Notwithstanding Lee Sharkey’s essay/review on the poets Kazim Ali and Brian Teare, this entire volume of BPJ features just one poet, Michael Broek—more precisely, his series of thirty poems titled The Logic of Yoo. Reading the collection is a transforming experience. The series tackles the problem of violence in modern history. The problem is approached without preaching or thundering. A protagonist—a doctoral student—researches the topic, not because he is passionate about it or wants to rid the world of violence, but because he is paid for his work. Masterful irony reverberates in the laconism of the student’s research notes, in his quoting factual documents, and in evoking authentic objects, places, and persons.
Irony is introduced at the very beginning of the collection. The first poem “Terra Anthropologica”—a Yeatsian vision of a world that no longer holds—is followed by an e-mail signed by a young woman who uses the pseudonym “Dianthus” (carnation). She addresses the aforementioned doctoral student (identified in the series simply as “he”) to place an order for a paper, which she needs as part of her admission at Harvard. The irony here is multi-layered. Dianthus’s e-mail confirms the image from the previous poem. Everything is upside down, the world no longer holds. Rather than earning her admission to a prestigious school, Dianthus buys it. Her e-mail reflects her profound lack of integrity, of which however she is completely unaware. “He,” too, takes part in the sham. Ironically, he needs money; he has rent to pay.
The paper is to be on John C. Yoo, a highly controversial figure, but Dianthus does not care which side the protagonist will take, as long as he proves a point—any point. As a high-level legal advisor to the Bush administration, John C. Yoo authored the notorious Torture Memos describing, in legal terms, to what extent using torture by the U.S. officials is permitted. Ironically, Yoo, too, is a Harvard graduate. Broek explores the word play engendered by the name Yoo, which sounds identical to the pronoun “you.” As a result, the collection’s title The Logic of Yoo can be interpreted as a direct address to the reader—it now reads “the logic of YOU.” This, in turn, poses a disquieting question: “Is this YOUR logic?”
After the protagonist—the “he”—accepts the order, he researches the topic. His approach is broad, so his notes comprise a mixture of words and phrases. “Shakespeare” occurs next to “torture”; “Harvard’s founding purpose” next to “Code Monkey”; “effects of the waterboard” next to “Gross U.S. receipts for Legally Blonde,” and so on. The tone of the author’s moral disengagement in these notes is unsettling. In fact, they mirror the pragmatic language of John C. Yoo’s memos.
Though “he” has no name, he displays many typical characteristics. “He” writes papers for cash, on all sorts of topics. His usual haunt is the U-District in Seattle; Dick’s drive-in being his favorite. Working, he listens to heavy metal. He smokes cigarettes. Occasionally, he brings a woman to his apartment. In short, he is like anybody else—an everyman. However, the deeply compromised situation in which “he” finds himself—as a disengaged “Bartleby” (as he calls himself in the poem), following orders from various “Dianthuses”—puts a question mark on his lifestyle. One begins to wonder, are all the things “he” experiences and encounters during his research connected? Harvard and Lady Gaga? Unpaid rent and Dark Hate he listens to as a source of “energy to work”? “Code Monkey” and Dianthus, who wants to study history? The murdered Juárez women and an American convenience store? The philosophers Hume and Locke—and John C. Yoo, who in his 1988 article in The Harvard Crimson asks, “And what’s the difference between patenting a small bacteria that eats oil slicks and patenting a small white mouse that develops cancer?”
While “he” is deeply immersed in culture, his research leads him to the roots of culture, history. In Broek’s collection, history is very much a history of violence. The Logic of Yoo is its poetic study. Broek’s ultimate question is, “What makes it possible that a John C. Yoo happens?” As the “he” proceeds in his study of the topic, he undergoes a transformation—discovers perhaps that one must not pay the rent for just any price.
Beloit’s choice to devote this issue to one poet is extremely fortunate. The Logic of Yoo is a fascinating read. Well written, it is erudite and morally relevant; and strikes to the very core of the tragedy of politically sanctioned violence.