Friday, February 29, 2008

On the Death of William F. Buckley, Jr./Talking with Allen Ginsberg & Noam Chomsky

I wish someone would post the original Firing Line footage, but the audio and sock puppets will have to do for now. Buckley shows his softer side here, and in his interview with Noam Chomsky, his meditative and thoughtful mind, though beneath the debonair aspect there is a steely and sometimes deeply hostile force.

Simone Muench's Lampblack & Ash/Anti-Valentines for Desnos

Simone Muench's Lampback & Ash is a fittingly titled tour-de-force of language, not language poetry, but language as a sensuous and sinewy grappling with the other. The whole book is dotted with epigraphs by Robert Desnos--a French poet who died in the Nazi concentration camps and who becomes Muench's haunting muse; though many of the poems could be read as anti-valentines for Desnos, they also stand alone as encounters with others--in particular, ghastly and vampiric male others. But the collision of ecstatic language makes such a gothic poetic enterprise more than enjoyable. One hates to love love poetry that hates so much, and yet we do. Take, for example, this section from "By Your Mouth":
Days when I gaze into your glass
eye, archeological remains

of your tortured back, mustangs
gather at your open mouth.

You conspire against my pleasure,
your sadness is ferocious, taller

than Kilimanjaro. You live in my ribs,
a ruby boutonniere; you are plum

and pendulum; a car salesman in white
tie and tails. You're bizarre as innards,

buzzards as you stumble dream
to dream you reside in margins,

in the blurry vision of virgins;
in my eyes, you are aniline dye,

the deep south of your contagious mouth.

I think of the Clash: "love and hate tattooed across the knuckles of hands/hands that smack his kids around they don't understand...."

More to read at her website.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Two Souths (& More): Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard and Rebecca Black's Cottonlandia

Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard, the Pulitzer Prize winning book of 2007, it seems to me, speaks volumes about how poetry still can contribute to our historical understandings of ourselves, that poetry has a cultural labor. Nevermind those who wish to distract with talk about the identity politics of choosing an interracial poet; that obfuscates the formal poise and simple beauty of the poems, and their rather painful extraction of the personal and historical pasts.

Yet the story of the Native Guard all-black regiment in charge of an island prison holding Confederate soldiers, told as a dramatic monologue in a crown of sonnets called "Native Guard," is just the sort of story that we still like to hear--that America can be America again, in the words of Langston Hughes.

Having just read Trethewey, I cast my mind back to other books which summoned the South as its muse and drudge. Rebecca Black's Cottonlandia (2005) is a book that, despite its less splashy reception, has an important cultural labor to perform alongside the kind of revisionary history of Trethewey. Cottonlandia is in some ways more multiform than Native Guard, (which focuses primarily on the familial relationship and then briefly on the Native Guard) because its central subjectivity admits into its poetic lens a wider and more various South (indeed, Souths)--its South is populated by a whole sundry range of characters, voices, and landscapes: Bartram, an explorer; haunted houses; Otis Redding (born just down the road from Black); Emmitt Till; a flooded cemetery, where the coffins popped like corks; Choctaws and Creeks; churches and jails; suburban homes and trailer parks; and so on...

Even so, while the South is central in Cottonlandia (both spiritually and in terms of its placement in the book), it's much more than a book about the South. Heralding its allegiance to and dialogue with the confessional poets--in particular Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman--Cottonlandia explores the ways in which individual lives get dramatized against the backdrop of the social ills and social crises of our times. Read a certain way, each of Cottonlandia's three sections could be seen as a direct dialogue with a different poets--Plath, Lowell, Berryman respectively.

In the first section, "Photographica," Black tackles the question, what does it mean to be a woman and a poet, when mothers and social rules constrain and even poison the self into oblivion? In harrowing poems like "Studies from Life," a mother's photographic arts are a literal and figurative poison that her daughters must survive:
Studies from Life

after Lady Hawarden’s (1822-1865) photographs of her daughters

I keep a cabinet of dolls
nesting in shoebox cribs, a house
in miniature, wire chandelier.

Mother’s brush backed
with silver—-a tarnished whale
on the dresser. My hands like hers

threading through hair.
I might walk through the wall,
Clementina, while you powder

the mole on your clavicle.
You cherish that black slur.
Myself uncorsetted spilling through

the seams. You won’t tell.
I jam my dolls, my ministers,
back in their dusty beds.

Some evenings
we are never put down.
The world’s Girl strips us

to our slips. And forgets
to shut our eyes, leaves us
face down in the dark.

Mother’s coughing
from the chemicals—-her throat latches
on air, a broken clasp—-

as we devise another scene:
On Affliction Beauty waits. You’re A.
and I’m B. for the full exposure.

Take this night-blooming orchid
for a pelt, midnight’s smooth tail
as your only interlocutor.

The ghost of a hand as Mother
unscrews the lens cap. Daughters
of Collodion, chlorine sistered,

she would never usher us
into abstraction, flesh of her
flesh. See my earrings like spears

and beads black as the spider-
selves we swept from the house’s
bare corners? Sister,

let’s hide beneath this veil.

(published by Blackbird online)

In the second section, her sequence of poems "The Invention of the Cotton Gin," Black explores the undead past (a la Faulkner: the past isn't dead, it's not even past) and wrestles with its ghosts. As such, it asks, what does it mean to be white and in a society where such privilege has meant oppression for others? And what does it mean to come from people who are flawed, who are murderers and bribers, whose genes keep twining in us?
Tolberton County, 1923

Small god of histories, make yourself known.
Clay-eater, smith and jester, bend the dogwood

down. Tell me who cheated who at cards,
who placed spade next to heart before that ghost,

my great-great uncle, slashed a man’s throat
with his penknife? And walked himself weeping

to the county jail. His nephew sent later
with a flour-sack of cash to bribe the governor

of Sugar Creek. Child of child of pocketknife
and cannon fodder, motoring past sand dunes

far below sea level, I won’t report my crimes.
I do shadow-time, imagining the boy sent

with the bribe made to wait all day on the capitol
steps, face burning from sun and shame.

The murderer my great-great uncle escaped the gallows,
married a poor woman who kept him sane.

The boy ran a cotton mill for fifty years.
As he died he told us his secret story—-

saying sure you can purchase mercy sure
you can. But everything you gotta buy costs high.

published by Blackbird

An anti-confession ("I won't report my crimes") by way of family history, this poem refuses to hide. It's an apocalyptic book, in the root sense of the word, a book that tears off the seals and exposes (or tries to imagine) what has been hidden. That sense of exposure of connections offers its own kind of mapping of the South, where a poem about a father's black caretakers turns into a meditation on the Cold War and ends with the image of Emmitt Till's horrible murder: "found with a cotton gin motor coiled to his neck/like the circling of a round."

The third section, "My Only Golem," a series of poems that speak through the voice of a Golem named Mephista, poses the question: What does it mean to be a self at all, when we are both self and self-creation, Frankenstein and Frankenstein's Monster?

