Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper (a poem by Joe Pan)

MQ-9_Reaper_CBP

 

I would like to thank the editors of Epiphany, in particular Brian Turner & Martin Rock, for their help in publishing “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper” in print & partially online in their Winter/Spring 2013 War issue, as well as allowing me to talk a bit about the process of writing the poem (which is only available in the print edition). Beyond this, they have also allowed me to post the whole of the Reaper poem here on my blog, in hopes that we can generate a larger readership for the work, & also drive readers to Epiphany, a great literary journal.

I’d also like to thanks Scott Shane & Michael D Shear, who excerpted the piece in The New York Times, giving it an extended life & wide readership.

Two & a half years ago I started working on “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper,” finishing it during the late spring of 2011 in Brooklyn, & revising it up through fall 2012. My hope is that it adds to the larger conversation, now that drones are beginning to take shape in the public consciousness.

To download a PDF of the poem, click HERE.

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Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper

 

I.

(I dreamt you up in third grade.) Ultra-cool & promo slick, a predatory dart
zip-lining threads of nimbi, unmanned, over darkling continents, your bot-brain
is a paragon of focus & yet mechanizedly desireless, as self-aware as silverware,
& thus incapable of cruelty when delivering laser-guided missiles calibrated
to fountain a small bus full of explosives into a contained puff above a crowded
marketplace, or slip eel-like through a cave’s oculate within the Hindu Kush.
Your blurry, thermal aerial view beset with squared crosshairs a rookie war
director’s owlet dream: oblivious vermin swept up with gestural efficiency from
heights that confer the necessary filmic distance of omniscience, as if each strike
were a warrant fulfilled by reason abiding divine instruction: Michelangelo’s
God fist-bumping Adam. Edited & packaged, a select few videoed assaults ship
to media outlets as evidence, an impressive staging intent to show a public what
humdrum work war’s become—locate, track, eviscerate. Replicate. From these
spare scenes of bombed & reconfigured wreckages of cars & buildings ghosting
though a dusty plume arrives a satisfying vengeance for the loss of Sgt. Elias
from Platoon, those spry young Wolverines in Red Dawn, & my uncle’s waking
battle dreams (of the Vietnam variety) that go unmentioned in advertisements
peddling the mastery of thumb-numbing single-shooter POV games for Xbox
& PlayStation as a skill set, with once implausible credits transferable to active
military duty. O to be gamers & destroyers, with each ethereal tick a countdown
aria to roadside decimation or the anticipated readiness of microwaved pizza—

I’m on YouTube again watching a task force seize a desert outpost, the offal
opulence of awful ordinance as witnessed by a documentarian’s hand-held,
an eye unsteady in its capturing, but never insecure. By firefight an anecdotal
oral history begins developing its authors, these servicemen & -women who
user-posted comments identify as members of Generation Kill. Soldiers passing
soccer balls to poor kids an errant attempt to dupe a viewer into moral alliance
& engage the heart’s surrender, but as the camera goes downrange, still settings
shiver with heat & the sudden dubstep beat drops its discharge of epinephrine,
pumps us for the possibility of a shootout & invasive human plumage: gut-shots,
headshots, Hajji hematomas (& never a dead American), the BBC-style coverage
devolving into Bang-Bang Club badassery, moments spliced for detachment via
destabilizing rapidity. The first tank shot a Globe theatric to begin the operatic
picaresque: Pafghaniraq: the Musical. Ubi sunt & heretofore? Let the bodies hit
the floor
. Dulce et decorum est? You wanted in and now you’re here. / Driven by
hate, consumed by fear
. The tanks roll in, the tanks roll out. But Reaper, where
they cannot go, you can—& suddenly we’re Superman! Eye in the sky, womb
with a view. You whizz to the rescue, my childhood A.I. dream‘s apotheosis
as M.Q. Joe, as a voice narrating the hunt regurgitates post-Towers ideologies—
the kind of stuff we get from news sources instead of news—& a superstructure
emerges, with themes equating learnedness with subversive otherness & might
with right, which Heaven atones, advocating our patriotic, righteous will-to-power.

& I get why we heart the hype. Your sleek iBomb design is haute Apple adorable:
the extended wingspan, the ball turret cam. Viewed full-frontal, Hellfire missiles
hang loosely clamped to the horizon of your asterisk body, itself a fusion of X-Wing
Fighter & Lambda-class Imperial Shuttle from Star Wars, a sexy sort of curvilinear
Geek Goddess whose forehead slope recalls the stately dolphin fish, rear propeller
the whirr of a rubber-banded planophore. Behold our Indian Springs Sphinx,
riddled with weapons. But your work is deadly serious: to split atmospheres &
genealogies alike, & do to human beings what bunker busters do to basements.
In my child’s mind you were precise, able to de-install a dictator as effortlessly
as any computer virus, a typed command & poof, *democracy*. But the reality
is always trickier: while pursuing the enemy you also catch civilians, & often,
a fact that crass reporters reduce to food metaphor (in order to make an omelet)
& zealots to allegory (God makes his omelets with American cheese), but a truth
remains: when targeting al-Qaeda, jihadists, & the Taliban, you snatch the heads
off schoolchildren. Actual little kids, with families smothered in radii of blast circles
& a bloody sampling of bystanders. The Brookings Institution puts your civilian-to-
militant kill ratio in Pakistan at 10:1. Possibly. New America Foundation says 1:6.
Maybe. Actual numbers unavailable. I click from collateral damage to Google Maps,
satellite zoom to downtown, & comb rooftops for the faintest fraction of your form
hovering Ground Zero because I’ve read you minnow those twin blue columns
of memorial light as New York’s newest National Guard. I can’t help but imagine

