Marion Bell, “Austerity”

A delightfully awkward love poem, combining the evasiveness of playing it cool with the repetition of searching for the truth. The result isn’t just a strange but elegant eloquence—there’s a potent message about America today. Still, I want to speak exactly like this poem, in tones casual, profound, and funny:

Austerity (from Slow Poetry in America; h/t Ryan Eckes)
Marion Bell

look i get radicalized by love
like any normal
American

i wouldn't turn you into a wife
i'm a person you know
and the conditions are weird
the naiveté
even of my knowing
i wouldn't turn you into anything

i get radicalized by love
and by austerity
and by work
by austerity and by work

it's easy to get radicalized just by paying
       attention to experience
i would write to you
in the naïveté of my knowing

look i get radicalized by love / like any normal / American. “Look” alone contains quite the puzzle. “Look,” I want to assert myself, say something with finality. I can resolve this situation, so I’m going to speak, um, apologetically. I’m… sorry I’m in love with you? In my defense, love radicalized me. It didn’t make me crazy, but devoted to a cause—this may not make me a normal person, but it sure makes me a normal American.

Yup. You heard that right. I’m amazed you’re still listening. I just said pursuit of my own self-interest—I mean, yeah, there’s some loving and caring involved—is pretty much of the same rank as raising money for an orphanage about to close.

I guess I have to start clarifying how this works. Alright. I’m radicalized, not crazy—i wouldn’t turn you into a wife. I assume you can see my humanity and my suffering—i’m a person you know / and the conditions are weird. You can see how little I know! Take me as I am—naive, maybe even innocent. the naiveté / even of my knowing / i wouldn’t turn you into anything.

The first two stanzas project pure, unadulterated coolness. Not “cool” in the pejorative sense adults use to try and prevent kids from imitating their peers. This is way more powerful than impressing some kids at school—it’s complete command of one of the most difficult social situations. In an awkward quasi-apology, there’s a plea to be loved. It feels confident though it speaks vulnerability. There’s an offer of possession and exclusivity that proclaims itself as anything but. You can say it’s trying to be honest though “the conditions are weird.”

So that’s it, right? Not quite. If you don’t know anything, how’d you get radicalized? i get radicalized by love / and by austerity / and by work / by austerity and by work. I get radicalized by, um, everything. Austerity—severity, deprivation. It isn’t really the opposite of work, though it is presented as such here. Plenty of people don’t have and must work to abnormal, deforming extremes.

But because of the awful, sheer bullying ignorance of contemporary American political rhetoric, if you’re suffering through austerity, you’re assumed a thief. You’re trying to save something, but according to people who watch television and YouTube all day, you are supposed to have nothing. So you must be stealing! If you have a job and have financial troubles, again, you must be trying to steal. The only people incapable of stealing are those who already have. The rich can be trusted, are capable of virtue, are worthy of love.

In the face of this, how can anyone not be radicalized by this crazy country? I know parents who look down on their kids because their kids are poorer than they are. We’re literally a nation that can’t afford love.

This love poem changes. Knowledge means reevaluating priorities. Radicalization means staying true to the cause. It’d be nice to be loved back, but no matter what, I plan on staying busy. Experience brought me here, to you—it’s easy to get radicalized just by paying / attention to experience. I fell in love. Now I gotta say, I gotta go to work. i would write to you / in the naïveté of my knowing.

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