Baby Boom Poetry and the New Zeitgeist
from Prairie Schooner, Fall 2009
So much for Sinatra.
So much for pearls and the broken strand of actresses
in kitten heel pumps
walking backwards underground.
The Hall of Mortals will now be closed
for extensive renovation.
(The Last Kennedy)
I wrote "The Last Kennedy" in 1999, not long after JFK Jr. died in a plane crash. Borrowing imagery from my parents' generation, I riffed on celebrity, dynasty, and desire to explore an old idea of American promise still haunting baby boomers: "a tale that is told—frequently, like this one, / with too much falling action / and no conclusion." But in one respect I have been proven wrong about such conclusions in 2009.
The imagery in "The Last Kennedy" is rueful but not entirely ironic; the sadness the speaker feels is real. Like many poets born between 1946 and 1964, I have written as though iconic nostalgia were my birthright—part of what marked my poems as special. Simultaneously hip and told as unreconstructed yearning, iconic nostalgia rejects the constraints of prior social constructions (Sinatra, Monroe) while remaining half in love with their dashed glamour, and then it inserts Jimi Hendrix or Pol Pot (and always ourselves) at the center of an ever-more-distant galaxy of shared historical experiences and long-drawn-out sighs, even as we reassert our cool. No, no—I'm still relevant! In 2002 Mark Halliday cheerfully acknowledges the complex problem of narcissism and nostalgia in his poem "Strawberry Milkshake":
I could try to imply some universal pattern, relevance to certain persons
you failed to kiss in 1988 but you're still going to feel this is
my own blandished finger-smudged bland dish
of warped middle-class Creedence albums and Red Sox sweatshirt
and Oh-God-that-blonde-across-the street ...
What's the use in trying to deny that we are the real stars of our own poems, Halliday suggests, not Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Red Sox. Those references are merely passwords, the magic argot that opens doors to a club baby boomers already belong to—and the boorish banality of the speaker's observation in "Strawberry Milkshake" is part of Halliday's brilliant schtick: enough about me, let's talk about me. But what interests me most at this particular poetic moment is my suspicion that the utility of our iconic nostalgia is finally fading. Look at Caroline Kennedy. As I sit down to write this essay on the current state of baby boom poetry in America, it feels oddly resonant that Kennedy's ad hoc bid for the U.S. Senate has come to a fizzled, damp-fireworks end. In "The Last Kennedy," Caroline is portrayed as a serio-mythic mourner: "A stricken sister, heiress in bicycle pants and helmet, / rides along the strand, / too smart or too dignified to cry out / as the foaming ocean / shrugs a suitcase / toward shore." Because Kennedy was born in the same month and year of my birth, November 1957, I have always been aware of her; I can recall perfectly the pained regard I felt when I first saw photographs of Caroline taking riding lessons on her pony (notice how easily this nostalgia comes to me). Looking at blonde Caroline in tiny riding habit was like peering into the loveliest, gated garden of American ascension. Last year, when she announced her interest in Hillary Clinton's senate seat, my first thought was nostalgia driven: she's the last living member of the holy family. She should be a senator. When the Los Angeles Times ran an article suggesting that the Kennedy halo effect might not be enough to carry Caroline, I resisted the idea that the potency of iconic nostalgia could have a shelf life, a terminus. But by the time the New Yorker devoted an article to the counting of her various verbal tics, I got it: delayed recognition. Caroline wasn't special enough by today's media standards. Outside of New York the end of her brief candidacy was met with a shrug.
When one is no longer at the center of popular culture, shaping it, one becomes, de facto, an analyst, an observer rejecting or making sense of change. What one might gain in institutional power one loses in revolutionary street cool. One becomes a pundit, or a poet laureate, or President. One is esteemed, a word we might have found horrifying in the 1960s and '70s. Needless to say, this is a rather complicated place for baby boomers, the original carriers of dissident youth culture, to occupy, no matter how hip we still feel in middle age. A useful military phrase comes from our current wars: "Left of Boom." Left of Boom is the time line of events that leads up to the detonation of, say, an improvised explosive device on the road into Tikrit. But you can figure out what happened left of boom only when you are firmly right of it. In today's youth-driven pop culture, when the bomb of the new goes off, baby boomers find themselves right of it, trying to figure out what led to the blast and how they might piece together meaning for themselves out of their collective and personal past. Consider the opening stanzas of Tony Hoagland's 2003 poem "America," from What Narcissism Means to Me, where high-speed idiomatic discursiveness (in this case a mash-up of current cultural references) is used to establish comic credibility as the speaker lampoons his young students in a high-minded tirade.
Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison
Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can't tell the show from the commercials,
And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he's driving to the mall in his Isuzu
Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ball-peen hammers, even then he feels
Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America
The speaker's jeremiad against consumerism and the pampered hypocrisy of today's youth is fueled by ideals born of the social revolutions of the '60s and '70s; it trades on old-school outrage, and the acceleration of his argument announces that he is simultaneously preaching to the choir and hoping to make converts. But the middle-aged have always judged youth harshly, and the speaker saves some deprecations for his own newly cranky place in American complacency:
And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, "I am asleep in America too,
And I don't know how to wake myself either,"
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:
"I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future."
The Marx quotation is wonderful here. Hoagland's speaker knows that the seductions of the past become a siren song, a blinding; one must navigate finally by the forward horizon. But just how does one discern the cries of the future? How might one really hear them? Hoagland is one of our liveliest lyric-narrative poets, a wounded comic observer of our human failure to love one another. He writes in the tradition of William Matthews, Stephen Dunn, Stephen Dobyns, Ed Ochester, Philip Levine, all of whom bring varying degrees of pathos and moral wit to poems that map the rise and fall of the American Dream. Unlike that generation of poets—our predecessors—whose poems yearn toward personal or public order (reconciliation), and who retain their modernist belief in the possibilities of civility (love), Hoagland is a reluctant post-modernist, alive to the dangers of using the past to construct anything, let alone a way forward. But his indeterminism doesn't nullify his complaints. He'll have it both ways: wiser and sadder (i.e., ironically destabilized) self-righteousness. His echo of W. C. Williams's populist "The Yachts," adds interesting resonance to the final lines of "America": "But how could he [Marx] have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable / or what kind of nightmare it might be"
When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river
Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters
And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?
There's a bit of special pleading in Hoagland's mention of "100 channels of 24-hour cable"—that is, even Marx at his wisest and most rueful would have been flummoxed by the crap we have to endure these days! But that's exactly the kind of thing that separates and defines generations, isn't it? The notion from within one group that they have occupied an especially daunting or complex place in history. Poems that explore or illuminate that complex place have been a staple of baby boom poetry; think of Denis Johnson's "Killed in the War I Didn't Go To," David Wojahn's "Late Empire," Elizabeth Alexander's "Summertime," B. H. Fairchild's "Rave On," Donna Masini's "My Mother Makes Me a Geisha Girl," Yusef Komunyakaa's "Facing It," Robert Wrigley's "C.O." That felt like my wheelhouse, too, in poems such as "The Older Brothers of Girls I Grew Up With," and "When I Think about America Sometimes (I Think of Ralph Kramden)." If iconic nostalgia in baby boom poetry of the 1980s and 1990s sometimes reads like a teaching opportunity, that's no surprise. Baby boom poets are, in large numbers, university professors. But in the twenty-first century we have discovered, literally and figuratively, a new wrinkle: at the very moment we are confronting the past in order to elucidate it, the present is displacing us.
In "The Change," also from What Narcissism Means to Me, Tony Hoagland locates a particularly uneasy moment of cultural displacement:
... remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes
some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite
While his friend cheers for "Aphrodite," a stand-in for Venus Williams at the beginning of her career, the speaker sheepishly (or bravely, depending on your view of self-censoring political correctness) admits to rooting for the white girl in this "contest between / the old world and the new,"
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips
and because the black girl was so big
and so black
hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln's throat,
like she wasn't asking anyone's permission.
