Consequences and thought experiments


More times than we’d like, formal plans emerge as a by-product of a struggle between contingency and “consequences.” In these cases, people confront not so much discrete events with causal consequences but rather contingencies associated with aftermaths, for neither of which there is much causal understanding.

But, oh, never forget those pressures to come down on the side of consequences, however asymmetrical or outsized, all the time!


The ability to identify consequences is core to many professions, including my own, policy analysis. Here in the States it is the spawn of pragmatism (i.e., consequences matter) and rationalism (i.e., the steps in an analysis extend from define the problem through identify the options to predict the consequences of each and chose among the best in terms of predicted outcomes). The difficulty, of course, is predicting consequences.

Thought experiments, in contrast, can challenge a problem definition in ways that offer new insights, options and/or problem definitions. A thought experiment searches out other kinds of “consequences,” perhaps more tractable to the cognitive and affective limits of analysis.

This possibility of tractability is why I hate “formal experiments,” i.e., they succeed when they fail (as in “fail to reject the null hypothesis”). For: What if some failed hypotheses were good-enough futures anyway?


In my view then, the attempt to identify consequences can be analogous to trying to find the right word.

Many people assume that writing is all about finding the right word. On the other hand, when asked how he seemed always able to choose the right phrase, the poet responded: “Dear Mr. Stein, I do not choose the right word. I get rid of the wrong one. Period. Sincerely yours, A.E. Houseman.” T.S. Eliot makes the same point, with an important proviso: “It is supposed that the poet, if anybody, is one engaged in perpetual pursuit of the right word. My own experience would be more accurately described as the attempt to avoid the wrong word. For as to the right word, I am not convinced it is anything but a mirage.”

A thought experiment, in other words, is to search out wrong words, the mirage.

Examples fly to mind. Consider some descriptions for the self-correcting, self-regulating, self-healing efficacy of complex adaptive systems. If fireflies can do it, why can’t humans? If fireflies can self-organize and flash in unison, why can’t humans better coordinate and synchronize their behavior? Presumably so too: If earthworms can do it, why can’t humans? If earthworms can move tons of soil, why can’t humans do the same?

Nine twists in the kaleidoscope of “our highly volatile conjuncture”

New York City is closer along value dimensions to Berlin than both are to their country-sides. The existence of an unfettered, reputable and authoritative news media is a contemporary anomaly. Reversion to the mean isn’t replication of the same.

Hegel’s “tarry with the negative” is all well and good as long as it’s tarrying. Imagination is like luck, which much of imagination is anyway: easier to focus on in the past tense. We’ll look back at “progress” relegated to the scare quotes of always-late capitalism as the easiest thing humans did in the Anthropocene. Irony is more a knowingness than knowledge, as when: quoting Wittgenstein that death is not an event in life rather than Rilke about death being the part of life turned away from us.

The certainty of uncertainty is for some a 21st century version of 19th century positivism. Complexity doesn’t annihilate life; it is life. Still: bring back “blunder,” as in “monstrously bungled policy,” as when: the FBI thought Jean-Paul Sartre was complicit in the assassination of JFK.

“I have never asked that all trees have one bark” (“Ich habe nie verlangt,/ Dass allen Bäumen eine Rinde wachse”) Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan the Wise


Each angel is its own species, Thomas Aquinas tells us. “Why mightn’t there be, somehow, a new science for every object?,” asks Roland Barthes. Rimbaud puts it, ‘I am of an inferior race for all eternity.’ In those I see the rightness and certainty I also find in the lines of A.R. Ammons:

though I
have not been here long, I can
look up at the sky at night and tell
how things are likely to go for
the next hundred million years:
the universe will probably not find
a way to vanish nor I
in all that time reappear.

Why not each its own science and species, here-now or having-been for the rest of eternity?


Is the sense of incompleteness the felt part of an irreducible particularity of being?

“The [French] Constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, was made for man. But there is no such thing as man in the world. In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists he is unknown to me,” declared conservative critic, Joseph de Maistre.

