nthposition online magazine

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind & As the world burns

by Kevin Higgins

[ bookreviews ]

These two books are more than poetry: they are documents which will help historians and others, 50 or 100 years from now, come to grips with what it was like to be in the world in the aftermath of 9/11. Hopefully, future generations will look back on this as a time of unimaginable nastiness; when the only political choice was between the bad and the worse.

That Bush is the colossal idiot he has proved himself to be, and Blair his lapdog, is bad enough. The real catastrophe is that the 'opposition' is if anything worse. Hands up all those who honestly believe that Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and President Ahmadinejad of Iran offer a better alternative for humanity?

One poet and anti-war campaigner locally, whose opinion I generally respect, has been so repulsed by Bush and Blair that she is thinking of converting to Islam, as an act of political defiance. There will always be those for whom the enemy of their enemy automatically becomes their friend. It is exactly this kind of perverse thinking which in the past allowed many well-meaning types on the literary left to pretend that Josef Stalin was some kind of secular saint and the Soviet Union a paradise in the making. I don't know what the answer is. But I know the Iraqi resistance doesn't have it. And George Galloway probably doesn't have it either. It is strange now to recall the mixture of revulsion and exhilaration with which many of us viewed the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. A new and previously unimaginable horror entered our collective consciousness the moment we saw the second plane hit the South Tower and realised this was not an accident but a deliberate attack. To quote Larkin's line about another earth-shattering date, August 1914: "Never such innocence again." Every time we get on a plane, or see a loved one off to the airport, we will at some point think of 9/11.

I remember a friend phoning me that evening and saying that, for better or for worse, History was happening again. The videos of Bin Laden in his cave made the whole thing look like a Bond movie: now there really was an evil rich guy in an underground bunker who wanted to take over the world. And of course when watching James Bond films I always tend to root for the villain rather than for 007. I recall another poet friend of mine saying that, even if the methods were wrong, the targets were right: US wealth and power, or at least the architectural expression of same in the form of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. In the five years since 9/11 it has become clear that it was a day from which only ugliness has sprung. Politically the wars it has spawned in Afghanistan and Iraq have not resulted in a revitalised activist Left à la 1968, but to young men from Leeds boarding tube trains in London carrying rucksacks full of explosives.

This is not our generation's Vietnam. It is something infinitely worse.The idea that the United States had 9/11 coming is a strand running through a number of poems in the anthology An Eye For An Eye Makes The Whole World Blind , published by Regent Press, which first appeared shortly afterwards in 2002. In 'Notes toward a poem of revolution' Diane di Prima observes: "nobody / can hog the marbles & expect / the others to play". These lines hit home with nicely understated savagery, because they are so obviously true. It has to be pointed out that saying, given America's role in the Middle East and elsewhere, something like 9/11 was probably inevitable, is not at all the same thing as justifying the barbaric act of flying planes full of living, breathing passengers into skyscrapers full of living, breathing office workers. It is simply recognising the geopolitical reality, as the think tanks like to call it. A similar idea is more crudely put by Jack Hirschman in 'The Twin Towers arcane':

that we are now
no more
nor less
      but have been more than others

a violent land

in our money markets
in our law n' orders
in our daily Dailies
in our beds

a violent life

pretending to an impenetrable innocence
and power symbolised
by those giant
Twins.

Ultimately, this reads like a political speech, and not a particularly good one, by someone who isn't emotionally engaged with the tragedy of 9/11. With her three lines about the US paying the price for hogging the marbles all those years, Diane di Prima gets the message over much more effectively. Jack Hirschman is an interesting poet for other reasons though. In an interview in the first issue of Citizen 32 magazine (2005) he talked about how, before joining the tiny US-based Communist Labour Party in 1980, he read the works of "Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. They were literally part of my education as a communist". It is a rare person indeed who these days will acknowledge any sort of intellectual debt to the late Josef Stalin! But then Hirschman is in many ways a didactic poet in the true Stalinist tradition. So, I suppose the debt he owes Stalin is less surprising than his honesty in admitting it. In 'A front row seat in Heaven' AD Winans describes the events of 9/11 as "King Kong's balls cut off / but erection still firm". They are lines which, once you've read them, will stay in your head forever. He is, like Jack Hirschman, a poet always likely to choose rhetorical straightforwardness over nuance. But Winans, profoundly influenced by his friend Charles Bukowski, has a greater ability to empathise:

When the truth is that
people are not good
to each other,
people are not good
to each other
and suicide comes easy
when your lot in life
is such that you
have nothing to lose
and are promised
a front row seat
in heaven.

