Trump on the Couch, or: The Babies Who Can Destroy the World

•August 16, 2017 • 4 Comments

Trump on the Couch, or: The Babies Who Can Destroy the World

Let’s try and put Trump on the couch.

What can his expressed recurrent obsessions, slogans, body language and actions tell us about the unconscious psychological conflicts driving them? Let’s try and first gather some of the evidence.

Angry with a woman (Megan Kelly) journalist’s probing questions, he said: “You could see blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Angry with another female journalist, Mika Breczinski, he said she turned up at his resort and “she was bleeding badly from a facelift.” Questioned about allegations that the Russian government had incriminating video evidence of him or prostitutes urinating with/on him, Trump assured the media it wasn’t true since he was in fact very finicky, easily disgusted, with respect to all bodily fluids.

His four major, very successful, campaign slogans were: 1. ‘Lock her up!’ (‘crooked’ Hilary Clinton), 2. ‘Drain the Swamp!’ (in Washington), 3. ‘Build the Wall!’ (to Mexico) and 4. ‘Make America Great Again!’.

In his battle with other Republican candidates, Trump countered younger Latino rival’s Marc Rubio’s drawing attention to his small hands (and by implication, penis), by saying: “Look at those hands, are they small hands? And he referred to my hands—’If they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee you.”)

Trump builds ‘Trump Towers’, skyscrapers with his name emblazoned over their entrances. Trump has expressed a great love of military parades and their phallic weaponry.

Trump was caught on camera openly bragging about his ability as a celebrity to ‘grab them by the pussy’, and ‘do anything’ to women.

At the G7 meeting, he was caught on camera pushing aside the leader of Montenegro in order to take the front row and centre position for the cameras. One of his early tweets as President was to brag that the ratings for ex- Mr Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger’s version of ‘The Apprentice’ reality-TV show were not as high as his own. He is extraordinarily quick to take offence, to intimidate, threaten, and even use physical violence: at his rallies he talks about how he would like to beat up hecklers, called on supporters to physically eject people, indirectly encouraged someone to go and shoot Hillary Clinton and posted a video of himself at a boxing ring beating up a man whose head he had replaced with a CNN logo.

Body language. During his rally speeches Trump incessantly raises his right hand with all fingers or his index finger outstretched and then lets the tip of the finger make a closed circle by meeting with the tip of the thumb. He is constantly showing the world the size of his active right (‘male’) hand, never his left (weak, ‘female’). Is he unconsciously saying: ‘Look at these hands, are they small hands? I am big and whole, not small and castrated’? Is he keeping his left side, his suppressed feminine unconscious, out of sight and inactive while his conscious, masculine right side is active, loud and insistent?

Let us try and further interpret this evidence through a psychoanalytic lens. While he himself is constantly producing ‘fake news’ he calls any unwelcome news regarding himself ‘fake’; while himself crooked and lying he labels his opponents (Cruz, Clinton) as such; while calling Mexican immigrants ‘rapists’, he brags about sexually assaulting women; himself fairly crazy and of fairly low IQ, he labels others as such. Thus, psychoanalytically, he engages in constant projection of his own unacknowledged ‘bad’ aspects. As with George W. Bush, the right-wing tabloids and talk-back radio, Trump’s world has remained an infantile one of simple dualities and good/bad projections: bad guys and good guys, losers and winners, dirty and clean, them and us, the strong and the weak, the rest of the bad world and good America…

His quest for power over others, for constant media and rally attention, for being admired as a ‘winner’, his all-round thuggish belligerence and quickness to take offence, all are indications of deep-seated, unconscious, infantile fears and insecurities. He is stuck in the ‘little man syndrome’. Subconsciously, he is still the frustrated angry baby, schoolyard bully, the knife-wielding adolescent sent off by his authoritarian KKK-fan father to get disciplined at military school, the boy who hasn’t grown up and worked through his childhood issues with his parents and family of origin. Often red-faced, he is bursting with unacknowledged resentment and anger manically keeping down and denying a deep fear and anxiety. He is totally disconnected from his unconscious baggage which thus blindly drives him. His inner confusion and hollowness is expressed in his equally confused and hollow language, his infantile repetitions, clichés and limited repertoire of stock phrases.

One of his recurring strong fears is apparently the perceived biological power of women, the dark contaminating floods that issue from their genitals, sometimes, as in witches, also from their faces and (‘evil’) eyes. These dangerous, magically all-powerful genitals need to be ‘grabbed’, controlled, dominated. In early infancy, perception/projection of Mother is split into good mother/bad mother, loving/frustrating mother. Similarly, for Trump, women are still simply good/bad, beautiful/ugly, either trophy sex objects like his wives or else ugly, crooked, evil witches like ‘crooked Hilary’ who need to ‘locked up’, kept under control, demeaned.

