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Adrienne Rich: Moral compass March 30, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Political Commentary.
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Adrienne Rich    (Credit: AP)

The late poet’s work explored everything from feminism to the Vietnam War

By Stephen Burt
This originally appeared on Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors.

Adrienne Rich was a major American poet, cultural critic, essayist and activist. Her six decades of verse and prose helped to change what was possible, both in the writing of poetry and in the work for social, economic and environmental justice that Rich herself came to see as inseparable from what she wrote. Nobody in the history of American writing had her combination of powers, and nobody gathered the same array of otherwise disparate admirers: She is both deeply, and widely, missed.

Rich’s first books, in the 1950s, established her formal skill; W. H. Auden selected her debut, “A Change of World,” for the Yale Younger Poets prize when Rich was still an undergraduate, and some of its deftly careful work remains widely taught. She came into her own, however, beginning with “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” (1963), one of the first collections of poems by anyone to bring to light the contradictions, the challenges and the frustrations of life as a woman, a mother, an intellectual and an American artist in those years: Rich in that poem imagines earlier women writers, among them Emily Dickinson, “knowing themselves too well in one another:/ their gifts no pure fruition, but a thorn … iron-beaked and purposed as a bird,/ dusting everything on the whatnot every day of life.”

As the 1960s continued Rich grew more doubtful about traditions — of family life, of political belief, of literary form — and more confident that her poetry could unsettle them: Like many of her peers she reacted against war in Vietnam and racial injustice at home, and more than any of those peers she found ways of writing poetry that sounded as troubled as her country felt. She also found new forms, Americanizing the ghazal, for example, and inventing the prose poem as terse teleplay, as in “Shooting Script,” from “The Will to Change” (1970),  a set of directions to herself: “To pull yourself up by your own roots; to eat the last meal in your old neighborhood.”

Rich found new neighbors, and new directions, in the feminist movement, which recognized her as a leader, in her poems of the late 1960s and 1970s, first tormented and fierce, and then clear and confident. “Diving Into the Wreck” (1973), which won the National Book Award, remains her most famous single book, the one by which many readers discover her as a writer for whom the political had to be personal.  ”The Dream of a Common Language” (1978) made available some of the first and still some of the most admired American verse about erotic love between women, in the sequence “Twenty-One Love Poems.”  The same book contained her talismanic poem about Marie Curie, who “died denying/ her wounds came from the same source as her power.”

Rich would never deny it. Her work of those years established her as a controversial figure, attracting polemics both for and against it; it also attracted the many readers who saw her not just as a thoughtful, inventive writer but also as a beacon for political change. Those readers would stay with her to this day.

By the end of the 1970s Rich had established herself as a literary and cultural critic too, introducing Emily Dickinson (“Vesuvius at Home”) and Elizabeth Bishop (“The Eye of the Outsider”) as poets whose perspectives challenged patriarchy, and introducing (in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” for example) foundations for lesbian and queer cultural criticism. Her first and longest prose book, “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution” (1976), defended mothers by taking apart, with perhaps unprecedented honesty, our culture’s assumptions about them; the meaning of motherhood, like the meaning of womanhood, of citizenship, of activism, of literature, could be changed, and Rich had the will to change it.

She herself, and her poems, continued to change. “Your Native Land, Your Life” (1984), “An Atlas of the Difficult World” (1991) and subsequent books introduced Rich to the retrospective sequence, the poem of family (hence of  Jewish, and of Southern) heritage, and to the sequence based on geography: “I fix on the land. I am stuck to earth,” she wrote, introducing “a map of our country,” with its “battlefield/ from a nineteenth century war,” its “sea-town of myth and story when the fishing fleets/ went bankrupt.” Rich became a poet of California, where she settled with her partner Michelle Cliff; she remained a poet of feminism, and of the struggle for lesbian, gay and queer rights, but also a poet alert to other injustice, environmental and economic, a poet who insisted that her own left politics had to proceed as an alert, untidy, unfinished and international coalition: No cause stood alone.

Neither would Rich stand alone. “In Dark Fields of the Republic” (1995) “we were trying to live a personal life … But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged/ into our personal weather.” And in “Fox” (2001) Rich looked back on her earlier life as a poet of well-made poems, a poet of the American establishment, considering what she had learned, what she had rejected, what she still owed, from her long quiet apprenticeship: “a soul can be partitioned like a country,” she wrote; “loyalties crumbling send up sparks and smoke.”

Rich the poet who remained true to her own mixed feelings was also a poet unafraid to offer moral instruction, to proffer judgments; the poet so strongly identified with causes was also a poet who kept interrupting herself in her poems, breaking apart and questioning her own rough forms. “The School Among the Ruins” (2004) memorialized both her commitments and her self-doubt, asking what use both would have in an America (or a “USonia,” as she called it) reshaped and deformed by 9/11.

Perhaps no American poet has had at once so large and loyal an audience, and such an influence on that audience, on what her readers wrote and what they chose to do with their lives.  The number and variety of tributes to Rich already present on the Internet, by professional writers and critics, by career activists, and by many other fans, testify to  Rich’s importance for a wide range of American readers. She will be remembered for the proprieties of her earliest work, and for the wild inquiries of the latest; for her California coast, her Cambridge, her New York City, her Baltimore; for her responses to American history, to “North American Time,” and for her returns to the European thought of Mary Wollstonecraft, of Brecht and Marx; for her long declamatory lines and her harsh, short ones; for her poems modeled on biography, on archaeology, on film, on diaries, on explorers’ journals, on maps, on the long history of older short poems; for her polemics, which did change public life, and for her quarrels with herself.

life, and for her quarrels with herself.

NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg remembers Rich in the L.A. Times: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2012/03/adrienne-rich-in-the-la-times.html

The L.A. Times official obit is here: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2012/03/adrienne-rich.html

NBCC Balakian winner and former board member David Orr remembers Rich for NPR: http://www.wbur.org/npr/149619634/adrienne-rich-resolution-amid-the-turbulence

Here’s the obituary for Rich from the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/adrienne-rich-feminist-poet-and-essayist-dies-at-age-82/2012/03/28/gIQABnJWhS_story.html

And from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/29/books/adrienne-rich-feminist-poet-and-author-dies-at-82.html

Here is her brief piece on poetry and politics from the Guardian (UK) in 2006: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/nov/18/featuresreviews.guardianreview15

James Cihlar in Cold Front recommends The Dream of a Common Language: http://coldfrontmag.com/features/essentials-adrienne-richs-the-dream-of-a-common-language

NBCC board member Stephen Burt reviewed Rich’s final collection of poems for the London Review of Books: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n03/stephen-burt/no-scene-could-be-worse

Weston Cutter reviewed the same book, superbly, in The Rumpus: http://therumpus.net/2011/01/a-struggle-at-the-roots-of-the-mind/

Academy of American Poets on Rich, with links to poems online: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/49

Poetry Foundation audio page for Rich: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/audioitem/3090

Poetry Foundation bio page for Rich, with links to poems online: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/adrienne-rich

Palestine’s wandering poet May 12, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Iraq and Afghanistan, Palestine, Political Commentary.
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Mike Marqusee on Mahmoud Darwish, the poet of the Palestinian people

On a bright winter morning we made a pilgrimage to the hill of Al Rabweh, on the outskirts of Ramallah, where the poet Mahmoud Darwish is buried. An ambitious memorial garden is planned, but at the moment it’s a construction site littered with diggers and cement mixers. The oversize tombstone is crated up in plywood. We were welcomed by cheerful building workers and joined by Palestinian families paying their respects and taking snaps. Sitting amid the pines overlooking the tomb (and a nearby waste ground populated by stray dogs), we spent an hour reading Darwish’s State of Siege, a sequence of poems he wrote in response to Israel’s 2002 assault on the city. Here he called on poetry to ‘lay siege to your siege’ but observed bitterly that:

This land might just be cinched too tight

for a population of humans and gods

Darwish was six in 1948 when his family fled their village in western Galilee. When they returned a year later they found the village destroyed and their land occupied. Since they had missed the census they were denied Israeli citizenship and declared ‘present-absentees’, an ambiguous status that Darwish was to transform into a metaphor for Palestine and much more.

He was 22 when he read his poem ‘Identity Card’, with its defiant refrain ‘Record: I am an Arab’, to a cheering crowd in a Nazareth movie house. Repudiating Golda Meir’s assertion that ‘there are no Palestinians’, his poems played a key role in the Palestinian movement that emerged after 1967, fashioning a modern Palestinian identity using traditional poetic forms in a renewed, accessible Arabic.

Repeatedly arrested and imprisoned, Darwish left Israel in 1970 and remained in exile for more than a quarter of a century. His political journey led from the Israeli Communist Party to the PLO, which he joined in 1973 (penning Arafat’s famous ‘Don’t let the olive branch fall from my hand’ speech to the UN). He settled in Beirut, from which he was expelled along with the PLO following the Israeli invasion of 1982, the subject of his inventive and harrowing prose memoir, Memory for Forgetfulness.

In the years that followed, Darwish wandered – Tunis, Cyprus, Damascus, Athens, Paris – broadening his poetic scope and deepening his insight. He was elected to the PLO executive committee in 1987 but resigned in 1993 in protest at the Oslo accords. ‘There was no clear link between the interim period and the final status, and no clear commitment to withdraw from the occupied territories,’ he explained. It’s said that when PLO leader Yasser Arafat complained to Darwish that the Palestinian people were ‘ungrateful’, the poet (remembering Brecht) snapped back, ‘Then find yourself another people.’

Oslo did allow Darwish to return to Palestine and in 1996 he settled in Ramallah, only to find himself under siege again six years later. In his last years he wrote more prolifically than ever, responding to the tragedies of Iraq, Lebanon and the violent conflict between Palestinian factions:

Did we have to fall from a tremendous height so as to see our blood on our hands … to realise that we are no angels … as we thought?

Did we also have to expose our flaws before the world so that our truth would no longer stay virgin? How much we lied when we said: we are the exception!

When Darwish died in 2008, thousands joined the cortege and there were candle-lit vigils in towns across the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Authority declared three days or mourning and issued a series of postage stamps in his honour.

Being the Palestinian national poet was a heavy burden, one that Darwish bore from an early age, and though he chafed under it he never shirked the load. Instead, he succeeded in transforming the Palestinian experience into a universal one. The themes of loss, exile, the search for justice, the dream of a homeland, the conundrum of identity: all became, as his work evolved, human and existential explorations, without ceasing for a moment to be rooted deeply in the vicissitudes of Palestinian life. For decades he mourned Palestine’s losses, denounced its tormentors, celebrated its perseverance, and imagined its future.

And we have a land without borders, like our idea

of the unknown, narrow and wide

… we shout in its labyrinth: and we still love you, our love

is a hereditary illness.

