Friday, April 22, 2005
Lines from McGrath follow me through life, come to me when I'm most in need of poetry. The first poem of his I ever read was "Something Is Dying Here": "In a hundred places in North Dakota,/Tame locomotives are sleeping/Inside the barricades of bourgeois flowers..." I read the poem, originally, in the anthology Where Is Vietnam? edited by Walter Lowenfels, published around 1967, an anthology of poems against the Vietnam war. Something like 73 poets, one poem each, arranged alphabetically by author. (The poetry anthologies Lowenfels compiled during the '60's and '70's are excellent examples of anthology editing. More on this another time.)
"The dead here," McGrath writes in the above poem, "will leave behind a ring of autobodies,/weather-eaten bones of cars where the stand-off failed..." I found the Lowenfels anthology in the high school library. It was a pretty good library for a high school. Also there, I found Denise Levertov's Relearning the Alphabet (also containing a number of anti-war poems), Robert Bly's The Light Around the Body (containing most of his poems against the Vietnam war). Also in the school library the famous anthology of "Beat" poets The New American Poetry, also Langston Hughes, also the Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot -- I finished reading "The Waste Land" one morning in the high school auditorium during a pep rally.
This would have been about 1971. By that time I'd made up my mind I wasn't going to go into the army if I was drafted. One way or another I planned to stay out. So did most of the people I knew. Before I finished high school -- in an effort to defuse and diffuse the anti-war movement, the government made a decision to stop inducting people, though we were still required to register at age 18, and our birth dates were still drawn in the draft lottery, in case they started drafting people again in the near future. My draft lottery number was 2. With the help of good advice from people knowledgeable about draft board procedures, I won and appeal and was formally classified as a Conscientious Objector -- if they started drafting people again, I would be assigned to "alternative" civilian work, which in Minneapolis usually meant working in a hospital or nursing home or similar work.
The war pervaded everything in those years. It was impossible to have a conversation without mentioning the war, or being conscious of not mentioning it. It was impossible to look at the sky without thinking of the bombs dropping on Vietnam. Walking with 50,000 people from the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis to the state Capitol in St. Paul, in May 1970, protesting the war. I often found it impossible to think of the future, to think ahead more than a week or two, because the pressure of the present moment was so insistent.
Reading "The Waste Land" during the high school pep rally. I've never been sure which one was the true metaphor for the other.
Thirty years later, walking through the streets with, possibly, 10,000 people, in February 2003, in 20 degree weather, trying to stop the next war of empire against a population whose government and business class happen to own something the government of the United States and its financiers want. We have not stopped struggling. We will not stop telling the truth.
Night on the plains. Imperial mutterings. The vast heartbeat of the world. At the end of his poem "Something Is Dying Here," McGrath intentionally echoes the short epitaph on the dead at Thermopylae written by the Greek poet Simonides. McGrath's poems concludes: "Strangers: go tell among the Companions:/ These dead weren't put down by Cheyennes or Red Chinese:/ The poison of their own sweet country has brought them here."