Kathleen Rooney on Poetry Post-Rumsfeld
by Kathleen Rooney
In February 2002, at a press conference in which he responded to concerns about the lack of evidence linking Saddam Hussein’s regime with weapons of mass destruction, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a sublime and oddly poetic utterance. In a now infamous and weirdly beautiful speech, he stated:
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
What Rumsfeld basically said, with that critical beginning about “reports,” is You have produced in language an account of what is factual, and I am now going to tell you that that account is of questionable value—and negligible relevance—to the policy direction of this administration in such a way that you cannot really argue with me.
Then, as we all know, 11 years ago this week, his administration went ahead—over strenuous public outcry from the citizenry—with a deeply unpopular invasion, the human and monetary costs of which may never be fully paid.
And while Rumsfeld’s compellingly articulated postmodern disavowal of the importance of what many people would consider reality has loomed in the air above all of us citizens ever since, the recent release of the Errol Morris documentary The Unknown Known makes it relevant to ask again:
How to write poetry—really, how to use language at all—in a post-Rumsfeld, perpetually-waged-war-on-terror world?
We live in an era of unprecedented access to public forums. It’s not only possible to have political arguments with people we don’t know on the internet; it’s actually difficult to avoid.
But we also inhabit a time when there is little indication that engaging in public discourse—the kind of discourse that would have defined us as citizens in the fairly recent past—has any kind of efficacy at all.
Three recent books by the younger American poets Elisa Gabbert, Daniela Olszewska, and Michelle Chan Brown grapple through both form and content with these questions. All three collections present an anti-essentialist concept of the self: a self that is constantly subject to construction and revision in ways that it has limited control over and limited awareness of, even as it attempts to exert control and to be self-aware. And all three collections present both directly and indirectly a sense of selfhood and citizenship in the age of social media. They evoke a Twitter-esque sense of an ever-unspooling toilet paper roll of status updates and pronouncements of varying authority—an atmosphere full of little quanta of data pinging the consciousness.
In fact, Gabbert has stated that Twitter helped her write The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013), her second solo collection. [Full disclosure: Gabbert is my collaborative poetry writing partner.] Her book, like the self she posits, is purposefully unstable in its genre definition. She and her publisher have labeled the back of the book “Essay/Literature,” staking out for the works therein the territory of the lyric essay. Helpful in explaining their genre-bending status, Gabbert has tweeted, “They’re poetry koans. They’re poans.”
The point of a koan, of course, is that it’s unresolvable and leads to contemplation. An unresolvable poetic utterance does no harm, or does it? Rumsfeld’s utterance is kind of a poan, too, but it’s a policy koan, not a poetry one. A polan? Gabbert’s poans retrospectively make Rumsfeld and his ilk’s rhetoric more apparent, and also make evident the gap between the public’s ability to speak of these events and its ability to influence them.
Take, for instance, this poan from the section of the book she categorizes as “A Crude Kind of Progress: Art & Aesthetics”:
Which comes first, senseless violence or meaningful violence? I mean everything I say, because everything means. Don’t speak to me of facts. I despise history as I despise current events. History is the news via consensus. And then they add mood music. Don’t speak of the future. What hasn’t happened can never happen. I want to live in the hypothetical, the unproved. (38)
What The Self Unstable delivers with wit and exquisiteness is not lyric poetry or autobiography, per se, but rather a kind of life of the mind, one which cannot be defined by a linear narrative, but still possesses its own groupings and patterns, hence the book’s table of contents and the index.
In a similarly genre-bending vein, as its title suggests, Daniela Olszewska’s second collection Citizen J (Artifice Books, 2013) deals even more directly with the concept of citizenship and the ways in which it is performed and produced. The collection is comprised of a mixture of prose poetry and lineated poems which present their archetypal, Jane-Doe-Everywoman protagonist’s attempts to navigate the literal and linguistic landscapes of Americana and Soviet kitsch.
Olszewska presents “j” as “sedulously gemstoned / + camo-clad,” and tells us that “she is not so / much a people-person as / she is a person-person,” and that she is “a serious liability, / all coated in resistance furrr / + stylishly gun- /powdered” (10).
So too does she present “j” as being perceived by the state as someone who:
of structures. concretely. j helps
about the presentation of some
of yr more radical elements. (11).
