Thursday, November 17, 2011

Prepositions [sic] about rage: Leonard Schwartz, Makana, and the Angry Iraq War Vet

"What am I to this table?" For me, the difficulties of learning another language were embedded in the problem of prepositions. Where I was in relation to a table, or a verb (do I give "to" or "of," or do I offer "up" or "at"?), or a lover, became near metaphysical problems, even if the answers were most easily accessible from rote memory. Whether this relation was static or moving, kind or hostile, was also in question. "He threw the ball at the batter" alters the sense of "he pitched to the batter," by a great deal, even if the ball travels in the same direction. The first statement suggests anger, the second a rule-bound exchange. The first threatens to begin a brawl that is not part of the game itself; the second is necessary to the game's plot.

Leonard Schwartz thinks much contemporary poetry is too direct in its expressions of anger. He argues for poetry that internalizes politics, feeling. Like Makana, who recently sang to APEC officials of his rage in a tone that had little to do with anger (Makana's tone was sweet), he wants to create the possibility for new thoughts and feelings without demanding them. So, the central trope of Schwartz's new book, At Element, is not awakening, but sleep. He doesn't work over his ideas; he sleeps on them. The mixed state of his sleeping--one of forgetting and meditation, inertia and act--allows him access to openness: "Thus all the writing I have done before this was preparatory to this new openness, to this fundamental address. I am at the beginning, finally" ("The Sleep Talkers," 74).

But back to anger. Anger is what holds us most firmly to ourselves. When I am angry I do not let the subject of my anger go, but I also do not let myself go (unless, of course, I "lose it," which is another matter). I am most myself when I am angry, or that's a statement I could argue my way through (as if statements were tunnels full of vines and waterfalls and I had to "make" my way through them toward the light at the end of my assertion). Schwartz writes: "In order to achieve this [a different way of being] I will need to liberate myself not from sleep but from a repetitive resentment that binds me to self-identity, and thus, to paranoia" (97). Elsewhere, he remarks on poets' tendency toward such repetitions, resentments. But that has to do with reputation, with making one's mark, and he's after something more central here, something closer to the actual bone. Let me quote a full paragraph:

In Polish there is a word, Zbnigew, that means "a man who has overcome his own anger." (Imagine the wisdom of a language that has a special word for a man who has overcome his own anger, and that people give to their children as a name.) In German it was Nietzsche who wrote so influentially about the French word resentment. Anger, then, and resentment, and paranoia, and that special Polish way of outgrowing them, Zbnigew. Also the English word awning.

Giving a child a name that means "to overcome his own anger," offers him a gift of foreknowledge. The child will get angry, as all children do, but he will also be able to fall back on his name; the name is a hint, a goad, to his overcoming. He will grow into (another preposition) his overcoming. So far as I know, no one has named their child "Awning," word that appears mysteriously at the end of the paragraph. But that word means "shelter," and it sounds a note of "awe." It may not mean overcoming anger, but at least it's an incline the anger can run off of, like rain water.

Sleep exists between light and dark, life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, identity and its effusions (like Whitman's jags in eddies). Sleep is freedom: "we make ourselves absent even when physically present and there is no shame in this, it is a form of our freedom, and when we become present again, one can feel the impact. As universal as sun on the beach, as riding the waves, as being too old for this activity, or too young for that" (89). To assert universality is a difficult thing in contemporary poetry, as in life. But Schwartz wants to go there. If anger is what separates us, even if it seems to make us whole as long as it lasts, then calm, sleep, blurred boundaries are what invite a fluid statelessness in, around, above, below, us. If Buddhism were not already secular, I'd be tempted to call this secular Buddhism.

This state enables Schwartz to imagine reconciliation between objectivity and subjectivity, or to tap into a pre-fab phrase offered to him in a car by Rob Fitterman, namely "sobjectivity." He reports that he laughed when he heard the word, but not too many short paragraphs later he relates, "Because of sobjectivity I feel free to imagine the voice of a suitcase, of a sock, of a rotting log or a crack in the sidewalk" (101). It also permits us to feel for the object, to "sob" in relation to it. For what object does not carry within itself its own decomposition, its own developing sadness?

Schwartz's meditations are more complicated than these brief remarks allow; there is, for example, a great deal of violence in his world, including an odd man-against-duck scene later in the piece, as well as the contest for priority in father-son relations. But he knows, as a bipolar friend once put it to me, that "anger is not the solution; anger is the problem." When we were confronted by a mutual friend who was extremely angry, corrosively so, at the state of the world, Leonard quoted Bertolt Brecht, whose "idea is that little anger is what we know as anger, the anger that blows off some steam, but never really leads to change . . . whereas big anger doesn't even look like anger, intent as it is on its purpose, which would only be upset by revealing itself as anger. It's in Mother Courage" (I quote here from a personal email). To extrapolate, while little anger turns on its carrier, eating its host, big anger moves outward. Little anger objectifies the self, while big anger sobjectifies.


Video (provenance forgotten): An African American Iraq war vet in camouflage jacket faces down New York City cops. He yells and yells at them. "Why are you hurting these people? Why are you hurting them? If you want to hurt people, go to Iraq and hurt people. These are Americans. Why are you hurting them." His audience is a group of cops standing in the street. They are remarkably passive. They are letting him shout himself out, but he refuses to, and keeps yelling at them. He is the aggressor, if only verbally, and they the impassive listeners. It looks wrong. (It is wrong, as it is but one camera angle on a day of protest and police brutality.) There is a moment at which his anger, his pleading, his repetitions, reveal his own hurt; it is past this point I cannot watch the video without hurting myself. He is asking them not to hurt him. He has been hurt, and he has hurt others. This is his confession, his plea, his expiation.

I found him; he's Marine Corps Sgt. Shamar Thomas. Here's the video.


The media can attack the Occupy movement for its carnival. They're banging drums. In a circle, no less. They're dancing. They have a library. Oh my, they have iPads. Some of them are yuppies, others homeless people, so some of them are too clean and some of them are too dirty. They chant things. They yell in unison. How quaint. But, like Makana's performance at the APEC dinner, these are not moments of silliness; they are our sorrow songs. If the "master" could not hear the "slave's" lament because it was sung, then the media cannot seem to hear the occupier's anger because it comes cloaked in joyful noise. Listen. There's rage there, and it's catching.


Leonard Schwartz's new book is At Element, from Talisman Books. You can order it here.
Our 2008 conversation about memory, with 2011 photo, can be found here.

The photo is of Leonard Schwartz (foreground) and Tom Devaney (background) at Kelly Writer's House, University of Pennsylvania, September 2011.


Anonymous said...

"In Polish there is a word, Zbnigew" - the word is Zbigniew :)

susan said...

Thanks for the correction! I'll send it on the author,too . . . sms