What's a Political Poem For?
This is for Rigoberto following his Szymborska post.
A few weeks ago, I attended my first town meeting. Somehow, it was nothing like the town meetings of Stars Hollow, with its “lovable curmudgeon” of a mayor and enchanting agendas, motions to rename the streets to reflect their 17th-century heritage, etc. No, it was a town meeting in a toneless courtroom, presided over by a technocrat who wants to put zinc orthophosphate in the otherwise fairly pristine water supply. Zinc orthosphosphate is an anti-corrosive; its sole purpose is to coat the pipes because some villagers on dead-end streets have brown-water problems.
Offhand, I would say, this already sounds like a boring poem.
But allow me to quickly sketch the problem, in case there is a poem here after all.
There are also homes with sections of lead piping; they would benefit in one sense by having zinc orthophosphate coat their pipes. But there are drawbacks. The long-term effects of zinc orthophosphate are basically unknown, either for us humans who would absorb it in our drinking water and showers, or for the Hudson River into which it will flush for years. Also, one of the Republican board members nervous about the proposal says that coating the good copper pipes would interfere with their antibacterial properties. That might lead to something else being put in the water to make up for the loss. Always there are unintended consequences.
The politics around the proposal are fishy; even that conservative board member told me so over the phone. The mayor wanted to push it through quickly without any democratic checks and balances; he doesn’t even have an independent review of the chemical company’s proposal. Is there something in it for him? And what about the other board member on his side, why was her attitude so high-handed and dismissive toward the citizens who came out to protest the proposal? (She happens to have a career writing mommy articles for The National Review.)
So, what’s a citizen to do? Not much. Thanks to the efforts of half a dozen people who spoke up against the proposal, it was tabled. But another meeting this coming Monday will determine the final vote, and rumor has it that it will pass.
It is certainly true that more people could have turned up at the meetings and demanded accountability. It’s true that more mothers who cull their toys for lead from China and buy organic milk without hormones could have mounted a protest. They didn’t. Their young kids may be in bed by 8, but the typical commuter husband doesn’t come home til 9 or 10 and they don’t have experience in any sort of community action. I’m speaking too of myself, of course. I went to that meeting and spoke my piece, but I have neither the experience nor the drive to create petitions or posters. I don’t even know that many people—I’ve lived here a year and a half.
We’re astonished by the no-bid contracts in Iraq, but a no-bid contract in a small American hamlet seems impossible to interfere with.
Are there poems like this out there? And what do they look like, what pleasure might they contain?
Rigoberto says poetry is conservative if it does not address politics. I wonder what he would do in my position. Granted, this little story about a town, a mayor, and a chemical company does not compare to the larger horrors that preoccupy us as “citizens of the world.” But it is representative of a systemic problem. And I don’t know what he or Szymborska would do with it—would they write a poem about it? We know a poem would not galvanize the community. We know it would probably not shame the mayor or The National Review’s mommy track writer. We know it wouldn't change people's minds about the safety of the chemical. A poem isn't the last word on anything (nor, for that matter, is a scientific study).
But if I wrote a poem about it, would it make me feel like I accomplished something?
So what’s a political poem for?
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...