Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fragments of a Happy Decline

These seven poems from a Barbarian choir were written between mid-October and early November, 2010. They were inspired by two nonfiction works by Peter Turchin: War and Peace and War: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations and Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall; as well as by Kim Stanley Robinson's 2002 novel The Years of Rice and Salt. Seven infamous and not-so-infamous tribal successors to Rome, living between 440 AD and 1400 AD, were asked to tell their tales with reference to any suggestions they had for the rapidly-declining coalition of states of the early 21st century. The voices of Totila and Charlemagne are comprised of two simultaneous voices each: the Totila of 552 AD and 2047 AD, and the Charlemagne of 800 AD and an unspecified late 21st-century date.

Ibn Khaldun was the subject of the last poem, for more than just chronological reasons. He is a 14th-century and very early 15th-century mathematician and historian, born in Tunisia and resident scholar in Cairo, who became the chief counselor of Temur the Lame (Tamerlane) during the latter's siege of Turkey and the Middle East, 1396-1404. Ibn Khaldun developed the theory of the asabiya historical cycle, explaining how empires expand, exploit resources, and finally collapse. Turchin is among many modern statisticians who was astonished to find that Khaldun's 600-year-old theories map fairly well into modern theories of chaos and nonlinear cycles. Neither Ibn Khaldun nor Turchin claim that imperial collapse in the Western Hemisphere is imminent, but listen to the choir -- and keep in mind, a post-modern collapse may be more comical than it is tragic or violent.

#1 in the occasional series

Summer clung
Desperate elbow crook in my larynx
Your winter storm watch
Unheard in red oak talon yellow aspen claw.
Sunset ever earlier, sure,
but no forecasts of Saxons or snow.

My makeshift crown of thorns scarcely itched,
the Bacchus costume demanding little more than
dolmades at each earlobe.
Not a single child learned Latin in a wonderland of thugs.
Thorns, grapes, heavy headgear for Angle and Pict alike.
So I capitulated and let loose the jackal.

No instruction manual bothered to mention
the Boolean tune of violence.
No barometer of smaller wound, lesser death
Just the jackals laughing
amplified in an anechoic chamber of fresh snow.
I laughed at Horsa
I left the screen door open
A lovely summer run, but now summer’s almost gone.

Loring Wirbel
October 21, 2010

#2 in the occasional series

(begin transcript)

Of course, in retrospect, Lawrence, Kansas was no place to center the logistics for sustained struggles across a continent, but we were suckers for romance, OK?
‘Bleeding Kansas’ and the maniacal John Steuart Curry painting, the outstretched arms on every T-shirt making you forget Mr. Brown was a bit tetched in the head. Yes, of course they’d say the same of me, victor’s naming rights and all that.

The nom de guerre was from the Ostrogoths, since Totila i
s not often given credit for being the first successful guerilla, long before Chaleco, Garibaldi, Mao. Had you heard of the man? Do you see where I was taking this? I mean, three fourths of Italy in the shadow of Belisarius, only a few decades after the big fall, that was no mean feat, and carried out with a lot more grace than Langobards. Because what the chattering gibbons from the directorate forgot is that the name was chosen as much for mercy as audacity. Totila understood what we might call people’s democracy better than any emperor –

((indistinguishable phrase, sound of explosion))

The first big success, discounting St. Louis, since there was no real directorate infrastructure to worry about, was the Southern Forking Strategy of ’47 – one solid string through Memphis, Paducah, then the branching at Nashville, with the southern fork taking the old Chickamauga line through Chattanooga and Atlanta, while the northern fork followed the old 40 trail through the Asheville ruins and on north through Virginia. Keep in mind we were too few to make formations, these were insurgencies on Vespa, eCar, anything that worked. Yeah, even an old Segway, did you see the pictures from Blacksburg? Cute.

