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March 01, 2009
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Excerpt from Pieces of Intelligence by Hart Seely
The poetry of D. H. Rumsfeld (as he is known to the literary cognoscenti) demands to be read aloud. Like the epics of Homer, or modern African-American street poetry, Rumsfeld's oeuvre originated as oral improvisation, initially heard only by hard-bitten reporters and round-the-clock viewers of C-SPAN. Unlike most modern poets, who closet themselves with pen in hand, Rumsfeld surrenders to his poetic muse when confronting the boom microphones and iron-willed interrogators of the Washington press corps. During news briefings and media interviews, Rumsfeld quietly inserts haiku, sonnets, free verse, and flights of lyrical fancy into his responses, embedding the verses within the full transcripts of his sessions, which are published on the U.S. Defense Department's website.
A former Navy pilot, congressman, White House chief of staff, and pharmaceutical executive, not to mention a two-time secretary of defense, Rumsfeld has made a career out of turning divergent schools of thought into one coherent message. That versatility is reflected in his poetry.
At times, Rumsfeld composes in jazzy, lyrical riffs that pulsate with the rhythm of his childhood on the streets of Chicago. From there, he'll unfurl a Homeric tale cautioning us about the ways of bureaucracy. He'll fire off rounds of irony with a Western cowboy's sensibility, enough for some to call him "America's poet lariat." Or in poems like "The Unknown," his most disturbing work, Rumsfeld mixes Zen-like enlightenment and indifference, probably culled from his many trips to the Far East. "There are some things we do not know," the poet warns. "But there are also unknown unknowns."
For all its known and unknown unknowns, Pieces of Intelligence is less about national affairs than about the poet himself. From the era when gas stations held "little things" of glass to the leak-filled corridors of present-day Washington, Rumsfeld stands out as a man whose quest for real answers long ago required the kinds of questions no reporter dared to ask. "What in the world am I doing here?" he says, in "A Confession." His answer is no less a riddle. "It's a big surprise," and nothing more.
Sometimes comic, sometimes dark, D. H. Rumsfeld's poetry is irreverent but always relevant, occasionally structurally challenged and always structurally challenging. Pieces of Intelligence is the U.S. defense secretary's long-awaited first collection, combining precision-guided insights and a revolution in metaphorical affairs, to take the reader on a dazzling journey of the spoken verse.