Fish, Pole: on crises, change, and the American condition

On the eve of the 2020 Presidential Election, writer Brian Blanchfield considers change in the absence of divine intervention

This essay appears in the upcoming debut issue of Grand, a biannual literary journal featuring original fiction, poetry, essays, and conversations with authors. Purchase a subscription for the first two issues of Grand’s print edition here.

Late last Spring, before Memorial Day, I rented for a few days one of the log cabins at the edge of Roper Lake, a state park in southeastern Arizona that has been part of my writing life for years. Not much beyond beds in the simple cabins, but the cement patios facing the water are each outfitted with a brick grill, a sink, a porch swing, and the cabin’s name and icon wrought in metal. Mine was Hummingbird, and on either side Bass and Coyote were empty when I arrived. Gradually, in the miraculously elongated days, I eased into my routine of swimming and reading, notetaking. The book that had me absorbed was classicist Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind, which I’d seen on a 50-year-old syllabus that had been circulating on the internet: Hannah Arendt’s, for a course she called “Thinking.” That was my mood. Just beginning to take shape was an essay, which eventually I would call “Thinking What to Do,” and which I would never finish. 

My second day there, a quarrelsome couple moved into Coyote, although it wasn’t long before the girlfriend took the truck and left—for a long time, if I remember right. Coyote was closest to the marsh, a dense stand of reeds and flags, likewise a hotbed of bickering drama. Grackles and coots and, by evening, nighthawks darted in and out territorially; and, attempting to settle atop with much fluttery ado, a single snowy white crane was elaborately hectored every ten minutes, but after each lake-length retreat returned to petition again to drop softly in. His unwelcome was a constant. Unseen toads replaced the daylong cacophony with their epic choral drone, like no place else in the desert. My neighbor—mid-50s, shirtless, and sort of Appalachian in his bony-shouldered anemia—was three or four beers in, late in the afternoon, and I’d had to negotiate his hollered-over invitation to have a cold one. (As soon as I’d overheard him address his girlfriend as “Woman,” not long before she left, I knew to keep my distance.) Anyway I was reading and processing something about the condition of amechania, which apparently is translated most often as “helplessness” but which is more specific, as I take it: to be ready and able, but to lack the necessary device or scheme (mechane) to bring a change about. The baseline state, says Snell, of ancient mortals like Achilles and Odysseus, pending divine intervention. 

Fish, pole! At some point he’d jerry-rigged his rod to stand unmanned, upright in the rubble by the bank, and now he goaded it, of a sudden, loud enough for me to hear. I didn’t lift my head or alter the tempo of my probably prim swinging, I remember, but I wrote the two-word sentence in my notebook, which I’ve been reviewing today, more than a year later, and it all comes back to me. Fish was the verb, a command. And pole, the implement, was the addressee. He might have been sitting on his own swing when he remembered the slack line and assailed it. If it is a thing people say, I’d never heard it, but it seemed to belong to a certain poor white mischief familiar to me throughout my childhood; I could imagine my late grandfather barking it with the same two-stress intonation in his Virginia twang. He, too, used to play-act a tyranny over his wife; she, too, was his better, and it was obvious. Fish, pole. It was a performance, of what? A brandished impotence, a goof on dominion, a glory in idleness, a resignation to spectate, a remark on skill, a perversion of prayer, a misfire at fate. Because it was so culturally freighted, and because it had a compact poetry, I underlined it, then looped it from the margin, sealing it away from the other language filling my pages. 

“Thinking What to Do,” which I eked out to 20 pages before abandoning it, would be my own holler out to hard luck and situational paralysis. The essay didn’t fail because of distractions, though life was quick to bring real impediments small and large. But it’s eerie that this inaugural interruption turns out to be squarely pertinent, auspicious. I forget what teacher of mine it was—Heather McHugh or Carl Phillips, maybe, farther back, Jim Seay, who is the likeliest fisher of the three— who used to write the word “recast” beside a passage of mine, and it’s lazy of me to have recycled it for years on my own students’ drafts. I guess I use it when the fix isn’t syntactic or technical in any way, when the whole metaphor or rhetorical gambit needs reimagining. 

