Edited by Michael Boughn, John Bradley, Brenda Cardenas, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Kass Fleisher, Roberto Harrison, Kent Johnson, Andrew Levy, Nathaniel Mackey, Ruben Medina, Philip Metres, Nita Noveno, Julie Patton, Margaret Randall, Michael Rothenberg, Chris Stroffolino, Anne Waldman, Marjorie Welish, Tyrone Williams
Dispatches Editions, 2017
At a hefty 740 pages, the new anthology Resist Much / Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance symbolically and actually enacts the oppositional imperatives embedded in its title. 50% of the proceeds from the volume are being donated to Planned Parenthood. The assembling of the anthology itself, spearheaded by Michael Boughn and Kent Johnson, represents a model for activism and mobility in a time of political emergency. Boughn and Johnson brought together eighteen other editors from diverse aesthetic and cultural backgrounds to solicit and to curate the work of more than 350 poets in roughly two months. As Boughn and Johnson note in their incisive introduction, “Poetry and Resistance,” the book “is not intended as an offering of unique, sophisticated “creative writing.” It is first and foremost, a collective, insurgent call that is part and parcel of a sovereign people’s challenge to a narcissistic oligarch and his lackeys, who smirk now from their temporary perches of power. Its pages are bound in direct, literal ways, to the historic worldwide marches of January 22nd—and they stand as evidence that the vast majority of American poets (and artists and writers of all kind) revile the new reactionary dispensation.” In addition to enumerating succinctly the premises underwriting Resist Much, Boughn and Johnson’s introduction trenchantly explores the limits and potentials of poetry as resistance. The anthology is worth purchasing for the introduction alone, which sounds a hopeful note for the many thousands of practicing writers in the United States today who will register dissent “in the embattled commons, and not just in journals, personal collections, or anthologies like this one.”
The anthology begins and ends with poems registering dissent beyond the narrow scope of the 45th President’s election and inauguration. Lorenzo Thomas’s poem, “Inauguration” initiates the anthology, by recalling the Reagan and Kennedy administrations, and by summoning the ghost of Robert Frost in order to evoke a counternarrative to the Manifest Destiny both lauded and complicated in Frost’s work. In “Inauguration,” Thomas rewrites the famous first line of Frost’s “The Gift Outright”; Frost’s “The land was ours before we were the land’s” becomes Thomas’s “The land was there before us / Was the land.” Thomas’s version radically re-envisions historical notions of ownership, privilege, and class, while halving, enjambing, and subverting Frostian blank verse on the syntactical level. By beginning the anthology with this revolutionary inversion of a poem Frost claimed as a commentary on the Revolutionary War, Boughn, Johnson, and company, inaugurate Resist Much as an anthology concerned with troubling superficial ways of seeing and articulating; Lorenzo Thomas’s poem moves its readers backward and forward in time, opening a dialogue between literary tradition and the mechanisms of empire. Likewise opening these dialogues, the anthology ends with Walt Whitman’s “Respondez!,” a poem of grim forebodings and astringent ironies, the bleak flipside of the democratic vistas Whitman celebrated throughout Leaves of Grass.
Reading “Respondez!” at the end of this anthology further affirms, as if any affirmation were needed, the towering stature of Whitman as poet of these United States. Whitman wrote “Respondez!,” at the same time as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” but ultimately left it out of later editions of Leaves of Grass, such as the 1891-92 version. Despite Whitman’s exclusion of the poem, it is perhaps the most comprehensive assessment contained within Resist Much of the failures in contemporary American politics and culture. As Boughn and Johnson remark in their introduction “Respondez!” was Whitman’s: “sharply ironic demand that U.S. America respond to the betrayal of its democratic promise, its abandonment of equality for oligarchy, of fraternity for institutionalized racism and sexism, of spiritual generosity for greed and money grubbing, and of liberation of Eros for a violent, Calvinist repression of human energies.” Whitman’s impassioned plea reads as ominously timely in an era of so-called “alternative facts” and “fake news.” Whitman writes:
Let murderers, thieves, bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions!
Let the old propositions be postponed!
Let faces and theories be turn'd inside out! Let meanings be freely criminal, as well as results!
Let there be no suggestion above the suggestion of drudgery!
