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.