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The Hammer on the Table

by Askold Melnyczuk


“I am less and less worried by what people say or think they say: and more and more concerned with what they are able to be. I am not convinced that anybody is really able to say what he means anymore, except in so far as he talks about himself. And even there it is very difficult. What do any of us “mean” when we talk politics?” —Thomas Merton to Czeslaw Milosz, 1960


1 The Myth of the Blue Sky

In Vermont, I drive.

My first summer there I lived with a friend on a farm in Sharon. That season, which had its share of storms, I wrote in the morning and gardened in early evenings. Afternoons, I drove. A hundred miles in three or four hours, often over gravel-paved roads. My eyes could not get enough. The Vermont landscape, an intimate collusion of swallows and hills, brooks and high-ways, trailers and goats, grows gradually up around you. Never alien, it’s almost never smoth-eringly beautiful, the way the Rockies can be. It’s unlikely and familiar as God’s living room.

Several years later I bought some land near the Northeast Kingdom. But it remains undeveloped. I know I’m not ready to leave the city yet. Too restless. That’s another reason I keep driving. Slow down, I say. Why not finally put up a shack and plant that garden? Nothing else restores the spirit, or returns a man to his senses, as fully as gardening. Why do I feel such a move would, at this point, be an evasion? Why mistrust the serenity promised by the blue sky?


2 This Issue

is funded in part by a grant from the NEA. As this issue goes to press, George Plimpton, of The Paris Review, and Jean Stein, the new editor of Grand Street, have responded to the Helms Amendment by rejecting their awards. We applaud their decisions. But, because we’re unwilling to be paralyzed by our more limited means (AGNI, along with most other literary magazines, simply doesn’t have the financial resources of those two fine journals), we’re replying by publishing the proceedings of the symposium held at Harvard last spring (organized—and now edited—by Susan Suleiman, Alice Jardine, Ruth Perry, and Carla Mazzio) on social control of the arts.

Among the most provocative contributions to this lively section are the statements by Lui Bin-Yan, Marjorie Agosín, and Joshua Cohen. Liu Bin-Yan’s suggestion that the most efficient kind of censorship in China is the self-imposed silence of editors who have internalized the expectations of the men in power reminds of the similar point made by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman in Manufacturing Consent. And several other conference participants seconded the observation.

There’s no reason the Arts should escape the kind of scrutiny faced by the Defense Department. But we need to remember that the $172 million budget of the NEA is roughly a fifth the cost of a single stealth bomber. Or several hammers, coffee pots, and toilet seats, at Pentagon prices. While the comparison may be familiar to some readers, they still raise crucial questions about our priorities as citizens of the planet.

Poverty enforces a certain self-reflexiveness. Without the resources needed for traveling out, you go deeper in. You doubt yourself and you doubt the value (in both senses of the word) of the things you care about. When you’re worrying about rent you don’t have much mental space for general theory. One danger of the Helms controversy is that it will make artists so self-conscious they’ll forget where they were heading in the first place.

Flawed and human, the NEA has nevertheless been a democratizing force in our culture.


3 Editors

An editor’s job is to walk into a room, listen to what’s being discussed, figure out what’s not being mentioned, and then start talking about that.

That is his small contribution.


4 Poets

A book, noted Boris Pasternak, is “a burning, smoking piece of conscience, and nothing else.”

It would be cruel to reckon the value of most contemporary poetry by such a yardstick. Reflecting on our work over the last decade, I see the smoke, but not the fire. Apart from “language poetry,” the only movement spawned (and, one hopes, sunk) by the eighties was “the new formalism.” Its program emphasized a return to traditional versification. Fine, in theory. Unfortunately, this predictable shift, underscoring immortal poesy’s fickle nature, coincided with a period when, sick of the demands of public life, American writers entered a period of spiritual isolationism. It continues. We find it easier to tend to our own living rooms than to try to make sense of the multiple worlds appearing in them. The fixation on form suggests imaginative exhaustion, moral and spiritual impoverishment, a toothless chagrin in the face of experience. If this is the new poetic religion, no wonder so much of the world has gone atheist. After all, Conrad Aiken had every technical gift the Muse allowed and yet his poetry feels anemic compared to the rawer work of Williams, Jeffers, or Pound. Decorum is not elegance. Decorum is a kind of decadence, and the formulas of formalism, though they offer the security of a program, cannot help us write poetry.

While perpetually awaiting stamped approval and permission to speak, we forget that, as Mandelstam noted, there are only two kinds of poems: those written with permission and those composed without it. And only the latter redeem our efforts.

A moral intelligence and nerve that put one in mind of Mandelstam charge Peter Dale Scott’s long poem Coming to Jakarta. The elaborations on and responses to it, in the essays by Robert Haas, Allen Williamson, Jennifer Clarvoe. and David Gewanter, substantially enlarged my own reading of the book and I’m grateful to them for replying to our deadlines with such sprezzatura.


5 Politicians

An editorial in the May 14 issue of The Nation quotes from a story by Jesuit priest Daniel Santiago describing what a peasant woman, who’d left the house to bring her husband and sons lunch, found when she came home:

Seated around a small table in the middle of her house were her mother, sister, and three children (ages 5, 3, and 18 months). The decapitated heads of all five had been placed in front of each torso, their hands arranged on top, as if each body was stroking its own head. This had proven difficult in the case of the youngest daughter. The difficulty had been overcome by nailing the hands onto the head. The hammer had been left on the table.

There are plenty of grim stories circulating the world. Yet this one in particular stays with me.

Not without reason. In Salvador (and not in Salvador alone), “civilians” are murdered at the same time as our government pours millions of dollars into that country’s economy. Most are killed by their government’s agents. Everyone seems to know this, both here and there. Yet every appeal for justice, for a close to the violence, ends in silence. Inside the borders of that silence corpses mount. One must applaud Senator John Kerry for reversing his position on aid to Salvador, and commend Representative Moakley for trying to link that aid to human rights considerations, and be grateful for the conscientious stance of our two Kennedys. At the same time, one can’t help wondering why these efforts fail. The opposition claims that cutting off aid would lead to a bloodbath. Meanwhile the rivers run red. And we are implicated.

What spirit rules the conscience of Congress?

Recently a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist writing in Time interpreted our low voter turnouts as a sign that our system is working at maximum efficiency: if people had reasons for paying attention to what their political leaders were doing, they would.

But, a savvier political thinker than any of us cautioned: “If once the people become inattentive to public affairs, you and I and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature in spite of individual exceptions.” Such an unsparing self-assessment as Thomas Jefferson made seems unlikely in our “don’t worry, be happy” age.


6 Gardens

“Our talk of justice is empty until the last battleship has foundered on the forehead of the drowned man.” Paul Celan

The time for tending one’s own garden has not yet arrived.

Cambridge, MA
August, 1990


End of Article
AGNI Magazine :: published at Boston University ©2008 AGNI