The Politically-Minded Poetries of the 21st Century

 

by Michelle Chan Brown

 

 

Michelle Chan Brown’s Double Agent was the winner of the 2011 Kore First Book Award, judged by Bhanu Kapil. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Linebreak, The Missouri Review, Quarterly West, Sycamore Review, Witness and others.

Michelle received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she was a Rackham Fellow. She was a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and received scholarships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. Her chapbook, The Clever Decoys, is available from LATR Editions. She lives with her husband, the musician Paul Erik Lipp, in Washington DC, where she teaches, writes, and edits
Drunken Boat.

 

 

 

 

 

I thought I’d start very specific, with a definition of poetry.

 

Kidding.

 

But not entirely.

 

What is poetry, and what is its goal?

 

To be Art – that’s not a goal.

To entertain – stimulate receptors for pleasure, escape, and empathy.

To instigate – provoke outrage, disagreement, empathy, and action.

 

But poetry does not exist in the either/or. A poem’s power is in its resistance to binary, the oft-discussed mystery, transcendence, registration as rightness in the body (Dickinson’s “so cold no fire can ever warm me…the top of my head taken off”), as resistant to formula as an orgasm.

 

In bed, a couple reads a sex manual aloud, maneuvers and inserts accordingly. Not erotic.. To push the sexual comparison to exhaustion, the couple could, in the throes of ecstasy, create something concrete. A baby for/from their efforts. But basal temperature is more safeword than come-on. Witness Matthew Broderick’s glazed expression In Alexander Payne’s film Election as his wife cries, “I’m ovulating!” So we recoil from didactic poems. David Orr’s guide announces that poems should be beautiful and pointless

 

Poetry is certainly not the most efficient or pragmatic way to provoke action or to achieve results. Yet poets, from Whitman to Adrienne Rich to Michael Robbins, have always been vaunted as truth-tellers, seers, prophets. The Conscience. Poets want to see themselves as critical to public discourse, especially when the public validates that by vaunting its outspoken (unless it’s fetishizing their interiority, as in Dickinson or Gluck). The argument that a thriving poetry scene indicates a healthy society has been regurgitated to the point of triteness, but the fates of Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, Liao Yiwu, and Mandelstam cannot be trivialized.

 

But what is the best, most effective “action” we can expect as a result of poetry, in this age when our relationship to text has changed, when we give up social media for Lent, when the pared-down not only seems expedient but reliable (140 characters provides less opportunity for dissembling?). How the hell can a poem be a vehicle for the political?

 

Some ideas:

 

• Poetry has no market value, and thus higher truth potential.

  1. Poetry can be stripped down, like Twitter, and this common sparseness risks

less of Orwell’s “slovenliness.”

  1. Poetry’s difficulty and elliptical nature force an attention that fosters

awareness. And awareness is a political. We live in a world in which _____

happens. Now we know.

 

Is that enough? Is awareness enough? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

 

Perhaps poetry doesn’t live beyond entertainment and instigation – those outer banks are both elitist and pessimistic. Perhaps it’s in bleed. Festivals like Split This Rock (this year’s theme was “Poems of Provocation and Witness”) suggest that poetry can be means to the consciousness and change that is political. If so, then its ability to foster change lies in the center of that entertain/instigate Venn diagram – in empathy.

 

There’s been much buzz lately about how reading (fiction, specifically, but let’s be inclusive, shall we?) fosters empathy, and how Americans don’t read fiction. Let’s ignore that this nugget seems both self-aggrandizing (to the educated readers and NYTimes/NPR subscribers that emailed it to their friends, clucking knowingly) and patronizing (I would never call you out for being a sociopath in your preference for reality television over the Booker shortlist, but if capital-S science validates my hunch, then…).

 

Readers are not better people. But the task of reading carefully does take focus, attention you might be liable to give to other fascinating subjects, such as yourself.

 

OK. Empathy. How?

 

The problem with calibrating poetry to best provoke action is that it’s not a marketing plan. Poetry exists beyond strategy. There is no pilot, no test audience, no SurveyMonkey to see if your poem accomplished what it intended. So we come to a dead end: assuming that a particular arrangement of letter and lyric will most effectively foster an empathetic response in your reader is presumptuous, and presumptuousness and arrogance are roadblocks to empathy.

 

So if the poet cannot try and foster empathy without shutting down the making of the poem, than perhaps what she can do is work to eradicate the borders between herself and subject. I am cautious to call this eradication a political act: for an American writer with my privileges, that seems hyperbolic.

 

Ok. Eradication. How?

 

I come with questions more than positions.

 

Of particular interest for me are: one, the aesthetic strategies (specifically form, voice, tone) that marry politics, trauma, and controversy both ethically and effectively (even the idea of writing "effectively" about trauma is, of course, loaded) and (forgive the crudeness of the term here), the hierarchies of trauma, particularly in relation to American poetry.

