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Peter Mountford’s enthralling new novel, The Dismal Science, looks at what happens when a recently widowed World Bank administrator gets embroiled in Latin American politics. In this companion to Mountford’s debut, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, middle-aged and recently widowed World Bank administrator Vincenzo D’Orsi comes undone, jettisoning nearly every one of his personal and professional relationships.

Peter and I met at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle for a talk about identity, middle-age, and the 1 percent.

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I haven’t worked full-time in over two years, so my response to the title of this essay is very simple: I need the money, and of the thirty-six resumes and vitas I recently sent out online or hand-delivered, a chain bookstore was the only place that responded. Prior to this, I was a full-time seminary student working toward national ordination in my faith. Before that, I was a part-time seminary student and full-time college teacher. Then, in 2011, shortly before I was to be granted tenure, I was informed, owing to precipitous drops in enrollment, that my contract would not be renewed for a crucial final semester. After eleven years of teaching for the state, collecting awards, certificates, and the friendship of many students, I was being let go.

In summer of 2009, in a comment on my own piece, “Only one poem for the implosion of Capital”, I invoked Skelton for his leadership bringing female grace upon my pen.

 

Refresshyng myndys the Aprell shoure of rayne;
Condute of comforte, and well most souerayne;
Herber enverduryd, contynuall fressh and grene;
Of lusty somer the passyng goodly quene;

(Refreshing minds the April shower of rain;
Conduit of comfort, and well most sovereign;
Herber enverdured, continual fresh and green;    “Herber enverdured”: herb garden covered in greenery
Of lusty summer the passing goodly queen;)

 

Last year was a pretty good one for writing, but there must have been a superior, secondary, annual echo, because about a month ago, the goodly passing queen halted, pulled up a chair, and flourished a Midsummer birch wand.  Someone must have whispered my need in her ear.

In the maiden voyage of this column, Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 1, I led with the principle that what you love, what strikes you, what moves you in poetry is what matters.  Critics do not matter.  The judgments of others do not matter.  Poetry is yours to dispose as your heart dictates.  If your teachers or friends impose upon you some poem or poet they champion, and you just don’t get it, there is no need to think yourself stupid or inadequate, nor to give up on poetry as a whole.  You will find what you love eventually, because poetry in its essence is as deep within us as our desire to communicate.

From an appeal towards what you love, I’ll work into something a bit less romantic.  I think the best poetry is also useful.  That’s a dangerous word in the world of art, wrapped up as it is in the most ancient debates about aesthetics and utility, but I’m always ready to argue that gallery art is great, but does it really beat, say, a well crafted chair that is beautiful to behold, and is also very comfortable for sitting?  Do any human efforts match the art of nature, for whom, especially if you are a cosmologist, utility is the most fundamental quantity?

Now that the Supreme Court has taken the capitalization of governing itself to its natural conclusion, I offer the following plan that will force the only hopeful outcome possible: one that entails utter hopelessness, until the process I suggest reaches its own natural conclusion.

So I say unto you, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do to your country.

My plan entails incorporating the Democratic and Republican parties, whose candidates would then be considered subcontractors in the manner of, say, Halliburton. The parties would then be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and their candidates would be paid from the profits openly generated by corporate contributions, which would obviously dwarf whatever investments ordinary citizens might be stupid enough to contribute.

The result, as you guess and mistakenly fear, is a steady stream of Republican victories. This will lead to an absolutist capitalism, one unfettered by the slightest federal, state and local restraints. We will suffer, and we will suffer hard. And for what?

I say to you that the situation is hopeless but not hopeless. How can that be? Simple. There’s one way capitalism can be destroyed, and that’s to allow hyper-capitalists to destroy themselves and their own quasi-religious economic system. To do so requires giving them the freedom to drive like debauched train conductors the government and economy into the wall of capitalism’s underlying fallacy, which not even capitalists believe: that selfishness ultimately benefits all. If that were the case, capitalists would become fascists as opposed to the disguised fascists they now are. I call this process the capitalism-enabling theory.

Meanwhile, we plebs will no longer delude ourselves that we have any claim whatsoever as to how this nation’s business is conducted, much as we will not able to wrest free the hands of our future debauched train conductors. Never mind that. Let it go. It’s all going to be okay, once the last of the financiers leap from their office windowsills without need of terrorist attack.

