Wednesday, May 14, 2003

To record and reveal

Posted By on Wed, May 14, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Even as the aftermath of war continues to shock and unsettle, dialogue about what is happening falls into a meaningless buzz: news, pictures, protest, conflict, fear, death.

Answering the need for an audible voice, poets organize, as Poets Against the War (www.poetsagainstthewar.org), for example, where the unspoken challenge is to be anti-war and true to one’s work at the same time. After all, poetry is no carrier pigeon to be sent off with some message tied to its feet.

Rick London, co-editor of the post-Sept. 11 poetry collection, enough, observes in the book’s back-cover notes:

A radical purpose of poetry in critical times is to disrupt the language of consensus, taking possible thought into a more intimate relation to life as anybody lives it, contradicting the fanfare of established power.

London and poet-publisher Leslie Scalapino have brought together U.S., British, Iraqi, Palestinian and Israeli writers to explore poetry’s radical purpose, which is not to provide commentary but to record experience, not to sympathize but to reveal. It means to flesh out the self, to reclaim the self and, finally, to lose the self again to the greater whole.

Nasri Hajjaj was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in 1948. His prose poem, “A Hungry Orange,” opens up a colorful dream state overlapping beauty and death:

I am a martyr. I was killed in a small war for the sake of the homeland. Before enemies killed me, I used to love many-coloured butterflies — friends of red, yellow, white and purple flowers. I loved birds that sang in open skies. And I loved oranges ... (trans. Ibrahim Muhawi)

Iraqi poet Abdul Kader El Janabi’s “If Only the Horse Was Left to Its Solitude” says:

Its leaves falling,/A bald light/For a ballet of silex,/A next morning that doesn’t sing/Under the feet of the slogans./Tossed by where the quest takes her/On the dead sea of peace/With edges licked by war,/The Cause, against the cold/Takes the form of a dipped star. (trans. Pierre Joris)

Yet enough is not a statement as much as it is an opportunity to speak and to listen. In it, Language poets, New York School poets, Beat Generation poets and newer writers meet at a point — in world politics and perhaps in world awareness — where a simple “enough” is evoked. But each expression of this “enough” manifests itself in a language of distinction welling up from the shadowy depths of an individual poet’s expression:

An attempt to blow up/a bridge over the next 7 days may occur, as if that would help/us wake up and read this. You probably remember the green meadow/on which the warring generals and heads of state dined/in the nude.—Lyn Hejinian, excerpt from “The Fatalist”

Poetry is often, by default, the voice of activism and political consciousness. Imposing collections such as this make a necessary, private space for insight, feeling and thinking about the world, as evidence of its agonies, peaks and also in the quiet aftermath.

Christine Monhollen, a Detroit-area poet and the editor and publisher of the poetry journal Dispatch Detroit, finds such a space on-site in “White Trace Close”:

She raises one hand/requesting the present and folds/into a bank of steel. The fill in/function blinded and dragged around./A staircase fragile, a roof absent, the sky/dissipates on a thread.

More than a complex assembly of confessions and small poetic miracles, enough asks, challenges and prods. While its effects can be profound, it comes off as poetry without plans — not as organized consensus, but unforgettable dialog with vast possibilities. And so there’s something especially authentic and alive in the way this collection experiments, reshapes and holds itself in varying light, as if we needed to adjust our vision again and again to really see what’s there.

And, as it turns out, we do.

Norene Cashen writes about books for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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