The point of the thing, the reason I started writing, the insight I felt immediately that morning and pursued at length, for weeks, was that this amechania—devicelessness—had an uncanny and direct (and new, at least in my lifetime) relevance to the American condition. The longer I sat with it, the more it clarified the situation of the post-Mueller season, then deepening into summer. The torpor, the busy tactical stasis that attended the dispiriting waste of the country’s first, best opportunity to remove President Trump before his incompetence and treachery could (and would) do greater damage attained for me a sudden sheen in the reflection of a paradigm dormant for three thousand years. Though amechania had only modest significance for Snell, who plants it as an early marker in the development of selfhood and interiority that he proposes can be tracked across eight centuries, Homer to Virgil, for me a context for a more current concern—even more pertinent a year later: what it means when everything is out of our hands, but stopgap solutions must be improvised locally, individually, continually, to stave off the worst when it comes closest. When I got home from Roper, I obtained and read, like a manual, the new Emily Wilson translation of The Odyssey. My friend Jen Chang had told me how good and alive it was, and even before Telemachus, oiled up and full of mission, climbs in the carriage with his hot counterpart prince Pisistratus, I texted her to suggest we write companion poems “On First Looking into Wilson’s Homer.” 

Wilson’s rendition—in its agility and bright particularity—makes two things clearer than ever. First, the constant business of hospitality, so thematically central to the epic, is a semiotic business. Throughout the customary welcome, bathing, feeding, and entertainment of a stranger without first requiring his name, the hosts conduct a study of the guest and his graces and his eventual account of self, examining him for signs of divine favor or the stink of divine curse, so as to make their own position with the gods more propitious. Wilson’s translation also brings nearer into the light why that matters: as Nestor, the journeys’ first host reasons, “Everybody needs the gods.” There is in The Odyssey no dramatic shift, no action of any consequence, brought about without the divine revelation—usually by Athena, for Odysseus or Telemachus—of a scheme, a trick, a plan, or, likewise, an instrument, a device to equip the cause. The root word mechane and its complement metis, contrivances and ideas, apparently occur so often in the original Greek that the sheer number of novel formulations and synonyms Wilson finds to keep the English supple and natural is demonstration that of all the translations hers is the most resourceful. 

Resourceful: that’s one of her translations, in fact, for Odysseus’ most frequent epithets: polymetis and polymechanos. I.e., rich in ingenious ideas and rich in devices to gain an end. Odysseus’ reputation as exceptionally cunning and innovative precedes him; after all, the Trojan horse was his invention, as told in The Iliad, the earlier epic. But, that’s the thing—to divert for a moment into what I’ve learned concerned Snell and his scions and detractors for decades, and what likely interested Arendt who must have wanted to demonstrate to her undergrads that thinking, as such, is a construct: was crafty cleverness understood as Odysseus’ own quality, self-possessed, or as evidence that Athena, goddess of strategies, was overseeing and favoring him? Would that have been in the Ionian era a distinction without a difference? Customarily in Homer, the upwelling of courage or ingenuity or eloquence in a person rising to the occasion (or even a seemingly natural function like sleep or arousal) requires the intervention of a god. And, Odysseus was as proscribed by amechania as any other Bronze Age figure. Unequipped potency, restricted from agency: that is his continuous state when we first encounter him in the epic, trapped on an island where the incessant heavy tide has for seven years prevented any escape launch. If ever Odysseus eludes danger or evades a rival god by means of subterfuge, it is because Athena avails to him a trick or ploy or notion. (Inspiration originally referred to an act of a supernatural being, imparting a truth or idea to someone. Interesting to consider the difference between “Sing, muse” and “Fish, pole.”) If our hero successfully deceives Polyphemos in the cave or binds himself to the ship’s mast so that the Sirens’ alluring song cannot draw him ashore, it is only because a god has fostered the idea in him, has arranged for him to find the instrument key to its execution. In a wormhole last summer deep enough to feel no nostos could follow, I came across someone’s dissertation online that claims that amechania is closely associated with—and may even be responsible for—the subjunctive mood. Perhaps it’s a kind of inertial state of doom that would be ongoing but for Athena or Apollo or Zeus and the operative mechanism they manifest for the mortal to leverage. Later, for posterity, it can be said of the hero’s plight, all would have been lost, no return home possible, were it not for Athena’s aegis spread over Odysseus and his family, “had not Athena given him a thought” at the right juncture, had the prevailing headwinds continued, and so forth. Formulations like this are even more common in The Iliad. Effectively, it’s a kind of narreme, mainstay of the after-action report (the thrust of either Homeric epic), to account the formerly hidden ruse or implement and the peril that, without it, would have been final. 

