Review | We Don't Know We Don't Know, by Nick Lantz
Graywolf Press, 2010
Perhaps no one can define terms such as innocence and guilt to the satisfaction of all, but a magistrate exonerates or condemns with a single word. This problem forms only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. But without language, problematic though it is, we could not in any meaningful way do so much as communicate. And without communication, we could scarcely conceive of ourselves as individuals, let alone ones characterized by love or hate or hope for the future. In his collection We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, Nick Lantz worries words like beads on a string. If language has the power either to pave the way to salvation or to usher us down the road to hell, then we must use it with care and respect.
We Don’t Know We Don’t Know announces its concern with language from the very first page, with two epigraphs for the collection as a whole: one from former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issuing a justification of war in Iraq and the other from Roman sage Pliny the Elder, as translated by Philemon Holland from the original terse Latin into high Elizabethan English. Each involves a linguistic creation that entails a form of violence. Rumsfeld begins:
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
We might at first mistake Rumsfeld’s meaning for something simple phrased in a difficult way: the idea that we cannot be sure that something has not happened when we have merely not observed anything happening. But the lack of an observed phenomenon does not equal the existence of an unobserved one. The former falls squarely in the land of logic; the latter, in the land of something else, perhaps faith. Rumsfeld has conjured something from what may be nothing, and this sleight of hand helped to mobilize an army.
The epigraph from Pliny the Elder appears to illustrate the old conundrum of translation: how to reproduce the writing of another without using any of the original words. Philemon Holland’s solution involves more or less rewriting Pliny, imposing his own sense of literary decorum and poetry, and Pliny thereby enters a fantastic dimension, with animals that “knoweth” the world by a “secret instinct” and man who “knoweth nothing unlesse he be taught”—like the empty shell of a golem waiting to receive paper instruction. But we must consider that, as a translator, Holland presents his own words, which are far from Pliny’s, as Pliny’s own. Can we say that Pliny remains if only a small fraction of him does? No, Holland has cast him out, erased him, and in Pliny’s place sits a changeling, someone whom the actual Pliny would very likely have trouble recognizing.
Rumsfeld and the changeling Pliny accompany the reader throughout Lantz’s collection, appearing in or offering their words as epigraphs to many of the poems as though offering commentary on them, as though acting as weird Virgils guiding us into an inferno. On the journey, we traverse four titled sections that give the impression of a descent toward madness, beginning with “Known Knowns” and moving past “Known Unknowns” and “Unknown Unknowns” to the conclusion of “Unknown Knowns.”
Each of the poems in the collection, we might say, presents a different linguistic experiment designed to explore its subject. For example, the long poem “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?” has a question for each of its lines. The poem focuses on the relationship between a jailer and the prisoner whom he interrogates, but the questions of the poem are not those asked of the prisoner by the jailer. Instead, they are directed at the jailer himself by a “witness” of some sort, perhaps his conscience:
After many weeks, during a lull in the “questioning,” will you speak of the
first time your fingers grazed the inside of your wife’s thigh?
Will he nod and say, Yes, I remember too, the smell of my own wife’s hair
on my face in the morning?
Will you ask him how he can remember anything?
Will he admit that more than once he has tried drowning himself in that
bucket of dripped-down water?
Will you say, I know, we watch you day and night?
Will he ask, How could you sit by and do nothing?
Will you say, We thought you were praying?
In another poem, “As You Know,” almost every sentence starts with the phrase “As you know,” as though readers should have intimacy with all that follows, although what actually follows is a series of obscure facts: “As you know, dogs were also convicted / of witchcraft and burned at the stake. / So were chickens, fish, and a few trees”; “As you know, during the Cat Festival in Ypres, / effigies of cats are thrown from a belfry tower”; “As you know, the word gift in German / means poison.” And the repetition of the introductory phrase reveals in all of the violence a weariness and a sad folly.
Many of the poems, like the above, operate by gathering into a rhetorical structure things that lack a sense of logical connection, creating a tension between linguistic momentum and the lack of momentum in the content. In other words, the poems seem to rush forward and to stand still at the same time, and their conclusions thus provide both the satisfaction of arrival and a sense that the journey is futile or that we merely rest before a further and identical journey, that we must begin again where we started. The opening poem, “Ancient Theories,” illustrates this formula and also addresses it explicitly:
Pliny described eight-foot lobsters
on the banks of the Ganges. The cuckoo devouring
its foster mother. Bees alighting
on Plato's young lips.
In the Andes, a lake disappears overnight, sucked
through cracks in the earth.
How can I explain
the sunlight stippling your face in the early morning?
Why not believe that the eye throws its own light,
that seeing illuminates
On the moon,
astronaut David Scott drops a hammer and a falcon feather,
and we learn nothing
we didn’t already know.
