Red Cross on White — A Poem for St. George’s Day

Red Cross on White

[A Poem for St. George’s Day]

The flag is nothing but a bloody gash on a white background,

stabbed guts oozing through a white nightgown.

Life is nothing more than a ride on a fairground misery-go-round.

The wheel of fortune round and round it goes.

The flag is Christ crucified anachronistically in snowy climes;

the blinding bright white light of might and right hiding behind the blood

of crusades and dragons slain and forests felled in olden times.

The stained relic of a shroud. Santa Claus coming

down the chimney to groom your children with gifts.

The red hot iron of a sword rising up from the white heat of a forge;

the rust of defunct factory machinery overrun by frost;

blood spattered by a slaver’s whip on sugar or salt;

lipstick on the pale lips of a corpse

splayed out in the powder of a burst bag of coke after a police raid

or a hit. Painted sunset seen through knife wound and smog.

The red mark of the forbidden and wrong.

The cross roads littered with the ghost limbs of accident victims.

Martyrs fall and rise and fall.

X always marks the spot.

It is an unknown, red, hot, angry, flagging

unknown, waiting to explode:

blood-borne virus on the pristine white coat of an ambulance driver.

 

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17 Section 6

[Here is section 6 of 17. Yet again I must warn readers that it contains extreme violence flippantly depicted and some strong language.]

“Better get out there and see about that,” She shouts

out at Hen pottering around the greenhouse,

hearing the battering on the front door. “Mum,

answer that!” Deb shouts down from her TV-filled room.

Hen pretends to be deaf. That old trick. Smoke streams up

from a house across the road. She sits up on the sunbed

and shouts louder. “Better do something about that.”

Hen grumpily unfurls his gardening gloves and marches

to the telephone without uttering a word.

*

The bullets hit him through the glass paned front door

before he can get his fingers into 999. “Fuck

that blinking glass door She wanted,” is the last thing he thinks.

She comes running angrily squawking.

A stray shot takes her larynx out

and she sinks to the floor over dead hubby,

speechless, gurgling, choking,

the purring telephone receiver bleeding out

faint increasingly irritated unanswered questions.

The couple lie together in rigor,

grimaces etched on their lips,

like a macabre Romeo

& Juliet, Anthony & Cleopatra,

like effigies of king & queen slumped artlessly

atop an Arundel tomb by an unsympathetic court sculptor.

*

The kids are curled up watching the soap on TV.

Roz has run off into the outback

and heart-throb Lando is off after her on his motorbike.

Dark aboriginal prophecies are inscribed in trees.

The boring bit. And the redneck couple get hitched on a sheep farm

and Roz hustles a bus-full of cross-dressers and clowns to help her win her man,

to a back drop of Ayer’s Rock. Girls go missing in the crevices. Next week’s plot.

*

A tap on the frosted glass front door. Shots. Deb rushes downstairs.

A bullet thrashes through glass and skull. Mike

muscles his way through the empty door frame

over mum&dad’s intertwined dead bodies into the home,

and puts a final flurry of grapeshot into the images of virtual neighbors still on TV.

The curtains tangled up in the cathode ray tube flare up in flame.

 

What is Going on in Brazil [2]

[I feel obliged to repost this piece that I wrote three years ago. Apart from a few inaccurate prognostications, it is still very relevant–perhaps more so–today]

Living as a ‘guest’ in Brazil—although I dispute the use of that metaphor for someone who has been a legal resident of the country for nearly 20 years—I am often cautious of commenting on local politics. Likewise, as both a long-standing sympathizer and detached critic of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (henceforth PT), I find my loyalties severely divided by recent events. Yet, as a social scientist and student of politics in Brazil and around the world, I find myself duty-bound to comment on the recent crisis, which—storm in a teacup though it may be—nevertheless poses a potentially serious threat.

