-Reviewed by Ian Chung–
The title of Jack Foster’s Sweatshoppe Publications chapbook, Slouching Towards Pakistan, calls to mind the final lines of W. B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ Reading Foster’s forward to the chapbook, those lines acquire greater resonance when one realises that the chapbook deals with the American drone strikes in Pakistan, begun during the Bush administration and intensified under Obama. Foster writes that this chapbook is inspired by the poetry of witness, hoping that it ‘serves as a call to think more deeply about how we wage war’. So by the end of Slouching Towards Pakistan, the question readers ought to be asking themselves, American or otherwise, is what we have allowed to be unleashed on our world, ostensibly in the name of securing it.
The sequence begins with ‘Prologue’, which recounts how ‘the art of war immediately began / to forget its own sense of intimacy’. This is exemplified by how the strikes in Pakistan are carried out using unmanned aerial vehicles, which do not permit ‘men [to] observe light leaving vacant eyes or record / the breath of the dying’. The poem possibly overplays its hand with lines like ‘Now, we turn tail and retreat / back to bunkers and white tiled offices – it’s easier that way’, but perhaps someone needs to be stating the painfully obvious, if the alternative is otherwise going to be silence on the issue.
The next poem, ‘A Father Leaves in the Morning’, then introduces a theme that will recur throughout the sequence, namely the conundrum of reconciling being a military man and a family man. Our attention is drawn to how any resulting dissonance is most readily perceived by immediate family members (‘I, his only witness’), and in case there was any doubt about the titular father’s complicity with the American administration’s ‘war on terror’, the next poem is titled ‘A Father Drives to Arlington’, i.e. home of the Pentagon. ‘A father, home out of sight, sheds one skin / for another’, which conveys the psychological distancing that parallels the physical distance of ‘Somewhere in the world, news / headlines tear through today like a Gulf’s tumid / body, losing shape and image by the time they hit foreign shores’.
Another thematic thread running through Slouching Towards Bethlehem has to do with the terrible beauty of the drones. The Yeatsian connection is perpetuated in a poem like ‘Hatching Drones’, which traces the electronic birth of a Predator drone. The poem’s opening, ‘The will of others trickles down / to subordinates’, carries over the theme of the preceding poem, ‘Passing the Buck’, in which ‘Orders are belayed down the chain of command’. Yet in spite of the apparent abdication of responsibility in such a system (since there is always someone else one can blame), technology has also allowed us to create ‘Birds of Paradise for the New World Order’. The poem marvels at what the drones have been designed to be capable of, but nevertheless ends by noting that their existence is purely utilitarian and wholly unnatural:
‘By the time migration is completed, mission
accomplished, their only option is to slowly soar
back home to sit in hangars – trading in daylight’s warmth
for the cold and the mockery of artificial lighting.’
Yet Foster is ultimately interested in the human impact that the drones have, and thus the second half of the sequence retraces the father’s steps, as he makes the reverse journey home from Arlington, ‘After a day’s worth of work’ (‘An Uncertain Path’). We are offered reminders that ‘It is hard to say what exactly happens / beneath a foreign skyline’ (‘Before the Aftermath’), and a gloomy prophecy that ‘Nothing will change for years to come’ (‘Untitled’), even as the mere fact of something like the drones means that the nature of human existence has been fundamentally changed, whether for the deployer or the deployed against. This idea is recapitulated in the poem ‘Afterword’, subtitled ‘Predators of the Future, a Cautionary Tale’, in which Foster asks ‘who will house the drones of tomorrow’.
However, at the individual level, for the father, ‘concepts resembling human feelings swell’ on ‘The Road back Home’. The most poignant moment in Slouching Towards Bethlehem then follows in ‘A Father Returns in the Nighttime’, as he ‘scrapes his hands and chest with pumice / stone, as if to destroy every atom / every fiber’. In this poem, Foster cuts to the heart of the matter, looking beyond the obvious devastation caused by drone warfare to the impact it has on the people who are, arguably, just doing their jobs. For them, the real human tragedy comes in the form of their children, children who have to live with the knowledge of what people like the father do on a daily basis:
‘This time, too, does not belong
to him – his skin, like steam, rises into midnight’s
density, and fills the house with lingering
pain. This time belongs to me – my burden,
my secret, my time alone with my father.’