The Roper days were long and poetic in part because there was no wifi. But my smartphone got a signal, enough to stream an hour of Rachel Maddow in the early evenings, with the little screen propped in a furrow of the bedsheet beside my dinner, which I’d eat with my fingers and crackers, having forgotten any utensil. I found I couldn’t relent on what had become a near-nightly tradition for my partner John and me, really since the 2016 election. Rachel with dinner. Plus, on those first desert evenings in the cabin I wanted to test out the realization I was having. The words that Rachel and Nicolle Wallace and the other MSNBC hosts were lately using, night after night, in questions for their guest analysts and historians and constitutional lawyers—weren’t they the same, categorically, as these that motivate all the action in The Odyssey? Mechanism repeatedly was what was sought—mechanism, by name: “What mechanism,” Rachel asked, was there for when Congress’s subpoenas are challenged and delayed past efficacy in court; for when “executive privilege” is claimed to shield Trump from testifying in person and to gag key witnesses? What governmental instrument was there for when the Attorney General, in the pocket of the President, suppresses a separate federal investigation into the campaign finance crimes of Individual 1? What was the remedy, what constitutional provision existed for when someone like Brian Rabbitt, only weeks earlier a White House legal advisor to the President about the Russia probe, gets installed as chief of staff to Barr at DOJ and then participates in editorially “summarizing” the Special Counsel’s report on Trump’s conspiracy and coverup? The blossoming lexicon simultaneously suggested more intricate operations than I had known existed under the simple rubric of checks and balances, and demonstrated the escalated emergency that required their recourse and, clearly, was running out of their supply.

At about this point in my notebook, after pages of quotes and extrapolations from Snell and speculative glosses on mechanism and device and helplessness, there is a page unlike the others, with two things I can remember writing: an address on Toole Street in Tucson and, instead of notes, some prose: a sketch of what would become the opening paragraph of the failed essay. The address was my friend Richard Siken’s, new since I’d seen him three months prior, only days—as it would turn out—before he had a stroke, a bad one. I had come back to Arizona partly because I wanted to see him, then progressing from walker to cane; most of his body “back on line” and his speech restored, if slowed; and not at all reverted yet from his newfound emotional sensitivity. We have had some of the best phone conversations of our lives during his recovery, which back then he usually began by excusing himself in advance for crying, admitting how unsettling it was to be so unguarded. He wouldn’t be able to host me overnight, so I timed my return flight to spend as much of an entire day with him as he could tolerate. A few inches below the street address, a dozen sentences cluster, most of which I would preserve verbatim in the essay. “A man named Rabbitt called a man named Flood. That’s how the White House learned the Mueller investigation was complete. It was late on a Friday afternoon on the first full day of Spring. March 22, 2019.” (It occurs to me now that was one week after Richard’s stroke, and maybe the very day that he was able to communicate again by phone; I still remember the little blue ellipsis blinking for minutes on his end of the text conversation.) “‘Bob has submitted his report, and Bill and I are reading it now,’ he might have said. ‘Looks like we can work with this.’ So the season began, for many of us. The season of thinking what to do.”

Like many Americans, I know the names and faces of Frank Figliuzzi, Maya Wylie, Chuck Rosenberg, and Joyce Vance as intimately as I knew those of, say, Willie McGee, Fernando Valenzuela, Bruce Sutter, or Warren Cromartie on the Fleet baseball cards I reviewed daily, religiously, when I was nine. (And in the Covid era I am coming to know their built-in bookcases and kitchen island fruit bowls as closely as I remember McGee’s Adam’s apple, Cromartie’s gapped teeth, Valenzuela’s trademark eyeroll during his windup, and Sutter’s deep knee bend during his.) Each high-rotation MSNBC guest has been an expert witness in congressional hearings, too, during the several malpractices of executive power this last year. On measures to counter the administration’s violations in the realms of intelligence, statecraft, civics, and law, I doubt there are savvier experts than they; and so after discarding the expediency of the more obvious, politically unworkable instruments of a second impeachment or the 25th Amendment, it is frightening to hear them recognize aloud that, once U. S. Attorneys and Inspectors General and Cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries and ambassadors are cleared and replaced at the pleasure of the President, tools and safeguards against tyranny, such as they are, are fewer and weaker. The levers of democracy can quite quickly be, irretrievably, out of reach. 

