Today I’m feeling a tad hopeful where despair of the future had been an incessant drone.
Not a starry hope, but real. The midterm elections in the United States surprised everyone with the tepid performance of Republican red wave, especially from the MAGA election-denying horde. Normally midterm elections are a referendum two years after a presidential election; this year pundits thought that inflation woes (cast as Democratic mismanagement) and Democratic president Joe Biden’s low approval ratings would drive voters en masse to the polls for a Republican majority in Congress. Instead, Democrats gained a seat in the Senate and Republicans picked up barely enough seats to squeak out a majority in the House of Representatives. Election-deniers supported by Trump performed awfully, losing big in Arizona (where MAGA is most carnivorous) and failing to score most of the state attorney general seats critical to managing future elections.
Most are now saying that anti-democratic impulses of the far right in my country have been repudiated – albeit barely — to ensure this country is on better, operative ground heading forward.
Only in my home state of Florida did Republicans take all, including the re-election of governor Ron DeSantis, seen as a primary contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. Donald Trump, who resides at his Mar-A-Lago resort in South Florida, announced Tuesday that he is running again, so we have an ex-president likely to be prosecuted for attempting to overthrow the government the last time he was in office running again. Florida was swiped by two storms in the past month coming from either direction and making it clear that paradisal beach residence is a pricey peril.
But hey — I’ll take optimism where I can. Battered and fragile though my country’s weal may be, the legislative threads exist to continue making progress in fighting climate change, providing economic opportunity, supporting freedom in Ukraine and continuing a global transformation into whatever this century is forming into.
The mood is striking because there has been so little evidence in our global moment to feel that way. For the past 20 years, it’s been political upheavals, economic uncertainty, war and the growing looming malevolent specter of climate change. The cascade of bad news becomes so suffocating we tune it out, look backward or in, find our comforts in the small and momentary. Nothing wrong with any of that — all part of a healthy daily regimen — but this lack of hope in the future caps everything with the pall of doom. What forward thinking is possible, even conceivable, under such conditions?
I didn’t grasp this until reading an interview with musician Brian Eno in The New York Times Magazine the other day. Eno’s been around since the ‘70s, was a founding member of the glam art-rock band Roxy Music, pioneered ambient music and has worked with rock luminaries including David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and Coldplay. Promoting his new album FOREVERNEVERMORE, Eno spoke with David Marchese on a wide range of topics.
But here’s what pricked my attention: Where I tend to think of culture as backward-focused (a current collection of poems I’m working an attempt at verse memoir), Eno asserts the reverse: “culture — art, if you like — has an important set of functions in preparing us for the future. If you read a book like 1984, you’re surrendering to a world with certain values and attributes and seeing what it feels like. Then, when you see something a bit like that starting to exist, you have a way of understanding it and how that might feel.”
Eno said FOREVERNEVERMORE was greatly influenced by the growing menace of climate change and how it is darkening all aspects of modern life. But rather than stay stuck in dystopian fin de siècle soundscapes (the album has some) Eno sees humanity’s arts as grasping for the change:
I can’t conceive of a future where there isn’t a threat. I think we’re in for a hard ride for maybe half a century. Then it will either be the end of civilization or a reborn humanity with a different set of ideas about who we are and where we belong and how we must relate to things in order to survive.
Dark as that may sound, are there not seeds there to plant as well? Isn’t there a garden of possibility aiming toward those new ideas, difficult and tortured as our current work may be? Rather than intoning requiems, maybe it’s baptism we should foster, building conditions for something further down from our late and last best work.
At least we can begin…
Eno’s sense of our best chances lays a lot of hope in the instrument which got us here — our brains — something I’m not sure I trust so deeply:
… I see a pessimistic short-term future. Not short-term for the person who’s living it but short-term in the history of civilization. Then I see this point at which we either really fail or we start to succeed. I think the succeed side has a very good chance because of the amount of human intelligence at work. There has never been more intelligence on the planet than there is now. Not only because there’s more brains than ever but there are also more augmentations of brains. There are more connections among all these brains. We’re in a sort of intelligence explosion. I hope.
In our human experience to date, misuses of intelligence far outnumber helpful ones. But as COP27 participants agree to greater transparency and honesty in their pledges (as well the outlines of a loss and damage fund), changed leadership in Brazil promises to slow Amazon deforestation and the green economy builds slowly up to scale, the righting balance yet be out there.
We can either despair of our slim chances or pick up a shovel and start working a row fertile for that future.
I suspect a major dislocation of our root embrace of modernity (blame Prometheus) will be necessary, at extreme but hopefully not fully extincting cost. That’s the edifice we have built (even if we have only lived through it), with our energy dependence, fossil fuel addiction economies of clearcut extraction, wealth discrepancy and amok capitalism.
The changes are coming, too slowly to prevent overheating the next few centuries at least. Devastation and loss will be growing oppressions of fact (they already are). Millions, perhaps billions, will die in flooded homelands and humid wastelands, beneath the migratory sea or at the gates of withering paradise. Most wildlife will vanish. Like Noah’s Flood, the shadow of Prometheus will cover the land. My hope is not personal but for this earth we love, that enough of it will remain with a humanity finally ready to get in step with it.
