|Jan/Feb 2011 Reviews & Interviews|
Dreaming the End of War
Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
Copper Canyon Press. 2006. 96 pp.
When I visited my dentist's office, the week before last, in order to finish a root canal, I had Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Dreaming of the End of War in hand. I have too little time as it is. I bring books for potential review with me to the various waiting rooms I must sit in almost hoping that the doctor or other professional will be unexpectedly detained for an extra half hour leaving me to read and jot notes.
On this occasion, Dr. Cogan was right on time. He loves to chat about recent news items before his patient is slobbering with novocaine, and, as he entered the cubicle into which his assistant had led me, he saw Sáenz's book on the countertop beside me. "There will never be an end to war," he pronounced. "At least not for very a long time. It's just the way people are." The book, he said, sounded like it was "a dream, alright."
I could not help but agree, and, if I had taken any impression from the title Dreaming of the End of War, it was much the same as Dr. Cogan's. Anti-war poetry has experienced a resurgence since the build up to the second Iraq war. Perhaps dozens of anthologies have appeared in paper and on the Internet. The sense of revulsion and outrage they express is sincere. The quality of the poetry, in each, however, varies widely, and the premise of hobbling war with poetry could, it seems, only be held by persons so naïve that they could have little to say about the subject worth reading.
The first page of the first poem of Dreaming of the End of War makes clear that Sáenz's 12 "dreams" will be at the top of the quality range. More promising still, he is honest enough with himself to locate the seedbed of war in its proper place:
was a boy, my violence
was sweet, uncomplicated.
Daily, on that
farm I learned
the meaning of the simple
joy of killing.
The young boy has the violence already within him that war will call for from him as a young man. In the young man, it will only be less "sweet," more "complicated".
About a week after the conversation with Dr. Cogan, I was talking with a friend and co-worker. It was a more than usually intense conversation (as mine so often are) and my interlocutor at one point gravely shook his head and said "I used to wonder how the Nazis could have done what they did but then the Iraq War happened." He wasn't calling Americans "Nazis". But what he was saying was profoundly correct. Put people you feel you know into a threatened position and they will behave in ways you couldn't possibly imagine. Over 90% (it is important to recall) can line up behind a demagogue and demand a devastating war against a country having nothing of substance to do with their dilemma. Love those people as you will, any attempt you make to talk sense to them you make at peril of your life. It's frightening. The sources of war are complicated and seemingly intractable.
Throughout the 12 poems of Dreaming of the End of War the language is simple, prosaic. An intensity of exotic and proper nouns will occasionally be allowed to heighten the tone. Without these groupings of nouns (often in catalogues), the language and the images are pared down to brief observations on the poet's life, its quotidian comforts and disappointments.
Once I dreamed of having all of this. A wife,
a home, a dog, a yard, a writer's life.
I write at a desk that is mine, sit at a chair
that is mine, stare out at a garden that is mine.
It is a life we easily recognize. It is, arguably, a life we are able to share in part because, in the recent past, the peoples of other countries had to work much harder for less thus providing us cheap labor. Over the past several decades, however, as those countries came into their own economically, it is a life we are able to share because we borrow vast amounts of money.
While Benjamin Alire Sáenz is willing to see in himself part of the problem of war, it is not clear that he grasps just how complex is his relationship with it. As do we all, he loves the American dream. It seems so purely positive for us and for all the world. The little details of that dream are so modest:
The surface of my life is not
a complicated matter. I hear my wife
and listen for the sound
of running water.
Never in all of history has the democrat lived at the same time so well and so humbly. This is such an attractive picture on so many levels. It is so attractive that it is in and of itself poetry.
That dream is so enormously popular that it has become the Greek dream, the British dream, the Irish, Icelandic, Portuguese and Spanish dream, at the same time that it threatens to be available to fewer and fewer among us. That threat has already resolved itself into two wars. The human condition is so complex that the dream itself can be a contributor to war.
Sáenz is also wise enough to realize that our lives are made up of smaller wars. The desire of the under-employed Mexican to live a better life put him or her at war with the Rio Grande River and the anger that awaits them on the other side.
We have been fighting a war on this border
For hundreds of years. We have been fighting the war so long
That the war has become as invisible as the desert sands we
A murdered niece, a favorite dog senselessly shot, a dying father are the casualties of the war we live every day. Impoverished Mexicans and Americans are in a continuing state of war, Israelis and Palestinians, Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Recently Greeks, Icelanders, and British students have taken to the streets at war with their own governments. The 12 dreams of Dreaming of the End of War are about those wars as much as any.
It is this that prevents Sáenz's anti-war poetry from blending into reams of lesser poems. The poems of Dreaming of the End of War are filled with anguish and questioning, offer no answers but to live on as responsibly and responsively as possible, to value the moments of respite. They are filled with the mystery of being human that we so value and that seems so involved in war.
In the final poem, war is finally overcome and the world is bathed in joy… by crossing over into and embracing the dream itself as the end of war:
my mother has no worries. She has worked
and suffered enough,
worked and suffered enough
and it is time for her to rest. And though
I know my father's death cannot be dreamed
away, or my mother's memory, or her pain,
or her bills or her crooked bones—
this knowing does not stop
me from my dream.
I dream my mother's young
again. I dream her aging body has no aches.
I dream my sisters and brothers
have no debts...
The details of the dream bear an unmistakable relationship to the idea of passing out of the material world and entering heaven. It is as good an answer as the vast majority of us has available and it is to the vast majority of us that Sáenz offers Dreaming of the End of War if we will have it. Peace.