Our Featured Selection this month is Christopher Buckley’s poem “The Half-life of Revolution—Particle Physics, History, Baseball and Baby-Boomers”, which follows an introductory conversation between the poet and our Associate Editor for Special Features, Nancy Mitchell.
NM: Chris, I can’t tell you what a kick of pleasure, as well as a kick in the gut, this boomer is getting out of The Half-life of Revolution—Particle Physics, History, Baseball and Baby-Boomers. The upshot, so unabashedly bleak, is somehow redeemed by your unique perspective, wit and craft. Against Carl Sagan’s mellifluous lullaby “We are made of star-stuff” still lava lamp-ing in our collective boomer brains, the lines all of us lucky/leftovers, though/our particles are petering-out/from the get go… clang like a hammer, shattering our cherished illusions that star dust was really a pixie dust, keeping us “forever young,” and irrefutable scientific proof of our eternal, indestructible, “heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” and beyond. Yes, Joni Mitchell, we are stardust, and yes, every last bit of us came out of the same blast but we are falling, like the lines falling down the page in stanzas, falling DOWN like soot from a Beijing sky so saturated with particulate/you cannot see /five feet in front of you/let alone/to the night stars from which we all arrived. So, sorry Joni, we and Jojo who was a man before he was a woman ain’t getting back anywhere, at least not to our long- gone Edenic garden… and no disrespect intended to you, Walt Whitman, dear paterfamilias of our poet-tribe, but “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” is not a really such a cheery message, when every last one of those atoms is ticking steadily away/before being reallocated to the circuitry of the stars.
Maybe it’s the effects of too much caffeine on a sleep deprived brain, or the evocative, generative power of this poem, but, (and coming from a boomer, this is a high praise) I’m hearing Bob Dylan’s voice in these stanzas in a rhythmic variation of It’s Alright Ma (I’m only Bleeding). In the interstitial paragraph between stanza sections one and two, I see the wise/wry Stranger in The Big Lebowski at the bowling alley bar, leaning over a beer…Orwell wrote a book. And I can hear the Talking Heads whispering, “same as it ever was, same as it ever was” across the asterisks between sections.
CB: I couldn’t hope for a better, more simpatico, overall reading of the poem than these first two paragraphs. Our baby-boomer age is certainly the perspective/filter for the poem. Yes, somewhat predictably, I over-spent my youth in the ‘60s listening to Joni Mitchell and Dylan. For a few years, Dylan’s lyrics were hard-wired into my grey matter; and among popular singers, Mitchell was always one of the best writers in my view. But there were no conscious echoes or references when writing the poem—decades since I listened to them, but certainly the zeitgeist of the times is all there, and you never know what tracks are replaying in the subconscious and working almost to the surface.
As for “the circuitry of the stars,” I started reading articles and books on cosmology, astro and theoretical physics in the early ‘80s. Articles in The New Yorker on dark matter (hence the title of a poetry book a good while back) got me started. And before I go any further I need to say that I am not trying to sound like an intellect. I barely passed high school chemistry, took no Physics, dodged all the math I possibly could in college. But many scientists started to present the new information coming up in a pre-masticated and imagistic style that would be accessible to folks like myself with essentially a 7th grade understanding of physics and the universe, 7th grade in 1959-60 that is. How else could they sell books or TV programs? So thanks indeed to Carl Sagan and bless his memory, and to NOVA on PBS, and Stephen Hawking, and Timothy Ferris, Marcia Bartusiak, K.C. Cole, and more recently of course Neil Tyson Degrasse and many others who have popularized the understanding of cosmology and its continuing shifts. Right off, I saw that all of this new information right fit into/supported the old arguments and inquisitions re metaphysics, mortality, the temporal beauty of the world—my on-going arm-wrestling between Faith and doubt, so of course science and religion. Political, economic, spiritual, philosophical—I’ve been trying to appraise our part in a cosmic roll of the dice, trying to find connections between the local, the global, and the cosmic.
NM: I, too, couldn’t get enough of that stuff: I was obsessed, thrilled, and later a little resentful that what “we” had always known in our hearts and guts had finally been validated …that wisdom spoken by poets—every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you— artists, prophets, collective wisdom implicit in folklore, tribal ritual—for instance, the Jewish ritual of circumcision is preformed on the eighth day after birth for a reason other than tradition; it’s only then a newborn has developed sufficient vitamin k to clot the blood—was now given the official imprimatur of the god Science…but, I digress.