Mark Kuhar's '10.45 A.M. Sept. 11/WTC' approaches the subject in an altogether more understated, minimalist fashion:

whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy......whywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy....whywhy..why..why
whywhywhy...whywhywhy...whywhy.whywhywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy..whywhywhywhywhywhywhywhy
whywhywhy...whywhywhy.whywhywhywhywhywhywhywhywhywhy?

This conceptual poem is an open admission that, when we most need it, at times of acute personal or political crisis, language typically fails. There is certainly a lot to be said for the poetry of direct statement in the manner of di Prima and Winans. But it is good that the editors, Allen Cohen and Clive Matson, made space for a poem which, by letting the one word "why" do all the talking implies that after an event like 9/11 there can be such a thing as too many words. Adorno was not wrong when he made his infamous "no poetry after Auschwitz" statement; he just overstated his case. There are many other fine, thought-provoking poems here, such as 'The history of the airplane', by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 'Newspaper' by Robert Pinsky, and the wonderful 'You are too human' by Miki Kashtan, to name just three. Given that it was published within months of 9/11, it's hardly surprising that An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind is dominated by poems which react rather than reflect. Despite this, indeed perhaps precisely because of this, it remains an important poetic document of our unhappy political times.

As The world burns: the sonnets of George W Bush and other poems of the 43rd presidency , published by Ridgeway Press, is a collection in which Alaskan poet, Ken Waldman, gives George W Bush his true poetic voice. It is a hugely ambitious book, containing over 60 mostly Petrarchan sonnets.

Waldman imagines himself into George W's head and goes from there. Scary stuff! It is a rare but great thing to see a contemporary poet working in the satirical tradition of Dryden, Pope and Swift. No age demands it more. In the blurb on the back Robert Cooperman says: "Rather than take the cheap path and make President Bush a comic caricature, Ken Waldman... has chosen... to allow the president to speak his own firmly held and utterly sincere beliefs." This is for the most part true. Waldman gives his George W Bush more of a fighting chance than most of us would have. On page 12 he even has him daydreaming about music:

As the president, I've had to answer
to everyone. And, yes, I've stood my ground.
It helps to go to that place with headphones -
guitar, bass, drums, maybe sax, a trumpet,
some swing fiddle. Of course the pedal steel.
In crowds I might pretend to be alone
with Johnny Gimble or Lyle Lovett,
something loud with twangy blues. Something real.

George W Bush as a real person? Now there's a thought! In 'George W Bush: On inarticulateness', the President talks about his infamous way with words: "Sometimes the words don't come out as I mean. / This language it's a big problem that's been / with me my whole life..." At the end of the same sonnet though, he makes a virtue of this very inarticulateness:

God must have had his own plan.
He made me a simple, plain talker. Look,
people relate. They vote. It's such a great
great thing. Their president as common man.

There is more truth to this than most Guardian readers, myself included, would like to admit. Bush can communicate with vast numbers of uneducated Americans precisely because he talks like the guy down their street.

After the Democrats triumph in November's Congressional elections it is tempting to minimise the importance of this. But his legacy in Iraq, and on global warming, are so catastrophic that anything that makes those of us on the Left come to terms with the fact that the guy (or gal) who sounds the smartest doesn't always win the election, can only be a good thing. Bush isn't the first simple-minded spinner of homespun truths to make it to high political office, with calamitous consequences, and he certainly won't be the last.

Having given Bush his chance, Waldman's satire really gets going. On his decision to allow drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, George W has this to say:

It's a simple issue. Let me be blunt.
Drilling is essential. We need more oil.
This wasteland is reserved for me and you,
not just for - what are they called? - caribou?

It is as if Vicky Pollard's oil rich American cousin had somehow been elected President of The United States. Meanwhile, on the subject of patriotism, Waldman has Bush offer these words of wisdom:

I'm fighting the liberal elite here.
They say they're Americans. Instead they smear
our troops. Americans? I say compare
those false prophets to real freedom-lovers
who understand the true source of power.
Patriotism is not a sometime
pursuit. It means blessing God for this land
of riches. Anything less is a crime.

Even though these aren't Bush's actual words, they sound like things he might say, which is absolutely damning. Waldman forces the reader to come to terms with the fact that, far from being just a pawn of sinister vested interests, George W Bush passionately believes the strange things he says. Waldman's language is sometimes rather flat. This could well be a conscious strategy, since it results in the sequence to some extent mimicking the incessant 24-hour drone of news about terrorism and Iraq. As the world burns is more than a poetic protest against the way the world is going; although it is that too. It achieves the almost impossible by forcing the reader to come to terms with George W Bush, the three dimensional human being. It left me with the uneasy feeling that the truth about Bush is perhaps even more unsettling than any of the caricatures we've made.