So there I was, almost at the crossroad
Stuck in a sudden storm of bikers, men in leather, engines snarling.
Flags spurt skywards.
I froze at the metal barricade, the seam of sense unpicked,
Brown body splayed.
In the aftermath of light, what proof is there of love—
Buoyancy of the soul hard to mark
Apart from the body
Its tenuous equilibrium unpicked,
Wave after wave of arrival
Etching questions in encirling air
As if life depended on such flammable notations.
You come, sari with blue border blowing,
Just as I saw you first, head bare.
A sudden turn on asphalt, you reach out your arms
As if in a palash grove and call to me —
Come over here!
Sometimes the bleeding petals bring down a house
Bring down a Republic.
Children are bought and sold for money—
Ghee to burn her. Teen taka. Ten rupees. Ek taka one rupee.
Cloth to cover her with.
Camphor for the burning. Bhang to make her drowsy.
You halt at the crossroad , hair thrummed by a savage wind
(Later I try to follow marks of feet, touch cold cotton
That lashed your flesh in place).
I hear your voice —
Brood, and it will come, a seizure of sense, a reckoning:
Write with chalk, sticks of lead, anything to hand
Use a bone, a safety pin, a nail, write on paper or stone
Let the poem smolder in memory.
In the desolation of time write
How one inked the bubble with a woman’s name
Way at the top of the paper ballot, saw her own hand quiver.
This was in the school with empty metal desks, near Fort Tryon Park.
One set her nipple to her infant's lips
Felt her heart sprout wings, flit over the barbed wire
Of the Immigration Detention Center.
One whimpered in her sleep — Mother, I know I am a tree,
I trail my roots behind me, the man with bad hair will axe me down.
One daubed her face with white paint, crawled
Into a cage outside the museum, hung a sign round
Her own neck — We are barbarians come to live amongst you,
Some of us speak this language.
Hoarse already, you whisper —
Come closer to me.
You who were born in the Gangetic plains
A year after mid century
Consider the fragility of the horizon,
The arc of stars into which your father raised you.
When you fall, as surely you will one day
Try to swim forward into blackness
Arms pointing to where you imagine the vault of heaven to be
As Draupadi did, a great throated cry
She made in the forest,
Only the birds could save her, they picked up her cries.
Think of Antigone, who anointed her brother’s corpse with dirt
To keep away the wild dogs,
She too made bird sounds, guttural cries.
Go to Standing Rock, where people mass outside their tents
In splintering cold, to guard the quiet springs of water.
There the palash blooms,
Tree used for timber, resin, dye,
Tinting the nails of the love god.
On its leaves names swarm –
Anna Mae Aquash , Eric Garner, Freddie Grey,
Julia de Bourgos countless more.
Thrust from earth's core
From the shadow of musk deer,
The green throat of the humming bird,
In the honeycomb of light, they step forward to be counted.
In memory of Mahasweta Devi 1926-2016
Dear what I’ll do,
We are all familiar with terror.
This produces the coming catastrophe
of mind or contagion; produces the cloud,
crowd’s roil overturning,
this discipline of questions. They don’t read, they don’t know—
lovers of terror,
anonymous commenters, ex-soldiers, future mothers, fellow citizens, customers of cable television,
Notes on a lecture, 3/2/11.
Felt through my hair for the missing comb. Kept counting three, knew
there were four. The blind side feels for itself.
• • •
“BOYS WITH FEELINGS” on Lowry Hill Liquors’ worn brick
It’s been the Eighties my whole life.
At the museum with my students
there I saw a nude reminded me of you, how powerfully he
swayed back from those hips where flowered
the firm or dozing, dowsing cock. Go on—I am always in mind of you; let me
“turn to each other” “turn to one another” “turn to
one another” (Spahr) this leaves so little to the political imagination
(eyes his profile on the pillow—finds in dark the
familiar outline but are his
eyes open or closed)
• • •
She doesn’t know, she’s never loved a man like you.
Loft a wrist. heft of lost self.
a sheaf of what wheat.
10/16/12. How my writing changed when I
began to need it.
So today I read
Maggie Nelson quoting Adorno (“Lyric Poetry & Society”): “the lyric I—
that is, the sound of an individuated self,
in all its privacy, individuality, & autonomy—is
always an excision.”
Yesterday I told you what I was thinking
promised myself I wouldn’t.
Hegel: a perfect self-expression will move society forward
p.s. assuming you’re not inwardly ugly?
(Kara Walker: “dear you insufferable cunt”)
• • •
Thinking about writing to Elle,
Dear friend, no, you really didn’t know
what I was going through, it was different for me, I couldn’t just
hang on to the cliff’s edge
like Wile E. Coyote.
For one thing, we didn’t love each other. For another,
(acre of lemon trees)
I loved someone else.
Didn’t you notice?
A wife agrees. A wife agrees to conceal. She conceals a story. But the story unfolds inside her.
Can I express anger without doing only that?
