In February 2002 at a Department of Defense news briefing, then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, made statements that became infamous for their abstract, almost poetic quality. The part that attracted the most attention was the following exchange between a reporter and Rumsfeld:
Question: Could I follow up, Mr. Secretary, on what you just said, please? In regard to Iraq weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, is there any evidence to indicate that Iraq has attempted to or is willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction? Because there are reports that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.
Rumsfeld: Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
Eight years later, when the irony of that comment is more shocking than its initial obscurity, Rumsfeld’s words have partly inspired a powerful collection of poetry, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know by Nick Lantz. We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is organized into four sections: Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, Unknown Unknowns and Unknown Knowns. Epigraphs from the press conference preface many of the poems. Even more intriguing, however, is that the book draws equal inspiration from the works of Pliny the Elder, a Roman natural philosopher who died in the year 79 AD.
Any poem could collapse under the expectations of premises like these, but Lantz crafts his poems so skillfully that they catch you by surprise when they suddenly break your heart. Just try to read “Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake” and not feel sucker-punched.
“Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?” is composed entirely of questions posed to a would-be interrogator. As they relentlessly progress from tactics to the interrogator’s state of mind, the poem gathers momentum and emotional weight. The way this shapes the questioner’s character is reminiscent of Nick Flynn’s examination of culpability, terrorism and interrogation in his memoir The Ticking is the Bomb.
Lantz isn’t afraid to attempt such feats of bravado, but his tone is so restrained and grounded in detail that he pulls it off every time. He makes use of surprising techniques, like censoring lines in “Will There Be More Than One ‘Questioner’?” In another poem, “[ ],” which begins,”Eve refuses to name the animals,” he uses blank spaces in the title and body of the poem to emphasize contrast ideas of sound, silence and naming.
Tricks like these would seem gimmicky if they didn’t work on so many levels. The poems consistently refer to knowing and not knowing. “______, For Which There Is No Translation,” lists a series of definitions impossible to articulate in a single term. We’re left to guess whether words exist in other languages to describe them. The poems often associate scientific, historical and personal images to achieve an element of strangeness. “Translation” works across time and experience, juxtaposing a lost boat in a fishing village and ”the bereaved man…seeing some small object / askew: half-flayed orange / left on the table.”
If, once you’ve finished We Don’t Know We Don’t Know, you can’t get enough of Nick Lantz, you’re in luck. We Don’t Know We Don’t Know is his first book, but this year he also published his second one, entitled The Lightning that Strikes the Neighbor’s House. What’s more, it’s an equally solid, compelling work. Here’s a video of Nick Lantz reading from that collection, with “The Year We Blew Up the Whale”:
Publishing two stellar books of daredevil poetry in one year seems an unlikely feat for a writer. Maybe Nick Lantz knows something we don’t.