Thursday, July 19, 2007

Andrew Epstein's "Poem Beginning with a Line from George Bush"/A Look Behind the Lines

Andrew Epstein recently sent me a poem that he'd published in the Mississippi Review in the Fall 2004 issue. One of my longstanding complaints with anthologies of political poetry--particularly anti-war and war resistance poetry--has been that the poems tend to lose their local and, to cop a phrase, "actionable intelligence," when they appear in the homogenizing space of an anthology. We are almost never given any contexts that bring the poem into its multiple dimensions (as a text that comes from somewhere, and goes somewhere, that attains multiple lives through its readings and iterations). That's one of the reasons why I needed to call my book Behind the Lines, because it's not just about the lines, but about how the lines emerge and what they lead to. Andrew sent me this, along with the poem:

Just anecdotally, thinking about the "cultural work of poetry," when I read the poem at a Save Darfur event here in Tallahassee last year, there was a Colonel there who was also presenting. He had commanded forces in Rwanda, and was writing a memoir about working in Africa and human rights, etc., which he read from, before I read. As I was halfway through my poem, he and the 3 people he was with, who were all in the front row, got up and more or less stormed out in protest. Who says poetry makes nothing happen?

Andrew's poem, at that moment, included the abrupt departure of a Colonel. Here's what caused all the fuss:

Poem Beginning With a Line by George W. Bush

This has been tough weeks in that country.
I sit, back to scorching sunlight,
wondering how to write the day
from my post on the far edge of
a dying, gnashing empire.
The assertive growl of hot coffee in hot sun
with the tragic NY Times blaring yet again
how dire these straits are
we navigate rudderless.

The Soldier:
Specialist Silva said he had swung his gun around,
aimed, fired and watched the
enemy fighter come apart.

‘He just exploded,’ he said.

Strings of Chrismas lights unlit on the awning
in daylight, in May, a pleasure, still.
Bodies of schoolchildren burning inside the bus.
At the read-in, I recite “Dover Beach,” “Dulce Et Decorum Est,”
“The Second Coming,” and “The Pleasures of Peace”
outside the administrative building to protest
our own VP master of war, who’s debasing
the language just a grenade’s throw away, as
mortar-boarded blond co-eds
snap pix by the big happy fountain in Florida.

Sure, poetry makes little happen but the relief
is palpable as we read and I
think of Kenneth Koch protesting
outside Hamilton Hall
in the backward abysm of insane ’68
and dream of my own
meager odyssey here and feel absurd
(which reminds me of brave Allen, whose
“America” I read too, feeling the kick
of its acidic grinning lines, so strong that
when we hear helicopters thwack-thwacking
through the blue sky noon, we laugh that
they still have his spirit under surveillance)
and Kenneth was surely right about
“the whole rude gallery of war” paling
next to the pleasures of one stick of
pink mint gum, and it’s no surprise
I almost wrote “gun”
given how the language of war
infects us these days.

The Historian:
The Cold War was a time when
official utterance
had become synonmous with deceit
and obfuscation.

This has been tough weeks in that country.
Fern fronds reach into hot light, symmetrical, regal.
Bodies burning in the skeleton of the shattered bus.

The Colonel:
With a heavy dose of fear and violence
and a lot of money for projects, I think
we can convince these people
that we are here
to help them.

I see 5 coffins in the picture, an aerial shot. Some are too small
to bear. Just outside Gaza, they shot her dead in a car,
8 months pregnant, along with four young daughters, their
toys strewn across the bloody backseat.
The shattered Dad tells the news:
in her tummy (like yours) a potential boy.
Meanwhile I learn
bonobos are the hippies of the forest –
their philosophy: make love, not war.
When anxious, they have sex, frolic, kiss, feel better.

The President:
Have I made any mistakes?
I wish you’d have given me this written
question ahead of time so I could
plan for it…
You just put me under
the spot here and maybe I’m not quick
as quick on my
feet as I should be in
coming up with one.

This has been tough weeks in that country.
The blather beyond out of control,
naked bodies heaped in mounds.
Yesterday the sky defined blue all over again
but I’ve come to expect the overwhelming.
Time to note the lack of wind, the soft muzak
our brains use to wipe
away the plaque that festers, the misbegotten tripe.
The way pretty she with the stud glinting in her nostril
drops coins in my palm, the two made-up blond
women with time to kill
and painted nails chatting over lattes in the courtyard
as loud as possible about friends’ foibles.
But America how can I write an autobiography
in your awful mood? In our name
they bring “democracy”
with a broomstick in the rectum at Abu Ghraib,
our My Lai. This skein of words would love
to start to undo your lie, that lie, this lie.

The Detainee:
The soldiers handcuffed me to a bed.
“Do you believe in anything?” the soldier asked.
‘I believe in Allah,’ I said.
“But I believe in torture and I will torture you.’”

Palm trees and brick in a furnace of sun. Tallahassee
and Fallujah are one and are not one.
A mind and a country are one and are not one.
A poem is the weather.
Over there
the leader lives in a mansion numb
behind iron gates.

The Soldier:
Ideally we would kill them all. But if they choose to
change their mind and flee,
there’s not much we can do.

We have been trying to kill
anything that is moving
towards the city.

On a trip north I see


spraypainted on train station steel pillar:
dissent in my quiet hometown, New
Jersey, from where we used to
smoke and look at the twin towers
twinkling at dusk from your deck
perched on the cliff.

The Captain:
You have to understand
the Arab mind. The only thing
they understand is force –
force, pride, and saving face.

It is painful to watch an empire stumble,
or crumble, from the inside.
Liberation gibberish eaten like licorice.
For months, for 2 years, I’ve been waiting
to see a crack in the lunacy, a brake
at least on the torture
of language. The war is kill. The war
is freedom fried. To dream the neocon dream.

The Poet:
It is necessary to shake yourself free from the soot of words.

The pleasures of schlock and maw applied
like steroid cream on the itch of a nation.
The telescreen cannot be eliminated.
I weep for nuance, for nuance is dead.
Our platform:
to stamp out ambiguity and deliberation
wherever they rear their vile heads.

The Citizen:
Until recently when I spoke of the US
government I said ‘we’;
now I say ‘they’ and feel disgusted.

To unseam the impossible seam: tear open the bag, Dad, and
you can make Pandora’s box look like a dream.
I just love pre-emptive warts, justified by imminent treats.
I weep for nuance, for nuance is dead.

The Poet:
There is only one way out: to speak against words.
Drag them along in shame where they lead us,
and there they will be disfigured.

He was a bad man, the man to bag, a bag dad, a bagged man.
They are dead-enders, just remnants, revenants.
They hate free dumb. They hate limber trees.
They hate the mockcracy.

This has been tough weeks
in this country, in that country,
in this country, in that country,
tough weeks, tough weeks, tough weeks,
in this country, in that country,
tough weeks, tough weeks.

1 comment:

seema said...

I enjoyed reading this one. It's not afraid at all.