Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Internal Migration: On Being on Tour"

Internal Migration: On Being on Tour
by Alan Dugan

As an American traveler I have
to remember not to get actionably mad
about the way things are around here.
Tomorrow I’ll be a thousand miles away
from the way it is around here. I will
keep my temper, I will not kill the dog
next door, nor will I kill the next-door wife,
both of whom are crazy and aggressive
and think they live at the center of culture
like everyone else in this college town.
This is because I’m leaving, I’m taking off
by car, by light plane, by jet, by taxicab,
for some place else a thousand miles away,
so I caution myself: control your rage,
even if it causes a slight heart attack.
Stay out of jail tonight before you leave,
and don’t get obstreperous in transit tomorrow
so as to stay out of jail on arrival tomorrow night.
Think: the new handcuffs are sharp inside
and meant to cut the wrists. …

read the rest

i found this poem last night and i couldn’t resist dugan’s “actionably mad.” plenty of dictionaries assign “actionable” only a legal definition and no explicit secondary meaning; something actionable gives rise to a cause of legal action or provides grounds for a lawsuit (thomson gale). synonyms are litigable, prosecutable, triable (houghton mifflin). american heritage offers “relating to or being information that allows a decision to be made or action to be taken,” which amuses the lawyer in me and gives the poet more than a touch of vertigo. borrowing is what poetry’s all about, but the spurts of legalese (“actionably mad,” “obstreperous in transit”) sharply contrast with the far-from-formal language that flank them, making the words sound foreign and stilted.

that small point is just a microcosm for a bigger point, and the reason we’re here. What makes a poem a poem about law? it’s not just the semantic trappings of law and order here, the handcuffs and jails and rape and murder, but the layers of law the poem imposes upon the speaker and the speaker imposes upon himself. the internal/emotional order— “i caution myself: control your rage” mirrors the external/physical order— “the new handcuffs are sharp inside/and meant to cut the wrists.”

every time the speaker begins to speak freely of his impulses, he is rebuked: by himself, by verse, by law, by the policemen whose imagined justice is swift, and by the physical limitations of glasses, false teeth, a frail body, and a fragile heart. “as an american traveler i have” opens wide with a statement of possession and empowerment, promptly undermined when it becomes “have/to remember” to follow the rules. that first resolution of self-control echoes through the poem’s early lines: “I have to,” “I will,” “I will not,” until inner monologue becomes dialogue: “control your rage,” “stay out of jail,” “don’t get obstreperous,” “you must travel.” the caesurae of the colons that break lines 14 and 19 stand in for the threat of imprisonment, serving as stop-sign or jail-bars to the forward momentum of the speaker who wants to “tak[e] off/by car, by light plane, by jet, by taxicab.”

if the speaker’s internal and external orders mirror one another, what do we make of the titular “internal migration” and the poem’s nomadic closing lines? surely there is a pushing out of all other people, a total folding-inward reinforced by both sets of laws and lending irony to the speaker’s disdain for townies who “think they live at the center” (“of culture,” but substitute any number of nouns for “culture”). the idea that his migration or movement is purely internal not only places the speaker at the center of everything, but it relies on inner and outer law to perpetually push him inward. the emotional rules and societal rules all conspire to prevent not only violence but touch, contact, conversation, even empathy—even with the dog! of course, dugan’s most widely anthologized piece (in my experience; i have no data on that) is the unforgettable “love song: i and thou,” where the stubborn protagonist announces, “this is hell,/but i planned it, i sawed it,/i nailed it, and i/will live in it until it kills me.”

read the rest of "Love Song: I and Thou" in the valentine’s day pinsky piece at slate

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