Ryan Cull

Ryan Cull: On "Breed, Women, Breed"

Lucia Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" is characteristic of a neglected series of haunting poems from the 1920s that approach the subject of maternity from the perspective of the working-class. Other notable examples of this sub-genre include Genevieve Taggard’s eloquently understated "With Child" and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s harrowing prayer for a stillbirth "Motherhood." While Johnson became one of the most significant female poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Taggard and Trent were both deeply involved in the radical politics of the left and wrote poems that considered matters of race and economics in addition to women’s issues. Drawn from her third volume of poetry Children of Fire and Shadow, Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" unflinchingly identifies how motherhood has been used as a source of political and economic oppression, while also pointing towards a way that maternity, and perhaps female sexuality in general, could be used instead as an important source of social change.

Trent tells us, in her polemical tract "More Power to Poets" (also quoted on MAPS), that "the experience of maternity makes a woman reach out beyond self to the child. . . .Her sacrifice for new life both in bearing and rearing children helps fit her for the poet's post as prophet and as interpreter of the future to the present. Her preoccupation with children also helps her fill the poet's role of giving voice to the inarticulate." And yet she goes on to inform us that, "in a contest we ran in Contemporary Vision [a magazine that Trent and her husband edited] for poems on pregnancy the winning poem and the majority of the most profound poems were by men. This does not mean necessarily that men are better poets or better equipped to handle this theme, but that women are more inhibited as yet." Trent, in this text, never really explores the possible sources of this inhibition. Instead, she exhorts her peers to follow the example of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and gather together to form a "larger battalion of women singers marching as standard-bearers of a more decent civilization."

One could read Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed," however, as a possible response to her own query about why women of her time may have felt "inhibited" from writing about maternity. Her poem presents the topic, especially for women of the lower classes, as being imbued with a dark irony, for the creation of a wholly new life is treated as just a source for spare parts. Thus, where the essay focuses on her idealistic hopes, the poem examines depression-era realities. And what she sees is not a "battalion" of empowered "women singers" helping to create "a more decent civilization" but rather a nearly helpless mass of "little mothers." These unidentified and undifferentiated women are utterly lacking any control over their own fate. Far from being poets in the tradition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, they have no voices (as individuals or as a chorus) and are characterized in the most coarsely animalistic fashion: by their physical condition and their economic utility. Trent’s description of these women is intentionally minimalistic. They are reduced to being merely "tired backs and tired hands" to go along with "sunken eyes and. . .sagging cheeks." After having been worn down in both body and spirit, these women nevertheless are forced to give what they have left: the procreative capacity of their wombs.

In this poem, thus, the incessant mono-syllabic repetition of "breed" is by design meant to be crudely mechanical. In using this technique, Trent’s poem recalls Walt Whitman's Civil War poem "Beat Beat Drums." Like Whitman’s work, Trent’s poem begins each stanza with the same imperative phrase, which then may lead into a series of other terse commands ("Breed. . ./ Offer. . ./Wrack. . ."). She, thus, exchanges Whitman’s mechanical drumbeat of war for the mechanical heartbeat of a human assembly-line. And such monotonous droning increasingly encourages the reader to interrogate these unemotional, impersonal orders and the voice behind them.

The focus of Trent’s cultural critique is callous corporate capitalism and its influence in both business and politics. The poem horrifically presents maternity as just another cog in the machinery of the elite, whether it be for "the owners of mills and the owners of mines," "the bankers" or for the governmental "war lords." Being of no further physical and mental usefulness, these poor "little mothers" become a source of another type of labor. They are invited to "offer" and "wrack [their] frail bodies with the pangs of birth" to supply the next generation of workers, so that the hopeless cycle may go on. For Trent, this use of maternity is less a form of prostitution than it is an example of outright enslavement that will grow with each generation, encompassing successive mothers and their offspring. These children are fated to be an equally faceless "race of aenemic, round shouldered, subway herded machines," suitable for use as the cannon-fodder of the "war-lords" or as generic fixtures to be plugged into the system.

