Watering The Fires

Eric Beeny and I met on an HTML Giant comment stream connected in part to a review I wrote of Shane Jones’s “Light Boxes.” He sympathasized with a sentiment I expressed in that review that a certain set of contemporary writers in my peer group, or the one just above mine, don’t engage in politics. I said their writing evinces a disconnected, vague, and imagistic tendency towards narcissism. Eric was much subtler about this than I was and am.

We traded a few emails to this effect, wherein he expressed an understanding of literature that I can only describe as soothing and educational. I still get angry when literature doesn’t do something actively for the world it finds, but this anger has tempered somewhat since I corresponded with Beeny (and found this great little post about celebrating anyone who refuses to sell themselves to the machine). Even the most narcissistic writers provide space for a modicum of perspective, he implied, making any literature at least a little political–even Jones’s.

It makes me wonder at this writing–a review of one of Beeny’s many books– whether political writing is just a matter of preference, or if there is some ‘ought’ in the ‘is’ when it comes to reading and writing. Whether being literary entails an imperative like: write about the world dammit, try and make it a better place asshole, don’t enjoy the smell of your MFA-tinged farts so much that you forget the human traffickers, lynchers, and dirty CEOs! Or something like that.

We should at least ask the question: Are we obligated to write political literature, or is political writing just another habit or interest? Is it like flavors of ice cream, rug color, or genre? Or are we doing the wrong thing if we don’t write with an eye toward making the best society?

I don’t know. But I was glad to meet Eric, who spoke to this question elegantly, and I was excited when he forwarded me the link to an online collection of his poems called “Watering the Fires” for me to read and write something about.

Funnily enough the poems belie the motherly element in Eric’s correspondence. He holds a fire to the world in them. There’s anger, fingerpointing, sarcasm, accusation, and all manner of doubt: doubt of self, doubt of country, doubt of pen, doubt of city, doubt of law, etc. It’s engaged enough to not be narcissistic, spare and clear enough not to be thalic, and direct enough to be pragmatic.

By themselves the poems can feel a little corny. I’ve never really known what that metaphor means. I think it means that something is so much itself it lacks irony–still not sure what corn has to do with it–but if anything Beeny’s poems sometimes lack the glow that comes from irony (something is ironic if, in some sense, it’s not what it is and is what it isn’t–or at the very least it robs what it talks about of its reality). But then calling something corny is just calling it genuine. And these poems are genuine.

At their best, the poems are, in fact, highly ironic. They hit me in the stomach in all the right ways. Here’s my favorite, “Wal-mart Families for Friendly Fire,” quoted entirely, for example:

Letting your children join the armed forces,
you might as well hold the hunting rifle yourself,
shove them off into the woods

while you chase after their memories
pumping round after blind round
practically sawing trees in half

and if even you hit one you couldn’t
hear a scream from that far away

and like when you did all your shopping
at discount department store chains
you’d pick a designated rendezvous point

so when whoever makes it out alive
comes back you can say,
Oh, thank God . . . I missed you.

Yes. Just: yes. The image at the front makes me sweat and then the middle carries me through to the end that kicks me where I must be kicked. Squarely in the moral-literary ass. (See “Kyoto Hearing Aids” for another one like this but about climate change.) And what about this line damning brand-marketing from a poem called “Parole Hearing with a reformed Charles Manson”:

Ever try reading a flashlight’s name
brand in the dark?

Oh yes. This is like the problem of the eye never seeing itself but translated into the black hole of vapid capitalist consumption. I’m definitely going to quote this aloud at some point.

But there are some corny lines, like the last stanza of “Inspector Gadget’s Erection”:

though I’m anyway too aroused by the octopus
arms I’ve welded to my psyche,
so whenever you reach to unzip your fly
that means my night-stick is gun-shy.

The phrasing here loses perspective and pushes me out. It breaks down and sounds more like mediocre slam poetry. Though I’m inclined to like the poem just because of it’s first line: “it must be real hard.”

I’m also inclined to like this chapbook a lot and recommend it. It leaves me wondering: what’s going on in political fiction and poetry right now?

At a poorly attended AWP panel on political poetry this year, one small-voiced MFA student asked this same question. She said she wrote political poems and that her classmates and professors bashed them and told her not to write “those kinds of poems” anymore because they’d never get published.

Is that the way it is? Are writers trying to make a living by their writing more than they’re trying to make life by their writing? When I went to the AWP I was shocked at how much it felt like a trade fair. A job search. A place to sell widgets. William Pitt, at that very panel on political poetry, sat behind a Marriott fold-out table with an awkward floral print tablecloth and spoke into a microphone, just as I’m sure any number of military-industrial leaders have.

Am I being unreasonable? Don’t we have an obligation as artist-citizens of the most offensive cultural empire this side of the 20th century to use our talents to point beautiful, un-ignorable fingers at the various interests bent on consuming life on earth to death?

The answer these questions is probably yes. And “Watering the Fires” is an excellent occasion to ask them again.

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