Trump, Poetry & Erasure

For almost a year, now, I have been working on a collection of erasure poems (which may also be called “found poems”). An erasure poem is formed by working with an existing text —any sort of text: a story, a book, a letter, a code, a dictate—and erasing therefrom words, phrases, whole sentences and paragraphs, while keeping select others. The poet might use a tool, such as a black sharpie or Wite-Out liquid, or paint or collage, to physically erase the text. The erasure poem, in a way, is a kind of thievery, which may be a kind of crime, but one perpetrated for the sake of what remains. That is, the remaining text. What remains in my poems ordinarily reflects, contradicts or enhances the original text.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “erasure” as: 1. The removal of writing, recorded material, or data; or 1.1 The removal of all traces of something; obliteration: ‘the erasure of prior history.’

As I think about erasure within the context of our current political climate, it’s been challenging for me to go on with this project, to wipe out words from the source text. It feels wrong in light of what must be considered: an ignorant, narcissistic, racist, misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, intellecto-phobic, president-elect who will too soon occupy a chair in an oval office in a white house in the capital city of the United States of America, land of the free. A president-elect who has already betrayed this country in countless ways—most notably, in ways that call for the witing-out of millions of Americans whose skin is darker than the palest pale. And so I am forced, now, to think about erasure in terms of 1.1 above: obliteration. This is the politics of erasure: denying the validity of a given race or any other whom does not reflect the face of the eraser. To erase anything is a form of obliteration. When the day’s history lesson is erased from the classroom’s blackboard, it is obliterated.

Last February, The New York Times Magazine published an essay titled Fighting ‘Erasure’ by Parul Sehgal. In it, Sehgal wrote, “‘Erasure’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘diversity’ and ‘representation,’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘erasure’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?”

Erasure is what Trump is talking about when he says he’s going to build a wall, or prevent certain ethnicities, or those with certain religious affiliations, from entering this country. Erasure is Trump populating the White House with white nationalists. Erasure is the abolition of diversity, histories, innocents, traditions, language, color, poetry. Erasure is loss. It is our president-elect’s desire to lose the idea of freedom, or morality, or humanity. Which is not a particularly novel idea or response by those keen on running a country by means of tyranny.

(Poet Anjali Barot’s video erasure poem—using Trump’s acceptance speech—gives us a glimpse into the future of Trump’s America.)

The practice of erasure in politics is a worldwide crisis.

I believe it is an artist’s duty to speak out against cultural erasure, to bring light and truth forward through one’s art. Looking at the body of my erasure work, I think, in large part, that what I have been pursuing (consciously or not) is the gravity of survival, renewal and remembrance—poems that reveal the stories, suffering and mourning of all. Poems composed of glittering fragments of hope and love and compassion.

A poem from my collection in progress:

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Sweet Things Among the Dead

At my father’s grave, I dig a thin trench into the hard ground that surrounds the stone marker with his name on it. Etched into the granite is a peaceful scene of a lake, a tree, loons, the sun, and an oft heard declarative statement of his: “Another beautiful sunset.” I don’t know if it’s permitted, but I sprinkle sunflower seeds into the trench and with my bare hand swipe the dusty dirt over the seeds and replace some of the scraggly ground cover around the stone’s perimeter. So no one will know.

In Maine, by the lake, there were, there are, many beautiful sunsets. Summer nights, Father and Mother went out to the shore to watch the evening glow, the gentle transformation of the sky—waves of saturated blues, golds, pinks, reds, lavender—until the prismatic curtain curled inward and closed at the horizon.

The horizon. The outer limit. A cemetery—the boundary where compact dirt separates the dead from the living. The dead, beyond all limitation, reside here in this sea of tombs. And the living, the very limited, come to meet them, say prayers, trace letters stamped in stone, remember sunsets, and place sweet things among the graves. An angel, a toy tractor, a cross, a bunny, a cowboy, golf balls, plastic birds, flowers, plaques, cards.

I walk the grounds and find the inscribed names of old friends and classmates—Cindy, George, Denis—who transport me back to high school, to Father’s classroom, to days we thought would never end (or, at times, endless). Sweet things are everywhere. Even here, at this terminus, far from school days, from the lake in Maine, from horseback riding, late night swims and campfires. Here, in all this passed-on sweetness, is where the eternal kaleidoscope sunset meets the horizon. At Father’s grave, again, I dig into the soil and set a purple petunia below his peppery headstone.

 

Things Which Will Last

 

Gauguin was telling me the other day that he had seen a painting by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a large Japanese vase, very fine, but – he likes mine better. I don’t agree – only don’t think that I am weakening…I shall go on working and here and there among my work there will be things which will last, but who will be in figure painting what Claude Monet is in landscape? You must feel as I do that such a one will come…. The painter of the future will be a colorist such as has never yet existed. 

~Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo. December, 1888.

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Monet painted his sunflowers (which I saw last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City) as part of a series of floral still lifes that included a total of  seven bouquets, all with different flowers, including asters, chrysanthemums, dahlias, Jerusalem artichokes, mallows, and red chrysanthemums. Van Gogh had not known of Monet’s sunflower bouquet until his painterly friend saw the piece and informed him of it.

Van Gogh’s humility is what  kept him from becoming as pompous as Gauguin; and, his foresight was remarkable in terms of the changing art world. I wonder if he had known that he was the artist of the future, the colorist we’d never before seen? It is more likely that Gauguin would have thought himself the color master of the future.

But Monet: when I look at his bouquet stuffed into a glossy Japanese pot, ostensibly set on an indoor table, my eyes shake from all the movement, the scene is out of focus, and I feel dizzy. It seems as though a window has been left open and the flowers are shuddering from the cool breeze. But this painting is a still life—presumably indoors and absent disturbances. Of course, it is an impressionistic piece and I do love Impressionism, yet this still life doesn’t work for me. It feels distant, aloof, and so unlike van Gogh’s warm and inviting sunflower canvases. Perhaps it is, for me, that no sunflower still life would live up to those painted by the Dutch master colorist himself. A master who received little attention in his time.

I’ll tell you, though, despite the lack of recognition, many artists from van Gogh’s period, and others after van Gogh, were inspired by his work. Lucien Pisarro’s Vincent in Conversation with Félix Fénéon, both Emile Bernard’s and Toulouse Lautrec’s Vincent van Gogh, and Gauguin’s The Painter of Sunflowers were all done in a style similar to van Gogh’s.

The young Egon Schiele, born the year van Gogh died, used van Gogh’s motif to paint elegant, if somewhat tragic looking, sunflowers. Like many of van Gogh’s still lifes, he depicted the flower in its waning glory. Klimt, too, took the sunflower as a motif, set it growing wild in the garden against bright and dazzling backgrounds. He seems to have treated his sunflowers much like van Gogh did in that we see  humanity in his work, as if the canvases reflect the artist more than the flower itself.

Van Gogh is the artist who moved us into the future of Postimpressionism. He conceived of the bold strokes and bright hues of the artwork of the late 19th century. Yes, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat helped usher in the art movement, but it was van Gogh—van Gogh of light and swirls, saturated and heavy pigment—who led the charge, and inspired so many others to look at the sunflower, and everything else, in a different way. Here and there, sketching and painting his world into the everlasting.