Welcome the Chimera

Chimera Cover

by Katherine McBride

Chimera

How do you start a start when
you have only the language of another?
Words are not infallible we left
the resonance undone. I know, unwanted.

I was dreaming of a pixelated house, bougainvillea and jasmine in the yard.
Yes, the sky was jealous of the rain. I was dreaming of
a chimera’s mind, mine divided, unable to differentiate a roar, hiss, or bleat.
My tendency was to whisper. I could not
decipher without a disguise.

I do not know my own silhouette.

You will remember me not by sight, by touch, by night-
time or timed taste or even time.

You will remember my teeth as phonemes, my mouth as a prefix, the
electromagnetism between us only
as sound. You will hold it like this

clean sadness turned open and cold. Lost like
the naked reticence of a gasp caught back. It will
hold you still, remind you of letters, tongues, that Romanesque church.

I tell you this, so it will be so.
It is like you in the night: a universe made up of the frailest skies.

My tendency was to lie. I find
only the smallest things possible, a spore or vowel.
There aren’t enough syllables to make you whole and I don’t want
you familiar. The splay of morning air, instead.

Words mean nothing when they don’t mean anything:
only lie a little to keep me cleaved. Here is what

I will become: not a specter but
a sieve.

by Farryl Last

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Welcome the Chimera

21st century international politics is an entirely new beast – and we haven’t caught up

 In the early hours of August 21, 2013, surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin hit the agricultural belt around Damascus. Estimates of the dead quickly skyrocketed to more than one thousand people, including women and children. Though the fog of civil war obscured the details of the attack in the immediate aftermath, within just nine days, government intelligence analyses began to confirm that a chemical weapons attack had in fact occurred. On August 30th, the Obama administration released its own intelligence analysis, and Secretary of State John Kerry officially declared that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons in breach of the customary international law prohibition, leading to the death of 1,429 people, including 426 children.

And then…nothing. Rumbles that the Obama administration was considering a missile strike against unspecific Syrian regime targets emerged only after a couple of weeks: President Obama addressed the nation on September 10th, stating that he was in favor of a strike but would ask Congress to authorize it. Deep divisions in Congress and a lack of unity along party lines ensured that any legislation authorizing a strike would founder. Ironically, it was the Russians who came to the rescue: in response to a casual remark by Secretary Kerry that the Syrian regime could avoid a strike by completely disarming its chemical weapons stocks, Russia stepped forward with an offer to negotiate a disarmament agreement with Syria. Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put their heads together in intense negotiations, agreeing that Syria would join the international Chemical Weapons Convention and hand over its entire stockpile of chemical weapons within a week, to be destroyed by mid-2014.

At first glance, the crisis in Syria might read as Cold War redux, with the US and Russia duking it out to control the politics of a peripheral client state. Yet the crisis in Syria is emblematic of how international politics has changed since 1988 – and how unprepared the US and other great powers are to confront this brave new world. On top of the complex diplomatic maneuverings of the Cold War, new issues and new actors have risen to the fore. The US foreign policy machine, including the tools that the State Department and the Department of Defense (DoD) have at their disposal, are largely unequipped to deal with them.

First, the end of the bipolar structure of the Cold War has meant that foreign policy is forced to deal with a different kind of conflict. The Cold War revolved around fears of stoking inter-state-that is, conflicts between two or more countries- conflict, primarily between the US and the USSR. The minds of policymakers and theorists alike were focused on the likelihood of nuclear warfare between the two behemoths, or a ground war in Europe and other areas considered to be of vital strategic interest. But both policymakers and theorists were unprepared for the explosion of conflict within states, or intra-state conflict, rather than between them since the Cold War.

Since 1988, policy has had to grapple with how to manage civil wars and insurgencies within other countries. The policy problems presented have ranged from trying to decide whether conflicts within states halfway around the world have anything to do with US national interests, to dealing with the side effects of civil conflict and the political vacuums that such conflict often brings, fostering terrorism and drug and weapons trafficking. In strategic terms, such conflict raises a fundamental policy dilemma: how to deal with the strategic threats of terrorism born of political vacuums and intra-state conflict, without coming down too heavily with a military intervention that could mean getting sucked into years of war with minimal benefits. The long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, represent to an extent the US’s inability to strike this difficult balance.

The response to civil conflicts is complicated by the proliferation and importance of non-state actors. The Cold War meant dealing with the representatives of other countries, all negotiating on behalf of their own country’s self-interest. Theorists had worked out competing explanations for how states would behave in the bipolar international system. Diplomats did the same proverbial dance at the same black tie dinners every time they met. Now, intra-state conflict has created a multitude of other actors, from human rights NGOs to decentralized terrorist cells, which play a role in shaping conflict and policy. Academics are still catching up with theorizing how these myriad organizations, with varying structures, constituencies, interests, and goals, will behave.