Mephista Recounts Her Past Lives,
or Nanotechnology

Newsflash, Missus--machines
have been invented
to invent machines.
I know you depend
on me to make your name.
But before you plucked
me canopic, I peddled atoms
at the linear accelerator;
I kept myself in penny dreadfuls
by importing diction illegally.
After fencing with Herr Doctor
Faustus, after purely scientific
revelations, I came to
with this jingle:
“That’s what happens/
in nuclear fusion.”
Though I was orphaned
as Orpheus before you,
I’m no liar. I trawled
and groveled rather intelligently.
Adhere to these warnings, Miss B.:
If you try to remove the blemish
from my cheek by chemistry,
correct my limp by a-mal-gams
I’ll dissolve and you’ll be dissolute.
But like a good child,
(Edgar to Glouster)
when you de-sire,
when you want to leave
me to history
I’ll take you to the edge--
what you think is the edge, is death--
watch you flounder
in the shallows. I’ll hand you
the pistol after emptying the chamber.

The word play, and vocal play, drive the poem in ways that remind of Berryman, but without the masculinism and fatalist form. There's an engaging reading of this poem by rhubarbissusan, which suggests that this is a poem of orgasm, the fusion and fission of bodies and their little deaths.

What I admire about Black's work is the way in which each poem is burned down to its essential words--and yet what is left, the structure that's left, remains a kind of of haunted and yet vital dwelling-place, a voice out of which we might take in another vision of the world, as it is, not as we would like it to be.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"From Reznikoff to Public Enemy"/A Poetry Foundation Podcast about Documentary Poetry

Folks, here's the podcast for "From Reznikoff to Public Enemy," now called "From Charles Reznikoff to Chuck D" (though it should probably be called "to Flava Flav," since I do a reading of "911 is a Joke"). Thanks to Curtis Fox for making me sound like I know what I'm talking about. Ah, the miracles of editing.

As for the article itself, you can find it here.

Please do send me other examples, if you have them, your or others' poetry, as I'm always intrigued by bringing "the news" and the historical into dialogue with the poetic...

Jenny Holzer's "Projections"

Check out one of Holzer's "projection" poems (by Wislawa Szymborska) in action. Writing as ephemeral light sculpture. Reading poetry as art viewing.

Yes, Israeli-Palestinian Comedy

Thanks to Debby Rosenthal for sending this to me.

Frederick Seidel, John Berryman, & the Poetics of Self-Shadenfreude

For those of you who weren't paying attention, Frederick Seidel suddenly vaulted into poetic fame in the past couple years, with some critics proclaiming that he was the best poet alive. Adam Kirsch's assessment is suggestive of the forbidden pleasure that readers get from reading Seidel: "Who is the best American poet writing today? Though the news will not be welcome to...literary philanthropists and the people who choose poems for the subway, I think it may be Frederick Seidel."

Seidel is, shall we say, not for the faint of heart. Yet having read Berryman's Dream Songs in the same week of completing Seidel's recent Ooga-Booga, I'd have to say that Berryman churned similar territory, both in terms of formal play and explicit self-divulging content. Seidel moves closer to the nursery rhyme-on-amphetamine style of Plath's Ariel, and delivers as much animal joy in its abjection of self and other. Seidel's poetry is 95% id, and the rest is superego; an imbalance that feels reckless, a kind of readerly driving drunk.

Seidel's poems range from personal foibles to elegies to political diatribes; of the political poems, the final poem of Ooga-Booga, "The Death of the Shah," is absolutely harrowing. You can hear it here. It weaves a self-portrait with the story of a friend, an Iranian woman raped by the Shah, and does precisely what the best confessional works always did--bringing together the personal and historical in ways that are stark, honest, and unforgiving.

In "The Bush Administration," Seidel's usual hectic sound cedes to the surrealism of the Bush Administration, and in section VIII:
CENTCOM is drawing up war plans.
They will drop snow on Congo.
It will melt without leaving a trace, at great expense.
America will pay any price to whiten darkness.
My fellow citizen cicadas rise to the tops of the vanished Twin Towers
And float back down white as ashes
To introduce a new Ice Age.
The countless generations rise from underground this afternoon
And fall like rain.
I never thought that I would live to see the towers fall again.
Seidel's final line echoes Eliot's "The Waste Land"--"I never thought death had undone so many"--but is a blistering critique of the war on terror. The snow seems figurative, but also evokes the "white phosphorus" chemical weapons that the U.S. has used in its war on Iraq--though banned by international law...

At least in this way, Seidel out-Berrymans Berryman, by turning back to Lowell's more outward gaze upon the world. Berryman's poems feel very much about Berryman, or about the imperial lyric self; this is most visible in the poems that deal with political or historical matters--they are so dominated by his voice and form that they never quite seem to shake him (or us).

Yet Berryman has his own charms. Berryman's magnus opum is baggy, monstrous, brilliantly uneven, but occasionally so beautiful in its exacting and fatalist formal structures that you come to the end of a song the way you feel a door slam and the whole house (you) shakes. I love the crabbiness, the sordidness, the humor, more brutally honest because less enraptured in the myth of self than other confessionals. What Seidel inherits from Berryman is the candor and crabbiness about sexual feelings, nowhere so uninhibited and gleefully self-loathing as here.

The greatest shame about even the newest edition of The Dream Songs is that this book still does not have an appendix, which would make the autobiographical and allusive textures even more apparent. The editors make a grave mistake in ignoring that necessary work, and risk losing those textures when everyone who cares about Berryman dies or forgets.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Mark Pawlak's Official Versions

Mark Pawlak's Official Versions comes out of the poet's lifelong obsession with the news as source of poetry; a found poet extraordinaire, Pawlak brings a razor-sharp wit to his keen observations of the hypocrisies and weirdnesses of modern political and existential life.

Tonally, his work reminds of Mark Twain, even if it's closer to Bern Porter or Charles Reznikoff in terms of its reliance upon borrowed language; it's no surprise that his work was chosen for Best American Poetry when Billy Collins was the editor (though Collins, typically, chose one of the less-political poems of the book).

From his Downeast Maine haibuns to his newspaper poems, Pawlak delights in the everyday uses and misuses of language, and wants to share all of it--from the ridiculous to the sublime. One of the political poems that caught my eye was the following, from a poem called "Regime Change":
Historical Afterword:

“The Baghdad communiqu├ęs are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. We are today not far from a disaster.”—T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) writing in the Sunday Times of London on August 22, 1920, about the British occupation of what was then called Mesopotamia.

In his version, the entire piece is "struck-through" by a line, as if to suggest that this is information that someone doesn't want us to know. The British occupation of Iraq at the end of the World War I involved a bloody crackdown resulting in the deaths of many thousands of Iraqis, and one of the first uses of air bombing to "pacify" a population. Those who don't know history....

Monday, February 25, 2008

Anyone Who Wears Other Nations' Dress Can Be My President

Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marching Anymore" & Banana Politics

Phil Ochs, lost soul of the 1960s, whose music brought a topical Dylanism long after Dylan escaped into surrealism, rock and roll, and mythical motorcycle accidents, gives us one of the best protest songs of the era in "I Ain't Marching Anymore." It's a miniature history of American wars, and the refrain comes as a fatigued dissent to all the violence--but that the refrain keeps coming is suggestive of the interminability of our violent history, and dramatizes how, somehow, despite everything, the people get conscripted by hook or by crooks to fight again.

