... poets love to haul disorder in
Braiding their wrists with her long mistress hair.
- Stanley Kunitz
There are two kinds of political poets: those who frequently die or are at least exiled for political causes; and those who inform. We are all familiar with the names of poets that rose up out of the vortices of war and revolution: Federico Garcia Lorca, Siegfried Sassoon, DuoDuo. It is also along this line that a country's poetry is designated as occupation or pastime: Neruda was a voice Chile needed to define itself in the middle of the century. He was the voice as much of the working man as he was of the lover and the ocean. The cultures that create these poets are ones in which poetry is bread, and these are poets whom we think of as having a direct influence on the well-being of their readers. Denise Levertov described the political poet as having "an [indirect] effect upon the course of events by awakening pity, terror, compassion, and the conscience of leaders."
In times and countries of comparative peace, however, the revolutionary voice is often greeted as alarmist or foolish. The impulse to respond to conditions of suffering still exists in these cultures, however; they produce poets who take a moral stand, but one that doesn't put their lives at risk. Stephen Spender spoke of such poets as these in an article in Partisan Review in 1967, when he said that their "political attitudes.consisted largely of gestures towards some movement, idea, or leader that seemed to stand for the writer's deeply held sense of tradition. Such gestures were largely rhetorical." There are many great poets writing in this vein right now, and frequently these voices are deeply involved in the lives of their countries: Philip Levine, Donald Hall, and Denise Levertov in the United States; Yehuda Amichai in Israel; Yevtushenko in Russia (however silly he's become in recent years); Sweden's Tomas Tranströmer; Ireland's Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon.
Canada's absence from this list should be pointedly observed. The political voice as a voice speaking for its own nation is missing here. For whatever quasi-explanation that invokes some eternal fact of our national character you wish to employ, this is not a society that either wants or seems to need its poets to speak for it. (I'm speaking, incidentally, only of English Canada.) I don't intend to discuss the issue of political will among writers in Canada, but it is impossible to discuss political writing in this country without noting that we are lacking in a poetry that addresses directly our particular (and peculiar) polis. We are, instead, a country of writers who prefer masks; we are mostly good at standing at a remove.
Which is not to say we are entirely without political poets. We have plenty of poets with axes to grind, and they do grind away. Political poetry, however, in the context I mean it, excludes poetry that lobbies and poetry as a form of demagoguery. Our political poets comprise such writers as Tom Wayman and Milton Acorn. Then there's Dennis Lee's Civil Elegies and some of the poetry of Lane, Atwood, and Purdy. And certainly some of Gerry Gilbert. More recently, I think of George Elliott Clarke and Maggie Helwig, but when I think of a poet whose work has been almost entirely motivated by response to political issues, I think only of Gary Geddes. George Woodcock called him "Canada's best political poet". This was not said ironically, but he might as well have said, "best, most, and just about only political poet".
This shouldn't diminish Geddes's accomplishment, though. Being unique has never been a setback (unless you're talking blood type), and with The Perfect Cold Warrior, his fourteenth collection, his distinction as the best of a kind remains unchallenged. His work has always troubled me, however, and on two counts. The first is related to how he chooses to approach his subject-matter. The second is a cavil weakened by its subjectivity: I frequently feel his craft lags behind his passion. The Perfect Cold Warrior affords a chance to examine his work on both fronts, as well as giving readers an even better opportunity to see a very fine thinker and political poet at the peak of his abilities.
".metaphors, which, by making history appear a poetic act, tend to regard human beings as words to be acted upon."
What Geddes has become justly celebrated for are his seamless impersonations. In War Measures and Other Poems, he spoke in the voice of Paul Joseph Chartier, the man who blew himself up in the House of Commons bathroom in May 1966; and in The Terracotta Armies, he masked himself in the guise of the nameless clay armies that were buried with the first emperor of China. Previous reviewers have drawn parallels to Atwood's Susanna Moodie and Ondaatje's Buddy Bolden when discussing his impersonations, but these seems to me only cosmetic similarities. Where Atwood and Ondaatje use personae to explore ideas (in those instances they delved into the issues of madness and making, among others), Geddes seems to want to understand the very people whose heads he chooses to inhabit. His is a poetry of demystification and truth-telling, and his purpose has always appeared to be the very one Levertov described when she used the word "awaken". My question with Geddes has always been, Whom is he trying to awaken? The question of whom his poetry is meant to address has always given me pause, and I can't decide if his choice of subject-matter is deeply personal (and so, consistent) or if it's a case of cause-mongering. The Perfect Cold Warrior sheds some clues for me on his inspirations, and gave some new sense of what this kind of political poetry might be about.
