Thursday, September 1, 2011

Michael Broek on "The Logic of Yoo"

“The Logic of Yoo” was woven together from many different threads of my thinking. Since my mid-teens, I have been interested in philosophies of violence. I remember watching a spate of movies one teenage summer–Full Metal Jacket, Deerslayer, Platoon–trying to understand what seemed to be a masculine propensity for self hurt and destruction. This was also the summer of Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the school reading I had been assigned: A Farewell To Arms, The Stranger. This is only to say that these were the tragedies I grew up on artistically (not to mention Eliot and Conrad and Yeats), and the questions that they raised have never left me. In fact, they have colored everything.

Much more recently, while finishing my doctoral work, I read Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, and while I was moved by his sentences, I argued in my dissertation that the last few pages of the novel completely undermine its premise, illustrating the problem of political fiction and poetry–of unearned outrage, of naïve responses to the complex questions of human suffering. Nevertheless, the book again caused me to consider the “problem” of evil, or, as I prefer, the philosophies of violence. This was one thread.

“The Logic of Yoo” is very different from the poetry I had written previously. My wife, the poet Laura McCullough, helped me think about this when we talked in the shower about a contest she had just finished judging (The shower is a great place to work out these problems. It's the only meditative space in our house). There were literally dozens of manuscripts written by men like me–sincere, passionate, loving, not burdened by public scarring. This, I realized, was the problem of the White, heterosexual, middle-class male with feelings, or the WIMF. I was not manic-depressive or a womanizer—but one cannot be a Robert Lowell or a John Berryman anymore. I had not worked in a factory or gone off to war—I was not a Yusef Komunyakaa or a Brian Turner. In short, I had nothing going for me as a poet. I had to think about my speaker in some new way. This was another thread.

The actual writing of the work was, of necessity, accomplished quickly. As a part of a writing group that developed out of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, I had committed to writing a poem a day for a month, emailing a new draft every night to my poet colleagues, who would e-mail me their drafts as well. I read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a “writer” who plagiarized papers, for a hefty fee, for college students. I had followed the issue of John Yoo and the “torture memos” throughout the Bush administration. And I had just finished my doctorate, so I was still in research mode. This was the final thread.

Returning to the problem of The Road, which is the problem of many political poems (including most of those in Sam Hamill's well-intentioned Poets Against the War project), I settled on a protagonist whose “job” it was to write about an ethically dubious person (John Yoo), who in the process was forced to examine the ethical implications of his own choices. Thus, the voices of the two ethically compromised writers would intermingle. The research occurred very quickly. There were many de-classified memos, and as I had entertained the idea of going to law school some years before, I enjoyed reading Yoo's arguments. As a poet, I was fascinated by the lawyer's use of language. From beginning to end, Yoo seemed depraved, and I don't use that word lightly. He seemed desperate to elucidate a logic to fit his pre-conceived notion of what had to be done. But then again, my protagonist had trod down the same path. This was the element of empathy that I wanted. It would be easy to scream and yell and say Yoo was absolutely wrong and shame on him, but that would be to ignore that Yoo was only writing what his bosses wanted to hear, what many voters wanted to hear–the evildoers would be punished; we would be safe.

The rest of the work was constructed quite organically. The language of the memos was so striking that I realized Yoo's actual words had to enter the poems. I found his comments in the student newspaper The Harvard Crimson especially illuminating because they represented the thinking of the young man, which was at once frightening and comic (One doesn't need to go to difficult lengths to inject a postmodern sensibility into one’s poetry). I wrote a poem a day. I decided to use actual footnotes, crossing the boundary between scholarly and poetic writing. After about two months of daily work, the work was 80% complete.

The circumstances of waterboarding led me back to Hannah Arendt and even further back to the guillotine and Hobbes. How does cruelty become institutionalized? How do we justify dictatorship? I didn't aspire to answer these questions directly. If there is any prescription in these poems, perhaps it is found in the hybrid form itself and in the struggle against the truth of aloneness, felt by the torture victim as well as, to a different degree, the protagonist.


  1. Michael Broek's "The Logic of Yoo" is a masterful piece of work -- from its title and frame to its interwoven quotations and footnotes.

    I have been trying to understand "philosophies of violence" since I began teaching the world's great literature a lifetime ago. (Michael, please explain further your comment about the last few pages of The Road undermining its premise.) And I've been working on poems about war and torture for the last decade.