Of course, the foundational corrective mechanism in a democracy is an election. I am writing this in late July; I started, I think, exactly a hundred days from Election Day. And polls are even more favorable for a Biden victory than they were for Hillary Clinton’s. So, most are looking past the ugly reality that electoral maps are carved up by state legislatures, like mine in Idaho, to ensure that Republican votes count more than Democratic ones and overlooking, too, as hopefully irrelevant the Supreme Court ruling, in Brett Kavanaugh’s first term, that inoculates such gerrymandering against any challenge. (The brightest minds suggest, in each reddening red state, the instrument of voter initiatives, to require redistricting be done by neutral analytics or by a nonpartisan committee—which is perhaps why my state just passed a law making it twice as hard to amass signatures to get an initiative on the ballot.) No, in this election, at the height of a lethally mismanaged pandemic, it is on the citizenry to devise tactics to overcome, or summon the resolve to withstand, the more pressing threats to the franchise itself: voter suppression, misinformation about mail-in voting, and active schemes—now that the Postmaster General has been replaced with a Trump megadonor—to hamper the Postal Service and discredit the results. Into the void or climbing the stages of grief, I often feel like bargaining: we’re not asking for a godsend here, but it’d be nice to feel we had a sapient presence with us, an Elizabeth Warren, or any Athena, “eyes ablaze with plans.”

I’ve been trying all this while not to review my original essay, almost superstitiously fearful that I will falter again, protective of the heart of its inspiration, which I don’t want to coarsen in prose. My notebook shows that I was home from Roper, and ten days had passed since my last entry. I can remember keeping very still in a chair outside and seeing a small, helical swarm of aphids at about eye-level in a sunbeam. I’ve lived in Idaho long enough to make a study of their behavior—they dart orthogonally, in elbow routes, peripherally around a little spiral tower of air they build together, until and unless a cloud interrupts the sunshine, as happened that day. Their dissipation then is instant; they individuate and disappear utterly into respective fates. You cannot find one then if you try. I myself was under the cloud of a strange mood, vigilant, prayerful, and I found myself whispering the phrase, about the wandered away midges, “left to their own devices.” The sun had animated them, had somehow enabled their collective endeavor, had held them in their ritual, and I felt my heart brew a little thought for their safekeeping until another ray reunites them. 

What does it mean—to you, to me, to Richard, to Emily Wilson, to William Barr—when we say someone is “left to his own devices”? My hunch is that the idiom is the one vestige of amechania in contemporary English. In the phrase as we use it, the past participle “left” seems to me leftover from the gods’ abdication from our case or abandonment of our cause. “Devices,” I suppose, are whatever paltry recourses one has without the sanction of an overseer or access to her power. And, “own” emphasizes the possessive pronoun, excluding all but what is personal or at hand, what is available to one who can’t reach or see beyond her immediate environs. Left to their own devices, we might say of children outside of supervision, or a crew beyond the watch of their foreman. Also, of remote adventurers once the raft is dashed on the rocks or the wagon wheel is cracked; of anyone uninsured in the red-state Medicaid gap, in places ballot initiatives are prohibited by Republican stranglehold; of anyone who is vulnerable to crime and abuse but who fears the police; of nurses who sew or re-use their own masks and gowns, who hold up their own iPads to patients so loved ones can see them mouth goodbye. It names both the improvisatory wherewithal we engage when we go overlooked by authority, as well as the privations we must manage when proper care and governance is distracted or disinterested.