Hoagland knows this is treacherous ground, and he intentionally makes the reader discomforted. Is nostalgia tinged with racism in this case? Is there, at the very least, a kind of complicity with the old narratives of race and class? The black tennis player is not the underdog at Roland Garros Stadium; she's the conquering star who "wore down her opponent / then kicked her ass good / then thumped her once more for good measure / and stood up on the red clay court / holding her racket over her head like a guitar." (In baby boom poetry, rock star status is still the highest conferred.) Like most of Hoagland's slightly benighted speakers, this one is likeable. He's smart. He names the truth. And he's politely honest about his desire to align himself with the past. It's what he knows, what he's comfortable with, though the white girl's "pale eyes" and "thin lips" suggest he also knows theirs is a wan, waning "tribe." Hoagland's speakers, like those constructed by many male baby boom poets (Dean Young, Andrew Hudgins, James Harms, Mark Cox, Charles Harper Webb, to name just a few), hardly swagger. They are sensitive, articulate, self-deprecating antiheroes apologetic for their self-absorption. (Note Hoagland's splendid book title joke). There is a trace of the '50s political comedian in this construction: Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Shelly Berman, and Mort Sahl are all Jewish comedians who waged similar assaults on the middle class status quo from the margins of neurotic but superior intellectualism. Ultimately, the paradigm shift in Tony Hoagland's "The Change" is staged to awaken the speaker's larger understanding, not of race or class, which he suggests he never had a real stake in anyway ("I don't watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre, / but I could feel the end of an era there / in front of those bleachers full of people / in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes"), but of time's ruthless power. In a sense, the speaker nullifies political correctness by announcing his dawning realization that displacement from cultural center to periphery is a sadness universally experienced. It transcends race. Anyone who watched Roger Federrer weep after losing the Australian Open this year to the younger and lately unstoppable Raphael Nadal—both white European males—might be inclined to agree. This mid-life observation forms Hoagland's final, widening gesture:
and in fact, everything had already changed—
Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,
and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.
How does one say goodbye to the twentieth century without dwelling in twentieth-century nostalgia? —that is the challenge facing baby boom poets today. In Martin Amis's The Second Plane, September 11: Terror and Boredom, the author makes a strong case for a reading of the new American zeitgeist as radically unlike any in its history: "It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment." Until that moment, Amis notes, America thought she was simply seeing "the worst aviation disaster in history." "Now," instead, "she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her."
I have never seen a generically familiar object so transformed by
affect ("emotion and desire as influencing behavior"). That
second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanized with malice, and
wholly alien. For those thousands in the South Tower, the second
plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the
worldflash of a coming future."
Worldflash. That falling feeling. The sensation that accompanies a glimpse of the irrevocable / new through a tear in the fabric of old understandings. A harbinger. A way of hearing Marx's cries of the future. It is said that immediately after 9/11, copies of W. H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" bloomed simultaneously and unplanned on telephone poles and makeshift sidewalk memorials, at fire station tributes, on Web sites and in newspaper articles with its famous line prominently featured: "We must love one another or die." To post-modern ears that plain, unambiguous call to love is staggering in its directness; its ability to name one solution, and above all its naked belief in the power and possibility of that solution, reminds us of the kind of conviction that must come from fighting justifiable wars, and from winning them.
But baby boom poets were raised on Vietnam and Iran-Contra; they are the tonal inheritors of protest: Huey Newton and George Carlin and a dissembling Richard Nixon all spoke from a place of moral superiority over their subjects. Baby boom poets have a penchant for eye-rolling disbelief; for outrage; for mischief toward central authority; for the kind of hyper-sincere verbal insincerity of, say, Bill Murray's lounge lizard act. Habitués of talk therapy, they accept the fact that at any given moment they are a little fucked-up or a lot fucked-up and they are ready to tell you precisely why. They are precociously discursive. They want to testify: "Jesus, I am cruelly lonely," Jane Mead writes in "Concerning that Prayer I Cannot Make," "and I do not know what I have done / nor do I suspect you will answer me." They are post-confessional: that is, personal suffering makes them poem-worthy but not unique. All suffering is illustrative. They are irony's ironists. They do not eschew sentiment completely but bedevil it with tough-mindedness or flippancy or improvised cool: " ... on the radio next door / the tunes of another era, / still very much without error, / the Everlys, the miscreant pheromone / Sly Stone, Barry White / of the undulant jherricurls," David Rivard writes in "The Rev. Larry Love is Dead." They owe a debt to Frank O'Hara's blithe manifesto "Personism," which forever established in 1959 the connection between contemporary poetry and sexual desire: "As for measure and other technical apparatus, that's just common sense: if you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There's nothing metaphysical about it."
How do inheritors of such hyper-reflexive self- and social-awareness meet the humbling moment of worldflash? Marie Howe addresses that question in her excellent new book The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. It opens, appropriately, with the italicized poem "Prologue" :
The rules, once again, applied
One loaf = one loaf. One fish. = one fish.
The so-called Kings were dead.
