“The past sometimes appears conditional” by Ian Williams
“The past sometimes appears conditional” is a poem concerned both with the material, gut-punch realities of the world — of inequalities that undergird our experience right now — and with how the English language, our framework for expressing these realities, attempts to express tenuous concepts of contingency and causality. It’s not a pretty thing, at least not to me: it’s not something we’ll want to scan, to praise for its melodies. It makes emotional appeals without recourse to beauty. But this isn’t a deficiency. It feels fitting, given the subject matter, and given the headlines these past few trying months.
Let’s get out our stethoscope and listen. The poem deals with a series of “would” statements, performed as 10 short sentences, in direct and unadorned prose. These are divided into two sections of nine and 12 lines, respectively, each dealing with a separate male-oriented subject. These sentences express conditionals: they convey both routine causes and consequences — in the past, present, and recurring through the future — or they express hypothetical (read: unlikely!) possibilities. These sections are bound by syntactical structure and through their contrast. And in both halves, the conditionals depend on three devices: anaphora, hyperbole (or even its more extreme form, ‘adynaton’), and absurdism.
The first section of the poem contains five of these sentences, each beginning with the subject and auxiliary verb, “He would.” There’s our rhythmic anaphora, or steady repetition. Of the five sentences, the first and last are grammatically complex, joining independent and dependent clauses. These offer most in the way of causality: the events befalling our character happen “whenever” and “every time” he acts in a certain way. The other sentences stress consequence: each contains the word “for,” which introduces the results of actions, or what he gets “for” doing something: “for h-e-/ double-hockey-sticks”, “for wearing a hat in the hallway.” What this means is: these aren’t options or prospects. The use of “would” offers a grim sentence. This shit happened, happens, and will happen again.
Okay. So what’s happening? Let’s look at each conditional. The character gets “pulled over/ whenever he tried to download Blonde.” Let’s take this literally. The mere attempt to download an album alerts the police, who force a roadside stop. These police must have a law forbidding the download of Frank Ocean; they must have sensitive tracking technologies embedded in “his” computer. The cops might even work for iTunes.
Similarly, these police, or security-adjacent police, search him for “f-bombs but not for h-e-/ double-hockey-sticks.” This image accomplishes so much. If we mean a literal search, or frisk, for profanity, this is a vivid construction — I imagine wisps of paper marked with curse words pinioning from pockets. I’m also seeing drugs, paper-housed narcotics, and I hear in “f-bombs” and “h-e-/ double-hockey-sticks” the glee of street names for illegal substances. These terms are also firmly and troublingly adolescent, the euphemisms for real swears. It brings the situation out of adulthood; we’re dealing now with children, or not-quite-adults who are nonetheless treated as criminals by watchful authorities.
We have in both scenarios the hyperbolic and the absurd, even surreal (pullovers for downloads, frisks for swear words). The next two consequences are less humorous or ‘clever.’ Our character is “choke-held/ for wearing a hat in the hallway” and “Tasered for balling his Whopper wrapper/ and leaving it on the floor of the streetcar.” The poem gains gravity with the savage disproportion of the responses. Both set-ups also keep us in the adolescent universe: wearing a cap in a hallway, eating a burger on the bus. Someone very young is being violently attacked for innocuous transgressions. Ludicrous, right?
The section ends with a fusing of the absurd with the brutal. Our character is “shot in the back every time/ he incorrectly used MLA format in the essay/ on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It’s absurd because it’s happened more than once. It’s absurd because it happens without fail. It’s absurd because someone, a student, an adolescent, is shot, from behind, no less, for making an inconsequential mistake on his homework (technically, not even ‘his’ essay; it’s the essay, impersonal). Hearing A Midsummer Night’s Dream brings me back to Grade 9, being 13. MLA format brings me back to my undergraduate degree. These referents — a Shakespeare comedy, the Modern Languages Association — are stuffy, old-fashioned, academic, institutional. Importantly, these are load-bearing walls of European culture, or of western curriculums. Our subject is shot in the back for failing to mimic or reproduce these highly specific terms.
