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 na├»ve 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.