Saturday, May 8, 2010

The center holds ,and it's crushing us

Poet Mary Jo Bang has the unique ability to write a polemical poem that is both a superb example of straight talk-there is no mistaking her fevered sentiment for anything else--and an elegant sample of exquisitely placed simile and metaphor The power of "After the Fact" comes from the first lines, a narrator setting up the world he/she lives like it were subject to templates from which only tragic outcomes can result. The sin of this all, the source of the outrage, are the actors in the self-limiting melodramas--buffoons peacocks, egomaniacs, narcissists with trigger fingers mistaking the contrived circumstances of their cause for the way things required to go.

Sleep tight, you martyrs.
And you criminals who killed for a narrow share
of power and a few rotten spoils.
Enough is enough.

This is very tough stuff , an indictment with a sting, an x ray to the heart of the matters; while those who wage wars justify their aggression in the many slippery rationalizations that seek "justice" through a rhetorical back door , the results of their righteousness, their efforts to set the world right, only make the tragedies worse. The calamity multiply, the genocides continue, the planet darkens even more and becomes unlivable-the only thing that seems to renew itself is the rhetoric that proclaims a vision of aggressive human perfection, a heaven here on earth, while the heart grow harder, colder. The fatal schemes, the complete waste of what's best in this existence, contracts not just the heart, but makes the universe appear to shrink to a burned out cinder.

The corners converge, causing the globe to grow smaller
than all of time times space divided
by every petty difference.
The center would not hold for Yeats; it contracts for Mary Jo Bang, become a flaming ball of contentious bad faith . It's a simple morality tale, a simple but profound choice that each of us needs to make, to make decisions exclusively on the basis of self seeking, or to help others, create community, cooperation. Bang's poem/polemic provides the profound example of selfishness when it's codified with a language that adopts some of the leaner rhetoric of justice, peace and harmony and uses the terms to rationalize an institutionalized State of War. It is the tragedy of trying to make the mystery of life comprehensible by means of fear-- investigating the life and ways of a Villainized Other is to trade with the Devil.

The girl newly dead on the sidewalk says,
"Excuse me, but—
what kind of moral force is brute moral force?"

The poem can be said to lack subtlety, but a muted message in this instance could be so finely wrought that even an informed reader would miss the point in search for clues among the ambiguities. This has the brilliant, placard bearing power of Ferlinghetti's political poems, particularly "I Am Waiting"; it is a succession of one lines and witticisms that crystallize the crisis and makes it memorable. This is a poem meant to get you thinking about something other than whether it works as a poem. It does just that.

I don't think Bang's poems encourages passive martyrdom of any kind, if I understand your question correctly. It has more the feel of a scaled-back soliloquy delivered in the last act of a Greek Tragedy, the summation presented while the evidence is plainly visible, undeniable, to anyone who might have been involved in debating war and power-grabbing in the abstract. The poem operates under the assumption that the evil doers--politicians, generals, corporations--are shamed to silence while the damnable curses is cast, but beyond this minor suspension of disbelief --politicians, generals and corporations won't reform themselves and seek justice rather than justice as the result of a good scold--we realize the poem isn't intended for the perpetrators of misery, but the citizens who've been seduced by a well-oiled propaganda.

We are governed solely by our consent, and the further implication is that the governed population's failure to hold their representatives to higher , more consequential standard is just as responsible for the grim tales told here. Our songs, our campaign slogans, our policy discussions are geared to assure us that the greatest good is the intent ,and that it surely will be the result. Mary Jo Bang's speech--and that is what this is, finally, a speech--shows the reader that there are leaders elected in our name who are singing of their esteemed virtues while everyone else can see the devastation they leave in their wake.

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