    Broek has captured our moral indifference to the most painful issues of our times.

    I am profoundly moved, profoundly impressed by his poem and his comments about it.

  2. As Michael Broek's wife, partner, lover, friend, I am especially enthusiastic about his poems, essays, and his thinking, of course, but what I find intriguing about his description of genesis of "The Logic of Yoo" (aside from the reference to our fabulous mid-century tile shower as a meditative space [it is!]) is the meta-cognitive perspective it gives me, another lens with which to understand the eddies in our rather domestic life of child rearing and teaching. Do all couples have this? Undercurrents of thinking and ideas as they make school lunches before bed? Clean the bathroom? Mow the lawn? We do; for better or for worse, our marriage is filled with such talk as Michael's explication of his poetry reveals: ethics, philosophy, the limitations of language, the horrors of the day, be they physical, economic, moral. It is astonishing that any of us get anything done at all! And yet we do, and Michael's work on "...Yoo" was an important "fin de siecle"-esque gesture for him, as his comments suggest, an accretion of a score of years of thinking/pondering. What I can promise readers of his work, is that the new poems he is working on now are even more authentic and morally and emotionally complex, and true-ish, and wish to thank Beloit's editors for recognizing the value of his efforts which gave him validation to pursue poems that may not entertain or sizzle with the pyrotechnics of the day, but attempt to exfoliate (interrogate?) the essential-ness of the human condition over time. L. McCullough

  3. Regarding the first comment, the final pages of The Road seem to me unearned. The son is miraculously saved by a man in a yellow parka and a bandolier (reminding me of Natty Bumppo) who takes the boy home to a neo-nuculear family where the man's wife is making home-made meals. The novel is garbed in grays, so the yellow color alone is odd and the symbolism overblown. The symbolism of the final paragraphs - the fish swimming in the stream representing the "sprit" of nature and rejuvenation - is a random Transcendental gesture in an otherwise post-modern dystopian novel. In terms of "The Logic of Yoo," I thought that it was important to avoid such gestures.

  4. I want to thank Michael Broek for this masterful poem and BPJ for publishing it.

  5. A debate that puts “The Logic of Yoo” and “The Road” next to each other? Hmmm… sounds really pretty high-flown and theoretical (banish me! I am an associate prof!), but of course, the hunger for ideas is our business; I get that. I just want to say that I’m a big fan of the voice of “The Logic of Yoo”—wow! Woolf was talking about the essay form, but this poem does what she says writers should do: “...must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world.” I felt invited in, honored, and challenged. Thanks. This is my [fan] letter to Michael Broek.

  6. Thanks, Jane! That's really very generous.

  7. Hello, I meant to write this some time ago and am happy the forum is still up!
    When reading your piece, I found a connection to certain concerns I have been struggling with. For a question: In what ways does the structure of "The Logic of Yoo" express content and meaning?
    I am interested in the distinct structural threads that are used: one I see is the narrative, which weaves the story; another would be the stand alone poems, which poetically express moods and concerns; and another is the research, which compiles objective facts and knowledge. I find these seemingly disparate tiers of process to not be disparate at all. They open immense avenues for expression and add a great depth to the overall semantic value. I find the the utilization of these structural resources increasingly apt when approaching the convolutions of tortuous rhetoric.
    In contemporary writing I see much compartmentalization, however, it often seems to be unintentional and purely psychological in nature. In your piece I see a didactic utilization of the compartmentalization of the process of finding and expressing ideas and concerns. I am concerned with these structural processes as well and am very much interested in any thoughts you may have on the matter.
    Thank you again and to BPJ. I enjoyed reading the piece a great deal!

  8. Thank you for your comments, Peter. I think that having just finished my doctoral program, and having entered it as a poet, I was eager to think about poems in relation, not to other genres, but in relation to other kinds of language, and in this case, specifically legal language, which has a beauty all its own. I don't see any reason why "research" and poetry can't speak directly to each other, as they do in these Yoo poems. You know traditionally, research notes are buried in the back of a book of poems. Why not make the "language" of the research itself a part of the experience of the poem?

  9. Well...why not, indeed. I wonder at the passivity of the dialectic, however. When language is "actively" used to subvert what is "good", is it enough to only present the argument? At the end of Yoo, the writer seems to attack poetry for the similarities it shares with Yoo's legal rhetoric. In many ways, a poem is not a product to promote the self. Today, in what ways is it?