decides to give;

So no more Afghanis will flee to her wealthy refuge,

But stay in her remembered home.

 

She buys the children shoes,

Hundreds of boxes of shoes.

One summer she visits a school with her gifts.

Watching as the children begin their long walk home,

She sees one girl carrying her box,

Still bare-footed, in the hard dust of the street.

Nouriel asks: “Why don’t you put them on?”

The girl replies: “I must wash my feet first.”

 

Jeff Rich

 

Image source: Getty images

An accidental tourist

Here is a poem of mine from about a year ago.

When the wind blows from I know not where
And stained visions crowd my troubled sleep
I wake late, mistaken and stripped bare
Only to stumble on the rock where I am told to leap

Leap into words infinite and sentences dread
Into the equations of the unreal and forbidden
Into these whispers that press past me like strangers
In a city, where even the streets are made of ether

And where I land and if and why
Are not mine to know

I land in some foreign place
Unimagined and unplanned
An accidental tourist chained in chance again.

 

Jeff Rich

 

 

Waste books and epigrams

Waste books and epigrams

“The excuses we make to ourselves when we want to do something are excellent material for soliloquies, for they are rarely made except when we are alone, and are very often made aloud.”

George Lichtenberg (1742-99), The Waste Books, #22, p 8

I collected from the local library The Notebooks of Robert Frost, which features on its cover an emblematic photograph of the aged poet writing in his Vermont home in 1958, as if he were painting at an easel.

Robert Frost.jpg

Image Source: Alfred Eisenstaedt via Prospect magazine

The notebooks stretch from the 1890s to the 1970s, spanning a life’s adventure in writing that is surely both too majestic and too humble to be known as a career, and contain all manner of writing, reflection, experiment and, as suits their form, annotations. Notebook 20 dates from 1929, and begins

“These are not monologues but my part in a conversation in which the other part is more or less implied.” (The Notebooks of Robert Frost, p 267)

The thought reminds me of Maurice Blanchot’s idea of the infinite conversation, which I imagine as the eternal, if enigmatic, survival of the solitary murmuring of the great words that sustain the connection between the dead and the living. To be part of this infinite conversation is why I write. To attend to the dying murmurings of this conversation, the words that are at risk of ashen destruction in the burning archive, is why I write, and why I devote so much time, despite no show of social success or fame or even much of an audience, to this life in literature.

It comes with a moral imperative, an ordinary virtue of dignity and grace in defeat, evoked in Herbert’s “Envoy of Mr Cogito”

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand
To be an old, grey, wizened and solitary man, like Frost in his Vermont home, and still to repeat these old incantations is my path of redemption.
Strange, though, that all we write is so perishable, so vulnerable to fire and neglect, and yet these impermanent notebooks endure. It is a paradox that these words survive beyond death when they are ephemeral, a temporary incantation against the chaos of the world, in which the poet-priest marks the lost place of truth and beauty in the world as if in a disappearing rite. These are words consigned to “waste books,” the flames and the mould, and not inscribed defiantly in stone like the original epigrams.

 

The introduction  to Frost’s Notebooks compares them to the “Waste Books” of George Lichtenberg.  Out of these scraps of notes, ideas, drafts, quotations, the ordinary observations of life emerged, after death, Lichtenberg, the great aphorist. The temporary words of waste books become in time monuments of soul-making.

Is the blog the new waste book? It is somewhere else surely. It does not have the  privacy of personal experiment, but nor does it have the polish and mirage of publication. Still it seeks to endure beyond its act of writing, just as Frost kept and preserved his notebooks. He dated them. He organised them. He secured them against loss and destruction, and bequeathed them to those who wish to take part in the infinite conversation.

So too this blog finds its way to endure, even if it is always written in a first draft, with little plan or attempt to impress, to manufacture a brand. I pen the words, and cast them adrift on the digital ocean. It is one of the ordinary things that give me the accomplishment of form without the drag of organisation. It is one of the lesser forms that endure.

“Fortunately too no forms are more engrossing, gratifying, comforting, staying than those lesser ones we throw off, like vortex rings of smoke, all our individual enterprise and needing nobody’s cooperation; a basket, a garden, a room, an idea, a picture, a poem.” Robert Frost, Letter to The Amherst Student, quoted in Notebooks, p xv

And a blog. Even if, or perhaps especially if, that blog has few readers, no great name.

The work is solitary: that does not mean that it remains incommunicable, that it lacks a reader. But the person who reads it enters into that affirmation of the solitude of the work, just as the one who writes it belongs to the risk of solitude.” (Maurice Blanchot, “The Essential Solitude” in The Gaze of Orpheus, p 64)

 

Commuting fragments

My ride is half an hour

Beside me, left and right,

Private conversations

Blown to the stale wind.

Cognac on the menu tonight?

I’ve got a few hours to kill

Before the footy.

The nagging phone call

From the end of the day.

Sounds like we’re in.

But we don’t want you.

We just want to help

In any way we can.

None of these words

Are worked to rhyme

Or reason, only marked

By my arbitrary stop

The dreams of my day.

Five Bells

Five Bells

A simple post of appreciation.

What endures? What survives the oven flames?

What is left behind after death, and has no use but a sign that one was living and now is dead?