It’s time to give capitalists exactly that which they unwittingly seek: the rope with which to hang themselves.

Furthermore, and heretofore, I state without irony that our nation must from this point forward vote Republican. Given that we cannot achieve change for the better, we must do that which we can, and that’s to make things worse. As Americans, we must get our hands dirty, the way our great-great-great-grandparents did. Every journey to hell begins with a single step. Let us take that step. The time has come for a delirious patriotism. If you want your vote to count for something, vote Republican. Vote for America’s future.

Why this opposition to corporatism when it’s far easier to supply free marketeers the Absolut deregulation they desire? It’s something a friend would do, and we’re nothing if not the friends of the sole remaining revolutionary force: the Republican party. Let them drink and be merry, for tomorrow, or many tomorrows but still a tomorrow, they die.

While it’s true the children are the future, until they become adults, many sacrifices will be asked of our children, and they will obey in the manner of good Nazis — I mean Americans. They shall not complain about the coming lack of preschool, daycare assistance, physical exercise, music lessons, sports, literature, the visual arts, and anything else besides math and science. They will do what they must for der Fatherland — I mean America.

As fascism — I mean capitalism — gains momentum, it will spiral in the bipolar manner towards its ultimate and final depression. For that, we shall have no antidepressants at hand, none strong enough to remedy the depression without upsetting the ever-growing tolerance for Absolut deregulation.

America shall lead the world to a new destiny. Stop thinking and start acting. Vote Republican. Make the world a worse place to live. That’s the least we can do, and I would never ask anything more of Americans.

I know the steward is Argentinian. I heard him talking Spanish with one of the passengers up front several hours ago. There is at least some affinity then—albeit unspoken and unacknowledged—when it is he who leans down to ask me to turn off the call light I’ve had switched on for the last fifteen minutes.

I don’t know the Spanish word for ‘smelling salts’. I’m not sure of the English word for the chemical it contains. My eyes are streaming out onto my cheeks like raw eggs. The rubbing together of the surfaces at the back of my throat is like a concert given in particularly coarse grades of sandpaper.

The fear is palpable in the sidelong glances I’ve been getting all throughout this leg of the long journey, all the way back from Asia, towards the influenza-ravaged wastes of Europe. I sneezed at stentorian volume all the way through the swine flu warning—given in hushed tones over the cabin public address loop.

The gummed-up wads of used tissue paper I have stuffed into all my pockets are not much more than germinal smart bombs as far as the other passengers are concerned. An uncovered, red-raw nose and mouth is the equivalent of a diseased cock and balls without a condom, or a used syringe. The lady sitting next to me has been wearing a surgical mask for seven hours.

I’m in so much pain that I can hardly speak, never mind enunciate clearly and intimate demonstratively what the problem is. It feels as if all the liquid conduits in my neck are being slowly injected with nitroglycerin.

I try to explain with a series of arabesques at the shape of the bottle of smelling salts that I remember being given in a similar situation on an Aeroflot flight into Moscow some years before.

This doesn’t help.

The steward suggests that maybe I would like something to chew on. I surmise he now understands I have such nasal congestion that the air pressure is forcing my sinuses to expand across my face and the back of my head to such a degree that they are pressing on my nerves and causing my head to go numb. He suggests I might like some biscuits.

I make an effort to swallow, mainly to confirm just how awful the prospect of a dry biscuit seems to my desiccated epiglottis.

Thankfully, a stewardess rushes back with two plastic drinking cups stuffed with hot towels and I gleefully press the things to the sides of my head, uncaring at the searing of the flesh of my ears against the steaming flannels; oblivious to the fact that I look like a demented child impersonating an air traffic controller, or a radical re-interpretative take on the cup/string telephone.

I stumble off the plane onto the shuttle bus, thanking the stewardess profusely, but aware that I am completely deaf in my left ear. This is something like the twentieth consecutive hour without sleep, so the paranoia levels are staring to jump, and I immediately begin to wonder if, by thanking her, I’ve given the defense some rope in the court case I am already envisaging bringing against the airline for permanent damage to my hearing.


The allergic reaction to the new air redoubles as I enter the tiny, beige terminal. I blindly follow the ‘Transfer’ signs and stagger through another baggage scan even though my connecting flight isn’t for another eight hours. I fail to understand the significance of the strange looks my boarding pass gets from the staff checking my details until well after the last flight of the night—when the scant hotel reps plying their trade on the other side of the airport have all packed up and gone home.

