It is an unusual pleasure to encounter writing which recognizes, as does Kathy Mac’s wonderful new book Human Misunderstanding, that poetic form must be meaningfully related to content and can affect content. In the three highly innovative works that make up Human Misunderstanding, the structuring forms Mac invents serve not only to represent but also to convey meaning. And, although all three pieces in this collection in addition have, at heart, a similar theme of repetitiveness, of no-solution, each of them is differently structured, and differently serves its material. Much of what passes as “innovative” these days is material patchworked from the writings of others as if these reconstructive or deconstructive efforts exhibited perceptiveness. Mac, however, constructs her forms, and thus her perceptions are truly innovative.
The first and last sections in the book are about social injustice/evil in society, impersonal relationships. The centre piece is about “human misunder- standing” in a personal relationship, neither justice nor evil, but the mis-affairs of personal attachment, of heartbreak.
I was initially wary of the first section, “Omar Khadr is Not Harry Potter.” I have read and not thought highly of the first Potter book — nor much of what I have heard of since. To me the Potter saga is a variant of the overfamiliar “story” of the sort which I would call, kindly, High Tory. They are often but not always British. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince is typical. The gist of these stories is that the ordinary people of an imagined country cannot govern or take care of themselves because they aren’t skilled enough or bright enough. They are low class. They need to be led and saved. The hero is a young boy of aristocratic but secret origins who is given special training, and has, moreover, special powers (for “magic” read “money,” as Mac reminds us, 18) and who by heroic action confronts and kills his wicked enemy and thus saves the lesser mortals.
We all have been distressed and mystified — by Guantanomo and the Khadr story. During World War Two we were told that prisoner of war camps in the European theatre had a “code of proper behaviour: no torture.” And many of the stories and songs we know admire a soldier for deciding that he would rather die than surrender. Children have always fought in wars, and we have praised their heroism (e.g. Robert Browning’s “Incident of the French Camp”). But the Khadr story is different.
Young Khadr, Mac tells us, valued the heroic Potter fairy stories. What she uncovers for us, and displays, in “Omar Khadr is Not Harry Potter” are the similarities between the Potter story and what was actually happening to Khadr. Quotations from the Potter saga are paralleled to quotations from the news, reports, minutes, and disciplinary hearings of Khadr’s experience and trial. The similarities are shocking — and the parallel only breaks apart, because, unlike the fairy tale hero, Khadr has no magical protection, and does not win.
The parallels the poet finds for us between the statements from Khadr’s trial reports and segments of the fairy tale ask us: are the fairy tales telling us something we need to know? What we need to know is that we are the Bad Guys. And it is the form of the piece that makes the parallel most clear, most devastating — one prose quotation set against another, one ferocity against another, one childishness against another. A fairy story against officialese. So horrifyingly the same!
The third poem in the collection, “A Case, E Case,” is about a different kind of injustice, but, like the Khadr piece, exposes a repetitive pattern, in this case the social “forgiveness” of rapists, the social ostracism of their victims. Again, the poem is based on researched data: two different trials, both of “family” men accused of rape by two different sex workers. Initially both men are found, through their own evidence, guilty of rape, but each appeals, pleading successfully that their families would suffer were the rapists punished. The victims, of course, remain victimized.
The form the author uses for “A Case, E Case” presents its examples of injustice as embedded in history, in the past as well as in the present. The two modern stories are framed and interrupted by quotations from the twelfth- century lais by Marie de France, “Bisclavret,” which tells of a werewolf who is forgiven and even rewarded by society — even after he has bitten off his wife’s nose. We are not told what happened to the wife until the last page of Mac’s book, after the Notes, References, Works Cited and the Acknowledgements. Her fate: to have been exiled to the desert, shown, by its formal position, as being less important (to “society”) than the book’s end-matter. By immersing the two contemporary injustice stories in the ancient story Mac emphasizes that society is still acting/judging in the same way; the victim is still punished.
“A Case, E Case” also makes a subtler point. Instead of confining herself to direct prose quotations, as she did in the Khadr piece, the author reduces and intensifies the language: it becomes poetry, again a way of drawing our attention to the “classical” quality of the subject. The section “Summary,” for example, “Eva vs. Edward,” which is followed by four lines from “Bisclavret,” has a violent simplicity that ordinary prose cannot reproduce:
Edvard shuns ESL, his job, his very son.
His apartment becomes his whole puny world
he gets what he wants with the cudgel by the door.
Eva’s damn-near-dead body obeisant at his feet. She turned pale. She turned red… . She fought for a way to keep from his bed. (“A Case, E Case” 56-7)
The centre poem in Human Misunderstanding, “Enquiries Concerning Human Misunderstanding: Theory, Speculation, Practice,” is not about social injustice, but about unhappiness, the failures of understanding, the problems of communication, the failures of love — and it has a stunningly innovative form that shows us (better than prose “stream of consciousness” à la Joyce) the realities of the speaker’s situation.
Each section is divided into three parts, all spoken by the poetic speaker; all parts are being “said”/ thought about/ happening at the same time. With three good actresses and a very good director the poem could be effectively staged as aspects of one woman searching for her not very understanding lover — she needs to talk to him, she yearns for him — but she cannot cancel her own thoughts — she is in mid-argument — and he is not there to listen, to learn to understand.
The “top” voice presents us, represented by quotations from David Hume, rational thought about human misunderstanding. Hume is, perhaps, the clearest and most rational of all philosophers. (I was for a while in my youth convinced he was all the philosopher I needed. Now I find his cool, admirable clarity inadequate, but I have not ceased to admire it.) In the poem Hume stands for spiritual and intellectual strength — how we can think, distanced from our personal situation, but only by ignoring what else is happening.
The “middle” voice represents the thoughts, memories, and concerns that occupy the speaker’s chief attention. It is full of painful inquiry — and represents the “misunderstanding” level of our experience. The speaker repetitively recalls what her lover has said, or not said — his remarks, in particular — she has clearly an impulse to want to agree, yet, with that devotion to reality that we see prefigured in the quotations from Hume, she cannot and does not invariably agree with her lover. The second “layer’ of each section is variously interrupted by “but.” The speaker yearns to reach agreement with her lover — “but” — she cannot. Mac conveys rhythmically her speaker’s mixed emotions, her rush of feeling, her hesitations, her intense yearnings for love, agreement, understanding — and, most powerfully, where she cannot, will not agree. The “but”: the pain of integrity.
You and I need not fight to finish. (But. If your reasoning mind is unaware of how this consistent lack of communication appears to me [like rejection] then let us meet with reason.) (38)
The “lowest” voice of this remarkable poem represents the physical circumstances of the speaker. She is looking for, and failing to find, her lover — in and out of buildings, in and out of the rain, coping with an umbrella. Our thinking does not exist separately from our circumstances, but most poetry prefers to ignore, as irrelevant, the physical circumstances in which its thought occurs. The unique power of Mac’s “Enquiries …” is that it grounds us — reminds us that we do not live purely in our minds and hearts — and that physical circumstances do affect the whole of our experience. Mac’s heroine combines a consciousness of wet feet, a futile physical search, an unrelieved ongoing set of arguments, a nagging notion that human understanding perpetually retreats, and how human misunderstanding lurks painfully in the midst of human love.
at home the LED on the answering machine flashes, twice then pause then twice then pause. some other others not you. (38)
— M. Travis Lane