Poetic Justice: Books for Troubled Times
Kimberly Blaeser, Apprenticed to Justice, Salt, 2007.
Martín Espada, The Trouble Ball. W.W. Norton, 2011. $24.95 (hardcover)
Fabu, Journey to Wisconsin: African American Life in Haiku, Parallel Press, 2011. $10
Daniel Khalastchi, Manoleria, Tupelo Press, 2011 [Winner of the Tupelo Press/ Crazyhorse Award]. $16.95
Margaret Rozga, 200 Nights and one day, Benu Press, 2009. $16.95
Chuck Rybak, Tongue and Groove, Main Street Rag, 2007. $12
By Wendy Vardaman
And we turn this sound
over and over again
until it becomes
from which we will build
upon the ashes of our ancestors.
Until it becomes
the rattle of a new revolution
drumming on keys.
—Kimberly Blaeser, “Apprenticed to Justice”
The poetry in these six books presents a kaleidoscope of subject matter, form, and approach. There are rhyming poems, plain speech poems, prose poems, experimental poems, concrete poems, narrative poems, lyrical poems, persona poems, traditional formal poems, flexible formal poems, free verse poems. And yet, there are still poets, and perhaps some critics, who would a priori dismiss “political” poetry as monolithic, as somehow inherently unworthy and inferior to “non-political,” as if, political creatures that we are, it is ever possible to use language apolitically, to construct identities or poems outside of that political language. The same people might, perhaps, make other sweeping pronouncements: that poetry must avoid sentiment, for example; or that poems located in domestic settings are narrow in scope; or, in another era (let us hope!), that women’s poetry was inferior to men’s.
Sometimes, it takes an effort of imagination to appreciate art that doesn’t initially fall within the range of our own limited perception and taste. No doubt you have experienced a writing group or workshop in which, instead of trying to grapple with your poem and what you hoped to accomplish, someone tried to make it more like a piece that they themselves would write. Maybe you do this, on occasion, to other writers—I’m sure I have. It’s easier, sometimes, than pushing ourselves to stretch our expectations and imaginations. So let’s assume, for the sake of this essay, that for these six poets, poetry and witness, language and politics, are intertwined and inseparable. If that is true for you, too, you won’t need convincing. If not, suspend your disbelief for the length of this essay, and allow yourself to reconsider: What makes a political poem good? What makes it political?
The six books in this summer round-up—take them with you to the beach, or let them inspire you to greater involvement after your vacation—all contain political or socially relevant material, sometimes mixed with other kinds of poems, sometimes not. Their approaches could not be more different: biographical, surreal, autobiographical, historical, fictional. They tell stories the poets lived and other people’s stories. They make up stories. They employ traditional forms and create forms. They use formal poems to tell stories. They explore the border between poem and prose, poetry and scholarship, individual and community. And they do that in language and imagery that, at each poet’s best, is surprising, potent, and well-crafted. Best of all, in their focus on narrative and character, they take us out of ourselves, directing our attention to others, even when they write about themselves.
Madison Poet Laureate Fabu’s chapbook, Journey to Wisconsin: African American Life in Haiku, is dedicated “to all of the African Americans in Wisconsin who love this state,” and is (like Cotton, by Derrick Harriell, reviewed this issue by Sarah Busse) an important step toward re-visioning the history of Wisconsin and the voices that have long been here, though too often left out or deliberately silenced. Journey is divided into sections, each of which takes up an aspect of African American community identity, e.g., land, love, men, women, children, church, food. Fabu has a characteristically positive, life-affirming approach to her material. She writes, she says, “to encourage, inspire, and remind.”
Witnessing the ordinary lives of African Americans in Wisconsin, the poet uses real people, Nathaniel and Cynthia Owens, a 19th c. black couple from Baraboo pictured on the cover, as the book’s narrative spine. Poems about them, not written in haiku, punctuate the haiku sequences and are some of the book’s strongest work. Here is the book’s opening poem:
About Land and Loss: Africa to Wisconsin
A steady weep drips down inside
those forced from land and kin
a loss like cut roots dangling
Those free in Africa
be slaves in America
Those with known names
called by strange English words.
One named Nathaniel
after the plantation master
other called Cynthia
after the plantation misses.
Replanted roughly in acid soil
they forgive the land
for not being home
while they drip, drip inside for lost family.
The issue of naming—who has the power to name, how names are lost and regained, the politics of names—is a theme throughout the collection, as is the power to survive and thrive after terrible loss and pain. The length of these non-haiku at the beginning of each section also gives the poet more space to play with language, and the collective voice she creates is lovely and lyrical, wide and warm:
your bones singing
your life in hymns
your bones counting
all seven generations
still in Wisconsin.
your bones praying
we not lose our way
and we remember.
