Monday, August 30, 2010

Dobby Gibson's "Skyscraper National Park" as Pure War Poetry

I've been reading Dobby Gibson's Polar (2005) and Skirmish (2009), as a break from completing a long essay on war poetry.  His work has an epigrammatic tautness, a propensity to describe weather, and is wise in ways that evades most contemporary poetry.  To say is another way: it's as if a haiku writer smoked a bit of weed and started listening to David Berman and watching films by Tarkovsky and Bergman. 

The press blurb for the book seemed out of step with the aphoristic domestic worlds that each poem inhabits:

"With sheer wit and keen observation, Dobby Gibson’s Skirmish puts into conflict the private and public self, civil disobedience and civic engagement, fortunes told and fortunes made. These poems imaginatively, sometimes manically, move from perception to perception with the speed of a mind forced moment to moment to make sense of distant war and local unrest, global misjudgment and suspicious next-door neighbors, the splice-cuts of the media and the gliding leaves on the Mississippi River."

Honestly, I didn't see the civil disobedience and civic engagement, but I didn't care either.  Sometimes it's a relief to slip into the domestic sphere, turn off the radio, and watch the night fall.  I don't do nearly enough observing in the way that Gibson's poetry invites us.

What surprised me, as I neared the end of the book, was that the distant war did make an appearance.  So, in the process of arguing that we need a poetry that can imagine the distant war, to suture the space between our civilian lives and the new technologies (such as unmanned drones) have exploded the boundaries of the battlefront and sapped the formerly-clear dividing line between soldiers and civilians, I came across this evocation of Pure War:   

"Skyscraper National Park"

Fake trees never grow in the lobbies
not known for any bird or breeze.

Just outside the revolving doors,
smokers stand beneath tiny clouds
and plot their revenge.

Their children are at home,
ordering their feelings over the Internet,
charging them to the credit cards they were given
for keeping spring break domestic this year.

Secretly beneath skirts, secretaries' thongs
slice through the Minneapolis night.

Refrigerated trucks shuttle what's left
of cattle carcasses into the industrial plant.

Above the national forest of television antennae,
unmanned spy drones migrate south,
looking for someplace to rest.

Like birds, they invented flying
to find something new to eat.

-- "Skyscraper National Park" by Dobby Gibson, from his collection of poems Skirmish. Reprinted here with permission from the publisher, Graywolf Press.

Two Performances by Lev Rubinstein

Since Ugly Duckling Presse will be coming out with a new box/book of Lev Rubinstein later this fall, I thought I'd share these two performances captured online, to demonstrate something of his method.  Rubinstein, a former librarian at the Lenin Library, began his note card poems sometime in the early 1970s, constructing a serial poetics that was both marvelously playful and seriously obsessed; he rapidly became one of the classics of Russian postmodernism.  Though he mostly composes literary essays these days, occasionally he'll produce some new poetic series--it's as if there's a mystical saturation point, and his ear begins raining into his mouth.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cleveland Peace Show 2010

We Say God and the Imagination Are One

Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour by Wallace Stevens

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Get Your Lev Rubinstein On

Thirty-Five New Pages
by Lev Rubinstein
Translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky
Poetry | $15 ($12 direct from UDP). 35 pp, 5 x 3 in.
Distribution: Direct Only
Series: EEPS

Forthcoming: October 2010
Available now for pre-order

Translators Metres and Tulchinsky team up again to bring us Thirty-five New Pages, one of Lev Rubinstein's note-card poems, written in 1981. Does it tell a story? Is it a reflection on the form of the book? Is it there at all? This classic minimalist/conceptualist text from the "postmodern Chekhov" summons Genesis and Zen, Tractatus and guided meditation, with whip-smart wit and considerable elan, presented here on 35 library-style cards in a handsome letterpressed box. (This poem is not included in Rubinstein's other UDP collection, Catalogue of Comedic Novelties.) "Here, in fact, something could happen."

