Today, I am happy to welcome a guest writer to this site, Dan Hanrahan, who eloquently captures our current moment of collective angst, remorse and longing in the context of ghosts and their meaning and message.
Watching the final episode of “The Haunting of Bly Manor” tonight, I was reminded of those details we always hear about hauntings: Some traumatic event or unfulfilled vengeance or unrealized longing anchors a person to a place. Whether it is the residue of one’s spirit sunk into an area or the actual animated consciousness of a self, there is a presence which will not relinquish its claim to a place and which must assert itself. Ghosts emerge out of the unresolved. They haunt us to say: see me, remember me or give me what is my due. And something about their monomaniacal, unrelenting quest renders them grotesque over time – contorted in order to pursue one aim.
Before we switched to over Netflix to watch “Bly,” we had watched a few minutes of the presidential debate. The idea suddenly struck me: Is Donald Trump a ghost? Is he pure, animated id, now become hideous and mono-pitched as his quest for something… loved denied, perhaps, has overtaken him entirely?
But the sheer, careening force of his malevolence feels larger than that. Donald Trump is a phantasm who appears to lack a self. He seems archetypal, as a monster in a folktale. I had the sense tonight that none of what I am saying about this is metaphor. I had the sense that Donald is the hungry… the insatiable ghost of America’s longing and crimes and greed, now manifest to haunt us. To make us pay. And, as in what is perhaps the greatest American novel, “Beloved,” it is only through access to our ancestral memory of a time from before the horror story of our history began, and only through community will and rite that we will vanquish the dumb, plodding, suffocating ghost of him.
*** There is an exit to the nightmare of our history – to the slave ships bobbing on the eastern horizon, to the dread hooves and creaking wheels of the settlers’ wagons pushing west, to the villagers running from the flying armaments above them and the exploding landscapes around them in the Philippines, in Vietnam and Central America, in Iraq and Afghanistan, to boots kicking down doors – but it requires us to leave behind all of it, to stop our pursuit of the false gods and to listen to the spirits in the land around us and to our deeper selves that precede the nightmare. Trees, rivers, creeks, hills and mounds and mountains, the animal descendants of those animals we have punished, the human descendants of those sacrificed on the bloody fool’s errand of The American Dream – they all retain the memory of something previous to this ghost-driven present. It is to them that we must listen.
Dan Hanrahan is a musician, writer, translator and actor. His essays, poetry and translations have appeared in Counterpunch, El Beisman, The Mantle, OpEdNews, Brilliant Corners and the American Academy of Poets archive, among other places. Dan has written music for Chicago’s Colectivo El Pozo theater and recently had a feature role in the first film produced by the collective, Cuaco (2020, official release delayed due to the pandemic). In 2020, Dan released his third full-length album, Radical Songs for Rough Times, a collection of original protest songs in English, Spanish and Portuguese. www.danhanrahan.net
*Title image and all other images in this piece are by Dan Hanrahan.
Years ago, I had an opportunity to watch the dissection of a seabird. It was not an academic venture, but one of bearing witness to the devastation that industrial society has brought to countless species on our planet. The bird’s stomach contents revealed human detritus of all manner, plastic lighters, bottle caps, pens, even a spoon. This one creature represented hundreds of millions or more, and species of all kinds. All impacted by the byproducts of our modern consumer capitalist world. It was a surreal sight only later matched in intensity and horror when watching a video of the dissection of a deceased whale whose belly was bursting with tons of plastic bags and other hard synthetic polymers, or the sight of a deformed tortoise whose shell was strangulated throughout its life by a plastic beverage holder.
This month another set of photographs highlighted the global crime and catastophe of ecocide. It was by Sri Lankan photographer Tilaxan Tharmapalan, and it won the UK’s Royal Society of Biology photography competition. Tharmapalan captured images of a wild herd of elephants scavenging for food in a rancid landfill near a wildlife sanctuary. Many of the elephants have become ill or died as a result of feeding on plastic and other toxic waste. But it is the ubiquitous nature of plastic, the myth of recycling, and the normalization of its presence in our lives that I wanted to discuss in this essay.
Images like this make the greenwashing efforts by the plastic industry and Big Oil fall flat. In fact, they have been a lie from the start. It was the plastic industry that started the idea of “recycling.” But this was not intended to reduce the production of plastic. On the contrary, it was intended to give a veneer of “corporate responsibility,” while they ramped up plastic manufacturing. Over the decades recycling became the mantra of many “environmental” organizations. But the myth of recycling remains largely obscured. In every recycled plastic product there is an equal measure of new plastic, so there is no real reduction. It is the exact opposite.
