Saturday, September 24, 2011

Poetry Corner: Dedication

Right now I'm working on a review of Vivian Gornick's new biography of Emma Goldman for Open Letters Monthly. Over at The New Inquiry, The Jacobin's Bhaskar Sunkara takes issue with Gornick for spending too much time on her romantic life and failing to present an adequate analysis and critique of the limits of Goldman's brand of radicalism, deeming the book "a trite celebration of the 'good fight' and some parlor gossip."

But what does it actually mean to fight the good fight? Are the contours of a life of struggle really so familiar to us? Of course, from a certain radical perspective, this is besides the point: one struggles to change the world, not to live a meaningful life. Yet given the precariousness of radical victories, part of the story is always the lives left behind across decades of difficult and sacrifice, and, often, seeming failures. By aiming for more than a meaningful life for oneself, meaningful lives are constructed: this is one of the central tensions at the heart of Benjamin Balthaser's wonderful new collection of poems, Dedication, (you can get it here.)

Drawing on experiences and interviews with relatives who were activists and members of the American Communist Party, the book meditates on the lines of blood and memory that extend from the long-ago epiphanies, cherished books, and conversations across decades that erode their power, both through the active repression of HUAC and named names and the less deliberate but no less intolerable diminishments of age, separations, and silences. "Dedication for Arrival" implicitly rebukes all those who have seen American repression as somehow insignificant because it lacks the familiar icons of state repression:

When they came, they did not come,
in darkness, as they did,

they did come with greased faces,
black with smoke, as they did,


They came in the middle of the day,
they came in suits, they knocked on the door,
and read from a warrant, signed by a judge,
and when the children wept, they patted them on the head,
and gave them sweets, and the neighbors
peered from darkened windows
not knowing and prayer but silence, and rumor.

Finally, though, it is in the construction of meaningful lives that the losses and gains are measured. In "Dedication 4 for Sid Grossman: Service," we see a captain ridicule his commitment - ("we know what your background is"),
to run their logistics, the Lieutenant called on you.

Grossman will talk to those niggers, and when
you walked through the tropical darkness,
and onto the other side, and you spoke
with the ease and directness one grants to men,
it was obvious you had not learned this in the Army.

I don't buy or recommend poetry that often, but do yourself a favor and pick up Dedication here.

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