I guess I’ve been thinking about this phrase and what’s behind it, on and off, for a year. Fulltime, for two or three weeks, as new Covid cases make Idaho one of the ten states with a rise in infection steeper than that of any country in the world, with a positivity rate among the five highest in the U. S., and as my employer has decreed that no fewer than 75% of classes will meet face-to-face when we start back in four weeks, students returned from all the hot spot counties. Faculty requests to teach remotely are being rejected absent evidence of even greater individual health risk. John, a social worker also at the university, has been ordered back to his office (badly ventilated, windowless), even though his work will be to Zoom with his student clients. So, left to our own devices, I hunted down, among other biodata, my diagnosis of pneumonia eight years and three cities ago, and set up a telehealth session with my local doctor to substantiate cause (my history of pulmonary infections) for a letter she might write about my underlying health conditions. Both of us, given my elevated risk, she decides, are advised to work from home; and with that golden ticket downloaded from my health portal, we hurry to upload it to John’s HR portal. We do a little dance there in the pantry he’s made his home office, then get back to work pressuring the university, via petitions and the Google Doc letter that some colleagues and I wrote and 300 fellow employees signed, to press the administration for more transparency, shared governance, and humanity. Because this remote college town can’t withstand an outbreak of any real size, I plan to write another op-ed in the Daily News, speak up this week during our health district’s public comment period, Zoom tonight with other professors to learn from Faculty Senate bylaws how to raise a vote of no confidence, and volunteer for an ad hoc committee to help steer the semester in safer directions. And, as always, grab my device and text the word resist to 504-09 to start a new constituent letter. Three years in, I still marvel that I live in a place small and politically unstable enough (blue made purple by red-drawn district lines) that my state reps will write me back on the same day and sometimes even strategize with me.

Shit. I recognize this. Once this resistbot mind insinuates itself into art, the writing is deadened, purposed. Essay becomes article. Intellection becomes documentation. Inquiry becomes rhetoric. Can there be thinking when we are thinking what to do? I haven’t, even now, found a way to avert the paragraph that inventories the horrors of this presidency and the radicalized right that has lately added diplomacy, courtesy, and personal responsibility to the cache of things it despises. Nor can I seem to resist the choice formulation, like that last one, that seeks to encapsulate. The writing begins to feel unmanned, busy as if on its own in the business of the crisis. 

Is there anyone, anywhere in this country in 2020, who doesn’t feel—and haven’t most been feeling long before Trump shirked his duty to plan a response to the pandemic—that everything has been given to everyone to manage, individually, on our own? I mean, I know, intellectually, that democracy is a verb, as it were; that it is sustained only if you practice and enact it. And I take to heart what disability activists have been suggesting during this crisis: to learn from those for whom none of this is new how to exercise resourcefulness when the built environment shows itself poorly designed for your safety and livelihood. (Again, helplessness is a crude translation for its most ancient variety.) It’s also true that everyone I know is holding the ceiling up in their workplace, in their household, in their community, in this republic, and for a lot of us, that feeling, that responsibility, is new. Each of us on his own, one and all. Whenever it is reported that faith in institutions is at an all-time low, my default is to envision Trump supporters engorged on Fox News and “open-source” reporting on hydroxychloroquine and rumors that Fauci is keeping secret that Covid-19 was manufactured in a lab. But, the truth is, c’est moi, I have seen too much to believe that my employer is acting in the best interests of public safety, that my regional health district is unmolested by the politics of the governor who authorized it to lead containment efforts during reopening, that any federal agency has been spared the corruption of this disastrous president, and that media conglomerates and the other two branches of government will know what to do when the election returns are skewed or sullied. I shouldn’t but I do imagine some Dick Durbin or Mitt Romney delivering, let’s say days before Christmas, a call to all Americans, for the sake of peaceful transfer, to accept Trump’s reelection. Is there enough bulletproof glass beyond the rally teleprompter for all who turn Telemachus then? “But I cannot / even afford to think my own heart’s thoughts.” 

