Modern Morality: A Ghazal Picture

(I think this poem takes the Cleverest Poem with the Least Cleverest Title award, excluding works not written by me.)

There's an expression, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." This seems particularly true of the ghazal, a Persian form from the 10th century (…, and by the way, check that link, to save me a ton of reiteration.

While the expected number of refrains is between five and fifteen, and the average is seven, there's really no end to how many you could do. I actually stumbled on a random ghazal series today, after writing this piece, if you can believe that, in Di Brandt's collection, Now You See Me, that spanned dozens of refrains. She broke it up with a numbering system, but the nature of the ghazal is inherently scattered, each line encouraged to be a departure from the nature of the preceding line. So, really, you could ghazal forever. Generally you don't, I think, because, as the great poet/editor Allen Briesmaster once told me, ghazals suck (I'm paraphrasing). But you can imagine why lovers of free verse would find something off-putting about seeming randomness (despite their popularity in free-verse-loving India, where ghazals have maintained popularity through the musicals).

I've wanted to write one since I learned of their existence, but had a hard time understanding how strict/easy the various rules were. That link above really helped me see through my past attempts to understand, and it suddenly felt like something I could do with the abandon of Di Brandt.

I'd been out walking, this frosty Vancouver night and had this idea to write a poem about a book in which nothing in it really meant anything to reality (which is a dichotomy I ponder often: art that means nothing vs. art that means something). It didn't take long for my atheist brain to turn that into a modern day existentialist analysis, and here we are.

I'm trying to get away from explaining my poetry in these notes, but I'm not gonna fight the urge this time 'round. I guess I wanna show anyone who thought my poem was a chaotic mess that there was, and can be, an internal logic to a ghazal.


I love the paradox of that first stanza. Taken at face value, I can see how it might not make any sense. But what I was thinking about on my walk was about how religion is essentially a distraction from the void, the void of essential meaninglessness (there's a great speech from Kubrick about how to recover from that realization as an individual). There's the verifiable notion that atheism tends to quiet the general culture of violence of a region or country. Perhaps this is because when people realize this is all there is, and there's no great reward anywhere down the line, we'd better make what we get, and do control, as good as possible. Now, for the record, I do think that religion actually was an early expression of this same awareness, I think religion and mythology were what we needed in order to endure our pre-science and maybe even (though I shudder to think it) post-science existence (which I fear mineral depletion may bring about). But as much as Richard Dawkins may enjoy contemplating the atom as a way of making peace with the void, that's not gonna cut it, obviously, for most of us. So, as religious fanatics love to point out, those of us who keep our distance from superstition do tend to fill in the space religion leaves with something else, be it pop culture, wealth, or, for some, science. I thought a magazine was a good enough symbol of these things, bite-size bibles in a way.

Think about the cover of any magazine. Implicit in numerous aspects of that cover (yes, even The New Yorker) is the idea that some ideas for living a better life are contained within, whether that's the more informed life that a Nature or Science will provide, a more capable life, as a Better Homes or Muscle Fitness would provide, or a more enjoyable life, as an Us or a Hello! would provide. And however accurate that may all be, what do magazines do to meaningfully replace the fear you feel about meaninglessness?

Not much. But it's a good distraction. Like a sacred text.


The second stanza addresses what I am growing to see as one of the great injustices of our time.

Every time I see a photo of a protester getting harassed or clubbed or shot by an "officer of the law" I can't help wondering what kind of person sees a fellow human being, outraged by some usually cataclysmic event in modern capitalism, like a G20 summit, and thinks, "You're gonna fucking get a rubber bullet in the fucking head." There's evidence to show that psychopaths are attracted to law enforcement, but surely they can't all be soulless bullies.

So the Buddhist in me wants to look at that relationship like the shooter is shooting himself (I thought of writing 'herself', but let's be honest). But the opposite is also true. The protester understands the potential for violence, and protests anyway, in effect, bringing the violence on themselves. So both people, with radically different approaches, are trying to annihilate something wrong about humanity.

And aren't we all kind of protesters of one sort or another these days? Tea Partiers especially, to give an off-kilter example. But you see it on Facebook, our modern day town square, all the time. People want to change the way we talk about rape and money and information and life. I'm all for it. There's a dark weapon the protester feels they might be facing down, all the time, and I hoped to echo 'canon' with this line: as in, there's a dark body of work, historical work, that the protester has to see in themselves, a dark past, which could be repeated in the differently dark future, like how Germans have strove to erase any taint of Nazism.

Still, what would it mean to blow the protester's head off? Is it a loss? A victory?

