Saturday, July 14, 2007
Bob Perelman's "Shock and Awe" and Dick Cheney's Mind/"Wichita Vortex Sutra" for the 21st century
I've been a fan of Bob Perelman's poetry for about a decade, ever since Mike Magee introduced me to the work of his mentor at UPenn. Perelman is one of those rare poets whose crossover appeal has three dimensions--he's a witty experimental writer who is bawdy and grounded, he's a lyrical dynamo with intellectual rigor, and he's a fine, plainspoken critic who doesn't need to impress with theoretically-leaden prose. Perelman's poem, "Against Shock and Awe," written in 2003, hearkens back to Allen Ginsberg's great Vietnam War poem, "Wichita Vortex Sutra." Although it doesn't have the fragmented oral quality of Ginsberg's epic, Perelman's "Against Shock and Awe" situates its meditation on the war through imagining Cheney's "Wyoming," as Ginsberg does with "Wichita." Perelman had this poem published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as on counterpunch--demonstrating the crucial need for a kind of public role for poetry, and to resist war.
"Against Shock and Awe" by Bob Perelman
For Kerry Sherin
We may not have chosen to live inside Dick Cheney's mind, but we
Wyoming, I read somewhere, is the safest place in North America.
No tornados, no tsunamis, no earthquakes, no monsoons, or
floods. No major airport: no big planes crashing in the sleet.
But if living in Wyoming is so safe, living inside Dick Cheney's mind,
though it was formed there, is not safe at all.
How do you get from Wyoming to Shock and Awe?
Getting from Love to Hate, that's easy: Love, Live, Give, Gave,
Love comes before life, and since newborns don't survive on their
own, life at the beginning involves giving. It has to: breast milk,
protection, language, diapers made out of whatever, some sort of
attention before you crawl or walk. Everyone living was given
some of that somehow.
That gets us up to Give. Gave comes next because giving is tiring.
You give and give and what thanks do you get? Nothing. Or
worse. They think they're entitled; they're madder than ever; they
sulk in their rooms, they throw rocks.
So much for giving. The next logical step is to build a gate.
But gates creak at night, they leak, they break, in fact, gates
concentrate whatever's on either side, they distill hate.
Love, Live, Give, Gave, Gate, Hate: Q.E.D.
But getting from Wyoming to Shock and Awe?
"Shock and Awe"? That's the Pentagon's current battle plan for
Iraq: 300 to 400 cruise missiles the first day (more than in all of
Desert Storm), 300 to 400 the next, to demolish water, electricity,
communications, buildings, roads, bridges, infrastructure in
general. "The sheer size of this has never been seen before," a
Pentagon official told CBS. "There will not be a safe place in
Baghdad." Harlan Ullman drew a parallel to Hiroshima: the Iraqi
people will be "physically, emotionally and psychologically
exhausted"; it will be "like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not
taking days or weeks but minutes." The point is "to impose
overwhelming level of Shock and Awe, to seize control of the
environment and paralyze or so overload an adversary's
perceptions and understanding of events that the enemy would
be incapable of resistance."
This is Shock and Awe, remember, not Wyoming.
But it gets hard to tell them apart: overwhelming levels seizing
control, paralyzing perceptions and understanding.
That works for Wyoming and just about anywhere in the United
That's the problem with living inside Dick Cheney's mind, whether
we've chosen to or not.
What's the point of Shock and Awe?
To free the Iraqi people.
Problem: "No safe place in Baghdad" contradicts "To free the Iraqi
Rationale: Since the Iraqi people are enslaved inside Saddam
Hussein's mind, that mind must be destroyed. That means
destroying Saddam Hussein's body, which means brushing aside
Baghdad to find him to free the Iraqi people trapped inside his
But dead people are free only in the most limited way. Not much
bang for the buck there.
Deeper rationale: It's an adult world. Shock and Awe is adult
political theater for a world audience. To reach an audience that
big you have to project. That's the point of Shock, the sheer size
of which has never, etc. Otherwise the audience won't be struck
What's the point of Awe?
Awe kills two birds with one stone. For the right Arabs, it
inaugurates democracy, or something, somehow. For the wrong
Arabs, Awe will . . . what? Awe will awe them into submission.
I can hear Dick Cheney arguing that Awe worked at Hiroshima.
But Japan was at war with us, and Awe, or at least Instant
Submission, didn't work outside Japan. The Iraqi people are not
only not at war with us, we're rescuing them from Saddam
Hussein's mind. And as for working outside Baghdad? Destroying
it will awe al-Qaeda? That's a stretch. There are more al-Qaedans
in London or Berlin than in Baghdad. Maybe we should get Berlin
No matter how big you make Shock, you can't get to Awe.
Forget it: We'll never know the exact route from Wyoming to
Shock and Awe.
But Shock and Awe is already halfway here: Here, Baghdad and
Here, Wyoming. We're half "physically, emotionally and
psychologically exhausted"; our "perceptions and understanding"
are half "overloaded."
But even half a mind is enough to do the math: We're half capable
The shocks are gigantic, disgusting, but at least they're not
shocking, once we give up our imaginary safety.
The other half, Awe with its ersatz religious capital letter, we can
The weapons are huge and thoughtless, but they don't deserve a shred of awe.
A small victory, but it's one weapon destroyed, the one they
always use first.
Bob Perelman is a poet and a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. The Shock and Awe language comes from Web sites found on Google under "Shock and Awe." He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org