And the woman who had been healed grew tired of telling her story,
and sometimes asked her daughter to tell it.
People generally worshipped where their parents had worshipped—
the men who'd hijacked the airplane prayed where the dead pilots had
and the passengers prayed from their seats
—so many songs went up and out into the thinning air ...
In these opening stanzas, Howe might be directly addressing the calm after the storm—the moment, presumably months or years after 9/11, when people find they have returned to a sort of fetishized normalcy. Grand acts of communion and love (or their dark opposite, terrorism, which Martin Amis calls "political communication by other means") are no longer the common trade of the day. Instead, "One loaf = one loaf." Everyone returns to the faith of their fathers. But the world weariness and absence Howe employs in the poem's first half is jolted awake by a surreal image of absolute presence: the hijackers are praying "where the dead pilots had been sitting," and the passengers are praying "from their seats." Somehow and without warning (post-traumatic stress?) we are back in the exact, searing moment of political communication. But the coup de grace in "Prologue" comes in the fourth stanza, which stages both calm and storm as performance:
People, listening and watching, nodded and wept, and, leaving the theatre,
One turned to the other and said, What do you want to do now?
And the other one said, I don't know. What do you want to do?
It was the Coming of Ordinary Time. First Sunday, second Sunday.
And then (for who knows how long) it was here.
Howe has refused to play it straight. We are watching a movie about 9/11, as it turns out. Upon leaving the theatre, we face the banality of post-movie decisions—"What do you want to do?" "I don't know. What do you want to do?" —while still feeling the effects of terror's reenactment. The very existence of the movie seems to signal "the Coming of Ordinary Time," Howe says, a liturgical reference that suggests her uneasiness with viewing 9/11 as objectified event, historical canon, distanced, now safe for commercial consumption.
When do moments of worldflash become artifact? (Bob Hicok troubles the same waters by asking how soon is too soon to write about a national tragedy—in poems he wrote and published half a year after the student massacre at Virginia Tech University where he teaches). In The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, Howe isn't offering answers. Her voice has acquired the burnished weight of authority that Louise Gluck has employed to great advantage over the years, but Howe's restless reading of culture and of her own spiritual desire keeps the poems beautifully off balance. Performance is a self-conscious state, after all. Where Gluck relies on archetypes and grandeur-in-miniature, Howe stays very much in the business of living in the everyday world. She doesn't feel safe or consoled. Her speaker mistrusts popular culture's cues that we are in ordinary time, "(for who knows how long)" but cannot deny time's power to distract us: "it was here."
The parenthetical phrase "for who knows how long" is certainly not the most subtle touch in a poem about living in terror's interstices, but it does reveal Howe's layered knowledge that "ordinary time" is a complex illusion, a temporary coping mechanism at best. The curtain is rent. We know now the "fantastic vehemence" that is ranged against us, as Amis says. Bruce Weigl's early poetic authority was built on his experience as a combat veteran of Vietnam. In his poem about 9/11, "Home of the Brave," the speaker's narrative cadences are deadened to match the country's uncomprehending response.
First many people died, and then
many other brave people
went to save them, and they died too.
There was a short but stunning moment.
The smoke blackened out the sun. People's noses, mouths and eyes
were filled with the dust
of an incinerated empire. Some faces were streaked with blood;
people picked themselves up and began to walk in a great
migration, like a battalion down the highways empty of traffic,
towards their homes and their televisions.
So much was taken from them, and a hole
had been torn into their world,
that one man hung a thousand flags from his house.
You could not see the windows or the doors. So many flags,
you would think we were American.
"Home of the Brave" is one of many poems in the 2005 Declension in the Village of Chung Luong that employ a simple, understated narrative line ("first many people died, and then / many other brave people / went to save them") jarred by strokes of oddly calm realism-staged-as-surrealism ("people ... began to walk in a great / migration, like a battalion down the highways empty of traffic"). It is fitting that Weigl's image of the walking wounded (who wish to return to "their homes and their televisions") reminds us of the dead "flowing over London Bridge" in T.S. Eliof s "The Wasteland." Although Weigl's subjects are alive, they are no less "undone" by death in the post-modern wasteland of lower Manhattan, an "incinerated empire." Ironically, Weigl's flattened tone suggests that nothing in this apocalyptic scene is out of the ordinary except for the "thousand flags" one man hangs on his house in response. The image of the flags reminds us of the period immediately after 9/11 when overt patriotism, a vexed position for Vietnam-era baby boomers, gained a sudden, unapologetic (but perhaps not entirely unembarrassed?) popularity. "The Home of the Brave" problematizes that gesture. Rampant nationalism induces a kind of blindness or a willing inability to see the truth: there are so many flags "You could not see the windows or the doors." The speaker's last observation, "So many flags, / you would think we were American," is disorienting. It upends assumptions we've already built into our reading of the poem and forces us to question national identity. Aren't we American? If not, if the old names (liberator? shining beacon?) no longer apply to us, then who are we now? What does the world see when it sees America? By poem's end, it seems, we are no one and nowhere at all.