These dark female or alien floods or swamps are also paranoid projections of his own chaotic unconsciousness and unresolved feelings which he has to manically defend against, control, build walls against (‘I’m good at building walls’), or else ‘drain’, lest they surface and sweep away his insecure macho and phallic sense of self.

As Klaus Theweleit has shown (in his study of fascist masculinity,’Maennerphantasien’), this particular constellation of misogynist and xenophobic fears is characteristic of the traditional male fascist personality and its phallic armouring against ‘weakness’, ‘softness’, against being ‘swamped’ by some insidious dark other (women, foreigners, Reds, Jews, homosexuals, Muslims, Mexicans etc.).

This macho patriarchal self is itself a precarious defence mechanism built on the domination of women because of an unacknowledged infantile fear and projection of their power, their Mother Goddess ability to make men weak, impotent. To stabilise this insecure infantile self which has not yet emancipated itself from the all-powerful Mother, he has to identify with everything from which he can borrow a sense of power: wealth, jutting real estate skyscrapers, phallus, status of the TV ‘tycoon’ celebrity mouthing ‘you’re fired!’, weapons and the military and now presidential status. This vicarious sense of power helps in living out a phantasy of omnipotent control, i.e. to imagine himself in control of all situations which might provoke anxiety or being ‘swamped’ by ‘feminine’ feelings of ‘weakness’ and helplessness.

In denial about his own repressed conflicts and anxieties, he then projects all the repressed shadow or bad aspects of himself onto others: male competitors, women, Muslims, Mexicans, China…In this, he is, ironically, a mirror image of the fundamentalist terrorists and patriarchal authoritarians who seek to repress and dominate women and derive vicarious power from their fetishized holy texts and guns. Understanding patriarchal anxieties because they share them, Islamicist terrorists used hijacked flying penises in a potent act of symbolic castration of the phallic twin towers of US power. In Trump’s case, his unconscious fear of his own ‘weakness’ or impotence is denied and projected outwards onto the nation: ‘America’ is now weak, impotent, under siege by dark, evil forces, by ‘Islam’ or the weak, womanish decadence of liberalism, and must be made strong again, potent, militarily phallic. This is also the driving worldview of his chief strategic advisor Steve Bannon.

Denial of anxiety, splitting into good/bad, projection outwards, power-seeking over others… All these coping mechanisms for repressed unconscious internal conflicts are well-known aspects of what classical psychoanalysis calls ‘manic defence’. The personal price paid for this infantile defence mechanism, this refusal to grow by acknowledging and working through inner conflicts, is inauthenticity, hollowness, shallowness, a cutting off of feeling and compassion towards oneself and others. His popularity indicates that this is a very widespread problem, perhaps among at least a third of the US population: many would seem to identify with such a fake, hollow and thuggish character, a bragging, insecure little man manically acting out power and pseudo-strength, a big boss who delights in firing people.

Unfortunately, this unconscious, manic baby now has the power to destroy the world. His manic defence armour now has the world’s greatest nuclear ‘defence’ arsenal at its disposal. We all now live under the shadow of his own shadow, his own unconsciousness and unacknowledged inner turmoil, his flight from himself.

He is phobic about critique and reluctant to take advice since he sees himself as peerlessly intelligent (‘I am my own advisor, I have a very good brain’; ‘I know more about ISIS than the generals’ etc). His extreme-right advisor and speech-writer Steve Bannon has very similar psychological issues, seeing the world again like an angry, frustrated infant in the simplistic, militaristic, black-and-white terms of all-out war: his white suprematist, proto-fascist lens is a projection of an apocalyptic endgame war between the good ‘Christian west’ and evil ‘Islam’, between ‘patriots’ and conniving liberal elites. Trump himself used the same apocalyptic framing in the speeches, probably penned by Bannon, he gave at his inauguration and in Poland before the G20 summit in 2017.

Yet why focus on Trump? Have not most political leaders always been unconscious power-seekers? Putin, Duterte and other nationalist populist leaders, including women like Hanson or Le Pen, very much share Trump’s little man syndrome. Sometimes they come from the lower middle class or ‘wrong side of the tracks’ and share parvenu envies and resentments towards those above and below them in the social pecking order of class and status. Trump, as a developer from the wrong side of the tracks (Queens), felt spurned by the Manhattan elites, so he had to build his big dark phallus of Trump Tower in the middle of Manhattan to show the bastards his middle finger.

