This poem, ‘Passive Voice‘ by Laura Da’, jumped out at me the other morning when I soothed myself with poetry after the morning engagement with the news. The poem attached itself to thoughts about the acceptance and refusal of responsibility; thoughts of “transparency” and accountability, and obfuscation. I wonder if it will strike a chord with you too?
It’s not a poem that demands much unpacking. It is understated, spare, simple and powerful, taking us all the way from the quiet order of intellect and the classroom to the ‘riveted bramble’ and horror evoked in the final stanzas. The imagery in that last stanza is most disturbing; but there’s still a question as to whether those ‘stripped hands’ will reach those ‘young red tongues’? After all, the ‘smirmish…. hostilities… raz[ing]’ are evidenced only by the ‘byway’s historical marker’ (what a wonderful use of detail, to make it a ‘byway’, not just a road: so economical). There’s something poignant about the poem’s hope that the students may ‘recollect’.
All well as making its point about how the passive voice is one way of avoiding taking responsibility (something which feels resonant at the moment!; “mistakes may have been made in the handling of the pandemic….”), the poem reminds us of the difference between report and lived reality. Thinking about that gap took me (no prizes for guessing!) to Middlemarch, and what Eliot calls ‘the roar on the other side of silence’. She notes how ‘that element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.’ I love Eliot’s understanding that sometimes it’s the sheer volume of the bad news—’the very fact of frequency’—which makes it unbearable to stay responsive to all of it, and her acceptance that even the ‘quickest’, most alert and compassionate of us may need ‘wadding’ or protection (I think of those eye-clamps used on Alex in A Clockwork Orange….). At the same time Eliot is pointing out that even an ‘ordinary human life’ involves a lot of ‘roar’. It’s hard being a person at the best of times, and we’re not exactly inhabiting those…
I know a lot of people who rationing their consumption of news lest they ‘die of that roar’; of others, too, who are transfixed by horror and cannot look away. I guess we’re all making decisions about how much we can stand at the moment: what we can cope with, what we have to shut out. It feels like a time which proves the truth of what that other Eliot said: that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’.