The Luminous Burden of Conscience
by Jacqueline Marcus
how the hated door banged shut against
an old woman howling like an animal. -Anna Akhmatova
Given the turbulent and dark politics of our times, I welcome J.P. Dancing Bear's new collected poems, Conflicted Light, like a quiet hunger for truth that only good poetry can provide in original and startling ways.
I have selected certain political poems from this collection that appeal to my conscience, but J.P. Dancing Bear's subjects are wide and diverse in the sense that he is attentive to the paradoxes of life, a light that is often conflicted with material and spiritual opposites. As Natasha Sajé wrote, "Using myth, politics, nature, and art, J.P. Dancing Bear asks questions that can only asked through poetry. These accomplished and various poems feature sure-handed lines and vivid images."
Thus my intention in this review is to provide a political and cultural background for context without giving a line by line explication of the poems I've selected. I leave that challenge to the reader. I don't want to give the impression that J.P. Dancing Bear's book is a political critique of the Bush administration. But I've a special preference for the poems that address the unconscionable policies that have been troubling to most Americans viz. the illegal invasion of Iraq, the global warming crisis and the corporate ownership of our media networks and government. However, there are many poems in this book that have nothing to do with politics.
There is a long literary tradition of poets who've protested injustices from insufferable conditions of the poor to the exploits of war. So political poetry is nothing new, but it's far more difficult to write poems of conscience than one would think. In the end, political poems should meet the expected critical standards or they won't be considered more than meaningful statements of protest.
Dancing Bear's poems do indeed meet the standard of high poetry: those elements, form and content, natural imagery, irony, ambiguity, music, lyrical and imaginary lines that strike that special chord within the mind and heart-are all present in these illuminating poems.
For example, this poem, "Auricle", which was chosen as a runner up in the 2005 Mississippi Review Prize and reprinted in Good Times Weekly 2006, needs no introduction or explanation. It's best to let the poem speak for itself:
I heard the humming engine
of a heart smaller than an anvil;
in the hummingbird's forest
my ear was mistaken for a flower-
I should be complimented
for the brief moment before
the taste of my ear canal
will forever mark the thin tongue.
The hunger that was whispered
to me, woke me from a dream:
I was the drum in the redwoods,
the tongue of green prophecies,
the anvil of summer hunger,
awakened to the canopy songs
that had lain in the linens of leaves
I called my stomach. Now I hear
the hammer's rumor of sparks
on the anvil and can taste fear.
Now I realize I worked for years
in the coded silence of a paper heart.
Perhaps the darkest democratic crisis and tragedy of our times is the massive corporate indoctrination to become merely consumers instead of thinking, questioning and sensible individuals. When a government represents the interests of corporate profits at the expense of public safety, education and individual liberty, environmentally and economically speaking, that is called Corporate Fascism. And that is exactly the situation we are facing in America. The Iraq war, for example, was marketed to Americans like a corporate advertisement, which shouldn't surprise us because it's a war waged primarily for American oil companies and weapon contractors.
And then there is the strange marriage between corporate oil, weapon and coal stock-holders and conservative mega-churches, televised evangelists who've turned the Dove of Peace into a Hawk of Bigotry, a CEO with a M16, which the Republican Party patronizes by broadcasting prejudices, through the corporate media, against immigrants, gays and lesbians, Middle Eastern people and liberals that are still referred to in the South as "Commies".
Sadly, this form of human exploitation is an old story in our history. As Barack Obama points out in his book, The Audacity of Hope, "For almost a century - erudite men like Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia - used the filibuster to choke off any and every piece of civil rights legislation before the Senate, whether voting rights bills, or fair employment bills, or anti-lynching bills - Southern senators had succeeded in perpetuating black subjugation in ways that mere violence never could...For many blacks in the South, the filibuster had snuffed out hope." (p.81).
