5 AM, Issue #25
I'm in Orient, New York, visiting friends with resplendent gardens and lives of intense political engagement. What's the connection, I wonder, between the need to cultivate beauty and the need to speak against injustice? I'm never surprised, I realize, when I learn that a political person I admire raises orchids. In his "Daydream College for Bards," Auden includes as number 5 in his curriculum: "Every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot..." (The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, 1950). Maxine Kumin, it appears, concurs. Her writing about animals and the entwining of our lives with theirs has yielded beloved, memorable essays and poems. Consider the re-made world (or ecologically healthier one) she evokes in poems inspired by decades of organic vegetable gardening on her New Hampshire farm. An earthly paradise to refute our disgraced and fallen one? Perhaps. She named one of her horse pastures The Elysian Field.
Political concerns have always suffused Kumin's work. Readers will recall poems that speak to environmental degradation and habitat destruction, systemic racism and oppression of women, economic and social injustice the truths written from history. Recently, the U.S. war in Iraq and the daily headlines with countless examples of human anguish and cruelty led Kumin to her current sequence. During the last three years, she yoked her considerable prosodic skill to an investigative journalist bent, creating a series of new poems that astonish. Her subject is torture.
The poems share a merciless attention to facts. Published in various venues (American Poetry Review, The Nation, The Progressive, The Women's Review of Books) they form a sequence on American military and political culture. All engage the psychic disparities and discontinuities that technology now makes possible, especially as we witness a far-away war. With frank and decidedly "un-poetic" language, they shock; with complicit first and second-person speakers (singular and plural), they spare no one. Incorporating language from journalism and other media, de-stabilizing syntax and sentence, Kumin makes use of postmodern strategies. Her aim, however to communicate clearly and powerfully with readers proves that innovative poetics need not obfuscate. I'll discuss four of the nine published to date, most of which will appear in Kumin's forthcoming collection due out in late 2007.
A disturbing villanelle and an experimental pantoum showcase the formal mastery that's always characterized Kumin's work. Here are the last three stanzas of a villanelle titled "Entering Houses at Night" (from The Progressive) in the voice of a soldier:
Now it turns out that 80 percent
of the ones in that sweep were innocent
as we punched, kicked, yelled out orders.
The way that we spun in that sweltering stink
with handcuffs and blindfolds was rank.
We went in breaking down doors.
"Was that the Pyrrhic moment when
we herded the sobbing women with guns
as punching, kicking, yelling out orders
we went in breaking down doors?"
The recursive return of violent refrain lines shows Kumin's skillful deployment of the form. Like the speaker in Wilfred Owen's "Dulcet et Decorum Est," this narrator takes up the public voice, the "we." In this case, the self-incriminating first-person plural speaker represents a group of soldiers doing a "sweep" of civilian houses. In a pantoum titled "What You Do," originally published in The Nation, Kumin dismantles conventions of punctuation and syntax, dramatizing the breakdown of "civilized" behavior. Repetition of "you" creates an echoing indictment of the torturer/murderer in the first three stanzas of the poem.
What You Do
when nobody's looking
in the black sites what you do
when nobody knows you
are in there what you do
when you're in the black sites
when you shackle them higher
in there what you do
when you kill by crucifixion
when you shackle them higher
are you still Christian
when you kill by crucifixion
when you ice the body
Slant-rhyme in lines ten and eleven ("are you still Christian / when you kill by crucifixion") link religious rhetoric and slaughter, its timeless, historical partner. Verbs do, kill, shackle, ice build a brief against the torturer and render the poem a visible record of an invisible crime, Eschewing standard capitalization and punctuation, Kumin derives power from the speaker's insistent probing, the aggressive looking and naming that demand accountability.
To look and to name, Kumin must get inside the machinery of torture. "Your country / metamorphosed from a nation / that did not torture into one that did" she says in "First Thing in the Morning" (The Women's Review of Books), a statement that underpins this group of poems, eliminating with bald directness any comfortable irony. In "First Thing in the Morning" Kumin places in italics direct quotes taken from newspaper accounts. The eight lines below close the poem.
You may use all
available options in a time of peril.
We shackled them upright to keep them awake.
We shocked them with wires from an electric transformer.
The detainee 'danced' as he was shocked.
Let us dance. Let us watch The Simpsons,
the Red Sox, Fox News channel, let
us sit back, pop a beer or two and forget.
Pop culture references situate one narrator in our TV-driven present; the other speaks as if to a tribunal or court. However, Kumin emphasizes important parallels between italicized and non-italicized speakers: both dance, both watch, both use "all available options" in their own locations. The repetition of "Let us" in the final stanza reprises the "We" in the penultimate, bringing all "actors" to account.
Looking and naming continue in her frank and frankly terrifying poem "The Beheadings" (American Poetry Review) from which I quote the opening stanzas:
The guillotine at least was swift. After
the head pitched sideways into a basket
and was raised to a thirsty crowd that roared
approval of death from above, the sun turned
a garish yellow and froze on the horizon
raying out behind the jellied blood the way
it once stood still over Jericho at Joshua's command
and the day held its breath . . .
After they sawed through Nicholas Berg's neck
with an inadequate knife while he screamed,
after the heads of Daniel Pearl
and Richard Johnson were detached
in midthought, in terror but
caught alive on a grainy video, what
did their stored oxygen enable them to mouth,
and Kim-Sun-il who danced his last lines
declaiming over and over on worldwide television
"I don't want to die," what rose from his lips?
Ancient Jericho. Revolutionary Paris. Contemporary Iraq. Human barbarism plays out. This time, Kumin indicts torturers whose countrymen may have served as victims in other poems, blurring distinctions. We quickly leave a "crowd that roared / approval" and a "sun that turned / a garish yellow" for the intimate distance (and disconnect?) provided by "grainy video" and "worldwide television." In stanza two, Kumin introduces prepositional phrases to subordinate and "manage" the horrific murders. Even as she fills these phrases with the names and stories of the tortured Americans, she propels readers, with strategic syntax, toward the sorrowful question: what does a torture victim express at the end? Four lines conclude with the words "breath," "neck," "mouth" and "lips," the body-attempting-to-speak. In a related gesture at the end of "The Beheadings," Kumin calls her poem "a paltry testimony / to the nameless next and next."
Re-writing the world to expose its sickening underside may be essential to celebrating the fruits of farm and garden. Perhaps one naming calls forth the other in an effort towards psychic balance. For just as she has named the plants and animals, Kumin must now name the torturers' tools "stress positions, shackles, / dog attacks, sleep deprivation, waterboarding" ("Extraordinary Rendition," from American Poetry Review). With little in the way of ornamentation, these poems define terms, describe torture practices, name names. Together, they speak to the atrocities of time and place: they testify and lament, grieve and rage.
About the Author
In 2006 the University of Pittsburgh Press published Robin Becker's sixth collection of poems, Domain of Perfect Affection. Professor of English and Women's Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, she serves as Poetry and Contributing Editor for The Women's Review of Books, which publishes her column on poetry called "Field Notes." Becker's poems and essays appear frequently in American Poetry Review.
Editors: Ed Ochester, Judith Vollmer