I found in Denise Levertov’s poem “Tenebrae” a perspective that connects with one of my early astonishments in life--an astonishment, I think, many of us share. As children (well, especially as children), we witness an awful contrast: while various rites of vanity go on about us, demanding much fuss and time, people ‘far away’ are starving en masse or otherwise suffering, through no fault of their own. We wax our cars and coiffure our hair while refugees trek like desperate demographic clouds, and entire cities get uprooted in slaughter. In our childish innocence, we experience a burning curiosity, along with sorrow, at this great imbalance: why is the color of one’s hair or the name of a car so much more important?
Getting a little older, we have an acute intuition: there is some link between our country’s “conspicuous consumption” (to use Veblen) and the places in which famine and war rage. We might also become aware of the brutal toil in sweatshops. Though we cannot express or reason it out, we sense blame in our country, and in the individual citizens as well.
Looking at the Vietnam War in retrospect, which was Levertov’s inspiration for “Tenebrae,” the argument given at the time for US involvement would be utterly silly if not fraught with murderous paranoia. Why did we go to war there? The so-called Domino Effect: if Vietnam falls to communism, so will the region, and then the world! The problem is not just the frailty of the asserted causal flow (countries being far more complex than dominos), but more importantly the US empire’s eagerness to align nations into obedience. Such obedience serves the profit of international corporations based in the US. The Vietnam War, by itself, generated lucre for the arms industry. Indeed, just before the war, President Eisenhower, in his farewell speech, warned about the “military-industrial complex.”
There are numerous examples of the US supporting cruel dictators as long as they follow our ‘free market’ directives. And, in general, how a country treats its citizens is not of much concern to us as long as the cash dynamic is efficacious. A modern example that extends far beyond the White House: “Made in China” is everywhere in stores.
As children, we see the incongruous vanity with wonder. In many, a remnant of this honest perception continues into adulthood: “how can we fixate on primping and status symbols while ignoring the horror of our wars, the exploitation due to our ‘manifest destiny’?!”
In “Tenebrae,” Levertov chooses “gowns of gold sequins” and “silver moiré” as images of numb ostentation. The poem starts:
Heavy, heavy, heavy, hand and heart.
We are at war,
bitterly, bitterly at war.
And the buying and selling
buzzes in our heads, a swarm
of busy flies, a kind of innocence.
Gowns of gold sequins are fitted,
sharp-glinting. What harsh rustlings
of silver moiré there are,
to remind me of shrapnel splinters.
Levertov calls out “buying and selling.” As the poem proceeds and concludes, the fabric of our social life gets implicated in a grand denial:
And weddings are held in full solemnity
not of desire but of etiquette,
the nuptial pomp of starched lace;
a grim innocence.
And picnic parties return from the beaches
burning with stored sun in the dusk;
children promised a TV show when they get home
fall asleep in the backs of a million station wagons,
sand in their hair, the sound of waves
quietly persistent at their ears.
They are not listening.
Their parents at night
dream and forget their dreams.
They wake in the dark
and make plans. Their sequin plans
glitter into tomorrow.
They buy, they sell.
They fill freezers with food.
Neon signs flash their intentions
into the years ahead.
And at their ears the sound
of the war. They are
not listening, not listening.
The word “innocence” appears twice: “a kind of innocence” and “a grim innocence.” Another repetition is: “the buying and selling” and “They buy, they sell.” This double pair of repeat words conjures a strained though staid consumerism. It reminds me somewhat of Hannah Arendt’s “the banality of evil”-- used to describe the middle-class lives of those in charge of the camps in Nazi Germany. They went to church, they picnicked with their kids, they had hobbies and pastimes, all the while wearing the smilely face of a neighbor--and they also overlorded the Holocaust.
Also in repetition, of course, is "not listening"--both on the same line and in separate stanzas; and also the "sequins" make the transition from a physical garment to a state of mind
We in America are not conducting a Holocaust. But our tax dollars go to insane wars that bring mass death and suffering, disrupt and derange entire countries, and benefit primarily elites. And we routinely purchase things made by workers in police states who are one step up from slaves. Oh, there is also the torture of millions of animals each year in factory farms.
Despite this dark cause-and-effect of our “buying and selling,” we spend a great deal of time worrying about expense and appearance vis-à-vis our daily rituals, which focuses our attention so narrowly we avoid the decent path.