The Bottom Line

review of The Bottom Line, poems by Jack Hirschman, Curbstone Press, 1988, dist. by The Talman Co.150 Fifth Avenue New York, NY 10011, $9.95.


          According to biographical information on the back cover, The Bottom Line is a collection taken from the past 25 years of Jack Hirschman’s poetry production. Though historical, rooted in specific place and time, the poems have no dates, which, like the language of the poems themselves, keeps the reader from a facile identification with them, forcing the reader onto his or her own knowledge of the events to which the poems give witness.  Whether or not this lack of dating is an implied evoking of the Russian Formalists, Hirschman is writing with an experienced awareness of Khlebnikov and Shklovsky and the line leading from “defamiliarization” to Brecht’s epic theatre of estrangement.  These poems give evidence of an urbane, international awareness, but the language is distinctly the American idiom.

          The very first poem establishes the continual provocation of a language demanding personal contact while at the same time recognizing the public alienation of writing across time and cultures:

          The dead alive, the small children,

          the illiterate

          yes as a unanimous verb....

The dead, the victims of the world capitalist system devouring all value for monetary profit, are those with no writing. This lack is both a blessing and a curse. I suspect that Hirschman would agree with Levi‑Strauss, in Tristes Tropiques, that “The primary function of written communication is to facilitate enslavement.” But, as a poet, who necessarily is defined by writing, he must utilize writing to defeat that enslavement. The poet, if he is good enough, and has worked throughout his whole life to establish his own authority, can use the emptiness surrounding those without writing as a way to to speak for them, to allow his writing to resound within their forced silence. The poet says (writes), “There are eyes that have never seen / a book or pen....” Later, “There is no distance between us / and the heroic cry of the spark / of the child burned / forever to be flaming.”

          Writing by itself can never close the distance; writing is distance.  But writing such as Hirschman’s, writing drawing upon the lived solidarity with those enslaved by writing, bridges that distance as much as it is possible for writing to cross over the distance inherent in the very act of writing. The inherent opposition, the forces with give Hirschman’s poetry such living tension, is that between the contraries of speech and writing—living presence opposed to death at a distance.

          Everything in this society is designed to separate us from anyone who would threaten the system of exploitation. Hirschman looks to those familiar with such exploitation to inform his writing to free his language, to stop the separation from others and from himself. His identification, with the victims and with his own history of struggle, and with his own neighbors and friends and lover, allows him to say with anger and with truth: “we must destroy those capitalist dogs!” What other poet has the courage to say that? What other poet has the years of struggle as a poet, translator, and comrade to hundreds of world writers to establish the competence necessary to challenge anyone who would criticize his saying it?

          Hirschman is at his best when he writes about writing.  His is not the academic exercise of the Wallace Stevens followers, cloning themselves in coy deference to the master of reactionary self-stasis.  Hirschman writes about writing to illustrate how writing can still be invested with power, with international solidarity. His poem “Salt Point” takes us through his work and his world of San Francisco where the places and the people he is familiar with serve as the background for his reading of the Albanian patriot who helped defeat the Nazis: “Memo Kovaci was as real to me / as my closest comrade,” and he ends with “I was walking with Memo Kovaci/ through the snow.” So many of the poems deal with the liberating force of informed, collective writing, writing with a shared history, so it is not surprising that he has a poem celebrating the literacy campaign of the Nicaraguan revolution. But poetry, writing, for Hirschman can mean more than revolution (he dedicates his book  “For Our Gentle Comrades”), it means physical, living, tenderness: “Kidskin” ends this way, “The day / after I wrote my first / poem in Albanian, / it feels soft as a breast.”

          There are, simply, too many good poems to quote from.  His “Ezra Dog” is worth the price of the book. The Pound apologists have never faced up to his politics and how Pound’s fascism is integral to his poetry. Hirschman  has given us a record of 25 years of solidarity across the international borders that are imposed on us to keep us alone, alienated, and powerless. As a gesture of the kind of solidarity and internationalism Hirschman has practiced and promoted through his friendship and support of younger and neglected world writers, as well as his translating, he gives us on the last page of the book part of his final poem translated into Russian. 

          Anyone who hopes to understand contemporary poetry needs this book. We need to read it, discuss it, argue about it. Hirschman directly challenges us as writers and readers. There is one poem in The Bottom Line, (which is, after all, not the line of least resistance) which especially challenges the whole imagistic enterprise, meaning the dominant way of writing poetry in this country. It is “The Chinese Women.” And it, if we listen to it, forces us to question how our poetry has been seduced by objects, seduced by a non-critical acceptance of “stuff”, perhaps because we are afraid to look closely enough at the relationships those objects demand we look at if we see them as real objects, objects created by real people, honored and invested with value by real people. “The Chinese women / move in the hotel corridors / in their pajamas, / appearing from around a corner / or out of a door / like ether....Even the raunchy / and noisy street people / in the hotel are stilled / by these women....” And, once again, as he does so often in these poems he presents not lifeless objects, but objects and people in the realization of their own dynamic power.  The poem ends:  “They don't even speak our tongue / yet make space a life / called home and work, like / way back then. They / are like the insides of pillows / in a world that no longer sleeps. / They know how to brown all food / so that it’s good to eat.”

          When I wrote this review, Michael Milken was about to go on trial for defrauding his pals on Wall Street. He used secrets they wanted to use. So, he has to pay, a little.  Milken produced nothing.  Invented nothing.  Assisted no one to help with anything but to make money from other people’s money, yours and mine.  His salary for 1987 was $107,000 per hour.  $550,000,000 per year.  Milken is the deep image of the pop epic poem written by that actor who played at president and by his boot licking protégé who leads us now. This official epic, promoted by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, is the abstract poem of power politics and money in the shape of dots of light across a computer screen. It is the world of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, but the poet’s world is of necessity the concrete world of the homeless, the displaced, the world of physical bleeding bodies, and the rest of us hanging on to the real as best we can. It is all our world, and it is inherently political; but it has been ignored by most poets through the very political act of pretending it is not also personal, that political decisions and political language do not also affect how we make love. Not reacting is a reaction.  Hirschman refuses to not respond, to be less than human in a world demanding we restrict our meaning of humanness. And still there will be critics, especially fellow poets, who will accuse Hirschman of being strident, blindly political, and a dupe to his own commitment to justice. Those who hide reactionary political judgments behind aesthetic ones said similar things about Mayakovsky, about Blake, about Hikmet, about Neruda.