Saturday, January 17, 2009

Deborah Meadows's Sonnets from GOODBYE TISSUES

Sonnets from the [Abu] Ghraib

I often require my creative writing students to write a Shakespearian sonnet. Hardly a one of them leaps joyfully to the task; one student, years ago, simply refused. His father, he said, was military, and the sonnet reminded the son of all the rules his father enforced. (Harold Bloom had nothing on this guy's Oedipal relationship with poetic tradition!). He was having none of Wordsworth's nuns, fretting not in their convent rooms. And he had a point. If the stanza is a room, then the sonnet can seem a chamber of horrors.

Deborah Meadows's new book from Shearsman Press, Goodbye Tissues, contains “Sonnets' Four Seasons,” a meditation on contemporary America, and especially on the Iraq war and the U.S. government's use of torture (which happens in chambers). As with any sonnet sequence worth its salt, this one is equally a meditation on the form itself: “array marked / more shutters and paralysis echo / toward parity, fourteen lines, more or less” (71). These lines conclude the first of 12 sonnets (after a verse preface that includes two quotations from Tom Raworth). Within this first chamber we find a growing lexicon of Iraq War-related words (“provisional,” “indictment,” “state”) and of literary terms (“realism,” “procedural text,” “lines”), as well as words that cross over the border between them (“blueprint,” “build,” “body”). The body of this text will likewise address the body politic, the bodies of prisoners (a.k.a. “detainees”). Here we also find the language of theoretical science (“pollen's Brownian descent”) to mark randomness. A procedure in poetry results random outputs; so an ideology that leads to violence erupts into chaos. This is a danger to poetry, as it is to governance, and Meadows intends to examine the danger under her microscope, even as she avoids the trap. The work has an ethical design that points past formalism and into a history that is also prophecy; the last lines of the final sequence promising “the sum of retaliation,” a blown-up bridge that is also “of self, brush the hyphen, its sectioned plane.”

Meadows's work is nothing if not difficult; I cannot claim to have these sonnets adequately in my sights. But I'm immediately drawn to them because they open out into a public politics. Words, too, are private and public: throughout the sequence, her sometimes hermetic lines effloresce into phrases like “evaporation of memory” (a reference to what one sees from the Capitol in D.C.); “engulf the war”; “intelligence it's called”; “troop deployment”; “fear”; “The many vanishings/ of the subject”; “General Electric”; “brave new world”; the “FCC”; and “Catholicism now fed on GOP.” There is even a brief autobiographical interlude in sonnet 11, which may allude to Meadows's move nearly two decades ago from western New York State to southern California. This opening up of the text to the poet's life seemed significant, as well, pointing to the poet's own stake in the language and politics of the poem, her relation to the nation whose rotting ethos it diagnoses.

What in poetic terms exists as a split between the machine of proceduralism and the resulting randomness of poetry is laid next to the abstract ideology of the nation that tortures and the chaotic retaliation that ensues. Sonnet 3 brings up the subject of torture:

the bed and pillows are
not had at the train station, electric
sensations abstracted to principles--
go sense the same eternal smell anytime.
An unethical practice to save lives?
Our vanishing point recession:
state house a tiny dot. (73)

What works in poetry's chamber cannot work in the torture chamber, where abstract thinking sets up conditions of pain without the “saving.” The Brownian descent of pollen is one thing, but the state house reduced to a dot is quite another. “The secretary assigned a machine / precarious sentences,” she writes in the 7th sonnet. The secretary might be Donald Rumsfeld; he is surely not Jackson McLow, or Jacques Roubaud, to whom one of the sonnets is dedicated. The poet is “fully aware of coercion” in her own work, which is often procedural, but the coercion that comes with shock and awe, or what Naomi Klein calls “the shock doctrine,” at once economic and military, that renders us citizens helpless: “Nation, our item today during these / shells beyond infantile sensation shall not” (8, 78).

Meadows calls a spade a spade, attacking the president (Bush) and his speech writer for “a prompting 'On evil,' a moral /term [that] helped the president gain favor” (just the other night in his farewell speech, President Bush told us that there is good and evil—and nothing, apparently, in the ceasura between). But when she moves to “The many vanishings / of the subject” (80) she is writing not simply of those who have died because of the president's policies, but also to those tortured, and to the very notion of what makes us subjects, rather than objects, in the first place. To Bush's “philosophy” she responds that “Not all hypotheses are utopian / as well as logical” (81). Our state is “General Electric,” but there is little light. Instead, even “Sonnets / now pose” and everything is for sale.

If “our medium is language not belief,” then by the end of her sequence Meadows is calling for a language that is at least honest, ethical, not mechanized (like form, like tortured) but freed into meaning (like pollen, like text). While the methods of poetry and governance may differ, their goals need to be joined in a social and linguistic contract that unevaporates memory, offers us non-consumable words such as those we find in poems like these.

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