But as much as Trent criticizes the elite, she also reveals a certain uneasiness or frustration towards these women. Although she empathizes with their plight, she describes these "little mothers" as having a "faith patient and stupid as cattle." Trent feels the need to stir these people beyond what she views as an all too patient passivity. It is this unreflective submissiveness, and not their childbearing, that the poet finds regrettable.

Lest this accusation seem unfair, it is only a single line, more than counter-balanced by the indictments surrounding it. But, even within its limits as a single accusation, it is an unyielding assertion by Trent that these mothers do retain a measure of agency that can never be fully taken from them. Though she does not blame them for the possible fates of their children, she also does not remove from them a special kind of maternal responsibility to do what they can to produce social change. This fundamental refusal to accept sheer economic determinism underlies the poem. And it is evidenced by Trent’s rhetorically shrewd decision to write the poem as an address pointed towards the "little mothers" and not the mill-owners, bankers or "war-lords." "Breed, Women, Breed," thus, becomes a double-edged sword: both a fierce accusation of injustice towards the oppressor and a potent call to arms directly addressed to the oppressed.

Near the conclusion of "More Power to Poets" Trent declares, "let us have poems that strip off masks of hypocrisy and sham, poems for the advance of women, of labor, of all humanity!" "Breed, Women, Breed" attempts to do just this. Though her hope of establishing a "battalion" of working-class "women singers" never may have been fully realized, her poem is significant as a brutally honest account of the sometimes dehumanizing economic policies and practices that were the festering darkside of the roaring twenties.

Ryan Cull: On "Purple"

N. Scott Momaday has explained that the buffalo "stands for the many elements of the sacred. . . which have been lost to Indian peoples." In response to this trend, he began The Buffalo Trust as "a place, on sacred ground, where Indian people can come immediately into the presence of sacred matter." By establishing this kind of cultural preserve, he hoped to stem what h  perceives to be a gradual and tragic erosion of spirituality from the lives of Native American youth. As a poet, Momaday also has focused on finding ways to preserve some of these nearly forgotten traditions. The buffalo slaughter described in one of his early poems "Purple," however, reveals Momaday taking a step back and powerfully allegorizing the moment when this this "theft of the sacred" began.

The brevity of this ten line poem is made all the more potent by its mythic, almost epic gestures. As if appearing out of timelessness, or more likely out of a seemingly timeless oral tradition, the poem begins, "There was a man. . ." In a manner not unlike Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, this man offends Nature by killing a sacred creature. Whether it is for sport (as Matthias Schubnell suggests) or just for sheer spite is not clear. Unlike the Ancient Marriner, however, this man feels the lifeblood of a great creature on his hands, and then he seems to move on as mysteriously as he came. He is not held accountable for his action. Instead, as the buffalo gradually expires, "the people" assemble "on the edge of night," expressing and accepting a collective "grief and shame" on behalf of an act they did not themselves commit.

The final five lines of the poem offer a change of perspective, for what had been merely a frivolous display of power to the hunter is in fact a far-reaching emblem to these people. The carcas of the "huge beast" is more than an example of wastefulness; it becomes a part of their land's geography, a kind of new dividing line, indicating that the "edge" of their world now has been crossed. Momaday's poem, thus, can be read as a kind of highly concentrated anti-colonialist allegory. For the buffalo represents not only Native American culture and spirituality; it is, more specifically, the "animal representation of the sun" (according to Momaday in his "Vision Statement for the Buffalo Trust"). The death of this great buffalo, thus, brings these people both to the "edge of night" and to the "edge of [their] world." Such a slaughter, at once, defies their deepest spiritual beliefs, while it also indicates the first of many trespasses upon the land where they live.

The tragic revelation of these transgressions ironically produces the poem's aesthetic triumph. For it is here that we finally discover the color that the title of the poem promises in the deep purple of the sunset that is elided with the drying blood of the dying buffalo. The title "Purple," thus, is not merely an abstraction seemingly at odds with a work so steeped in myth and history. The penultimate color in the visual spectrum serves as a semiotic nexus intertwining the people with their land and spirituality just before nightfall.

