Sarah Giblin | 23 January 2017
In his first collection, Areas of Fog, Joseph Massey writes:
lies on the
I can think of no better way to encapsulate the omnipresence of the Presidential inauguration within mainstream media. A sense of resigned, abject, passive observation has permeated everything from the mundane to the grand. This is reflected in the ‘American lawn’ that ties the suburban white picket fences to the sweeping grounds of the White House, and the television light that ‘lies’ intimates the allure of submitting to docility that has accompanied the shock victory of President Donald Trump. It is often tempting to acquiesce when met with situations which seem hopeless; Barack Obama addressed this directly in his final press conference, ‘at my core, I think we’re going to be okay. We just have to fight for it, we have to work for it’. In response to Massey, I only offer that this ‘television light’ rests not only on American lawns, but on lawns the world over.
Certainly, it has been difficult to maintain any distance from the political happenings in America in the past few months, and, as I usually do in times of despondency, I turned to poetry. The craft of harnessing overwhelming thoughts and emotions into a considered, condensed, often beautiful form reveals that order can be found in the chaos, and that hope can be found amidst the current political dejection faced by many. As Donald Trump takes office, recent polls from major U.S. news networks have his positive ratings as low as 32%, an unusually low number compared to Barack Obama’s 60%, especially in view of the honeymoon period which typically follows the inauguration of a new President. Thus, I feel compelled to share a few of the lessons I have learned from the American poet George Oppen, and present them to the 68% of Americans (and others) who may be in need of solace. The following has been extracted from his ‘Of Being Numerous’, which I return to over and over again:
It is the air of atrocity,
An event as ordinary
As a President.
A plume of smoke, visible at a distance
In which people burn.
The ‘air of atrocity’ feels particularly apropos in the current political climate. While it is impossible to dismiss that sections 17-20 of ‘Of Being Numerous’ stand at the epicentre of the poem’s excoriation of the Vietnam War (section 19 of the poem opens with ‘Now in the helicopters the casual will / Is atrocious’), the ‘air of atrocity’ has a timeless applicability to it. Indeed, the rhyming elements of the first stanza work to create a feeling of inevitable recurrence; the oxymoron of ‘atrocity’ and ‘ordinary’ are aurally forced to sit comfortably together, and, despite its pessimism, acknowledges that atrocities are somewhat commonplace. In reference to these lines, Steve Shoemaker asserts that the Vietnam War brought Oppen’s ‘thinking about both war and poetry to a new level of intensity and soul searching […] Oppen is haunted by the sense that lies, like atrocities, are ‘in the air’; in fact, are the air (‘the air of atrocity’), the medium through which we live and breathe. In this stultifying atmosphere, language itself seems to fail us’ (xix-xx).
In line 4, Oppen gives this ‘stultifying atmosphere’ a concrete image: ‘A plume of smoke’. However, the poet-voyeur asserts that aesthetic distance is required in order to comprehend it; ‘visible at a distance’ simultaneously conveys the impossibility of seeing within the smoke and intimates the need for distance in order for the atrocities to be ‘visible’. In the same vein, the rhyme of ‘event’ and ‘President’ in the first stanza alludes to the necessity of viewing a President from both an emotionally and temporally removed perspective; it is only with distance that a President could be considered an ‘event’.
Will temporal distance permit relief? I’m not sure. Perhaps while we’re still inhabiting the air of atrocity surrounding the Trump inauguration I’ll leave you with a quote from the master of ‘that hopey-changey stuff’ himself, the former President:
“I believe in the American people. I believe that people are more good than bad. I believe that tragic things happen, I think there’s evil in the world, but I think that, at the end of the day, if we work hard, and if we’re true to those things in us that feel true and feel right, that the world gets a little better each time.”
Shoemaker, Steve (ed.). Thinking Poetics: Essays on George Oppen. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2009.
Relatives? Naw… Just three fellers going along for the ride!, June 18, 1941, Dr. Seuss Political Cartoons. Special Collection & Archives, UC San Diego Library