Monday, August 4, 2008

Ben Friedlander's "Somebody Blew Up America"/The Reaction to the Reaction to 9/11

The attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 elicited an enormous poetry response--thousands upon thousands of poems by everyday people posted on the internet, anthologies by professional poets, and readings all over the world.

But perhaps none of these poems (including those written by then-poet laureate Billy Collins and read at Congress) gained more notoriety than Amiri Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America," read at the Dodge Poetry Festival and subsquently published in multiple forms (including on the internet by Baraka).

Much of the hullaballoo surrounded Baraka's dropping of a reference to a pernicious and hateful web rumor that 4,000 Israelis alleged to have abandoned the building prior to its attack:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away ?
Who,Who, Who/
explosion of Owl the newspaper say
the devil face cd be seen Who WHO Who WHO

(Interestly, one poem written in response to Baraka's poem, Robert Pinsky's "The Forgetting," forgets that the poem references "Israelis" and calls them "Jews." Obviously, in either case, there is a pernicious anti-Semitic insinuation of conspiracy, but it's a poem about forgetting, after all!)

Baraka's poem, which I wrote about in Behind the Lines (the book), oscillates between a dramatization of paranoid and totalizing thinking and simply being paranoid. Baraka's defense of the poem literalized the paranoid reading, to my chagrin. This is a quote from the BTL:
While the poem’s catalogue of crimes committed by this efficacious empire is mostly irrefutable (with the glaring exception of the notion that Israelis and American administration official knew about the attacks), the desire to place all the blame on a singular, though unnamed “Somebody” dramatizes the temptation and weakness of a totalizing critique of empire. The ending of the poem clinches this reading:

Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog
Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO (+) who who
Whoooo and WhoooooOOOOOOooooOooo!

In its concatenation of “Who’s,” the poem concludes with a comic-gothic, loony-bird quality that suggests the libidinal excess that conspiracy-theorizing brings with it. Baraka’s poem thus suggests the dangers of the slippery thinking of conspiracy theories, even as it courts the same conspiracy-theorizing in the process.

Finally, it suggests that, while the documentary impulse-—and its information-gathering and dissemination procedure—-is an essential aspect of war resistance poetry, information itself in the Internet Age is extremely vulnerable to manipulation, and poets need to take care in how the handle it, lest their handiwork become weakened by its misuse.

Or you could just read Ben Friedlander's comic tonic response, which takes a step away from all of that, and questions the authenticity impulse adduceable from Baraka's poem (or his response to it). I first heard it at Bob Perelman's talk on "bathos" and poetry, and the poem clearly emerges from a flarfy sensibility; by the end, though, it re-engages the possession trope in Baraka's poem, and offers to exorcise Baraka's own demons (our own, of course, our own!)...


The poem you just heard was ironic and this one is sincere.
How can you tell? Because it was written in “my” voice.

Of course, when Carla reads it with her accent
you may mistake the meaning

for something less deliberate, say, Snoopy’s F86E Sabre
dropping napalm on Korea.

You didn’t know that? I always let the reader know.
It’s only reasonable:

if you leave your popsicle in the sun,
you have to expect the pages to get sticky.

It’s one of the reasons Lynne Cheney is careful with any book,
but especially peanuts: a protein-rich liquid mixed

with animal-infected soy,
all its ducks lined up in a row

of teeth, the smile behind the visor.
in Denmark? No pussy there, just a bunch of cartoonists.

That’s why Satan only has ten kills in the Bible.
The meaning of history is something anyone can understand

from the “inside,” except that there aren’t any sides
in poetry, just folds of sound

where the dust of old meanings
collect. A poem is not a spoil of war,

nor a spoiler warning,
but a soiled conscience

spread across a table where the meals are shared.
Poetry is only as sturdy as the wood underneath.

True? True,
your starter hole is big, but I’ve got a plan for how to fill the vacancy.

First, a “throne council” needs to establish
some mind-share. Then a “thug class” can be appointed

to keep the population in line,
or we can just sprinkle hallucinogenic corn.

PS As you can see, sucky politics is why I beat
Dick Cheney to a pulp of soaked alfalfa cubes

a horrid little abortion such as one sees in a glass jar of flies devoured by vermin has 4000 listeners

a huge audience by poetry standards. Neruda without
shooting myself in the foot b/c i am admitting i have a security hole

a disturbance of bubbles played on the E-flat trumpet.
Just to be clear, I don’t think music should be illegal

Though some people question the usefulness
of the concept,

and some deny it exists. I believe
in a bizarre collection of ideas about language.

Did you know, for example, that stuttering affects
many more men than women?

This is why women chew slowly
and men eat steak. Now make a fist

and place the thumb side of your fist
against Amiri Baraka’s upper abdomen, below the ribcage

and above the navel. Grasp your fist
with your other hand and press into

the upper abdomen with a quick upward
thrust. Do not squeeze Amiri Baraka;

confine the force of your thrust to your hands.
Repeat until the terrorists are expelled.


Steve said...

Excellent note, Phil.

Ben's right on, for me.

Amiri's a dork. I have very little interest in him. It's all about "being a poet" and capitalizing on such identity. I think REAL poetry is what's written anonymously and sustains writers who don't need public validation that they exist or want to exist. (That said, I know it must be contradicted, too, but it's an honorable thought, I believe.)

Blah blah... Anyways, good post, Phil.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks for checking in, Steve.