What better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than with a few poems by Sarah Palin, America’s best known flag lover?
Thanks to Michael Solomon, representative examples from his book, I Hope Like Heck: The Selected Poems of Sarah Palin, have been posted online.
Extracted from thousands of leaked Palin emails written while she was governor of Alaska, I Hope Like Heck reveals what we didn’t know about Palin: she’s most poetic when she seems to be most banal.
One of the released poems, But I’m Not Bitter, has a spare, Oriental quality. It’s not a haiku, but it has a touch of the counterpoint of juxtaposed elements typical of haiku:
The sunshine is perfect—
Too bad we’ll be looking at it
Through conference windows
Of course, we can’t be sure if she’s merely anticipating another boring afternoon of speeches, or if she’s lamenting the loss of a really good day for helicopter hunting.
That could be moose hunting, since another of the verses zeroes in on the existence of a moose tag that hadn’t been “filled.” (Apparently, when you kill your moose you fill out the government tag that gave you permission to kill it.) Here’s an excerpt from The Truth About the Moose:
That Chuck Heath was offering to take Molly hunting
Since the season was coming to a close
And Wooten had still not taken the time
To take her hunting
So she could fill the tag.
There are many complexities in these short lines. The isolation of “I recall” invokes our understanding that our memories necessarily stand alone, isolated in our minds by the passage of time. “I recall,” but I can’t call back.
Palin astutely juxtaposes Chuck Heath’s imposition of himself into the family dynamic with then brother-in-law Wooten’s failure to live up to his responsibilities. Both events annoy her, and it’s in that context that we are to understand the restrained violence inherent in the word “hunting.”
It’s not just Molly but also Sarah who longs to “fill the tag.” Her own lack of fulfillment (the real meaning of the word “fill” in this context) is projected onto Molly, here her emotional as well as biological sibling, and it’s this transfer of emotional ownership that makes it socially acceptable for Sarah to unlock the deep feelings caused by the loss of a perfectly good — and government certified — hunting trip.
Seen in the light of The Truth About the Moose, the waste of a sunny day in But I’m Not Bitter becomes more poignant — and more psychologically revealing. In these short lyrics, Palin’s verse reminds us of the confessional poets of the fifties and sixties. Indeed, we can almost imagine Palin writing this line from Plath’s Two Campers in Cloud Country: “Well, one wearies of the Public Gardens: one wants a vacation.” Indeed. Doesn’t one always? And if our break from the stresses of civilization can be combined with the pleasure of watching the life ooze out of a magnificent mammal, one we’ve personally killed, how much more joy then?
Another poem that delves into Palin’s conflicted emotional space is Carpe Per Diem, which begins with a practical problem and concludes with an existential question:
Am I supposed to be charging meals
While I am away from Juneau?
Or does per diem cover my meals—
I haven’t charged any meals to the state,
Just a couple of coffees while outside
During these six months in office.
Am I doing this right?
That her questions — practical and existential — receive no answers is the key to our understanding of the psychic uncertainty at the heart of the poem. “Am I doing this right?” applies not just to expense accounting, of course. It is also clear that Palin’s emphasis is on her spiritual distance from a meaning for her life. Her use of the words “away” and “outside” signals her psychological distance from her goal of being a good governor. “Just a couple of coffees while outside/During these six months in office” is an aching admission of goals yet unattained.
In this, we can discern the germ of her drive to become President of the United States — perhaps in that role she can finally fulfill herself. “Just a couple of coffees,” “fill the tag,” “Too bad we’ll be looking at it/Through conference windows” — There is a consistent attention to thwarted ambition in Palin’s most honest verse.
As good as these examples are, there’s no doubt that the gem of the online poems is the masterful Where There’s Smoke:
One of Lyda’s aides stopped me in the hall
To say the building was getting a kick
Out of my “burnt toast” episode this morning
That caused the fire alarms to go off
For 20 minutes
And caused an evacuation.
She thought it was funny
I was cooking breakfast in the capitol
And burnt it.
I assured her
I was not in the building this morning,
I was not cooking breakfast here at any time,
And I did not burn any toast.
She looked at me warily,
I doubt she believed me.
While the poems cited earlier suggested unfulfilled dreams, Where There’s Smoke is an explicit admission of failure and despair. There is a direct and extended connection between this poem and Eliot’s Prufrock. Indeed, this parallel begins with Palin’s title, which evokes the beginning of the climax of Eliot’s poem:
I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows …
More intense is the shockingly direct “burnt toast” — so significant that it alone merits special punctuation, an image forcefully reinforced in the lines “And burnt it” and its later counterpoint, which by now we realize is not meant literally, “And I did not burn any toast.” Here again, we are reminded explicitly of Prufrock, who is incapable of taking “a toast and tea.” And, climactically, just as Prufrock faces rejection when the lady says, “That is not what I meant at all,” Palin ends her poem with the grim and final acknowledgement: “I doubt she believed me.” Intensity like this is rare in contemporary poetry. The social exposure of a wounded soul is central to both poems. Palin is “stopped … in the hall,” much as Prufrock hesitates before the salon door. Palin’s fear of social exposure in “the building was getting a kick” relates directly to Prufrock’s being “pinned and wriggling on a wall.” When Lyda’s aide thinks “it was funny,” we are reminded of the moment when the Eternal Footman held Prufrock’s coat and “snickered.”
These examples should make it clear why I wish like heck that you’ll rush out and buy Solomon’s little book of slim poetry.
You’ll never have read anything quite like it before, I promise you!