 

Copyright ©2001 by Ryan Cull

Ryan Cull: On "The Lilies Break Open.."

Oliver's "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water" is a fascinating point-of-entry into contemporary environmentally-focused poetry, since it proudly and knowingly wears as battle scars the whole history of nature writing from the past two centuries.

Oliver knows the danger of romanticism, with its temptation to enter nature and poetically domesticate it in order to leave with a moral lesson. But she also knows the danger of post-modern irony, with its temptation to withdraw entirely from the reality of a physical environment into the shadows of solipsism. Navigating between such extremes, her high achievement is to approach nature through poetic discourse, but in a way that almost allows nature to talk back. In this manner, her poem openly and nostalgically engages the Romantic tradition, then shifts to a more self-aware, post-modern critique, before finally recontextualizing both stances in the face of biological realities.

Oliver’s poem begins, however, well within the bounds of the lyrical subject before gradually challenging it. With its shaped stanzas, precise attention to biological detail, and adventurousness of metaphor, "The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water" is reminiscent of Marianne Moore, a distinguished nature poet herself. Like Moore, Oliver has the uncanny ability to heighten our awareness of a sense of difference towards things that might be considered otherwise rather mundane. Lilies on a pond, though always pleasing to the eye, are hardly surprising or exotic. But with a kind of time-lapse poetics, we witness within the course of fifteen lines the entirety of lilies’ development, from being submerged in the primal "broth of life" until "they break open over the dark water." This process is described almost entirely by a remarkable sequence of metaphors. The lilies emerge from the "mud-hive[s]" of photosynthetic "gas sponge[s]" as "dream bowl[s]" with green leaves. Oliver suitably suggests the image of a magician as she briefly describes the flower protruding from its bulb as an almost-human "fist" holding a "wand." Then, just as quickly, she drops this anthropomorphism by describing the petals as bird-like "beaks of lace."

Though one does sense in all of this the Romantic lyrical subject’s taxonomic urge, a need to see all, to describe and to define into comprehension, one can also begin to sense in Oliver’s kaleidoscopic metaphoricity the limits of this urge. And when the speaker finally appears, it is almost as if in an afterthought: "and there you are/ on the shore." Even as she openly admits to the temptation "to attach [the lilies] to an idea/ some news of your own life," she also quickly recognizes that the lilies are "slippery and wild" - a fine line that is doubly true, since it describes both a natural and an epistemic fact.

Oliver, however, goes beyond this questioning of the efficacy of the lyric subject, almost as if she senses that this move is becoming itself a bit of a well-worn post-modern convention. Instead, in her enigmatic final stanzas, she finds that these lilies are

 

devoid of meaning, they are

                simply doing,

                            from the deepest

 

spurs of their being

                what they are impelled to do

                            every summer.

                                        And so, dear sorrow, are you.

 

Here she boldly tries, at first, to identify that which separates humanity from the rest of nature. The lilies that she sees are "simply doing/ from the deepest/ spurs of their being." Humans, on the other hand, want to add a middle term between this "being" and "doing": we look for "meaning." But the lilies themselves (and indeed all of nature) are "devoid" of this "meaning" of human manufacture. That which we prize most in nature, that which we expect it to provide for us, thus, is the very thing that is not present in nature to begin with.

The final line, "And so, dear sorrow, are you," with its sudden analogy between the lilies and the poetic self, adds an additional turn of the screw. On the one hand, it seems to suggest with its sentimentality that, as the Romantics hoped, we are indeed fundamentally joined to nature. But Oliver’s surprising reinscription of Romantic rhetoric cannot fully belie the semantic content of her poem’s argument. For having just questioned the very reality of poetic "meaning," she here is not envisioning a transcendental epiphany bridging the gap between the human subject and nature. Nor is the "meaning" that we madly search for anything so grand as an individual’s post-modern solipsisitic delusions. Instead, Oliver’s melancholy conclusion seems paradoxically to be a sentimentally unsentimental admission that humanity and nature are united by a kind of genetic determinism. In reality, we, like the lilies, are also merely following the impulses of "being" and "doing." And this genetic script that we are "impelled" to follow is only slightly more complex than those of the lilies, capable of producing poems rather than flowers.

