Reflections on Foreign Birds (archive 2012)


I periodically disabuse myself of a kind of writing that is more interesting to me, and generally hid it in poetry on the left hand and dense, grammatically botched philosophical reflections on the right. Being an intensely personal and guarded man about a few things, and yet quite open about things which most people would hide in shame. Perhaps I have a certain disconnection—a hint of the autistic glare, the mad boundaries of the diasporado, which I am increasingly.

In short, for most things, I find myself—despite or even perhaps because of my own self-absorption—a bad subject.

So if you’ll forgive the indulgence, the past two years have been a world wind to ride me across the ocean, watching the shards of economies and opinions which, frankly, left me with the notion that I am not alone in being a bad subject. Since the 1970s, there has been the never-ending boomer and Gen-X prattle about the fragmentation of the society and subjects. In a way, this may be an illusion of communication: we record so much of our thoughts that there is no revision to make unity or coherence.

What the old American fascist, Ezra Pound, called a will to order is perhaps a will to value itself, and the flood of expression, in its twitter debris and Facebook flotsam, makes necessary revision towards cohesion impossible, or at the very least, impractical without the artifice showing like poorly formed rafters. In this sense, the narratives of our life, produced in milliseconds after experience itself but even in the instance is still almost immediately reflection, is also the jumbled half-created flotsam that gives birth to man and woman it’s very duck-faced iphone image is the same just the jumbled Demiurgic urge that has always been at the root of the way we construct and see ourselves, despite the imperatives of biologic and cultural being.

But where is the concrete here? The order of abstraction is just superimposition (Superstition), the order of the rock, the demarcated concrete abstraction, may be superimposed upon, but if I throw it at your face you’ll know it, and I’ll probably need to clean the blood from the floor.

I was walking down the Osan River outside of Yongin-shi, I noticed what looked to be kingfisher on the water and a few cranes. The air smelled of spring and raw sewage, although it was likely just plants down the way from the mountains. Living outside Seoul in a time of “river renewal” led to a lot of sporadic and unfortunate wafting off the thinning fresh water outlets. Recently divorced and expatriated, chewed up and spit out from three years of the working in as a non-union teacher in an area filled with the normal racial tensions, good ol’ boys, obesity, and diabetes I came to expect from living in the exurban South Eastern US, I couldn’t take my mind off of the bird. In the strange high-rises which perforate the even the outskirts of farmland in Korea, I had noticed the birds through the yellow dusted air.

“Every thought derives from a thwarted sensation” says another philosopher of near fascist pedigree, E. M. Cioran. In the wing of bird, I thought back to Marx’s writing on species-being, on the animal without alienated impulses, and for a moment I allowed myself that romantic notion. Only for a moment though. A second thought came to my mind, a paraphrase of Nietzsche on mercy: “if you cannot help a bird fly, help it fall faster.” Then I thought of my ex-wife.

I suppose it is clear why I wasn’t married anymore.

The thwarted sensation at hand was recognition of something like freedom. I had broken with my past, broken with the onus of trying to save poor Southern kids from Walmart hotdogs and poverty from day labor, broken from a woman who should have just been amongst my best friends, and broken with the conventions of America.

Notice, however, the thwarted sensation led to a thought that was thwarted. I could have as easily watched kingfishers in Georgia. My cell phone, a colleague was asking me to join him for lunch, and perhaps mid-afternoon rice wine. One of the advantages of no longer driving a car was that after wine became a much common occurrence in life.

“What we want is not freedom but its appearance. It is for these simulacra that man has always striven. And since freedom, as has been said, is not more than a sensation, what difference is there between being free and believing ourselves free?” says Cioran.

The naive realization from birds: I wanted the romantic narrative, and I knew it’s a lie. To help a bird fly or fall, one must know what the bird truly is and what direction the wind is blowing.

So we begin.

Today, I sat in front a small gaggle of Korean students, each more studious than the ones I remember from my earlier days as teacher in Georgia, and watched them try to decode “Politics and the English Language” by Orwell. The essay seems archaic now, although the Marxiod cant I speak about has been in my life recently, but the other “degenerations” of which Orwell speaks seem so common place now that the human is almost lost on us, and definitely lost on those whose knowledge of English is, at best, fluent in only daily speech.

What struck me was that Orwell seemed  only too correct about the direction of political jargon: the meaningless phrases, the bizarre and clumsy grasping for the Latinate to substitute for an air of the scientific, the softening of the euhemerism, and the braying dishonesty of it all. Yet something else struck me: an anthropologist, whose name has left me, said “language was designed to hide communication.”

