Political Poetry: Heidi Lynn Staples and Michael Robbins

Last week I looked at , which I read as a political poem. But Espada's poem was very straight-faced; I'd like to look at some political poems that use humor to satirize their objects. First, , I want to read 'O Anti O Antiphons' by Heidi Lynn Staples.

O man-made machine who fakes man as Thing and Foresaker, the rope     shipped around our neck of the woods, Come to enslave us     to our owned hours, O body become Bot. O Smart Phone, who flames from the mouth if a screen, waiting in the     pockets, lights in the mall’s smallest darkness, Come, recognize     our vices. O keyboard O Facebook, and Social Media and WWW, whose ever-     widening “Buyer!” has been let loose and pawned the words:     Come, and bring forth “Friend”, let us bow together before your     Cyclops. O keyboard and clicker of the Digital Age, who can recognize my face     from among the masses and hunt me down and destroy me from     any remote location: Come, come and watch over us. O biotech implant, over become lover, O biotech Virus of Neural     Plaquing, how skull no longer offers isolation. O Predator Drone, O Hummingbird Drone, O Bee Drone Swarm how     hovers: Come, and, let us watch a man-made machine unmake a     man unto forsaken thing, Come into the classrooms of our youth     and hear how we laugh. O robotic nurse, who can sing, who can dance, who stands ready with     outstretched metal rubber- encased arms and movement-tracking     tearless eyes before our bodily suffering she shall not waver:     Come and deliver into their beds our soft bodies, pliable babies, into your arms,     into your arms, into your arms, forever more     and more…

text from The American Poetry Review website

There are several rhetorical devices/structures clearly at work. The three big ones are:

"Apostrophe (Greek ἀποστροφή, apostrophé, "turning away"; the final e being sounded) is an exclamatory figure of speech. It occurs when a speaker breaks off from addressing the audience (e.g. in a play) and directs speech to a third party such as an opposing litigant or some other individual, sometimes absent from the scene."

"In rhetoric, an anaphora (Greek: ἀναφορά, "carrying back") is a rhetorical device that consists of repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighboring clauses, thereby lending them emphasis."

"Litany—source

The poetic speaker is turning away from us, the listeners, to address these technological gods. The implication is that we turn with the speaker and join in the worship. So it's mock-religious speech, which is not to say that it's mocking religion. In fact, the poem relies on our belief in the power and importance of religious speech to emphasize that these lauded technologies aren't worthy of worship. There's a bit of in here, I think. And inside that is quite a bit of Walt Whitman. Ginsberg and Whitman were drawing from the American oratorical tradition of the fiery sermon, which is rich in anaphora and litany. Both Ginsberg and Whitman asserted that there was holiness to be found everywhere. By turning the religious imagery onto unworthy gods, Staples makes us see that the holiness isn't exactly everywhere. She finds what Ginsberg found in the second section of 'Howl': Moloch, the child-devouring god.

Satire is among the least cynical things in the world. Satire singles out the base because it believes so strongly in the noble. Satire singles out the profane because it believes so strongly in the holy.

Is this poem properly political? Sure, though of a certain kind. It's political in that it rejects a dominant ideology (more technology is _always _good). But it doesn't single anybody out. It doesn't refer to any particular politician or policy. It's not invective. For something a little more like that, I'd like to turn to a poem by Michael Robbins (). , he was commissioned by Yahoo! to write an inaugural poem, but they refused to publish it because it contains the word "queef." Oh well.

This is a poem for President Drone. It was written by a camel. Can I borrow your phone? This is for President Mark Hamill.

Newtown sounds a red alert. Mark Hamill asks is Ernie burnt? Every camel’s a first-person shooter. The Prez’s fez is haute couture.

It seems strange that he should be offended. The same orders are given by him. Paging Pakistan and Yemen. Calling all the drone-dead children.

The camel can’t come to the phone. This is for the drone-in-chief. Mumbai used to be Bombay. The bomb bay opens with a queef. —text from Michael Robbins' blog

Like Staples, Robbins is setting the tone of the form (bouncy, fun) against the content (the Newtown massacre, President Obama's unprecedented use of killer drones). This intentional mismatch of form to content lets us feel that something is deeply out of sorts. Praising something that doesn't deserve it, having fun with something deadly serious — we react almost physically to the wrongness of it.

But the content here is also cutting. President Obama is called 'President Drone', 'President Mark Hamill' (a reference, perhaps, to Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program), and "the drone-in-chief." Like Staples, Robbins is using apostrophe to turn directly to someone else and we're supposed to turn with him. But it's the President. As an Obama supporter, the poem makes me cringe. As a New Englander I cringe to hear the deaths of children in Yemen and Pakistan compared to the Newtown massacre, but there it is. That's the gauntlet Robbins has thrown down, and he's not wrong. Robbins isn't just challenging the President; he's challenging us.


I'd like to continue looking at more political poetry in the months ahead. It's been a nice journey in the last six months that I've been blogging. I feel like I'm settling more into a niche, learning the poets and journals I like and getting a better sense of where to look to be part of the conversation. Though I've still got a lot to learn. Well, a little at a time. I'll be back on Friday looking at a poem by Philip Levine. Until then, do check out The American Poetry Review, Heidi Lynn Staples' , and Michael Robbins' The Second Sex.