Skimming the pages of this book for the first time feels like one has discovered a guide for dismantling the American Empire. Like Dunn, Pan is concerned with the systems of meaning that power the status quo. But unlike Dunn, who focused on the people closest to the subject as victims, Pan’s attends the everyday tyranny and powerlessness many of us feel watching the news. In “Bedford Avenue L,” one of the collection’s opening poems, he writes:
“This is the moment I tell you you will be okay
& this is the moment you say no.
I do not know who I am telling this to.
I do not know myself at this moment,
& I do not know you. But hey buddy, hold on.”
These words arrive like a middle-of-the-night text message from a person unsure of everything except his own presence. Pan hopes this realization is enough to carry all of us past the current extremis in which we reside. There is an urgency in his gaze equal parts Whitmanian, equal parts tech-beleaguered 21st century global citizen. The opening of “Ethos” borrows more than a little from fellow Whitmanian Allen Ginsberg:
amore, I can’t
But while Ginsberg contemplated the spiritual betrayal of the Cold War in “Howl” and “America” (which inspired the lines above), Pan evinces the same illness in the separation of people from each other by borders, both real and emotional. In “A Brother Returns,” an incarcerated brother is freed from the shame his crime is in any way unique:
“the lie we tell ourselves of learning
From previous mistakes,
When you & I both know we learn best by living out
Regret in utter self-
Deflating repetition, dry-docking our hopes to pills
Or some other intangible…”
Pan delves into the operating systems of Wall Street and the entertainment industry. But his greatest scorn—as well as his greatest feeling of resistance—arises from technology. “The Performance,” one of the most inspired and inspiring pieces in the collection, combines prepared text with tweets selected from the live stream that appeared during a live reading. At moments, the 140-character effusions are no better than Twitter on any given night, but from the selections in the book, the prompt seemed to guide the audience towards something beyond the tapping of fingers: a Whitmanian connection untrammeled by the particulars of identity, life history or circumstance.
The collection finds its greatest accomplishment, however, in the twenty-page poem that comprises the final section. “Ode to the MQ-9 Reaper” is an irregular ode, whose reflection on one of the deadliest drones in U.S. military history traces the same flightpath as Shelley’s “Skylark.” Pan’s attentive gaze examines every inch of the weapon with the same fierceness and dark humor Gregory Corso brought forth in “BOMB,” a calligram, or a shaped poem, from his third collection, The Happy Birthday of Death: “As an instrument sacrificing nothing of itself, you are a tool, Reaper—a dumb bucket of brimstones & nothing more.”
The call to sacrifice in the moment forms the core of Operation Systems. The sense of immediacy is realized in the closing sections of the ode, where the speaker seems to become the drone, applying its visual-targeting system to the proximate details of his life. The work closes with a quiet affirmation that absorbs the mission of the book’s epigraph, taken from Camus’ notebooks from the opening years of World War II: “Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.”