Reading Darkness at Noon in the Age of Autocracy

I watched with great horror the Turkish bodyguards of Erdogan charging across the street, into the field where peaceful protestors believed themselves safe in America from the thing that would get them killed in Turkey: free speech. The thugs of Erdogan descended and beat and choked indiscriminately. Policemen tried to break up the fighting with the realization that they were witness to an international incident. Diplomatic immunity was abused to bring a pocket of autocracy into the heart of our nation’s capitol. I thought that naked thuggery in the halls of power was a dark thing, but how dark, and how naked? The cameras were rolling. None of the goons cared.

The President of the Philippines has openly announced that he has taken part in the vigilante killing of suspected drug dealers, the extra-judicial method he has chosen to combat crime in his country. No rule of law, just this: The police think you’re a drug dealer, so they shoot you in the street. He was elected to his office, and blusters and howls while he seems to collude with the corrupt.

It is widely held that the richest man in the world is Vladimir Putin. No one knows for sure, but at the top of a pyramid of what we are calling oligarchs, which would be more correctly referred to as a mafia, Putin has skimmed off the top of an entire country, pushing his own people into poverty while his coffers fill.

In Venezuela, they protest and protest… And for what? Democracy? An end to the corruption? Incompetence among those who rule, who cannot provide basic services?

We live in the age of rising autocracy, where tough men bellow and bluster and bully their way over the laws of the land. The law is constrained because power is required to enact the will of law, and power, once gathered, is hard to contain with law.

Is your democracy strong enough to withstand the rise of autocrats? Can these populist thugs take root in your country, or will you cast them out? These are the important questions, and safeguarding one’s nation from such thuggery is critical to protect the people from the thugs who charge across the street and beat down peaceful protestors beyond indifferent to the laws and customs of their host nation, brazen in their disrespect of any other laws but strength and purchased strength.

In this world, I read a classic of Western Literature about Josef Stalin, where an agent of communism is imprisoned and faces execution for whatever reasons are convenient. It amounts to the feeling of Stalin, never named in the text, indicate that the hero, Rubashov, is not loyal anymore, and could be dangerous to Stalin’s own hold on power. For in this world, the great struggle to promote worldwide communism stalls against the autocratic drive of one man, who slows the tide and hardens his grip upon the nation he has claimed. The ideology of communism, it is clear, is now swept up into one man’s ambition. The debate between the interrogator and the interrogated acknowledges this fact, while questioning the belief in communism in religious terms. Do you believe in the destiny of communism? If so, sacrifice yourself to it. Confess to this crime you did not commit.

The intellectual, Rubashov, accepts his place as a sacrificial victim of communism, in his way. He acknowledges that what is happening to him is something he had done to others, allowing others to be sacrificed on the blood alter of communism. The fervor of it, the way it swallows up lives, feels monstrous, but to a dedicated believer in the cause they are all martyrs to a historical destiny in which they firmly believe, even as it devours them whole.

The bleak and stark novel of prison and faith in philosophy and the bloody deception of political power stands against a backdrop of purges less elegant, purges so brutal and thoughtless that the beauty and philosophy of the text is almost an affront to the reality that it fictionalizes. The true horror of the text is that it permits an intellectualization of the lives of real people who fell into darkness, and were devoured whole in a holocaust of non-believers and outliers in a systematized corporatization of history under autocratic rule. Anything that deviated from the will of No. 1 faced death, and anyone inconvenient to the will of No. 1 faced death, and everyone knew they had to submit, maneuver carefully, and abandon their sense of self to the bullet of history.

Consider this in our current age of autocrats: Once upon a time, the autocrats abused rebellion to rise to power. Democracy was the answer against such behaviors. Democracies were able to hold back the flood of Communism better than monarchies and other such things. Where power accumulated at the top of society, revolutions took root among the desperate people and intellectuals. In our own time, the top of democracies have become functional oligarchies in many ways. Our own country has seen political power become nearly hereditary in some families, and corporate influence has led to a class of individuals who are more powerful in the shaping of legislation than the individual voters who presume to be in power through their congressmen. Were we not ripe for revolution? Were the autocratic impulses not looking around, seeking the weakness in the system of men?

A religious belief in democracy, then, may become the liability that is exploited by the autocrats. Do not be afraid to abandon the religion of political power. Let no oath to paper or men be greater than the whole of those ruled in sorrow.

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Sonnet #184

There is a hole in the center of us all
A passing through of things, a gape
a place where laughter rises and falls
Where sorrow swells and hardens hate
This hole, the more we pour into this hole
The emptier this place in us becomes
It fills with emptiness, until the toll
of the hole pays in everywhere we run.

