Contemporary Poetry Review

Reviewed By:
Mark Halliday

 The Endless Ending

National Anthem by Kevin Prufer. Four Way Books, 2008. 


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          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 first section.)

            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 to end.

            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.  

Orange moon, moon and the sparks that fell like cigarettes

or tiny empires to the ground.

     Ash in the hair and throat

so I ducked beneath the trees and wiped soot

from my eyes. My barn glowed on the hill

and 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 of society.

I have often looked across the fields and the moon said,
You have only a short time, your kind. I paid it no mind.
Everything is always

                        talking. Dark moon, crescent, half, afire,

moon that skimmed the distant mountains
beyond which the Capitol slept,


moon that reddened them—and cast the city, I guessed,
in a lovely glow.

(Where 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.  

I offered these to the Republic: my ashy coat the moon ruined.
My shoes which after a time were thick with soot.
                                                                                    A horse.
They wouldn’t do. And soon


                                    the houses came awake and spilled
their lights over the blanketed landscape. My neighbors
shielded their eyes to watch
                                                the moon that wobbled in the sky,
that hissed and spit and fell. They groaned


and coughed into their hands, then turned the radios on
to static.
                         They stayed all night and watched it shed itself
and shrink—nickel, flame, then pinprick. Then they went to sleep.


Here in the provinces, news comes slowly.
                                                                         We are a simple people,
and live as if concealed. The next morning, we shoveled ash away
and went about our business. A roof or two had caved.


I waited for your letter from the city,
                                                            but it never came.

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 last
                        century’s angels—

                        And the starving horses, their shanks brittled over with ice—

                        And the moon atop its brilliant derrick, and the poor burning so
                        beautifully in the oilfields.

                        As we drove, their cries lit the winds with wailing

                        and you said, This isn’t America into the truck’s dark cab and turned
                        the radio loud.


                        Super 8, Waffle House, Motel 6, the half-lit parking lots off the exit where
                        we pulled the truck and said we’d sleep

                        despite the gray-faced man unmoving by the payphone, despite the child
                        asleep in the ice machine

                        and I closed my eyes so the theatre lights dimmed and my skull became
                        a screen

                        and on it you were rich and happy, you were saying that you loved me.


                        And all night long, the nation reconstituted itself

                        so by dawn the light played its ringed fingers over the dashboard and said,
                        Wake up,

                        fellow Americans, wake up and see what I have made for you,

                        Texaco, BP, Mobil and the road dusted over with jewels and snow. You
                        were so cold

                        and beautiful, your hair undone, so we drove and drove. I said we’d see

                        the afternoon long as a bridal train, the horses falling in the oilfields.

            From the skies of Prufer’s nightmare-world snow keeps falling, but (as in “The Moon is Burning”) this snow keeps metamorphosing into something else—such as the defunct angels of a bygone order (in the opening lines of “We Wanted to Find America”), or destroyed warriors like Randall Jarrell’s Ball Turret Gunner.

            As we pulled into Wichita the snow grew thick and clotted on the windshield,
            sleet falling like frozen pilots,

            their legs shattering in the crowded streets. Hypodermic snow, pharmaceutical
            and sterile

            and the office towers rose above us, their lights blinking like overstimulated cells
            and you said,

            Darling, park the car, and you said, Let’s walk and, Look at the lights, how
            beautiful the lights are

            holding my hand in front of the Dillard’s, the great chandelier that filled
            the room with shards,

            that filled the street with blades, the chandelier like a perfect mind


            and the office towers bending down to us as if they’d cup us in their hands
            and warm us,

            as if they’d lift us from the street before we froze.

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.
                                                                        The pastor said, Kneel and I kneeled.
                        The pastor said, Rise and, Now we will sing.

                        Outside, parachutes tangled in the trees. Soldiers unhooked their
                        harnesses and dropped to the ground while the parachutes gasped in
                        the sun like morning glories. The gunfire said, Bang, bang, bang

                        and the pastor said, Kneel and the old men kneeled. I kneeled.
                        The pastor said, Bow your heads.
                                                                                     The parachutes swayed in a wind
                        and from the woods the sounds of sticks cracking.

                        A morning glory expands like a man who has jumped from a plane.
                        Like a parachute.
                                                 The pastor lit a candle and another. The pastor
                        touched his chest here and here. The old men swayed in their shoes.

