The Endless Ending
National Anthem by Kevin Prufer. Four Way Books, 2008.
In National Anthem Kevin Prufer offers something that we may call political poetry, though it might better be called “post-political” because he imagines a world in which it is far too late to improve life via politics. National Anthem tries to express what it’s like to live in a society that provides, for now, apparent physical safety and material well-being, but which seems to be generating irresistible forces that will bring all-encompassing disaster. Prufer doesn’t mention these forces explicitly, and often doesn’t even allude to them; part of the impact of his poems is that he takes for granted our half-conscious awareness of this complex of forces. (Global warming; escalating demand for energy as oil supplies diminish; destruction of the oceans’ ecology; deforestation, and losses of arable land on every continent; nuclear proliferation; the booming development of China and India; the envy of hundreds of millions of people shut out from the comforts of American capitalism; the feasibility of bioterrorism; and rampant population increase—that constant pressure which inevitably exacerbates all the other problems on the list . . .) In Prufer’s vision, we wander in a fog of hypnotized consumerism, unable to alter the patterns of our consumption, always (below consciousness) expecting eventual apocalypse but too baffled and too well-adjusted to be alarmed.
Does the preceding sentence seem a bit trite? That’s part of Prufer’s meaning! We’ve gotten used to the idea that everything is eventually going to hell. It’s the unspoken, or humorously acknowledged, thought hovering near all our references to “the twenty-first century.” (Global warming, of course, is the relatively new idea that has freshly inspired apocalypticism; but there was an overabundance of such promptings before we noticed global warming.) We speak, or we hear our politicians speak, of what we owe our grandchildren; but those grandchildren (and their children) are such shadowy, dubious figures, glimpsed against a cinematic backdrop of melted polar caps and oceans without fish and nuclear facilities on every horizon and Americans battling over water supplies—our descendants live in such a garish, overdone movie, we can hardly take seriously our obligations to them.
To evoke in poetry the truths of feeling underneath the too-familiar thoughts of decline toward apocalypse, Kevin Prufer explores the dream-mind of us all. In his version of our dreams, the keynote is helplessness. Perhaps some of us, in our actual night-dreams, experience images and plots that suggest possible good actions to be performed in waking life; but in the dreamlife of National Anthem (though in daily life I suppose Prufer is as much of a left-leaning liberal as most of us who are devoted to poetry), there is—in Matthew Arnold’s phrase (explaining his repudiation of his own poem “Empedocles on Etna”)—“everything to be endured, nothing to be done.” The pervasive helplessness of Prufer’s characters, and their strange passivity (alert yet spaced-out at the same time) in response to their helplessness, and the chilly air of inevitability surrounding them, evoke a world where any political effort would be absurd, its hour long since past. The only possible moral behavior for these characters is to try to maintain a gentle, non-predatory relation to a few other individuals—and even this shows up only tentatively and fleetingly.
Here I need to remember that I have severely criticized some
writers for offering visions of helplessness and hopelessness. I have
complained, in comments on fiction as well as poetry, that there is a
repugnant comfortability in the view that everything is unstoppably going
to hell. I’ve argued that this apocalyptic view is felt by shallow
writers to justify stories and poems in which nothing happens, nothing
weighs anything, no important choices are to be made. For instance, I
recently wrote a scathing review of The
Totality for Kids, a book of poems by Joshua Clover, in which I
rejected the comfortable limpness of Clover’s laments about contemporary
society. (My review appeared in Pleiades,
the journal Kevin Prufer edits, in the Fall 2008 issue.) But Prufer’s characters
in National Anthem are mostly as limp—unable to act decisively—as
Clover’s characters. Why do I admire Prufer’s book and attack
Clover’s book? My answer involves the idea that Prufer is representing
not our present or future daily lives, but our present and future
dreamlife; yet at the same time, in doing this he does represent
convincing persons, real dreamers. In other words, Prufer’s speakers and
protagonists are characters by
contrast with speakers and figures in Clover’s book who seem merely
notions, shorthand signs for contemporary postures and gestures.
