Of Pussies, Pudenda, and Presidents

(Photos from 2017 Women’s March, Washington, DC. E. Mayock.)

After the #MeToo (begun by Tarana Burke in 2006) watershed in 2017, here we are.  Another pussy-grabbing moment.  Remember when, in January, 2017, at least five million (five MILLION) people across the globe donned pussy hats and protested the supposed election of a supposed president, whom we knew would mortgage United States democracy and encourage rupture and violence?  Do you remember that they wore PUSSY hats?  Do you care?  Are you so fed up with the swamp-filling, pussy-grabbing, immigrant-hating, African-American-shaming, family-separating, genius-stabilizing, golf-playing, crony-benefiting, twitter-baiting, salad-talking, disinfectant-curing, press secretary-firing-and-hiring, chaos-sowing, benefit-reaping sorry sack of shit of a man who sits in the Oval Office and drains time, money, and good will from the “American people?”  I am.

We have had enough for a whole host of reasons.  Mine are listed above in my mini-rant.  But I want to add, too, that many cis and trans women (and other people, of course) of all ages, races, religions, and classes have been filling in the gaps created by a resource-sucking president.  Our free labor—at food pantries, in courtrooms, at detention centers, in retirement homes, at schools—speaks to the complete dysfunction of our national government and to the ways in which women’s labor is often undervalued, or valued not at all.  I am mad about this, too.  I want my free labor to contribute to excellent government function, not to fill in gaps created by a pussy-groping president and his sycophantic GOP cronies.  We impeached Trump for his profoundly dishonest and damaging decisions about Ukraine; as a nation, we somehow never found it important enough to investigate the 20 “sexual misconduct” allegations against him.

So, of course, the obvious: Trump is not only not smart, not competent, not collaborative, not team-building, not trustworthy, not interested in the good of the American people, but he is also the greatest threat to U.S. and world security we have ever seen.  More of the obvious: he must not be re-elected in 2020.

Now, I turn my attention to the Democratic party. I find it necessary to support this group because, at the very least, the party believes in education for all, a working social safety net (for those who doubted the need for this, just look around you right now, here in pandemic-land), labor rights, and voters’ rights, among many other issues and policies I am fully on board with.  While Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat, he obviously still considers himself a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. I am not in favor of his candidacy. I am what I guess is now called a “Warren Democrat.”  Everything that Bernie has, Warren has.  Everything that Bernie is lacking (full rationale for economic policies; a nuanced sense of group identification and intersectionality; ability to support down-ticket Democrats; rhetoric that is inclusive rather than exclusive), Warren has, and more.

Once Warren dropped out, leaving Biden and Sanders to duke it out, it became clear the mediocre, aged, white, male candidate would win the day.  Despite Warren’s proven brilliance, careful planning, and clear generosity, Biden would get the nomination.  From the get-go, a Biden nomination seemed retrograde, and it seems even more so now.  As Rebecca Traister, Michelle Goldberg, and Alexandra Petri have stated in a variety of ways, a Biden nomination is at once unexciting and extremely fraught for feminists.  This was true well before the Tara Reade allegations were made public, and is now an acutely terrible fact.

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt penned the “Run, Joe, Run” piece in January, 2019.  At every turn, the piece lauded Biden for being the best possible Democratic presidential nominee for 2020.  Leonhardt has the privilege to ignore what so many of us already knew.  Biden, like so many powerful men, feels entitled to that which is not his. While preparing his presidential candidacy, Biden seemed to sense a pragmatic need to acknowledge and apologize for his aggressive treatment of Anita Hill in the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.  The most he could muster, however, was an “I’m sorry for what you endured.”  He tried the apology a few times, each time one step closer to acknowledging that he did, in effect, re-harass the already harassed, but he never quite got there, because getting there would surely have slowed the nomination train.  The apology-as-expediency was already a red flag for me, a sign that Biden did not understand that he was part-and-parcel of a national government male power network.  Even more, it meant that Biden would never lead the way in undoing #MeToo harassment and assault.

I also knew that Biden was referred to as “handsy.”  This was not good.  Men and women both love to create euphemisms for sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault, and “handsy” is a really good one.  It implies that men are supposed to touch women, that women are supposed to put up with unwanted touching, and that there is no harm, no foul.  It’s part of the system.  “Handsiness,” I guess, is supposed to be innocent, innocuous, boys-will-be-boys and girls-will-be-assaulted behavior.  It’s supposed to be enacted and accepted, time and time again, no matter the consciousness of the moment nor the constantly repeated trope of “me too,” “me too,” “me too.”  The #MeToo movement was supposed to make us take stock of gender power dynamics, the way the law reinforces these, and the ways in which we indulge them in every profession, through every age.  And, so, when I knew Biden was known to be “handsy,” I figured a real, and well-founded, allegation of more would be on its way.  And it was, and it is.

