Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Poetry and Politics

Feb. 2, 2005

I've settled into a fairly sweet routine of reading and writing and wandering the streets, these past few days ... trying to restrict my socializing to the evenings, but that's difficult when so many of the folks I know here are writers and/or work at home.

So ... I met Jennifer Dick for coffee late this morning at Le Boucheron on the rue de Rivoli. I spotted her sitting in the back of the room when I walked in. Amid the hello bisous she whispered in my ear and asked if I'd seen Vanessa Paradis sitting by the door. Well, I hadn't noticed her, since beautiful women are everywhere here, but I kept stealing glances in that direction in the hope that Johnny Depp might join her. No such luck.

Jen and I went to a couple of shops and finally purchased my new cell phone, which vibrates in my pocket just before it starts ringing and then plays a tune that sounds to me like a theme song from a cheesy French movie. Even if I DO figure out how to use all the options, I don't think I'll change that ring.

Good news in the lit-biz department from my pal Mr. Keillor, who wants to include "Slow Children at Play" in his new Good Poetry anthology. This on top of the recent good news from Best American Poetry and Billy Collins' inclusion of a couple of poems in the new Poetry 180 has gone right to my head ... and added to the anxiety in re: whether the newer work has any merit. Well, there's always something to be anxious about ... And the good news from the new low-res MFA Program at Western Connecticut that I'll be part of the faculty, starting this August. Et voila ... and enough, already, in the tooting-one's-own horn department.

Last night I participated in Adrian's ParlerParlor French/English conversation group -- there's always a demand for Anglophones because there are so many Francophones trying to perfect their English --and I heard again about a recent development in French bureaucracy that first blew my mind a few days ago, when it came up in conversation at the poetry soiree at Joe Ross's: they put MICROCHIPS in dogs here. Really. I keep thinking everyone's pulling my leg about this, but apparently they're not. If you bring your dog to France from the US you must get a microchip implanted under Fifi's skin. Joe's wife, Laura, told me that, in this way, your dog can be scanned, just like your groceries are scanned at the supermarket. (Is this really true?) And my French friends last night kept trying to explain to me how this is a good way for owners to keep track of their dogs -- if Fifi gets lost, her chip helps you find her again, somehow? -- and that it also has something to do with various "categories" for pets. I'm not sure I understood what was being said about pit bulls in this regard, but the whole thing seems a little ominous to me. Then again, I wonder if these chips also somehow control canine behavior, and if this is why there seems to be so much less doggy-doo on the sidewalks than I remember from years past? In any case, the French don't seem to share my alarm.

They do, however, seem to share my alarm about what's happening in U.S. politics, for which I'm endlessly grateful. I'm also grateful that, being French, the French are so very polite about this. It's always me who casts the first anti-Bush aspersion ... which elicits a world-weary and complicit smile from whoever I'm speaking with, and another deep drag on her cigarette, before she murmurs in agreement and what seems like relief that I'm not one of those Americans who actually voted for the idiot-king. I really and truly can't think how to carry myself in the world when my government is behaving in ways so much like the ways the Nazis behaved in Europe in the 30's.

And I keep coming back to what Sharon Doubiago wrote in Hard Country about not wanting to be a poet during the Vietnam war, "because what could I say/ when people were being murdered in my name?" I'm just going to follow my mother's example of open defiance, however that defiance can be expressed. She made her own sign, last fall, and taped it to the rear window of her Escort: a picture of Cheney -- sneering, of course -- that she'd downloaded from the internet, with a caption that read: "I felt a lot better after I said the F word, and so will your kids." Mom lives in small-town Kentucky, where a lot of people have been convinced they're voting for "morality" when they vote Republican. She left her pro-Democrat signs up long after the recent elections. She told me she wanted the signs to be there to remind people --when their wages keep going down, their taxes go up, their kids are sent off to Iraq -- who they voted for. I told her someone might start shooting her mailbox. She said she didn't care. My mother, the anarchist. May she live 100 years and never back down.

Yesterday I logged onto AOL and saw the double headline: "Is the Press Too Free? (Tell Us What You Think!)" and, just under that, "Hillary Clinton Collapses." Is the press TOO free? Is the press too FREE? No wonder Hillary collapsed. I felt like collapsing myself.