To most readers, I’d guess the real-world connections are unmistakable. One reading of these causes and consequences is that our subject, who is literally a character in a poem, is targeted and punished symbolically. He is symbolically pulled over, searched, choked, Tasered, and shot for disproportionate causes because of course, no one is literally being pulled over for downloading Frank Ocean, or being shot for misciting texts at school. Right? But the poem phases between this outright absurdity and chilling realism, because people are, indeed, murdered today by police and by non-police, by vigilantes and murderers, for equally ‘inconsequential’ actions.
Not white people, mostly. In North America, this treatment by police is typically reserved for people of colour. They’re killed for appearing sketchy to white onlookers. For selling cigarettes, or CDs and DVDs, or using counterfeit bills. For being distressed, mentally. For showing emotions. For jogging in the evening. For driving. For pulling over. For sleeping, in bed, at home. For hanging out in their backyards. For playing with toys in parks. For being black.
The speaker doesn’t say the subject is black, or brown, or non-white, but they don’t have to. They are forcing us into confrontation with our responses of “that’s absurd” or “that’s impossible.” The speaker is reinforcing just how unfair our world is and continues to be. Why is jogging at night any different from the improper use of MLA formatting? To what degree does wearing a hat in a hallway differ from flailing one’s arms? With these conditionals, the speaker is simply reporting the news.
The second set of conditionals takes us out of the past, or what recurs — behaviour that guarantees a set of responses from others — to hypotheticals. With the familiar anaphora of “He would” returning, each sentence describes how a male character would act in some future capacity, but only if something else happens, or ceases to happen: three of the five scenarios are phrased negatively (“didn’t have to”, “didn’t default”, “weren’t so far”). Whereas the first character endures grim consequences each time he acts, the second is arrested, or in stasis; his behaviour can change only if outside forces shift in some extravagant capacity. So, both characters are trapped by externals: the first acts and faces reaction; the second cannot, or does not, act, out of laziness or external pressure.
Our new character is a man of means, ensconced in a pillow of privilege. They “preach/ austerity”, hire “consultants”, raise “interest rates”, belong to the “platinum members’ lounge.” We’re told they would also indulge in cushy lifestyle choices, but only hypothetically: they’d “take/ some E”, “hire a tennis coach”, “upgrade/ to the latest Galaxy”, and get their “shoes polished”. In this poem, stakes remain high for working-class society at large (millennials default, people are fired, we all suffer from austerity, and someone is potentially raped). But there are few stakes for our privileged character: he faces minor inconveniences, voiced as whines. (Oh, if only the kiosk weren’t so far from the lounge! Then I’d get my shoes polished!). The final hypothetical most emphatically signals this sense of inconsequentiality. Even “if he raped the trainee/ from Dawson”, we’re told, he will merely “be placed on paid leave.” So, it doesn’t matter what this rather oligarchic character does: he simply bounces from one luxurious safety net to another.
The brutal repercussions of Section 1 echo here because of this contrast, throwing shade on this complaining and consequence-free world of wealth. The poem’s through-line of absurdity also continues, albeit warped to the new subject. The first character’s punishments seem incommensurate with his actions — ludicrously, surreally so. But the second character’s conditionals seem similarly disconnected, frayed, from logical causation (e.g., why would his updating to a new phone be dependent upon millennials not defaulting on student loans?). This is dream logic, spotty argument. Whereas outside forces seem to conspire against our first subject, our new rich actor seems to be in active conspiracy with these same massive, cloudy currents, preventing him from meaningful alteration of his behaviour.
These are the horizon-filling strictures of colonial capitalism, of wealth, class, race, and sex. They are absurd. And they admit little in the way of ‘personal’ choice, even for those who benefit directly from them. Section 2 nimbly, concisely, draws attention to the unequal choices and consequences we face — not in a poem, not in a fantasy landscape, but here and now. It reinforces the sense of injustice, or horror, we might feel reading the first list of punishments.