So what is the poetry that prepares such a difficult garden? Despair won’t work, and neither will impossible hope.
The Wendell Berry poem I keep coming back to is “Work Song,” published in his 1977 collection Clearing. It tells us not to despair of the difficulty. Here is the second part of that sequence:
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
To stand like slow-growing trees
On a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
Asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
The lives our lives prepare will live
Here, their houses strongly placed
Upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
Rich in the windows. The river will run
Clear, as we will never know it,
And over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
Green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
The old forest, an old forest will stand,
Its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
Risen out of the ground. They will take
Nothing from the ground they will not return,
Whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
Native to this valley, will spread over it
Like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.
The last two lines frame the aesthetic of this week’s challenge, but these lines resound with the extent of the difficulty: “They will take / Nothing from the ground they will not return, / Whatever the grief at parting.” It all goes back in the ground, my confusions and errors, best words and half-whole heart; our ghost forests and monster storms and wildfires; the lattice of tiny solutions — respect all life, sacrifice desire for the common good, find power within the heart, pray at waking and with last thoughts — all that big, better ones may rise. So thatl the last car may roll to a stop, and the last tree fall for an obsolete timber industry.
What are the poems of such compost, the manure of despair and loss buried, seeds tended by the art of the hardy possibility?
Toward that end, our present poetry doesn’t have to know the solutions that lie ahead, only be willing to acknowledge what doesn’t work and surrender any thought of escaping what must necessarily change.
In 1993 A.R. Ammons published a book-length poem titled Garbage, an offering to “the gods of our unpleasant necessities” where language may yet redeem itself. A brief section:
… this is a scientific poem,
Asserting that nature models values, that we
have invented little (copied), reflections of
possibilities already here, this where we came
to and how we came: a priestly director behind the
black-chufffing dozer leans the gleanings and
reads the birds, millions of loners circling
a common height, alighting to the meaty streaks
and puffy muffins (pufffins?): there is a mound,
too, in the poet’s mind dead language is hauled
off to and burned down on, the energy held and
shaped into new turns and clusters,
the mind strengthened by what it strengthens: for
where but in the very asshole of comedown
is redemption: as where but brought low, where
but in the grief of failure, loss, error do we
discern the savage afflictions that turn us around:
where but in the arrangements love crawls us
through, not a thing left in our self-display
unhumiliated, do we find the sweet seed of
To seek high, go low: to plant fertilely, spread the dead. To our savage afflictions and affections be true.
Terri Winding relates the following in “Sacred Springs and Other Water Lore”: “An old English folklorist told me once that nature spirits would live in a well, a spring, a lake or a grove of trees, only so long as they were remembered and addressed respectfully. If the spirits were neglected, they’d leave the place; the land would feel soul-less and dead henceforth.” Our attention and care of forgotten and abandoned spaces is an invitation to those spirits to re-inhabit us. Wastelands are the place to begin, where work on what has been spoiled is the greatest.
Maybe the strongest ingredient in this difficult soil is gratitude — gratitude for the good that remains, that its abundance may recoverand spread. For where there is gratitude, there is also hope.
For this challenge, tend a difficult garden.
WHAT IS A GARDEN
All day working happily down near the streambed
the light passing into the remote opalescence
it returns to as the year wakes toward winter
a season of rain in a year already rich
in rain with masked light emerging on all sides
in the new leaves of the palms quietly waving
time of mud and slipping and of overhearing
the water under the sloped ground going on whispering
as it travels time of rain thundering at night
and of rocks rolling and echoing in the torrent
and of looking up after noon through the high branches
to see fine rain drifting across the sunlight
over the valley that was abused and at last left
to fill with thickets of rampant aliens
that brought habits but no stories under the mango
already vast as clouds there I keep discovering
beneath the tangle the ancient shaping of water
to which the light of an hour comes back as to a secret
and there I planted young palms in places I had not pondered
until then I imagined their roots setting out in the dark
knowing without knowledge I kept trying to see them standing
in that bend of the valley in the light that would come
— From The River Sound (1999)
He was born with the fingerpads of the blind.
By eight he could tell if someone
had been at the piano before him,
and how long before, and who.
Beginning Fur Elise one November afternoon,
he burst into storms of tears
because his sister had banged
her tuneless anger the night before,
and he felt the bruises still on the keys.
He was born with the ears of a dog.
He could hear his mother’s skin decay,
the soft give
as her cheeks sagged just barely more.
Sometimes his face would cloud
because the moan of needles becoming
earth seemed so incomparably sad.
Or brighten. He had heard
the sun come out on the beating feathers
of birds, miles away.
He was born with his life in his hands.
Toddling, he learned the little bells
of Grieg. Then he mastered Mozart’s
speech, its ache of clean and brittle
song. Then he learned to follow Bach,
crossing water from calm to flood,
up and down the stepping-stones
of the keys. He would dream
of his piano as if it were flesh.