But why not do that?
ain’t chopped liver get the manual
have a face like a bucket of smashed
crabs hurting for certain don’t
think about making a fashion
arrest in this hype joint have you tried
hospital food? because i’m feeling like
a bag of string right now if you don’t collar
the jive you’ll feel the physics random
acts of play excluded rattling about a loose
energy streak across the river crazy
county pines pines trailer
pines at choke point less
amazing shape pattern boasts for this
jitterbug in need of a drop in the
shannon & no ankle taps he asks can i
buy this on the never tick? to which i reply
does a chicken have lips causing that dog
towner to go
beef city meanwhile
bumper to bumper screaming demons
much influenced my writing style around the time i
quit the pop band white horse because
getting our sad on in such simple
bold compositions was all gong no
dinner & ode to cracks discovered upon
a power station reactor in south-west
england proved to only be the start initially you were
all wisteria snagged by a wait-a-minute thorn
bush in big foot county bright red clusters
bare winter branches your distinctive
signature was upon the road to wanker’s
doom then got word of
fist city velvet fog checked your nerves & were all
about that something germinating around the
cackle factory bursts out in fairy lights only to be
distorted by drizzled bands of grey
white pigment before termination by
sophisticated elements that’s
what i’m aiming for
that was my roswell the 1st 7 days were
the worst bright lemon yellow stained
scorched cramped i paid for
the coffee rather than drink from
the fire hose because all that lickety-spit
extolling of a city upon the hill got me dreadful
face ache so come eventual stand-off against complex
mix of hedonistic colors abstract light i went base
over apex piss-to-windward search
& avoid he’ll know how many beans make
5 smoking loco weed in cockroach castle with
his swell pipes preventing this whole thing from
collapse i feel you but can’t reach you through
the gammon & creamed spinach whereby lies
the nuts ‘n’ bolts she said & proletariat drift settles
into warm cluster attrition & they’re totally chill about
giving the cat another gold fish & renewing your royal purple
yankee white clearance which besides
the wildflower roadsides between squaresville & snake’s navel
idaho is the only thing that will ever give me comfort
glass of lunch with some bombsville face stretcher
my 2nd rate hometown is usually the scene of such
meetings fair question would be what’s on the rail for
the lizard? if you find this less than
gross perhaps you should provide comforting
support because i’m more attached to
unsettling backlit places than people viewed today through
minus 7.5 but minus 6 would have done glimmering to the
accompaniment of some kitsch orchestral score giving
me the terrible urge to strip back & edit then
shave the muck am likened to ___ my day is___ my numbers
are ___ my color is___ am adept at___ can help with___ representations of
me are strategically placed to deter retro sci-fi aesthetic cobwebs floodlit center stage i
could change black dog for monkey but your arms & legs must
be painted on &
we have a name for
people like you where i
come from &
that name is
I love my love with a D
because that’s that—
or here, that’s how
you do the third person
It could be he, it could be she,
it could be this or that,
dis or dat, some say back there.
I love my love with a D,
because that’s that.
I love my love with an N,
because that’s the sign of the past,
the gesture for confession yesterday
or earlier, in Ainezalandia
making apology easy. The sign
for place and for time. The wink
of that woman in the intimate you.
I love my love with a K
because that’s what work is.
And it makes the plural.
The cricket says so, too, in Ainezalandia,
in secret. Or—clickety-click—he does say so
too, in secret. Like clockwork.
I love my love with an O
because of the inclusivity:
the mystery of the graffiti—
where that came from.
All of these many last years and years
and even right here, right now
the O infixed in dear Ainezalandia.
I love my love with an O
because of it.
I love my love with an E,
a tiny dialect, much loved
Everywhere anyone can sing it
it is per se per se—
needs no accompaniment.
Anyone can speak it out loud,
avow or requite it, love it,
in his/her/its own E-landia
and know itself loved.
Whence my love with an E.
I love my love with an H
because of how
they decided it:
the spellings in Ainezalandia—
what was going to be silent.
I love my love with an H
because of that silence / this silence.
I love my love with a T
because he looks like a terrorist
and isn’t one.
I love my love with a T
because he looks like a terrorist
and isn’t one.
I feel a nessness
and it grows
in color and size
until I can no longer sit
obediently at my tulip
table in my boiled shirt
and my bursting polish
counting my blanks and fews
until I leap up in eight
thousand uncalculated motions
one more jagged than the next
like a fistful of weapons aimed
at getting nothing done
in a subject clouding over
and come to a momentary sill
I feel a nessness
and something is ready
towards the core of it
to be drawn out and placed
into vials and a network of paper strips
marked with fine tip instruments
and presented before a court
that is tasked with determining
the weight we beat upon each other
and the burden on the air and small
creatures that must be, copper ounce
by ounce, lifted by the uptick
of our sternums, mid-haul
vapors filling a repository
ordinary sound embalms us inside
I feel a nessness
but what to do with the exchange
of funds required to numb our
erosion, the late-night fidget of numbers
hemorrhaging into a surrounding white
I went into the woods with some friends
we built a fire with nutritional pamphlets
I came out a movement of bright spots
pressed to a retreating shadow
the light on the little bush
at the edge of the property
made it look or seem to shake
witnessing the feelings of others
in the heat’s color, a jealousy
developed bluely—toxic little center
I feel a nessness
I never arrive and nobody
tells me a thing
as if I could be more arc than stamp
a platter with scented branches
smudge at the tip of thought
the creaking dock from which
the boats of me sail off
fine folk, ghosts, friends,
I ask for delicate activation
I need it to live and breathe, to go on
to leave. How do you know you know,
you know? I have no more room
to lay down in this life. This light
on my hand becomes my hand
Tarred, tarried July above the finger-point
of by-law. Quiet men
are quietly roofing in runic arrests. Progress can be stopped
with only minor internal damage and a length of rope
short enough to miss the point.
Everything can and will happen at once.
Except the sun’s light, which is not full,
but an incomplete weave that covers the most
controversial areas of interest.
In a cab, you know without lesson it’s better to talk
to your hours-dead cat wedged into its carrier
like an overstuffed closet of furs.
