Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Houseflies": big warning comes on small wings

"Houseflies" by Kevin Barent is a perfectly realized minature, a rapid string of thoughts linked cohesively where a series well sketched images get across a life lesson that's learned in a sudden flash of self awareness.This is a confession of one's limitations without the autobiography that would weight it down in details of incidents that would be problematic for the poet to make interesting or pertinent to the mission of having the poem work. The tone is converational, the addressed other in the poem being the collective houseflies as they swarmed over and around him, and he admits his folly of thinking he could vanquish with conventional means:

I knew you all when you were young.
I tried to drown you in the garbage bin

with bleach and hose-water, but you floated up
and swam, jerking little grubs,

like bloated rice, or someone punching
from inside a tiny body bag.

There is the well used comic touch of having the narrator sound paternal and pompous, substituting "garbage bin" for the unsaid 'though rhyming "play pen", an introduction that introduces a couple of items of "off stage" interest". We have here the emerging suggestion that Barent is voicing the secret and self-horrifying desire of some young parents that they could make their babies go away, perhaps even murder them, so they, as young people, might return to their days life of self-absorbed consumption, a desire one struggles with and buries in the farthest reach of the conciousness as one accepts the new responsibility, the life long task of parenting.

Second, the off stage implications are global, as when America's habit of underestimating the foreign entanglements it commits itself too, convinced that a big army and a finely honed rhetoric could solve another country's internal problems and make the source of irritation vanish, the lesson being that the enemy , created by our fumbles and arrogance, returns to the battlefield, stronger, angrier, readier than ever. Barent does not lecture us on foreign policy and keeps the situation local, although there is an intriguing inversion here, if one considers the implicit political critique a bit further; the centered powers of American strategy making regard their foes as subhuman, as other, as insects feasting on the misery we're trying to fix, while Barent's smaller scale war forces him to anthropormorphize his flies as he gives them their due. Quantity changes quality, the standard line goes, and the more intimate struggle with the flies makes possible respect for the facts as their revealed. The larger scale of war against an enemy we've underestimated brings us up against pride, vanity of the worst, most murderous sort, a trap where an action cannot be changed because we cannot admit we were wrong in the first place.

And now you circle overhead—
small, neat, glossy with newness,

helping yourselves to what was mine,
angels from the man-made world.

Vanity is the ultimate theme here, the grossest sin of the one creature who is self aware enough to develop culture and a language with which he many rationalize his supposed supremacy and omnipotence, and it is these man made things, both the conceits and the material items we've made with our genius for fashioning tools , industry and commerce prove to be more a source of ruin and destruction than we would have thought. The flies are the sarcastically referred to as "angels" taking possession of what was once the property of a single man, or the whole of society. In this small, ironic image, Barent adds the additional and final insight that we too often fail to take responsibility for what it is we do in the world, of what we introduce into it , and that we constantly fail to see a larger picture and see what it is we've done that gives us so much garbage to manage, so many wars to fight, so much death as a result of both. The point of the final lines seem to be that the source of our problems often as not originate with our most brilliant ideas.

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