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Klein Bottle

August 31, 2014

He only drinks for bottles and cans
to store the scattered
pieces of his insides. He only weeps
for a drop of fresh saltwater
to keep them whole & hard. He only cuts
for a little blood
to feed them young again. He only rages
for a few minutes
til he finds them smashed
& the pieces stuck to the carpet.

And he only drinks…

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The Man Who Dared to Be Dead

August 10, 2014

for Anthony Stallard

Some of us’d rather take the long way
round the curve of the universe
than stand in its aftermath, its cracks
and shrapnel, and even those
who grasp at it are stringed to a cross
up above, but this man, he
clutched at spheres no mortal known,
and took all of the power,
but none of the consequences,
and hid behind a grave, waving his hands
and saying wooooooooooooo.

(written in response to this story for Rattle’s Poets Respond online feature)

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I Burnt a Book

August 4, 2014

Once, I lit a book on fire.

The book was a copy of Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites. I’d bought it earlier that day at a book sale, mistaking it for Wyrd Sisters by the same author. When I discovered my error, my first reaction was annoyance, as I already had a copy. Then, I thought, “oh well, I can just give it to someone else”. And then, I had another thought.

I could burn it.

Understand, I find the idea of burning books repulsive. I shouldn’t need to tell you that a book is more than just paper and ink, but the exact scale of just what a book stands isn’t apparent many people. It is an entire universe, it is an emotional experience, it is an intellectual statement, it is friends and family and enemies, it is moral truth, it is escape, it is freedom. It is another existence unto itself. So, when I decided to burn this book, I wasn’t motivated by an actual desire to burn it. I did it because I wanted to learn. I wanted to know what it felt like, not for the sake of it, but because I wanted to try and understand those who burn books. I wanted to go through that process of book-burning, and feel what it is to be a book-burner, because only then could I fathom the depth of feeling that motivates those who burn books. I couldn’t understand their passion, I thought, until I knew how far that passion could go.

Burning a book is hard. It is, in the first place, pretty much impossible to convince oneself to do it, if one cares anything for books. And then, once convinced, it’s actually just really difficult to light a book on fire if you don’t have an accelerant. I committed my sin on the patio of my back garden. I nicked my mother’s lighter and locked the gate to keep the dog out. My fingers trembled as I tried to ignite the cover. I failed so many times, I started wondering if there wasn’t some divine intervention afoot. At last, I managed to light it, but it petered out after a few seconds, barely singed.

Changing tack, I opened it up and put a clutch of pages from the middle to flames. This time, success: terrible, terrible success. As it took hold, the fire crinkled the paper and sucked it into its dark epicentre, such that, at first, it assumed the shape of a terrible flower, its faceted petals twisting in upon themselves, and then, gradually, became a monstrous range of black obsidian mountains. Each mountain range collapsed and came away from the book, with lighter flakes catching the rising pillar of hot air and escaping as ashen moths on the breeze, while the larger chunks fell to the side and slouched like dead anemones. Yet, even as the fire metamorphosed the next ream of pages, those desultory fragments were still alight and smouldering. Soon, they were robbed of even their blackness, blasted into a grey so lifeless, it was a great mercy when the whole lot was vanquished by the wind.

I would lie if I said there was no beauty in it, but it was the beauty of a blighted wasteland or a flooded cityscape. Neither the destruction itself, nor the debris, was beautiful. Yet, the scale of it, the completeness of it, was breathtaking, and I’ll admit to a certain smug post-modern satisfaction with the undoing of the works of man. But the burning of the book did something at once obvious and peculiar. As the book burned, it became easier to burn. Not just in the physical sense, or in the sense that it became less and less worth saving, but because it became less and less a book and more and more ashes. The book as a physical object is tied up in the cultural and conceptual idea of the book, and when the object of the book, the fact of the book, is destroyed, the idea of the book dies with it. Everything that made me not want to burn the book burned with the book. The fire started as something utterly nauseating, but ended with me as a neutral observer, hardly moved by what remained. Just as ink and paper underwent apotheosis to become the book, the divinity of the book broke down in the flames, until all was nothing.

