When Thomas Campbell, the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times defending the National Endowment for the Arts, I was reminded of something Edna St. Vincent Millay said in the last century. She said that battles had to be fought over and over again, and though she was referring to the right of women to vote, we all know that the culture wars and political wars we are in right now will get uglier before they ease up. We also know that we must learn from the mistakes that let hatred and repression get as far as they have.
The existence of Graywolf Press is one of countless examples Campbell did not have the space to mention, and like many independent presses in its league, it has a history of state, support, and many of its authors have received NEA grants. Said Not Said is Fred Marchant’s fifth collection of poetry, and like all his earlier work, it will burnish Graywolf’s reputation.
Marchant was the first Marine to receive an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector while on active duty. He dealt with this directly, with power and grace in The Looking House, and here he continues to explore his relationship with Vietnam, the country in which he served. This is from “Crossing Nguyên Du Street”:
Advice we had was to just step right out,
in a stream. Motorbikes-hundreds of them-
a way around us. We must not be hesitant,
would throw everyone off. So, trusting these
here on the street named for the poet of Kiêu,
into the traffic as if it were only a light wind
our faces. At that instant I tried to imagine
completely merciful and belonging to those
as they passed smiling, looked as if they just
might forgive us.
Kiêu is a classic epic Vietnamese poem about sacrifice and honor, and part of what makes this piece work, and supports the conviction that art and culture are necessary for political understanding, is the fact that Marchant sets it on this particular street. The poem reads smooth, almost like a carefully composed National Geographic photo of any crowded city in Asia. The big except here is the terrible ugliness of the war that some find unforgivable. The word “might,” in the last line is a perfect, double-edged sword, declaring “maybe’’ while it suggests military might. Marchant is really good at this sort of thing, so he always takes the reader in and out of the ordinary and the awful, the ordinary and the magnificent, the ordinary and the inexplicable, as in the severity of his sister’s mental illness that led to her confinement for ‘’Forty Years’’:
How the illness clutched her by the neck, tossed her up and let her go,
and in the second before she landed, how she thought she might escape,
could drift away like smoke from a long drag on her cork-tipped Kool…..
How rage at times so transformed her face I was sure she and Nero had
Marchant writes this fully recognizing and displaying his privilege. He was able to escape his working class origins, to be educated enough to know who Nero was, while his sister was trapped in her rages, and worse. The specifics here, and their unflinching tenderness, are offered with no descent to voyeurism. We have is a call, not to placid sympathy, but to active empathy with subject and author. In any first-person composition, whether poetry or prose, this is an imperative, and here it is met in every line.
In a short poem called “Two Minutes,” Marchant looks at a monarch and finds a metaphor for what the world is made of:
Some thoughts teem as if in a vernal pool,
peepers throbbing on the waters below.
The gaudy monarch thoughts migrate on
a raft of their own dead, save for the few.
We have met the enemy on a raft of our own dead, and the enemy is us. Is it any wonder so many poets and others engaged with the arts are also devoted to exploring science? There is a very thin line between this poem and others like it by writers as different as Basho and Ed Roberson.
Marchant continues to examine the science and art of what we have done, in “Wod-or,” which he says in an epigraph is the Indo-European root for water. “pollution” is the title of the first stanza, and it makes riveting connections:
14th century, related to the discharge of semen other than during sex, as in
playing with yourself or the wet dreams you had while sleeping in the
corner of your sibling’s bed, or was it during one of those periodic
possessions that sometimes overtake you, when bands of demons who
roam the world find and grip you, shake you like the small, not very
bright animal you actually are, and every one of those complex, almost
miraculous liquids you hold deep within spills, as we say, down the
I read this in California, where it works as a metaphor for the wet dreams of polluters and the mismanagement of water. Read the whole poem anywhere, and see how versatile it is, especially the last stanza, called “oil.”
in the beginning was oil, abundance and overthrow of the olive, earthen
jars of It stored in caves or lodges where a fire is going, where you
might breathe in cooking smoke, and hear the Armenian ewi, a sound
that gives the tongue a pleasure, a word-oil almost as good as the smell
of meat on a spit, the fat dripping, blistering the flesh it lands on, the
eager hand quick to grasp the tekne of liquids that will gather oil
into vats, stoke the fire, carve the runnels in stone parapets, that will
tips vats on their spindles, pour hot oil down on the invaders looking
Marchant’s wisdom is impeccably welded to his sense of how words should sound when connecting thought to experience, and how the contemporary and the ancient are inseparable. The whole of this poem, like the whole of Said Not Said, is an eloquent engagement with a history we will always need to understand better, as we make collective effort to bend toward justice. Fred Marchant is a blessed, vital part of that task.