“Poetry: a user’s manual”
A sinister symphony of silence
stalks the city from street to street.
Who dares diagram our debacle of democracy?
As sanity makes a spectacle of itself,
and society devours its sickness,
am I a voice or a vice that won't go away,
questing, questioning, quarantining the craziness?
The crowd has eyes only for the crown,
but I walk, I wander, witness
to wonder's whims and whispers.
Better our suicide of certainties
than certainty's swift savagery,
better a savage Swift and a balmy Sterne
than a stern-faced Sartre,
better life in the raucous, dirty, wicked dens of doubt
than the din dim sycophants
make while suckling on Caesar's many simple certainties.
When will we all wise up – behind every angel, a fiasco?
The Torquemadas play with our panic
and we pay for their power over us, yes;
they just want to stifle us to save us:
how easy to varnish violence with valor and virtue,
how attractive to tarnish the truth.
No one will sing you a hymn for holding your head high,
they promise you and go to great pains to prove it,
your head is better off high on hatred, hurting and hissing and hunting,
a hub of humorlessness.
Fertile soil for fearful souls.
If you suffer a Stoic's silence, you'll sink still.
But if lies storm like a swarm of locusts,
and if greed greets you garnished with a Goya grin,
and if you prefer night and analysis to your neighbors,
still how can they stop you from sculpting a smile with shivelights?
I will not see the reign of wrath
rusting like neglected railways, no,
never, so why rage so?
Do I then rush restfully towards rust,
my rashness abandoned for spurious riches?
Trust truth when they intoxicate it with treachery.
no one will sing you a hymn for holding your head high.
(From Trish Tommaso’s Cassandra’s carnet de voyage,
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1984, pp. 44-45)
As tyranny trickles down from Trump Tower to the sidewalks to take what’s left of our citizens’ tatters; as togaed and turreted fascists infest our courtrooms and classrooms and chatrooms and newsrooms and living rooms thanks to television; as sincerity sours and spitefulness soars, more than ever it is paramount that writers and artists make a stand, heal, guide, and instruct. More than ever we must turn to their wisdom and perspicacity to diagnose docility, build antibodies and isolate insanity in order to analyze it, understand it, give the mind the muscles to maul it. “We are all being plastered with wall-to-wall news about our post-truth world, the normalization of the unthinkable, white supremacists, other extremists, and the general fear that our country is to be transformed into something unrecognizable,” wrote Scott Esposito. Like him, I have turned to our men and women of letters for hope against the harbingers of Hades, for a haven from hocus-pocus, for a home and a hearth from a Hitlerian America, for a haruspex who will show me good omens from an owl’s entrails, for a howl that will wake me up from this harrowing nightmare, or at least for a soothing uchronia where Hilary rules as POTUS.
In times of distress, literature has always come in our aid, especially when life runs the risk of being short-changed, cheapened, diminished, a palpable risk under the current administration’s dark designs. “Our nation is in chaos—our president appears to be so without an inner life that he acts cruelly, recklessly, and carelessly, without common civility,” my colleague from Lit Hub Marie Howe has observed. Could we expect less from a man who takes pride in not reading? “Looking to both living and dead poets for words of inspiration and guidance,” Edwige Danticat wrote in The New Yorker, “is now part of my living ‘in the along,’ for however many years this particular ‘night’ lasts.” I could have uttered these words myself; however, if I didn’t, I have been living by them since November’s vileness has enveloped us all in its violence and virulence.
Few poets help me persevere better than Trish Tommaso, one of our nation’s wisest and most esteemed women poets. When I think of her, the words Jared Marcel Pollen has recently written fly to my mind, namely that "writing is, after all, one of the few professions in which one is not only expected to express their political opinion, but is often commissioned to do so, in a way that isn’t required of a programmer, accountant, customer service representative or virtually any other job." For the past 60 years, Tommaso has had no qualms about using “artivism” to speak truth to power.