It’s okay. Hello, Little One. Hello.
It’s better for everyone
if you decide it’s better for everyone.
There is the take-away. In coolers,
the dead become firmer in their resolve
to remain firm. At home, celery softens and pools
in the corner you regularly remember to forget.
Telephones funnel the regrets of future days.
intersections like a planchette you’re directing
but would deny. The roads are being torn up
for new roads. Anyone could have
predicted that, even you.
Heat gulleys best intentions
and hours lean. Work crews
adopt fresh pace. You will find out
the work you do is internal. You will
undo it. A spill of vinegar into the milk.
Accidentally render both useless. You are being
closed into the hour like an exhibit. When the glass
comes down, a voice will say, It’s okay, it’s okay.
Air conditioners drone in precision flocks.
The air will last until it doesn’t.
Paul Kingsnorth led the way, Gulliver-like, through the Lilliputian orchard he has put in since buying these two and a half acres in the west of Ireland three years ago. “Oh dear,” he said, “something’s dug that up.” He stooped to push back into place a young currant bush that a rabbit had uprooted. It was the deft motion of someone at ease in body and place, a writer with dirt beneath his fingernails. The sapling may be not much taller than his ankles, but the plan is that before long it will help provide the food that he and his family eat all year round; already, they are self-sufficient in the summer, more or less. He knows how to plant a field, how to wield a scythe.
This is all part of a philosophy articulated in Kingsnorth’s essays, and more obliquely in his fiction, that it is too late to save the world, but you can care for one small part of it, enriching both the land and your own life in the process. He has moved here from his native England to put theory into practice. Earlier, playing the good host, he had pointed out the bathroom, saying, “It’s a compost toilet, so just put down some sawdust when you are finished.” This, too, is part of the theory, as outlined in his forthcoming essay collection Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. Plumbing is symbolic of “a civilisation that wants to wash its hands of its own wastes”; Kingsnorth proposes a new metaphor: “I will deal with my own shit” and, in such noisome contemplation, come to a better relationship with the natural world of which he is a part. As Thoreau had his pond, so Kingsnorth has—to use the English slang—his bog.
There’s an important distinction between ‘the end of the world’ and the end of the way we’re living now; it’s the latter that’s ending.
At forty-four years old, he is the author of two novels, a poetry collection, and three works of nonfiction. He is a founder of the Dark Mountain Project, a movement of creative artists united by a belief that climate change and humanity’s self-destructiveness cannot now be stopped, and a desire to respond to this accepted fate with works that are honest and often darkly beautiful, beautifully dark. His crowdfunded debut novel The Wake (2014), set around the Norman invasion of England in 1066, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Film rights have been optioned by Mark Rylance, often described as the greatest British actor of his generation, who plans to play the lead. Paul Greengrass, director of three Jason Bourne films, has been asked to write the screenplay.
“Paul Kingsnorth’s writing has had a huge impact of me,” Rylance said when we spoke on the phone. “I’m drawn by his consideration of what’s valuable in the world, and his challenge to the economic paradigm that we live in. I find his work very helpful in informing my thinking.”
His latest novel Beast (2016)—a sequel to The Wake—will be published by Graywolf Press in August, as will the Confessions collection. I met Kingsnorth on a wet afternoon in late February. We spoke in the living room of his cottage. His dog Quincy dozed in her basket by the fire, and the voices of his children, busy being homeschooled by his wife, Nav, drifted in from another room. Mounted high on one wall was a collection of “green men”—ten faces carved in wood and stone, each surrounded by a corona of foliage, symbolising wildness, rebellion, rebirth. An eleventh was out of sight, tattooed on his right shoulder, its tendrils groping downwards as if toward the light at the end of his sleeve. It is the arm with which he writes, and works a spade; pen and blade, both digging down to the truth of things.
Those inked leaves on pale skin made me think of something he had said earlier as we walked in his fields: “The severing of people away from everything else that lives is the heart of the crisis that we’re in.”
Peter Ross: Beast is the middle part of a planned trilogy spanning two thousand years. It is set in the present day and tells the story of Edward Buckmaster, perhaps a descendent of Buccmaster in The Wake, living the life of a hermit and trying to track down a large black animal that he glimpses on the moor. The Wake was striking in that you wrote it in an invented “shadow-tongue,” a mixture of Old and modern English. Beast is written in much more familiar language, but still feels uncanny and unchancy.
Paul Kingsnorth: I’m aspiring to produce the “uncivilised” writing we called for in the Dark Mountain manifesto back in 2009. I think that's more about style and execution than subject matter. If your writing becomes too controlled, not chaotic enough, then you’ve lost one of the fundamental elements of what it means to be an animal in the world. The idea is to write like a mountain hare—or like a mountain. What would it be like to attempt to write from the animal in you, and from the land around you, rather than from the rational, well behaved, civilized person that you are trained to be? Our writing is too civilized now. It’s too rational and realist, too middle class and urban. The kind of stuff that we lay out in mainstream culture as the height of great literature is not saying anything about the state of the world. It’s not saying anything about crumbling civilizations or climate change or extinction, or the complexity of being human in the midst of all that. It’s fake. I’m trying not to be fake.
The thing about these novels of mine, if I don’t make them strange, I’ll bore myself. I can’t imagine writing a third-person realist novel. I think I’d die of boredom.
