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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Amy King, “State of a Nation”

State of a Nation (from Slaves to do these Things; also found at Verse Daily)
Amy King

The actor is a second life
of people drawn
on the achievable with fiction.
The characters are fleeting
when an actor’s flame
blows the shortest immortality.
As a result, great achievements
are limited to audience.
But the audience pants on.
Saliva glows on the mouths’
cornered sounds.
We might live five hundred years
on time’s sandbags
that prick with passivity’s angels.
They hole our breath and weight us.
The stage baits.
Lungs blow over liver-grey streets.
No one’s name survives
some small comfort
though hope will surely be given
ever after. Even after,
we still live in the present.
We live as presidents.
We hold on to the value
of a vote, a soliloquy, a sword,
and the lights after curtain.
Ten thousand years and the barrier
between inner and outer,
grape skin and meat,
sticks marred by grey matter.
That lives will dine at single tables
fermenting veins that push
against wine and palate, seat and vision,
the drive to behave and
the drive to portray knocks our hearts
in order not to die from these truths,
however tailored and ill-fitted.
The only thing to ask?
When I am a million candles,
be my feet.
When I please
with human crisis,
carry me into your finish.
When the tide waxes bold,
grow roots from the specters
beyond me. When I die,
play the boy on the soul
of that death and use
my memory’s mud
to make gods of us from the dust.

Comment:

The form of the poem is the “state of a nation:” discrete images that seem to stand independent of each other. But there are generalities which tie, and some generalities speak to the particular. An “actor” – anyone who does anything, to be literal – is a good place to start. Of course, the actor in our world isn’t literally one who does; it is someone who imitates another (“second life”). For us to invest the actor with significance is to see our first lives recede into the background. We, independent of the actor, are drawn on the “achievable.” The actor’s roles come from our world; the only things that mirror ancient myth nowadays, for example, are science fiction and comic books.

Our speaker almost dismisses our dependence on mass media, on watching ourselves every day in the office on television and thinking ourselves imaginative. That’s a democratic society, right? The characters will burn away, and no one cares, because the point is that there is reality, the “achievable,” and it is all of ours. But that’s just it – if the audience has already turned away from its own potential to the stage, nothing really is being achieved. Time passes by, but it is someone else’s time: it’s like others parceled sand and we’re pouring into the hourglass for ourselves. “Passivity’s angels” prick – something feels wrong about this process, but we’re not sure what. Maybe it’s the actual sensation of breathing that’s the alarm (“they hole our breath and weight us”).

The significance of all of this: Lungs blow over liver-grey streets. We all have the same gray houses and hole ourselves up inside of them. Only children play outside; the rest of us have decided to enter a nursing home at age 22. The freshness of the air isn’t enough to wake us, it’s outside of us for the most part. Our “comfort” and “hope” are dependent on screens where we watch what we think is real. We’re all being shaped into one sort of person, though.

And that’s the funny thing. You can’t just say we’re brainwashed into this. We do live in the present, we made this a conscious choice. No one says out loud “I’m going to give up my freedom for the comfort of a flickering screen:”

We live as presidents.
We hold on to the value
of a vote, a soliloquy, a sword,
and the lights after curtain.

That’s the specific appeal of democratic empowerment: there is no “we.” There’s “I,” and “I’m as good and as powerful as the President,” and that attitude melts into “we.” It is no wonder the speaker’s imagery turns to the themes of time and humility:

Ten thousand years and the barrier
between inner and outer,
grape skin and meat,
sticks marred by grey matter.

That lives will dine at single tables
fermenting veins that push
against wine and palate, seat and vision,
the drive to behave and
the drive to portray knocks our hearts
in order not to die from these truths,
however tailored and ill-fitted.

We are what we consume, and this has always been true. The marring by “grey matter” refers to the attempts to deny this truth, as well as the attempts themselves injuring what grey matter we have. Our drunkenness is our blood. There is no breaking of bread (“single tables,” “palate”). “Behave” indicates we do recognize ourselves as the audience; “portray” ties us to the actor. Wavering between the contradiction is us, and it is a reason to live other than the “truth.”

Our speaker ends with three requests: she’s stepping forth from the stage, if you will, delivering a plea to the audience. The actor she herself has been – I assume this poem is meant for recitation – requests completeness. As a million lighted ways, she needs as many to follow those paths. As a shore that receives many waves, she depends on others for stability. And even though this is an age seemingly unconcerned with honor, she knows more than anyone else that being remembered depends on other people.

3 Comments

  1. Interesting take on a very interesting poet.

  2. Monica Leavitt

    March 2, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    This poem summarizes the new psyche to a “T”.

  3. I really love her work, though I tend the dwell within her language, which is just so mesmerising.

    Which is when you come in. This is another great elucidation that opens up the poem nicely.
    .-= Ario┬┤s last blog ..Mystery =-.

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