I came across Kevin Prufer's frightening "Patriot Missile" in a recent issue of Colorado Review, and wanted to pass it along for those who haven't read it. What caught my eye about this poem is partly what caught my ear--it's an tense poem simply on the level of sound, and probably naturally so, because this persona is working with the precision machinery of the "Patriot" missle. In opposition to my usual style of talking about the poem and then delivering it, I've posted Prufer's own reflection on the poem afterwards. (I'm still fiddling with his spacing, which hasn't appeared properly yet).
"Patriot Missile" by Kevin Prufer
I loved the half-constructed hulk of it,
the firing condenser that, bared,
caught the light
and made of it a copper flare—
nose and husk, electrolyte.
And I, tweezing a clot of oil, a metal shaving from its stilled heart,
might smile, as if to tell it Live—
and it just slept at my work station,
its screen gone black and strange,
its alien lungs and chest, in an oiled and armless husk,
its one-eyed head—
for days it nearly died in the workroom
and I caressed it thusly:
with my thumb across its rough coils, and down
where the detonator
clasped the breaker.
And once, holding its lungs just so, I turned the dial
so the screen came on. It smiled.
I told it Breathe and, for moment,
it appeared to. I told it Darling and Love.
And no one in the factory speaks to me.
I’ve forged a metal face
to cover up my face.
My brain is made of coils, my heart of wires.
I’ve written down my thoughts and stowed them in its guts
and screwed the breastplate back—
Nights, I think about its perfect, absent brain,
the wires that pulse in the breakers,
the payload’s hum,
and sometimes wind,
antenna cap and spark, the thought or throb
when it finds its target
and, finally smiling—
published by Colorado Review (2007)
About the poem, Kevin wrote this:
At a certain point in my writing life, maybe ten years
ago, I decided that I would never write about myself
again. (My first book was very autobiographical.)
The result was that I found this whole world of
possible subjects, and I began to take on voices that
were as far from mine as possible--the voices of Roman
emperors, say, or the decaying children of the Czar.
This poem has definitely grown out of that, as well as
my nearly endless love of horror movies. I know I
began by imagining someone working in a sort of dreary
yet still fanciful missile factory. He imagines the
half-constructed missile in front of him is something
like Frankenstein's monster, that it might have a
weird sort of consciousness beneath its face plate, a
consciousness similar to the speaker's own. (That is,
it might also be cold and irresponsible and gleeful.)
As I wrote, I became interested in how the speaker
(who I began to imagine might be any of us who pay
taxes, who tacitly support our current military
adventures) comes to resemble the thing he creates.
When the citizen-worker who speaks in the poem
imagines the missile smiling into flame at the end, I
figured that he also must be smiling--as so many of us
were encouraged to, watching as we took down Baghdad.
(I wrote the first drafts of this when we were still
being told how wonderful things were in Iraq, etc.
Well, I guess we're still being told that, aren't we?)