The eponymous poem in Edward Field’s new collection, After the Fall: Poems Old and New, with its echoes of Arthur Miller and Camus, not to mention the foundational biblical story, deals with the World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 2001. At over 200 lines it’s a long meditation on the implications of the destruction of the twin towers. Like many, the poet found them ugly, a blot on the classic New York skyline, and also was surprised at how ultimately fragile they were when they collapsed. But without stating it so bluntly, he ponders the very tenuousness of our civilization their loss suggests, comparing the collapse of the towers to the fall of the Tower of Babel, the Colossus of Rhodes, the destruction of giant Buddhas in the Bamian valley of Afghanistan by the Taliban—not the destruction of the architectural icons themselves but the mythic resonance and the stark aftermath, an as-yet unfolding psychic “before” and “after” picture.
To get a sense of the “after,” we need to consider Field's other “new” poems. Like a modern Jeremiah, he takes the American political leadership to task for betraying the nation’s ideals and promise, exposing the greed and cruelty that drive its policies. Poems like “Homeland Security,” “Letter on the Brink of War,” “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “Mission Accomplished” reveal the short-sightedness and fear-mongering behind the American government’s behavior since September 11, 2001.
Like a modern Jeremiah, Field takes the American political leadership to task for betraying the nation’s ideals and promise, exposing the greed and cruelty that drive its policies.
In the recent poem that opens the collection, “Credo,” Field writes:
What good is poetry
if it doesn’t stand up
against the lies of government,
if it doesn’t rescue us
from the liars that mislead us?
But Field has the humility to realize he’s not an oracle (though like Shelley he seems to believe that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”), just a human being railing against other human imperfections, a sort of gadfly. As he wrote as far back as the early 1960’s in his “Ode to Fidel Castro,” included in this volume as an excerpt from Stand Up, Friend, With Me,
O Boy God, Muse of Poets
Come sit on my shoulder while I write
Cuddle up and fill my poem with love
And even while I fly on billows of inspiration
Don’t forget to tickle me now and then
For I am going to write on World Issues
Which demands laughter where we most believe.
Also, My Cute One, don’t let me take a heroic pose
And act as though I know it all
Guard me from Poet’s Head that dread disease
Where the words ring like gongs and the meaning goes out the window
Remind me of the human size of truth
Whenever I spout a big, ripe absolute
Among Field’s other recurring subjects are his Jewishness, his gayness, an obsession with larger-than-life figures from the cinema and entertainment, both fictional “Frankenstein,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Nancy,” “Curse of the Cat Woman”) and actual (“Mae West,” “Dietrich,” “Garbo,” “Callas,” “The Life of Joan Crawford”), and his companion of many years, Neil Derrick.
Field has the humility to realize he’s not an oracle . . . just a human being railing against
other human imperfections, a
sort of gadfly.
Field’s Jewishness is the key to his role as Jeremiah. It means he not only affirms and embraces the American ideal of democracy and holds America up to that standard, but he addresses Jews and Israel in the same measure. The recent poem “If This Be Jews” questions and re-justifies the Jew’s supposed historic obligation to be a model human being, just as America is held up as the model of democracy in the world. In “Hear, O Israel,” a title taken from the central Jewish prayer, the Shema, Field takes a pitying look, Jeremiah-like, at Israel’s treatment of its Moslem neighbors and inhabitants.
But all of this is not to say that Edward Field does not have an irreverent sense of humor. His wit can be wry and fond or bitter and sarcastic. If “In Memory of My Foreskin” is another meditation on his Jewishness and sexuality, it is also a comic love song to the male anatomy. Just as Field’s poems about the United States are reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “America,” from the 1950’s, “In Memory of My Foreskin” invites comparison to Ginsberg’s 1986 poem, “Sphincter.” (The final poem in the collection, “Sorry, I Never Slept with Allen Ginsberg,” is a comical title with a serious tribute to the author of “Howl” for his liberating voice and actions.) “In Praise of My Prostate” is another such poem, a comic ode to his prostate and all they’ve been through together. This poem is one of the selections from Dead Man Walking, meditations on growing old. “Old Acquaintance,” excerpted from “A Man and His Penis” in the 1998 collection, A Frieze for a Temple of Love, is another poem lovingly addressed to his body, with all the implicit belly laughs that go with low comedy and high wit. Field’s celebrity poems are also informed by a dry sense of humor, and “Waiting for the Communists” is a satirical poem that shines a light on the irrational Chicken Little fear of “the Communists” with wry humor.
Field takes the long view of everything, how it has all added up, where it’s all probably going— before and after the fall. Long after.
Field’s loving poems to his friend and collaborator, Neil Derrick, who in recent years has lost his eyesight, likewise have a comic side. In “Blinks,” from Counting Myself Lucky, Field lavishes comic detail on living with Neil and what his blindness entails – even with Helen Keller jokes tossed in as asides. “Taking My Breath Away,” from Dead Man Walking, is a more sincere tribute to his friend of close to half a century, amounting to a meditation on the things that really matter, in the end.
The overriding theme of this collection, indeed, is coming to terms with old age, with the conditions in which one finds oneself near the end of one’s life—personal, communal, national; the conditions of one’s body and the world it inhabits, the things that matter. Field takes the long view of everything, how it has all added up, where it’s all probably going—before and after the fall. Long after.