Monday, June 11, 2012

What Kind of Times Are These

Was sind das für Zeiten, wo
Ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist
Weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!

(Bertolt Brecht, "An die Nachgeborenen"; Brecht reads it here)

What kind of times are these, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many atrocities!

(Bertolt Brecht, "To Those Born Later," my translation)

The "conversation about trees" that Brecht refers to in this poem from the 1930s has often been associated with poets who were then writing about nature rather than about the "atrocities" taking place even before the Second World War began. In this (entirely justified) reading, Brecht is setting up an apparently exclusive alternative: write about nature, or write about politics.
Adrienne Rich's 1991 poem "What Kind of Times Are These" (video here) takes up Brecht's imagery directly both in its title (a translation of "Was sind das für Zeiten") and in its concluding lines:

… why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

Brecht addresses "those born later"; in contrast, Rich addresses her contemporaries: those readers or listeners who "still listen." This first phrase seems like praise of the addressee, but what follows has a critical edge: "talking about trees" is a lure that is "necessary" to get "you" to listen at all. In a reading of these lines in terms of the reading of Brecht sketched above, a "conversation about trees" becomes a way for a poet to trick someone into thinking about "atrocities" rather than a way of avoiding doing so. Writing poetry about nature, here, does not exclude writing poetry about politics; in fact, "in times like these," only poetry about nature can engage the listener in such a way as to get poetry about politics heard at all.

Unlike Brecht, who mentions trees only once, and only indirectly ("a conversation about trees" and not the trees themselves), Rich actually does write about trees. In keeping with the poem's conclusion, the first stanza already makes a move from trees to politics:

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

Rather than politics in general, this is a history of a "revolutionary" politics engaged in by "the persecuted." It is also a history of failure: the path of the revolution "breaks off into shadows"; the "meeting-house" for the revolutionaries was "abandoned." In this light, the odd formulation that "the grass grows uphill" makes sense: the revolution is an uphill battle with many setbacks and many obstacles.

The obstacles to revolution include the atrocities referred to by Brecht. The "disappearance" of South American leftists during the 1970s and 1980s may only hover in the shadows of Rich's first stanza, but the idea of someone "being disappeared" by the authorities appears explicitly at the end of her second stanza:

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

The reference to a "Russian poem" comes quite unexpectedly; is it the "mushrooms" or "the edge of dread" that is supposed to make it necessary to insist that we "not be fooled"? Along with her use of Brecht's poem for her title, Rich's note to the poem includes another reference: the juxtaposition of "truth" and "dread" echoes the conclusion of W.S. Merwin's translation of a poem by Osip Mandelstam: "the earth’s moving nearer to truth and to dread." It's not the mushrooms that might have been "Russian," then, but the "dread." 

So this is not Russia, where Mandelstam was "disappeared"; nor is it a South American military dictatorship whose actions led to the coining of the transitive sense of "disappear" (usually in the passive voice as "Jorge was disappeared last week"). For some American readers, all the words describing this "place between two stands of trees" might well have pointed to such an "elsewhere," a country whose distance from the reader's own makes it easy to condemn. But this is "not somewhere else but here"; this is "our country," which we readers cannot distance ourselves from.

Still, the poem does not name the country in question. The author's name and biography tell us to think of it as the United States, and that specificity is very important to her work. At the same time, the lack of specificity is important to the poem itself, because it does not allow non-American readers to distance themselves from their own countries' atrocities, their own societies' "ways of making people disappear."

In the third stanza, Rich makes her lack of specificity explicit by refusing to identify the place in question:

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

If Rich told us where this "paradise" is, the specificity would relieve anyone from "somewhere else" of responsibility for the "disappearances" the poem refers to. But this refusal to identify the place also protects it from capitalist exploitation, even if the attempt to do so has already failed, just like the revolutions that left the "ghosts" behind at the "crossroads." After all, if she knows who is going to "buy it, sell it, [and] make it disappear," then her concealment of the location of this place will not actually protect it from "development."

For Brecht, a poem "about trees" is a poem that is explicitly not about politics and "atrocities." Rich implies that a nature poem can be a way to draw people into a consideration of politics. But in this third stanza, she makes clear that a poem "about trees" can also be quite explicitly political. The first two stanzas understand politics in terms of revolution and political history; this third stanza criticizes how capitalism aims to turn everything into a commodity to be bought and sold; in the process, the small "paradises" that can be found in out-of-the-way places are "disappeared."

This reading of the last line of the stanza in terms of political economy can be complemented by an "environmentalist" reading. By the late 20th century, after all, it had become clear that "a conversation about trees" might well involve speaking about "atrocities," as landscapes all over the world are destroyed in the name of economic progress. In this light, Rich's poem completely overturns Brecht's stark distinction between nature poetry and political poetry. Nature is not just a tool to get people to think about politics, as the final stanza implies with its variation on Brecht. In fact, nature itself, commodified and potentially "disappeared," is already as much a site of politics as any "revolutionary road" or "meeting-house" for "the persecuted." 

Feminists in the 1970s insisted that "the personal is the political," and much of Rich's most famous poetry explores the implications of that claim, which challenged the idea of the private sphere as an apolitical space. "What Kind of Times Are These" extends this challenge by implying that "the environmental is also the political." And it demonstrates how a "political poetry" can address the full range of politics while still being a poem "about trees."

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