Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now, edited by Amit Majmudar. (Knopf)
In the introduction of Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now, Amit Majmudar explores why he had a perception of not liking political poetry. He understood political positions and “didn’t particularly care to get it in verse.”
Like him, I feel like I “got plenty of it in the editorial pages of this or that newspaper.” With a broad focus that poetry can employ, I was hesitant because as much as this current administration turns my stomach I wasn’t sure how many ways you can write Fuck Trump and make it interesting. Majmudar wants the reader to know he didn’t set out to “filter the poems that got into this anthology on the basis of ideology” because “the far right, after all, casts itself as a resistance and a rebellion, too.” In the end, the call for poetry “attracted thousands of entries but zero pro-Trump poems.”
Before I read through the collection I was ready for a redundancy to reveal itself, but like Majmudar I was surprised by my level of appreciation for the poems. Sure, there are a few that take specific aim at our current situation, but many were a condemnation of our system which cultivated an environment that made the current situation possible.
What a lot of these poems do is show that Trump and his crew aren’t causing the fear, hate, and turmoil—but rather reacting and responding to the fear, hate, and turmoil already prevalent in our country. In Richard Kenny’s poem, “Civics One: Our Democracy” he says “As kids we’re taught it’s safe as a pyramid / unshakable and permanent,” but stanzas below turns the assumption around with “Though, we see it’s really safe as plates / awhirl on broom sticks.” It focuses in on being raised with a false impression of greatness.
I know this notion of blind exceptionalism well because of being a millennial (“you can be anything you want when you grow up”) and growing up with an innate privilege from my race and economic class I wasn’t aware of until later in life. I’ve witnessed and experienced the shift when one comes to understand the lie almost a moment too late: Oh, I might not actually be as special as I thought. We live in an implied meritocracy and because of someone’s wealth or power we need to believe it’s because they worked that much harder for it. At this point I wonder if maybe we should have paid more attention to Plato and developed a critical eye for our system instead of believing we are the greatest country on Earth because of our democracy. If we had done that, we possibly could have avoided the rot spreading in our system. But we chose to ignore the problems because it was easier and more comforting to believe the mantras: “Can’t improve on perfection” and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Now we’re tasked with the bigger issue of trying to fix a corroded problem.
Jericho Brown’s poem “Riddle” hints at similar ideas. It is built around Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American who was lynched in 1955 after a white woman said she was offended by him. It is framed as a collective amnesia we’ve adopted as a country. Since we don’t have a connection to Emmett’s mother’s wails we “do not know the history of our- / selves on this planet because / we do not have to know what / we believe we own.” It’s like we need proof of the pain and anguish before we’re willing to put any stock into it. The poem takes a turn to looking at the monetary return of an experience. We’ve built our lives on the shoulders of the past, but “we do not / recognize music until we can / sell it.” Unless we can use the abstract to benefit us, we don’t care or bother with looking any further at it. It’s a bleak—and sad—outlook, but necessary to question our own individual motivations because that’s the hard work that will make progress to a better future.
Those are just two poems resisting and rebelling and with forty-eight more we are given a rounded political view of where we are and how we got here. What I appreciate most about this collection is Majmudar chose not to take the easy road and publish fifty pieces pushing the blame to the opposing side, but decided to choose poems that take an inward look at us as a nation and try to pinpoint where it went wrong. It’s a call to action to do the hard work, and hopefully we’ll be up for the task.