Like litanies, these semicircular poems list things that have some kind of spiritual power seemingly in order to summon a magical protection against danger and dissolution. “The Decay of ancient knowledge,” for example, links fragments of antiquated superstitious cures for various ailments, involving such acts as pretending to bring a hammer down on a baby lying on an anvil. As the poem progresses, we encounter something else, something written in the form of one of the cures, but that clearly comes from a present-day source:
This is how, when your mother tells
you she’s going in for biopsy, to make
the growth benign
Perhaps the speaker himself has a mother who must undergo a medical procedure. Perhaps the chanting of cures from the past allows the speaker to think of his own situation as simply another bit of lore, or something separate from him and not urgent, or something with which others have had to deal and for which ready cures exist. As the poem progresses, the cures grow increasingly desperate and senseless:
When you see a dead bird lying in the road
you must spit on it.
If a rooster crows in the night, you must
go and feel his feet.
And the story of the “you” and his mother grows similarly desperate and senseless, concluding with his being afraid even to answer the telephone, lest he hear the diagnosis that he dreads.
But even more than the death of the body, an abstract kind of death haunts the collection, the kind of death that produces a changeling like Philemon Holland’s Pliny the Elder. In “What We Know of Death by Drowning,” Lantz considers several individuals who underwent that particular death long before their bodies ceased to function. These include Josef Mengele, who changed his name and fled to South America when threatened with trial for Nazi war crimes; Natalie Wood, whose parents changed her name from Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko as a first step in making her a marketable Hollywood star; and Bennie Wint, who faked his own drowning and lived under a different name in order to escape a drug ring. Each of these individuals had to die a symbolic death in order to make a better future available. But as we asked about Pliny the Elder, to what extent is the person prior to the symbolic death the same as the person after it?
“The eye inscribes its pattern on the mind,” Lantz writes in “The order that Bees keepe in their worke,” and a name, too, serves as a kind of eye through which a person sees the world. Certainly, Josef Mengele’s later years would not only have been very different without a symbolic death, they would not have existed because the tribunal would have ordered his execution. But the changeling born of a symbolic death lacks the freedom to be wholly new, free of a past and all that it contained. The changeling is doomed to live in the shadow of its predecessor, to answer for that life.
The principal grotesqueness of the collection may be abstract, but amidst such a high concentration of it, we feel a kind of vertigo. Seemingly any utterance can have devastating consequences, all the more disturbing for being invisible. Even “imagination kills,” claims the speaker of “Either Or,” and it “just / as easily . . . brings / back the dead.”
Although he makes but a single named appearance, Harry Harlow, master experimenter and manipulator of language, acts as a kind of diabolical host for the collection, condemned by his own imagination like Satan frozen into the ice at the heart of his own kingdom. “Harry Harlow in the Pit of Despair” makes only glancing mention of Harlow’s experiments on dozens of monkeys, using the devices that he constructed and gave nightmarish names, such as the isolation chamber called the Pit of Despair or the wire dolls called Iron Maidens that served as surrogate mothers for infants. But the psychology propelling Harlow forward in what some would call heartlessness, or torture, receives a beguiling reading:
Why don’t the crows’ feet freeze
to the snowy branch?
Why doesn’t the worm in his hole die of shame? Let us
go on loving each other as if
none of this matters.
All winter the sun lolls low across the horizon. What
drives us out with a broom
each morning to knock
the fangs of ice from the eaves of our lover’s house?
Our vice is born in a folk tale:
a fox by the roadside
feigning a lame foot, a scorpion asleep in a traveler’s
boot, a fish singing
to the fisherman’s wife.
Pressed in upon by the dangers and embarrassments of living in the world, a Harry Harlow continues in his work perhaps because of a fear of the infinitely many and often unpredictable, almost magical, ways the world can take what one holds dear. An overzealous pursuit of science may actually be something pitiable, with the scientist torturing the world in order to save his tiny beloved corner of it, and thus do we see “affection . . . limp past / the gates of cruelty.” But in the final reckoning, can a kernel of good intention excuse extreme acts? The poem ends with a tragic address, lacking any answer: “Harry, after the long months of stumbling darkness, / what will emerge to greet / us with outstretched arms?”
Questioning is the fundament of Lantz’s collection—indeed, he devotes an entire poem to “A History of the Question Mark.” And for Lantz, the question is both the method through which we come to know and a kind of passion. To question, to experiment and to go against the grain, to shed light upon what we did not know: these delight and thrill, because to learn is delightful and thrilling, like creating something new, although occasionally that creation turns out ugly. And even at its most distressing, the book entertains with the vigor of a virtuoso conversationalist and storyteller recounting the strange things of the world, from the behavior of a “starving bear” turning “over the same boulder again / and again, expecting each time / to find something to eat” to the conceptual affinity between Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting, Adoration of the Magi, and Bruce Lee’s unfinished last film, Game of Death. We may never be able to laugh at horrors, but we find consolation in putting them into words. Lantz reminds us how much we need those words today and always, how we need them this very minute.
Nick Lantz is the author of two recent collections of poetry: We Don't Know We Don’t Know (Graywolf Press, 2010), which won the 2011 GLCA New Writers Award for poetry, the 2010 Posner Book-Length Poetry Award, and the 2009 Bakeless Poetry Prize; and The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors’ House (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), which won the 2010 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry. He is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College. Six poems by Lantz appear in this issue of Blackbird.