Propaganda or Poetry? by Judith Fitzgerald

“Mass language is the medium of ‘communication,’ and its users are less interested in bringing to formal order what is sometimes called the ‘affective state’ than in arousing that state.”
— Allen Tate, “Tension in Poetry” (1938)

Jerusalem, beloved, Ms. Brandt’s recent foray into platitudinous personal utterances masquerading as poetry, provides readers with an anonymous voicing of numb and wearisome lyrical commonplaces (swathed in that ubiquitous grandiloquent mass-language glow).

Mass language, the last lexical resort for pseudo-sociological maundering, engenders a soap-Oprah sentimentality crying out for resolution in Harlequeen Hosannas:

with you all the old wounds, scars in my flesh,
are coming undone, & old grief pouring out, is it
okay with you, lover, this opening, this wild
travel in space, each time we kiss, this hurtling
through black, emptiness, swirling galaxies, to
your warmth, your arms, your mouth, your
singing bones, full of light, here in this bed, this
room, where everything in me is being reborn,
baptised, burnished, golden . . .

— “with you all the old wounds”

Containing a superficially connected trio of texts, Jerusalem, beloved opens with a quasi-political touristic lament for oppressed Palestinians. In this piece of propaganda’s title sequence, Ms. Brandt takes up the Intifada cause, cataloguing the devastation wrought by Israeli occupiers: homes and olive groves levelled by bulldozers; endless border checks and searches; youths throwing stones; women weeping at wailing walls; Israelis toting machine-guns; and, not surprisingly, searing testimonials of tortured prisoners punctuate the writer’s reportorial litany as she relays her reactions to the horror she discovers during her holiday in Jerusalem (made possible with thanks to her Palestinian benefactors she thanks in her acknowledgements to those who financially assisted her pilgrimage to the Holy Land).

Ms. Brandt, evidently a graduate of the Sacred Ego School of Composition, gives neither intrinsic nor extrinsic poetic justification for this loose and lazy see-me-seeing-that-squalor-or-this-tragedy-or-that-movie attitude which infects and defeats the book’s edifying intentions; hence, the opening sequence — a political exercise filtered through a CNN haze — never delivers on its implied promise to offer readers an unmediated experience of a solid self situated in the Holy City. Like the tourists the writer takes great pains to ridicule, she cannot see for looking inward.

The middle sequence, “blue light, falling all around us,” takes stock of the Winnipegger’s immediate surroundings in texts such as “why you keep on doing it” — a little lyric concerning the writer’s home, body, and mother — and “if i said it was spectacular,” a lovely Hallmark passage containing mass-language clichés the calibre of “the real, the liquid spirit of you & me, / golden lava flowing between us.” (It almost echoes without saying that one of the most popular beers in Canada, Blue Light, possesses a sparkling amber hue; plus, if Ms. Brandt hoped to evoke memories of Gwenolyn MacEwen’s poetry; sadly, she fails to scratch the surface of the great poet’s work.)

The most telling of the seventeen texts, “yesterday your absence,” reveals the writer’s heart and mindset:

the trees are singing in loud whispers, against the
rain, against the night sky, rumbling with heavy
grey clouds, magnificent. but i can’t hear them, can
hear only the rush of my own heart, beating itself
silly in the dark.

As Dr. Marshall McLuhan maintained, the medium is indeed the message (and not vice versa). This triptych exhibits distressing signs that Ms. Brandt does not fully comprehend the art, craft, shape, and tradition of poetry, preferring to depend upon anachronistic stylistic tics instead of considerations of rhythm, unity, and form.

In two or three instances, the writer awkwardly alludes to The Waste Land with repeated and hackneyed rehashings of “red rocks” and “the heart of light”; however, beyond such amateurism, the self-referential “message” of these texts indicates a jejune formal sloppiness when it comes to said medium.

Jerusalem, beloved concludes with “those of us who have daughters,” a series of twenty entries revolving around mother and daughterhood juxtaposed with “the poem made out of darkness, so dark, it / swallows up the light, the white page, the eye / seeing, the i, seeing.” and, appropriately, provides an excellent — albeit unintentional — epigraph for this collection (as well as a virtual deluge of similarly undisciplined collections currently on the loose in this country).

By their mass language — bathed, no doubt, in blue light — shall ye know them.

Award-winning poet and literary journalist Judith Fitzgerald is currently at work on Points Elsewhere, a new collection of poetry to be published next year. The resident of the Almaguin Highlands is co-partner with Frank Wilson @ Books, Inq., cited as the world’s leading literary blog by the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Sir Peter Stothard.