Thursday, February 16, 2012

Michael Waters is one of the poets I have followed through the years because of his excellence of style and range of subjects. He participates fully in European high culture as well as lowbrow American media. In his new book, Gospel Night: Poems (BOA Editions), his imagery is graphic as he creates video-like poems. With wide-lens views that scan 360 degrees, Waters brings to life train rides, Mozart’s sonatas “sparked with vengeful glee,” and Sierra Mountain cannibals, the Donner Party. Among the many stunning poems in this collection is this brilliant one about one of the gravest modern sins—spectacle. He opens with the grisly painting of John the Baptist by Carravaggio, which shows the butchery in detail, then compares it to the beheading of a hostage on CNN. Theatric techniques applied to execution is his first point, and then the complicity between creator and viewer of the grotesque. Waters is not content to simply report; he also participates, senses, takes into his own sensibilities the horror, and admits his own individual connection. He addresses difficult topics, and his body of work gathers gravitas with each new book. He is an essential commentator about contemporary life.

Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio:
The Beheading of St. John 1608

The Baptist’s beheaded Arab fashion:
Throat slit with the long sword, then the gristly
Tendons of the neck severed with the knife
Still sheathed behind this executioner’s
Back—the beheading’s not quite over yet,
Like the tape loop broadcast on CNN:
Al-Qaeda zealots crisscrossed with bullets
Posing with the blindfolded journalist
Before the anonymous assassin
Steps forward to undertake his righteous
Labor. On websites the tape winds forward
To the crass, theatrical brandishing
Of the skull, another obscene gesture
In a war targeted toward spectacle.
Two prisoners gape from their somber cell.
The girl-servant grips the copper platter
Upon which the head will be presented
To Salomé. Blood puddles the stone floor
Where, aswirl, it twists into the artist’s
Only surviving signature, Michel,
To confess his helpless complicity.