Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
It is not surprising that Rumsfeld’s phrase, “we don’t know we don’t know,” should capture the imagination of a poet, poets taking, after all, a professional interest in the limits of language. We too are restless interrogators and bullshitters; no wonder we saw Rumsfeld as a kind of anti-poet. As early as April 3, 2003, Slate magazine published a collection of found poetry taken from transcripts of his speeches by columnist Hart Seely. Free Press brought out a book-length collection, Pieces of Intelligence, just three months later. Then the meme spread to musicians. In September 2004, Stuffed Penguin released The Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld and Other Fresh American Art Songs, composed by Bryant Kong and sung by soprano Elender Wall, based on Seely’s found texts.
So it was perhaps inevitable that a real poet should capitalize on the meme, and that the resulting book should win a major award and debut at #12 on the Poetry Foundation bestseller list for contemporary poetry books. I’m talking about Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, by Matt Mason, published by Backwaters Press in 2006, winner of the 2007 Nebraska Book Award for Poetry. I haven’t read it. It sounds like a funny, straightforward book.
The publication last month of the very similarly titled We Don’t We Don’t Know, by Nick Lantz — a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize winner from Graywolf Press — shows there’s some life in the Rumsfeld poetry meme yet. Had I known of the Mason book earlier, I would’ve ordered it, too, for comparison’s sake. Lantz’s is, I suspect, much the brainier book. In fact, I found it almost too brainy, too high-concept for my taste. Given my general interest in all things apophatic, as evidenced by the title of this blog, I want very much to like it, but after just one reading, I can’t quite get over the feeling I’ve been had, somehow. Going online and discovering that another young poet had already published a book with virtually the same title four years earlier does nothing to counter that impression.
Don’t get me wrong: there are many good, and several great, poems in the volume. I especially loved “A History of the Question Mark”:
God said to Ezekiel, Mortal, eat this scroll.
When the prophet had finished, a black curl
of ink trailed from the corner of his mouth,
a single droplet dotting his throat.
The question mark as a child’s ear
taking in the song his mother is singing,
as cattle brand, as thumbprint whorl,
as flooded river eddying back on itself.
Another favorite was “‘Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake'”:
drive home that night with the cage
belted into the passenger seat, the bird
makes a sound that is not a word
but that you immediately recognize
as the sound of your mother’s phone
ringing, and you know it is the sound
of you calling her again and again,
the sound of her not answering.
Almost every poem had at least a few lines that took my breath away. So I will be reading the book again; these first impressions should be taken with a grain of salt. But I’m not ashamed to admit that a great deal of it went over my head. For example, I was never quite sure why epigrams from Rumsfeld alternated with epigrams from Pliny the Elder. The artsy way the endnotes to the book were squished together into one long paragraph struck me as clever but annoying, and perhaps emblematic of an overall excess of ambition. According to a back-cover blurb by Ronald Wallace, if We Don’t Know We Don’t Know “is in some ways an ontological quest exploring the limits of optics and epistemology with reference to Darwin and Aristotle, Petrarch and Christ, Plato and Tutankhamen, it is also a celebration of bees and eels and finches, of wildfires and crickets and light.” And more than anything, I guess, I found the absence of explicit references to the Bush administration’s war crimes disconcerting.
On the other hand, given its title and inspiration, how could this collection be anything other than oblique? In one, pivotal poem, “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?” Lantz turns the tables on CIA interrogators with some questions of his own — three and a half pages of questions. (“Will you ask questions that have no answers?/ Will he say, No more for today, please?”) Another poem is titled “Potemkin Village: Ars Poetica.” (“From/ this distance, light can/ resemble life, See/ how they wave to you.”) So it’s not as if politics are absent.
I just worry that, by blurring the distinction between poetic artifice and imperial disinformation, we risk trivializing or even excusing the latter. To me, Donald Rumsfeld is not only a war criminal but someone with absolute contempt for art and literature. When Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities and National Library were being looted after the invasion, while American troops guarded only the Ministry of Oil, Rumsfeld said, “Stuff happens.” Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be such a bad title for a book…
(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)