I thought of this song because Terry Gross recently interviewed the author of Banana, a cultural, political, and culinary history of everyone's fave fruit--and the history of how United Fruit had whole governments in Latin America replaced when they did not do their bidding. As General Smedley Butler once said,
I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of a half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of Racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international house of the Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras "right" for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard went its way unmolested . . . Looking back on it, I feel I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three city districts. We Marines operated on three continents.

"I Ain't Marching Anymore" by Phil Ochs

Oh I marched to the battle of New Orleans
At the end of the early British war
The young land started growing
The young blood started flowing
But I ain't marchin' anymore

For I've killed my share of Indians
In a thousand different fights
I was there at the Little Big Horn
I heard many men lying I saw many more dying
But I ain't marchin' anymore

It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all

For I stole California from the Mexican land
Fought in the bloody Civil War
Yes I even killed my brothers
And so many others But I ain't marchin' anymore

For I marched to the battles of the German trench
In a war that was bound to end all wars
Oh I must have killed a million men
And now they want me back again
But I ain't marchin' anymore


For I flew the final mission in the Japanese sky
Set off the mighty mushroom roar
When I saw the cities burning I knew that I was learning
That I ain't marchin' anymore

Now the labor leader's screamin'
when they close the missile plants,
United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore,
Call it "Peace" or call it "Treason,"
Call it "Love" or call it "Reason,"
But I ain't marchin' any more,
No I ain't marchin' any more

Saturday, February 23, 2008

R.E.M.'s "Talk about the Passion"

Having never seen this video "back in the day," I surprised how political it is; the suturing of the homeless man's plight to the palatial and murderous opulence of the aircraft carrier couldn't be more clear...all this from Michael Stipe, a former "army brat" himself. There is something so rousing about the pulling resonance of that cello solo at the end, so simple and yet so much the objective correlative of a soul bestirred and be-hummed.

"Talk About the Passion"

Empty prayer, empty mouths, combien reaction
Empty prayer, empty mouths, talk about the passion
Not everyone can carry the weight of the world
Not everyone can carry the weight of the world

Talk about the passion
Talk about the passion

Empty prayer, empty mouths, combien reaction
Empty prayer, empty mouths, talk about the passion
Combien, combien, combien de temps?

Not everyone can carry the weight of the world
Not everyone can carry the weight of the world
Combien, combien, combien de temps?

Talk about the passion
Talk about the passion

Friday, February 22, 2008

James Bishop's "Basic Training"/What it Looks Like from Inside

I received a call the other day from Lt. Col. Jim Bishop, who happened to be in the thick of a review of Behind the Lines (the book) for War, Literature & the Arts, a journal located at the Air Force Academy, and we had a good conversation about the book and the issues at stake in my arguments about poetry and war. As soon as I learned who he was, and that he was a member of the Armed Services, I immediately anticipated a harsh critique of any number of aspects of the book (the lack of discussion of soldier and veteran poets, the persistent critiques of the U.S. conduct of war, etc.), but Jim was gracious in ways that surprised me. It is amazing how different his perspective was from what I imagined, given his profession and his institutional affiliations. Oddly enough, he quoted passages and cited ideas that, if I were in his boots, might irk or outrage me. Jim's demeanor and outlook demonstrated to me how easily my essentializing fantasy of what a soldier "must" think. His poem, "Basic Training," extends this complex portrait of how military people face their fates and the fantasies of others like Langston Hughes' portrait of African-American life...

"Basic Training" by James Bishop

See the colonel.
See the colonel lead the troops.
Call the area to attention when
He walks by, and the dirt
And grass stand tall.
He was going to retire and hike
The Pacific Crest Trail last year.
Maybe next year.
That’s what happens
To a dream deferred.

See the captain.
See the captain yell two inches
From the face of a recruit.
We hear her 100 yards away.
The captain bakes pound cake
With white confectioners glaze
For the staff. She is loud
And harsh and kind
Mixed into one.
That’s what happens
With so many ingredients.

See the lieutenant.
See the lieutenant watching the recruits
Stand where he stood five years ago.
His arms are bigger than my calves
His voice, a paradox of gentle loudness.
When he called a civilian to ask
If she might sponsor a recruit,
He mentioned he played
Football at the Air Force Academy.
“Did you rape anyone?” she asked.
Stunned, he said, “No, I did not.”
That’s what happens
When civilians go to war.

See the recruit.
See the recruit rise at 0500,
Shower in 30 seconds, squeeze in time
To memorize Schofield’s quote,
To hold a thousand details in panicked
Suspension. Curl your fingers at attention,
Touch your middle finger to your eyebrow
When you salute. Promise to die for your
Country if necessary. Lying on concrete,
His legs lifted six inches off the ground
For the last three minutes until he can’t stop
Shaking, the recruit wonders about the violence
That attaches to dreams.
That’s what happens
To the Basics.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

R.E.M.'s "World Leader Pretend"

About this song, Michael Stipe once revealed that: "I felt the lyric would actually look good to read, and it does read well - there's words like divine and decree, they all start with a 'D', which is good, and things rhyme,but they don't rhyme too much. I can't remember what it's about... Well, somone's at war with themselves.....Anyway, in World Leader Pretend, that was me copying Leonard Cohen, using something like military terms to get across a very simple human emotion."

But what makes this song more than that imitation of Cohen is that we can read the metaphor back upon the actual World Leaders, and question to what degree they themselves have engaged in self-struggle, to what degree they have walled themselves out of the realities around them.

"World Leader Pretend" by R.E.M.

I sit at my table and wage war on myself
It seems like it's all, it's all for nothing
I know the barricades, and
I know the mortar in the wall breaks
I recognize the weapons, I used them well

This is my mistake. Let me make it good
I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down

I've a rich understanding of my finest defenses
I proclaim that claims are left unstated,
I demand a rematch
I decree a stalemate
I divine my deeper motives
I recognize the weapons
I've practiced them well. I fitted them myself

It's amazing what devices you can sympathize, empathize
This is my mistake. Let me make it good
I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down

Reach out for me and hold me tight. Hold that memory
Let my machine talk to me, let my machine talk to me

This is my world
And I am world leader pretend
This is my life
And this is my time
I have been given the freedom
To do as I see fit
It's high time I've razed the walls
That I've constructed

(repeat chorus)

You fill in the mortar. You fill in the harmony
You fill in the mortar. I raised the wall
And I'm the only one
I will be the one to knock it down

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Husker Du's "Divide and Conquer"

A bit of agitprop from one of the fastest bands who never lost their minds to speed (in both senses of the term). "Divide and Conquer" looks a bit like Rush's "Subdivisions," but it's hard to imagine Neal Peart coming up with the line: "and longitude, longing to find out/just what they're missing." In its politics of division, it may be firmly located in the mid-1980s anxieties over how globalization appeared to spell the death-knell of dissenting movements.