Or the more recent lines of poet, Fernando Pessoa,

They spoke to me of people, and of humanity.
But I’ve never seen people, or humanity.
I’ve seen various people, astonishingly dissimilar,
Each separated from the next by an unpeopled space

Lionel Trilling said of 19th century American writers “they contained both the yes and the no of their culture”. To the contrary, Gore Vidal said: Most Americans cannot tolerate yes and no; it always has to be yes or no. Though here as Robert Frost put it in his Notebooks, “yes and no are almost never ideas by themselves”. How might that be so?

“Education begins with the word no, and begins as the self-education that is called repression; this no has to be persuaded to turn into a yes,” Adam Phillips tells us, “and this requires another person.” Frost and Phillips are to my mind spot-on: Yes and no don’t go far enough, if they’re treated as ideas so much outside human interaction and contingency.

A character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives asks of Mexican term: “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?” This is difficult to answer because any answer must be difficult if it is to matter:

And I saw two boys, one awake and the other asleep, and the one who was asleep said don’t worry, Amadeo, we’ll find Cesarea for you even if we have to look under every stone in the north…And I insisted: don’t do it for me. And the one who was asleep…said: we’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it. Were they joking? Weren’t they joking?…and then I said: boys, is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Simonel.

Simonel: not really yes and no, but rather not quite one or the other. I’d like to go where the term insists that “yes” and “no” matter only when followed by the qualifying “but. . .”

Consider those who are stopped short by “the unimaginability of any alternative to the neoliberal status quo.” Surely that’s a glove pulled inside-out. Neoliberalism generates such contingency and uncertainty as to undermine any status quo. It’s “the” status quo as has been understood that is unimaginable.

Here’s what is actually helpful in that realization. When have status quo’s ever been as real in practice as they are in theory? To paraphrase the international relations theorist, Hans Morgenthau: Excuse me, but just what status quo have the people committed themselves to? They haven’t, irrespective of what systems are said to do on their own.

There is feeling’s immediacy, a short-circuiting of having to describe and explain. It’s like a shatter: Judith’s high C in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, the Baroness’s “Lulu” at the end of Berg’s opera, the sound of the guillotine slices at the end of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites.

It matters in ways I can’t explain–explanation as when one reason leads to another in an infinite regress–that the music of Orff’s Antigonae captures more in and of the moment than Honegger’s Antigone. These are moments that can’t be proof-read.

So what? Maybe I’m being too hard on the distancing “explanation.” Virgil Thomson, the composer, put it that “a good critic does not voice opinions, he describes; if his description is succinct, accurate and imaginative, the opinion will automatically shine through.” I like that adverbial property of “automatically.”

But which root cause? Hegelian estrangement, Marxian false consciousness, Weberian disenchantment, Freudian defense mechanisms, Sartrean bad faith, Orwellian doublethink, Gramscian hegemony, or Goebbels’s Big Lie? Or is the root cause, in that famous “last instance,” Kuhnian paradigms, Foucauldian discipline, or God’s plan or that sure bet, money—or have I stopped short of the Truly-Rooted Root Cause?

Stanley Cavell, the philosopher, wrote that “there is always a camera left out of the picture,” by which I take him to mean that were we able to bring it in, a very different picture would result.

A wonderful story passed on by the poet, Donald Hall, illuminates the point. Archibald MacLeish told him about the actor, Richard Burton, and a brother of his:

Then Burton and Jenkins quarreled over Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Jenkins said it was a bad poem: disgusting, awful. Burton praised it: magnificent, superb. Jenkins repeated that it was nothing at all, whereupon Burton commanded silence and spoke the whole poem, perfect from first syllable to last. MacLeish told me that Burton’s recitation was a great performance, and when he ended, drawing the last syllable out, the still air shook with the memory and mystery of this speaking. Then, into the silence, brother Jenkins spoke his word of critical reason: “See?

And do you?

I use “policy palimpsest” instead of its synonyms–“language games,” “discourse systems,” “dispositif.” Why? Because a policy palimpsest is always with respect to a specific policy, management issue, or complex of issues (e.g., failed states) and at a level of granularity that matters for changing the issue(s) now, not just later.

Of course, bearing witness, permanent critique, and long-term thinking remain other kinds of approaches. They and such are not the only options, however, or the primary ones. Even when classic theories—sociological, post-structuralist, more—get us a good distance along, they fall short of where policymakers and practitioners are to go: case by case (pros ton kairon, “as the occasion merits”).

