State of the Union

Edited by Joshua Beckman & Matthew Zapruder
Wave Books 2008
Reviewed by John Deming



state of the unionThom Gunn died on April 25, 2004, three days before photos of torture from Abu-Ghraib were revealed. At the time, Osama bin Laden was nowhere in sight, the twin towers were a crushing memory, American soldiers labored in Iraq despite a year-old presidential declaration of “mission-accomplished,” and terrorists bred terrorists all the while. In his elegy “For Thom Gunn,” poet Garrett Caples laments, “i’m sorry you had to die a time when evil’s got this country by the balls…”

Some things have changed since 2004, and many haven’t. State of the Union, a timely collection of fifty contemporary “political” poems edited by Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder, chronicles the deeply-nuanced frustration and cynicism—as well as the procreant urge towards hope—that have resulted from life during the Bush administration.

Poet Philip Levine once remarked that every poem is a political poem, because “telling the truth is a political act.” The poems in State of the Union are overtly political in varying degrees. Some name names; Matthew Rohrer’s aggressive “Elementary Science for Dick Cheney” is a humble chat about animals and ethics until it references Cheney’s “artificial heart” and finally informs the vice president, “it is a good thing / to watch you die.”

Yet many of the best poems in this book are more subtle. Nick Flynn’s “Imagination,” a standout, uses only six spare couplets and concludes with suggestive force: “that // war, say, jesus / did we really just make it all up?” Politicians are often criticized for preaching lofty ideals without laying a specific groundwork for success; these lines suggest that imagination often precedes action, for better or for worse.

If some of the voices in Union are frustrated, angry, even cynical, they are not absent hope. They embody the abstract perceptions of a swath of (albeit, liberal-minded) Americans, and in doing so, present a climate of fear, deception and violence. The very notions of virtue and clarity become suspect; in “Kettle,” Mary Ruefle muses that perfectly clear minds were behind the Holocaust, that “the killers/were given advice, stay calm, lean forward,/do what you have to do with a clear mind.” Nonetheless, virtue and clarity are significant, even while abstract; a climate of horror exists as counterpoint to some kind of living ideal, real or imagined.  

If the economy settles itself, the war in Iraq ends with grace, Osama bin Laden is captured and all is made right in the land, this book will serve as a useful reminder of an uneasy era; if not, all the same. The poems that name names will inevitably seem dated either way, will seem emblematic of a specific era—but as the title indicates, perhaps that is the aim. When Thom Gunn died, the country was less than six months away from re-electing George W. Bush. Now we go again. If every poem is a political act, then what is true of all good poetry is true of good political poems, of good and bad political acts and intentions: they are true. There are more fundamental metaphors at work.