While Mark Doty correctly notes that Oliver’s poem reveals "a certain desire to be no one, a longing to merge, unconscious, with the earth and stones and pond-mud she loves," it is not entirely clear that he fully recognizes what Oliver knowingly gives up as she seeks to achieve this. Nor is it clear, as Vicki Graham suggests, that for Oliver "to merge with the non-human is [only] to acknowledge the self's mutability and multiplicity, not to lose subjectivity" (353). Quite to the contrary, the conclusion of "Lilies" seems to contend that, in order to gain the long sought-after connection with nature, to cross the boundary between poetic subject and environmental object, Oliver finds that she must cede the reality of her own independent subjecthood to a larger biological, genetic reality. This is a bold proposition and also perhaps a dangerous one, for it is unclear where it leaves a poet like Oliver, who seems also to have certain residual, post-Romantic investments. Perhaps fine, albeit conflicted, poems like this one make it clear that we are at a turning point in our literary understanding of nature. Maybe a lesson can even be generalized: the poetic subject, as it has yet been realized by most writers, cannot happily coexist with nature. Which, in turn, might suggest a dramatic course of action: is it time to change the subject or drop it altogether?

 

Copyright 2001 by Ryan Cull

Ryan Cull: On "All Those Words"

A number of Michael Palmer's poems (like "Fifth Prose," "Autobiography," etc.) collected in the Oxford anthology display the hallmarks of (the so-called) "language" poetry - in particular, a use of the connotative slippage of the signifying chain as a structuring mechanism rather than traditional narrative, and a willingness to admit that we (as readers/writers/etc.) live as much in the word as we do in the world. Palmer's prose poem "All Those Words," while not entirely discontinuous with such a project, does something rather different - and perhaps even more ambitious. It attempts to provide, paradoxically, a quasi-mythological narrative explaining the source of anti-narrative "language" poetries.

He begins with a sweeping gesture. In a single phrase, one reads what vaguely sounds like a history of modern epistemology - a shift from a confidently empiricist approach to a more self-consciously reflexive one: "All those words we once used for things but have now discarded in order to come to know things." But after this rather programatic start, we are brought to his quasi-mythological setting (which, with its gently surrealist encounter between a human and nature, is not unlike Wallace Stevens' very late poem "Of Mere Being"), where he describes, in what might be the most important line of the poem, "there in the mountains I discovered the last tree or the letter A." The only curious/disjunctive part of this sentence is its last phrase - the fact that this narrator is faced with a strange choice of perception - is he to view this object as a "tree" or as a "letter"? It appears to be a matter of utility. But it is also a point of transition: this is the "last tree." And there is more than a hint that this choice will have long-term implications: for the fading away of "last tree" coincides with the starting of the alphabet (with the letter A). The inauguration of the era of writing, thus, apparently ends one's association with nature.

The tree's "brief," enigmatic message to the watching human returns us to the initial focus on epistemology: the difference between recognizing and knowing. The tree's point seems to be that while humans can recognize "these herbs" (like "wormwood, all-heal, and centaury") for their "scent" or flavor or medicinal qualities, humans cannot truly know them. The fundamental particles that give the herbs these qualities are "invisible" and constitute a "language you cannot understand." The human response to this opinion, characteristically, is greedy defiance. Down comes the last tree, its beams brought to the speaker's house and "added to the fire" (where, no doubt, the other trees have been consumed), over which the speaker goes ahead and cooks a nice meal - notably complete with plenty of herbs - as if to prove the stupid tree wrong.

