“Set ‘sin’ aside. And yet –
don’t we need a modern word?
some noun like a bin to hold
the overflow of flaw,
the inundating seep
of hoarded iniquity?”
Making the rounds recently were two studies that posit reading literary fiction temporarily heightens a person’s empathy towards others. An engaged reader allows the ideas of the author to unspool across her mind, another’s worldview momentarily supplants her own, and thus enlarges her experience of life. It’s the only true form of telepathy humans have figured out. This phenomenon is often exerted in political poetry and poetry of witness. Don’t laugh or cringe, dear reader – political poetry still exists, in a way that political fiction doesn’t. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, with its haunting cover and compilation of racial microaggressions, is one recent example of a poet wielding her art to place a reader inside a ‘you’ that serves to broaden dialogue about race in America.
Like Rankine, Jan Clausen’s Veiled Spill: A Sequence also takes as its impetus recent events on the global and national stage. In the hybrid texts of Clausen’s twelfth book, she sets out on a pilgrimage to visit territories personal and far-flung: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, an ant infestation in the kitchen, Fukushima’s nuclear reactor disaster, her classroom, the treatment of prisoners, working at the local food co-op, the French veil ban, and more. “Veiled Spill #1” opens with:
ONE/ This is the world: we agree on that much. Spilling, they loll on their mojo here and there, hurling much to the winds. Idle. Ashing. Desperately kindled. Roasting marsh- mallowy virgins on the points of bayonets. Muffled within the uncanny. Incandescent. Not to blame. (Above all, not to blame!) Regard their beautiful mugs and wistful abs. I hobbled, veiled, among them like a vendor on the strand.
The ‘you’ in political writing can be tricky, however. One approach is to anticipate friction, use it as Rankine does to mesh the reader’s resistance to a deeper literary gear that propels him into the text to explore its dimensions. Alternately, the pronoun can signify that a person is not of the ‘we’ of the artist and her group – in which case ‘you’ becomes an indictment. Jan Clausen is of the latter party. Drifting quickly from ‘they’ to ‘you’ by the third poem in the series, her manifesto is part impatient teacher, part outraged global citizen.
“< What’s it about
For the millionth time >
you can kiss
my veiled ass/”
This hostile stance towards the reader, her students, ‘bimbo’ Spaniards, anyone outside NYC (‘America’), and herself is partially explained in an interview about her union organizing at Goddard College, where she has taught for 25 years.
“[My writing] is always engaged with big political issues as well as small personal moments. It’s often the overlap of the two that fascinates and inspires me. Writing gives me a way to ‘talk back’ to reality – to shape words in response to a pileup of events so fantastic and accelerated that it can’t be described only felt – yet whose impact we are going to be living with for a long time.”
‘Talking back’ takes the shape of inventive forms and collage of her own observations interspersed with newspaper clippings, hymns, interviews, and other ephemera of our media-saturated society. This technique works particularly well in ‘Veiled Spill #3’, where an ongoing trail of poetic strutting, lyric intervals, and consumerism wordplay share the page with a block of text composed of a letter from Amnesty International protesting Chelsea Manning’s imprisonment. This letter in turn is mashed with articles and reports of the horrible conditions of Manning’s life behind bars. The solid wall next to the thin links of formal poetry illustrates Clausen’s assertion of individual lives (including her own) as barbaric yawps that nonetheless must be juxtaposed against greater movements.
Throughout the collection this simultaneity is performed in an outspilling of forms, voices, emotions, typesettings and speech registers. In ‘Veiled Spill #8’, Clausen intersperses a choral voice with a transcript taken from US pilots surveying a village in Afghanistan and trying to decide if they should launch an airstrike.
“We’re looking at
It’s a cool looking shot
We’re looking at
That guy looks like he’s wearing jewelry and stuff like a girl, but he ain’t . . . if he’s a girl, he’s a big one
We’re looking at
So, it looks like those lumps are probably all people”
However, these collages are not without their weak spots. In her self-conscious desire to fan out form like a deck of cards, Clausen’s images can become a montage of pastiche. Responding to Fukushima’s radiation crisis, ‘Veiled Spill #6’ misfires in its leaps between form, self-flagellation, and clichéd imagery:
or years hence:
“Will it still
like fuel rods?”
“Or will it all
into a fiendish mess?”
I ask: who died
for your rakehell
Cherry blossoms wrap
as in the hills
Stronger poems reveal Clausen meditating inwardly on a subject instead of projecting her views outward. Then her delight in riffing
via word association comes through, building towards a more generous stance for herself and others, as in ‘Veiled Spill #14’. She also grants the reader more space to interpret the text for herself in these later poems.
If political poetry is one of witness, Clausen is ready to take up her pen and record the times we live in, where articles about torture are forced to compete with advertisements customized to our consumerist desires. While Veiled Spill: A Sequence may take on an asceticism and reader-smiting wrath that at times seems heavy-handed, it is nonetheless an earnest act of political engagement. Clausen is putting her queer shoulder to the wheel, America. She is hoping you will join her.
“I mean I aim to act in concert with with
Because what used to gnaw gnaws on
That same old worm at home in us
I merely micromanage phonemes shuffle nouns blaze the line
Kind reader (are you kind) my shroud/veil’s draped with you in mind
I mean I mean to spill the beans aesthetically
Self-veiling any spill is given time and maggotry
I can do what I want with form but not for long”