I have this sense,
that I am one
with my skin
           Plus this—plus this:
that forever the geography
which leans in
on me I compell
backwards I compell Gloucester
to yield, to
is this

Charles Olson, “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27

There’s an excellent opinion piece in Sunday’s New York Times about “the political power of physical places” in movements like Occupy Wall Street. In it architectural critic Michael Kimmelman notes our changing sensibilities about public spaces–from the Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park to the foyer of the Time Warner Center (or, we might say, from the civic spaces of soapbox oratory to the bland, commercial sites of trinket-tourism). What we’ve lost in this era of autonomy and isolation is what Aristotle observed about life in the polis: A healthy citizenry in a proper city requires face-to-face conversation.

Which makes it all the more remarkable in this era of Facebook and Twitter–social media for the socially-challenged masses–that a wide array of the disaffected (“students and older people,” notes Kimmelman, “parents with families, construction workers on their lunch break, unemployed Wall Street executives”) have created community on Wall Street and on Main Streets everywhere–human community in all of its messy materiality.

Even though politicians like to talk about the economy in material terms–jobs, currency, goods and services–in reality global capitalism trades in abstractions. The shady schemes that led to the financial crisis in late 2008 (remember credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations?) were revenue flows created out of thin air. Naked short-selling was about flooding the market with “phantom” shares that depressed prices by making the shares less scarce and therefore less valuable. In other ways, the “free market” has always been an abstraction, and globalization has only exacerbated the dehumanizing effects of creating obscene wealth on the backs of the working poor.

The Occupiers’ creative resistance to such injustices has involved enacting a strategic counter-witness to disembodied capitalism:

“The protesters have set up a kitchen for serving food, a legal desk and a sanitation department, a library of donated books, an area where the general assembly meets, a medical station, a media center where people can recharge their laptops using portable generators, and even a general store, called the comfort center, stocked with donated clothing, bedding, toothpaste and deodorant — like the food, all free for the taking.” (Kimmelman)

And this thing about the food in Zucotti Park–there’s something sacramental about it: donated gifts of all forms of sustenance (including Spam!) are received, prepared, divvied up, and dished out (taken, blessed, broken, and shared, in Eucharistic language). The food is free and there is enough for everyone; no one is turned away. In the ordinary act of eating together, conviviality happens, community is created.

And finally, another line from Charles Olson’s poem seems appropriate:

           An American
is a complex of occasions,
themselves a geometry
of spatial nature.

Americans gathered on Wall Street in protest of greed and waste and war bring their disparate, far-flung stories and selves and (at the risk of stretching the Eucharistic imagery too far) become a local body–flawed but beautiful, beaten up (and beaten down) but blessed.


I’m grateful to my good friend, poet and musician Doug Van Gundy, for introducing me to Charles Olson’s stunning poem.