what future recon missions Cuomo might commission. Will you one day sweep &
clear meth labs? Will you whistle just above our neighborhoods, a goodly beat
cop who when alerted turns bag snatchers into smatterings of gore a blogged
cartoon Giuliani might welcome as graffiti? Or would you just zap terrorists? &
could we as Americans stomach accidents? A collapsed school gym, a Park Slope
bar, the IFC, NYU, or BAM? In my dream you spiral slowly overhead in a droning
corona of mechanized security, attentive as any parent. Are you the border patrol
or the border? In your harmonious hum I hear George Carlin proselytizing on
flamethrowers, a confluence of human ingenuity (How do I throw fire from here—)
& what our culture embraces as a necessary wickedness (—on people over there?),
as if the bargain struck with sentience was having to fulfill its darker innovations.
Will the ramifications of your exploits serve as a parable, or dictate foreign policy?
Do robot assassins outstrip the honor of our enemy, or us? This is not, I think,
an academic question, unless we really wish to own the role of a global hobgoblin,
dining expansively at the expense of others, crematoriums stirring in our cocktails.

II.

As a boy sweating it out in the swampy Florida ruins of the Space Coast, I conceived
also the Extreme Frisbee, which when tossed onto a lawn levels a concentric blast
horizontally, mowing the yard & thus finishing my chore, an easy circumvention
of a nagging task I found torturous in humidity. Would the Air Force be interested
in my toy version of the “daisy cutter”? It’s unnerving, two decades in the rearview,
my easy fascination with destruction. I can’t say if it was fed by video games, toons,
the assumptive natural tendencies of boys, or incidental fallout from grandparents
that worked for NASA at the Cape, where I once met Ronald Reagan during an era
of Cold War initiatives—rockets, satellites, weaponry, plutonium payloads; beach
protestors’ signs reading: We Want to Grow Not Glow! At ten I watched the shuttle
Challenger craze a curious Y overhead as we paused in playing duck-duck-goose
on the school’s soccer field, our harmless game made instantly ridiculous, sickening
perhaps, to our teachers, though I’d rather imagine our sport as analgesic to abrupt
cracks forming in their logic, a hopeful premonition (even as they instantly foresaw
a future of layoffs & foreclosures, ransacked tourism & a raised crime rate, an anti-
Oz ushered in by faulty O-rings) of enduring life—which touches me now, resting
on this bench in McCarren Park & watching a group of latino kids batting around
a diamond, a few of whom might one day serve overseas. In this Spring of uprisings
& genocide & war—baseball. A juxtaposition one may enjoy like an itch on the back
of the throat. But what we call living is loving what we have, & have lost, when
we can afford to love having it. Some say we fight for this opportunity alone. Others
say to fight at all perverts the having. I see the boy pitching catching the HEAT end
of an RPG-7 in a few years, & think, Play ball. Live & love this having. I worry Reaper
you’re nothing but the latest incarnation of defensive bulwark designed to keep our
leaders from having any skin in the game, a flying watchtower for One-Percenters.
But that’s my irreverence speaking, as it’s obvious you were designed primarily
as punctuation, a stop-gap for sentences like, “I’m going to plant an atomic bomb
(Reaper) in (Reaper) your (Reaper) city.” & to keep young adults from shipping out
& having to bear the brutal brunt of difficult decisions. But I find the remoteness of
your remote control indicative of certain policies of opacity, the reticence toward
disclosure adopted by governments & gatekeepers, fretful as circus flea-handlers,
who decide some truths are too harsh/heady/hairy for a public. Your lofty hands-
off approach feeds into that, & I imagine a subsequent generation envisioning war
as raining droplets onto water beetles: bloodless because we do not see the blood,
effortless because we do not see the effort, & so a simpler thing than the arduous
recurring task of engaging in diplomacy. A not-so-futuristic, not-irregular Tuesday:
coffee, WiFi iTunes, Netflix South Park reruns in an open tab, your successor drone
narrowing on its target, requests a confirmation & is approved by the same sugared
finger that seconds ago tested the relative squishiness of two types of jelly donut.

III.

Here’s a line announcing a strong desire to reference Blue Oyster Cult in this poem,
or pepper in a bit more humor for digestion, but the shitstorm in my head’s pushing
my levity button sublingual as my mammalian cortex indexes lines for a Codex
(disseminating tips on how to better agitate an ulcer) entitled Driving a Blunt Point
Down a Dark Road, With a Wandering Eye for Wildlife & a Certain Recurring Fear
.
Dear Reaper, I interrogate to better know aspects of myself, it seems. My inquiry
into the meaning of your presence has made for incessant consternation, ineffective
sleep, a line by Karl Krauss my rare dreaming’s epigraph, “In case of doubt, choose
in favor of what is correct.” & around me the world becoming a sudden dustbin for
metaphors, e.g., these El Beit coffee cups stacked into one another lip-to-lip like
largemouth bass of similar size attempting to swallow whole their counterparts
perhaps the symbolic error of my arrogance, choking on a subject more immense
than my wheedling could wend; a caricature; enigmatic reach beyond my grasping.
Outside June ferments its special brand of Brooklyn light, summoning dog-walkers
& buskers & strollers to the park overlooking the motley chopper barges of the East
River & Manhattan’s bric-a-brac skyline, & all the styled lines I’ve erased in pursuit
of you are monumental failings I can’t shake, & share with friends over café beers
& small plates of chorizo & applesauce, speaking of guilt for having not reached an
ethical conclusion of you, as my internal editor broods & kicks, distrustful of poems
that approach polemic, & rightly so. I could bend like the palm tree, ruffled
by opposing winds, yet breaking neither way; or play the twin-faced Janus who,
given variations on a score, sings a garbled contrapuntal tune. But still each night
I return to you, clouded with resentment, the questions I pose echoing as personal
indictments: If I accept you as a net positive, must I then accept the death penalty,
for which the cohesive moral arguments by either side I find by turns compelling &
absurd? When if anytime is absolutism, in law or life, viable? & what of fallibility,
stamped on every birth certificate? Is human error error’s most humane defense?
If war (as the poor) will always be with us (or us), should preemptive forgiveness
accompany any loyalty we bestow upon our government, however begrudgingly?
Is skepticism our better patriotism? Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching.