I don’t exaggerate when I say I took months to come to terms with what I’d done. Even now, my stomach quivers at the thought of those charcoal fronds falling apart like a post-apocalyptic ruin. Looking back, I still struggle to convince myself it was worth it. Apart from anything else, my premises were flawed, since I assumed anyone burning a book would feel the same reverence for the book that I do. But I could barely bring myself to burn a single book, even with such a strict and specific rationalisation. How then could anyone who accepts, let alone advocates or enjoys, the burning of books feel true love for the book? I committed this sin to learn and to empathise, but standing in the shoes of a book-burner just showed me how little such people really care for books. If they knew the book as bibliophiles do, it would hurt them more to burn a book than it would to plunge their arms into a bonfire.

And that, more than anything, is why those who don’t love books can never be the arbiters of the fate of books. They will always be wrong, because they can’t see the book in its entirety, as something that makes the human mind bulge at the sides when we try to conceive of its multiplicity of facets and layers. They will always be wrong, because they don’t see a book, they just see a tool. Books to them are a weapon, an instrument of forcing and foisting, an ethical violence. They want books to dictate their way of life to others, whereas books are, and should be, an arena where individuals can find their own moral truths. Ultimately, the reason book-burners are terrified of books is because they know their ideologies will die if they’re not imposed, and books provide a powerful counterbalance to the machinery of indoctrination. They are a playground for the mind, and how do children learn and discover if not through play?

Let’s not undersell the importance of books. They’re more than just escape, or an aesthetic adventure. If we allow books to be burned, either literally or figuratively, we might as well burn everything else. Books represent an indispensable moral freedom, and we can’t just keep an eye out for bonfires anymore. They’re far too fucking clever for that. What we need to fear are people who burn books before they’re born, who make sure books are never written. The more career-minded writer often bemoans the oversaturation of the writing market, because it has such low barriers to entry. Bullshit. There are low barriers to the act of writing sure, compared to say, music or sculpture. But the barriers to that writing being read and read widely are very real, and very high for the most disprivileged people, who are exactly the people whose voices we need to hear most if we’re to recenter the social conversation and grasp most convincingly at the hot heart of moral truth.

Society is a poem. But when only a handful of people are permitted to write the collective destiny of everyone, it’s a really shitty poem. Especially since the most privileged among us have only the least important and insightful things to say. What we really need to do is shut up and listen. But we can’t do that if we don’t let those who know what’s up speak in the first place. Extinguish the wall of fire and let them write.

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The Ballad of Mack: A Poe-m

June 17, 2014

Once upon a morning beaming, as I grumbled, broke and leaning
Over to one side to favour ruptured disc that is not healing,
While I nodded by the window, I heard the pattering of him go,
Whiskers on his face akimbo, lingo for his plan of stealing
Out into the garden grass, as dingo prowl when they go stealing,
How can I describe the feeling?

Ah, distinctly I remember, every touch of June’s harsh ember,
And thought of facing heat so thick set my weary heart a-reeling.
Soon the beast was on the pavement, heralding my near derangement,
I wished we’d come to some arrangement, ancient beast of pharaohs dreaming,
So still I would possess the skill of patience for this creature seeking
Nothing more than joy of being.

So I rose in quivering sequence, aching for my spinal treatment,
To follow this young lion’s kin, into the garden he was stealing,
Where he hoped to swallow grass and wipe his fuzzy little ass,
And then he’d whisper “Gracias” to sass the gods of love and bleeding,
These seem true predictions, but, still, perhaps too deep I’m reading
Into cats whose thoughts are fleeting.

He seemed to linger in the garden, so foolishly I loosed my burden,
And what’d the skinny fucker do as soon as I was laxly leaning?
Scampered out the garden gate, so sloppily I gave my chase,
But of the cat there was no trace, escaped into the neighbour’s feeding
Thirst for knowledge, never slaked, and me all sweat and heavy breathing.
Bugger all, the cat was leaving!