The liberal elite President Obama also publicly made fun of Trump at an elite gala dinner for being a leading ‘birther’ questioning Obama’s place of birth and thus status as a ‘true American’. Much of Trump’s confused agenda can be read as him mainly wanting to exact revenge on the liberal elite Obama, who, to add insult to injury, happens to be black too. (Trump’s father was a Klan member and hauled before court for his and Donald’s discriminating against blacks in his housing developments; Donald led a vile public campaign for the death penalty against black youths wrongly accused of raping a white woman in Central Park; his former wife says he once kept a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf on his bedside table etc.)

One can indeed assume that most people seeking status and power over others in the political, corporate and military worlds will be, like Trump, cases of arrested development, i.e. unconsciously driven by unacknowledged baggage from their infancy and childhood. For example, Australia’s current liberal Prime Minister Turnbull, an ex-investment banker, is well known for his limelight-seeking narcissism, power-seeking and inner hollowness, as was the former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Arthur Koestler once summed up the connection between personality disorders and political power-seeking:

The desire to go into politics is usually indicative of some sort of personality disorder, and it is precisely those who want power most that should be kept furthest from it.

North Korea’s 33 year-old little dictator Kim Jong-un is another good example. He is also known as an aggressive, competitive narcissist like Trump. Only a third son and thus disqualified from contention for leadership in North Korea, but then spoilt and pushed by his ambitious parvenu mother, he was anointed successor to his father at the age of eight, given a general’s uniform and had real generals bowing to him from then on. He had his uncle and half-brother murdered. Now he’s got his hand on some big nuclear weaponry and may be tempted to finally ‘prove himself’ as Big Leader and enjoy the release of his pent-up unconscious rage, perhaps also against the equally narcissistic, angry, power-seeking father-figure Trump who apparently didn’t quite understand why the US did not more frequently use nuclear weapons until his first Pentagon briefing in February.

The Third World War and the end of civilisation could thus be a result of two adult babies with weapons of mass destruction at their disposal to express their unconscious narcissistic rage at mummy-daddy or to express their explosive little-man need to ‘prove themselves’ as ‘real men’, ‘great leaders’, ‘winners’ while they play an adolescent game of nuclear chicken with each other. For Trump a war would also salve his bruised ego after rock-bottom popularity ratings and distract from further policy failings, the Russia probe etc. As Guardian journalist Nick Cohen recently expressed it:

[…]The leaders of North Korea and the US are throwbacks. No one in North Korea can check Kim Jong-un – he is a hangover from the age of the dictators. Trump, by contrast, is checked everywhere. His repeal of Obamacare failed. His tax reform will fail. Now the North Koreans defy him. But beware leaving a narcissistic, know-nothing, fantasist in possession of the nuclear codes when he fears he is becoming ridiculous. He may want to save face and prove his manhood.

It is not irrational to fear what he will do next. Look at where we are. Look at what we accept. It’s normal for the senior officials of the president of the United States to try to stop a shooting war by stopping their commander in chief shooting his mouth off. According to reports that have not been denied, it is now normal for the secretary of defence and the chief of staff to co-ordinate their travel plans so that one of them is always in the US. They have joint custody of a baby that can never be left home alone.

[…]The trouble with nuclear weapons is that it just takes one demented man to order their use. With Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump we have just the men to do it.

To function and keep the whole potentially lethal show going, these ‘leaders’ need followers of course, masses of them. And indeed, large numbers of people in most countries are still pre-democratic authoritarian personalities and, like children, expect ‘strong’ parental leader figures to give them a sense of security, ‘build walls’, ‘drain swamps’ or solve their problems for them.

Our current global class society of capitalist competition between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, our culture of possessive individualism and consumer status-seeking, our hyper-competitive education and celebrity media systems, our nationalist narratives of ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’, our lack of self-agency and democratic experience at school, work and in the community ‒ all these ‘normal’ features of our current social system encourage and reward such manic ambitions and strivings, all discourage personal maturing, autonomy and the development of wisdom.

Yet this wisdom is not just a matter of individuals but of human institutions and collectives. The less democratic control we all have over such unconscious power elites and the immense means of destruction they wield, the less countervailing power, the more dangerous our world becomes. A ‘wiser’, more participatory democracy, a new system in which the people themselves discuss and decide upon the major issues affecting their lives, would now seem to be necessary for survival. Otherwise, our hollow, power-seeking ‘leaders’, and our childish obedience and belief in them, could indeed be the literal death of us.

