Failed State

This entry is part 15 of 38 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life

defines it, like a breaker
built on a foundation of salt.
The annual cicadas
advance with their buzz saws,
nematodes unwire all the outlets
& hummingbird pendulums
drive its clock toward silence.
Blue flags fly in every ditch.
It hoists a clipped toenail
in place of the moon.

Homeless from birth,
the failed state’s citizens dance like cranes,
ungainly, flapping their greedy arms
as if wherever they happen to land
is where they belong.
Their bellies swell
with wholly impossible crops

while we in our developed nation
gather twice a day on linear altars
& offer our beached bodies up
to inertia.


Prompted by a column in Newsweek magazine by Fareed Zakaria, “The Real Failed State Risk,” which argues that the real threat to American security is from weak states rather than failed states. (I don’t accept his premise that the projection of military power has anything to do with security, but aside from that the argument makes sense.) The term “failed state” has amused me for some time; Zakaria’s column just happened to be the right mention at the right time.

Series Navigation← On Reading The Separate Rose by Pablo NerudaGibbous →
Posted in ,

Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).


  1. Hey. I’m a poet (I’ll claim that) who strives to make timely political statements that maintain their literary value. Perhaps political is too much of a charged word. Maybe ideological is better. I think this poem achieves that fine balance between ideological meaning and literary quality in an exciting way. The language is fluid on its own–I’m particularly fond of the imagery about cicadas–but the emotive thrust of the poem still hits hard.

    I commend you.


    1. Hi Jordan. Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad this stuck you as achieving the right balance. I tend not to like poems that are too didactic, but enjoy trying to make didactic points nonetheless — it’s a challenge.


    1. Way too many of those “failed states” are the debris from Western colonialization….


  2. I’m wary of trying to see too much overt political meaning in this, though I know that was your starting point. I just like very much the imagery, its sense of unease and eeriness, and the possibilities of the idea of state. Weird and wonderful!


    1. Thanks. I would hope to make this kind of poem accessible on all levels, so I’m very pleased to hear it works for you. I really only mentioned what sparked it because I thought it would make a more interesting blog post.


  3. Their bellies swell
    with wholly impossible crops

    dunno if the pun was intended, but it’s a terrific one.

    I like this a lot. I don’t know if I quite get the last stanza: I can see us as beached, all right, but I can’t see us as worshipers of inertia.

    I love the whole progression up till then, though. Especially the clipped toenail in place of the moon.


    1. We worship speed and convenience, but it’s a false god, and in fact we’re serving inertia (the tendency of objects in motion to stay in motion as well as objects at rest to remain at rest, let’s remember). Or something like that. I’m not completely satisfied with the last stanza either, and in fact have already edited it once since publication. It probably needs a complete re-write.

      I forgot about the double meaning of “crop” even though it was pivotal in another poem I wrote once. So thanks for reminding me of that.


      1. In this context especially, we worship inertia in another way too — we’ve repeatedly punished other countries for trying to change their political system to one that might not do our bidding….


        1. It’s particularly aggravating when they insist on taking our rhetoric about democracy and self-determination to heart. This has brought us no end of trouble in the Middle East, for example.


  4. I like this. The “breaker built on a foundation of salt” really stood out for me.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.