Politics Needs Poetry

Bookmarks

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says at the empty tomb. He said it before, at the Transfiguration; and before that, after walking on water; and before that, upon meeting the first disciples. We’re often afraid, especially when we’re told not to be. Yet as the suffering associated with the coronavirus pandemic grows, it’s hard not to feel that this time is more fearful than most.

How bracing, then, to read Paul Lisicky’s memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World. Lisicky considers the damage one suffers by living with fear as well as the grace displayed by those who endure it. The book’s subtitle refers geographically to Provincetown, the seaside community “situated on the final joint of the longest finger” of Cape Cod where Lisicky lived in the early 1990s as a Writing Fellow of the Fine Arts Work Center. The subtitle refers existentially to the experience of being a young gay man at the height of the AIDS pandemic. “By the mid-1990s,” Lisicky writes, “it will be said that 385 people died of AIDS in Town”—his name for the proudly artsy, proudly queer community of Provincetown. “Ten percent of the population. Sometimes I say it back to myself aloud, in hopes that it will sear me: 10 percent. And yet I can’t feel statistics.” 

What did it feel like to live in a time and place so haunted by death? Lisicky became a close reader of bodily changes and what they portended. He picked up the newspaper and read the obituaries first. He came to see everyone, his lover and himself, as a potential threat: “Look at a drop of your blood, your semen, your saliva, and think of it containing a thousand little grenades.… How would your life change? Could you ever disappear into yourself, into your skin ever again?” He felt fury at God’s silence: “Looking at those changes straight on? Imagine trying to look at God, and if you think you can do that, God will find a way to break you.”

Yet living in Town also allowed Lisicky to experience an excitement of mind and body, a tenderness of the soul and spirit, that he had never known before. A gay boy raised Catholic in the South, Lisicky had always lived in fear of himself and others. Now, for the first time, he was openly desired. He felt loved—by boyfriends and strangers, by writers and painters—and he loved in turn. And where there is love, there is freedom. Among other things, Later is a wonderful portrait of a community formed in and through extremis. Lisicky sketches the writer Elizabeth McCracken, also a Writing Fellow and possessed of “a distinctive speaking voice that sounds like it was made for singing,” as well as the poet Mark Doty, then a man caring for his dying partner and, in the future, Lisicky’s lover. We read about the bonds established in bars and at poetry readings, the intimacy afforded by living together in the midst of death and in the expectation of love.

The book’s final sentence, yearning and elegiac, speaks both to Lisicky’s years in Town and to our own moment: “I want to touch you while there’s still time to touch you.”    

Later: My Life at the Edge of the World
Paul Lisicky
Graywolf, $16, 240 pp.

 

Lisicky’s account of living through one pandemic makes for moving reading in our own, very different crisis. Vivian Gornick’s recently reissued The Romance of American Communism, a personal and collective history of the rise, fall, and lingering afterlife of the American Left, also seems pitched to our current situation. When the book was first published in 1977, Gornick tartly observed, “Today, everybody’s a Marxist. But what the hell does that mean?” Good question then, and a good question now, when students wear shirts emblazoned with “Marx was right” and when, Joe Biden’s rise from the dead notwithstanding, most of the life on the American left is in fact coming from the Left.

Gornick knows of what she speaks. As she states, “Before I knew that I was Jewish or a girl I knew that I was a member of the working class.” The division between labor and capital was, Gornick notes, “mother’s milk to me, absorbed through flesh and bone almost before consciousness.” When Gornick was born in 1935, her father worked at a dress factory on West 35th Street. He was a member of the Communist Party; the Daily Worker was the family paper of record. Radical politics wasn’t a hobby for the Gornicks. It wasn’t one topic among many. It was everything.

In The Romance of American Communism, Gornick offers an oral history of the movement, approaching people active in the mid-century Communist Party, asking what drew them to it and why they left (or stayed). The book, she writes, “is an attempt to put flesh on the skeleton; to make concrete what has been abstract; to make real and recognizable what for most Americans has been unknown and, therefore, unreal.” Ultimately, she wants to think more about political desire than about political philosophy. Why are we drawn to political movements? Why and how do they turn us on? Why and how do they betray us?

