In her introduction to Nick Lantz's debut collection of poetry, We Don't Know We Don't Know (Graywolf Press), Linda Gregerson calls Donald Rumsfeld the book's muse. And it's true, though the former Secretary of Defense is present in ways that might surprise you.
Lantz's book is broken into four sections, their titles taken from epistemological terms Rumsfeld used in talking publicly about terrorism in 2002: Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, Unknown Unknowns and Unknown Knowns. The eeriest, of course, is the "unknown unknowns" -- the things we don't know we don't know. Quotes from Rumsfeld's speeches, which possess a weird poetry of their own, appear as epigraphs for several of the poems.
Lantz says he had the book's title and structure set down before he ever started writing the poems.
"When I first encountered that amazing 'we don't know we don't know' quote, I was struck by how precisely and skillfully he was using language," says Lantz via e-mail from his home in Madison, Wis. "It was a lot like poetry's ugly double, in that Rumsfeld's intent was to use language very cynically to deflect a question, to get away from the truth. What he's saying is technically true ... but that distinction wasn't at all germane to the question that was being put to him.
"If poetry uses language to reveal the truth, Rumsfeld was using language to conceal the truth, and that intrigued me."
The book's other muse is Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher who wrote Naturalis Historia, a kind of encyclopedia of the natural world. Lantz's poems, together with quotations from the work, show an interest in the ways other animals organize themselves -- the orderliness of bees, the way swallows make their perfect nests out of straw, mud and their own spit.
Sometimes Lantz's people intersect with nature in ways that jostle. In "Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake," dementia is making the narrator's mother strange. She buries things in the backyard, including the knives and forks: "flatware that looks like / the silver bones of some exquisite / animal."
It's a smart and subtle commentary. See, Rumsfeldisms notwithstanding, these aren't really political poems, which can be boring in their outrage. They're about the whole world, and they put humans in their right place in it. Full of life and of the small domestic details that set whole scenes to motion, they live in the reader's mind after the fact like short stories can, like real life does.
"I worked very hard to stay away from political topics or agendas when writing poems for the book," Lantz says. "I think the biggest political statement in poems like that is that I'm trying to take language back from politics by using that language for some other purpose."
Nick Lantz and fiction writer Laura van den Berg read at the Gist Street Reading Series. 8 p.m. Fri., May 7. James Simon sculpture studio, 305 Gist St., Uptown. $10. www.giststreet.org