our touching hearts slenderly comprehend
(clinging as fingers,loving one another
gradually into hands)and bend
into the huge disaster of the year:
like this most early single star which tugs
weakly at twilight,caught in thickening fear
our slightly fingering spirits starve and smother;
until autum abruptly wholly hugs
our dying silent minds,which hand in hand
at some window try to understand
(through pale miles of perishing air,haunted
with huddling infinite wishless melancholy,
suddenly looming)accurate undaunted
moon’s bright third tumbling slowly
Perhaps we should have known, when the January opened with the death of David Bowie, swiftly followed by the death of Alan Rickman, that this year was going to test faith in heroes and in possibility. Like the dolphins fleeing the doomed Earth in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, they were the canaries in the collapsing mine of 2016.¹ In April they were joined by Prince, and people blamed the year itself, as though it were sentient, and angry with us for some unknown reason. As though we had messed it up.
I could say this accounts for the terrible presentiment I had before the Brexit vote, and again before the American presidential election, that the shared rhetoric of hate and division would triumph. I had a funny feeling in my toe: a feeling of blood creeping over the fields. The rabbits are us.²
I don’t normally write a yearly review. Who wants to know what I thought about the year? But this year is exceptional. Many people seem to be finding the events of 2016 hard to process. I process things by writing about them, so forgive me if my thoughts are half-formed or reaching without conclusion.
Viewers of the US sitcom Community will be familiar with the terms darkest timeline and gas leak year.
Both scenarios – for very different reasons (parallel world/chaos theory and the sacking of the series creator as showrunner for season 4) – result in people acting out of character in horrible, humiliating, destructive ways, and in events running out of control as a consequence.
2016 seems a convergence of both gasleak and darkest timeline. After the American election, I saw a number of memes referring to the darkest timeline, and to the time-travel narratives being evoked by Community. I saw tweets that blamed Barry Allen (currently messing up his own Earth in season three of The Flash) or called on Keira Cameron of Continuum to try and correct things (which never goes well, I should say). Many referenced the capitalist dystopia of Back to the Future II, not least because Biff was based on Trump.
The week that Trump took the White House, the salt in the wound for many was the death of Leonard Cohen. Two men who couldn’t seem more averse. Like many, I have felt this year that we are losing our wisest elders: those who can point to the crack the light will still come through, when all we find is darkness, and the death hour rounding it.
The year closed has closed with another spate of losses – George Michael, Richard Adams, Carrie Fisher, and then her mother, Debbie Reynolds. People who seem to have taught generations how to think, feel, believe in themselves, express themselves.
Perhaps the folly is hanging so much on so few. We need new heroes; new cultural leaders to show us a model of an inclusive, nurturing world, in which people of all backgrounds, abilities, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations can thrive.
In the aftermath of Trump’s unthinkable triumph, people seemed to turn to the literary world, particularly to poetry, to show them another way. Two days after Trump was elected, we had our annual poetry month at Grasmere Book Group, and read, amongst others, the poem that opens this post. The group had chosen ‘love poems’ as a theme, to contrast with last years’ ‘war poems’, but as I tried to pick a selection for us to read I was finding it hard to think about celebrating love. The group helped remind me that this is one of the few things we can all do in times of darkness and hate: love well.
Meanwhile in the Canadian Literary world another darkest timeline was erupting, one in which authors normally associated with voicing the margins grouped together to support a creative writing professor over the students who had made complaints about his conduct.
The writers involved claim only to be calling for ‘due process’ for the accused, but their letter, and the associated website, failed to mention the right of the complainants to due process, or a fair hearing, or for their experiences not to being automatically discounted by their seniors in the literary community. I was dismayed to read the names of many writers I admire deeply on that list; relieved to find some people reassessing their position and removing their names as the weeks went by; appalled to see some adding their names to the list instead. For writers – people who make their living and their lives not just out of words, but out of nuance and context and close reading – this letter showed at best a lack of attention to detail. Its language, tone and omissions wilfully misunderstood power dynamics and how words contribute to rape culture. It also made me think more highly of the role of editors in Canlit, if so many great writers could not see their own omissions and errors. Most of all, I was disappointed then horrified to see Margaret Atwood backing herself further and further into an untenable defensive position, in which she needlessly brought up the notion that ‘women lie’.
