- How the Truth Dies
66 Pages; Print, $16.00
In his first two weeks in office, President Donald Trump likened the Central Intelligence Agency to Nazis and opened a speech at the CIA's sacred memorial wall of fallen agents with self-congratulations on his election. He fought with his press secretary and the media over crowd estimates for his poorly attended inauguration. He hung up on a telephone call with the Australian prime minister over a preexisting, "disgusting" agreement the US had to receive 1,250 refugees.
And we haven't even gotten to the Muslim Ban.
It is not impossible to keep track of the daily desecration of the country's norms and values this administration is determined to execute. But it is exhausting. If there's anything positive to be sowed from the pandemonium wrought by Trump and company, it might be the proliferation of venues for resistance, or opposition poetry, that have emerged to help civilians separate the worst from the horrible, and the shocking from the audacious. Martin Ott's Fake News Poems rises out of this fledgling tradition and sets an example few poets will match. His work speaks not only to the struggle against an amoral if not compromised White House but also to the mechanics of language, image, and spiritual belief that fuel the current rebellion.
Ott's method is simple. He has selected a headline from each week of 2017 from either the Internet or printed media and used them for inspiration. Ott's results are unlike a great deal of resistance poetry, which tends to be literal, in the sense that its impetus is clear, practical, and rooted in the news cycle. That Ott's poems stray from this formula is not only due to his eclectic choice in headlines, but also in how he mines apolitical events for commentary on all the ways we live now.
In "Nobody Knows Why Thousands of Skittles Were on Their Way to Feed Wisconsin Cows" (from The Grub Street column in New York magazine, January 23), Ott makes use of pop culture and political rhetoric to demonstrate the multiplicity of meanings available in a single word or image. Yes, thousands of Skittles candies spilled onto a Midwestern highway, and farmers revealed they were to be mixed into regular cattle feed; it's a way of cutting costs. "The secret to our hamburgers / is now revealed," Ott explains, before coming to the conclusion that we are "an entire nation quivering / like cows shaking for a sugar fix, starving for the rainbow." Are these the same Skittles a seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was summarily executed for, as he consumed them while black? Is this the same rainbow of Skittles' advertisements, demonstrating the casual, corporate invasion of our idiom via television commercials? Or is it a rainbow of liberation, since the rainbow is a symbol of the gay rights movement, or of Jesse Jackson's seemingly forgotten Rainbow Coalition? It could well be an old-fashioned, pot-of-gold-atthe-end-of-the rainbow, an optical illusion much like the belief the US is as level a playing field as Midwestern highways are flat.
What that rainbow may symbolize is ultimately a matter of belief, for the narrowly held, potentially-niche, very personal beliefs are what support the more disturbing assertions and advances of Trumpism. If something is not true today, perhaps the incessant chatter on the news eco-system will make it true tomorrow. "The difference between life and death / is the same broken line between truth and lies," Ott writes in "Dead Man Lying," taken from a Salon headline of May 13 declaring Trump "one investigation away from impeachment." And yet after an independent counsel investigation into alleged collusion with Russia, and impeachment over soliciting Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election, the president persists. Ott warns this is nothing new: "History holds the mantras / of liars and recasts them in our history books. / The walking dead has never been about zombies." Yet there is something singularly horrifying about contemporary life when the...