JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“Flower Flower” from Pinko by Jen Benka
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, NY, 2011)
On an evening walk in the Village last winter, plodding through more than a foot of fresh snow, I noticed two boys standing near a police van plowed in on the corner. One of them was writing something in the snow that covered the windshield of the van. I expected to read “pigs,” but then it occurred to me that kids probably don’t call cops “pigs” anymore. The boys ran down the street, and I stopped to read what they had written: “I love Eric.” Further down the block, written in the snow on a car window: “I love Paul.”
Simonides, a Greek poet of the fifth century B.C., invented a way to permanently preserve memories without writing called the loci method: you convert what you are trying to remember “into vivid mental images and then arrange them in some sort of architectural space, known as a memory palace.” On a trip to Paris a few years ago, I decided to walk over to 27 Rue de Fleurs [sic: JBR (Stein and Toklas lived on Rue de Fleurus, tho given what follows perhaps the “mistake” is intentional)], where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas had lived. I found the building and looked up at their window. The shutters opened. A hand emerged and sprinkled geranium petals down to the sidewalk. I picked them up and put them in my pocket. Kiss me. The shutters close. Kiss me. Slow then slowly.
Gertrude Stein said love could end the war. And the reporters laughed and laughed and laughed.
Lyndon Johnson: It became clear that if we were prepared to stay the course in Vietnam, we could help to lay the cornerstone for a diverse and independent Asia … The choice was clear: We would stay the course. We shall stay the course.” (Applause)
George W. Bush: “Some critics continue to assert that we have no plan in Iraq except to ‘stay the course.’ If by ‘stay the course,’ they mean we will not allow the terrorists to break our will, they are right. [sic: JBR (missing close-quotes)] (Applause)
This could be a memory palace: the space under the 16th Street viaduct where James and the other homeless Vietnam vets slept because they hated the shelter, with its cots and military-issue wool blankets.
Or an airplane hangar palace. Or a torched village palace. Or a palace made of
It is possible that social, political and cultural transformation will occur naturally
over time. It is possible that this will come as the result of an organized, non-violent
mass movement. It is possible there will be a revolution.
It is not possible that public officials will remember us more than they remember
the people who can afford to fund their campaigns for office, until we make their
Slow then slowly.
It is possible that resistance to political participation in the United States has been
rooted, in part, in the fear of feeling deeply: and that this fear has been, in part, a
fear of acknowledging our power.
The reason why is you didn’t work hard enough.
The reason why is you were raised by a single mother.
The reason why is you don’t have religion.
The reason why is you never finished high school.
The reason why is you got pregnant.
The reason why is you were exposed to toxic chemicals.
The reason why is you have PTSD.
The reason why is your chronic mental physical mental physical mental physical
The reason why is it runs in your family.
The reason why is it has to be somebody. It’s explained in the Bible, he explained to
me, Matthew 26:11 – “The poor you will always have with you.”
And the women wail, “Jesus, Jesus!”
In her 1978 essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Audre
Lorde writes about being diagnosed with breast cancer. She realizes that “I was
going to die, if not sooner than later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself.” She
concludes, “Your silence will not protect you.”
The school social worker asked the thirteen-year-old boy to write “your silence will
not protect you” on a piece of paper and keep it in his pocket. The next time they
called him a faggot, he took out the paper and read it to himself, and read it again.
A six-word comfort, a six-word rallying cry. A six-word palace.
Activists speaking at rallies demanding more money for AIDS research invoked
Lorde’s words. Readying himself for his weekly radio address and not realizing the
microphone was on, President Reagan said, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to
tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin
bombing in five minutes.”
For years, President Reagan refused to address the AIDS epidemic. When he finally
did in 1987, more than 20,000 people in this country had died from the disease.
Am I too silent? How do I forgive you without surrendering? Could I ever throw a
grenade? How can love ever be wrong?
And laughed and laughed and laughed.
In a 1975 interview, the pilot of the Enola Gay, Paul Tibbets, who dropped the H-
bomb [sic: JBR (the first hydrogen bomb was not dropped until 1952)] on
Hiroshima, said, “I’m not proud that I killed 80,000 people, but I’m proud that I was
able to start with nothing, plan it, and have it work as perfectly as it did.”