We saw no evidence of Kalmath’s authority until we crossed the Appalachians, and even then it was only the occasional security patrol, five, a dozen, with mobile drone support. Remember, the coastal plains were under water from the early ‘40s on, and citizen relocation exhausted Kalmath’s resources … yeah, we referred to him in the coded transmissions as ‘Justinian’ for obvious reasons … Actually, no, not only because of the Justinian-Totila hype factor, but because of Kalmath’s directives, which took on the status of a Justinian code, at least among the few who remembered such details. I mean, the propaganda thrown our way, it’s easy to forget the nasty levels at that time … These dullards were trying to palm themselves off as the sacred preservation society of science and rationalism, as though Arlington was the new Constantinople.

They’d saved any original documents free of water damage from the K Street ruins, cobbled together an Internet of sorts that might cover mid-Virginia to the New York-Pine Barrens evacuation corridor on a good day, and painted us as the know-nothings, come to impose some weird-ass Christian theocracy, acting out the Left Behind novels and denying the climate-change rules. You know and I know, we’d been directly attacked by the Science Killer tribes in those early days, the late ‘30s just out of Kansas City.

I’m not going to deny the funds from China or Brazil. Justinian will tell you it’s regionalism, splittism in service of a new empire, but why can’t they simply be our France? I’m telling you, we would have had our Yorktown by now, if China had kept up in the long-range robotics.

Who believes the Constitution Priests? You might well ask who believes us. It’s hard to tell what an individual citizen believes any more, always in motion, another coastal evacuation, lost in an iHelmet world whenever they get a spare moment of downtime in the camps. First you have to ask, can they still think in some linear fashion? Second, is there any visible affect with which to make an emotional appeal? Third, is the attention span long enough for a simple revolutionary slogan? Shit, we’ve got pictures.

Hard to tell, so hard to tell, there’s nothing like polls any more, no clear sense of whether the traveling ones despise you or cheer you on. Quite honestly, we recruit in the older villages, the ones furthest from the corridors, where living in a single place might have preserved some sense of history – no, not historical determinism, forget about that.

Yeah, the Arlington siege is in its fifth month or so, but what does siege really mean any more? It’s not the obvious starvation, disease you once saw. Local abundance and bootleg antibiotics make it more subtle than that. It would be nice to think the siege makes a difference in some way, that the revolt can gain its historical footnote. But what counts as an archive in a world defined by false documents? What is a story? A USB thumb drive that can be hacked by the directorate? A printed broadsheet no one will read? A campfire tale, a chanson for a bad pimply folk-singer in a new desert Earth?

Look, I have no intention of standing outside Crystal City with a 12-point manifesto. It does no one any good to channel Tom Paine, and we certainly are not going to wear the tri-corner hats that those fairy-tale monkeys wore back in ’10, ’12, before the directorate.

Will Totila be remembered as a ten-minute intermezzo that did not matter?

Will the Brazilians be the next Langobards? That all depends on –

((end transcript))

Loring Wirbel
October 23, 2010

Eric the Red

#3 in the occasional series

No intentional plunder
We are here to kill theorem

Iowa Baptists were not meant for longships
No dreams of immersion in Vinland, Lindisfarne
Only the arrogance of cause and effect could
bring forth this rage
The Pashtun in Kandahar set my jaw clenching
"The schools make them doubt.
Schools can be bad."

Thus was my mission revealed, Christ Jesus
Texas school board imagined as murderous scourge
Weapons, loose folds
for textbook marauders

They dare us make sense
They dare us trump faith
Call halt to demonstrative argument
Set fire to inductive reason
We did not come with an alternate proof
We are here to kill theorem

Loring Wirbel
Oct. 23, 2010

Fredegund in Paris
#4 in the occasional series

I strike these walls for generations of sullen pricks
strangling matriarchs in lies and hoarse oaths.

My Soissons loyalty feeding each Cinderella archetype.

Why care?

Amazonian empaths, the gentle womb
sent through shredder as surely as vindictive bitch.

Why try?

