Sunday, June 1, 2014

Michael Broek on "The Cloud and the Counterpane"

“The Cloud and The Counterpane” poems began initially with what are now “The Cloud” pieces, and specifically with Samar Hassan. Hers was the portrait, shot by the photographer Chris Hondros, that became one of the most recognizable images of the American war in Iraq. Hassan and her brother were the lone survivors when her parents’ car was raked with bullets at an American checkpoint.

Hondros was later killed covering the “revolution” in Libya. Hassan’s brother, who was rehabilitated at a hospital in Boston, was eventually killed in a bombing after his repatriation. The entire absurdity struck me. I had marched, futilely, with those who had opposed the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld war of American Exceptionalism, that sputtering effort at the onset of the new millennium to enjoin John Winthrop’s Puritanical vision of a “City on a Hill.”

Then I had also experienced my own very minor crisis. Hurricane Sandy hit my New Jersey county, just outside New York City, and for thirteen days my family adjusted to life with no electricity, no heat (there was a snowstorm that very week), no hot water, gas lines, food lines, and uncertainty. I knew the lights would come back on. We all did.  And yet it was a crisis in the fabric of our lives, a crisis that profoundly impacted many of my students at the community college where I teach—students who, many of them, were already living on the edge of sustainability.

When I began to conceive of these poems, I hit upon the Arecibo message, that radio message, which Carl Sagan had collaborated on, sent out into space that contained information about what it meant to be  “human.” I also turned to history, the cyclical nature—in the Yeatsian sense—of dissolution and tragedy.

So “The Cloud” poems included a wide range of allusions, including the fact that the NYPD’s warehouse of DNA evidence at Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was inundated by the hurricane. The human genome was one of those pieces broadcast into space by Sagan, and it certainly was relevant to Samar Hassan. The DNA the police had collected related to both victims and perpetrators, and Hassan’s story (and her photo in particular, the little girl spattered with blood) was connected to both.

“The Counterpane” poems came slightly later; they are love poems that take the material fact of the quilt—the counterpane, as it is referred to in Chapter 4 of Moby-Dick—as a guiding trope. What I wanted were poems that telescoped to the personal, that concerned how one person can penetrate another, the lips and hips, desperation and desire, that connect the two. These poems were to counterpoint the more wild and abstract “Cloud” poems.

What connects both “The Cloud” and “The Counterpane,” I hope, is the fact of the “cit-y,” which for me is where the intensely personal and the horribly public collide.

Aesthetically, I had been on a George Oppen (Of Being Numerous), Charles Olson (The Maximus Poems), and H.D. kick (the first book of Trilogy). And also end to torment, H.D.’s memoir of her relationship with Pound.

The whole sequence  will be forthcoming in the book Refuge/es, from Alice James, in the spring of 2015