Zersetzung

Day 10 of one poem a day (… on days when I feel like it, apparently…) from Vagabonding, my second poetry book manuscript. Currently it’s in the “Finding Berlin” section. I’m thinking of moving it to the “Nuremberg 2027″ section envisioning future war crimes trials, and expanding on linkages between things like JTRIG (which the Snowden documents revealed as doing contemporary Zersetzung plus Internet), the Stratfor files (documenting the financial and sexual nature of some tactics in use in these psychological operations), and the old Stasi “science” of degradation. But then it’s a political essay instead of a poem.

Flash fiction is an in-between possibility, literally and figuratively—weaving between poems to make more of a contiguous set of worlds in the book. But it’s hard to orient people quickly in those worlds. And even when you take the book-length time to orient readers, they often think it’s science fiction when it’s about reality. (The Margaret Atwood problem.)

Then again, sometimes you want people to dismiss serious political critique as art, performance, or satire. The jester is protected. The Yes Men are on the loose, while Lauri Love is in court again today to hear whether he’ll be effectively sentenced to death for allegedly participating in digital protests on the anniversary of Aaron Swartz’s death (#OpLastResort). Some of what #OpLastResort did was funny, like making the U.S. Sentencing Commission website display a game with the alert message “PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW! End Prosecutorial Overreach!” and a missile-enabled Nyan Cat with which viewers could shoot text off the webpage.

But the satire frame is serious. Just as the power of the fiction frame is real. You have to claim them early and often, I guess. I learned that as a stand-up comic. (I should do that again sometime—it’s good for my writing, I like the people in that scene here, and it’s fun when I’m actually prepared. But I’m such a serious Stubenhocker—homebody.)

 

“Zersetzung”

Reports indicate that at a reading in early 21st century, pre-war Berlin, the author introduced the poem’s protagonist as a former lie detection researcher-turned-artist and American expatriate who had experienced what was public record but poorly recognized at the time about psychological operations against domestic dissidents in the pre-revolutionary U.S. This poem interweaves her story with an account of a contemporary survivor of similar tactics in the former East Germany, who was still continuing to recover even as the Berlin Wall was gone for as long as it had stood

According to Richtlinie Nr. 1/76,
the Ministry made itself a scientific niche.
To no longer terrorize through courts, resolved.
To go after opposition smarter, not harder, evolved
a new kind of torture to unleash.

I’m not here to argue. It’s my witness to bear.
What they used to do here, now we do over there.
Is that why the city took me in?
You degraded, undermined, corroded, decomposed, dissolved—
we have a home in Berlin.

***

The long arc of history took thirty-odd years
to bend toward Aunt Monica getting over her fears
of the Stasi rediscovering her wearing a dress,
taking pictures, touching, making her confess.
To be a woman but have been born a man
is already more than some people can stand.

And if we had a real lie detector,
could it have helped her?
It can be so hard to know
when it’s yes and when it’s no.
To know what you want requires learning to ask—
not something we learn at a school or work task.

But they knew it was a ploy,
an interrogation toy.
Knew from the Soviets, who had long known
spies are neither made nor discovered, but grown.
“The lie detector says, you a liar”—
more evidence on the chest-crushing pile.

***

Although we know it is only a game,
in Iraq and Afghanistan just the same,
American forces wrote home to complain
that lie detectors worked as hammers to send
sometimes probably innocent men
to be held and tortured at Abu Ghraib.

You could say that they were brave,
to raise the issue of abuse.
Or that they were stupid,
for believing in the screws
they turned, unsuited
by standards of science and ethics alike,
wanting only to better serve the Reich.

I do not care what you say about them.
In their judgment or defense, there is no great wisdom.
They lived as pawns—as pawns will die,
whether peacefully in their sleep
or by revenge, not knowing exactly why.
Them to whom judgment was definite and cheap.

I care about the truth—
that elusive, strange, and pulsing thing;
how just when you think you have it,
you pull up an empty string.
I care about Monica’s pain
that is also my own.
And Anna’s eyes fixed on the train.
And in faraway sands, the unidentifiable bone.

It was their job to pretend to know
who should stay and who should go,
who would walk free,
or not feel the wind blow.
It is my job to touch
the curtain of certainty,
pull it away to show
what we already know—
behind forms and scores personally
guaranteed objective,
there is always a frightened, little man,
some sweaty-palmed detective.

***

What happened is impossible to convey.
That’s part of the way
they make you think the gaslights’ flickering
and the unrelated bickering
are single stars in the sky of your fault.
The file says you said
The miscarriage… the assault.

In the famous movie on the actress
whom they accidentally killed
with one too many no-touch tactic,
there is a mole—
a man within who has a soul
and doesn’t want to see hers stilled.
He does not save her from the blackness
of despair that is the point of his whole practice.
But he tried, and helped a bit to mitigate
the damage he did to disintegrate.

Sometimes I’m so sure someone saw it happening and helped me get out,
that I’m afraid to say so because they could still be inside, acting the lout.
Thank you, stranger.
Let my little fiction cause no danger
to the lives of others.
Know that if I had my druthers,
I’d never go back,
nor unmake the choices that led to the attack.

Especially if you were not helping after all,
but only convincing me that leaving was my only choice
because you wanted me gone—one small,
troublesome person with a soft, persistent voice,
removed in a new Palmer Raid
where it seems to the subject it’s her own idea
to get the fuck out of here—
and those doing the hurting, seem to offer aid.

To be as honest as your average bundle of lies
and contradictions, all bustling head and slippery thighs,
whether and to whom I owe thanks
for helping me leave the targeted ranks
doesn’t keep me up anymore.
The dark bird stalks me nevermore.

What they did to me is done,
and proof would require someone
who did it to say so,
or produce documents to show.
Otherwise, I just sound mad
trying to piece together how I was had,
which was half the point.
The past is a cleared checkpoint.
It interests me less and less
than the open road,
my new home and happiness,
regaining weight at last to bear the future’s (for now) lightening load.

But if I were to ring out a warning,
some eloquent defense of freedom and of living,
of decency and forgiveness after mourning
what has been done,
giving what peace can be given
under the irreversible sun—
it would be that we are too late
to linger long in despair,
too late to abdicate
attention to ads and Kabuki,
too late to stay to fight when we’re not safe there,
and far too late to believe in magic boxes and Washington’s cherry tree.

We have time for triage,
because we must,
and to love each other well.
Time to enjoy the voyage
even with no trust
in our return,
no Athena guiding us through hell,
and no certainty that the tides of history will turn.

When everything was dissolving including myself,
I left my research in boxes on the shelf.
Some was destroyed; some I could save.
And so, finally, I’m releasing these tapes.
We don’t have a word for what kept me from it, yet.
I’ve only told you a story—don’t forget.
Maybe dead men cannot talk,
but they have talked to me.
Sometimes even blind men
get a second chance to see.

And if I were to ring out a confession,
you must excuse my poetic expression.
You may have come for my old life,
but I am no good, Christian wife.
Do you know who I am?
I have been a lover in your house of spies,
and you will never expunge
the heat between my thighs.

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