In Interrogating Water (Salmon, 2014), I deploy an array of forms and formats—ballad, sonnet, villanelle, psalm, press release, checklist, obituary, and poll—to confront the national security state and its shadow wars. (I also address such related issues as American exceptionalism, our romance with guns, and our penchant for the death penalty.) As this variety of approaches might suggest, I do not link poems through the use of the autobiographical or lyrical "I," nor do I directly express opinions that such an "I" might hold.
Instead, I summon the unmoored voices that proliferate in our wired world, allowing different linguistic registers to flow together or collide in humorous and disquieting ways: military jargon, bureaucratic govspeak, Jewish mysticism, scientific instructions, biblical passages, anti-terror rhetoric, fashion reporting. For example, military jargon often takes on the aura of mystical theology, and in "Press Release," I step aside and let such jargon follow its natural, or supernatural, inclination.
I wanted to convey a passionate warning, not by expressing opinions, but by peeking into that collective psyche, partly mirrored by the internet, where language in its roiling confusion expresses us.
Imagine you are interrogating water,
coercing the hydrogen and oxygen
to violate their bonds, give up each other.
Water, a non-state actor,
flows secretly over borders,
gathers in pools, conspires
with bacteria and mosquitoes
You can perform this at home with simple materials.
All you need is a battery, two no. 2 pencils,
salt, thin cardboard, electrical wire, a glass …
Foe of stability,
it erodes in drizzles,
revolts in tsunamis, riots
in floods, and from covert puddles
takes part in uprisings
….of water. Sharpen the pencils at both ends.
Cut the cardboard to fit over the glass.
Insert the pencils in cardboard, an inch apart.
but under every skin
is another, while fluid rib
over rib will hide the atomic
truth in a wavering cage
Using the wires, connect the tips of each pencil
to opposite poles of the battery, then place
the other ends of the pencils into the water.
Excitable even in teacups
its sloshing shifting mass
can menace levees and dams
heave at the ocean’s crust
subverting the Earth’s rotation
The molecules will confess in tiny bubbles
of hydrogen and chlorine gas, at the pencil
tips, chlorine masking the fugitive oxygen.
CENTCOM, within a cluster of vapor
In formlessness (1/11/11) —
Because in the winter campaign the flow
Broke through and did not break through its aura,
The Commander will commit elements
Of the 26th MEU to exploit
Gains in the concealed battle.
This is a short-term deployment, part
Of the long-term quest to attain the Presence,
Ascending to ever greater stability
Through names that approximate the Name:
Provider, Shield, Shepherd, Banner,
Just Cause, Enduring Freedom, I Am.
The 26th operates from Altair,
Al Fawaris, Dheneb, and Dabih
To support the DoD’s forward posture
In the theater of the Erythraean Sea.
The Commander, guided by a billion
Simulations with target-quality data,
Employs the theater reserve at will,
Imposing rigor and bestowing
Mercy in the sphere of low power,
For in COIN operations, water is crowned
With fire, and fire enters water.
Who is this that comes from the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with lamb skin and burnt gunpowder?
Behold, thou art fair, my love, behold thou art fair; standing behind the wall like a roe or a young hart, looking out from blast-resistant windows.
My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.
He bears a sniper rifle, being an expert at war; an XM2010 with a fluted, free-floating barrel.
His legs are as pillars of marble, clad in flame-resistant trousers. His head, crowned with bulletproof Kevlar, is as a watchtower looking toward Kandahar.
Thou art fair, my love; thou art fair; thy eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters: thy hair as a drift of Predators, that appear over the Spin Ghar Range.
Thou art beautiful, O my love, and terrible as an army with banners.
COMING OF AGE
As a boy, Warthog (an early nickname that “stuck”) had always loitered near battle areas, sometimes for extended periods of time. But, as we will see, it was only after many years that this budding taste for conflict revealed itself as a clue to his life’s calling.
