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Pasatiempo - - NEWS - The Coun­try Be­tween Us Bos­ton Re­view Dis­as­ter, Po­etry of Re­sis­tance Po­ems for Po­lit­i­cal Po­etry of Re­sis­tance

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

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