I killed 80,000 people. I’m not proud … but I’m proud.
Little Boy palace. Fat Man palace. Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall
The woman on the corner she is calling out: spare some change? spare some
There is one history that is offered to us. It is not our history.
In 1988 I cut off all my hair and bought steel-toed boots. At the reception after a
reading in Milwaukee by Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, I asked Burroughs
if he would sign my copy of Naked Lunch. He looked me in the eye and slurred, “You
should get out of this shit-hole, boy.”
To be found out.
There is a hierarchy of regret we must negotiate. What makes us feel death less?
This is another way of asking, how do we live in a body?
It is possible we will not allow lies to accumulate truth. It is possible that we will
vote for the candidate who will kill the fewest people.
On the board up at the end of the block someone had spray-painted “dream.” I touch
her cheek. Flower flower. Come to bed. And the sand is pouring out and we are the
sand. I am dreaming her face. I am dreaming.
The first thing I am struck by is the language. I am very much reminded of Lew Welch, which makes sense for me, since I cut my eyeteeth on his notion that if you say what you have to say in as straightforward a way as possible (the right words in the right order), the music will of necessity follow. This poem is NOT difficult to read or to follow. There is not a lot to untangle. The straightforward language makes an argument, or several.
The poem is concerned with war, on many levels: war against external enemies (as in: other nations and peoples), war against internal enemies (the poor, the queer, the broken), and war within the self (how should I respond to these other wars? With what weapons?)
I read Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy” last night (hat tip, Bhanu Kapil!). This is a similar poem. Though where Shelley had certainty vis-a-vis the weapons to overturn Evil, Benka only has questions. Perhaps that “only” is too strong; she returns over and over to the power of love, and the power of raising one’s voice in its name. But she has no conviction that these weapons are efficacious.
Which makes sense to me on two levels. First, Shelley’s certainty seems that of a child, of someone who believes, say, that Occupy is, was, and will be the be-all and end-all. While I certainly give props to Occupy and all it stands for, it’s just a beginning (if that). Shelley, of course, lived a long time ago. Benka has much more experience of the power of modern Evil. Second, Benka’s a poet. What weapons do poets have? We have our poems. And we know how weak they are, in the face of cluster bombs and unmanned drones and corporations-as-people. She asks herself whether she can throw a grenade. The answer (unspoken) is probably no.
One thing that puzzles me about this poem is the absence of any sense that the Evils Benka hates are in any way related to capitalism. Now, I would not, I definitely would not, advocate a kind of reductionism that insisted “Capitalism is the root of all evil.” There were evils before, and there will be evils after. But it’s certainly at the root of much of what this poem is troubled by: every war named here, the treatment of veterans, of the uneducated, of the mentally ill, etc.
And one thing troubles me. It harks back to Shelley’s “We are many. They are few.” It this paragraph:
It is possible that resistance to political participation in the United States has
Been rooted, in part, in the fear of feeling deeply: and that this fear has been,
That seems to me to be simply not true, and, what’s worse, not borne out by the rest of the poem. (I mean, Tibbets had one bomb, and killed 80,000 people. If they are armed, and we are not (and I’m not suggesting we arm ourselves, because, if nothing else, their weapons will be better than our weapons), our power is less than their power.
Benka does seem to (at least unconsciously) acknowledge this: “Activists speaking at rallies demanding more money for AIDS research invoked Lorde’s words.” When you’re demanding money you’re acknowledging your powerlessness …
Nevertheless. I find “Flower Flower” a necessary poem. It does indeed work as a memory palace, as intended. It keeps in mind much that must be kept in mind. It does indeed raise important “resistance” (if not “revolutionary”) questions, and it does it well. And it stresses the absolute necessity of struggle on all levels.
And the poem also reminds that we must struggle, if not for victory, then for life, for our own lives: “There is a hierarchy of regret we must negotiate. What makes us feel death less? This is another way of asking, how do we live in a body?” Which reminds me of Laura Moriarty’s “their empire … our time”). We do not, we should not, surrender our time.
I mean, I too love Chris, and I too love Paul.
[Oh, and I’m learning something else, here: there’s nothing like typing a poem to get a sense of it. Maybe Kenny Goldsmith’s onto something after all!]
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.