Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Time and Materials

Feeling a little tired today (7.45 am breakfast meetings are just plain inhuman) so will content myself with posting a poem from Robert Hass' National Book Award winning collection Time and Materials. Not perhaps the best poem in the collection, but probably the most political.

A Poem

"You would think God would relent," the American poet Richard
Eberhardt wrote during World War II, "listening to the fury of
aerial bombardment." Of course, God is not the cause of aerial
bombardment. During the Vietnam War, the United States hired the
Rand Corporation to conduct a study of the effects in the peasant
villages of Vietnam of their policy of saturation bombing of the
countryside. The policy had at least two purposes: to defoliate the
tropical forests as a way of locating the enemy and to kill the enemy if
he happened to be in the way of the concussion bombs or the napalm
or the firebombs. The RAND Corporation sent a young scholar
named Leon Goure to Vietnam. His study was rushed by the air force
which was impatient for results, but he was able to conduct interviews
through interpreters with farmers in the Mekong Delta and the
mountainous hillside farm regions around Hue. He concluded that
the incidental damage to civilian lives was very considerable and that
the villagers were angry and afraid, but he also found that they blamed
the Viet Cong - the insurrectionist army the U.S. was fighting - and
not the United States for their troubles, because they thought of the
Viet Cong as their legitimate government and felt it wasn't protecting
them. Seeing that the bombing was alienating the peasantry from
the enemy Vietnamese, Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense,
General William Westmoreland, the commander in charge of
prosecuting the war, and Lyndon Johnson, the president of the
United States, ordered an intensification of the bombing. In the end,
there were more bombs dropped on the villages and forests of South
Vietnam than were dropped in all of World War II. The estimated
Vietnamese casualties during the war is two million. It was a war whose
principle strategy was terror. More Iraqi civilians have now been
incidental casualties of the conduct of war in Iraq than were killed
by Arab terrorists in the destruction of the World Trade Center.
In the first twenty years of the twentieth century 90 percent of war
deaths were the deaths of combatants. In the last twenty years of the
twentieth century 90 percent of war deaths were deaths of civilians.
There are imaginable responses to these facts. The nations of the
world could stop setting an example for suicide bombers. They could
abolish the use of land mines. They could abolish the use of aerial
bombardment in warfare. You would think men would relent.

- Robert Hass
You can see Dan Chiasson's review of Hass' new book over at the New Yorker. I tend to agree with Chiasson's view that "Hass’s work of the past twenty years, culminating in “Time and Materials,” is his best, and its strengths derive entirely from that impulse to ransack his own lyric gift", except that I found Time and Materials fairly uneven, and can't help feeling it's more a weakening than a culmination. There are some glorious poems here - 'Then Time', which Chiasson mentions, is lovely; 'Bush's War' (with it's almost Neruda like opening) is powerful; 'I am your waiter tonight and my name is Dmitri' is hilarious; and I really like 'The Problem of Describing Color', 'Envy of Other People's Poems' and 'Art and Life'. But some of his more experimental poems get a little too clever for me (see, for instance, the title poem of the collection here) while some of the later poems (such as 'State of the Planet') feel a little too preachy, as if Hass hadn't quite recovered from being Poet Laureate.