What survives our desperate last plunge into the cold blue sink?

Five bells.

Kenneth Slessor’s Five bells, brilliantly performed with sonic art on a now retired ABC Radio National poetry show.

To endure you must begin. To survive you must write without success…

Only for those five bells

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

After listening to an episode of the On Being podcast, titled Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times, I took up the invitation to remember the impact on my own thought of Hannah Arendt.

The podcast featured a literary critic who used the mantle of Arendt’s thought to criticise approaches to refugees, global capitalism and the evils of bureaucracy. Yet still the grounding of Arendt’s thought in the dappled things of ordinary experiences, friendship, neighbourliness, the freedom to make a new beginning shone through. The piously radical lecturer, speaking from her holiday home in Southern France, may be surprised to learn that Arendt remains an inspiration for a benighted lowly under-castellan at the far end of the world.

I took up an old faded copy of The Human Condition, which was published first in 1958, and read its profound ironic beginning that described the attempt to land a man on the moon, and so flee the bounds of the one gift that we all share, the one and only known world of ours that we may choose to love. Arendt subtly notes that this trope of escaping to other worlds shows that men are not slow to take up the dreams of science, but have outsped them by decades, notably in the genres of science fiction.

This dream of the flight to the moon, like the dreams to overcome our limits through technology or to outreach mortality itself, becomes for Arendt a symbol for modern world alienation – “its twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self” (Human Condition, p. 6).

Amor Mundi. That was the dreamt title for Arendt’s book that became The Human Condition. To love the world as it is, and not to seek revenge against reality in utopias of technology, totalitarianism or utopias. This was the lesson that I absorbed most from Arendt when I read her works assiduously in my 20s and early 30s.

She also spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.

It is this stance that shines through in an interview between Arendt and Günter Grass, filmed in the 1950s, complete with on-screen smoking. This interview is a remarkable survivor in itself. It begins with Grass challenging Arendt’s role as a philosopher in a male profession; to which she replies, I am no philosopher, and certainly belong to no circle of philosophers.

Then it proceeds to Günter Grass questioning Arendt on her absence of political commitment, such as joining a party, to oppose the Nazi party on its rise to power. Such dramatic irony: we know now both the intimate betrayal of Arendt by the crude political beliefs of her one-time lover, the awkward heir to Nietzsche’s tradition of poetic philosophy, Martin Heidegger;  and the secret, which Günter Grass himself held close during this interview, that Grass served in the Waffen-SS during the war.

Heidegger’s philosophy is a melancholy meditation on being thrown into time and being, anxiously anticipating death. For him remembrance discloses the miracle of Being, and all that we will lose in death. So thinking should not seek to analyse, but to memorate. So I find in one of the old index cards on which I recorded my thinking, this gloss by George Steiner on Heidegger‘s Letter on Humanism on the distinction between logos and legein:

The latter, claims Heidegger, does not signify a discursive, sequential saying, but an ingathering, a harvesting, a collecting and re-collecting (re-membering) of the dispersed, vestiges of Being. To think fundamentally is not to analyse but to memorate (Danken ist Andanken), to remember Being so as to bring it into radiant disclosure (George Steiner, Heidegger, p. 124)

Arendt, by contrast, thinks deeply about memory, but together with what she calls natality, the “capacity to begin, to start something new, to do the unexpected, with which all human beings are endowed by virtue of being born” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). And natality brings her thought closer to action and the love of the world. After all, we love our children, and do not seek to remake them as more perfect humans.

It was Arendt’s political thought – and in the video interview, she denies being a philosopher in favour of being a political theorist -that moulded me deeply. From Arendt and others I absorbed a refusal to fall into oppositional categories, dualisms of left and right, conservative and progressive. The works I read most closely were Past and Present and On Revolution, which especially seemed to carry the paradox I myself experienced of wanting to love the world as an outcast. On a card I have written down from On Revolution:

To the extent that the greatest event in every revolution is the act of foundation, the spirit of revolution contains two elements which to us seem irreconcilable and even contradictory. The act of founding the new body politic, of devising the new form of government involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure; the experience, on the other hand, which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have is the exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning, the high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth. (Arendt, On Revolution)

From the irreconcilable emotions we find in beginning and enduring spring our opposites of political thought – conservatism and progressive liberalism. But, Arendt says, this centuries-old tradition of political thought “must be recognised to be among the symptoms of our loss.”

The deeper lesson of enduring through dark times that I find in Arendt’s writings is the responsibility to bring together as friends or at least as neighbours our human plurality – thought and action, enduring and beginning, conservative and progressive dispositions, aggression and passivity, vita activa and vita contemplativa. Not remaking of the world through technological or bureaucratic utopias, but poetic thought is an essential pathway to this imagined coexistence.

She closes The Human Condition with the remarks that thought remains possible “wherever men live under conditions of political freedom.” But Arendt notes that “no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think” ( p 324). This duty for poetic thought in destitute times rests on all of us, not a few ivory tower academics. We can create such thoughts each in our own public samizdat. So the last words of the book that should have been titled Amor Mundi retreat rightly from the noisy marketplace, and repeat the great words of Cato the Elder, the conservative Roman senator and historian:

“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.”