In The Perfect Cold Warrior, Geddes returns to territory both familiar and not. In the second section, "Palestine", we hear the men and women of Palestinian villages, speaking of their lives as prisoners in their own country. In "Norwegian Rabbit" (the long poem that concludes the book), Geddes recounts, in the first person, the final days of Leon Trotsky, exiled in Mexico. The first section ("The Drive") is, however, a suite of poems in which he abandons both the didacticism of his political work and his fictionalized candour. For with this selection of poems, Geddes has decided to confess. I was surprised by this choice, and I felt these poems were quite weak, and among the least convincing he has written, mainly because with the loss of his mask, he seems to have lost the rhetorical power that comes when he puts it on and stands at a remove.
The poems of "The Drive" exhibit the infirmities of poems that come out mainly through the impulse to tell all. In these poems, he explores his "dysfunctional" childhood (according to the new-agey catchphrase on the back cover), and he seems to want to impress upon us that he comes by his hatred of fascism honestly. But instead, these are poems so loose in construction that they feel like diary entries with line breaks. How is:
... She smiles
and asks about my step-mother before ringing up items
and entering the total in her book. It isn't the same
with the old man, who works sporadically for the railway
and likes customers who pay cash, which he pockets
for his own purposes.
"She smiles and asks about my step-mother before ringing up items and entering the total in her book. It isn't the same with the old man, who works sporadically for the railway and likes customers who pay cash, which he pockets for his own purposes"?
I would think we ought to find the prose version of those lines somewhat forced or too heightened to strike us as real prose. But instead, they seem almost better set as prose, and that's because the lines lack tension, rhythm, or any sense of language being distilled into emotion. "The Drive" is full of poems that declaim their contents without a nod to imagery or metaphor; they appear to want to finally divulge all of what has not been said without a thought to how it might be said in poetry. The occasional trope makes it through, although I was shocked to read at the end of the very first poem:
... the time-
bomb of a father I carry like a
ticking clock inside.
Never mind that a time-bomb is a ticking clock, the image is so shop-worn that I couldn't believe any established poet in mid-career would let himself get away with it. In other places, the imagery is muddled. In a fine turn of phrase, Geddes describes a polio victim who "wears time in/ a lump on his back," but at the end of the poem, internalizes the hunchback's condition in his memory of those days, which is "a hump/ to bear like an albatross upon my back."
I could keep on carping about this first section; as far as craft is concerned, these are poems that could have used a sharpened editorial pencil.
Standing further back from his subject-matter, however, Geddes's craft shines in poems of stirring emotional depth. "Palestine" begins with the poem "Hanan", in which a woman relates her family's "relocation" when settlers destroy her home. The humanity of this voice startles in its intimacy and familiarity. The woman's child (the Hanan of the title) vanishes in the confusion and turns up at a friend's house
... at sunrise
holding a red pencil and would eat
nothing until he gave her a piece of lined
paper, on which she reproduced letters
of the alphabet.
The grace of these lines (and the natural stanza break that delays our recognition of what is on the paper, as if it were being turned to us) is a far cry from the tetchy, static lines of the first section. What is evidenced but utter freedom of voice and poetic brio in lines like:
Too late for lemons and languor.
Beyond the walls idleness
An olive tree, blackened
by fire, glances over its shoulder
at the retreating azure
a tethered goat
on the confiscated dunams.
Try setting that as prose. It'd be like trying to make a river stand up and be a tree. The sheer loveliness of the sound in the first stanza, followed by the organic shape of the second ("hills" on its own followed by a long breath, and then the goat, immutably real in the foreground) forges a place for us through the agency of what it has inspired. "Palestine" is full of poems like these, not just beautifully turned, but replete with the distillations we come to expect from political poetry, those visitations in language that make raw and immediate the confusions of complex issues. So the dates of the Israeli/Arab conflicts come at us, though the eyes of a Palestinian, as: " '26, '48, '67, '82./ Profane lottery." And in the poem "What Does A House Want?" Geddes brings home with clarity the weakened border between the political and the private, and the grief that no wall is strong enough to preserve home:
... no house has ever been convicted
of a felony, unless privacy
be considered a crime in the new
("What Does A House Want?")
"Palestine" is a meditation by way of disguise. It exhorts us to see clearly the lives of people who live in poverty and fear, and to see them as lives we might live ourselves, if only the situation were different. Surely this is one of the tasks of political poetry, and Geddes handles it with grace and understanding. He sidesteps the dangers inherent in being an observer, and we sense none of the knee-jerk liberalism and superficial empathy that a lesser poet would evince in an urge to prove compassion. These are poems that frequently lack closure, or that are ambiguous enough to skirt sounding hectoring. They are immediate, and disturbing because we feel the commitment of the poet thrumming beneath them.