Political developments in Brazil need to be set in three distinct, but often overlapping and clashing, broader contexts. First there is the history of politics and class-conflict in Brazil and, more broadly, in Latin America as a whole, within which Brazil is both a fellow-traveler and a very distinct entity. Second, there is the world-wide historical shift towards a crisis of confidence in traditional politics and ideology, which has engendered apathy and extremism in differing measures in various parts of the globe. And third, there is the global economic context, in which unprecedented and largely unfettered interconnectivity precludes the possibility of local solutions, while glaring inequalities and unsustainability sow the festering seeds of crises and conflicts to come.

 

Brazil finds itself—not for the first time—caught in the middle of a global clash of opinions, and local politicians—yet again—are only too eager take advantage of this.

Latin America has always been at a huge geographical disadvantage compared to the rest of the world. Forbidding geographical barriers divide it from other continents and even from itself, making coast-to-coast economic or political unity a virtual impossibility and globalization a costly enterprise. This disadvantage was exacerbated by the history of European intervention and interference, beginning at a time when the continent’s own aboriginal civilizations were starting tentatively to develop their own kind of economic take-off. The European conquest devastated the continent through a combination of greed for gain, racism and slavery, and the unwitting or deliberate dissemination of infectious disease.

Easily dominated, Latin America proved much less easy to control or overrun. The gold, silver and sugar that the conquistadores and bandeirantes stole from temples and had slaves dig from the ground only served to fuel inflation in the motherlands and entrench a brutal feudal racist and increasingly fratricidal system in the far-flung colonies themselves.

Different from Europe, where feudal disputes between nobles, kings and popes gave rise to the emergence of a relatively prosperous, and hence vocal, middle- and later working-class, the Latin American haciendas and export-oriented coastal cities remained deeply divided by perverse notions of birthright, authority and race—as to a great extent they still are.

Post-independence, the new Latin American republics, for all their Jacobin-inspired and later positivistic fervor, collapsed under the weight of contradictions between their own classes in the context of an unpropitious international environment.

The nascent US treated Mexico and other nations to the same kind of gunboat diplomacy that the British Royal Navy had used so effectively around the globe. This was especially effective in Latin America, where everything depends upon a favorable balance of trade to a much greater extent than in any other part of the world.

Keen to turn round this dependency on exports and imports and consequent vulnerability to the vicissitudes of international markets—especially in the wake of the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s—Latin American governments in the 20th century embarked on a policy of import-substitution industrialization (ISI). This understandable, but ultimately misguided, strategy aimed to ‘catch up with’ the industrialized nations of Europe and North America by developing local manufacturing industries for a local market.

Import-substitution would prove to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it did provide a kick-start for modernization, albeit it one of a peculiarly skewed and inequitable kind. On the other, it created new class fissures, without resolving old ones, and led to urban overpopulation, rural depopulation, impoverishment and degradation, and ultimately hyperinflation, since domestic technological advances could not keep pace with foreign competitors without cancelling out its potential profits and accruing massive debts through the need to import the secondary technologies necessary for the industrial upgrade.

Brazilian governments, like those of other countries in Latin America, are always stuck between a rock and a hard place in this regard. They have to keep up appearances internationally, while driving down costs at home, All too often, this results in cruelty, poverty, inequality and disenfranchisement among the most vulnerable sectors of society and the perennial pursuit of a perverse and ultimately unsustainable mirage of a trickle-down developmental path that precariously benefits none but a tiny few.

Internally, Brazilian governments, of whatever ideological persuasion, have had to negotiate a patchwork of entrenched, often violently conflicting, interests. Local coronéis (with a range of quaintly outdated ideologies) vie for favor with landless peasants and powerful trade-unions that represent not the poorest of the poor, but the already highly privileged public workers of a bloated, out-dated, at once servile and militant, civil service. No government can succeed unless it somehow juggles all these demands.

The untranslatable jeitinho of corruption is often the only way to get any good done and things usually end first in apparent amity, compromise, amnesty and impunity (em pizza, as they say in Brazil), then badly, as cycles of relative success grind inevitably to a halt. The clunky wheels of state are stalled by the accumulation of dirt left by the very oils and unction intended to lubricate them.