She has recently received me at her home in the small town of Browne, California, our abode, a blue town in a blue state, where I can breathe safely and smile at passers-by, certain that I’m not smiling at sociopaths and white supremacists. Even so, my short walk from my apartment shows me the frailty of this fiction. A black man walks in my direction, and I cross the road to the other side so that I won’t terrify him with my whiteness. I’m hip to my despicable condition as a white man: I’ve read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Ibram X. Kendi’s eye-opening Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. I’m a racist, and I know that I can never quell my inherent racism, because I’m white, but even so I strive to put myself on black people’s shoes – this one wore Nike tennis shoes, as if that made up for my ancestors’ role in transatlantic slavery – knowing full well that, as a white man, I am totally incapable of perceiving the world from a non-white perspective. Nevertheless, I look over my shoulder and see him going about his way, safe from me. I’ve made his life better, I allow myself to think.
Mrs. Tommaso greets me at the door. As soon as I move from the porch into the living room, my eyes perch on her legendary collection of aborted fetuses. She keeps it on display on a long shelf along the wall. She got them all from illegal abortions she had in the 1960s to take a political stand regarding women’s status as second-class citizens. Ecstatic, I ask her to point me out the one belonging to Amiri Baraka. “That one, the fourth counting from the left,” she says with a grin. I stare at it, undistinguishable from the other fetuses, a bold portrait of a post-racial society, which seems more untenable than ever. “It was my third fetus,” Mrs. Tommaso explains; “ LeRoi – I always kept the habit of calling him LeRoi – was very understanding; he got the point; we were both young, idealistic, and we wanted to stick it to the man, you know? It was trickier getting Al [Allen Ginsberg, the famous Beat poet] in the sack. That was trickier.”
She keeps them all at home now, having stopped granting permission a long time ago to performance artists to use these fetus jars in their challenging and provocative happenings. Up until the early 2000s there could be as many as five of them flying all around the world at any given time. That came to a sudden halt in 2002 when the David Gilbert fetus got damaged while in transit to Kassel, Germany, as part of Documenta 11. “I never quite got over that; it was sort of my favorite,” Mrs. Tommaso sighs with the beaming eyes of one reminiscing about the joyous 1960s when she flirted in more ways than one with the Weather Underground. The first miscarriages scared her, but after a while the coat hangers became as familiar a fixture on her life as a figure of speech on the page. “I had to be tough, you see? Other women were going through harsher stuff, and I wanted to share their pain beyond merely putting their experience into words. A friend of mine in the Black Panthers took me to Harlem to see this pimp who showed me how to do it. One of his hookers, who already had some experience, even gave me a few helpful tips. It was piece of cake, really. When people accost me at conferences and tell me how gutsy I was, I tell them they’re exaggerating.”
Our conversation continues in her cozy, homely kitchen; while she pours me some chamomile tea, we discuss Trump, the rise of populism, democracy, her poetry, her teaching, political activism, and why we need to rebuild the West from the ashes of white people.
Long before she became famous as a Maecenas and muse for generously loaning bits of herself to prop up radical performance artists, she had already carved a name for herself thanks to her daring, aggressive poetry. Her first poetry book, the 1964 American Bastille, already embodied in the title a vision of America from which she has never swerved.
Still her most popular book, it contains several poems that have become feminist classics, including her demythologizing dialogue with Walt Whitman in her rewriting of “I Sing the Body Electric.” Whitman’s dreamy, dubious vision of a democratic America, coming from a voice of white privilege, could not have found a more critical exegete. Her own poem, a remarkable piece of confessional poetry in which we can see shades of Anne Sexton, a hymn to her own dildo, was a searing indictment of how the Patriarchy regulated the female body and libido, marriage and sexual mores. Although fairly long, the much-reprinted first stanzas still retain their original shocking power and show why she quickly became a force to be reckoned with:
“I Sing the Buddy Electric”
I sing the buddy electric;
The armies of those I hate engulf me, and I engulf them;
They will not get me off, I won’t cum with them, since I don’t respond to them,
The corrupt fucks, so I recharge it full, recharge it and impale myself down to the “Soul”.