Let none be pointed toward his destination! (Say! do you know your destination?)
Let trillions of men and women be mock'd with bodies and mock'd with Souls!
Although murderers, thieves, bigots, and fools have always helmed the ship of state, perhaps at no time in American history have meanings been so freely criminal. Perhaps at no time has our destination been so unclear. Perhaps at no time have so many American men and women been mocked in body and mind, have felt so acutely the Dickinsonian “zero at the bone” when contemplating the fate of their nation and the face of their president. At no time in recent memory has the theory of America announced itself so stridently and so overtly as management, caste, and comparison.
The writing anthologized between Lorenzo Thomas’s “Inauguration” and Walt Whitman’s “Respondez!” opposes any theory of America grounded in racism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia, and an ever-shifting panoply of disparate hates and fears. The poems in this volume are written in what Evie Shockley calls “the heartbreak edge of midnight.” These are songs sung by a fugal choir to the northernmost stars, the wayward child, the coercive lover, the dependent child, the reluctant mother, the unfaithful lover, the elusive mother, the waking nightmare, the “dear, dear we.” Resist Much includes work from as aesthetically different poets as Ron Silliman, Linh Dinh, Rodrigo Toscano, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Jason Schneiderman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Clayton Eshleman, Pierre Joris, Alicia Ostriker, Michelle Peñaloza, Craig Santos Perez, R.A. Villanueva, Fady Joudah, and Brenda Hillman, to name a few. The editors listed above also contribute poems. The contributions come from emerging and established poets of varied camps and approaches to poetry. The unity and inclusiveness practiced in this anthology offers a pointed critique of the fractious polarization overwhelming American political discourse. This inclusiveness offers a heartening example for other anthologists, editors, and publishers to overcome aesthetic orthodoxies and to embrace the kaleidoscopic possibilities of what constitutes a poem.
Eileen Myles and Denise Duhamel’s anthologized poems provide a good example of how two accomplished and wildly distinctive poets might address the same subject through widely different means. Myles poem, “Creep,” reads:
eating too much
dunking your head in water
over and over
again. Feel bad
for your kid
all of them
but most of all us
when I was young
and drinking pred
buy me drinks
and want to fuck
me again &
I was nothing
to them and he is
Myles deftly puts into conversation the misogyny displayed by “our president” with the predatory violence that contextualizes the everyday experiences of American women. Trauma and rage dovetail in this poem and counterclaim us. Denise Duhamel similarly explores the dovetailing of rage and trauma in American misogyny. Her poem, which cleverly parodies Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” begins with a quote dated October 9, 2016, from the then-candidate, casually dismissing comments that clearly celebrate objectifying and violating women: “It’s just words, folks. It is just words.” Duhamel begins her poem:
‘Twas nasty, and the slithy bimbos
Did gyre and whine in the pageant:
All piggy were the gold diggers,
And the moms who breastfed in public.
“Beware the pussy, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware those plastic surgery tits, and shun
Any frump who won’t put out!”
Carroll’s nonsense verse provides an apt point of departure for satirizing a politician whose entire worldview depends upon the simultaneous denial and attenuation of the power of language. Duhamel, like Myles, foregrounds her poem in the present, but uses the present to explore how misogyny works in a wider historical and social sense.
Resist Much / Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance offers a wide array of poems, addressing issues from misogyny to climate change, ranging from the collapse of the fourth estate to police violence, exploring the fascistic tributaries of American culture that have always been running beside us, but which have pooled themselves in the current administration. The poets anthologized here bear witness against injustice past, present, and future. In his excellent recent book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, historian Timothy Snyder urges: “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read Books.” Resist Much affords many examples of reinventing and repurposing language in order to confront tyranny and fascism. Editing this book was one act of resistance, buying this book is another, reading it a third. This anthology does not merely symbolize the widespread resistance to the current administration among poets and writers. Resist Much signifies the strength of a literate and politically conscious America, which will not be duped by the mountebank tactics and the empty rhetoric of politicians. As Whitman would affirm, it is up to writers, governments, and households alike, to brace themselves against “the eminence of meanness, treachery, sarcasm, hate, greed, indecency, impotence, lust.” Buy this book today, read it, and spread the word. Resist.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a poetry editor for DIALOGIST and the poetry book review editor for Arcadia.