In "What We Would Give Up," Marie Howe addresses another vexed issue for post-modern baby boomers in America: our consumerism (read western decadence). As the poem ranges widely over the minutia of the speaker's middle-class life, it takes us to the heart of a dilemma for those born between 1946 and 1964, particularly those of us who saw ourselves as steadfastly resistant to the bourgeois trappings of our parents' lives. The prose format allows the subject—our attachment to comfort, our fondness for many material things—to expand and accumulate while also suggesting the moral box we've put ourselves in:
One morning in Orlando Florida, I asked a group of college
What would we be willing to give up to equalize the wealth in the
Malls, a red-haired young woman said right away. Supermarkets, the
man in a black T-shirt said—where you go to buy bread, and
hundred and fifty loaves on the shelf. Imported fruit, the young
sitting next to him said—berries in winter. A car, the guy with the
ring said, I don't have a car anyway.
Travel? Jet Fuel? Well, we'd all be together, someone said. TV, said
the guy without a car, I don't watch TV anyway. What about coffee,
I said, looking down at my double tall half-caf soy latte. Ok, everyone
said, but I wondered about that one. Ten pairs of shoes? Yes.
After a full five stanzas describing the difficulties she encounters with her broken telephone, the speaker is ready to refocus on the question at hand: What would we do without?
The Gap? Someone said. Everybody said, I don't go to The Gap.
Would I give up the telephone? Would I give up hot water? Would I
give up makeup? Would I give up dyeing my hair? That was a hard
one. If I stopped dyeing my hair everyone would know that my golden
hair is actually gray, and my long American youth would be over— and
The use of the phrase "The Gap" is lovely irony: it is ostensibly the gap in world wealth that we're talking about. Howe's speaker is sensitive and enlightened enough to feel uneasy about her share of American plenty, but she also understands the limits of her imagined charity; she could give up some things, but not others. The reference to hair dye is an especially apt stroke. It enacts the problem of the aging body for the baby boom youth culture (who in turn purchase anti-aging everything, from makeup to gym memberships). The speaker believes that her core identity, rooted in her "long American youth," will dissolve—"and then what?"—if her body is seen as it really is.
For a long time, it seems, baby boom poets have addressed aging from the only safe distance we could find. Hundreds of poems have been written about our parents' passing, the indignities of their failing bodies, their decline, their dementia, their cancers, their death. Not ours. And with each poem we've read or written about them we have climbed our own mortality ladders, rung by reluctant rung. Now it is inevitable, incontrovertible, that we must write about our own aging without deflection, and without closing our eyes to the world at hand, which is our context.
In that light it is interesting to read the poem "31-Year-Old Lover," by Kim Addonizio. It appears in What Is This Thing Called Love, published in 2003, though the poem reads (I'm guessing here) as though it were written before 9 / 11, before our long American adolescence was called on account of worldflash.
"31-Year-Old Lover" opens with the speaker's charged appraisal of her younger lover's body:
When he takes off his clothes
I think of a stick of butter being unwrapped,
the milky, lubricious smoothness of it
when it's taken from the fridge still hard
the way his body is hard ....
He stands naked in my bedroom and nothing
has harmed him yet, though he is going
to be harmed. He is going to have a gut one day,
and wiry gray hairs where the soft dark filaments
flow out of him, the cream of his skin is going
to loosen and separate slowly, over a steady flame
and he has no idea, as I had no idea ....
Although aging is constructed as "harm," the speaker—an older woman of unspecified age—vows not to warn the young man: "and I am not going to speak of this to him ever." Despite his perfection ("I almost can't believe he's human"), she is the tacit sexual star of the poem; she still has the power to attract him, after all, and she wants to preserve him as he is, unspoiled by knowledge.