Today, the corporate model of the good, white American Christian must be willing to hate anyone who is different from him/herself, (keep people divided and thereby distracted from seeing the truth) and then go happily off to Wal-Mart to buy more stuff. Watch TV, play video games, eat at McDonald's, but do not, under any circumstances, take up with a liberal education in Humanities! Oh no, that would be the ultimate sin!
Jesus in America
He stands on the corner
of Market Street
with hands agape at his sides.
each tear from his eye reflects
the city's starvation.
He opens his doors, the robes
of his church,
to reveal the neon heart
blinking through its thorns;
he looks up the huge golden arcs
of fast food reaching for heaven
from across the street.
He is the bun of God,
the cola of deliverance.
People had to understand you could be arrested for nothing.
In the following poem, we see the poet as a witness to the ugly side of patriotism a year or two after the September 11th attack, a blind patriotism of fear and revenge that mirrored a Stalin-like censorship where "Everything is going gray. / All greens, all browns / turning gray." President Bush provoked the worst kind of black passions and fears. He stirred up emotions and used the bully pulpit like a poker in a fire; he did and said nothing to lift us to a higher ideal of courage. One expects that sort of barbaric tactics from a street gang leader, but not from the President of the United States.
At the same time, most Americans were entirely clueless about the sudden transformation that essentially replaced our civil liberties with Police State control and lock-down legislation paraded under Orwellian titles like The Patriot Act. The Bush administration deliberately ratcheted up the fear, with the help of the corporate media, to make everyone suspicious. And indeed, under the new Homeland Security laws, every American citizen became a suspect.
And yet, Americans were/are clueless because according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 11 million Americans are illiterate. Most high-school educated Americans have never even heard of the Bill of Rights or were never taught the value of our inalienable rights, the foundation of our democratic freedom. Most Americans believe that freedom has something to do with being free consumers, free to choose between McDonald's and Wendy's, Shell and Chevron, Toyota and Ford, American Idol and Desperate Housewives. The report concluded that one in 20 American adults lack the literacy skills to perform everyday tasks. In 2003, college proficiency tests revealed that 31 percent of college graduates have a difficult time comprehending classic novels. TV and computerized entertainment have replaced books and reading. As a result, we're paying a high price as other countries surpass us at all levels of higher learning.
After the Dawn of the Patriot Act
All during the sun's Olympic willful triumphant arc
I watched banners and flags rise. I thought a parade
had commenced down Main Street, but the music was
a hiving hum and rumble of tanks. A low chant
of revenge hung in the air like bats blackening at dusk
ready to cover the moon. The people closest to me
had been replicated, replaced by mannequins with echo
chambers in their chests. They became megaphone-
mouthpieces of marching orders, and of distrust-they
were the new never-blink neighbor in the window,
suspicious and on the phone to police about everything
they thought was out place in my yard. Our days
were filled with small chatter of American Idol
and Desperate Housewives. At night I lit a thin candle
in remembrance; in quiet light I wrote letters to missing
friends gone on to a place where nothing is read or saved.
Like many poets over the centuries, J.P. Dancing Bear is drawn to Greek Mythology for good reasons. We should all return to the Greeks for guidance on their concept of Logos, that the spiritual and material are One, that the earth is an organic, living body inseparable from us and therefore the more we destroy it, the more we destroy ourselves. The Greeks had a keen awareness of this organic vision of reality; it was a sacred topic in Greek literature from Plato to Sophocles: the dangers of excess, hubris, greed, and when men trampled upon God's natural laws, it always led to a bad ending.
In our times, the idea that actions have consequences is either mocked or neglected. Most of our politicians are arrogant and greedy. If Pericles' ghost could appear before Bush and Cheney, he would haunt them for making the Golden Cow of power and wealth their only god. Presumably, Bush wouldn't know Pericles from Casper, given his lack of historical knowledge. If he did, he'd remember that Pericles broke Athens with the same selfish ambitions; the great shining democratic city on the hill would never again rise after the long, draining wars with Sparta.
