Sometimes a phrase from memory takes me by surprise. Some weeks ago I was walking across the Chicago River with my partner and a friend, talking about something I disdained, when I set myself suddenly laughing by saying "I'd rather throw dead batteries at cows" than do this disliked thing. Then I realized I still had almost all of "James Joyce" by Matt Cook committed to memory.
It's the sneering delivery of this poem that made it stick in my head so much; I saw this video in high school, the peak time of life for judging canonical authors to be stupid guys who "didn't know as much as me." It seems fitting that this was included in a series called The United States of Poetry - there's not much more American than shit-talking someone with phrases like "Deal with it" and "Work it out somehow" while sitting on what appears to be a curb outside a convenience store.
Revisiting the poem, I'm drawn to how it uses pronouns. We get a repeated series of declarative statements about what "he," this apocryphal James Joyce, did. But it's not the "I" who'd rather throw dead batteries at cows who winds up telling James Joyce to get lost — it's a "we." There's a collective voice addressing him with their disdain.
I've been thinking a lot about being addressable after reading this interview with Claudia Rankine. Here's the relevant bit:
Years ago, I went to hear [Judith] Butler give a lecture. I’d always read her work, and I was very excited to see her speak in person. Her talk reiterated much of what I had read in her books, but then someone in the audience asked, Why are words so hurtful? The entire audience was ripped into attention. Everybody wanted to hear that answer. The response was something like, Because we are addressable. And the way we demonstrate our addressability is by being open to the person in front of us. So we arrive, we are available to them, we expose ourselves, and we give them the space to address us. And in that moment of vulnerability and exposure, we are not defended against whatever comes.
In the last line of "James Joyce" there's a dubiously sourced quotation from Thomas Jefferson that reminds me of current political uneasiness: "you always get the rulers you deserve." It's a transparent play on words: ruler as what measures and what governs. A poem, like speech, is granted space to address you. This one tells you, in the end, what you deserve. As much as I've thought over this ending, I don't know how sincere it is. A sudden turn to aphorism could be either another way of mocking the canon (Thomas Jefferson was stupid, he didn't know as much as me) or a rhetorical move to add some weight to a humorous poem, or somewhere in between. Not deciding is part of my reading.
When I consider this line now, I think we Americans could (and should) demand better, but I don't know what we deserve. I've never really believed that anyone deserves anything more than the dignity to make their own choices and the resources to cover their basic needs. And if America provided those things, we'd be a pretty different set. But I don't know that we're one set at all, or a variety of fragments. I don't know how we can address each other in a way that opens more possibilities than it closes. But I'm eager for those sorts of conversations.