The Republic of Virtue
by Paul Lake.
University of Evansville Press, 2013.
Hardcover, 80 pages, $15.

The title poem of Paul Lake’s The Republic of Virtue begins like Genesis. “In Year One,” he writes, “the month of Vintage, time began.” Instead of the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, “Fog hovered above the earth, like an emanation / Of spirits underground.”

What follows, however, is a retelling of Robespierre’s France after the Revolution—the so-called Republic of Virtue whose goal was to throw off the shackles of a “tyrannical” Christian morality and replace it with “liberty and equality.” Instead, Robespierre renamed vice virtue, associated terror with justice, and executed dissenters in the guise of defending freedom:

“Revolutions, my friend, are not made out of rosewater,”
Cried Danton, as The Committee of Public Safety
Sent spies among the crowd to sniff complaints.
Addressing fellow citizens as “Ladies”
Could lead to steps where other traps were sprung
And heads sent rolling. “If virtue be the spring
Of government in peace,” roared Robespierre,
“The spring of government in revolution
Is virtue joined with terror.…” In Thermidor,
The month of heat, his words rolled to their term
Among piled corpses. Women doused the ground
With rosewater, as choirs of children cheered,
Rags pressed against their mouths to blunt the odor.

Lake’s skillful skewering of Robespierre’s hubris and the Revolution’s misguided attempt to remake society is both elegant and powerful. The Republic’s hypocrisy would be almost comical if it weren’t also true.

But the poem also reminds us that France, recently terrorized for its freedom of speech, once terrorized those who opposed its definition of freedom. This should in no way temper condemnation of the Charlie Hebdo murders. But it should discourage simplistic dichotomies and jingoisms. France and the United States have a high view of freedom and tolerance, but as this poem and the rest of Lake’s volume shows, that commitment is not always as unwavering as we like to think.

One of Lake’s preoccupations is the use of language to deceive or confuse. In “Epilogue to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’,” a poem in which Lake recasts the classic fairy tale in modern times, the Emperor appoints one of the charlatan weavers as his “Minister of Information” to spin “Transparent fictions into lines / And patterns to clothe royal sins / And cloak imperial designs” on the nightly news. The other becomes a “tenured chair” and “employs his language games / To show what lies beneath all texts / Is nothingness.”

In Lake’s view, relativism, coupled with a “critical theory” whose goal is to undermine meaning itself, are the enemies of community and tolerance despite presenting themselves as champions of difference. In reality, these two forces demonize difference and gnaw at the threads of the cooperation needed for complex societies to flourish. In “Intolerance: A Memo,” for example, Lake writes, “Hate means whatever public voices say; / Inflaming first the hater, then the hated, // It spreads whenever ideas are debated / That might cause some discomfort or dismay.” And in “Allegory of Bees,” he writes:

Affectless drones, observing the wild dance
Of honey-drudgers, smile with condescension
At the ecstatic mass’s naive notion
That waggled steps can measure a straight course
To hidden nectar, or unplotted land
Be spanned and mapped by buzzing blurring signs,
While honey-drudgers leave in steady lines,
Tracking the legend to its honeyed source.

In “A Language Game,” Lake turns Gertrude Stein’s remark that “A rose is a rose is a rose” on its head. While “skeptics claim,” Lake writes, that “All words are null and void,” the end result of this idea is to make “only skeptics, trapped in sentencing, […] null and void.” Critical theory, Lake suggests, will destroy itself, like the Ouroboros, but perhaps only after causing irreparable damage.

This does not mean that Lake espouses a simplistic view of language or poetry. Poetry is an object, shaped by its own sound and meaning, that also reflects the mind and the material world. It is neither an autonomous artifact nor a mere mirror. In “Echoes,” Lake imagines a dolphin “bored with his one-sided conversation / With ocean floors and passing schools of fish” turning to “higher forms of mimicry.” He “imitates his own returning wave / With cunningly cast measures that behave / To dolphin ears like carvings by Bernini, / Transforming shoal and branching coral reef / To frozen arias of sculpted sound.”

For Lake, the abuse of language is not limited to plutocrats or fat academics at elite institutions. In fact, it often begins in smaller, initially powerless groups looking to reshape society to their advantage. In “End of the Road,” he writes:

When all roads led to Rome,
unRoman ways
made inroads
into Rome
so Rome’s ways changed.
Now when strangers go
to Rome,
to do what Romans do,
neither they
nor Romans know
what Romans do, to do,

some even deeming
it unRoman
they once knew.

Other poems deal more directly with the war of cultures or nations, and the sad fact that violence and terrorism show no signs of ending any time soon. In “Lessons from Gaza,” Lake retells the story of Samson and asks, “What is the moral of this tale?” “What else,” he writes, “but that, when building nations, / To nurse a grudge for generations; / To preface slaughter with a prayer; / To jawbone foes when weapons fail; / To stand apart while losing jackals; / To catch your foes packed into temples / Or market squares and kill wholesale.”

The volume isn’t all politics and satire, however. The first section contains a number of lyrics touching on the family, and there is a selection of poems on the craft of poetry. In “Home Free,” for example, Lake addresses a teenage daughter who storms out of the house in “adolescent pique.” “At first, I spurn the bait,” he writes,

And watch the clock and phone
With feigned indifference,
Refusing to succumb
To scenes imagination
Plays on its lurid screen,
Till out of patience and
Heart climbing in my throat,
I grab my keys, cell phone,
And hit the empty street
To track your shadow down
Among the leafy shades
And mildly spreading lawns
Of our small Southern town.

The daughter is found, but she refuses to return home, “However much I chide, / or threaten and cajole.” As the speaker watches his daughter walk away, “the truth strikes home— / That you’re not mine to keep.” Another poem is a prayer for a father much diminished by age and dementia. “Please,” Lake writes,

Let wings take him up now    to the ballroom of heaven
As a brassy young boy    he took up the horn.
Let him trumpet the tunes    that wooed his young wife.
Make melody again.    Dance the jitterbug of joy.

Among other things, these bittersweet poems on family life—and, in particular, on miscommunication within the family—show that the bond of blood and of a shared name and place form a community that is the basis for all other communities, however imperfect. Societies that turn on the family or on language itself are attacking the very foundation of their own existence.

Erudite, wise, and, most importantly, never boring, The Republic of Virtue possesses a simple elegance that is both entirely natural and startling. It is one of the richest books of poetry in recent years and shows Lake to be one of our best poets. 

Micah Mattix (Ph.D., University of Fribourg) taught at Yale University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before joining the faculty at Houston Baptist University, where he is an assistant professor of writing and literature. He writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and edits Prufrock, a daily newsletter on books, arts, and ideas.