Tyehimba Jess’s “Mercy” and Politics in Poetry

I spent some time recently reading and re-reading a few poems by Tyehimba Jess, whose unbelievably precise yet playful mastery of sound really brings something to life in me.  If you want to feel simultaneously parched and full, read his poem “out.”  But I want to talk about his poem “Mercy,” and the ways we’ve discussed politics in poetry this semester.


Tyehimba Jess

the war speaks at night
with its lips of shredded children,
with its brow of plastique
and its fighter jet breath,
and then it speaks at daybreak
with the soft slur of money
unfolding leaf upon leaf.
it speaks between the news
programs in the music
of commercials, then sings
in the voices of a national anthem.
it has a dirty coin jingle in its step,
it has a hand of many lost hands,
a palm of missing fingers,
the stump of an arm that it lost
reaching up to heaven, a foot
that digs a trench for its dead.
the war staggers forward,
compelled, inexorable, ticking.
it looks to me
with its one eye of napalm
and one eye of ice,
with its hair of fire
and its nuclear heart,
and yes, it is so human
and so pitiful as it stands there,
waiting for my hand.
it wants to know my answer.
it wants to know how i intend
to show it out of its misery,
and i only want it
to teach me how to kill.

This poem uses its own formula to create a war man, both literally and figuratively present, who represents both the war machine and the human casualties.  The “lips of shredded children” and the hands made of “lost hands” represent the human loss that war creates, while “fighter jet breath” and “nuclear heart” remind us of the technology of war.  The poem is evocative of the mess a war creates, of destroyed homes and grisly human remains.  I think that this poem is obviously critical of the ways in which warfare destroys humanity in such a vicious manner, but some would argue that the “politics” of this poem aren’t necessary or relevant to the culture and history surrounding poetry.  We’ve had plenty of discussions in workshop about whether or not a poem should tackle such difficult issues, and I’m very squarely planted in pro-politics soil.  I think that we should use poetry as an outlet for human emotions, including the frustration we feel when our governments don’t represent us.  I’m curious to hear from other people, do you think that poetry has a place speaking about political issues, or should poetry stand apart from those issues?

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