In a summer media blitz that continues to whitewash the lies and gross miscalculations of a pre-emptive war and a presumptuous hand-over of a sovereignty not ours to hand over—we read about and watch the Bush administration scurrying to deny their rationale for war, to repair gutted infrastructure, to remove evidence of torture, and to reattach puppet strings to Iraqi bureaucratic heads not yet decapitated.
What has become cannon fodder for sanctimonious preaching and smirking assurances from the bully pulpit—volleyed back across the net in the form of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and droll political cartoons from the left—would be hilarious if it were not unceasingly tragic. Poet Robert Bly takes a refreshingly different view—philosophical and poetic, critical as well as self-critical—in response to the madness of war in his new book of poems and commentary, The Insanity of Empire.
As the most effective literary voice against the Vietnam War (editor of A Poetry Reading Against the Vietnam War and author of the National Book Award-winning poetry collection, The Light around the Body, during the mid-1960s), Bly became an early public critic of the Iraq War when “Call and Answer” was published in The Nation in August 2002.
“Tell me why it is we don’t lift our voices these days,” the poem asks, “And cry over what is happening. Have you noticed/The plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting?” Perhaps we did notice, but those plans were made in secret, while the ice cap melts on the back burner of our global attention. Then the poet says to himself: “Go on, cry. What’s the sense/Of being an adult and having no voice? Cry out!” Now read to the end of his six stanzas as the poem unfolds in leaping associations:
We will have to call especially loud to reachOur angels, who are hard of hearing; they are hidingIn the jugs of silence filled during our wars.
Have we agreed to so many wars that we can’tEscape from silence? If we don’t lift our voices, we allowOthers (who are ourselves) to rob the house.
How come we’ve listened to the great criers—Neruda,Akhmatova, Thoreau, Frederick Douglass—and nowWe’re silent as sparrows in the little bushes?
Some masters say our life lasts only seven days.Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet?Hurry, cry now! Soon Sunday night will come.
One should not expect the Bushites to appreciate such a poem, since it demands that citizens take responsibility for a war perpetrated by greed under the guise of self-serving patriotism—the symbol upon which our new silent majority and even angels fear to tread. Instead of compassion for the victims of our occupation, we hear paternalistic platitudes about raising a democracy from infancy, casting the “Eye-rackis” into Otherness along with enemy combatants, foreign insurgents and Muslim extremists.
The effect of our silence has been to rob our own houses of the free speech and privacy we claim to be giving to Iraq. (Even as the Supreme Court restored minimal legal rights to “suspected terrorists” at Gitmo and in stateside custody, the media termed it “a blow to the Bush Administration” not a victory for the restoration of human rights.)
When Bly wrote this poem we were “silent as sparrows in the little bushes” of homeland security, while the loud hawks soared. In earlier crises, literary voices were not silenced by fear. He mentions a few writers and, except for Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet whose husband and son were murdered in Stalinist purges as she was silenced by the Soviet regime from 1922 to 1940, this chorus against tyranny rings familiar.
Finally, lack of imagination prevents the merchants of endless war from understanding the masters of peace to whom Bly refers. “What did Whitman say a hundred years ago?”/”‘Let sympathy pass, a stranger, to other shores!'” The poem “Let Sympathy Pass” then ends with the question of why we voted to lose everything:
All for the sake of whom? Oh you know—That secret Being, the old rapacious soul.
What does Bly mean by this and “the greedy soul” to which he refers often? While we tend to associate “soul” with ancient spirituality and “ego” with modern greed, it seems now we demand comfort and heaven too, even if our violence leads to apocalypse.
“More and more I’ve learned to respect the power of the phrase ‘the greedy soul'” explains Bly in a final commentary. “We all understand what is hinted at with that phrase. It is the purpose of the United Nations to check the greedy soul in nations. It is the purpose of police to check the greedy soul in people. We know our soul has enormous abilities in worship and intuition coming to us from a very ancient past. But the greedy part of the soul—what the Muslims call ‘the nafs’—also receives its energy from a very ancient past. The nafs is the covetous, desirous, shameless energy that steals food from neighboring tribes, wants what it wants, and is willing to destroy anyone who receives more good things than itself.”
But Bly does not stop there, which would be merely a more honest sort of piety, but goes on to include self-criticism. Of this ancient greed he admits, “In a writer, it wants praise,” and that he once wrote: “I live very close to my greedy soul./When I see a book published two thousand years ago,/I check to see if my name is mentioned.”
No one in the current Bush administration has come close to actual self-criticism, except to say that the resistance to occupation in Iraq was underestimated. The intended effect, however, was not to admit a mistake but to create greater fear because this fiendish enemy turned out to be even more evil than we fundamentalist Christians imagined!
The Insanity of Empire contains two sections of recent poems, the final commentary, and six poems from The Light around the Body (1966). The first lines of “The Executive’s Death” from the earlier poems read like a precursor to “the rapacious soul” and the Bushites in a desert landscape.
Merchants have multiplied more than the stars of heaven.Half the population are like the long grasshoppersThat sleep in the bushes in the cool of day…
Even though this alludes to the Vietnam War, and was composed before the Bush clan landed two presidencies, Bly’s consistent response strikes us as prescient. Another example, from the last eight lines of “Sleet Storm on the Merritt Parkway” (about driving through elite Scarsdale, New York), reads: “What a magnificent place for a child to grow up!/And yet the children end in the river of price-fixing,/Or in the snowy field of the insane asylum./The sleet falls—so many cars moving toward New York/Last night we argued about the marines invading Guatemala in 1947,/The United Fruit Company had one water spigot for 200 families,/And the ideals of America, and our freedom to criticize,/The slave systems of Rome and Greece, and no one agreed.”
And no one agrees today because the debate has been contextualized by extreme positions and remote controls, which ignore the substantive middle registers struggling to be heard. Americans are being awakened by the magnitude of “the biggest mistake any American administration has ever made,” according to Bly, which is the collision between “20th century capitalist fundamentalism and 11th century Muslim fundamentalism.”
The extremist shouting—a double monologue, never a dialogue since no one listens—only increases confusion, destruction, and bloodlust, which neither side admits. When monotheistic cultures are controlled by madmen, only a monolithic apocalypse can result. Bly’s humane antidote serves as a sane cry for us to take responsibility for our complicity. His recent poem, “The Pelicans at White Horse Key,” makes this point.
Four times this month I have dreamt I amA murderer; and I am. These lines are paper boatsSet out to float on a sea of repentance.
The Bushites would call this bleeding-heart-liberalism, since they label according to their self-interest—occupation becomes freedom, global capitalism means equal opportunity, empire equates to democracy, and endless war leads to lasting peace.
Without truthful self-criticism there can be only self-righteousness; without regime change this “war is a hundred thousand men,” writes Bly, “wandering about in the fog of the greedy soul.”