by John Roche

Kanona, NY: Foothills Publishing, 2008, 83 pp., $16

Review by
Stephen Lewandowski


Topicality, meaning attention to current and/or local events, can be a tough fit for poetry, dependent as poetry is on the concept, if not the actuality, of inspiration. We know the Muses give orders, but their orders are usually couched in dream, association, vision, metaphor, even serendipity, coming up from the dark, intuitive and unconscious.

By contrast, topics are given by events, persons, places, authorities and fate. If topics are the Apollonian embodied, then inspiration is the uncontrollable Dionysian. It seems odd to me that Americans have recently embraced the concept of the Poet Laureate, since the quality of the production of historical laureates has been poor. The English poets laureate, after all, were the official poets who would produce on-demand, for the occasions and topics named by the authorities: An Ode on the Queen's Birthday, for example. Alfred, Lord Tennyson was one of few poets to continue producing decent poems despite the 'honorary' laurels given him.

In modern times, the topical poem has most often addressed the political realm. Somewhere between Silence of the Snowy Fields (locally topical) and The Teeth Mother Naked at Last (current events), Robert Bly produced an extended, poetic Viet Nam War protest. As collections of poems, the books were successful at addressing, or in spite of addressing, places and issues. Who was courting the Muses more ardently in those days than Robert Bly? Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Marge Piercy and Wendell Berry, to name poets whom I enjoy, made forays via poems into realms political. Perhaps we could agree that many serious poets of the sixties and seventies registered that there was a war going on between a powerful nation and a small one, that casualties were being borne inordinately by civilians in the small nation, and that the poets' sympathies were not entirely with the large nation that happened to be their home. Fair enough?

Now, as the children say, fast forward to today (horrid metaphor, by the way). Now we teeter on the edge of a world described by George Orwell's 1984, characterized by an unending war and slippery and obtuse official language designed to obfuscate that reality. Like the White Queen, Donald Rumsfeld's words mean what he wants them to mean, not their common meaning.

What Would Confucius Do? Confucius says, 'First reform the language to reform relations.' Right relations between individuals will become right relations in the family will become right relations in the state. Who's in charge of reforming the language? Perhaps the poets. 'MAKE IT NEW,' Pound screamed.

Yes, the poets. Who will make sure the language is straight, true, accurate and authentic? Poets like John Roche. Why does a spade need to be called a spade? Because otherwise it may become a costly entrenching tool. Notice that nearly all direct language derives from the Anglo-Saxon, and that most weasel-words are Latinate. John Roche's poetry is mini-syllabic, and its language is direct and compact. Likewise, the poems may be savored but they seldom require linguistic study. A poem like

                     For Yevgenia

I ate rose petal jelly
      with my toast this morning

Rose petal jelly
      produced in the Pyrenees
      given me by a Russian friend
            living in the US
      to accompany my whole grain toast
           product of Canada

That's the kind of Global Exchange I can stomach
      like folksongs carried by tinkers and peddlers
            along with their packs
      or some new algebra spread camelback
          ; along the Great Silk Road

Not tons of bioengineered corn
      melamine-filled petfood
      lead-tipped toys
      crates and crates and crates full of bibles and munitions

Just a pot of rose petal jelly

makes its point in a workman-like way, cutting, trimming and fitting the lines into a box whose lid snaps shut on the moral.

What does the topical poet want? The topical poet wants poems to have instrumentality, to change things. Can poems change things? Obviously Auden thought not when he wrote in 'Elegy for W.B. Yeats' that 'poems survive in the valley of their making…..' How should we view Auden's belief more than half a century later? I take the liberty of interpreting Auden to say that poems, though modest in their survival needs, should address the eternal verities, and that those poems which link themselves too closely to ephemeral events become 'dated.' Of course, Auden's poem for Yeats is absolutely dated, linking the death of the poet in January, 1939 with world events memorialized in his 'September 1, 1939.'

According to the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, magic is founded on 'the belief that hope cannot fail nor desire deceive.' All poems embody some magic and, however briefly and effectively, re-make a poem/world in which wishes can come true. As we know from when children are asked about their wishes, childish wishes range from world peace and an end to hunger and disease to a new toy. For adults, the power of prayer seems to operate roughly the same way.

For poets like John Roche, the aims of the topical poem are grandiose and modest at the same time: in this case, for all of us to recognize that the President is naked, no clothes at all. Poems such as 'A Walk in the Woods', 'Cultus,' 'Spring Comes to Baghdad', 'Pieta', 'Elegy for the Bill of Rights' and 'Gleneagles Sequence' perform this revelatory function to a t.

In a previous review of Roche's On Conesus, I asked for more 'political poems,' and Topicalities delivers. I'm glad to have this collection because in the future it will remind me of the agony of having a petty, mean-spirited, ignorant President and an insensitive government so out of touch with the people whom they purport to serve and so incoherent in their pronouncements. Clearly, It Can Happen Here, and only citizens' vigilance can derail the stampede.

Though poets like Roche reform the language, they are also part of a long tradition. Roche's work alludes to Cold War rhetoric, cartoon characters, and a dissenting song tradition traceable through Guthrie, Seeger, Baez and Dylan. To quote, 'The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living.' (Auden again, same poem) Roche takes up some of the material of our popular culture and turns it to the poem's use:


A lone dirtbiker rides
around and around
uncultivated field
(once home to a nursery)
whose mounds of fill dirt salute
adjacent apartment complex
where, a week after Memorial Day,
friends and family gather for a cookout/
sendoff for a son

Potato salad and hotdogs and baked beans and brownies
in the shadow of the prison where his Mom is employed
graying grandchildren of those who used to farm these hills
endure the biting wind and talk quietly
a bit unsure how to behave
at such a June wedding
with a groom but no bride

Far up the slopes of these green hills
this land was your land

When the language is returned to us by the poem, we sense something has changed but couldn't point to a specific word. We know the words but haven't seen them do this dance before. In this poem, Roche presents us with the Persephone legend turned inside-out. He plays on the several meanings of 'nursery' and questions if we're witnessing birth or death in the sendoff/cookout. He emphasizes the nurture implicit in agri-culture and implies the loss of these values (tough Mom employed in the prison). Simply turning the phrase 'this land is your land' to the past tense with a 'was' is warning enough of the dangers that Roche sees and decries.