Landscape with Mutant

‘Poetry is about something,’ according to Fred Pollack. ‘A strong poem is about something that is important, but which is not perceived by the ideologies of its time or expressible in their language.’ The poems in Landscape with Mutant are about US life before and during the Trump presidency, with its alienation, violence, and political despair. In this dystopian landscape, ‘the weak exist to be trodden and those who are trodden are weak.’ It is a book about casual racism, sharp-suited Fascism and the complicity of liberals – ‘wrinkled, blobby, obsolete, like me’ – in the assault on equality and justice. Between the narrow horizons of the mainstream (‘Have parents and write about them’) and the games of the academic avant-garde, Fred Pollack makes strong poetry about something important. ‘You can be certain you’re an enemy,’ he writes; ‘it’s your choice whether also to be a threat.’

Cover image: Front-cover: Francis Picabia,La Femme aux gants roses (Woman with Pink Gloves), also titled L'Homme aux gants, ca. 1925-1926 oil on cardboard laminate; 41 3/8 x 29 1/2 in. (105.09 x 74.93 cm) San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Fractional gift from Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem  © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photograph: Katherine Du Tiel

Author photo: Paul Kaller

Sample Poems

Sad Cafe

Shortly after the fall of communism,
I wandered through a populous city
with the first of the new guidebooks.
The cafe was as advertised:
framed caricatures from the former era
of writers and artists who had hung out there.
I wondered what bureau had decided
the subjects and parameters of distortion.
Service was nominal, sullen, a kind of theatre,
or desperately friendly – I forget.
Two older guys talked, softly, clandestinely,
whether out of need or habit.
It wasn’t clear if their obvious
dislike of me was financial (with which
I could sympathize), or some nationalist-racist
thing whose time was coming but not yet.

One dude, perhaps a philosophy prof, was thinking,
perhaps, that he should go into advertising,
then remembered that he opposed advertising
and returned to the Ding-an-sich and cutbacks.
A woman, possibly pioneering, entered;
her clothes epitomized the dowdiness
of the rest. But she alone smiled, knowing
that from now on no outfit would be adequate.

I took out my notebook and wrote
the future. Flies buzzed. Flypaper
had been removed as hopelessly demode.
Outside a homeless man, a member
of the new International, knocked and
sank to the ground beside the window,
uttering those obscure remarks which,
if listened to, would not have to be made.

October 2016

Even a civilian may escape death many times,
remembering them over
the photo of a veteran with transplanted
arms (not legs, unfortunately); and
another, of Venezuelan schizophrenics
curled on a dirty floor and chairs.

But supplies of feeling (perhaps stalled
for lack of appropriations
in some private contractor’s warehouse) are
replaced by the nullity
familiar to those who serve and those who don’t
who have avoided pain.

The schizophrenics (the paper says) are mostly
aware they’re mad and that they need
drugs which are now unaffordable;
those who survive
will soon no longer know this, only that
they’re thirsty.

And the soldier, new hands limp
on an oddly arranged blanket, smiles
at the attractive fiancee
beside him; and she smiles,
inspirationally, hopefully, because
what else can you do?

Election Eve, 2016

A million miles away, at the next table,
a boy weaves, his expression
bored but controlled (nice kid).
The mother, mildly lined, seems there,
easily coping. The sister
looks farther off, perhaps at the orbit of Mars.
Two old guys, heirs
of the cafe wits of Paris and Vienna
as this Barnes & Noble Starbucks in Bethesda
is the simulacrum of a cafe,
read. But those are distant stars.
By the window, a youth guards a stack
of car-, a girl of fashion-magazines
as if they were the empire of Alexander.
A black guy taps at his laptop
as if each keystroke launched an empire.
We are the professional classes;
we keep our hands and much else to ourselves.