The apparently miraculous break with this depressingly repetitious pattern in recent years in Brazil is now being seen by many as yet another, albeit somewhat more long-standing, cyclical economic mirage.

Brazil and its PT government enjoyed exceptional good luck and misfortune in equal measure in the early years of the 21st century. When the PT first came to power nationally in 2003, it was—Messianic acclamations from the likes of Anthony Giddens apart—a progressive left-wing government practically alone in a world in which almost everybody else was hurtling headlong towards the now universally vindicated and supposedly post-ideological and post-geopolitical (globalized) tenets of the neoliberal right.

Ironically this global scenario provided the fledgling leftist administration in Brazil with the very springboard it needed. Global growth—especially in China—enabled Brazil to return (and much more lucratively) to the export-based economy that had been the 19th century stock in trade, exporting, as luck would have it, huge quantities of food, biofuel, steel and (later) oil to the emerging Chinese juggernaut.

This windfall enabled Brazil to pay off its burdensome debts, invest to some extent in its own technology sector, and introduce some modest much needed social reforms and wealth distribution, although the latter were only achieved by way of creative and arguably corrupt negotiations with an overwhelmingly hostile national congress—a necessary, yet morally dubious, pact with the devil that haunts the PT to this day.

Back in 2003, I was reading a lot about the origins of parliamentary democracy in 17th century England. Faced with an intractably corrupt, hostile, and backward-looking royalist parliament, Oliver Cromwell marched his roundheads down to London and closed the whole thing down. The Lula government achieved consent for social reform merely with a few well-placed bribes. Something regrettable, but far from unusual in the politics of Brazil or any other country. Though this may reflect how venal and cynical democratically-elected representatives have become, I know which I prefer… A little bit of corruption to oil the wheels and do good; not a military coup.

In the years following 2003, Lady Luck continued to smile on the PT and sun Brazil with her largesse. The Great Recession of 2007-2009 left Brazil virtually unscathed and new oil-extraction technologies, combined with rocketing prices for this and other commodities and a growing social-reform-driven internal consumer market appeared, by the time Lula left office, in 2010, to have brought Brazil within reach of its age-old aspiration and seeming titled right to join the ranks of the first world.

Many serious issues, however, remained unresolved. And luck, as it tends to, is fast running out. Social reform and wealth redistribution in Brazil, despite significant achievements, remained modest and piecemeal. While shopping and credit and real-estate speculation have thrived, buoyed by a sturdy export market for soya and steel, services in sectors such as health, transport and education—although much improved in recent years—have still fallen far short of the high standards that have become the perhaps illusory norm in supposedly more developed parts of the world.

Such shortcomings clashed sharply with the pomp of pricey white-elephant building projects connected with upcoming international sporting events and sparked widespread protests and demonstrations across the country in June 2013. This wave of dissent was led principally by the young, the wired and the far left, and was largely confined to the middle class. It was met with a painfully familiar combination of government indifference and police brutality, which came down especially harshly on the few working-class and student protesters, who were campaigning primarily for nothing more than more affordable public transport. All of this was orchestrated by a new president who had herself once been tortured and raped by a military regime.

By the time of the presidential and congressional elections of October 2014, this popular opposition movement had been fully co-opted by the right and the media barons that are its faithful thralls, resulting in an unusually bitter election campaign. Friendships were broken by the constant to and fro of increasingly polarized posts on social media.

The PT and its fair-weather coalition partners won the 2014 election by a whisker. But, unusually for modern Brazil, the opposition rejected this outcome and roused the discontent of the June days of 2013 to call for impeachment and raise, fifty years after Brazil descended into the moral quagmire of a dictatorial regime, the specter of a military coup.

The ground was muddied by a legacy of unwholesome alliances, which Dilma found herself unable to manage with the likeable panache that was Lula’s forte, and by the increasingly obfuscating glare of social media.

The outlook is not rosy. The fall in oil prices, the slowdown in China, and the inevitable levelling off of economic growth, not just in the south, but in all parts of Brazil, do not augur well for short-term prosperity or long-term stability in Brazil.