What is jargon anyway, but concepts that prematurely cease to go far enough?

As the world in which action takes place is full of inadvertence (“not resulting from or achieved through deliberate planning”) and contingency (“subject to chance”), it’s hardly surprising that difficulty, inexperience and not-knowing come to the fore and work against fulfilling your intentions.

Just as war and pandemic create their own contingencies, so too the monumental wreckage of intention—good ones and bad—unmakes a present, or if you prefer, makes a complex one where unrealized intentions criticize everything that happens instead.

That would be a banal observation were it not for its first-order implication: Even if we fail in improvising with what’s at hand, it is as an avant-garde fails in order to reinvent itself later on. That is an option.

“Predictably unimaginable,” the reality

The above phrase reads as if an oxymoron, but “thinking about the unthinkable” is a longstanding policy genre.

First, there is the predictably unimaginable that comes with new categories and convention. Think here of “violent crime” as a legal category in the US that didn’t exist prior to the 1970s. “Speaking of ‘political prisoners’ had become such a major political criticism that it was no longer possible to imagine it as a legal category,” concludes another. That there are ahead new categories and conventions that we don’t imagine is quite predictable.

Second, that there are already existing but different analogies to redescribe current policy problems is also predictable. The Green New Deal has most often been likened to Roosevelt’s New Deal. It’s also been likened to the Civil Rights Movement, 19th century abolitionism, and the war economy of the Bolshevik Revolution. There should be no doubt that the climate emergency has been or will be compared to many other events you and I won’t imagine until that comparison is made.

Third, earthquakes with unimaginable impacts are predicted all the time. That in fact is the genre convention. It’s no more different than predicting that my experience after my death will be the same as my experience before my being conceived.

“Imagination: Always ‘lively.’ Be on guard against it. When lacking in oneself, attack it in others. To write a novel, all you need is imagination” Novelist, Gustave Flaubert

–Global crises are often posed like Warhol’s 1963 Lavender Disaster. Here in acrylic, silkscreen ink, and pencil on linen you see the same electric chair repeated, each in its mauve mist. There’s a one-dimensionality to the block-on-block depiction, both in Lavender Disaster and in crisis narratives–and intentionally so. This is because the flatness invites viewers to fill in the rest with the worst they can imagine. And by “imagine” we should think of Flaubert’s definition.

Indeed, what would global crisis narratives be without all of this imagination! Yet, still: “What we have here is a failure of imagination,” intone critiques of today.

–Note just how difficult it is for anyone, subject matter experts let alone others, to come up with plausible details about the crisis response structure to be in place after the losses incurred by said crises or to prevent said crises from happening. To do the latter requires deep knowledge and realism—that is, far more than the much-touted imagination.

Absent knowledge and realism, we are asked to treat many crisis scenarios seriously until proven otherwise, when those offering the scenarios are unable to specify what it takes to disprove the scenarios or prevent their recurrence. Consequently, whether or not the relevant literatures differentiate anything like conditions for “effective imagination” must be left to the viewers and readers to guess. Having to undertake that task may, of course, cure us of one or two of the crises.

Yes or No: “Once nuclear power plants have been in operation long enough, we’ll see more major accidents more of the time”

–By way of answer, let’s start with an anecdote:

There is an apocryphal story about Frederick Mosteller, a famous professor of statistics at Harvard University. Sometime in the 1950s, a student of Mosteller´s was unconvinced that a six-sided die had a precise 1/6 chance of landing on any of its six sides, so he collected a bunch of (cheap) dice and tossed them a few thousand times to test his professor´s theory… Evidently, according to said (bored) student the numbers five and six appeared more frequently than the numbers one through four. Professor Mosteller´s unsurprising response was that the student had not tossed the dice enough times. ‘Rest assumed’, the student was told, the law of large numbers would ‘kick in’ and everything would (eventually) converge to 1/6. Undeterred, the student continued rolling a few thousand more times, but the fives and sixes were still showing up way too frequently. Something fishy was afoot. It turns out that the observed frequencies were not quite 1/6 because the holes bored into dice – to represent the numbers themselves – shift the centers of gravity toward the smaller numbers, which are opposite the numbers five and six. Ergo, the two highest numbers were observed with greater frequency.