( from “Our Men: Mr. Nate”)
Journey furthermore presents a portrait of a family that defies stereotypes about absent fathers and broken families:
Feeding fourteen busy, hungry mouths
first our babies then ourselves
makes a man and woman be strong
with the hard, steady work it takes
to keep them growing and us alive.
We don’t eat in shifts.
(from “How We Eat: Garden Food”)
Is this portrait idealized? A bit, perhaps. But it also fills in, poetically, an absent area of the canvas that is Wisconsin. And for grit, well, there are the haiku, as in these examples from the raw and powerful opening sequence:
Rise and overflow riverbeds
Shackled bones twist.
Arriving in chains
Winter blew death on us
In the colonies.
Stretched out tightly
Like a dark neck.
Lynching rope swinging
Reason enough for running
Into Wisconsin snow.
Fabu’s best images are precise and original, using the compression of haiku to the poem’s advantage:
Wrap faith around us
Button our culture tightly
Winter is white.
Or this, from the section “Our Children”:
Funky drawers hung low
Cept she ain’t no man.
Overall, the tone and sensibility of the book is softer and more gentle than what we find in much contemporary poetry, portraying, for example, religion as positively as family and community, and as central to that community as the female is to the community and to the community’s religious life:
Sweet Jesus Christ
In my mouth on my tongue
Sunday church ladies
Fragrant lotioned limbs flutter
Potent with female.
Church mother singing
About troubles she survived
Victory in every note.
Journey is a compressed story of a couple that represents a community, in a state that represents, at least, the region. Fabu, an accomplished story teller as well as poet, is deliberate in her folkloristic approach and technique. In her collection, political means the historical and ethnographic circumstances of the community; the poet obscures herself in order to witness these circumstances, transforming facts observed and collected into an artful whole.
Daniel Khalastchi’s first prize-winning book, Manoleria, might best be approached through a combination of folkloristic motif and Kafka, especially The Prisoner. The beauty of the book is that there is nothing, really, specifically political about it, and yet, like Kafka, it is entirely political. In contrast to Fabu’s Journey, there is likewise no specific setting or period. No specific reality, even, except the narrative I, which is not the author, not anyone, not even, much of the time, recognizably human—except in the fact of the identity’s continued use of, and enunciation through, language. And yet, in the cheery attempt to adapt to and cooperate with every horror that occurs in the confined landscape of his own constantly changing, tortured, suffering body, he is Everyman.
Khalastchi, a first generation Iraqi Jewish American, is one of the co-editors atthe new Rescue Press in Milwaukee. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he’s adept with forms of his own creation, and the book uses several repeated ones throughout: a narrow, columnar prose poem that will look like John Lehman’s “Wisconsin justified poem” to Wisconsin readers; a rather chaotic language-based poem structured by the “Because” that begins each sentence (though none of the becauses possess logic or add up to anything logical); another repeated, justified-type poem, the “Manoleria” of the title, that employs a narrow column with rules on either side to further suggest containment. In each of these last poems, the narrator is tied up/ tied down/ trapped in some horrific situation: in an airplane without a floor, between a cart and car, on a boat about to be thrown overboard, inside an airless box:
I walk to my mark and am
handed a script. As I read
aloud, I see my character is
trapped in a mineshaft. For
authenticity, the director
reveals a wooden box with a
ladder on its side which I
climb into immediately….
The grotesque images, often cavalierly deployed, as if our narrator were a cartoon, as if he isn’t real, may be difficult for some readers to stomach. And honestly, they can be stomach-turning—from the monsters running beneath the skin’s surface in “What’s Done,” to the hideous St. Sebastian imagery of “Actual Draw Weight,” in which the narrator has been run through with arrows, then Christ-like, exoticized and eroticized:
As a parting gift, I am
asked to have their women. I
explain my body has
hemorrhaged; I spill and leak
fluids of dark reds and taupe,
and my back has been nested
by hills of black ants. There
is laughter, and hitting, and
removal of clothes. I lie in
the shade of a beached
clipper ship. The women
The narrative world, the world of the narrator’s body, is surreal and grotesque, but unlike the characters of Kafka, Khalastchi’s narrator is much more conscious of, even assists in, his dehumanization:
Last week, they
planted a cherry tree in my
abdomen. It’s watered when
I sleep, and opening my
mouth I feel its dry branches
stretch the length of my larynx.