IV.

The case made for your creation was utilitarian, with a catch. As an instrument
sacrificing nothing of itself, you are a tool, Reaper—a dumb bucket of brimstone
& nothing more. But in your work there’s sacrifice, to be sure. Not the mundane
daily forfeits made by people carving out their own identities with virtues like
humility & patience—a guile amounting to a certain manufacturing of spirit—
but with swift certitude in servitude, sacrificing the lives of others in our name.
To deprive war of warfare’s casualties (on our side, of course)—its main malignant
property (to paraphrase Zizek)—is reiterated as your goal, & yet civilian casualties
excluded from military updates discount the lives of victims whose freedom we’re
told is in part the reason why we fight, no? Surely liberation doesn’t mean from life.
Or are we expected to believe their desire for democracy (if indeed this is desired)
denotes a predilection, an implicit willingness, for self-sacrifice in service of greater
goods, this devotion somehow empirically antithetical to that of suicide bombers?
ಠ_ಠ. #OverheardInDC. To usurp a suffering voice with ventriloquism or shush it
with cover-up is the handiwork of dictators, dickheads, & directors of propaganda.
A modicum of respect is paid by invoking a revoked life when reporting a victory,
losses both targeted & untargeted. Shame is America’s great barometer: it lets us
know when we’ve crossed a line. Recall LBJ’s reaction to Cronkite’s condemnation.
We know sacrifice well enough to know when it’s not worth it, & even find within
ourselves forms diametrically opposed: the soldier who sacrifices herself for us
might sacrifice another for herself. We’ve seen our own countrymen take batons
& lashes to the back, suffer the lunacy of crowds, or the indignity of being unjustly
jailed & even killed in the fierce nonviolent battles of giving of oneself. But what
do you relinquish, Reaper? What do we lose by using you? Your advocates serve up
spin like dervishes, hors d’oeuvres buttery as Rumi but bitter, as detractors clamor
eagerly for central space on aggregate news sites, Op-Ed columns marginalized
& funneled through the foreign press. Each time you slip across an international
border illegally to snuff a serial killer, the debates erupt, each side tending garden
with the unimpeachable words of our forefathers, proven pesticides for fighting any
weed or rhizome of rebuke. On the airwaves Senators, Representatives, & talking
heads unite to enact a dance of prefabricated sound bites & slogans a Fifties adman
might concoct to ameliorate “the befuddled masses,” teaching us where to focus
our newly engaged feelings: on the nationalistic Pride for our military’s Ingenuity;
the Bravery in making these difficult Choices; the Talent & Teamwork; the restored
Honor in having doled out Justice. Phrases that imbued with righteous overtones
subdue & collapse their subject, trivialize with jargon the power of authentic
expression, & with the pompous authority of the politico attribute a successful
campaign to our fighting spirit, heaven-forged & exclusively American. Well firstly,
Senator, nice tie. Lieberman called & wants his smirk back. & so we’re clear, I find it
slightly fucking irksome to be addressed as a collaborator in some monumental
decision in which I had no say, & livid because I have a stake. In your speech against
the enemy, was I meant to be the juror, or the injured seeking justice? Looking out
into the cameras, do you imagine the solemn, braided faces of a million confessors
staring back, each troubled by a grief only your full pardon could relieve, being as
we share in this responsibility? Do you stick to boilerplate clichés because language
is a terminal for vagary & connotation, & our polling preferences remain a known
unknown? Even if I shared your plan of action, the rhetoric smacks of self-glorifying
punditry, as if you’d commandeered the bomb yourself & rode the goddamn thing
to earth like Major Kong. This aint you vs the hippie-dippies, so stop trying to out-
man-handle gravitas. One dead Head doesn’t curtail much less abolish a terrorist
movement, so let’s talk turkey: the drone tactic of picking off bad guys one by one
is feasible but expensive ($3k/hr); they’re prone to crashes, slip-ups, have a flight
hang time of Jordan on two days’ rest & methamphetamine, & are practical
merely as an application for hunting higher-ups who’ve had their covers blown
by errant errand boys—a strategy that relies on runs walked in on balks to win.
If it boils down to body count, Senator, let’s discuss the flimsy bags of foulness—
the body as person, conflux of ideas, protein chains in congregation, a thin material:
not the kind we halyard up a pole or drape over a coffin, but a living instance we
either value or devalue with our actions. To keep the number of combatants-to-
civilians killed out of your podium romp & rhapsody amounts to whitewashing
in the name of foreign relations, does it not? (No need to wake the far right Czar-
side of Karzai.) If ever our leaders & .gov devalue bodies, undermining each our
own mind’s dominion, we’ll lend our heart’s ears & eyes elsewhere, to be clued in
by the new vanguard, e.g. the tag team comic smackdown of Stewart & Colbert,
the nebulous panopticon of WikiLeaks, or the ambitious wave of Anonymous grey-
hat hackers who post their findings online mere ticks after your talk. Transparency
is a form of objectivity, & truth a noumenon: by this I mean, we know bias exists,
so share your bias, & allow us to judge its worth. We need to know those running
our machines are functioning well, as well, & in good service. We need to know
that even if wars find us unavoidably involved, as with an attack on our harbors,
or a match scratched across Europe, though there may never be consensus, clarity
at least will guide our certainty in how we will advance & why & at what cost. Make
no mistake, your exploits (grave music) attract songbirds & whistle-blowers: smart
phone photojournalists, bloggers on crusade, a child’s text arriving instantaneously
on our devices. To stubbornly refuse to share with your constituents the hard facts
& steer clear from implementing policies marshaling forthrightness, you lose a not-
negligible portion of public trust; & find it worthwhile, as popular feedback during
election cycles could consign a $10 million Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) deemed
ineffective to the scrap heap. Phrases meant to assuage us, detailing the perils of
compromised National Security, would be fair if we’d requested preliminary attack
coordinates, communication logs, data that endangers operatives, etc., but what
we’re after is POTUS’ justifications (heavily footnoted) & an honest casualty count.
Bear in mind, what roosts in darkness awakens in darkness also, but is rejuvenated.
Some folks, unable to parse fact from fiction, feeling resentful, duped & mishandled,
will invest attention, energy, & money in commiserating charlatans who entertain
conspiracy & preach a radical, bigoted, insular fascism that fetishizes your failures,
Senator. It’s sad to watch such distrust flourish. It frustrates me, upends my mental
furniture. When folks demand what lecherous voices demand they demand of you,
it will be in equal measure to what they feel you’ve withheld. On all sides, animosity
for government grows, the perception being it conceals only to illustrate its power.
Evidence itself must be evidenced. Clamoring for graphic images of our own war
dead are the people who sought out pics of bin Laden’s corpse (& Saddam’s gallows
plunge, captured by a grainy camera phone; who watched Qaddafi sodomized &
hood-strapped like a deer & driven through the angry streets), if not to placate
their own disbelief, momentarily, then to finalize another draft of current history.
Perhaps it’s fair to push past tastefulness & ask for images of our fighting dead;
those who suggest it could prompt fewer military actions are probably correct,
but then expect a surge in websites devoted primarily to gruesome battle porn,
with faces recognizable—an unfiltered horror show no PBS documentary by Burns
could fully mitigate for mass consumption, nor a le Carré novel stew in its juices,
feeding out the pearls. Some things can be engaged but not encapsulated; slip our
definitions; shift their natural structures when being observed, making it difficult
to weigh the potential outcomes of any approach. Shock weds us to understanding
& mothers empathy (or trauma), & empathy activism or a paralyzing awe at how
little we can help. Shock enjoys the lifespan of a fruit fly, empathy the fig wasp,
yet pitted within each, abuzz, a plot for ultimate change. If nourished too frequently
by either, however, we numb to them. But if left unfed in intervals, we risk fostering
conditions for bleak distortions of the soul, the rank solipsism of corruption, fear-
mongering, isolationism, genocide. Best I think to arm ourselves with compassion,
a word for love’s morality, & an activity to be pursued to a point of effortlessness.
To share in the suffering of another (our enemy (our idea of our enemy)) gives us
a stake in their welfare & survival, our shared breaths & burials. This isn’t breaking
news. History is a coroner’s cold slab / the rise & fall of nations on display / & though
the body is a bloody mess / its examination brings clarity
. So what does it matter
what wrapping we box our rationalizations in, or the fingered reason we ribbon
our bows about, if peace is the desired end result & we cannot have peace without
understanding? If the other suffers, we must suffer knowing. If it’s wrong, we stop.

