Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #12, Winter 2004-2005]

Present/Tense: Poets in the World
Edited by Mark Pawlak
Hanging Loose Press, 2004

Reviewed by Karla Huston

Some might debate the efficacy of political poems. They're difficult to write without being perceived as whining or finger-wagging. Some might say that political poetry isn't always good and too soon becomes dated and trivial. Some might say that poetry should, indeed, be political, that it should reflect accurately how politics and the political machine shapes this world. It doesn't matter who is right or wrong in this debate; what matters is that poets are able to speak about what interests them, about what bothers them, about what makes their skin feel as if chalk has been screeched across a blackboard.

The poems in this anthology are political in the sense that these poets serve as witnesses to events of the last forty or four hundred years of American history. In fact, editor Mark Pawlak says in the introduction: "My aim in compiling this collection has been to find the best available work by living American poets that is, broadly speaking, political in nature."

Largely an anthology of poets who have appeared in the pages of Hanging Loose magazine, these writers speak to a world in which they inhabit but, like most of us, don't often understand. Several elements seem to tie the poems together: irony, incongruities, and the daily frustrations of living in an ironic, incongruous and frustrating world. For example in his poem, "Jewish," Dick Lourie bemoans the fact that one may convert to Judaism -- become a Jew -- but not Chinese, for example, thereby addressing the question whether Jews are a race or a faith or both.
what's different is that no one can convert
to being Chinese while anybody
can become
Jewish ~ this means that I
as a Jew have an identity I can't
change yet must share with anyone who asks

In addition to questions of faith, there are poems of war and near war and repeated war, poems of sexual crimes, poems of causes lost to the past and causes that seem to find themselves again. These are poems of rage and prejudice, laments to and of the poor and disenfranchised, the disconnected, those on the fringe even while living in the mainstream.

The best of the poems address the political as personal. Kimiko Hahn in "The Glass Bracelets" writes about a recent news story where a young girl has been given as a religious sex slave: "Her duty forever is to be fucked / by those who come to the Temple." Hahn says: "It is difficult for me to like men at times, / any man, when such atrocities are sanctioned / by the religious."
I am fucking mad
and want my daughters
to never leave our small Brooklyn apartment
though I know any room can be the residence
of secrets --

Ken Mikolowski suggests in his poem, "The Witness," we might, everyone of us, have been there when these sanctions were given, when histories were written. The notion that by the very nature of our humanness, even if we weren't actually in attendance, we might somehow be responsible. "Any man's death diminishes me," says John Donne. Whatever has been done, whether evil or good, is a reflection of us all who live and breathe this American -- and yes -- world cultural air. Mikolowski continues to say: "were you a witness or just another victim / it won't make any difference."
someday they'll bring you in
as a witness
after all you watched it happen
you were there
maybe you were even an accomplice

And what have we witnessed, what have we allowed to happen? The fall of the Twin Towers: certainly we all saw them go down over and over and sometimes in excruciatingly slow motion. Of the 9/11 poems, the best is by Martín Espada, where he puts faces to the humans who were lost. In his poem "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100," he pays tribute to those forty-three restaurant workers, largely immigrants who cooked meals, served and cleaned for the rich and powerful who dined there.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in the icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.

Sherman Alexie's poems read like chants and incantations. Again his message is personal. In the poem, "Capital Punishment," the narrator remembers cooking and serving a last meal to a man about to be executed.
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.

(I am not a witness)

The line, "I am not a witness" is repeated five times, when finally the narrator admits what the reader knows, when he says:
(I am a witness)

I prepared the last meal
for the Indian man who was executed

and have learned this: If any of us
stood for days on top of a barren hill

during an electrical storm
then lightning would eventually strike us

and we'd have no idea for which of our sins
we were reduced to headlines and ash.

While some poems engage the reader with their personal nature, some appear to be rants and word play. Harryette Mullen employs many possibilities of the root word "neg" in her poem "Denigration." In the poem "We Are Not Responsible," she casts and recasts words and images, which are surprising if not predictable. "You are not pre- / sumed to be innocent if the police have reason to suspect you are car- / rying a concealed wallet. It's not your fault you were born wearing gang colors please step aside while our officers inspect your bad attitude." Jack Agüeros counts the shots fired by South Bronx cops in his "Psalm for Amadou Diallo." The important part of the poem is contained in the ending epigraph, and with every day that passes, more and more readers will need the gloss to explain the events of the past. The poem wouldn't make sense without it.

The fury of disenchantment is the point with which these poets begin to speak; they are the music with which the poets sing. And their songs transcend their politics.
The soundtrack of her life whispers some kind of music, but it isn't
drums because drums are never enough. Can you hear canned laughter
roaring out of her horsepowered stereo on the shelf next to her life?
What can I tell you about the beginning of her story that would help
you imagine how much of the reservation she had tattooed across her
[Sherman Alexie, "Sonnet: Tattoo Tears"]
"I am not a witness; I am a witness." "We were not there, yet we were." And no matter on which side of the political poem debate you rest your opinions, what's clear is the poems in this anthology don't fence-sit.


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Karla Huston has published poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in several state and national publications, including The Wisconsin Academy Review, The Wisconsin Review, Cimarron Review, Nightsun, The Comstock Review, Rattle, and others. She serves on the board of directors for the Fox Valley Writing Project and the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.

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