I’ve been noticing a funny thing about Occupy Wall Street. It’s giving me back the past.
Let me explain. A while back I delivered a talk (at Goddard College, where I teach) called “Does a Planet Have a Point of View?” Those remarks have now been printed in a volume of talks by Goddard faculty members entitled Alchemy of the Word: Writers Talk about Writing (Coimbra Editions, 2011). So I can remember what I said. Much of what I said was addressed to our epidemic of “futurelessness”: the terrible strain on our imaginative resources posed by the fact, largely unaddressed in our literature, that humanity has, in the last little period, acquired the unprecedented ability to completely destroy itself and take much of the planet with it. With this concern as backdrop, I proposed the idea that “past, present, and future are completely interdependent. Despite our ceaseless efforts to the contrary–our attempts to get closure, to focus on now, to avoid borrowing trouble, and so on and so forth–they simply can’t be de-linked. To lose the future is to lose the past, and once that happens, we’re standing on a dangerously thin, ultimately untenable and even illusory slice of present time. It follows that we as writers face the crucial task of reweaving the imaginative links between past, present, and future” (146).
When I stand on the edge of Zuccotti Park and read aloud the poetry of other centuries and decades, most of it written by people who’ve been dead for some time (and even though I don’t believe in life beyond the grave, it feels strange to put it that way, given the liveliness of their thought in the words they set down), I no longer feel the familiar, disastrous severance of the links between generations and epochs. I no longer feel alone in my terrible homesickness for the past, nor do I feel the dreadful futility of writing in the knowledge that (quoting Akhmatova), “Now nobody will want to listen to songs.” I feel myself in a community of people some of whom, at least, are sure to go on scavenger hunts through the historical record with the same assiduity they give to dumpster diving. I feel that Muriel Rukeyser’s image of those who try to re-invent our ways of living with each other–“men and women/Brave, setting up signals across vast distances” (“Poem” in The Speed of Darkness, Random House, 1968, p. 37)– captures an unending truth of human community and the struggle for justice–not a quaint vestige of another, irrelevant time that is rapidly becoming ever more obsolete through corporate control and the commodification of every detail of our lives. All of this must be because in some measure OWS has restored my faith in the future. And it’s not because I think that this movement (or the Arab Spring, or the Indignados, or any of it) has thus far materially changed anything about humanity’s prospects for averting its own self-caused demise in fairly short order. I get it that my sign BECA– USE THEY’RE TRYING TO DRIVE OUR PLANET OFF A CLIFF is, as several people have pointed out, if anything rather too optimistic–“they” are not “trying,” they’re doing it. No: my newfound sense that the past and future connect solidly to my/our present has nothing to do with the odds of survival and everything to do with the realization that the will and courage to confront the truth–together–have not, after all, been lost. As Rukeyser wrote in “The Poem as Mask”: “the fragments join in me with their own music” (The Speed of Darkness, p. 3).
Today I stood on Liberty Street and read poems by Rosario Castellanos as translated from the Spanish by Magda Bogin (The Selected Poems of Rosario Castellanos, Graywolf Press, 1988). Before doing so, I’d had a conversation with a security guard in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, after he hailed me as I was leaving the garden and heading to the subway. He’d seen the sign under my arm–turned to the side about ending Stop & Frisk–and wanted to know about the campaign, which he considered a very good thing, but an uphill battle. “You’re fighting against the people who have the money, so nobody is going to give you money to keep up the fight! But it’s good.” When I got to Zuccotti Park, I briefly joined a march of about 25 or 30 people who were heading up Broadway chanting, “The new Jim Crow has got to go!” It turned out they were headed for the subway and out to Brooklyn to join up with the “Stop Stop & Frisk” demonstration and civil disobedience at the 73rd Precinct in Brownsville, Brooklyn. (Reports this evening claim 31 arrests.) Castellanos’s brooding poems, which at times seem like a descent through an infinite series of circles of solitude, had struck me as a bit of a hard sell for Zuccotti Park (whatever that means–as always, my motto is, “s/he who has ears to hear, let hir hear”). In the event, however, a gentle-faced woman of middle years came and stood near me, with her ear turned my way, while I read a long piece in sections: “Selection from The Joyful Mysteries” : “Friends, throw open doors/and windows,/invite people/to my house.//Give everyone bread/and lodging./Don’t scare off the doves/if they come down” (p. 35). “It’s beautiful,” she said, when I thanked her for listening. I also met a man who told me, “The only poet I ever understood was Ferlinghetti! I’ve got a name you recognize, only I’m not the one you know, I’m a different one–Leonard Cohen.”