Gornick argues for her thesis with great lucidity. To its believers, Communism offered a new way to understand both the self and the world. A factory worker was no longer just a factory worker but an integral part of history’s unfolding; history was no longer just one damn thing after another but a project, a movement toward justice and equality. Communism allowed you to see as if for the first time, and what you saw was the world—history, work, activism, argument—laden with meaning. Like romantic love or religious belief, Communism was a totalizing thing, centering and illuminating everything and everyone it touched.

The book proceeds as a series of profiles. Gornick cedes the narrative voice to her subject for pages on end, only to sidle up and offer a perfect bit of physical portraiture. Here is Arthur Richman, once a “professional radical” and now a biologist in a research lab: “The lines in Arnold’s face are shockingly deep. They pull down the corners of his nose and mouth as though the entire face is being dragged relentlessly toward some long-repressed gravity of the soul. The eyes above the lines look caged. They are large, brown, liquid. If they were gentle Arnold would look like an intelligent bulldog, but as they are sad he looks like an intelligent beagle.” That last sentence is worth a dozen books of political economy.

In her introduction to the reissued version, Gornick pooh-poohs her own achievement, complaining that the book’s “emotionalism is so thick you could cut it with a knife.” At least by the standards of Gornick’s other work, she’s right. Gornick sees those she profiles as political romantics, and she tends to romanticize them: “It was passion that converted them, passion that held them, passion that lifted them up and then twisted them down. Each and every one of them experienced a kind of inner radiance: some intensity of illumination that tore at the soul.”

Gornick argues that Communism transfigured the hard work of organizing into something like poetry.

Gornick argues that Communism transfigured the hard work of organizing into something like poetry. But this attentiveness to the movement’s grandeur of vision can obscure the grubby work of politicking. Because Gornick has an overarching thesis—namely, that Communism’s “overriding impulse was toward the integration of life”—her subjects tend to blur with one another. “To watch people becoming in such an atmosphere, that is to feel the world being made anew.” That’s spoken by one of Gornick’s characters but it could have been said by any one of them—or by Gornick herself. 

Right now, it seems that Bernie Sanders, a figure who would fit perfectly into Gornick’s book, won’t win the Democratic nomination. Poetry has lost once again. (Interestingly, Gornick has said she’s no fan of Sanders.) But centrists would do well to remember the evidence of The Romance of American Communism. Politics isn’t just about pragmatics; political movements aren’t built from arguments about electability. Rather, they grow from “the stirring spectacle of human beings engaged, alive to the beauty and rawness of self-creation.”

The Romance of American Communism
Vivian Gornick
Verso, $19.95, 288 pp.

 

Want to know why so many young people are attracted to the Left? Try entering the workplace with crushing student-loan debt only to be told that you really should grow up and buy a house. A more pleasant route to the same destination: try reading Hilary Leichter’s debut novel Temporary, a book whose imaginative absurdity matches the real-life absurdity of life in our gig economy.

The novel opens like this: “I have a shorthand kind of career. Short tasks, short stays, short skirts. My temp agency is an uptown pleasure dome of powder-scented women in sensible shoes. As is customary, I place my employment in their manicured hands. With trusty carpal alchemy they knead my resume into a series of paychecks that constitute a life.” There’s a lot compressed into these crisp sentences: the pressure we find ourselves under when we define our lives by our work—especially when so much of our work consists of, to borrow from the anthropologist David Graeber, bullshit jobs; the increasing, quasi-magical power held by administrators and bureaucrats, regardless of profession; the understanding of workers as fungible goods. But it’s all done with lightness, in a style that is quietly allusive (the “pleasure dome” calls up Coleridge’s vision of Xanadu) and that relishes linguistic playfulness.

Temporary demonstrates, in exaggerated fashion, how our jobs, marked by insecurity and emptiness, can turn us into assets or objects or automatons. The unnamed narrator longs for what people in her world call “the steadiness”: a life and a job that don’t exist under the sufferance of employers or macroeconomic forces. This personal and professional stability is the carrot that lures her on. She fears she’ll never get that carrot, or that she won’t recognize it when she does. But she keeps hunting. What else can she do, in such an economy, in such a world? 

