The Global and the Localby Tony Leuzzi
When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley:
Selected and New Poems
(Anhinga Press, 2015)
Terese Svoboda is one of few contemporary American writers who possess a global consciousness. From 1987’s All Aberration to 2013’s Dogs are Not Cats, each of her six previous poetry collections captures what is claimed in the final sentence of “The Dead Dance” from Laughing Africa (1990):
[…] I know
so much more now. Such as:
how the sunset bleeds the world over,
how the palms bend at that hackneyed angle,
with the same breeze that sways
the willows over Hackensack,
how the waves carry the wastes to me,
how they’re all our babies.
Written as a serial monologue in the voice of Glen Curbow, a former weather commander stationed in Rongerik Atoll when BRAVO, America’s largest Hydrogen bomb, exploded over the Pacific Ocean, this poem catalogues various orgiastic rituals performed by both the indigenous islanders and visiting servicemen. Said rituals are meant to honor the dead because “Once you die, you’re as good as a radio / left out in the rain or a cassette unstrung;” but while the above-mentioned sexual frenzy ensures “everyone gets a baby,” it cannot stem the unassailable loss brought on by an American foreign policy that brutally “test[s] the people of Paradise.” Focused, complex, and anthropologically accurate, “The Dead Dance” demonstrates how geographical distance does not exempt us from the exploitations and sufferings of cultural others.
Taking another view of sex play in a poem called “The Sixties” (Weapons Grade, 2009), the poet wistfully remembers the age of free love, when endless outdoor couplings were “just the produce /of an era, so many of us solving sex over and over.” However, speaking from the consequence-driven present, she wonders, “if I now / park the child-thick car / and fight my way into some mosquito-whining copse, / will I still find a couple?” Almost every poem included in When the Next Big War Blows Down the Valley: Selected and New Poems examines how public and private experiences are connected to historical processes. “I am driven,” the poet admits in “For They Know Not What They Do” (Weapons Grade): “I can’t stop this chattering with history, hissing its heat.”
Indeed, there is a lot to hiss about here. Exceeding 200 pages, When the Next Big War offers a generous selection of Svoboda’s oeuvre. Divided into four books, the collection maps her work thematically instead of chronologically. The first section, “The Convoy Never Moves,” gathers moments of witness in localities throughout the emerging world. In “Baiyer River, Papua New Guinea” (Mere Mortals,1995), the poet recalls her own experience when she and other tourists reach a road’s abrupt end and are fleeced by the indigenous locals: “Meanwhile, / because it is always meanwhile / back at the pass for someone, all / these night-of-the-living-dead men strip / the jeep, even take the contract and rip / it up for rolling paper, which is when the If // this, then — hits home.” The narration avoids self-pity while she, removing her shirt and shoes, asks herself, “If it’s not their road, whose / is it?” In “Laughing Africa” (Laughing Africa), the aforementioned exploited becomes the exploiter as the poet recalls eating the only food available in a starving village: “[E]ven if it were the last / fowl beaten from the bush by a string of hungry children, // I ate it, my hunger the first inescapable experience / I’d ever had, mine and no other’s.”
By contrast, “Crucifixion” (Treason,2002) appears to respond to the author’s reading of executions in the South Sudan. “It’s nonfiction,” she states simply in the poem’s opening line, reminding us that such horrors, however unreal they seem to the modern, civilized imagination, are, in fact, common course in places like the “flat desert” of Khartoum. “There’s / something about a post-hole digger,” she muses, “working a cross into place/ and the cross recycled, / the wood old — blood-sticky, / sandy, the flies.” A master of juxtaposition and detail, Svoboda compresses into a few lines of verse the intensely visceral limits of human suffering.
Such horrors are not confined to other hemispheres. In “Cowboy” (Laughing Africa), a “rez” Indian recalls how “In Nam, // I shot a kid in the face / who had a grenade tied to his waist.” His memory is made all the more awful when the poem’s narrator, a transient hitchhiking through the devastated Sioux collective, says, “He popped out / one fake eyeball and handed it, / woman by woman, to me.”
Poems gathered in section two, “Picnic Portents,” examine what it means to live in suburban post-war America. No subject seems unworthy of exploration. “A Terrible Sonata” (All Aberration, 1987) offers a harrowing look at the challenges of raising a violent child with severe autism. “Philomel” (Mere Mortals) comically reframes the ancient love triangle of Tereus, Pronce and Philomela as the story of Aunt Phil in the age of the sexual revolution. “How to Simplify Fractions” (Treason) tackles pedophilia. The first stanza presents information with jarring brevity:
Put the big one
over the small one
and what do you get?
He was a big man
and the first time
the boy cried.
The terse, almost warped detachment of the telling amplifies the violence in a manner eerily reminiscent of The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. Equally terse, the second stanza shifts perspective just enough to allow for new pathways of knowing:
Sometimes the wounded
use their scars.
Pull up the small one’s
sleeves now, see all
at the wrist,
where the answer goes.
Through acts of self-mutilation, the boy has discovered a way to reveal what he has been told to keep secret. That the boy must harm himself, writing on his body what cannot be spoken, reminds us that bearing witness carries responsibility.
Some of Svoboda’s most poignant poems appear in the book’s third section, “Death Stayed.” Included here are personal elegies and ruminations on death that resonate in a number of surprising ways. “The Dog In the Wall” (Weapons Grade) dispassionately introduces the absurdity of the title in the first few lines: “They said that’s where Lulu / went, that was the smell. Not / rats.” It’s a poem that walks the knife-edge of humor and horror, a balance made possible by Svoboda’s subtle, non-intrusive presence in the poem as she listens to the unnamed family tell their story. “The Rule of K” (Treason) is far more personal:
In the dead body:
my brother, doppelganger.
he too was paranoid.
natural cause at forty?
At night he’d open
the first volume and read:
Aardvark, earth pig, 31/2 feet long,
then read to K,
These first lines lead up to one of the collection’s most intimate moments. “What divides me from him — / eleven months / eighteen days — / will never close.” However, even here, Svoboda steers the poem into broader waters by riffing frequently on the letter K. She balances moments of sorrow with gentle, alliterative humor; moreover, as seen in the following passage, she connects her brother’s untimely death to other tragedies:
K’s the vitamin
they give you if you bleed.
I had K in Africa,
miscarrying like a pig,
some other lady
dead without it,
By grouping older poems into these three divisions, Svoboda may be urging us to see her work as participating in her ongoing obsession with how global and local universes intersect. It is, perhaps, a useful approach to her work but, like any grouping, should not be considered definitive. In truth, any of these poems could appear in any of the three sections because they operate on several levels at once. Consider how personal and global experiences resonate in the brief poem “Pink” (Laughing Africa):
In China I remembered you only once:
the restaurant’s specialty, chosen
from a braid of live varieties,
spiraled to the floor while the waiter
flayed it with a knife flicked
from his wrist. The snake made your initial
over and over the black tile.
What pain! Love’s all touch
was the ideogram it made as it crossed
the hot stones to the table.
Here Svoboda juxtaposes the distant locale (China as the other side of the world) and the exotic custom of choosing one’s meal “from a braid of live varieties” with the intensity of separation. The unidentified “you” of the poem may be dead or thousands of miles away, but the pain alluded to in the second stanza is immediate and recognizable, even inevitable. The world in its strangeness is always bringing us back to ourselves, to the familiar, and the writhing ideogram of a snake that will soon be dinner is the perfect symbol for this experience: what is observed outside the body will soon be literally internalized—and ingesting it will sustain her. That she chose it before it fully revealed itself to her isn’t coincidental, for she was ready to be reminded, ready to feast on the remembrance of love in the absence of love.
Naturally, new-and-selected collections pose a particular challenge for any poet whose new work will be judged against the quality of carefully chosen inclusions from previous books. Though unfair, such comparisons are unavoidable. In this regard, Svoboda’s When the Next Big War fares rather well. The forty new poems amassed in All the Livelong Day bear many of the features that mark her signature style, including a comic, often stinging presentation of individual and systemic injustices; a medley of ingeniously-adapted nonce and traditional structures that address difficult themes through formal play; and surprising moments of lyric beauty in poems otherwise driven by seemingly anti-poetic prose. For me, nothing in the new work matches her best poems, such as “Bridge, Mother” (Treason) or “The Ranchhand’s Daughter ” (Laughing Africa), but the overall quality is still there. “Bird Boy” and “Dove-Whirr” demonstrate Svoboda’s masterful sentencing across lines, whereas “Fuel Adieu!” and “Harp and the Machine” show the author’s political and environmental concerns have neither diminished nor detracted from the urgency of her vision. While When the Next Big War should enable Svoboda to receive due recognition for her already-considerable achievements, it’s clear she isn’t settling into silence anytime soon. As one of the most relevant poets writing today, one whose work guides us through the terrors, absurdities, and uncertainties of the twenty-first century, it’s safe to say a collected edition that provides a chronological perspective will one day appear.
Tony Leuzzi’s books include Radiant Losses and The Burning Door, both collections of poems, and Passwords Primeval, a book of interviews with 20 American poets. His next book, Meditation Archipelago, will be published by Tiger Bark Press in early 2018.