Your smartphone is a portable Gestapo

•August 14, 2017 • 3 Comments

[This is my translation from an article in the German broadsheet Die Zeit, 20/7/207, p. 40: Adrian Lobe, ‘Society is becoming a computer’. I’ll also park this at my other blog for translations from the German, Passing on the Flame. I think more people should perhaps start getting their heads around the deep structural change in society and shift in power which the convenience of the smartphone and digitalisation in general are producing for the benefit of corporate and state power elites. We are rapidly moving into a totally quantified ‘Googlist’ era of mass manipulation, with your handy portable Gestapo smartphone recording and measuring your every move. The only way to begin to solve such issues: increased democratic, social debate and control over both the internet and all technological innovation in general. Otherwise the current social trajectory of surveillance capitalism is towards a very bleak dystopian future, folks. In the meantime one could start with small acts of resistance like using a search engine like Duck Duck Go that does not record your searches like Google, avoiding corporate ‘loyalty and reward’ schemes and, OMG, considering leaving your smartphone at home now and again…I personally don’t own one, although my wife does, and I might very seldomly use hers when I have to (or she thinks I have to). I also do not need the constant manic distraction of Facebook or Twitter in my life. I need time to relate to the real world and to think and write.]

[…] No other technology has changed society as much as the smartphone. The screens held up at concerts and festivals are merely a surface phenomenon of a much deeper structural change.

When Steve Jobs presented the first iPhone ten years ago, nobody could have guessed that it would become a complaint box, a mobile doctor’s surgery and an election helper in one. The smartphone which, in a semantic sleight of hand, industry sells us as an empowering, trendy gadget, is in reality a measuring instrument with which you can also happen to telephone and photograph. And it’s not we who are measuring the world through our screens but we who are being measured. The smartphone records how many steps we have taken, where we have gone, who we communicate with, which search words we speak to language software Siri. Via these devices our total interactional and communicational behaviour is becoming readable and predictable.

The smartphone is now much more than a virtual assistant, it is practically an external hard drive of our brain in which all our thoughts have been stored: diary entries, business secrets, account numbers, political opinions. That makes it all the more problematical when police agencies secretly garner communications and read thoughts. Thoughts are the last fortress the totalitarian state cannot overcome. However digitalisation is making this boundary porous. Thought processes are now only raw data.

‘We are in the process of transforming our society into a computer’, says Yvonne Hofstetter, a lawyer present at the central Conference in Berlin on European Data Protection Day. Everything from leisure activities to political opinion-making is taking the form of codes and data. The tech companies are building a factory the purpose of which is to steer social processes via algorithmic feedback processes as in a cybernetic system. The software of smart cities automatically steer traffic, algorithms filter out hate and fake news, computer programs evaluate the creditworthiness of bank customers. Society is becoming a smart factory the aim of which is to produce data and measure human performance as numerical scores.

The US economist Shoshana Zuboff argues that we are moving from a Fordist into a ‘Googlist Age’. In the Fordist age, car manufacturers assembled car parts and produced vehicles in series. In Googlism, internet companies aggregate personal data, extract information and sell them to advertising clients as packages. In other words, the places of production are no longer factories but smartphones. ‘In surveillance capitalism’, Zuboff noted in the Harvard Magazine, ‘rights are taken from us without our knowledge, understanding or consent and used to create products which have been developed to predict our behaviour.’

The question is what role humans have in this smart factory called the ‘internet of things’. Are they merely one machine among many? Are they merely processors in a gigantic neuronal network, order-takers who carry out what the programmers dictate? Media theorist Marshall McLuhan already predicted in the 1960s that machines could one day be used to steer social organisation. He thought it possible to put computers ‘to good use’ and to ‘program societies’. Fifty years later Dmitri Dolgov, Google’s project manager for autonomous cars, declares: ‘We don’t build the car, we build the driver.’

This slogan is to be understood programmatically. Google doesn’t want to construct cars but rather an intelligent driver, an artificial intelligence which can be inserted into any chassis/hardware. For Google the ideal driver is an artificial intelligence system, a set of sensors with which one can drive anywhere whatever the make or model of vehicle.

The sentence ‘we build the driver’ is rooted in the notion of social engineering, a concept that for most people means the manipulation of people via designed environments, but which more narrowly means the artificial forming of social interactions. In his book Social Physics the data scientist Alex Pentland argues that one can develop a ‘causal theory of social structure’ via data and deliver a mathematical explanation for ‘why society reacts the way it reacts.’ Behind this mechanistic worldview lies the notion that data can explain every human behaviour and that social interactions can be constructed like the engine of a machine.

The techno-utopians in Silicon Valley are enamoured by the idea that a human is a physical object that one can quantify. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has declared that there is ‘a fundamental mathematical law at the basis of social relationships’. He has thus revealed his determinist world view in which everything from love to elections is quantifiable and steerable.

Using codes, Facebook’s emotion engineers can in fact steer the emotional life of a large city. In an enormous social experiment in 2014 Facebook manipulated the news feeds of almost 700,000 users. The aim of the experiment was to find out how positive and negative emotions spread through networks. The result was that those who received more negative news tended to post more negative stuff themselves, and vice versa. Where the human body is merely a machine, it can be disciplined. We are being aggregated, amassed and massified because masses are easy to move and steer.

