Ethics of Aesthetics

Having recently read Anna McDonald’s “Almost February” in the June 3 issue of The New Yorker, I was reminded of Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.”  Both poems address the shocking casualness of violence, and both are designed to turn our stomachs.  In the Forché, the speaker’s interview with the brutal colonel is cut short:

The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves.  There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said […]Something for your poetry, no? he said.

The exact image that captures me is the simile in the third quoted sentence.  It is almost as though the poem itself acknowledges that it cannot look directly at the horror and must seek refuge in figurative language.  The brutality comes full circle when the art is forced to replicate the violence, as though compelled by the colonel’s curse.  The poem upsets not only because of the brutality depicted but also the acknowledgment of art’s inability to transcend the brutality.  It is a sabotaged ars poetica.

McDonald’s poem decries the leveling effect of experiencing the world instantly through the internet-driven constant news cycle.  Here, terrible violence, mindless consumerism and the ephemera of daily living coexist with little modulation in between.  The speaker is tempted to submit an e-bid for a celebrity artifact, but the poem is haunted by (among other things) the anniversary of the Islamic fundamentalist attacks on the Tuareg in Mali in early 2012.  Other lines indicating mundane concerns jockey for the speaker’s attention (“A neurology student named Claire told me There are many Claires. / One replaces oneself, cellularly.  How many Claires?”).  McDonald poses some fairly ageless questions about the difficulty of rationalizing personal concerns with wider history, and here she is in dialogue with Forché.

But toward the end of the poem, McDonald gives us this: “The hospital stayed open in Timbuktu, but the doctors / had to minister to so much horror—they had to reattach people to their hands.”  These lines bothered me on first reading, and it has taken me a few days to figure out why.  The description is brutal enough to awaken our moral outrage, alright, but there seems to be something else going on here.  The simple inclusion of “to their” strikes me as a stylistic embellishment (not to mention the fact that “people’s hands” would have gotten the same information across with less verbiage).  That turn of phrase implies a sort of “mix-and-match” operation, a piece of sorely misplaced humor given the poet’s theme of attempting to properly observe real tragedy in the world.  For me, at least, this modulation in voice represents a misstep from which the poem cannot recover.

On the face of it, both poets arguably aestheticize violence—a move that, at least to this reader, represents an ethical breach.  But because Forché is willing, subsequently, to sacrifice the poem, to admit that her momentary use of figurative language cannot break the hold of the violence, I am willing to go where she wants me to go.  With the McDonald, the insistence on style, the poet’s imprimatur, fuels in me a deep-seated resistance.

Anyone else have thoughts about these poems?  In particular, Forché’s poem has been in circulation for 30 years, and perhaps you can remember and share with us your initial or subsequent reactions.

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