All liberals here. When galaxies merge,
individual stars almost never collide. The real threat
is subtler, in the most intimate layer
of space-time. At any moment,
an instability could tear apart
everything, down to the individual protons, leaving
not even a healing, eventually formative gas.
After years of work, Woodmont Avenue
has crossed Bethesda Boulevard to connect
with Wisconsin. At the intersection,
Paul’s, Passion Fin, Pottery Barn
preside, the first two with outside tables.
Above them new condos with five-meter ceilings
rise and gleam. They are really quite beautiful,
might even subsist in some form
in a just society.

Day Eight of Trump

The outer boughs are cartoon red,
the core still pale green.
Red leaves cover the slope
as if they will be endlessly replenished,
and there are three such trees along Whitehaven.
The others, normal for a hot (the hottest)
summer, dully turned dull brown
a month or more ago. But the wind
is properly coolish, the sky full
of small, quick, doodled clouds.

This street is schools, now letting out.
The Catholic kids, in their uniforms,
somewhat repressed; the seculars
(in layers of cotton, still, not down),
bouncing. The girls in their pinks and greens,
especially: two twirling
around their clasped hands, one skipping.
(So skipping still exists!) The boys
already, comparatively, lumber,
and seem, whether alone or grouped, to take in little.

I’m in no hurry, Mayakovsky wrote,
yet shot himself an hour later.
And Brecht in exile, watching a leaf fall:
Tricky to calculate that leaf’s course.
ough not its destination.
Rush-hour begins, ever earlier; the cars
along Macarthur hopefully alert
for children, speed traps, and the forecast rain.
You can be certain you’re an enemy.
It’s your choice whether also to be a threat.

Oboe Sonata

1
My calmest most sequential thoughts involve
the End. Fundamentalists, plague.
Jellyfish, algae.
Millions of tons of methane released from tundra.
Leopardi in his notebooks
remarked that such reflections comfort old men.

In ‘82 I knew a German girl.
I was a tourist fling, she was a symbol.
Preternaturally beautiful
and a mean drunk, she used to look at my books
and growl, ‘Why do you care
about so many things? I care about nothing.’

2
In Roman times, Sparta survived,
barely, on tourism. Young aristos
on the Grand Tour rode down from Corinth,
complained of the bad wine and flea-ridden inns.

They watched some sort of communal dance
in which degenerate heirs
of the hoplites mimicked the endless spear and
phalanx-drill of the old days.

The high point, apparently,
was a bloody beating and caning
of youths, who bore it impassively,
and of slaves representing the ancient serfs, the helots,

who were expected to cry.

3
When I teach, I feel a suspect ease
that also comes when I mention teaching
in poems. I have five kids this term.
The department should have cancelled the class
but hasn’t, and goes on paying me
my smidgen. We meet in a room
with no chalk, broken blinds,
and an amazingly skewed chair
in a corner. Outside, the new Science Centre
goes on being noisily built,
an institutional whimsy: they can’t afford
to hire famous faculty for it,
however much they raise tuition.
One of my girls has read Great Expectations.
A boy, an ex-jock, thinks he started it.
The black kid, son of a preacher,
alone gets biblical references.
None of them knows any history.
I’ve long since had to learn to distinguish knowledge
from brains and pitch to the latter.

The course is Poetry Writing.
The black boy yearns
for some fiery unclear apotheosis.
The girl who read Dickens has always wanted
to hold a book of her own; in high school
she copied and bound her ‘very angsty’ work.
The jock has some horror in his past.
The other two, both girls, take frenzied notes.
They all feel sorry for themselves and sometimes for others.

Reviews

‘A didactic and cynical voice… gives the poems their bite, but also creates the tension a lot of the work relies upon for impact.’ 

Damfino

‘This is a great secret of his verse: he is always pushing the envelope of the image to find the after-image of the thing itself.’

Robert McDowell

‘What appeals to me most however, perhaps strangely, is an impression ofambiguity and illusion that I felt the more I read and re-read.’ 

Sentinel Literary Quarterly