Ruined Chilperic turncoat Brunhilda victorious Clothar,

Clothar of my loins,

Names that dissipate in fireplace ashes swept clean by Rigunth

whose misshapen head speaks naught but false tales of a shattered toy chest.

I chant for the Ile de la Cite Charles the Fat Charl
otte Corday
a Notre Dame courtesan empire to come.
Clothar watches Orleans summon the death angel Jeanne d'Arc
arriving in fire and pumpkin carriage to insist to city elders
the future is Fredegund.

Why would a fellow want a girl like her?
Only a Merovingian bitch prepares this city for the Norse slut to come.
But the city gates remain shuttered.
The wedding train moves south to Reccared.

The women that can summon you away from fourteen centuries
of the slaughter to com
e are hidden in the tresses of Zoe, Theodora,
Held under the water's surface in the witch trials of Gabriel.
But you would lose the lascivious seed
in your infernal hunt for the glass slipper.

Loring Wirbel
November 4, 2010


#5 in the occasional series

Never enough time.
Tomorrow's hypercollapse, another war on terror
would capture scant nanoseconds in this phrase.
But we moved slowly ever slowly, Toulouse to Septimania.
Never enough time for the century starving to drive Vandals
across a Numidian ocean.
Never enough time to embrace our brothers from the East
as we thrashed Clovis soundly.
Our Jesus the crea
ted lesser one, spawn of Arius.
We did not ask for this man called pope
who hitched a ride with Reccared and his northern Cinderella.
Ashes to Nicaean ashes.
Never enough time.

If this be the last Visigoth noble act,
Let me show you our lineage, proud as Franks.
Let me count navigators, warriors, blazing brighter than praet
Let me expose our treachery, tortuous as a Byzantine eunuch.
Our stupid ones, the foul of skin
Somehow begat an aristrocracy of Hispania,
al-Andalus before a Berber's breath.
My dispatch of great King Witiza means nothing
to you of the nanosecond collapse.
Never enough time.

For just as my deeds were sung, trouveres to Handel,
The ships of al-Walid entered our ports.
We knew little of a warlord named Ta-Reek.
Our priests would not speak of this Ma-Hammet king,
nor of the god they call Ah La Agba.
Somewhere, Arius laughs.
Christ of the lesser, C
hrist of the Trinity,
Or a pestilence of jihad at the River Guadalete.

Speak no more of the Spain that would be Rome.
Follow Pelayo to Asturias while you can.
Never enough time.
Mi nombre es Rodrigo, Mi nombre es no Martel.
No hammer will fall here,
only the sword and staff of Christ in thousands,
as Ta-Reek claims another land free of infidels,
and we learn the compass points of Mecca.
Never enough time.

Loring Wirbel
November 5, 2010

Charlemagne I & II
#6 in the occasional series


"Now your patrons have all left you in the red.
Your low-rent friends are dead." - Steely Dan, 'Kid Charlemagne'

Stately towers in salt winds define the new Aachen.
We occupy receiving parlors of ones called Moor-mans.
No, not Moors, an ocean away.
There are ruins here of elders and a saint named Moroni.
Salt lands last interior untouched by festering algal blooms,
inversion storms, coastal creep.
As we unified tribes in the Land of Five Lakes
Many told of a journey to a promised land
once before, twice before,
how many harmonics in a New Jerusalem?
Climate riders agreed, here be the safe zone.
Yonder stands the new Aachen.

So I became Charlemagne, not for claims of what is
neither Holy, nor Roman, and certainly not an empire,
But in tightly-clasped prayers of what
might be Western, might be rational, but is certainly not America.
Scant science-artisans rescued from Burning Man
huddle in Denver Subduction Zone clusters --
As though tube worms of a Marianas gone dry!
We call them New Worms - of course, turning the earth,
but Worms as the sister city of long-ago Metz
Worms, they say, wa
s once Borbetomagus,
and Borbetomagus, they say - oh, never mind.