Despite my wound, I chased the twit, into the bush and cuckoo spit,
Where he in shade was close to sleep, but I had no such time for dreaming,
Soon my girlfriend would be home and I’d be left without my bones.
I knew the fault was all my own, alone I’d failed at kitten-keeping,
And I’d be living on the streets, prone upon my spine a-seeping,
In the sunlight, red and steaming.

I found a mighty chunk of stick and poked the cocky little prick
Out from neath the shady bush, the shock of which sent him a-screaming.
“Shut your face, you stupid cat”, I meant to shout, instead I spat,
Certain in the knowledge that the cat would soon be back to sleeping
On my bed or on my chair or on my lap or on my cleaning,
Anywhere but in this clearing.

I ran the bastard out the garden into the house and drew the curtain
Round the pair of screen doors whose view first set his mind on fleeing.
He snuggled down into a chair, that lovely, loving British shorthair,
Black in colour, texture fair, there the creature sat a-dreaming,
While I panted like a dog, aware of a lesson I’d been gleaning:
Cats are awful shit-faced demons.

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Þæt Wæs God Spræc! or; Why Old English is the Best Thing Ever

May 13, 2014

Hwæt! this tongue of spears calls you to reckoning. A language at once so regal and martial, wherein Hrothgar discoursed upon the duties of a king and Byrhtnoth ordered his troops at the Blackwater. Yet, those whose mouths formed this dead speech whispered sweet nānþing in each other’s ears just as easily as they roared or orated. Guttural, yes; glossal, to a fault, and yet, of their surviving works, how many are songs of lament? And, more importantly still, how many are really dirty jokes?

Quite a few, it turns out. We have always found it easy to read a shallow character into language. Français, the language of love, Deutsche, the language of anger, Español, the language of passion: the shallow character of shallow characters, the romantic Frenchman, the shouting German, the lustful Spaniard. Of course the Anglo-Saxons – who we all think were kind of Vikings anyway – spoke a language of battle, and of course, since they are dead, they spoke a language that always sounded like it was dying. The h’s breathy, wheezy; the c’s strangled, tight, but she died a seven-hundred-year death. She had time to be peaceful, and in that time she worked.

Think of all the labour and the precious, precious time buried in each and every work of literature since Chaucer. Think of the lifetimes bled into the very ink, the bones we flayed from our own bodies to give them strong backs to bind against. Think especially of those people debased and enslaved, their cultures ripped from their hands in the most visceral ways, and who had to toil not only for our self-aggrandisement, but for the simple pleasure of owning a song to sing or a story to tell. If I asked you to name every book you knew, you wouldn’t shut up for days, weeks even. Now, think of nuclear heat that fills every available space and lights water itself on fire.

Imagine, a thousand years from now, a crew of aliens arriving in the black ruins of our world. They undulate through the detritus, trying to find what they would understand as literature. After years of searching, their accomplishments are thus: one abridged copy of The Canterbury Tales, three different version of the Bible, The Beatles Complete Chord Songbook, a fistful of scattered legal documents, Gray’s Anatomy, the complete works of Stephenie Meyer, The Elements of Style, an early biography of Captain Cook  and a secondary school poetry book. From these fragmentary and fire-damaged works, the aliens must reconstruct an understanding of Anglospheric literature worthy of academic inquiry. The fate of the aliens alone is exhausting, but at least they’ll have joy in their work. But just think of all the work, and I mean work, lost to the ages. Forget icebergs, the aliens have found the tip of a nail, a nail we bled and sweated and wept to drive in, yet all that remains is a speck of rust, the merits of which shall inform their judgement of the entire nail.

Does that seem unjust to you? And yet there is no other way. We do what we can with what we have. We read, we interpret, we speculate. There are four books of Old English literature yet extant – the Junius Manuscript, the Vercelli Book, the Nowell Codex and, of course, the Exeter Book – plus a morass of individual texts. Some of these are original manuscripts, some are transcripts of manuscripts now lost, such as those destroyed in the dark fire at Ashburnham House, from whence the Nowell Codex barely escaped. They hold marvels, and we have marvelled.

