With her first collection of poetry, Incivilities, literature and theory professor-turned-poet Barbara Claire Freeman excavates the vagaries of an American narrative—“how it became, what it began,” as one of her poems says. Like men counting bodies on a battlefield, exploding the absurd order of the data they have collected, Freeman’s poems rebel against the aftermath of the atrocities (the title puts it mildly) they insist on recognizing. It’s that rebellion that makes them so compelling. It is also the playful way in which they confuse the manufactured order of a manufactured history.
“One Down, Seven to Go,” for instance, hints at the emptiness of narrated traditions, from the fanfare of presidential elections to the sanitized nursery school tale of the first Thanksgiving: we shrink from responsibility for both yet beam proudly at their trappings. (Meanwhile, in the poem, a still-lit supermarket has already cleared of shoppers, and an onlooker imagines charming scenes inside.) The poem observes:
the narrative was supposed to make us whole. The main thing was to tell the story.
Freeman’s reassembled American history is one of stock trading, gold mining, Louisiana Purchases, slaves, the revolutionaries who kept them slaves, shoddy intelligence and the ways in which we seek to forget. It is told through fragments of George Washington’s speeches and descriptions of newspaper photographs of staged townscapes.
These poems’ heterogeneous forms suggest that poems, too, are artifacts to be referenced in other pages. The denser, longer ones move in cadences and sentence fragments that recall Lyn Hejinian; the sudden spaces and surprising inversions of the narrower ones gasp elegiacally around the textbook-ready rhetorical platitudes they try to dismantle. All of them shudder at the brutality of infrastructure (“Most of the ideas we’re talking about are bridges and roads”), the permanence of debt (“America will not let/her children deleverage”), the complicity of the poet and the caprice of communication:
_... if now you cannot hear me_
it is because the sound of this night no one will remember no one else.