Yet it also hearkens back to the old idea of how modern societies, in their increasing stratification, cause people to lose sight of their connectedness. Emerson put it this way in "The American Scholar":
It is one of those fables, which, out of an unknown antiquity, convey an unlooked-for wisdom, that the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.

The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man, — present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state, these functions are parcelled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies, that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, — a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.

"Divide and Conquer" by Husker Du

Well they divided up all the land
And we've got states and cities
Cities have their neighborhoods
And more subdivisions

There's countries divided by walls
Oceans and latitudes
And longitude, longing to find out
Just what they're missing

They're lots of area codes
And nine digit zip codes
Secret decoder ring codes
Arteries, shopping nodes

We'll invent some new computers
Link up the global village
And get AP, UPI, and Reuters
To tell everybody the news

We'll be one happy neighborhood
Spread out across the world
But who's going to stop that burglar
From breaking in my house
If he lives that far away

We'll be just like old friends
No means to your ends
The police state is to busy
And the neighborhood's getting out of hand

It's not about my politics
Something happened way too quick
A bunch of men who played it sick
They divide, conquer

It's all here before your eyes
Safety is a big disguise
That hides among the other lies
They divide, conquer

Well I expect I won't be heard
Because my silence is assured
Never a discouraging word
They divide and conquer

They divide and conquer

Sunday, February 17, 2008

"To See the Earth"

After many years of prodding and probing, hacking and shaving, "To See the Earth" is now a book. I have many people to thank for helping it into its final form--a list that includes but is not limited to the following gratitudes: Thanks to Maggie Anderson, Cathy Bowman, Mark Halliday, Roger Mitchell, Maura Stanton, and especially my advisors David Wojahn and Bob Cording. Thanks as well to Abner Bardeguez, Jenny Barker, Becca Black, Michael Dumanis, Jim Doppke, Rita Grabowski, Chris Green, Bob King, Mike Magee, E.J. McAdams, Paula McLain, Anna Meek, Drew Morse, Tyrone Simpson, Gigi Thibodeaux, my family (Dad, Mom, Kath, Dave), and all workshop comrades at Indiana.

Thanks to Dmitry Psurtsev, Sergey Gandlevsky, Olga Leontevna, the Maslov family, John Patton, Paul and Mary Asel, Bernie Sucher, Jeff Lilley, Jeremy Huck, Peter Rossi, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, and all the other fellow travelers (Willem, Mike, Nina, Steve, Tom, Garrick-—you know who you are) who made my life in Russia possible. Thanks as well to Majed Abbadi, Kathryn Bryan, Khuloud Jaqaman, Rima Kapitan, Kadhim Shabaan, Vera Tamari, and the Cleveland Friends Meeting.

Thanks to Indiana University, John Carroll University, Ledig House, and the Ohio Arts Council, for supporting the writing of this manuscript.

Thank you, finally, to Amy Breau, and our daughters Adele and Leila, without whom this would not have been.

To See the Earth navigates the increasingly turbulent waters of a globalized world—from Moscow to Chicago, from Philadelphia to Ramallah. In poems haunted by Anna Akhmatova, Robert Lowell, and Lev Rubinstein, Metres renders in vivid language what Fredric Jameson called “cognitive mapping”-—a kind of “situational representation on the part of the individual subject to the vaster and properly unrepresentable totality.” To See the Earth travels to Russia, memorializes immigrant Arab American family life in a Brooklyn brownstone, witnesses to the violence visited upon people both at home and abroad, and carves out of such losses images of hope—the birthing not of a terrible beauty, but of the “dreaming disarmed body.”

"An emotionally and intellectually charged poetry of various and intricately formed voices--a poetry that speaks of and against the unprecedented, destructive horrors taking place throughout our world, a poetry which, simultaneously, speaks for the radical truths of the essential love that infuses the best of the art of American poetry in our time. ‘ you speak speak’--Philip Metres's poetry speaks to us all, in ways critical, vital, profound, and brilliant."--Lawrence Joseph

Set in landscapes ranging from Russia to Kentucky, from Ephesus to the Murder Capital of the World (that’s Gary, Indiana!), from Cleveland to Hiroshima, Philip Metres’s superb poems explore the confusion and complexities that ordinary people face in talking to one another on this earth--in the slippery language of everyday speech, or across the secured borders of grammar and history. Words are not abstractions to Metres—-they’re as physical as fifty women making PEACE with their bodies, as mysterious as a bat soaring to unheard music, as illuminating as an ash tree “burning into its name.” Committed to an examination of both the public and the private life, these powerful poems echo in the mind long after the book is closed.--Maura Stanton

"Do our voyages, Auden once asked, “still promise the Juster Life”? Too many of us would answer this question in the negative—not so Philip Metres. His poems seek above all to traverse borders, not merely those between nations and cultures but also--and most importantly--between the self and history, between the personal and the political. Metres plays for high stakes, and he also knows that such ambition is pointless without the sure command of craft which he displays in abundance. To See the Earth is a debut of unusual distinction.” --David Wojahn

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"The Empire in the Air" by Kevin Prufer

One of the curious things about this poem is the way in which a simile renders the poem so much less clear. As in Emily Dickinson, whose metaphors tend to offer at least two (often completely opposing) possibilities, Kevin Prufer describes a "fragile empire" to be "like a bomb" and then describes something that rather sounds that it could be nothing but a bomb. What is a fragile empire, indeed? And are we laughing and sipping our drinks as the clock ticks gently away?
"The Empire in the Air"

It was a fragile empire
with knobs and wires, like a bomb.
It lived in a blue suitcase in the airplane's belly.
It had a little screen that flashed the time
and the moments we had left, ticked them gently away.
We laughed and sipped our drinks
while the empire, wrapped in its inevitable wires,
imagined the airplane splitting like a milkweed pod,
the clothing that would burst from our broken suitcases
into the air.

Kevin Prufer

Friday, February 15, 2008

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

Just in case you needed any further evidence that the neocons were fatally misguided about Iraq, read the "lost [Bill] Kristol tapes," in which we find a good Arabic saying, "Rah el sani’, ija el ussta‘ — ‘Gone is the apprentice, in comes the master.’” Or, to quote Pete Townsend--"meet the new boss, [worse] than the old boss."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Saw Wai's Poetic Valentine Was a Slap in the Face to his Dear Leader

Poetry as news. Read on:

In case you've not yet heard: on January 22, 2008, in the country of Myanmar, a man named Saw Wai was jailed for writing a poem. The eight-line poem, "February 14," had been published the previous day in the popular Burmese weekly A Chit (or The Love Journal), and is about a man who learns the true meaning of love when his heart is broken by a fashion model. Because "February 14" looks the part of a saccharine
Valentine, Burmese government censors missed its hidden message: when read top-to-bottom, the first word of each line forms the phrase, "Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe."

Senior General Than Shwe leads the military junta that has ruled Myanmar for almost twenty years. After seizing control of the Burmese government in 1988, the junta refused to relinquish power in 1990, when a democratic political party led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won a popular election by an enormous margin. Suu Kyi has been in a Burmese prison for twelve of the past eighteen years; Than Shwe has been the country's dictator for the past fifteen.