(from “Like Bricks, Like Bricks:”)
Or, in “What Must Be”:
The window they’ve installed
in the center of my
back has made it hard to
will cover the cost of a dehumidifier. They say
if I can keep the glass from fogging over,
they’ll finally have their view.
The human identity of the character is constantly dissolving and momentarily resolving into something else—animal, vegetable, mechanical: “My eyes have/been nested. Robins and// grackles weave wheat to/ my lashes and twice/ a week I find eggs// in my leg” (from “Fear And Greed Index”); “Quietly, I’m dressed in a saddle/ and ridden for hours around a circle of/ oats” (from “Insufficient Funds”); “My tongue grows a rope,/grows a rope, becomes/ chain”(“Manoleria:”).
I said earlier that there’s nothing specifically “political” in this book, but that’s not really true. The titles repeatedly make use of economic diction, and the gaping hole between their puffy claims and the narrator’s realities is as political a statement as you could make. In “National Growth,” for example, he is buried alive; in “By a Fallen Tree I wait for my Salesman,” he is trussed and stuck through with hooks; in “Insufficient Funds” he becomes a horse and gets taken to a glue factory. In “Trimming the Fat,” he swan dives into a mob with pitchforks, the least horrible of the alternatives the mob offers him as a “choice.”
The character created in Manoleria is something of a middle-class Christ, both more than, but, paradoxically, less than human—carrying his cross and pounding the nails into his feet so that his vaguely defined torturers, the only details about which are their occupations—will have less trouble, less work, less pain, achieving their goals. It’s an inventive, imaginative parable of class conflict in America, and of American imperialism in the world, particularly, perhaps, the last 10 years in the Middle East. Or at least that’s the story I create from its broken pieces. And the narrative I is not a singular, nor a unified identity, but a record, really, of torture and brutality on the one hand, and of inexplicable cooperation on the other.
Margaret Rozga’s 200 Nights and one day differs wildly from Manoleria in tone, approach, voice, and purpose. Rozga’s poetry, like Fabu’s, is sincere and life-affirming. There’s urgency in her story, and that story is central. Like Journey to Wisconsin, 200 Nights sets out to correct the historical record and the way Wisconsin’s story is imagined. Though there is plenty of humor, there’s little irony or artifice. Rogza’s poetry is well-crafted, but accessible and direct.
Reminiscent of verse novels for young adults, 200 Nights tells the history of the struggle for a fair housing law in Milwaukee, and the 200 days of marching and demonstrating that in 1967 culminated in the law’s passage. Detailing the efforts of the NAACP’s Youth Council, Vel Phillips (the first African American and first woman elected to Milwaukee’s Common Council), and Fr. James Groppi (advisor to the Youth Council and, later, Rozga’s husband), the book opens with a chronology that maps, but doesn’t restrict, the poetry, which is both personal and communal, and above all, purposeful. Rozga speaks of her motivation for writing the book in its epilogue, surprised, as a professor, to read civil rights literature that “generally concluded with the 1965 March for Voting Rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the time when my own civil rights activity was just beginning. I was also puzzled that so few mention any civil rights movement in the North.”
The way stories are told, what they include and what they omit, is an inherently political act. The Milwaukee that emerges in 200 Nights is, as she writes in the book’s opening poem, “Not the Milwaukee of Happy Days/ though it is that same time, that same place.// People on the march moving history into drama.” Strange to think that there would be a question of relevancy today, in light of the last months of Wisconsin’s political turmoil, or the fact that Milwaukee is America’s most segregated city. Still, Rozga works to make the facts relevant, especially through celebrating the example of the young people who marched and, through their collective efforts, made a difference. By re-visioning Milwaukee’s past, Rozga repositions its present and future, calling us to imagine something better, to serve through actions and words.
Why tell such a story in poetry? You only have to run your eyes a few minutes over the dry facts of the opening chronology to understand: the power of a story like this one can best come to light on stage, as Rozga originally placed it in the play, March on Milwaukee: A Memoir of the Open Housing Protests; in a novel; or in poems, with their heightened focus on language, brevity, cinematic cuts, poem to poem, and intensity. Rozga incorporates a number of forms into the telling, including sonnets, villanelles, a triolet, a ballade, and a pantoum. Evoking formal experimentation and flexibility as a metaphor for tolerance and political flexibility, she does some interesting things with form, writing, for example, unrhymed sonnets with unexpectedly-lined stanzas, or, a villanelle, my favorite example of flexible form here, that takes the too-often sing-song refrains of the poem and replaces them with a litany of names of young people who marched. Here is an excerpt from “Calling the Roll”:
Sylvester, Clyde, Tommy Lee
What can these names mean to you?
