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May 2018 Issue [Poem]

A Destruction Story

Introduction by Ben Lerner

This poem tells the story of a song (a song about a snake) from its ancient origins through its incorporation into the soul music of the Sixties to its perversion in the mouth of our president. Trump doesn’t sing the song; instead, at his rallies, he “treats the song like it is a poem,” Juliana Spahr writes, delivering it with a dramatic pause at the end of each line. Of course, Trump gets the origin of the song wrong (“Sometimes he claims it was written / by Al Wilson in the 1990s. / Sometimes he attributes it to Al Green”), although he seems aware that he is appropriating it from African-American music. On the campaign trail, Trump’s “poem” was used to stoke his followers’ xenophobic rage, to rally them behind his Muslim ban, his border wall. Just as with his use of “Make America Great Again,” which echoed Charles Lindbergh’s fascism, it’s hard to decide whether Trump or his supporters know what sources he’s working with (or against)—and hard to know which would be worse, ignorance or cunning. (Perhaps we need to update Hegel for the Trump era and speak of “the cunning of ignorance.”)

To tell the story of a song is to extend it. Spahr’s “A Destruction Story” does more than just track another way Trump wreaks havoc on the language as he wreaks havoc on the world. Spahr herself samples another line of poetry—Robert Frost’s “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”—and uses it to develop a beautiful catalogue of anti-nationalist sentiment, compiling a litany of animals that, despite the political territories embedded in their names (Sudan golden sparrows, Syrian serins, northern Mexican garter snakes), “move back and forth / across the border as if it did not exist.” I think the fact that Frost famously read at a presidential inaugural is significant here, as is the fact that he’s so often held up as a quintessential American, plainspoken poet. Spahr is using Frost against the (nationalist) grain, just as—and also not at all as—Trump was using Aesop and Oscar Brown Jr. and Al Wilson. She repurposes and crosses received language in order to alter its meaning, although her recycling is, as in all her poetry, in the service of imagining new forms of interconnection.

Songs, like serins and snakes, cross borders. They cross genders and races. Their symbolism is unstable. They circulate and resurface in unpredictable ways. “Oscar Brown Jr. always thought that music was his activism”—and yet his song ended up in the mouth of a racist demagogue. Spahr both tells that story and keeps it from ending. She has no illusions about poetry’s power to counter the forces of hate. (And she reminds us that Trump has his own hateful poetry: “his hand pointing for further emphasis / as he multiplies the word vicious.”) But the unpredictability, the slipperiness of art, even the way it turns on you, is also grounds for hope. Something always escapes or exceeds the use to which a song is put. Something serpentine. –Ben Lerner

Snake, c. 1939–42, by Bill Traylor © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, New York City. Promised gift of Charles E. and Eugenia C. Shannon. Courtesy the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, from the exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art, on view through May 13


In 1963, Oscar Brown Jr. wrote a song about a snake.
It’s an obvious sort of snake in the grass story.
A woman finds a cold snake on the road
takes him home, feeds him milk and honey,
and then as she holds him to her bosom,
he bites her as he lectures her that snakes bite.
The snake gets the refrain in the song.
Take me in, tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in, tender woman, sighs the snake.

Brown took the story from Aesop.
In Aesop’s telling of it, a man is the naïf.
He warms up the snake by putting him in his coat.
But when Brown sings the story,
he reverses the genders
and it turns the song into one
about all those things men do to women,
not just the violence, the rapes,
the slaps to the face
and yanks to the arms but also
yelling, belittlement, wolf whistles too,
the long tired history women know
all too well. His voice is all slithery as he sings
the snake, upbeat and so all the more ominous.

Al Wilson sings Brown’s song in 1968
with the heavy beat and the fast tempo
of Northern soul.
His voice squeaks not on the snake
but on the woman.
It might be more confession than complaint.
It might be that the snake is Wilson,
pleading to be taken in.

Oscar Brown Jr. always thought that music was his activism. So it is easy, if one listens,
not only to hear divisions between genders
but what it means to be black and grow up,
as Brown did, as Wilson did,
having to fight for the milk and honey.

In 2016 Donald Trump treats the song like it is a poem.
Sometimes he claims it was written
by Al Wilson in the 1990s.
Sometimes he attributes it to Al Green.
It is about people coming into our country, he says.
He reads it line-break heavy
and often pauses between words,
his hand pointing for further emphasis
as he multiplies the word vicious.
In his understanding the woman is the nation.
The snake is all Syrians.
And the poem is a series of easy mottoes:
evil for good is often the return; the lesson is not to expect a reward from the wicked; learn not to take pity on a scoundrel; the greatest kindness will not bind the ungrateful; beware how you entertain traitors.