Though preserving Palestinian memory and identity was his life’s work, Darwish conceived of this as a creative act of self-renewal: ‘Identity is what we bequeath and not what we inherit. What we invent and not what we remember.’ Among his last verses was this admonition:

We will become a people when the morality police protect a prostitute from being beaten up in the streets

We will become a people when the Palestinian only remembers his flag on the football pitch, at camel races, and on the day of the Nakba

Darwish was a ‘national poet’ who challenged as well as consoled and inspired his national audience. As he moved away from his earlier declamatory, public style towards a more personal idiom, elliptical and oblique, and at times (unpardonable sin for a ‘national’ poet) obscure, he met resistance. ‘The biggest achievement of my life is winning the audience’s trust,’ he reflected in 2002. ‘We fought before: whenever I changed my style, they were shocked and wanted to hear the old poems. Now they expect me to change; they demand that I give not answers but more questions.’

Even in translation, where we miss so much, Darwish’s voice rings clear. In his mature style there’s a seductive fluidity: he moves lightly from realm to realm, pronoun to pronoun (‘I’ to ‘we’, ‘I’ to ‘you’, ‘us’ to ‘them’), from the intimate to the epic, past to future, abstract to concrete. Metaphors topple over each other, abundant and inter-laced. This is poetry that fuses the political and the personal at the deepest level.

Throughout, his evocation of loss and exile, of coming from ‘a country with no passport stamps’, is poignant, elegiac but open-ended, conjuring resolution from despair: ‘We travel like everyone else, but we return to nothing’; ‘There is yet another road in the road, another chance for migration’; ‘Where should we go after the last border? Where should birds fly after the last sky?’; ‘In my language there is seasickness. / In my language a mysterious departure from Tyre’.

Guests on the sea. Our visit is short.

And the earth is smaller than our visit

… where are we to go

when we leave? Where are we to go back to when we return?

… What is left us that we may set off once again?

Yet, convinced that ‘Out of the earthly/ the hidden heavenly commences’, Darwish affirmed the richness and beauty of life, especially life in its ordinariness:

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April’s hesitation, the aroma of bread at dawn, a woman’s point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the beginning of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a flute’s sigh and the invaders’ fear of memories

In one of his late poems, Darwish pays tribute to his friend Edward Said, putting this advice in Said’s mouth:

Do not describe what the camera sees of your wounds

Shout so that you hear yourself, shout so that you know that you are still alive, and you know life is possible on this earth.

Mike Marqusee writes a regular column for Red Pepper, ‘Contending for the Living’, and is the author of a number of books on culture and politics

A Memorial Poem: Not for the Feint of Heart September 17, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in 9/11, Art, Literature and Culture, Genocide, Racism, War.
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BEFORE I START THIS POEM
by Emmanuel Ortiz

Before I start this poem,
I’d like to ask you to join me in
a moment of silence
in honour of those who died
in the World Trade Centre
and the Pentagon
last September 11th.

I would also like to ask you
a moment of silence
for all of those who have been
harassed, imprisoned, disappeared,
tortured, raped, or killed
in retaliation for those strikes,
for the victims in both
Afghanistan and the U.S.

And if I could just add one more thing…
A full day of silence
for the tens of thousands of Palestinians
who have died at the hands of
U.S.-backed Israeli forces
over decades of occupation.

Six months of silence
for the million and-a-half Iraqi people,
mostly children, who have died of
malnourishment or starvation
as a result of an 11-year U.S. embargo
against the country.

Before I begin this poem:
two months of silence
for the Blacks under Apartheid
in South Africa,
where homeland security
made them aliens
in their own country.

Nine months of silence
for the dead in Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, where death rained
down and peeled back
every layer of concrete, steel, earth and skin
and the survivors went on as if alive.

A year of silence
for the millions of dead
in Vietnam–a people, not a war-
for those who know a thing or two
about the scent of burning fuel,
their relatives’ bones buried in it,
their babies born of it.

A year of silence
for the dead in Cambodia and Laos,
victims of a secret war … ssssshhhhh ….
Say nothing .. we don’t want them to
learn that they are dead.

Two months of silence
for the decades of dead
in Colombia, whose names,
like the corpses they once represented,
have piled up and slipped off
our tongues.

Before I begin this poem,
An hour of silence
for El Salvador …
An afternoon of silence
for Nicaragua …
Two days of silence
for the Guatemaltecos …
None of whom ever knew
a moment of peace
45 seconds of silence
for the 45 dead
at Acteal, Chiapas
25 years of silence
for the hundred million Africans
who found their graves
far deeper in the ocean
than any building could
poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing
or dental records
to identify their remains.
And for those who were
strung and swung
from the heights of
sycamore trees
in the south, the north,
the east, and the west…

100 years of silence…
For the hundreds of millions of
indigenous peoples
from this half of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen,
In postcard-perfect plots
like Pine Ridge,
Wounded Knee,
Sand Creek, Fallen Timbers,
or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced
to innocuous magnetic poetry
on the refrigerator
of our consciousness …
So you want a moment of silence?

And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut
A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust
Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be
the same
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be.
Not like it always has been

Because this is not a 9-1-1 poem
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.
This is a poem about
what causes poems like this
to be written

And if this is a 9/11 poem, then
This is a September 11th poem
for Chile, 1971
This is a September 12th poem
for Steven Biko in South Africa, 1977

This is a September 13th poem
for the brothers at Attica Prison,
New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem
for Somalia, 1992.

This is a poem
for every date that falls
to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories
that were never told
The 110 stories that history
chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC,
The New York Times,
and Newsweek ignored
This is a poem
for interrupting this program.
And still you want
a moment of silence
for your dead?
We could give you
lifetimes of empty:

The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces
of nameless children
Before I start this poem
We could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.

If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit

If you want a moment of silence,
put a brick through
the window of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses,
the jailhouses, the Penthouses and
the Playboys.

If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton’s 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt
fills the room where my beautiful
people have gathered

You want a moment of silence
Then take it
Now,
Before this poem begins.

Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the
second hand
In the space
between bodies in embrace,

Here is your silence.
Take it.
But take it all
Don’t cut in line.
Let your silence begin
at the beginning of crime.
But we,
Tonight we will keep right on singing
For our dead.

EMMANUEL ORTIZ, 11 Sep 2002

Emmanuel Ortiz (born 1974) is a Chicano/Puerto Rican/Irish-American activist and spoken-word poet. He has worked with the Minnesota Alliance for the Indigenous Zapatistas (MAIZ) and Estación Libre and as a staff member of the Resource Centre of the Americas.[1] Ortiz has performed his poetry at numerous readings, political rallies, activist conferences, and benefits. His works appeared in The Roots of Terror a reader published by Project South, as well as others. His readings of his poems have appeared on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!. [2] His controversial poem, Moment of Silence, circulated the internet a year after September 11th, 2001. [3][4]

The Wall September 10, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in About God, Art, Literature and Culture, Religion.
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Stephen Hawking tells us now that there is no need for a Creater  God.  The believers say he’s missed the point.

Here’s my take on the subject.

The Wall

( by Roger Hollander)

Ok, infinity

Then what about infinity plus one?

Ok, a Creator

But who created the Creator

And who created the Creator of the Creator

Ad infinitum

Infinitum plus one?

Ok, time

What was there before the first day?

But a day is nothing more than how long it takes the earth to revolve on its own axis

It has no meaning anywhere else

Before the first second?

A second is a sixtieth of a minute, which is a sixtieth of an hour

Which is a twenty-fourth of how long  it takes for the earth to revolve on its own axis

We are earthbound

Even as we go out into space, gravity sucked by the earth binds time and matter to it

The earth, one tiny dot in the universe

(What is there on the other side of the universe?  Dumb question)

The Wall

We keep hitting the Wall

One grain of sand, what percentage is it of the entire universe’s matter?

(Our most powerful computer can bust its guts on that one)

Awesome

Awe-some

Some awe

It’s one big Mystery

Protected by an insurmountable Wall

(What if I climbed over the Wall? Another dumb question)

You cannot know

Some say they know

What do they know?

What do they know?

I don’t know

It’s a Mystery

Protected by an insurmountable Wall

(Look up the definition of insurmountable, dumbbell)

It’s a Mystery

Let it be

Live with it

(Die with it)

The Bard of Berkeley June 27, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, War.
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Published on Saturday, June 27, 2009 by The Wall Street Journal by Michael Judge

One benefit of being a poet — as opposed to, say, a politician or talk-show host — is that you can be the most celebrated person in your field, a virtual rock star among those who study, read and write poetry, and still remain anonymous in just about any public setting.

The thought occurs to me as I stand outside one of this city’s finer Japanese-fusion restaurants (a fancy joint called Yoshi’s) chain smoking and awaiting the arrival of Robert Hass, a poetry rock star if ever there was one.

Last year alone the 68-year-old Berkeley professor won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collection of poems “Time and Materials.” From 1995-97 he was America’s poet laureate, and he used the post in innovative ways to promote literacy. From 1997-2000 he wrote the popular “Poet’s Choice” column for the Washington Post, introducing readers to his favorite poets each week. His translations of Japanese haiku and the works of Czeslaw Milosz — the late, great Polish poet, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature — are read the world over.

Former poet laureate Robert Hass

Still, for the life of me, I can’t remember what he looks like. So, after approaching a few slightly startled gentlemen in his age bracket, I’m relieved when a pleasant man with a warm countenance, wearing blue jeans and a black windbreaker, extends his hand and says simply, “I’m Bob.”

After snuffing out my cigarette, I tell him my wife Masae awaits us inside and is holding what we hope will be a quiet booth where we can talk. Alas, there’s a speaker above us blaring jazz, and adjacent diners are shouting above the din. Undaunted, we peruse the wine list. “Buttery and oaky is the classic California chardonnay that everyone’s gotten sick of,” says the poet, with a slight grin. “But I haven’t!” And with that we order a bottle from California’s Santa Rita Hills and begin.

He’s just flown in from Toronto, he tells us, where he attended the Griffin Poetry Prize ceremony, and asks that we please forgive him if he “fades early.” The Griffin Prize, Mr. Hass explains, was founded by Canadian philanthropist Scott Griffin, who annually awards an impressive $50,000 to one Canadian poet (this year’s winner is A.F. Moritz) and one non-Canadian poet (C.D. Wright). After the ceremony, there’s a gala bash. “It’s the kind of party where there’s a flowing chocolate fountain and an open bar where poets don’t do very well.” He says I should write a story about it, and offers to put me in touch with the Griffin folks.

But before I can ask him for details, he’s on to another topic: a Berkeley-based nonprofit called the International Rivers Network. “I’m the only poet on the board,” he says. “It’s an environmental organization that thinks about the ecological consequences of big dams” and provides “real life estimates of the damage done by these big boondoggle projects to the people who are trying to resist them.” The group has worked in some 60 countries, he says, to help prevent the kind of cultural and environmental devastation caused by projects like the Three Gorges dam on China’s Yangtze River.

Suddenly, like a guest who feels he’s gone on too long, Mr. Hass apologizes and peppers us with questions. “How long are we here?” “Where are we from?” “How did we meet?” When he discovers my wife is from Japan and we met in Tokyo the conversation turns to his love for haiku, particularly the poems of the 17th century master Matsuo Basho.

In the early 1970s, he says, “I tried to teach myself something about how to make images from working on haiku . . . I had this real paradisiacal period in my life where I would teach, come home, get out the Japanese dictionary, work on haiku, then go swim laps for an hour, then have dinner and put my kids to bed. . . .”