When you try to find a concrete, objective value in someone's body parts, even your own, what do you find? Nobody wants to hurt or suffer (against their will), but that doesn't mean you "shouldn't" hurt or suffer. As in, life doesn't owe it to you not to hurt you. Obviously, pain is often gain. We know it's not all bad, but we avoid it in ourselves and in others. And in order to avoid it, we ascribe value to our bodies, and, lately, our experiences (as in, people shouldn't be raped).

So, I guess here I'm challenging the presumed notion that society's forward momentum (as I'm sure you've heard it described) depends upon the elimination of bad experiences and suffering. Like trying to end violence against women. I'm all for ending violence against women. But the day we "end" it, I guarantee you, by hook or by crook, it will be back.

The protester, or perhaps what I mean to say is the honest protester, doesn't get why they so often get their heads blown off, and what their brains sprayed on the concrete amounts to. Why fight the dark canon/cannon?

Perhaps it's just in our nature to fight for better than whatever we see.

(And just so I don't come off as insensitive, I've been diagnosed with PTSD from past traumas, so I've spent many, many moons turning these issues around in my brain, believe me. And I'm pretty sure I'm not better for it, except that I hope I might one day wonder my way out of my thought-cycles.)


Have you ever seen a high-end professional kitchen dishwasher? I saw this one once that you turn a wheel and a steel box comes down from above and traps the towering pile of dishes, and blasts it with whatever. It almost seems like a magician's trick, the plates are so clean-looking.

They're not perfectly clean, but then again, are we? We're coated in bacteria. Nurses are encouraged not to leave any skin exposed lest a sick patient should spread one mote of germ through the air, to land on their skin, and begin its hero's journey toward an open orifice.

That's all I'll say about that one, but think Aristotle.


This one, the fourth stanza, is kind of about the mood of generations. Things happen in human history that colour the mindset of an entire people. There are things tea partiers and I would agree on, I'm sure, if only that the sky is blue.

Whether or not you believe in the moon landing, the 9/11 commission, God, or penis envy, makes a big difference in your life, in ways perhaps imperceptible at times.

Right now people fret over concerns unknown a hundred years ago, and a hundred years from now, people will face challenges we today can't imagine.

Literally, the "scope" I'm talking about is a microscope or telescope. And the scope of that magnification is, potentially, infinite. What is the smallest or the largest unit of measure made of? It remains to be seen if there's a multiverse, as some have posited, or if the laws of physics will someday evolve, or if entropy really spells the death of the 'Big Crunch' theory.

But, we can see dark matter. We can prove nothingness. There could be infinite somethings, but there's definitely nothing. Not everything exists on a spectrum that extends indefinitely. Nothing is the full stop absence of something. So, we may someday be nothing. Where the protester has stared into the cannon, the scientist has taken a slightly different route toward dealing with oblivion. She wants to discover it concretely. She wants to give it a name and a dimension. If nothing exists, it can be understood. If it can be understood, maybe it can be dealt with.

But my suspicion is that the grand work of human culture may simply be to come full circle to what we knew before the emergence of intelligence: vanity is everything, instinct is bliss.

I also just want to say I'm reminded of the current, awesomely global obsession with Game of Thrones. You could read my 'dark matter' as if I'm saying that 'modern morality' is obsessed with the darkness in our souls. Look at any big hit drama, actually.

Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men.


Matter, the repeating word, derives from the words materia and mater, which meant 'mother.' So I wanted to address that.

I rarely refer to a literal mother, or my own mother, in my poetry. For me, mother is more often earth. So, here I'm kind of looking at the whole ecological panic some people, rightly, feel these days. I think something a lot of environmentalists like myself think about a lot is how, despite all our actions to improve the state of the environment, it's more for the continuation of the species, than out of any real fear about the world ending. The world's never going to end. Not until the sun's had enough. We know this. What was freaky to a bunch of 1950's Christians about a nuclear holocaust seems silly today. If you've ever chuckled at the film The Core or Armageddon, you know just what I'm getting at.

But I'd like to suggest that besides the very real significance and importance of the work of environmentalists and natural scientists, as it pertains to continued human existence, the piety ecoholics like myself feel currently is a bit like the Sigourney Weaver speech at the end of Cabin in the Woods. The old hate the young and envy their youth, so feel they must steal it from them, using aging rituals (literal, like killing the youths outright, or figurative, like a bar mitzvah) as a way of synthesizing unattainable immortality.

But mother, the earth and the person -- we all have both -- was destined to decompose one way or another. But this is a necessary process, so that the next generation, the worms, can make something new out of the old. So composition and decomposition depend on each other, basically. Bad (and good?) news, for revolutionaries.


