George Witte’s Deniability is a well written, well thought out collection of poetry filled with poetic masterpieces. Deniability is broken up into three parts and within them we are taken from Ground Zero to the monotony of daily commutes to war to media bombardment and beyond. Witte voices his opinion of a post 911 world by showing his readers rather than by telling them. His poems are accessible and filling on a light level but offer so much more literary value when examined under a close read. Witte also further confines himself (as we are all confined) with syllabic boundaries, delivering work that is symmetrical and orderly, akin to a clockwork orange, in a disorderly world.
Part one of Deniability primarily deals with Manhattan life. With great skill and precision, Witte interlaces Greek mythology and symbolism into his works. He shows the reader that some people have the ability to open their eyes, they are in fact aware of the automatic society we have created and questions the rat race. Some notable poems of section one deserving a close read are “Sunday Morning Hangover” and “Elsewhere” (in addition to those outlined below).
In “The Revellers” Witte describes a normal commute scene. This commute is more than a commute but moreover a daily descent into hell. A presumed bum oversees the events, acting as a ferryman of the subway (a proverbial river Styx ) whom is there to collect a toll from passengers. The Charon, or bum, is adorned with tattoos, which Witte describes as a “presidential V”, almost a sort of ‘medal of honor’ of the underworld. Our hero of “The Revellers” continues a ritual of sucking tokens from the turnstile slot (“He bends again to mouth the metal nipple” [the only regular sustenance he has]) and commuters carry on with their commute or “descent.”
In “Classical Subjects” Witte breaks the poem into three sections. The first section is presumed an ekphrasis of a painting. The scene described is the mythological story of Apollo flaying Marsyas. The specific painting of subject is possibly Flaying of Marsysas by Tiziano Vecellio, however the “cat” referenced in Witte’s poem would be an ekphrastic non sequitur, because Vecellio’s painting clearly shows a dog lapping up the blood. Irrespective of the specific piece of art described, the mythological story and most paintings of Apollo flaying Marsyas communicate the same parallel Witte makes in the second section of the poem. In the second section Witte describes in detail the images of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and their mistreatment. Those photographs, while they are a brutal display of inhumane acts, also could be taken out of context, much like the flaying of Marsyas. Acts of terrorism compared to Apollo being issued a musical challenge. In part three, we are taken to the Genesis of “Classical Subjects” and Witte talks about writing the poem on a subway car “collecting evidence against/ humanity’s inheritance” (Which Witte has done throughout Deniability, making his case). He is approached by a bum and describes the bum’s feet as being “flayed”, a reference to part one. Perhaps the bum has been flayed by society…? (What is his crime?)
Section one is ended with the poem “The Ticket”. Here Witte drives home a major theme of his book; “Yet still be dead, the body’s/Reflexive dumb machinery/Chattering like a cash box gone awry/While soul slips quietly out,”. We’re in an automatic society, teetering on the edge of soullessness and need to wake up.
The depth and thickness of Witte’s political statements in section two knows no bounds. In section two Witte makes several Judeo-Christian (mainly Christian) references. One more than one occasion he refers to the wars we are in as “crusades” and those in the war as “crusaders.” In “Occupation” we’re told that “We’re deputized to conquer Babylon .” Over and over again, Witte rehashes the amount of hypocrisy that has taken place with our ‘war on terror’, the constant media bombardment, the ‘lies’ or truth stretching (“Fooled twice we’re not ashamed—sincere/incompetence builds character— /but err again, apologize/for circumstance beyond control,” or “…how’s intelligence/know missile shed from shadow,…”) and brings it to surface under the auspice of Presidential (& Presidential cabinet) deniability. All of this is particularly important especially because the constant ‘reaffirmation’ that our “war on terror” is not a religion based war but one serving the better good of the world at large.
At the end of section two we are given the title poem “Deniability”, which touches on the themes of constant surveillance and ‘bad’ intelligence. These themes and the themes throughout the work poignantly reminds us that the free and great nation we live in has closely approached that of a fascist state. Both the people and the state have entered into a full state of deniability, where we happily eat what we are fed, without question or quam, as long as prime-time news continues to deliver the dramas we most desire and our leadership continues to cut the quality of information.
Section three continues to build on the fore-blazed themes. The poems in the latter third of Deniability points out our addition to the conspiracy of it all. The poems resound with the same paranoia that old wives tales concerning razor blades in apples (false) and “snoopy stamps” that are purposely laced with LSD to get children to trip (also false). Here Witte takes the everyday events and examines them under a microscope making the point that if you look for something you will find it…if we’re looking for terror, we’re going to find it.
In “The Third Pig” Witte plays off of the classic children’s story “The Three Little Pigs.” In Witte’s revival we’re again bombarded with paranoia. Also in this adaptation there is a loss of innocence, our bedtime stories having come to life to plague us and we’re left with a contemporary ending “the mine canary whistling one/ inquiring note into the dark,/ then pausing to inhale, and wait.” The real question arises, “are we doomed in this metaphoric mine we call reality in the 21st century?”
Overall, Deniability is a master-work and Witte is a writer that must not escape below the radar. His poems can be appreciated on a surface level but, in reality full justice to the writer must be delivered by giving him a close read. Deniability is a collection of craft and will hopefully continue to be celebrated for years to come.
Visit George Witte online.
About the reviewer:
John Petrolino is a United States Merchant Marine officer and the author of two collections of poetry: Galleria and Congo Lights. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Idiom Magazine, Eviscerator Heaven, The Bradstock Journal, Write On!! Magazette, The Working Tools Magazine, The New Jersey Freemason, The Storm Generation Magazine, WestWard Quarterly, The Istanbul Literary Review, Exit 13, The Sandstorm Gallery, The Bayshore News Online, The Monmouth County Monitor newspaper group, Rock Candy, Hot Tea Cold Water, The Journal of New Jersey Poets, Lips, The Shot Glass Journal and on poetryvlog.com, identitytheory.com, and wordriot.org. Mr. Petrolino was also featured on the newly released World Spirit film Greenwich Village and was a 2009 Poet Laureate nominee for the Asbury Music Awards. He continues to work on his poetry and other works while aboard ship, traveling, or at home. Be sure to visit him on the Web at www.johnpetrolino.com.