Having just watched both “Bombshell” and “Unorthodox,” I have clear visual images of the women who are supposed to undress and then assume the position (“Bombshell”) and the women who are supposed to be completely covered while men thrust their midsections towards the women’s faces (“Unorthodox”).  This is a pretty awful place to find United States politics in 2020. Even as I write this, I know several people who wish I wouldn’t speak out against Biden.  After all, he’s a good guy, an Obama acolyte, not nearly as bad as Trump.  But he is a terrible choice for president.  If I knew convention policies and procedures well enough, I would hope for an amazing person to overtake the Democratic nomination—one of the many extremely capable women being considered as possible VP picks and/or one of the presidential candidates we had already been considering.

So, here we are.  The incumbent for the GOP is the subject of 20 allegations of sexual misconduct/assault, and the presumptive nominee for the Democratic party is the non-repentant, unaware, “handsy” subject of a sexual assault allegation.  Here we are, United States.  We have distilled white, cis, heteropatriarchy into its essence:  our current choices for the U.S. president are the privileged, powerful, pussy-grabbing, and pudenda-fingering.

Lesley Wheeler’s The State She’s In

The older I get, the more I need poetry.  I need to read, hear, teach, write, and evangelize about it.  I don’t know if it’s my age, or the years of teaching, or these more than just trying times.  I’m not sure what makes me turn increasingly to volumes of poetry I read years ago and others that are brand new. I don’t know why I’m experiencing verse in a more physical, visceral, emotional way than I used to.  It’s a little bit like a drug at this point, and I need my fix.

Enter Lesley Wheeler’s latest poetry collection, The State She’s In.  Wheeler is a friend and colleague.  We are close to the same age and live in the same state.  And so, in many ways, the state her poetic voice is in is the same state I’m in.  Even with my already very proximate relationship to this collection, the book surprised, delighted, and nourished me at every turn.  I remember a French professor who said imperiously from her high teaching bank at the Sorbonne, “Mais ce livre est fantastique.  C’est un must-read.”  Unfortunate though it may be that I only remember her hilarious look and tone, and not the fantastic book itself, I want to adopt her same posture as I say to you all, glasses at the end of my nose, voice forceful, Wheeler’s book is a must-read.

When I read a single poem, I tend to perform close-reading: reading out loud; listening for rhyme and meter; understanding the flow from stanza to stanza; seeking words and images that repeat; coming to grips with poetic voice; deciding if the poem tends more towards metaphor or metonymy; slowly unraveling the theme.  It’s a delicious savoring of an accomplished writer’s carefully wrought offering.  It is a gift.

When I read a whole collection of poetry, I read it like a novel.  The collection’s sections are chapters, the titles an invitation to keep moving.  The poetic voice, so different from poem to poem or section to section, becomes like a shifting narrator, guiding me through the collection and giving an overall impression of its contents.  I end up sensing the overall coherence of the work, the logic of the poet (and her editor) as she edits and compiles works drafted over time.  When I finish the collection, I can almost narrate what happened, as if I had just read a plot-driven work.

This is not really how poetry should be read, and so I always go back to read the collection again—usually not in order.  I pick poems and reread them, close-read them, seeking the lyricism, solace, humor—the focus I would normally lend to a single poem.

Last Thursday, I devoured Wheeler’s fifth poetry collection like I would a gripping novel.  When I finished, I sat with the flow of blood, assonance, and indignation that marked the collection for me.  I loved that each section was titled “Ambitions,” allowing the reader to think of the many ways—semantic, semiotic, musical—in which this word can map meaning. The poems that treat racial history, which in this state is also the racist present, are centered in the second “Ambitions” section and include “Blue Ridge,” “American Incognitum,” and the “Unremembered settlements” series, which disappears right before the reader’s eyes, effectively de-mapping the settlements of the Algonquians and Iroquois who lived in this state before it was a state.  “John Robinson’s List, 1826” considers the enslaved persons owned by Lexington resident John Robinson. “Some of the entries hint at stories. Creasy, / 68, twenty dollars, but the note, / in a column usually blank, offers a hard ‘worth / nothing.’ The cursive relaxed but well-groomed.” The insistent enjambment moves the reader forcefully from real person to half-bared truth—the buying and selling of human beings, and the multiple erasures of their stories.  Wheeler imagines lost stories without stealing voice, a feat she masters through careful archival work and an earned frustration with the state of race and gender where she lives.

