restricted access Erasure
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4 Erasure In John Hawkes’s novel Travesty, the narrator speaks to his daughter’s lover as he drives the three of them toward death: Murder, Henri? Well, that is precisely the trouble with you poets. In your pessimism you ape the articulation you achieve in written words, you are able to recite your poems as an actor his lines, you consider yourselves quite exempt from all those rules of behavior that constrict us lesser-­ privileged men in feet, hands, loins, mouths. Yet in the last extremity you cry moral wolf. With an almost incantatory irony, “lesser-­ privileged” ricochets in the brain; it echoes a question that has dogged me for years: Are some American poets writing from a privileged position—­ especially after the fiery 1960s and ’70s—­ from a place that reflects the illusions of class through language and aesthetics, and is the “new” avant-­ garde an old aspect of the high-­ brow and low-­ brow divide within the national psyche? And there’s also this terrifying thought: Are there poets who have purposefully set out to create work that (doesn’t matter) only matters to the anointed, those who might view themselves as privileged above content? I know such questions were on my mind as I read numerous periodicals, searching for poems that touched me through content and aesthetics. It has been rewarding to work with David Lehman on The Best American Poetry 2003. For those who have hammered nails into poetry’s coffin again and again, as if afflicted with wishful thinking, I was delighted to be reminded that From The Best American Poetry 2003, ed. Yusef Komunyakaa (New York: Scribner Poetry, 2003). 5 American poetry is in steady hands. Though this anthology is limited to seventy-­ five poems, I still wish all the deserving voices could have been included. Also, while reading the healthy heap of literary magazines, I was reminded that there exists a poetry that borders on cultivated solecism and begs theorists to decipher it. But it isn’t for me to say if this so-­ called exploratory movement verges on a literary deception, though it does follow an era that praised content and the empirical. Yes, sometimes our artists and intellectuals let us down through silence and erasure. This was provocatively driven home to me in Lewis M. Dabney’s introduction to Edmund Wilson ’s The Sixties: The public world is here only a backdrop for Wilson’s account of his own experience. The assassination of Kennedy receives a single biting paragraph. Wilson supports Johnson till the escalation of the Vietnam War, which occasions an argument with a summer friend in Talcottville that—­ characteristic of the times—­ almost comes to blows. He is pleased, in 1966, when Robert Kennedy is reported to be reading one of his books while waiting at the polls in New York. The next year [Robert] Lowell tells him of the protest march on the Pentagon , but by now his energies are given to the expanded Dead Sea Scrolls. He notes a fraying in the American social fabric, from upstate to the changing appearance of New York City. In 1968, however, the journal leaves unmentioned Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the uproar at the Democratic convention. We know that many of our artists and intellectuals didn’t suffer such amnesia; however, some did. Can we risk a deficit in memory, in the erasure of recent history? Where Wilson’s head seems to have been momentarily filled with a certain kind of forgetting, his friend Robert Lowell writes one of his most poignant poems during the 1960s that cannot be dismissed or easily forgotten, as is shown in these first six stanzas of “For the Union Dead”: 6 The old South Boston Aquarium stands in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded. The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales. The airy tanks are dry. Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass; my hand tingled to burst the bubbles drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish. My hand draws back. I often sigh still for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom of the fish and reptile. One morning last March, I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage, yellow dinosaur steam shovels were grunting as they cropped up tons of mush and grass to gouge their underworld garage. Parking lots...


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