National Anthem contains
forty-two poems, in two groups. The claims I make for the book refer to
the opening set of nineteen poems, along with five or six poems in the
second set. (Toward the end of the book there are poems of autobiography
and personal grief that don’t participate in the nightmare vision of the
The sense of foreboding and dire prediction in these poems does not
arrive in a spirit of argument, nor even in a spirit of warning. Argument
would imply some doubt and debatability, whereas the vision here is one of
mesmerized certainty—not shrill, not shouting; at times not even
alarmed—because alarm would imply surprise. Warning would imply that the
looming disaster could possibly be averted, or its impact at least
mitigated. In Prufer’s vision a vast process—global capitalism, with
American imperialism as its largest engine—inevitably culminates in the
wrecked landscapes of alienation, emptiness, and lostness that glow
strangely around the speakers of the poems, glow flickeringly amid huge
shadows, like scenes from a Great War fought long ago.
Indeed, at a level deeper than foreboding, Prufer’s speakers
often speak—in tones more stunned and melancholy than desperate—as if
realizing, or beginning to realize, that the apocalypse has already
happened. They may still be eating meals, driving cars, sleeping in
houses, but the catastrophic failure of civilization has already taken
place, and they inhabit its ongoing phantasmagorical aftermath. Or rather,
the catastrophe itself keeps stretching out, as if time has stopped. This
is the life of an endless ending, an ending that has a dreamlike inability
The speaker of “The Moon is Burning” lives far from the center
of society, and seems to assume that someone elsewhere—in “the
city”—understands what is happening to the world. He recalls the night
when the moon burned to a cinder. At first he supposed that the ash
falling from the dark sky must be snow. When he realizes that the moon is
burning, he reacts not with horror but with stunned curiosity.
moon, moon and the sparks that fell like cigarettes
tiny empires to the ground.
Ash in the hair and throat
I ducked beneath the trees and wiped soot
my eyes. My barn glowed on the hill
the moon spun in its orbit,
coughing smoke and flame.
The word “empires” in that passage seems to come from the poet rather than the speaker. This is a maneuver—arguably an indulgence—that Prufer allows himself occasionally: words that are loaded with thematic import intrude into the speech of the poems’ speakers. In poetry where the emphasis is on the individual human character of the personae, this would tend to be a mistake. In National Anthem it seldom seems a mistake, because of the shared origin of Prufer’s voices in the collective subconscious—or half-conscious—mind of troubled citizens of 21st-century America. The speakers may differ a little, in the extent of their bafflement and sorrow, but they are all versions of the Citizen whose dreamlife is embodied by the poetry. In this dreamlife, the sense that our capitalist society has overreached itself to become a vast structure of unwarranted power—an empire—exists alongside the sense that this vast contraption is terribly fragile and even, from some cosmic perspective, trivial: “sparks that fell like cigarettes / or tiny empires to the ground.”
Prufer’s poems include occasional strange images that imitate the bizarrely lubricated juxtapositions of dreams. This idea could be used, has been used, to defend various sorts of pointlessly indulgent, lazy poetry; I’ve often been a hawkish prosecutor in such cases. In the case of Prufer, though, I’ve grown convinced that the dreamlike quality of the poetry has deep roots, and that the poet is in control of his implications. Indeed, in the contemporary poetry scene National Anthem will encounter readers who are annoyed not by the strangeness of the poems but by their transparency. There are readers in the digital era who feel contempt for a poem within seconds after having understood it. Prufer (like all serious poets) does not write for such readers. Serious poets avoid banality—but they also necessarily risk it, because profundity tends to lurk in shadows beneath the sedative simplifications of what we already suppose we know.
The speaker of “The Moon is Burning” admits that he has ignored
warnings—including a magical warning from the moon itself. He has always
supposed that the moon (like our global climate!) participated in a static
rightness, a cosmic propriety that included the established arrangements
have often looked across the fields and the moon said,
talking. Dark moon, crescent, half, afire,
that skimmed the distant mountains
the asterisk appears in that passage, what appears in the book is a small
design like an ampersand lying on its side. This device is used in more
than half of the poems in National
Anthem, to separate segments. The effect, I think, is to suggest that
the utterance of the poem stretches across wide intervals of time, but
that no saving change in the condition of utterance can occur despite the
passage of time; no alternate route is available.)
