Sunday Pages: "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"
A poem by William Carlos Williams
Looking back at the events of the past week, it occurs to me that we are in a paradoxical loop, where the news is both coming too fast to process, but also not fast enough to bring relief. For four interminable years, Donald Trump traumatized the country—those of us with souls, that is. His failed insurrection, against the backdrop of his failed pandemic response, was the ultimate trauma. We cannot and will not heal until this grotesque monster is brought to justice.
Watching the besieging of the Capitol on January 6 was like watching a movie: we knew something bad was going to happen, we watched something bad happen, but by the day’s end, the bad thing was thwarted, and democracy prevailed. By contrast, watching the FBI and DOJ conduct the painstaking task of investigating the events of January 6 is like streaming 10 seasons of True Detective on some weird app like Peacock that has commercials and keeps crashing. It’s slow. It’s puzzling. It doesn’t clue you in on what the investigators are really up to. It’s gone on way longer than we’d like it to, and we’re still not sure the guy responsible will get busted in the end. Watching the detectives, we ourselves become detectives, looking for clues from the real detectives looking for clues—looking for signs that things will break the right way.
This week, there were so many such signs that the mind struggles to keep track of them all, let alone process them:
There are rumblings from the January 6 Select Committee that Trump himself is indeed going to be charged with a crime for the insurrection, as Hugo Lowell and others have suggested:
After many months of silence on the subject, Merrick Garland delivered a passionate (for him) speech that left no doubt that January 6 was a top priority at the Department of Justice. VP Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden spoke powerfully on the anniversary of the attack, with the President singling out Trump (although not mentioning him by name). The Former Guy, meanwhile, who had planned a speech of his own for January 6, abruptly cancelled, without really explaining why.
On Capitol Hill, House members spoke about the events of that day. The only Republican to show up at the anniversary—what was also a memorial for the fallen police officers—was Liz Cheney, who brought along her father, Dick Cheney. The presence of the former Vice President in the chambers that day, I think, juxtaposed with the absence of all the scurrying, pusillanimous Republicans—some of whom took to Fox News to complain, preposterously, that Harris dared to suggest that January 6, like September 11 and December 7, was a date that would live in infamy—sent a powerful message. If Democrats can come together with Dick Fucking Cheney, one of the most despised conservatives in recent memory, what does that say about the current GOP crop?
Even the media seems to be presenting things differently. When Ted Cruz, whose job in the Party is to humiliate himself, groveled before Tucker Carlson to atone for the sin of telling the truth about January 6, Jim Acosta compared him to the Gimp from Pulp Fiction. Brianna Keilar used the word “bullshit.” On Late Night with Stephen Colbert, a Rent song parody called Trump a “bum” who’s “a traitorous scum”—stronger words than one usually sees on network television:
All of this against the backdrop of omicron: Is it different than previous strains? How so? Should we shut down again? What is the new calculus here? In Florida, the governor, mini-Trump Ron DeSantis, allowed a million covid tests to expire while his constituents waited in line for hours to get tested, and then vanished for a few weeks—possibly because he caught the Rona, if the video of his struggling to breathe is any indication.
Oh, and the ice shelf holding in place the Thwaites Glacier, which is the same size as DeSantis’s state, is going to break apart in five years, and sea levels will rise [checks notes] 25 percent. Wait—what?!?
How can anyone process all of this madness?
This torrent of news brings to mind “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” a poem by William Carlos Williams. Williams is best known for short verses—the poem about eating the plums in the refrigerator is probably his most anthologized work. “Asphodel,” by contrast, is a long, rambling poem, a bit odd and hard to parse, supposedly about him confessing his infidelities to his wife at the end of his life. The eponymous flower is a symbol of a peaceful afterlife, of resting in peace, and in Greek myth is associated with Hades.
Below is the end of the poem. I read this as a celebration of the power of poetry, which can provide solace from the madness of the horrible events swirling around us:
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Hear me out
for I too am concerned
and every man
who wants to die at peace in his bed
The key line: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” That is, the lack of what is found in poems. Poetry deficit. Art starvation. Beauty dearth.
Now, more than ever, we must turn to art, to literature, to poetry to restore our souls. Even the artless need poetry in their lives, whether they realize it or not.
Photo credit: Robert Wallace. Asphodel in his garden in Tbilisi.