And who will join this standing up: A Poetic Response to Empire, Burning
And who will join this standing up
and the ones who stood without sweet company
will sing and sing
back into the mountains and
even under the sea:
we are the ones we have been waiting for.
― June Jordan
Kenn: Over the past few months we have witnessed climate catastrophe in the form of megastorms and ferocious fires, uprisings against racist police state violence, rising fascism, white supremacist militias, and a pandemic which has taken the lives of over a million people around the world. Now, that virus has poked its spiky, protein arms into the very centre of American imperial power.
It would be naïve to deny the deep psychic trauma that all of these events have inflicted on each and every one of us. Some have been galvanized to take to the streets as militarized police launch tear gas at mothers in Portland and students in Minsk. Others have become paralyzed by the weight of these wounds. A segment of the population has become entranced by the cult of Q, which reduces all of the human failings of our age to a fantastical and sinister cabal of supernatural beings.
It is perhaps the latter which has become the most emblematic of unhealed trauma. It provides a refuge, however irrational, for the wounded to hide in, away from the complexities of the world and its myriad and existential problems. But to make sense of our moment in history we must reconnect with a language that is far older than the parlance employed today. A language of the soul, of the psyche. One that is able to grapple with truths and trauma that we find impossible to face otherwise.
As ash from the West coast of North America drifted over my piece of the world here in Nova Scotia, and the sun became a dark orange and foreboding hue, my mind drifted along with it to places that once had form. Did this ash contain the remnants of an ancient tree? Or countless mammals who sought refuge from the flames deep in the forest? Or the bones and flesh of a fellow human being lost to the inferno? And with this came the trauma of knowing and not knowing.
We sit in the ashes of a world that is aflame, but we are not alone. With us sit the ghosts and the gods who implore us to do what conventionally is seen as a waste of time. To pause and reflect deeply on where we are as a species among billions of species, on a world in a deep state of trauma. The following is a reflection in prose and poetry by Jennifer Robin and Phil Rockstroh.
Jennifer: The first day of fire rise with anger; resignation the next. Take stock, no funds, dough-faced moll, find a lens that keeps the blowflies elsewhere. Colonizers flaunt gas masks, King Arthur Flour, kiddie pools. A man hears a wild horse halt in fright and exhaustion and scream, tendons seize and break, musk engulfed by flames. We’ve never met, virtual friend who fills my mind with horse-fire.
What will the textbooks say? What are textbooks? A wall of ash is ten thousand tons of vinyl siding and particle board ambition; is rabbits, is moss. The Enchanted Forest’s heir pictured here, a smiling blond boy with his dog is lost, runs down paths made unfamiliar, undone.
A week before fire I watched a video of a man summon right-wing ghouls to poison Portland’s water source, coordinates of access roads not on maps, voice like a bowling pin, it teeters, hints of tributaries, haunts of thrush and owl, summoned, not yet done. A week before fire I stopped myself from sharing a video: Cops crush a medic’s head. A voice tucked behind my lung asked: Is this food I serve? What is fed?
When I was four I heard the fable of animals who were wise. They stored nuts for a winter long as childhood, while others frolicked by a stream. Winter fell like strychnine, dreamless sleep. The ones who lay in sun and danced under moon now ran in circles until their hooves and beaks could no longer scrape bark from trees, no longer dig for seeds, even wilted weeds, fur claimed in patches by ice.
Night is abolished. Night, like an escort, is hired. A party of three in hunting gear block a man delivering dinner for the color of his skin. Screens of powder-light show the West in flames; four thousand miles away friends on the Gulf face hurricanes, we once broke bread together, saliva, wishbone lullaby, heart emoji, look away, glad it isn’t me. My lover names those who fled on planes while we squat lower, breathe shallow, boil herbs that go the way of bees, our eyes stinging with future.
Phil: When the air is stippled with ashes, when the color of the sky has been usurped by the reflection of cataclysmic flames, and when the smoke of the burning world occludes city’s monuments to rich men’s vanity — will you then — only then — half-blinded by veils of smoke — be able to see clearly?
There must come an immolation of your view of the world held within. No — not by the fantasy of a flaming sword held by the hand of blazing blue Heaven — but by a baptism by inner flames that reduces to ashes clutched convictions.
Descend into your shadow that has been cast by the flames. To create a shadow one must possess a semblance of substance.
A Phoenix will build a nest for her fledglings within the shadow of your heart. She will sustain her young with the sustenance of your vehemence.