My writing is also increasingly religious, or spiritual, although “spiritual” is such a horrible New Age word. I am a Zen Buddhist, but that’s not exactly a religion, it’s more a practice. As I get older, the spiritual mystery of life seems to be coming to the fore. It’s right there in Beast, which is a religious book, a quest book. It’s all the way through The Wake as well. I have a strong sense that the earth is alive. I’ve always had this. I remember reading Wordsworth when I was fifteen or sixteen and being really struck by the fact that he was talking about experiences that I had had—when you are up on a mountain and the world opens itself up to you. All the time when I was young, I felt there were mysterious things going on in nature. I believed in fairies and magic and all that. Then you grow up and put all that to one side, but it feels like it’s coming back into my writing as I get older. One of the disastrous stories our culture tells itself is that the world is a machine, and that you can cut it into bits and look at how it works. But it’s not a machine, it’s a great web of life with a strange religious mystery bubbling underneath.
PR: For most of your twenties you were a green activist who believed that by campaigning you could save or change the world. But at some point, around 2008, you stopped believing it was possible to avoid environmental catastrophe. Can you explain how that loss of faith happened?
‘This guy says the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do, so we should all have a party.’
PK: It wasn’t some blinding flash of light. I came to realize, gradually, that no matter how much information you give people, it doesn’t make much difference. There’s a huge level of psychological denial.
When I worked at The Independent in 1995, I was obsessed with climate change, but nobody on that newspaper was interested and nothing on it ever got published. I remember thinking, “If only we could get climate change on to the front page, things would really change.” Well, now it is on the front pages very often, and everybody knows about it, and the politicians and business leaders all know about it, and yet nothing’s changed. There hasn’t been any effective action at all. I also remember thinking, “If there was a real disaster in America, say one of their cities got flooded, they would wake up.” Then New Orleans happened and that didn’t make any difference to the direction of travel either. Maybe there will come a time when things get so bad that we have to change our ways, but I don’t think that will happen in time to prevent irreversible ecological shifts.
One of the problems with the green movement is that it is constantly issuing deadlines: “We’ve only got five years to save the world!” I read Naomi Klein’s book on climate change a while back, and I found it ludicrous and dishonest. There’s plenty of good research in there about how the corporations are refusing to act and are covering up what needs to be done, but then she says that we have to have radical change in ten years and provides an enormous list of impossible global tasks. She’s a smart woman and she knows damn well none of that is going to happen.
PR: How did it feel when you accepted the end of the world? Relief or despair?
PK: I’d make an important distinction between “the end of the world” and the end of the way we’re living now; it’s the latter that’s ending. What do I feel about that? Kind of both. More relief, actually. There’s a common notion among activists that “taking action” must be inherently hopeful. If you’re going on demonstrations or working to stop climate change then that’s a hopeful or optimistic thing. But after a while, when people realize they are banging their heads against a brick wall, this kind of campaigning leads to despair. What I found when I said, “You know what? This isn’t going to work,” was that a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I’ve stopped pretending that the impossible is possible.
People often call me dystopian. They think, “This guy says the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do, so we should all have a party.” I like a party as much as the next man, but that’s not the point I’m making. I’m saying we should be honest about what’s happening and not entertain fantasies about how we can turn it around with, for example, global governance. How does that focus your mind? Where does that leave you? What do you do? Dark Mountain starts with those questions.
PR: It has been suggested that you and the Dark Mountain Project rather enjoy the prospect of the collapse of civilization; that you take pleasure in the idea that humanity’s going to get what it deserves.
PK: It depends on how I feel in the morning. Sometimes I think it’s awful and I wish we could do something about it. Other times I am more optimistic and think, well, maybe it won’t be so bad and there’s still plenty we can do. And yeah, at other times I think “It fucking serves us right.” If I see a particularly egregious example of ecological destruction, or I read about another species that’s disappeared, or I see twenty people walking down the street with their eyes glued to their smartphones, I can think, “I don’t care if it all collapses.” Anyway, the thing that I’m most concerned about is not human civilization, it’s the fate of the earth. That’s what matters. I’m interested in life—which includes humans. But if we have created a civilization that is destroying everything else that lives in order to keep us overfed for an extra few years then it wouldn’t bother me if it fell apart, no.
‘We have created a civilization that is destroying everything else that lives in order to keep us overfed. It wouldn’t bother me if it fell apart.’
We are just animals doing what animals do. We are trying to feed ourselves and be comfortable, and we are competing with other animals for territory. We just have knowledge and power far beyond our wisdom. That’s what we’re lacking – wisdom. We have plenty of information, but we don’t seem to know how to use it.
It’s the way we’re living that’s the problem, and the culture that we’ve got, and the stories that we tell ourselves. The Kalahari Bushmen built a culture that lasted for thirty thousand years and did very little damage. The Australian Aborigines did the same thing. There are tribes in the Amazon who have no word for “war.” It’s possible to be human in a different way. I don’t think it’s inevitable that humans are going to destroy everything, but I think it is probably inevitable that this civilization is going to destroy itself. One way or another, this materialistic, tech-driven, progressive civilization has got to hit the buffers and fall apart before we can change anything.
PR: So why write? What’s the point in trying to be creative and analytical in the face of collapse?
PK: It’s something I’m driven to do, and it seems like it could be useful. I know from the work we do at Dark Mountain that simply giving voice to this stuff is very useful to a lot of people who are out there thinking the same thing but feel they are alone with it. People tell me that they felt despair but couldn’t say anything because they had to look positive in front of their friends.
PR: Dark Mountain is literary grief counseling?
PK: There’s a degree of that, yeah. It’s like going through the stages of grief. Eventually you pass through despair and rage to acceptance of the reality, and that feels good. It’s a very Zen place to be. You do your work. You chop the wood and you carry the water.
