On September 5, 2014, NPR ran an essay by critic Juan Vidal titled, “Where Have All the Poets Gone?” which questioned whether American poets still produce political work, and suggested that “literary [political] provocation in America is . . . at a low.” Because I find this assessment of contemporary American letters to be very incomplete, I wanted to take the opportunity to create a dialogue on the subject by curating a series of compelling political poems from contemporary American poets. I christened this series “Political Punch” as an affectionate reflection on the cocktail of poets who decided to honor me with their participation in my little Infoxicated Corner; it was intended to celebrate the glorious mix of poetics, voices, and life experiences all being shaken and stirred into a sense of community and conversation, being distilled into burning gulps of experience for the reader. Leaving aside all the boozed-up metaphors, it was also intended to celebrate my experience of American letters, in all their willingness and ability to pack a political punch.
Erin Belieu’s poem, “How We Count in the South,” continue threads of conversation regarding the American legacy of race-based violence (see also: Yolanda J. Franklin’s poem from earlier this week). It also expresses critical frustration with the certain brand of ideological intolerance that permeates many aspects of American Southern culture, attempting to disguise itself as pious Christianity. I think, though, that part of what makes it so compellingly political is its undercurrent of regional tensions. While regionalism is surely a political issue in the States today, I don’t think we discuss it (or even publicly acknowledge it) as often as we might. (Raised in both the North and the South, I have found myself repeatedly exposed to incorrect, prejudicial Northern attitudes that Southerners are a monolithic class of people: ignorant and uneducated, embarrassingly obsessed with an unrecoverable past and blind to all its evils; I have, likewise, listened to ill-founded charges of Yankee snobbery, elitism, and the odd notion that Northern Americans uniquely blend affluence & access with decadence & immoral excess.) When Belieu writes about Civil War battle reenactments – a tradition fed at least in part, in some areas, by tourist dollars from Northern vacationers – and follows it immediately with, “Oh sure. It gets to us./ Story is, up north, people shit/ crushed pineapple and rest stop/ whores make change with paper/ money,” it seems hard to believe that this poem is only an indictment of problematic Southern politics.
How We Count In The South
tonight, when the barred owl
calls her tent revival, the cortege
trailing a mosquito truck’s
Plus two, the night
before, where they inject one more
black man up the road in Georgia.
The Supreme Court tweets his final
Which leads to three:
Dear Jesus, The Reason
For Each Season, of course we’re
exhausted by our souls’ litigation;
the old ones still milling at the polling
place, the recently deceased sweating
their subpoenas in feckless hands.
Required to appear,
we wait. We nurse ourselves and take
a number. We lean against the sneeze
guard at the country buffet until our
Please. Don’t tell us
history. Nobody hearts a cemetery
like we do,
where re-enactors bite
their bullets between headstones,
and ancient belles in neck-high silk
prepare for the previously fought
war. Every day is a day before.
Though we do hear
the news. Oh sure. It gets to us.
Story is, up north, people shit
crushed pineapple and rest stop
whores make change with paper
money. Story is
inscribed, fixed as
the roulette wheels clacking inside
casinos, where party boats freak
like viscous bath toys in this
Certainly, we’ve learned
our numbers. We build a church for
anyone who owns a pair of knees.
But still, the old disease is catching,
so pray with us–
Unplug the power, Lord.
Illuminate the devils. Degrease
the righteous man’s eye.
Erin Belieu is the author of four poetry collections, all from Copper Canyon Press, including her forthcoming Slant Six, due in November 2014.