Mike Sharpe’s book Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless Otherwise Instructed: Poems and Stories is an interesting book in that it is one of those books which will often be perceived largely through the prism of perspective which one brings to it. It is a book of anti-war poetry and thought by a man who has written on a diverse array of subjects such as economics, politics, and world affairs and authored John Kenneth Kalbraith and the Lower Economics. He was an economic advisor to Senator Birch Bayh and now earns a living as a publisher of academic books; his inspiration for his poetry was the death of a local high school student in Iraq.
The challenge in reading Thou Shalt Not Kill is that it is blunt, raw, and without nuanced artifice. Sharpe himself tells readers that they “don’t have to like poetry” in order to read his book. “I have written nothing esoteric. My meaning is clear. No previous training is necessary. Just start reading!” But poetry is often about inference and subtext, the meaning beyond the words on the page. There’s an old saying I heard once (I can’t remember the source) which suggested that a short story writer is little more than a failed poet, and a novelist is just a failed short story writer. In other words, meaning can often be distilled to an essential few thoughts. I’ve often thought that a review should probably be best as a haiku, reducing a work (not to mention existence itself) to a couple lines and a few syllables. Since I’ve never been very good at haiku, however, I guess I’ll have to keep on writing.
Sharpe’s poetry is doesn’t leave much to the imagination, nor is there much of a subtextual component to it. For example, “The War Crimes Trial of George W. Bush” begins with the indictment:
Prosecuting attorney: We charge George W. Bush with war crimes as follows:
He accused Saddam Hussein of possessing weapons of mass destruction and he didn’t have them.
He accused Saddam Hussein of complicity with the terrorists who struck the United States but he was not in complicity.
He launched a war against Iraq, killed and wounded innocent men, women, and children, and ravaged the country.
The poem continues with the defendant’s plea, largely about how “it was reasonable” to act as the president did, leading the presiding judge to conclude:
The court has reached a verdict. In view of the facts that it was reasonable for George W. Bush to assume that Saddam Hussein was reasonable, and that a reasonable person in his position would have weapons of mass destruction, ties to terrorists, and a desire to spare Iraqis death and destruction at the hands of the US military: In view of all these facts, we find President George W. Bush not guilty.
Or in “It’s Hard,” Sharpe writes:
A boy was coming toward me.
His hand was in his pocket.
I shot him.
He had nothing in his pocket but candy.
It’s hard to kill a boy.
Ernesto Quinonez, author of Bodega Dreams, has called this “A great book of poems for our time.” Meanwhile, S.M. Miller, the co-founder of something called United for Fair Economy, says that “Today’s disturbing times need this poetry.” As I read the book, however, I wondered if Sharpe was simply preaching to the choir; I wondered how effective it actually was at transcending the strident irony of his words, which fall with a sort of discordant rhythm (perhaps, however, that discordance is intentional, reflecting an overall sense of a world shoved dramatically out of joint). I mean, to a certain extent it reminded me of listening to Vietnam-era protest songs, but without some of the same vibrant energy and imagery.
In the end, I guess I have to say that the book will undoubtedly resonate with those who share Sharpe’s perspective, and to them the poems will be regarded as transcendent. Likewise, those vehemently disagree with his politics will undoubtedly regard the poems as vitriolic and lacking much in the way of artistic merit. Those who stand somewhere in the middle will find some things of merit (perhaps the poem “The Helpless Giant,” for example) and others which seem to be the poetic equivalent of the bumper sticker “Nobody Died When Clinton Lied.” Despite this, and despite the uneven quality of some of the compositions, it is an intriguing collection in that it represents one man’s heartfelt expressions of anguish, grief, and anger.
More information can be found at the website Everybody for Peace.
Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.