"Lev Rubinstein's note-card poems … are an eye-opener." —MARJORIE PERLOFF

"… in the tradition of seriality associated with Charles Reznikoff and Robert Grenier." —CHARLES BERNSTEIN

"Lev Rubinstein is the true heir of the OBERIU artists of the late 1920s. Like his most illustrious predecessor, Daniil Kharms, Rubinstein creates deadly serious, devastatingly funny comedy that incorporates a broad range of literary forms." —ANDREW WACHTEL

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"The War Works Hard" by Dunya Mikhail

The War Works Hard
by Dunya Mikhail
translated by Elizabeth Winslow

How magnificent the war is!
How eager
and efficient!
Early in the morning
it wakes up the sirens
and dispatches ambulances
to various places
swings corpses through the air
rolls stretchers to the wounded
summons rain
from the eyes of mothers
digs into the earth
dislodging many things
from under the ruins...
Some are lifeless and glistening
others are pale and still throbbing...
It produces the most questions
in the minds of children
entertains the gods
by shooting fireworks and missiles
into the sky
sows mines in the fields
and reaps punctures and blisters
urges families to emigrate
stands beside the clergymen
as they curse the devil
(poor devil, he remains
with one hand in the searing fire)...
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets
it contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs
provides food for flies
adds pages to the history books
achieves equality
between killer and killed
teaches lovers to write letters
accustoms young women to waiting
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures
builds new houses
for the orphans
invigorates the coffin makers
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader's face.
It works with unparalleled diligence!
yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" in the Contemporary Context

I've been writing an essay about war poetry, but I've expanded to consider poetry that illuminates the conditions of "Pure War"--that state in which the constant preparation for war is the real war. Dylan's 1960s song is an attack on the conditions in which we still live. The video is not for the faint of heart, and is brutal in its indictment of the previous administration. I'm not a fan of pictures of bloody and maimed children. But the fact of the matter is that the same things continue under the current administration, so it's not really reducible to Republicans versus Democrats. We're all implicated.

Thirty-Five New Pages (new Lev Rubinstein!, trans. Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky) available for pre-order

Thirty-Five New Pages
by Lev Rubinstein
Translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky
Poetry | $15 ($12 direct from UDP). 35 pp, 5 x 3 in.
Distribution: Direct Only
Series: EEPS

Forthcoming: October 2010
Available now for pre-order

Translators Metres and Tulchinsky team up again to bring us Thirty-five New Pages, one of Lev Rubinstein's note-card poems, written in 1981. Does it tell a story? Is it a reflection on the form of the book? Is it there at all? This classic minimalist/conceptualist text from the "postmodern Chekhov" summons Genesis and Zen, Tractatus and guided meditation, with whip-smart wit and considerable elan, presented here on 35 library-style cards in a handsome letterpressed box. (This poem is not included in Rubinstein's other UDP collection, Catalogue of Comedic Novelties.) "Here, in fact, something could happen."

"Lev Rubinstein's note-card poems … are an eye-opener." —MARJORIE PERLOFF

"… in the tradition of seriality associated with Charles Reznikoff and Robert Grenier." —CHARLES BERNSTEIN

"Lev Rubinstein is the true heir of the OBERIU artists of the late 1920s. Like his most illustrious predecessor, Daniil Kharms, Rubinstein creates deadly serious, devastatingly funny comedy that incorporates a broad range of literary forms." —ANDREW WACHTEL

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Inventing the (Peace Literature) Tradition: A Review of Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace (2008) by R.S. White

Inventing the (Peace Literature) Tradition:
A Review of Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace (2008) by R.S. White
(first published in Australian Literary Studies journal)
by Philip Metres

Some twenty years ago, Cary Nelson’s pivotal Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry & the Politics of Cultural Memory (1989) invited us to re-examine the lost paths of our literature by setting canonical figures and texts into social contexts, and by reintroducing lost or minor figures and texts back into our literary conversation. Since, to paraphrase Nelson, history is a palimpsest between the past and the contemporary, rediscovering lost pasts can be a way to re-envision the future. R.S. White’s Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace executes such a Nelsonian turn in its polemical exploration of the history of English literature through a pacifist lens, seeking out moments when the literature mirrors back a pacifist vision. White asserts, in his introduction, to “make no claim that there is a coherent and sustained tradition or ‘school’ of pacifist literature” (1), but the book reads as a genealogy of a pacifist literature if one were possible.

Pacifist literature, for White, is not quite a tradition—which would suggest a vital, sustained conversation in literature handed over from generation to generation—but rather a tendency, a motif woven in the fabric of literature as we know it. Given the immense breadth and complexity—not to mention the violence—in English literature, such a claim is probably a realistic one. There is indeed a paucity of studies of literature from a pacifist or peace-centered point of view; White asserts that “no book has taken as its scope the whole subject [poetry as an education into pacifism], even within a national body of work, such as English literature” (2), though there have been studies of anti-war literature and of peace literature within specific periods.