In other words, it takes a very great deal of work to undertake a randomized control experiment, if only because the “control” is so misleading in the real world. As so many have pointed out before, there is always something uncontrolled/uncontrollable that intervenes significantly between treatment and measurement.

–This means, minimally, that the reason why there haven’t been more nuclear accidents (given their complex and unpredictably interactive technologies) is not because “we haven’t waited long enough.” It’s far more likely other reasons are at work.

One such reason is that the plants have been managed beyond their technologies. They are managed more reliably than theory predicts precisely because of the next failure ahead–that is, precisely because there are no guarantees.

Recasting for a different narrative: Tracking pastoralists through John Ashbery’s “Soonest Mended”

Barely tolerated, living on the margin
In our technological society, we were always having to be rescued
On the brink of destruction, like heroines in Orlando Furioso
Before it was time to start all over again.
There would be thunder in the bushes, a rustling of coils,
And Angelica, in the Ingres painting, was considering
The colorful but small monster near her toe, as though wondering whether forgetting
The whole thing might not, in the end, be the only solution.
And then there always came a time when
Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile
Came plowing down the course, just to make sure everything was O.K.,

Only by that time we were in another chapter and confused
About how to receive this latest piece of information.
Was it information? Weren’t we rather acting this out
For someone else’s benefit, thoughts in a mind
With room enough and to spare for our little problems (so they began to seem),
Our daily quandary about food and the rent and bills to be paid?
To reduce all this to a small variant,
To step free at last, minuscule on the gigantic plateau—
This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free.
Alas, the summer’s energy wanes quickly,
A moment and it is gone. And no longer
May we make the necessary arrangements, simple as they are.

Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.
Now there is no question even of that, but only
Of holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off,
With an occasional dream, a vision: a robin flies across
The upper corner of the window, you brush your hair away
And cannot quite see, or a wound will flash
Against the sweet faces of the others, something like:
This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else?
We are all talkers
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.

These then were some hazards of the course,
Yet though we knew the course was hazards and nothing else
It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time.
They were the players, and we who had struggled at the game
Were merely spectators, though subject to its vicissitudes
And moving with it out of the tearful stadium, borne on shoulders, at last.
Night after night this message returns, repeated
In the flickering bulbs of the sky, raised past us, taken away from us,
Yet ours over and over until the end that is past truth,
The being of our sentences, in the climate that fostered them,
Not ours to own, like a book, but to be with, and sometimes
To be without, alone and desperate.
But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind of fence-sitting
Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal. These were moments, years,
Solid with reality, faces, namable events, kisses, heroic acts,
But like the friendly beginning of a geometrical progression
Not too reassuring, as though meaning could be cast aside some day
When it had been outgrown. Better, you said, to stay cowering
Like this in the early lessons, since the promise of learning
Is a delusion, and
I agreed, adding that
Tomorrow would alter the sense of what had already been learned,
That the learning process is extended in this way, so that from this standpoint
None of us ever graduates from college,
For time is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up
Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.
And you see, both of us were right, though nothing
Has somehow come to nothing; the avatars
Of our conforming to the rules and living
Around the home have made—well, in a sense, “good citizens” of us,
Brushing the teeth and all that, and learning to accept
The charity of the hard moments as they are doled out,

For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,

Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.

John Ashbery, “Soonest Mended” from The Double Dream of Spring. Copyright © 1966, 1970 by John Ashbery.

Jorie Graham on the climate emergency, and why the poems matter


No one would accuse Jorie Graham of being hopeful about the climate emergency. There is not a scintilla, not a homeopathic whiff, of environmental optimism–techno-social-otherwise–in the poetry I’ve read of hers.

Which poses my own challenge: Can I nevertheless find something to move forward with, in this case from her four recent books of poetry, compiled as [To] The Last [Be] Human? Is there some thing, other than anger and dread at the way things are going, that I can use in my responding to the climate emergency?


To expect answers from poets is to make an outrageous demand. Still, that’s what I’m doing here.

Graham directs such an intense beam of darkness on the climate emergency that I ask: What’s left, if anything, that glimmers regardless? Whether she sees them is not the point. That I see and name them, as others might too, is.