PR: But writing books and putting them out into the world, having children—these are hopeful acts.
PK: That’s quite true. I’m not hopeless. But I don’t feel hopeful either. Hope is irrelevant. Hope and despair both cloud the mind. I’m just trying to get on with life. There are lots of wonderful things about life, and there will still be lots of wonderful things about it when this civilization has fallen apart. There might be more of them. When all the skyscrapers and oil wells are just memories, there will still be life everywhere. There might be great flocks of parakeets in the air again.
PR: The best essay in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist is, for me, “Upon the Mathematics of Falling Away.” You begin by writing about your father Robert’s sudden death in 2007 and move to a more general discussion of collapse and endings and change. Can I ask how losing him affected you personally and in your work?
PK: It hasn’t escaped my attention that his death is the moment when my work changes a lot. I didn’t realize until after my dad died how much I was trying to prove to him, and that urge to prove myself had somehow manifested itself in my political activism—even though he didn’t agree with pretty much anything I stood for. He was a businessman, a Thatcherite, a working-class self-made man. He came from a background where he didn’t have very much, and worked his way up the chain until he was running companies. He had always been a strong presence in my life, and it sounds like a terrible thing to say, but actually his dying gave me a sense of release. I felt I could be something I couldn’t be before. I had had a notion of wanting to be a high-achieving campaigning journalist and writer, and that clearly came from my dad. When that pressure wasn’t there any more, I realized it wasn’t what I actually wanted to do. I wanted to write, but I didn’t want to be famous, or be on television news programs, or edit a national newspaper. Underneath this supposedly ambitious journalist was a poet, and that was the side that flowered. And, of course, if somebody close to you commits suicide unexpectedly then it naturally gives you a darker view of life.
I don’t believe that a writer or any kind of artist is just themselves alone. There’s always a wider sense of connection with the human community.
PR: I’m sure there must be some relation between the loss of your father and the grief you must have felt, and your emerging feelings of loss and grief around the environment. Can you talk about that connection?
PK: I’m not sure I’m equipped to explain how they are linked, but they clearly are. There’s a clear sense of looking collapse in the face and wanting to deal with loss globally and personally. I also had a feeling that I needed to be honest about the darkness. People don’t like talking about suicide, it’s very difficult to talk about, and there is a clear link between that denial and the way people often react to my writing about the death of life on earth. A lot of the negative reactions to Dark Mountain and to me when I talk about this stuff come from the fact that people don’t like looking at the darkness. But it is like dealing with suicide in that sense. You have to look into the abyss and say, “Well, that’s what happened.” My dad’s death led me to look at things I think I’d been wanting to look at for a long time. There’s a mysterious, elemental aspect to all this, too, because the style of my writing changed as well, and I don’t know why or quite how that happened. By the time I came to write the Dark Mountain manifesto, having gone through that experience of his death, I felt I had been given permission to not pretend any more. I just wanted to write the truth.
PR: Why did you move here to Ireland and buy this land?
PK: We wanted a change of life. My wife was a psychiatrist in the National Health Service, and very disillusioned. It was a pharmaceutical sausage machine, doling out drugs that didn’t work to people who didn’t need them. We wanted to live in the country, have our own land, grow our own food. We couldn’t afford to do that in Britain. You have to be a millionaire to live simply there. I have a nine-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy. I want them to be able to run around in the fields and climb trees instead of looking at screens all day.
PR: You can’t save the world but you can at least look after this part of it?
PK: Yeah, I think so. How long was I going to write and talk about nature before going and getting my hands dirty? I’m going to do what I can do, and one of the things I can do is try and bring my kids up well, plant some trees, and try to slow down and pay attention to things. Having a bit of land is a kind of discipline—you have to shut up and focus and learn. Sometimes it’s best to do nothing.
PR: Is there a survivalist aspect to the way you are trying to live? Are you trying to learn to survive the catastrophe you predict coming?
PK: I wouldn’t call it survivalism. That conjures up images of men with guns in shacks. I’m not expecting some nuclear war or apocalyptic zombie catastrophe, but there is certainly a slow grinding collapse going on. So I want my children to know what seeds are and how to plant them. I want them to know how to light fires and how to use knives and simple tools. I want them to know how to cook properly and how to ferment drinks. The more of those things you know, the more connected you are to life, the more control you have, and the more choice you have over how to live. I don’t want them growing up in a consumer economy that wants to teach them absolutely nothing about how living is done. Even if all that stuff doesn’t fall apart in their lifetime, which it might well, it’s a powerless way to live. You end up making yourself a slave. You are completely dependent on this destructive world-spanning machine, and you are not fully human. I want them to be fully human. So it’s an insurance policy but it’s also just a way of living. And it’s enjoyable. You can’t live this way from some puritanical notion. You actually have to enjoy it, which we do.
PR: In your introduction to The World-Ending Fire (2017), a new collection of essays by Wendell Berry, you write that “some places want writers to tell their stories.” Is that what you feel is happening to you here—that the land is shaping or directing or seeping into your work?
PK: I hope so. I want it to. I do have the slightly mystical notion that places can speak through people, and the stories that we think we’re telling don’t come just from us; they come from somewhere outside us. I don’t believe that a writer or any kind of artist is just themselves alone. There’s always a wider sense of connection with the human community, or with the community beyond that. Working in that cabin in the field out there has certainly affected the way I write, and the writing itself. It seems like a much cleaner process now. There’s a certain power in place that you can tune into. That’s an idea I have tried to get into the novels: that the land is speaking to you, and it’s hungry, and it wants something, and it’s going to get it whether you like it or not.