I’m intrigued with the poem’s references to events during the heyday of the boomer generation—Johnson, Nixon, the Viet Nam War—as well as references to historic and contemporary events. Is each event, framed in its own stanza, an “article of evidence” of the degenerating dross we are and have always been, evidence of our continued concurrent devolution?
CB: “Only connect” as E.M. Forster has one of his characters say in Howard’s End—so that is my project here in the specific, to be able to move from atomic dissolution through history to see/realize what a mess we are making and have made of things when we could do otherwise. One thing informs/plays into the other and the structure is intended to be symphonic—theme, variation, recapitulation/synthesis…
NM: Symphonic, yes! And how beautifully the structure is sustained throughout: There’s a line that loops back/ to Wu-Han/from the 1960s and Vietnam/ via M*A*S*H gracefully connects us to the aforementioned historian Wu Han who obliquely criticized Mao Tse-Tung by writing about another charismatic bandit leader, the first Ming Emperor, 1368, in the same way M*A*S*H, a TV show about a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War, criticized the Viet Nam War.
Wow; it just occurred to me that this symphonic structure (and again, we see it in the section about Ai Wei Wei, who, while trying to testify to the slipshod construction of a school that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, killing 5,385 students, was beaten by police and required emergency surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage looping centuries back to Sima Qian, who was “convicted/of treason, and castrated for supporting the honor and loyal record of a defeated general” is remarkably similar to the structure of string theory itself!
CB: Well, the last part first . . . I do not want to say that I understand string theory, especially since it is essentially MATH! As a theory, it has been around a while but just a few years back, one scientist/math-guy re-worked the math and came up with 11 dimensions instead of the previous numbers which—relying on my grey cells here—went from 5 initially to 10 dimensions. Everything made of infinitesimal strings, looping back into each other we cannot see in dimensions we cannot see. You have to trust the math they say. So it is the notion of looping back into each other, the interstices that in fact do connect that made sense to me about history.
So it seems obvious to me to say one reflects in the other. The boys who went to Viet Nam…
NM: Ah…The boys who went to Viet Nam—Chris, please forgive me for interrupting again, but my god, your lines in the poem about those boys… your boys, my boys, America’s boys…well, those lines just broke my heart … 58,000+died, / just on our side—/mostly boys/ born after WWII, / 18-year olds/ fresh from high school, who were replacing/tires and shocks at SEARS, / driving Allis-Chalmers thorough corn or alfalfa fields/…and I’m going stop, right now, because I don’t want to spoil our readers’ pleasure of seeing these beautiful musical lines arranged, not unlike a musical score, down the page.
Those lines put me in mind of Samuel Barber’s haunting Adagio for Strings, —I immediately put it on— which, as you know, was the theme song for Platoon…the movie about those boys in that war.
CB: As I was saying, the boys who went to Vietnam, for example, brought that experience home with them. The politics of the ’60 is the example of the immediate influence of one on the other. Moreover, and again obviously, moral and ethical concerns transcend all borders, the neighborhoods in Santa Barbara when I grew up, or the borders in Korea, in ancient or contemporary China. People in our generation do not forget the lies of Johnson, Westmorland, Nixon and Co., the oppressive government, conscription, all those who died for political capital and corporate profits. There was no “Tonkin Gulf Incident:” Westmoreland lied about all the numbers of the Tet Offensive to keep the war machine cranked up in congress and the appropriations committees; Nixon was bombing Cambodia and Laos all the time he was on TV telling us he wasn’t.
NM: You know, just reading the above still fills me with rage. We were duped, and would have continued to be if a constellation of events hadn’t ruptured the facade and exposed things as they really were, and honest to god, had always been.
CB: I think we all know that now. But interesting for me are the connections to ancient China, to “MASH” and the Korean War, to the same type of totalitarian government working in China for the last 60 years. We do not, as a species or political bodies, seem to have learned a thing in all this time.
In the last fifteen years or so, it has seemed more important to me to engage the political when I can find a way to do so that does not involve political cant. It seems that if you are a good citizen of the world, you will be a good community member as well. We learn, of course, our larger attitudes toward the global community from what we absorb locally, growing up, and there is an obligation that we have, one person on the planet to another. Yet, at the root of it, to understand what we are doing on the planet and what hope there might be, if any, for us after our physical lives, must be hard-wired into the basics of philosophy. But no matter what we choose to believe, our common mortality and the science about us should give us pause, as they used to say.