There are two easy ways to finesse my challenge. First, Graham provides instances where she has been wrong (“. . .how you/cannot/comprehend the thing you are meant/to be looking/for”). Being wrong could be with respect to her views on the climate emergency as well. There is also no reason to believe her readers read her as she seems to imagine, irrespective of thinking there will be no readers if things continue as they are.

But that kind of line of argument fall shorts of what Graham is doing here. To lay my cards out then: Graham’s analytic sensibility shines through the poems’ dark prospect for me.

One can historicize her work or point to her admissions of fallibility, but none of that matters. It’s her sharp scalpel in getting to the point and making it wholly matter. Much is going on in the compilation’s four books, but the following remarks are confined to those about and for the climate emergency.

Sea Change


One from many excerpts reflects the constellation of factors at work for me (from the compilation’s first book, Sea Change):

                                                                         the last river we know loses its
form, widens as if a foot were lifted from the dancefloor but not put down again, ever, 
                                                         so that it's not a 
dance-step, no, more like an amputation where the step just disappears, midair, although
                                                         also the rest of the body is
missing, beware of your past, there is a fiery apple in the orchard, the coal in the under-
                                                         ground is bursting with
                                                         sunlight, inquire no further it says. . .  (p. 12)

There’s that tumbling out and after of words and the turns-of-phrase that deepen the rush. Then they bounce off and back from the two hard left-side margins and the right-side enjambment. For someone with my background and training, it’s difficult not to see this as resilience-being-performed in front of and for me.

Some might describe this rush as a compulsion forward, but I see hard walls being repelled from and pushed up to, and sometimes through (as in the hyphen-less “dancefloor”). Not as though it were a hope. Rather: as a coiling that toggles between everywhere necessary and never out of sight/site. A resilience for the climate emergency.


This analytic sensibility works for me. A passage in Sea Change strikes me:

the sound of the bird lifting, thick, rustling, where it flies over--only see it is
                                                       a hawk after all, I had not seen
clearly. . .(p7)

I know that sound. I can hear the rustling, the lifting up. I see it.

In this way, Graham isn’t describing something to me. Nor do I take her meaning “this might be the last hawk. . .” I read the lines as if a report from a planet where she resides entirely like mine: except this world in which I am has fast-forwarded. It’s the hawk-here that rises from the field toward me-here and I know it because I contrast it to her then-there.


A tic in her sensibility is illuminating: her intermix of macro and micro, general and specific, universal and particular, without an in-between gradient (my terms). Two examples toward the end of Sea Change illustrate this (here too breaking into her flow):

                                                . . . .It is an emergency actually, this waking and doing and
cleaning-up afterwards, & then sleep again, & then up you go, the whole 15,000 years of 
the inter-
                                                           glacial period, & the orders & the getting done &
the getting back in time & the turning it back on, & did you remember, did you pass, did
you lose the address again. . . (p55)
   . . .The future. How could it be performed by the mind became the
                                                        question—how, this sensation called tomorrow and
                                                        tomorrow? Did you look down at
                                                        your hands just now? The dead gods
                                                        are still being
                                                        killed. They don’t appear in
                                                        “appearance.” They turn the page for
                                                        us. The score does not acknowledge
                                                        the turner of
                                                        pages. And always the
absent thing, there, up ahead, like a highway ripped open and left hanging, in the
                                                        void. . . (p45)

Again—that rush of words, use of margins, turns-of-phrase that cut to and make a point—but what’s most notable for me is there is no middle between future and mind, gods and hands, the emergency and losing an address.

I come from a profession and career where, in contrast, because conditions get complex, we look for the meso-level(s). Patterns and formations emerge that are not seen at the level of individual cases nor at the level of universalized generalizations. For Graham, the complexity is in that wide-open combinatorics of micro’s and macro’s. This too is quite a different sensibility for the Anthropocene.



I kept stumbling over making sense of the placement and role of “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” at the beginning of this second book. It seems so different from what follows just after. That is, until I stumbled over what she was erasing.

