A collection of poems battles against groupthink and fake freedom.
In the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky imagines a conversation between a medieval Spanish priest and Jesus. The Inquisitor’s point in this exchange is that liberty is terrifying—and that real freedom is both a rarer and more daring thing than most people acknowledge. Flaherty (Ebbing and Fibbing, 2012) sings a similar tune in his delightfully idiosyncratic new verse volume. In “Myopic Freedom,” he writes: “We think we’re free / because we’re not shackled / and we get to choose which shoes to wear today. / We think we’re free / because we’re not kept in a cage / and can move from the sofa to the supermarket / when our favorite snacks need replenishing.” For the author, obviously, such “freedom” is nominal at best, and readers are actually all in irons, whether they care to admit it or not. Flaherty, on the other hand, is looking for a truer liberty: “There must be more to liberty than / being free from foreign rule, as our own rulers’ / star is diminishing, with them on their way / to becoming clones of their foes, / leaving me baying at my Betsy Ross flag: / gimme liberty I can smell!” The search for this autonomy is the throughline of this piquant collection. In it, the author returns to a few crucial messages: Think for yourself; question authority; and don’t tire in your quest for real independence. These are powerful lessons and valuable antidotes to complacency and apathy. And they are skillfully delivered in rousing poetry. Compressed into deftly crafted stanzas, Flaherty’s exhortations jump right off the page. And he mixes them with several pencil-drawn images by debut illustrator Dale that add variety and a rough charm to the whole enterprise. The book’s only flaw is the author’s diction, which sometimes feels fancy or forced. For instance, in a poem about a group of antelopes, he writes: “When a predator was sensed approaching / the herd’s chronic druthers was fleeing.” The passive voice in the first line robs it of its drama, and the phrase “chronic druthers” in the second is both nonstandard and just plain awkward. Flaherty should feel free to keep streamlining his otherwise effective poetry.
A bracing, poetic call for readers to break loose from their chains.