Temporary’s sentences are sharp and spiky; its plot is shaggy and surreal. The narrator moves from job to job, each more absurd than the last. She shines shoes. She washes windows. She stands in “for the Chairman of the Board at the very, very major corporation, Major Corp.” She works as a human barnacle. (No, really, she works as a human barnacle, hanging out on a rock, “filling in for a species on the brink of extinction.”) She hands out pamphlets for a witch. (“Not a witch, per se,” her temporary employer says. “I prefer Director of Pamphlets.”) She temps for a murderer.

While Leichter’s economic analysis is serious, her manner is delightfully goofy. She skewers corporate speak and pokes fun at workplace ambition and complacency. At one point, the narrator finds herself working on a pirate ship:

My new crew was once a company of internet pirates, but they rebranded. Delete a few syllables and lo, you have a new profession.

 

“There are only a few kinds of jobs in the world, it turns out,” says the captain, who is the type to pontificate and listicle on subjects varied and profound. “Jobs on land,” he continues, “jobs at sea, jobs in the sky, jobs of the mind, and working remotely.”

 

“You mean like working from home?” I ask.

 

“No,” the pirate captain says. “Working remotely is what we call being dead. Pirate lingo.”

By now, many of us are familiar with the absurdity-unto-death that is working remotely: teaching via Zoom, meeting via Zoom, living via Zoom. It’s nice to be reminded that we’re not crazy for thinking that this is all, in fact, crazy.

Temporary
Hilary Leichter
Coffee House Press, $16.95, 208 pp.

 

Hilary Leichter responds to injustice with satirical laughter. The poet Carolyn Forché, in a very different style, meets injustice with moral witness.

The poems in Forché’s latest collection, In the Lateness of the World, look at suffering and violence with an exacting and unsentimental vision. In “The Boatman,” she imagines refugees approaching Italy from the sea: “Aleppo went up in smoke,” the boatman reports. “Leave, yes, we’ll obey the leaflets, but go where? / To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged? / To camp misery and camp remain here. I ask you then, where?” Yet this pained witness is met by bold faith: faith in the power of witness itself; faith in the ever-broken, ever-resurrected world. “For if the earth is a camp and the sea / an ossuary of souls,” Forché writes in “Mourning,” “light your signal fires / wherever you find yourselves. / Come the morning, launch your boats.” Mourning, we hope and believe, will eventually give way to morning. (Forché, herself Catholic, is a University Professor at Georgetown University.)

In 2019, Forché published What You Have Heard Is True, a memoir about her time spent in El Salvador between 1978 and 1980. In the Lateness of the World is her first poetry collection in seventeen years, and it displays impressive formal command. Forché works in couplets and long, unbroken stanzas. Sometimes her lines are Whitmanian in their extension, sometimes they are Dickinsonian in their concision.

In the Lateness of the World exhibits lateness of several different kinds. It is late in its frequently elegiac tone: Forché writes of and to poets who have passed away, parents who have gone, communities that have been destroyed. It is late in its attention to environmental degradation in the Anthropocene: “There is only the sea and its yes, lights in the city of the dead, / and a plastic island that must from space appear to be a palace.” And it is late in its focus on memory—both personal memory (“Your cinerary box was light, but filled with you it weighed eight pounds,” Forché writes in a poem dedicated to Leonel Gómez, the man who had first convinced her to bear witness to the war in El Salvador) and collective memory: in “Museum of Stones,” Forché proclaims “all earth a quarry, all life a labor, stone-faced, stone-drunk / with hope that this assemblage of rubble, taken together, would become / a shrine or holy place, an ossuary.”

Though this is a book that often looks to the past, it ends by looking to the future. It may feel like we’re late in the day, or that things are coming to an end. But Forché leaves us in a place of bewildering openness, maybe even a place of hope:

in the surround rises, fireflies in linden, an ache of pine

 

you have yourself within you

 

yourself, you have her, and there is nothing

 

that cannot be seen

 

open then to the coming of what comes

In the Lateness of the World
Carolyn Forché
Penguin Press, $24, 96 pp.

Published in the May 2020 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Also by this author
Beauty Behind Bars

Please email comments to [email protected]gazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Collections