V.

The soldier relinquishes his body for the greater body. The conscientious objector
relinquishes her body for the greater body. The terrorist relinquishes his body for
the greater body. The martyr relinquishes her body for the greater body. Reaper,
you relinquish nothing but another’s body & our name. You respect not & want for
nothing, & if by terrible error you misfire, you have no hands for blood to be on.

VI.

When Abraham took his only son Isaac to carry wood up Mount Moriah, which
Samaritans (of the good ilk) believe was Mount Gerizim, in the West Bank, to do
what his god had commanded, which was to bind his son & slit his throat, for proof
of loyalty, it was always easy to imagine the scene as developed for Hollywood,
a Warner Brothers production, where the complexities of devotion, split between
familial love & a higher purpose, could be played out by actors we liked, whom we
knew the studio would never allow to die onscreen, under a purpling sky & thunder
& broad orchestral strokes that signaled a grave decision & torment of the spirit.
What’s more difficult to imagine is how a country father could make that climb up
a path of white rock, fig & olive trees arriving in clumps & the air smelling of herbs
of his own childhood, perhaps—oregano, thyme—& brambles at his feet, as his son
asked, repeatedly, what it was they were planning to sacrifice using all this wood,
& having to hold that secret in, which must have felt like an infestation of the brain,
for the whole duration, knowing the hot knife at his thigh would soon be under his
son’s chin, the smooth skin found there, & that he would have to puncture or slit or
in some way force this tool into this boy in a manner that would bleed him out like
a goat, not yet knowing some force would stop him, knowing only that to do this
he must prepare himself, empty himself of feeling & so become that tool of his lord,
given to the invisible hand, & sacrifice himself in order to sacrifice his son. & what
child, tucked under the covers, listening as his own father reads this bedtime story
to him from a book opened many times before, doesn’t imagine himself Isaac?

VII.

Recently, among the industrial vestiges of Bushwick, I found myself in a white box
some entrepreneurial do-it-yourselfers had carved into an art gallery, & found
mixed in with post-grad’s work informed by the subtle forms of Lin & Beuys,
the hard-wrought whimsicalness of Anderson & Baldessari, two flat screen TVs
hanging side by side on the wall, where I watched a fluttering arthropod buzz
onlookers in McCarren Park as the other screen detailed its aerial imaging as
layered onto a satellite view of Google Maps. As chance would have it, the artist
was there & gave me a rundown of his work. I saw this in a dream, I said, feeling
slightly ridiculous. Me too, he said. I’m intrigued by drones, I said. It’s all that I
can think of
, he said. The drone was strung above us, its articulated exoskeleton
& elbow cameras not quite so menacing in repose. Onscreen we watched it wobble
along a swarming path remotely set by iPhone. It won’t need you soon, I said. That’s
the point
, he replied. How long did it take to design? I asked. It’s a kit, he said. You
can buy your own online
. I told him of this poem, how in using a received form,
an irregular ode, which I’ve wrecked, to receive your form, I’d moved beyond a place
of comfort & the sonic permutations of lyric wanderlust I usually trust to gather
what it grows, & into a mode of formal speculation. These things will do that to you,
he said, as if I were hard-wired to follow tension to intention. Why just last week
a company approached me asking if I could outfit this thing with a thermal cam
.