Was it doubted that I’d conceal my body from those corrupt males themselves;
And if those who defile the women are as bad as they who make files of left-wing revolutionaries?
And if the buddy does better because it exists unlike the Soul?
And if the buddy is better than a Soul, why even a Soul?
As our conversations veers towards the creation of this famous poem, she repeats words that I recall from her epoch-defining memoir of the sixties, Parting With Penises. “I was angry at the time, and with good reason; women were second-class citizens; we didn’t have a voice. We were judged by male standards; we had to meet their expectations. I had been publishing poems in college student magazines, especially in nascent feminist magazines; but when I tried to publish them in book form, all doors shut, the patriarchal book industry was not interested. After countless rejection letters I sat down and just wrote this rambling poem, all my rage ran into it. It still didn’t get me published, but I scrounged enough money from tips – I was working as a waitress at the time, although a friend had promised me to get me a job as a book reviewer – and self-published it. It was an amazing, unexpected hit.” And the rest, as they say, is herstory. Of course by then her distrust of men was fully formed; refusing to be controlled by men, she rejected marriage and raising kids, to be her free self. Even now she can’t understand how other women can like men. “Men are filthy creatures; the way they shake their willies after they urinate, splashing droplets of urine all over themselves, and their clothes. After a lifetime it soaks into them, their skin becomes clogged with piss. I remember this time, back in my wayward days as a Patriarchy-fawning zombette. I was dating this guy in college, right; and we were in bed, and he was naked and got up to go take a leak. When he came back, I could just feel his naked hairy legs smeared with urine drops. And he got back under the sheets and started rubbing his soiled legs against mine. That traumatized me for life! That’s when I started waking up to the anti-septic solitude of the dildo. I guess I get why third-wave feminists are so sympathetic to Islam, it’s a question of purity: Muslims hate pigs because they’re filthy; feminists hate men because they’re filthy. They converge on lots of issues.”
In 2007 Mrs. Tommaso donated the dildo which inspired the poem to Cornell College. It now occupies a place on a mantelpiece whereon a marble head of John Milton used to gather lint.
Such acts of generosity remind us that Trish Tommaso has long enjoyed a happy relationship with higher education institutions. Since 1970 she’s been a teacher at UC Berkeley, giving courses on female authors, queer literature, Western History, and her own very popular course called Inqueering Heterosexualiterati, wherein she interprets the works of heteronormative male authors as if they were queer, opening the books up to richer interpretations and possibilities than if they were analyzed just from the poor perspective of parochial gender role stratification.
A sharp observer of the campus scene, she loves it, she says, “because that’s where change is.” Unlike other people on the Left, she’s not disconcerted by what several people, including some weak-willed liberals, see as dangerous trends amongst students who require safe spaces, enforce political correctness, spy on their own classmates for socially noble reasons, perform surgical acts of anti-Semitism for the purpose of social justice, which includes supporting murder, physically correct people with the wrong opinions, and defend the end of freedom of speech, a well-meaning but troublesome right that so far has only served to solidify a white, westernized, hegemonic soliloquy on society, history, race and everything else. Tommaso believes that many of the concerns over college life’s politicization have been exaggerated or forged. “What would a Trump supporter even be doing enrolled in college?” she asks with a wink.
She finds this truculent behavior natural and necessary in our fight against despotism and the Long Night of Fascism under which we’re all shivering at the moment. “How can you mock or hate people with ‘social justice’ in their moniker?” she asks, aghast. In fact, the promising change of mind in students regarding freedom of speech has come as no surprise to her; always ahead of the curve, she remarks that Herbert Marcuse had preached exactly that in his seminal essay “Repressive Tolerance”, an essay that she expanded and redefined in her 1983 book, A Tomb for Tolerance. Since then she has put it in her many courses’ syllabi, impacting the lives of hundreds of students. “Not that I want to claim any role in the major changes going through the Left,” she says with her usual humility. “The truth is, people from my generation got it wrong: we thought we could debate, argue, explain, respect the enemy’s points of view. I think we’re all seeing the error of our ways now,” she adds with even more humility. “We must listen to our young, that’s where wisdom and energy and passion is. If they all insist that freedom of speech is problematic, I guess they’re right, and we should give them a platform to speak out, and ponder about it. It’s time we get rid of old-fashioned notions on education; kids do not go to college to learn, they go there to educate us, me included,” she explains, ever so humble.
