by Jack Chelgren

Today my friend is late
9 a.m. a cold spell
I go buy a coffee
from a nice coffee shop
whose walls have a map
explaining the Direct
Relationships I now enjoy
with South America
There are only white people
in the nice coffee shop
because white people
only know how to live
through commodities
Take me for instance
several minutes / a few blocks away
killing time at a vintage
store, trying on wool
bomber jackets I won’t buy
retro Microsoft baseball cap
black crewneck sweatshirt
with red Goosebumps letters
BAD VEGAN
Having been vegan once
I feel in on the joke
Somehow also have no clue
who it’s mocking or why
Was it BAD VEGAN as in
spank / fuck me I’m vegan
or BAD VEGAN as in
fuck you I hate vegans
or BAD VEGAN as in
I love being vegan but FML
I’ll eat a burger sometimes?
I’m noticing how the word
fuck gets around, a freelancer
maybe a freeloader too
like when Mitski sings
Nobody fucks me like me
it’s both self-sabotage and
masturbation, auto-eros
and -erase all the same
how did I come to be this
person contemplating the word
fuck in a vintage store
pondering whether a sweatshirt
emblazoned BAD VEGAN
is cool? My friend E who is vegan
says coolness has to be
inextricable from class
A combination of having
and being unhaveable
We can know this and still
be caught up with being cool
since commodity exchange
structures all abstract thought
and I’m vain and
a Scorpio into the bargain
At family dinner a while back
my mom asked Do you ever
think you might be
drinking the Kool-Aid a bit
with this Marxist stuff?
I forget what I said back
Shoulda been Well, mom
to quote Rosa Luxemburg
The enemy is in your
own punchbowl! or better
The fish doesn’t know
it’s in Kool-Aid of course
I said neither, though fleeing
the vintage store now
I think of the Jonestown massacre
a commune gone very wrong
revolutionary suicide
twisted from Huey Newton
and a specter today for
the radical left, no uncompromising
break or utopian disruption
of capitalist myth goes un-
Kool-Aided, and I wonder
those people murdered
by a demagogue, how different
were they from everyone else
everyone who remained
giving quiet assent to another
slow death, the same one
accelerating now every day
building speed like a wave
an immense Kool-Aid tide
bearing down on this city
subsuming my family and me
petty gentry, sticky tsunami
mercy ahead of the earthquakes
and class wars, the needed
catastrophes

But so I go out

from the vintage store
See a No Parking sign
with a sticker FCK ISIS
it says on every sign up the street
Oh what idiot made this
I ask but I know
though I couldn’t say why
the meathead dropped the U
Walk another few blocks
toward the farmers market
where my friend and I
said we’d meet up
Right then my friend texts
saying sorry just getting on
the bus sorry it’ll be a while, then
I can’t think where to go
Feel the sides of my neck
sore to the touch
like a bruise, hard as rubber
Is that normal? I mean
am I sick or just scared?
Isn’t everyone scared
all the time for good reason?
Terror being only white men
living large, only white men
deserve the word terrorists
Think of Hopper from Stranger Things
the myth of the good cop
Season 2 in the tunnels
underneath the infested farm
where those poisonous roots
wrap him up, a parasitic pastoral
That could be the whole theme
of the show, and of whiteness
The anxiety of white men
and boys being penetrated
filled with a malignancy
that was already there
white men being always
flesh-thieves from the start
The artist Philip Guston
has a painting called Talking
An asterisk of entrails
No talker at all, just an arm
backwards wristwatch
A hand with two cigarettes
thick as the fingers, one
snuffed out, one oozing
red smoke like intestines
across which hangs another
cord, vertical, yellow
exactly like anal beads
if you ask me but probably
meant as the chain
for a light out-of-frame
so you can’t shake the sense
that the scene could go dark
or has just been lit up
We’re on some kind of brink
Of what, who can say
But that’s it, no one’s talking
It’s a wordless un-rant
lonely viscera dangling
speaking for themselves
Unravelling, eviscerating
the white male artist’s carnage
Yet it’s not a grotesque,
this dark mobile of guts
We’ve come out of our caves,
cartooning

I creep grimly

into the farmers market
toward the small yogurt stand
where my friend said she’d be
All around it’s a whirl of white
yuppies and kids, a sea of recycled
tote bags labeled THRIVE!
Shoals of ethical capitalists
Whole Foods do-gooders
bearded dads playing polka
on antique harmonicas
All this good-feeling has me
immediately wondering
if it’s ever really ethical
to feel good, like ever
Oh my goddamn internalized
Puritan mind, the thing is
I’ve read so many essays
/ poems / blurbs about pleasure
but I’m scared the erotic
cannot be exempt, never outside
the market, its everyday thefts
Thinking this, I feel like
a big brooding eraser, a sneer
stalking past ziggurats
of castile soaps and sauerkraut
past a little dweeb kid playing
Girl from Ipanema on ukulele
and I can’t shudder out of the urge
to slap someone / cry / scream
and I want Kid Ukulele
to see me sob-sulky assaulting
whoever it is I will slap
A coworker at a cafe
where I used to work once said
the music I’d play there was emo
At the time this embarrassed me
Today I’m like ok sure
Emo could just mean angry
with a certain consistency
Like being vegan for years
and unable to say why
My friend D and I
used to argue a lot about
whether Individual Actions
mean anything (e.g., veganism,
activism, compost, lesser evils)
For a long time D did not
have a Venmo
because of Fred Moten
she said Debt isn’t a bad thing
It’s a condition of the social
It does seem that way now
My credit card’s wearing out
I refuse to replace it
I hold up lines everywhere 
the poor cashier swiping
sour breath and sore neck
feeling utterly wrong like
I should’ve done something
but I don’t know what or I
already did something I can’t undo
Maybe feelings don’t matter
maybe pleasure’s unethical
despair probably is too
Maybe nothing gets fixed
short of structural collapse
although things that mean nothing
can still feel worth the trap
of trying, of caring, of fucking
I guess, if no one fucks us like us
we’d better fuck ourselves right
even so, the long way
through the eroding days

