Full Moon Fever

Sublime Reflections

Doing Political Economy in Poetry

Notes from Azfar Hussain*, Oklahoma State University, USA

This is in the spirit of sharing and solidarity.

When I first read the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal’s _Zero Hour_, I was immediately intrigued by the ways in which Cardenal uses in his poems an entire range of the terms and tropes of political economy, while enacting a superb dialectic between the metaphoricity and materiality of the world and the word. I think Cardenal comes to share the same position from which poets such as Pablo Neruda and Roque Dalton have always wanted the hands of people to be seen in poetry. Yes, they have always preferred a poetry where the fingerprints show: “a poetry of loam, where water can sing. A poetry of bread, where everyone may eat,” to quote Neruda himself. And of course that famous line of Roque Dalton–“poetry, like bread, is for everyone”–keeps resonating with a whole host of politically engaged poets in Asia, Africa, Latin America, while providing energy and inspiration to what might be called–after Che Guevara–a “tricontinental poetics,” the kind of “militant poetics” (Dalton’s own term) that remains concerned with and even celebrates, among other things, the daily, the “dull,” the “dirty,” the “crude,” the “vulgar,” and the kind of poetics that tends to transform Marx’s pronouncement–“Rub your words so that they catch fire”–into a material force. 

Back, then, to the question of doing political economy in the space of poetry itself. As I am in the middle of writing two essays in Bangla–one is just called “Work” and the other one is titled “Things”–essays that intend to theorize, among other things, an anti-colonial counterpoetics of political economy (something that I think I have done only partially in my book _The Wor(l)d in Question_)–I have just come across a poem called “work” by the kick-ass Nuyorican poet Peter Spiro. I can’t help placing him in the tradition of Neruda-Dalton-Cardenal– a poet who does political economy in poetry. And he is the one who impressively poeticizes Marx’s “The Prolonged Day” in a poem; one who shows how the micrologics and macrologics of capital continue to inform and inflect lived human practices; one who wants the abolition of “work” or “employment” itself in reaction against the very system that has created and perpetuated “work;” and one who seems to be rehearsing that famous invocation once boldly crafted by Bob Holman: “Do not read this poem! You don’t have to. This poem reads to you. This poem is a SHOUT for all those who have heard the poem’s direct flight from mouth to ear. Hear this poem with your eyes! When the Mouth marries the Eye, the Ear officiates…The poem is not written until you read it!” So, yeah, let me share with you the poem “Work” (I’m providing it below). 

[And this parenthetical segment is intended for folks in Bangladesh: Just wondering if our JanaSanskriti Mancha can organize an activist poetry festival or a conference on activist poetry and poetics. A number of poets writing in Bangla today–with whom, of course, I have closely interacted over the last two years–remain high on colonialist aesthetics and epistemologies, ones who continue to propagate that theory and politics “dirty” poetry, ones who thus don’t have any goddamn clues about our theoretically and politically engaged poetic tradition from the Charyapada to Lalon Fakir, for instance.]

So here’s the poem. Thanks for your time.


They say,
What would you like to do
or where would you like to work
they chop my solid twenty-four into segments.
You get two hours for waking, showering, eating.
One to two traveling then at least
eight there.
One to two more traveling home
supper a quick fuck or three beers
then sleep eight and
wake up again to shower, eat, travel, work, travel, quick fuck,
sleep, wake, shower until they merge and flow like
molten lava and I say,
Yes, but I get two weeks vacation
per year, ten holidays, twelve
sick days and one floating personal
day to live and I feel
like the negative face between the bars of a jail cell
that farts freedom in your face.
These men, shelling our salaries
of death sandwiches
for our half hour lunch break.

They say,
What would you like to do
or where would you like to work.
I think, Earth, I’d like to work
on Earth, third in from the sun.
Does the bear say,
I work in this section of the forest.
Does the eagle say,
I work in this part of space.
Does the shark say,
I swim only here.
Does the shark say,
I swim only here.
Does the air work or wind.
And what kind of work do I want to do?

I say,
I want to eat and sleep and explore
like the bear and the eagle and the shark.
I want to speak like the wind and breathe air
I want to hang a sign on my door:
Do not disturb when I’m at work
They say,
this is lazy.
They say,
you are worthless.
They say,
you have no ambition.
And I tell them,
I am an unambitious worthless problem
like the air and the wind.
I will sleep and dream like the air and
move in passion like the wind
when it pleases me and for
no one.

They say,
What would you like to do
or where would you like to work.
They tell me,
Do something you like to do
life is wonderful when you 
like your job.
I tell them,
It is an oxymoron to like
your job
as if a convict ever loves
his cell.
They say,
Learn to drive a tractor trailer or fix
automobile transmissions or
learn to weld or fix toilets
or serve drinks with paper umbrellas to people under the
shade and I think,
No one likes to work
the name itself implies
contempt, a comfortable
contempt like the old convict who
after years
accepts his cell as home.
Some people like their jobs,
they say
and I think,
Who likes their job?
Does the garbageman really like picking up shit all day?
Do tellers like to sit all day behind a bullet proof
glass wall?
Even poets don’t really like to teach workshops.
(I have heard them say this.)
Fill ketchup bottles, stuff sausages, clean pots
or sell hot dogs and cigarettes.
And if you say,
Doctors love their work or dentists love
their work or lawyers or engineers or stock brokers
then why,
why do they value
vacations as much as the
garbageman and the teller and the sausage stuffer and
the pot cleaner?
Baseball players like their work
some actors and poets and
all sleepers
who dream.

What kind of things perpetuate work?
yes cancer makes work.
It makes works for surgeons and people who run
self-examination breast programs.
It makes work for social workers and therapists
and nurses and chemical manufacturers and the people
who clean the floors in hospitals
and those who make the paper cups in hospital
bathrooms and makers of
high fiber cereal
and companies who advertise for
high fiber cereals and
morticians and casket makers and
people who supply the metal for
ash carrying urns and for the miners
of iron ore used for metal
ash carrying urns
and for florists and greeting card companies.
It makes work for
wig makers and sellers of wigs
and for plastic tube markets
and journalists and typesetters
and single parent rap group organizer
and ecologists and environmentalists
and lab technicians
and surgeons and people who run
self-examination breast programs.
Oh, I’ve said that already.

Factories would close without
but plants would still grow
wind would still blow
mountains would still fold.
Without prison guards there would be
no prisons.
And doctors could not work without
orderlies and secretaries
the dry cleaners
the house cleaners
the supermarket stock boys
the tellers
the mechanics and the fixers of
automobile transmissions and toilers.

Armies could not function without
foot soldiers.
We have set this nightmare into motion and
we can stop it.

set your alarm for noon or turn it off and sleep
until you want to get up,
Bears do this, cats do this, birds do this
so why should we be any different
inhabitants on this third planet in
from the sun
somewhere spinning and revolving in the
yes, the universe is not up there
its here
and we’re in it.
Quit and sleep.
Sleep and dream.
Stop it
stop it
you’re killing me.

Thanks again, folks, for your time.

*Azfar Hussain

Department of English
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078-4069, USA

E-mail: azfarhussain1@gmail.com


January 30, 2009 - Posted by | Azfar Hussain, Poetry, Political Economy

1 Comment »

  1. Oshadharon

    Comment by adil rahaman | September 18, 2009 | Reply

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