Her having filled her courses’ syllabi with her own books betrays less a sign of vanity than a vow to protect her students from engaging with hateful books. “With me, you know what you get – the right ideas; but you move astray into the wider world of American literature and literary theory, it’s just racists, bigots, misogynists, cisgendered worldviews, and dead white males. It’s like staring at Moby Dick’s back all day long. I’m not sure that’s the kind of education we should be giving to our young.”
As far as she’s concerned, America hasn’t changed that much since the days of the civil rights movement; it remains a deeply stratified society. In order to illustrate that is the crusade against reported hate crimes by Trump supporters that turn out to be hoaxes. “When fiction writers use fiction to give voice to the dispossessed, they’re praised. When the dispossessed decide to find their own voices and empower themselves, they’re crushed,” she observes. “Oddly, you don’t see writers complaining about this, not a peep from them. That just goes to show you that we still live in a highly stratified society, writers at the top, the poor at the bottom. Writers, for the most part, want to maintain their little fiefdoms as mediums between the truth and the people, like the shamans of primitive societies. Sure, these reports are ‘false,’ if you cling to your precious outdated Aristotelian/Euclidian logical thinking to assess levels of truthiness and falsehood. I prefer to see these reports as spontaneous acts of speculative creativity: they didn’t happen, but could have, and that’s really the same. If Joyce Carol Oates wrote a dystopian novel about Trump’s fascist America, she’d get the Nobel Prize. If Djinn Doe files a dystopian police report, she gets arrested. Hey, but let’s keep believing we’re past double standards and racial profiling! Nope, we’re all equal and colorblind, democracy is flourishing, there’s nothing to worry about, folks, just move along.”
A white woman who has made the daring decision to serve beyond her tribe, Mrs. Tommaso once thought about suing nature for making her white, but no lawyer took up her cause. Instead, less ambitious, she exposes her students to the horrors of the Western World. This unease with her own society was already visible in her first poetry book, as we can see in “Walt White man,” a poem that sadly she decided not to include in her recent volume of collected poetry: A Womb awash With Whiskey: Poems 1959-2009. “I guess I found more sophisticated ways of spreading my message,” she says to justify her decision to keep that poem out. This except, however, should give the reader an inkling of what she’s missing:
“you’re walter than me
whiter than me
manner than me
and that’s why i despise you
leaves of grass
that make me dream
of worlds without
dead white males
hovering over me”
“Personally, I find history a complicated nuisance,” she says in order to outline the challenges of teaching Western History without any actual formal training in it. “That’s why I object to it. Look, take this example: on the one hand it’s true that all the world’s evils were created by white Greeks and their abhorrent ideas. You ever notice how Aristotle and aristocracy even sound similar? Let’s see Harold Bloom doing a close reading of that! On the other hand it’s even truer that the Greeks stole all their ‘wisdom’ and ‘ideas’ from Africa. Now, that’s thorny, because if the world is the mess it is because of ancient Greece’s ideas, then that’s Africa’s fault really. And, well, you know, that’s a fucking racist thing to say! So we have to weigh in the costs of both truths, and see which one poses the bigger loss. Personally I prefer the truth according to which the ancient Greeks are to blame for everything, from Patriarchy down to Palestine. Sure, I’d love to add massive cultural theft to those fuckers’ rap sheet, but part – a very small part, mind you – of being an adult is accepting that you can’t have everything. I’ll settle with just having a Marxist utopia.”