 

Re: the first. Irony, evasion and, occasionally, wryness were what I felt entitled to in my first book, Double Agent - in part because, as a foreign service officer’s daughter, to engage with the psychic and political landscape of the places I lived was disingenuous. We lived in Belgrade, Moscow, Kiev, and Krakow in the 80’s and 90’s, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, the genesis of Solidarity, the aftermath of the Balkans. And yet the discussions I remember around the table (was there even such a table?) concerned the logistics of overseas living, or bureaucratic/academic analyses of “situations.” Were these conversations any more engaged with the present moment, the political “reality” than my child’s concerns with my body, my family, my schoolmates? Memorandum or poem?

 

MEMORANDUM

 

Unease, green scheme of, runs deep

in the city’s bowels, purifies what we think.

 

Consider life as a scherzo. Throw that out.

We wear our American luck like a fannypack.

 

The pretender queen has lost her marbles.

She tears up flowers. She counts the petals.

 

She loses count. The natives have absconded

with the hardware and the silk. Please send

 

a man who fixes things. Please send towels.

These curtains are pretty and incompetent.

 

They can’t brush off the shouting in the streets.

Our recommendations were soft as cashmere.

 

We wrote it, loud and clear. Don’t visit.

Didn’t you hear us? Come quickly. Bring power.

 

 

As an American, I was, of course, outside. As a dependent, I could not claim to be inside the "machine" of the State Department, either.  What felt true to me was the domestic entanglements seemed at a level with the chaos of the world outside our safety and privilege.

 

And my semi-conscious choice to remain, in many of the Belgrade and Moscow poems, the child-speaker who is hyper-vigilant but also ignorant of context, suspicious but eager to absorb other’s renderings of events in order to form her own truth – this evasiveness was (I hope) a result not of a failure of courage but an ambivalence about the nature and ethics of witnessing, and a sense that we are always limited by the I – our bodies, our consciousness. Acknowledging that limitation through the choice of a speaker seemed the way to access truth.

 

The use of the child-speaker or, in some cases, an unidentified “we” also functioned, perhaps, as an interrogation of the systems of Western presence abroad, a personification- the values of openness and credo of democracy that was preached that seemed at odds with insularity and protectiveness and uniform mini-Americas of the compounds and institutions there.

 

PINS & NEEDLES

 

My mother’s back bent like a question

mark. I knew the work of her, the fix

& fuss & cover, better than my own name.

Nerves sheathed our tablecloth and lined

our mattress. For God’s sake, my father said,

do something useful.  Afraid of her teeth,

the implied threat of their stance,

she sanctioned necessities: her smile,

her feedings. For God’s sake, my father said.

we’re in public. The live-in servants pinched

thread for ceremonial shrouds.

The city, alas, was burning, along

with the butcher’s best pork.

No one to amend this. My sister

stretched her brassiere collection

across the neighborhood, a one-

girl vaudeville of gore and Jean Naté.

Her indigent audience slinked in

and out, all hours. I wrote: Someday

I will know what is important.

The neighborhood brightened with bombs.

For God’s sake, said my father, not in the house.

The telephone jangled, mad as a Kewpie.

We were always being called

to headquarters. We expected miracles

from our bodies. I wrote: Thin tastes better

than any food. There was no end to propaganda.

I was searching for the right word,

incorrectly. A silver spoon blackened

my black tongue. And my mother, slurring

 

at the dictionary—couldn’t she tell

error from arrow? ENGLISH ONLY

read the signs at the embassy. Door-

to door, I sold knives to the wives of consuls.

I bequeathed cherry bombs to their kids’

tree houses. Said the servants:

These are grave times. I hold them close as love.

I want to sink into the backs of true

men, the generals and electricians,

the talkers and takers of might.

I’ll live on plumes and wiring.

My mother was afraid of her fingers.

She squirreled them in the dry crevices

of the furniture. Desiccate there, little liars,

she’d croon, rocking herself into her fear

in her genuine rocking chair.

 

As much as I yearn to classify these personal poems as political, I think now that they fail. They flirt. And as I work on my second manuscript, I've been troubled by questions of "real" trauma and "real" oppression, the concurrent denial of Westerners' claim to these, and yet the deep-seated corruption, hypocrisy, paranoia, narcissism, and class war that's central to Washington. Can we claim these as traumas, especially in light of an earlier tendency in American poetics to the supremacy of the "I" and all that has been wrought on it? Put more simply, where can we locate homeland trauma? And how is poetry particularly equipped - or not at all appropriate - for such a claiming?

 

I’m also discomfited with the terminology we use for panels and workshops on writing poetry of trauma, in which the actual language of trauma (“risk” “violence” “fear” “danger”) becomes co-opted by writers. She really took a risk in using the first-person.

 

Who possesses the ethos to claim the language that demands political change? “Violence” and “risk” are terms my husband, who works with victims of sexual and domestic violence, uses, and a small part of me cringes when I think of the way – and I implicate myself in this – these are utilized to describe, not only the content of political-minded poems, but the crafting of them.

 

Do poets, living in this free and democratic society, actually experience danger when they set pen to paper? Can poems, in a free and democratic society, be vehicles for change?

