In the Heart of the Beast
C. K. Williams
(May 1970: Kent State, Jackson State)
I don’t want to hear anymore that the innocent farmer in ohio on guard
duty means well but is fucked up by his politicians and raises his
rifle out of some primal fear for his own life and his family’s and
that he hates niggers hates them hates them because he is warped and
deceived by events
and pulls the trigger
I’m sorry I don’t want to forgive him anymore
I don’t want to say he didn’t know what he was doing
because he knew what he was doing
because he didn’t pull the trigger once and run away screaming
they kept shooting the kids said
we thought they were blanks but they kept shooting and shooting
we were so scared.
I don’t want to forgive the bricklayer from akron who might or might
not hate his mother I don’t care or the lawyer or gas station
attendant from cleveland who may or may not have had a bad childhood
I don’t care
I don’t want to know
I don’t want to hear anything about it
another kid said the rocks weren’t even reaching them!
I don’t want to understand why they did it
how could you?
everything else is pure shit.
on the front page of the times a girl is screaming
she will be screaming forever
and her friend will lie there forever you wouldn’t know she wasn’t
just sleeping in the sun except for the other screaming
and on the editorial page
“the tragic nature of the division of the country…the provocation
undoubtably was great and was also unpardonable…”
o my god
if there was a way to purify the world who would be left?
there is a list
and it says
this person for doing this
and that person for doing nothing
and this person for not howling in rage
and that for desperately hanging on to the reasons the reasons
there is an avenger
who would be left?
who is there now who isn’t completely insane from all this?
who didn’t dream with me last night
of burning everything destroying everyone
of tearing pieces of your own body off
of coughing your language up and spitting it away like vomit
of wanting to start at the bottom of your house
breaking everything floor by floor
burning the pictures
tearing the mattresses up
smashing windows and chairs until nothing is left
and then the cars with a sledgehammer
the stores that sell things
the bridges into the city
the international harbors
the tall buildings crumpling like corpses
the theaters torn down to the bare stage
the galleries naked the bookstores like mouths open
there should be funerals in front of the white house
bones in the capitol
where do you stop?
how can we be like this?
The more I hear people drawing comparisons between the war in Vietnam and the current one in Iraq, the more I’m struck by one vivid difference – the lack of widespread public protest against the Iraq invasion. Never mind the opinion polls, where are the marches, the street protests?
I’m not alone in noticing this. In last week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes:
“One of the things that will strike future historians about our era is the placidity of American cultural life at the time of a wildly unpopular war – the unexcited alteration of American death and “American Idol” so different from the eruptions that attended Vietnam – that is a result of our not having to go there if we don’t have [want?] to.”
Today’s poem takes us back to 1970, to the time of those violent eruptions, to the massive outpouring of political outrage that once overflowed America’s campuses, and became the keynote of a generation that turned protest into a culture. It is an angry and (uncharacteristically for Williams) over-the-top poem, frantic in its accusations, breathless with sensibility. Like the generation it champions it is frenzied and impractical; but that is exactly the point. There are times when our conscience demands that we not be reasonable, that we refuse to make allowances. And when what is at stake is the lives and freedoms of innocent people, whether at home or in another country, then that time has come.
There is much that could be said against the student protests of the 70s. You could take, with Gopnik, the cynical view, and argue that, in the era of the draft, the protests were motivated by self-interest. You could say that at the end of the day the protests achieved nothing. No matter what their reasons and no matter how little they achieved, though, at least the young people of the day protested – as loudly and as vehemently as they were able. You may say they were dreamers, but it was a beautiful dream.
And why is a poem about the suppressing of an anti-war protest part of a series on War Poetry? Because in the end the only war worth fighting is the one against war itself.
P.S.: C.K. Williams has a new Collected Poems out (FSG, 2006). A lovely book.