Poetry Sunday: “4:42 p.m. EST,” by Janet Jennings

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Executive Order 13769, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” was in effect from January 27, 2017 until it was superseded on March 26, 2017 by Executive Order 13780. EO 13769 reduced the number of refugees into the United States to 50,000, suspended the Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely, and suspended for 90 days the entry of all people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, SomaliaSudanSyria, and Yemen.

Quickly labeled the “Travel Ban” or “Muslim Ban” for the way it seemed to target Muslim-majority countries, EO 13769 sparked immediate protests and legal challenges, and a nationwide temporary restraining order was issued on February 3, 2017, and upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The order was widely criticized for vagueness and xenophobia by bipartisan members of Congress, universities, business leaders, Catholic bishops, high-ranking United Nations officials, U.S. diplomats and allies, and others.

Today’s poem is based on the text of the original order, which you can read here. All the words in today’s poem appear somewhere in EO 13769, but almost none are in the revised EO13780 (seen here). For example, if you search the original order you will find “civil unrest,” “founding principles,” “violent ideologies,” and “bigotry,” but these words do not appear anywhere in the second, revised order. Interesting, right? I guess the drafters had to do a little erasing of their own.

The technique of erasure begins with a received text, in this case the first executive order, then strategically redacts material from it with an eye to what will be left, a new text with a new meaning not necessarily related to that of the original.

Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.

Let’s look at that idea of “purposeful decision making.” When using erasure, the poet must interrogate every word in the received text and then decide whether keeping it furthers his or her intentions for the new piece. Here, the intent seems to be subversion of the original text by exposing its inherent hypocrisies and underlying nationalism, xenophobia and authoritarianism. Because erasure begins with “an existing piece of writing,” it is also a species of allusion, one where every word in the poem alludes to the text it came from. Moreover, it is a species of the so-called “found” poem that consists of encountered text, sometimes reformatted or highlighted in ways to make it read more like poetry.

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