Just then our waitress brings the “Fisherman Carpaccio,” a flower-like assemblage of raw fish marinated in soy with a dash of karashi hot mustard and sesame oil. We order another bottle of chardonnay, and I attempt to ask another question. “That’s a really pretty presentation, don’t you think?” says Mr. Hass, admiring the dish that’s just arrived. “Can we stop?” He then turns to my wife, who’s a potter and chef, and asks, “What do you think about this presentation? And about saying this is carpaccio rather than sashimi?”

Right about now I begin to feel as if we’re inside a Robert Hass poem. They are known for their playfulness with language, love of long, sprawling sentences, and, above all, a kind of unquenchable honesty, a wrestling with memory and the world as it is. Yet listening to him talk it strikes me that he isn’t self-absorbed. He is, in fact, other-absorbed. His conversation, like his poetry, is full of wonder and horror, two wholly appropriate reactions to human history — or a plate of sashimi-cum-carpaccio.

In “Time and Materials,” published in 2007, Mr. Hass addresses everything from “Poor Nietzsche in Turin . . . Dying of syphilis . . . in love with the opera of Bizet” to an early memory of his father grinding up the antidrinking drug Antabuse (“It makes you sick if you drink alcohol,” he writes) and forcing his long-suffering, alcoholic mother to swallow it. Later, he watched as she sat down with a bottle of booze and “gagged and drank, Drank and gagged.” In another poem, he writes of his father’s death and his feelings of “love and anger and dismay and relief at the sudden peacefulness / of his face. . . .”

In a poem for his friend and longtime collaborator, Czeslaw Milosz — who died in Krakow in 2005 at the age of 93 after living through the Nazi occupation of Poland and the rise and fall of communism — Mr. Hass writes how Milosz “never accepted the cruelty in the frame / Of things, brooded on your century, and God the Monster, / And the smell of summer grasses in the world / That can hardly be named or remembered / Past the moment of our wading through them, / And the world’s poor salvation in the word.”

This idea, this lament — “the world’s poor salvation in the word,” that language often fails us, yet it’s our only hope for redemption — permeates Mr. Hass’s latest book, which was completed in 2005 at the height of the Iraq war. In a poem titled “Bush’s War,” he conflates 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the brutal history of the 20th century, when the slaughter of civilians and the “firebombing” of entire cities was commonplace. “Forty-five million, all told, in World War II,” he writes. “Why do we do it?” Certainly there’s a rage / To injure what’s injured us.”

To Mr. Hass, who’s married to the poet and antiwar activist Brenda Hillman, terms like “collateral damage” and “soft targets” are not merely euphemisms but sacrilege. In another poem, written after visiting the demilitarized zone that separates South and North Korea, he writes: “The human imagination does not do well with large numbers. / More than two and a half million people died during the Korean / War. It seems it ought to have taken more time to wreck so many / bodies.”

Raised in a Catholic household, Mr. Hass attended parochial school not far from here in the Marin County suburb of San Rafael and had, like his friend Milosz, a “relentlessly moral upbringing.” His first book, “Field Guide,” earned him the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1973. In it, he writes lovingly of the lush California coast, but he also questions the relevance of romantic or elevated poetry in a violent age. Responding to Baudelaire he writes, “Surely the poet is monarch of the clouds. / He hovers, like a lemon-colored kite, / over spring afternoons in the nineteenth century / while Marx in the library gloom / studies the birth rate of the weavers of Tilsit / and that gentle man Bakunin . . . applies his numb hands / to the making of bombs.”

I mention how his first book and his most recent were both written when America was at war and, in a way, deal with similar subjects. “The Vietnam War and the Iraq war, in different ways, both made me feel like I could not not address them. I’m very doubtful about the usefulness of poetry to do that,” he says. And yet, “In this really violent, imperfect world where you’re not just a writer but you’re a writer writing in one of the languages of the rich and developed world . . . [you have] some responsibility for the world . . . [because] the way the world is seen gets framed in those languages.”

He pauses, takes a drink of wine, then continues: “I have a Libyan poet friend who thinks that part of the big problem with the Arabic world is Arabic poetry, that . . . there’s a certain level of elevation of the language that doesn’t make a description of reality possible. Not to make too much of a claim for poetry, but this is a question that goes to the moral heart of the business of any art: How do you see the world and what right do you have to see the world in the way that you do?

“And part of the answer is, artists don’t really have a choice. You don’t get to pick how you see the world. A lot of my appetite is for a kind of pure poetry . . . and one of the things I identified with and felt like I understood about Czeslaw was that he was raised with an appetite for pure poetry in a world in which he thought it was not available to him as an option . . . after living through the underground in Warsaw seeing the entire Jewish community hauled off and killed, and seeing 250,000 Polish kids go out in the street and get mowed down by the Germans.”

In his 1980 Nobel acceptance speech, Milosz said something similar: “Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were, and by wresting the past from fictions and legends.”

This is the work of the poet. And this, it seems to me, is the work that our dinner guest has undertaken.

