Friday, January 20, 2017

Thought Provokers


They finally found him –
that anonymous guy
who faced down a line of tanks
in Tiananmen square
that day in 1989
in that shot that
stopped the world
in its tracks
and seared the retina
of the globe
like a soldering iron
to the eye
and made you chew
your lip like jerky
at what actual courage
looked like –
a skinny crazy guy
so way out and alone
and far beyond mercy
poking a beautiful
brave blood flower
down the barrel
of Mao’s old
faceless metal beast

Yeah, Tankman!
They found him!

And now he’s found an agent
and done Oprah
and ghostwrote a bestseller
and they’re making the film
with Jackie Chan
and he’s putting his name
to a Revolutionary clothing brand
with a cute little tank logo, and …

It’s nice he didn’t die.
But I dunno, maybe
some things are best left
to the imagination
where they’re free to live
bigger, richer lives.

Like, I never want to know
who Jack the Ripper ‘really’ was,
would be happier if the Titanic
had been left to lie, undiscovered,
encrusting mystery in the depths
of the mind …

I mean good luck to Tankman
plucked from obscurity like he was
from flipping eggs in that Shandong Diner

He’s big now, a ‘brand ambassador’.
Only careful what you wish for.
We wanted him and now he’s here –

moved on from that old massacre
to a much bigger campaign
doing ads for Tourism China

– Tug Dumbly

This is a fantasy, of course – not the original incident, which was very real and widely witnessed, but Tank Man's current history as imagined by the poet. Wikipedia outlines the original event (too momentous, after all, to be called a mere 'incident') and makes it clear that the man's subsequent fate is unknown.

(I can't show you the famous photo as it is clearly subject to stricter copyright than covered by our usual disclaimer. However, the same Wikipedia article includes it if you would like to refresh your memory. Instead, this intriguing photo of Tug Dumbly perhaps makes a fitting statement.)

I came across this poem just before the US election, and then thought I couldn't include it here immediately, because everything political (and pretty much everything else too) would inevitably be seen through that filter at that time. In the aftermath, with the inauguration looming as I write, perhaps that still pertains; but I could wait forever – interest in the new US President is not going to go away – so I'm posting regardless. 

I don't actually see this poem as political criticism, so much as social satire.

How stirring the first stanza is! And indeed, it was a heroic gesture. And what do we do with our heroes in today's world? We like to turn them into celebrities – not quite the same thing. And of course, many of our celebrities are not heroic at all but have other claims to fame, from genuine musical or sporting talent to big boobs or pots of money.

Some heroes are not admired at the time, perhaps quite the reverse. Whistle blowers risk imprisonment. One Australian of the Year earned widespread public opprobrium for daring to be proud of his Aboriginality. Even in this poem, the fictional celebrity of Tankman happens many years after his real act of heroism.

Then again, perhaps it is political commentary after all. Wheels coming full circle and all that. Revolutionaries, if they succeed, may become the next generation of tyrants ... or acquiescent advertisements for the status quo. 

Well, those are some of the things it puts me in mind of. What does it say to you, I wonder? (I'd love to hear your responses in the comments.)

I've shared Tug Dumbly's work with you twice before in 'I Wish I'd Written This'. If it wasn't for my commitment to bring you a variety of poetic voices in my Friday columns, it could be a lot more. He keeps writing poems that absolutely blow me away. 

To refresh your memory about his life and work, check details and links at this post.

Material shared in 'Thought Provokers' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings remain the property of the copyright owners, usually their authors.


  1. a very timely selection..the poem reflects modern times...(seeing some of the brand ambassadors, on TV of course, i almost feel the same way the poet feels about them)...

  2. I was so moved by that lone man facing down the tanks in Tiannamen Square. I was glad to read that the poem is fiction, as it was amusing, wonderful social satire especially the doing Oprah. I love this poet's voice and think he'should onto something with his photo.....I should try one with a scarf over the lower half of my face, lol. Thanks for the smile this morning, Rosemary, and for your always interesting thoughts in your feature.

  3. Darned autocorrect....meant he is onto something.

  4. I remember this clever sensitive poet. I wish he had made up the poem without the Tank Man, whose death I marked--possible execution 14 days after the event and then again several months later. If not executed, he was in deep hiding. What do we do with our heroes? Do we insist on execution/martyrdom, refuse to allow them to make a living? It is a dilemma, isn't it? Clearly this is an effective poem. I'm very glad he didn't use Rachel Corrie or the Unknown Soldier. Gosh! I had no idea I had such strong feelings about these courageous people. I'm trying to think of one who actually made a brand out of their deed and cannot think of one. Can you?

    1. 'Gosh! I had no idea I had such strong feelings ... '
      – Thought Provokers mission accomplished! (Also, satire aims to make us uncomfortable.)

  5. Another great poem from Tug Dumbly and an interesting write by yourself Rosemary. Satire plays vital role in our literature and society. What actually happened to this particular hero is another story of course.

    1. Yes. As indicated above, my searches suggested his fate is unknown. But it seems from Susan's comment that he may have suffered retribution – which, sadly, is all too believable.

  6. As satire, it works well. There's always a hint of a possible truth, even if it is fiction. I would love to see more of this poet's work.

  7. Thank you all for taking the trouble to leave a comment; much appreciated. And to the other 130 viewers of this post (so far) – thanks for having a look!


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