One of the problems in contemporary poetry that I return to again and again is the swift hinge that links beauty (however defined) and violence. We live in a world with an extravagant capacity for what the human project regards as beautiful—but also an equally extravagant capacity for cruelty and horror. How does the lyric poet maneuver between these two? This, I think, more than anything else, lay at the core of Czeslaw Milosz’s seventy-year career as a poet; it’s also at the heart of Alice Oswald’s Memorial, Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” much of Mahmoud Darwish, etc.
There are various ways of dealing with this agony, some of them aesthetic, some political, some theological. For me, as a working poet, the formal problem is this: how to acknowledge beauty in a world of violence—or violence in a world of beauty—without aestheticizing violence, as such?
This pair of poems, by Brian Russell, caught my eye not because they aestheticize violence, but because they acknowledge the aestheticization of violence, to devastating effect. The “child” in “Russian Airstrike” is defined by the video that contains him. Russell allows the poem to attempt a metaphorical transformation of this child: an offering, a balloon. But this “ribbon” slips too from the poet’s hand, beneath a sky less composed than “compiled”—of just such flash cuts, mediated by technology (radar, drones). “Frame by frame” concepts such as “time” and “the soul” fall away—and with them, the boy, who was never any more real to the (twenty-first-century American) reader.
I find “US Airstrike” to be even more powerful. Its music is seductive, and it acknowledges the rhetorical posture of seduction in its opening move: “Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful.” The plea here is different from the plea in, say, Zagajewski’s famous lyric: the poet-speaker begs not to be misinterpreted, as if appropriate, accurate interpretation could somehow heal the widening wound mapped by the poem. The poem is a manipulation, aware of itself as a manipulation, a desperate ploy. Can we hold the pastoral vision, with all the aestheticization that implies, for one second longer? (Shades of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated or even Ransom Riggs’s Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children—except this is not a fiction.) It’s beautiful, this infinitely dilated moment, in part because it’s “ours.” We possess it—and violence is one of the means by which we possess it. Any minute now.
The poet-speaker’s appeal to “god” in the final line of “US Airstrike” raises the metaphysical stakes of the poem, not because an actual God might be addressable, might be listening, but because “god,” as a concept, threatens to fall away from the scene as swiftly as did “time” and “the soul” did in “Russian Airstrike,” “frame by frame.” The poem speaks not into the void, but into a glut of images, a proliferation of expendable frames. It itself constitutes one of those frames. That’s its tragedy, its fragile grandeur.