For a couple of months now I've been carrying around with me the post-election issue of something called Jerry Falwell's National Liberty Journal. I suppose I should burn it, but I'm just too agog. A good friend in Atlanta, who's not really sure why it's delivered to her mailbox, except that her parents are big Bush supporters, gave this tabloid to me. "They really love him," she told me. "But why?" I asked. "Well, they think he goes to church like they do, and they really like that tax break." These are upper-middle-class folks, which means they live very well, even by American standards, and that tax break doesn't amount to more than a couple of hundred dollars. "But do they need it?" I asked. "No," said my friend, and shrugged. So there you have it. My friend seemed as dismayed by her parents' attitude as I felt -- well, she's probably more dismayed, since they're her parents, and she's a progressive and a Democrat, herself.

She gave me the National Liberty Journal so that I might get a sense of what the mindset of the "religious" Republican right is like. "Moronic" is too mild a word. "Terrifying" is too mild a word. I know you've heard all of this before, but if you haven't read the National Liberty Journal, or something like it, you may not have a real sense of just how smug and delusional and dangerous this mindset it. Oh, and let's not forget self-congratulatory. Although every statistic about the election indicates that Bush was only elected -- if he was elected at all -- by the slimmest of margins, and that the "evangelical" voter turnout only increased very slightly, almost imperceptibly since the last election --these folks now think they own the U.S. government. The front page boasts headlines about "The Evangelical Revolution" and "The Return of a 21st Century Moral Majority," along with a map of the U.S. that is almost completely red, with only a few flecks of blue -- and "The Faith and Values Coalition" intends to convert those blue counties to red as soon as possible. Falwell himself wrote the lead story, which outlines TFVC'S "three-fold platform: (1) the confirmation of pro-life, strict constructionist US Supreme Court justices and other federal judges;" (Oh give me a DECONSTRUCTIONIST Supreme Court justice, please! Give me a POST-STRUCTURALIST Supreme Court justice, while you're at it.) "(2) the passage of a constitutional Federal Marriage Amendment; and (3) the election of another socially- fiscally- and politically-conservative president in 2008." There you have it, my friends, the plan of a big fat stupid white guy with a god-complex for "mobiliz(ing) religious conservatives around a pro-life, pro-family, strong national defense and pro-Israel platform, designed to return America to her Judeo-Christian heritage." Because "Our nation simply cannot continue as we know it if we allow out-of-control lawmakers and radical judges -- working at the whims of society -- to alter the moral foundations of America." Oh lord help us, they're working at the WHIMS OF SOCIETY! (Which could result in an actual majority of society being allowed to affect the society?! Quelle horreure!) And those OUT-OF-CONTROL LAWMAKERS! I don't know about you, but I get an image of guys like Senators McCain and Feingold running around in circles, ties askew, going berserk trying to pass godless legislation like campaign finance reform. What's next, an attorney general who advocates torture? Whoops.

I really don't know which mindset I despise more: the greedy idiocy of thinking it's worth saving one's self a few hundred dollars in taxes, in the short run, no matter what that costs in the long run in terms of public education, healthcare, libraries, roads, etc.... -- and to hell with the record deficits this administration is running up, and the costs of its war-mongering -- or the willful stupidity of believing that two human beings who happen to be of the same gender being allowed to make a legal commitment to love and support one another is somehow going to threaten all the happy, happy heterosexual marriages in America. And anyway, isn't LOVE -- not arrogance nor self-righteousness nor fear --supposed to be at the center of Christian theology? My mother says she's going to create bumper stickers reminding people, too, that Jesus Christ is The Prince of PEACE. I think all of this is even more upsetting to her because she feels as if her whole spiritual belief system has been co-opted by the cynical and manipulative likes of Karl Rove. I still hold accountable all those who simply believe what they choose to believe, and choose to believe what's easiest and most convenient for them to believe, and most self-serving.

