"The poets apparently want to rejoin the human race." — Time Magazine
I shall begin by learning to throw
the knife, first at trees, until it sticks
in the trunk and quivers every time;
next from a chair, using only wrist
and fingers, at a thing on the ground,
a fresh ant hill or a fallen leaf;
then at a moving object, perhaps
a pine cone swinging on twine, until
I pot it at least twice in three tries.
Meanwhile, I shall be teaching the birds
that the skinny fellow in sneakers
is a source of suet and bread crumbs,
first putting them on a shingle nailed
to a pine tree, next scattering them
on the needles, closer and closer
to my seat, until the proper bird,
a towhee, I think, in black and rust
and gray, takes tossed crumbs six feet away.
Finally, I shall coordinate
conditioned reflex and functional
form and qualify as Modern Man.
You see the splash of blood and feathers
and the blade pinning it to the tree?
It's called an "Audubon Crucifix."
The phrase has pleasing (even pious)
connotations, like Arbeit Macht Frie,
"Molotov Cocktail," and Enola Gay.
— Donald Baker (1923-)
Poets and artists are traditionally regarded as separate from the rest of society. Whether they are exalted as mystical figures with a spiritual power, or scorned as foolishly romantic dreamers, no one denies that there is something fundamentally unique in the poetic personality. A sarcastic quote excerpted from Time Magazine exhibits the latter disdainful attitude: "The Poets apparently want to rejoin the human race." In response, poet
Donald Justice (pen-name of Donald Baker)(NOTE: The original is incorrect; Donald Justice and Donald Baker are two distinct poets. William Logan of the University of Florida has contacted the editorial staff and requested this correction. -ed.) wrote his "Formal Application" for re-admittance into humanity. His ironic reply shows how little humanity there is left to join, as humankind descends into the violence and brutality of the twentieth century.
"I shall begin by learning to throw / the knife," writes
JusticeBaker. He becomes skilled, throwing his knife "first at trees, until it sticks / in the trunk and quivers every time;" progressing to "a fresh anthill or fallen leaf;" and finally to "a pieplate swinging on twine." The image is almost that of a young boy in the country, idling time away as he practices—yet one can also imagine the sap dripping from wounds in the tree, the industry of the ants disrupted by the missile. His improvement in aim becomes symbolic of mankind's advancement and progress itself. The poet, to rejoin humanity, must of course learn the skills he has been neglecting. But why is knife-throwing the skill that separates the poet from civilization?
"Meanwhile, I shall be teaching the birds / That the skinny fellow in sneakers / Is a source of suet and bread crumbs," plans
JusticeBaker. He slowly builds up the trust of the birds, familiarizing them to humans as they take seeds thrown closer and closer. Devoid of any sinister connotations, these images are pleasant, a pastoral scene.
JusticeBaker reaches the pinnacle of his skill: "Finally, I shall coordinate / conditioned reflex and functional / form and qualify as Modern Man." The lines have an air of self-importance. "Modern Man," deserving of capital letters, a formal title, like God, or Creator. What is the culmination of his labors? "You see the splash of blood and feathers / And the blade pinning it to the tree? / It's called an 'Audubon Crucifix.'" A sickening work of conceptualist performance art: a betrayed bird, caught in mid-flight by a skillfully aimed knife, its blood painting the bark of the tree. A poet's interpretation of mankind's barbarism, given a poetic name with "pleasing (even pious) / Connotations," recalling a famous friend of nature and the greatest friend of man. The slaughtered bird is an insult to Audubon, the famous naturalist, and the allusion to Christ's sacrifice, pinned—like the bird—to a wooden cross, betrayed by those he was meant to save.
The hideous contrast between the Audubon Crucifix's title and its reality is intensified by the phrases to which it is compared. Its "pleasing (even pious) / Connotations," are "like Arbeit Macht Frei, / "Molotov Cocktail," and Enola Gay." Three historical allusions, their brutality obscured by euphemism: the first translated "Work Makes Freedom," the deceitful slogan displayed above the gates of Nazi death camps; the second a fire-bomb; the third, the name of the bomber that destroyed Hiroshima. Holocaust, political upheaval, nuclear death—this is the reality of "Modern Man," the vaunted and noble "human race."
The ironic earnestness of
JusticeBaker's application reveals his rejection of civilization's values and the "progress" that leads only to more death and violence. Yes, the poets could rejoin the human race— JusticeBaker's "Formal Application," the Audubon Crucifix, would certainly be accepted, as it fits the larger picture of the twentieth century's brutality perfectly—but what humanity is left to join?