Although sad that she must choose between two enjoyable truths, she points out that the problem here is that people continue to be coerced into thinking “logically” along the lines the Greeks rigged a long time ago. “A is A, said Aristotle, so A can’t be A and B at the same time; now that’s a bit unfair and unlimited; no wonder Ayn Rand espoused the same nonsense.” Nevertheless, Mrs. Tommaso believes that this new generation of youngsters may finally have the strength and resolve to do away with restrictive Aristotelian “thinking” and impose a new paradigm so that several truths can be compatible without worrying about “facts”. “That’ll usher in real tolerance, it’s what I call ‘rational diversism,’ a theory that holds that different, opposing facts can coexist. Because if they can’t, next people will say that the Swedes can’t live with Muslims, and the Germans can’t live with Muslims, and the Dutch can’t live with Muslims, and that’s dangerous. As rational diversism proves, you can, so long as you ignore the bits that seem contradictory because of your Aristotelian indoctrination.”
She is, of course, alluding to disquieting reports, usually disseminated by conservative fake news producers like Breitbart and Front Page Magazine, regarding alleged problems involving refugees in Europe. As America toughens its measures to keep refugees and migrants out, many have looked to Europeans for signs of sanity that will shame us into becoming Good Samaritans too. However, even some on the Left have begun to falter, like Sam Harris and Dave Rubin, as data comes in that paints a very, very distorted portrait of a few hiccups in a complex process of multicultural integration. She brings up a few of these risible excuses that populist demagogues like Geert Wilders and Marie Le Pen, in their desperation, have used to justify their hatred of refugees, risible things like no-go zones in Sweden because of Muslim immigration, a Muslim migrant who raped a child as a “sexual emergency” and then had his sentence overturned, not to mention several other sex crimes, Sharia courts in the UK that hide domestic violence and allegedly depower women, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, Sweden having to burden its citizens with new taxes to pay for massive immigration, with Germany projected to spend up to 93 billion euros until 2020 to fund its immigration policies, and other trifles that the socially-responsible media has had the good taste of keeping out of our TV screens.
“Personally, I don’t see why all the fuss,” Tommaso says. She’s not one to be discouraged by depressing “facts”. If the “facts” aren’t “right”, she’ll just teach a class of students to dismiss them in their pursuit of a better world. As such, she prefers to focus on positive stuff. Although she’s of course sad about children being allegedly raped by refugees, she points out that the light sentences the culprits receive show a positive change of mind. “For too long children have benefited unfairly from age privilege; we must send the message that being a child, being defenseless, being vulnerable, does not make you special, does not entitle you to special treatment. That kind of hierarchical thinking is what got Nazis into power! Europe seems to be headed in the right direction, I guess.” She pauses to nibble at a homemade clove-scented biscuit. “Besides, what the fuck do Westerners know of sexual emergencies? Try putting yourself in a poor Iranian’s sandals: coming from a place where porn is hard to come by. It’s not just going online and googling it. What would you do in the poor man’s place? Western critics, instead of whining, would do better to check their easy-access-to-porn privilege!”
In spite of the dangerous populists gaining ground, she has mostly nice things to say about European politicians. The feminist Henriette Reker, mayor of Cologne, the German town where several women were sexually assaulted by Muslim migrants, advised the victims to learn to keep a distance of an “arm’s length” from Muslims. Tommaso believes that that will lead to female self-determination and empowerment. “And, well, let’s be honest, of course it was horrible what happened to these women; but, damn it, they do live in a predominantly white country, surrounded by white males all their lives; sooner or later they’d get raped anyway,” she laments.
She admires Sweden even more, and she doesn’t see a problem with the country bankrupting itself for the sake of the underprivileged. “Let’s call that reparations for all the harm whites have done to the non-white world.” When she hears that massive Muslim immigration may change a nation’s culture, she chuckles. “Look, suppose Muslims do overwhelm Sweden and impose the jizya tribute, the tribute non-Muslims must pay to live in a Muslin nation. Would the average Swede even notice it? 70% of his salary already goes into taxes; what difference would one more tax do?” she asks with her usual critical acuity.
