Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘usa’

Trapped Family Fingers

In usa on November 28, 2019 at 12:30 pm

Are Americans the victims of some awful experiment? You almost expect the gigantic bald pate of a mad scientist to appear over the horizon one day, checking on his helpless specimens, each stuck in a hamster wheel of indefatigable optimism.

Chased by Fox News, flummoxed by fake facts and the phoniest guy we could find for president, we derive superficial comfort from Disney, opioids and pizza, Vietnam bombing-raid reenactments, five hundred billion YouTube gaming videos, and self-congratulatory movies about Ruth Bader Ginsberg or the more prominent heroes of the Underground Railway, while awaiting our possible execution at church, or the mall, or the parking lot. Or at home.

When exactly did America give up on love of life? When we tire of killing each other, we slaughter some Kurds or Afghan peasants. No wonder extra-terrestrials won’t visit us anymore. Sad!

The latest idea for preventing school shootings is to train dogs to confront the shooter. The dog, unarmed and unprotected, is expected to make his or her way right up to a homicidal maniac mid-rampage, and wrestle him to the ground. They are kamikaze K-9s, doomed from the start to be shot along with everybody else.

Or here’s a good move: arm teachers. As a result, children are now exposed to guns, gun threats and gun accidents at school. For extra protection (at least for the upper torso, and if shot from the rear), children can wear bulletproof backpacks: “Three times the fun: book bag, lunch pail and life-preserver, all in one!” Parents dutifully join campaigns for “gun sense,” while their kids attend school shooter drills to learn how to have nightmares and panic attacks, and run faster than a speeding bullet.

Never in all this is the possibility of simply banning all firearms mooted. Forget gun control, gun reform, gun sense. How about NO GUNS? There is no unassailable right to own an AR-15. Most of the population really wouldn’t miss guns a bit.

Luckily, Rube Goldberg’s on the case. Republican senator (A), on way to receive large cash donation (B) from NRA (C), slips on wife’s alligator handbag (D) out of which flies cockatoo (E). Bird spies blueberry muffin (F) amongst other detritus on senator’s desk (G) and settles in for big breakfast. While scrabbling for crumbs, cockatoo upsets bottle of Kahlúa (H), steps in resultant puddle (I) and accidentally produces sloppy but legally-binding “X” on important document banning guns (J), that by chance required only one more signature. Before senator (A) even awakes from concussion, total ban on private ownership of guns in America has been instituted, and all guns (K) (along with KKK, for good measure) have been thrown into either Pacific (L) or Atlantic (M). Random child (N) is now able to attend elementary school (O) in safety and learn alphabet (PQRSTUVWXYZ).

Freud said America was a big mistake, presumably because it was a place where the id was allowed to run rampant, from Columbus’s outrages on through all the white man’s land-grabbing, massacres, slavery, greed and insensibility. “Hide your wives and daughters, hide your groceries too, ” sings Randy Newman. “Great nations of Europe coming through.” In the mid-1800s, Fanny Trollope was appalled by Americans, finding them not only cheerless, misogynistic, and inhospitable, but so vulgar. She couldn’t believe how much they spat.

Some spit, others are spat out. With the built-in inevitability of bullfights, the go-getters go get, the rest get got. Carlos Fuentes identified the anguish beneath all this American enterprise, the anguish of “doing, getting things done, making it.” Failure, pretty much guaranteed, goes unloved; it’s not part of the story. But the fear of it drives people back into their uptight bubbles of ME. From the safety of solipsism, they participate in the collective daily orgasm of consumerism: this is the only US in the U.S. Buying stuff is equated with citizenship.

Even the niceness of many Americans is now suspect, because you never know if it’s politeness born of terror, the kindness of calamity: Stockholm syndrome, multiplied in three hundred and thirty million captives. You have to be generally pleasant, to avoid being shot in the head. What if all those chocolate chip cookies we offer around all the time emanate purely from fear, not caloric bonhomie? “When terror descends,” as Edward Albee put it.

We have swapped our hard-won democratic rights for gossip, Super Pacs, lobbyists, peer pressure, bullying, the antique insanity of the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and all the modern chicanery of the electronic ballot box. But there’s an up side! This powerlessness leaves more time for the ME stuff. Because, you know, there’s like all this pop music to approve or reject, and so many foreign slave-labor jeans and trainers to purchase, beggars to belittle, billionaires to envy, TV miniseries to watch and theories about the purifying effects of green tea to develop and propound. So much purifying and putrefying going on! It’s really very absorbing. Never mind what the police are doing just down the street to black men who don’t mow their lawns in the right direction.