I am going to let him stretch out on my bed
so I can take the heavy richness of him in
and in, I am going to have it back the only way I can.
Charming in many ways, "31-Year-Old Lover" turns tables on the masculine trophy-wife story with Addonizio's customary skill and bravura. But why does the poem feel so inert after repeated readings? The conspiring speaker is vampiric, a cougar femme fatale. She objectifies the lover as body-only in her efforts to possess him. She'll have her youth back "the only way she can," though that, we know, is impossible, and the young lover's own complicating attitudes and experiences go completely unexamined. When I recently taught "31-Year-Old Lover," my students insisted that the speaker was either deluded or highly unreliable: no thirty-one-year-old, they said, would be unaware of time's toll on the body! Regardless, what we all can agree on, I think, is that the poem is reductive, closed off, and familiar in its sole framing of aging as the death of bodily primacy. And the poem's darker implication should be noted: the poem vies for control via consumption; it is power the speaker is after, and retrograde desire, like the poem's highly determined "cooking" conceit, gobbles up any chance for unplanned linguistic discoveries or unexpected meanings the reader might make. Where is the post-modern world's radically open field of experience?
That indeterminate open field, that potentiality, is what Gregory Orr continually approaches in his book-length meditation on love, death, loss, and redemption, Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved, published in 2005. His speaker is both heartbroken and hopeful. His perceptions of bodily desire and death are shaded by subtle shifts in the secular / sacramental language he uses; it is the calling-up of that intensely lyric language that connects him to the post-modern world's perilous body, even as it recalls the mythic vigor of ancient poems such as Gilgamesh or The Song of Solomon:
Who wants to lose the world,
For all its tumult and suffering?
Who wants to leave the world,
For all its sorrow?
And so I come to the Book,
Which is also the body
Of the beloved. And so
I come to the poem.
The poem is the world
Scattered by passion, then
Gathered together again
So that we may have hope.
"The heart / Would have it both ways," Orr tells us. "To see the world and say it true / Means starting with loss. / But that's not what the heart wants, / That's not where the saying stops."
And here is Jason Shinder's poem, "Coda," which speaks of the true beginning that an ending brings. Using deceptively simple diction, the poet redirects our perception of terminal illness away from valorizing but isolating clichés of bodily diminishment toward an image of intimacy, clarity, renewal. "Coda" was written during the illness that claimed the poet's life in April 2008, and it was published later that year in American Poetry Review:
And now I know what most deeply connects us
after that summer so many years ago,
and it isn't poetry, although it is poetry,
and it isn't illness, although we have that in common,
and it isn't gratitude for every moment,
even the terrifying ones, even the physical pain,
though we are grateful, and it isn't even death,
though we are halfway through
it, or even the way you describe the magnificence
of being alive, catching a glimpse,
in the store window, of your blowing hair and chapped lips,
though it is beautiful, it is; but it is
that you're my friend out here on the far reaches
of what humans can find out about each other.
It must be acknowledged that the experience of worldflash for aging baby boom poets is intensified by the fact of our ever-more-proximate death. Fear may be a crowded global stage on which America and al-Qaeda are featured players, but it is the more local collision of inner and outer realities that creates a signal moment in our lives right now. And in the exploratory poems we write. "The poem is the world / scattered by passion / then gathered together again / so that we might have hope." This confluence, for me, is what makes Jason Shinder's beautiful "Coda" so unerring: by love and circumstance, by age and dis-illusionment, we find ourselves today "on the far reaches / of what humans can find out about each other." Or, to paraphrase Theodore Roethke's "The Waking," we learn by going where we have to go.
In 1980, in The Country Between Us, Carolyn Forché observed of torture that there is "nothing one man will not do to another." The same may be said for the ungovernable body. The physical body in extremity—there is nothing that body will not do to us finally. So the same may be said for the international body politic (the rogue Bush / Cheney / Rumsfeld / Gonzalez administration we recently replaced, say, or the fundamentalist/jihadists worldwide). Confronting the vehemence that is ranged against America necessitates, then complicates, the questions of purpose and faith, morality, intimacy, and love we construct and deconstruct in our poems today.
