Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Horse Latitudes

I was going through my "Assignments" folder (containing papers and projects for classes in college). I realize some of them are gibberish. Horse Latitudes was required reading for one of my classes in college... it never really made sense to me. I wrote a comparative analysis of Blackwater Fort and Badli-ke-Serai examining the political innuendos in both... A classic example of bs-ing by a stressed out college student :P.

Blackwater Fort

As I had held Carlotta close

that night we watched some Xenophon

embedded with the 5th Marines

in the old Sunni triangle

make a half-assed attempt to untangle

the ghastly from the price of gasoline.

There was a distant fanfaron

in the Nashville sky where the wind

had now drawn itself up and pinned

on her breast a Texaco star.

"Why," Carlotta wondered, "the House of Tar?

Might it have to do with the gross

imports of crude oil Bush will come clean on

only when the Tigris comes clean?"


Pork-barrels. Pork-butts. The Widescreen

Surround Sound of a massed attack

upon the thin red cellulose

by those dust- or fust- or must-cells

that cause the tears to well and well and well.

At which I see him turning up his nose

as if he'd bitten on a powder-pack

like yet another sad Sepoy

who won't fall for the British ploy

of greasing with ham the hammer

or smoothing over Carlotta's grammar:

"On which; On which Bush will come clean."

Her grandfather a man who sees no lack

of manhood in the lachrymose.

For any poor student/poetry aficionado out there struggling to make sense of the above, here's what I wrote:

“Politics” in Blackwater Fort and Badli-ke-Serai

By 1590, the English controlled much of Ireland. Ulster was the only fertile province waiting to be colonized. Hugh O’Neill, a prominent member of the Tyrone O’Neill clan was banished from Ulster after his father was killed. He was taken care of by an English settler’s family and although he was Catholic, Hugh seemingly grew up more an English Lord than an Irish clan leader[1]and in 1587, Queen Elizabeth I granted him the title Earl of Tyrone.

The Nine Years War, also known as the Tyrone Rebellion, started in 1592 when an Irish clan leader Red Hugh O’Donnell chased Captain Willis away from Tyrconnel. In 1593 Captain Willis tried to capture Fermanagh (Irish territory), but was hindered by Hugh Maguire (another clan leader) and Red Hugh O’Donnell.

Since Hugh O’Neill had defeated Hugh Maguire the same year, he was given command of an army of 600 men by Queen Elizabeth. However, Hugh dealt this favor in a unique manner. Once the first 600 soldiers had completed their training, he discharged them and engaged another 600 men to train. In all around 6000 men were trained in the following two years at the expense of the Crown[2].

Meanwhile, O’Donnell and Maguire were carrying out hit-and-run attacks on the English. Hugh O’Neill took no action against these isolated rebellions despite several requests but managed to escape detention. He returned to Ulster and in 1595, his well-trained forces joined the forces of O’Donnell and Maguire in a massive attack on Blackwater Fort[3]. Ironically, the English had created, trained and financed their enemy.

The title of the poem, “Blackwater Fort” implies that a similar irony is at play in the current war in Iraq. Imports of crude oil from the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular are financing wealthy oil companies such as Texaco in the United States and the “ghastly” in the price of oil which ordinary citizens have to pay is in fact due to the continuing war in Iraq. Every day more and more Americans and Iraqis are being killed in gruesome incidents in Iraq. The narrator of the poem is watching the media coverage of the war with his lover Carlotta and commenting upon the war and its ironies.

Xenophon represents the modern reporter traveling with army units in Iraq and reporting ineptly on the “ghastly” occurrences in the Sunni Triangle, a densely populated area northwest of Baghdad inhabited primarily by Sunni Muslims. Xenophon was a Greek soldier and mercenary and is known for his historical writings of his time. He is often cited as being the original “horse whisperer”[4], having advocated sympathetic horsemanship in his book, “On Horsemanship”[5]. By the use of multiple hidden meanings embedded in every word and the use of interwoven similes, Mr. Muldoon employs reflexivity, leaving it up to the reader to interpret the poem at his or her discretion.

Reflexivity is an act of self-reference where examination of action “bends back on”, refers to and affects the identity instigating the examination and describes the circular relationship between cause and effect[6]. The observations of the observers affect the very situation that they are observing and the observations are not independent of the participation of the observer. Thus Mr. Muldoon implies that the narrator, watching the media coverage has the power to influence the events that are occurring.

Mr. Muldoon’s writing style also emphasizes his use of reflexivity. For example, the “clean on” in the penultimate line rhymes with fanfaron, and with Xenophon, as do triangle and untangle, wind and pinned and star and tar. This circular motion of image and rhythm coupled with the sharp juxtaposition of the past and the present is characteristic of the poems in Horse Latitudes[7].

The distant “fanfaron” in the Nashville sky refers to a swaggering bully, a coward who blows his own trumpet[8] and to fanfare about an end that is vague (the outcome of the war in Iraq). The reference to a “Texaco star” may also be a reference to the idea that the war in Iraq is motivated by oil and that the Bush administration, by creating unnecessary fanfare is not being completely open and honest with the American public and the world at large about its reasons for declaring war on Iraq.