 

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Mr. Judge is a contributing editor of The Far Eastern Economic Review

Whitewashed World June 12, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Foreign Policy, Iraq and Afghanistan, Race, War.
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(Note: this poem was posted as a comment on my Blog in response to an article I had posted entitled “Poets Mirror Feelings of Afghans Caught in Conflict.”  The Poet identifies her or himself as “halfbreed,” and can be reached at endline@qnet.com)

there are no heroes in american might,
just lowly soldiers who cannot read or write.
just hollywood movies depicting america’s blight,
overpaid killers with no respect for life.

my daughters have the blood of the afghans,
mingled with the blood of apache americans
add some irish roots from the IRA
and moorish lines from south of spain.

my daughters are often asked
what country they are from?
by the unlearned white folks
that call themselves americans
ignorant educated simpletons

are you a mexican, or indian?
are you from the middle east?
they never answer those questions
from colonizing folks, who see war as peace.
american infidels, who truely believe
that they are number 1, and war is really peace.

whitewashed world, june 11 2009

Poets Mirror Feelings of Afghans Caught in Conflict May 25, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
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Published on Monday, May 25, 2009 by Reuters by Hanan Habibzai

Intellectuals and poets have a commanding presence in Afghan  society. It is the poets who often mirror the feelings of  ordinary people, revealing much about the mindset of Afghans in  the face of occupation and civil war.

Now, it is the smell of fresh blood rather than the delights  of Afghanistan’s mountains and fields that occupies the poets.  As an Afghan, when I read their works, I am shocked by the state  of my country, and see in that state the failures of my  government and the international community.

When Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election last  year, many Afghans, intellectuals included, believed the end of  the Bush era meant a let-up in their suffering.

But after the U.S. bombardments on the western province of  Farah on May 4/5, the latest of many in which scores of  civilians have been killed, most have lost faith.

Local elders say the strikes took 147 lives. If true, that  makes the strikes the bloodiest since the war began in 2001,  though the U.S. military accuse civilians of inflating the  numbers.

But focusing on the numbers misses the point. The situation  has devastated Afghans, and perhaps removed the last shred of  faith they may have had in the coalition forces. Farah resident  Hamidullah says: “We got it wrong. Americans came to kill us. We  thought that they were here to make our future better. But no,  they kill children, women, elders and any type of villager as if  they are all Taliban.”

Another local, Khan Wali, who lost his sister-in-law and  another female relative in the air strike, says: “The American  military is trying to prove itself as a hero back in America by  killing innocents.”

One Afghan poet, 28-year-old Samiullah Taroon, was born just  after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and grew up between  decades of war. Once famous for pretty verse about valleys in  the Kunar region, he has now, like his fellow artists, turned to  war and oppression, both foreign and domestic, for his subject  matter:

We have heard these anecdotes
That control will be again in the hands of the killer
Some will be chanting the slogans of death
And some will be chanting the slogans of life
The white and sacred pages of the history
Remind one of some people
In white clothes, they are the snakes in the sleeves
They capture Kabul and they capture Baghdad.

Taroon says the government is a puppet of foreign powers,  and in thrall to warlords and corruption:

A fraud with the name of reconstruction
Takes power and gold from me

As a popular poet, reciting his poetry at rallies where  thousands gather, he is a threat to those in power, and those  who want it. Taroon says he is being followed by an Afghan  intelligence agency, which opened a file on him last year, and  fears for his life.

So what does the government or the Taliban have to fear from  a poet? In Afghanistan, poetry is often recited or sung, and is  hugely accessible to ordinary people, despite high illiteracy.  Poetry contests are attended by thousands.

Poetry has for centuries reflected traditions, history and  the mood of the moment in Afghanistan.

At the Battle of Maiwand in 1880, legend has it that a young  girl named Malalai inspired Afghan fighters to defeat the  British army. When the soldiers grew disheartened and the  British looked like winning, Malalai, tending wounded troops,  recited poetry: 

Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,
By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!

The Afghans turned the tables and drove the British all the  way back to Kandahar. True or not, many Afghans believe the  tale.

Pashtun poets have a long history of protest. According to  Afghan historian Habibullah Rafi, 19th-century editor Alama  Mahmood Tarzi infuriated the British with protest poems that  were read throughout the Pashtu speaking world.

When the Russians arrived in 1979, the poetry once again  changed with the fortunes of the people. Ishaq Nangyal’s poems,  written during the 80s and 90s, are a good example of the  resilience shown by Afghans towards their oppressors, be they  foreign invaders or religious extremists:

Even if my head is cut down from my body
If my heart is taken out of my cage with the hands
For the honour of the country I accept all these
I am an Afghan, I fulfil my intentions.

When international forces defeated the Taliban in 2001, many  poets reflected hopes that they would finally bring peace and  prosperity after years of suffering under the Soviet-backed  communist government, the Mujahadeen and the Taliban.

But the suffering of ordinary Afghans continued: poverty  grew, corruption grew and the government’s actions began to wear  down its people. The poets became angry and directed their anger  at the coalition forces.

Following a U.S. military air strike last summer in the  Shindand district of the Herat province, 47-year-old Nader Jan  lost his faith. “We voted for the kingdom of Hamid Karzai to  have a peaceful life,” he says. “Instead we got death. I saw how  Nawabad village came under American attack and more than 100  civilians died, 70 of them children and women. Are the children  also fighting against America? No. I ask, what did they do  wrong?”

A veteran Afghan poet, Pir Muhammad Karwan, mourns a bride and groom killed at a wedding party that was bombed.

Here the girls with the language of bangles
Brought the songs of wedding to the ceremony
With the rockets of America
The songs of the hearts were holed 

 

© 2009 Reuters

Hanan Habibzai is an Afghan writer who has reported from  his country for Reuters and the BBC, and has recently moved to  London.

No Apologies to Joyce Kilmer March 28, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Roger's Poetry.
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In foreign lands or right at home

No tree’s as lovely as a poem …

For trees are naught but seed and loam

But only YOU can make a poem.

Kimberly Rivera’s Poetry of Hope January 24, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Iraq and Afghanistan, Peace, War.
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kimberly3 

The Canadian government has ordered the deportation of Kimberly Rivera, the first US woman Iraq war veteran resister to go to Canada, and four other US war resisters. Rivera, her husband and three children, including a newborn daughter, must depart Canada by January 27 or be deported. Rivera now lives in Toronto with her husband Mario, son Christian (six years), daughter Rebecca (four years), and newborn Canadian daughter Katie (six weeks).

Rivera served in the US Army in Iraq in 2006, but refused a second tour in Iraq in 2007 and instead took her family to Canada. Her first tour in Iraq convinced Rivera that the war was immoral and that she could not participate in it.
Here is a poem Kimberly wrote while living in Toronto:

 

 

I was fighting your kind for killing my kind. 

I was fighting to find weapons that could wipe out large populations of people.
I was fighting to free you from the bad men that harmed you and your family. 

I was fighting for your liberty. 

I was fighting for peace. 

I was fighting to keep my family safe from you and your family. 

But in reality I was fighting to destroy everything you know and love. 

I destroyed the land you live on. 

I crushed your spirit. 

In fighting I kept you silent. 

In my fighting I oppressed your family. 

In my fighting I kept you out of sight and out of the way so everything of value could be taken. 

In my fighting I found that I was fighting to stay alive. 

In these last thoughts of reality I find that I was becoming something that wasn’t me, and that I didn’t stand for as a person.
In my heart everything I was fighting for wasn’t great enough to give up any life. 

All of my battles were very true to me. 

I know from my heart through my change, that I can’t fight with violent means for peace. 

That peace only comes through non-violent means and humility. 

My fight for peace is with my pen to share my thoughts without fear of being locked up in a deep dark place so no one can hear.

Being silent doesn’t help any body and lets the people hurting many get away with hurting more. 

Canada I am here will you take the time and the heart to understand what I am now fighting for, with words and not a gun. 

X PFC Kimberly Rivera 
July 11th 2008 

 

There are several Canadian groups actively opposing the government’s actions. For further information on those efforts, contact the War Resisters Support Campaign.
 

 

 

Unembedded Poetry: A Review of David Smith-Ferri’s “Battlefield Without Borders” November 29, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Iraq and Afghanistan.
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baghdad-street

www.truthout.org

by: Ryan Croken, t r u t h o u t | Review

 On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, as our political figures and talking heads wrangled over the best way to babysit the cradle of civilization at the barrel of a gun, American poet and peace activist David Smith-Ferri had a different idea: he would go to Iraq and ask the people who lived there how they felt. “I wanted to interview Iraqis,” he writes, “about the threat of war. Surely, I reasoned, it should matter to us what people in Iraq think.”

    This presumption, startling in its seeming innocence and radical common sense, underpins the poetic and humanitarian mission of his book, “Battlefield Without Borders: Iraq Poems.” Culled from Smith-Ferri’s experiences as a writer and importer of contraband medical supplies on three separate trips to the Middle East between 1999 and 2007, “Battlefield” is a staggeringly eloquent portal into the forgotten human dimension of our engagement with Iraq, and an exercise in the project of person-to-person diplomacy. As an unembedded storyteller, Smith-Ferri reinserts Iraqi civilians back into the generally depersonalized conversation we are having about them and without them. Through the uniquely equipped medium of poetry, Smith-Ferri delivers hard-earned insights and reflections that broaden our emotional framework for understanding Iraq, and lend heart-wrenching individuality to an otherwise undifferentiated mass of “irrational people / masked terrorist tribes, hands around throat s.” It is in this spirit of reporting not just what is happening, but also who it is happening to that we lift off with the poet on his first visit to Iraq.

    It’s 1999, and after nearly a decade of military and economic warfare, the nation is in bad shape. Sanctions have decimated Iraq’s ability to provide clean water and a functioning medical system. Children are dying by the tens or hundreds of thousands from diarrhea and easily curable diseases. Smith-Ferri and his co-workers drift through pediatric wards that seem more like preludes to morgues than centers of healing. As the same contaminated waters that gurgle in the rivers outside pour from the faucets of hospital sinks, Smith-Ferri pauses to take stock of the situation in meditations that blur the genre lines between field notes and elegy:

Daily, like a sorcerer, the sun warms Iraq’s sewage-laden rivers,
conjuring cholera and typhoid and E. coli
that are killing children in this hospital ward,
slowly draining juice from their tiny bodies.
Here lies the desiccated fruit of a generation.

    Smith-Ferri and his delegation wander through a malignant landscape where bombings more routine than rain have stolen countless limbs, and fields of depleted uranium have created “nuclear children … slowly roasting, / leukemia a fire in their bones and blood.” Leaning over the deathbeds of these victims, Smith-Ferri and his fellow activists ask an Iraqi doctor – “a grim, tour-weary guide” – what he does to try to provide hope for the patients’ parents. The doctor, helplessly flanked by his empty medicine cabinets, responds plainly, “like a metronome,” as if bolstered by the authority of his incapacity, “There is no hope. This child will die … That child will die … They’re all going to die.”

    Amid this assault of visceral information and a sense of powerlessness that is omnipresent and “pathologic,” Smith-Ferri has to struggle to maintain his balance. His encounters with the Iraqis leave him breathless, speechless and existentially “immaterial.” He struggles to preserve a sense of identity amid the vast expanses of the desert and the surreal “timelessness of war.” Smith-Ferri stands, spectral, beside an innocent young victim in the aftermath of a capricious US missile attack. What words of condolence could he offer to a child whose arm has just been severed by shrapnel, without warning or purpose? The poet has nothing to say.

A one-armed, seven-year-old boy looks right through you.
His black-robed mother,
standing behind his bed,
won’t even look your way.