Where then does “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” take its readers for what follows in P L A CE? My answer starts in medias res as the poem moves to an ending:

When my mother’s voice got closer it had a body.
It had arms and they were holding something
that must have been a basket. My mind now
can go round her, come in front, and wrap her
as her arms wrapped that basket.
And it must have been wicker
because I see in the light the many lucent browns, the white tips,
as she steps out of the shadow
in which nothing but her hands and the front of her act of carrying
are visible. And when her body arrives
it is with the many lemons entirely struck, entirely taken, by sunshine,
which the heavy basket is still now carrying,
and her bright fingernails woven into each other,
and her face with its gaze searching for me,
gaze which felt like one of the bright things she was carrying
in front of herself, a new belly.
All I was to invent in this life is there in the wicker basket among the lemons
having come from below the horizon where the sound of the market rises
up into the private air in which she is moving,
where she is still a whole woman, and a willing woman,
and I hear what must be prices and names called out
of flowers and fruit and meat and live animals in small cages,
all from below us, at the bottom of the village, from that part
which is so comfortable to me which is invisible,
and in which everything has to be sold by noon.
I think that was the moment of my being given my name,
where I first heard the voices carrying the prices
as her face broke and its smile appeared bending down towards me
saying there you are, there you are. (pp65-66)

I now read these lines and the ten poems that follow (to and including “Torn Score”) as a layered palimpsest. It’s a commonplace in my profession that current policies have overwritten past policies, but never completely: Erasures are not entire and different bits of different past texts surface in a new version. This isn’t a completely arbitrary analogy on my part. Graham clearly treats some of the sequence poems as commentary on “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950″ and commentaries form an important part of the history of really-existing palimpsests.


So what?

By the time we get to “Torn Score,” “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” with its sunshine, pregnancy. body and more has been excised and reassembled, contorted and re-margined. The score has in-deed been torn; the sequence-palimpsest is scored over. “Torn Score” starts:

I think this is all somewhere inside myself, the incessant burning of my birth
            all shine
            lessening as also all low-flame
            heat of
love: and places loved: space time and people heightening, burning, then nothing . . .(p100)

The earlier mother “saying there you are, there you are” to the kicks inside has become a kickless “yes” of a wondering I-am:

            this world that 
                                             was, just minutes ago, the only one that
            was – you’re in it
            now – say yes
            out loud – say am I a
wholeness? a congerie of chemical elements? of truths held self-
            evident? – how do I see them?. . .(p101)

It’s now “artificial fire” instead of “the many lemons entirely struck, entirely taken, by sunshine;” the earlier “body” is presently “sacrificial” and “animal;” the remembered “smile” becomes “the last bus out no longer held in memory by anyone”; and “I first heard the voices” becomes a question, “a suddenly right second-thought?”

If we start with “Torn Score,” how are we then to recover anything like a “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950,” had we not read the latter from the start? For that is how a palimpsest has to be read: from the most recent text though to earlier ones, and only then as far as has been recovered or reconstructed.


By the time we get to “Torn Score,” Graham has rendered “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” unrecoverable. This is more than the earlier poem is now extinct. If read backwards from “Torn Score” to the a layer below (“Treadmill”), right off the reader is warned about any exercise in recovery:

                                                                           death by water, death by
wearing out -- death by surprise -- death by marriage -- death by having rummaged 
into the past, into the distant past -- death by ice core and prediction -- the entrails are lying on 
a thousand years of tabletops. . . (p92)

We are by this point in that Graham country of propulsive phases between staggered margins, where rummaging in the past is also a death foretold. The last words of “Torn Score” are “all appetite”; the final words in P L A C E are “I can’t wait until tomorrow.” Who if so needs prophecy, let alone rummaged signs from the past, when now the writing is indelibly on the wall?

Yet few would be so foolish as the predict a poet’s next poem from their body of existing work. Why different for the Anthropocene?


Again: So what?

It means Jorie Graham’s analytic sensibility takes us far, and farther than we thought we could go, but that far and not further. It requires another kind of analytic sensibility–different poems from Graham?–to take the accreted palimpsest now called the climate emergency and recover from below anything like a re-readable “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950.”

That “re-readable” is very important when it comes to a policy palimpsest: It’s to go back and, in our case, find that line, “saying there you are, there you are,” and, in reading that, find you are no longer as distant as you would be if it were extinct but not as close as you would be had you when at first reading.