“Everything is always / talking.” The speaker has become so
inured to news—Breaking News such as we are invited to be impressed by
every day—that even the voice of the moon has seemed ignorable. We live
in a new Age of Ignoring. Afflicted every day with far more
information—about things that actually interest us, poured together with
a million things that don’t interest us—than we can possibly
assimilate, we learn to dismiss information with terrific rapidity; facts
about (for example) what is wrong with society subside constantly into the
realm of what we only vaguely recall, or recall not at all—like the
events in dreams.
In the next lines of “The Moon is Burning,” the speaker
expresses a ghostly shadow of patriotic duty, in lines whose effect is to
dramatize the absurd gap between any individual’s microscopic power and
the needs of the imperiled society. Then come lines describing the
neighbors’ reactions to the lunar apocalypse. And then the poem ends
with two lines conveying the speaker’s helpless isolation from someone
he cares for.
offered these to the Republic: my ashy coat the moon ruined.
In the collapse of what used to be assumed as reality (the moon in the sky), intense interpersonal connections have passed out of reach. The speaker can do nothing but endure, in a numbed solitude. Now, if a writer were to suggest glibly that we in our actual present lives can do nothing but endure in a numbed solitude, I would intuitively resist the self-fulfilling paralysis and the ugly enervation implied and implicitly endorsed by the view. If I don’t feel that National Anthem is essentially complacent, it must be because I feel tenderness and compassion in Prufer’s portrayal of his protagonists, while at the same time these protagonists are really ourselves in our sleep, or half-sleep.
In “We Wanted to Find America,” a couple goes in search of the
nation in which life was once shapely and meaningful (“This land was
made for you and me,” Woody Guthrie assured us) with the crystal clarity
and beautiful orderliness of a chandelier. On their journey, the lovers
are unable to sustain their unbearable perception that the old imagined
America has dissolved into misery, grotesque inequity, atrocity. Their
recoil from horrific realization recurs in an irresistible cycle in each
of the poem’s first three segments:
We wanted to find America through the gasps of snow that fell like
As we pulled into Wichita the snow grew thick and clotted on the
There at the end of the poem, our mesmerized searchers are succumbing, maybe for the last time, to the illusion that society will rescue them. But at least, we may want to say, they have each other . . . Yes, but their interest in each other seems entirely dominated by their yearning for a meaningful America in which their relationship could develop. “You / were so cold // and beautiful, your hair undone, so we drove and drove. I said we’d see / America—” We may be reminded of Eliot’s Figlia—“Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers”—and Hyacinth Girl—“Your arms full, and your hair wet”—and of Eliot’s picture of a Waste Land, a shattered society in which human love cannot flourish.
There are passages in Joshua Clover’s The Totality for Kids which, summarized, would sound very similar: human love is eviscerated or erased by the enveloping culture. In Clover’s poem “No More Boffins” he writes “However big you grow in my estimation, / You will always be a dwarf compared to these buildings . . .” We can imagine a critic placing these lines alongside the last scene in “We Wanted to Find America” and waxing on about postmodern alienation in such poets as Clover and Prufer. But this would be the sort of glibly generalizing criticism that weakens our perception of what distinguishes poems. The Clover lines offer themselves as wit and anticipate chuckles from a hip audience that already knows we have no agency in postmodern culture, knows this and knows how to profit from recapitulations of the idea. I would never say that Prufer’s poem doesn’t anticipate a reader; every poem does, and I don’t think Prufer wrote National Anthem in an otherworldly trance; but I say that Prufer, like any seriously ambitious poet, taps into emotions and images that flow far underneath the level of sardonic chuckles. Now, I like funny poems. When Clover writes, “never have / So few of all possible kisses / Involved me as in Peoria / Midwestern city o’ lights!” I laugh happily. I wish he had more lines that funny. But I don’t confuse Clover’s hilarious Peoria with Prufer’s desolate Wichita.