NM: In the paragraph between stanza sections two and three (Ken Burn’s voice) “History is totally political in China, and I think it always has been.” writes Frances Wood, historian and authority on China. They pick and mix, editing and inventing facts. Do you see parallels with the recent news of middle school history textbooks which erase, neutralize the historic horrors of the slave trade with rhetoric like “immigrant workers” to “tens of millions who died in Mao’s Great Leap Forward…”?
CB: Yes, surely there is a parallel between these editings. The cliché, “History is written by the winners.” certainly applies. Or it is written by the government, or those with the most money. Here is a chilling thought: what would the history books read like if the Koch brothers bought up the publishing companies? We already have Murdoch and Fox “News”. For years now far right religious types in middle America and the south have been demanding school boards edit out evolution from science texts, and insert their religious mythologies. I taught in the University of California system for 20 years, and over the last 15 years especially—though I was primarily teaching writing workshops—I would have to stop and offer the background for The Spanish Civil War, WW I and/or II, Vietnam, the economic and political movements in America over the last 100 years, and often even had to gloss references to the Bible to the top students in our state. This was all due to some of the events and information being left out of History texts and sometimes it was due to students not being taught History or paying no attention when they were. Surely we are used to Putin and the Chinese consistently dissembling on the news programs and in press releases. To some extent, we have almost become inured to it.
NM: I’m wondering if the answer to the poem’s question Where did we go? addressed to boomers now hiding under haircuts, driving Hondas and hedging their bets with hedge funds, is that our fate was always in our flawed, deteriorating stardust?
CB: Well, only in the most tangential and extrapolated sense. Though Schopenhauer wrote, “After your death you will be what you were before your birth” and that strongly points to a return to stardust, we cannot abandon an ethical mode of living simply referencing the likely absence of any life beyond this one.
NM: Absolutely! It requires the greatest courage to live, to conduct our lives with empathy, integrity in the most hopeless of times…do you remember the old black and white film about the Titanic, ironically entitled “A Night to Remember”— a much finer movie, in my opinion than the bloated blockbuster made years later—I was so moved by that handful of men who didn’t rush for the lifeboats reserved for women and children but stayed with the ship as it went down. Contrast that to the trampling stampede of Black Friday shoppers.
CB: In my view, the answer to “Where did we go” is about the materialism that has replaced moral conviction, political action. Greed in America has supplanted most everything in my view.
NM: Alas, yes, materialistic greed has infected every institution, even those we thought were citadels of moral conviction; universities are now corporations, education is commodity, students are consumers. The overhead screen has replaced the lectern, and professors (not this one) are relegated to the corner computer desk projecting Power Points. Yet, it’s not just greed for materials, but an insatiable greed for attention, for praise evident in the relentless, unabashed self-promotion via social media. You’d recognize the face of an author sooner than you’d know what was authored! Hey Chris, is it possible that this new generation is more evidence of our bum cosmic DNA, in another stage of the burn out?
If so, does it take the onus off of we humans, particularly we boomers? Could we, who grew up under the looming cloud of an atomic blast, who cowered under school desks in air raid drills, who lived in homes with Life’s Picture History of World War II on coffee tables ringed by our war-scarred fathers’ beers, whiskies, who watched JFK’s assassination, his black blood splattering Jackie O’s suit looping our black and white TVs and we who, a day later, witnessed on a live national television broadcast as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald dead, point blank, at close range. Could we, raised on war and death have left any other legacy? Or as cosmic leftovers, did we, outside of a few of us, even have it in us to do better? Does the fault really lie in our stars?