One of the complexity challenges of the climate emergency can be likened to that of reading Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” as if it were still part of the news (it had been written less than two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic).

So too the challenge of reading the first section of poems in Graham’s Fast, the compilation’s third book. This is an extraordinary 17 pages, not just because of rapid pulse driving her lines, but also for what she evokes by labeling (yes, this is what’s left of Eden). The headline in her news is: “we are in systemcide” (“Shroud,” p148).


To read the sequence—“Ashes,” “Honeycomb,” “Deep Water Trawling,” and five others (pp141-157)—is to experience beginnings (“I spent a lifetime entering”) sutured to the ends (“I say too early too late”), with nary a middle in between (“Quick. You must make up your/answer as you made up your//question.”) We saw such absence of middles in Sea Change.

By not narrativizing the systemicide into beginning, middle and end, she prefers, I think, evoking the experience of now-time as end-time:

action unfolded in no temporality--->anticipation floods us but we/never were able--->not for one instant--->to inhabit time… (p154)

She achieves her elisions with long dashes or —>; also through the concatenation of nouns without commas and of endings without periods. Along the way are questions-as-assertions no longer needing question marks (“I know you can/see the purchases, but who is it is purchasing me—>can you please track that…”). Enjambment and lines sliced off by wide spaces also remind us things are not running smoothly.


So what?

Graham’s lines push and pull across the small bridges of those dashes and arrows. To read this way is to feel, for me, what poet and essayist, Paul Valery, described in a 1939 lecture:

Each word, each one of the words that allow us to cross the space of a thought so quickly, and follow the impetus of an idea which rates its own expression, seems like one of those light boards thrown across a ditch or over a mountain crevasse to support the passage of a man in quick motion. But may he pass lightly, without stopping—and especially may he not loiter to dance on the thin board to try its resistance! The frail bridge at once breaks or falls, and all goes down into the depths. [1]

So much for bridging a meso-level. The swiftness with which I cross her bridges is my experience of the rush of crisis. I also feel pulled forward to phrases and lines that I haven’t read yet. Since the latter is part of my experience of systems going wrong, it doesn’t matter to me whether Graham is catastrophizing or not.

For me, though, the climate emergency does have middles with more mess than memorable beginnings and always-endings—but that in no way diminishes my sense she’s right when it comes to systemcide: “You have to make it not become/waiting…”



The sense and sensation of immediacy (my stale terms) recur more intensely, it seems to me. As in:

breeze and I'd be human again. Swirl of leaf and I'd see it again. The vacancy. The
crust afloat the thing itself. There being no further than this as-if
hallucination. The hallucination of no as-if. The end. What is utterly. Is this

ancient. Is this. As if a huge pity but entirely and only made of matter. Where
has motion gone--it has taken time fate need. All lies here now in
the seen. Not seen as such just there entire in. the laying-out of itself in the
which-is. No if. That's it. The stillness of no if. . .(p270)

It’s an immediacy with those earlier and now other tics: the rush of phases without commas (“time fate need”); questions that are answers (“Is this//ancient.”); ambiguities (“All lies here now”); and some turning toward irony (“That’s it.” as in “The end” earlier). There is also that deliberately placed adverb, “utterly,” and highlighted terms, both of which are pinpricks to (re)turn me to her persistent presentism.


That “turn” and “turning” are also recurring terms in the compilation demands recognizing that this immediacy is not stone-solid throughout. This kind of movement-within-now is highly suggestive, I believe, and I want to conclude with a remarkable passage showing how (“Thaw”, p256):

It was like this:
someone turned your way.
It was a free turn. It was made by them freely.
And what they did then was this.
You had done something. You
seemed to become un-
masked. You
had done something you should not have done. You felt in you that u
wished you had not.
And they did something with their free face,
they tossed it out at you,
a thing not yours to dial-up or own – a thing free – a free thing –
they forgave you.
You are not sure you know what this means. But you are sure this happened once. You
were a thing
that required it.
And it was a thing which was not exact, not on time, not wired-in,
which was able to arrive in
time – just in time – & could be

This I read not as hope or love, it is not resignation, nor does it sound like the earlier “a huge pity” but rather: rings honest, even in the irony, and like a bell-weather, can’t be un- rung.


