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Form and Persuasion: The Art of Argument in David Gewanter’s Fort Necessity — March 16, 2019

 by Zakary Sonntag


David Gewanter’s latest book of poems, Fort Necessity (University of Chicago), is somehow both overtly and subtly political—making an obvious argument that isn’t so much explained as it is understood, felt, in the body. At its heart, the work is a bio-political exploration of the brutalizing effects of capitalistic production on the physical body. Yet, as a critique, what makes the book’s central progressive argument so powerful is that the argument is never, strictly speaking, made. Rather, it is hung up in images and artifacts, almost like a photo-journalistic curation. In this way, Fort Necessity shows that poetry can be a forceful politics while circumventing the pitfalls of traditional logic, which can never escape the bias of assuming a predicate. Of course, it would be silly to suggest that Gewanter presents capitalism impartially, or that the book’s Marxist affinities are not evident. Nonetheless, the collection shows how poetry has much to contribute to both history and politics and how the poetic form is itself a practice in the art of persuasion.
The book is separated in three sections. The first grouping of poems traces a clear stylistic and tonal trajectory from his earlier collections—In the Belly and War Bird, especially—and here Gewanter’s cleverly droll voice is most apparent and delightful. Similar themes and characters return, like the “Ruthless and fiery pacifist” to whom War Bird was dedicated and who arrives in Fort Necessity in “Ruth the Rocket,” agitating against the 2004 Cassini Space Probe mission. The piece is at once curious, poignant, and funny in ways that will feel familiar to those acquainted with his earlier work.

…spoiling for a fight, is Grandma Ruth:
she flips through her protest signs,

BEAT BACK BUSH! (But not Bill Clinton:
  “husbands who fool around don’t start wars.”)
Her new placard, HELL NO, WE WON’T GLOW!           
            Ready to wave

               As Cassini touches Saturn’s storms
and braids, Ruth’s ganglia have burnt out:
the roadways through her skull’s sockets now
loop inward, a carousel of old furniture
    and phrases

    She forgets her enemies—an inverted grace.

So far, the collection is recognizably Gewanter, but Fort Necessity takes a stark turn. Beginning with the title poem in the second section, the work becomes unswervingly documentarian. It fleshes out the major players and periods of American capitalism in a multi-vocal and non-linear fashion. It proves less ironic than earlier works and more visibly driven; the motifs rise out of the book with an ominous gleaming, like the chimney of a coal powered freighter. His writing “a poem in documents” presents interesting questions about the work and function of poetry. What, we might ask, does form do for our understanding of history? As it happens, a lot, although it can be tough to say exactly what that is, and if, in the end, Gewanter’s strict archival approach succeeds as good poetry. What seems clearer is that his documentarian style has much to lend to the practice of persuasion. Consider, for example, “Natural Law Chorus”:

The Wonderful process of the United States,
as well as the character of the people,
are the results of natural selection.

Rockefeller…plays beautifully
with his grandchild, carrying her on his back,
he wrecks business, ruins widows and orphans…

Will you tell me how to prevent luxury
from producing effeminacy, intoxication,
extravagance, Vice and folly?

Each of these stanzas are marked, as the majority of the works in the second section, with the name of the figure from whom Gewanter takes the paraphrase. In this case they are Charles Darwin, William James, and John Adams, respectively. In this way the book is asking readers to participate in a cross-historical analysis, which is structured almost as though a syllogism. Yet, unlike traditional logic, there are no stated predicates or segues or conclusions. The argument can only be inferred. And that is the genius of a work like Fort Necessity: one knows that conclusions can be drawn and readers will be tempted to articulate them, but the work itself is never didactic and is as an argument, therefore, less impeachable. 
All of Gewanter’s work is much obliged to history, but not until Fort Necessity has a collection felt like such a distinctly historical work. In some ways the depth of focus marks an improvement. The sustained attention to particular histories in Fort Necessity can be rewarding. Comparing the first half of War Bird, for instance, where one encounters: Kipling, Nefertiti, Onan, Dr. J., Butter Bean, Hobbes, Rousseau, Kafka, Rilke, Janis Joplin and James Brown. Historical figures start to lose their referential power if not become a little obnoxious. It comes across as merely name-dropping in relation to Fort Necessity, whose narrower epochal context and cast of characters allows for a fleshing out that will impress readers disposed to American history. We steep in America’s most honored or cutthroat capitalists, like Rockefeller and Frick, along with the lowly laborers and known resistors amidst them, like Berkman and Goldman and Marx—all approached from myriad perspectives.
We see Carnegie through the eyes of his biographer, wife, the news media, and in his own words. Gewanter develops complex portraits of Carnegie and others by juxtaposing them non-chronologically against indirectly germane “documents,” like a 1996 Senate report explaining Koch Oil’s duplicitous negotiations with Native American tribes, or excerpts from Death of a Salesman. What emerges is a bricolage history that speaks to the astounding scope of this nation’s economic ethos and the perpetual brutalities inherent to it. The collage method is fascinating, because it abstracts even as it is relentlessly grounded in concrete record. Yet the method will also constrain. We see the pros and cons of this approach in a poem like “Job Sonnet,” which is a verbatim reproduction of an interview of a worker recorded by Alan Lomax.