She also has a soft spot for former Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who a few years ago told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper: “Only barbarism is genuinely Swedish. All further development has come from abroad.” Tommaso believes that this our-culture-comes-last-fuck-our-culture-doesn’t-even-come-at-all mindset is healthy and must be firmly affirmed as the image of “America first” slogans defacing the walls of red states becomes all too familiar. “That guy, Reinfeldt, even though he’s a guy, is an example for everyone; can you imagine a white supremacist like Trump saying that?” Mrs. Tommaso asks rhetorically. “I’m glad the European have realized that in order to save Europe they need to abandon European culture.” She longs for the day every Westerner accepts that only barbarism is genuinely Western. Then true change will come, perhaps.
“The word Occident, by the way, stems from the Latin verb occidō, which means to kill. Look it up. So this little occidental corner of the world in which we enjoy our blood-soaked civil liberties and unearned privileges at the expense of minorities is imbued with a subliminal commandment for murder and wickedness. The old Romans were all a bunch of racist, sexist, imperialist white males, but we have to be fair where fair is due: they knew how to call a spade a spade,” she praises them with her usual tolerance for her opponent’s ideas. “No pussy-footing with euphemisms like modern-day racists, sexists and imperialists. The Romans didn’t mince words. Look, I’m an ol’ ‘60s, I-got-your-number, I-say-it-as-I-see-it kind of gal, you know, so I can dig that attitude. Even if I’d like to rip Virgil’s balls off and feed them to him.”
Mrs. Tommaso, it goes without saying, doesn’t endorse our illegally-elected president. “I don’t like Trump’s whittitude,” she says with concision. She’s always happy for any resistance against his evil plans. Once again, hyper-progressive Sweden is a ray of sun in our gloomily totalitarian atmosphere. She applauds the Swedish government for taking a stand against Trump’s sexism. And she sees nothing hypocritical about the so-called “walk of shame” episode; rather, she once again applauds those heroic Swedish women who have the courage to open their minds to the nuances of foreign cultures. “Perhaps we should worry about our own problems instead of judging others because of cultural differences.” This incident also makes her regret the outspokenness of certain so-called Iranian feminists, their minds distorted by Western notions, who want to impose Western “values” on Iran. For her that smacks of neo-imperialism. “These critics are just a tedious repetition of that debacle involving Foucault and Iranian feminists in the wake of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It’s sad to see that 30 years later being a feminist in Iran continues to mean being a sleazy Orientalist judging Iran’s ‘flaws’ from a Western perspective. Just grow up a bit.”
Although 78-years old, Mrs. Tommaso shows no signs of slowing down. “Injustice hasn’t slowed down, so how can I?” Instead the current climate has reinvigorated her. She’s been very busy, both in America and the UK. During Brexit she visited London, lending support to Muslim women who wanted the UK to adopt the sharia. “I stand with my Salafist sisters against Shariaphobia,” she sang to The Guardian. As she’s quick to explain, there’s nothing incompatible with being a feminist and defending Islamic law. “The sharia used to be socially progressive back when Europe was a mud hole; I’m certain it can become an example for all of us again today, so long as we help Muslims release their stored up creative energies of progress in order to once more illuminate us out of our darkness into justice and humanness.” A while ago she caused a fracas when she criticized economist Claudia Goldin for reporting that the gender wage gap may not be all that true after all. “That’s fucking offensive,” was how she reacted over Twitter. Last February she posted on her Facebook page poems dedicated to some of the brave women who took part in the Women’s March on Washington, like Donna Hylton, punished with decades of imprisonment for refusing to play the passive role the Patriarchy imposes on women, the Palestinian rights activist Rasmea Yousef Odeh, and Linda Sarsour, famous for courageously calling out Israel on its terrorism. “It’s a great time to be inspired by powerful women,” Mrs. Tommaso says as I resist an urge to do jazz hands.
