I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.
War, worship, and capital in Danniel Schoonebeek’s Trébuchet
New York Live Arts presents
“Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” retorted Rahm Emanuel, then-Chief of Staff, when questioned about the Obama administration’s post-recession economic plans. What he meant at the time was that the 2008 crisis offered an opportunity to introduce deep, systemic changes to the status quo. Nearly a decade after the crisis, neoliberalism is stronger than ever. The curious refortification of neoliberalism is the subject of economic historian Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste (Verso, 2013), that takes its title from Emanuel’s quip. Mirowski’s thesis, in broad strokes, is that neoliberalism survived the financial crisis because it’s no longer a school of thought that some adhere to more than others. Instead, we are all neoliberals now; neoliberalism is somehow within us. We inhabit “entrepreneurial” selves—as evidenced by our self-promotion and self-branding on social media. We instantiate the inherent logic of neoliberalism on a daily basis, unable to see our own positions inside of it.
Danniel Schoonebeek’s explosive sophomore poetry collection, Trébuchet (University of Georgia Press, 2016), is a Mirowskian call to arms that challenges our contemporary American brand of capitalism and demands that we confront our own role in perpetuating it. Trébuchet defines itself in its prologue as “a book like the earth you might salt if you warred against you.” Schoonebeek’s vision is one in which we “war” against ourselves and destroy our means of production thereafter, as Rome sowed salt in the fields after conquering Carthage to render the following harvests unyielding. He communicates his vision in incendiary poems that range from curt lyrics evoking antiquity (“Archilochos,” “Telémakos,” “Chorus,” “Trojan”) to prose poems written in present-day legalese (“Poem with a Gun to Its Head”). The poems scour the page in formal novelty—four have gutters down the center, one is an erasure, one is a diagram, one is horizontally rendered, and the final poem, “Dark-Eyed Junco Was Her Name,” takes place over 43 pages, many of which hold just a handful of words. Often, Schoonebeek grapples with contemporary politics head-on in poems such as “Glasnost,” “Reaganomics,” and “Neutrality.” But these critiques also take place within the context of an abstract, universal “kingdom” about which the book tells a folktale. This kingdom perennially destroys itself, only to rebuild the elements of war and capital: “new monuments / new gasworks and watchtowers, / new barriers, new thrones, and new battlements.”
After the provocative title poem, which serves as a prologue, the book begins with an almost-classical invocation in “Nachtmusik:” “If the nightcrawlers sing through the loam tonight will I join them.” In that same opening poem, Schoonebeek’s speaker collapses history, setting his stage, “I woke & was ancient / next gutshot / next slack // next saw // the tramps sleeping / in Bank of America.” With these short lines he takes us from antiquity to the present in a surprising enjambment. In “C’est la guerre,” a poem spoken in long syntactically fragmentary lines, Schoonebeek takes issue with the resigned wartime expression often used to explain away hardship. The speaker suggests that we can no longer resign to the most troubling features of daily life. He wants to be seen bearing artifacts of his civilization—he threatens to “come to your door come winter” holding “a bouquet of railroad ties plucked from the Union Pacific” wearing “father’s crushed suit and his cufflinks.” This unsettling series of threats culminates in the question “who will witness me if I’m one page in a long book of ways to say no with no ending.” Trébuchet is not “a long book of ways to say no with no ending”—rather it is, as its eponymous weapon, an instrument of destruction.
Some of Schoonebeek’s most powerful tools are his paradoxical images. These images fuse the language of war, worship, and capital in order to equate the three. In “Fifteen Answers to the King and His Questioners,” which borrows language from Obama’s press junkets on surveillance, a king-like speaker describes a deranged cast of characters. He concludes the poem by declaring, of those characters, “this is the devil’s workforce I said & I put them to work.” The “devil’s workforce” becomes the king’s workforce. Perhaps the most haunting character who lords over the whole book is the one who also administers “decrees” to his workers. He is “the god in the herringbone / hard hat.” Both working class (“hard hat”) and elite (“herringbone”) manifest in a single idol. The worship of labor persists regardless of whether there is an ongoing war: “Sorrow is My Own Yard” opens “What I worship both pax & wartime in low country // is sweat.” Thus, the end product of labor is not peace or war or any other political ideal, instead it is more labor.
Throughout, Schoonebeek weaves in the language of social media, illustrating the constantly self-marketing, blindly neoliberal self that Mirowski speaks of. In “Russets,” a speaker describes his destitution and asks, “should we wait for politicos to throw us a war / and we’ll all go invisible and click not attending.” The speaker acknowledges his own complicity in the state’s violence, because in a world with social media, war is just another event to which we can announce our attendance or not. “.GIF,” a meditation on waste, reports an existential crisis initiated by a speaker googling himself: “In the middle of my life I searched for my name in the engine. I’m not dead links and leaks and zero results.” Fundamental capitalist values have been so deeply ingrained in the speaker that he realizes he must actively resist the definition of self offered by “the engine,” a multinational corporation. “Trojan,” a brilliant, eerie poem inspired by spam emails sent to businesses, also reveals modern technology’s mediation of the inner free-market self:
In the coming days my representative is coming for you with a storm worm. Until then under no circumstances should you contact my representative. Regardless of whose representative sends my representative to your door … But sources say you should blast my representative to everyone in your contacts.
The nested “representatives” in “Trojan” are reminiscent of other poems with recursive definitions—one poem speaks of “the legacy of the legacy / of my legacy’s / legacy’s legacy” while another mentions “your gods who ran to their gods, who ran to their gods.” These nested definitions are mimetic of the spooling social network of connections we have come to envision as an extension of the self. Even “god” has been reduced to a node in a network of power.
Occasionally, Schoonebeek’s inflammatory provocations threaten to cheapen the book’s extraordinary vision. For example, “Poem with a Gun to Its Head” demands that the poet “will be provided with… a role of third-generation organic toilet paper priced at $4.67 per unit, on which the client will undertake the writing of a poem entitled ‘Poem with a Gun to Its Head.’” The self-referential shrillness of the poem makes it easy to dismiss as insincere posturing. In a seemingly inventive gesture, “Glasnost” is composed of phrases that have placed people on the US government’s watch list. But the poem, which repeats “how do I get rid of a body” ten times in twenty-three lines, simply and unimaginatively rehearses search terms. In “LaGuardia,” the poet speaks to a taxi driver on the way to the airport, announcing “I’m poems / for a living / & god sent / me to die / in the backstreets because yes / the argument is / there’s still America / we haven’t found / yet in America.” The obviousness of the exchange over-determines the subject of the poem and the ones around it. Perhaps the more talky moments are justified if read as footholds for the overarching myth—fragments of a violent folktale about war and capital in present and historical kingdoms.
Regardless, Trébuchet serves as a powerful reminder to revolt and to dissent—recognizing our own role in perpetuating the systems that we revolt against—and to restore the value of art and literature in in the process. As Schoonebeek suggests when speaking through seventh-century soldier-poet Archilochus, we must remember “it’s with poetry I bring down the state.”
Zoë Hitzig is a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, and a poet. Her poems have recently been published in the Boston Review, the New Statesman, Lana Turner and Denver Quarterly.
I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.