Fog blots out the islands and rain scatters at the windows. The visible world is constricted, furred and greying at the edges, but even if the day were sunny it would feel like this: colourless and of reduced scope, a poem of melancholy.
Since the Nova Scotia massacre in mid April, I’ve been having trouble getting up in the morning. Like so many, it is because I have been having nightmares, and am often awake during the night. This terrible event has awakened all the old traumas–the vicious Nova Scotia neighbour who killed our animals and threatened us with death; the shootings and stabbings I witnessed as a young person living in the US; the daily walks in those days past drug dealers’ guards on the corner with their assault weapons in New Haven and Baltimore; memories of the fellow student who was beaten to death in her apartment and the year I was stalked, coming and going from my apartment. Echoes of wars so distant I’d almost forgotten them come thundering back like a rain of live shells tumbling into our COVID-constrained nights and days.
My eyes feel tired, the skin around them brittle and aching, as if I’ve been crying, although I have not been crying. The things that demand my tears have grown so vast I haven’t any more well of that internal water. Just a searing red pain where my heart used to be, a smear of agony that grows duller as the day stretches on, layered with news reports and emails and clumps of ash and fur on the rug.
I am depressed, I know. Deeply sad. And far from being the only one in this state.
When I do finally sleep, waking each morning is like crashing into a low wall. I am editing a poem I had begun to draft before the massacre called Elimination Round about big game hunting in Mexico and its relationships to tourism and other forms of collecting, not to mention the thousands upon thousands of missing and murdered in the drug wars in Mexico these last few years, and I can hardly face it. The spent metal casings of .223 rounds are a debris field scattered behind and before us, the horror of so many lives lost and hearts broken a scorching flare turning the hours to ash. “What does the appropriator appropriate?” Cristina Rivera Garza asks in the epigraph to Mexican poet Sara Uribe’s Antígonia González, a reworking of the Antigone story for contemporary Mexico. Garza’s question stands just before a section titled “Instructions for Counting the Dead,” which begins:
First the dates, like the names, are the most important. / The name, even more than the calibre of the bullets.
Although I am trying to learn some of them, and I read lists and litanies of the dead, I think that I don’t know enough of these hundreds of thousands of names, nor enough of the dates; what is easier to find, always, is the calibre of those bullets that mow so many down, those popular small, lightweight, fast long range inexpensive full metal jacket bullets, designed for semi-automatic and pump action weapons, that can be gotten anywhere, and that can penetrate a body with deadly ease.
It was in this context that, on May 1, 2020, at the news that armed protesters carrying every sort of assault rifle pressed into the Michigan Statehouse during a sham legislative session called by Republicans to try to strip Governor Gretchen Whitmer of her powers to govern in response to the best known facts about the COVID-19 epidemic, I became so distressed that I could hardly breathe. I grew up in Ohio and spent summers in Michigan; Michigan feels as if it is in my backyard, or a place on the same block, as the small villages of Portapique or Debert or Enfield, Nova Scotia do from my present home on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. In an interview I listened to later that night, one legislator spoke calmly to reporters about her colleagues donning flak jackets, as if what was facing them from the balconies was not interference and intimidation, treason even–and a foretaste, no doubt, of what is to come if the current irresponsible and belligerent occupant of the White House is not reelected–but just another day in the life of a legislator, who naturally, keeps a flak jacket ready to hand, like a cell phone or handbag. It seems clear that such shows of armed force would not be happening if the governor of Michigan were not a Democrat and a woman; the men in the galleries with their weapons are at once a warning and a bully move, designed to intimidate. The demonstrations outside of the Michigan Statehouse are thick with Trump 2020 signs; the President speaks of the demonstrators and the men with guns packing the galleries as “good people.”
These distressing words and images in my head, deeply rattled, I slipped going down a short flight of stairs to the bottom level on the house, on my way to fetch my boots for our afternoon walk. As I began to fall, I noticed the sharp corner of a glass table coming towards my eye; I managed to avoid it by tucking my head, rolling forward down the stairs, and catching myself with my arms, but not before taking most of the force of the fall against an edge of a stair on the meaty part of my left buttock. The pain was immediate and intense. Stunned, I stayed curled on the floor for a couple of minutes, trying to gather what felt like the shattered bits of myself before standing. My partner hovered anxiously, worried I’d broken my back or rammed my kidney but fortunately, it appeared I had not. Soon an enormous tender and knotty bruise blazed across my bum. Ice helped; so did ibuprofen. But it will be some time before that contusion heals.
Since then, so much sadness. It hovers just over my shoulder: the agony in my heart and head and the pain in my ass knit themselves more closely: I am one wracked body thrummed and thumped by sorrow in the wan light of morning. And here’s the thing: I suspect that in every house there are others just like me: headbanged, fingersmashed, armburned, heartsore, our bodies taking and speaking pain our mouths have no idea how to give form.
Coda (11 May 2020)
While rereading Maggie Nelson’s memoir, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, a book that takes on our fascination with mass murder, the “poetic” potential of “the death of a woman” (as Edgar Allen Poe put it in his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition” “the death… of a beautiful woman” is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”) and deadly violence against women among other things, I found, in the text, a description of the seal of the State of Michigan that seemed oddly pertinent to the gun-toting protesters who ranged themselves in the Michigan statehouse recently.
The seal consists of an elk and a moose on their hind legs in bas relief, leaning against a crest, which, in turn, depicts a man holding a long gun, beholding a sunrise, underneath the word TUEBOR: I will defend. Then, wrapped around the bottom of the seal, the state motto: Si Quaeris Peninsulum Amoenam Circumspice: If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you (110).
What Nelson was describing was not exactly this seal, but a brass version of it displayed behind the judge in the courtroom where she and her family attended the July 2005 trial of a man charged with murdering her aunt some 35+ years earlier. What is not evident in the courthouse seal that Nelson looks at–above the elk and the moose, above the man with the long gun and the sunrise–is the eagle, standing for the United States and bearing the motto, E pluribus unam, “out of many, one,” a motto decided upon by a “Great Seal Committee” struck in 1776 by American revolutionary colonists. If this over-arching motto remained true as an ideal of governance in the US today–arguably, under the present President, it is not–long guns, even in Michigan, would not appear beneath it as instruments of threat and divisiveness, but as historical curiosities, like elk perhaps, or moose in their multitudes. What has happened instead, evidently, is that many of the great mottos of the republic are becoming historical curiosities, while assault weapons headline increasing numbers of American policy decisions emanating from the White House and other bodies, whether official or not.
Maggie Nelson, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2016.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Philosophy of Composition 1846: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69390/the-philosophy-of-composition
Senator Dayna Polehanki, “Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today. #mileg.” Tweet. 30 April 2020: https://twitter.com/SenPolehanki/status/1255899318210314241
Sara Uribe. Antígonia González, trans John Pluecker, Les Figues Press, 2016.