On Peter O'Leary's "Gravity as the Combine of Light through Time" & Michael Robbins' "To the Drone Vaguely Realizing Eastward"
by Robert Archambeau
Gravity as the Combine of Light Through Time
God exists in the centrifuge, wholly ionized air smelling
of rosin. Thunderheaded.
Sacrifice consists of pigs, America’s hecatombs. Once God said:
I woll no lenger cover me frome you. A latter day theic species quavers
at revelation & absconds, a desistor with scintillant
arua. Awkward somehow fused in languor &
anxiety. Choke-holding baby violets, the Lord
asserts the universe is full but treads away, as out of range
as a purple gallinule jerking head & tail, clawing
with elongated toes for pickerelweed in urban Illinois.
God had once commanded resseyvith
the hyghe order whych ye have so much desired & bled
to death. This God of aftereffects is atomized into minute particulars: an
outmoded ordinance forbidding
Sunday bbqs; weather hissing like fat; antique pamphlets from seed clubs;
supermarket incense; tales & sketches of an American master; a mystical
technology newly authentic, as when radio
was discovered; a medieval commentary believed above all else—
I will not spurn them or abhor them to destroy them.
Like a cumulonimbus, thus, heavy & dense but with considerable vertical
vastly plumed. A glaciated anvil, massive. This one
making an image and making it slowly.
To the Drone Vaguely Realizing Eastward
This is a poem for President Drone.
It was written by a camel.
Can I borrow your phone?
This is for President Mark Hamill.
Newtown sounds a red alert.
Mark Hamill asks is Ernie burnt?
Every camel’s a first-person shooter.
The Prez’s fez is haute couture.
It seems strange that he should be offended.
The same orders are given by him.
Paging Pakistan and Yemen.
Calling all the drone-dead children.
The camel can’t come to the phone.
This is for the drone-in-chief.
Mumbai used to be Bombay.
The bomb bay opens with a queef.
“We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive,” wrote the Qatari poet Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, in a poem praising the uprisings of the Arab spring. He wrote in praise of those who put their lives at risk for freedom, and must have known he was taking a great risk himself: his poem landed him in a Qatari jail, where he remains. He’s a poet who knows about the kind of risk it is hard to imagine an American poet running—protected as our poets are by freedom of speech and widespread public indifference. It’s not that American poets can’t run risks; rather, it’s a matter of much lower stakes. The most common thing our poets put at risk is the sympathy of their readers and editors, and they may do so by aiming too high, or too low.
Consider Peter O’Leary, who does the former in his poem “Gravity as the Combine of Light Through Time.” The poem presents two kinds of difficulty. Firstly, there is the matter of arcane vocabulary, and the matter of unusual allusion. Both of these are instances of what George Steiner calls “contingent difficulty”—the sort of things we might need to look up. This kind of difficulty is common in poetry since Modernism, and while it may be off-putting to a general reader, those who seek out poetry in little magazines are generally willing to roll up their sleeves and do their homework. But there’s another kind of difficulty in the poem, one with more risk to it. This involves what Steiner calls “modal difficulty,” the kind of difficulty that comes about when readers sense that “the root-occasion of the poem’s composition eludes or repels” them. The root-occasion of “Gravity as the Combine of Light Through Time” is, like the root-occasion of most of O’Leary’s poetry, a moment of mystical faith, a sense of divine manifestation. The poem is, in short, explicitly devotional—and not in some general spiritual way, but in a heterodox yet specifically Catholic manner. Heterodox Catholicism is nothing like the risk it once was; no one’s talking about sending O’Leary to the stake. But this sort of explicit devotionalism is far from the norm in contemporary American poetic culture. More than once, when I’ve spoken about O’Leary’s work at poetry conferences, I’ve been taken aside and told about the deep resistance to such work, or asked what a dark-hearted unbeliever such as I was doing lavishing attention on O’Leary. In speaking from an occasion of overt, demanding, Catholic faith, O’Leary puts at risk the sympathies of a broad swath of the poetry-reading public.
If O’Leary puts sympathy at risk by aiming high, at the divine, another poet, Michael Robbins, puts it at risk by aiming low. “To the Drone Vaguely Realizing Eastward” is a political poem, originally commissioned by Yahoo News for very broad public distribution on the occasion of Barack Obama’s second inauguration, along with poems by such luminaries as Paul Muldoon, James Tate, and the poetry-loving actor James Franco. The title signals this occasion, referencing as it does a line from Robert Frost’s famous “The Gift Outright,” recited at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. The poem wears its criticism of the Obama administration’s drone policy on its sleeve, alluding to the more than 200 children killed by American drone strikes. This sort of criticism would be a risk, indeed, in many places on this earth, as Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami could well testify. Interestingly, though, it wasn’t the poem’s politics that put Robbins’ potential readership at risk. When Yahoo News contacted Robbins to say that they would not be publishing the poem they had commissioned, the organization was quick to reassure him that his poem was not being denied a broad readership by virtue of its politics, but by virtue of its vocabulary. As Robbins put it, “a certain news organization has informed me they cannot publish the inaugural poem for Obama they commissioned from me, because it contains the word ‘queef.’” We have few truly obscene words left in American English—a term for a particular part of the female anatomy, a handful of racist and anti-Semitic terms, and, apparently, that word in Robbins’ poem. Robbins’ presumption that he could use any word he’d like in his poem proved to be a substantial risk: instead of finding his poem distributed to a broad national readership, he ended up posting it on a blog.
We in the contemporary United States have the good fortune to live in a time and place when nothing one does in poetry can put one in jail. But poets can still find themselves even less read than they would otherwise be, by virtue of the risks they take.
(For more on Michael Robbins’ poem, see Robbins’ essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books: http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/a-poem-for-president-drone”)