 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs situates creativity at the apex. But conditions – food, shelter – must be met. Do poets who have not experienced “real” trauma have to simulate amnesia about which tiers they have satisfied? Alternatively, there’s assuming the “voice for the voiceless” thesis: an individual’s empathy permits ventriloquism that fosters a collective empathy that fosters listening that fosters change.

 

Dated, naïve, presumptuous, patronizing?

 

Cue Evade.

 

Evasion has become a ubiquitous position for many younger American poets (labeled, often, experimental), and yet the stakes, frankly, are – I’m not going so far as to say low, but obscured, as are the poems themselves. A series of disconnected statements that borrow from corporate slogan or government rhetoric aim, through juxtaposition, to make us aware of the underlying absurdity or meaninglessness of these messages. We read, we do not register meaning, we are cognizant (this is not new) that even text orchestrated to be consumed, to give directive, fails to do so, and perhaps the consciously manipulated non-meaning of poems is testament, again, that a poem is closer to truth because its making is enactment of its absence of truth.

 

Again, awareness.

 

What began as homage to the incisive black humor or a coded poetic language necessitated by external oppression has morphed into a calcified non-stance: in these times, positions are impossible, so let's resort to play - but with an understanding that under the skittish surface there's a truth that lurks. I'm not convinced. So what now?

 

I’ve become disenchanted with evasiveness. It fosters contact without facilitating real empathy I also can’t find my way out. As I’ve tried to work through some of those questions of hierarchies of trauma, or what qualities a poem must have, or a poet’s biography must have, in order to lay claim to the political, the accusations of navel-gazing/here I stand, sad, thoughtful, I am important – that American poets, particularly those located in the privileged position (class, race, even MFA programs – those embassies of American letters?), I’ve thought the ways in which oppression–– sanctioned, polite, but violence, nonetheless – manifests itself in the expectations we are expected to play out because of our bodies, our skins. That’s been visible in my family as much as in the subtle segregation of my city, DC.

 

Formally, I’ve been attracted to plain-spokenness and savagery, an acknowledgement of position that is not apology. A Seidelian Evening Man or a Kanye West God seems to me less participatory in the dismissal of privilege (I am not one of Them) by naming it – and himself in it, with savage, sadistic pleasure – than the passive self-righteousness that is occasionally classified as witnessing.

 

From “Evening Man”:

 

Evening Man sits signing bills in the Oval Office headless—

Every poem I write starts or ends like this.

His hands have been chopped off. He signs bills with the mess.

The country is in good hands. It ends like this

 

Interesting, too, that Seidel’s poems announce themselves so explicitly as Poems: the perfect rhyme that would be poo-poo’d for its lack of subtlety in a creative-writing class, so aggressively metrical that spending time in SeidelLand can feel like being goose-stepped through the lines. The irreverence – Here I stand, making a poem, no doubt about it – repels and compels, and, for me, knocks poesy off is high horse by acknowledging the ludicrousness of the poetic endeavor as a political one.

And yet, his voice robs feeling from my limbs (Dickinson). It doesn’t leave me cold. And he’s the “laureate of the louche”, the progenitor/demon of the white male voice that’s dominated American poetics – and politics. His poems enrage me, and they force me to consider where best to direct this anger.

As a bi-racial female poet, do I enable Seidel to take the top of my head off because I have learned to love my enemy? Or because my affection for some of his poems explodes the prescriptive binaries of what a political poem should be – outraged and earnest/ironic and commitment-phobe –?

Where about blame?

I come with questions, rather than positions.

I could never work for the State Department.

But that’s a position.

I don’t know where to begin the process of politicizing poetry: empathy between the writer and the subject. To know him is to love him is to live with him. In him.

 

IN WASHINGTON, OUR MAN

 

Clears his bronchial;

Warns the microphone—

In this city, you better not be live.

With all due respect, people are sick

From the fast and loose

With the sanitation standards.

Out of work, our man reminds, the workers are better

Able to mow their crop circles and predict

How it will look in the pictures

If the hurricane could just be reoriented.

The committee thanks you for your umbrage.

The committee sends over the tiny umbrella.

Without wetness, friends, no empire-

Hunger. Our man killed off the body

Politic to determine the worm.

In the village, our man is learning

The genitals of the poor are different,

As the bored party

Hosses tap the hops

Of their souls from the glory

Holes of transformed neighborhoods.

It takes vision, sees our man,

To separate whites from the nosebleed

Section, poison from hormones,

The spider’s head from her legs.

Our man is sorry he regrets

Nothing. Our man prefers the duty-

Free in Cairo to Cambodia.

A brief history of our man, in profile:

Coin, cameo, ammo, anon.

Our man shoos shoeshiners

From his chariot’s spokes,

Swishes his bristles over the shanty’s

Remains. In the old country, see, only witches

Could ride. You a baller, we say

To our man, as he drives straight

Through and clears the painted chains.

 

 

 


(A version of this essay was presented at the 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington DC.)