Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Worst Monument in DC

In this age of statues coming down their plinths, and places being renamed, calling something the “Worst Monument in DC” brings to mind the usual culprits. However, this monument is not bad because it honors a Confederate, a slaveowner, or somebody who did medical experiments on enslaved women. It is also not problematic like the statues honoring the Emancipation Proclamation. You know the kind: they show a helpless and shirtless Black person in chains being uplifted by a very starch-shirted Abraham Lincoln.

No, this infamous title belongs to a monument because of its aesthetics, not its politics. At least with those other kinds of statues you know what they are supposed to represent. I don’t mean on a deeper level in terms of just dog whistles, but on a surface level as well. A statue of General Robert E. Lee on a horse shows General Robert E. Lee on a horse. You can get offended by it because you know who you are supposed to think of when you look at it. One could argue a monument that’s too abstract might even be worse, because it doesn’t even let you get angry.

One such monument exists in DC. It is little known, though hundreds of thousands of people drive past it every year. Most of them hardly get a glance of it, and even fewer know that it is legally in DC, despite being on the right bank of the Potomac (in case you didn’t know, Columbia Island, that strip of land next to the Pentagon is part of DC). It is near another monument which people might recognize, but it is a hundred times better than this one. That competent monument is the Navy – Merchant Marine Memorial. The bad one? It’s called the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac.

A monument to Idaho
Just the length of the name should tip you off that something isn’t right. A good memorial is succinct and named for one person, group, or event. Think the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument. The Emancipation Memorial is another one, so long as we’re talking names here and not set-up. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac is the opposite of all that. It contains too much, which the same might be said for old LBJ. I doubt that was the intention though. Instead we have a confusing mess that tells us what kind of memorial it is and the river it is on. Off the top of my head I don’t think any other monument in DC has that designation.

It's not the easiest memorial to get to either. You have to drive onto the island, park, and walk a bit until you hit the right grove. But that could be said of plenty of landmarks in the city, and I won’t count that against it. The memorial to Teddy Roosevelt requires quite a hike to the middle of his eponymous island. It doesn’t detract from the way it is set up and the possible educational value of the site. I know it’s not a textbook (what monument is?), but one can at least clearly meditate on and contemplate the subject.

This is not the case with the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac. There is little in the design or the artwork chosen that conveys anything about LBJ and his achievements. Approaching the memorial, all one can see through the pine trees is a large hunk of pinkish granite. No, it isn’t a statue of our 36th President, as much of a hunk he was. The granite is simply a large rock, stuck in the ground. A prurient mind might say it’s a memorial to Johnson’s Johnson, the infamous “Jumbo.” How could they know any better? The rock is not shaped, cut, etched, or hewn into anything with a recognizable pattern. It isn’t even a menhir.

Johnson's Johnson, the Jumbo of the Capitol Hill Zoo
The area around the megalith isn’t any more informative or inspiring. There’s a small sign that gives a basic outline of the memorial and its function, along with a recording of Lady Bird Johnson that doesn’t work. When I pressed one of the buttons for it, I hoped that instead I would get to hear LBJ ordering pants from his tailor. It’s more Taylor though, but it doesn’t matter anyway. The device is broken, along with many of the paving stones near the central rock.

Adjacent to it are a handful of slabs of granite, made of the same exact shade as the central stone. On each of them are selections from speeches LBJ gave during his life. None of the selections are particularly memorable or illuminating. They say little about the man himself, his times, or the issues he was championing. I know the man wasn’t the most gifted speaker, but the designers could’ve chosen something more inspiring. He had Bill Moyers to work with. Something he said after JFK was shot perhaps? Or his speeches to Congress on Civil Rights? There’s another issue with the slabs too. They are difficult to read, thanks to using that foreskin-colored granite.

At the right angle, one can get a nice view of the Potomac and the other monuments that dot the skyline of DC. It only serves to remind the unlucky visitor, of how much worse Johnson’s memorial is compared to the ones for Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington. It makes one wonder if this is actually a site dedicated to Andrew Johnson, and that this is all a sick joke to embarrass our 17th president for botching Reconstruction and buying Alaska.

Not pictured: wasp nests
In the same park is a monument that is much better and more interesting, the Navy – Merchant Marine Memorial. It honors those who have died at sea and rare for a war memorial, it doesn’t show the people lost. No names are etched on it and no human figures are depicted. There are waves and seagulls (along with wasp nests tucked inside the waves, but those are a later addition) made of metal, sitting on a small plinth. They depict the watery resting place of those lost, and remind us that many are gone forever with no recovered remains. It also has bubbles.

Perhaps the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac represents the conclusion of the memorial as traditionally understood. Our presidents are too big and contain too many multitudes of contradictions to be reduced to a statue. Constant revision of their legacy and shifts in historical opinion also make it difficult to come to any final consensus about them. In that sense the giant rocks is fitting, as the reputation of LBJ has waxed and waned over the decades. Now it appears to be waxing, in part because we are nostalgic for a time Congress and the President could work together to pass major pieces of legislation. But it will wane again, when we reconsider the costs of Empire.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Brown Bagging Some Poetry

The first issue of Brown Bag is out and there is a poem in there from me. Scroll down to find my work, which is called "Rat Park." The title is taken from the famous experiment on addiction. Structure-wise, I formed the sentences using a random Facebook status generator, which created new statuses for me based on ones I've previously posted. It's part of a series I wrote back in 2015. They were inspired by my time working at the Arlington Court House. I wanted to create a form of poetry that resembled the legal documents I read. Since I was taking on a legal structure, the topic of the poems took on a similar theme, essentially putting an alter-ego of myself on trial. In the end, my work resulted in a book length collection that's still unpublished as a whole.

This particular poem is a success story about endurance in publishing. I've submitted Rat Park over the past couple of years to dozens of journals, reviews, and web pages. In total, something like a hundred total venues. Every time I got a rejection. But that's the writing life. If you're not ready to deal with rejection, you're not ready to deal with submission. I suppose that's really what the submission is, giving up one's attachment and allowing an editor free reign over the piece. Anyway, after so many submissions and so many rejections, I finally got it accepted. Of course, in between the rejections I tweaked my poem here and there, and made a couple of edits. Every ten rejections or so I think you should look over your lines. I even chopped up the poem into something new and released it under a different title: Rat Spark, which was published by Nauseated Drive. 

So poets of America, keep reaching for that rainbow!

Friday, July 10, 2020

Good Day, Dependents

Hello all, two poems of mine were recently published in two different places. One is called Good Day, Applicant, up at Moss Trill. It's a more experimental work. The next poem is "Put Down as a Dependent," which I guess is appropriate right now since we're heading into the end of tax season. It's up at Kalopsia Lit. In case you're wondering, the term "Kalopsia" means "the delusion of things being more beautiful than they are."