In my review of The Totality for Kids, I argued irritably that Clover’s portrayal of our cultural condition as helpless alienation and drastic spiritual disability “exemplifies the narcissism of our era: we enjoy seeing ourselves as uniquely baffled and adrift.” Forty years hence, I said, when Americans will be struggling with mid-21st-century problems, Clover’s intellectual enervation will look quaint—or immorally decadent. As I’ve admitted, the “post-political” atmosphere (everything to be endured, nothing to be done) of National Anthem leaves it open to a similar charge. The difference is between Prufer’s sense of lostness, which seems haunted and desperate, and Clover’s adriftness which seems cheerfully chosen. If our society has not gone to hell in the mid-21st century, so that both Clover and Prufer are revealed to have been too pessimistic back in 2006 and 2008, readers of poetry will still find in Prufer’s book scenes and voices that convincingly represent fears that agitate their sleep.
The voice in “The Pastor” comes not from the clergyman but from
his enthralled, sheeplike congregation. This pathetic constituency,
represented by the pronoun “I,” represents a population addicted to
the consolations of an organized religion that is absurdly unresponsive
to, even unaware of, the world-changing destructions occurring just
outside the church. Meanwhile the flock—the “I”—feels neither
faith nor hope, nor even fear, but only loneliness, along with an
aestheticized reaction (“How lovely”) to both the images of social
upheaval (paratroopers) and the images of religion (church bells). Here is
“The Pastor” in its entirety:
I was a long pew of lonely men.
Terrible events happen right outside the bubble of ritual inhabited by the “pewful” of aged citizens who, like Luis Buñuel’s eerily unamazed citizens in “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” remain bemused but not horrified, unable to ponder the relation between their own institutions and violence. Prufer’s hypnotized parishioners want to see social upheaval only in terms of natural and/or religious imagery: “the parachutes gasped in / the sun like morning glories.” They are like the audience of a movie—a metaphor that comes to mind often in reading National Anthem, with its atmosphere of gaping passivity, and occasionally emerges explicitly (as in “We Wanted to Find America”: “I closed my eyes so the theatre lights dimmed and my skull became a screen”).
In “Those Who Could Not Flee” the protagonist’s sense of
impending Armageddon seems formed out of images from the opening scenes of
Gladiator. Prufer is obsessed
with imperial Rome and its decline and fall; Rome provides a current of
metaphor that runs through National
Anthem and Prufer’s previous book Fallen
From a Chariot. Barbarians creep closer to the imperial city, where
the weaker citizens are already miserable, tossed aside by stronger
citizens who believe they can escape. Meanwhile, the protagonist and his
wife consider adopting a foreign baby. They feel this would be “a noble
thing.” The poem interweaves these two narrative strands to make us feel
the excruciating difference of scale between the moral impulse of an
individual and the encompassing moral failure of society. Here is the
first half of “Those Who Could Not Flee”:
The rain, like Caesar’s army—
speaker is able to observe the situation with what seems like insight, yet
his mind can’t move beyond juxtaposition. He senses that the kind of
“freedom” enjoyed by “us” has come at a terrible cost, but he has
no clue what to do with this truth—except perhaps adopt a foreign child.
The poem does not repudiate this as a choice, it only expresses how
infinitesimal the choice is in relation to the empire’s harmfulness and
its imminent downfall. Besides, our married couple may not actually adopt.
Here is the second half of “Those Who Could Not Flee.”
A child from far away, a
and accusatory. The speaker of “Those Who Could Not Flee” seems to
believe in the possibility of moral failure even in a world without
effective moral options. But as a reminder that the presiding spirit in National Anthem is not bitter indictment but a helpless and awed
dismay, I will quote a shorter poem, “Ancient Rome”—here the failed
empire itself is metaphorically represented as a forgotten derelict asleep
in a church, absent from the physical traces of its long-lost glory.
When I found you
The speaker of that poem expresses not only puzzlement, but tenderness. At such moments we can detect a sad kind of affection for a disappointing nation, a feeling that could be called weary, rueful patriotism.
But that poem allows itself to turn away from the miseries
inflicted by empire. Most of the poems do not. Several seem to respond to
the Iraq War, without any explicit reference to it. “Army Tales”
presents a montage of moments in the lives of young soldiers caught
helplessly in a gigantic process. This poem is not apocalyptic,
futuristic, dreamlike, or surreal, and yet in the context built up by the
opening suite of National Anthem
we see the soldiers as living in an incomprehensible array of dangers like what our entire society will (in the dream-vision future)
He put his foot down in the foreign grass and heard a click, as of
are many ways to die in the world of “Army Tales,” including suicide; the Army (like global capitalism) accommodates all such tiny
disasters as necessary operational costs, collateral damage.