Though most of what survives consists in biographies of saints, translations of the Bible, chronicles and practical guides, Old English truly lives in its poems. Many are meditations on matters of faith, such as “The Dream of the Rood”, where Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is reimagined as the triumph of a warrior king over the enemy, death. Others are historical accounts, like “The Battle of Maldon”, a most curious limb of the poetic corpus. The tale recounted is a resounding military defeat for the Anglo-Saxon forces at the hands of Viking invaders, largely due to the immense and masculine pride of their leader, yet it is recorded nonetheless. They lose because of their rigid adherence to their heroic code, but we are called to praise it, in the same way one might be told that, as abhorrent as Osama bin Laden’s political ideals and actions were, one must admire his gumption. Another striking state of affairs exists between the male and female laments. The male laments, principally “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer”, take a rhetorical turn away from despair to consolation, balancing out at melancholia. The female laments, on the other hand, contain no such turn, and end as desperately as they begin. Few things bespeak the desolation of women’s souls with such clarity.

Yet it is the riddles I love best. Many interesting theories surround their purpose. The manuscripts contain no solutions, so the obvious answer is often discarded. One theory describes the riddle as an intellectual party game where each participant conceives of an answer and attempts to persuade the other players of his point of view. Another posits that the riddles are not meant to be solved, that they are actually vehicles by which our arbitrary categorisations and definitions are exposed as absurd. By portraying the thing in terms of the dissimilar other, we are forced to reconsider the ways in which we understand the thing to be itself. In Riddle 7, for example, the swan is recast as a handsomely-dressed woman who transforms mid-poem into a flying spirit.

This is what makes the riddles so potent: metaphor alone is beautiful, but its metamorphosis is sublime. People and places and things are seen to exist in time, to grow and change. Nothing is static in the Old English riddle, everything moves and lives. There is transience, transition and transformation. Riddle 26 depicts the slaughtering of a sheep, the wetting, scraping and stretching of its flesh into vellum, its illumination with scripture, its adornment with gold. The beast, thus changed, rallies to its duty as the vessel of holy words and the salvation of mortal men. Martial, regal, sublime.

And this a dead language?

Hwæt fleard!

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Breaking News: Man Comes Dangerously Close to Giving a Fuck

December 20, 2013

Martin Edwards-Howell, of Owell, NJ, has been apathetic for over thirteen-and-a-half years. But, today, all his weeks, months and years of not giving a single golden fuck almost came crashing down around him. Since swearing off caring for other human beings over a decade ago, Mr Edwards-Howell has consistently succeeded in avoiding even the most tangential sense of investment in the happiness or welfare of other individuals. However, while flicking through channels as he waited for one of his neighbours to “come over and watch the game, or something, I dunno”, Mr Edwards-Howell was momentarily exposed to a UNICEF ad for developmental aid in the third world.

Mr Edwards-Howell managed to turn off the TV before he could begin to count the number of ribs jutting through the mosquito-bitten skin of each of the three malnourished Haitian orphans featured in the ad, but the image had already triggered horrific memories of an article he read on Al Jazeera this one time about child prostitution in Lebanon. Luckily, his neighbour, Shaun Ruggins, arrived moments later with a six-pack of Coors Lite, and Mr Edward-Howell’s apathy was completely restored about three-quarters of the way through his first bottle.

The former chief spokesman for Empathetics Anonymous, Dean Niles, didn’t tweet about the incident because we wasn’t all that bothered, but when contacted, commented: “That’s kinda shitty. Government should probably do something about that.” Empathetics Anonymous was an NGO with the mission of organising support groups for people who wished to overcome serious problems with considering and appreciating the emotional experiences of other individuals, but it folded in early 2007 due to what was described by “insurmountable creative indifferences” on the part of management.

Mr Edwards-Howell’s family released a statement to the press confirming he was “fine, probably”, and that they “didn’t give two swings of a donkey’s floppy cocksicle” upon hearing the news.