What makes this poem truly compelling, for me, is its relation to the title and epigraph. I won’t attempt a summary of the life and works of Frantz Fanon. But I’ll quote Fanon here from where I believe Williams draws the epigraph, which is from 1961’s The Wretched of the Earth, published, and censored, the same year as Fanon’s death:
This world divided into compartments, this world cut in two, is inhabited by two different species. The originality of the colonial context is that economic reality, inequality, and the immense difference of ways of life never come to mask the human realities. When you examine at close quarters the colonial context, it is evident that what parcels out the world is to begin with the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race, a given species. In the colonies the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.
Regardless of whether events are hyperbolic, surreal, or cosmically unfair (as they are in the “colonial context”) when presented in the conditional mood, these events necessarily rely on something else to see them about. If we do x, then y. ‘Y’ cannot exist without ‘x.’ Fanon’s line, “you are rich because you are white,” if rephrased ‘conditionally,’ becomes something like, “If you are white, you are rich” or “If you are rich, you are white.” But with the full quotation — “you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich” — Fanon is presenting us with the logical fallacy of circular reasoning. We are, if we have any ethical bones at our disposal, meant to recoil both at the material context of this message, the aggravating unfairness of it, as well as its logical invalidity. It hurts because it’s fallacious, or nonsensical. It doesn’t give an answer beyond ‘because I said so.’ But that nonsense itself, that circularity, undergirds the power imbalance of a colonial state. We live in and amid a logical fallacy, writ large across our lives. And its most cruel, exhausting consequences are for the colonized and oppressed.
In a circular argument, the reasoner begins with the conclusion. Williams’ poem does not present an argument. It does, however, present a conditional set-up, albeit in reverse chronology. What I mean is: we first read consequences and feel horror in their seeming lack of sense — Section 1 leaves us adrift, presented with dystopian mechanisms without rationale. We find the cause waiting for us, like a well-fed cat, in Section 2: equally absurd, yet necessary for Section 1 to function. Together, hearing “the cause is the consequence,” and “the past sometimes appears conditional” snaps our heads back to the beginning again. We gain a sense of the absolutely true connectivity of the ‘sections’ while also a keen sense of their underlying illogical calculation.
Chronology and causation (or karma) imply, from our limited view, a sense of separation. In framing conditionals, our language sees a connection between unlike things; in viewing ‘time,’ we see one thing leading to another. A billiard ball strikes another, separate ball, and causes the second to move. But Fanon writes “the cause is the consequence” — not that it brings about the consequence, or precedes it, or is even meaningfully different from it. They are the same thing. They are happening at the same time, in the same space of the present, the one. As students of ethics, or of life itself, we might gloss over this subtlety and oversimplify the process of reaction, seeing propagation, causality, in their crudest forms. Or we might read a false moral framework in this process. We might overlook the word “is.” How sad it is.
To end this talk, and in typical digressive fashion, I’d like to quote a short dialogue from Sōtō Zen founder Dōgen Zenji’s Shobogenzo Zuimonki (often translated in English as The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Record of Things Heard):
Once Ejō asked: “What is meant by the expression, ‘Cause and effect are not clouded?’”
Dōgen said: “Cause and effect are immovable.”
Ejō asked: “If this is so, how can we escape?”
Dōgen replied: “Cause and effect emerge clearly at the same time.”
This is the absolute, the enlightened perspective. It does not suggest cause and effect do not exist; in fact, they are unavoidable. In other words, quoting Dōgen, “cause does not precede effect, nor does effect follow cause.” Cause and effect, action and reaction, are one. The cause is the consequence. The consequence is the cause. The good or bad seed yields its fruit in the same space, at the same time.
As a title, I read “The past sometimes appears conditional” as both a tongue-in-cheek understatement and a gesture toward the unfixed, manipulatable nature of cause and effect: this is a whisper of hope. The beauty of our karma, as a culture and as individuals, is that we can change it, even in hell. We can change our present and future conditions, and when we do, we change the past. All points in relative time seem to me conditional. If they weren’t, along with Ejō, it would all seem pretty hopeless, as heavy as a mountain. “How can we escape?”, he asks. Dōgen’s answer is to see them, our causes and consequences, as the same thing, as intimate.
I say that change is possible. Maybe you do too. If the opposite were true, what would be the point of continuing for one more moment? Cause and effect are one. Now we aren’t trapped by it. Now we can do something about it.