David, Lawrence, Vada, and Jimmy
They marched to open up Milwaukee
when Whites only was the general rule.
Sullivan, Carol, Ed, and Lee
Jailed they went with dignity.
Cursed, they never lost their cool.
DeWayne, Mrs. Campbell, Mr. McGhee
Few their moments of applause or publicity.
While Rozga makes serviceable use of form to create variation in the narrative, I found her use of the persona poem more interesting. It’s not surprising that a book like this would rely heavily on persona poems; another common method for building this type of book, what Martha Collins did in Blue Front, for example, is the collage. And Rozga does employ fragments of historical language at times, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, to make one stand-alone poem, and excerpting the Supreme Court decision, Groppi v. Wisconsin, as another. There are also a few Fr. Groppi jokes interspersed throughout, but, in general, the story is told not through newspaper accounts or historical records, or even voices from different sides of the question, but through the voices—voice, really—of a collectively imagined young marcher. These youthful marchers have different names and a few distinguishing details, but it is their common purpose, their identification with the cause and with each other, that is the point, not their individual difference or uniqueness. This is not a “polyphonic” text, despite the abundance of persona poems.
And so Rozga gets around the question often raised in conjunction with white authors assuming black voices, as the poems, whether written as any of several teens, or their parents, or Vel Phillips, or the Brittons (a couple denied housing because of their color), or occasionally the author herself, also a marcher, have a common tone, rhetorical purpose, and implied audience. These are monologues directed at you, reader, for the most part. Not at the arresting police officers, or at the heckling counter-protestors. Not at the posturing politicians. Not at worried parents, at school teachers, or at judges. Here, for example, is “Mary’s Mother,” which is partly directed toward Mary Ann, but begins to us:
Lord, those people.
you should have seen them on TV, yelling
go back to Africa.
Throwing rocks and bottles, cursing.
What’s the matter with them?
Or here is Vel Phillips, at the beginning of “Vel’s Villanelle,” telling the reader about the events rather than fully dramatizing them:
Henry issued a proclamation forbidding marches.
Henry Maier, the mayor.
We couldn’t march. He saw to that.
Just as Groppi says: when there’s a riot on
the north side, the mayor calls for the National Guard.
He issues a proclamation imposing a curfew on us.
When there’s a riot on the south side,
when White people are screaming to kill Black people,
then it’s we who can’t march. Henry saw to that.
Or Curley, one of the young marchers, in “Curley Learns”:
We all went before Seraphim.
Belongs to the Eagle’s Club
with its Whites only clause.
You in here again? he said to me.
I’m sick of seeing you. When will you learn?
Yeah, I wanted to tell him
“sick of you” is a two way street.
Or “Pam: Crossing the 16th Street Viaduct, August 28, 1967”:
I marched next to Tommy Lee. He looked at me,
Pam, you stay on my right.
With a sweep of his arm,
he was between me and the crowd.
On the corner, a huge neon sign read
“Crazy Jim’s Motors.” Beneath the sign,
A mob of young White guys, jeering,
sitting on the hoods of the cars, holding signs,
awkward lettering on cardboard, “I want a slave.”
Or here, in “Arrest the White Girls”:
The cops made us park, get out,
took us downtown, put my sister Jeannie
and me each in a separate room.
Questioned us: What were you doing
I was so scared.
In a separate room
without my sister.
Despite the numerous speaking characters and bits of their stories, despite the occasional use of source material, the aim of 200 Nights is not multi-vocality, fragmentation, or dissent: it is wholeness and unity, reminiscent at its best of Marilyn Nelson’s ability to transform history into dramatic poetry, especially for younger readers. And that wholeness extends beyond the communal voice of this group, united to work for a higher purpose, to us, the audience, allowed in on this important story.
In contrast to Rozga, it’s a bit of a stretch to appreciate the social justice angle of Chuck Rybak’s Tongue and Groove though he often writes of historical events and war, invoking war directly in a sonnet sequence called “What I Did During the War,” and more obliquely in poems about Homer, Achilles, and Agamemnon. But Rybak’s purpose isn’t to tell a particular story, though these are narrative poems for the most part, and the book doesn’t aim at the ends that Fabu or Rozga have. And yet, it’s a book that comes back frequently to a critique of contemporary American society that is grounded in a critique of our rhetoric.
