Thoughts on book publishing, editing, contemporary poetry, dementia, administrative memos, and teaching by the editor of Tinfish Press.
Monday, July 27, 2015
Meditation: On Home -lessness
The language does this to them and to us: they are homeless (or bums); they shit; they suffer mental illness; they steal; they make their choices.
"'I'm not calling them homeless,' [Diamond Head resident Scott] Ballentyne said. 'They're bums. They'll scream and shout at the moon. They leave trash and (defecate) all over the place. Cars have been broken into and they've broken into houses, including mine.'" (SA, 7/26/15). "People make choices," a soccer dad said to me during one of my daughter's matches, as his wife and I were talking about homelessness on O`ahu.
According to the OED, the word "lessness" means "The quality of being less; inferiority." It's a noun. The suffix "-lessness" is more complicated, however. Homelessness, powerlessness, joylessness, agelessness: these words suggest more than lack; they also indicate a state of being. Less is more. Lessness lasts, because it refers to time. To say that someone is "joyless" is not to remark that you saw them for a brief moment, but that they exist within a state of lacking joy. There's an aggregation to loss, an addition that makes loss last.
Samuel Beckett's "Lessness" (1970) is the last quotation in the OED entry. It's a noun, but Beckett's prose piece is also verb, folding in and back on itself, suggesting infinitude. There are very few words in "Lessness," very few sentences. Yet these few words recur. As Philip H. Solomon notes, "Lessness contains
769 words (each of which will appear twice) but only 166 distinct lexical
items. They make up 120 sentences divided among 24 paragraphs varying in length
from 3 to 7 sentences each. Beginning with the thirteenth paragraph, each of
the 60 sentences of the first twelve paragraphs is repeated—randomly—in the
second group of 12 paragraphs." The more words recur, the more the reader recognizes that endless sentences could be constructed out of these words. "Lessness" could go on, and on, and on, rather like a Beckett character.
We hiked Diamond Head with family (and hundreds of tourists) the other day. The reward for this easy hike is a gorgeous series of views at the top: an expanse of blue ocean and a large swath of the leeward side of O`ahu, from Koko Head to the airport. On one hike a year or two back, I noticed a graveyard of hats beneath the look-out; it seemed comical that so many tourists had lost their caps, their floppy hats, their brims to the wind, and that these hats had come to rest but a few feet below us. This time I noticed something else. Closer to the road below than to the look-out were a series of camps: tents, blue tarps, nestled in summer's brown foliage (Diamond Head is only green in the winter, when it rains). A belt of homeless camps was ringing the old volcano. (See the photograph above.)
As we drove back down Kapahulu toward the freeway entrance next to the university, we saw a line of tents across from Foodland, under H1. Beside the tents, one of which features an American flag, we noticed bicycles, folding chairs, and other evidence of human settlement. All of these tents--and those in the triangular area across from Kapahulu--are placed on cement. The homeless have already been kicked out of parks, out of Waikiki entirely, and now live on this sidewalk edge beside and underneath heavy traffic. But the expansion of the notorious "sit-lie" provisions means that the precarious physical edge of the sidewalk is not nearly so precarious as the temporal edge. They could get "swept" at any time, and the provisions could be expanded to make their current "homes" illegal.
"He will curse God again as in the blessed days face to the open sky the passing deluge. Little body grey face features slit and little holes two pale blue. Blank mind." (SB)
"A 56-year old homeless man who would give only his first name, Oliver, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he used to live at Diamond Head but left because the other homeless people 'were too hard-core.' Instead, Oliver ended up at a rapidly growing encampment across from Market City Shopping Center after the city's 'sit-lie' ban forced him out of Waikiki about three months ago." (7/26/15) On page A16, where I read these very few words uttered by a homeless man--are they three words or four, if you take out the hyphen?--there's also a picture of a homeless man and a woman inside a tent, holding her dog. Above them is a larger photo of "Personal items scattered in the area of the Board of Water Supply property on the Ewa slope of Diamond Head crater near Collins Street [which] indicated the presence of a homeless camp earlier this month." In the photo, you see bike wheels, an old basketball hoop, a television screen, pieces of cloth on the ground, and items of clothing hanging from low trees. In other words, you see "trash."
The first quotation in the article is from Dean Harvest, vice chairman of the Wahiawa Neighborhood board, who took his wife to dinner "only to see a homeless man drop his pants on Wahiawa's main drag, California Avenue, and defecate on the sidewalk." Like Ballentyne (above), he alludes to his own disgust. Now, I don't know Wahiawa very well, as it's in central O`ahu, but if it's anything like Honolulu, there are very few public restrooms. Hardly any, if you don't count the restrooms on Waikiki Beach, an area out of which the homeless have already been pushed. "Where do they get water?" my husband asked, when I pointed out the homeless encampments on the dry edges of Diamond Head. Good question.
"Flatness endless little body only upright same grey all sides earth sky body ruins, Face to white calm touch close eye calm long last all gone from mind. One step more one alone all alone in the sand no hold he will make it." (SB)
I arrived in San Francisco sometime in 2006 for a conference, but stayed in an off-site hotel. I was at the door by 7 a.m. (damn Hawai`i flights), but there would be no room for me until 3 p.m. I'd had no sleep. So I started wandering around, and found the convention hotel. It was Hyatt or Hilton, I can't remember which, and took my breath away when I entered and was reminded of photographs of large stupas where skulls are stored from the Cambodian killing fields. I went to the back of a very large lobby and lay down on a black couch. I was there for a while, when a hotel employee loudly asked if I were staying in the hotel. I said no. He told me I was not allowed to sleep in the lobby and needed to leave. I walked out into the bright air of San Francisco and saw homeless men (mostly) sitting at polite distances from one another on nearly every downtown street. They were legion. Pedestrians were walking by, purpose in their step. Those seated on the ground looked at the pedestrians, but the pedestrians' eye level was higher, full of need to get somewhere.