So what? What does this tell me about the climate emergency, regardless?

My answer turns to an older optic. I stand in a creek and the pebbles below look like treasure in the refracted sunlight. I am of course disappointed when I scoop a handful up and take the closer look. It’s nothing like treasure. Until I see that “true as a wet stone’s shine” I have also been handed (in the phrase of Sally Festing, poet). Where are we registering that version of “shine” in the Anthropocene?

[1] Here is Isaiah Berlin who was at Valery’s lecture: “Valery delivered an agreeable but dull lecture here…He said words were like thin planks over precipices, & if you crossed rapidly nothing happened, but if you stopped on any of them & stared into the gulf you wd get vertigo & that was what philosophers were doing.”

Principal source

Jorie Graham (2022). [To] The Last [Be] Human. Introduction by Robert MacFarlane. Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, WA

A cartography of Yes-But


The Island of Yes-But has two tricky cross-currents that surround it. On one side is the tide race about how no one wants to hear policy and management issues are more complex than they know. Yes, but then again we have a duty of care to ensure decisionmakers understand the issues aren’t as simple as they’d like.

On the other side is the tide race about why we analysts never know what we have to advise decisionmakers until we can make it a story or succinct narrative. Yes, but then again analysts know there has been the dumbing from a five-page memo into a fifteen-minute PowerPoint presentation into the three-minute elevator speech and now the tweet. What next on the graduate school syllabus: Telepathy? “The knowing look” in 10 seconds or less? And yet—it remains true that we have to be able to sum up what’s going on and what can be done.

A good part of the Island’s policy analysis and management should have been speaking truth to power. But there seems little point to that when power already knows “the truth that matters,” while the rest, analysts and managers, are tossed in the tide-races.


Further those of us inland, , we’ve been distracted by “If implemented as planned” and “The best will probably be a combination, depending on the context…” Some of us are learning to be on the look-out for different types of uncertainty as a source of information ahead.

For example, “a” politics of uncertainty rather “the” politics of uncertainty opens possibilities that there are many politics of uncertainty. There aren’t just the current ones of: the politics of the techno-managerial elites in deploying concepts like “uncertainty” for instrumental advantage, the politics of international corporations who see uncertainty as the volatility necessary for always-late capitalism, and the deep skepticism over how anything like remedies can be implemented on the ground.

In a world of multiple politics and uncertainties, neither innovation nor catastrophism (respectively, the cuneiform of markets and of technology) are enough. Actually, what makes the rest of us anxious mirror the two tide-races: the centripetal pressures of closing in on what we think we really know (or can know) and the centrifugal pressures of opening up recasting what has been taken as unknowable or for granted.

Implementers’ scenarios are different

–The authors of what is in my opinion a fine report conclude that significant gaps exist between what’s proposed in the EU AI Act (concerning artificial intelligence) and the existing EU digital legislation (formally “the digital acquis”):

We identify eight key areas where challenges may emerge, and make the following policy recommendations: 1) there is a need to clarify and align the terminology with the legal categories and notions in existing EU legislation related to AI; 2) negotiators should ensure better fine-tuning of the interactions of the act with sector-specific rules (notably in the health sector); 3) the act should be made consistent with EU data protection rules, for example regarding the lawfulness of personal data processing; 4) the act’s risk-based approach features a number of loopholes that need to be addressed to improve legal certainty for AI providers and users; 5) while the act aims to complement existing product safety rules, it requires more detailed provisions to allow for meaningful integration with EU acquis; 6) the act introduces a weak enforcement scheme, which should be strengthened and aligned with other digital policies; 7) EU legislators should tackle the growing divergence between the stated goals of the act and emerging data transfer rules; and 8) the act would benefit from exemptions aimed at promoting scientific research.

Bogucki, A., A. Engler, C. Perarnaud, and A. Renda (2022). THE AI ACT AND EMERGING EU DIGITAL ACQUIS: Overlaps, gaps and inconsistencies. CEPS: Brussels (accessed online on November 3 2022 at

–In my view, the first question we ask isn’t, “Who’s going to adopt the recommendations and, if so, with what modifications?” but rather: “Who would implement the finalized recommendations and what are implementers’ scenarios for failing to do so?”