Given the mass murder in Boston, I’m going to offer a little analysis and a few comments on the poetry of atrocity.
Before we get to some Boston bombing poems lets first cast our minds back four months to December, to the Newtown massacre shootings. Atrocity poems tend to get written quickly, in the emotion of the moment, and so it’s worth letting a couple of months pass to see if they still carry any umph. Here are a few of the Twitter poems from a series I wrote following the Newtown massacre.
First have a look at these little scrawlers:
This is not for the belladonna,
the amaryllis fallen.
Such young blooms
shot in a blue dawn.
Scratched in a vellum of flesh.
Pull the rope.
Carillons weep bouquets of empty space.
Scratched from a vellum of flesh.
Our forsaken palimpsest.
Compare those to this one:
We were born in massacre.
George Washington, aged 22
& the Black Mingo
at Turkeyfoot 1754
And this one:
An American accent
on the suicide bomber
is the mass shooter.
Paradise is 72 versions
of his banality
splayed across TV
& his victims forgotten.
The first thing to note about atrocity poetry is that it’s “drafty”. These poems tend to be dashed off when one is upset or baying for blood. Another thing to consider is that the ones that are good—that is, that still can evoke powerful emotion—tend to be the ones that are use evocative, concrete imagery, rather than that ones are making a statement.
So here we have the children compared to flowers, and the image of this reality being scratched in vellum as flesh. And vellum is, of course, calfskin, so the reader gets a sense of history or reality being scratched into a babe’s skin. This gets united in the subsequent poem with the use of palimpsest. These documents favored by monk’s for illuminated manscripts are made of vellum, and notable in that you can scratch out the words and reuse the vellum, so evoking a kind of image of history being recast.
The George Washington poem doesn’t sound like poetry at all, now does it? In fact, it sounds more like one of those idiotic statements of fact that show up on Twitter, the historical version of somebody photographing a plate of food followed by “Hell Yes!”
This is a fair criticism, except for the historical statement I’m making is far more incendiary. Making snarky comments about the father of the American Republic could easily earn me a clubbing by somebody.
What do you know about George Washington, apart from that he was a general cum president, expansively turned aside the crown of America despite the bleatings of would-be royalists, and that he had wooden teeth?
In fact, he was a fascinating figure with his dark sides. He and his brothers were land speculators and as a 22 year old lieutenant in the British Army, he commanded a party of soldiers and Mingo Indians, and at a place called Turkey Foot, near Uniontown Pennsylvania, his troop massacred a lightly armed party of French emissaries who were no immediate threat to them.
Now, there may have been a lot going on during that massacre. The Mingo were reputedly quite bloodthirsty which is how they earned their name, the Black Mingo. They were aligned with the British but as a warning may have been trying to show Whitey how it’s done, and especially the young priveleged boy who supposedly ran the operation.
Whatever the circumstances, this single act of massacre led to the Seven Years War, a world war that resulted in about half a million casualties. It also brought about the economic circumstances that led to the American Revolution: Britain wanted to tax the colonies to pay for it all, and the colonists famously gave the mother country the big finger. We can lay all this at young George’s feet. Unlike being unable to lie to his father about chopping down the cherry tree, this really happened.
This Washington history becomes relevant in light of the shootings, and the discussion of whether or not mass killings in America, or any society for that matter, are a new innovation and the product of gun culture.
The final poem above, concerning suicide bombers, is half comment and half real poetry. So on the one hand I’m saying that if you compare the mass shooter to a suicide bomber, they don’t look all that different. This may be an arguable statement, but it’s the point of the poem. The half that’s poetry is comparing the 72 virgins supposedly awaiting the randy martyr in Paradise and the idea that in the US a lot of time is spent on the pornography of terror, in which the specifics of the attackers are explored, and time is spent attempting to psychoanalyze them or speculating about their motives, while all the while ignoring the innocent victims who are damned by faint reference. Being innocent and victims just ain’t compelling enough for them to get their own mini-series.
Let’s fast forward to the bombings of the Boston Marathon. I wrote a number of poems about this event, some of which are below.
This one, just after the event, which reflected what I’d like to do to the people who did this:
You’ll draw no blood
from the boston massacre.
Our veins spurt acid.
Look at your watch.
Your time on this earth is short.
I soon realized that to avoid having my poem co-opted by Islamiphobes I had to put out a quick smarmy appeal for reason, before any of the facts were in.
I knocked out a few more poems that reflect in varying degrees the complexity of issues related to national security. We live in a world where we have a genuine and growing problem of extremism in a world that is overcrowded and running out of resources.
On the other hand attempts to counteract this problem often wipe out the good stuff too: individual liberty and civil rights. Because of the harsh response that is often required in suppressing dedicated extremists, the people in power, one might argue, develop a free pass for themselves. A free pass which they often use in circumstances other than suppressing violent wack jobs pursuing an ideological agenda.
of blood and limbs
ferment to sausage on grass
of limed-over liberties.
Others make money.
We are all naked,
like rice in a pressure cooker.
Some of us obey.
Some of us explode.
Some of us refuse to blanch,
for we are not rice.
a feint of reality;
a lottery you don’t want to win.
It’s no excuse to rob us
of our last tax dime
or final civil liberty.
s’not you splaining
the reasons WHY
a killer has no Miranda rights.
It’s that after
causing Aaron Swartz’s death
U have yours.
As with the Newtown poems, we have two things going on here. The first two poems evoke concrete images of a given situation and the last two are pure commentary. That said, with the first poem, the second half of it is a comment. It doesn’t make great poetry, but given the lead in is a powerful image of gardens of body parts, it comes off okay.
The second poem in this series is an example of a very good poem that may need a rewrite at a later date. So I take this image of rice and reference the use of the pressure cookers as the vector for attack in the Boston bombings as a way to work through the poem narrative. the poem flows with the idea of us all being grains of rice and finally concludes with the statement that we’re not in fact rice, we are people.
The last two poems in their commentary, are examples of advocacy poems. The first is a general statement about terrorism and the second is to clobber an individual prosecutor named Carmin Ortiz, who is the Massachsetts prosecutor in the case. Her alleged prosecutorial over-reach in another case is seen by many in the Internet community as having driven the young founder of Reddit, Aaron Swartz, to suicide.
Both of these poems will be meaningless in six months. The one is a general statement about terrorism and points to this wrestling match between security and individual liberty that plays out in all of us. The other requires that you know who Carmin Ortiz is, what America’s Miranda Rights are, and why I’m making this snide comment within this context in the first place.
To wrap this up there are a few things to keep in mind when writing this kind of poetry: timeless poetry will transcend the actual events that took place. The collective memory of actual events is like life itself: brutish and short.
Sooner than many will like, the Boston bombing, the Newtown shootings, 9/11, and World War II are all going to be footnotes in history, and will be forgotten in the way that young George Washington’s human rights abuses in the 1750s have been forgotten.
Recognizing what you are trying to do with your poetry can help determine whether it’s a poem for the moment or a poem for all time. In conclusion, think about the Song “Yankee Doodle” and the events it discussed. Father and I went down to camp, along with Captain Gooding—who was that guy anyway?