Preacherless choir

Wave Books compilation State of the Union: 50 Political Poems offers singing, not sermons
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superego@sfbg.com

REVIEW What's wrong with anger? Nothing — it's a perfectly cromulent human emotion. But it sure makes for awful poetry, especially if it's poured undiluted by humor, hope, or reflection into the "frail vessel" of verse, like hydrochloric acid into Tupperware. The poem may be true, the poem may be honest — but honey, the fumes'll kill ya. I'll happily read another righteous anti-Dubya rant, but it better at least make me laugh, dammit.

Which is why I approach a contemporary book like State of the Union: 50 Political Poems (Wave Books) with antsy trepidation. Current events are poetry's bait and bane — who will write the great 9/11 poem, the great Iraq Occupation poem, the great Bush empire poem? Who cares but the poet who wants to be "great"? Life's too short for speculative canonical teleology, let alone its correct pronunciation. And then there's the anger thing. Poems are intrinsically liberal (anybody got a good anti-abortion aubade or Turd Blossom terza rima?). And if there's one thing we've learned in the past few years, it's that liberals can certainly sputter with outrage. Besides, what poem isn't political, anyway? Even a Hallmark card's sappy innards are mawkish missiles aimed for Granny's good graces.

So hurray for the folks at Wave Books, whose broadminded selections in State, chosen after an open call for submissions, satisfy the need for like-minded connection but don't stint on the wry entertainment, subtle engagement, or lyrical expression. Included are some comforting big names (John Ashbery, James Tate, Michael Palmer) as well as many lesser-known but perhaps more appropriate ones. I was tickled to read new shit from Matthew Rohrer, whose electric-fork-filled debut, 1991's A Hummock in the Malookas (W.W. Norton), still weakens my knees, and Guardian contributor Garrett Caples, whose lethally crisp contribution here, For Thom Gunn, links the great local poet's sad, meth-addled demise to our political system's own: "Nightmare of beasthood, snorting, how to wake." No slouching toward either Bethlehem or Gomorrah there. Also great is Tao Lin's stickily perverse "room night," which intrudes on fragments of airy philosophical rumination with obsessive cravings for 80-cent sesame bagels smeared with peanut butter and "beautiful music created by depressed vegans."

Yes, the greatest political hits of the past eight years are here, Guantánamo and all. Lucille Clifton's quite-famous "september song: a poem in 7 days" is the ultimate "what were you doing when the towers fell" diary, transported somehow into political heresy by her insistent invocations of "apples and honey / apples and honey." Rohrer's "Elementary Science for Dick Cheney" and Anselm Berrigan's "The Autobiography of Donald Rumsfeld" uproariously take those curs on directly, while Dan Bogan's "A Citizen" is a vertiginous inventory of the twilit ironies common to "great" empires. ("There were the usual cabals / careers to be made among court intrigues / as the wheels of dynasty ground slowly through a calendar of ceremonies.")

And my favorite entry in the volume is, indeed, a rant — "Dear Mister President There Was Egg Shell under Your Desk Last Night in My Dream!" by CAConrad — one of those rambling, touching run-ons that never stops for punctuation and shouts, "HEY we're all going to be dead in a hundred years so let's shift the pace let's forget about war let's pass a Let's Get Naked and Crazy Holiday" and then proceeds to offer the president "a good massage maybe we could go to the creek and paint secret mud symbols on our naked bodies like I used to do with my first boyfriend what happens after that will be fine you'll see." The poem offers love, not clogged indignation.

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