In Browne she’s well known for her activism. After Trump’s victory she coordinated, with local political support, a campaign called “Tramps against Trump.” Basically, she furnished homeless people with cardboards containing verses by her attacking Trump’s politics, in order to raise awareness. These homeless people had been dehumanized by the capitalist system; so she humanized them back by turning them into poem-bearers, fusing man and social art. The mayor was quick to help with public funding. The town sees this as a way of making the dispossessed do their part against a brutal system, and thereby earn their free meals. The homeless community was also receptive, since refusal to participate in the war against the man who wants to take away their social aid would have entailed having their names scraped from the lists of the many social programs aimed at helping Browne’s downtrodden.
However, lately the internet has been abuzz with her due to her monumental new poem, a book-long poem with a deceptively simple title: The List. If you’re concerned with social justice, chances are you’ve read it or at least read one of the countless articles gushing over it at Lit Hub. It’s essentially a litany of modern-day fascists. She’s happy to discuss the creative process with me. Like William Carlos Williams’ famous note left on a kitchen table, it began life as something other than a poem, although she’s quick to dismiss influences from this male poet. This list of fascists originally included their home addresses and contact numbers, and it repeated mantra-like injunctions to a mysterious “you” to go and use said private information for “a common good,” leaving what that may be open to interpretation, as her usually ambiguous and challenging poems tend to do. Respect for the reader’s intelligence is something she’s always valued.
Alas, her editor balked at this version and forced her to expurgate the poem of anything that could look like “hate speech”, although she still shows the unexpurgated version to people in person, offering Xerox copies for free since she’s never written for money. When asked how she came across private information, she just smiles coyly – “a smile as if the devil had painted it”, to quote Norman Mailer after their infamous debate in 1977 where she demolished this woman-hater – and asks me if I’d like more tea.
The unexpurgated version also includes, in the cases of the dead, the cemeteries where they’re buried.
This concentration of evil names has led more than one book reviewer to draw comparisons with Dante’s Inferno, although she’s quick to reject the comparison. “He was a Catholic male fanatic, after all.”
Where did the poem’s idea come from? According to her, for some reason she found herself reading a history book, something she seldom does, incidentally, in order not to be poisoned by the authors’ sinister agendas. Nevertheless, she felt an urge to understand our times and before she knew it she was reading about the Inquisition. Not that she thinks history books can teach us anything, since History is just a construct designed by elites to dominate the wretched and minorities. Still, read the book she did, and if it offered her no insight at all into our era of paranoia, persecution, and contempt for opposing views, at least she learned about an old index of forbidden books that included the addresses of dangerous booksellers who sold heretical books throughout Europe. Although Mrs. Tommaso has made contradictory statements about exactly which of the many indexes she was referring to (since history is just fantasy, why be concrete with “facts”?), some scholars have identified it as the 1559 Pauline Index, named after the über-reactionary Pope Paul IV who had the Sistine Chapel’s nudes covered. Something clicked inside Mrs. Tommaso, and one night, insomniac, she picked up a pen (she still writes in longhand before typing; she claims that the pen’s phallic shape gives her the impression of taking charge over and devitalizing our phallocentric world) and began to compulsively make a list of names. At first it did not look like a poem at all, but as the names kept pilling up she began sensing rhythm and cadence guiding her wrist. “It was haunting, the poem wanted to write itself!” Once the list was finished she just acquired the private info and put it in the respective place.
