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Being Cowed: A Disorienting Unity

“Hey, diddle, diddle”
by Mother Goose

Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

And the Cow Jumped Over the Moon

When I think about how we, in the U.S., allow ourselves to be ruthlessly manipulated by our own government, how we keep breathing in toxic fumes being spewed from the White House, “cattle” is a metaphor that keeps surfacing. I write poems: look for handy metaphors is what I do—even if clichés. Is comparing the U.S. population to cattle too much of a cliché? Perhaps: I wonder. If you have a low tolerance for meandering marginalized poets trying to justify their behavior, just shoot down to my short closing poem. In the end, perhaps, you will join me for a moo.

Are We There Yet?

It is sinking in: it is actually 2018. The First World War ended November 1918, and then the masters of the world really started cooking. The world’s doomsday clock is set at a couple of minutes before an apocalyptic midnight. Global warming, ecosystem failure, the stockpiling and inexorable use of nuclear weapons is just the start of a long list of critical concerns preoccupying a vast number of the world’s corporately untainted scientists. I feel disoriented.

I am Not a Cow!

Think of the ingenious system of moving cattle into slaughterhouses developed byTemple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She put forth that her way is more humane than the usual: it is designed to give cattle a more peaceful experience as they head toward their horrible deaths, by guiding them through winding fenced-in corridors where they can not see what is coming around the next bend. The sight, smell, and sounds of the herd’s final slaughter comes as a surprise.

Seriously considering the emotional state of cattle right before being hacked to death was a new idea in the cattle industry when Grandin introduced it; after some initial resistance, her system was praised and adopted because it was more efficient and increased profits. Most operations, here and abroad, still just prod and ram horrified livestock into hellish slaughterhouses.

Cattle Cars & Bouquets of Evil

Given how little anyone’s humanity mattered to our (?) country’s wealthy founding fathers, early land grabbers, and Robber Barons, it is not a surprise to see how and where we are being led. What is the maximum capacity of a cattle car? I am sure someone came up with the figure a long time ago without too much effort.

I recently watched the documentary “Resisting Paradise” at the Museum of The Moving Image in Queens, New York. Prolific artist and the director/producer of the film, Barbara Hammer, employs a remarkable streaming collage of intense grainy dark images and a distinct narrative, including historical footage, interviews, and an exchange of letters between Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard during World War Two — to address an important question: what role does the artist play, if any, during times of extreme political oppression.

Hammer, makes it clear during the film that Matisse and Bonnard chose to hide out in the South of France during the Nazi occupation, painting flowers, voluptuous reclining nudes, and assorted bourgeoisie eye candy, while those around them—family members included, felt compelled to join the French underground resistance. Matisse’s own daughter, Marguerite, and ex-wife, Amelie, were both arrested by the Gestapo; Marguerite was brutally tortured. Film scenes of persecuted refugee Jews in the towns where Matisse and Bonnard peacefully passed their days painting, preoccupied with rendering the right afternoon light, or infusing some flower petals with their most tender feelings is, of course, dramatically incongruous. What do you make of Bonnard, in a letter to Matisse, soulfully expressing his fear of running out of cadmium yellow because of the occupation; and yet, seemingly, remaining detached from the real-world weight of it?

During the post-film Q & A with Hammer, I also learned of how Gertrude Stein similarly laid low in the French countryside, in spite of being a well-known Jew and living openly as a lesbian with Alice B. Toklas. I never before heard that Stein was able to keep her impressive art collection in Paris with the help of at least one Nazi collaborator. With just a little digging, I now also know that she publicly made statements in support of the Nazi-imposed status quo. She refined and recanted some of what she said, but still…

Sure, these artists were all seniors at the time; and Mattisse was not in good health, so heroics was not to be expected from them; but to learn that the extreme suffering over so much of Europe did not substantially affect their apolitical minds, or change the light fair nature of their work, is hard to understand—and seems a little creepy.

You Can Not Be Serious!

So that no one who has read this far gets me wrong, I do not believe our sweet number 45 is a modern Hitler; that Republicans are neo-Nazis; that the U.S. is anything like World War Two occupied France. I also do not see myself as an artist; but digging deep, I can identify a little too much with Matisse, Bonnard, and Stein. In their particular skins, would I have acted any differently? I am certainly no active member of any organized resistance movement. I have been something of an obscure, underemployed (putting it mildly), critical poet/teacher the last 20-odd years; and now, just when joining some non-violent resistance movement is on a lot of minds—the idea even becoming sexy and fashionable again among residents of collegiate ivory towers and student rathskellers—I feel old. I am an old guy, perpetually looking for work, guarding his time and health, trying to become a better poet. What the latter means to me, is still a black hole. It seems I am questioning a string of labels and so-called given realities lately and just living day to day. One day, life is great and I am grateful for just about everything, the next….it is not, and I am not (putting it mildly).

Moving Deadline

Ah, to believe in revolution and the way of the revolutionary. The price of a struggle has grown out of immediate reach for me. I am not speaking metaphorically: affordable rent is memory! Long-unemployed, a New York City round-trip public bus fare is too much at five-fifty! Sometimes, I miss my black 96 Mercury Cougar, trips to Atlantic City, testosterone-rich-still-thinking-I-could-win-pretty. Forget a socialist meeting now, a march, without feeling entropy. I keep stacking rhymes for choirs, spitting at the enemy, missed Pilgrimage magazine’s January deadline for work with the theme of Unity. Wait: the deadline’s extended until February! A sign
from the universe, I might sing, wishing to believe in a timely awakening.

* This piece first appeared on the author’s personal blog, The Practicing Poet: Dialogue to Creativity, Poetry, and Liberation.

Andrés Castro is a PEN member/volunteer and is also listed in the Directory of Poets and Writers.

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