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?