Poetry is associated with civility in many people’s eyes, but here, it attacks unnecessary civility. It exaggerates, satirises. David Lohrey adopts a kind of precious tone throughout, punctuated by moments of bluntness and, sometimes, absurdity. No more so than in the last line, “The test is a scrotum that looks like a pouch for rare coins”.
There’s a kind of wildness to the language, at times. And language itself is presented as a kind of weapon, but a necessary weapon rendered less effective by civility. I suppose you could say it’s a poem about freedom, and here, freedom is associated with old age. We tend to laugh at an outrageous comment from an older person more readily than we would such a comment from a young person. Thus, “If you are under 40, you may not know / what it feels like to be free”. In the age of the internet, this is a particularly topical theme. With such a permanent record and potential influence, we’re perhaps more accountable than ever before. And that’s hardly a bad thing.
The approach that Lohrey takes here is worth noting. This is one of those long, rolling poems that come at the reader in relentless tides, with similar ideas repeated in different ways to give a wide picture. Most of all, I think it’s a poem concerned with the need to speak up, to not be afraid to stand up for your beliefs despite how you feel others might react. That may or may not be a political act. A person’s views may or may not be correct. But, just like the extreme civility that’s held up to ridicule in this poem, we all need to be ready to hear others contradict us, to laugh at us or, if they deem it necessary, to ridicule us. At the end of the day, opinions are just opinions – each one is a mere fraction of our personality. We shouldn’t let them define us or our relationships with each other.
We are shutting down.
I can feel it.
If you don’t, it may be your age.
If you are under 40, you may not know
what it feels like to be free.
The young are being trained how to think and what to say –
how to speak, I should say, how to avoid hurting feelings,
I might add, especially their own.
This, too, is how my grandmother’s generation was taught.
This art of avoidance, this training in artificial kindness,
was all the rage in 19th century America, along with petticoats.
Girls today demand the manners if not the underpants.
It’s all too familiar to the Modernists who dropped it.
The puritans want a hold on the arts.
Ladies were dainty – ask Gertrude Stein –
and wanted their men dainty, too, like little Lord Fauntleroy,
a gentle soul in curls and a shiny frock.
Now it’s back.
You mustn’t say the wrong things.
You mustn’t hurt mommy’s feelings.
Girls are delicate and break easily.
One mustn’t be seen without a chaperone.
One must speak in a whisper, one must
avoid making a faux pas. One must bathe in rose water,
and remember to sip one’s green tea in silence.
We’re reverting to this atmosphere.
Anguish is hidden behind gentility.
One keeps one’s opinions to oneself.
You’re better off batting your eyelids and smiling brightly.
One carries a sugar-coated dagger in one’s kimono.
There’ll be no more letting one’s hair down.
No more telling people off.
No more sharing, no more feedback;
it’s just input from here on in –
input perfumed like a hair salon
or bordello in San Francisco in 1910,
the full-treatment insisted upon by silent film stars,
the sort of shit Liberace demanded.
The truth will look and sound like a barking Chihuahua
waiting for its master at the county fair.
A tiny mutt decorated in a giant ribbon,
not a guard dog but a companion to someone
with blue hair and a brand new Cadillac. In short,
the little old lady from Pasadena holds the line.
Along with cosmopolitanism comes this level of sophistication.
Everyone lies. People don’t smoke but swallow ashtrays.
People don’t have butts but covet their neighbor’s derriere.
The key is to remove one’s enemy’s tongue without drawing blood.
It’s a silent coup. Men who defecate in the garden are called animals,
while those with private chefs are treasured human beings.
The test is a scrotum that looks like a pouch for rare coins.
I was born on the Hudson River just north of NYC but grew up in Memphis. I went out to California and graduated from U.C., Berkeley. After graduation, I began my teaching career in LA, but eventually wound up in Osaka, Japan where I taught for a while and got married. From there I went to Saudi Arabia and to China. I am now teaching English to engineering students in Tokyo. I reviewed books for The Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register for many years, joined the Dramatists Guild, and served as a judge for the Los Angeles Ovation Awards. My plays have appeared around the country and in Canada; more recently, in Lithuania and Croatia, in translation.
I have always had my favorite poets, such as Dylan Thomas, D.H. Lawrence, Stevie Smith, but my real inspiration has been playwrights, such as O’Neil, Miller, Mamet and Pinter. There are so many. These days I read Frederick Seidel and the Australian Les Murray. I’ve written so many grad school papers, film, theatre, and book reviews…what I love about writing poetry is that I am able to tap into deeper sources of inspiration, really the irrational. Things just pop up, often poems just appear wholly written; I just take dictation and must restrain myself, stop thinking, and let it flow out virtually unedited.
My poetry can be found in Softblow, The Blue Mountain Review, Otoliths, Cecile’s Writers and Quarterday, In addition, recent poems have been accepted as part of anthologies published by the University of Alabama (Dewpoint), Illinois State University (Obsidian) and Michigan State University (The Offbeat). I recently joined the Sudden Denouement Literary Collective in Houston.
I am currently writing a memoir of my years living on the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.
How have the internet and social media affected so-called political correctness?
The media elite seems to see itself as instruments of some kind of moral authority who will decide what is acceptable. It is secular puritanism which promotes a kind of primness. Chiefly they have actual ownership and total control.
Are all social trends cyclical, do you think, or do only some things return for a particular reason? If so, for what reasons can you think?
I am not sure they are cyclical. I see a devolution, a spiraling down without an anticipated return.
There was progress in the 20th c toward liberation, but now restraints are tightening, generated by self-righteous people.. The socio-economic gap is spoken of, but the gap between the educated and the ignorant is widening, too.
Is there a vital need for brutal honesty when writing poetry? Is the same also true in terms of receiving feedback on one’s writing?
Not so sure here. I believe in restraint. Honesty can be too brutal, feedback can be well-intended but I think things have to come from inside. Feedback often includes suggestions and I seldom want suggestions. Reactions, sure, but ‘helpful’ editing suggestions I find out of line.
There’s a sense of language being controlled in this poem. What are the dangers for society of controlling language too much?
I’m 61 and lived through the wonderful breakdown of restraint in the arts. Nudity and profanity in the arts were thrilling in a way. I am old enough to remember “damn” being a problem, not to mention all the other glorious curse words. It is about control and power. “You shouldn’t say that” is so commonly repeated along with the demand for apology. Victorian sensibilities are exploited to gain control of discourse. It is destructive to art, that’s for sure. In America, teachers need permission to show films. A masterpiece like “Women in Love” would not be permitted in a senior lit seminar. I taught in China recently and asked if I needed permission to show a film. The reply was, “We hired you to give permission. You’re the teacher.” But in the US, teachers are treated like children and are made to worry about “getting into trouble.”
Why do you write?
For me it is all journal-writing, really. Diary-keeping. It helps me to move the words from my head to paper. Really to get rid of them, to purge. Relieve. The satisfaction comes in releasing the words, the images, the burden, really, and feeling fresh. I love especially to “share” a story. It is like cleaning out the garage. Wonderful.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Master a foreign language. Live outside the country.
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