State of the Union : 50 Political Poems

Edited by Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder

Wave Books

We live in a fractured political moment. What better way to document this with than with poetry? Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder have gathered a wide range of poets, from noteworthy writers of great experience--some of whom have won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award--to younger poets of a new generation, even writers whose first book has yet to appear on shelves. The poems of State of the Union: 50 Political Poems give voice to issues of race, gender, sexual identity, terrorism, and war, all the usual suspects in the climate of a post-9/11 America . Surprisingly, some younger poets have the wisest things to say. Mathias Svalina's “Forgiveness” uses the beautiful, skewed logic of surrealism to comment on our country's penchant for revenge. It begins:

There are two
problems: the problem|
of human to human
forgiveness & the problem
of a dead blue jay
in a drainpipe.

What, at first, seems a flawed and awkward false dilemma turns straightforward as the speaker completes the poem's syllogism:

only 12% [of Americans] would reach
their hands into the drainpipe
& pull the rotting
blue jay out.

Matthea Harvey's “The Future of Terror” uses an absurd experiment with language (the poem is a self-invented form of abecedarius) to collage together a frightening yet poignant narrative. While, on the surface, the poem addresses a plausible future, it sounds an awful lot like the present: “From the gable window,” the speaker begins, “we shot / at what was left: gargoyles and garden gnomes. I accidentally shot the generator / which would have been hard to gloss over / in a report except we weren't writing reports / anymore.” Yet, in the face of a barren and bitter landscape, the speaker finds humor. But even humor is short lived under such conditions, as the poem's conclusion suggests:

There was one shot left in my rifle.
I polished my plimsolls.
I wrapped myself in a quilt.
So this is how you live in the present.

Most of the poetry is critical of the current administration. A couple of poems take shots at Vice President Dick Cheney and Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. But the best of the best in this volume practices the art of subtlety well. And it's not always the younger poets who do this. Sometimes it's one of the heavyweights. John Ashbery, in “Annuals and Perrenials,” sums up the America of the moment: “We have shapes but no power.”

--Jay Robinson