Single use beverage containers have only increased, with only a fraction of the plastic packaging produced ever recycled. Most, over 90% in fact, wind up in landfills like the one in Sri Lanka, or on the side of roads where lazy and self-centered motorists dispatch them in haste from their car windows every single day, or in riverways that run to the ocean and wind up churning into a great toxic gyre in the centre. Today, there are more types of plastic than ever before. Most are unrecyclable, although they will be imprinted with a number on the bottom to add to the illusion of their future incarnation for use.
Plastic has become integrated into every aspect of modern life, from medicine to food to furniture to clothing to machinery. Bathed in it from the delivery room of a hospital till the morgue, there is virtually no place in modern life that it cannot be found. And with it has come an incredible curse. All around the planet plastic waste has become a problem of monumental proportions, and most especially in the global south. But westerners need to halt themselves from distancing or heaping condemnation on the global south for this problem. Sri Lanka, where the award winning photo was taken, like so many other countries under the heel of the IMF and World Bank, are not the ones profiting from the plastic industry. The profiteers are multibillionaire companies like Dow Chemical, Hanwool Corporation, BASF, Lyondellbasell, Ihne & Tesch GmbH, Exxonmobil, Matsui Technologies India Ltd., and SABIC. And billionaires like Stewart and Lynda Resnick of The Wonderful Company or William Young of Plastipak or Warren Buffett. And as the demand for plastic continues to surge, their net worth has only grown larger.
In addition to this, it is the west, or global north, that has been shipping the bulk of its unrecyclable or “undesirable” plastic refuse to the global south. So the trash in these landfills that are fouling estuaries, deltas and wildlife sanctuaries around the world are from those of us in so-called “developed countries.” Some of these nations have pushed back against these acts of environmental colonialism, but they are in an uphill battle with some of the most powerful and wealthy corporations ever known.
The elephants in that landfill in Sri Lanka are no different than the seabirds, or the whales, or the sea turtles we have watched succumb to humanity’s insoluble and indigestible jetsam and refuse. In fact, they are all harbingers. Portents of what lies ahead for all of us. Whether we like it or not, we are all denizens of a plastic coated world. One that has made enormous profit from the overproduction of plastic for a few and incurred incalculable expense for us all. Plastic can now be found in virtually every corner of the planet, from the Arctic to the Pyrenees to the Marianas Trench. It has even been found in the cells of organisms and in every human tissue. And all of this has come about thanks to the political and economic arrangement of late capitalism, an arrangement that does not possess the capacity for ethical and moral direction in regard to a living planet.
The thin and fragile ribbon we call the biosphere is the only place that we know life exists for sure, and in its great abundance. And it has been relentlessly assaulted through rapacious mining, deforestation and the extraction of fossil fuels by a ruling and wealthy global elite. The byproducts of the latter being climate change fueling CO2, oil spills that ravage coral reefs, and plastic pollution. As for the latter, we will never fully grasp the carnage wrought upon countless species by plastic refuse, on the lands and in the seas we deceptively call the “wild.” We can only fight to protect what remains, even if it has all been tainted by the mad dissemination of synthetic polymers.
The following is a collaboration of poetry and prose with Jennifer Robin and Phil Rockstroh. Introduction by Kenn Orphan.
And who will join this standing up and the ones who stood without sweet company will sing and sing back into the mountains and if necessary even under the sea:
we are the ones we have been waiting for. ― June Jordan
“To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” — Robert Graves
“Poetry is what happens when nothing else can.” ― Charles Bukowski
Kenn: Over the past few months we have witnessed climate catastrophe in the form of mega storms and ferocious fires, uprisings against racist police state violence, rising fascism, white supremacist militias, and a pandemic which has taken the lives of over a million people around the world. Now, that virus has poked its spiky, protein arms into the very centre of American imperial power.
It would be naïve to deny the deep psychic trauma that all of these events have inflicted on each and every one of us. Some have been galvanized to take to the streets as militarized police launch tear gas at mothers in Portland and students in Minsk. Others have become paralyzed by the weight of these wounds. A segment of the population has become entranced by the cult of Q, which reduces all of the human failings of our age to a fantastical and sinister cabal of supernatural beings.
It is perhaps the latter which has become the most emblematic of unhealed trauma. It provides a refuge, however irrational, for the wounded to hide in, away from the complexities of the world and its myriad and existential problems. But to make sense of our moment in history we must reconnect with a language that is far older than the parlance employed today. A language of the soul, of the psyche. One that is able to grapple with truths and trauma that we find impossible to face otherwise.
As ash from the West coast of North America drifted over my piece of the world here in Nova Scotia, and the sun became a dark orange and foreboding hue, my mind drifted along with it to places that once had form. Did this ash contain the remnants of an ancient tree? Or countless mammals who sought refuge from the flames deep in the forest? Or the bones and flesh of a fellow human being lost to the inferno? And with this came the trauma of knowing and not knowing.
