As the U.S. Senate prepares to confrim a new Supreme Court Justice, Chris Carson relfects on the last court battle, and the events that helped form our first collection, Segue.
It’s Monday, October 26, 2020. What does that make, eight days until election day? Of course, with close to 56 million people having voted already, and more than 200,000 having died from the coronavirus, it feels like everyday since March has been election day. American can’t wait to vote this year. While Republicans in the U.S. Senate, sensing it may be their last chance, can’t wait to confirm a new Justice, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court, which they will do tonight around 8:30 pm.
Barrett will be one of I don't know how many hundreds of other judges who have been exalted to the position in our history. In their time, each has cast their votes, written their opinions, and helped forge this American vessel where the rest of us try to fit our lives. But ultimately they come and go, retire or die.
Some do however find a way to exert pretty significant influence over our everyday existence and people inside the beltway are certain Judge Barrett will be such a Justice. Her opinions on issues like the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, or the possible legitimacy of certain mailed ballots, could alter the form of this vessel for a generation. We will remember her for that. And we will remember her bizarre confirmation hearing. Coming days after some Senators on the Judiciary Committee tested positive for coronavirus, many Senators volunteered to appear through Zoom, others arrived in person to ask questions through masks.
Current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan once wrote that these days Supreme Court confirmation hearings are about as hollow an exercise as the Senate engages in. They are high on dodged questions and platitudes but low on any discussion of judicial philosophy. They are political theater, vessels in themselves that hold all the raw political nerves of the moment they are forged in, revealing personal strife between individual Senators and bringing our public discourse to a boil. They are a blood sport of cultural influence. To see the process in person is to feel, viscerally, the contention of our two party system, to see the grand influence of special interests and individual donors on the actions of our elected Senators, and how it all smashes together in an explosion of fear and anger, deception and rancour.
I witnessed it myself during the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. On October 4, 2018, 300 people were arrested while protesting in the Hart Senate building. In the center of the lobby is a sculpture by Alexander Calder, giantt black metal mountains that reach up four stories to the ceiling, I remeber protestors sitting at the base with arms locked or standing and shouting “oppress sexual predators.” They were up in the hallways, looking over the balconies, raining sheets of paper on to the crowd with the same message printed on them, or else “I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.” For days there had been an endless march of protests against Kavanaugh’s confirmation after Dr. Blasey Ford accused him of sexual assault.
That day I had been walking around with other members of the press corp looking for Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. At that point he was one of the few undecided Senators, and everyone wanted to know what he was thinking. I saw him scurry off an elevator and rush into his office, amidst the pandemonium, trailed by television cameras and reporters from CNN and Fox News. When I came to Elizabeth Warren's office, she was surrounded by a crowd of people seven or eight deep, mostly young women. When she vowed to keep fighting, an electric swell of applause and admiration surged through the group. But there was nothing the public could do. As it became clear that despite allegations of assault and a cringe worthy self defense by the nominee, Brett Kavanugh would be confirmed, and Senators like Jeff Flake of Arizona would vote for him. When Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, heard this he cried in front of a gaggle of reporters.
It was this space, this moment of our political history, that forged my poem Segue, the first title printed by Blue Figure Press. So what I wanted was a form that would be as chaotic as the events it captures, but also gave readers a sense of a way out of the dysfunction. I hope to write more about how this poem was put together later. But looking back, it isn't a surprise that when I showed an early draft to one friend she said it felt like choking on a cock, or another friend said it was so heavy with a feeling of futility. Writing of any kind is in part a response to political realities, and at this moment in our history we feel the disconnect between the will of the people and the actions of elected officials everyday. Over these last four years, "we the people" have been forced to swallow one thing after another that seems to wrankle the conscious and defy logic. It started with accepting a president who lost the popular vote by a wider margin than anyone else in history, and ends with accepting a new Supreme Court Justice a few short days before said president faces a reelection everyone seems to think he will lose.
When you look elsewhere you see the American people have come to consensus on many issues we are told are controversial. 82% of Americans want congress to expand paid medical and family leave, 72% want Congress to pass more Covid relief, 60% support raising the minimum wage. But nothing happens. 10 years since Citizens United was decided by the Supreme Court, research has shown that while American citizens have come to agreement on issues like these, political messaging has become more divisive, fueled by PAC spending by wealthy individuals more so than corporations. So while we more often than not agree with one another, we are told the nation has reached an unmovable roadblock to progress. The sense of futility is real. I have no doubt I was feeling it too when I wrote this poem. But in America we have a tradition that confronts those feelings of utter helplessness, and it is unique to us as a people. It’s called the blues. The opening lines of the poem, “I wrote this song in Washington D.C.,” is a nod to a particular blues musician named Flora Molton.
Born outside Charlottesville in 1908, Molton lived in Washington D.C. most of her adult life, making money playing slide guitar with a broken bottle neck on the corner of 7th and F St NW, in downtown D.C.. Though she died in 1990, I had been listening to her recordings over and over again during the Kavanaugh confirmation debacle. Molten would start a song with a story about how she wrote it. That she was in New Orleans and could hear the trains blowing but couldn’t go anywhere, or was overcome by grief when her mother died, or how late one night she received a phone call with some sad news. Then she would sing in this deep mournful yowl about these events in her life that could not be escaped, turning the futility into art, into life. It made her live for me.
I was staying in an apartment down the street from the corner where Molton used to busk and I would think of her there, in the center of the most powerful city on earth, with all the national strife of the last 50 years, the explosion of drug abuse and crime, the bitter political disputes, the unending search for power and wealth, and there she was, invisible to the crowds rushing back and forth, singing the blues. Her blues. About her life. Offering a sense of truth to a city ruled by deceit, all to earn some spare change.
I think her life serves as an important example for how we confront the realities of the day. In times past, perhaps the blues could only really be felt by a certain group of people. Maybe that’s still true. I understand if people cringe at a white man linking his poem to a blues song and borrowing the words of an old balck woman to do it. But what are the blues about? Shit jobs, broken loves, sickness and death, money come and gone, a world without justice or peace. Sounds familiar to me. Who has not been touched by those experiences over the last few years? Today, in this particular moment, everyone can understand the blues, regardless of race or background. It is the true inheritance of our American character, the true expression of our ability to endure this mess we find ourselves in.
Chris Carson is the managing editor of Blue Figure Press. Segue, hiis first collection, is on sale now.