Thursday, May 10, 2012



“Deep in Snow” in Guestbook by Rick Snyder
(Dusie, Switzerland, 2007)

Deep in Snow

About suffering they were
never wrong, the old bastards
tagged and scanned, ready
for dada in the sands
of Cyrene to the shores
of Guantanamo, Geronimo,


Have you noticed how some web sites (zines, etc) have notations next to their texts that state, e.g. “Reading Time 3 Minutes”? I have always been freaked out a bit by those estimates: how do they derive that data? What kind of reading are they talking about? Why are they telling me this? Who is the audience for this data? Creepy weird …

I bring this up because I can imagine this poem annotated “Reading Time 5 seconds”. Which on one level would be true. I reached “e-i-o” before I’d even had time to register the title. On another level, I can also imagine an annotation “Reading Time 5 Hours”, or, better, “Reading Time Indefinite”. So much of this poem is right in front of me, yet so much is perhaps permanently open-ended …

Let’s take the title. “Deep in Snow”. What’s that all about? Well, perhaps Snyder was deep in snow when he wrote it. But that’s not what I hear. Because of the initial “Reading Time 5 seconds”, I hear “Deep in Shit”, or, more specifically, an old Pete Seeger song, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, from the Vietnam era:

It was back in nineteen forty-two,
I was a member of a good platoon.
We were on maneuvers in-a Loozianna,
One night by the light of the moon.
The captain told us to ford a river,
That's how it all begun.
We were -- knee deep in the Big Muddy,
But the big fool said to push on.

The Sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure,
This is the best way back to the base?"
"Sergeant, go on! I forded this river
'Bout a mile above this place.
It'll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.
We'll soon be on dry ground."
We were -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

The Sergeant said, "Sir, with all this equipment
No man will be able to swim."
"Sergeant, don't be a Nervous Nellie,"
The Captain said to him.
"All we need is a little determination;
Men, follow me, I'll lead on."
We were -- neck deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on.

The song became symbolic of Lyndon Johnson’s continuous escalation of the war effort, not matter how stupid it all was  … (much like our wars of the oughts, which were stupid, too, stupid at best).  

“About suffering they were / never wrong, the old bastards”: We are immediately catapulted in W H Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Artes”:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; …

But now the Old Masters are old bastards. We quickly learn why: because the suffering we are discussing: they inflict it. Is this a comment upon the old masters, or just a play on words? Nothing is “just” a play on words. This is an indictment of an entire “civilization”. Think of Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, parts IV and V:


THESE fought, in any case, and some believing, pro domo, in any case . . Some quick to arm, some for adventure, some from fear of weakness, some from fear of censure, some for love of slaughter, in imagination, learning later . . .

some in fear, learning love of slaughter; Died some "pro patria, non dulce non et decor". .

walked eye-deep in hell believing in old men's lies, then unbelieving came home, home to a lie, home to many deceits, home to old lies and new infamy;

usury age-old and age-thick and liars in public places.

Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
Fair cheeks, and fine bodies;

fortitude as never before

frankness as never before, disillusions as never told in the old days, hysterias, trench confessions, laughter out of dead bellies.

THERE died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

Note particularly “walked eye-deep in hell believing in old men's lies” in IV, and the “For two gross of broken statues, / For a few thousand battered books” in V. These lines, emotionally elided, create a kind of equation between the masters and bastards. I could write an entire book (as could you) on how the true, not nominal, values of our civilization have led to countless catastrophes, but I won’t interpolate that book here).

Auden’s next lines, “how well, they understood / Its human position” (“Its”, we recall referring to suffering) also has its equivalent in Snyder’s poem: “tagged and scanned.” Think body bags. Remember Pound’s “There died a myriad …” The rest of Snyder’s poem can also be considered a gloss on these lines.

It suddenly occurs to me that “the old bastards” might well refer to the dead soldiers, “tagged and scanned, ready for dada …”. It all depends on how the line break between “bastards” and “tagged and scanned” is read. What kind of punctuation does it represent. I tend not to believe in this reference, since we have clear evidence that the US military presence has been VERY wrong about suffering, tho some individuals may indeed have “gotten” what they were doing; in fact, they probably did get it, which is why so many are coming back so broken …

In any case, what we now encounter is not so easily glossed; in fact, I will only be able to read the remaining lines imperfectly (or, maybe, even more imperfectly) than the lines we’ve already encountered.

“ready  / for dada in the sands / of Cyrene”. What might this mean? Ready for dada could mean “ready for “nonsense”, since “dada” is a nonsense syllable, and the Dadaists always stressed, but it could also mean “ready for dada-style actions”. Maybe we need to know more about Cyrene.

The daughter of Hypseus and Chlidanope, Cyrene was not the least bit interested in men and marriage, and was completely dedicated to hunting on Mt. Pelion.

One day Apollo was out walking, and saw Cyrene wrestling with a lion. This was too much for the god, and he abducted the young woman and made her queen of Libya, where a city with her name was founded.

It would be too much to assume that Snyder, who published this poem in 2007, anticipated the Arab Spring and the NATO adventure in Libya. I honestly don’t know why the “tagged and scanned, ready for dada …” would be ready “from the sands / of Cyrene …”. My bad?

But I do get the “literary reference” in

            the sands
of … to the shores

This is a parody of the “Marine’s Hymn”:

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli

It is important to get this music, it helps explain the rest of the poem, which dissolves in music.

to the shores
of Guantanamo, Geronimo,

I need not explain the reference to Guantanamo; Geronimo could be parsed in a number of ways, though I believe it’s best not to parse it to carefully, especially when it’s followed by a rhyming bit from “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” The ending suggests that there really is no language with which to confront the current catastrophe head-on. Again, I think of Bill and Ted lamenting how they were “so lied to” by their album covers.

One of the most interesting aspects of this poem is how deeply it implicates and complicates literary tradition in our disasters. That is why I’ve quoted so much: the Seeger, the Auden, the “Marine’s Hymn” …  I suspect there’s much I’ve missed. I wonder how often a non-artsy-fartsy looking poem has been more literary. I wonder how often a poem that dissolves into nonsense music has been so dependent on literature.   


[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.

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