One of my problems with Geddes is in knowing how to take him. This isn't a problem of categorization (after all, who cares what slot he belongs in?) but one of intent. His poetry has always been linked by the trope of war, whether it be from the point of view of those conquered, those leading others into battle, or those who fight in the trenches (or the bathrooms). But is he driven by a true cause, or is he a political tourist? On one hand, I can hardly expect a poet to stay in one place just to prove he's serious, but on the other, the sheer variation in Gedde's poetry sometimes begins to turn his work into a spectacle of outrage.
If Geddes is our "best political poet" (and I haven't disagreed with Woodcock), then the question has to be asked, What kind of political poet is he? Perhaps returning to the first section can provide some perspectives. Standing back from the poems of "The Drive", and setting aside my problems with the writing, some links between these raw, private poems, and those that have come before and after offer a clue to Geddes's masking impulses and what kind of politics this poetry is about. The content of these personal poems is difficult to assimilate, but I think the connection to his other work is not in the theme of oppression, but in the approach: it's the first person that's the link. And from here, an interesting, fugitive idea emerges: is his work political poetry in an autobiographical mode? And not autobiography of the facts of a life lived, but the inner life, an emotional autobiography? Most would agree that the artist's choice to depict something (over something else) is an autobiography of sorts (as is literary criticism, which Delmore Schwartz once called "inneresting"). But in the case of political poetry, we tend to think of writers as being in the service of something else; a cause, a people, a country. This has never seemed true of Geddes, but the idea of other voices and other struggles as being a refraction of one's own seems to be a useful notion when it comes to thinking about him as a "political" poet.
Gold teeth extracted in the antechambers
of Belsen serve as talismans
for those who blame their fathers
for the social order.
("B. C. Collateral)
In the final section of The Perfect Cold Warrior, "Norwegian Rabbit", Geddes turns to the troubling voice of Leon Trotsky. The year is 1940 and Trotsky is in his final exile after a life of various banishments, rejections, and partial victories. As one of the architects of the Russian Revolution, he was a brilliant polemicist and orator, but his trying personality earned him a lifetime of lost comrades and causes. "Norwegian Rabbit" takes place at the very end of his life, when he and his wife have settled in Mexico after being deported or refused by Russia, Turkey, France, and Norway. In exile, he continues his work as an intellectual, writing lasting contributions to socialist theory as well as his biography of Lenin. Geddes's Trotsky describes himself as a "prisoner of my house/ my convictions".
Using Trotsky's fictional memories of the Kronstadt uprising, Geddes gives us the great man looking back, sometimes with doubt, on a life which used violence to achieve its ends, and which is about to end violently. Trotsky speaks to us without much mediation from the poet, and these twenty-four poems come across as the last confessions of a revolutionary. They are, by turns, compelling and moving; it's a wonderful accomplishment to give depth and humanity to a man larger than life and made cold by history. Sometimes Geddes manages to translate "Trotsky's" observations into imagery that does the work of ten manifestos. Of a gardener who lost his leg fighting the good fight alongside Zapata:
[His] artificial leg, scrubbed
and drying by the adobe wall,
rises from its detachable
foot like an exclamation mark.
And these moments are also sometimes accomplished with great good humour (in this case taken direct from Trotsky, I believe):
Outside, I hear the clucking of my chickens;
in here, the clicking of the dictating-machine
we've named "Little Joseph."
I might argue for some attention to rhythm in the third line, but the laugh and the nod aren't lost. In fact, Geddes's occasional false notes (would Trotsky say "they were free/ to conduct monster rallies in Anchor Square"?) are overwhelmed by the sheer mastery of his subject. There is a tension and directness that seems in keeping with Trotsky's persona, and although it is a poem that emphasizes its content over its sound, it has an immediacy that gives it undeniable power. Geddes brings Trotsky down to earth as a man, not an icon. The voice, speaking to us with such calm while in the precincts of madness (this is, after all, a Russian political genius forced to live in Mexico), tells us everything we have to know about the soul behind it, with such proclamations as:
My demand for "permanent revolution" advocates
pruning and renewal to keep the bureaucracy
from promoting privilege.
. Cognition emanates
from the intersection of nature
We have to assume that Geddes's intent here is not a bald revisiting of Trotsky's theories, but rather an investigation of an emotional state. Geddes's Trotsky is repeating his ideas as if they were a comforting mantra, while all around cacti bloom and amateur Bolsheviks bring him their essays for correction.