Saw Wai has been in prison, unable to see his family, for almost three weeks.

Than Shwe's junta has long detained critics and dissidents for indefinite periods of time. But their methods do not stop at imprisonment. There are many accounts, some first-hand, of jailed dissidents being tortured while imprisoned. And in September, 2007, Than Shwe's troops opened fire on a peaceful, pro-democracy demonstration and killed more than thirty people, including several Buddhist monks who were leading the protests. It is unclear what will happen to Saw Wai, but with each day he spends in prison, it becomes clearer that his message is true.

In response to Saw Wai's situation, I have edited a small, twelve-poet anthology of poems that each contain the phrase, "Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe," in a manner that remains faithful to Saw Wai's poem. (The phrase is also the chapbook's title.) The anthology has been published in the online literary journal ANTI-, and may be freely downloaded and distributed. As the editor of ANTI-, Steven D. Schroeder, has written, "[this project] takes advantage of the fast turnaround time and unique presentation possibilities of the online format, and... stands against something that's clearly important and worth fighting."

Participating poets have remarkably different backgrounds, and hail from California, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and elsewhere; one poet has never before been published, while another has won the National Book Award (Phillippines) five times.

What unites these poets is the desire to speak and act against injustice. And sociable web media have allowed this to happen. I first heard about Saw Wai's jailing via another poet's blog, on January 24th; I immediately wrote and posted a poem-response on my blog, and began soliciting other bloggers I knew to do the same; I also contacted the editor of ANTI-, who had previously published my work in another venue, and proposed that I guest edit a small, chapbook-sized collection of such poetry. Via e-mail, listservs, blogs, and the like, the project was developed from conception to completion and publication in sixteen days. The speed of this
realization was essential to the project, for as I write this Saw Wai is sitting in a jail cell in Myanmar. And this project is first and foremost concerned with raising awareness of that fact.

With this in mind, I invite you to read and freely distribute the chapbook. Share it in any way you see fit. The sociable web carries with it the potential to speak across and through boundaries of all kinds, and though it remains to be seen whether our voices can penetrate the walls of Saw Wai's jail cell, we can at least allow Saw
Wai's voice to break through them, by speaking through us.

Thanks very much,
A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

William Stafford & the Field Where the Battle Did Not Happen


This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed – or were killed – on this ground
hollowed by the neglect of an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

by William Stafford

Monday, February 11, 2008

Arab American Writing and War, the AWP panel 2008

What better way to kick off the AWP conference than with talk of genocidal wars? (A mere ten minutes before, I saw the estimable Robert Bly trip a young woman's suitcase and shoot her a look that registered on the Richter scale.) Lawrence Joseph, Hayan Charara, Elmaz Abinader, Fady Joudah, Sinan Antoon and I all tried to approach this baggy monster of a topic one hydra head at a time.

Lawrence Joseph developed the critical lens that his poetry books (particularly Into It) illuminate creatively: that, to echo Paul Virilio, "in a state of permanent war, all poetry is war poetry." In a litany of historical dates and events, Joseph tried to get the audience up to speed on what history has looked like for Arabs and Arab-Americans; at the same time, he urged for us to see Arab-American poetry not as a reduction to such political history, but an assertion of the inner life of Arabs and Arab-Americans, as human beings. In a way, all of us struck that common chord.

Poet Hayan Charara brought poetry from his anthology, Inclined to Speak: Contemporary Arab American Poetry into the mix, as well as the ADC statement that "so much of what is known [about us] is wrong." And Khaled Mattawa's, that our poetic labors is to "render that image unrecognizable."

Philip Metres (can I speak about myself in the third person without looking like a jackass? probably not)...confessed feeling guilt after 9/11, argued that the Abu Ghraib photos themselves were an extension of the torture, and suggested that we can look to Arab American poetry as a counternarrative of what has transpired here and abroad:
From personal and familial anecdotes of life in war-torn nations in the Middle East, to declassified materials now available, Arab American poetry draws on a global repository of informational, cultural, and literary resources to illuminate, narrate, and give voice to Arab and Arab American experience. These works strengthen our historical memory so that, when the history of the moment is distilled to official sound bytes and images, we have an imaginative archive that obstinately refuses to efface what has happened.

Poet and memoirist Elmaz Abinader provided us with a miniature history of anthologies, journals, and websites organized around or highlighting Arab American cultural and literary production. Among them, the journals Al-Jadid, Banipal, and Mizna. (I'll post her links here).

Fady Joudah's impressionistic piece offered poetry as a transfiguration, as the complex voicing of our own complicity in power structures. As a Palestinian-American, and winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize for Earth in the Attic (2008), Joudah's formulation, "to be or not to be a victim or the descendent of victims," resonated with a complex power.

Finally, Iraqi-American poet and novelist Sinan Antoon underscored how war is a distant experience for Americans, and that the Iraq War and occupation (and the Gulf War and sanctions that preceded it in the 1990s) have been a dismantling of the cultural and political institutions of Iraq. Moreover, the new U.S. branded Iraq, for Antoon, has replicated the forms and discourses of Saddam's totalitarianism. He left us with a dizzying sense of the true losses of the war, not least of which has been Iraq's cultural patrimony and its collective memory (due to the destruction of official records and museum looting). Sobering stuff.

During the question-and-answer, someone asked whether any of us write about ice cream (and other non-political stuff). Apparently they haven't read much of what we've written. I turned to Fady: "only if it's olive oil ice cream."

Afterward, without Antoon, but with Harvey Hix, we repaired to a coffee shop, where we held forth on the various dignities and indignities. Larry Joseph was in rare form. Orientalism was tossed about like a hot potato--I suddenly worried that perhaps I had Orientalized myself. Obama came up, with pros and cons discussed. Adonis was pronounced better than Milosz. Much conversation over coffee and about coffee and cigarettes. Harvey Hix was treated to quite a show of Arab American poetical (inter)nationalism. Thanks to Hayan for sharing his photos (some of which I could never upload properly) and for all the work on the anthology and on the panel!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

"Gitmo" and American Pop Culture

Yesterday, "On the Media" presented a story on how the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities (a.k.a. "Gitmo") has become a pop cultural touchstone, whose meanings continue to develop. I've already blogged on the anthology of poems by Guantanamo Bay prisoners, edited by Marc Falkoff--one of the cultural products discussed on the program. But there are a host of others, including a feature length film, a cameo in Michael Moore's latest agit-doc, memoirs, and a few songs.

Writing about this today, I am finding it hard to believe that there are still prisoners who have not been tried in a court of law, some six years after 9/11. It's hard to imagine that there isn't more outrage about indefinite detention. What will they say about us in the history books, when this chapter is written?

