Reading: What Kind Of Times Are These by Arienne Rich

A very popular public poet, Arienne Rich (1929-2012) was also a leading feminist activist. Her poetry career stretches many decades and she was awarded many prizes. Her book ‘Diving into the Wreck’ is probably her most well-known publication. She is a kindred soul, who told us that “perhaps just such a passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing.” The following poem is, of course, eerily relevant today:

What kind of times are these
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

Ah, the revolutionary struggle and its victims, those revolutionaries who went farther than any other and were persecuted for it. The shadows of the revolutionary road, when the revolution is cut off from its hope to change society, but lingers around as her shadow.

Yet, the revolution is not the Russian one. The I has picked mushrooms ‘at the edge of dread’, and tells us that America also has some sort of gulag, or at least a way to make people disappear (or just crush the revolutionary spirit?). To join the fashionable liberalist lamentation: Donald Trump made half of his government disappear into the shadows, and 14 million people’s health insurance, and the lifelihood of so many more has already dissolved into shadows.

The place in the woods she describes reminds me of a hidden bower, somewhere in a Californian forest where some anarchist group gathers. But the place is endangered, some project developer wants to buy it and ‘make it disappear’ (drain the swamp). She tells us all this because it is ‘necessary to talk about trees’ in order for people to listen. Why? Trees are lining the revolutionary road, they provide a hideout, they are not contaminated, they offer some sort of neutral perspective. Talking about the trees, rather than the broken revolutionary road in between them, is a smart move.

Indeed, many present-day activists could learn from this. They refuse to talk about anything else than their Cause, intentionally or inadvertently mocking everybody with a different view. Talk about the trees instead, maybe they will listen to you. Occupy Wallstreet broke off into shadows – will its successor fare any better?