Sunday, March 15, 2020

Review: Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy by Ed Sanders

Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. KennedyBroken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy by Ed Sanders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm grateful whenever anyone has the courage to write a book that tells dangerous truths, especially about American history during and after the creation of the CIA at the end of WWII. Like so many, I have a deep passion for the authentic leaders of the 1960's whose lives of prophetic courage were snuffed out by the lawless militarists they dared to oppose. President Kennedy, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) were murdered by the U.S. national security state. Evidence, investigations, and legal proceedings in each case were grossly sabotaged by the FBI and the on-site urban police departments (Dallas, Memphis, NYC, and L.A., respectively), in support of a bogus official narrative that protected the actual planners and perpetrators. Some of those went unidentified; all went unpunished, and to this day there are a few thousand intellectual prostitutes whose "respectable" task is to repeat the official lies and marginalize (ignore, mock, trivialize, pathologize, pity, or revile) their dissenting opponents.

These histories form major elements of my worldview, and the tragically charismatic figures at their centers have shaped my sense of human nature at its best. One of my own books is a poetry collection, fifty 14-line elegies for President Kennedy called Limousine, Midnight Blue. Another is my blank verse translation of Sophocles' Three Theban Plays (Oedipus, Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus), which is dedicated to the memory of Robert F. Kennedy. So when someone writes a long POEM about the murder of RFK, I become immediately interested. With his new book "Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy," Ed Sanders does the USA a service by telling the truth: that the RFK Assassination was not the mad act of yet another lone nut; it was, in the words of former FBI Agent William Turner, "a CIA hit, from start to finish." For Sanders' courage in telling this truth--and for his clear and compelling account of the King Assassination, in this same book--I have great respect, and gratitude.

As a literary work, however, "Broken Glory" is a disappointment. Almost all of it is simply expository prose, lineated as verse. Most of the book comprises chunks of other people's discourse, quoted directly from historical documents (speeches, FBI reports, interviews, depositions); these are mostly well-chosen and well-assembled, but it's not at all clear why Sanders chose to put it all onto the page as verse. It's prose. Maybe Sanders thought he was emulating the political-historical poetry of Peter Dale Scott, who is both a real historian and a real poet, whose many works in both genres (i.e., books of historical scholarship, and books of poetry about history) are brilliant and important. In "Minding the Darkness," "Listening to the Candle," and other works of historical poetry, Scott often quotes from prose documents and lineates those quotations as verse, which Sanders does throughout "Broken Glory." But Peter Dale Scott's historical poems always have many dimensions: personal experience, philosophical reflection, religious thinking, ethical wisdom, and above all, poetic language. By contrast, Sanders' "Broken Glory" offers very little poetry, and is marred by the impulsive sloppiness ("first thought, best thought," remember?) which the Beats and the Yippies associated with authenticity. A few examples:

p. 68, "the upmost loyalty..." The word is utmost. Upmost is not a word.
p. 70, "the doursome J. Edgar Hoover..." The word is dour. Doursome is not a word.
p.132, "sleazesome..." I guess this word is a deliberate invention, but it's lost on me.

When Sanders does go for poetry, the results are not strong. Of 4-4-68, the day of Dr. King's execution, he writes: "The dire day of Dream-Doom / whirls with hidden fury / years & years later, / for an evil that Evil wants kept in the cauldron / evil'd forth that bright spring Southern day..."

The book's finale occurs on its final two pages, with a sudden switch to short lines:


Oh, won't somebody please tell me why
the guns aim so often to the left

It wounded the nation
in countless ways,
wounded her history
the rest of her days.

It wounded the future
Like Lincoln amort
Or Roosevelt sinking
and the A-bomb's retort.

Tell me again why the guns
always aim to the left?
with gun powder ballots
& voting with knife-heft

I'll stop there; you get the point. This is a mess--the capitalization, the lineation, the punctuation, and the meter are each in disarray. The word choices are unfortunate (amort... knife-heft).

Each of us is a product of his times, and I know Ed Sanders is a very different sort of poet from Peter Dale Scott, or Robert Lowell, or Yeats--poets who have tried to write a poetry of public life (epic) in an idiom of privately felt passion (lyric). Surely his artistic aims and his ideas about poetry are so different from mine that I am making the mistake of judging his good orange as a bad apple. It seems to me his style might be best appreciated by readers who love Allen Ginsberg or William Burroughs, writers whose breezy contempt for craft was widely regarded as liberated and liberating, rather than lazy and vain. That said, I'll put aside my criticism of Sanders' poetry and close with some recognition of the politics, where I think this book succeeds.

The flap copy has a bio of Sanders which notes, "He was also a founding member of the satiric folk-rock band The Fugs as well as the Yippies." Now, I was born in 1968. Sanders was at the heart of the counterculture which I only glimpse in books and films. I don't know what I'm talking about. But from my perspective, the Yippies were a very white, middle class, male bunch of folks who believed that the best way to stop the War in Vietnam would be a relapse into the pseudo-political surrealism and Dada which the French had enjoyed fifty years before then. Ancient Rome's insane Emperor Caligula was thought to have appointed his favorite horse to the Senate--a tyrant using an absurd gesture to mock the powerlessness of the old aristocracy. The Yippies outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago nominated a pig for President--in doing so, they were apparently mocking the militarist juggernaut which the presidency had become since the murder of JFK. But weren't they also emulating Caligula, mocking the whole process instead of working to reform it? Eight years later, the Yippies nominated "Nobody for President." RFK once reminded his audience that Plato used the word "idiot" to refer to people who had no interest in the political life of their own cities. RFK was serious. Fred Hampton was serious. Helen Caldecott was serious, and she still is. Bernie Sanders was serious, and he still is, though he can laugh when the time is right. I wasn't there; I was a baby. I don't claim to understand what it was like to be a draft-age man in 1968. But from my perspective, it seems as if things might've gone better if more folks shifted their focus from dropping acid (which the CIA fed them through Timothy Leary) to investigating the political assassinations (as did Vincent Salandria, Peter Dale Scott, Mae Brussel, et al.) that had made possible the whole disaster. That respect for structure and institutions--as necessary and stable frameworks for a living charisma, not dead substitutes for it--might also have spared us a few million lines of distastefully uninhibited "free verse." But I digress.

On page 124, Sanders seems to transcend his youthful identity with a wise hindsight born of experience: "On May 7 / RFK won his first primary in Indiana. / The Yippies in New York, / eager for confrontation at the Democratic Convention, / I remember were glum that Kennedy was able to reach out to the people / in ways that war-painted dope-jousters / could not..." Wow. Interesting.

I'm very impressed by the sobriety, the moral imagination, and the introspective courage it must have taken for a (former?) Yippee to celebrate, with love and grief, the life of Senator Robert F. Kennedy--a suit-wearing, wealthy, erudite, populist aristocrat who had once been the chief law enforcement figure in the U.S. government, later transformed by loss and agony, and compelled into a prophetic vocation by the depth of his nature.

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