Poet's Choice: "Embedded in the Language" by Maxine Chernoff

maxine chernoff.jpg"Embedded in the Language" arose from my outrage at the War in Iraq and the government policy to embed and thus restrict reporters covering it. As a child and then teenager, I was profoundly influenced by the nightly coverage of the Viet Nam War and its startling, endless line of flag-draped coffins coming home.

One of those coffins contained the remains of my cousin's husband, a young second lieutenant who was killed, as it turned out, by friendly fire, and whose wife, Barbara Sonneborn, went on to make an Oscar-nominated documentary about Viet Nam war widows, "Regret to Inform." Where were the coffins from this latest war? Where were the widows? Where were our lost soldiers, who had gone to fight, interrupting peaceful lives as mailmen, safety officers, teachers, friends, lovers, husbands and wives so that George Bush could be a "war president?"

The poem then takes on the issue of how language and images surrounding this war have been controlled by the government and how more poignant this prohibition of images and censorship of language has made the war itself. Humans want information, and when a government attempts to discourage it or twist it, they will try even harder to get at the "truth." In little scenes or vignettes, how language and information have been compromised is set against statements that interrogate this policy both politically and poetically.

Embedded in the Language

"The U.S. share of world military spending for 2006: 51%"
- Los Alamos Study Group

"I'm not a lawyer. My impression is that what has been charged thus far is
abuse, which I believe is technically different from torture."
- Donald Rumsfeld

Embedded in the language
cultural proofs and tendencies
the word Brunif
to make brown or to polish.

here the color, there the rubbing
interaction of text
and interpreter
never closed
bird of dawn:
a constant term.

enlisted because
his mother died
he got laid off
she got convicted twice.

"our national debt increased
by $2 trillion
in only five years"
(one trillion seconds
equals 31,546 years.)

"Beauty is information."

war coverage through
"a soda straw"
in a forty hour period
not a single story
shows people hit
by weapons.

let's embed Stravinsky
let's embed aspens
let's embed history
let's embed logic.

I knew a soldier
lovely in his wounds.

the USO tour, said director
Wayne Newton,
featured Al Franken
dressed as Saddam Hussein,
Clint Black, Jewel and
SoulJahz, the Christian
hip hop group.

dust storms gather
outside a tent
on night patrol
he listens to 50 Cent
is it multiculture yet?

A figure-ground reversal
of any single aspect or facet
of holistic sensory experience
since man the symbol-maker
adjusts to anything.

A California mother on TV
claims her son died
to keep her and church members
free from wearing burkas.

how to make a poem
of so many terrible facts
how to re-embed
sympathy and truth.

or rather un-embed
since knowing
needs a room
for quiet occupation
and sorting out of facts
white space and a reason
time and air.

no coffins from this war
not allowed on the news
all desertions prosecuted
to the letter of the law.

a boy from Honduras
aged eighteen
who died on February 7
citizenship granted

"Political poems
are only the crudest
of the feeling of loss,
an attempt to find
a central enemy
so that ironic tension
may be dissolved."

three years to the day,
I read, "I'm reminded
of the commanders
of World War 1
who repeatedly lied
about victory over the Kaiser
as they pushed thousands of men
through the butcher shops
of the Somme,
Verdun, and Gallipoli."

this too information
meant to tie on meaning
carry it on your back
use it as a shield.

19 March 2006
3rd anniversary


By Ron Charles |  February 16, 2010; 10:03 PM ET Poet's Choice
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Good work, Washington Post, for publishing this complex, enraged, and grieving poem. I found the obstensible subject and language challenging - and that's a good thing. The poem transported facts and attitude, which are only some of the ancient functions of poetry.

Posted by: KimLyons32 | February 18, 2010 2:00 PM

Thank you for publishing this beautiful, important poem.

Posted by: ydaley1 | February 20, 2010 2:59 AM

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