 Joe-Pan-Reaper-part

IX.

The line “(Ghastly went the twerp)” was first conceived as “(Petty wrath,
this length of West),” among other improbable incarnations, plus or minus a few
switched-out letters; ultimately I chose the former to fit an evolving characterization
of you as a bird of prey. Treating the historical list of drones as a layered anagram
was just another attempt to chip you from the stone, a time-intensive experiment
to hone (home) in on the idea of you using a formal device of creative constraint
not unlike meter or a Matthew Barney bungee chord. & if by certain measures it fails
I’ll accept that. But let it be a failure with some transparency: in my word choices,
using a soliloquy trope which allows for this presence of mind, the delights & false
turns I’ve made, the frictions & fractious phrasing & varying musics. & this stanza
of Kora in Hell-ish afterthoughts is part of that. Relationships need their breathers,
their steps back, in order to assess what has been achieved, what is still at stake;
it’s exhausting, this swarm technique I’ve employed to both encapsulate & out you.
I’ve heard Moby Dick described as Melville’s own attempt to capture in language
the whale’s essential thingness—fleeting form, elusive essence—by framing events
preceding & surrounding its hunt, its hunters’ histories, & the industry relying upon
its animal fats & oils. We get a minor telling of its impact, & sense the authorial hand
creeping in at the sides. He divulges the secrets of its anatomy, charts its behavior
in an attempt to elucidate a nature, collects salty anecdotes & myths to better keep
it buoyed about a surface of referential symbolism. & still the whale evades totality;
the trap is tripped but nothing caught. Where in a whale exists a whale? What core
among detritus? If not a sum of facts & traits & qualia, if irreducible to cross-section,
if un-pin-down-able by narrative, imagistic or lexical triangulation, then how does
one account for it? It is a phantom object: the closer you look, the less there is to see.
Melville must have enjoyed the slip of it, grabbing still, & so often. Gospel of Ishmael,
Book of Second Job, a testament concerning a depleted man conspiring to kill what
he cannot capture nor contain: not a physical Leviathan, but a bitter logic of injustice
& vengeance trafficking within. Had Ahab early on harpooned his psyche’s cachalot,
wrenched the jaw from it, flensed & minced it & laid it bare before maritime birds
who’d take it in their gullets & disperse, his crew & himself might have lived longer,
but then we’d be left with no lesson by which to mark our moral lives, which shows
the truer whale for which Melville used Ahab as the bait, & for which I use Melville,
so that a discussion might surround the impossibility of possessing you holistically.
& I say it aloud to myself, & say it another way, that language is mere iron fillings
betraying a magnetic field, exposing one aspect of a thing, a force, by its properties.
I desire but will never hold the atomic fact of you in my brain. You are too quick &
I lack the stamina; lack the knowledge, the tools, the knowhow. In the end I have just
words & images. But images & words are what I have, & hope of their effectiveness.

***

To begin with this:

Writ into its programming a complex theory of the heavens & the earth, & a mystical
treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that the Reaper in its own self was a riddle
to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; whose mysteries not even itself could read.

mindful of my own biases & beliefs:

This is what you’ve been shaped for, Reaper! to chase these white whales, for both sides
of man, & under all sides of earth, until they spout black blood for Rolls, Infiniti, Audi.

while altogether trying to avoid this:

All that most maddens & torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with
malice in it; all that cracks the sinews & cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms
of life & thought; all evil, to crazy [Your Humble Investigator], were visibly personified,
& made practically assailable in the Reaper. He piled upon the Reaper’s white hump
the sum of all general rage & hate felt by his whole race from earliest ancestors down;
& then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his fucking hot heart’s shell upon it.

X.

 MQ-9_Reaper_dimensioned_sketch

XI.

Personality strikes target specific high-level individuals. Signature strikes are strikes
against suspicious confluences of people (suspected terrorists, sympathizers, training
camps) based on vague factors like age & location. The bulk of strikes are Signatures.
Disruption strikes are “crowd kill” Signature strikes operating with direct evidence
of a threat to national security. For each type there is no opportunity for surrender.
There is no due process. The dewdrop world is but a dewdrop world. & yet. & yet.

XII.

To realize the air cleaner I’ve recently purchased to cleanse my house of dust particles
comes from the same company (Honeywell) that designed your turboprop engine.
Factory 1: Remotely piloted hunter/killer weapon. Factory 2: Relief for asthmatics.

XIII.