Had the legitimate concerns raised by all sectors of society in June 2013 been heeded and swiftly and robustly addressed by the central government, this situation, whereby popular protest has given way to right-wing slogans, personal attacks and the veiled threat of outright sedition, might have been averted.

The reason it was not surely has to do with the fact that, even after 12 years of government, the PT was still beholden to pseudo-centrist, backward-looking, essentially extremely right-wing coalition partners, whom its politicians were increasingly coming to resemble in all but name.

It is precisely these self-interested, right-wing, fair-weather backers of democracy that threaten  to bring it down, drawing opportunistically on a justifiably indignant and fearful popular imagination.

And, given the dirty deals the PT has done in the past decade to spur, stagger, or stall social development, these reactionary forces are in an ideal position to smugly and self-righteously blackmail, smear, and bludgeon their one-time partners into submission.

The Brazilian PT—once the great hope of the world—has nurtured a nest of vipers in its bosom. Let us hope that the venom is not as potent as opponents pretend and that stings will backfire. And that the PT will wake up finally to its duty and one-time promise to provide genuine political and socio-economic reform for this proud and great, yet perennially self-destructive, nation that is Brazil.

April

{This is a sort of Haiku love poem, not written in my own voice.]

It all began as a joke

coming out of a deep cruel winter depression

of snowy winds:

flowers, dinners

lingering frost;

the slow resurrection of seeds from the ground.

Ovid I.ix

[This translation is of a poem by Ovid, but nevertheless forms part of my series of Propertius translations on the subject of conjugal discord in a time of war. Although the bulk of my Propertius translations were written around the time of the 2003 Iraq war, this one was written much later and reflects a different age.]

I’m telling you, my friend, love is a battleground

and we the soldiers on it.

If you’re too past it to be drafted,

you’re too past it to get your leg over too.

Nothing’s sadder than a dirty old man on parade.

And the sort of stuff that sergeant majors are looking for in a new recruit

is the same sort of stamina chicks go for in a bloke.

Both stay up half the night, sleep rough;

one guards his girl’s front door, one his commander’s tent.

Squaddies yomp stoically across a harsh terrain,

but a lover-boy with a sweetheart off the leash

will chase her till he drops.

He’ll scale the scree of craggy peaks; wade through flash floods;

walk knee-deep through a slushy swamp in dead of frosty night;

set sail in haste on storm-blown seas—

no life-jacket, no GPS. Who gives a fuck!

Agents are sent to spy on shifty enemies in foreign lands;

lovers at home forever on the lookout for potential rivals.

Armies pound rebel-held cities with heavy artillery fire;

brutes sickened by love batter at bedroom doors with their bare fists.

Sometimes it’s best to catch the enemy a-napping

and whack ‘em with a weapon while they’ve none to hand;

as when the mob orders a bloody hit

to corner markets or tie up loose ends.

Thus lovers too will move in for the kill,

as hubby sleeps off beer.

Sappers and sorry lovers both have the job

of getting round the guards or prying neighbors’ eyes.

All’s up in the air in war and love alike:

a vanquished foe can of a sudden surge again,

while those believed invincible are felled.

So, if you’ve been inclined to call love work for idle hands,

now is the time to hold your tongue.

Love is the fruit of genius and endurance.

When cuckold mopes and sulks and drowns himself in drink,

the time is ripe to snatch his purse.

Sweethearts placed flowers in the metal helmets

of Tommies taken off to trenches by a train;

fodder for guns.

And rich & powerful old men are prone to fall

for any bit of skirt,

however much of a nutcase or a bitch she is;

as paparazzi snap their lucrative pics

of VIPs canoodling with spouses not their own.

*

I once was a lazy bastard, apt

to lie abed and watch late-night TV;

lust for a pretty girl the boot

that got me off my ass.

Now I am kitted up on covert ops each night.

Take my advice, my friend.

You wanna get a grip on life;

go out, get yourself laid.