The “House of Tar” may be an allusion to the practice of tarring and feathering; a physical punishment used to enforce formal justice, mostly as a type of mob vengeance. In a typical tar and feathers attack, the subject of a crowd’s anger would be stripped to the waist. Hot tar was either poured or painted on the person when he was immobilized and he was rolled around in feathers that stuck to the tar and paraded around town. Since tar was difficult to remove, the person’s degradation was obvious and continued for some days. Mr. Muldoon suggests that “tarring and feathering” the Bush may be an appropriate punishment or form of vengeance for intentionally misleading the public when “the Tigris comes clean” or when the war in Iraq comes to an end. Several of the above mentioned themes and ideas emerge in a later poem, “Badli-ke-Serai.”

Badli-ke-Serai describes the experiences of the Hindu and Muslim soldiers in the army of the British East India Company during the colonial era, referring specifically to the events of the First Indian War of Independence in 1857. The rebellion or war of independence had diverse political, economic, military, religious and social causes but an oft-cited cause is the introduction in 1857 of the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. To load the rifle, the Indian soldiers were expected to bite the cartridge open with their teeth. It was believed that the cartridges were greased with lard (pork fat) which was impure and forbidden for Muslims and tallow (beef fat) which was sacred and forbidden to Hindus and therefore offended the native Indian soldiers making them feel that they were going against their religion.

Mr. Muldoon describes the plight of an Indian Sepoy bound by the pork-barrel government of the British; a form of government in which government spending is intended to benefit only certain constituents of a politician in return for political support. While the benefits are concentrated in a particular area, the costs are spread among all tax-payers. Butt is an archaic word for barrel or cask. In pre-refrigeration days, pork shoulders were salted and packed for storage or shipping in barrels known as "butts." Thus, etymologically, a pork butt is no more than a pork barrel but the use of synonymous words reinforces the central idea in the beginning of the poem. The word “pork” is also italicized to highlight the role of pork in the war which seems trivial but Mr. Muldoon uses the same approach by italicizing “on which” in the third last line. By doing this, he attempts to shift the focus from the larger themes such as politics and war to details such as a grammatical error perhaps to demonstrate that people in general become bogged down in the minutiae and therefore fail to observe more important events.

The idea of a Pork-barrel government is carried over from a previous poem, “Blackwater Fort” and it appears that American imperialism is not very different from British colonialism a century ago. The people who would benefit most from the war in Iraq are the wealthy elites who finance Bush’s election campaigns and have huge financial investments in the oil industry while ordinary American citizens are expected to finance the war with taxes and pay an increased price for gasoline. The American citizens are therefore financing their “enemy” by financing the Bush administration and like the Indian soldier, they too are bound by a pork-barrel government because the taxes that they pay and the increased price of gasoline fattens the coffers of the oil moguls who provide support for the Bush administration.

The idea that the Sepoys are being exploited by the British is shown by the analogy of cancer cells attacking connective tissue. Dust cells are found in the sputum of those who inhale coal dust. They are alveolar epithelial cells which have phagocyted the minute particles of coal dust, which are constantly inspired in a smoky atmosphere. An attack by “dust- or fust- or must-cells” on the thin red cellulose may refer to Carlotta’s cancer. Smoke inhibits and damages the normal cleaning process by which the lungs get rid of foreign particles (phagocytosis)[9]. The harmful carcinogens in smoke are able to remain lodged in the mucus and develop into cancer tumors which attack connective tissue. Similarly, the culture and identity of the Sepoys is under attack when they are expected to commit the cardinal crime of biting the cartridge.

It appears that one Sepoy or Indian soldier is scorning his contemporaries who have been tricked by the British into chewing upon the cartridges greased with animal fat. And while the act causes them anguish, causing tears of anger or frustration to “well and well and well,” they are bound by the Pork-barrel government.

An interesting connection between Blackwater Fort and Badli-ke-Serai are the lines, “Bush will come clean on…” in Blackwater Fort and “On which… on which Bush will come clean.” Mr. Muldoon ignores the seemingly larger theme, the war in Iraq, oil politics etc. and carries forward to the next poem, only the most trivial aspect; that of correcting a grammatical flaw. The reflexive pattern is repeated here: Sepoy rhymes with ploy, and hammer with grammar. Carlotta’s grandfather appears to be mocking the cause of the war, “greasing with ham the hammer” by comparing it with something as inconsequential as “smoothing over Carlotta’s grammar” as if by correcting her grammar, all the larger problems will be solved.

Mr. Muldoon effectively employs historical, philosophical and linguistic tools, seemingly arbitrary but ingeniously logical to state his message. But instead of sounding pedantic, his reflexive style encourages the reader to interpret for him or her-self the ideas conveyed in his poems which makes the journey more exciting. Going backwards, from Badli-ke-Serai to Blackwater Fort, but going forward in time, from 1857 to the present, Mr. Muldoon demonstrates that the state of affairs is rather similar, drawing parallels between British and American imperialism and the pork-barrel government designed to curry favor with political constituents. And just as Carlotta’s grandfather attempts to sweep the larger issue under the rug by fixing on a triviality, so it appears that people today are turning a blind eye on the situation in Iraq.

[1] http://www.triskelle.eu/history/nineyearswar.php?index=060.047

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.triskelle.eu/history/nineyearswar.php?index=060.047

[4] A horse whisperer is a horse trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of the horse, based on modern equine psychology. The term goes back to the early nineteenth century when an Irish horseman, Daniel Sullivan, made a name for himself in England by rehabilitating horses that had become vicious and intractable due to abuse or accidental trauma.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenophon

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflexivity_(social_theory)

[7] http://www.nysun.com/article/44569

[8] http://www.infoplease.com/dictionary/brewers/fanfaron.html

[9] http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/tobac-tabac/body-corps/disease-maladie/lung-poumon/lung-poumon_e.html

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