I’m going in circles 
I pass by a weed shop
and think what the heck
I slink up to the door and
show the bouncer ID
Neither I nor my hologram
looks him in the eye
like when Facetiming one time
L said I can’t see you directly
and I said Yeah duh
and she said No really
when I look at the camera
I’m not looking at the screen
which in turn left me wondering
if Facetime might be some kind of
sad allegory for love
I’m looking down at the door
The bouncer lets me in
and right away I see
my friend J’s old roommate
working there, “budtending”
I hate this guy but
it’s too late, he shouts hi
I go up, he asks how I am
how is everything, how is it
living with J, I say good
and he gives me a look
like he’s trying to bond
in resentment, that flops
so he starts telling me about
dancing, his passion
the auditions he’s going on
the great work he’s doing
about how he loves voguing
but how he feels weird
as a non-black guy doing it
He says It’s complex
and indeed you would think so
since the whole convo takes
a good 15 minutes at least
and when it finally comes to
what weed-stuff I’d like
I just flail at the first thing
I see in the case, winding up
with two joints I know nothing about
and then leave the store fast
not quite feeling like weed
Still no news from my friend
Was she even still coming?
I’d give up and go home
but I’ve waited so long
I revisit the yogurt stand
to check if she’s there
and she’s not, though I see
it’s not busy at all
so I get in the line, see
the bright banners strung
from the flimsy white tent
blaring typical cruelty-free
pasture-raised shtick
beyond bullshit, of course
but I do love yogurt
There’s only one person
ahead of me now, who I
recognize soon to be
Bearded Harmonica Dad #2
The guy’s wearing shorts
though it’s 40˚ goddamn creep
buying two huge voluptuous
tubs of greek yogurt
I feel sick oh-so stupidly
sick at the thought of him
slurping cow juice, the dribbles
and flecks in his self-righteous beard
I want to get out of line
be anywhere else
all at once for some reason
I’m picturing cows
rows and rows of sick cows
bleeding buckling arthritic
expensive dead cows

Once a cow, now a half
half a life, once a calf
had a life and the life
had a cow and the cow
had an udder, had milk
in a pail that the milkman
threw up in, he threw up
so much in, the throwup
threw up some more throwup

Things pile on themselves
The yogurt worker makes change
and offers it to the shorts man
who just shakes his head
College fund he says
The yogurt worker says What
For the college fund he says
and nods at the tip jar
Again I’m in slapping mode
I’d slap all over his cold little face
but I’ve never slapped anyone
I only know how to hate
I get out of line right as it is my turn
Glance around for my friend
for once glad she’s not there
I bet she would’ve slapped him
I wonder who she has slapped
She’s a journalist-activist
people care about her words
She goes to May Day and gets
pepper-sprayed by the cops
Not to glorify that, it’s just
I can’t help thinking she’s braver
than I’ll ever be where it counts
Last May Day I walked
through a quiet street
Didn’t do shit, had a shift
at my coffee shop I didn’t skip
It was slow so I read articles
on my phone, one about
an art group called BMPT
(the four members’ initials
but also I learn upon Googling
a tank) The essay described
the group’s love of Roland Barthes
His Death of the Author
inspired their anti-art stunts
They wrote We Aren’t Painters
in their founding manifesto
Painted We Don’t Exhibit
on gallery walls, denouncing
art institutions through parody
and mock-advertising
It strikes me as the most
cynical thing, the point
seems to be there is no other way
There’s another Barthes essay
I read years ago, a series of
mystical musings on wrestling
which curious now
I pull up on my phone
sitting down on the curb
out of sight of the stand
A whole essay about wrestling
Really who gives a shit?
Such a dumb macho sport
But wrestling, says Barthes
is spectacle and not sport
A performance of justice
A totality in bits, where you
pantomime overcoming
until you live in that skit
each moment intelligible
and that must be it
why all this, why I’ve stayed
pacing here for so long
in this noon that feels endless
a cold, edgeless ring
where I’m wrestling alone
tearing at my own skin
Every thought of it stopping
vanishing at point blank
as the city gets huge with dead pledges

 


 

Jack Chelgren is a poet and essayist from Seattle. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in ‘Pider, The Rumpus, Fog Machine, SPAM, The Seattle Review of Books, Poetry Northwest, Real Change, on Metatron Press’s Instagram, and at the Northwest Film Forum. In his spare time, he serves as assistant editor of jubilat.

 

Featured photo courtesy of Vancouver Public Space Network.