CB: I don’t think the onus is taken off any of us. Greed, political ambition, have always been corrupting influences, just the desire for power and self-promotion has always been the temptation and each individual must answer for his/her actions. Many of us in the ‘60s took a moral and ethical political stance, many did not. And you tie in a very relevant point with your comment on unabashed self-promotion via social media! Everyone can leave a comment, write a blog. It no longer matters if you are qualified to speak on the subject, have done your research and reading, have accomplished anything in the field you are commenting on, just post a comment and you are on a level playing field. One particular example galls me particularly. When Philip Levine was appointed Poet Laureate for 2011-2012 the articles and comments on line were uniformly praiseful and celebratory, realizing what Levine had meant to contemporary poetry for the last 45 years and acknowledging his generosity and importance as a teacher. But there was one ill-willed and self-important guy writing for the Huffington Post who said Levine was a horrible choice; he equated his poetry with several other American poets he obviously did not approve of (he was writing from England) and those poets he mentioned had nothing in common with Levine. He went on to say he was sure the young writers in American would not be well served and could learn nothing from Levine. What an idiot. I had never heard of him as a poet or as a critic, never seen anything in poetry by this guy. But he found a platform and shot his mouth off. I was gratified to see that the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an essay by two young poet/teachers from John Jay College in Manhattan that went to specific lengths to point out how uninformed and irresponsible this writer had been.
And while the final quote here from Julius Caesar poses a very poetic question, that idea of “fate” is really not offered up or addressed in the poem. The rest of the catalog ending with a legacy of war, certainly makes a trenchant point about what our generation lived through/was exposed to, my hope is that these experiences should even more strenuously have us examining our motives regarding the military industrial complex, corporate lobbyists, military intervention around the globe and what our responses should be as ethical citizens of the globe.
NM: Well, Mr. Buckley, this poem has certainly re-awakened my political awareness, and given me a great deal of pleasure in the process. Your hope to engage the political when I can find a way to do so that does not involve political cant has been more than realized in this remarkable, evocative and provocative poem. Readers, I give you:
The Half-life of Revolution—Particle Physics, History, Baseball, & Baby-Boomers
Half-life . . . is typically used to describe a property of radioactive
but may be used to describe any quantity which follows an
The information to date
is that quarks and leptons
make up matter,
photons are mass-less,
like fleas on a dog, but
every last bit of us came out
of the same blast . . .
all of us lucky
our particles are petering-out
from the get-go . . .
same difference no matter how
we record or interpret
every last atom
ticking steadily away
to the circuitry of the stars.
* * *
Three years back, radical Islamists in Egypt joined secularists to oust Mubarak, then the Muslims took over with a front man in a western suit and tie, who promised rights for all—a democratic split—who never delivered, who legislated and strong-armed in their own theocratic favor. Now, the military is back, more blood in the streets—no change. Orwell wrote a book. . . .
* * *
Sima Qian, the first,
and some say, greatest historian,
said the purpose of history was to teach
to govern well,
not to record how men die.
He was convicted
and castrated instead of being executed
for supporting the honor
and loyal record
of a defeated general.
The Half-life of Revolution—Particle Physics, History, Baseball, & Baby-Boomers, p. 2
* * *
“History is totally political in China, and I think it always has been.” writes Frances Wood, historian and authority on China. They pick and mix, editing and inventing facts. In the Great Museum in Beijing, you hear about 1964’s first nuclear test, the great reform era after Mao’s death, and not one syllable about tens of millions who died in Mao’s Great Leap Forward or in the Cultural Revolution.
* * *
Often compared with
the first Ming Emperor, 1368,
was also a charismatic bandit leader
who spiraled off his rocker.
In 1950, historian and deputy mayor of Peking,
Wu Han, unwisely,
wrote that early Ming history
as Mao was sinking into paranoia.
Wu Han died in prison in 1969
for criticizing the current government
by writing about the past.
* * *
Artist and human rights advocate,
Ai Wei Wei,
was tortured 81 days
for investigating the “tofu-dreg schools”
in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.
While trying to testify
to the slipshod construction,
he was beaten by police in Chengdu
and required emergency surgery
for a cerebral hemorrhage.
Nonetheless, he published a list
of 5,385 students killed in the quake.
The great proletariat struggle
is now dead
in the middle of
an industrial revolution,
a growing consumer economy
that ships boatloads of third-rate products
to Walmart and Home Depot.
With all the factories and imported cars,
the air in Beijing
is so saturated with particulate
The Half-life of Revolution—Particle Physics, History, Baseball, & Baby-Boomers, p. 3
you cannot see
five feet in front of you,
to the night stars
from which we all arrived.
The men at the top
press the automatic window buttons
closing out the grainy view
as they’re driven
in their Party-provided Buick Regals.
They could run
successfully for Congress as Republicans
who do not oppose oil,
* * *
There’s a line that loops back
to Wu Han
from the 1960s
a TV show about a mobile army surgical hospital
during the Korean War.