The median price for a house in Honolulu is 3/4 of a million dollars. Twenty two new condo towers are sprouting in Kaka`ako, which is the city's warehouse district. "Howard Hughes has also made clear their intentions to build luxury units
that, at least in some cases, will raise the bar in Hawaii. One in the
works is a penthouse property listed at $80,000,000 (yes $80M, not $8M),
which will have its own heliport." Of course, not all units will cost $80 million; many studios will go for a mere $1-2 million. "Along with this smart development you get the best of nature's treasures
as well. Soft, enveloping beach, the infinite blue ocean, wide green
parks - they're all within your reach now. No climbing once again into
the car every time you need to just get out for a while. Kakaako’s new
development is built around easy access to every aspect of life."
I stood on the corner of a street in a busy provincial city in Cambodia; across from my corner and down a side street a bustling market was buzzing with activity. I saw a monk in saffron robes doing his rounds. He entered the shops behind me, or was greeted by a shopkeeper who gave him some money. The system that supported him depended on his vow of poverty and the acculturated generosity of the retail class. They had their work, and he had his. I'm fascinated by the wandering mendicant, whether that monk or Francis of Assisi, who wandered Europe, unrooted and poor. Their poverty is chosen, but real. Theirs is not the idea of poverty, but the thing itself.
“To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly
concrete: it means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be
served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters,
the face of Jesus.” (Pope Francis, Address during Visit at the Homeless Shelter “Dono Di Maria,” 5/21/13)
"True refuge long last scattered ruins same grey as the sands. Never was but grey air timeless no stir not a breath. Blank planes sheer white calm eye light of reason all gone from mind. Never but in vanished dream the passing hour long short. Four square all light sheer white blank planes all gone from mind." (SB)
How to reconcile a spiritual admiration for the poor with political rage against those who force people into poverty? How to love the mendicant but want to raise the tent-dweller into an economy where it's possible to have a roof over his or her head? How to understand the virtues of having no possessions (except the omnipresent bicycle, perhaps) with the evil of taking away the possibilities for living in some comfort? How to (re)create communities that care for their dispossessed citizens? In the Star-Advertiser article from which I've been quoting, the words of Councilwoman Kymberley Pine shine through, as she talks about her Ewa district, even as she creates her own "us and them" equation: "'Church members are involved, everyone's involved to lift them up and get them the help that they need. The people in my district don't treat them so horribly as elsewhere because so many residents have been there themselves.'" She even offers some analysis of the problem: "'Each time the homeless get moved hey get more violent. Their stress is high because they're constantly worried about where they're going to get food for the day.'"
The mayor's spokesman wrote this to the newspaper about homeless encampments. Note the focus on optics: "'The city has been highly successful at removing encampments at a lot of highly visit places where there used to be a lot of complaints when Mayor Caldwell took office in 2013, such as along Kalakaua Avenue including at the old Hard Rock location, the zoo, the sidewalks, and more, along the Ala Wai Promenade, at Pawaa In Ha Park, at the Moiliili field, in Chinatown, in city parks all along the leeward coast, in Ala Moana Beach Park, at the Hawaii Kai Park and Ride, at Haleiwa Alii Beach Park, and numerous other locations all over Oahu.'" He adds that "many of the most visible areas have been successfully addressed."
"Little body little block heart beating ash grey only upright. Little body ash grey locked rigid heart beating face to endlessness. Little body little block genitals overrun arse a single block grey crack overrun. Figment dawn dispeller of figments and the other called dusk." (SB)
To be visible is to be a problem. To be invisible is to save the city from complaints, whether by tourists or by local residents. To be visible is to be dirty, a shitter, a thief. To be invisible means that "we" don't need to worry about any of that. This is a sorry binary indeed. But even if you "buy into it," in good capitalist metaphorical fashion, we've reached a tipping point. Invisibility is not an option; there are too many homeless/houseless people. Their "lessness" no longer denotes an individual lack, but a proliferation; their lessness is moreness. Beckett was right to highlight the endlessness of lessness (which works better in his translation than does the "Sans" of the original). But this is not simply a question of semantics.
What is the median price of homelessness? of mental illness and addiction and the PTSD of veterans on the street? What is the median price of seeing the poor among us? or the median price of hiding them on Sand Island (one idea) or at the back of a valley somewhere? What is the median price of our semantics? or of our desire to get to the grocery story or the coffee shop without witnessing someone else's pain? What is the median price of our silence, either when we see a poor person on the street or when we permit passage of legislation making it illegal to sit or lie on a sidewalk? What is the median price of sidewalk?
To be "responsible" is to be accountable, to do the right thing. I try to be responsible as a teacher, a parent, a citizen. In the absence of functional institutions, responsibility feels more difficult these days: national and local governments abdicate their responsibilities; the university is an increasingly chaotic place to be. While some institutions are falling apart, others grow like cancers (prisons). We can try to push our institutions from within, demand that they bend toward responsibility, but that effort involves more patience than most of us possess. So I'll take the word apart and start there. The first two of the word's four syllables are "response." Our responsibility is to respond to what we witness. There is no act of witness without our believing this to be a first political act. Where we go from there is too often a mystery. But let's begin by turning our ear toward the voices we need to hear. You won't find them in the newspaper (the headline reads "Too Close for Comfort") You'll need to get closer than that.
Samuel Beckett, "Lessness." http://www.samuel-beckett.net/lessness.html