The creation of the ‘new human’ that resonates through Dolgov’s slogan of the ideal driver was the utopia of twentieth century totalitarianism. Socialism followed the idea of the ‘new human’ as its educational model and the ‘new human’ was later pedagogically transferred into the mold of the ‘all-rounded personality’ in the GDR. The aim was to make citizens toe the line through indoctrination. The tech giants are no less totalitarian in their data collecting and surveillance, but these social engineers also have quite other tools for disciplining their users at their disposal: Facebook can re-educate its users with a few lines of code.

Although one should not ascribe any ideological motivations to the tech giants’ global construction plans, in the end every attempt to manipulate masses of people is totalitarian. What is happening at Facebook is a subtle technological gleichschaltung [Nazi word for organizational streamlining, bringing into line, standardising]. Users get a standardised set of tools consisting of emojis and the iconic like-button, a set which makes them data-friendly and thus mass-friendly. The personal profiles of almost 2 billion users are only individual masks: in reality, the Facebook cosmos is populated by standardised algorithmic identities described in stock formulas. In digital modernity uniformity is manufactured as ‘information’.

The sociologist and social psychologist Harald Welzer, author of ‘Die smarte Diktatur – Der Angriff auf unsere Freiheit’ (‘The Smart Dictatorship – The Attack on our Freedom’) – has called the smartphone a ‘portable Gestapo’. In his view, in every totalitarian system there were niches which were not accessible to the secret police and workplace or neighbourhood informers. In informational capitalism those refuges no longer exist. Today so much is known about us that there can no longer be conspiratorial circles. In his view, the principle which grounded the modern subject ‒ ‘nobody knows more about me than I do’ – is no longer valid in an age when Google and virtual assistants know more about us than we do ourselves.

This is a fundamental shift in power. […] The problem is not only that citizens are changing their behaviours and possibly censoring themselves under the influence of ubiquitous surveillance, but that corporations are getting knowledge which can be used against people with totalitarian intent. Amazon knows who is at home and when, who is saying what and, possibly, who is an offender. That is making individuals and their informational integrity vulnerable and manipulable.

The American internet pioneer and writer Jaron Lanier once said Silicon Valley was the ‘friendliest and most benevolent dictator class in human history.’ Facebook is used by almost two billion people ‘but controlled by only one person. This is an extremely unusual concentration of power. The founder will die sometime. And what comes then we don’t know, and it is beyond our control.’

So what would happen if a less ‘friendly’ tech elite took over, like the libertarian Facebook investor and Trump advisor Peter Thiel, for example, who moves in neo-reactionary circles and thinks democracy and freedom are no longer reconcilable? Then informational power could be misused. The one-time Google boss Eric Schmidt once declared: ‘If we want to do something that others should not know about, then we ‘d better not do it.’ That Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is apparently thinking about running for the Presidency (he denies the rumour but is touring through the US at the moment) does not bode well for democracy. If Zuckerberg should run, it would not be some media mogul who can depend on powerful lobbyists but an entrepreneur who has actually absorbed the media ecosystem and controls the informational infrastructure. Would users be able to read reports about Zuckerberg’s foundation in their news feeds? Probably not. Political opinion-building in the internet would then only be happening in an intranet. Democratic and analogue procedures would be left to the conclave of cardinals electing the pope.

We spend a lifetime losing the perfection of the instant

•August 12, 2017 • 2 Comments

[Poem from my second collection Requiem (Picaro Press 2012). The photo is of First World War conscientious objectors, the forgotten heroes, those not celebrated in these years of various nationalist First World War commemorations. The poem is about my generation of 1968 and carrying on the ancient living tradition of dissent and utopian dreaming without suppressing its possible dark sides.]

We spend a lifetime losing the perfection of the instant

or moment we felt the swirl & energy of the general
student assembly at Munich, the smoke & surge
of direct democracy in action, no dry abstraction but
the thrilling theatre of posture & eyes, the honest lies

& raising of arms & bodies swaying like seaweed
in the flow of heady rhetoric, again the old delight
to be alive to the new horizons just out of sight
opening over a world about to change in ways

we could not even imagine but knew to be true
to the unknown god that reigned sublime & knew
us in our denied & deepest currents even as
lovers of change include the worst of men.

Ok, granted, we were a generation of fucked-up kids
who got TV instead of tit, un-bonded, narcissistic,
coddled like delicate eggs, ripped down the middle
with yawning holes of missing wrapped in plastic

we were what Eliot meant in The Hollow Men
& Wasteland, or Beckett’s waiting tramps & urns
even as our hips yearned like Elvis or Jagger,
sang of street fighting & yellow submarines.

