Ever since the election, poets who never wrote political poems before suddenly want to write them. Some – and I hope this is the case – may be questioning the irony that has long reigned over certain sectors of American poetry.
Stephen Dobyns wrote Winter’s Journey (Copper Canyon, 2010) at a similar moment, deep in George W. Bush’s second term in office, with the war in Iraq entering its fourth year. In such a moment, Dobyns questions the particular poetry project that seemed to preside at the time: the lyric. His gripes with the lyric punctuate Winter’s Journey and inform the book’s structure. But they are also his gripes with the time – with a country so removed from the carnage it causes that those living here could continue to write poems, as he puts it, “about fucking” while others die from our bombs.
Instead, Doybns fills the book with twelve long meditative poems that resist the swift emotional epiphany of the lyric and instead are essayistic in nature. They are bookended by two lyrics, suggesting that Dobyns has not completely turned away from that form. He writes, in “Napatree Point”:
. . . I know I can’t
just rant in a poem, although it’s hard to stop myself,
but given the problem I hate going back to writing
about flowers and sex.
What Dobyns wants to know is how to write about atrocities that one feels horrified by, and yet removed from. Interestingly, he takes as his model European and Japanese writers, rather than American ones like, for example, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, or Carlyn Forché – all of whom have written lyrics that grew out of oppression, witness, and resistance. It’s worth noting, too, that out of that same war came the work of Brian Turner, who filled a book with lyrics about being a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The problem is not really the form, but Dobyns’s social location – which he shares with many middle and upper class Americans who can simply stop reading the newspaper if they don’t want bad news, as does a woman in the poem “Chainsaws.” And maybe the world does need to grapple with how a privileged person can ethically respond to violence. But maybe, also, it’s the poet’s job to get close enough to that violence or injustice to find the driving emotion and so restore us.
I haven’t decided that either one of the thoughts posed above is more true that the other. I have mixed feelings about Winter’s Journey, a book I did enjoy. I find his oppositional stance toward the lyric to be a challenging question, at the same time as I find it tiresome. And I suppose if this review were a Winter’s Journey poem, it could hold all these disparate and contradictory thoughts.
Reading Winter’s Journey now, one might think through how poets should respond to starvation, war crimes, and our own country’s bombs in Syria. Can a lyric hold this uncomfortable (because so comfortable) distance?
The best of Dobyns’ meditative poems is the last, in which he ruminates on complicity and resistanceby thinking about Anna Akhmatova and Savonarola, a 15th century friar who was burned as a heretic. The poem takes place while Dobyns vacations in Florence (and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t roll my eyes when he said he and his wife were spending a month there). But he uses the setting to think through his own complicity, and that of all U.S. citizens in the Bush II years:
. . Freud said the neurosis
of thinking the wretchedness around us doesn’t exist
lets us stay sane, although at times it seems that sanity
comes at too great a cost, so even the joy of walking
with one’s son along the ocean’s edge extracts its price
in drops of blood.
American life, the style in which we have chosen to live, does extract its price all over the world. There must be a better way to respond to that besides these poems; yet, these poems are the imperfect way we so often respond.