The Moment’s Equation, poetry by Vern Rutsala
This book was a National Book Award finalist, and reading it one wonders if either the selection of books for poetry that year was particularly limited or if the judges shared the author’s obvious political bias. I happen not to, and as is often the case with literature that seeks to smuggle in political agendas as part of its point, the writing is alienating in a way that does not flatter the work. To the extent that one views a work of writing as an expression of the author’s own authentic point of view, there is much that one can enjoy in reading a work, even a work that one does not agree with, because one can at least understand the person and have some degree of appreciation of that genuine self-expression. When a work, though, undercuts any sort of genuine connection by its lack of sincerity and a self-evident agenda, that is a problem. At least these poems are more generally enjoyable in that they provide at times a slice of Oregon life that can be amusing. Sometimes in spite of himself the author reveals the petty reasons for his knee-jerk hostility to conservatism, and that is worth something at least.
The poems here at least have a greater degree of verisimilitude that some of the other works of the poet I have read. Here the author, while showing a tedious left-wing perspective that includes a marked disrespect for the property rights of others (“Sunday Morning Walk”) and has a blasphemous vision of Portland facing the second coming, at least occasionally offers some sort of genuine humor about driving around in Oregon and going to drive in theaters and the like. There are some poignant poems that ask questions about the worth of human beings who are not considered important by the world at large because of their poverty and obscurity, and one can see that even if the poet’s politics are highly defective, they spring from an emotional place rather than from an intellectual place, and at least there is some sympathy one can have for that even without sharing them. It is perhaps fortunate that the poet found a place where he could be a useless leftist without suffering punishment for walking on the lawns of others to deliberately cause property damage or think of his boss as a yahoo (a fairly offensive term), because life would have been less pleasant had he lived the life his defective worldview deserved.
I get the distinct feeling from what I have read of this poet that he is someone it would be easier to laugh at than to laugh with, someone who was a political crank who would likely not be enjoying to know personally unless one shared his point of view, in which case one might find him to be amusing after a fashion. Yet is anything in this highly honored book a work of enduring value? Looking at these poems I am reminded of a book like “A Shropshire Lad,” which is considered to be a work of total poetic failure, but one which comes off better than this poem does because one can get a genuine sense of enjoyment. When even a mediocre poet is able to write about something of deep personal value that is inspired by love, even a love for the countryside of one’s youth, there is something to celebrate. Here one simply gets small vignettes inspired by the author’s considerable spleen, and that encourages the reader who does not have the same axes to grind as the writer to vent his own spleen on the work in turn. And surely that does no one any good, for these poems are not great enough to warrant anyone’s bilious critique. It is neither the best sort of poems nor even close to the worst that exist. It simply exists because the poet wanted to promote his own political worldview through verse.