Take the amazing poem “Liketown,” which sustains what could have been a one-liner for three pages of increasingly serious commentary:
Because it’s something in the water,
I’m, like, so sick.
Because he’s scavenged the last
of his barren-cupboard dreams
He’s like, so hungry.
Because she’s Atlas lugging
the tremendous weight of her own head
She’s, like, so tired.
The teachers try to help,
packing the fronts of flurorescent rooms
like pumas, or like, lunatics,
Imploring that you’re not like bored,
you are bored—you’re not like so pissed,
you are so pissed.
You’re not a simile for your own life—
you are your own life. Unfortunately,
Mr. English Teacher is, like, so weird.
The poem ends with these pointed observations, and perhaps not accidentally, Wisconsin's motto:
Residents on dates stroll home from dinners,
past bleeding accidents because
Those people will be, like taken care of.
There’s no need to look both ways now because
reality is a step removed,
because it’s only like living.
The crosswalk signal flashes, illuminates its like-person,
the town’s new brand of hero
always stepping, like, forward.
It’s a thin line—the autobiographical and the socially relevant—Rybak’s best poems bring the personal and political together as “Liketown” does, with breathtaking style and wit. “The Mile,” while not as dazzling as “Liketown,” achieves some similar success, exploring the personal pride and competitive tendencies that drive men to try to outdo each other, on running tracks and in war. And the prose poem, “Dead Letter Office,” is a marvel of introspection on the topic of how we communicate, the dramatic changes in modes of communication, and the consequences of that change, taking personal history and allowing it, without forcing or wrenching, to gather weight and significance:
After his death, my grandfather continued to correspond. He had stockpiled letters for loved ones to be sent out, year by year, by my grandmother. …
In grandfather’s letters to me, he discussed adult things: chasing Rommel across the desert and dunes of North Africa. How driving a tank provided precious relief from the sun and swirling sand. How the sand ultimately proved inseparable from the body: eye sockets, teeth, gums, and even sleep wore down against the grains. He wrote of his gunner’s ticket home, how they sat atop the tank talking baseball when a panzer shell picked off his friend’s arm clean at the socket.
The middle section of Tongue and Groove is most clearly concerned with social justice. It contains the well-made sonnet sequence, “What I Did During the War,” interspersed with poems that reference the Civil War, more on the poet’s grandfather in WWII, and September 11. Though it’s not, perhaps, what you might expect, “What I Did During the War,” is as notable for what it omits as what it actually says. For the war, here, is not your grandfather’s war, not World War II, but the Like War, the war the U.S. has been in for, like, the last 10 years, a war so distant, so couched in the rhetoric of not-war, of like-war, that we may sometimes have to remind ourselves that it is actually going on and really affecting people: injuring and killing, as well as, perhaps, destroying our society in the process of destroying others.
“What I Did During the War” is set at home, the images simultaneously domestic and broken. Here is Not Really Home Repair:
Our house is a foreign country.
Its languages, its deep duct and damper
dialects—by order of the Emperor—
are denied us peasants, who try and try
to keep the boiling bedrooms cool.
Others include an “eviscerated home/ organs and blood oozing from the front door—," discordant neighbors, dead raccoons, the suicide of the fictional character Quentin Compson, himself haunted by the legacy of a war he inherited, and the absurdities of shopping as a patriotic act. Throughout, the poet foregrounds the way that this war, particularly, seems to have separated us from reality, participating in, creating, and relying on a distance between ourselves and others, between our language and our lives, between our so-called beliefs and our actions:
Will a bumper sticker allow me to feel?
How about a flag? I promise to buy two
if that’s what it takes. A receipt in each hand,
I’ll stand on the lawn and wave them, signal
a message to the sky that’s long overdue:
I’ve heard you are falling. When will you land?
Rybak’s poems are wise, well-crafted, worthwhile, their political elements a figure in the family carpet that you can ignore, if you like, though I believe that it is central to its pattern.
Like Tongue and Groove, Kimberly Blaeser’s Apprenticed to Justice, her third collection of poetry, incorporates family, nature, narrative, and politics. Blaeser, an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, grew up on the White Earth Reservation. A professor at UW-Milwaukee, her poetry explores and attempts to bridge division: between past and present, writing and activism, scholarship and creative writing, poetry and prose. She tells, in the process, her own story, as well as a collective one.
Apprenticed to Justice is organized into five carefully structured sections, that, like Fabu’s Journey, enunciate those things that are significant to the community: family, nature/spirit, story, politics, art, each section building on the one that came before. Beginning with a concrete poem, “Family Tree,” which references the poet's mixed heritage, the book, and each section of the book, is well-designed and attentive to what words look like on the page, as well as to their sound and meaning.
