I say: there is war here, and fire. Conquest, brutality, fragility and escape, but no real exit.
from: The Big Book of Exit Strategies
Fig 12: This is where the American’s bullet
went in, he mumbles into his hoisted shirt.
Not pictured: exit wound.
Fig 13: This is where the bullet came out
Not pictured: entry wound.
Fig 7: He flinches when she releases
the clasp of his belt.
Fig 14: His friend presses an amazed thumb
against the scar that glistens
dull like a frozen lake she has never seen.
Like the filthy glass sand becomes.
She touches its twin on the other side
and imagines the moment, when together,
they were the last wound opened and the next.
The poem says: “Break me or let me break.” I say: Perhaps his mother’s voice. And May mourns her: “… the unreal/way she’s disappearing/ while showing up everywhere/and loosing weight/while getting to heavy/for me to carry…” But here is a man who wants to bend, not break, bend not break. The poem also: “we are stalks that bend/and bend and bend…” Both ways, I get anxious from all the fire and guns and weapons – from the teeth and the bite and the blood. From the skin that is breached again and again. “what I was trying to say … I don’t mean… I mean… I am trying to say” – we stutter across the page like gunfire. Because the poem says this about a skinny child: “He’s memorized the laughter of small arms/fire, the mutterings of tank tread, and now/begs us to listen as he translates/the language of weaponry.” Trauma goes in and never come out. “Happens all the time.”
Ed says: “We start trapped, in a quagmire of thought and memory and place, the syntax animated by a desperate urge to escape. We gather speed, sometimes veering out of control, sometimes getting stuck and kicking out mud and shit and ink. Sometimes we repeat spontaneously like the laughter of small arms fire”.
I say: See? Maybe we are seeing the same wars.
Ed says: The language of exit strategies was invented by the Pentagon to describe the failed military operations in Vietnam, but the term became commonplace in the discussion of the failed state. Of course the inhabitants of a failed state or a broken city usually don’t use the term—it’s a term of intervention, of conquest and stabilization gone sour.
I say: I see all the tiny interventions – the gun points, but doesn’t fire, the woman chokes but doesn’t die, the chain of the poem loops dangerously around her neck. What does it mean to survive? The poems move through pistols and erections, the man becomes child becomes man again. The body is breached or broken or bent – suited up for religion, plunked in the pews of the father for blood, breach, prayer, and we land in an insane asylum. After church.
Ed says: We approach this language warily—seeds and growth and luxuriance, and the language of maps. Better to set it all ablaze. Because the poem says: “When my bed caught fire/it smelled like a garden.” Ed says: The poems tend to end in collapse or refusal or a sense of encroachment. The poem like the dying body “a trench opening / from the outside in, the inside of a fist, / decay-dark socket in the head….” “Or a prison,” Ed says: The prison seems always nearby—both as a metaphor for language and as a social reality in the age of for-profit incarceration. In fact, it’s the proximity to hospitals and prisons that makes the bullshit prisonhouse of language trope a little more meaningful.
So Ed says: Exit strategy as death? Nirvana? A CGI Buddha and a blood-soaked hospital mop side by side. There are the raw meat rhetoric and Rimbaud echoes mixed with graphic novels, standup comedy routines, scrambled science fiction codes, cartoons, zombies… Often the poems move by assertions and denials—May seems to put forward a line, then douse it with acid or lighter fluid or tear it apart with some homemade surgical instruments. Exit strategy as transcendence? Hardly. Sexuality is pretty murderous. Love is necessary but desperate. The minimal—how to get out of the poem alive.
Donna Spruijt-Metz is a poet, translator, and Professor of Psychology and Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California. She is currently working on a set of ‘interpolations’ – translations from the Dutch and responses in English to Hans Lodeizen’s poetry. Her writing has appeared in OR, The New Review, and The Rumpus.
Ed Schelb is a poet who lives and writes along the Occoquan River in Virginia. His most recent work arises from his engagement with the poems of Guillevic, minimalist music, and his immediate landscape. His aesthetics: upper limit birds, lower limit mud, in all respect to Louis Zukofsky.