Again, as a sufferer of PTSD, I can say, even I sometimes don't even see why I'm going through what I'm going through. I know exactly what's wrong with my thinking, objectively, but lack the power or the resource to do anything about it. I'm probably a relatively light case of the disorder, but it's wreaked its havoc on my life, for sure.

I like to think there's a certain relationship between the first and last, the second and second last and the third and third last stanzas in the poem (btw, I wrote them in this order, and while the ghazal's structure makes it easy to ticker with the order of stanzas, I bet 99 times out of a 100 it's better not to).

The other thing I like is the identification of the voice in the head as a separate or distinct entity from the self. While modern psychologists and Alan Watts may fundamentally disagree, it's hard to ignore the fact that that voice isn't always the same voice as always. Sometimes it's your dad's voice, sometimes your teacher's, sometimes the earth spirit (just kidding...or am I?).

As a victim of several classifications of abuse, I can honestly say, if they are all the same voice inside our minds, presenting in wildly different ways, then abuse is schizophrenia someone gives you. And, yeah, that is typically how schizophrenia emerges. But I still think it's important to differentiate between our thoughts and our perception of our thoughts. Because what is our perception of our thoughts, if not more thoughts? If we have a thought we don't like, or don't agree with, does that mean we always hold onto conflicting viewpoints constantly. I don't think so.

Also, as a victim of abuse who has been called upon to answer for their behaviour innumerably throughout life, I can honestly say that yeah, I've even interrogated myself. It's hard to say if I would've done so had I not been so interrogated and punished by others for my mind under the influence of abuse. Perhaps not. But that's my experience.


Finally, we have one of my favourite passages I've ever written (the first stanza being my second favourite), in which we see this philosopher -- supposedly superseded by the scientist, according to Neil deGrasse Tyson, a hero of mine -- saying this pretty cool thing about the nature of existence. I've found that a lot of my favourite lines in my poems are when I have a symbolic figure make a simple, profound judgement on reality (like the mortician in Dead Skin Deep).

Personally, I don't think that philosophers are needless. I don't think scientists will ever fill the hole religion leaves. I've even contemplated being a "bad faith believer" (a term I made up just now), except Taoism is the religion (though it's more of a philosophy, admittedly) that doesn't contain one batshit reference to approve acting like a lunatic. I'm too much of a keener to not want to follow all the rules...XD

And the more we denigrate philosophy, the more we leave ourselves open to the Don Drapers of the world, who'd like to control our thoughts in their personal quest to suck capitalism's dick a little harder. But if, like me, you believe in not letting your thoughts be controlled by some jerk or jerks in suits and pantsuits, than you too, like me, can never once set foot in a Wal-Mart, or order anything from Amazon. You can stop eating meat. You can stop driving your car. And so on.

All that was kind of beside the point. I'm very tired.

So, what I like so much about that last line is how on point I think the message is. We know from evolutionary science that species adapt or face extinction. The same is probably true of most things. Just think of Plato's collapsing systems of government model. Seven governmental systems (including democracy, btw), invariably lead round and round in a never-ending cycle of change. That cycle itself is subject to the adapt or die model. But I'm convinced the vast majority of people are unaware of it.

Now, should you look into Plato's alternative to the cycle, the titular republic of Plato's Republic, you may not like what you see, and I would agree with you. But isn't it amazing that mankind has had access to this insight for thousands of years, and we've yet to break free, or create a different cycle, or even one system of governance to defy the cycle. Every anarchist, plutocrat, democrat, dictator, egalitarianist, timocrat, and oligarch seems perfectly happy to just let this cycle revolve and revolve.

Game of Thrones is a perfect picture of these many processes at war with each other.

But maybe the take away is that life among humans has a natural tendency toward this cycle. And like the push to make men stop raping, and corporations stop exploiting, and leaders stop lying, if we want to break the cycle, we have to do so actively, consciously.

But that's a very grand-scale example. Depression works very similarly. Depression changes within your mind with such nimble adaptability, almost like it's trying to survive. There's a line from HBO's Six Feet Under I think about all the time, where a character says about her depression, "Once you realize how boring depression is, it goes away." So, like, once you stop changing along with your depression, it dies. That's what I'm getting at.

Cancer, incidentally, can be described as beginning with a cell that stops changing. So change is the probably the best battery of life we've ever recognized. What could be more scary to anything that doesn't want to die? Whether that's a selfish gene, a generation, or a love.


So there you have it. If you ever think I don't think about why I write what I write, I hope my sleepless night has helped you to think twice.

Thanks to anyone who read all this. My stars.
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