Saturday, January 23, 2010
“The Orange Bears”
On the surface, Kenneth Patchen’s poetry contains seemingly contradictory elements—while he was a truly great love poet & someone who could evoke great tenderness & compassion with his words, he had a savage & brutally matter-of-fact side. Just consider some of these poem titles: “I don’t want to startle you, but they are going to kill most of us”; “Eve of St. Agony or the Middle Class was Sitting on its Fat,” “Nice Day for a Lynching” or “"May I Ask You A Question, Mr. Youngstown Sheet & Tube?" Of course, the visceral outrage expressed in these & other poems goes hand in hand with the compassion—Patchen saw a world torn apart by war & ravaged by cruelty & the worst forms of injustice. When he saw these things, he expressed his outrage, openly & directly in his poetry.
Today’s poem, “The Orange Bears,” is an example of this outrage. Patchen grew up in Niles, Ohio, & his father worked in a steel mill in nearby Youngstown. This provides the poems context. In those days, the strikes were broken up by the National Guard—now it’s all done with much less physical violence—management taking photos of the workers on the picket line (I’ve seen this myself in San Francisco when the hotel workers went on strike) so they can identify employees for reprisal, or simply having the President of the United States fire all the members of the Air Traffic Controllers Union.
I thought Dominic Rivron made an astute comment on the first Patchen poem this month, saying that Patchen walks the line of being corny, but never falls off. It’s a big artistic risk to speak plainly & emotionally. Patchen is an example to us because he didn’t shirk that.
The Orange Bears
The Orange bears with soft friendly eyes
Who played with me when I was ten,
Christ, before I'd left home they'd had
Their paws smashed in the rolls, their backs
Seared by hot slag, their soft trusting
Bellies kicked in, their tongues ripped
Out, and I went down through the woods
To the smelly crick with Whitman
In the Haldeman-Julius edition,
And I just sat there worrying my thumbnail
Into the cover—What did he know about
Orange bears with their coats all stunk up with soft coal
And the National Guard coming over
From Wheeling to stand in front of the millgates
With drawn bayonets jeering at the strikers?
I remember you would put daisies
On the windowsill at night and in
The morning they'd be so covered with soot
You couldn't tell what they were anymore.
A hell of a fat chance my orange bears had!