Everyone knew the subject was Vietnam,
the war’s human and political failure,
but given the hawkish mood
of the nation then,
(Let’s round up all those hippies,
in the jungle with their peace pamphlets,
and see how they do!)
you couldn’t get backing
for a show about the Vietnam war—
it had to be dressed up
in a Korean time-warp
with movie stars,
and laugh tracks
in order to insinuate political critique. . . .
prime architect of the war,
with Johnson and the Joint Chiefs
when he advised
freezing troop levels,
a cessation of bombing in the north,
handing the ground fighting back
The Half-life of Revolution—Particle Physics, History, Baseball, & Baby-Boomers, p. 4
to South Vietnam.
McNamara to resign in ’67.
But in ’68 Johnson bailed,
leaving the bodies
on the ground
and opening the door for Nixon, who,
emphasizing a good economy
and successes in foreign affairs—
(establishing relations with China)—
won a landslide re-election
despite four more years of war.
We were not bombing Cambodia,
he was not a crook.
just on our side—
born after WWII,
fresh from high school, who were replacing
tires and shocks at SEARS,
driving Allis-Chalmers through corn or alfalfa fields,
kids who went surfing
and dropped out of City College . . .
the body count
announced each evening on the news
on the sports report.
* * *
When it ended,
we thought we’d come out on top,
but it was
another swing and a miss,
the CEOs circling the bases
with appreciating portfolios
from Grumman, Boeing, General Dynamics,
Standard Oil, McDonnell Douglas, Pratt & Whitney, Colt Manufacturing,
Bank of America . . . you name it. . . .
they just kept changing the pitchers.
Now, we all have haircuts,
Hondas, mutual funds—
those of us, that is,
The Half-life of Revolution—Particle Physics, History, Baseball, & Baby-Boomers, p. 5
were not scooped up by corporate raiders,
“private equity restructuring”
and international takeovers.
We do not seem bothered now
by off-shore banking, tax loop-holes,
the military GNP, and corporate welfare?
Where did we go?
Way past the half-way mark here,
the only community thought
arrives in direct mail circulars
for Assisted Living. . . .
What will there be
left to say
with war our only legacy
before we return
to the irrefutable history of dust?
Christopher Buckley’s STAR JOURNAL: SELECTED POEMS will be published by the Univ. of Pittsburgh Press in fall 2016. His 20th book of poetry, Back Room at the Philosophers’ Club was published in 2014; by Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press. Among several critical collections and anthologies of contemporary poetry he has edited: A Condition of the Spirit: The Life and Work of Larry Levis, 2004, with Alexander Long; Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California, 2008, and ONE FOR THE MONEY: THE SENTENCE AS A POETIC FORM, from Lynx House Press, 2012, both with Gary Young. He has also edited On the Poetry of Philip Levine: Stranger to Nothing, Univ. of Michigan Press 1991, and FIRST LIGHT: A Festschrift for Philip Levine on his 85th Birthday, 2013. Messenger to the Stars: a Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems & Reader for Tebot Bach’s Ash Tree Poetry Series, Fall 2014
Over the last 35 years his poetry has appeared in APR, POETRY, FIELD, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The New Yorker, The Nation, The Hudson Review, The Gettysburg Review, Quarterly West, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, Five Points, New Letters, and Zyzzyva.His books of creative nonfiction are Cruising State: Growing up in Southern California, Univ. of Nevada Press, 1994; SLEEP WALK, Eastern Washington Univ. Press, 2006; and Holy Days of Obligation, Lynx House Press, 2014.
He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, two NEA grants, a Fulbright Award in Creative Writing, and four Pushcart Prizes. He was awarded the James Dickey Prize for 2008 from FIVE POINTS Magazine, the William Stafford Prize in Poetry for 2012 from Rosebud, and he was the 2013 winner of the Campbell Corner Poetry Contest.
Nancy Mitchell, a Pushcart Prize 2012 recipient, is the author of two volumes of poetry, The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and Grief Hut, (Cervena Barva Press, 2009) and her poems have appeared in Agni, Poetry Daily, Salt Hill Journal, and are anthologized in Last Call by Sarabande Books and Make it Sound True, a teaching exercise using sound as a poetic device is included in The Working Poet (Autumn House Press, 2009). She teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland.