Sing a Battle Song: Poetry by Women in the Weather Underground Organization
(Factory School/Southpaw Culture, 2006; originally published in 1975 by the Red Dragon Print Collective)
No one could miss the poetic fervor in Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, the Weather Underground’s 1974 manifesto (by Celia Sojourn, Jeff Jones, Bill Ayers, and Bernardine Dohrn, reprinted in 2003 by AK Press): one part Che, one part Dos Passos, one part Molotov cocktail, one part missing (screw loose):
Our art, music, poetry, theater will interpret and awaken the relationship of ourselves to the world forces, acting on each other. Our culture will be insurgent, celebrating people’s victories, and record the history of the struggle. We will support those who are still fighting and continue fighting ourselves. We will awaken our sense of being part of a world community. ARM THE SPIRIT! (p.41)
Factory School’s Southpaw Culture series has reissued a book far more obscure than Prairie Fire—a collection of anonymously authored inspirational/agitprop, and sometimes feminist, poems from the same period and presumably the same (and related) folks who, though dangerously misguided, and destructive for U.S. progressive politics, still smell sweeter than those in and around the U.S. government who worked to actively, and often violently, undermine democratic governments abroad and domestic protest at home.
Despite their often poignant cries against injustice and brutality, these poems are in some ways more wooden, self-conscious, and moralistic than Prairie Fire’s occasionally soaring prose. Factory School’s provocative insistence that we also think of this political movement in terms of its poetry is not so much revisionist amelioration as a necessary coming to terms with the aesthetics of American radicalism. The failure of these poems is also the failure of the politics behind them, just as the failure of the politics is a failure of the poetics: The shackling of imagination to principle, the desperate need to be so clear and so accessible that nothing in particular is left to say, and an identification with the struggles of others so crushing that it fatally represses the struggles within oneself. This book provides telling evidence that you can judge a movement by its words, especially when the movement was primarily an act of rhetoric, a poem-in-action. In this respect, the Situationists, especially as their work morphed into the bumper-sticker slogans of 1968—from “We want nothing of a world in which the certainty of not dying from hunger comes in exchange for the risk of dying from boredom” to “Poetry is in the streets”—provide a powerful counter-model, as do the more recent speeches/sayings of Subcommander Marcos (of Chiapas, Mexico).
Yet, still, there is, near the end of this brief collection, “For the SLA,” a poem written in the Spring of 1974. It is the most rhetorically powerful poem in the book and a prescient deconstruction of the use of the word “terror” by spokespersons of the state who use terror of the foreign to mask the terrorizing of the state’s own people, as well as those in far-off lands. SLA, for those not of the moment or who missed the movie, is the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst. Just think about the quality of mind among a group of U.S. Leftists who thought it was a good idea to kidnap, imprison, and brainwash an heiress. And no, this was not an episode of South Park. To come to terms with the poetics of this group, keep in mind that the Weather men and women subjected themselves, and were in turn subjected, to a profound state of terror, as if to simulate the terror so many other people in the world experience without recourse. Coming from homes of wealth and security, like a song might say, they chose lives of fear and penury. But living in such a state of terror in turn warped both their political and poetic judgments.
“For the SLA” is about a viral form of language abuse, the same viral abuse that, during the Vietnam War called burning people to death “defoliation,” or during the War against the People who live in Iraq, calls torture “interrogation.” This poem reminds us that the powers that be have appropriated the terms of our common language with a nihilistic disregard for meaning that makes what gets called postmodernism seem innocent. They have done this so often and with such sociopathic abandon that, like the boy who cried wolf, their cries of terror ring hollow even when, as now, they might refer to acute dangers requiring a full measure of response.
The 1960s-era crisis of belief in the language of authority and government, a foundational breach of the ongoing culture wars, is epitomized in this poem by the Women of the Weather Underground:
They call it terror
if you are few and have no B-52s
if you are not a head of state
with an army and police
if you have neither napalm
nor tanks nor electronic battlefields
terror is if you are dispossessed
and have only your own two hands
and your rage
It is not terror
if you are New York’s Finest
and you shoot a ten-year old Black child in the back
because you think Black people
all look like
they’ve just committed a robbery
It is not terror if you are ITT
and buy the men
who line Chilean doctors up in their hospital
and shoot them for supporting the late
democratic government of their country
It is not terror but heroism
if you were captured by the Vietnamese
for dropping fragmentation bombs
on their schools and hospitals
Only those who have nothing
can be terrorists
Charles Bernstein’s most recent books are Pitch of Poetry (2016) and Recalculating (2013), both from the University of Chicago Press. He is the co-editor, with Tracie Morris, of The Best American Experimental Writing 2016 (Wesleyan University Press, 2017). He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is co-director of PennSound.