The Great Wall, by Eliot Weinberger

Richard Nixon, visiting the Great Wall of China in 1972, said: “I think you would have to conclude that this is a great wall.”

Ronald Reagan, visiting the Wall in 1984, said: “What can you say, except it’s awe-inspiring? It is one of the great wonders of the world.” Asked if he would like to build his own Great Wall, Reagan drew a circle in the air and replied: “Around the White House.”

Bill Clinton, visiting the Wall in 1998, said: “So if we had a couple of hours, we could walk ten kilometers, and we’d hit the steepest incline, and we’d all be in very good shape when we finished. Or we’d be finished. It was a great workout. It was great.”

George W. Bush, visiting the Wall in 2002, signed the guest book and said: “Let’s go home.” He made no other comments. 

Barack Obama, visiting the Wall in 2009, said: “It’s majestic. It’s magical. It reminds you of the sweep of history, and that our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it.” During his visit, the Starbucks and KFC at the base of the Wall were closed.

Weinberger, Eliot. The Ghosts of Birds, New Directions Books, New York, 2016: 91.

the poet, pt. I

The poet is born in a house on a mountain. His father built the house just as his father built his house on the mountain, and his father built his, and so on. The poet’s young parents have two concerns: their community of like-minded people on the mountain and their only child, the poet. Neither parent knows their child is a poet.

The boy’s father is paid meagerly to dig graves for those who have died on the mountain. The mother looks after the house and watches over her son, the poet, though he doesn’t yet know he is a poet.

The poet lives on the mountain all his life but decides for his 18th year to live completely at sea, with just a few scattered days ashore for essentials. He vows this as a personal challenge despite his mother’s horror. She watches and waves from the dock as the small watercraft disappears from her.

Several times during the journey he considers abandoning it, returning to the mountain to forget the whole thing. Nausea, illness, cold, boredom—until he discovers he’s a poet.

He returns home forever changed. He carries a notebook and no longer wants to live on the mountain. He yearns to be close to the water. His mother watches and waves as her only child disappears from her again toward something unknown to her.

Apartments are expensive near the water. The poet quickly finds work but hates it, changes jobs, adds another. Soon another. It’s worth all the work to live here, he writes. He often falls asleep writing.

He refines the poems he’s written and sends them to an editor, who tells him to send them to an agent. Quickly and to the poet’s surprise a large collection is published (titled Announcement). It receives excellent reviews and three award nominations. The poet is suddenly attractive. He retreats to the water in a rented dinghy to disappear from himself, from the world. He writes his best work the further he travels from shore. 

He works three jobs and scribbles in his notebook. The poems are as scattered as the poet himself, who is compelled, after an indiscriminate period of time, to take the poems in the notebook and unify them, liquefy them, position and reposition them into a complete manuscript that will ultimately be published into a collection (titled Ascension), earning him accolades and the much-coveted assurance that his craft can now financially support him. The poet publishes two more collections in the next 18 months (Atlantis, Carnival), vaulting him to literary fame and prestige. On a private jet one afternoon from Europe to Manhattan he meets a famous Canadian actress and the two connect immediately. She’s read his poems, she says. I’ve seen your movies, he tell her. 

They marry within the year, an extravagant event in the Maldives in which global celebrities mingle with intellectuals and politicians. Everyone wants something from the poet. 

His sudden rise to fame leads him inland to readings and signings and speaking engagements across the globe but he yearns to be close to the water, on the water. He sells his beach house for a houseboat, a vessel for he and his wife to live on.

She is gone after just six months at sea, having disembarked in haste at San Francisco and looking like a madwoman in her tattered dress and swollen luggage. The poet tends to the boat by moonlight, he prepares food beneath the relentless sun, he fills notebooks with ease—flooded with inspiration. He regrets the wife’s departure, their sudden inexplicable violence toward one another. She’s gone and he’s never felt more alive. He returns ashore once again a man forever changed.

The next day his doctor finds a troubling mass on the poet’s neck during a routine appointment. More tests reveal a cancerous growth. The poet is told he has one year to live, his final year on Earth, in which he will visit the mountain of his youth one final time to say goodbye before living the remainder of his days and nights writing poems on an ocean of oblivion.

The Horse and Rider, Louise Glück

Once there was a horse, and on the horse there was a rider. How handsome they looked in the autumn sunlight, approaching a strange city! People thronged the streets or called from the high windows. Old women sat among flowerpots. But when you looked about for another horse or another rider, you looked in vain. My friend, said the animal, why not abandon me? Alone, you can find your way here. But to abandon you, said the other, would be to leave a part of myself behind, and how can I do that when I do not know which part you are?

 Glück, Louise. Faithful and Virtuous Night, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2014: 59.

Bolaño on working writers

No one forces you to write. The writer enters the labyrinth voluntarily—for many reasons, of course: because he doesn’t want to die, because he wants to be loved, etc.—but he isn’t forced into it. He’s no more forced than a politician is forced into politics or a lawyer is forced into law school. The great advantage for the writer is that the lawyer or the politician, outside his country of origin, tends to flounder like a fish out of water, at least for a while—whereas a writer outside his native country seems to grow wings. The same thing applies to other situations. What does a politician do in prison? What does a lawyer do in the hospital? Anything but work. What, on the other hand, does a writer do in prison or in the hospital? He works. Sometimes he works a lot (not to mention poets). Of course the claim can be made that in prison the libraries are no good and that in hospitals there often are no libraries. It can be argued that in most cases exile means the loss of the writer’s books, among other material losses, and in some cases even the loss of his papers, his unfinished manuscripts, projects, letters. It doesn’t matter. Better to lose manuscripts than lose your life. The point is that the writer works wherever he is, even while he sleeps, which isn’t true of those in other professions. Actors, it can be said, are always working, but it isn’t the same: the writer writes and is conscious of writing, whereas the actor, under great duress, only howls. Policemen are always policemen, but that isn’t the same either, because it’s one thing to be and another to work. The writer is and works in any situation. The policeman only is. And the same is true of the professional assassin, the soldier, the banker. Whores, perhaps, come closest in the exercise of their profession to the practice of literature.