When I think about baby boom poets who honor the complex topics of post-modern age (age in both senses of the word) and spirituality, I think of Claudia Rankine's lyric essay Don't Let Me Be Lonely; Franz Wright's Walking to Martha's Vineyard and God's Silence; Bob Hicok's "My Faith-Based Initiative," or "Happy anniversary"—a poem written on the anniversary of our first shock-and-awe bombing of Iraq—Carolyn Forché' s "Prayer"; Patricia Smith's long blues-meditation on Hurricane Katrina, "Thankful"; or Ann Lauterbach's "Victory," to name only a few. In these works, spiritual matters meet the secular body as it is right now. Brokenness prevails, enacted with such formal variety that one is reminded of the power of poetry to console and terrify. "Begin again among the poorest, moments off, in another time and place," Forché croons, "Belongings gathered in the last hour, visible invisible: / / Tin spoon, teacup, tremble of tray, carpet hanging from sorrow's balcony. / / Say goodbye to everything." Lauterbach writes about our signal moment this way, using the abstracted debris-field of the World Trade Center to stand in for the unfathomable scope of our devastation and our just-born awareness: "Reverence for that dust. / The scale is overwhelming .... World rattles in its harness. / Among, within us, too many injuries / as if in caves in mountains of snow."
Claudia Rankine, born in 1963 in Jamaica and raised both there and in New York City, eschews Forché's lyric romanticism and Lauterbach's paratactic discontinuities (another kind of romanticism, wrung through the intellect), choosing instead a voice and a style that might be called commonplace performative. An anxious but astute naïf, Rankine's speaker is death-obsessed as she muses about race, terror, television, and American violence in the age of dread. "There was a time I could say no one I knew well died. This is not to suggest no one died." In Don't Let Me Be Lonely, she is a reporter, a collector and a connector of uneasy moments strung like oddly lit pearls on the book's irregular prose line. Rankine intercuts these vignettes with poorly resolved black-and-white photographs and simple graphics (the Do Not Resuscitate sign used on hospital charts, television screens filled with "snow"). Taken together, words and images are meant to be speculative; they enlarge the discourse in order to dislocate it. But Rankine's speaker only seems lost in the flood of data. Her shrewd observations of public and private events and feelings suggest that everything is connected in the post-modern world. Ultimately she challenges us to stay focused, despite ample cultural distractions, on the crucial topics at hand: our loneliness, our spiritual vacancy (note the empty billboard bearing the book's title on the cover), our fear. "Or one begins asking oneself that same question differently. Am I dead?" She does not use mass-culture allusions to reinvigorate her membership in a particular group (no nostalgic / iconic secret handshakes here) but to illustrate the ways virtual and media "realities" displace individual belief until we no longer recognize ourselves or our purpose in the world. "As the days pass I begin to watch myself closely," she writes.
The America that I am is washing her hands. She is check-
for a return address. She is noticing the postage amount. Then
the moment comes: Inhalation anthrax or a common cold?
I have to ask myself. Something happens—a new kind of white
powder—and I am led inside. Do I like who I am becoming? Is
this me? Fear in phlegm. Fear airborne. Fear foreign.
In the most powerful passages in Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine confronts that fear with what she calls "IMH, The Inability to Maintain Hope." Clarifying, she observes that "Cornel West says this is what is wrong with black people today—too nihilistic. Too scarred by hope to hope, too experienced to experience, too close to dead is what I think." Pitting acuity against despair, her speaker notices everything. She participates in the accreting impulse described in the 1983 essay "The Rejection of Closure," in which Lyn Hejinian argues that "language is one of the principal forms our curiosity takes." Striving to enact as much open-ended "curiosity" as possible (because perception itself lacks closure) within the necessary boundedness of form, Rankine's post-modern aesthetic presupposes this: every raw detail is revelatory, and in context, every detail holds the seeds for future, as-yet-unknown revelations. To this end Rankine juxtaposes her mother's long ago miscarriage; a friend's misdiagnosed and now terminal breast cancer; the shooting of Amadou Diallo; the lynching of James Byrd Jr.; the simultaneity of life and death in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch; Timothy McVeigh's execution (this detail is an especially brilliant stroke if we recall that the bombing in Oklahoma City was first thought to be the work of Middle Eastern extremists—when it was learned that the perpetrator was an American fanatic, there was, it seemed, an appalled sigh of national relief, as though we had been granted a temporary reprieve; the rain falling on still-smoldering Ground Zero; Derrida's definition of forgiveness; Cornel West's distinction between hope and blind "American optimism"; the lilies her parents send her for her fortieth birthday; the latest anti-depressant her editor takes. Information itself is presented as a kind of drug we take unawares, and Jean Baudrillard's notion that the media itself is an effector of ideology (and that our response is already constructed), underpins much of the book's anxiety and resistance. When the 2000 presidential election hung in the balance, Rankine's speaker confesses that she stopped watching the news. "I want to continue watching, charting, and discussing the counts, the recounts, the hand counts, but I cannot. I lose hope":
However Bush came to have won, he would still be winning ten days later and we would still be in the throes of our American optimism. All the non-reporting is a distraction from Bush himself, the same Bush who can't remember if two or three people were convicted for dragging a black man to his death in his home state of Texas.