A poet-teacher of mine rolled in late for class once & sat, hands folded on the table
we all shared, looking out upon us as if we were each Persephone in her garden,
victims of a future kidnapping, & said, ‘I’ve just read we’re making nuclear weapons
small enough to fit in suitcases. If there was ever a time to be arrested in protest,
this is it.” & we each, separately & in unconscious unison, almost imperceptibly,
did not move. Befuddled by the unreality of the news & our mentor’s expectations,
we weighed the pros & cons of sudden activism, anticipating an impulsive flash
of filial courage even as we prayed for a collective cooling. Instead, dawdling &
nodding agreeably, we opted out, dragging our naked helium heads from a smoggy
cloud-cover of disgrace to embark upon the lessons of the day, of which there
were many.
                    This anecdote became the sort of chilly nugget I’d drop in a breakfast
of bourbon after pulling an all-nighter trying to fashion from a complex idea ten
pure syllables of poetry, & forego the snap of sleep for slow evaporation, having
failed to seize the throated moment at its inspired impetus many hours earlier.
Being a disciple of impulse & self-fulfilling prophecies—the sparks of revolution,
I imagined—my failures left me feeling low, if not absolutely gutted. I’d chide
myself for having resorted to bibliomancy of the classics (kernels of ideas I’d pot
& shake over a blue flame) & crude word-pilfering from peers & websites (whose
users coined ad hoc lexicons for instantaneous appropriation, riffed-off & punned-
on by others, each an arbiter of a living language) instead of relying on my own
internal devices: Mini-Hadron Connotation Collider, Hubble Logoscope. What gain
was had trying to perfect a minor line? What readership lost or won? What impact?
What decisive battle undercut in having not marched on the state capitol building
that day to jerk a headline from some field reporter? Did I really lack initiative, or
was it that I’m naturally skeptical of secondary sources? Had my crafting, the back
& forth internal squabbling, sucked the marrow from a healthy, living organism?
Did they ever make those goddamn suitcase bombs?
                                                                                     Atomic facts. How much of me,
reduced, molecules rearranged, would constitute what percentage of you? If we
are locked together in this natural world, of the same matter, am I responsible for
your every aspect? I can’t accept it. I couldn’t sleep or eat an egg. I rely on surfaces,
distinctions that separate. & yet I feel the friction of your movement. Any theory
of surface contains an idea of edges, ends & beginnings, interference, commingling,
restraint, subversion, how things touch & where. But here you are, albeit chemical,
catapulting what amounts to lightning through my cell walls, & my imagination
runs.
             Any theory of surface depends upon which side of it you’re on. I could sit here
skipping stones all day. Or I could watch the flat side of some altogether alien
subject collapse my sky in brilliant fashion, one realized blip at a time, until finally
lowering to my closer investigation. Humans are surface in that we’re both barrier
& brane: a sovereign fortress of rectitude, when at defense; when carefree, about
as permeable as rhubarb pie. When we are deep, we are as deep as what is there.
And nothing can exist except what’s there. But of course we’re deeper than that,
more than our reality, more than experiential filtration systems, materialism
sifting through media. More than a sum of systems. My idea of you will always be
more summary than sum, Reaper, even as I systematically uncoil the looping
layers holding you intact, because you are the layers, & the intactness, & my desire
to see you differently. I am conscious of this & yet persevere into idiocy. If there is
a spirit it’s our conscious imagination, plump porcupine, a population of Calibans,
half demon heart, half overheard.
                                                          Consciousness exists, meaning the universe
accounts for it, & so may use us, its fallible stumblebums, to better understand
its own workings, in accumulative degrees; not some five-deck shoe of blackjack
arranged to perplex the number counters, but a system unfinished, which a mode
of sci-fi expressionism might one day examine & illustrate. To better understand
its own workings, the mind revisits itself in memory. The college of correlatives,
where we learn of interconnectivity. The mnemonic consulate, where we work
each day at failing better. This is one understanding of progress—the arboreal
dendrite in bloom, flowering receptors to receive at the synapse a radiant charge
(which changes everything. (Shockwaves (of intelligence).)) The desire for an
apple, the apple in my hand. But before that, like a child’s desire, the reach for
what it cannot grasp. Then the grasping. To be or to be better at, & try not to be
better at being worse. The memory of that learning. To better understand its own
workings, the poem revisits itself through language. The impartial eye & itinerant
image, how they syrup through each other’s fingers, clinging each to each but never
caught. How rhythm is both a wave & a trellis. How momentum expands a moment.
How interruption & imperfections can tango & twist a critical mind from contempt
to contemporary. How mutually exclusive ideas can intermingle in a single line
without genuinely coalescing, & then in a thought genuinely coalesce. To better
understand his own workings, the poet works. The blank page is a plank as thick
as his world, a baseline of knowledge he’ll challenge to undermine. He wets &
warps it, testing for weakness. The final form is unforeseeable, a boat or a rod,
or a powder keg; he’s probably just ruining wood. But it’s good work, & the more he
works at it, the better the bender. His travels are varied—Tokyo; his tinker’s heart;
as far as the neighborhood bar. He studies the workings of other woodwarpers
& looks over his own porous specimen. A pale sort of thing. Mostly air at a molecular
level. He never knew he knew so very little. With one plank bent he grabs another.
As big as his world, but now a bit bigger. The worries of work are rejuvenating.
They ready him. For more work.
                                                          What infestation is music in language? It says
all the time what I don’t mean to want, & better. & concentrating on you has me
staring at blue until all I can see now is yellow. When the youngling woodpecker
first hammers its head into the bark, does it fear it’s lost its mind?
