One of the jobs of poetry is understatement. Hemingway, over in his fiction writings, would call it the “iceberg theory.” You see 10% of the ice, and infer 90% of the Titanic. End of story (and, it so happens, ship).
One good example of this is a poem from George Bilgere’s latest book, Blood Pages, almost but not quite dedicated to me. “The Nod” is a mere 11 lines of simple complication. Bilgere doesn’t give it to you, but you get it. Here’s a look-see at the poem:
by George Bilgere
So Gerald, the mailman, comes up the sidewalk
and gives me this little nod, not unfriendly,
but not exactly friendly, and I of course
am aware that the slaves were sold like cattle
in the public square, and I nod back.
It’s a complicated thing, this nod.
The world’s foremost experts
grow tongue-tied trying to explain,
so I’m not even going to try.
I’m just saying we nodded at each other
and Gerald handed me my mail.
As Naomi once said to “Roger That!”: This ain’t a poem about the mail. But how do you write about race? For people like Kevin Young and Tracy K. Smith, no problem. But from the white perspective, it’s a trickier line to walk. Little things loom large. The lateness of the historic day throws longer shadows. A nod, then, can speak to greater divides.
I would try to explain it, but I’d grow tongue-tied, and as any reader of this blog can tell you, that’s not my natural state. Massachusetts is.
So I leave it with you, and bid you good day. With a nod….
One thought on “Less Said Is Best Said”
Yes, Ken, being a white poet lays a heavy load on you if you dare write about that incendiary subject, racism. When Tony Hoagland wrote “The Change,” he ignited a firestorm about race that still pollutes Poetryland’s atmosphere. Even someone as smart as Claudia Rankine misread (IMO) the poem’s “message” as promoting racism.
I promise to stop posting my poems on your future blogs, but this one seems relevant to the topic. I’m still getting some grief over it.
And that Bilgere poem is quite good. Thanks for printing it.
LAND OF THE PHARAOHS
I like being called “brother”
by black men. I like walking past
Land of the Pharaohs
& being invited in by the brothers
to bless them with a poem.
“Brothers,” I say, “brothers,
please, no keyboards, no congas,
let me lay something white & uptight
on you brothers.” I recite my poem
about Martians & Geiger counters,
its conclusion an ironic invitation
to Jesus to drop by some morning
for coffee. They hate it.
The brothers hate it
but they’re polite, not like Kerouac
at the Living Theater,
heckling Frank O’Hara
or the Academy Awards audience
mocking poor Sally Fields
when she said “You
like me! You really do
like me!” The brothers forgive me
as they’d forgive a flying nun
who alighted among them
& roosted, preening, while a brother
recited his hip-hop poem called
“Kill the White Muthafuckers.”