Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
What are poets for in destitute times? — Hölderlin
Every poem is a subversive act.
In an age when our senses are benumbed by competing media screaming for our attention, the radical quietism of a well-made poem is in itself revolutionary. Sitting quietly and listening to a person share his or her most important experiences expressed in a coherent form goes against our entire twenty-first century Western culture. Poetry is the only antidote for the insanity of post-modern life. This is the reason why poets have been in the vanguard of the contemporary progressive movement and also the reason why poetry’s small audience must be nurtured and expanded.
It is very difficult for a contemporary American to sit still and listen to a poem because the experience requires patient attentiveness to another person’s feelings. Having few chances to practice this kind of empathy, we are simply not very good at it. We are constantly assaulted by advertisements, besieged by email messages, jangled by message alerts, battered by music videos, frustrated by traffic jams, and disturbed by snatches of news. The coherence and silence that human beings need have been shattered and replaced by a fragmented and nervous existence. For our abused sensibilities, poetry offers an oasis of ordered calm, a quiet subversion which, given time, heals the wounded disordered spirit. Not being used to experiencing the music of language for its own sake, we at first rebel against it, reacting with impatience, boredom, frustration, anger. “But what does it mean?” the novice poetry listener asks, throwing up his hands.
The idea that poetry should be free from politics, as many argue, is absurd. Writing a poem, whatever its subject, is by its very nature a political act because artistic creation requires a new way of looking at the world. Pushing the boundaries of awareness is the quality that makes poetry essential, and it is the reason that in a totalitarian society, poets are the first to be arrested, and why in our society poetry has been for the most part assiduously ignored by mainstream media. Poetry provides something that helps make sense of these confusing times. As evidence we need look no further than the aftermath of the recent presidential election during which poetry websites saw a surge of popularity. Vox Populi, for example, recorded over a million hits in the few weeks after Donald Trump’s election, a new record for us. America needs its small presses, its poetry readings, its poetry radio shows, and, yes, its poetry websites, because without them, we are at the mercy of those who make it their business to tell us what to think and how to feel.
Sometimes the subversive quality of a poem is clear and emphatic — for example Pablo Neruda’s poem The United Fruit Company in which the poet excoriates the multinational corporations that have exploited Latin America. However, as great as Neruda’s poem is, most of my favorite poems practice a more subtle subversion. For example, notice the nuanced tone and gentle rhythms in this poem by Jose Padua in which he captures the beauty of the evening rituals in a working class family’s home:
And So the Brightness of Evening
I shine these minutes in the evening,
so heavy with the space of living,
rooms to walk into and leave, floors
to step upon to do a task and walk
away from. The end of the day is
like a polishing of time. You wipe
the table, I listen to its clearing from
the living room then take the plastic
bags of trash out the front door.
It’s a cleaning of the hours, and
for us, an emptying of what’s left
of the week. Work is what keeps
us here, what feeds us from bank
to store to hand to mouth. We keep
it clean, we let it get dirty, we mop,
we scrub, we rinse. Our clothes pile
up in the back of the house no matter
how hard we try to keep up with it.
We don’t try that hard. There are other
things to do, other things to see,
a show about tiny birds flying just
above the roofs; a book about the
end of the world, the stopping of
time, and the sailing of Greek boats.
Before I turn off the ceiling light
in the dining room I see the plates and
tumblers behind the cabinet’s glass
door gleam. It’s the quiet kind
of shining that moves us best,
a glowing with no need to make
its own sound, because upstairs
all the lights are switched on, and
I hear the soft voice of our daughter
getting ready for bed as she sings.
Of course, those who are familiar with Padua’s work know that he is also capable of harsh criticism of American attitudes, as in this poem in which the ambiguity of a single nod becomes an anthem for the uncertain times in which we live:
My True Love and Other Colors
Just off the exit
from the Interstate,
the man with the red, white,
and blue American
flag painted on the wall
of his garage has the words
Love These Colors or
Leave This Country
printed beneath it
in big bold letters,
and when he sees me
drive past he nods
at me so slowly
I can’t tell if it’s
more greeting or threat,
and because in twenty-first century
America I must consider
how a single movement
or motion can
mean two completely
depending on who’s
doing the perceiving,
I nod back briefly and
quickly so as not to be misinterpreted
or misconstrued and
continue down the road
about the colors
of the things in this world I
Even when Padua is being overtly political, he never loses his ability to modulate his ironic tone and spin breathtaking metaphors:
Of all the sadness in the world
there is nothing that can compare
with American sadness. When
America is sad the whole world
weeps. Whenever one American
is sad, at least two non-Americans
somewhere else in the world consider
the possibility of ending it all. When
a hundred Americans are sad, wars
are fought in faraway lands for
the great purpose of making these
hundred Americans happy again.
When a million Americans are sad,
every flag in America droops, then
slides an inch and then another inch
down the flag pole and nothing can
stop this descent until bold, confident
smiles return to these Americans’ faces.
American sadness, let’s make it clear,
is exceptional. Unlike what you may
have heard, it doesn’t always talk
softly, but it always carries a big stick
because no one is sad the way an
American is sad. No one drags his feet
through the dullness of a day, or
walks with her eyes looking downward
quite as sadly as an American who
feels sad because America is losing
a battle, coming in second, or washing
ashore with empty pockets and bad breath.
American sadness, of course, is the greatest
sadness in the world—do not look it
in the eye unless your intention is
to make amends. Do not settle for a
knowing grin, or a sliding into place
of the proper order of thought or things.
Work hard, do your best, and fight
whenever a fist is called for, or a bomb
needs to be dropped upon a civilian population
whose greatest misfortune is not being American.
But above all, keep American sadness at bay
like a ship that wrecks off shore through
instability or from fault of navigation.
Let’s remember to keep America happy.
Let’s keep America entertained.
In capturing the beauty and terror of one life, Jose Padua’s poems are subtle, ironic, precise, and socially aware. Seeing an American flag painted on a garage, remembering the taste of meals that his mother learned to cook when she was growing up in the Philippines, putting his children to bed knowing that he cannot protect them from an unjust society, watching the evening news with a jaundiced eye – these are the moments Jose Padua evokes to wake us from our long unhappy American dream.
Essay copyright 2017 Michael Simms. Poems copyright 2016 Jose Padua. All rights reserved.
To read more poems by Jose Padua, click here.