Trump is a barbarian, but barbarians are what you get when empires collapse.
PR: Does living like this change how it feels when you sit down at the blank page?
PK: Yes. I’m walking over to the cabin in the morning when it’s still dark, lighting the fire; standing listening to the songthrush and watching the sun come up. I’m deliberately opening up a space for the place that I am in, and the sunrise, and the birds, and the things that are growing to come into the writing. I’m inviting them in. Beast was a book that to some degree I planned, but I was still surprised by the relative smoothness with which it flowed out. I think that was in part down to opening myself up to what the place gives me.
PR: In an essay published the day before the U.S. election, you likened Hillary Clinton to a corrupt late Roman emperor and Donald Trump to a barbarian hammering at the gates. If you had a vote, would you have cast it for the emperor or the barbarian?
PK: I don’t think I’d have voted for either of them. I would certainly not have voted for Clinton as she was just the continuation of a dead system. I kind of like the chaos energy that Trump is bringing, but I’m not sure I could have brought myself to vote for him. I’ve waited my whole life to see what is effectively an independent candidate in the White House, a guy who is going to take on the media establishment and global free trade and the authoritarian left and stand up for the working class, and it’s just a shame that it had to be Donald Trump. Those are the things he says he is going to do, but I’m not sure he is capable, and a lot of what he stands for I dislike intensely, especially his cowboy attitude to nature.
PR: On the day that you and I confirmed this interview, Trump signed executive orders to allow construction of the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. Surely you can’t favor that?
PK: Of course not. But what you see with Trump is American capitalism with its mask off. Obama talked a great game about climate change, but he never did anything. He was so charming that he could drone-bomb people every day for eight years and the media who are now calling Trump a fascist wouldn’t say anything about it. Trump is a barbarian, but barbarians are what you get when empires collapse, and the United States is obviously a collapsing empire.
At this point, his children burst into the room, laughing and roaring, pretending to be wildcats. They are learning to play guitar and harp and were due at a concert. Although Nav does most of the homeschooling, Kingsnorth gives a creative writing lesson every Friday. “We’ve been working on haiku,” he explained.
He pulled on a pair of rubber boots and we walked over to the cabin where he works. On the way, he pointed out the vegetable garden, the space set aside for chickens, the treehouse he has built for the youngsters. Fathers and children—it is a tender spot for him. “I want the children to have a home, and a sense of growing up in one place, which I never quite had; I’d like them to have somewhere they belong.”
Kingsnorth cast a critical eye over his two and a half acres, a green man in a green land. “If I was a millionaire, I’d buy up all the farms around here and cover them in trees and lakes and create a very small national park,” he mused. “If this interview sells me enough books, I could do that. But I’m not holding out much hope.”
Paul Kingsnorth will be teaching at the Great Mother and New Father Conference in Nobleboro, Maine, May 27–June 2. He will run Stories From The Cliff Edge: A Dark Mountain Weekend at The Rowe Center, Massachusetts, June 2–4. He will be running a day event with mythologist Martin Shaw at Point Reyes Books, California, on August 4.
In late February nineteen-year-old “Dreamer” Josue Romero was arrested by the San Antonio police for possession of under two ounces of marijuana. Even though the Honduras-born youth had been granted relief from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, police handed him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Romero’s detention evoked immediate public outcry at the possibility that a misdemeanor charge might cause him to be expelled from the country where he had lived since he was four. Thanks to the local media and activists, who celebrated Josue as a promising art student and a “good” immigrant, he was released by ICE after two days in detention. But while Romero remains in the United States for now, he is the exception. Hundreds of thousands of other immigrants with criminal arrests have not been spared from deportation.
For strategic reasons immigration advocacy has coalesced around Dreamers and families of “law-abiding” immigrants, while keeping in the shadows those who are deported on criminal grounds. The consequences of this tactic to emphasize immigrant respectability have been catastrophic for those who have been deported under the guise of criminality, perpetuating a silence that provides cover for a massive deportation regime that must be questioned and dismantled.
In 2016 more than 60,000 immigrants were cast out from the United States on criminal grounds. According to ICE, “criminal removals” comprised 92 percent of all deportations from the nation’s interior last year, compared with only 3 percent in 1980. Yet immigrants are not committing more crime than in the past. Rather the definition of “criminal” has broadened significantly since the 1990s, when the federal government began criminally prosecuting immigration infractions that were previously enforced as civil matters, while also deporting an unprecedented number of immigrants with minor criminal records.
Immigrants are not committing more crime than in the past. Rather the definition of “criminal” has broadened significantly since the 1990s.
So-called criminal deportations bring into clear focus our nation’s “crimmigration” system, where immigration policy, criminal law, and their corresponding enforcement apparatuses are tightly intertwined. Though targeted as criminals, often at the hands of the police, deportees are not granted the same due process rights in the immigration system that are guaranteed in the criminal justice system. Many are detained for months or years without bond, and few have the chance to see a lawyer or have their day in court before ICE permanently expels them from their adopted homeland. Though technically an administrative measure rather than a criminal sentence, deportation is an extreme form of punishment that rips people from their families and communities. Moreover, because the vast majority of deportees are immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, deportation operates through racially disparate sentencing that reserves the harshest penalties for people of color.