Here's Stephen Coffee's satirical Christian-fantasy of the Muslim detainee's conversion to Christianity in "Guantanamo":

The stars for my blanket
I lie here on the ground
The sun’s the only thing
Allowed to move around
I don’t cause no trouble
Don’t even make a sound
Could be years to go, Guantanamo
A few more years to go, Guantanamo

I fought for my country
I fought the infidel
I heard Allah calling
Like the ringing of a bell
But now I found Jesus
Right here in Christian Hell
He loves me this I know, Guantanamo
Jesus loves me this I know, Guantanamo

The blue Caribbean
It soothes me in my rage
Its tropical breezes
Find me in my cage
An endless vacation
To pay the sinner’s wage
Everybody sing Swing Low, Guantanamo
A few more years to go, Guantanamo
Everybody sing Swing Low

*Stephen R Coffee ©2004

And check out some recent poems of mine published in Coconut 11, part of a series called "Ibn Gitmo Flarf Stations." It's actually more about the culture of imperial domination that we saw in the photos of Abu Ghraib, but Abu Ghraib is "ibn gitmo,"--son of Gitmo, since apparently many of the procedures were transplanted from Gitmo. Only we didn't have the forensic evidence. Thank you, Joe Darby. Here's one from the "Ibn Gitmo Flarf Stations":


So this is where you come to escape. He pointed
to my t-shirt while saying something in Arabic
sounding like "sling them" to the rottweiler
who had chewed through his leash. I smiled
at the dog. When I looked down, I found
Kathleen Turner on the other end of the leash,
smiling at me. People who go into Starbucks
do not see it's a quasi political show
of Sadomasochism that has nothing to do
with religion. I'm the centerpiece, you're
a mortice, I'm a pitbull off his leash.
All poets say: my legacy is latency.
A peculiar form of sadomasochistic sadness,
leather clad ashen and publicly.

*Philip Metres

Saturday, February 9, 2008

"Books That Will Change the World" by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit's article on "Books That Will Change the World" begins like this:
Hope is an orientation, a way of scanning the wall for cracks -- or building ladders -- rather than staring at its obdurate expanse. It's a world view, but one informed by experience and the knowledge that people have power; that the power people possess matters; that change has been made by populist movements and dedicated individuals in the past; and that it will be again.

Dissent in this country has become largely a culture of diagnosis rather than prescription, of describing what is wrong with them, rather than what is possible for us. But even in English, a robust minority tradition can be found. There are a handful of books that I think of as "the secret library of hope." None of them deny the awful things going on, but they approach them as if the future is still open to intervention rather than an inevitability. In describing how the world actually gets changed, they give us the tools to change it again.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Barack Obama and Hope

There is nothing false about hope. Yes, I can (and will) be in eternal opposition to our lamentable sadly bipartisan foreign policies in the Middle East (particularly in Israel/Palestine), and fear that even a Barack Obama presidency won't change enough.

But there is an elixir to hope, there is a beauty to believing that we are not destined to be who we have been (our shadow selves) or act the way it seems we are destined to act (our shadow selves). May there be some hope that greases some gears of change, and hope that mucks up the gears that have ground down the hopes of peoples at home and throughout the world.

Thanks to Chris Kempf for sending this along.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Mark Halperin's Falling Through the Music

Poet Mark Halperin's recent book, Falling Through the Music, brought me back in touch with a kind of subtle music that so much contemporary poetry and poet readers no longer have the ear for; it is something like listening to bees after hearing Fugazi--you sense some ringing in your ear, but you're not sure if it's in your head or out there in the field. Halperin has that sort of vocal touch. I felt similarly about his Russia poems, which have the generosity and grace of a man who could witness to lives that are often tragic, but without the hysteria and depression that I felt I would constantly careen toward as a result of such encounters.

These are two poems that didn't make the cut, about his encounters with Russia.

I sit where the guest sits when language turns suddenly
opaque. It’s me in the uncoupled car left
in the station as the train fades, me adrift
on voluble liquids, hushes—me at sea.

When distractions like meaning vanish, maybe you hear
murmurs the way doctors hear valves
rattle in the rush of heart’s blood, the octaves
masked off or lying below speech and tears:

Tanya’s unhappiness with Sergei, the extended complaint
that's replaced a life, places to dream about
and the despair that wears through then wears out
feeling. Without a segue, I’m in role, in accent.

Back on track, I’m in the harboring circle
of friends, pulling shoes on, doing a button,
ready for the long walk to the metro. When
will you be back? they ask. Don’t forget to call.


In Chekhov, everyone’s unhappy—
this one loves that one who loves
someone else. The doctor, a fixture
of the plays, is always old as Chekhov,
who died young, must have felt himself
to be. And the aging writer, who also
resembles Chekhov, chases a girl

he will abandon soon and is stuck
with the habit of drawing out small
note-books every so often, wanting
the youth he traded for fame. Moscow,
say the sisters, is where we could be
happy, knowing they will never
get there, too beautiful for happiness,

with feelings too keen, dreams,
like their upswept hair, too outdated—
their long dresses part of history.
Work, says one hero, love says another.
No one can tell you if happiness
is anything but the opposite of
irony or being unprotected.

In his final poem to Falling Through the Music, we feel Halperin's equanimity as a kind of bracing grace:

Isn't reading like sleep, another place
to leave yourself? The way air bears you--it's
as if you'd thrown the blankets back for a taste
of bracing cold. Put the book down,
your secret life, each sober calculation.
The wind's alive. Air's erasing the horizon.

In his foreword to his Greatest Hits (2001), Halperin writes:
If you don't write the poems you're given, you wouldn't be given any poems--I don't remember who deserves credit for that, but I agree. I try to write my poems and not someone else's, those I struggle over as much as those that fall to me. I continue to be amazed when they arrive.
It's typical of Halperin's modesty and goodwill that he immediately asserts that such words are not his own; whoever authored them, Halperin midwifes them again, and offers us that simplest of the grand permissions of art: that all that is asked of us is to write the poems that we are meant to write.

I've been thinking about how, perhaps, I am just part of the humus of poetry--that great organic layer of literary soil that may feed some future poet. My books will go out of print, my poems will slip from the anthologies (if indeed they ever make it), my name will be lost to all but my descendants. But maybe I've nurtured some writers, and fed some readers, who will do their own poems and continue this strange, gratifying, and maybe utterly useless art.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

"Secrets and Lies"/The Poetry Reading

At long last, here are the photos from the Secrets & Lies reading (Winter 2006) at John Carroll University, organized by the poets from my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop and photographed by Barbie Lewis. Thanks for your work, poets. In reverse order of their actual appearance:

Chris Kempf, America and love after 9/11

Sam Flores, Ave Atque Vale! the Filipino Catullus

Billy Miller, hang gliding into the future

Moria Torrington, talking love trouble and her brother

Anthony Tarescavage, ode-ing his navel and a relationship gone sour

Sean McClure, singing the praises of beer

Rhiannon Lathy, elegies to her mother and to Iraq

Dan O'Malley, regaling us with Irish family stories

Matt Galardo, the mistakes he's made

Barbie Lewis, talking back to Plath

Gregg Stovicek, his journey to God

Bethany Bowers, telling her mother's journey

Robert Kumazec ("The Falcon"), being Slovene and not apologizing

Brought to you by this Target shopping cart

Philip Metres, wishing you well

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Tony Tost's "World Jelly"/Guided by Guided by Voices