One Charlemagne could reach across waters
to Irene, Desiderus, Krum, Rangabe
We too display continental cross-stitch
of Yemen Caliphate and Shenzhen Proconsul.
Our crippled old continent, discovered again.
Papers, thumb drives, mirrored web pages
as index for new-model Dead Sea Scrolls
in an Aachen suitably gussied in salt and toxic sand.

One Charlemagne gave voice to Franks, Celts, Suebi,
Langobards, Vandals and Goths.
We offer Aachen as the voice to new tribes
missing only the Golden Spike for a transcontinent story.
Here is the library, bring us your books,
your holograms, your USB pendants.
Can we raid the Virginias, the Pine Barren shelters?
Who is our Procopius, Venerable Bede?
I stand with an army at the tabernacle,
waiting only for your stories of so many missing days.

Loring Wirbel

November 6, 2010

Abd-ar-Rahman Abu Zaid ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun
#7 and last in the occasional series

"Groups with high asabiya arise on meta-ethnic frontiers ... where an imperial boundary coincides with a fault line between two meta-ethnic communities ... No contradiction inherently exists between cooperation and cruelty."
-- Peter Turchin, War and Peace and War

My speeches were identical.
Six centuries, a single oscillation.
Temur the Lame in Damascus encampment, 1402.
Peter Turchin in Connecticut, 2002.
Asabiya, the disparate tribe in collective action
Brings down Goliath.
Nomadic victories follow linear equations.
Algorithm, a proper noun,
Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi.
Tamerlane says will of Allah.
Turchin says second-order oscillation.
So it would seem, I tell them both.

Temur claims he is old, the last of his species --
Steppe warriors killed by da Vinci and arquebus.
Temur, Sitting Bull of the Uzbek plains
following Yersinia Pestis to Caffa, to Sicily.
A plague as reboot as black screen of death.
Temur is not Khan, there is no Golden Horde.
Where then, the turning, an immunization?
Each sixth generation, a new solidarity,
A turning in chaos again and again.
Temur says he is tired, and I am dismissed.

Now I am the tired one.
The wars of succession.
Rapid-fire holocaust.
Collapse of pound sterling.
Potemkin, a salt march.
I roll out my maps and sigh at this Turchin
A secular cycle, he says, but what does god will?

Turchin says God doesn't get nonlinear dynamics.

A millennium asabiya
But am I still a teacher?
So it would seem, says this impudent Turchin.
Does a social mesh reboot from border assault?
Is this the fourth turning?
Here graphs enter exponent slope,
pointing down just the same.
Who is our Vortigern?
Does he have a choice?
Patience, I counsel this last steppe warrior.
Your plague is to come.

Loring Wirbel
Nov. 6, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

People That Matter

What was that about a cacophony of mindless nastiness permeating everything in this election year? Sorry, didn't hear a thing. October was spent going to high school and college reunions, a tour of Midwest poet friends, a Guided by Voices reunion, and otherwise re-connecting with the ones that matter in this world. As for nonsensical nonpersons, forgive me if I have no time.

Let's begin by thanking the beneficence of the government of India for banning a conference at which I was going to speak, thereby allowing me to attend my 35th high school reunion in Grand Ledge, MI. My wonderful sister Lisa, and her husband Pat and son Alex, opened their home to us, reminding me how thankful I was to not have any dysfunctional siblings.

We did all those marvelously dorky things like attend the homecoming parade with Winky the Comet, go to the homecoming football game, stop at Gwen McLean's for a post-victory bonfire, you get the picture.

While the Midwest can seem a parochial place when you're far away, I not only remembered what a beautiful place I came from, but how the people in mid-Michigan are much more empathetic and kind than some stereotypes would suggest. I care about these folks as much as I did in the late 1970s.

People That
Matter: My sister Lisa

le That Matter: Chico Rivera and Gwen McLean

On Saturday, Oct. 9, we hiked the Ledges trail and then went for a long spin to Dansville, where Don and Ruth Mowry keep a beautiful farm on one of the oldest roads in Michigan. Ruth is a poet, photographer, and tireless MSU English advisor who's been a friend since I was a wee sprout, and her husband Don is an elementary school teacher and former keeper of exotic chickens. Spending a couple hours with them reminded me why I like them so very much.

