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Freedom Ain't Free, and So On...

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2007)


Saturday, November 17, 2007

By Greg Purcell

When our news outlets, organized religions and heads of state failed to make sense of the ideological poltergeists unleashed by September 11, 2001, we turned to the poets, who likewise failed. And just as our leaders borrowed their authority to prosecute the Iraq war by evoking World War II, so too did poets evoke Yeats — instead of any of their contemporaries — to mourn the newly dead. It seems there was no one alive who could be trusted with either task. One might suggest that the events of September 11th were actually quite small compared to the vast chasm of entropy they’ve exposed.

Two new books of poetry throw themselves into this chasm, with mixed results. Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life (Graywolf Press) features two poetic series, “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future,” which are whimsically inspired by making lists of words in the dictionary between future and terror. As one could imagine, the result is quite consonant — at times cloyingly so. Yet there are moments of random synchronicity with the hothouse nature of our moment that are quite effective, as in this small excerpt, shifting from late S to early T: “A sandpiper squawked / out a storm warning and got sucked up / into the clouds. We were sweaty and ready / to surrender. What was there left to say? / We turned on the teleprompter.” This is fine, but over the course of the series, one is left with the impression that arbitrary, totalizing list-making will do, when what the subject demands is order and ingenuity.

Michael Scharf’s For Kid Rock/Total Freedom (Spectacular Books) is the more acute, though it appears, at first, to be the more obscure treatment of the subject. Part one, called “Antigone,” begins like one of those cable news shows in which everyone begins speaking over one another: “Greetings your brother is dead// —Whi-which// Both// —oh-o// I am sorry for your loss// —I understand...” Here, he mimics a vernacular language so debased it does actual harm. Elsewhere, he piles significant dates in the history of revolutionary political struggle in the margins of the page, leaving the rest of the page blank, as if the dates were grave-markers and the white space a burial ground. Scharf presents a great talent for using poetic form to mimic what surrounds him, and the middle section — in which he really tackles the geopolitical surroundings — makes modernist technique an engine for its own footnoting. His thesis, for the sake of this review, can be reduced to: Scharf hates libertarian ideology. So does Harvey, probably, but at least Scharf comes out and says so. Yet he abandons his strongest talents in the final section, choosing to take up a prose diary, which includes a fairly incoherent public protest, extensive quotes from Slavoj ?i?ek and an anecdote about Kid Rock, who is the book’s Miltonic Satan. More prosifying of this sort is equal to more entropy, and the realist gesturing melts into ineffectual hopelessness. Of which, enough already.


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