Though White’s book is an essential corrective—and indeed a worthy study that can reinvigorate and recast our sense of the literary past and the actual future—his point is not quite correct. Michael True’s important study, An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (1995), does precisely for American literature what White does for English literature, except that he makes the broader claim that a nonviolent tradition already exists. I don’t want my quibble to be interpreted as the schoolmarm’s finger-waggle at a missed source; rather, it speaks precisely to White’s basic point—as pacifist scholars, activists, and artists, we confront a great isolation, and we struggle to make a history out of such disparate events, to continue a conversation with those separated by time and continents. To echo poet William Stafford’s words, pacifism is so often “a footnote in the big histories.” Pacifism and nonviolence has relied on enduring faith-based institutions through much of their history (in particular, for England and the U.S., on the so-called Historic Peace Churches—the Friends, the Mennonites, and the Brethren), and only more recently on secular and academic institutions. It is perhaps only now possible that literature and other modes of artistic production can begin to crystallize into the vibrant and vital conversation that approximates a pacifist or non-violent tradition.

In this conversation, White’s Pacifism and English Literature promises to be a touchstone. The exploration of literature, for White, is nothing short of a cultural intervention in our national and global discussions about war—such an intervention, indeed, is something like how families “intervene” when a family member needs to be confronted about their addictions. In White’s words:

Since war has been a permanent and continuing reality throughout human history, peace an ephemeral or fragile state, the vicious circle can be broken only by stepping outside the sense of binary alternatives and imagining a peaceful world remote from immediate conflicts, where the very sources of conflict have been eliminated—and literature sometimes offers such an option. To create a better world, we must first envisage one, and this takes the kind of profound conceptual shift that only the imagination, buttressing reason, can offer. (4).

Beginning with a consideration of the role of literature in peace studies, and a brief examination of the origins of pacifism in both sacred and secular texts (with a particular emphasis on natural law as a source of thinking about justice and injustice, war and peace), White provides nothing short of a period-by-period exploration of pacifism as it emerges in the literature, in chapters titled “Medieval Pacifism,” “Renaissance Pacifism,” “Pacifist Voices in Shakespeare,” “Romantic Peace and War,” “Pacifism in Prose and Films,” and “A Plague on Both Your Houses: War from the Air, the Civilian Dead and Modern Poetry.” The strength of White’s study, clearly, is its breadth and scope, a bird’s eye survey of the entire literature—offering moments where he alights upon a forgotten text such as the “first English pacifist poet” John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (c. 1390), or a canonical text such as Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” in which he makes a stunning argument that the text dramatizes its titular soldier-character as a sort of “war machine,” and that the play is “a prophetic warning against the military machine itself” (158).

In White’s narrative, it is the 1380s when “peace becomes an over subject for poetry in English” (85), and when the very idea of peace as a normative social state, rather than a period between wars, emerges. Thanks to John Gower and John Lydgate, and Chaucer’s satiric deconstruction of the chivalric codes in “The Tale of Melibee,” early signs of a pacifist literature in English propose a weariness of conflict—its excessive waste of blood and treasure, its contradiction to Christian scripture, its loss of human possibility. White does not speculate to what degree such pacifist literary articulations were the discourse of a select few, or represented unheard voices. Yet already two centuries before, in Europe, as documented by Ronald G. Musto in The Catholic Peace Tradition, the Peace of God movement had gathered many thousands in its ranks, since the peace council in Limoges in 1031, and in 1233, 400,000 reportedly gathered at the Plain of Pasquara. New scholarship investigating the existence of nascent peace movement in English is needed.

White thus renovates such dismissed or forgotten figures such as Gower, John Colet (16th century), Samuel Daniel (16th century), Leigh Hunt (18th century), Christian Gray (19th century), and New Zealander Archibald Baxter (20th century), placing them alongside canonical English heavyweights such as Chaucer, Erasmus, More, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Herbert, Swift, Shelley and Blake—in whose works pacifism glimmers amid the violence-darkened portraits of human life. Truly, then, a survey-ready recovery project, Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace invites easy application for an introductory course on “Pacifism and English Literature,” as well as sets the stage for future research on the interactions between literature and the peace movement.