Tony Tost's chapbook, World Jelly (effing press 2005), came on the heels of his prizewinning first book, Invisible Bride, and represented something of a poetic departure. Yet it's clear that this fellow Guided by Voices fan was trying to bring into poetry something that he'd admired in music--GBV frontman Robert Pollard's dizzying employment of collage and pastiche in the rock song. A one-time bassist himself for the band Dora Maar (according to his biography), Tost is "doing the collapse" (an aptly titled album by GBV), poetry style--that is, trying to figure out a way to have art methods recycle into something that he might call his own.
Apparently generated and inspired in part by the GBV Song Title Generator (the title "World Jelly" is clearly part of that)--think here of the wonderful titles by GBV: "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory," "Hardcore UFO's," "Tractor Rape Chain," "The Official Ironman Rally Song," etc. But it also uses Pollard's own techniques, and thus the book takes a karate-chop to language and syntax, and leaves us often with beautiful shards, as in
Resist the successful statement
almost intelligently
a nail in the wall
there hang the bearings

So that is what I do

Riders finding joy in the sunlight
on the face of the earth

Attention is
the animal behind
the immediate

Asshole serpent
write this down

The book is fundamentally concerned with the desire to fend off singular meaning (alluding to Stevens), to disrupt the natural desire of the lyric "I" to control and master the field of the poem. In this way, World Jelly feels quite at home amongst the post-avant poetries of our time. The leitmotif of the book, shown in the quote above, is the "animal," which appears in most of the poems, and should be considered as the "anti-I," that physical spirit-being outside of human language, and so often entrapped by its human deployers. The animal, then, as the opposite of lyric, but that upon which the lyric depends.

Now, as a GBV fan myself, I've always wanted to bring Pollardian modes of collage-meets-pop into poetry. And Pollard himself has toyed with lyrics as poetry. But his genius, I think, is how he works to displace the egocentrism of the rock star, the front man as the embodiment and cynosure of our eyes ("I"'s). In the inside album art to one of GBV's albums, Pollard's body is shown straddling a fence, but his head is cut off. On the opposite side of the fold, there are hundreds of faces captured in bubbles, floating up. It is a visual pun--they are bubbles that can "pop"--but more importantly, they give a sense of Pollard's own aesthetics of multivocality and pastiche. In any given song (not to mention album), you can hear the ghosts of the history of rock--the Who, Genesis, the Kinks, the Beatles, etc.

Tost's book is engagingly weird, and the more I read it, the more I like it. In that way, it's like my first listenings to Bee Thousand, the genius record by GBV of 1994. Though it is not elegaic in the way that Pollard has perfected--a poetry that is disjointed and yet wrestles with fundamental psychic struggles, World Jelly certainly brings poetry closer to the pop gravitas of Pollard. For this, a salty salute to you, Tony Tost. And thanks, Scott Pierce, for bringin' it out.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Ralph DiGia, Thank You and Peace

Ralph DiGia, a dimunitive man with a great soul, one of the "few small candles" who spent his whole life trying to oppose the war machine, died this weekend in New York. (I was just a few miles away, ignorant of his fate, hobnobbing with writers in Manhattan at the AWP conference.) Here's the first obit:
Ralph DiGia, lifelong war resister and pacifist died this afternoon in New York City. Ralph had a bad fall a couple of weeks ago, broke his hip, and has had a series of serious health problems following his admission to St. Vincent's Hospital.

Ralph, 93, has been the heart and soul of War Resisters League since he came on staff shortly after the end of WWII and his release from federal prison, where he had served a term for refusing service as a conscientious objector.

An associate of A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Dave Dellinger, Barbara Deming, and many others, Ralph held key posts over the years with Liberation magazine as well as being on the staffof the War Resisters League. While Ralph was not a public speaker or a writer, he played a key a role within the radical pacifist movement, and was central to many of the major antiwar actions of the past six decades.

Ralph was deeply loved by the movement, especially by those at his political home, the War Resisters League. He is survived by his wife, Karin DiGia, his children, and his two brothers.

I had the opportunity to meet and interview him at the War Resisters League a few years ago, while I was doing research for my book, Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront, Since 1941. Here's that interview.

"The Strangulation of Gaza" article in The Nation

This was sent to me by Deema Shehabi, an Arab-American poet. Thanks, Deema. So much for the end of the Gaza occupation.

The Strangulation of Gaza
[posted online on February 1, 2008]

The people of Gaza were able to enjoy a few days of freedom last week, after demolition charges brought down the iron wall separating the impoverished Palestinian territory from Egypt, allowing hundreds of thousands to burst out of the virtual prison into which Gaza has been transformed over the past few years--the terminal stage of four decades of Israeli occupation--and to shop for desperately needed supplies in Egyptian border towns.

Gaza 's doors are slowly closing again, however. Under mounting pressure from the United States and Israel , Egypt has dispatched additional border guards armed with water cannons and electric cattle prods to try to regain control. It has already cut off the flow of supplies crossing the Suez Canal to its own border towns. For now, in effect, Suez is the new border: even if Palestinians could get out of Gaza in search of new supplies, they would have to cross the desolate expanses of the Sinai Desert and cross the canal, on the other side of which they would find the regular Egyptian army (barred from most of Sinai as a condition of the 1979 Camp David treaty with Israel) waiting for them.

Now that Gaza 's fleeting taste of freedom is beginning to fade, the grim reality facing the territory's 1.5 million people is once again looming large. "After feeling imprisoned for so long, it has been a psychological relief for Gazans to know that there is a way out," said John Ging, the local director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). "But it does not resolve their crisis by any stretch of the imagination."

Indeed, all the frenzied shopping in Egyptian border towns brought into Gaza a mere fraction of the food that UN and other relief agencies have been blocked by Israel from delivering to the people who depend on them for their very survival. As long as the border with Egypt is even partially open, Israel refuses to open its own borders with Gaza to anything other than the bare minimum of industrial fuel to keep the territory's one power plant operating at a subsistence level, and a few trucks of other supplies a day.

UNRWA has almost depleted the stocks of emergency food aid it had previously built up in Gaza . Only thirty-two truckloads of goods have been allowed to enter Gaza since Israel imposed its total closure on January 18; 250 trucks were entering every day before last June, and even that was insufficient to meet the population's needs.
On January 30 UNRWA warned that unless something changes, the daily ration that it will distribute on the 31st to 860,000 destitute refugees in Gaza will lack a protein component: the canned meat that is the only source of protein in the food parcels--which even under the best of circumstances contributes less than two-thirds of minimum daily nourishment--is being held up by Israel, and the stock of those cans inside Gaza has been exhausted. The World Food Program, which feeds another 340,000 people in Gaza , has brought in nine trucks of food aid in the past two weeks; in the seven months before that, it had been bringing in fifteen trucks a day.

Gazans have been ground into poverty by years of methodical Israeli restrictions and closures; 80 percent of the population now depends on food aid for day-to-day subsistence. With the aid, they were receiving "enough to survive, not to live," as the International Red Cross put it. Without it, they will die.

