August 10, 2012
By Aaron Belz
If political rhetoric is a pristine bomber, engineered for the precision and efficiency to deliver its payload, poetry can function as flak: defensive artillery fired from the positions on the ground, designed to incapacitate or destroy its nearly invisible overhead target. All art, because of its freedom from bureaucratic constraint, can function in this capacity, as can journalism, sermonizing and stand-up comedy. Art and its kind serve an important social function: to call attention to error, lampoon folly, etc.
The Oxford American Dictionary gives two definitions for flak—“anti-aircraft fire” and “strong criticism,” citing the word’s origin in the 1930s German Fliegerabwehrkanone, which is really three words, “aircraft defense gun,” compressed into one. So flak is a German acronym that has become standard in English. This is interesting in itself, as I’d always assumed flak to be onomatopoetic, like smack or whack. I’d assumed the same thing about the older term for antiaircraft gun, “ack-ack,” but it’s the British signalmen’s way of saying “AA” over the radio. (War does tend to generate acronyms; see Catch-22.)
I’ve found two poems that seem flak-like. The first is “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell (1945):
my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
This poem is so well-known it has its own Wikipedia entry. Unfortunately, I can no longer visualize what’s going on here without seeing one of the final scenes from Dr. Strangelove. And when I teach it as an example of Cold War-era poetry along with Ginsberg’s “America” and others, my students tend not to get it—or care, really. Maybe it’s too Jungian. I’ve always found the last line to be shard-like, painful, horrifying. I appreciate the poem for its compactness.
Jarrell’s poem is certainly something opposite from political rhetoric, substituting primal fear and graphic dismemberment where valor and patriotism tend to go. For those of us who wonder what war really is, where it fits in the spectrum of human experience, Jarrell’s poem might make at least as much sense as President George W. Bush’s 2001 “War on Terror” speech, which was full of words like decency, endurance, courage, and freedom, freedom, freedom.
Of course, the concerns of “the State” and our concerns as citizens, or merely as humans who desire to stay alive, do overlap. We don’t want to be terror-attacked or to plummet, hand in hand, from the upper stories of skyscrapers. But political rhetoric’s focus is never really on the physical, personal or emotional realities of war. How can they be? Our sanity as a race seems to require both rhetorical frequencies. (David Foster Wallace’s post-9/11 Rolling Stone essay, “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” eloquently considers this antinomy.)
The second poem that strikes me as flak-like comes from Michael Collier’s new book, An Individual History. Its title is “Binding Spell.” It begins:
The helicopter on TV lifting from the White House lawn
reminds me of spells recited to freeze the kidnapper
rehearsed in the day-dream of space of school dismissal
or across the open lots piled with tumbled sage
and repeated like a chant inside the mind’s idea of itself,
words that brought the bully to his knees
or made the slowing Rambler or Studebaker,
—the driver rolling down his window—vanish.
The rest of the poem is mostly the voodoo-like spell itself, but what I love is the offhand and oddly difficult analogy presented in the first two lines. Though it’s not apparently rational, it taps into a fear latent in all media-saturated Americans: that somehow the official “text” (symbolized in the government helicopter) is not only in need of correction, but is inherently ominous. Recognizing the image along with Collier feels like the kind of relief one finds in comedy. Perhaps, we conclude, political rhetoric needs poetic subversion in order to maintain credibility. Perhaps the two exist not in antinomy, but symbiosis.
—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).