I apologize for the 3 month gap since my last mailing. I’ve been travelling, fighting my body’s insistence that mammals are meant to sleep through winter months, and fighting my mind’s failure to generate any thought remotely hopeful for 2004. I won the battle with my body, lost the one with my mind, and decided to just get this mailing out anyway, before 2005.
Welcome to everyone new, from London, Glasgow, Evergreen College, Brown University, the pavement outside Pakwan ϑ . And thank you for the emails I get from many of you. My capacity to respond is limited by carpal tunnel syndrome, but your mail is always read and kept. I am always honored by your sharing of thoughts, poems, responses to my words and performances - you sustain and feed my work in vital ways.
ESSAY: DESPAIR AND HOPE FOR 2004
December 31, 2003. Schubert’s Bakery on Clement Street, mango mousse cake and coffee before me, I dredge my mind for reasons to hope in 2004. No gold. So I open the Bay Guardian. Skip “Iraq: Worse Than You Imagined”. Skip “State Legislators Still In Bed With Power Monopolies”. Head for the only pages I can bear these days – the alt.sex advice column, and Cheap Eats. The alt.sex page is missing. I stab my cake with my fork, and settle for Cheap Eats, which I read extra-slow to make it last through my coffee. The whole exercise strikes me as a pretty good metaphor for my life these days: denial, rage deflected into consumption, cheap eats stretched over the absence of sex, alt. or otherwise.
“Depression,” says Toni Cade Bambara, “is collaboration with the enemy.” Which gives me another reason to be depressed. The sale of the century rolls on in Iraq: a country’s entire infrastructure, economy, and resource base is gluttonously dismembered, looted and auctioned off. Pharmaceutical giants continue to block the supply of affordable drugs to the 8000 people A DAY who die of AIDS in Africa. The Terminator slashes social welfare in California, the BJP rises in India. Shailja-the-collaborator chomps savagely on her cake on Clement Street.
In his luminous essay, Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin writes of the two opposing ideas one must hold in the mind forever. Acceptance, “totally without rancor”, of the world as it is. And struggle: “one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.”
But when the struggles of millions can be wiped out by one megalomaniac’s thumbprint, how do you find the faith to keep struggling? Or is it necessary to let go of faith, and simply substitute dogged daily action, driven by will, not by hope?
The richest conversation I experienced in 2003 was at Kearny Street Workshop’s War and Silence Panel. I recall the quiet, measured voice of Tram Nguyen, editor of Colorlines Magazine, as she spoke of the silence around despair in our ethnic and activist communities. About how many of us are close to burnout as we deal with the devastation of Bush’s wars, here and abroad.
“Art is the secret to hope”, according to Claudia Bernardi, artist and forensic anthropologist, who has worked since the mid-80s at sites of political massacres. I’ve said in interviews that my role as a poet is to have my words create a space for seeing and feeling; unlock suppressed rage, pain, joy; dissolve barriers around fearsome questions and authentic thought. I’ve believed that behind those barriers, at the bedrock of those feelings, lies hope, and hope generates action.
Now I question that. I don’t know if making poems, making art, is truly creative resistance, or just crooning over the wounds. Whether telling, singing, performing our stories is the only narrative control left to us, and we do it precisely because we cannot influence the larger narrative of events. An article by Caryl Phillips in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (11/22/03), confirmed that suspicion:
“While I remain dismayed by the domestic and foreign chaos that the United States continues to unleash upon its own people, and millions of foreign citizens, I am comforted by the knowledge that her folly will be recorded and exposed by the narratives of those whose private and public lives have been thrown into turmoil by the iniquities of White House policies.”
Just “recorded and exposed”? Not “challenged”, “checked”, “set back” or even “shamed”? All we can do, it seems, is “tell . . . what happened when the Americans arrived, uninvited, in their country. . .when the FBI came to lock up daddy. Or . . . when a neighbourhood gang burned down our mosque. What happened when the immigration officer took away our passports.”
Phillips does go on to claim that ultimately, it is the poet’s version of history, rather than the emperor’s, that will prevail. But he doesn’t even hint at the possibility that the course of events could actually be changed by “the birth of a new kind of American artistic and literary expression; work that brings us the voices of people who feel stunned and bruised by the abuses of American power”.
I don’t have a vision, or a poem, for how to go forward without hope. But I want to emphasize that I’m not offering despair as a reason not to act, not to prevent what suffering is within our reach to halt.
I don’t know if I believe in the words of Tony Kushner, that hope “is a moral obligation, it’s a human obligation, it’s an obligation to the cells in my body. . . lose your hope and you lose your soul”. But I do agree absolutely, when he says: “Will the world end if you don’t act? Who can say? Will you lose your soul, your democratic citizen’s soul, if you don’t act, if you don’t organize? I guarantee it.”
I’m grateful for those who still do have hope. And I want to hear from you. What gives you hope? Or how do you continue to act without it? If I get enough answers, I’ll share them in my next mailing. Thank you for being on this journey with me.