I think I just wanted to give myself a dumb assignment. Or that is the best I can figure out.
But last year, I began a project with my co-conspirator Stephanie Young to co-write some poems that we would then submit to the NEA. I have been interested in the Bush administration’s interest in the NEA. Remember those fund raisers that were held to support the NEA back in the early 90s? And there was all this worry that the NEA might go away? Well now it is the opposite as the NEA has been getting more and more funding from the Bush administration. And not only that they are getting money from Lockhead and Boeing. So I keep thinking about this. I am always interested in the connections between poetry and nations.
And I also noticed that the last time the NEA awarded grants to poets that fewer than usual of the pack of poets that I tend to run with got an NEA. Not that the pack of poets that I run with tend to get a lot of NEA funding. But usually there are a few names on the list where I go, oh right on. But in 2007, I couldn’t go right on. Despite reading several books of poetry a week for at least the last ten to fifteen years, I had read none of the winners before. I knew a few by name and reputation. But most of them I didn’t even know who they were. And I call myself a scholar of contemporary poetry on some days.
So we sat down to read some NEA winners and see who was getting an NEA. We drew names out of a hat. And then we read books by 10 or so of the 2007 winners. And then we talked about the books. We usually talked about them while holding a “meeting” in a hot tub at the Piedmont Springs. Our discussions were usually rambling. The sorts of literary discussions one tends to have in a hot tub. And I’m not sure we figured out anything particularly astute from our reading. We liked a few of the books. We thought a few were awful. We noticed things like a lot of the books had dogs in them. And angels also. And many of them had references to classical art. And there was, as we expected, a reigning quiet, free verse aesthetic most of the time. And when there wasn’t, there was a sort of quiet poem in a form that had developed in Europe in some past century. And there was no work in the modernist tradition at all in the ones we read. And there were no poems in other Englishes. And no poems of resistance or revolution. And there were no poems about the war at all. These are things I think anyone who follows the poetry prize circuit expects.
After we read, we sat down to write some poems in this style. Our idea was to co-write some poems and then submit them. And I in particular wanted to write some poems that were ambiguous about war. I was thinking about the NEA as an arts institution that supported the government and the government was in the middle of yet another war and Poetry had said it was very much against the war and so I wondered if some poems that were about how war is complicated might be of interest to the NEA. But really, I was just curious about what I would learn from attempting to write some quiet poems. And sort of curious about what it would be like.
And this was where we got stuck. We would sit in the hot tub with our poem print outs and they would get wet and stick to our hands and we would have to put them down and so we didn’t get much of anywhere. We knew we didn’t want to write mockery poems. We really felt we had to take the form seriously (and we really weren’t against poems written in quiet free verse, we just tended to see this form as one form among many that are available to poets right now and not some special form). Although I have to admit that I think I failed at this as I couldn’t resist for some reason putting in a line about a pig and a warm bucket of milk that I found on the internet and that kept making me laugh. And we failed at even writing in quiet free verse as our modernist stylistic ticks kept surfacing as much as we wanted to push them down. I, for instance, couldn’t get the list out of my poems.
Eventually Stephanie abandoned her poems and the project. And I kept working on mine. I couldn’t get them right. I had trouble maintaining the narrative persona in my poems. When I read them I still can’t figure out if they are written by a man or a woman, by someone in the military are not, by someone from California or Wyoming. I chose Pindar, the pro-war poet, as my classical reference. But then Caravaggio kept sneaking in for some reason (and I think this reason is that he was in several of the books that we read). And that felt wrong, but I left him in there since he seemed so insistent. And, even though there is a lot of personal memory in these poems, I also couldn’t keep myself from stealing language from the internet (again one of my compositional ticks that I couldn’t abandon). And really, the whole not anti-war content of the poems and the way I couldn't figure out how to do this without creating an individual who might be in the military also made me feel queasy.
But then, even though I felt they were not right really, I sent them off. And then some months went by and I got a rejection letter. Although I got a nice little handwritten note that said I should submit again in the future. Which I haven’t gotten other times when I’ve applied for an NEA. But who knows, perhaps everyone gets this note.
Anyway, here are my poems.
I didn’t really know him. But I wanted to be him,
blond, in that white blond sort of way
that is too blond. He knew how to drive
with confidence, flooring it through
intersections and yellow lights. Short
stops at stop signs, how to talk
girls into bed, sometimes, which was several
times more than I knew. He went and
joined up one day. It was for the best,
my mother said, it would give him some discipline;
maybe spare his mother some pain.