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Hail Miley, Full of Race, the Lord is with Deen

December 13, 2013

Miley Cyrus is the face of liberal feminism, and that statement is flattering to neither Miley Cyrus nor liberal feminism.

Our story begins almost a year ago during the recording of Miley’s album Bangerz. As is later revealed in a promotional interview, she decides to go with a sound that she describes interchangeably as “black” and “urban”. So, step one, appropriate the cultural expressions of an oppressed social group and use those elements which are most marketable and appealing to your mainly white audience to spice up your music without actually suffering the disadvantages placed on that oppressed group by society. Step two, equate one particular subculture of that oppressed group (ratchet culture, what Miley calls “urban”), with that entire group, since when Miley said she wanted a “black sound”, she obviously wasn’t talking about Thelonious Monk, Lauryn Hill, Victor Wooten or Etta James.

Now, let’s fast-forward to just a few months ago, when Miley performed “We Can’t Stop”, the first single from Bangerz, at the MTV Video Music Awards. Building on the previous layers of racial exploitation already present in the music itself, Miley proceeds to use her troupe of black female back-up dancers as props, putting teddy bears on their backs and having them dance facing backwards, so they as women are basically invisible, existing only as an ass and a pair of legs in support of Miley. Further reinforcing this, Miley spanks and motorboats the asses of her dancers, literally using their bodies as props for her own sexual gratification. As if that wasn’t bad enough in itself, there’s already oodles of cultural misogyny towards black female sexuality, often particularly centred on their asses, and depicting them as so very sexually wanton that they can’t be raped, because they always want it and are always asking for it. So, just to recap, Miley literally uses black female bodies as props, and, in doing so, reinforces disgusting stereotypes about black female sexuality.

Also, let’s talk about the twerking. I’ve heard people laughing derisively while saying the phrase “ancient African art of twerking”, and to them I give a hearty “[expletive deleted]”, because how they treat the topic of cultural appropriation is far more telling about how much they look down on the expressions of other cultural groups than anything else. Regardless of the antiquity of its ancestry (though, for the record, twerking has a fairly ancient lineage), twerking is a black cultural expression and when Miley Cyrus’s uses it for shameless self-promotion and profit, she’s appropriating the culture of an oppressed group for her own benefit without taking on any of the burdens of that oppressed group, and that’s racial exploitation.

But let’s move on from why Miley Cyrus is a terrible human being to happier topics, like why almost everyone else is a terrible human being. We can broadly divide the reactions to Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance into four categories:

1. The shame-on-you response: shockingly, in response to a rather overtly sexual performance, there was a veritable slew of people attempting to shame Miley Cyrus for rocking her own sexuality. This is the most transparently misogynistic response the performance received, so I won’t labour the point too much: Miley Cyrus can do whatever the hell she wants with her own body and her own sexuality. If she wants to gyrate about the place in flesh-coloured panties, more power to her. The vulgarity of sex and sexuality (especially female sexuality) is a socially-constructed conservative trope that society just needs to get the hell over already.

2. The Spears-Spiral response: I named this one after an actual quote from a friend of mine who thinks he’s a lot more feminist than he is (like all men, including me). A lot of people characterised Miley’s performance as a desperate cry for help from someone with serious mental health problems, with inevitable comparisons to Britney Spears. I really shouldn’t need to say this, but I evidently do, so I will: if you think that a woman getting up on stage and being overtly sexual and comfortable and expressive in her own body is a sign of mental illness, you’re a misogynist. If you think a woman can only be publically and contentedly sexual if she is crazy, there is something deeply wrong with your view of the world and you need to realign your moral compass. This is particularly problematic when she was acting out her sexuality using expressions of black female sexuality, since there is the implication that you might not have presumed she was crazy if she was engaged in a more palatable white sexuality.

3. The liberal feminist response: see how I subtly brought that back? Let’s chat about why (predominantly white, middle-class) liberal feminists dropped the ball on this one. Yes, you did a good job of calling out those who made responses #1 and #2 on why they were being misogynistic slimebags. Kudos on that. However, anti-kudos for either failing to see, glossing over, ignoring or actively denying the racial implications of the performance. Feminism really doesn’t work when you don’t pay attention to the particular challenges faced by women who suffer from other systems of oppression, such as racism, classism, homophobia or transphobia. That’s why Miley Cyrus is the face of liberal feminism: neither she nor most liberal feminists thought she was doing anything wrong, apparently.