So what, every generation’s got its baggage
& ours was lit up by Hiroshima & malls,
some turned to terrorism, some to THC on tap,
most trudged the long march through institutions

joined humanity punching eternal time clocks
in multifarious office blocks as far from Petrograd
or Eden as My Lai was from Bethlehem
& King on the steps of the Capitol.

Yet briefly we drank the anxiety & hope
in that god’s nectar, read tracts & books
that shared the inebriation of his raptures
spread over centuries of revolt’s rude gestures

the first ecstatic moments of revolutions
before reaction & the fear of our own godliness
set in & we become hostage to the facts
of history & self, the need to work, act,

love in a world of violence & the reign of things
that makes love & solidarity exceptional
to our state as Eden-unready as both heaven & hell,
the daily descant of compassion & hate.

Was it something like that you imagine, placing
your heart in, receiving from, those that came
many times before – the sweat & breath
of the ecclesia at Athens where excellence was

in the passionate tongue & reasoning mind;
the Iroquois federation sitting the equal circle
of nature till the spirit moved & all had spoken;
the peasants & Diggers who doffed their hats

to no man &, reading the Christ in everyman,
found no gentlemen when Adam delved & Eve span
& uprising as necessary as the free rise of breath;
the first generations of factory workers everywhere

carrying their former independence of sod or tool
into the mine & mill revolting against cold
Capital’s impersonal kill of community & kin,
dignity, the moral economy that bore only fair price

& wage unrelated to the market & logic of more;
was it like this among the sans-culottes of 93 & 71,
the St Petersburg soviets of 05, 17 & Kronstadt 21,
right through the self-managed miracles of farm

& factory in Spain, that short summer of living
anarchy in 36 that proved peasants & workers
needed no civics to run the show; in Budapest
the armed workers’ councils in 56 heroically

resisting totalitarian tanks for democracy & bread;
the spontaneous general strike not for bread
but some intensity beyond dead life all over
France in le joli mai of 68 that defined our time?

You have no idea. The baggage remains, the fatal
flaws in all these shattered mirrors of the human
dream, violence, demagoguery, misogyny, power
trips & triumphalism synonyms for rudderless despair.

But between two breaths or some bird’s call,
a pause in a conversation or a train of thought
the flame is there, the memory passed on untaught,
a torch across time & place between perfect strangers

in active struggle or reading books, the perfection
of the instant we imperfect ones are together free
& truly human, humbly sketching the eternally failed
& quivering outline of our rising god to be.

[Note: the title of this poem is a line taken from Peter Boyle’s poem ‘Wilfred Thesiger Reaches the Uaso Nyero River’, in his 2004 collection Museum of Space. The italicised line is from Sonnet XXVII in Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s Modern Times suite in his 2001 volume By and Large.]

So this is what it feels like

•July 18, 2017 • Leave a Comment

[Older poem. Took the photo in the Sydney beachside suburb of Coogee seven years ago; love the ambiguity of the resident: Buddha and boxing…]

So this is what it feels like

to be living at a turning point
in human history

the toast still gets burned
rosellas chew the netted apples
pin oaks rust autumn’s engine till it fires

we walk our leashed dogs, plastic bags at the ready
trains roll by on the great south line with containers from Hamburg Süd
we still don’t like our neighbours or ourselves

mint toothpaste tastes exactly like mint toothpaste
shopping lists win poetry competitions
there’s still nothing on TV

weeds inch up slopes, rabbits sideways, glaciers seawards
rains, fires, cyclones, moods, hemlines, lovers, warning books
come and go come and go

most commute, holiday on killing fields, bathe between the flags or don’t
we await each new catastrophe with discomfort, anger, glee, then turn the page
we scan the obituaries for the relief of not yet finding ours

we write poems about small birds, mushrooms, the delicate shadings
of a toilet seat, language
writer audiences cram writer festivals featuring writers on writing about writing

there’s still nothing on TV
the toast still gets burned
time to turn the page of history, we’re done

Windows of landscape & light

•July 8, 2017 • 2 Comments

[Poem from 2009, published in my first poetry volume, The Post-Man Letters, Picaro Press 2010. Written on the train going to and coming back from Melbourne. Took the photo at Hillview house at Sutton Forest near here, sometimes the venue for a sculpture exhibition: a word in the landscape denoting landscape, sign and referent, post-modern landscape-as-text…]

Windows of landscape & light

Yet it can happen, suddenly, unexpectedly, and most frequently in the half-light-of-glimpses, that we catch sight of another visible order which intersects with ours and has nothing to do with it.

