(As we approach the election I thought it might be interesting to share a project I undertook during the transition after the 2016 presidential election. A slideshow of the images from Transitional Delights (2016-2017) follows the text, which is excerpted from a longer essay.)
The needle danced and bounced on the screen. Drawn as a car’s speedometer the graphic was displaying the up-to-the-second probability of the 2016 presidential election outcome, hours away from confirmation. There was no need for that confirmation, of course, Clinton was ahead, way ahead, and the election meter’s needle pressed far to the right, jittering in the mid-80 percents. Some surveys placed her chances well into the 90th percentile, as sure as sure gets in the world of polling. I watched the TV and the computer screen, tabs open to all of the major news sources, a little bored but wanting still to be part of the moment.
Then the needle wiggled lower, jerking erratically, unreliably. Soon it was clear the needle, and the algorithm behind it, was fatally flawed. Broken. It was showing Trump ahead, then Trump on a clear path to victory, and then Trump.
Despite it happening it seemed as if it couldn’t be happening. The mistake will be revealed, a state will flip back to Blue, Trump will announce he was cheated out of the presidency and the launch of Trump TV, the Hillary era of whatever it was she hoped to accomplish, still dimly perceived, would begin. But then the word came that she had called him, that she had conceded, that the election really was over and it was. We’d given everything, everything, to Trump.
When I was young, long before I drifted into my local university, I read voraciously. I would wait until payday at my job at the shopping mall and then would cash my check in the drawer, putting aside the money I needed for rent, gas, and the barest form of survival, and take the rest to the B. Dalton bookstore. I could get there and back on my fifteen-minute break. Both the cashiers at the store and my co-workers at the mall were astonished and perplexed at my purchases. They bought beer and pot. I bought a five-volume history of Europe, a survey of philosophical thought by Bertrand Russell, books on economics and books on art, these being extraordinarily expensive. Sometimes it took me several paychecks to save up enough for an art book.
In one of these books, a volume of Japanese literature translated by Donald Keene, I found a poem I liked and remembered it as I watched the election results, as I watched the strange thing happen to our country. The poem is called The Silver Mine and it is a short poem, only five brief lines, in a form called a tanka, similar to a haiku.
Stark naked, the men Stand together in clusters; Swinging great hammers They smash into fragments The lumps of unwrought metal
There are other translations but they sound dead to my ear.
The poet is Tachibana Akemi and I know very little about him. It seems he was upset about the political powers of the day and did write poems opposing and challenging those powers. But not many. He is mostly known for a long series of poems on minor, personal, even domestic pleasures.
Keene translates the series’ name as Solitary Pleasures, but I prefer Solitary Delights for it is delightful little moments, sharper in feeling than “pleasure,” that the poems try to embody. Tachibana writes about the delight of solving the wording of a difficult poem after weeks of effort. He writes about the delight of finding a newly-bloomed flower, of catching a fish and his children’s thrill at the prospect of tasty food, of the delight of encountering in a book a character that reminds him of himself.
None of the Solitary Delights mention politics directly but in them you might discern a sense of political hopelessness, of a recognition of the pointlessness of writing poems about kings and emperors that worry not about the power of poetry, rulers that do not concern themselves over the power of art, the efforts of wayward children scratching on the playground wall in chalk.
I found the Keene book still on my bookshelf–I was certain I had given it to Goodwill years before–and opened its wrinkled paper spine and reread The Silver Mine, I reread the Solitary Delights.
Starting that night, November 8th and until the Inauguration on January 20th, I produced my own series of poems, of tankas, called Transitional Delights. To produce them I followed a set of rules.
I would wait until nine o’clock in the evening, after the news of the day had “settled”–nine o’clock being midnight on the East Coast–until I started work on the poem. I would spend no more than fifteen minutes on the poem, each one beginning with the lines “It’s such a delight/When…”. Then I would post the result online. At first I used simple text on a blue background but as time went on I wrote the text with typewriters, upon napkins, overtop photographs.
It gave me something to do during those two and a half months. It, in fact, gave me the gratifying feeling of seeming to do something.