This has been the cornerstone of our nation’s immigration system for the past three decades, and it has met with little public outcry. Believing that immigrants who break the law deserve to be deported, most Americans are blind to the separate and unequal justice system that governs immigration detention and deportation. The full dangers of this silence—of acquiescing to an ever-expanding notion of the criminal who needs deporting by any means necessary—are now coming into view.
• • •
The allure and perils of the criminal immigrant trope are evident in Donald Trump’s rise to power. Trump peddles an alarmist picture of an America under siege by Muslim terrorists and Mexican rapists. His executive orders on immigration directed the Department of Homeland Security to pursue not only immigrants with felony convictions, as under Obama, but also any non-citizen arrested for or suspected of having committed a deportable offense, “fugitive aliens” with prior removal orders against them, and anyone known to “abuse public benefits.” Millions more immigrants now fall under Homeland Security’s elastic dragnet.
While Trump’s discourse and proposed plans are particularly draconian, the creation of a powerful state apparatus for identifying, incarcerating, and deporting the criminal began three decades ago. The criminalization of immigrants in part resulted from more aggressive policing of communities of color. In the 1980s and ’90s, law enforcement agencies across the nation implemented broken windows and stop and frisk strategies, claiming that mass arrests for low-level offenses would prevent more serious crime. As immigrants who lived in these communities fell victim to racialized policing and mass incarceration, the federal government’s rosters of the criminal immigrant exploded.
Ronald Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 established the aggravated felony charge and made murder, drug trafficking, and firearms trafficking deportable offenses. George H. W. Bush in 1990 and Bill Clinton in 1996 signed immigration reform laws that expanded the aggravated felony charge to include a long list of nonviolent offenses with sentences of one year or more. In a neoliberal era that prioritized “immigrant responsibility,” falsified documents and unauthorized reentry became criminal violations punishable with prison time followed by deportation. The number of non-citizens in federal prisons rose steadily, as did deportations of immigrants with criminal records, including green card holders who were convicted and served their sentences far before 1996.
After 9/11, drunk drivers, turnstile hoppers, marijuana users, and gamblers were all turned over by police to federal immigration authorities.
The links between the criminal and immigration systems grew stronger after 9/11 with the increase of surveillance and vigilance around national security. George W. Bush created the Secure Communities and 287(g) programs, which instituted unprecedented information sharing and cooperation between immigration and domestic law enforcement to identify and apprehend immigrants with deportable offenses. Drunk drivers, turnstile hoppers, marijuana users, and gamblers were all turned over by police to federal immigration authorities. Obama escalated this system, deputizing thousands of police officers to do the job of immigration law enforcement, thus overseeing three million deportations, more than any other president in U.S. history. Though he claimed to go after “felons, not families,” Obama’s ICE also deported over a million undocumented immigrants with no criminal records who were stopped by police for minor traffic infractions such as broken taillights and jaywalking. In his second term, faced with an increasingly vociferous immigrant rights movement, Obama ended Secure Communities and directed ICE to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” by focusing on non-citizens with aggravated felony convictions rather than low-level misdemeanors and immigration-related infractions. Still the paradigm of the criminal immigrant was kept in place, along with the DHS’s database of information.
Today teams of ICE agents aggressively swarm homes and workplaces in search of “fugitive aliens.” Drones hover over the border with Mexico. The DHS refers to undocumented immigrants that get swept up in its raids as collateral arrests—vocabulary that suggests warzone conditions in which the violation of civil liberties is necessary to protect national security. The immigration trap built over the past 30 years is an interconnected network of federal and local law enforcement that detains over 400,000 immigrants on any given day. Trump now controls it, and is already fashioning it into something even more brutal.
• • •
In early February, rosters in hand, ICE escalated its arrests, sweeping up others in the process. Homeland Security announced its intent to reinstitute the Secure Communities program and multiply the number of 287(g) agreements, which will put potentially thousands more police officers in the business of immigration enforcement. Almost immediately civil liberties and immigrant rights advocates lambasted the administration’s expansion of deportation priorities and its trampling of due process. Op-eds rehashed familiar statistics that immigrants are less likely to break the law than citizens, least likely to access public welfare programs, pay billions in federal and state taxes, and, in the case of Dreamers, are found to outperform their U.S.-born peers in our nation’s universities. Their narrative decried Trump’s criminalization of our nation’s overwhelmingly law-abiding and productive immigrant communities.
But the oft-made claim of innocence furthers a disturbing respectability politics that aids the Trump administration’s assault on communities of color. By insisting that most immigrants do not deserve to be deported, advocates leave unchallenged the idea that the criminals do. The good immigrant narrative misses the ways that overpolicing and mass incarceration produce a reservoir of immigrants with criminal records, creating an endless chain of detentions and deportations.
By focusing on the mistreatment of “good” immigrants, advocates miss the bigger point that everyone should have the right to due process.
Nothing illustrates the linkages between mass incarceration and mass deportation more clearly than the history of the War on Drugs. The Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations bloated police department coffers and put tens of thousands more cops in communities of color. More police and bigger budgets meant more arrests, more convictions, and more incentive to police to maintain agency resources. The overpolicing of low-income neighborhoods has meant a sharp increase in the number of immigrants of color encountering the criminal justice —and thus the deportation—systems. In particular, more and more black and brown immigrants, both undocumented and authorized, were arrested and convicted of drug crimes, received longer sentences than their white counterparts, and then were deported. Between 2007 and 2012, there was an increase of 22 percent (totaling 260,000 deportations) in the number of lawful permanent residents and undocumented immigrants deported for drug offenses. Research shows that black deportees are the most likely to be legal permanent residents deported for drug convictions. The intersection of anti-drug policy and the Department of Homeland Security’s expanded deportation powers reflect and reinforce anti-black racism in our nation’s system of law, yet are rarely challenged in tandem.