                                                                                                               I was reading
Auden when the second war with Iraq broke out. Come a year later, September 1
was everywhere on August 29th. Imperialism’s face / And the international wrong.
My friend J—— came by & we walked with the protesters up Seventh Avenue,
a thousand flag-draped coffins tracking hundreds of thousands of demonstrators
toward Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention had set
up shop, & where on its steps well-suited clusters of our ideological opposites (our
organizers assured us) watched in muted ceremony as the polychromatic orgy
of hordes passed them by, trumpeting their grievances & tacking their secular
Theses of Demands to every eardrum in earshot. But even in that wash of unity
there was infighting, bickering, bad-mouthing, brutes. We were as weary of each
other as we were of them, & they were of us; our joined voices a loose architecture,
a toupee the wind kept disheveling. As the crowd dispersed with calls for a socialist
paradise or a centrist uprising & the catcalls of bankers who’d ruin us later, J——
& I kept walking, all the way up to Central Park, to sit on the gray slope of Umpire
Rock overlooking the baseball fields, & discuss it all. Was this for anything? was
the question, & I had within me Auden & the memory of that class some two years
earlier, & figured yes, it was necessary, even as gesture or performance, because it
was if nothing else good work. All I have is a voice. “But what purpose does it serve
if it’s just a party?” asked J——. Reaffirmation. A reminder of the work that came
before us. Of our own work. From the conservative dark / Into the ethical life. Those
that came came together to oppose a stupid war & unethical governing, spies & liars,
& even if we didn’t agree on everything, we agreed on that. May I, composed like
them / Of Eros and of dust, / Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, /
Show an affirming flame
. Earlier that day we’d been asked to carry a casket &
declined. I wanted to be free to wander. My friend felt a deep distrust of forming
any particular alliances, saying we should own our own perspectives, informed by
separate experience, & gather with those differences in mind. We left the boulder
& headed for the West Village, hungry & silent as we traced the fleeting afternoon
to its darker avenues, alone & not alone, & passed by 52nd Street where in 1939
a British expat sat down in a dive bar & scribbled out, not a call to action, but some
observations on the horrid state of things; stealing glances at the other patrons;
finding in a mirror behind green bottles the smooth, pensive face Life captured
before it broke into waterfall. Self-exiled from fame & its devotees; a lover gone
to California; & trying to drink his way through an internal argument, he came up
with this: We must love one another or die. & there you have it: a 32-year-old’s stab
at encroaching fascism, sounding more like a borrowed Beatles pick-up line, or a
verse a precocious schoolboy might have penned, frustrated other notes he sent his
heart’s desire met only with cheery ambivalence. We must love one another or die.
It rings simplistic—the antidote for a threatening infection being the hope it heals
itself under a bandage of utopic, willed camaraderie, as if Nazis slaughtered for lack
of this. But the urgency behind the message feels genuine, & the dread that powers
a powerless individual to shake low-hanging fruit from a wilting How-the-Fuck-Can-
I-Stop-This tree may revitalize a desperate congregation, & is the antithesis of trying
to unring the bell of war with a few diplomatic lines that act as apolitical earplugs.
But even so, this plea for harmony was weirdly tardy: the storm had already begun.
The question was, what to do next? Should America get involved? Form a coalition?
Arrange a summit with the Germans? In this the poem is modest, as poetry is an
inquisitive art, lest one forget, & to supply each question posed with an ultimate
answer doesn’t mean the poem is finished, just that the poet is. Finished. So Auden,
though perhaps unnerved that his adopted American kin appeared content to
drink away their relatively small concerns the very day Germany invaded Poland,
stopped short of saying they should rise to the political demands of the occasion or
grow a global superego. After scouting the bar’s bleak-bank of depressives, whom
he counted himself among, I’d bet, he found Lost in a haunted wood / Children afraid
of the night / Who have never been happy or good.
Some might argue he soured
to our species, but in the poem’s snowballing antipathy & verbal antagonisms
tallying our faults lies the poet’s true challenge—that of capturing competing ideas
in cognitive dissonance, & to test & augment his findings, keeping what resonates.
No Bible tract but a sparring interaction, the fevered theater of a mind unsure of
its own footing. To make an open case for war might have proven unforgiveable,
if only to himself; but to disregard a land-grabbing psychopath would be viewed,
at best, as a clarion call for his supporters & detractors alike to roll up their sleeves.
Confronted with blind alleys, the poet drove the moment inward, afraid & resentful
of the fear, so he might tease from his own uncertainty what troubled him of Power
& the pain inflicted in its pursuit. This mapping of the atmosphere sent his brain
pinballing into buttresses supporting the more incendiary claim that we were not
all in it together. Together in our wickedness & decency. Together in our shared
reliance on one another, which amounts to shared responsibility. & so he left the
reader to the dictates of her own conscience when determining what battlefields
materialized from the page, the only certainty being that in navigating this model
of a model world, one is never alone. & though over the years Auden altered this
poem, calling it his worst, banning it from collections & anthologies because it felt
dishonest, unfinished, unclear, it mattered very much to me—munching a slice
from Joe’s Pizza on Carmine Street, the dream of Camus’ solidarity also eking its
way in there between the peppercorn & basil, the salts & oils, people-watching
through the open window & wondering if struggle is our human glue, & if we build
our culture largely the way be build ourselves, by wrestling with opposing views,
even if some matches last a lifetime. The poem itself wasn’t the protest. The walk
down Seventh Avenue wasn’t the protest. Our lives were the protest. Our galactic
imperative of forward movement, our synapse songs & the good-work process of
woodwarping. We will love without being told to. We will face our struggles & die.