People That Matter: Ruth and Don Mowry

Some people dread high school reunions, particularly that post-25th era when we all turn visibly older and our bones creak something fierce. It's all too easy to ask "what did I ever have in common with these people?" In my case, I found plenty in common - Tom and Lori Cox were there, along with a universe of friends I still care about very deeply. Carol and I got gussied up right nice for this event:

People That Matter: Lori and Tom Cox

If I was to share the dozens of pictures and stories from 1975 classmates, you'd be bored silly and I'd overtask Blogger. Suffice it to say that no one went away sad, no fights were broken up, just a lot of hugs and silly stories. On Sunday, my nephew Alex and I went to the color tour at the Island Park, where a couple sang Cheryl Wheeler's "When Fall Comes to New England," with "Grand Ledge" substituted at the appropriate place:

Sunday night, former Surf City denizens Marilyn Basel and Sam Mills met us at Beggars Banquet for tales of present glories, "Burning Desires" and all, so much better than tales of past glories. Lee Upton and Rosa Maria Arenas were missed, but present in some fashion nonetheless:

People That Matter: Marilyn Basel and Sam Mills

(Did I mention, Marilyn followed us to Grand Ledge to spend a day wandering trails, visiting the Ledges Playhouse, and finding the necessary pince-nez so she could convince the world she was Amy Lowell, back for a second round? She certainly had me convinced.)

I had forgotten about the Popeye Rock, playing chicken on the train trestle (though Paul Baribeau should have kept that memory front and center), and what fun it was to hang out with the John Peakes - Richard Thomsen crew at Fitzgerald Park. Marilyn saw everything with new eyes, and shared special likes and dislikes with Carol at Lamb's Gate Antiques and Sweet Linda's.

The next stop on the way back involved an 18-hour stopover in Minneapolis. Andy Scheiber, a regular reader and singer at Jocundry's/Seed&Stamen/Invitation events, now heads the English Department at St. Thomas College in Minneapolis. Better yet, he's married to my high school English teacher, Mary Lou Sabin. They retain every passion they had when they lived in Lansing, and when they taught in China, which made dinner with Andy and Mary Lou so special.

People That Matter: Andy Scheiber and Mary Lou Sabin

Tuesday in Minneapolis concluded with the First Avenue stop of the reunited Guided by Voices, where I met poet and Iowa State University Librarian Extraordinaire Dan Coffey (oops, also new dad), and his friend Matt O'Neal, for a round of yo-hos for 21st-century bard Robert Pollard, chief kicker of his band of elves (that's Dan and Matt in the audience). Very brief sleep, and a flight home to Colorado Springs.

(But wait, there's more! - There's always more.) I got a day's rest, then it was time to drive to Omaha, where I was slated to speak at a peace conference with Mike Moore, former editor of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Tim Rinne fed us beers and Greek food before the Saturday conference, where the surprise was seeing Conor Oberst and Saddle Creek Records win the Peacemaker of the Year Award, and getting to meet Conor's parents, as their son was on tour yet again. But the biggest surprise awaited us at the place I was staying, good friend Frances Mendenhall's house, where her post-conference garden party turned into an engagement announcement with Alan V. (wish I could spell his last name).

People That Matter - Alan and Frances in their
Omaha-sustainable home.

The point here is not to assemble an exhaustive travelogue of my October vacation, but to gather a great big circle of the remarkable friends I've made over 30 years or so. This could have been an opportunity for final goodbyes in the event of an unexpected mid-season cancellation - it has already been a life more abundant than I could have dreamed - but I have a feeling this was merely a hello, to bring everyone close for another three or four decades to come, and to remember daily how much I love the folks that matter.

If you're feeling disheartened and exhausted with the invective and negativity around you, remember that these people don't matter. You matter. And this song is about you. And there are many verses left to sing.