Tuesday, April 22, 2008

`Ignorance is Responsibility'

Imagine journalism written with the wit and elegance of a good sonnet and without the self-conscious pretensions of a lousy one. Adam Kirsch’s new book of poems, Invasions, recalls Robert Lowell’s more formidably titled History in its attention to the bigger world, beyond the poet’s self, of politics, history and culture. But Kirsch never elbows the world out of the way to make way for Adam Kirsch. His poetry reminds us of the great Joseph Roth’s journalism -- sophisticated but not jaded, deeply felt, learned, attuned to the private impact of public events, in love with telling detail. Often with Lowell we watch the unseemly spectacle of a brilliant writer sucking in the contents of reality like a black hole and diminishing the bounty by turning it into a species of mere autobiography. Kirsch is not so blindly presumptuous. Take this:

“The one thing needful to the Gallery
Of Bible Art that stands unvisited
And unabashed among the lights of Broadway
Wasn’t the funds the church solicited
From corporate endowments or its rich
Midwestern secretaries, but ignorance
Of the impression that its pious kitsch
Would make on those who aren’t congregants,
Like the twelve demonstrators who unroll
A banner, `NewYorkAtheists.com,’
And tape their Xeroxed fliers to the marble
Frieze of Bible heroes with a grim,
Impassioned disrespect inherited
From the first Christian pickets to protest
The temples of the gods they knew were dead,
No matter how much the embalming cost.”

The poem works until the final line, which is too glibly emphatic, like a cheap punch line. Kirsch understands the balance of vulgarity in the ongoing atheism wars. Tacky religious art meets its match in the strident mewlings of Dawkins & Co.: “grim/Impassioned disrespect.” Almost every poem I’ve read about the 9/11 attacks and most of the prose has been ghastly. Glyn Maxwell’s The Sugar Mile is an exception, as is this one by Kirsch:

“September fifteenth, and the house is full;
It seems few patrons died or stayed at home.
The City Opera, brave, professional,
Reminds us and themselves the show goes on.
Ash drifting north has left a coat so thin
The cladded travertine still glitters white,
And so mild no one coughs to breathe it in
On the hot breeze of a late summer night --
What I call ash, but know to be this face,
Snapshotted, Xeroxed, stapled to a pole,
Which every breath I take helps to erase
And scatter incorporate in a new whole.
But what air isn’t filled with old remains
Like these, and infinitely multiplied?
What did they die for but our ignorance
Of the ways and times and reasons that they died?”

Kirsch’s poem brings to mind this exchange in Boswell’s Life of Johnson: “Boswell: `But is not the fear of death natural to man?’ Johnson: `So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.’”

Grand company for a young poet, but earned. That’s another thing: Reading Kirsch, I sense I’m in the company of a grownup, one somehow gifted with maturity beyond his years. His supreme gift in this poem is his willingness to turn his back on politics and self-righteous recriminations, and instead honor the dead by remembering them. Remembrance shapes this poem, too, which I remember finding so moving when it appeared last year in The Hudson Review:

“Knowing that some Army engineer
Was charged with calculating how to stack
For maximum efficiency the soldiers’
Corpses in the plane that brings them back;
That someone requisitioned all these flags
Tied diaper-like around each cedar box,
And drew up estimates for body-bags
And must revise them after each attack;
That someone seated on a forklift caught
Each coffin roughly in its iron prongs,
And dropped it on the pile; and that a guard
Is sealed up with the dead the whole flight long;
Knowing that all of these and hundreds more
Collaborate to help each soldier die,
Who could declare the necessary war?
Ignorance is responsibility.”

As I’m trying to make sense and draw maps of my new home, greater Seattle, Kirsch makes a fortuitous companion. He details the surface but never mistakes it for the essential. He writes in a realm beyond politics and history about something more difficult and important to understand -- the human essence that endures in spite of politics and history.

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