"Norwegian Rabbit" is probably Geddes's masterpiece. It's more compressed and intense than anything else in his work, and it has the hallmarks of a mature poet knowing how to use his strengths. The Trotsky of "Norwegian Rabbit" is still the ever-certain, overwhelming intellect of history, but underneath, he is the man crumbling, the man doubting his origins, and the man facing diminishing returns. We are not free to speculate how much of this is also the poet's portion, but the connection to the voice and the decision to inhabit Trotsky at this point in his life raises questions that are only vaguely attended to in the first section of the book. Those poems seem foggy, incomplete, unauthoritative. They are dissatisfying to read, and seem to be burdened with their task. In "Norwegian Rabbit", the subject is something the poet knows less about and yet we believe him more.
With Trotsky, Geddes is free to explore a father different from the one he presents in his first section, but this one can't be destroyed by writing about him. And so Geddes holds nothing back, and the poem lifts off. He offers much to contemplate beneath the surface. He writes (as Trotsky) about his childhood catching pigeons and how, instead of wanting to inhabit their nice new cages, they flew back to where they'd come from. He says to us,
I'll spare you the obvious political
analogies. What if the proletariat
cannot rule, what if they fail to achieve
and we laugh a little at the cleverness of his (Geddes's/ Trotsky's) metaphor. But at the end of the poem, Geddes goes all the way with the image, renewing it and throwing it back in not only our faces, but in Trotsky's too. He pictures a dead childhood friend addressing him by his original name, admonishing him after all his failures to:
... Pay attention, Lev Davidovich,
everything comes home to roost.
There are all kinds of lovely depth charges like this going off throughout "Norwegian Rabbit". The title itself is the Mexican name for the lemming, a creature famous for committing suicide off cliff-edges. It's not too far a leap to see Trotsky's life as a series of cliffs he brazenly, willingly launched himself over, and perhaps not too hard to see that Geddes is fascinated by human lemmings. There's Chartier, blowing himself up in the House of Commons; there's America set against itself at Kent State; and there's the poet's father, drunk: "the paternal/ corpse speak[ing] out, scripting my narrative."
Unlike Trotsky, the poet says he writes "instead of wreaking havoc"; Trotsky did both. But the connection is sound enough: this biographical poem is autobiographical of an impulse, something suppressed in the poet and given wing through another of history's difficult guardians. "I come running," the poet writes in an earlier poem, "with the latest bad news." Only whose bad news is it? Is it the bad news of the world, the bad news of the intrigues of private life, or the bad news of the secret wish, the hidden anxiety, some worry about the fortifications of the self? The modern shibboleth of the "personal" being "political" is given strange twists in Geddes's work, and The Perfect Cold Warrior provides readers with fascinating evidence of a twinned purpose.
In "B.C. Collateral" (quoted earlier), Geddes describes his father selling in a pawn shop, for seven dollars, a gold tooth the poet found as a child. From there, he makes an unusual leap, linking the found tooth to the teeth extracted in the concentration camps, and then states that these teeth are "talismans" for a poet who blames his father for the "social order". The evolution of the imagery in this poem is both difficult and ironic. Is Geddes saying that the loss of a childhood keepsake brought the sufferings of millions into focus for him? Or is the poem coding an intent, ironically twisting the injustices of childhood to make an excuse for the roots (ultimately unknowable) of an adult calling? Two events (one personal, one historical) forge a connection on the level of poetic intent, and this is also the link between the "I" of the poems in "The Drive", in "Palestine", and in "Norwegian Rabbit". That is what I mean by describing Geddes's work as political poetry in an autobiographical mode. Just as Geddes makes no elaborate distinction between a tooth found as a child and teeth extracted in concentration camps, so he also doesn't close the emotional circuits between the child who becomes a writer and Hanan, the child who runs to a friend's house and finds solace in a red pencil. Similarly, there is no explicit difference between "father" and "Trotsky" and the first person pronoun Geddes uses to explore both figures. The subterranean connections are left open in all these poems, and what is found in the passageway is rich with associations.
There is always something in the political voice that should trigger doubt in the reader: the best political poem meets the strong-arm with its own authority. But how is this authority earned? Neruda has an answer: "Political poetry is more deeply emotional than any other except love poetry. You must have traversed the whole of poetry before you become a political poet."
In other words, metaphysician, know thyself. Geddes is true to Neruda's creed, and he has forded the rivers that have led to the place he writes from now. What is a political poetry? The words that sit alongside "political" embrace all of what it can and must be: it is a poetry that is civic, public, domestic, and internal. Whether writing about Palestine, his father, or the last days of a revolutionary leader, Geddes navigates the complexities of the issues he raises by rooting himself in the internal. The argument might be over what real content of the poet's life is contained in any of his impersonations, but the reply to the argument is always the pronoun "I".