Sunday, November 30, 2008

John M. Anderson, Old Masters: Iraq War Edition

It is such a pleasure to see these poems coming into visibility just as the administration that compelled them into being is vanishing! I have not written much political poetry in my life, but these poems (part of a collection I’m going to call either Old Masters: Iraq War Edition or Blackwater Driveby) reflect something I have often noticed about my political consciousness: When I am looking at a piece of art in a museum or watching an artfully made film, I do not lose my sense of the wars and injustices outside the museum or the theater. Such turmoil does not seem to me at all to remain outside the art I am looking at but to invade and reshape that art.

It works the other way, too. In fact, this series of poems began when I realized that my mental image of Osama bin Laden brooding in his cave seemed to have been painted by Caravaggio. What, I asked myself, would Caravaggio have made of this subject? What would any of the old masters do with the crimes and absurdities of our moment?

I did not do much research into the news stories that went into these poems because I wanted them to represent the archive my own living memory had compiled of these years—and the collage my own knowledge of art history might make of that archive. Some of the art I refer to in the book would be obscure to anyone who might have missed an exhibit I might have caught. Some would seem silly or irrelevant to an art student more serious or more methodical than I am. I must admit that I was myself surprised when a great mime entered the catalogue.

“Guantanamo Officers' Club : Marcel Marceau, 1963” took shape as I contemplated such matters as the enforced silence surrounding Guantanamo, the clowning that accompanied torture at Abu Ghraib, the creative complicity a mime requires of his viewers, and the delicate but often desperate situations in which Marceau’s imaginary characters found themselves.

“The Baghdad Zoo : Albrecht Dürer, 1515” again involves a mute response to a deafening reality. The zoo animals incidentally released during the bombing of Baghdad float through my head like illustrations in an old book. Their fate, victims of advanced warfare in the center of that ancient city, feels to me like something out of Blake—and Dürer’s rhinoceros looks like a living tank.

“Manhunt for Osama : Book of Kells, AD 800” arises out of my sense that Osama’s status and stature are by now mythical, that he’s become both labyrinth and clue, both the chicken and the egg. No doubt I was quicker to associate that terrorist monster with the glorious Irish illuminated manuscript because I teach at Boston College where the Book of Kells is nearly as ubiquitous as Osama is elusive.


  1. John,
    I thought I'd kick this discussion off by posting a comment I emailed to you after reading your essay for the blog. What fascinates me about your three poems in the winter issue is how the work of art becomes a metaphorical vehicle for representing both itself and a media-driven political trope. I'm curious about how deliberate that process was, particularly as the poems in the series began to accumulate.

  2. Thanks Lee,
    The question of intent was a serious one to me through the whole series. I waited for pairings that came to me of their own accord; then I pondered these pairings to see what I could see, how the art and what you call the "media-driven political trope" spoke to each other; then I let that speaking happen, let it shape a poem.
    I found writing the poems in this series to resemble writing stanzas in a poem—the momentum was like that, fueled by a pre-existing premise. One thing I had to decide was how far to let the "work of art" idea expand to include such arts as mime, costume design, music hall song-and-dance. I deliberated quite hard, too, about which poems to revise, which to abandon.
    But for a while I thought I would never run out of these things--they crowded one another in my mind, in a way unprecedented in my poetry life; then, last January, this gusher ran dry. I haven't thought of anything similar since.
    Thanks again, Lee for that excellent first question—I’m really looking forward to continuing the conversation!

  3. John,

    Your poems make us aware of how many inherited images we bring to the news, could you say something about the way we read the news through poetry?



  4. Thanks Kim,
    That question’s provocatively phrased, reminding me of Pound and Williams and the urgency of a poetry that stays news. If poetry is the making of (condensed and durable) sense, then we need to read the news through that. If poetry brings undigested fact into accord with deep emotion, we need it just to watch the news. I think of Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief for the Defense” about the necessity of delight.

