On Michael Lally
by Hirsh Sawhney

Michael Lally, author of over twenty books of poetry, has experienced much of what twentieth-century North America has had to offer—discrimination, Hollywood, sexual revolution and war. A veteran of the Korean War, Lally’s award-winning poetry was denounced as pornography on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Although sometimes overlooked by critics and scholars, Lally, 62, has been an iconoclastic participant in the cultural fabric of North American society for almost five decades. His breadth of experience endows his writing with a rare practical wisdom and sense a of historical objectivity.

"Had Hubert Humphrey won in 1968 and those of us who opposed him and Nixon hadn’t supported third-party alternatives," Lally comments over the telephone, referring to Ralph Nader’s presidential candidacy, "the Vietnam War may have ended a lot earlier and a lot of lives might have been saved."

Born to a working-class family of Irish immigrants in New Jersey—the have-nots—Lally’s poetic vision is nevertheless permeated by a spiritualistic optimism. "I’m always attracted to Whitman as opposed to Eliot, Kerouac as opposed to Burroughs, who believed in the transcendent power of the human spirit." As a writer, Lally says, "My goal has been to talk to the kid I was when I was 14, 15, 16—before I had any education, before I had read anything that sophisticated but still knew certain things in my heart."

On March 18, 2003, the U.S. government issued its final 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to leave his country or face invasion. That same evening, several hundred people of all ages gathered at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea to hear poets Ann Lauterback, Anne Waldman, Robert Creeley and Lally read from their work, at an event entitled VERSUS: Poets Against the War. The former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark—who drafted articles of impeachment against George W. Bush—also spoke at the event. Lally worked for weeks until the day of the reading to prepare a poem that would not only address the pressing political and social concerns of our times, but one that would channel his life experiences to directly condemn a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Lally’s poem evoked an extraordinarily passionate response from the audience, and was subsequently published as a book entitled March 18, 2003 [Libellum, 2004], excerpted here.

Wasn’t the world easy
Wasn’t that because we didn’t know
and maybe didn’t want to
like my nephews and nieces don’t
today, as they sail away to foreign ports
called up in the reserves or on the active duty
they see as a way out of the confusion
of a working class that thinks it isn’t,
or that class doesn’t matter, at least not on
the talk radio they listen to?
Is there no other way for them to go?
Isn’t that all they know
despite my talks and books and e-mails?
Don’t they say it worked for me,
it’s how I first got out into the world?
When I try to tell them why they’re wrong
to believe their leaders and the right-wing
corporate radio pimps, isn’t it difficult for them to
see, as it was for me, when I used the GI Bill
to attend a university that filled my head with information
that made me dizzy, made me feel crazy,
made me feel alienated from all I’d known
and grown to love the further away
I got from it?
Shit, why didn’t anybody tell us
when we beat the lousy Krauts
and stinkin Japs that the man who
would later get us to the moon, Wernher von Braun,
was the same Nazi scientist who made
the rockets that rained down death on London?
Did any poem of Dylan Thomas ever tell me that?
Who knew the Volkswagen beetle
that the college kids and later lefties
would embrace was Hitler’s idea?
Did anyone ever discuss how we obliterated
Dresden, for no strategic reason, or caused
more civilian death and devastation there and
in the fire bombing of Tokyo than with
the atom bombs we dropped?
Why didn’t I know that General Electric
got off with a fine and hand slaps
for colluding with the Nazis or that IBM set up
the Nazis’ record keeping or that we refused
to bomb the railroad tracks that carried the
freight cars full of Jews to their destination?
Can we guess why our bombs never touched
the Krupp arms factory?
Is it because it isn’t
freedom or democracy we fight for or defend,
but in the end it’s weapons, fuel and drugs—
the trinity that underpins the wealth of nations
and the corporations that rule them?
Did you know the company that makes
the new computerized voting machines
that defied the exit polls and put right-wing
Republicans in power where they weren’t before
are owned by the right-wing Republican senator
who did just that in Nebraska, where
according to the results even a majority of blacks
who said they voted against him were obviously wrong
and did the opposite according to his computers?
Is that why the networks
won’t use their own exit polls anymore,
so as not to contradict machines
that leave no inconvenient paper trail
that can be verified,
no tabs and chads and all the rest
that almost gave us who we really voted for?
Why would my relatives, in uniform or not,
want to know that,
stifling in the embrace of a fate
much bigger than any whim of Bush the Great
as he seems to see himself?
And why shouldn’t he?
Didn’t he grow up with the kind of privileges
our families couldn’t even guess at?
When I went AWOL for a two-week unplanned
vacation in San Francisco of 1962,
didn’t I come back to a court martial and its consequences?
When he failed to show for weekend duty
in the Texas National Guard during Vietnam
for an entire year, didn’t he get the same pass
he got when reporters let him gas about
how DUIs at forty are just youthful
indiscretions, not the job-losing experiences
they might be for you or me or our families?
But, he never had a job to lose, did he?
Weren’t they just favors from his father’s friends?
And even when he lost them, didn’t somebody else pay
the price, as we are doing now, this night,
especially those paid peanuts to fight
in his place once again?
But is it a whim, or divine right
in his sight, as he’s implied?

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