Blaeser mixes prose and poetry throughout with interesting effect. The author of numerous articles and books on Native American literature, Blaeser brings a scholar’s powers of observation and analysis to many of her poems, creating, in the process, work that is detailed and filled with insight. “Shadow Sisters,” for example, is ethnographic and chronicles the story of two sisters, presumably her mother and aunt; this long poem begins and ends with a prose poem, between which is sandwiched a poetically elliptical chronology of girlhood, motherhood, old age:
One construction worker, one daddy, one volatile lover crushed by a North Dakota night train, buried deeper than memory. Three legged, the families limp on.
Shooting Star. Northern Lights. Firefly Creek. They visit all the casinos. Indians everywhere are coming out, celebrating 500 years of survival. These women have been out their whole lives, know survival like a long hangover. Tastes like castor oil sometimes or like bitten-down tears, but it’s been getting easier to swallow every year. Sweet like maple sap when you see a child off to a new growth tribal college.
Section II turns from stories of relatives and family to the natural—and spiritual—world, observing birds in several poems, like “The Spirit of Matter” and the lovely poem, “Boundaries,” and meditating on their significance. My favorite poem in this section, though, is “Memories of Rock,” a parable of communal change and loss, out skipping rocks with a two-year-old who insists that his mother toss a stone that appears to be an arrow head:
Although I resisted, he insisted in a way that threatened to become an argument or an episode of crying. Why I let that dissuade me from pocketing my treasure, I still wonder. But I felt the absence in my fingers before I understood the loss. Almost before the ripples had rung themselves out, I began hoping I might find it again. But of course, like all rocks—thrown or kept—it was gone. Swept away.
Nature, like the personal, like family, for Blaeser, is politics, too, as we can also see in “Seasonal: Blue Winter, Kirkenes Fire,” a poem which subtly reminds us of the interconnectedness of indigenous peoples worldwide, here the Samí of northern Norway, as well as the connection of land and people, of matter and spirit:
Then it is we wake chanting
through endless painted patterns of the dusk
in the time and timelessness
of what once were days
cut loose now from all equilibrium.
So soul rest comes upon the Nordic land
and upon its ancient reindeer people.
The tired water sleeps as ice
and we glide upon its hardened body
and slowly turn the earth with our prayers.
“Stories of Fire,” in section III, explores the relation of land/people, past/present and how it is rendered in story, reminding us that language and communal history are likewise inseparable. The details of the poem must be read in light of the history the poem grows out of:
We burn prairie in spring
hoping fire will ravage
those rampant colonizing plants:
reed canary grass, garlic mustard,
Will call dormant seed
from earth’s trampled memory.
Return coneflowers, prairie smoke,
little blue stem.
And that return shall follow
on the heels of return:
old prairie from fire.
But it’s complicated, this restoration of prairie, and not just about individual, or even communal, desire:
And I think now and again
who brought us
this gift of fire.
That mythical trickster
whose own transformations
even in our cramped imaginations
as he turns
as each layer
of story is burned away
in the telling
as each dying meaning
Only after carefully establishing these layers—family, nature/spirit, story and tribe, does Blaeser move, in section IV, to the overtly political. The opening piece, “Red Lake,” is a devastating meditation on racism, language, and story:
When bullets sink into the flesh
color still matters.
Contrasting the aftermath of the Columbine shootings to Red Lake, Blaeser parses the meanings of word and response, the diction of tragedy:
in old school Latin
you are the flower dove.
gun-beaks and black flak jackets.
beneath full page photo spreads:
purple call for change:
Add these children
to the anonymous
red dead of the Native Nations
of this America.
A twenty-first century America
who cannot waste its breath
the funeral song
for these fallen.
who speaks this name
like an ethnic slur.
“Housing Conditions of One Hundred Fifty Chippewa Families” likewise brilliantly blends scholarship and poetry, asking if language, and poetry by extension, can ever be “apolitical.” Incorporating quotations from Sister M. Inez Hilger’s Chippewa Families: A Social Study of White Earth Reservation, 1938, the poem makes a case for Hilger’s bias, showing how she used the language of number and “fact” to dehumanize the 150 families she studied:
Now you perch in my history
at one of 71 homemade or 79 factory-made tables
sitting tall and precise on one of the 84 benches,
49 backless chairs, or 81 armchairs,
or standing, Mary Inez, in the homes
of one of the 16 tar-paper-shack families
or 8 frame-house families
for which you record none
under the heading of chairs.