Other responses from Canlit stalwarts were heartening, and show the kind of careful reading and thinking we expect of great writers (Maggie Helwig, Michael Redhill and Laurence Hill’s responses stood out for me in the first wave). As the year closes, the controversy is still raging, and has most recently evolved into a public questioning of Boyden’s claims to indigeneity, after Galloway’s own apparent indigenous heritage was pulled out by his supporters to count in his favour. Boyden’s self-presentation as indigenous has been long queried by indigenous writers and communities, but I doubt this would have kicked off now if it were not for his part in the Galloway debacle, and what it revealed about how little he seems to understand gender relations and power dynamics on (or off) campus.
This call for justice gone horribly wrong played out in eerie parallel with Trump’s calls for apologies from the cast of Hamilton the same week.
These are times we all need to stop and ask ourselves if we’ve become our evil alteregos. If this is the darkest and most terrible timeline, and if so, if we are the baddies.
More importantly, even if we think we’re on the side of the good, are we doing enough to help those around us? Are we doing enough to protect the vulnerable in our communities? A positive result of this Canlit meltdown might be a much needed reassessment of some aspects of the teaching of writing, and of what is or is not acceptable behaviour in the mentor-guru focussed system we have. This is not, obviously, just a Canadian problem: anywhere we follow this model of ‘apprenticeship’ there is room for abuse, and far too much of it happening. As a teacher myself I am keenly aware of this, and of what my role may or may not be in preparing my students for the writing world outside university.
Some things much closer to home this year have also made me mull over how power is accumulated in the literary world, and how often this means hurting or exploiting others. It shouldn’t do, of course. And needn’t. This should go without saying, but some people seem to need it said over and over again, because they’re not listening. They think what their behaviour is fine because poetry demands it, or everyone else is doing it, or the same thing was done to them. The best writers I know are also the most generous, the most thoughtful, the kindest. It can be hard to be one’s better self in a world that can so easily descend into bitchy competitiveness, but we owe it to ourselves and each other to try.
Whenever I think of embittered, jealous, power-hungry writers, I think of them as having gone to the dark side of the force. Star Wars was one of the key texts of my childhood. I must have watched the original trilogy hundreds of times before the age of ten. As with Watership Down, I could quote huge chunks even now (anyone who knows how bad my memory is, knows how much that means).We collected Star Wars figures and toys, and spent many happy hours staging spaceship crashes and battles at the top of the garden.
Poets are much like Jedis – few people believe in them. The system of mentorship between Jedis forms a helpful parallel to that same model in creative writing, and a way for thinking about how we handle it from either direction. Those times I have found myself wavering towards the dark side – starting to resent other writers for their successes or blaming their successes for my failures – it is Star Wars that has kept me honest.
2016 has gone beyond satire, beyond science-fiction. If only there were a way to redo or unwrite the wrongs done, the wrong-turns taken, the misrepresentations, false steps, and time-line changing bad decisions. As yet, we cannot repilot life.
In the meantime, we have to learn to live better with what we have. Grieve for what you have lost, but don’t let grief turn you away from life. Be good to one another, and not just those you are already invested in and identify with. May the force be with you.
- I won’t go through the full list of cultural heroes who have died this year. I mention in this post those who mean the most to me personally, and this is no slight on those I do not mention. More importantly, this has also been a year of massive humanitarian disasters, and widespread loss of life, particularly during the ‘refugee crisis’ and in Syria. There is something gross about focussing on so few, relatively privileged people over so many, but I suppose it is about impact: we grieve for those we think we know. Maybe this means we need to do more to know more; to care more.
- I wrote the main part of this post at the end of November, and had no idea at the time that this mention of Watership Down, which is so often in my thoughts, would become so poignant.