Contrary to the stereotype, most immigrants deported for drug offenses are not traffickers or violent offenders. The largest group (39 percent) was convicted on possession charges, rather than sale, manufacturing, or smuggling. In 2013 marijuana possession was the fourth most common reason for a criminal removal, behind illegal entry, DUIs, and traffic offenses. Ironically, even as the Obama administration advocated for treatment and prevention over incarceration for those who suffer from addiction, drug-related deportations did not cease. Treatment over punishment only applied to U.S. citizens. Immigrants continue to pay a steep, and vastly greater, price for drug offenses.
While the good/bad immigrant debate is now being challenged by the immigrant rights movement and civil liberties groups (most notably the ACLU), progressive politicians and organizational leaders have yet to follow suit. Many states, cities and universities are creating sanctuary policies that make exceptions for criminal immigrants. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti and many members of the city council have balked at the idea of providing city funding to cover legal costs for immigrants with criminal records who are fighting deportation. And in New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has stated that he is willing to accommodate Assemblyperson Nicole Malliotakis's request to expand the existing list of 170 criminal offenses for which the city complies with ICE detainers.
Although there has been growing awareness and action around the abuses behind mass incarceration, too often have they been siloed from discussions of and advocacy around mass deportation. Public pressure has forced many states to remove three-strike laws from their books, but few in the public are aware that the government may deport a non-citizen who has three misdemeanor convictions. Calls to roll back oversentencing in the criminal justice system have not made connections to deportation as a form of extreme punishment. The federal government routinely deports people who have already paid for their crime by serving a prison sentence, but outrage over this unconstitutional double indemnity is seldom heard in debates over immigration reform.
More than ninety years ago, Chief Justice Louis Brandeis warned that deportation could result in “loss of both property and life; of all that makes life worth living.” Outrage at this cruel and extreme punishment must extend to all immigrants, without exception. Supporters of immigrant rights must unequivocally reject weakened rights and racially disparate sentencing for non-citizens with criminal records. Otherwise they are providing cover for a massive and unjust deportation regime.
Alone, an audience can only speak for themselves and the idea of observing the space between them and what isn’t
apparent, though it makes them anxious to not imagine the spherics of clouds, wind, indicators of the probability of rain
and retreat, how the body turns inside itself when it is wet, pressing everything back as one presses against the wind
when walking through snow, a memory of footsteps striding behind them. A History, says the audience, which so soon covered
will never repeat. There is little, of course, to leave behind when you’re not here. Incisor. Mandible. Quarter moon of bone.
A separation, says the audience, which is to say, a sort of ghost. A sleight. Afterthought of anise leaving its cloud across the tongue.
What are you if not a better skin?
a symbol for what’s kept
within folds of sterile plastic:
coiled, cinched tight
as a blindfold around muscles
and a skeleton—Nothing flinches,
nothing turns inside
your barren walls. Impervious
purse, what kicks against
your stomach never stirs
from within: the clock of bones
in my intricate hands—
or some ligature of wind—
will brush against your surface
and send you rippling
into the sound of static. Black
gown, what you hold
was once exquisite: Be dark
enough to keep my eyes
from seeing what gestates inside.
I’m done with all this talk of breath—
the crush of waves that coalesced
into an unplowed field of sea
has fouled your mouth repeatedly
with water. Its flower reappears
above my head as atmosphere
and seeds itself in thunderheads—
but I’m done with thinking of the dead.
I’m done, too, with this talk of tongues
and how a mouth can be undone
by something lifeless as the sea.
We both know that it should have been me
whose bronchials held down, still burn,
whose body holds an ocean’s worth
of salt scorching its bloodless veins.
You fall now as torrential rain
and fill me as a black cistern:
a bowl to hold your mass on earth,
where you still tremble on some coast.
But I’m done searching for your ghost
through the catacombs of night terrors:
room by awful room, you enter
my paralysis: my sleep.
Once again you’ve learned to speak
I don’t believe in god or ghosts, but, dead
for days, he reappeared. Not as I remember
him, not flesh, on an invisible wind—fed
by equilibrium—not from dirt untethered.
He resurrected as blood-warm weather,
as flight, an exit wound in anemic clouds,
empty as a gun barrel. After we found
his body, I hid my mouth beneath sheets
in my coffin-rack. Breathless, I drowned
myself awake, my skin pale as the meat
of a pear. How could he appear, facedown
underwater, then circle like an hour
overhead, some I caged inside reliquary
bones that bends birds to flight, tourniqueting
sky around their wings, pink as match heads?
Who charcoaled the tongues of flaming birds,
made mine, with artless blasphemy, shed
unholy syllables? The unheard
Gods made men devour the tongues of birds,
as if a song might solidify a place inside soil
and not above, where bodies never spoil.
Or maybe I have too much faith in eyes.
I can’t recall the shape of every stone,
but, somehow, my mind has memorized
the double helix’s whorl, which makes bone,
muscle, eye, and everything I know.
And somewhere in its simple code—cells,
mitochondria—an atom cannot tell
where the living end, where the dead begin:
each breath must be a memory in lungs
designed to fail this blood rubble, ruin
of skin, a body born from a million suns
exploding. Am I just the sky undone,
a clot of chemistry, dreaming a shepherd
for its dead? I am—if god is ghost or bird.