    So much of the news is pictures today, and so much censorship involves the forbidding of pictures, that I think poetry rushes in. It pours a foundation of language under the pictures, and it provides a depth of image when pictures are missing. I have never seen pictures of the subjects of these poems—except in my head, where they don’t go away.

    The “newsworthiness” of these old Iraq war stories has been fading for a long time as one news cycle passes another at shorter and shorter intervals. But the poetry in their images has not yet begun to be mined, though it was Homer that began the mining.

    You’ve taught me a lot of this, Kim. Thanks.

  5. Hey John,

    I am struck by the unlikely (but so right!) combinations of military and fine art. I wonder if you could talk about your experiences with both cultures?


  6. Dear Reader,
    I had not thought of myself as being particularly well-qualified, biographically, to write on these subjects, but now that you ask…. It’s true that my father was a career infantryman who served one tour of duty in Korea and three more in Vietnam—that I was born in an American military hospital in Germany and was raised on the outskirts of Ft. Carson, Ft. Benning, and Ft. Leonard Wood—that I missed the Vietnam draft by the skin of my teeth. So I spent my youth imagining war and wrote my PhD dissertation about epic poetry, that warlike genre. It’s also true that my wife, Kathrine Douthit, is a painter in oils. She and I, deep in conversation, have for decades haunted art museums from Boston to Cambridge, MA, and even beyond.

    On the other hand, I might just as well add that I grew up with the paintings of MAD magazine’s great Norman Mingo on my bedroom wall (Alfred E. Neuman as David’s Napoleon; Alfred E. Neuman as Gilbert Stuart’s Washington). Actually, I was a MAD subscriber, fully absorbing articles like a memorable one from September 1970: “If the World's Greatest Painters Drew the Comics.”

    So who knows? Influences can be hard to pin down.
    Thanks for asking,

  7. 'lo John,
    The imagination involved in reconstructing from the depths of the mind would, I imagine, add color to a developing negative that is the "truth" of history, recorded in black and white. I wonder, however, which offers more. Could it possibly be the shape and movement of war in poetry or the depth perceived in the poetic structure? What's your take?

  8. Hi, Emily,
    It is basically a question of the imagination, isn’t it—how do we arrive at an adequate idea of war? Surely, it’s our duty, as citizens of a nation at war, to seek such an idea. And this can seem especially difficult when the war is being crowded in our minds by other concerns (right now it’s the crashing economy; it’s always something). But I think the imagination uses the distractions themselves—in these poems, the art I’ve been looking at—to provide us with what you call the “shape and movement of war in poetry.” Eliot said “The natural object is always the adequate symbol,” and I think this transformation is part of what he had in mind.

  9. Hey John,

    I would like echo what most of the other bloggers have said and that these poems are an achievement in association (association of art and politics, nature and war, Book of Kells and Osama). Gathering from your blog entry and responses to others questions, you began this project with a political goal in mind and let other influences filter and inform that goal. I am curious about your approach to poetry. Do you find it most successful to have an understanding of the larger theme and an eye for the particulars to bring that theme to life?

  10. Dear Jacques,
    You’re calling the political material in these poems a theme, and I suppose that’s what it is, but I think (at least when I am in the process of writing a poem) of that material in terms of image in the broadest sense; namely, something not just visual but audible, tactile and the rest. Political facts do not always present themselves to me as images. Usually they remain abstract. I can get quite emotional about the abstraction. But when political facts do become images to me, they engage me at a much deeper emotional level. And then I am well on my way toward a poem. Images bring with them not only sense impressions and movement but memories, trains of thought—all the things you are right to call associations. Sometimes when I am contemplating an image in the hopes of a poem one of these associations will become a full-fledged image of its own. This is the process by which these political/art poems came about. But if this process sounds orderly or systematically laborious it was neither. It was more a matter of being open and attentive. The poems that work best are the traces of a more complete attentiveness; the ones that work less well, I think, are the ones where I got impatient or let my attention wander.
    Thanks for a provocative question!

