Monday, December 8, 2008

On Stanley Moss' "Peace"

I didn't get a chance to comment on the poem that I posted on Friday. Stanley Moss' poem is an intriguing fantasy of a time that has not yet existed--or at least, one which is lost between or beneath the tank treads of the History of Wars. Just for fun, I'll take it sentence by sentence, though it's a single stanza.
"Peace" by Stanley Moss

The trade of war is over, there are no more battles,
but simple murder is still in.

This epoch which Moss describes is one in which war is done but murder still can occur. It's a funny line--as if to say, at least organized mass violence is out, but some little nastinesses still may occur. In other words, this isn't complete pie in the sky nonsense.
The No God, Time, creeps his way,
universe after universe, like a great snapping turtle
opening its mouth wagging its tongue
to look like a worm or leech
so deceived hungry fish, every living thing
swims in to feed. Quarks long for dark holes,
atoms butter up molecules, protons do unto neutrons
what they would have neutrons do unto them.

Now, what still strikes fear in the hearts of men is what always has, the "great snapping turtle" of Time that waits until we are deceived and in her mouth, seeking succor. In fact, all things, from the smallest particles on up, desire to be taken up into larger constellations of being (atoms to molecules, protons to neutrons, etc.), and all things act as they would like to be acted upon (something akin to a first principle of ethics.)
The trade of war has been over so long,
the meaning of war in the O.E.D. is now “nonsense.”
In the Russian Efron Encyclopedia,
war, voina, means “dog shit”;
in the Littré, guerre is “a verse form, obsolete”;
in Germany, Krieg has become “a whipped-cream pastry”;
Sea of Words, the Chinese dictionary,
has war, zhan zheng, as “making love in public,”
while war in Arabic and Hebrew, with the same
Semitic throat, harb and milchamah, is defined
as “anything our distant grandfathers ate
we no longer find tempting—-like the eyes of sheep.”

Moss then goes into language itself, the way the old words for war now have come to mean anything but war--nonsense, dog shit, obsolete verse form, whipped cream pastry, making love in public, or what the ancestors ate but no longer tastes good, "like the eyes of sheep."
The final line,
And lions eat grass.

necessarily comes as a kind of shock, the icy water of reality after the flights of fancy. The poem's logic seems to suggest, then, that though we might imagine human words could change meaning when reality changes, it is ludicrous to imagine a lion ever eating grass, and thus, despite our best efforts, there is something in us, in the world, in nature ("red in tooth and claw") that will never be tamed into peace.

Peace is a mere fantasy in the face of lions. It echoes, of course, the apocalyptic vision of Isaiah, which is popularly misquoted as "the lion lies down with the lamb" (it's a wolf)--an imagination of a time when all the natural orders are reversed, and the impossible becomes possible again. Interestingly, this is a passage read during Advent, as it is seen as a precursor vision of the birth of Jesus:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
--Isaiah 11:6

There is a whole tradition of Christian poetry that unites the vision of peace with the birth of Jesus, including Milton's "Nativity Ode."

What annoys me about the Moss poem is that it employs the rhetoric of nature's essential violence to suggest why war may be inevitable. Does it necessarily follow?

1 comment:

Chaerephon said...

I thought Moss' leading with the phrase "the trade of war" was a signal that his utopian vision does not entail the absence of the essence of war, just the absence of armies, navies, Blackwater, etc.

The more I read the poem, the more it feels like an Internet argument with some red-meat Hannity type. Moss (or the narrator of the poem) goes way out of his way to show off a facile kind of worldliness -- ooh, he knows the names of the dictionaries in other countries! (Pardon me if I don't anoint him Graham Greene just yet.) His ultimate conclusion is one of those easy "you can't argue it, it just IS!" propositions that people are so fond of these days. "Non-violent?!? Hell, nature's violent. Homosexual?!? It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." Etc.