Thousands More Sailing
In every diaspora...
Shane MacGowan got to live one day without being forced to share this mortal coil with Henry Kissinger. Those who look at our prosaic existence and think that life has lost all poetry might consider this. For it is a sign that some small thread of the cosmos, the universe, or whatever we call this seemingly random collision of causes and effects, bends toward the just and the beautiful.
True, both were men whose respective longevities would leave onlookers agog. “How the hell are they still alive?” we ask ourselves. But there, the similarities end, more or less entirely. Kissinger died at the age of 100, flabby and sedentary, like an over-puffed toad, his heart kept pumping through some combination of gold-standard medical care and a daily dose of blood from an eviscerated Cambodian child.
MacGowan, meanwhile, radiated all manner of unprocessed damage. He could put himself through a stunning amount of pain, be it a sliced-off earlobe at a Clash show, teeth so rotted you wondered how he ate, or infamous and intractable alcoholism. Watching him gyrate and tilt and slur his way through performances with the Pogues, it often seemed that this gangly fucker was keeping himself alive only through sheer willpower so he could rail against the world that created him. That he made it to 65 is, considering everything, rather remarkable.
Tributes to Kissinger are coming from the most craven and cruel. Biden, Von der Leyen, Bush, Netanyahu, Blair; their praise sidestepping his mountain of corpses because if it didn’t, too many might ask why they and Kissinger weren’t all delivered to the dock at the Hague long ago.
MacGowan’s tributes, meanwhile, come from all the right people. Irish President Michael D. Higgins, one of the few decent and humane heads of state left in Europe, said he “will be remembered as one of music's greatest lyricists... The genius of Shane's contribution includes the fact that his songs capture within them, as Shane would put it, the measure of our dreams…”
We might feasibly say that without men like Kissinger, there would be no need for poets like MacGowan. Whether we’re talking about leftist governments overthrown in Chile or bombs dropped across Southeast Asia, men like Kissinger are in the diaspora-making business. There is a lot of writing, research, and thought dedicated to the phenomenon of diaspora — its spread, its fissures, how it winds its way through the cracks and crevasses of modernity. But whether it is African, Jewish, Palestinian, or Irish, it is too seldom acknowledged that diaspora only arises out of calamity, of regions colonized and pillaged, people driven from their homes, heaved into the winds of migration.
As for the diaspora’s denizens, what choice do they have other than to survive? But survival isn’t just a matter of a roof and food. Those are just a matter of keeping the body going. The mind, if it isn’t to shatter, needs stories, poems, songs, something that connects its present place with the nebulous idea of “home.”
It’s a messy process, often improvisational, forced to work with only what you’ve strapped to your back and what you can find in front of you. Inevitably, it mashes together what could have been with what is and what could still be. Regrets about not joining a liberation army back home channeled into slam-dancing and howls for anarchy transform into a sharp blend of folk instrumentation and punk aggression. You’ll have no lack of ideas for lyrics: the songs from back home that enrage or sadden, the backbreaking labor you’ll have to perform, the postcards you’re mailing of wide open skies from dank rented rooms.
Some of it may get you banned from the BBC. And how you deal with the pain may get you kicked out of your own band. But you’ll manage to mine something sublime out of a wrecked life. It shouldn’t be necessary, but as long as some men think their own power is worth the death and displacement, it will be.
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That Ellipsis… will be taking a break through the month of December. There are several reasons — the holidays, getting a few affairs in order, catching up on other projects, making sure I have ample time to both mourn Shane MacGowan and dance on Kissinger’s grave. But rest assured: not only will I be returning in 2024, I’ll be instituting a much more rigorous publishing schedule, including more material for paid subscribers. So if you haven’t subscribed, now’s the time to do so.