It was obvious mother-pain was coming,
that it would rain down on her as a winter rain
mire her, sink her in years of mud.
I didn’t really know him well and didn’t hear much
from him after that. Only about him.
He was in Texas. He had a girlfriend who
danced at the Horsing Around. Then he was awol.
And then he was in the brig. Then he was
gone again, back in a war. My mom again saying
that maybe a war could spare his mom even more
heartbreak. Discipline was mentioned again.
Then he was home, two legs gone. Nothing spectacular.
A roadside bomb on patrol in Tikrit. After: his mother there,
each morning, next to his twin bed, helping him from it.
And the open window with light in streams, coming
to rest on this bed, this mother, this moment.
I didn’t really know him well but I wish I could sing
as Pindar about him. About Cameron. About Zachery.
Jesus. Angel. Jefferey. Domenico.
Spirit of beautiful youth. And noble bodies.
In this time, Pindar asked in his, what god, what
hero, what man shall I celebrate? I wonder how
to tell you about the ones I knew first hand.
By which I mean, to celebrate. The ones I
brushed against at some point in this long time of a war.
My hand grazing Alberto’s while passing him a cigarette,
bumping against Abraham in the tight space of his truck,
late in the night, the continent spread out on all sides of us.
My knee hitting Pableto’s on the bench in the cafeteria
before he left. I cursed with and against them; I loved them.
Harrison. Kenny. Marcus. Fernando. Keith. Sean.
Michael. Jeremy. Marcelino. Karina. Guy. Lyndon. Dion.
I didn’t really know them well. If I say a violence shook them
down and out, will you let me not list it? They waited.
They didn’t shoot. They waited for someone to shoot at them.
Pindar, with you I too refuse to call any of the blessed gods
savage. I’ll go you one better and call all of the savaged
blessed. If I list their first names will that satisfy? Sergio.
Roberto. Eddie. Victor. Trinidad. Joselito.
Ricardo. Bunny. William. Elija. Giann. Trevor.
Yes, Pindar, war is sweet. To those who do not know
it. And yet we know a series of unanswerable questions,
night patrols, improvised explosive devices.
I don’t really know about war. All I know,
confuses me. It is violent and hopeful.
Sometimes very hot and sometimes very cold.
Dusty and muddy. Calm and chaotic.
Deafeningly loud and eerily quiet.
Never over and always over.
We were on night patrol and he got a piece
of shrapnel through his head. He remembers
nothing of the night. He woke in the hospital. Smiled and
asked gently to the nurse leaning over him
why am I here? Now I am his archivist, his memory
chest. I keep many things in it, such as the Ramadi
name some locals gave him; I know its music
even while I do not know its alphabet.
I know the night sky that night was much too beautiful
for such hushing destruction. After that night sky there
he was, draped across her arms, the tips of his wings tattered,
dragging on the ground. She lifted him up from the darkness
that surrounded him and into the lights of the vehicle.
As he ascended I was there, in the dark,
staring at him as he left, looking for a
breath and then another from him, from his body.
When Caravaggio wanted to show how
love conquers all he put fake brown angel wings
on a face and body that exuded knowing and innocence
and tossed the arts on the floor in disarray. So obvious.
Love tramples. Do we need such obviousness reminders?
Do I need to say that night patrol is always clear-dark?
I know the weather in Wyoming. Hard driving rains
that you can see coming from miles away.
So much humidity in summer, the air shimmers.
The clear dark sky of cold winter nights.
I know how to stay one step ahead of a pig with a
bucket of warm milk. How to furrow east west on one side
of the stream bed, north south on the other. By which I mean
I know all about which way the wind blows. I used to make up
my own names for the winds. I named them after women.
Lucy, bringing rain. Cindy, bringing north cold.
I still name the winds. But now I name them after
those who were willing to help us through the back alleys
of Tikrit. Saleh swoops down over the field.
Mustafa warming it up for the next few days
Caught in love with this land and yet called to leave it,
I do know something about moral ambiguities.
And I know something about minor conflicts,
the heroes they create, the body parts they leave behind.
Yet I’ve never felt confident enough about any of this
to stand on a street corner and tell anyone what they should not do.
What I really know about are birds. In Tikrit, the mallard,
the common pochard, the Egyptian vulture. In Wyoming,
the mallard, the North American redhead, the black vulture.
I saw crow also in both places. In Tikrit, head cocked
to one side, eating a scrap of bread tossed by one of us.
In Pierre, cawing as it chased after hawk.
Both times I resolved to hold onto crow-ness,
scavenging what is needed, refusing to give up.