Methodically you recite
like prayers of deliverance
each prepared question:
Why are there so many
unmarried mothers on the reservation?
Why are there so many common-law
marriages on the reservation?
The poem contrasts the knowledge of number to the traditional knowledge Mary Inez fails to see, isn’t interested in, and uses code-switching to emphasize the difference:
And did you hear the bulrush psalms
as you painstakingly recorded each
softly intoned explanation?
And does the land remember you
Sister Inez, of the tar-paper-shack dwellers?
As surely it remembers Mary
who felt well acquainted with the woods,
or Anna, who believed she was living
more like the old Indian ways?
As with the story Rozga tells in 200 Nights, we might ask, why use poetry to critique scholarship? The answer should be obvious. Because poetry foregrounds language like nothing else. Because dry critique is not nearly as dramatically effective as this poem, or the other powerful, political pieces in this section: “Dictionary for a New Century,” “The Things I Know,” “Fantasies of Women.” Because poetry can be about what we find significant. Because Blaeser believes that the words—and even the souls—of arguments matter. Because she does not shy from poetry as wisdom, a means of sharing knowledge about how to live better: “So enter the circle of brokenness/give everything you value/ giveaway give back and away/ wait for nothing and everything/ will return:/ so it happens in circles” (“The Things I Know”).
The final title poem, “Apprenticed to Justice,” brings the parts of the book together, looking to a future in which, perhaps, the balance of power has once again shifted. Blaeser writes for the community, not giving voice to the voiceless exactly, because they do have a voice, but recording, for those of us who can’t hear in any other way, its sounds, or understand their meaning, concluding with these sonically evocative stanzas:
This is the woodpecker sound
of an old retreat.
It becomes an echo,
to be reconciled.
This is the sound
of trees falling in the woods
when they are heard,
of red nations falling
when they are remembered.
This is the sound
when fist meets flesh
when bullets pop against chests
when memories rattle hollow in stomachs.
And we turn this sound
over and over again
until it becomes
from which we will build
upon the ashes of our ancestors.
Until it becomes
the rattle of a new revolution
drumming on keys.
No one in contemporary American poetry has been a more consistent advocate of using poetry to tell the stories of others, to make, in his words, “the invisible visible,” than Martín Espada (interviewed in VW103). Espada has two new books, a short collection of essays, The Lover of a Subversive is Also a Subversive, which succinctly outlines much of his own thinking on the intersection of politics, aesthetics, and poetry, and a twelfth collection of poetry, The Trouble Ball. It’s a gift to Wisconsin poetry that Espada went to UW-Madison as an undergrad, connected in that way, as well as by numerous poems set in Madison, to the state.
In The Trouble Ball, Espada gives voice to a variety of characters and their experiences, from his father, struggling with racism in baseball in the title poem, to poet-mentor Jack Agüeros, an undeservedly obscure Puerto Rican master of sonnets, to Isabel, an illegal immigrant the poet marries so she can stay in the country, to torture victims in Chile and their tormentors, and a host of others—those who inspire with their service, like Sam Taylor (1931-2007) of Curbstone Press, and those who inspire with their suffering.
Espada is a masterful storyteller. Although his characteristic poem is written in long, free verse lines whose story unfolds over multiple pages, he also knows when to be brief. Here is the heartbreaking “Mr. and Mrs. Rodríguez Have Been Deported, Leaving Six Children Behind with the Neighbors”:
Please donate shoes
to this family
care of the Mesilla Cultural Center.
Rodríguez family shoe sizes:
Marina, age 17: size 6
Rocío, age 15; size 5
Memo, age 13; size 7
Jesús, age 8; size 4
Ana, age 5; size 3
Long or short, Espada knows just the right amount of detail to include to provoke a response from his reader. To make the circumstances of the human beings whose stories he witnesses come alive. In “The Swimming Pool at Villa Grimaldi,” he capitalizes on the inherent irony of the setting, a pool at a place of torture and execution in Chile. His poems, like Blaeser’s, use source material, though that material is absorbed into the greater story and controlled by the poet, who chooses details here to maximize our sense of horror as he simultaneously humanizes the torturers, making us the more horrified at their dehumanization of their victims, as well as by their distance from them, emotionally and physically:
there is a swimming pool at Villa Grimaldi.
Here the guards and officers would gather families
for barbeques. The interrogator coached his son:
Kick your feet. Turn your head to breathe.
The torturer’s hands braced the belly of his daughter,
learning to float, flailing at her lesson.