Indeed, my students know my body language, without special attention, will betray my truths: be those students from Georgia, South Korea, or Germany. The fundamental facet of most languages is that they enable dishonesty in and of themselves. The reflection of the sign and of the signified—the various systemic syntaxes and semiotic games—they miss the fundamental beauty of the language game; it has nothing to do with truth, but perhaps cohesion.

This doesn’t take away the danger of jargon mongering. The words which Orwell already saw so emptied of meaning that they could only be used dishonestly: freedom, equity, the various ramble of class classifications, progress, degeneration, and so on. These prime virtues, without the rooting in a concrete context, are not even lies.

So I stared at my students awhile and thought about the ways I had tortured language. I am a poet: I torture language knowingly, breaking it into more rhythmic form, adding the necessary metaphors and overlays, and reassembling the day. Plato kicked us out of the Republic, but mostly out of jealousy. So the bewitchment of the language games we play, the reification games which make our thoughts both thinkable and empty, are my stock and trade.

But even the good “honest” plain English which Orwell lamented the slow decline of was rooted in the fundamental shielding of language. Big Brother or no big brother, the game is not about truth.

I am unsure if the river cranes lie, although, even if they could, they do not do so with the symbolic toolbox with which we have developed.
Yet another thought comes to mind, as I type this in the common room of a faculty apartment drinking a cheap German important beer—South Koreans sadly seemed to learn to make beer from Americans and thus have the thin-water “pilsner”, made with mostly with rice grain that one can find in most American mass market swills. I am listening to some music from a decade ago, and I am reminded of how non-symbollic music can be. It is representative but in a way which is not entirely tied to any sign, and, as I listen, I remember a car fire.

The summer after 9-11, M. and I were driving to see his family in Atlanta. The 1992 Mercury he was in started a plume of gray-black smoke from the undercarriage, and in a traffic re-direction on the interstate, passer-bys started honking at us in the consistent and annoying hum that only almost made cars seem smug. The radiator was noticeably overheating, but being an hour from any city or a pay phone, we kept on.

As the smoke whipped the sides of the Mercury, we noticed he was wearing a “Burning Airliners” t-shirt: a band almost forgotten now which had the unfortunate name after 9-11. I had been inspired by the band name to write a poem, somewhat problematically entitled “Burning Airliners Remind Me of Patriotism,” which became unintentionally a painfully obvious joke. We started laughing about this when we realized the car was on fire and our smoke had its heat.

We coasted the car into a parking lot and waited for M.’s family to pick up us from a pizza parlor in the strip-mall which I doubt survived the last American economic downturn. The music brought it back to me, but it also brought back this conversation from the same trip:

“You knew something like that was going to happen?” M. stared into the road waiting for traffic to pick up.

“I suppose I guessed.” I stared off.

“That night, you watched two girls make out on your couch watching a movie about DeSade as you waited to hear from your girlfriend.” M. slightly sucked spit out of his mouth as some math rock band came on the c.d. player.

“Yeah. You did too.”

“Did it surprise you?”

“No. I figured some dumb fuck flew into a building by mistake. Then I just shrugged. Thought maybe some militia man like in Atlanta a few years ago. Things are going to change. We’re heard that shit for a long time.”

“Yeah. I was afraid. I figured a pretentious movie, maybe some sex, and beer would take the edge off. It felt like the end of something.”

“I suppose it did. I was scared shitless for S.” I said¸ letting my guard down. She was in Eerie, PA, but Johnstown was her home and a plane had gone down near it. When I married S., we would visit it as a defining moment: trinkets and memorial plagues lining a gate in an empty field surrounded by the white bars of birch trees.

“So why’d you watch them?”

“Because they were both crying earlier that day, I guess. C.’s father is in Mexico and stuck outside of the border. L. is just numb. Tension, I guess.”

Then there was no words between us, a crescendo of Miles Davis on the mixed c.d. came across the car. Soon the radiator would be on fire, and we would have other things to talk about. Burning Airlines and all.

I was no stranger to tragedy or stress, but the collective mourning inspired hedonism as a way of coping with tears. Words failed me. Watching two friends kiss each other to avoid being afraid and being invited to watch as a voyeuristic distraction was as close to mourning as I could get. The word games couldn’t hide that about me or about the anxieties of the five students we were rid that day. My future ex-wife being away across the country, and I had a fictionalized account of DeSade keeping me company.

As I write this, there are no birds outside the window here in Jeonju. I am over a decade and an ocean away from those events. I may be in the world of Orwell’s double speak, and I learned more about double speak in the years since those days. But what about false insistences of action? What about double-praxis?

I still can’t tell if this bird flies.


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