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.
This poem by Lynn Melnick deals with a more muted political context than some of the earlier poems in this series – and, I think, a more muted side of reality. On the surface, this poem is ekphrastic in nature: written after a photograph of a strip club being demolished with an excavator claw (the photo on question was part of this series, and is reposted below with the kind permission of photographer David Carol). However, to my mind, this poem speaks to the politicization of memory, the way in which we drape cognition with political demands: How do we, as a culture, define our expectations regarding the way survivors process trauma? How do we come to place responsibility on survivors of gender-based assaults and degradation – not only sexual responsibility, but psychological responsibility? Tell them, you must respond to your life experiences in one of the ways that others have already deemed appropriate – many of which, in fact, feel rather muted? I think the poem highlights these ideas by utilizing themes of sex work – our culture frequently treats sex workers as though their occupations stipulate relinquishing a certain amount of physical agency over the body, and over the mind that inhabits the body. I’m grateful for a poem that calls these assumptions – with steady, effectively muted tone – into question. I hope everyone who has been enjoying this series gets to spend a few quiet minutes with this important piece.
Landscape with Somewhere Else Now
No one walking here
will read my name into the road because I’m no one
and no one else would be walking here.
I don’t penetrate a lot of sky although
if you believe the bulletin, I was sunshine.
Don’t touch me. It’s not strictly allowed.
Remember telephone wires?
The common raven never cared about me from up there
but I watched their carnage all down the coastline
and they watched mine behind all this splendor as the morning came up.
Somewhere else now
girls vibrate urgently for your tips and when I say girls
I mean that.
Biography ungags me
then saws the scene in half.
I’m ready. I’ve been my own excavator for years now
and it’s always the same scree.
I instinctively touch my provocative hair.
Lynn Melnick is author of If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012) and co-editor, with Brett Fletcher Lauer, of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015). She teaches at 92Y in NYC and is the social media & outreach director for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.