Exposé — The Sum of Light
by Kim Addonizio
Good vs. Evil
The idea for “Theodicy” came out of two things — my general preoccupation with the issue of evil and suffering, and specifically, a movie I saw on TV in which some man of the cloth says something like, “Evil is all around us, like wallpaper, so we don’t notice it.” That got me thinking about the whole Good vs. Evil setup, and also about the banality of evil — Hannah Arendt’s phrase — and how much easier it would be to “do good” if it was only clear what that was, and what evil was.
One of the things that has happened and continues to happen is that our actions are more and more removed from their consequences, so it’s easier and easier not to have to acknowledge those consequences. The alienated labor that Marx talked about is part of it, of course — industrialization was a part of it — the loss of community, not seeing where our food comes from, not seeing the animals that are tortured for medicines or cosmetics or the continuation of some scientist’s grant. The department store item that was produced in some country that’s under the thumb of the IMF, produced by some poor drudge earning a pathetic wage in toxic conditions. We’re all complicit — going out to eat in a restaurant, dropping fifty bucks or more, is obscene when you think about it. We’re living off other people, benefiting from their suffering so we can buy CD burners and big-screen TVs. But we don’t see it — we’re too busy being entertained to death. I include myself in this, by the way; I know it’s happening, but I don’t have to confront it, really, and I do too little about it.
There’s a recent piece by Peter Singer in Best American Essays 2000 in which he talks about how much it would take, if you donated to an overseas relief organization, to make the difference between a child surviving or not from around age two to age six. If you know that $200 can save a child’s life, are you morally obligated to give that amount? If you have another $200 you could spare, and it could save another child’s life . . . He gives the phone numbers, right in the essay; he pins you to the wall with a moral choice.
Actions & Consequences
Anyway, some of this thinking was behind the poem in one way or another. Actions and consequences. I posit the possibility, at the beginning, that we might be able to see evil clearly and take some action. But even confronted with something directly — the boy on the basketball court who has done this horrible thing — it turns out to be difficult, if not impossible.
The boy has done something evil, but is he evil? His beauty immediately complicates things. And the “relentless machine grinding away in his brain” suggests he’s confused, or maybe not responsible, or maybe that he has a problem discerning good from evil because he can’t see with any clarity. And in that confusion, in that mess that we make of things, we recognize something in ourselves, recognize that we can’t take the moral high ground; we can’t be Goodness, we can’t stake out that territory for ourselves, we have to recognize our shadow and our own capacity for violence. So then to take a gun and kill the boy — the old “eye for an eye” kind of justice — I’m trying to make the reader complicit, addressing the reader directly, asking him or her to consider the problem not abstractly but the way Singer asks us to consider it — directly.
What if this was someone who’d killed your lover, or your child? It’s easy to say you’re against capital punishment, but think about how you’d feel if the person on death row had really violated someone you loved. Personally, I know I’d want that person to suffer. Intellectually I’m against capital punishment, but emotionally I know how I’d feel. I can relate to the idea that when someone really fucks with people, in certain tribes, he gets taken out and stoned to death. He doesn’t belong in the community. And I consider myself a liberal — I hate that this huge population of people is being warehoused in prisons. But I understand the desire to make it simple somehow, to shut down that machine in the brain and just put someone away, pull the trigger, try to make all the moral ambiguities simple.
The title means “God’s Justice” and comes from an old theological conundrum: God is good; God is all powerful; evil exists. So, does God just allow evil? The traditional answer is that there is free will; in other words, it’s all our fault. God made this perfect world but gave humans free will, and they’ve fucked it up. In the poem, the reader observing the boy gets to think about God observing Adam and Eve; if only our incredible capacity for the sublime (and I mean for their fucking to be sublime) weren’t hopelessly mixed with our capacity for cruelty and horror, there might be a way to sort it out. But God striking them dead and starting over would be the same as the reader using a gun to kill the boy on the basketball court. So it would just repeat and perpetuate this endless chain — the boy has used the gun, so to speak; he’s acted without being able to really consider the consequences. But we have to consider them, and God considers them, too. The serpent who whispers to God is talking about knowledge; Look at them, he says. It’s the Tree of Knowledge that Adam and Eve ate from. So, God looks, and sees not only the capacity for evil but for the sublime. He’s filled with music, which of course is something we create — creation versus destruction — and those sparks that leap from these two people who are fucking, doing this procreative act, the sparks are bright as the newly created stars, so it all circles back — how can we stamp out evil “like stray sparks from a fire” when the sparks and the fire are all of it together, good and evil, creation and destruction, the divine and the degraded?