The usual temper tantrums characterized his toddler stage, and exploiting these, he excelled in the assembly of facial expressions: anger, sorrow, and joy. Meanwhile, his motor ability developed rapidly. He soon mastered running, kicking a ball, controlling his bladder, and maneuvering at low air speeds and altitude. By the time he went to school, he could stand on one leg and relate a story that always ended in: Victory. Having overcome his fear of the dark, he could now operate at all times of day or night in high or low threat environments.
Normal pubertal development included an enlargement of his titanium armor plated cockpit, foam filled fuel tanks, and ballistic foam void fillers. Not surprisingly, adolescence was a period of considerable stress. However, his excellent communication skills, including fire control and weapons delivery systems, enabled him to plot solutions on a continuing basis.
In addition, during these classically turbulent teenage years, his family and friends formed a strong base of support, providing spare parts as necessary. Finally, and perhaps most important, he learned to cope with loss, his design simplicity and redundant primary structure enabling him to sustain many hits and still “get home.”
Today, as a healthy, fully-functioning adult, he realizes that his early inclination to loiter, condemned by some of his grade-school teachers, was really a sign of what he and others now recognize as a rare “loiter capability”: an aptitude that enables him to hang around battlefields for long periods of time, operating under 1,000-foot ceilings to provide day and night close combat support for friendly land forces. In this role, he is able to conduct intimate, if brief, relationships with tanks and other armored vehicles, reaching out and risk-taking with a 30mm Gatling gun mechanism, double-ended linkless ammunition feed, storage assembly, and hydraulic drive system.
Overall, Warthog’s coming-of-age success story demonstrates that while each individual is “pre-wired” with certain traits, temperament, and abilities, environmental factors ultimately determine how these characteristics are manifested in the adult arena.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE END?
Dear Unknown Reader, buried somewhere under the rubble, think of me as the last oddment of a once-and-future Educational Industry.
As was true of my fellow textbooks, now lost alas, I am a stoic and will not speak of my battered case. The emotions that lurk behind this mask of print are of little concern. It is on my surface that I reflect whatever there is to learn and pass on.
My credo: Neither global climate change nor nuclear war will stay me from the delivery of state-approved curriculum. Or paraphrasing Gandhi, Teach as if you were to live forever. So I will continue improving you, who are still everyone and empty.
That all my fiction is ragged and torn is no excuse to omit the Platonic plot diagram of rising action, climax, etc. And purged by my own Aristotelian catharsis, I remain resolute, despite our late world's terminal resolution.
Although all of history cannot be crammed into a flashback and having ended, cannot have its end foreshadowed, I offer pithy definitions of these devices in my eternal souk and academy.
I have a nearly human memory of a moment before the end: telling fragments of stories, with apropos annotations, and quoting from Shakespeare and Pope to a charred tin can and a shred of bubble plastic.
I reject the slander that I am Ozymandias ("two vast and trunkless legs ..."). No, I am the remaining footnote to the vanished poem explaining that the verb "to mock" once meant to imitate what is real, as well as to ridicule.
Even my dreams are pedagogical: i saw Liberty hoisted onto a pedestal and heard the President say, "Our guest of honor looks a little nervous." Then I quizzed no one in particular, how does this quotation pique your interest?
The stones and suns and planets persist in their unlettered state, or is theirs a higher science? Dear Unknown Intelligent Life Form, minuscule sharp needle buried somewhere in the haystack of stars, I will not cease my instruction.
Stoic but secretly hopeful, I know I am deathless. I await you readers to come, for even if non-carboniferous, you will profit from my apt explanations of carbon-based concepts.
Philip Fried is the author of six books of poetry, the most recent being Interrogating Water (Salmon, 2014), which the Guardian praised for "the valor and vision of its protest." Forthcoming from Salmon in October, 2016, is Squaring the Circle. Fried is also the founding editor of The Manhattan Review, an international poetry journal, and curator of a poetry reading series at The Spectrum, 121 Ludlow St., Lower East Side, NYC. His Web site is www.philiphfried.com.
Illustration: Albrecht Dürer, woodcut, 1515