Many of Wheeler’s poems present the blood of erased peoples, the reality of invisible people, the frustration and indignation of collective existence snuffed out.  It is no accident that many of the poems in the third “Ambitions” section are dated 2016.  Together, these poems decry the ever-increasing power of an-almost president who, down the line, would be impeached.  “Bleeding on the street’s not too good for her, / thinks forty-plus percent of my broken / country. The liar calls her liar and the smear / sticks. After all, horror’s ordinary.  The thirteen-/year-old boy just killed for holding a BB gun. / An an open-mouthed woman—well, blood’s her career” (“Inside Out”).  The blood of racial violence and the blood of the vagina dentata, presumed mysterious, dangerous, and unworthy.  In “Inappropriate,” Wheeler writes, “…Just her bad / inhospitable secret vagina, delivering plans. / Can’t see what she’s got up there’s / what they can’t stand.”

The poet weaves these themes through artfully wrought poetic forms, with evocations of the natural world reminding the reader to breathe—to activate the senses in order to sort through the themes (to experience the meshing of forma y fondo [form and meaning]).  Wheeler writes with an urgency about pain and passages as she considers collective metamorphosis and personal, intimate transitions.  I was particularly moved by “Pushing Toward the Canopy,” which appears towards the end of the collection.  The allusions to trees, branches and leaves, and then to “water, water” are gently astounding and combine with the profound “I” of the poem, who asks at the end, “What do I want, if not dirt and rain / and friends who turn to me and wave?”  As does the whole collection, this poem communicates both vulnerability and power, and, for those of us living decades in small towns, it reminds us of the intensity of union and disjuncture as life unfolds, as we “push towards the canopy.”

I loved this collection in part because it recalled the interstices of anger and frustration of my joints and tissues.  It reminded me of political outcry and resistance and of gentle community-building—the to-and-fro of denouncing evil-doing and attempting to model something like radical love.  C’est un must-read.

Coronavirus

(The forsythia turned green early.)

Life in the era of Coronavirus in southwest Virginia is both beautiful and scary.  The dogwoods are in full bloom.  The forsythia springs forth, first sunburst yellow, now Saint Patrick’s green.  The sun is shining, and the wind is blowing.  Our cupboards sparkle for the first time in years, devoid of long-expired spices. The trash collectors want everyone to get the hell out of the house so they don’t have to handle years’ worth of household detritus. I’ve tried to develop a taste for hard cider, but I can’t. It smells too much like early motherhood.

I just went to look up more information about the names of trees in this place I’ve lived so many years, and I can’t get onto the Internet.  Too many people in my house seek bandwidth.  In this house, we have two teachers and two students and never enough broadband to get all the assigning and assignments done.  We are the lucky ones.  Many people I know have no WiFi and have to hop in their cars or trucks to park near a school or library to find some.  They also get in the school line to pick up breakfast or lunch or both for their school-age children.  Every basic need becomes more urgent, more acute, during this time.

Life is both busy and slow.  The busy-ness stems from our local community relief effort (https://www.50waysrockbridge.org/), which points us once again to the many holes in the so-called social safety net.  I’m one of the privileged ones who, at least for now, can donate thought, money, and time to the needs of others in our area.  This work feels like a crash course in Social Work 101, 202, and 505.  I am in awe of what our friends in social services and NGOs do every day, how they bear the expression of need and the occasional heartbreak and then attempt to fill in as many of the gaps created by brutal market systems that continue to privilege the privileged.

(Maybe it’s scary that I am taking, from the bathroom, photographs of latticework shadows?)

The slowness, well, many of us are getting to know that slowness now, aren’t we?  Even as I transfer my courses to an online format, teach them, and grade students’ assignments, I know that none of this pace is like the actual pace of life—the meeting after meeting after meeting, the meeting minutes, the meeting phone calls, the advising, the emails, the text messages, and the constant being “on.” None of this is like that.  I am relieved.  I am relieved by living a little more like I did when I was 5 and 10 and 15, and even 20.  I am grateful for social media, but also delivered from it in some ways.  And I love that.  I hear the birds, I walk the dogs, I read the books, I play games with my children, I snuggle up to my partner, I bake.  These are things I easily forget to do and to appreciate (or simply can’t do) when there isn’t a pandemic.

(The dog is exhausted.)

I feel far from my Pennsylvania,  California, Texas, and Madrid families, and I worry about them.  I wish I were nearby to do…what? I guess I would be isolated from them still, just at less of a distance.  I think constantly about what will happen over the next weeks and months, about how many people have lost jobs already and will lose jobs, about the inability to pay employees, rent, utilities, about the availability of food, cleaning supplies, medical supplies, about healthcare personnel and their safety and protection, about the loss of life.  I am worried about current danger and more loss.  May you all be as well as possible.  I am sending hugs out into the world.  We have rarely needed them more than now.

(A friend sent a card from the next town over.  It still felt so far away.)