It’s been “re-bound,” the first in a series of chapbook reprints from Seven Kitchens Press: saddle-stitched with red thread and knotted in the middle. Notes from the Red Zone, say the red letters, but in the cover photo, the air around the cooling tower is green, and I can’t help translating into the lingo of the aughts: Notes from the Green Zone, with depleted uranium the link between the Hanford nuclear plant in Pacosz’ long poem, set in the early 80s, and our invasion and occupation of Iraq. We were searching, we said, for weapons of mass destruction, as if there were any other kind, as if we were not the chief authors and publishers of that story, tying the red knot at the center ourselves: the dust of vaporized DU shells that will be causing birth defects in Iraqi children for generations.
Why reprint such a book in 2009? Because the Cold War didn’t really end; we are merely in its half-life. “Slogans come easily,/ Life through death/ and they find comfort/ in the promise/ of resurrection,/ rapture in a pure land/ beyond this one.” The poet is a nomad and an interrogator, wondering “where the edge is/ and why there needs to be/ a form, something contained,” wondering about the word enemy. What is the link between domestic violence and war-making (“the woman/ short indian/ wrinkled face/ purpled with bruises/ not sure she can continue/ paying the price”), between alienation from the natural world and hostility toward the other (“blue whale, Polish Jew, tiger, witch”)?
“How long have you lived here?” she asks the women, but the answer, “all our lives,” rings hollow. No man goes down to the river without a fishing pole, knife, hatchet or chainsaw, and no woman goes there alone at all — except the poet, wearing her alertness to the omnipresence of death like a red wool coat. “The conversation turns abruptly/ to the quality of roads/ leading out of town.” The one thing we all have in common is our desire to escape.
How should we think of a president who works actively to reduce nuclear stockpiles at the same time that he advocates a dramatic increase in nuclear power — and expresses skepticism at an enemy’s ability to make the same distinction between weapon and deadly tool? Who in Washington really speaks for nature now? While I am pondering this, the news comes in that the Environmental Protection Agency has at long last “clarified” the guidelines for coal mining to outlaw most forms of mountaintop removal in the Appalachians. Ah, clarity! That thing we read poetry for.
This is a short book, dangerous as a shiv between the ribs, requiring — in my case, at least — three tries to reach the heart: red zone. Maybe it’s time the poet faced some questions herself. I call her up and she answers on the second ring.
(Click on the thumbnail to go to the book’s page in Open Library. My conversation with Christina Pacosz will be featured on the Woodrat Podcast next week.)
UPDATE: Listen to the podcast.