Dancing Bear imagines what it would be like if some of these legendary Greek mythological figures became ordinary people with our daily routines: the agony of Eurydice and Orpheaus' fragile sensibilities, "Persephone at the Farmers' Market", "Circe Waiting", "Medusa in Smallville", "Ulyssess Takes the A-Train to Calypso's Apartment" to name a few titles from this collection.
On the boulevard she hears a clarion tone
reach into the underworld below her skin, whirl-
wind her senses, morals, a thing not unlike love.
She rolls down the window and slows her car.
searching for the source, she cannot focus on all
of the tail lights, the wheels, the colored bodies.
He leaves this world one more pure anonymous note.
Change is slow and it doesn't happen easily. But perhaps the Bush administration pushed corporate greed to such an extreme that we are all desperate to move from the Industrial Paradigm to the Green Paradigm. Indeed, the Green Movement is now mainstream America. And the business world smells a profit from the public's demand to go Green. Ironically, Arabs are way ahead of us in this venture. We are what we consume and the outcome has been deadly during the industrial age: poisons, toxins, chemicals, GMO farming - all combined on a massive scale is cancerous to the planet and inevitably to our health.
In his poem, "The Dandelion as the Wise One on the Mountain" the poet reveals Rachel Carson's worst fear: that a silent spring is now upon us.
There was no yellow
murmuring along the long
line of asphalt; no white velvet,
no applause of petals
for the wind, no black bee, no
water to drink, -
He closes with the following ominous lines:
And what would I tell
a seeker should any come?
It was a bitter drought.
I am the witness, this is
my fact: I am here,
still afraid of fire and flood.
With the demand for clean air and water came the advent of hybrid vehicles and biodegradable cleansers made from plant materials instead of harsh chemicals, new housing construction includes solar and low energy technologies.
Poets of conscience are not writing from some sort of existential void. They hold the meaningful belief that we can solve these problems. I'm thinking of Robert Hass' new book, Time and Materials, and his profound poetic meditation on Lucretius, "State of the Planet". The poem expresses Hass' conviction that we must experience that special communion with nature, as Lucretius did, if we are to preserve nature. He encourages his students to take nature walks, to learn the names of plants, trees and birds, to feel the sea wind and the bristling colors of the leaves. The more our kids become addicted to computers and video games, the less likely they'll feel the moral imperative to protect our forests and wildlife. Studies have shown that the more kids experience nature, for intrinsic or recreational value, the more willing they are to join the Green Movement. They're waking up to the oil company's lie that protecting the environment is bad for the economy. On the contrary: far more new jobs will be created with green technologies.
I'll end this review with these two poems from J.P. Dancing Bear's Conflicted Light. This is a Must Read beautiful book of poems well worth your time!
When We Are Stewards
We will each pick a wild species
we pledge our lives to,
learn their movements
and moods, take their name
into our name, keep their calls
within our voices. In winter,
some of us will hibernate,
others will follow migratory paths,
or unearth stashes of food
we'd spent the other season saving:
This is my gift of acorns-
may it last like a grove of oaks.
this is my marsh summer home
I share with you. Welcome
to my den, let our bodies slow
to love. Here is my ancestral
burial ground-may we return
as our animal wards.
He is the messiah of all you survey;
out of the barn door, the messiah is saving
trees and the small frogs who live there.
He is in love with everyone, though no one
shows him a return-bad prophet margin.
But he keeps his feet steeped in the dust
of desert walking. He is a university
of applied ignorance, Cheek-turner. Someone
is pulling the doors of his robe open, gasping
at the scars and wounds of his walls.
Today's lesson is economy, the weight of a dove
in silver, if you can tell the class the true cost
of ignoring love. -He is the messiah of riddlers,
teaching us to fish out the answers
hidden in the deep mirror of ourselves.
He is the king of the small fisted hearts
knotted in wishes for decent treatment;
he is the doctor on the threshold
our mothers once told us about. We hear
the knocking and our doors fling open
hoping he will fix us free of charge
never knowing he is here and needs saving.
Read An Interview with JP Dancing Bear at Writersdigest.com. Here>>>