– John Berger, ‘Opening a Gate’

1. Going. 27/11/09

Only willows, poplars daub green
along dried creek ruts
channelling hard yellow grass

farmers’ contribution to art
rusting iron installations, video
stills of bored scrawny sheep

piles of black ironbark sleepers
chaotic as wind-blow, Beuys’
fat lumps, linear tracks

of yellow-red shale
embankment cathedrals
of mud eroding in flute

column curves hard
as nails, grey Polaroid
tree corpse icons vertical,

flat on their backs
like matchsticks an infantile
tantrum’s cascaded

for ever down a slipping
slope, a sudden white flash
of cockatoo triangulates

a power-line with a nothing sky
smudged between smoke
& dust, the train window

a movie screen flickering
mirror reflecting, insulating
mind from land back

into rapid vapid pleasures
of word & lunch (hot,
same menu after Albury)

gliding through a never-
ending fractal of fields
punctuated by tree commas

sewn & seamed by wire
stretching weak wheat sun-
light over no horizon

all this as real
as a weather report, history,
global heating, the mind

reading its sad selves
through windows framing
ever-varied patterns

of the same into the blank
end pages of Best
Poems of 2009.

2. Coming. 28/11/09

& today the sun sings again
in every thing, even the great
denuded hill near Donnybrook

the rabid row of radiata
along the wire, where there were
dreary backyard desolations

now vege plots & fruit trees
planted just outside the fence,
spindly re-growth in industrial

grass deserts now sprout
thirty year old mottled gums
leaning near a dry-stone wall

crisp, clear with shadow
& light, fat cumulus bulges
out the blue in bright

subtleties of eye-hurt white
& Gainsborough grey,
yesterday’s smudged trees

green again with the beneficence
of rain-washed light, silver-coin
puddles lining brown & grey-

gravelled rails unreeling below
the window, a sudden jacaranda
has opened its lavender eyes

among dark hair of foliage,
young eucalypts glint back
shards of breeze ripple

sparse trees are vertical islands
in beige seas of wheat
corrugated with the shift

of cloud-throw, a tin shed’s
roof some angelic semaphore
that over-amps the greedy eye.

The Little Beetle and the End of the World

•June 29, 2017 • Leave a Comment

[My translation of a text by Swiss-German cabaret performer Franz Hohler from the late 70s. Ecology 101: ‘Everything is connected to everything else’. Prescient. Useful for educational purposes, not just in schools…]

Franz Hohler, The End of the World (c. 1980)

The end of the world, ladies and gentlemen, will, according to what we know today, proceed in roughly the following way.

At the beginning a beetle will disappear on a fairly small island in the south Pacific. An unpleasant beetle, and everyone will say: thank God that beetle’s finally gone! That disgusting itch it caused, and it was always full of dirt.

A little later, the people on this island will notice that there’s a voice missing among the early morning chorus of birds, a high-pitched, rather shrill one like the sound of a cricket, the voice of the bird whose food, of course, was the dirty little beetle!

A little later, the fishermen on the island will notice that there’s one kind of fish missing in their nets, that small but particularly tender fish – and here I have to pause and mention that the bird with the rather shrill call had (or will have had) the habit of sweeping out over the ocean in a long loop and depositing its crap as it did so – and for that particularly tender kind of fish that crap was its daily bread.

A little later, the people on the continent close to the fairly small island in the Pacific will notice that everywhere – on the grass, door handles, their food, clothes, skin and hair – tiny black insects which they’ve never seen before are massing. And they will not understand. For they cannot know that the small but particularly tender kind of fish was the food of a larger and not at all tender fish which simply switched to preying on a different kind of fish, a small yellow stickleback which mainly ate those black insects!

A little later, the people in Europe will notice that the price of eggs is going up, massively. And the egg producers will say that the corn making up a large part of hen feed is suddenly no longer available from the continent close to the fairly small island in the Pacific because of some insect plague which had been successfully suppressed with insecticides which unfortunately had also killed off the corn.

A little later – things are getting faster and faster – there’s no more chicken on the plate! While searching for a replacement for the corn in the hen feed, the proportion of fishmeal in the feed had been doubled. But every fish today has its fair share of mercury! Before this proportion had been low enough not to harm anyone – but now there was a global dying-off of hens!

A little later, the people on the fairly small island in the south Pacific will run in fear from the shore to their homes because they have no previous knowledge of what they’ve seen: the flood had risen today – and one has to remark that the sky had been blue and there had been no wind and the surf had been low, as always in fine weather. And yet that afternoon the shores of the island had lain under water! And of course no one knew that on the same day in the whole world people were running from the shores to their homes and calling it sea-level rise!

A little later, the people on that fairly small island in the south Pacific will climb from the roofs of their homes into their fishing boats and sail towards the continent where the events with the corn had happened. But there also the sea will have already risen several metres and the coastal cities and harbours be already deep under water. For you see, all of the contaminated hens, all six billion of them, had had to be burnt. And the carbon thus emitted pushed the atmosphere, already stretched to its limits by burning and warming, over the edge. It let in the sun’s warmth as before, but no longer let any escape, whereby the air heated up to such an extent that the ice at the poles began to melt and the seas to rise.