In a room with a strange instrument
he would walk by it once or twice,
brushing it as if by accident
with his leg, his sleeve.
— from 44 Ambitions for Piano, 1990
ENRICHING THE EARTH
To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and of various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past seasons
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. I am slowly falling
into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass. It is the mind’s service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.
The ratio between the material Cornell collected
and the material that ended up in his boxes
was probably a thousand to one.
— Deborah Solomon, Joseph Cornell
Whatever is done
leaves a hole in the
possible, a snip in
the gauze, a marble
and thimble missing
from the immaterial.
The laws are cruel
on this point. The
undone can’t be
patched or stretched.
The wounds last.
The bundles of
nothing that are
our gift at birth, the
lavish trains we
trail into our span
like vans of seamless
promise, like fresh
sheets in baskets,
are our stock. We
must extract parts
to do work. As
time passes, the
promise is tattered
like a battle flag
above a war we
— from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010)
If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.
But if you should look in your idleness after ten thousand years:
It is the granite knoll on the granite
And lava tongue in the midst of the bay, by the mouth of the Carmel
River-valley, these four will remain
In the change of names. You will know it by the wild sea-fragrance of wind
Though the ocean may have climbed or retired a little;
You will know it by the valley inland that our sun and our moon were born from
Before the poles changed; and Orion in December
Evenings was strung in the throat of the valley like a lamp-lighted bridge.
Come in the morning you will see white gulls
Weaving a dance over blue water, the wane of the moon
Their dance-companion, a ghost walking
By daylight, but wider and whiter than any bird in the world.
My ghost you needn’t look for; it is probably
Here, but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing on wind
With the mad wings and the day moon.
— from Cawdor (1926-28)
POETS TO COME
Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than
Arouse! for you must justify me.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.
NOW I UNDERSTAND
Something was pouring out. Filling the field
and making it vacant. A wind blowing them
sideways as they moved forward. The crying
as before. Suddenly I understood why they left
the empty bowls on the table, in the empty hut
overlooking the sea. And knew the meaning
of the heron breaking branches, spreading
his wings in order to rise up out of the dark
woods into the night sky. I understood about
the lovers and the river in January.
Heard the crying out as a battlement,
of greatness, and then the dying began.
The height of passion. Saw the breaking
of the moon and the shattering of the sun.
Believed in the miracle because of the half heard
and the other half seen. How they ranged
and how they fed. Let loose their cries.
One could call it the agony in the garden,
or the paradise, depending on whether
the joy was at the beginning, or after.
I HAVE NOT TOLD MY GARDEN YET
I haven’t told my garden yet—
Lest that should conquer me.
I haven’t quite the strength now
To break it to the Bee—
I will not name it in the street
For shops would stare at me—
That one so shy—so ignorant
Should have the face to die.
The hillsides must not know it—
Where I have rambled so—
Nor tell the loving forests
The day that I shall go—
Nor lisp it at the table—
Nor heedless by the way
Hint that within the Riddle
One will walk today—
— F 40 (1858)
I was glad to see a poem by Jeffers among the others here.
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We don’t see enough of Jeffers! Great earth poet.
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A moving feast this challenge,B. The premise for this gardener is a way of life after half a century trying to foster things to grow here in the former dustbowl. What wants to live badly enough will, for the rest, it’s a crap shoot, but the tending is what it’s about. Love the Whitman and Berry, and all the rest of the offerings. Will have to see what I can do.
Thanks Hedge, looking forward to your response. I’m not sure poets of our time can envision any of the conditions that will nourish a fruitful poetry 50 years hence — perhaps our best work is to thoroughly burn what is useless going forward. Suburban laissez-faire poetry, die! 🙂
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I love the whole idea of tending a difficult garden….brilliant! I will never understand why trump is allowed to run when the Constitution states no one who has incited a riot against the government can run? It is truly like he is above the law – and he isnt the only one who thinks it. The right wing assault on womens’ rights likely played a part in the midterms too. But I am surprised the win wasnt bigger because of that. Every woman who can walk should have voted. I love Eno’s hope that in 50 years a more enlightened way of living on earth may have arisen. That would be good. It is my (faint) hope too but, as he says, hard road in the interim. I love the gratitude of your essay’s close. And that the nature spirits need to be acknowledged to remain in a place. So true. When I was young, they helped me grow the most glorious garden to feed my hungry kids.
Thanks, an unavoidably difficult and perhaps unimaginable road forward, but poets of the present moment have a part to play if they choose to — and if they don’t, become part of the immense loss in the works. Maybe our garden can only be terrible … but I give thanks for what still seems possible today.
A fabulous prompt. I have a basket of seeds ready to sow.
And a fine feral contribution, that!
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My second poem drew forth all of my best green dreams for this planet.
I’ve managed something, and hopefully shall manage reading others soon. Best wishes for future gardens (and current holidays for those celebrating them.)