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

The best erasure poems, as this one, stand alone, but it can be illuminating sometimes to go back and reread the text prior to redaction, and some redaction poets choose to present both the original and the erased text.

In today’s poem, the term “investigative agencies” cannot be found as such in the original Executive Order, but was created by redacting the words between “investigative” and “agencies” in this phrase:

“To temporarily reduce investigative burdens on relevant agencies during the review [emphasis added].”

Likewise, the statement that “Americans must bear hostile attitudes toward founding principles” was achieved by erasing intervening words in this sentence from EO 13679:

“In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles.”

The result after erasure in this case is perhaps the most powerful and startling line of the poem. We have a long tradition of upholding the principles of the founders of this country, even when we disagree on what those principles are, and the idea of an executive order saying we “must bear hostile attitudes” to those principles is shocking. Notice, too, how the word “must” functions on at least two levels, designating something that logic dictates has to be happening as well as the more surface meaning of giving an order to people to bear hostile attitudes. No president would openly order the American people to attack our founding principles, of course, but the poem is saying that the heart and spirit of EO 13679 does exactly that. The order as originally written obscures what the speaker perceives as its real intent—to put whole segments of our population “under erasure.” The technique bears witness to the innate unreadability and bureaucratic absurdity of the original text and also powerfully protests the ban the order seeks to enforce.

“4:42 p.m. EST” ends with anaphora—repetition at the beginnings of lines:

This order shall be construed to impair.
This order shall be implemented.
This order does not create any right or benefit
or equity (f)or Other[emphasis added].

Anaphora is a familiar device in the field of rhetoric and a staple of effective public speakers like Martin Luther King, Jr., who understood its incantatory power to capture the attention and hearts of his audience, and it makes an effective ending to today’s poem. I like the way the items in that series evolve and ratchet up the stakes, from the somewhat vague “construed to impair” to the more stentorian “shall be implemented,” and culminating in a statement that seems to sum up, clearly and simply and without legalese or bombast, exactly what the speaker thinks of this order: it “does not create any right or benefit.”

There is irony in the notion that what is really being said in the executive order cannot be ascertained without first clearing away all the bureaucratic techno-speak, but it also illustrates, rather dramatically, how misquoting things out of context can change the meaning of quoted language. “4:42 p.m. EST” quotes out of context, so isn’t it just another example of “fake news”? Not at all, because this is a poem, not news, and it does not purport to be something that actually emanated from the White House. In fact, its epigraph explicitly states up front that is an “erasure” of such a missive. It’s not fake news for the same reason that Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds is not revisionist history: it clearly announces itself as art, and not as news or historical fact.

As a child in grade school, I was taught that America was founded and built by immigrants, and to cherish the notion of the great melting pot that keeps it, like a diversified gene pool, healthy, strong, and innovative. My ancestors were from somewhere else, and unless you are Native American, it’s a good bet yours were, too. Now is not the first time America has turned its back on the expansive give-me-your-tired-masses welcome promised by our Statue of Liberty, but still I cannot help wondering how we could have forgotten so completely the principles the country was built on. Poems like “4:42 p.m. EST” help us remember, and I am grateful for them.

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