But what does this nice little parable mean? Returning to the first line, it seems important that the poem extends from the apparently increasing need for humans "to know things" ever more deeply, more comprehensively. Yet the human presented here certainly has not achieved this knowledge. He (or she) has acted out of frustration, in effect, suggesting: if I can't know reality, well then I'll just consume it. But what the poem leaves unanswered is what happens when it is all consumed (after all, there are now no more trees). One thing, apparently, that will remain is writing/language, for this turn towards an obsessive need to "know" things, here, is connected to the turn away from nature and towards writing (beginning with the letter A). In this context, thus, one could read Palmer's poem as providing both an explanation for language-oriented poetries and a rather stern warning. Living in the word, illuminating as it is about the fact that we see the world through the lenses of discourse, when taken to its extreme has the potential block out that reality of the world entirely. And once this is done and we're solipsisitically sealed within the proverbial prison-house of language, one has to ask - what use is all that knowledge about discourse, what is the use of "all those words"?

 

Copyright 2001 by Ryan Cull

Ryan Cull: On "Now the Fog"

Written in 1950, "Now the Fog" is both a reflection on the World War just finished and a prophecy of the government-sponsored witch-hunts that were soon to come. In the literary context, it is also a response to the increasingly consolidated New Critical convictions that sought to turn writers away from addressing just such historical issues. The very title "Now the Fog" itself seems as if it is meant as a completion of an ellipsis or a before/after statement. After the tumultuous forties, according to Rolfe, we are "now" living in the resulting time of fog, a precarious moment of psychological, critical, and political obscurity.

The first verse paragraph introduces this obfuscating fog as doing two very distinct things: it "falls on the land" and it makes the "imagination's eyes go blind." It is, thus, simulataneously a physical/geographical phenomena and a psychological/aesthetic phenomena. And perhaps the "fogging" up of such distinctions is part of Rolfe's poetic project, an early attempt to blur the strict New Critical separation between realm of art and the "real" world. We learn, however, that this fog is not an innocent atmospheric condensation but, in actuality, something much more ominous - smoke. Whether caused by battle or by burning or by both, this smoke is sinister; it is the "sole residue of written wisdom." All of the intellectual inheritance of the past has been virtually consumed in the wake of World War II and the new atomic age. And this burning of wisdom is the ultimate source of the fog that blinds contemporary "poets" and "prophets," causing them to live a strange kind of death in life in "their wavering edgeless tomb." Even worse, while these contemporary wisemen are blinded by the fog, McCarthy-esque "knaves" with political and military power (who very likely are the same people whose burnings destroyed the "written wisdom") take their place and fill the silence by telling the citizenry what to "say, listen to, [and] see."

With no contradicting voices, like those of poets and prophets, the people fall into the "habit" (note the word's double meaning referring to clothing) "of slavery," a "suit" that had been "long discarded" but now feels "comfortable" once again. But the changes do not stop here. The people also quickly lose their sense of "taste" (a key double meaning here as well - physical taste and aesthetic taste - thus a jab at the critical establishment), follow the demands of the "belly," and mindlessly, with their "gutted brains," succumb to an apparently totalitarian state. As a result of this, we see one of the only objects that emerges from this pervasive fog: "stamped official registration cards" making it easier to track and, if necessary harass, every citizen (something Rolfe himself had to endure for years).

The final two verse paragraphs, though brief, are no less ominous. They continue Rolfe's elegy for what is being lost, seeming to ask whether this can possibly be the fulfillment of a land founded with promise. Now "only rare and blest oases of courage remain" on the "blurred landscape" as the "fog falls" and inexorably "seeps" ever deeper "into the land." It is the poem's final curious image, however, that emphasizes those who may be the real targets of Rolfe's critique. He fears that "even the iron rust/. . . of the English tongue." Language, one of the key parts of a culture's scaffolding is rusting. And, even as Rolfe himself writes ironically in a murky kind of post-Romantic chiaroscuro, his accusation is clear: it must be the poets and critics who are at fault for abdicating their own domain.