And what was he doing off the base late at night? What was he doing
is the end of “Army Tales.” In those lines Prufer comes closer to an
ordinary (but still worthwhile) sort of political protest poetry than
almost anywhere else in National
Anthem. Reading that last passage we may feel we’re on familiar
ground, comfortably lamenting the inhumanity of the war machine with its
travesty of compassion. But in the context of National
Anthem, “Army Tales” comes across as something less ordinary and
more spooky, evoking the suspicion that we will all
be lost soldiers in an absurd war—or that we already are—each destined
for an obliteration from an abundant catalogue of available obliterations.
Writing about National Anthem I’ve quoted all or nearly all of six poems, and extensively from several others, trying to deal with them as wholes. An ordinary book review picks out a handful of local felicities (this or that image or rhetorical move) to praise, or blemishes to deplore. Once in a while, though, you encounter a book whose strengths seem so manifest that the ordinary treatment would be impertinent. If the book is really good, there will be appreciators for its local touches; meanwhile, you want to understand the meanings of its poems as whole things. It’s a feeling I’ve had reading the poetry of Claire Bateman, for example; it’s not a feeling that comes every season.
Have I worried enough about whether Prufer paints panoramas we’ve
seen before, strikes notes we’ve heard before? Our society has been
imagining its collapse at least since the early Sixties, when my parents
and all other thinking citizens were contemplating the specter of nuclear
war. When I summarize Prufer’s vision—wrecked landscapes of
alienation, etc.—it does sound familiar. We think of The Waste Land. (We could even recall James Thomson’s The
City of Dreadful Night, 1880.) We think of apocalyptic Hollywood
movies, and video games. Of novels such as The
Road by Cormac McCarthy, or Cosmopolis
by Don DeLillo. There’s a recent anthology from Thunder’s Mouth Press
entitled The Apocalypse Reader edited by Justin Taylor. More relevantly,
Robert Bly’s half-surreal Vietnam Era poems “The Teeth Mother Naked at
Last” and “Sleepers Joining Hands” contain passages that rhyme
emotionally with Prufer’s work. And it has occurred to me that Paul
Simon’s beautiful song “American Tune” has a kinship with National
Anthem, though the song is far less bleak.
So it would be wrong to imply that Prufer’s vistas and
implications are, in broad terms, unprecedented. But I’ve tried to show
that his images, metaphors, scenes, and voices are coordinated in ways
that achieve the force and freshness of art. This effect can come together
with a sense of haunted familiarity, or what I call the sensation of the
Already Classic, when a new work has tapped into a main vein of
contemporary experience and constellated images and notions into a shape
we recognize suddenly as something we were waiting for.
If admiration for National
Anthem has lured me toward grand claims, Prufer, meanwhile, seems to
have a healthy—and sad—sense of how far from limitless is poetry’s
power. In his poem “Ars Poetica” he confesses that all his life he has
written useless love notes to unknown recipients, channeling his
admiration, wonder and empathy into language while people around him
(reminding us of the executed young man in “The Pastor” and of Those
Who Could Not Flee) suffered from the failure of the culture that allowed
him to do this. Here is the second half of “Ars Poetica”:
did nothing to help
a sunny day of teaching and editing, Prufer presumably feels that
literature does some good; but in the dreamscape of National
Anthem, poetry saves no one. But nothing else saves anyone there,
either, not even romantic love or friendship.
I hope to be alive in the year 2038 (I don’t ask for 2048) and I hope to be living an American life in which we still have our well-stocked supermarkets, and our rooms full of books, a life in which we are not divided into tribes desperately fighting to survive in the junkyards and ruins left by the collapse of empire, and I hope to then pick up National Anthem and smile at its quaintness, its fever-dream exaggerations of solvable problems—as I’ve predicted mid-century readers will, if they come across Joshua Clover’s The Totality for Kids, be amused by its presumption that we today endure the ultimate in deracination and alienation. But I think, and fear, that National Anthem—delving as it does into the caverns below hipness—has a much better chance of ringing true to those serious readers whom I keep trying to believe in and who go by the name of posterity.