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  • Nadira Clare Wallace

(SPAM Cuts) ‘Disaster Is in the Eye of the Beholder’ by David A. Pickett

Grainy black and white image of a dust storm emerging like a dark cloud. Foregrounded by trees bending slightly in the wind.
Image: Dust storm in the desert, Africa (?). Photograph, 1905/1915. Wellcome Collection.

Nadira Clare Wallace dreams potential through apocalypse in this SPAM Cut of David A. Pickett’s poem, ‘Disaster Is in the Eye of the Beholder’, published in the February issue of POETRY.

Okay, I confess I’ve fantasised about the demolition of my own society, which probably doesn’t make me unique. For example, when I was in my mischievous and flamboyant early twenties, I remember once landing in Chicago and hearing, as we circled over the runways and droughty-looking grass, ‘lead them to destroy’. It was like the words had been whispered from the root of one of my ear canals. I thrilled with assent: yes, I will rally people via my poetry (I had just started writing); I will rally them to bring everything wrong down (especially the skyscrapers I wasn’t fond of). Then, we would be able to rebuild a much lovelier homeland. In hindsight, it’s relatively clear what I hungered for was a kind of enforced collective awareness: everyone shocked into recognising themselves in relation to others –– the private mind, like a bad spell, done away with (as a matter of fact, last year when COVID struck this did initially seem to happen in certain, limited ways).

What got me thinking about my taste for apocalypse –– now toned down –– was reading David A. Pickett’s ‘Disaster Is in the Eye of the Beholder’, which appeared in POETRY magazine a few months ago. The issue, dedicated to publishing work by people with experiences of incarceration, and including a poem by someone with a child porn conviction, actually became something of a disaster –– or definitely a media conflagration (see responses here, here and here). The debate moved about a central question: Should people who have done terrible things be fully reintegrated into society after having been punished, or should they continue to be excluded (especially from illustrious platforms) and stigmatised? Pickett’s poem obliquely approaches the moral knot, since it is about finding oneself living a sorry, possibly damnable life, while dreaming of that life’s total wipeout.

The text begins with a wide-shot description of a ‘Mobile Home Court’, where the speaker used to live. Then the second stanza zooms in, and we find ourselves right up against the duplicate interiors of the trailers: ‘Thin pressboard panels / hid a million roachy lives’. The contrast between the flimsiness of building material and quantity of insects is quite horrifying. But ‘roachy’ could also be read as an adjective applied to people (the ‘Mobile Home Court’ might be an archetypal one, encompassing millions) –– people whose lives have dwindled to cockroach-status. The next couple of lines, minus first-person pronoun, encourage the reader to inhabit the gestures described (since a pronoun would have allowed us to observe the speaker in action from a removed spot):

turning on the lights sent them fleeing, back into the walls; tiny feet pattered like rain showers in retreat from the sun.

Here, we swiftly move from gross-out (cockroaches scurrying off) to gorgeous (rain disappearing in sunshine, which usually means a rainbow somewhere, probably the number one contemporary symbol of hope). It’s a compelling transmutation. And ‘showers in retreat’ just brushes the formal register. Then the ‘I’ resurfaces, heading the lyric’s last burst:

I used to dream of a terrible storm— one to reach down with a dark, twisted arm and pick up those trailers, those non-mobile un-homes, crush them in a cloudy fist and scatter them like seeds across a plowed and fertile land.

‘Dark, twisted arm’ makes me see a tornado (though I grew up in Iowa, I have yet to encounter one in the flesh), that is also a kind of retributive Zeus-like entity. The storm picks up ‘non-mobile un-homes’. This is a stirring phrase, indicating lack of belonging, even despair. If your home is not a home, what is it? A cell? When the destruction arrives, it is complete. The speaker’s destroyed neighborhood is scattered across fields, though without any mention of humans being caught up in the process, which suggests we’re being invited to view the situation from a systemic or abstract –– rather than individual –– level. At this point, the twisted arm accrues new meaning, or a new layer of meaning. Perhaps the dreamt storm is not about chastisement, but mercy? Thus, the obliteration of all that was –– infested, devoid of care and solidity –– becomes a good thing, the crushed trailers turning into, via simile, seeds for a land which appears to be waiting for them (it has already been ‘plowed’). Disconsolation hits lush ground and there the poem ends, while our minds are left to vibrate in the aftershock space that big, teardown events tend to create. Will anything germinate, give us green leases on our lives?


Text: Nadira Clare Wallace

Published: 18/5/21


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