XIV.

During the process of writing this last section, while my wife & I slept in the back
room, someone crawled through the front window of our home (I can imagine
him moving the garbage bins, smothering his smoke, slowly raising the window
& in a sudden leap to his stomach, emptying himself into our lives) & stole among
other things my computer. In my living room for maybe forty seconds, listening
for my stirrings, & gone. & I know that if he (assuming it was a he) had made his
way to my bedroom, with whatever intentions, & I had woken to find him there,
I would have, I am sure of this, used the hunting knife I keep nearby to take from
this stranger first what I would have been sure he was there to take from me.

(If by some means I’d been forewarned of his intent to break in &/or do me harm,
would I have been justified in preemptively storming his house & murdering him?
& what about his family, in order to eliminate all possibility of witness or retaliation,
the Hatfield & McCoy strategy of mutual annihilation? Any offensive form of citizen
self-defense (premeditated) is an indefensible offense, punishable by law—yet
somehow acceptable if carried out by our military in a foreign land. & if it slips
beyond the allotted timeframe, or leaks its secrets, we’ll call it war. At my most
cynical I’d say whoever attacks us gifts us a new opportunity to extend ourselves.)

But then, after the fracture, forgiveness. Following weeks piecing together what was
lost, (what remains irretrievable: unsaved portions of this poem, partly memorized;
the sense of our lives in this space) the fear & piss gave way, opening a space for
reconstruction: parsing what was manageable & not, what could be mended or not,
replenished or let go. Forgiveness is not forgetting, in my experience; it is an active
occurrence of memory, to be reassessed in recollection. In this way, forgiveness is not
a conclusion but an ongoing effort. & it is difficult, like any exercise, because it must
again tear, like a muscle, what it aims to strengthen.
                                                                                               & here I forgive my intruder again.
I’m no guard of moral decency, Reaper. In hounding you I’ve slobbered & frothed,
chased my own tail, left a few nasty mistakes. & whenever the desire to excoriate &
repudiate you finds another climax, I must reassess: today in Yemen, our “uneasy ally,”
100 soldiers marching in a parade were undone by a single suicide. On YouTube a blue
stampede of uniforms rushes from the bodies, & I think, if we are not the world police,
we can at least be a global sibling. How do we fight this? Education, trade, lending,
community building, construction, job training—it all takes time & costs run high
in both money & blood. Without reform, the region faces ongoing dictatorial theocracy.
But when their children grow, how will they remember this era, us, our actions? Our
imprint should be small & productive. But for now, a Band-Aid: a quick track & flyby,
& while you’re out, snap us some close-ups of Socotra Island, that place looks crazy
beautiful.
               Reassess. I couldn’t even keep the last sentence snark-free. Is the question,
finally, what we choose to invest in, education or security? Reassess. An unrealistic
goal should be our pursuit—a series of perfect instances. & when you fail, we must
reassess your worth. They will not forget us. & who knows what will be forgiven. Re-
assess. Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki for Anwar al-Awlaki. Reassess. Marine Staff Sergeant
Jeremy Smith & Navy Hospitalman Ben Rast for Fahd al-Quso. Reassess. Warnings that
children might be present, disregarded by our officers. Reassess. Little Fatima, jewel
of Egypt, split by the Hellfire Romeo that killed Mustafa Abu al-Yazid. & here I forgive
my intruder again. & flowering in me a stance tomorrow may crush.
                                                                                                                   But it’s tomorrow,
& it hasn’t.
                       I speak from one side of the gulf, the side with power, the side kept safe.
I believe you save lives, in that, for a time, you can hamper the options of our enemies.
I believe you will be with us a long time to come. I believe you’ve made the future
borderless. I believe those lacking power will gain power through you. I believe you
will be used to terrorize us. I see no way around it.
                                                                                     “Right now, for about the cost
of an iPad, a person could buy a used Parrot AR Drone, a radio-control 2.4GHz receiver
and a WiFi Yellowjacket, get a Ubiquiti PowerAP N router for the distance, a cloverleaf
antennae, pack it with a small amount of explosives & hover it up to any floor of the UN
you wanted. & you can do that from, hell, Roosevelt Island? Maybe even Gantry Park?
You don’t even have to be in Manhattan.”
                                                                     “But people have been flying toy helicopters
for years & I’ve never heard of anything like that happening.”
                                                                                                   “We’re in the infancy
of this thing. Wait ‘til these get faster & more stable. Wait until you’ve got a thrust-
vectoring jet or quadrotor some 15-year-old maps out the specs for & posts online.
You put a GPS onboard, set a timer, hide it on a rooftop, & drive to Maine for lobster
& an alibi.”
                     “& we’ll retaliate. Go make a thing a nothing & call it peace.”
                                                                                                                        “We don’t even
call it that anymore.”
                                 Thanks, online forum hobbyist. Let’s go make coffee for the FBI.

XV.

& so, Reaper, after a year of watching you become our go-to weapon, our Big Gun,
& as news of your travels travel & make news, on NPR, in the glossy covers of major
magazines, after you were infected by your first virus, after Occupy Washington
staged a rally outside General Atomics in DC, & as Iran decodes your captured
sibling & scientists construct out of your ethos a robot hummingbird, I confess to
finding in your present work no clear instance of what should be our greater plan—
security in service of serenity. Not for dominance or disdain. Not for justice pursuing
vengeance. Not for negotiating leverage. Not for show of power. Not for one & killing
twenty. Not for not for. If poetry is news that stays news, I would rather this poem
follow you headlong into obscurity, where you as the transfixed object & my words
as what-will-suffice greet each other at a point of detonation above a thin, horizontal
path to yield culturally & historically all the raw accumulative power of a hiccup.

If not, others will be along to bind you with law & word. Other watchers. Other
woodwarpers. I see no real end to our progressive ropes.
                                                                                                It is raining on a Sunday.
Children in flip-flops splash each other in puddles. My wife is playing the tongue
drum I bought for her birthday. Outside my window, a lone gull of no consequence.
Then gray, empty sky. No small luxury. We should get to the market before it closes.

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper (a poem by Joe Pan)

  1. Quick question: In “Not for dominance or distain,” from section XV, shouldn’t the final word be “disdain”? By nature and day job, I’m a copy editor and habitually notice possible misspellings.

    That caught my eye in a quick scan. I’m very impressed with the depth and breadth of this work, which I haven’t read in full yet. I look forward to reading it carefully a bit later.

    In case you wonder, I found a link to the Epiphany excerpt in a New York Times article (at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/09/us/politics/visions-of-drones-in-us-skies-touch-bipartisan-nerve.html), which quotes a bit of the poem. Does it make sense to say “thank you for writing it”? I hope so.

  2. Pingback: Interview with Eric Parker, Part III: Beyond the Horizon - The Big Smoke