It takes two trips to the clinic and a series of injections of nasal ordinance of increasing potency to feel like I can tackle getting a hotel room, but it’s already well after midnight when I realise that I’ve been shepherded beyond the point-of-no-return, and unless I want to spend the next eight hours in a freezing-cold strip mall, I need to spend US$35 on a visa in order to leave the terminal and enter Qatar.

I try to draw out some money from an ATM for exactly this purpose. The transaction goes through but the money never appears, and I spend another hour online and on the phone to the bank trying to ascertain if I’ve lost the cash.

The verdict is inconclusive.

I remember vague mumblings about some kind of meal voucher for passengers stupid enough to place themselves beyond security with such a yawning delay until their next flight—us sad, solitary individuals, alone on the cheapest possible overnight connections from Asia back to Europe.


I think the wrong word is in inverted commas here…

If the night flight from New York to Los Angeles is the “red eye” flight, then this is resolutely the “dead eye”. The men here, from various European footballing nations, wear an unmistakable—and strangely familiar—expression of grim accomplishment. You see it everywhere in the North of England, from National Express coach waiting rooms to January sales queues. It’s a look that says:

“I’m saving money here, cock and I don’t care what happens to me in the process”.

I walk for twenty minutes and queue for half-an-hour until I find out I’m at the wrong restaurant. Every transaction is expressed in so many different currencies and languages, that it proceeds at a geological pace.

The meal voucher system is organised according to a protracted and esoteric logic that remains a mystery for three-quarters-of-an-hour stood rattling a set of nose pills around in my fist—devoid of the precious lubrication promised by the voucher. An official arrives and an eclectic queue ensues. He writes out each voucher by hand and I finally get my food; sitting down to enjoy it among the lads in football shirts and various stages of depravity. One familiar T-shirt reads: ‘Good Guy Go to Heaven, Bad Guy Go to Pattaya’.


I imagine this is pretty much exactly what every entrepôt station in the world has been like for centuries, from Constantinople to the Cape of Good Hope: A stark confrontation with ourselves as base animals; herded around and scrambling over each other for purchase.

I go and brush my teeth in the brackish Qatari water to try and make myself feel like a human being again.

It doesn’t work.

I add nothing but an additional suspicion of dysentery bacteria swimming around my teeth.

I manhandle my unwieldy luggage through the narrow aisles of the mall, fighting to see anything through a veil of mucus and apnoea—squeezing past the throngs of sheiks, African ladies and Chinese tourists to join the end of an immense queue of people—baskets brimming with muck and tat.

A small boy recoils bodily when he sees my swollen face and oozing cavities, backing up against a cigarette display and edging around in terror. I feel like sneezing on him. I buy some child’s nose balm and some more tablets which don’t work. For tissues, the cashier recommends I try the toilets.

Dithering in the air-conditioned chill knifing down out of the ceiling and straight through the diaphanous layer of my second shirt of the day, I decide to change and put on some more clothes in the stinking bathroom, awash with piss. The most difficult choice is whether to wear my sweat-soaked used shirt against my skin and the new one over it, or vice versa; to put my shorts on over my trousers or on under them; whether to wear two pairs of trousers, or three.

With the legs of some overly baggy bottoms tucked into my socks, I open the lid of the only vacant toilet to find a dozen anaemic flukes of variegated wan shit that won’t flush. I close the thing on its fetid contents, hitch the legs of my trousers out of my socks and up beyond my knees, step up and over my luggage on the trolley I’ve jammed into the cubicle with me; unlace one shoe on the raised surface of the toilet, and then use it squashed-down as an improvised mat in order to shift my weight over and prepare the other foot.

I am gagging so much from the stench that I feel I have to abort half-way through, but find myself standing barefoot, on tiptoes, at full-stretch, on shoes which are already soaking up the piss; laces dangling in the puddles; trousers gathered around my midriff like a bunch of skirts; naked torso shivering in the fluorescent light. I’ve stamped the toilet closed with one foot, so I have nothing to vomit into except a torn plastic shopping bag which sits gaping in the top of the trolley.

It’s when the sneezing begins again that I start to wonder if the increasing number of apocalyptic doomsayers, from George Carlin to Kip Tobin, may actually be right. As a species, I think we might be irrevocably fucked.


