Time Against Time
Richard Duffee, The Slow News of Need, Vol. 1 (Stamford, CT: Yuganta Press, 2008).
Unifying The Slow News of Need, Richard Duffee’s provocative and eclectic collection of prose and poetry, is a proposition both simple and challenging: can we envision a history of the world stitched together through representations of “the most incongruously unnecessary human events” (117)? Though Duffee is acutely aware of the practical and imaginative limits to such a project, his articulation of these limits is what binds Slow News together in a compelling manner. In fact, the tension between his subject and the means he uses to represent it, shows Duffee to be asking not just how we can represent daily life, but how our experience of time and space shape our ability to apprehend history.
Duffee is nothing if not a formalist at heart, and his investigation into the metaphysical is grounded in the very structure of Slow News, which unfolds in two movements, each organized according to a specific demarcation of the Chinese agricultural calendar. The first (“Seasons of Need”) is made up of 24 short free verse poems (“dramatic monologues” as Duffee refers to them), one for each “node of weather” (jieqi) that this agricultural calendar uses to demarcate the passing of time. The second movement (“The Days of Need”) provides a running commentary on the previous 24 poems, each one given its own prologue in free verse or prose. Although the structure of Slow News sounds daunting, in fact the relationship between the two sets of interrelated poems is loose and free-wheeling, inviting us into a multi-layered investigation of the various issues Duffee sets out for us.
A political activist (and 2008 Green Party candidate for the 4th Congressional district of Connecticut), Duffee displays an acute sense of the unequal balances of power that exist between genders, classes, and nations, and these find their way into the articulate characters who speak through each poem. In “Jieqi 6, The Grain Rain Fall (Spoken 20 April, 1948),” a Chinese civil servant rails against the traumas his country experienced at the hands of foreign powers, and despairs at China’s own internal struggles: “Mao brays like a mule / against Kung. Chiang honors ancestors but only his own. / Millet is deaf to both. Sixteen war years, fields bare, / still no planting… We lack cash for broken rice. From this day I will not care / What Mao says if he knows even that one way of heaven” (5). In “Jieqi 4, The Vernal Equinox (spoken 22 March, 1523)” a peasant in what is now Germany bluntly narrates the misery he is left in after having yielded his crop to the church and state. By line eleven, we hear that he and his family have not eaten in a month, and the poem ends with the peasant’s desperate resistance to begging for food: “I could ask for sustenance, and pardon / For my fault. But I have not begged before / and would not now” (4). These voices from the past are interspersed with modern ones, speaking about the daily challenges they face as workers, sons, students or teachers. In each short “monologue,” Duffee’s skill as a writer is felt through these characters’ verisimilitude, reflecting as well his creativity and (seemingly inexhaustible) knowledge of working-class history from around the world.
While poverty and desperation certainly make themselves felt throughout Slow News, Duffee is careful to present these conditions without sentimentality, and his characters come alive on the page without a cloying sense of false dignity. In fact, the charm and depth of this work comes from the sly humor, and even expressions of hope and wonder that surface throughout the poems with, if not frequency, at least a reassuring pattern of regularity. In “Jieqi 13, The Autumn Begins (spoken 6 August, 1966)” Duffee recounts an imaginary conversation between a Japanese monk and an American poet that ends with a playful back and forth regarding the means through which happiness and security can be cultivated: “The Poet: ‘Inside to outside / attention seeks quiet flow. / We hang from weak thread.’ / The Monk: ‘The thread is the silk of care. / Only care can strengthen it’” (9). In “Prologue to The Clear and Bright, Jieqi 5 (spoken April 4-5): Advice to Young Employees,” Duffee reveals his satirical side, describing the boss-employee relationship in startlingly sexual terms: “When he compliments himself, then your hands are on his balls; / if you are gentle, so that after he praises you, / then you know it; you’ve got your finger on his prostate / and he’s yours” (34). Duffee’s larger focus in this poem is the subtle way oppression in the workplace is reproduced by those who experience it, and even seek to rise above it, though this is craftily packaged in the symbolic language of “ass-kissing” at the workplace.
Duffee more directly addresses his readers throughout Slow News, warning them of the mathematical impossibility of knowing much about others’ lives, or even their own (“Prologue to The Summer Begins, Jieqi 7 (May 4-5): A Linked Chain of Thought Experiments”). He even makes a sly address to the critic reading this work. In “Prologue to Winter Begins, Jieqi 19 (spoken November 6-7): Learning the Art of Rule in Nepal,” a character ordering food in a restaurant remarks on the differences between waiters and critics (fewer than we might imagine), and ends with the warning that although “the waiter deals with people with real monarchical pretensions… the critic’s monarch is concealed in the critic’s own imagination, where the critic knows he conducts continuous secret surveillance” (100). Though an obscure point to reference in a review (the comment comes at the end of a longer meditation on Nepalese history and the complicated power relations set in motion when ordering food in a restaurant), Duffee’s analysis comes from a forthright stance: “poetry is the speech of living people about the most important experiences of their real lives” (99). Formalist critics, like waiters (in this context), “seek to transform themselves into idiots to please their monarchs, real or imaginary” (100). It’s a rare pleasure to review a work that issues such a pointed remark, and is a good marker of the many levels at which Slow News operates.
The restless imagination and provocative juxtaposition that keeps these individual poems at work animates the larger project of Slow News, which is more properly political, articulated through the formal method of the project itself. Duffee’s appendix to the collection of poetry succinctly explains its origins.
“Slow News” is the news [to which] media corporations give lowest priority… [it] consists of feature articles, analysis, and the circumstances and activities of non-members of the political, economic and social elites… Human life in general is slow news because the rich and powerful do not wish to know more about it than they already know, but wish instead to keep attention focused on themselves and each other. (115)
If the poems themselves constitute the “content” of this “slow news,” Duffee’s rigorous embedding of these poems in a different time frame reveals a deeper understanding of what is needed to unify his representation of these characters’ struggles. While admitting that even his final choice for the task – the Chinese agricultural calendar – was not a perfect solution to this problem, his explanation for framing these poems in this way provides the political axis of this project. Duffee writes:
The calendar most appropriate to us has to have something to do with what we sense and do. Calendars fixated just on the sun, stars, moon, and planets are certainly good for having astronomers, priests, and administrators telling us what to do… [The Chinese agricultural calendar is] a calendar for temperate farming. Wherever we are, most of us either labor or else have nothing to labor with or on, so wait for some leftover scraps of the labor of others, and suffer whatever seasons we have. (116)
It’s a vivid articulation of the ways capitalism shapes our capacity to imagine and experience time, in both the epochal as well as mundane sense of the term. Duffee’s sense of the power of the imagination to not only think through, but articulate, the force of this contradiction, is finally what gives his collection its unique shape and impact, as well as its curious optimism and lasting resonance.