Let us go, then, to the wild places, where
the lake swells against the reeds
and the trees lean and grow to dip their
branches into the shimmering. I need
Cicada songs in high summer, birds and turtles
basking beside me, we lean back in the world

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Sonnet #183

Omens foul I’ve seen this day, the laughing crows
Two trickster crows, nipping wings, I stopped
They sounded odd, rogue cicadas songs, I chose
to seek them out, the strange rattle, they swooped
Above the cars, saw me true and cackled

Next a dead coyote ruined on the road
The stench of meat, the bones, blood spackled
Then home in heat, the devil’s goad
Drove black cats along the path beside

The dry wind whistles in dying grass,
The darkness comes, the gloom abides
The hour grows late, and still I pass

The signs of dead end roads, prayers of fear
Black angels walk the roofs, I hear them near

 

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Sonnet #182

Play child’s games and win child’s prizes
What is the prize for a life lived well?
Immortality in some aether above the hell?
A brand of identity that is mostly not lies?
If we are to live this life together let us not
Pretend we have to hurt each other, or push
We don’t have to stand above the rush
Or flow into the kneel of prayer and thought
Imagine what the God would do if here
Imagine life is more than one life
Imagine all known is a seashell by a pier
Us all deep inside it, all known is the knife
That cuts us free, forces of water, near
Forces of sun, sand grinding on the shell
And we have no sure way to dig out of this well

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Sonnet #181

If I draw my soul out for the hungry
divide it up like unbaked dough to rise
Inside the hunger of the holy, to fill their size
If I carve my soul out for the hungry
If I walk to the silent land for the word to come
Where the birdsong is lost in the heat
And blossoms drop down unlit streets
And grass climbs over what I think of as home
And I pull these remnants up to my chin
Open my mouth and pray for rain to come
Abandon the world’s yoke, where all bear sins
Abandon the words to these guttural moans
Will I be holy enough to speak again
And when I speak, return, sated deep in the bone

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Sonnet #180

I can imagine Hell, but never Heaven

When I think of death, I can picture
A nightmare that extends in structure
to unravel a soul in a comatose prison
But what of heaven? How can the dream
of peace we forget upon awaking let
us imagine an eternity of forget, forget
And would I even be who I think I am?
When I think of what a soul might be
I think of memory, the story of myself
The way I tell myself and you our histories
Forget all loves, for those are stories, shelves
full of books disintegrating, stuck together
All this dust was once the library of Alexander

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Sonnet #179

If God wanted you to be rich, they say
He’d make you rich. If you were worthy of his
blessings; that’s what they whisper and hiss
When they kneel upon their balconies to pray

Consider the sparrow, how she is dressed so fine
How all her food is free for the taking
Until we cut down all the trees and mowed and raking
Until our owned ground is clean and neat, we’ll mine

Some distant topsoil to grow all the seeds
We’ll sell them back to sparrows for their feathers
If God wanted sparrows not to meet their needs
By selling their feathers, why make the feathers
So beautiful? God’s blessings skip the weeds
God’s blessing bends sparrow skin to our leathers

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Sonnet #178

Not tonight, not ever, not until the stars burn out
I will not sleep until the work is done
and the work is never done by rise of sun
So I work, and push my eyes and hands to doubt
The meaning of all words, the worth of this
When all that lives and dies is just a beard
of green, a stubble growth, that time reared
And time will shave down with a glacier kiss
And everything we work so hard, and all will
All will… Please, but let me leave this mark
Let me just make a mess that’s worth the still
awake of me. I can clean it tomorrow. The lark
of wakefullness was once a childhood thrill
No joy, just terror enough to attempt a melting ark

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Sonnet #177

Even when the poem kind of sucks
There’s something caught between the teeth
That merited some jive and shuck
Some music, a little bass, a decent beat
Can you dance to the poem? Is there rhythm?
Is there enough of a presence there to spare
A single thought to verse? Holy chrism
of the kings is best when it’s not so rare
When nothing is so walled away that divinity
Will not scatter into the weeds as well as fields
Let us all have our moment – let all serenities
of voice and soaring join for even broken wheels:
An engine that barely turns, a mud-packed vessel
That takes great effort to dig out, shovel and wrestle

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Sonnet #176

I know the storm is coming but I don’t

know when the storm is coming, but it will

I’m supposed to have a plan, and I will

But, right now, I have no plan. I don’t

even know what direction to run when the time

to run begins. The bathroom, I guess?

All those pipes are supposed to help, guess

a direction and watch out for glass and time

will tell if I guessed right. And when it passes

The wreckage it leaves? I’ll call the insurance

I’ll take photographs and beg for bus passes

If there’s still bus passes. Is that enough insurance

against it? If the storm is a big one, God passes

the flood down, no savings, no plan, no insurance

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