JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“Confession of a Corpuscle: Cancer-Parable of Plutocracy (For the Bush Money Boys)” in Millennial Harvest: The Life & Collected Poems of Charles Greenleaf Bell
(Helen Lane Editions/Lumen Books, Santa Fe, 2006)
Confession of a Corpuscle:
Cancer-Parable of Plutocracy
For the Bush Money Boys
Coursing through the life-maze of arterial blood,
On pulse throbs of the heart, I came
To a realm of growth, a seething brood
Of propagating cells, where the tame
Decorum of an ordered benign broke
Into abandoned burgeoning;
These gobs of flesh and tissue soak
In an ooze of lymph. Wallowing
In the frenzy of that blood-rush, I join the race
To enjoy the unrefined, rapturous, free
Ardor of that breeding place.
There nudge a dawdling neighbor: “What ecstasy!”
“In such exuberance,” his sage reply,
“Of cancerous growth, the organic whole must die.”
Millenial Harvest is two books in one: an autobiography, interspersed with poems, and a collection of Bell’s three published books of poems. The third book was published in 1963. The autobiography was published in 2006. I chose a poem from the latter, one of his last poems, in fact, because I wanted to see what had happened to his poetics, and to his sensibility, etc. during his later decades.
The first thing to note that this is a sonnet. It’s not quite traditional in that the line length varies. But it does follow an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme, which places it pretty firmly in the Elizabethan tradition.
According to Wikipedia (why not?)
The third quatrain generally introduces an unexpected sharp thematic or imagistic “turn”; the volta. In Shakespeare's sonnets, however, the volta usually comes in the couplet, and usually summarizes the theme of the poem or introduces a fresh new look at the theme.
I suppose, then, that this could be considered Shakespearian, though, given the dedication to the “Bush Money Boys”, it is possible to read the third quatrain as (parabolistically, at least) a volta in itself, upon which the final couplet is a commentary.
“Confession of a Corpuscle: Cancer-Parable of Plutocracy For the Bush Money Boys”. We are told right off that we are to read this poem on two levels: first, in reference to cancer. Bell did in fact have cancer, and the section of the autobiography that surrounds this poem is concerned with that fact, and with his treatment. Second, we are to read the cancer as a metaphor for utterly unrestrained plutocratic greed.
“Coursing through the life-maze of arterial blood, / On pulse throbs of the heart, I came / To a realm of growth, a seething brood / Of propagating cells, where the tame / Decorum of an ordered being broke / Into abandoned burgeoning”. Though this is a more-or-less Shakespearian sonnet, it begins with a parody of the opening lines of Dante’s terza-rima Commedia. The life-maze of the arterial blood is “midway through the journey of our life”, and the “seething brood … abandoned burgeoning” is the “dark forest”. Which, regardless of the parable level of this poem, makes perfect affective sense to me. He has plunged into his body (and the body-politic) only to find that both bodies have lost their way.
“These gobs of flesh and tissue soak / In an ooze of lymph. Wallowing / In the frenzy of that blood-rush, I join the race / To enjoy the unrefined, rapturous, free / Ardor of that breeding place.” He, unrestrained by any Virgil or Beatrice, finds himself participating (as a plutocrat? Probably; this is a parable for plutocrats, really, a warning) in the cancerous/neoliberal madness that knows no restraint.
(Just think about the Bush tax breaks, which (regardless of one’s general opinion of tax breaks) occurred at exactly the wrong time – during wartime – that conjunction made no sense, to put it mildly. Except to the plutocracy …)
“There nudge a dawdling neighbor: “What ecstasy!” “In such exuberance,” his sage reply, / “Of cancerous growth, the organic whole must die.”” In the midst of his ecstasy/insanity he encounters another – just and Dante encountered Virgil and later Beatrice. This other is wise (or at least says what progressives have been saying for decades, even before the Bush Boys). He reminds the plutocrat that his/her exuberance is really a kind of suicide.
This poem is very straightforward, whether or not one agrees with Bell’s politics. It works on both levels, as a cancer poem, and as a parable about the transfer of wealth from us to the plutocracy over the last few decades. The only thing I can think to add is that it was written too early. I’d like to see an amped-up version of this to match the accelerated transfer of wealth to the “1%” that’s taken place since 2008. If he thought the Bush years were crazy-suicidal, which they were, what would he write about these days?
[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.