                        I was a pewful of such men,
                                                                        eyes rolled back in my head. Weak and
                        trembly. How lovely the parachutes in the churchyard, their cords
                        twisting in the wind like a mission.
                                                                                    How lovely, the bells
                        that rocked on dowels in the tower, the sounds that slept in the hammer.
                        The hammer that swayed like a soldier beneath the bell.

                        The gunfire said, Surprise, said, Ache.
                                                                                                The pastor said, Be seated!
                        The pastor cleared his throat as though he had something to say,
                        holding his book before him.

                        In the churchyard a young man knelt by a tree.
                        Someone put a rifle in his mouth
                                                                                     and the pastor said, Amen.
                        The bell crashed through the tower.

            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—
                                                                        And the city, aghast—
                        The old ladies huddled in the doorways,
                        in the downpour, ladies like ghosts of themselves—
                        And you were saying,
                                                            Why shouldn’t we adopt?
                        A Chinese? A Romanian? A noble thing to do, these days,

                        and if the buildings burned
                                                                        we wouldn’t see them
                        through the weather.


                                                            Then the enemy
                        stealing through the thickets—blue faced and strange.
                        Our legions far outnumbered, the legions of Paulinus—
                        so who would save us?
                                                            The aged and infirm who couldn’t
                        leave the city?
                                                They’d string them up on posts,
                        they’d light the streets
                                                            with slowly burning bodies.


                        How they hate us for our freedom, someone told me once,
                        How they loathe our freedom
                        An old man tottered in the street;
                                                                              or the clubfoot
                        where his retreating family left him, huddled in his bed,
                                                The killers in the thicket—

The 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 Russian
                                                                         or a black one.

                        You pulled your coat a little tighter
                        at the throat,
                                                the thicket trilled with ghosts
                        assembled half of rain—and then of flesh.
                                                                                                 A bus
                        approached, not ours, and in my dented mind I swore
                        a black man dragged behind it—


                                                            They’d burn the city
                        and the ones who couldn’t flee
                        they’d skin and nail to posts.


                                                            I only mean this
                        if we can’t conceive.
Our bus approached,
                        the crying of the brakes—
                                                                        and some in their tattered
                        useless wings, and others curled in doorways,
                        their breath that filled the streets with fog—
                        How they hate our freedoms
                                                                        the doors and the pneumatic hiss—


                        Caesar’s pointless extras and their ragged shields,
                        the white-faced files.
                                                            Those who had the legs to march
                        prepared to march away.
                                                            A good thing, you said, a noble thing
                        a clatter of retreat, the pistons squeaked.
                                                                                                 We had no choice.
                        We left the weak to perish in the street.

Depressing; 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
                        you were curled on a pew, asleep.

                        Someone had dressed you in rags and old columns.
                        Someone had covered you with yesterday’s news.

                        And what was that for a pillow? A little cloth bag
                        of coins? Such eyes

                        like golden cups, such hair like silver tassels.
                        Why weren’t you in the Forum

                        with the wreckage? The Coliseum
                        with the cameras and the thousand steps?

                        All over Rome, people were looking for you,
                        saddled with hip packs, trailing

                        their children. All over Rome,
                        with their thin wives and café tables.

                        As for me, I’d stepped in from the heat
                        and the vendors. The church was quiet

                        as a closed fist. What were you doing
                        beneath the mighty stained glass windows,

                        asleep like that
                        on your gold coins and hair?

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) become.

            He put his foot down in the foreign grass and heard a click, as of metal on
            metal. When he lifted that foot—

            Sometimes it is a cold day and the clouds rain toxin over the boys on the base—

            Sometimes, they don’t know they’re being watched, leaning against their
            packs, asleep like that—

There 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 on
                        the open water, in the plane, driving so fast down unfamiliar roads? His

                        Someone would tell her. Someone would write her a letter, thank God.
                        There’s a template for that—

                        A guy who puts your name on the hard drive, a distant office, a simple
                        program and printer—

                        You punch in the name and out it comes.

That 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”:

                                    I did nothing to help

                        while the empire limped into the park like a wounded car,
                        but composed while the crying shuddered

                        to a close and the buses stalled in the alleys.
                        Once, a group of hungry girls knotted on the street corner

                        called my name. Their hair was white
                        with snow, their lashes wet.

                        Love notes leaked from my hand as I walked past.
                        I have always been a gorgeous mind, light-in-the-eye

                        and dreaming. Always a work of art, a perfection
                        of limbs and hair, an arc in the marble

                        of my writing arm. Down and down my letters fell
                        while the empire closed.

On 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.


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