Bolaño, Roberto. Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998–2003. Translated by Natasha Wimmer, New Directions Books, 2011: 57.

your books

The books you sent

lie on the shelf

I don’t read them

Austen and Maugham

books on old films

Nazi biographies

furry with dust

purposefully neglected

lies, all of it

histories of French kings

by church-going luminaries

not to be gifted or donated

sentenced to a life unread

books about

dandies and rich bitches

dogs in human form

Agatha Christie

biographies of propagandists

revered by some but

not me

books not worth the flame

not worth time

lying books to lie decoratively

(like all lies)

as long as I control

James Forman on cop gangs

 

[D.C. police] aggressiveness [in the 1990s] came at an appalling human and eventually financial cost. A 73-year-old retired postal worker was beaten after officers mistook him for a suspect; the man ended up with a broken arm. A 56-year-old-woman was beaten with a nightstick after challenging officers involved in an altercation with two of her children; another woman was cursed at, hit, and maced outside of the restaurant where she worked. Much like Staten Island’s Eric Garner, a 31-year-old deaf man named Frankie Murphy stopped breathing while an officer held him in a choke hold;  he died in police custody. After a dangerous ride in a police wagon–much like the one suffered by Freddie Gray in Baltimore–a 28-year-old former US Marine named James Cox won two separate lawsuits against the police. As a result of such incidents, D.C. paid out about $1 million per year to victims of police misconduct during the early 1990s. Yet the abuses continued.

At the same time, a culture of impunity flourished with regard to less violent but more common police intrusions into the daily lives of black citizens. Swearing and yelling, making belittling remarks, using illegitimate orders, conducting random and unwarranted searches, demanding that suspects “get up against the wall”–these behaviors rarely led to lawsuits or newspaper coverage. But for residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, especially young people, this treatment became part of the social contract, a tax paid in exchange for the right to move in public spaces. Police mistreatment became part of growing up.[1]

Whatever their individual intentions or motivations, officers were bound by a system that was the source of their orders, training, and beliefs. Their job was to make teeth rattle, “arrest those s.o.b.s,” and to prove that they were the biggest gang in town. In cities across America, they still do.[2]


[1]  Forman, Jr., James. Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017: 171.

[2] Ibid: 183-184.

Teju Cole on American Racism

American racism has many moving parts and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The news of the day (old news, but raw as a fresh wound) is that black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard. There is a vivid performance of innocence, but there’s no actual innocence left.

 

Cole, Teju. Known and Strange Things: Essays, Random House, New York, 2016: 15-16.

Angela Davis from Marin County Jail, May 1971

In the heat of our pursuit for fundamental human rights, Black people have been continually cautioned to be patient. We are advised that as long as we remain faithful to the existing democratic order, the glorious moment will eventually arrive when we will come into our own as full-fledged human beings.

But having been taught by bitter experience, we know that there is a glaring incongruity between democracy and the capitalist economy that is the source of our ills.

*

There is a distinct and qualitative difference between one breaking a law for one’s own individual self-interest and violating it in the interests of a class or a people whose oppression is expressed either directly or indirectly through that particular law. The former might be called a criminal, but the latter, as a reformist or revolutionary, is interested in universal social change. Captured, he or she is a political prisoner.

The offense of the political prisoner is his/her boldness, persistent challenging—legally or extra-legally—of fundamental social wrongs fostered and reinforced by the state. He/she has opposed unjust laws and exploitative, racist social conditions in general, with the ultimate aim of transforming these laws and this society into an order harmonious with the material and spiritual needs and interests of the vast majority of its members.

*

In Black communities, wherever they are located, there exists an ever-present reminder that our universe must remain stable in its drabness, its poverty, its brutality. From Birmingham to Harlem to Watts, Black ghettoes are occupied, patrolled and often attacked by massive deployments of police. The police, domestic caretakers of violence, are the oppressor’s emissaries, charged with the task of containing us within the boundaries of our oppression.

The announced function of the police, to protect and serve the people, becomes the grotesque caricature of protecting and preserving the interests of our oppressors and serving us nothing but injustice. They are there to intimidate and persuade Blacks with their violence that we are powerless to alter the conditions of our lives.

They encircle the community with a shield of violence, too often forcing the natural aggression of the Black community inwards. The courts not only consistently abstain from prosecuting criminal behavior on the part of the police, but they convict, on the basis of biased police testimony, countless Black men and women.

*

The [current] movement is presently at a critical juncture. Fascist methods of repression threaten to physically decapitate and obliterate the movement. Dangerous ideological tendencies from within threaten to isolate the movement and diminish its revolutionary impact. Both menaces must be counteracted in order to ensure our survival. Revolutionary Blacks must spearhead and provide leadership for a broad anti-fascist movement.

 

Davis, Angela. Political Prisoners, Prisons and Black Liberation, written from Marin County Jail, May 1971. From If They Come in the Morning…Voices of Resistance. Verso Books, London, 2016: 27-43. First published by The Third Press, 1971.