Monday, January 23, 2012


On the day Luke Roberts's False Flags (Mountain Press 2011) arrived Foreign Policy magazine reported that Israeli Mossad agents have been posing as US spies in an effort to recruit members of the Pakistani militant organization Jundallah in order to wage a covert war against Iran. Such an operation is a "false flag" operation which, as Roberts points out in a closing note to False Flags, "is a manoeuvre by which one group incriminates another, usually in an act of sabotage or violence." Although the Jundallah is outwardly regarded as a terrorist organization by the US, Iran (along with Seymour Hersch) maintains the US has long supported the Jundallah. In this instance it wouldn't be unreasonable to speculate that the Foreign Policy article itself might be part of a false flag operation oriented toward holding Israel accountable for a US transgression. Such speculation, however, would situate us firmly in the realm of conspiracy theory, the stuff of Tom Clancy novels. But in the final pages of False Flags Roberts is remarkably clear on this point: "DECOY || No conspiracy theory is dialectical."

For anyone invested in dialectical thinking from Hegel forward the claim Roberts puts forth seems perfectly reasonable; the logic that typically governs conspiracy theories is crudely empiricist, not dialectical. But the word "DECOY" which precedes Roberts's proposition is troubling, undermining any possibility of absolute confidence we might otherwise have in this absolute statement. As a decoy, the absolute character of the proposition exploits our desire for certainty, distracting us as we're quickly reabsorbed into a world of radical instability and interminable contradiction where any meaningful synthesis resides just beyond the horizon of possibility. Looking broadly at the poems, this ongoing push-and-pull seems to move the book as a whole forward and through to the false confidence of a closing statement that, in the end, refuses the sham finality of closing statements.

Initially imagined as a satirical consideration of "conspiracy theories and New Age irrationalism starting at Ground Zero and stretching back to the space race and other territorial contests of the past fifty years," False Flags takes up questions of strength, ambition, belligerence and violence. A line from the opening poem "Colossal Boredom Swansong" states, somewhat bluntly, "the weak slap down the strong," reminding us of those horrifyingly well-known lines from Yeats's speculative comments on the second coming: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst | Are full of passionate intensity." And like Yeats's "Wild Swans at Coole," Roberts's swansong features a narrator saddened by "those beautiful creatures" who, instead of alerting one to the passage of time, serve only to signal a species of flight we all participate in destroying. As such, swans become an object of hate: 

Every starling I see I will kill with my brain-mask, my weak
hand strangled by the jury, whose task must be to shine
through to the hurtful limit. Twelve or so I thought, the rest
caught by public confession to betrayals they didn't
fight. I accept everything, every tiresome imitation of flight.    

A lot is happening here, far more than I can now reasonably address, but the final statement in this first poem appears to set the tone for the whole of the book, this surrender to simulated flight, from cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's inaugural 1961 voyage into space, to the 1986 Challenger disaster, to the flights that leveled the twin towers. In each instance the same "passion and conquest" that "attends upon" Yeats's wild swans also attends upon these, but tiresomely, violently. This passion is the passion of the weak and the worst and their efforts at flight can bear no more than a misguided trace of the flight they so desperately pantomime. Situated as a sort of prolegomena, "Collosal Boredom Swansong" is, as a lyric whole, a fairly extraordinary thing, an abject stretch of scorched earth where "Galileo swoops from the sky and kills the whole farmyard, | tearing the throats of geese with his universe, holding  | down pigs, ripping the tails from rabbits to fashion | a new love." And for Roberts the horizon of this post-apocalyptic past extends, somewhat naturally, to the savagely terraformed terrain of culture to which the poet responds: 

I, champion of poetry, salute the elders, put my
foot in a desk, kicking poetry with a desk lamp
strapped to my heart. Send me a sick bag to speak
to you from, leaving the pre-snow, glass headed
swans slowly tunnel through the mountain. In my dream
phones signify 'family', so synthetic brothers, sisters,
put your money all over the table. I am so tired it's
not true. I could do this all day, eating figs, eating
the remnants of the New British Poetry, warring clams,
pelicans vomiting blood into boring glands, buying floor
fans to keep the city cool.  
I spoke warmly and my speech turned into a wing
and the wing broke my arms, and my arm continued to sing.
Dear cowards, the sea dries up and you remain. The presses
are idle and the censor's lunch is so long and dream-like
you trouble nothing, not even my heart. The craters on the
moon are okay, dogs' bark drowned between
the tables where the bets were being made. I cut limbs
from my Axolotl and they re-grow, I will go blind
and recite the best poems to my children in the dark. 

It's difficult to exaggerate my enthusiasm for the extraordinary shape and force of these lines — I mean, the pleasure I find myself taking in this poem is no different than the incredible pleasure I first found in, say, Crane or Moore or Pound however long ago. And for fear of falling into an absurdly maudlin endorsement of the work it's probably best at this juncture just to say the entirety of the book moves likewise. Dear cowards.