Poems that slip the leash

Michael Brownstein (photo by Philippe Garnier)

To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, “It is difficult to get the news from poetry, yet people die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” But we do get the news in Michael Brownstein’s latest collection of poems, Let’s Burn the Flags of All Nations – the real news, the news that is seldom if ever covered by mainstream media.

As you probably suspect, it is not good news. It’s the news that “the largest state in America is the state of denial,” that our lives play out in a “gigantic hallucination” and thanks to the metastasizing of the internet of things, very shortly “the FBI will not have to bug your living room / you’ll do it yourself.” Needless to say, this is a long way from what masquerades as news online, in the papers and on TV.

Yet despite his clear-eyed analysis of where we are, Brownstein – the author of three novels and ten collections of poetry – does not permit himself to sink into despair. On the contrary, these works are prophetic and visionary. They show where we can go if we have the courage and the wherewithal to change; that it is possible to “slip the leash,” as one of the poems puts it, of old, ingrained, destructive ways of thinking and being.


On Saturday, November 10 at 5 p.m., Brownstein will read from and sign copies of his new book at Woodstock Town Hall, located at 76 Tinker Street. 

We caught up with the poet in October, in the Catskills west of Woodstock, where he lives in a sunny cabin surrounded by mountains. In the midst of our conversation, a red-tailed hawk landed and perched on a nearby fencepost. “To be in the mountains is a gift for me,” he said. The interview that follows was conducted in part at his cabin and in part by e-mail.

In your poem “Now What,” you pose that question to yourself and, by extension, to the rest of us: Now that your eyes have been opened to the myriad ways in which Western industrialized society is killing off the plants and animals, rivers and oceans, indigenous peoples, marginal peoples and eventually the rest of us – now what? What do we do with this awareness?

For me, what to do about the situation we’re in is not to replace it with another 19th-century ism. Socialism would certainly be an improvement, but the same patriarchal, materialist mindset would prevail. We have to go to another level. The only real way out is for us to reconnect to our common humanity. We have to figure out a way to abandon the nation/state and how it uses fake nationalism to separate people into perpetually warring factions. Until we can wake up from that trance, we can’t really address such things as climate chaos, endemic poverty and capitalism itself, because the billions spent arming all the nations around the world ensure that the system continues to be locked in. Sentimentality is a big problem, too. Once people are emotionally hooked by patriotism, it’s really hard to think clearly, as John Trudell said.

There are many people thinking along these lines and beginning to take mindful and effective action. Is there any group or movement that particularly inspires you?

I think the most exciting alternative today – in fact, the only one actually on the ground is what Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdish people, calls “democratic confederalism.” Inspired by the Kurdish women’s movement, Rojava is an enclave of three democratic, autonomous regions in northern Syria. It’s a new political model that dispenses with the oppressive structure of the nation/state. Threatened on all sides, as of now it still exists.

Finally, I would say that resistance of course is necessary, but we also have to regain our connection with the spirit realm, with the spirits of plants and animals and with the Goddess with whom we were in deep contact for hundreds of thousands of years. The loss of that connection is the main reason capitalism and patriarchy took root in the first place.

And for you, personally, now that you have laid it all out in this book and in World on Fire (2002), a hybrid of poetry, prose and citations from the work of many scientists, social critics and spiritual teachers – now what?

For me, personally, if I had access to major funds I would be supporting causes like the fate of the dolphins, attempting to stop what the US Navy is doing to marine life west of Washington State by its war testing, and there’s a long list besides that: trying to help indigenous people survive the scorched-earth policy of profits before people, reversing our dependence on pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals.

Also, how to live as an individual is important. One thing that means is forsaking the god of convenience, tossing the smartphone in the trash, using fiber-optic cables instead of wi-fi, clearing our bodies of electrosmog as best as possible. Working for clean water, clean air, real food. All those things.

The poems in the new book, although radical and provocative, are straightforward and accessible to readers who may not be aficionados of, or even acquainted with, contemporary poetry. When did you first begin writing in this voice? What triggered it?

In the late ’90s, influenced by activists like Vandana Shiva, I got involved in the anti-globalization or global justice movement. My bell got rung big-time about what was taking place around me. Out of that came a need to write as clearly and personally as possible. I started writing poems as hard-hitting and accessible as I could make them. After all, why not?

Let’s Burn the Flags of All Nations is published by Dr. Cicero Books (www.drcicerobooks.com). “We felt this was an exceptional and visionary work, crucial to our moment, and we wanted to give it the audience it deserved,” says Carey Harrison, Dr. Cicero’s acquisitions editor. Next Saturday’s reading and book-signing at Woodstock Town Hall is free and open to the public.

Reading of Michael Brownstein’s Let’s Burn the Flags of All Nations, Saturday, November 10, 5 p.m., free, Woodstock Town Hall, 76 Tinker Street, Woodstock

Goddess Memories

Once upon a time
For various divine
Heterosexual practices
There used to be
Various kinds of males
And the question was
Which male would
Be most beneficial
For which practice
But now in this
Degenerate age
When divine sexuality
No longer exists there’s
Only one kind of male
And his ignorance
Apparently knows no bounds

– Michael Brownstein