    Smith-Ferri’s verse is characterized by a tremulous poise that reflects his search for composure, order, justice and an alleviation of suffering. We can almost imagine him taking a break at the end of each line, gathering himself together before proceeding down the page. But his linguistic command of these narratives is as refined as it is raw; these are chiseled, elegant stanzas: cutting, measured, smooth and confident in their authenticity. With empathy and precision, Smith-Ferri fluently translates a foreign trauma into language that is both accessible and unfathomable. Like the blank space that follows a bomb, these words point to the wordless, hinting at the incomparable kind of experience that can only be lived in, and expressed by silence.

    But “Battlefield” is full of voices, and not just the author’s. With titles such as “Walid’s Story,” “Amal Speaks,” “Ahmed Speaks” and “Suad’s Words,” many of the poems in this book are either dedicated to, or written in, the voice of the people Smith-Ferri meets. At hospitals and bombing sites, inside a record store, at a dinner party, while kicking a deflated soccer ball with a child on the brink of invasion, Smith-Ferri works tirelessly as a poetic journalist, documenting the mood of the nation, asking Iraqis to share their thoughts, fears, ideas and aspirations. Their responses are seamlessly woven into the text, and are often nestled into a narrative context that endows them with enormous weight and emotive punch. Their voices ring in your ears long after you’ve turned the page. “If you can heal my child, please take him with you.” “What is the mood in the United States? Will they attack?” “Your president is a coward, / fighting a coward’s war, / attacking unarmed people .” “You like it here? Why not buy a home in Baghdad? / Prices have never been better!” “I want to show you something. / My left ear does not work, thanks to a car bomb.” “The US will find a pretext to attack. / It will either be weapons of mass destruction / or support for terrorism. / No proof will be given.” “Five hundred varieties of dates … One huge one is called donkey’s balls.”

    While these characters express a range of sentiments – anger, valor, resilience, desperation, uncanny hospitality – they share one thing in common: they are all undeniably human. In working towards, as Kathy Kelly, author of the book’s foreword, puts it, dispelling “the dangerous notion that only one person live(s) in Iraq, the notorious dictator Saddam Hussein,” Smith-Ferri transforms a hazy crowd of very foreign foreigners into a collection of individuals who are extremely relatable and very much “like us.” In the world of “Battlefield,” people have been turned back into people, and, consequentially, the doors to empathy and communication are swung open. Suddenly re-humanized through the thoughtful deftness of Smith-Ferri’s art, the crisis flares in our hands. Iraq is no theoretical quandary. It becomes personal, intimate, active. As the poet continues to bring Iraqi voices to American ears, we realize that these are not conversations to be overheard, but to be absorbed dir ectly. “Tell the American people we are not their enemies. / Tell the American people we love them, / but we must have our lives back!” The message is clear: if you are an American person, these people are speaking directly to you.

    “Tell my story … tell my story … tell my story … ” After hearing “these same three words” over and over again while traveling around Iraq and through neighborhoods in Jordan where uprooted Iraqis struggle to survive in exile, Smith-Ferri becomes explicit in his intention to relay the insights, appeals and agonies of a deeply misunderstood country.

Here on this page I spill Suad’s words,
jagged obsidian chips that lacerate this paper,
its blood marking the hands of everyone who reads this book.

    All of this storytelling begs the question: how do we listen? Thusly marked by Suad’s bloodied words, how do we respond? “Battlefield” does not answer these questions for us. It is a window, not an instruction manual. It invites us to contemplate our interconnectedness with another people in a world where borders – cultural, linguistic, geopolitical – have been erected to prevent the recognition of a shared humanity. Literally and literarily, Smith-Ferri crosses these borders and bears witness to previously inaccessible realities. After visiting a bomb shelter that became a tomb for over 400 Iraqis after two “very smart” American missiles slipped into the ventilation shaft and incinerated everyone inside, Smith-Ferri is slammed with an inter-culture shock of such bare-faced enormity that it kindles a sudden dark enlightenment:

My eyes were never meant to see this,
to flare like torch, sudden with knowledge,
like windows, to open on this illuminative dawn,
but like tinder in its box (named American, middle class)
to remain cold, untouched,
and far from flintstone truth.

    Smith-Ferri’s “flintstone truth” burns at the heart of his stories, whose ultimate lesson is perhaps that we ourselves are a part of them. This realization of suddenly being a part of the plot destabilizes the cozy illusion that there are vaguely bad things happening somewhere way over there in a strange land that many of us can’t locate on a map. The battlefield has come home. The wounded are laid bare before us. “Fighting them over there so we don’t have to think about them over here” loses its absurd currency. Distance is capsized, walls are torn down, and we find ourselves fighting this war not only on our shores, but in our own hearts and minds. What is our obligation to Suad? Where do complicity and culpability lie? “These poems strip us of our innocence,” Kathy Kelly observes. “David prods us to be uncomfortable”; he prods us to become sensitized actors in a drama that is already difficult to observe from the air-conditioned mezzanine.

    “Battlefield Without Borders” offers brutal, vivid and tender portraits of the fallout of the modern American-Iraqi engagement. Its lessons should be at the forefront of our minds as we try our best to figure out how to respectfully assist in the reconstruction of a country whose history and future have become inextricably linked to our own. More information about the book can be found at its Web site, www.battlefieldwithoutborders.org. All proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to Direct Aid Iraq, a grassroots humanitarian relief organization aimed at providing urgently needed medical care to Iraqis displaced by the sanctions, the invasion and the ensuing occupation. Information about Direct Aid Iraq is available at http://www.directaidiraq.org/.

    Ryan Croken is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. He can be reached at ryan.croken@gmail.com.

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