All this is supposed to be in response to Palestinian militant groups' firing of crude homemade rockets into Israel , which rarely cause any actual damage. There can be no excuse for firing rockets at civilian targets, but Israel was squeezing Gaza long before the first of those primitive projectiles was cobbled together. The first fatal rocket attack took place four years ago; Israel has been occupying Gaza for four decades.

The current squeeze on Gaza began in 1991. It was tightened with the institutionalization of the Israeli occupation enabled by the Oslo Accords of 1993. It was tightened further with the intensification of the occupation in response to the second intifada in 2000. It was tightened further still when Israel redeployed its settlers and troops from inside Gaza in 2005 and transformed the territory into what John Dugard, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, referred to as a prison, the key to which, Dugard said, Israel had "thrown away." It was tightened to the point of strangulation following the Hamas electoral victory in 2006, when Israel began restricting supplies of food and other resources into Gaza . It was tightened beyond the point of strangulation following the deposition of the Hamas-led government in June 2007. And now this.

When Israel limited commercial shipments of food--but not humanitarian relief--into Gaza in 2006, a senior government adviser, Dov Weisglass, explained that "the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet but not to make them die of hunger."
Israel 's "diet" was taking its toll even before last week. The World Food Program warned last November that less than half of Gaza 's food-import needs were being met. Basics including wheat grain, vegetable oil, dairy products and baby milk were in short supply. Few families can afford meat. Anemia rates rocketed to almost 80 percent. UNRWA noted at about the same time that "we are seeing evidence of the stunting of children, their growth is slowing, because our ration is only 61 percent of what people should have and that has to be supplemented."

By further restricting the supply of food to an already malnourished population, Israel has clearly decided to take its "diet" a step further. If the people of Gaza remain cut off from the food aid on which their survival now depends, they will face starvation.

They are now essentially out of food; the water system is faltering (almost half the population now lacks access to safe water supplies); the sewage system has broken down and is discharging raw waste into streets and the sea; the power supply is intermittent at best; hospitals lack heat and spare parts for diagnostic machines, ventilators, incubators; dozens of lifesaving medicines are no longer available. Slowly but surely, Gaza is dying.

Patients are dying unnecessarily: cancer patients cut off from chemotherapy regimens, kidney patients cut off from dialysis treatments, premature babies cut off from blood-clotting medications. In the past few weeks, many more Palestinian parents have watched the lives of their sick children ebb slowly, quietly and (as far as the global media are concerned) invisibly away in Gaza's besieged hospitals than Israelis have been hurt--let alone actually killed--by the erratic firing of primitive homemade rockets from Gaza, about which we have heard so much. (According to the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, these rockets have killed thirteen Israelis in the past four years, while Israeli forces have killed more than 1,000 Palestinians in the occupied territories in the past two years alone, almost half of them civilians, including some 200 children.)

Israel 's squeeze is expressly intended to punish the entire population for the firing of those rockets by militants, which ordinary civilians are powerless to stop. "We will not allow them to lead a pleasant life," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when Israel cut off fuel supplies on January 18, thereby plunging Gaza into darkness. "As far as I am concerned, all of Gaza 's residents can walk and have no fuel for their cars."

Olmert's views and, more important, his policies were reaffirmed and given the legal sanction of Israel 's High Court. In what human rights organizations referred to as a "devastating" decision, on January 30 the court ruled in favor of the government's plan to further restrict supplies of fuel and electricity to Gaza . "The decision means that Israel may deliberately deprive civilians in Gaza of fuel and electricity supplies," pointed out Sari Bashi, of the Gisha human rights organization in Israel . "During wartime, the civilian population is the first and central victim of the fighting, even when efforts are made to minimize the damage," the court said. In other words, harm to the civilian population is an inevitable effect of war and therefore legally permissible.

That may be the view of Israel 's highest legal authority, but it is not how the matter is viewed by international law, which strictly regulates the way civilian populations are to be treated in time of war. "The parties to a conflict must at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and civilian property," the International Red Cross points out, invoking the Geneva Conventions and other founding documents of international humanitarian law. "Neither the civilian population as a whole nor individual civilians may be attacked."

Moreover, no matter what Israel 's High Court says, what is happening in Gaza is not a war in the conventional sense: Gaza is not a state at war with the state of Israel . It is a territory militarily occupied by Israel . Even after its 2005 redeployment, Israel did not release its hold on Gaza ; it continues to control all access to the territory, as well as its airspace, territorial waters and even its population registry. Over and above all the routine prohibitions on attacks on the civilian population and other forms of collective punishment that hold true in case of war, in other words, international law also holds Israel responsible for the welfare of the Gaza population. Article 55 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) specifically demands, for example, that, "to the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate."

Israel's methodical actions make it clear that it is systematically grinding down and now actually starving people for whose welfare it is legally accountable simply because it regards Gaza's 1.5 million men, women and children as a surplus population it would, quite simply, like to get rid of one way or the other: a sentiment made quite clear when Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi proposed, shortly after the current crisis began, that the entire Palestinian population of Gaza should just be removed and transferred to the Egyptian desert. "They will have a nice country, and we shall have our country and we shall live in peace," he said, without eliciting even a murmur of protest in Israel .

The overwhelming majority of Gazans are refugees or the descendants of refugees who were expelled from their homes when Palestine was destroyed and Israel was created in 1948. Like all Palestinian refugees, those of Gaza have a moral and legal right to return to the homeland from which they were expelled. Israel blocks their return for the same reason it expelled them in the first place, because their presence would undermine its already tenuous claim to Jewishness (this is the nature of the so-called "demographic problem" about which Israeli politicians openly complain). As long as the refugees live, what Israel regards as the mortal threat of their right of return lives on. But if they would somehow just go away...

" Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and--some would say--encouragement of the international community," the commissioner-general of UNRWA warned recently.

The question now is whether the world will simply sit and watch, now that this unprecedented threshold is actually being crossed.
Having taken matters into their hands and destroyed the wall cutting them off from the outside world, it is most unlikely that the people of Gaza will simply submit to that fate. A hermetic closure ultimately depends not merely on Israel 's whims but on Egypt 's willingness--or ability--to cut off the Palestinians of Gaza and watch them starve. For all the US and Israeli pressure on Egypt, and for all the steps Egypt is now taking, it seems most unlikely that it would let things go that far. Not intervening to save fellow Arabs from the Israeli occupation is one thing; actually participating in their repression is quite another. The Egyptian government would have to answer not only to the people of Palestine but to its own people, and indeed to all Arabs.

Working together, Hamas and the people of Gaza have forced Egypt 's hand and made much more visible than ever before the role it had been playing all along in the Israeli occupation and strangulation of Gaza ; now that its role in assisting Israel has been revealed, it will be difficult for Egypt to go back to the status quo. Gazans have thrown Israel 's plans into disarray, because Israel 's leaders could do little more than watch with pursed lips as the people of Gaza burst out of their prison. And they have placed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the government of Ramallah in a corner: they will have to choose between defending their people's rights and needs or confirming once and for all--as indeed they are doing--that the PA is there to serve Israel 's interests, not those of the Palestinians. In which case they too will one day be called to account.

Saree Makdisi, professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, is the author of Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (Norton).