Similarly, US policymakers are still grappling with how to deal with these non-state actors. Whether and how to negotiate with terrorist organizations is one important question in this vein. The recent opening of an embassy-like office for the Afghanistan Taliban may come to represent a moment in the opening of this new frontier, with non-state actors increasingly behaving like and taking on the roles previously occupied only by states. In Syria, the multitude of different rebel actors, ranging from secularist freedom fighters to Jihadis affiliated with Al Qaeda, are poorly researched and understood. Yet different perceptions about who these non-state groups are and what they represent play an essential role in shaping politicians’ ideas about how to proceed, with those like Senator John McCain who are in favor of intervention emphasizing the secular nature of rebel groups and those who oppose intervention pointing to atrocities committed by rebels.

Policy responses to civil conflict have also been complicated by a burgeoning concern for human rights and humanitarian suffering amongst US policymakers and the public alike.  The lack of US response to the genocide in Rwanda, and the ensuing political fallout, demonstrated that in contrast with Cold War era atrocities like Cambodia’s genocidal regime, the US is expected to respond, if not to intervene. Since 1988, US national strategic interests have been continually redefined. They have expanded from a narrow concern for deterring the expansion of Soviet interests to working with allies in NATO and Europe, juggling a rising China with uncertain intentions while soothing US allies in Asia, helping former Soviet states transition to democracy, capitalism, and membership in the European community, and beyond. Atrocities committed against civilians by their own governments have been added to this amorphous, poorly defined grand strategy.

Since NATO’s intervention in the Balkans, led by the US, expectations have grown that the US will have a diplomatic, and potentially military, policy response to atrocities in other countries. Since Rwanda, each proceeding atrocity (at least the ones carried by US media) has seen an escalated response, beginning with the Bush administration’s willingness to declare the violence in Darfur a genocide to the Obama administration’s “lead from behind” military intervention in Libya. Still, at each turn the US has been criticized by members of the international community and US citizens themselves for not doing enough to prevent and end ongoing atrocities. Think tankers and journalists, like Samantha Power, recently appointed US Ambassador to the UN, have made the case that it is not just humanitarian concern, but national strategic interest, that demand a US response to such atrocities. But concern for the welfare of Syrian civilians is also driving and shaping the US response to the crisis in Syria. Civilian welfare is a centerpiece of arguments both for and against intervention, with those arguing for intervention saying that the US should intervene to prevent atrocities, and those against claiming that a military response will only accelerate violence against civilians.

In addition, such complicated policy predicaments will be accelerated by entirely new factors, especially the impacts of climate change. Climate change is only expected to accelerate and evidence increasingly suggests that changes in rainfall and agricultural productivity, increasing water scarcity, changes in energy production, and more will act as accelerants to existing social cleavages, leading to violent conflict. The evidence is far from complete as to how precisely climate change will impact conflict, and it may provide opportunities for cooperation as well. The US could, for example, invest in development projects with the poorest countries, often the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, thus helping these nations adapt to the impacts of warming and preventing conflict over increasingly scarce resources.

Yet it is also possible that climate change is having negative multiplying impacts on already complex situations, intensifying existing social tensions and therefore leading to civil unrest and sometimes even violent conflict. In Syria, for example, studies have linked water shortages, crop failures, and the ensuing displacement of peoples starting in 2006 to rural disaffection and political unrest. While it would likely be jumping the gun to say that the conflict in Syria—or any particular conflict for that matter—was caused by the impacts of climate change, the link to agricultural decline and civil strife may be one important thread of the story.

The Syria crisis exemplifies how unprepared the US is to deal with the entirely new beast that is twenty first century foreign policymaking. The nature of international politics has been transformed by the proliferation of new types of conflicts and actors, concerns about new issues such as atrocities prevention, and potential accelerators of conflict like climate change. Although the Obama administration has managed to scrape out a compromise on chemical weapons, many of the deeper issues in Syria have been left unresolved. The administration was unable to articulate its political end-game in Syria: what would happen after a military strike? Would we provide increased military support for the rebels? What if the Assad regime was emboldened to increase attacks against civilians? Would the US become involved on the ground? And furthermore, what would happen if the Assad regime were to fall?

The administration’s inability to articulate a long-term political vision for Syria is not a fault in this administration. Rather, it represents a larger problem: the US has not developed the policy tools to confront the chimera that is the brave new world of international politics. It is nearly impossible to articulate a coherent set of long-term goals for Syria when we have not invested in the policy tools and creative thinking that a response in Syria would necessitate. To respond to new sorts of humanitarian crises, monstrously complex intra-state conflicts, a panoply of non-state actors, and wild card dynamics like climate change, the US foreign policy apparatus needs to invest in new kinds of thinking and develop new diplomatic and military tools.