  11. Howdy,
    I've had the pleasure of reading many more of these wonders than the 3 happily printed here, & I'll say that the effect of many of them is much greater than multiplying the effect of a few of them by the fraction many-over-few would produce. I think triangulating via known but distant works of visual art to say something about appalling, puzzling, credence-stretching recent events is a brilliant strategy, & makes these startling poems, in part, about some central tension between direction & indirection (& maybe, as in sleight-of-hand or the passing of bucks, misdirection). I wonder, John, if you'd care to comment on how these poems decided whether (or to what extent) to approach their subjects head-on or sidle sidelong past them, & whether to talk about the war by way of talking about the art or vice versa. Thanks!

  12. Hey there, Cherubka,
    Thanks for your generous comments and for a question that gets at the core of this project.
    Sleight of hand and the passing of bucks have played such a large role in the representation of this war that these motives are always to be suspected whenever the bloody facts on the ground are not presented directly. Fiction can probably provide the most direct artistic representation of these bloody facts. But I am delighted when you call these poems “startling,” because that instant of emotional directness is one thing that poetry can bring to complement the efforts of the novelist and the investigative journalist.

    Combat veterans get blindsided by flashbacks—the most vivid, wrenching experience of the war possible on this side of the world. And what triggers those? Everyday life, I gather; those moments so distant from the war and so distracting that the mind becomes vulnerable to its own associations.
    Dickinson never described the horrors of Antietam; instead, she recorded this New England landscape:

    The name—of it—is “Autumn”—
    The hue—of it—is Blood—
    An Artery—upon the Hill—
    A Vein—along the Road—

    Great Globules—in the Alleys—
    And Oh, the Shower of Stain—
    When Winds—upset the Basin—
    And spill the Scarlet Rain—

    It sprinkles Bonnets—far below—
    It gathers ruddy Pools—
    Then—eddies like a Rose—away—
    Upon Vermilion Wheels—

    Every autumn, because of this poem, I reflect on the Civil War. I want my own poems to sprinkle Bonnets with Iraq’s Scarlet Rain—and I think poetry’s best strategy for accomplishing that is most often a mindful indirection.
    Thanks again,

  13. Hello John,

    I know it's late in the month for a post, but I have a quick question -- in the performance of writing these poems, that moment when you were putting ink to page (or fingers to keyboard, perhaps?), what kind of attention were you paying to the next line or idea? Or, did these poems come about more from revision? I hope these questions aren't too vague . . .

    Paul G

  14. Dear Paul,
    Of course it is not at all too late for your post, which addresses the “performance of the writing” in a way I really like, a way that adds levels of art and consciousness to those we’ve been talking about all along this thread.
    I need hardly say that the first thing I did when I got your post was to go back and re-read your wonderful “Fugue: In Medias Res,” the BPR’s Poetry Forum feature for July. THAT poem is wonderfully conscious of its chronologies (including the chronology of its construction) as it moves back and forth along a braid of continuums, looking especially from Queen Isabella of Spain in the fourth line forward to the newborn 21st century Isabella introduced late in the poem, whose naming seems to have been the generative idea that started the speaker thinking back to old Queen Isabella.
    My Old Masters poems are constructed, I’d say, less along musical lines and more along painterly lines—less linear, more spatial. I was aware as I wrote of the narrative situation I wanted to address (but I didn’t want to TELL the story) and of the painterly image I wanted to invoke. Many of these poems employ collage, one mime-image on top of another for instance. Palimpsests and pentimenti. And the whole series works like that, so that any poem in the series employs imagery lingering on the retina from other poems. As I revised the whole series, I added and (mostly) took out images on the basis of their relevance to the whole collage.
    I suspect that my answer is a good deal vaguer than your question! I guess the question I should be asking you (and anyone else who might want to comment) is, do you think the performance of their writing has left its traces on the poems themselves?
    Many thanks for your question and for “Fugue”!