In the news I hear tales of emergency medical centers being built as fast as possible to forestall spreading tropical disease. Thousands have died. Thousands more will likely follow. Moments later I read of cruise missiles striking targets in desert towns. The missiles of course, were launched to press malevolent forces back into the shadows. Yet vile as those targeted malefactors may be, I am not deaf to the booming blasts of high explosives, ending hard, nameless lives as definitively as the creeping virus elsewhere. One wonders how various Middle Eastern scenarios might have played out if all parties had been educated and well fed in stable countries with strong human rights records, just as one wonders similarly about virus victims had they grown up amid first world health and wealth and educational opportunities.
Later, sitting with a pen in hand, trying to turn a delicate phrase, I pause. In the stillness I cannot help but conjure the distant booms of bombs and beeping alerts of medical monitors. I look at the useless writing instrument in my hand, purse my lips, and shake my head.
The arts have always responded to life’s absurdities by inventing its own realities. I recall what happened a few weeks following the catastrophe at the World Trade Center in September 2001. A memorial service not long afterwards called forth musical expressions, impassioned bits of oratory, and even interperative dance, all meant to soothe souls and make sense out of senselessness. As an artist I looked on and understood, even if the hastily assembled but well intentioned works were still rough and obvious. One wonders if these outpourings of emotion were more in service of the creators themselves sorting out their own internal losses than in the service of the greater culture for which they were purportedly being presented. The question will always be how can art endure when generalized suffering is far, far more common. How can creative people possibly absorb news of war, political brinksmanship, disproportionate wealth, and even ordinary traffic jams and possibly choose to spend days locked in consideration of things as trivial as three-four time and Earth-tone color palettes?
It’s an old question. I'd like to take it one step further back, sinking deeper in the philosophical loam as if I were tracing a plant back into the soil, weaving through it’s tangled subterranean mass down to it’s seminal root. The profound efforts to erect field hospitals in Liberia and Sierra Leone as bulwarks against ebola strikes me as a cosmic jape in light of the vast sums of money being spent on hunting thousands, of militant fighters in Middle Eastern deserts. We are simultaneously struggling to save lives and end them. Not for a second should this be interpreted as an apology for ISIL fighters; not at all. Neither should it be to trivialize the vital, even essential (but still underfunded) work of the international health community. But as a species we are wrapped up in dichotomous efforts to rescue ourselves just as we are endlessly consumed with efforts to destroy ourselves. While we labor to save individuals, we destroy, destroy, destroy, and often without even using bombs. We weep in horror at the bleeding victims of a rare disease, but fist pump the air as we blast baddies to the next world. We destroy by angling against each other, trying to divert the river to wash our fields in order to give us subtle market advantage come harvest time. That there is less food for everyone…seems to be beside the point.
Now my pen begins to wake again. This absurdity—this mix of impossible-to-reconcile motivation— is the province of the artist. The artist reconstructs the world to make it whole. I've made this assertion for months, for years, but it must be repeated, said out loud: the artist remakes the world by choosing to create. Through each cadenza, each sigh of poetry, each cue to shine spotlights on to the foot of the stage we help stave off life’s absurdities, which is really just another way of holding off the endlessly encroaching darkness. It’s not possible for Air Force bombs falling on desert terrorists to provoke much practical thought about brave aid workers trying to pump bleeding patients with intravenous fluids. The complexities of these specific tasks require singular focus, and broader context inhibits their professional performance.
That’s why the poet matters so much. Without new verses to refract the facts of impassioned acts, broader culture forgets why it needs to care about either extreme on the spectrum, to say nothing of the vast space of human potential in between.