A good first step would be to rectify the disparity in funding between the State and Defense Departments. Of every federal income tax dollar that the government spent last year, thirty-seven cents was directed towards the Department of Defense and other sources of Pentagon-related spending, while just two cents was directed to the State Department, US Agency for International Development, and the UN (fun fact: while most Americans believe that up to 25% of the Federal government’s budget is spent on foreign aid, actual spending on foreign aid is a bit less than 1% of the budget). It is difficult to imagine how the State Department would be able to develop the tools needed to invest in post-intervention planning and nation-building if this funding disparity persists. And until we begin to rebalance this aspect of the budget, it seems fairly unlikely that our diplomats will be able to produce the long-term strategic planning that we demand after the quick and easy military interventions that we propose. After all, with military interventions, the truly difficult work begins only after the bombs have stopped falling and nation-building begins.

Yet to wrestle with these problems, policy planning will need to go beyond investing in material resources. With a dysfunctional Congress struggling to pass a budget to fund the government in the first place, the State Department shouldn’t expect to see more funding coming its way any time soon. In the meantime, the State Department needs to invest not just in resources, but in creative thinking about how to develop new tools to deal with these new and wickedly complicated problems. It might not be hyperbolic to say that the fate of our world depends on it.

by Alexandra Stark

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Chimera Logo With Text

by Katherine McBride

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Still Life

I’d been back in the city for a few weeks when a cold blade of autumn sliced through the humid mystery of summer and I knew I’d better find a way to make some cash.  I got dressed and I walked around to the Art Students League and SVA and a few other schools of various reputations, submitting applications for figure modeling. I wondered, once or twice, how you would have felt about it, Jimmy, but I tried not to succumb to hypotheticals.

The going rate rounded out to about $13 an hour cash, with the added bonus of some joker or other trying his luck, offering to buy me a beer or dinner of boiled pierogies at the Ukrainian diner afterwards. It was decent enough money for sitting around catatonically and mulling over the history of us, which was all I was good for after that summer we’d spent in LA.

Anyhow, I got some call backs, mostly from middle-aged instructors wondering whether I’d sit for a trial class and take it from there.  “You studied art history?” one lady said, her voice turning a corner toward approval, “How about that. We’ll have a studied odalisque.” I stopped her there. Nothing jazzy, I said, no yoga poses, no pearly smiles, no holding hands and singing kumbaya.  Plus fifteen minute breaks for coffee and a chocolate bar.

I liked my new language of demands.

“Yes, we’ll account for that,” she said, bristled. You would have scolded me for being like this, cha-chaing away from the compliments I lived for, pushing back the small diamonds. I wouldn’t disappoint them, is what I’d have told you. You were still with me then, loitering in corners of my thoughts. And I talked to you, that you that lived in me. I said that I’d be perfectly fucking still for those kids with their inks and oils; a marmoreal, blue-eyed pillar gazing directly towards Sodom. Still to the point I could forget I was alive.

That was life. Zuzu and I moved moved into a new place in Brooklyn, further out and unfamiliar. I felt comfortably lost at sea. In the evenings we ate Campbell’s soup with heisted saltine crackers, then crossed the hall to watch Wheel of Fortune with our old Chinese neighbors. I slept and I cried and I stayed still, breathing from hidden oxygen supplies released from between my toes.

Once the school year geared up, calls came in from other schools and sometimes from artists too. Even from starlit artists with the hotshot galleries we’d crashed for free drinks when we were underaged. Clear from the blue, voices were calling, asking me, “Natalie, would you?” with their hundred different tongues. And I told them I would. In that way, I was loved.

Somehow I imagined that you would find out about my orbit near talent, the small fuss kicked up for me, and be impressed. I thought about calling you and saying, “Jimmy, guess what?”  the way I used to, but I’d deleted your number so I couldn’t call you even though I wanted to. Deep down in the labyrinthine recesses of my love,  I knew one time one of these random numbers lighting up my phone would be you.  For months I answered trying to sound blasé, without a care in the whole freaking universe. Prepared for you, I lived caught off guard; surprised every day that it was never you on other end of the line. And it wasn’t a line anymore, like when we were kids, just a voice, a collection of waves, set ricocheting loose through the navy sky, warbling through satellites and stars to me. When it reached me, it was somebody else.