In separating signifiers from their usual contexts, Olszewska demonstrates how many, if not most, of these signifiers are used arbitrarily to generate a notion of good citizenship that in fact is manifested nowhere.
It’s useful to look, as Olszewska does, at the former Warsaw Pact nations because their failure has made some of the ways in which the self-as-citizen was constructed in those cultures visible in ways that it is less visible here, because our system has not yet failed exactly and is presently ongoing.
In an interview with Cassandra Gillig, Olszewska has said:
I guess I’m trying to depict this future/hybrid world that already exists/has always existed inside my head. I’m very interested in the differences and (, more importantly,) the similarities between both cultures’ constructs of the “good” citizen. Language-wise, both cultures have a rich, deep-as-fuck well full of slang, mottos, PSAs, clichés, etc. used to describe the good citizen. I like playing around and scrambling these bits of language up. […] What I mean is, I didn’t sit down and say, “OK, this is going to be my poem about how Putin sux monkey tits.” Citizen J is more of a product of the inevitable(?) product of a politically-rich languagescape as opposed to a deliberate manifesto.
In both post-Rumsfeld America and in Putin’s Russia where it’s hard to tell how much good a manifesto could really do anyway, this seems a legitimate approach.
Traversing a similarly cross-cultural landscape awash in the flotsam and jetsam of the Cold War and its aftermath, Michelle Chan Brown’s debut collection, Double Agent, winner of the 2011 First Book Award from feminist publisher Kore Press, also asks questions about the essences of self and citizenship. In the title poem, she writes:
Emboldened by my regional costume,
I attempted the mother tongue.
Nice earpiece, I said, by way of introduction.
It’s our language now, you said. (14)
Here, and throughout the book, the speaker cannot stop asking herself: Is this person what they seem to be or not? Is this person who the state expects them to be or not, and either way, on whose behalf are they acting?
Brown seems, at times, to present citizenship as a kind of drag show where any deep ideological underpinning to national identity is gone, and everything is just play-acting.
All three books are remarkable for the ways in which they explore options for behaving as a thoughtful citizen after the notion of essential selfhood has been abandoned, even if those options are radically constrained and pessimistic, as when Gabbert presents the quotation, “I vote every day by not having children.”
These three authors conclude that perhaps the most responsible option in a post-Rumsfeldian participatory democracy is to notice and resist the ways in which your participation has been constructed for you.
Of course, ideas about this variegated sense of and construction of the self as a thing that is performed and is produced by its own attempts to express itself, as well as by expectations imposed by outside forces, is not a new one. In her 1930 essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf writes a paragraph musing on selfhood and citizenship that deserves, in this context, to be quoted at length:
Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience sake a man must be a whole. The good citizen when he opens his door in the evening must be banker, golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in the slums of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with skepticism and solitude. When he opens his door, he must run his fingers through his hair and put his umbrella in the stand like the rest.
In the essay as a whole, Woolf seems to suggest that the truest self is the most unstable self, or at least the self that is the most unimpeded—a self that wanders, haunting the streets in an ever-shifting sense of purpose and anti-purpose, focus and unfocus.
For Woolf, the city scrolls and unspools, and the eye—and mind—of the self wander through it. It almost feels like Twitter avant le lettre. And while these three books by Gabbert, Olszewska, and Brown feel both very post-Twitter and post-Rumsfeld, like Woolf, they offer—through engaging and frequently funny genre-blending poetry—ways not to be a stereotypical “good” citizen, but better ways to be selves and citizens entirely.
Each author, in her way, illustrates how the self exists independently of and within political and public systems, and how within these systems there exists a great deal of state rhetoric that produces the expectation of what a good citizen is, or at least articulates the expectation. But each author too reminds the reader that this state rhetoric is not producing good citizens, just the expectations. And it’s these expectations that produce the good citizen. The good citizen cannot be embodied, but rather is a notion held by a group of people, no single one of whom can be that notion.
Plus, they remind us that in a post-Rumsfeld world where very little of what we say, do, vote or think matters to a variety of “leaders” who evince an outright contempt for reality, we might as well read good poetry.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. She is the author, most recently of the novel in poems Robinson Alone (Gold Wake, 2012) and her debut novel O, Democracy! has just been released by Fifth Star Press. She lives in Chicago. Her latest chapbook with Elisa Gabbert is The Kind of Beauty that has Nowhere to Go (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Follow her @KathleenMRooney