For some, charity work has transmogrified into the moral duty to go to the gym. If only these people, so enamored of exercise, would use their muscles for the greater good! Instead of exerting themselves to feel superior to the sedentary all day, they really could help out a bit more. Plant trees, lug food to the poor, scrape plastic debris out of rivers every day, fortify cities against flood. Forfeit their cars and run (if run they must) to work. March too, on Washington, until Superman’s nemesis is gone. So much time and money are devoted to the self, there’s none left for sorting out society.

Meanwhile, the ICE man cometh. Guantanamo wasn’t enough, the Republicans want more torture zones, and immigrants incarcerated for life. At the sight of the weeping children we cry out “This is not America, this is not who we are!” – but it so clearly is who we now are. Or what we became, while drinking the requisite amount of sody-pop and gazing catatonically at our smart phones.

Nothing really matters beyond the self and family anymore. What, is that so selfish? “Actually, that’s the definition of selfish” (Jerry Seinfeld). But, At the beck and call of low-paid jobs, social media and advertising, with the instincts of a cornered animal, people have no time to think beyond the bounds and bonds of family.

Americans are trapped in trapped families. And the hills are alive with the sound of gunfire.

The American family is vulnerable, since it’s at the mercy of commerce, with Family Paks of aspirin and burger buns, Family Size gallons of milk and beer and OJ, family cars big enough to shove trucks off the road, family pets, family movies, family vacations, family men, family trees, family fun, family matters, family favorites, family hunting trips, family secrets, family vendettas, and family murder-suicides.

You’d think that mothers might be awarded high status in such a family-oriented society, but women in America have no status at all. That became obvious during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Kavanaugh good for America. Women not heard in America. Women not safe in America. Women just slaves in America. “Free to wait tables and shine shoes,” as they could have sung in West Side Story.

Where is the compassion, the sense of community? The latter word is awkwardly close in sound to communism, which triggers even more terror. The new nickname for protestors against climate change, you know, those compassionate people hoping to preserve a future for life on earth, is “watermelons”: meaning that they are green on the outside and red inside. “Nah, we don’t want life on earth. Leave us alone.”

So it’s no accident we chose the least safe pair of hands (be they small or bigly). Just as Brexit is the apotheosis of age-old British self-hatred, America has embarked on its own ruinous act of self-immolation. The nation mulled things over, blinked its eyes, Stan Laurel style, scratched its head, and decided to go for more corporate criminality, more exploitation, more terror, more indifference, more conformism, more conservatism, more inequity, more bread, more circus…and astonishing levels of sadness. The mad scientist seems to have instructed everybody to play dumb and await vivisection. We obediently munch our apocalypse stew – dumbo gumbo – and every house blazes with a sinister blue light. The light of unreason.

What riches there once were, what beauties! Raindrops on roses and crop tops on cuties. Now it’s just tear gas and water hoses, and immigrant children tied up with strings. These are a few of our favorite things. Climb every mountain, ford every stream? “Sure thing, ma’am, long as it’s worth frackin’.”

But wait, here’s Rube! Idiotic evil “nasty” president (A) gets kicked in the ass (B) by old GI boot (C) and, changing his tune on the old banjo (D), makes reparations to Native Americans (E), African Americans (F), women (G), alligators (H) and oil-caked sea otters (I), reinstates Constitution (J) (reads it too!), establishes universal healthcare (K), distributes basic living wage (L) to every citizen (M), bans guns (N), saves whales (O), opens all borders (P), dismantles nuclear plants (Q), discards nuclear weapons (R), pensions off military (S), revokes tax cuts for rich (T), and erases student debt (U). In his excitement he extracts ostentatious gold money clip (V) and catapults it into education (W), so Americans won’t fall (X) into drainage canal (Y) of vapidity (Z) ever again.

Wow, what a relief. I thought we were all goners.


© Lucy Ellmann


(A version of this essay appeared in the Globe & Mail, Toronto, on October 12th, 2019.)




Robin Robertson — The Long Take

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 9, 2018 at 9:22 am


The Long Take, a narrative poem, is the story of a guy called Walker: his “name and nature”. He was born in Nova Scotia and was alive to what you might call an old-fashioned natural world, out of a Robert Flaherty film. He fought in France. Feeling soiled, disjointed, he believes he cannot return to the purity of his home place, so he washes up in New York City, in 1946, and experiences life there in the stark chiaroscuro of new cinema.