I used to think that we would breed out the retrograde, destructive elements eventually; surmount the religio-ethnic differences; trim the population to a level commensurate with the distribution of resources etc. etc. but after eight hours in Doha airport, to bastardise Francis Ford Coppola, I think there are almost certainly too many of us; we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little-by-little we went insane.

I’ve often heard it said that “there is no such thing as a communist Igbo”, a reference to our intense mercantile culture. Somewhat like stereotype of Lebanese, we’ve tended to structure our very existence around what we can sell, and in this 419 age, sometimes what we can con out of others. Ok, before I get an earful, of course that’s just in reference to a handful of petty thug “areaboy” “yahoozees.”

Sometimes in my disgust for the roaring Supercapitalism that exploded out of Reaganomics, and Clinton’s deregulation of capital markets, I’ve taken comfort in the adage about my birthright to capitalism. They got be the ones fucking it up because my market gods (led by the Goddess Ahiajioku) don’t make no mistakes. And yes, my market gods had about enough, and all you have to to is check the news for the overdue actuarial apocalypse. The derivatives deluge. Head for the arks! Or never mind, it’s not really that bad.

The public radio show Marketplace put out a call for poems with an economic theme for April (so-called “National Poetry Month”). But as April winds up, 6 months deep into the implosion of global capital, the one poem seems painfully obvious. It’s well enough known, but I believe it’s  never been well enough understood.

“Canto XLV” (“With Usura”) — Ezra Pound

I just used my boyfriend’s shaving cream to shave my legs and now they smell like a man.  On the one hand, I’m still shaving my legs, which I consider a coup in the war against the loss of my beauty regime.  On the other hand, my legs smell like a man’s face.  Sometimes that’s okay, but it’s better when you’re lying in bed with oxytocin rushing through your veins and the sheets rumpled beneath you rather than fresh from the shower.

I used to have my own shaving cream, fancy bath oils to make me smell pretty, creams to make my skin glow, creams to slow the aging process, top of the line make up to cover the aging process, expensive hair products and monthly mani-pedi excursions.  Truth be told, none of it was for anyone other than myself or maybe, as fellow TBN’r Kimberly Wetherell suggests in her short documentary, for other women.  Regardless, I loved it.

Thanks to the bankrupting war on Iraq, Bernie Madoff, those parasites at AIG and a global recession, I am cutting back with the rest of the world.  I’m grateful to have a job, a roof over my head, food on the table and Maybelline in my bathroom cupboard.  “Maybe she’s born with it?”  Maybe she’s broke!

Berlin seems to house an above-average percentage of folk who look like life has been pretty damn hard.  Perhaps it’s the horrible weather, perhaps it’s the harsh, mineral-filled water, perhaps it’s the marathon chain smoking or the beer. I’m often surprised to find out the 50-year-old woman next to me is actually 35.  It’s not helped by the trend toward androgynous fashion, either.  Of course we have our beautiful people in Berlin, but it’s not as important or prevalent in the culture as it is in places like New York, Miami and L.A.

The truth is, life probably is pretty damn hard.  Berlin has always been a poor city.  It’s where you come to live cheap, protest and create weird art.  Everyone here seems to be starting over and barely making it.  La Boheme is alive and well all around this city and, while there is some fantastic art in all its forms produced here, even moderately famous people are squatting or trying to squeak by on unemployment and an occasional commission.

What to do?  On the one hand, it’s an absolute release to escape the daily pressures and expectations of image that was part of my life in New York City.  On the other hand, there were parts of that I truly enjoyed.  Come on, I’m an opera singer.  I’m genetically coded to play dress up.  It’s nice not to feel like the fat girl in a sea of anorexic waifs, but at the same time, being a “girl” in some ways is something I really enjoy.  There has to be some middle ground.

For now I’m doing what I can not to lose myself entirely in the tightening of the purse strings.  I’m learning how to use TRUblend and remembering how to paint my own toes.  I guess if my legs smell like my boyfriend’s face, I’ll count that as a win over not having a razor to shave them with at all.  The creams will have to go.  I will try to embrace the grey when it comes and remember to love the creases around my eyes.  I have enough to get by–more than some–and I guess it won’t kill me to finally look my age.  Oh God.