Kyla Houbolt, "But What Do You Know?"

Parts. That's what Houbolt begins with. "[M]aybe the problem is that God has been split up / into parts."

Kyla Houbolt, "But What Do You Know?"

Re: Edward-Isaac Dovere, "After string of Supreme Court setbacks, Democrats wonder whether Biden White House is capable of urgency moment demands"

Thoughtful meditations on our present crisis by skillful writers abound, but the urgency of Edward-Isaac Dovere's report on the state of the Biden White House takes precedence. There might not be a better summary of our leadership's dysfunction.

To begin with, there's the Debra Messing story:

The former “Will & Grace” star was among dozens of celebrity Democratic supporters and activists who joined a call with White House aides last Monday to discuss the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

The mood was fatalistic, according to three people on the call, which was also co-organized by the advocacy group Build Back Better Together.

Messing said she’d gotten Joe Biden elected and wanted to know why she was being asked to do anything at all, yelling that there didn’t even seem a point to voting. Others wondered why the call was happening.

Many have wondered whether Democratic leadership is too partial to the voices of a certain class. "[D]ozens of celebrity Democratic supporters and activists" with a direct line to the White House, while regular Democrats and activists drown in medical or student debt—hmm.

There's more. The White House's inability to understand the primacy of rights shines through their utter lack of concern to SCOTUS striking down Roe:

More than a week after the abortion decision, top Biden aides are still wrangling over releasing new actions in response, despite the draft decision leaking six weeks earlier.

White House counsel Dana Remus had assured senior aides the Supreme Court wouldn’t rule on abortion that day. A White House press aide assigned to the issue was walking to get coffee when the alert hit. Several Democratic leaders privately mocked how the President stood in the foyer of the White House, squinting through his remarks from a teleprompter as demonstrators poured into the streets, making only vague promises of action because he and aides hadn’t decided on more.

If this isn't disgusting enough, there's a line about how Biden treats subordinates that could be considered gossip, but makes too much sense to me given what we've seen:

Several officials say Biden’s tendency to berate advisers when he’s displeased with how a situation is being handled or when events go off poorly has trickled down the ranks in the West Wing, leaving several mid-level aides feeling blamed for failings despite lacking any real ability to influence the building’s decision-making. That’s contributed to some of the recent staff departures, according to people familiar.

Dumpster fires like the White House try to appear normal at all costs. People most try to appear normal when they are desperately scared of avoiding blame. They can think of nothing better than praise, however unearned, and they believe the smallest criticisms are fatal. Since this is, at heart, a lack of resolve and purpose, they end up abusing everyone around them for no reason. Biden, as of right now, is a bad president, unwilling to fight for the basic rights of his constituents, let alone the country as a whole. He's showing an extremely dangerous tendency in blaming everyone else for his woes. He's showing, however unwittingly, that it's all about him.

Kyla Houbolt, "But What Do You Know?"

Parts. That's what Houbolt begins with. "[M]aybe the problem is that God has been split up / into parts." A perfectly ordinary plural word, helping cars move ("auto parts"), describing Halloween decorations ("body parts"), even the functioning of authority ("parts of the government"). It conveys the innocence of a child playing with Legos or assembling dots and lines into a shape. How is there a problem with "parts," as Houbolt says? Even with thousands of years of killing and repression from godly sects, "followers of some of those parts / believe there is no problem." Parts of God, you could say, create a profound denial of reality. One of the most difficult truths I learned during COVID's first wave was how people will deny the traumatic, even fatal, suffering of their own children rather than admit being wrong.

But What Do You Know? (originally posted on twitter)
Kyla Houbolt

maybe the problem is that God has been split up
into parts. followers of some of those parts
believe there is no problem. possibly God
is amused, believe others. well, but does anyone ask
what God believes? no, child, nothing called God
needs to believe anything. it only knows
say others. put them all together,
and still,
nothing. or everything.
we all know by now
that it's called petrichor, that smell.

Of course, "followers of some of those parts" are not the only problem. A more cynical attitude saves us from nothing: "possibly God / is amused, believe others." Maybe one could take this position—in effect, smirk at the enormous variety of silly disagreements—but that ignores what is serious and real. Debates about the nature of God are about who counts and how they count. Turning completely away from them is not only turning away from victims, but the very possibility of abuse. Not believing does not excuse ignorance of the power belief holds.

Parts break us. It's at this point in the poem, after the failure of humanity to recognize and deal with the problem of different sects, Houbolt asks a shattering question: "does anyone ask / what God believes?" God in our minds is typically a strange mixture of a person we find familiar as well as abstract theorizing. A first cause, a prime mover, somehow becomes a figure walking in the Garden of Eden or talking about justice to Abraham. Some say you have to keep such explanations, characteristic of "reason" and "revelation," separate. Why? The totality of the divine breaks categories. You are compelled to take the parts and assemble what you can. You might as well ask "what God believes"—whether god can believe in us, whether "it only knows."


The poem's "parts [of God]" place me between a collapsing society and an older plague of generations. The older plague was unceasing religious warfare in Europe. Catholics and Protestants killing each other for years. Power wasn't a consideration absent from weaponizing fanatics. Cardinal Richelieu armed as many Protestant sects in Hapsburg lands as he could. France surrounded by a Hapsburg Spain, Netherlands, and HRE was unacceptable to him. So rivers of blood had to flow.

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What of now? Bigotry flows through conspiracy theory, and conspiracy theory itself flows unchecked through religious institutions. "No law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" has become "I have the right to hate whom I want, to believe the world is a conspiracy against me." It's a poison that's hard to identify because it is a combination of incredible toxicity and babyishness. You can call its most powerful and persistent form "Christian nationalism," as it forces the cross and flag on others, but is watching a lot of alt-right streamers on your phone spiritual practice?

Houbolt allows that the parts of God might be put together, and "nothing. or everything" results. "[N]othing" is funny. I live in a nihilistic country obsessed with military power and unable to stop mass shootings. If one suggests life could be better, the country mockingly laughs before turning to cold, violent anger. Ours is a deep nihilism: how dare you believe in anything. By contrast, God as nothingness does not seem as harsh.

Nothing is not nothing, in truth. It inheres in the changing, perishing, and emerging of things. Houbolt ends her poem with two lines that almost come out of nowhere: "we all know by now / that it's called petrichor, that smell." Petrichor, the smell of the first rain after drought, is itself a fading away. The sentiment in this conclusion can be placed in conversation with Yeats' "Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors:"

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

The smell of water's return is a small thing, not unlike "a drop of dew / Upon a blade of grass." But like that drop of dew, "all things hang" upon it. How is this possible? After all, water might only be a temporary respite for a scorched earth. It seems ludicrous to take the miniscule and call it miraculous. Perhaps, though, there is a tempered optimism. Not tempered as in limited, but tempered as in steel. "Unknown Instructors" brought to pass what they "undertook." Their names are in and of earth. The world is theirs though they do not know or care to know it. What you truly know commands you, not the other way around. That beautiful smell? We know something.