The book is not without its limits, however. In taking the survey approach, White often admittedly forgoes the nuance and texture embedded in and definitive of “the literary,” when he plucks speeches and quotes from texts without contextualizing how the text works, or from what social contexts this text emerges. Literature is literature precisely because it is irreducible to social statements or polemics. Relatedly, because White focuses principally on statements on peace, the larger question of what peace might look like (and whether the literature itself might dramatize or model what a peaceful society might look like) goes unanswered. As we must move beyond defining pacifism as the absence of war, we must seek how peace actually happens, and how representations within literature might model the intricate operations of a peaceful social sphere.

Finally, while White’s study is strongest in the earliest literary examples of pacifism, it gets less focused as it moves toward the modern period—indeed, as it moves closer to the very moments, in modern literature beginning with the Soldier Poets of World War I, when a pacifist literature becomes most visible and recognizable. Perhaps White’s gamble is that, as he notes early on in the book, that much has been written about the poets of the Great War, and there is little need to do so, but in a book with such a broad scope, the 20th century could have been given greater attention. As I have shown in Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront (2007), essential figures such as Robert Lowell, William Stafford, and June Jordan have gone far to articulate and dramatize what peace might look like. What the work of R.S. White, Michael True, and others have begun to produce promises to instantiate what might become something like a peace tradition in literature. In the words of peace poet Naomi Shihab Nye, in a poem called “Jerusalem”: “it’s late but everything comes next.”

--Philip Metres is a poet and scholar at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. His recent works include To See the Earth (poems, 2008), Come Together: Imagine Peace (an anthology of peace poems, 2008), and Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront, since 1941 (scholarship, 2007).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Elif Shafak's "The Politics of Fiction": In our walled lives, fiction is a flowing water

Elif Shafak explores the healing magic of her grandmother, the dangers of walls, identity politics on fiction in the U.S....

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Oil," a timely poem by Chris August


America, don't we love like oil?
Don't our slippery arms
Pave the pores of those who need us?
Don't we suffocate with our embrace?

Hasn't our sheen of pink slips
And half-hearted hand outs
Sucked the air from blue collared lungs?
Aren't cardboard boxes as porous
As dollar bills?

Don't we infiltrate?
Isn't our heart amorphous?
Aren't we a slow build
And a tight grip?

Don't countless dumb animals
Struggle their way from our grip?
Doesn't Europe's fur still glisten
From the crude of our aid?
Doesn't the Middle East smell like us?

Aren't we just like oil?
Is it any surprise when it leaks from our bowels
Into once pristine oceans
Don't we muddy the waters?

Don't we smear our babies' asses
With petroleum jelly,
Don't we air commercials for coal

Isn't oil us?
Isn't it slippery
But insistently vital,
Isn't it the only black thing
We're not afraid of?

Isn't it us?
Isn't it symbolic how it slips out,
How it once was life,
How we need it,
How it kills us?

Don't we love symbolism?
A great white nation
With no control of dark things,
Dirty things, moving things

Isn't it what we know?
Isn't it what believe in?
Two press conferences too late,
A wellspring of good intentions
Strangling the seascape,
Isn't it angry,
Isn't it unstoppable,
Isn't it us?

-Chris August

Used by permission.

Chris August is a writer and special educator from Baltimore, Maryland. He has been a part of the national poetry slam community since 2002. In that time, he has been ranked among the top ten performance poets in the world and has performed and competed across the country. He is the author of several self published collections of poetry.

August was a featured opening performer at 'Howl' in the City, a performance of Allen Ginsberg's seminal poem "Howl" by Anne Waldman on July 23rd and 24th, 2010. Cosponsored by Split This Rock and Busboys and Poets.

Please feel free to forward Split This Rock Poem-of-the-Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this email, including this request. Thanks!

Split This Rock

Monday, August 9, 2010

Emily Henochowicz's Story

As I've followed the story about Emily Henochowicz, I kept thinking about 1) her spirited, even joyful response to a traumatic injury; 2) that she looks like my daughters; 3) that she stands in for all the non-Americans who don't have a voice to tell their story.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Brandon Frazier's "The Weight of Violence"

We don't yet know the full impact of these ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on our own society--the loss of lives, of treasure, of moral compass. But soldiers have been bearing some of that impact, in their bodies and minds and spirits, as Brandon Frazier shows in this essay, in National Catholic Reporter. For we know not what we do, indeed.

The weight of violence
Soldier recalls when killing was simply pressure on trigger
By Brandon Frazier

No act is more violent than taking another’s life. Four years of my life were defined by training to commit, attempting to commit or committing these very acts of violence. During this period I was one of the unfortunate Marines put into situations where murder seemed to be my only option. For me, this taking of lives was only half of the sad and violent story that was my life from ages 18 to 22.

