Reading this poem, I’m oddly reminded of George C. Scott’s famous opening soliloquy in Patton, which is adapted from the famous speech given to his troops by General Patton himself: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” Fair enough. How do you work that out? Scott as Patton again: “We’re not just going to shoot the bastards, we’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads on our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun bastards by the bushel.” I have looked this speech up on several occasions, not for inspiration, but to remind myself of what other philosophies circulate out there beyond my cozy house/family/yard and the Catholic liberal arts college where I teach, which has had a small measure of painful skullduggery pus-tulating on its figurative behind, as do most institutions, but on balance is fairly nice, and service-oriented, and doing its best to live up to some lofty, non-violent ideals.
This poem has a political sucker punch lurking in it. The first stanza, about the lobster, is all set up to maintain the discussion of physicality. The poem from yesterday (DS 83) ended with the word “Plop!” and this one begins with “Plop, plop.” Obviously, they’re not separated, a reminder that this is one long poem in 385 parts, not really 385 separate poems. DS 83 was about physicality, as have been all of these “Op. posth.” Dream Songs. The lobster as food continues this motif. The first stanza is uncomplicated except for the substitution of “dislike” for what should be “unlike”, reminding us that whatever is happening in the mind/spirit of a lobster as it gets its first whiff of the lemon-scented steam roiling upward out of the pot of its boiling destiny, it’s probably not happy. Neutral at best if you assume there’s not much happening in the psychology of a lobster beyond simple stimulus/response and the unconscious nervous-system minutia of lobsterly body maintenance. But nevertheless, whenever any living thing is reduced to mere body—exactly what happens when you apprehend it as food—the thing is going to be outraged. This same move is repeated in the second stanza with the punning substitution of “slave” for “sleeve.” This struck me as gratuitous and inexcusable on first reading, but I’ve backed off of that judgement. I may not like it, but I get exactly what B. is up to, and it works. A slave has value on account of his or her ability to do physical work, and that includes even the skilled craftsmanship of a cabinetmaker (see my poem in response to DS 60), the interpersonal intimacy of a handmaid, whatever. A slave’s value as human being, with all the moral rights we should assume come automatically with that status, is denied. This is an outrage, but of course it was pervasive. There’s nothing unusual in this world about an outrage. So what does Henry’s friend suggest was up his “slave”? A lesson? “O no no no”. No lesson. Just a light grieving over the loss of his body, and the recognition that “bodies are relishy.” His is decaying, or “was” a body, and the loss of relish—the relish of other bodies as food as a pleasure, as well as the relish of being in one’s body as we eat, have sex, live—is something to lightly grieve over.
The raising of “Political Economy” is totally puzzling, and drops out of the clear blue sky, except that it sets us up perfectly. There is the brief return, and lull, “leaving me here?”—in other words, decaying in a coffin underground—and then the whammo line, which I think is pretty darned effective: “The military establishments perpetuate themselves forever.” It’s partly a statement of simple fact, it’s quite likely a reference to Eisenhower’s warning upon leaving office against the military-industrial complex, and of course the war in Vietnam was now in full swing. But its impact most arises out of its contextual placement. We’ve been dealing, in sometimes creepy, sometimes humorous ways with thoughts of the body and loss of the body, a yearning over the presence and pleasures of the body, and I think this line has been gathering momentum from the beginning of the “Op. posth.” section, and it was meant to. It all comes to remind us that war is a lot of things—patriotism, various stirring and/or violent emotions, the extension of failed politics, assertions of power—but in the end it’s what Patton reminded us of: We will use the biological oils of the enemy’s living guts to grease the treads of our tanks. Unfortunately, I fully acknowledge that it was entirely appropriate for General George S. Patton to address his troops thusly and remind them that in the end, this is what they were in France for. Here’s another quote from that speech: “When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend’s face, you'll know what to do.” Exactly. Regarding Vietnam: Screw the Marxist Dialectic, the ideals of Democratic Capitalism. The Domino Theory be damned. We went to Vietnam to turn our enemy’s faces into a bunch of goo. Period. What do you think of that?, he’s asking. The poem ends with a reminder: “Have a bite, for a sign.” Eat, and in doing so, remember what you are and how it is you stay here. Alive. Maybe show it some respect?
Of course the meditation on life and the body, the voice from the grave, has to be tied up with the unasked-for obsession with the suicide of the poet’s father. But that doesn’t mean it’s also not a powerful statement against the war in Vietnam. It’s fully that as well. I’m starting to think that when Berryman gets humorous, look out. Humor looks to be a weapon, a tool, not an end in itself, and he’s pretty good at swinging it. These poems are serious, and despite the tragic or goofball mess of the poet’s life which they draw from, the statements coming through in the art can be powerful, devastating. I admire that.