We sit in the ashes of a world that is aflame, but we are not alone. With us sit the ghosts and the gods who implore us to do what conventionally is seen as a waste of time. To pause and reflect deeply on where we are as a species among billions of species, on a world in a deep state of trauma. The following is a reflection in prose and poetry by Jennifer Robin and Phil Rockstroh.
Jennifer: The first day of fire rise with anger; resignation the next. Take stock, no funds, dough-facedmoll, find a lens that keeps the blowflies elsewhere. Colonizers flaunt gas masks, King ArthurFlour, kiddie pools. A man hears a wild horse halt in fright and exhaustion and scream, tendonsseize and break, musk engulfed by flames. We’ve never met, virtual friend who fills my mindwith horse-fire.
What will the textbooks say? What are textbooks? A wall of ash is ten thousand tons of vinyl siding and particle board ambition; is rabbits, is moss. The Enchanted Forest’s heir pictured here, a smiling blond boy with his dog is lost, runs down paths made unfamiliar, undone.
A week before fire I watched a video of a man summon right-wing ghouls to poison Portland’s water source, coordinates of access roads not on maps, voice like a bowling pin, it teeters, hints of tributaries, haunts of thrush and owl, summoned, not yet done. A week before fire I stopped myself from sharing a video: Cops crush a medic’s head. A voice tucked behind my lung asked: Is this food I serve? What is fed?
When I was four I heard the fable of animals who were wise. They stored nuts for a winter long as childhood, while others frolicked by a stream. Winter fell like strychnine, dreamless sleep. The ones who lay in sun and danced under moon now ran in circles until their hooves and beaks could no longer scrape bark from trees, no longer dig for seeds, even wilted weeds, fur claimed in patches by ice.
Night is abolished. Night, like an escort, is hired. A party of three in hunting gear block a man delivering dinner for the color of his skin. Screens of powder-light show the West in flames; four thousand miles away friends on the Gulf face hurricanes, we once broke bread together, saliva, wishbone lullaby, heart emoji, look away, glad it isn’t me. My lover names those who fled on planes while we squat lower, breathe shallow, boil herbs that go the way of bees, our eyes stinging with future.
Phil: When the air is stippled with ashes, when the color of the sky has been usurped by thereflection of cataclysmic flames, and when the smoke of the burning world occludes city’smonuments to rich men’s vanity — will you then — only then — half-blinded by veils of smoke— be able to see clearly?
There must come an immolation of your view of the world held within. No — not by the fantasy of a flaming sword held by the hand of blazing blue Heaven — but by a baptism by inner flames that reduces to ashes clutched convictions.
Descend into your shadow that has been cast by the flames. To create a shadow one must possess a semblance of substance.
A Phoenix will build a nest for her fledglings within the shadow of your heart. She will sustain her young with the sustenance of your vehemence.
Jennifer: Unwind: Smallpox blankets, the Paxton Boys and the Glanton Gang, scalps dried in sun,saddles grow heavy with bounty hunter’s gold, gravel in the streams, land claimed for cotton,burn them out, trail of tears. Lies called treaties to gain timber and salmon and ore in high yellow hills, across two billionacres, monopoly ghosts who play guns, play cannons, play fire.
Trappers trace: Charred villages, mountains of skulls, truce is empty.
Standing Rock, private security hired to hose lives singing, bleats silence. No one gets out of here alive, not North Dakota, not the Siletz with their heads sculpted young by boards, songs of Shiok the Transformer who took people to sky, and eagles could pass between the lower and higher realms, and what rubella didn’t claim, tuberculosis took, until memory was null.
By 1860, four and a half million slaves are in the United States and they know no hour without the threat of murder.
Phil: Yes, there is blood pooled in your streets.
I have stared into your face until I disappeared, inhabited the shadow of your self-justifications, and read with the fingertips of my heart the braille of your scars.
I drown everyday in the rising of your blood-tide, unloosed by your sacred guns and rage-protected pride. Your children, from birth, fed on lie-rancid milk, have grown rifles for hands.
I recall being devoured by Alabama moonlight and deluges of jasmine fragrance as the rising waves unearthed the imprecatory chants of Creeks, Choctaws and Seminoles from their black soil entombment. I was given no choice other than to be undone by the rebuke of slaves chained in the haunted night air.
This is the news of the day: The lilies I brought to you, drenching your house with their saturating fragrance, report, the History that made your Now is watered with blood. The scented air demands:
Go to the dead and let them do to you what they will.
Jennifer: Can you count the tents? All of the tents? Above them rooms that fail to blink out of existence,even when they hover, chalk white and smelling of old refrigerators, with the weight of vacancy.
A Black Lives Matter march moves down the street and a cat’s head in slumber rises, listens to the cadence of honking horns until the surge fades.
