In Other Words
Poems for Political Disaster and Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice
What is a poetry of resistance, how does it carry the conviction, emotion, and beauty that’s expected of it, and what purpose does it serve? Two new collections, The University of Arizona Press’ Poetry of Resistance: Voices For Social Justice and the Boston Review’s publication, Poems for Political Disaster, make it clear that poetic protest requires context. Witness and narrative make for the strongest and most inspiring poems. Tell the stories. Make it personal. Be a witness to injustice so that readers can be a witness, too.
Carolyn Forché has long championed the witness movement of political poetry. Her experiences in El Salvador gave us 1981’s (Harper & Row), a frightening account of the banality of evil and the horrors to which we were complicit. Her 1993 anthology Against Forgetting: TwentiethCentury Poetry of Witness (W.W. Norton), collected the work of some 150 poets from across the globe who had witnessed exploitation, cruelty, and genocide. They spoke from personal experience. Poets exposing such evil write in the face of horrible consequences. It can be risky to be a poet.
Most of the poems in the volume work from personal experience or bear witness to someone else’s experience. Forché, still on the ground, is represented with “Letter to a City Under Siege.” Through a borrowed book, she puts herself into “your wounded city,/reading the Braille of its walls,/walking beneath the ghost chestnuts.” Her imagination carries her to places where oranges were smuggled and “snipers/fired on the city using gravestones for cover.” She feels the danger, described by her friend, even at distance. After a blunt image of brutality — a dog with a human bone in its mouth — Forché turns at the end to a metaphor for escape and a symbol of life: the smuggled oranges.
The narrative of Major Jackson’s prose poem “Ferguson” (“the ecstasies and muted sorrows of watching a boy sleep in the middle of the street”) is both brutal and dreamy in a fantastical, how-can-this-happen way. Corey Van Landingham’s excellent “Bad Intelligence” takes a matter-offact approach to violence: “Pixelated, on a clear day, a shovel may resemble/a rifle. A woman is always a civilian, by definition//and data (416-957 civilians dead by drones/in Pakistan) will not be updated.” By the end of the poem, Van Landingham, as poets have done for centuries, beseeches an ancient god to “protect/trade and travelers, god of transition, and poets.” On the other hand, Katie Peterson’s lament of the way things turned out (“[I] miss the quiet/vote I cast/that the electors/ate”), weaves her father’s breathless mockery of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and the first time she made love into a quiet wish for easy breathing. It’s all personal, a witness to our small, finally tragic lives.
The stories aired in are almost all of the narrative sort. The book is anchored in a commemorative poem by Francisco X. Alarcón, dedicated to the nine Latino students who chained themselves to the doors of the Arizona State Capitol in 2010 to protest the state’s anti-immigration bill SB 1070 (“you are nine/young warrior/like nine sky stars”). Soon after it was written, Alarcón started a Facebook page, “Poets Responding to SB 1070,” and asked for submissions. Thousands of contributions, directed at various political developments, have come since the group’s founding in 2010. The book, edited by Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez, gathers dozens of these submitted poems. The personal stories, told in images both expected and not, give voice to an extended family that shares a history of migration. Daniel García Ordaz’s “Immigrant Crossing” tells of his father’s feet and suggests something of the humor required to maintain resolve. Aurora Levins Morales’ “Grave Song For Immigrant Soldier” is about four “green card soldiers” who died in Iraq. The variety of experiences held in the book, no matter how different, seem to be threads pulled from the same tapestry.
It’s fitting, considering the political attacks currently directed at the arts and humanities, that both books carry a foreword by the current U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. In
he protests that language and its meaning is being recast and that a “wall of dread” has been thrown in the way of progress. “America what would you do without poets,” he asks, without supplying a question mark. In he takes charge of the language, lifting words from various poets in the collection to arrive at one long paragraph that distills the experiences from the following pages. These voices, he writes, prove “that collective poetry is the answer to the violence-filled policies that increasingly face us in these times.”
Political poetry demands to be taken seriously, but not all of it here can be. The few such examples that fall short of their serious intent, fall short in craft, not passion. There isn’t a poem in either volume that doesn’t convey strong emotions, either directly or experientially. And almost all are written in ways that raise empathy, even for those with little idea of the poet’s experience. This is how the resistance spreads. — Bill Kohlhaase