Looking back, she now believes that The List had been brewing in her unconscious for months now. “I think the poem was really born in November 2016 when I wrote a piece for The Nation.” She’s referring to an article trying to explain the rise of the alt-right movement, define it and offer instructions on how to fight it. The alt-right, in her view, is an intolerant group of pretty diverse (pardon the pun) people, and its members come from the whole political spectrum, including even deluded “leftists” who empower the Right by giving the appearance of fissures and internal disharmony inside the Left’s progressive march. Quite ecumenical, The List includes names such as: Ben Shapiro, Mark Steyn, Bruce Bawer, Masih Alinejad, Douglas Murray, Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, Bat Ye’or, Pamela Geller, Anne Coulter, Ben Carson, Dinesh D’Souza, Claire Fox, Ibn Warraq, Pete Townsend, Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes, Nigel Farrage, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Donald Trump, David Horowitz, Clint Eastwood, Richard Spencer, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchannan, Jordan Peterson, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Jonathan Haidt, Roger Scruton, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Breitbart, Lauren Southern, Scott Greer, Gavin McInnes, Theodore Dalrymple, Emmett Scott, Darío Fernández-Morera, Jonah Goldberg, Alex Berezow, Hank Campbell, and Dave Rubin. Many of these names, unsurprisingly, had already showed up in The Nation’s article. Called “The Rise of the Trumpa-Lumpas,” it descried (and decried) these men and women as
the princes and princesses of pessimism, the priests and priestesses of penis power, the pupils of poisonous pranks, the pustules of prejudice, the pimps of profiteering, the producers of pariahs, the proctors who pattern our poor after puppets and Prussian peasantry and pyramid-builders, the potentates of patriarchy, the pirates of possibility, the purveyors of pabulum, the plenipotentiaries of populist politics, the protectors of pain, the pillars of privilege, the pillagers of progressiveness, the pundits of the panic-press, the procurers of political incorrectness, the party-poopers of paradise, the pall-bearers of that putrid, pallid, pasty-skinned past that must be pulverized into particles!
Inevitably, the recent Milo Yiannopoulos affair comes up. Like so many of us, she’s elated that Simon & Schuster has decided not to give a platform to his hateful, bigoted views. “There are so many books out there with the right views on how to organize society, why waste resources on evil?” she asks, channeling her inner Marcuse. She joined the throng of people happy to see Milo self-destruct over comments condoning pedophilia, which proved to be even too much for the conservatives’ already extreme brand of lunacy. She couldn’t help tweeting her joy:
Mrs. Tommaso, however, is quick to clarify that she doesn’t condemn pedophilia per se, which is after all a socio-patriarchal construct like any other, and she gives me a list of brave women who have deconstructed our assumptions about intergenerational love: Germaine Greer in The Beautiful Boy, Alison Rapp, Pat Califia, the Salon’s female editor who gave a platform to Todd Nickerson, and the trail-blazing Simone de Beauvoir. “Pedophilia can be a caring form of love. The real problem is when pedophilia is endorsed by the Right; that’s always tawdry, seedy, dirty, filthy, slimy, icky, sick, venal, repugnant, exploitative,” she explains in a torrent of adjectival cogency.
As the biscuits and chamomile tea end, I take my leave of Mrs. Tommaso, but not before she signs my unexpurgated copy of The List. Riveted, I walk down the street, night already. A young woman comes in my direction. I cross the road to the other side so that I won’t frighten her with my maleness. Suppose she thought that I was a sexual predator, tased me, killed the taser’s battery, and then a real sexual predator attacked her, I too unconscious to protect her. I could never live with the guilt. (Of course I am a white male, so I walk on the very, very thin line between potential and real rapist anyway.) I look over my shoulder and see her going about her way, safe from me. I’ve made her life better, I allow myself to think.
In bed, I read Mrs. Tommaso’s words for me. Far from just scribbling away a quick autograph, she had sat down and written me a dedication. It reads: “Dear Miguel, a good friend of mine, Billy Ayers, once wrote: ‘Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's really at.’ Let’s not make the mistake of continuing to interpret these words figuratively.” Inspired by the transformative power of poetry, I vow not to.
Miguel Rosa is a translator, literary critic, novelist, and short-story writer. He’s a regular contributor at several SJW-friendly, safe-spacey echo-chambers. His most recent non-fiction book is The Multi-Culti Cult: the history of the one true religion that will truly save the world. He’s also the editor of A Kyrie for Kinshasa: an Anthology of Contemporary Congolese short-stories, collecting work by over twenty Congolese women writers who totally deserve to win the Nobel Prize for Literature right now, even though they haven’t written anything yet. (The release date is to be announced as soon as the short-stories pour into Miguel’s e-mail account and mail box.) Make sure you follow Miguel over at Twitter as he reports on literary stuff while pledging never to tweet about white heterosexual male writers, regardless of their Nabokovian talent, in order not to trigger anybody.