Cops riot, rain bullets and acid and fists, shatter spinal cords, turn mothers to orphans. The march is a river and bends and I think of the words of Lao Tzu: Nothing is softer than water, but when it attacks something hard or resistant, then nothing withstands it.
Silence returns. The cat’s head settles into fur, amoeba sleep.
11th Hour Instruction Manual: Consult Marvel oracles for pushbutton salvation. Sing the song of self while pawning a wedding ring for five pints of ice cream and a bottle of Hair Buster Draino.
Cut and paste: Wishing the fascist well whom you said should get the guillotine three days earlier. The mind-virus of progress at any cost: Profit at any cost is antimatter. Do not revive.
This burned forest floor will be marvelous for fracking! Who doesn’t need the daddy? Who turns off thought, legitimizes mind-crimes, whispers: Anger is good. Arise and smite.
Our heroes are young again and fifty feet long! Biden has a new chin, Superman cleft, aborted glyph of Saint Michael and Dick Tracy. Trump has a neural stimulator, a fine skein of silver concealed under his game show quiff. Rumors abound—he gobbles french fries and Adderall, a maskless vigil outside Walter Reed Hospital assembles to faith heal, officers deputized as feds so that every protestor hogtied is a felon; ICE helicopters fly 10 hours a day, plan on “immigrant roundups” before the election. Thor-worshippers, Oath Keepers, and “rational thinkers,” oh my!
Practice past; it repeats. Dive into the past; the past is finite, is done. The past is re-written, rummage its lacunae with your fingers while your eyes are too stunned to see. Feel old letters, wrinkled paper. Severed tongues reanimate. The past absolves you of future, fills you like a chalice with blood-curdle hymns: We are the elect, when men were men, and women were—
Trump: My mother prays for him.
Rouged cheeks are practice-fever. Move closer. Hear the clink of horse brass, smell the reek of rotting hay. Tulsa, 1921: Black Wall Street burns, bombed by air and ignited in alleys. Hamburg, 1941: A woman replaces the star on her Christmas tree with a photo of Adolph. The pushbutton ones swim in mythology until the trains come. Which was the string of strings that unraveled the silken purse called earth-hive?
Commune mind: Earnest, under thirty. Black lives hold their ground in the streets, getting published, on screens as living minds instead of dead bodies. Earnest, under thirty. Find each other, learn to use the crossbow and irrigate corn. Earnest, under thirty. Learn the uses of elderberries and sage. This is no longer practice fever.
Earnest, under thirty with no illusions about the dynamo spinning down, cities blinking out, programming growing erratic, the fires yet to come.
Moon, like a scoop of lemon sherbet, shines so bright.
Jennifer Robin is the author of Death Confetti (Feral House), Earthquakes in Candyland (Fungasm Press), and Even Snowflakes Heal and You Can Download Skin (Ladybox Books). She also posts on Medium.
Kenn Orphan is an artist, writer, nature lover, antiwar and anti-capitalist activist, sociologist, spiritualist and hospice social worker. He writes for this blog and numerous other sites, including Counterpunch, Hampton Institute and Dandelion Salad.
Apparently, Donald and Melania Trump tested positive for Covid-19. Part of me wonders if this is a publicity stunt meant to downplay the virus even more. But it is unlikely, since Trump does not possess the acumen for that level of scheming. But regardless of that, it is hard to muster up sympathy for a man who said “it is what it is” when asked about the death toll from Covid-19. Or for his wife, who wore a jacket to an immigrant child detention centre that was emblazoned with the words “I really don’t care, do you?”
This president’s administration threw out the handbook on how to deal with pandemics. He spent the first crucial month of the pandemic downplaying its seriousness. He then continued to lie about it even after he knew how deadly it was. He admitted this to Bob Woodward. He then proceeded to blame China for it and said “I don’t take responsibility at all” when asked about a lag in testing for the virus. He has never expressed empathy for the millions of Americans who contracted the disease or the families who lost loved ones to it. He peddled the drug hydroxychloroquine despite the fact that there is no evidence it does anything to cure or even treat Covid-19 and can have serious side effects. He talked about injecting disinfectant as a cure. And he was just on national television mocking his opponent for wearing a mask.
There is no reason to express any sympathy for Trump or his wife. Like other leaders who downplayed the pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Boris Johnson of Britain for instance, it is certain they will receive the best treatments and healthcare available. The same cannot be said for the citizens under them.
212,869 Americans have died so far from Covid-19. 1,029,094 worldwide. 7,505,074 Americans are infected with Covid-19. 34,578,919 worldwide. Most of them are the working poor. Most of them are Black, or Indigenous, or Latinx. Most of them lack access to adequate healthcare. Most of them will suffer in other ways beyond the virus itself, from losing income or housing. Or from poor mental health.
Our solidarity, not sympathy, should be with them. As for Donald and Melania Trump? It is what it is.