What is this moment where snakes and women
defend walls, fences, borders of all sorts?
It’s been said before that
there’s something that doesn’t love a wall.
Surely snake is something that doesn’t love it.
With women, I admit it’s more complicated.
But it is not just snake that doesn’t love a wall.
Neither Kyrgyz horse nor Uzbek black goat loves the barbed wire of the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan fence. And the Turkoman horse and the Kazakh horse, both known for their stamina, don’t love the barbed-wire fence surrounded by unmarked land mines that is the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan barrier. And even while the Spanish imperial eagle flies over, even while the Moroccan jird scampers underneath the fences of the Ceuta and Melilla borders, all of them topped with barbed wire, monitored by underground cables that are connected to spotlights, noise and movement sensors, even to tear gas canisters, still no love. Same with the much more modest fence along the Yalu River even as it does nothing to stop the Chinese egret from perching in the Korean spruce. The Afghan vole and the Egyptian nightjar always scatter without love when the heavily armed Uzbek soldiers patrol near the two barbed-wire fences, one of them electrified, both with land mines in between. And the Arabian leopards split by the barbed-wire fence of the United Arab Emirates-Oman barrier, also have no love. Both the Malaysian ant, despite its fighting take-no-prisoners and sacrifice-the-self explosive tendencies, and the secretive and nocturnal Bornean bay cat have no love for the Brunei-Malaysia security fence. And neither the Indian eagle owl nor the Bengal tiger has love for the barbed wire and concrete of the India-­Bangladesh barrier. The Israeli West Bank apartheid wall is not loved by the Palestine viper nor would it be by the Israeli painted frog.
There are more, but I don’t need to go on, right?

Oscar Brown Jr. always thought that music was his activism.

He merged songwriting with social commentary about being black in America.

He once wrote a black power manifesto in the form of an opera; Muhammad Ali starred in it.

In 1967 he made Opportunity Please Knock with the Blackstone Rangers, a sprawling decentralized gang in Chicago.

It featured the Rangers in colorful pastel costumes dancing and singing and drumming.

The Blackstone Rangers, like many gangs, were something hard to define, something communal and something criminal, fierce and protective.

Al Wilson also complicated.

He grew up in the segregated South, much aware of its oppressions, but he seems to have spent his later years calling in to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.

It is not necessarily true that toil can become ecstasy.
Not necessarily true that prose can be an epic song.
Not necessarily true that I can inventory these nation-divided
singularities back into collectives.
All is snake.
Art too is snake, awkward in its murmurations.
At moments something going a whee-whee-wheeoo
and a twee-tee-too
and then the next a dry wraaa that varies in pitch
and provides a sort of beat
that mixes with a which-which-which-which-ri-ri-ri-ri
only to be broken by snake’s tszeee and short sharp tship.
Still together we circle;
now dense like a polished roof,
now disseminated like the meshes
of some vast all-heaven-sweeping net
wheeling, rending, darting
the air heavy with the ceaseless sweep.
What else is there to do
as there is no way other than this impossible murmuration?
The twists and turns of the wing in this moment.
A great roar as at first Yemen serins with Syrian serins make a while, close about it, then out but at the same moment seem drawn back into it again, bouts of flapping with gliding on closed wing, into the throbbing mantle of life and joy and the larks are there too, the Eastern Iraqi desert larks and the Somali short-toed larks, circling, despite preferring not to form large flocks they are there still, there with the Libyan blue tits, awkward in the murmuration as they usually flit about, but the highly gregarious Sudan golden sparrows show them the twists and turns of the wing and with a mighty commotion we are swept together into one enormous cloud tearing, crossing, piercing.
All is together, like it or not,
as through the many wings
we see the bright dark colors of the sunset
and not just the sunset but also
that jaguar, the one we call El Jefe,
the one who sleeps among
the oaks of the Santa Rita Mountains by day
the one who wakes at night
to move back and forth
across the border as if it did not exist.
He claims twenty miles
and shares them with others,
not just with the Chiricahua leopard frog,
not just with the Southwestern willow flycatcher,
but also with the northern Mexican garter snake.
He has a heart-shaped rosette on his right hip
and a question mark over the left side of his rib cage.n

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May 2018

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