A little later, the people who will have now fled to the mountains will see a strange glowing light behind the peaks, out on the horizon, and they won’t know what to make of it, for they can also hear a feint growling. And when one of the older people now thinks it might be the beginning of the struggle of the great ones for the last remaining spaces for their peoples, one of the people will ask bitterly: how, for heaven’s sake, did it come to this?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, the seas rose because the air was warmed. The air was warmed because the hens were burnt. The hens were burnt because they were contaminated with mercury. They were contaminated with mercury because they were fed with fish. They were fed with fish because there was no more corn. There was no more corn because insecticides had been used.

The insecticides had had to be used because the insects had arrived. The insects had arrived because a fish no longer ate them. The fish no longer ate them because it had been eaten. It had been eaten because another fish had been wiped out because a bird no longer flew. The bird no longer flew because a beetle disappeared, that dirty beetle from the beginning of the story.

All that’s left is the question – let’s not beat around the bush: why did that beetle disappear?

That, ladies and gentlemen, has unfortunately not yet been properly explained. I tend to think it hadn’t fed itself properly! Instead of grass it ate grass with oil, instead of leaves it ate leaves with soot. Instead of drinking water it drank water with sulphur. That’s a sure way of ruining yourself in the end!

So there’s only one last question: WHEN WILL ALL THIS HAPPEN?

In response most scientists just scratch their heads. They say: in ten, in twenty years, maybe in fifty, or even a hundred. – I personally have come to a different conclusion. I’m certain, the end of the world, ladies and gentlemen, HAS ALREADY BEGUN !

The Knee Monologues

•June 10, 2017 • 2 Comments

[Older longer poem in five parts. It was a runner up in the Overland Poetry Prize for Emerging Poets in 2008. The title is a play on a famous play called ‘The Vagina Monologues’. The poem started off by my exploring a twinge sensation in my knee and took off from there. Shot the photos for the two collages in a Canberra Mall.]

The Knee Monologues

Coming to receive from us
Knee-tribute yet unpaid, prostration vile.
– Milton, Paradise Lost, V, 778-9

1.

we’re concave convex like the universe all your strength centred in us as long as you’re upright and not a stiff but springing like a jack or jill in the box in the tilting toy shops of life that’s why you go weak in us when lust hits your eye balls you’re neither hot nor cold or you’re falling from a skyscraper as the brakes fail or you get your maths marks we can even flip the fifties into the sixties by dimply flashing ourselves from under the new lift of a hemline at the races like jean shrimpton and bring down the empire of lamingtons white gloves hats doilies smoking picket fences sheila-free pubs and god save the queen at the cinema stand up straight chest out hats off march in line six of the best short back and sides lest we forget the iron knee days the bended knee days the attention stand at ease days the odd tight red tunic topped by a furry pyramid of a black bear hat keeled over on the pavement like christine under a minister as she passes by equally oblivious to her knees that rule the world my brothers and sisters the great kneedom of hinges that silently swing the body’s door midgard between ground and sky until we slowly rust and freeze into walking frames wheelchairs finally flatten our concavity down into the depravity of the homely soil our convex bit discretely embalmed in white silk eyeing off the receding heavens as we fall legless into space

2.

young we bounce children
through the trampolines
of their days

in the evenings
on the nature strip
they squat happily

exhausted
from the exciting
tragedies, timelessness

of serious play
rest their heads on us
breathe in

the sweet smell
of our daily fading
fusion of sweat and bliss

we contain the forgotten
chemicals that bind them
to themselves

3.

growing we closely connect
to our cousins
the elbows

we’re proudly grounded
in ankle, calf and thigh
while our little friends

have just got forearm
biceps and shoulder
to play with

they’re all up in the air
like swings
or air guitars

half the time
the other half
getting calluses

it’s all that resting
heads on tables
and shunting

their determined way
through the hard
jelly of the world

of course to spite us
they say
their concave bit

is especially sexual
but that’s just because
most mouths

seldom come
down to us
to test the waters

of our suppleness
they would be
surprised

4.

of course we too
can be callused
to buggery

you just try scrubbing
floors on us
all your life

for the gentry
to go gliding
over tippy-toe

waltz away
their willed ignorance
of our suppressed

and lowly state
that keeps them
in the largesse

of their powdered
ankles and sexy
soft silks

5.

and just for the record
we were there in 69
on the moon too

felt the impact
of his big leap
for man-unkind

reverberate
up from his big
boofy boot

Armstrong, my foot
strong KNEES
are what landed him

in that fine dust
he later violated
with a flag