I should, I know, end this rant, because we've all heard it all before, it's just too depressing, etc., etc. But I'm willing to bet that I'm the only person in my circle of friends who's ever seen the National Liberty Journal (and y'all keep in mind that I've NEVER seen Fox News, except for the excerpts included in the OUTFOXED documentary, so this stuff is probably more "news" to me than it is to a lot of people) and I've been wanting to share the outrageous language in its pages for months. To wit: in the "Moral Majority Timeline" on page 12, under 1988, the copy reads, "At the end of his presidency, Ronald Reagan has appointed three Supreme Court justices and 378 federal judges and has almost single-handedly defeated the 'evil empire' of communism." ALMOST SINGLE-HANDEDLY DEFEATED COMMUNISM! RONALD REAGAN! This is news I'll have to tell those slacker Poles next time I go to Poland, and somebody tell the Czechs, too -- Reagan did it, not you! Look, up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane ... able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! And speaking of Eastern Europe, the mother of my good pal Ed Landler was a Jewish refugee from WWII Hungary. She's still going strong in the San Fernando Valley, at about 90 years old. I asked Ed what his mother thinks about what's going on in the US now, because I keep thinking this is what it must have been like to be alive during the Nazi's rise to power. Ed summed up his Mom's take on the situation in a few words: "This is worse." The stakes are higher; the weapons are deadlier.

Several different people in the past few days have forwarded to me via e-mail the transcript of an interview Amy Goodman did with Seymour Hersh. Hersh asserts that our government, in effect, has been taken over by a cult; and that what we're seeing with the latest Bush cabinet changes is the purging of all those who aren't "true believers."

It's interesting to contrast this with politics and attitudes among Europeans. At about the same time I first started reading and fuming over the National Liberty Journal, I read an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Italy (written by Ian Fisher, reprinted from the New York Times, and on page 9 of the AJC, unsurprisingly). The article discusses the relationship between church and state in Italy, which is almost overwhelmingly Catholic. And what struck me most is that the (mostly) peaceful relationship between church and state in Italy is the result of political and cultural maturity -- i.e., that people are willing to mind their own damn business about things that don't affect them, personally, and willing to think collectively -- and unselfishly? --when it comes to the common good. In other words, they're aware of the differences between private and public life. Fisher writes, "Italians routinely ignore the conservative Pope John Paul II on matters of private morality, like contraception, divorce or marriage ... but admire him deeply for his stands on caring for the poor or his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq..." It's just the opposite in America, isn't it?

And finally -- I swear I'll get off this soapbox in a minute -- I read a letter to the editor in Tuesday's London Observer from the Rev. Dr. Nigel Scotland, urging that the government NOT "curtail free speech ... (and) open debate on the dysfunctional aspects of religious belief and practice. There needs to be a recognition ... that all religions have the potential to lead to abuse, the curtailment of human rights, war and genocide." Amen. The apartment in Paris that's become my temporary home belongs to a photojournalist, so books of his haunting and gorgeous and heart-breaking photos surround me. One of those books, In Times of War and Peace, is full of images of the kind of suffering humans inflict on one another in the names of our gods and our systems of belief. They're subtle and powerful images. I wish they were plastered on billboards across America.

But I'm in France, and the plumber has finally finished fixing the drain in the shower, so I can clean up now and get to the party that's already started a few blocks away. It's a "hen party" hosted by Dale Novick, who's moved to Paris permanently from the States, and a whole bunch of my favorite women will be there: Adrian, Sonya, Carolyn, et al. There's going to be bitching galore about all of the above, and also laughter, and chocolate, and wine.


Blogger BKL said...

HA! THanks for all this! Too true all of it and it cannot be said enough! Though the one thing I ask and I am SERIOUS is When you finally do run into Johnny Depp please kiss him for me and tell him that I have been waiting for that for a very long time (i realize that will have to be through some of your other kisses, but I would really appreciate it)...


6:44 AM  
Blogger joe nat said...

hi ms kelley this is joe i looked you up on google and i found u here. i will see you tomorrow
c ya- joe n

7:46 PM  
Blogger plnelson said...

When I go to Europe or the UK people often say, in a reassuring tone, that they don't dislike the American people; it's just our government they don't like.

And I usually reply, in a less reassuring tone, that we are (more or less) a democracy, and that the activities of the government often do reflect the will of the people, as they did in the case of the Iraq invasion. And so, even if THEY don't dislike Americans, I'M perfectly happy to admit that I'm not too crazy about my compatriots these days.

I feel a good poetic polemic coming on . . .

11:00 AM  

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