Below this passage the poet places a grainy crime scene photograph of people gathered around a puddle of what we deduce is the lynched man's blood. The speaker addresses Bush as her mother once addressed her: "You don't remember because you don't care."
In the end, the act of remembering and writing creates the possibility of purpose for the speaker of Don't Let Me Be Lonely, who tries "to fit language into the shape of usefulness." Paying attention is political engagement, the first form of protest registered against our numbing daily dose of undifferentiated information. "What alerts, alters," Rankine reminds us. But Rankine also speculates that only the combination of attention and real human connection can reawaken her—and us, the numbed-out walking wounded Bruce Weigl depicts in "Home of the Brave." Don't Let Me Be Lonely concludes with syntax marked by the stress of the author's uncertainty: "Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake .... The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another .... this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive."
It is the tentativeness of Rankine's rapprochement with hope in Don't Let Me Be Lonely that sums up the zeitgeist for baby boom poets today. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama's instantly famous red and blue poster bore his likeness and an unlikely political slogan: "Hope." Perhaps it also announces the complicated renegotiation with hope we make as poets in 2009. How much hope will we allow ourselves to feel? To write? Do we believe—as we did decades ago—that hope-engendered action might heal the present (since there is no healing the past)? Will we permit ourselves the consoling (but currently unfashionable) belief in language's ability to communicate these ideas?
I want to conclude with an excerpt from Franz Wright's long poem "East Boston, 1996," which first appeared in the New Yorker and which has since been collected in his 2006 volume God's Silence. Wright was born in 1953, and he writes of the battle between hope and devastated cynicism from the very personal place of addiction recovery. In interviews Wright has sometimes said that writing poetry saved his life. Reading God's Silence, one believes him. No other baby boom poet today comes close to capturing such heartbreaking lyricism as it teeters between darkest, solipsistic self-loathing and a vision of forgiveness that is truly radical in impulse—unconditional, communal, personal, ecstatic. Wright, the son of James Wright, is also the stylistic and thematic heir to John Berryman, whose later poems and his unfinished, posthumously published novel, Recovery, lay bare the alcoholic's unending struggle to reconstitute a soul in ruin. Wright quotes Berryman, who committed suicide in 1972, in an epigraph to God's Silence: "Is escape ... too difficult? Evidently, for (1) the walls are strong and I am weak, and (2) I love my walls .... "
But even Wright's most harrowing poems betray his capacity for childlike wonder, which in turn allows his speaker to abandon himself, for whole moments at a time, to life's beauty. In Wright's vision, the mysterious persistence of love—divine and human love—and the brief hope it brings, is our only bulwark against annihilating loss. Granting himself permission to feel it clears a path forward, a way to survive:
The day's coming
when I will no longer consider
my mere presence inexpiable.
I will place my hand in that flame
and feel nothing.
I will ask nobody's forgiveness again.
Or I will just go
among people no more—
I may writhe with
remorse in the night, but
the operation must be
No one must be asked to relinquish
a grievance that can't be removed
without further destruction, it may be
it is lodged in who he is now
like a bullet in a brain
whose removal might just cause worse change.
The forgiveness! I know it
will be freely offered
or it won't, and that is all—
and no one may bestow it
If it is to come
it will come of itself like a separate
a mystery, working
unseen as a wind causes still
leaves or water to move once again.
And hide me in the shadow of Your wings.
Let the heart be moved again.
About the Author
Dorothy Barresi is the author of four books of poetry: American Fanatics (forthcoming, University of Pittsburgh Press); Rouge Pulp; The Post-Rapture Diner, winner of an American Book Award; and All of the Above. Her essays and poems have been published widely. She is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, the Emily Clark Balch Prize, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
University of Nebraska—Lincoln
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