Sunday, January 1, 2012

Pattabi Seshadri on "Desert Grass"

What blurt is it about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me . . . . I stand indifferent,
My gait is no faultfinder's or rejecter's gait,
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

The context of “Desert Grass” is the Iraq war and specifically Abu Ghraib. The speaker is a godlike figure, perhaps the God of Abraham, perhaps someone else. The quotations are fragments of speech overheard by this figure from various players in the drama of the war—a tortured insurgent, the mother of a future jihadi, Lynndie England. They were sampled from or inspired by several texts, including the testimony of Abu Ghraib prisoner Ali Shalal to the Malaysian War Crimes Commission and newspaper articles. My process of composition can generally be described as rewritten collage. I combine samples from multiple texts, write over and between them, and repeat.

The poem's most conspicuous borrowing is from Walt Whitman. He can be found in several places, including the title. Why Whitman? I imagine that the godlike speaker might have been the source of Whitman's prophecies. I wanted the poem to have something of that omnivorous, roving attitude, an opening loose enough that I could fold all of the poem’s materials into it: not only voices and bodies, but petroleum deposits and phosphorescent light sticks, dried grass and barbed wire, satellites and surveillance recordings.

More significantly, “Desert Grass” was my attempt to get the America of Walt Whitman to reckon with the America of Abu Ghraib. I wanted to ask what it would look like through Whitman’s lens, in which every soul is infinitely valuable and everything has its place in the cosmos, even violence and criminality. I also wanted to explore one of Whitman's most particularly American self-contradictions: that fierce belief in the dignity of the individual, combined with a strangely passive fatalism in the face of human suffering (re: “manifest destiny,” “the invisible hand of the market,” “collateral damage”). 

I wanted to ask: has Whitman's America died, or can it still be seen in Abu Ghraib?  Have we lost the capacity for the empathy that compels Whitman (or at least the character named “Whitman”) to take in the runaway slave, dress his wounds, and invite him to dinner? Are we incapable of granting the same dignity to the prisoners of Abu Ghraib that he gives to the slave at auction, when he takes the auctioneer stand and declares him too valuable for the highest bidder? 

Or are we more like Whitman than we realize? We know from his newspaper editorials that while he opposed the spread of slavery, he was no abolitionist, arguing at one point that “slavery is not at all without its redeeming points.” When we condemn Abu Ghraib but write it off as the exception that proves the rule of American decency, are we lost in the same utopian complacency of Whitman’s “The universe is duly in order . . . . every thing is in its place /. . . / The call of the slave is one with the master's call . .  and the master salutes the slave?” When he announces that “The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited . . . . the heavy-lipped slave is invited. . . . the venerealee is invited” to his dinner table, what is he saying about his opinion of the slave? In other words, are we just smoothing things over with Whitmanesque gestures of love and brotherhood? 

Necessarily then, I am also asking: What is the proper role of the poet in the face of something like Abu Ghraib? Is Whitman right that it is not her place to call evil to account? Should she save a place for both the hooded prisoners and the smiling guards at her table? Even if I managed to do that, would I be able to respond with anything other than outrage? And if so, would I be aestheticizing a crime? 


  1. first off, it's a beautifully written poem...

    in terms of the poet's role.... not sure where you are getting the idea that to write a poem is necessarily (or automatically) to aestheticize. the poet has to inflict that, it doesn't come naturally.

    i think the danger, in being the poet, is in thinking that because you are good at asking the questions, that it means you have the answers.

    Whitman's complacency, if that's what it is, could actually be side-effect of war. It's interesting to me that he wrote Leaves of Grass a few years before the civil war, and then had to be tied to that text throughout it, and in it's aftermath, even while he worked caring for the war wounded for eleven years. I'm not sure that complacency is an uncomplicated symptom, I guess is what I'm getting at.

    I think the job of the poet depends on the poet: you've got Billy Collins and you've got Charles Bukowski-- not to be too Whitmanesque, but you need both kinds of poet, and everything outside those margins as well.

    What you've done in Desert Grass seems to me to be a very worthy job as a poet... to follow the outrage, to admit to and question the complacency, to keep trying to understand actions (and lack of action) that seem profoundly inhuman but must be human or they wouldn't happen.

    1. Laura

      Thank you! I think you're absolutely right that it's the role of the poet to ask the questions rather than provide the answers - in fact, the more difficult it is to answer a question, the more important it is to ask it. Still, the questions one chooses to ask (and not ask), and how they're asked, can't help but make a statement.

      I feel similarly about aestheticization, that it's unavoidable. The fact of art itself, of any form of mediation, of any form, aestheticizes. There's an aesthetics of beauty that usually comes to mind, and I agree that the poet can choose not to follow this particular aesthetic, but there are other aesthetics too - the aesthetics of horror, of reportage, of ugliness, etc.

  2. This is a great article, and a great topic to explore. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Abolition was a brave struggle for an imperative cause, and we could wish that Whitman were solidly behind that cause in his personal life, though if his poetry were straightforwardly abolitionist, it might offer us far less than it does now in all of its multitudinous, contradictory impulses.

    Instead, Whitman's poems convince us of their power by showing a human complexity--we sympathize and are repulsed by turns, we affirm and contradict ourselves through the voice of our audacious speaker, and, somehow, at every moment, we are sensitized to the experience of being human, even if we are not persuaded to think or act in a certain predetermined way.

    "Desert Grass" takes an amalgam of media--much of which might otherwise serve to desensitize us to what it purports to inform us of, and, through surprising juxtaposition, provides us with a new context to feel the horror, fascination, awe, love, and anger of this tragic mix of torture, war, profiteering, religion, and mundane daily life. "Desert Grass" is wonderful in the way Whitman's poems are wonderful: it is large enough, ambitious enough, to contain multitudes.

    When war is remote and abstract for most Americans, and protest is instantly downplayed, spun, co-opted, made farcical, it is easy to wonder what response could possibly be meaningful? "Desert Grass" gives us one answer: to imagine with simultaneous horror and hope a song coming from the mouth held open by interrogators.

  4. Thanks Brandon. Certainly the contradictions in Whitman's personal and professional life make him interesting, but I'm not sure that his poetry derives its power from self-contradiction, despite his famous line. I think it’s more in the way he "watches and wonders," and does it with such convincing detail and empathy, that all the world, “good” and “evil,” breathes through him. It’s not so much a matter of conflicting judgments, but rather of withholding judgment, of lovingly describing and empathizing with each of his subjects. It’s not so much a matter of self-contradiction as of generosity.

    I’m not sure that same generosity is at play when he calls the slave "heavy-lipped" and compares him to a criminal when he’s ostensibly welcoming him to his dinner table, or when he imagines an impossible and counter-factual reconciliation between slave and slaveholder. These passages seem to lack the large-hearted empathy that marks the passages on the slave auction, the runaway, and the slave at work. In those passages, I can’t tell if he’s an abolitionist or not, only that he believes in the dignity of the slave. And like you, I am grateful that I can’t tell what his political opinion is, that he does not squander these poetic opportunities on diatribe. If, to counter these passages on the slave, Whitman gave us an empathetic description of the slave master, and how he saw himself as sort of a father figure to his slaves, which many slave masters really did, that would be more in keeping with the kind of generosity that I find in the rest of “Leaves,” and which I feel is what allows Whitman to sensitize us, as you say, to the experience of being human.

    But obviously I don’t want to tell Whitman how to write. I am focusing, some might say nitpicking, on a relatively minor part of a masterpiece. I just wanted to point out the fissures in his poetic persona, and how much our attitude toward Abu Ghraib mirrors them.