 

Copyright © 2001 by Ryan Cull

Ryan Cull: On "Federico's Ghost"

Martin Espada has sought to write a "poetry of advocacy" for "those who do not get the chance to speak." In describing such a poetic project that inherently suggests an inseparable intertwining of his aesthetics and politics, Espada has explained that

I see not only history but personal experience as . . . dynamic rather than. . . sta[tic]. There is a dynamic between oppression and resistance, between victimizer and victim. There is not only struggle but triumph. And seeing that dynamic, that tension, that conflict, that's where I try to go for my poems, that place where those elements meet and combust. For me the essence of expressing our dignity, our defiance, our resiliency, our potential for solidarity is in the family.

Espada's 1990 poem, "Federico's Ghost," is an excellent example of a work that explores the political potential of this kind of familial context, as the innocent idealism of a child initiates the revolutionary action of an oppressed people.

The entitled Federico is a "skinny boy" who, like many others of his community, works the tomato fields in an effort to help his family earn a meager living. Whole families, from these school-age boys and girls to the "old women," inhabit these "camps" that are adjacent to the fields of furrows. One can probably assume that the stereotypical vicious circle is in place: children must work because miserably low wagesare only barely overcome by the collective labor of the entire family. But by working, the children, in effect, make themselves unprepared to do anything but continue this existence into the next generation.

Federico, however, is too young to embrace such fatalism, and he chooses to stand "apart," both in his location and in his expression. And it is here, "in his own green row," that he and his "obscene finger" hold his ground as a cropduster plane sprays (and re-sprays) a poisonous pesticide, despite the fact that the fruitpicking had not concluded. There is a certain irony in this moment of violence. Though the cropduster certainly is emblematic of the "growers" all too sovereign power over the lives of these people, the pilot himself is just another employee who is likely not that far out of the working class himself. It is "dusk." Neither the fruitpickers nor the cropduster have finished their day's work, and each are in the other's way. All of which makes the pilot's stupidly vicious act and Federico's defiance even more pathetic. Rather than fighting such working conditions together, they fight each other. And Federico becomes a casualty.

But, as Espada's poem makes clear, this is not where the "story" ends. This, in fact, is just the beginning. By sacrificing himself to martyrdom, Federico becomes stronger in death than he perhaps ever could have been in life. In effect, he is reborn in the emergent political consciousness of the fruitpickers, who eventually recognize who their real enemy is and collectively begin destroying the crop of tomatoes that they had been tending. The grower's "muttering" about "vandal children" and "communists" is ineffectual. Their "threatening to call Immigration" is, of course, not taken seriously, for where else could they get such cheap labor. And their "promising every Sunday off," though perhaps notable as a first concession, does not address any of the fruitpicker's real concerns. So the "smashing of tomatoes" persists.

The final stanza explains why. In a few short days, Federico has been transformed from a murdered "skinny boy" into an empowering myth:

Still tomatoes were picked and squashed in the dark, and the old women in the camp said it was Federico, laboring after sundown to cool the burns on his arms flinging tomatoes at the cropduster that hummed like a mosquito lost in his ear, and kept his soul awake.

The delicious irony of these last lines is that the "old women" are able to claim that Federico in fact is doing now what the growers surely always had wanted. He is continuing to labor even "after sundown." This increased productivity, however, is in the service of showing how to reverse the power relations in the tomato fields. And its effects are almost immediate. Formerly a symbol of the fruitpicker's powerlessness before the grower's omnipotence, the crop-duster is now a mere "mosquito" that reminds them of past acts of injustice. Though these people may still have to work "between the furrows," Federico's presence, in spite of his tragic death, will be an empowering force, never far away.

Copyright 2001 by Ryan Cull.

