Jessica Teich

Dispelling Demons

“Though Hate Is Why Men Breathe”

What the poets tell us about Trump

Posted Feb 10, 2017

Trump’s tyranny is familiar to anyone who grew up with a volcanic father.  We recognize the capriciousness; the volatility.   We remember the sense that nothing makes sense; that something terrible, illogical, could happen at any moment; that no one sees how unreasonable he is— and how miserable he’s making everybody else.

The difference is that there are people who can help now.  Witness the legions of lawyers who rushed to airports to assist detainees. Children are holding up signs:

Creative Commons CC0
Source: Creative Commons CC0

But the road ahead requires more than reaching out to strangers. It means trying to achieve a reconciliation closer to home.

Jessica Teich/used with permission
Source: Jessica Teich/used with permission

My father was a heart doctor who worshipped Frank Sinatra and the New York Giants. He did the New York Times Puns and Anagrams in ink.  He loved poems, and he once told me his favorite poem was e e cummings’s tribute to his late father:

my father moved through dooms of love

through sames of am through haves of give,

singing each morning out of each night

my father moved through depths of height

I don’t think he understood it—I don’t think I did, either—but I loved that he loved it.

It was perhaps the only thing we had in common, that love of words.

Creative Commons photo
Source: Creative Commons photo

My father is buried in a gracious New England cemetery, leafy and spacious.  It’s a very Protestant place.  My father would have liked that.  He always sought out places where Jews weren’t welcome, and barged right in.  But the logistics of getting him into that place—literally—were complex. He would have liked that too. The Jewish funeral house couldn’t prepare his body on a Saturday, and the cemetery insisted he be buried on a Sunday, so he had to be handed over from one celestial authority to the other. As my clever older brother said, he “changed hearses in midstream.”

At his funeral, I read from the e e cummings poem, but not the later stanzas, when the Cubist elegy turns ugly.  Even its tidy rhythm breaks down:

then let men kill which cannot share,

let blood and flesh be mud and mire,

scheming imagine, passion willed,

freedom a drug that’s bought and sold

I’m not sure exactly what’s going on there, but it doesn’t sound good, does it?

And there’s no mistaking the terrible “truth” that launches the last stanza: that “hate were why men breathe.”

This is a world frighteningly, presciently, like the world of Trump.

 Creative Commons, public image
Source: Photo: Creative Commons, public image

My dad was very Trump-like: disproportionately proud of things he hadn’t himself accomplished; suspicious of anyone who might challenge or expose him.  Afraid of the things he didn’t know or understand, but unwilling to try to understand them.  A smart man who wants the world to be simpler than it can be, who refuses to see nuance or seek compromise.

I see now that my dad was the template for the man who abused and beat me when I was 16: charismatic and unpredictable.

Once, when we were travelling and my two brothers were squabbling in the backseat of the car, my father whipped around to pummel them, accidently slamming my mother in the face.

He never apologized.

We just kept driving.

But I still remember the sound of my mother’s gasp when his fist hit bone.

 Jessica Teich, used with permission
Source: Photo: Jessica Teich, used with permission

Just before the election, at a Barnes & Noble not far from Trump Tower, a woman emerged from the darkened vestibule.  “Are you Jessica?” she asked.  She said we’d grown up in the same small town.  Our fathers played poker together every week, she told me, and I vaguely remembered that.  “I miss my dad,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

Then, to my enormous surprise, she added, “I miss your dad.”  Tears were streaming down her face.

She was crying about my dad.  But I wasn’t crying. 

Do I miss him?

How can we miss these people when they never go away? 

If anything, his presence has grown stronger these past few months: I sense him in Trump’s obsession with his hair, in his general narcissism, in his furious, sputtering pronouncements and petty feuds. My dad, although a liberal—he was named for Eugene V. Debs— would have disagreed with Trump’s politics (or, should I say, Steve Bannon’s). But he would have tacitly understood their prodigious energy and take-no-prisoners stance.

  Creative Commons, public domain
Source: Photo: Creative Commons, public domain

In fact, Trump is so big, so loud, so orange, that it takes the Pope, perhaps the greatest moral arbiter of our time, to put him in his place.  This Pope, who took his name from St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the poor, washes the feet of refugees and has sheltered a family in flight. He says Trump’s policies aren’t “Christian,” and he should know.

Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest moral arbiter of his time, understood the terror of the other, and what that fear reveals about who we really are. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero says

This thing of darkness I

Acknowledge mine

He embraces Caliban, who is earthy and emotional and uncontrolled.  By “darkness,” he doesn’t mean skin color.  He means the part of us that is deeply human, petulant and unpredictable.

Perhaps each of us has a bit of Trump in us: an inner tyrant who bullies us into thinking there is not enough, never enough, for all of us.

Creative Commons, public image
Source: Creative Commons, public image

Our own solitariness, self-interest, confines us, condemns us, isolating us more than any wall ever could, leaving us colder than those bodies buried in the ground.

The heat of all these protests can help—to say nothing of those cozy pink pussyhats—and already their impact is being felt: the CEO of Uber resigned from Trump’s Economic Advisory Council after more than 2 million people deleted their Uber accounts. Over 800 companies, including major corporations like BMW, Kellogg’s and Visa, have pulled ads from Breitbart News.  Nordstrom’s has cut all ties to Ivanka Trump and her shoddy products. And her father hasn’t even been in office three weeks.

This resistance is more than a vigorous expression of civic dissatisfaction.  It is powered by something deeper: revulsion, rage.  It draws strength from the same “darkness” cummings wrote about, and Shakespeare.  It is a different face of that inner tyrant, our Caliban.  We are all capable of the most craven reactions.  We have all waged the most inopportune battles (sorry, Australia) and backed allies even less worthy than Bill Belichick. But that same energy, obstinacy, can be harnessed to achieve something surpassing, something elevated: Unity. Acceptance. Love.

Love is the whole and more than all, cummings concludes, in the spirit of his father.

My father wouldn’t have understood.

But I learned something about freedom the day he was lowered into the ground.

There was more room, suddenly, between me and the sky.