So I guess I’m saying it’s not really free will, it’s an intrinsic part of how everything seems to be woven together, and we can’t untangle it, but maybe if we can consider it deeply enough we have some latitude to make the right choice rather than the wrong one. Or maybe just a marginally better one. It’s all so complex and that’s the point, isn’t it, that we have to somehow stay with that and acknowledge it and not just throw up our hands at what a mess it all is.
The Politics of Poetry
Poetry asks us to stop, to think deeply — poetry is a kind of deep thinking, deep feeling. It takes us down, into the duende, where life is fully lived. If we can contact that place more continuously, we may be able to see more clearly how to act.
I suppose that’s the way in which I hope that poetry can contribute — poetry can give us a space of contemplation, a way to stay with it, to not distract ourselves from the important things. Not only the question of evil but the question of love, the question of how to live in the world, of death and time and memory and grief and desire.
I don’t think any poems, even “political” poems, can mean much politically. At least, not in this country, at this time. But poems “mean” in more subtle ways, that have to do with whether we spend our time considering who’s going to make it on the TV show “Survivor,” or something more illuminating — whether that’s the way the light looks at a certain time of day on the ocean, or how someone feels watching their child sleep, or the pain of addiction or abuse, any of the myriad personal and impersonal subjects poetry considers.
I was listening to some Joseph Campbell tapes recently, and one of the things he talked about was the idea that every action we commit has both good and evil consequences. So the best we can do is to intend good, to try for what Tolstoy suggests: “Add your light to the sum of light.”
by Kim Addonizio
we could see evil with such clarity we wouldn’t hesitate
to stamp it out like stray sparks from a fire. Look at those boys
shooting baskets in the park, jostling each other to hook the ball
through the iron circle at the end of the asphalt—what if you knew
a secret about one of them? Shirtless, he stands vibrating
at the edge of an imaginary line, the orange globe trembling
at the tips of his fingers, sweat drawing the light into his skin—
what if he’d done something unspeakable, something I can’t
talk about but know you can imagine, to the one
you love most in the world? Your child, maybe,
or the person whose body you know so well you can see it
simply by closing your eyes—What if he’d broken that body;
do you think if I handed you a gun you would walk up
to that shining boy and use it? You might think first
that maybe he couldn’t help himself, maybe he was trying
as he stood there concentrating on his shot to stop the noise
of some relentless machine grinding away in his brain,
the same one you hear in yours sometimes, bearing down until
you can’t tell what’s true anymore, or good. Suppose God
began to have that trouble. Suppose the first man
turned out cruel and stupid, a cartoon creature
that farted and giggled continuously; suppose the woman ripped
saplings from the earth all day and refused to speak
or be grateful for anything. What if they decided to torment
the smaller, weaker beasts, and just as God was about
to strike them dead and start over they turned toward each other
and discovered fucking, and the serpent whispered Look at them
and God’s head filled with music while the wild sparks leaped
"Theodicy" reprinted from Tell Me, Boa Editions, Ltd., 2000
Kim Addonizio has been called “one of our nation’s most provocative and edgy poets.” Her latest books are Lucifer at the Starlite, a finalist for the Poets Prize and the Northern CA Book Award; and Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within, both from W.W. Norton. Her novel-in-verse, Jimmy & Rita,
was recently reissued by Stephen F. Austin State University Press.
Kalima Press published her Selected Poems in Arabic. Addonizio’s many
honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA Fellowships, and
Pushcart Prizes for both poetry and the essay. Her collection Tell Me was a National Book Award Finalist. Other books include two novels from Simon & Schuster, Little Beauties and My Dreams Out in the Street.
Addonizio offers private workshops in Oakland, CA, and online, and
often incorporates her love of blues harmonica into her readings.