Ryan Cull: On "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer"

A "testimony" suggests evidence provided by an expert witness to a governmental or judicial hearing.  On the other hand, at the opposite end of the spectrum, it also could be indicative of a more personal account of an ecstatic or religious experience.  In either case, a testimony is fundamentally a truth claim of sorts, whether it appeals to evidence deemed objective, subjective or some combination thereof (and this poem's account certainly runs the gamut between such a polarities).   With such preliminary indications in the direction of truth-claims, Ai's subtitle, "a fiction," comes as a bit of a surprise.  The work is obviously fictional in the most basic sense that Oppenheimer himself did not write it.  But what is interesting, nevertheless, is the fact that the poet, at a rhetorical level, from the very start would appear to be teasing her readers in opposite directions with such generic indicators, leaving us in an epistemological no-man's-land.  These strains are only further accentuated by this fictional testimony's bold beginning which announces the "attain[ing of] enlightenment," a presumably blissful moment of intellectual resolution.  In this manner, Ai's dramatic monologue introduces itself as a kind of puzzle that eventually reveals the relationship between this epistemic crisis and the singular moment in history that she also is documenting.

The "enlightenment" described in the first two verse paragraphs is in fact a magical (albeit horrific) kind of elision between a creator and his creation, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic bomb at the moment of its impact on Hiroshima.  In a moment of immense irony, we find Oppenheimer finally gaining a private sense of peace amidst great public destruction, finding his own desires for a kind of pre-natal "rest" fulfilled by the results of his weapon.  Thus, in a shocking enactment of Freud’s death drive, the "searing wind that swept the dead before it" is juxtaposed with a preternaturally peaceful "silence" in a "soothing baby-blue morning/ rocking me in its cradle . . ./ beyond the blur of mortality."

But beyond these private desires, the moment of the bomb's detonation is a kind of singularity separating all that came before it in human history and thinking and all that will come after - beyond the founding Creation myths (trees of life and death), beyond "Art and Science," beyond an early evocation of Western imperialism (Alexander).   Abdicating these "illusions," Oppenheimer's supposed "enlightenment" quickly spirals into a nightmarishly resigned pessimism as he decides it is better to "leap into the void" and "accept the worst in ourselves."  But how did he (we?) get to such a moment? And what does it mean?

The final two verse paragraphs provide something of an explanation.  Oppenheimer states that he was taught in "high school [that]. . . / all scientists/ start from the hypothesis 'what if.'"  From this point onward, he was driven "by a ferocious need to know," an "urge" that publicly was called science but privately was in fact a kind of all-consuming fervor for self-knowledge and, above all, control. It was an insatiable desire for "anything that gets you closer to what you are." According to the now disillusioned yet chastened Oppenheimer, the same Cartesian urges for epistemic control at all costs that sped along scientific and industrial revolutions now threaten the very existence of the human race.

The deep pathos of these final verse paragraphs, however, is in the fact that Oppenheimer is simply unable to think outside of these drives.  He explains that "all I know is that urge," which, in effect, has become his de-facto religion/meta-narrative.  He continues (in whatever infernal place that he seems to exist) "gnawed down by the teeth/ of nightmares/ My soul, a wound that will not heal."  Observing Western society moving forward, he falls into cynicism.   No better than "characters in funny papers," our national identity is founded upon "military readiness," a "constant frenzy of patriotism/ and jingoistic pride," and "endless" enemies.  The logical endpoint of our pursuits is that we continue to "tear ourselves down atom by atom,/ till electron and positron, we become our own transcendent annihilation" (another terrifying image of the death drive that also reminds one of Lacan’s suggestion that Freud's signal contribution was to describe the ultimate undoing of Descartes' cogito).

"The Testimony," thus, raises far more questions than it answers.  Can we think of "science" in terms outside of this Cartesian "urge"?   If not, must we forsake potential scientific gains in view of such dangers?   And is it possible to resist (or should we resist?) the self-corrosive cynicism that is so terrifyingly narrated through the persona of Oppenheimer?  It is not at all clear, in the end, that the poet believes we have found many answers to such crucial issues.  Instead, she leaves her readers with the dark realization that we also may still be caught, even 50 years hence, within the speaker's harrowingly ironic still-moment of "enlightenment."

Copyright © 2001 by Ryan Cull