“Got this way in the mines—
We was pumping an old hole dry,
did a record job. But they
wouldn’t give us no stove to dry

our clothes at. At night we’d take off
wet clothes. Next morning, when
we put ‘em on, they’d be frozen. Well,
a little wile of that and I couldn’t turn

my head. Boss said: ‘You’ll get along.’
Three men died of consumption later,
and if I didn’t die right away, I been
dying by inches ever since. Look at these hands.”

By structuring the interview to privilege the cadence and rhythm of the language, we see that form can alter the way we receive information. But does it make for good poetry?  “Job Sonnet” and myriad other segments like it do not stand alone well, and in this way Fort Necessity feels like a compromise. The voice of the poet seems increasingly ushered out, denying readers the pleasure they may find in his earlier, less clinical writing on historical figures—as with “Jacopone Pieta: Justice,” from War Bird:

Why, Conscience, do you sleep? You never gave me rest,
Your tongue like a razor peeled my root ball, sin—
     yet now your eyes,
the blaze and curse of my nights, have shut.

Jacopone, I’ve watched you burden Justice
with your excuses, piling corpses onto the scales
till her thin arms broke.
But now you carry her voice, her clear,

single verdict—so we can live in peace.

Then sleep on, haggling Brother, Sleep and starve
     for you were only born
of my guilt, and you have fed on my sins.

Fort Necessity’s least historically driven poems from the first section are the most enjoyable, and on first read they will feel disjointed from the subsequent poems. But a smart metaphor, upon a closer reading, stiches the sections together. One can think of the collection as an autopsy. Take “Body of Work.”

A man had walked into EMERGENCY,
dropped dead.
Did his family think he staggered out drunk?
His body was a garden my father tilled,
blade ploughing the flesh, seeking his death:
what part of his life had killed him?
My father grasped dead arms: This is a working man.
Little helper, I touched the puzzle of his hand.

Here we see a doctor and father figure from the poet’s earlier books. This father is a tireless worker who “destroyed his own health,” as we see in the poem “Scope.”

After my father’s heart attack
his doctor told us,

“This man—he smokes and drinks.
He’s heavy. Won’t listen. Won’t live long.
You should prepare yourselves.”

But the doctor suffered depression
(we learned later)
predicting all his patients would die.

One starts to get the sense that Gewanter is “ploughing the flesh” of the corpses of capitalism, but in so doing trying to understand in a roundabout way his own father’s seemingly self-induced abuse. Perhaps his interest at the intersection of the body and economics is related to his seeing a familiar in Marx, who possessed, like the speaker’s own father, an insalubrious addiction to his work, which we see in “The Lords of Labor.”

Time was, Karl Marx sat rubbing his back
                 (no brisling beard yet; no doctrines),
     sat studying so long

he couldn’t sit; the doctor said he’d gotten           
                 Weaver’s Bottom, new ailment
     Of the kitchen-industrial age.

He explores capitalism’s bodily abuses from the angles of its obvious losers, like inmate laborers or the steel strikers shot dead by Frick. But the book also asks questions about the detriment its ideology bears upon Olympic gymnasts like Kerri Strug, “the littlest of Americans” who

hurtled toward the horse, ricocheted upward,
twisting and falling…yet her body botched

the landing, tore the ankle ligaments,
toppling her back. Mark and stain were tallied.

              …But once she turned to
face the judges, she lifted the torn leg

like a faun. Then it was that the judges gaped,
and jerked their hands to their open mouths,

and saw the ruin and triumph of it all.

The book is challenging for its starkly different sections, and the connection of the more personal poetry to the documentary poetry are still a little too loose to convince one of the wisdom of compiling them together. Gewanter nonetheless offers insights about the bearing of form. Fort Necessity is a momentous look at how an economic ideology impacts health and physicality. But the book’s strongest recommendation is that it shows us the impact of rhetorical form—that poetry can be a powerful form of persuasion, especially, paradoxically, when its aims remain unstated.