Here the splash of children, eyes red
from too much chlorine, would rise to reach
the inmates in the tower. The secret police
paraded women from the cells at poolside,
saying to them: Dance for me. Here the host
served chocolate cookies and Coke on ice
to the prisoner who let the names of comrades
bleed down his chin, and the prisoner
who refused to speak a word stopped breathing
in the water, facedown at the end of a rope.
When a dissident pulled by the hair from a vat
of urine and feces cried out for God, and the cry
pelted the leaves, the swimmers plunged below the surface,
touching the bottom of a soundless blue world.
“Isabel’s Corrido” is a less graphic, though no less devastating, poem that uses humor, another characteristic device for Espada, to draw in the reader at the beginning of a tragic poem:
Francisca said: Marry my sister so she can stay in the country.
I had nothing else to do. I was twenty-three and always cold, skidding
in cigarette-coupon boots from lamppost to lamppost through January
Espada’s ability to zero in on vivid and darkly comic details prevents the poem from sinking under the weight of the suffering it depicts and the sentiment it rightfully evokes: “The borrowed ring was too small, jammed into my knuckle,” “champagne in plastic cups,” “they [the government agents] would ask me the color of her underwear.” He controls the tone of the poem brilliantly, right to its inevitable, painful end:
Thirty years ago, a girl from the land of Zapata kissed me once
on the lips and died with my name nailed to hers like a broken door.
I kept a snapshot of the wedding; yesterday it washed ashore on my desk.
There was a conspiracy to commit a crime. This is my confession: I’d do it again.
Poems like “The Hole in the Bathroom Ceiling” and “My Heart Kicked Like a Mouse in a Paper Bag” are likewise vivid in their description, powerful in their selection of the right detail, convincing with respect to their characters, and persuasive in the suffering they witness. Read a book—read a poem—by Espada, and you want to do something: his indignation on behalf of, and empathy for, the people he writes about is contagious. A tenant rights lawyer for many years, Espada draws from those experiences, as well as from his own work at other jobs, to create some of his most compelling poems. Here’s an excerpt from “My Heart Kicked Like a Mouse in a Paper Bag,” a memory of being a janitor at Sears, in which Espada uses sound and diction (with words like clapped, pop, slam, flipped, sack, kicked) to control his reader’s response to the story:
A stock boy handed me a paper bag one night
as if it were the lunch he forgot to eat, and punched out.
The bag was alive. There was a mouse inside, kicking,
caught sniffing around the Crusher. Bewildered boy
that I was, I called security, department store cops
who loitered at the loading dock, breath hot
from smoking, hunting shoplifters and telling lies
about the war. One of them said: Where’s the mouse?
When he clapped the bag in his hands it popped, and the pop
made me flinch, and the flinch made him slam the bag again,
till the strawberry stain told me the interrogation was over.
He flipped the bleeding sack at me, and walked away.
My heart kicked like a mouse in a paper bag.
Espada’s vivid, truth-telling, sometimes violent images are part of his poetic vision. The other part is his intense belief in the ability of poetry to matter, in its capacity to transform our hearts, to make us more human, and to save us from indifference and contempt for others. Here is “Blasphemy,” dedicated to Sam Hamill:
Let the blasphemy be spoken: poetry can save us,
not the way a fisherman pulls the drowning swimmer
into his boat, not the way Jesus, between screams,
promised life everlasting to the thief crucified beside him
on the hill, but salvation nevertheless.
Somewhere a convict sobs into a book of poems
from the prison library, and I know why
his hands are careful not to break the brittle pages.
Not everyone can write poems as brilliantly transforming as Espada’s. We can, however, all serve others and poetry by seeing ourselves, like Espada, as citizen poets, looking beyond ourselves, even as we mine our experience to escape the mine our selves can so easily become.
Poetry matters like nothing else in America right now, and precisely for the reasons that it is marginal: poems are not part of the market economy that has driven, is driving, us to death. Not just ecological destruction, not just unending war to protect our stake in a limited supply of resources that fuel an unsustainable life predicated on consumption and an economy that requires overconsumption. But the destruction of mind, of spirit. Poetry provides another way, a way that each of these six collections uses to raise questions about social justice with a myriad of artful strategies. Turning our thoughts from ourselves, they ask us to look at, to listen to others closely, and to be, if we are lucky, transformed by what each poet helps us to see and to hear.
Wendy Vardaman, author of Obstructed View (Fireweed Press 2009), is co-editor of Verse Wisconsin. Her essays & interviews have appeared at Poetry Daily and on Poets.org. Visit wendyvardaman.com.