Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Book of Greenspan and Gonzales

Hegemonic Love Potion (Factory School, 2009) by Jules Boykoff
The Book of Remembering Forgetting

One of the first things you notice when you enter Jules Boykoff's and Kaia Sand's house in Portland (apart from the cats, the books, the happy happy clutter) is a gallery of collages. These collages by Jules Boykoff contain images of Ronald Reagan; the Gipper stares from nearly every wall of the house, or so it seemed when I visited in November 2007. Needless to say, perhaps, these are not the icons of a properous era; instead, they are emblems of rampant capital (aka “free” trade), the demands such “freedom” makes on ordinary folks. They are the Reagans of Mark Nowak's poem "Capitalization," who fired air-traffic controllers in 1981 for threatening to strike for better working conditions. This odd and welcome mix of political science, art, and poetry comes naturally to Boykoff, who teaches Poli Sci at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon (which appears to be a satellite campus of the University of Hawai`i, such are their recruiting methods). His book, Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (2007) is a prose/academic analogue to his poetry, as is his book with Kaia Sand, Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry & Public Space. The latter presents case studies of public poetries that resist power, whether that power is literary or political, governmental. Boykoff's first book of poems, Once Upon a Neoliberal Rocket Badge (2006) might then be said to be the poetic analogue to his academic work; in it, we find the Reagan obsession in full flower.

In Hegemonic Love Potion, Reagan has given way to new counter-muses, namely Alan Greenspan and Alberto Gonzales, among others. I do not have the time or energy to devote to the entire volume (43 student essays await my attention, among other tasks!), but I want to point to a couple sections of the book, crucial to an understanding not just of Boykoff's work, but also the larger work poetry can do to intervene in our politics. For poetry is a crucial form of our collective memory, precisely because (through form, through innovative content) poetry is what lends itself to memory. Boykoff's uses of anaphora and sound are memorable, performative. Thus, one of the most crucial sections of Boykoff's book, “Notes from the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment” (a title he took from Martin Luther King, Jr., not widely known for his sense of humor,) is a collage of testimony by Albert Gonzales before a Senate Panel in April, 2007. Boykoff collages sections of the transcript—what is a transcript, if it presents full-bore amnesia?--from the Congressional Quarterly Transcripts Wire. The then-attorney general sings!

Boykoff proves what we do not want to hear, that bad testimony, like Donald Rumsfeld's press conferences, can be compelling poetry, and that poetry can absorb as well as perpetuate memory. So Boykoff creates a public record of a calculated amnesia. This record is sadly funny, a severe indictment of the Bush administration's refusal to answer to checks and balances. And so the mazurka begins: after a list of failures to recollect, Gonzales says, “I may have no recollection, but I presume it is true.” The failures to recollect add up, add up, add up: “I have searched my memory. I have no recollection . . .”. Failure to remember is magical: “My understanding is that the gentleman had hazy recollections about it as well.” “I have no memory of this.”

“I recall making the decision—I recall making the decision.

But I don't recall when the decision was made.”

I could go on, quoting and quoting the words for which Gonzales will be best forgotten. Except by Boykoff, whose memory of all this forgetting is crucial to any history of the Bush administration. That he makes the forgotten memorable is a strike against the amnesia that cost Americans part of their Constitution between at least 2000-2008. President Obama has recovered some of it already, but much remains to be reinstated.

The book's title, its cover by Jim Dine (a heart!), suggests that this is a book about love. So far, I've described a book about anger, albeit often comedic in its force/farce. But there are love poems toward the beginning of the book, none quite so amusing as the triangle of Alan Greenspan, Ayn Rand, and Andrea Mitchell. Another flurry of amnesia, perhaps, or what Boykoff calls “rampant dismantling redux”: “Ayn or Andrea? Ayn or Andrea? Ayn or Andrea”? Ayn Rand was Greenspan's mentor; Andrea Mitchell is his wife.

The last sequence, “The Slow Motion Underneath,” is worth lingering on as a lyric love poem that refuses to separate itself from the world, yet opens a possible space for transformation. In a wonderful way, it is a poem about ethics (“barely audible as it was at the time / it all sliced mightily to your ethical metric” is a statement about a person and about poetry.) Each section contains 11 lines. Boykoff's birthday was September 11, personal marker of what later became a public nightmare. One might ask, “11 or 11?” In the sequence, the poet meets the love of his life (“kinetic moment of fortune”), even as he references the reality that “is a wooden handle for a hatchet in the ice”; a No-No boy from Heart Mountain, Pablo Neruda, erosion (Sand has written about water issues in her poems), labor strikes, deaths in Iraq, “a decade-old list of nice things to say,” and daffodils. Of that last, surprising, element Boykoff has spoken of his early love of Wordsworth, his memorization of his poems, and the non-poets he knows who commit verse to memory (Here Comes Everybody). Again, the significance of memory.

And of hope. A full-time job, as he writes on the last page of the book. “Hope is a category, an object, a toothbrush, an unmarked door, a metric of leisure, a decolonized mind. Hope is a volcano, a train platform, an island, a thumbtack, an impediment, a bombshell, an intellectual pitbull.”

While bad testimony can make compelling poetry, like a Happy Meal it cannot sustain itself for long. So Boykoff has included much richness in his book, as well, including this potion poem at the end. Anyone who wants to understand the formal and tonal possibilities of political poetry, as well as its bull's-eyes, ought to read Boykoff's book. Hope exists, and it is ordinary. Go brush your teeth.


Kasey Mohammad said...

Hi Susan! Very excited to see your blog (and Jules' book, which I received a few days ago).

C. E. Chaffin said...

Congrats on the blog. And your piece on Boykoff certainly has the air of a review that may be more interesting than the book.


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