In this black and white world he begins to write. From an island beginning he becomes a sharp, cinematographic observer of urban humanity – in the latter half of the 20th century, what other kind is there? He hears from men how New York works: “Up there …” he gestured at the bright/jewelry of the towers,/the wasted light of penthouses and suites,/’… are all the girls and all the money.” Walker encounters some people from Hollywood and gradually ideas of it work on him and he lights out for there. Walker you could easily imagine as the actor Robert Walker: a world-weary, battle-hardened, acutely sensitive man, scarred and unbalanced.

Any narrative poem about New York City reminds you of Hart Crane’s The Bridge; California brings to mind Robinson Jeffers, a writer with whom Robin Robertson has much in common. In its beginning, The Long Take remarkably captures linguistic styles of 1940s American writing – Saroyan and Steinbeck. As it progresses into the mid-1950s, we’re hearing Ginsberg and Baldwin.

You also sense the paintings of John Sloan and hear Joseph Moncur March and Les Murray (whose Fredy Neptune is another shattering narrative of a damaged fighting man). David Jones’s In Parenthesis, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (to our disappointment, Walker is also a drinker) – you will be washed in all these when you read this poem. Dust, the dust and sand natural to Los Angeles, but also that raised by the constant, insane development and re-development of the city, is John Fante’s dust.

Walker gets a job on a newspaper, easy as pie. Those were the days. But everything in Los Angeles has always been happenstance, in turmoil, endangered, unreliable – just like the houses and the iffy, oily soil they rest on. Assigned to the city desk, he covers murders. There are so many of them. Then as now, LA is a shifting and shiftless society. Dead bodies: “Like they’re dolls … How they’re still holding on to something that might save them – their purse or their newspaper or a dollar bill.” Walker is also appalled by the staggering number of indigents – many of them ex-servicemen – and on his own bat he begins to write exposés on the subject.

Admirers of Robertson will be familiar with his attentions to the human body and the thousand ways in which it can, with deliberate evil, be injured or destroyed; some of them still wake up screaming remembering his early poem The Flaying Of Marsyas. Don’t dare to think that you will be disappointed here: Walker can’t forget things he’s seen, done, and the things he sees, even now. He thinks he’s watching a man, pursued by the LAPD, unfurling a red handkerchief; its bullets taking him apart. Another guy’s smile is described as crossing his features like a fly exploring a wound.

Walker’s awful recollections are thrown against memories of the ever-changing beauty of his birthplace and the rapid, increasingly Dante-esque carnival of wilful self-destruction he finds Los Angeles to be. Bigotry and racial violence are an ongoing, frighteningly natural extension of the war: people being torn down in the same way as buildings – buildings that cannot be allowed to live out their natural lives: “They call this progress, when it’s really only greed.”

At one point Walker gets time off from his newspaper to look into the plight of bums in San Francisco, yet another kind of city for him to surgically, magically refract. He travels there on a bus, seated across from a woman who is eating a big bag of funnel cake. One had hoped that a writer of Robin Robertson’s sensibility, flaps of flesh and bubbling blood notwithstanding, would never have had to know about funnel cake.

Suddenly, we realise that Walker can’t handle his insights: he becomes as bad an alcoholic as the people he’s writing about. The corrupt city gives up on itself and Walker witnesses its destruction, exactly as predicted by a literate though homeless pal.

Walker’s downfall is heartbreaking, because it’s not only his. A woman razzes him in a bar, and he replies, as Los Angeles, as America, for all of us: “I know why I’m drinking. I just don’t know why I’m here.”

The Long Take owes much to film noir – that is its texture. And this is an apt language for speaking about the US now. Noir was a kind of underground, semi-sanctioned Hollywood grumble about the real state of the country, a sub-political lens on the chirpy, too-highly burnished official version of the new American life that ignored racism, poverty and the persecution of ideas.

So the poem becomes completely up to date: Robertson has chosen a supremely uncomfortable, recognisable flashpoint in US history, an almost perfect mirror image of the nation today: crude, newly unleashed material ambitions mix with off-the-chart levels of fear and paranoia. The only difference is that then it was Russkies and immigrants, and now, uh …


This review appeared in the Herald on 18 March 2018