I spent a lot of time thinking that year. While students made and unmade me, I thought.  About money and bills. About my mother, and how if I had known her Zuzu and I might have been better, but might still have been worse.  I thought about answers on Jeopardy and lottery tickets and ways out. But what I wanted to tell you, Jimmy, is that I thought about the day we went to the  Getty Villa in Malibu and saw the Chimera of Arezzo. I thought about it to the point I think maybe it was obsession.

We had climbed up along that treacherous coast to the Villa before, but the time I’m talking about was the last time we went and it was summer. I was wearing my mother’s navy sundress. You were wearing your dad’s shirt from the Air Force. We were pretty good looking, you know. The first time, we’d gone for the korus, that infamous Greek male youth. Your hair was longer back then, and moved like a black wave in the night. The korus marveled me the first time, because I was 21 and opinionated. I told you how the museum had shelled out a fortune for it, while my art history professors back in New York made amused cracks, believing it to be a modern forgery. On some puritanical level, the statue disgusted me and it had given you thrills, at that point, to see me indignant.

By this last time, the time I’m talking about, we had changed. The korus seemed to me just some sad clown, the object of misplaced dreams, dreams that couldn’t be relinquished for a great depth of love. Maybe this is just the way I remember it, but we went to the Getty the last time because we couldn’t stop fighting and we needed a place to stand still in silence and stare through gold and marble into the ever-unfolding past. To see what had become of it all and what remained.

We went for her: the Chimera, that iron flame-breathed she-monster, a tufted lioness with a serpentine tail swirling and a goat spirit bucking out from her side, bleating. She wore a crown of frozen droplets of blood, her agony perpetual. There were things I knew: the Chimera had been excavated from a horde of ancient irons discovered in the late Renaissance. In antiquity, those curious Etruscans had buried her amongst the horde, seeking for her a mysterious safekeeping. I imagined black-haired women wandering in long lines, trailing their ivory gowns, cradling the Chimera, placing her like baby Moses in the gypsum soil, each pricking her thumb and letting blood run into the dirt, sealing her off with bitter fingertips for the centuries. I thought of Cosimo de Medici laying claim to the uncovered Chimera and caressing her hides with soft cloths and oils, as he is said to have done.

You came up behind me then, placing your sure, heavy hand in the small of my back, breaking my reverie into scattered thoughts.  You whispered: “That is inside you.” The way you said it wasn’t vicious, but blank. I wondered how you could bring me there, then, to that land on the edge of madness, with its bare tanned skins, its wildfires, its wide open sky threatening to find me.  How could I survive in a world where strangers handed out their secrets like sticks of gum? We looked into each other for too long a time. In your black-brown irises were the rings of the years between us, the dendrochronology of a fallen love.  Then you told me about Bellephron, right there in that rust-colored room, as old ladies gathered around us. You spoke about the great hero who’d slain the Chimera. And how he was hailed. And how he was loved.

Then I knew it was you I was battling and you who were Bellephron and that it was you killing me there, in that sunny city.  I said, “I love the old way best, the simple way of poison,” but you didn’t get the reference and you didn’t ask. Then we fucked in a stall of the men’s bathroom there at the Villa and made our descent back into the city and the future awaiting us. I left in the morning while you were out of the house getting the paper and sharpening your spears.

What I’m getting at Jimmy is that the modeling had something to do with you and the monster you saw inside me.  I wanted to see if anyone saw that too, the Chimera, like you. No one did. No one knew my mythology quite like you.

The day I came back to New York, Zuzu and I drank whiskey on the roof of the old place on Havemeyer, where we’d lived when we were impossibly younger. I looked out across the rooftops of Brooklyn to see the Manhattan like Oz beyond the iron fields of poppies. I felt the electric hidden life returning to me under the shrouded black veil of this city.

You called me late last night, Jimmy, and after all this time, I didn’t know your voice. You talked a long time, but I couldn’t hear you. You seemed so far away. What I heard was Lina, my dad’s old girlfriend, saying with a crack in her voice,  “Girls, your dad’s left me. Left us.” I heard her tapping her bedazzled acrylic nails on the fake formica counter at the Skylark diner in Edison. We were drinking hot chocolate. Zuzu was 6 and I was 8.  I saw Lina press her fingers to her forehead, leaving reddened dents, her starchy blond hair moving like corn in the wind and chocolate liquid dripping down Zuzu’s chin in surprise.  I had thought Lina would bolt, leaving us there at the diner forever, so I grabbed her hair with my small fist. Then the rage in Lina’s voice submerged into a cavernous place in her heart. I heard her say sweetly, “We’ll make it, girls. Somehow.”

I don’t know what you said to me last night, but what I have to say to you Jimmy is that I was made of what was leftover. I was what remained. That’s all I can offer you by way of resolution. Sometimes to survive means to run or to hide.

by Kathleen Nora White

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3 thoughts on “Welcome the Chimera

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