4. The intersectional feminist response: acknowledging and criticising the racially exploitative elements of Miley Cyrus’s performance while supporting her rights as a woman. Yes, she can do whatever she wants with her own body and sexuality.  No, she cannot do what she wants with the bodies, sexualities and cultural expressions of other women, particularly women of an oppressed cultural group. The importance of this should become particularly clear at the start of my next paragraph.

Let’s talk about Paula Deen (I lied about it becoming clear, sorry). For those of you who don’t know, Paula Deen is an American celebrity chef and restaurant owner. The food she markets is so fat-filled that she is arguably a threat to public health and she is a sufficiently monstrous, greedy hypocrite that, after years of unhealthy eating finally caught up with her and gave her diabetes, she continued to promote her butter-fried butter-flavoured buttered butter while also working as a paid spokesperson for an insulin manufacturer. Paula Deen is also a flagrant racist. She has admitted to using the N-word in conversation and decided against planning a “plantation” wedding with all-black serving staff engaging in Shirley Temple-esque minstrelsy, not because of how absurdly racist it was, but because she knew there would be a bad media reaction. When these matters came to public light, Deen portrayed herself as the victim of an aggressive media culture and, despite losing sponsorship, a publishing deal and her cooking show, her popularity has waxed rather than waned. A typical refrain from Deen’s defenders is that she’s just Southern and it’s all part of her culture, which is (1) pretty insulting to the millions of American Southerners capable of going through their daily lives without being racist and (2) not an excuse for racist behaviour.

The reason I raise the issue of Deen is that I think the difference between the responses to what Paula Deen did and what Miley Cyrus did expose a number of serious cultural problems we have. First of all, society evidently deems it more acceptable for a woman to be racist than to be overtly sexual. The backlash against Paula Deen has been miniscule in comparison to the backlash against Miley Cyrus, and upwards of 90% of the reaction to Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance has been criticising her for being sexual rather than being racist. Clearly, wider society is far more upset by female sexuality than by racism, even accounting for Miley Cyrus’s larger media profile compared to Paula Deen. In fact, the disparity in outrage is so palpable that most people barely noticed the racial implications of Miley Cyrus’s performance underneath the layers of sex, whereas the racism of matronly Paula Deen was more readily visible since she was occupying traditional gender roles when she was being racist, as opposed to expressing an active and vibrant sexuality.

Finally, to return to my opening statement, liberal feminism is accused frequently and fairly as being a feminism that mainly represents the perspectives, opinions, experiences and interests of middle-class white women. This has rarely been more clear than these last few months, when most liberal feminist commentators on the Miley Cyrus controversy were seemingly too invested in defending the selfish individualism of a middle-class white woman like themselves to care that she was exploiting the bodies, sexualities and cultural expressions of her black female back-up dancers. It’s time for more discourse and dialogue about the failures of liberal feminist ideologies. I understand that, especially for prominent feminist activists, the idea of admitting to a flaw in your feminism is terrifying. When you’re a public figure for a movement, your opponents will always try to make your individual failures reflect badly on the movement in its entirety, and that’s hard to stomach.

But you take that power away from them when you own up to what you’ve done and work to rectify your errors and improve yourself moving forward. More importantly, you also make one more step towards a more robust, inclusive and effective feminism. It’s a comforting lie to imagine that all women are equal, that all women are in this together. The truth is, not all women are equal. Women who bear the brunt of other systems of oppression have their own unique challenges that can’t be overcome by a feminism that tries to be blind to race in a world that isn’t.  Not all women are equal, but they should be, they can be and they will be as long as we’re all willing to interrogate our own prejudices and build a better and more intersectional feminism that gives a voice and a platform to the concerns of all women, not just the privileged few.

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