Near midway into his history of early consciousness from Homer to Virgil, however specious that project may have been, Bruno Snell writes something interesting and perceptibly accurate about the difference between Homer and “the tragedians” of the fifth and sixth centuries BCE. About Aeschylus in particular, and his theatrical engrossment of an episode from The Iliad—Achilles’ heroic decision to die nobly rather than live long in prosperity—he concludes that the playwright “presents pointed situations because he is less interested in what happens than in what is done.” I dwelled on that a while, what Snell sees as a historic development. The focus on “what is done,” what individuals do decisively, particularly in dilemmas, is evidence, for him, of the maturing conviction in human agency; by contrast, “what happens,” no matter how local or situational, in Homer, 300 or 400 years prior, is credited to the machinations of no one lesser than a deity. Even if it takes mortals to make them operational. It disgusts me a little to realize in this light that Trump’s characteristic dodge, often tinged with threat, about a yet unannounced outcome is also his aping an Olympian omniscience, audibly levitating on that Arendtian banality of his: we’ll see what happens.

Aeschylus was contemporaries with Pericles, the Athenian general and statesman about 30 years his junior, who during his rise to prominence was in fact Aeschylus’ final financier: a producer. As it happens and for no good reason, earlier this summer I read Pericles, which because of its dubious authorship is rather the stepchild, the snowy white crane seeking to join the already full marsh, of the Shakespeare canon. It’s not swift or sophisticated, (nor, as a romance, is it at all historical, evoking only, and rather cheaply, the polytheism of the Age of Pericles), but I liked it and I find I can’t let go of a device I had never encountered before, which apparently by Shakespeare’s time was already a dying custom of early modern drama. I’m amateur enough not to have known the term “dumbshow,” and I’m uneasy with the ableist parlance, but anyone familiar with the Hollywood narrative shortcut, the montage, can recognize its essence. Never longer than ten lines or so of suggestive stage direction (I imagine the players acting it out in silhouette upstage from the narrator/chorus), it’s essentially quick pantomime, to provide some story-advancing exposition between acts. The operative characters receive a messenger’s scroll or board a ship or conduct an assignation, wordlessly, so that the subsequent act can open on a scene that needs that transaction to have occurred. I had the notion, reading, that (gods grant me this little prolepsis) when the tragedy of the Trump era is written, it might best be written as theater, and it ought to revive the device. To my mind, this is where, upstage in near darkness, Rabbitt and Flood are seen dialing and answering the phone, nodding and smirking, while the narrator explains that Barr’s deputy was sharing with his former coworker the opportunity their bosses had, to tip the scales. Day was turning to evening in Washington DC, and the equilibrium was canting. 

I never made it to Richard’s. He soaked in the irony of what I had to explain but was sympathetic. On the fourth of what were to be five days at Roper Lake I injured my lower back and was seized in my little rental cabin with a pain that was brighter, more searing than any I’ve ever experienced. Even now there is a pillowy indistinctness across my sacrum which I feel when I fill with breath. That, and an instinctive hesitancy rising to stand, by which I now understand old age, and the ten-day lapse in my notebook when instead I lightly underlined passages in The Odyssey are my records of the event. It is lucky that we cannot reproduce in memory the sensations of great pain. The blast in the nervous system, slow to localize, and the flood of adrenaline are event-specific—the upgush of bile or the burst of giggles is profoundly irreplicable. Though, the mindset of immediate and sovereign panic, and the onset of tactical clarity: these you can recall. Once you seek out a position of relative safety or relief from the worst of the incident, you test to understand the tight limits of the pain and dare not trespass the margins of motor availability. Gradually you learn what parts of your body to leverage safely, how you might rotate, scoot, or roll. Once you estimate that you can and—ultimately—must rise, you economize the sacrifices you’ll need soonest to risk: the empty water jug you can uncap and piss in, the fewest steps to retrieve your phone, how best to kneel to the floor where it fell. No way to reach the blinds to be sure the couple in Coyote has left already; the concerns of shame are usually incompatible. Acting on them inevitably brings on a twinge. You make a homebase of any plateau of relative relief. You learn what’s available to you. There are, if you’re fortunate, devices all your own along the way. If you can pinch firmly between your thumb and middle finger the hardening muscle that rushes to spasm, you can neutralize it. Once, since then, in the middle of a neck spasm that might have been just as bad, I carried myself by the nape down a flight of stairs and into the kitchen and through the swallowing of pills. I know now there is a worst, and I sense where it dwells, beyond what ridge. I can wait there.