The other half of the story is one that most people do not consider when they sign the military contract that gives away the right to their own lives.

It is the story of friends that you lose in war that is left untold in recruiting films.

It is the story of the friends who are so badly wounded that they will never live a full life again after being heroes in a war that means nothing. These types of stories are what shaped my life in the aftermath of the violent confusion that defined my years in the Marine Corps infantry.

What made me realize the true severity and true weight of the act of murder was a series of incidents on Nov. 26, 2004. It was a sunny and warm Thanksgiving Day in Fallujah, Iraq. It was my unit’s third straight week without a shower, hot meal or change of clothes. The day started normally, mortars and rockets exploding outside the walls of the house we had made into our temporary central command. I remember thinking as I put my boots on that this day felt different.

The first task of this Thanksgiving was to retrace our steps of the last 21 days and show a “body snatcher” team where we had killed people so they could dispose of the remains. This mission, which I thought would get me out of the daily patrol and maybe save my life, was supposed to be simple: Just walk with this team and show them where we had killed people.

The physical aspects of such a task were comparable to a vacation at this point in my life. What I did not expect, however, was the emotional toll this would take on me. The things I saw can only be described as something from a terrible nightmare or a gruesome war movie. The bodies were barely human. They had few human characteristics remaining. This was the first time I had seen the results of my violence up close. It made me feel disgusted with myself, that I was able to do such things to another living being. I was not quite sure what this meant, because being a Marine means that you make no mistakes and you are always justified.

Unfortunately, I was unable to avoid the daily patrol that day. In fact, my platoon had waited for me to get back so I would not be left out. On this patrol I watched my close friend get killed by a machine gun. He, two others and I went into a house where there were six men in a room with the door closed and mattresses on the ground so they could not be heard moving around. Brad walked in front of the closed door and was shot seven times in his body and twice in his armor. He died before he hit the ground.

In the confusion that occurs after such an event, I -- who was directly behind Brad -- fell onto the stairs behind. Everything around me was moving in slow motion. Once I regained my composure I realized what had happened and was so enraged that what I did next was the complete opposite of every human instinct in my body. Instead of trying to help my friend, as most would have, I went to the door that Brad had died in front of and kicked it in and shot wildly into the room.

The story of this day is important because it is an accurate account of the ways in which I have handled violence in the past and illustrates the reasons why I handle violence now. The act of killing, in these years, was as simple as three pounds of pressure on a trigger, and that’s how we were trained. What I realize now, astonishingly for the first time, is that I should have questioned my orders at every instance when I was told go somewhere to take another’s life and that killing another living being is far more complicated than three pounds of pressure on a trigger.

There is no contract with any government in any country that can justify murder of any kind. By the same token, I cannot justify my actions by claiming that I was simply being obedient. Those were my decisions. I made them, and now I must live with them forever.

Today I feel terrible for what I have done and I have been haunted by nightmares every night since my return home. These experiences, my education and the reevaluation of my past have brought me to where I am today when it comes to violence. I have seen firsthand what the most gruesome violence looks like and I know that I was capable of committing it. I am actively trying to learn about being a nonviolent person and have worked hard to avoid violence. So far I have been successful.

What I am most afraid of is not the person with the guns, it is how I will react to the violence they bring into my life. Will I revert to the instincts that were drilled into my head while in the military -- the same instincts that sent me through the door shooting wildly? Or will I remember what it felt like to see the dead bodies that my friends and I had killed, and be sickened with the thought of taking another’s life?

It has and will continue to be a learning process for me and I hope very much that I can be the caring and compassionate person I believe I am.

[Brandon Frazier is a student at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. This essay was written for a class on “The Principles and Practices of Peace,” taught by NCR columnist Colman McCarthy.]

Copyright © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"For the Unknown Enemy" by William Stafford

For the Unknown Enemy
By William Stafford

This monument is for the unknown
good in our enemies. Like a picture
their life began to appear: they
gathered at home in the evening
and sang. Above their fields they saw
a new sky. A holiday came
and they carried the baby to the park
for a party. Sunlight surrounded them.

Here we glimpse what our minds long turned
away from. The great mutual
blindness darkened that sunlight in the park,
and the sky that was new, and the holidays.
This monument says that one afternoon
we stood here letting a part of our minds
escape. They came back, but different.
Enemy: one day we glimpsed your life.

This monument is for you.