Wednesday, May 4

(Tomorrow is) 05/05/05

Review by Rupert Mallin

PRESENT TENSE: Poets in the World, edited by Mark Pawlak (Hanging Loose, New York)

Western politicians and economists often evoke meteorological metaphors to describe the workings of global society, as if the stock markets, banks and the G8 states are a nature in and of themselves, whereby our trusty leaders are merely navigating us through the storms and still waters, with full steam ahead here and a light touch on the tiller there.

A poet could readily parody the politician as faithful pilot in a satire but how much more effective and engaging is the poet who wrings the entire cloth of this nature:-


My folder of poems
labeled "weather" holds
no clues as to whether
or not there'll be any

weather to count on, say,
a hard rain like "little nails," or
that deluge "plunging radiant"

now that we've plunged into war
and wars don't stop like rain stops

like the last slow drizzle
"dissolving like salt"
on the old tin bathroom vent

sweet hint of growth
in the soft wet drift north

fire or ice, fire or ice

are you breathing, are you lucky enough
to be breathing

This evocative poem by Hettie Jones is just one of the many remarkable poems in the “Present Tense” anthology, with contributions by twenty-eight American poets. As Mark Pawlak states: "the poems all speak about the present moment in history even when (some) were written prior to September 11th, 2001."

9/11 has entered universal consciousness as the day terror and mayhem destroyed nearly 3,000 lives in New York. Pawlak's phrase "a moment in history" is the important context to the anthology I feel, for so much of US history can be viewed as a sort of geography in that vast land - the Boston Tea Party, Pearl Harbour, Oklahoma, Columbine. I know where I was when JFK was shot but the date itself is not etched into me for all time like 9/11.

It seems the greatest paradox to me that in the present tense of history, rationality is the victim: Both in the US and in the UK, to varying degrees, we have leaders whose historical destinies are wrapped up in faith. For George W. Bush it is a religiosity of Neo-Cons linked to global big business, while for Tony Blair, facing a General Election, it is both the parochial attachment to the US and the self-deluding morality of "I know I am right." Blair has elevated faith to a more medieval concept of fate and some bright young playwright is probably penning Tony Macbeth as I write. Of course it would be a farce. The young Tony had it planned: I will be the first Labour Prime Minister ever to be elected to a third term on the fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year of the new millennium. The witches grimace smiles into their caldrons, though chancellor Gordon Brown may turn out to be Duncan and those oh so rooted trees of the populous may yet grow legs.

We live in strange times where fate and faith are conjuring up heaven's damnation - the ice melts and the seas rise. How do poets intervene in this turmoil?

There is a danger in the tag 'political poetry'. If poetry enters all things, so does politics and holding one poem or many to a specific subject can thereby limit the terrain of the poem or poems. From my own experience, such bound poems lurch between speech making and preaching to the converted, often falling into parody or a rant of rhyming couplets. However, context is central to the issue: is it poetry for a stage or a page or both?

The other problem I suspect is reportage - a witness at the scene or through the screen. Yet this anthology avoids these pitfalls.

Ken Mikolowski's ‘The Witness’ plays with the onlooker:

someday they'll bring you in
as a witness
after all you watched it happen
you were there
maybe you were even an accomplice

The poem takes the reader to multiple scenes, the poet placing the emphasis on ourselves as ongoing voyeurs and accomplices, while Jayne Cortez becomes 9/11 in ‘I am New York City 2’:

I have on my hard hat, my gloves my goggles
My ear plugs, my gasmask, my welding torch,
My tool belt flapping, my tongue clearing the path
My big steel teeth picking up chunks of cement
And I am excavating my arse off
I am New York City

Some poets go straight to the jugular:

I prepare the last meal
for the Indian man to be executed

but this killer doesn't want much:
baked potato, salad, tall glass of ice water.

The strength of Sherman Alexie's ‘Capital Punishment’ is the juxtaposition of the execution with the meal and its mundane preparation.

I turn off the kitchen lights
and sit alone in the dark

because the whole damn prison dims
when the chair is switched on.

The strength of “Present Tense” is the diversity of the poets - their voices and subjects. Bravely it includes near songs and chants alongside prose poems. Braver still is the mix of uncertainties placed centre stage, global in its search, yet able to move between the concrete, everyday experience into more abstract and universal terrains. There are great poems here by Robert Hershon, Anselm Hollo, Denise Levertov and many others.

Uncertainty is not to be found in Tony Blair's vocabulary. In his mind the votes on 05/05 are already weighed, his hands once more poised to turn our boat toward the storms.

© Rupert Mallin, 2005

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