Jennifer: Unwind: Smallpox blankets, the Paxton Boys and the Glanton Gang, scalps dried in sun, saddles grow heavy with bounty hunter’s gold, gravel in the streams, land claimed for cotton, burn them out, trail of tears. Lies called treaties to gain timber and salmon and ore in high yellow hills, across two billion acres, monopoly ghosts who play guns, play cannons, play fire.
Trappers trace: Charred villages, mountains of skulls, truce is empty.
Standing Rock, private security hired to hose lives singing, bleats silence. No one gets out of here alive, not North Dakota, not the Siletz with their heads sculpted young by boards, songs of Shiok the Transformer who took people to sky, and eagles could pass between the lower and higher realms, and what rubella didn’t claim, tuberculosis took, until memory was null.
By 1860, four and a half million slaves are in the United States and they know no hour without the threat of murder.
Phil: Yes, there is blood pooled in your streets.
I have stared into your face until I disappeared, inhabited the shadow of your self-justifications, and read with the fingertips of my heart the braille of your scars.
I drown everyday in the rising of your blood-tide, unloosed by your sacred guns and rage-protected pride. Your children, from birth, fed on lie-rancid milk, have grown rifles for hands.
I recall being devoured by Alabama moonlight and deluges of jasmine fragrance as the rising waves unearthed the imprecatory chants of Creeks, Choctaws and Seminoles from their black soil entombment. I was given no choice other than to be undone by the rebuke of slaves chained in the haunted night air.
This is the news of the day: The lilies I brought to you, drenching your house with their saturating fragrance, report, the History that made your Now is watered with blood. The scented air demands:
Go to the dead and let them do to you what they will.
Jennifer: Can you count the tents? All of the tents? Above them rooms that fail to blink out of existence, even when they hover, chalk white and smelling of old refrigerators, with the weight of vacancy.
A Black Lives Matter march moves down the street and a cat’s head in slumber rises, listens to the cadence of honking horns until the surge fades.
Cops riot, rain bullets and acid and fists, shatter spinal cords, turn mothers to orphans. The march is a river and bends and I think of the words of Lao Tzu: Nothing is softer than water, but when it attacks something hard or resistant, then nothing withstands it.
Silence returns. The cat’s head settles into fur, amoeba sleep.
11th Hour Instruction Manual: Consult Marvel oracles for pushbutton salvation. Sing the song of self while pawning a wedding ring for five pints of ice cream and a bottle of Hair Buster Draino.
Cut and paste: Wishing the fascist well whom you said should get the guillotine three days earlier. The mind-virus of progress at any cost: Profit at any cost is antimatter. Do not revive.
This burned forest floor will be marvelous for fracking! Who doesn’t need the daddy? Who turns off thought, legitimizes mind-crimes, whispers: Anger is good. Arise and smite.
Our heroes are young again and fifty feet long! Biden has a new chin, Superman cleft, aborted glyph of Saint Michael and Dick Tracy. Trump has a neural stimulator, a fine skein of silver concealed under his game show quiff. Rumors abound—he gobbles french fries and Adderall, a maskless vigil outside Walter Reed Hospital assembles to faith heal, officers deputized as feds so that every protestor hogtied is a felon; ICE helicopters fly 10 hours a day, plan on “immigrant roundups” before the election. Thor-worshippers, Oath Keepers, and “rational thinkers,” oh my!
Practice past; it repeats. Dive into the past; the past is finite, is done. The past is re-written, rummage its lacunae with your fingers while your eyes are too stunned to see. Feel old letters, wrinkled paper. Severed tongues reanimate. The past absolves you of future, fills you like a chalice with blood-curdle hymns: We are the elect, when men were men, and women were—
Trump: My mother prays for him.
Rouged cheeks are practice-fever. Move closer. Hear the clink of horse brass, smell the reek of rotting hay. Tulsa, 1921: Black Wall Street burns, bombed by air and ignited in alleys. Hamburg, 1941: A woman replaces the star on her Christmas tree with a photo of Adolph. The pushbutton ones swim in mythology until the trains come. Which was the string of strings that unraveled the silken purse called earth-hive?
Commune mind: Earnest, under thirty. Black lives hold their ground in the streets, getting published, on screens as living minds instead of dead bodies. Earnest, under thirty. Find each other, learn to use the crossbow and irrigate corn. Earnest, under thirty. Learn the uses of elderberries and sage. This is no longer practice fever.
Earnest, under thirty with no illusions about the dynamo spinning down, cities blinking out, programming growing erratic, the fires yet to come.
Moon, like a scoop of lemon sherbet, shines so bright.