by John Simon
Earlier this year, Sam Hamill, poet and co-founder of the prestigious literary publisher, Copper Canyon Press, was invited to a White House literary symposium. Incensed by President Bush’s war plans, Hamill wrote in an open letter to his colleagues “I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam.” He asked “every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against this war.” The response was extraordinary. By March 1, when, the web site Hamill and friends set up to receive poems, stopped accepting submissions, more than 12,000 poems had been posted. On March 5, a day of global anti-war poetry readings, the poems were presented to Congress by Pulitzer prize winner and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets W. S. Merwin, Pulitzer prize winner Jorie Graham, and author and poet Terry Tempest Williams, as well as Hamill.
Of course First Lady Laura Bush cancelled the symposium, claiming that it would be “inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum.” The poets to whom Hamill e-mailed his letter begged to differ. On February 12, the scheduled date of the First Lady’s forum, more than 160 “Poems Not Fit For the White House” readings were held around the country. In New York, despite one of the worst blizzards in the city’s history, Avery Fischer Hall was packed to hear playwright Arthur Miller, rapper Mos Def, and several former U.S. poets laureate, including Stanley Kunitz and Rita Dove.
Despite what the First Lady considers “appropriate,” poets, writers, and other makers of art have always been actors in the political sphere and, more often than not, dissenters, even revolutionaries. In 1822 Percy Bysshe Shelly, in his In Defense of Poetry, called poets the “unacknowledged legislators.” In recent times, that role has become even more critical. Writing not about poetry alone, but by implication all creative and imaginative writing, Edward Said recently wrote, “…at the dawn of the twenty-first century the writer has taken on more and more of the intellectual’s adversarial attributes in such activities as speaking the truth to power, being a witness to persecution and suffering, and supplying a dissenting voice in conflicts with authority” (The Nation, September 17, 2001).
This is not the first time that poets, writers, and artists have taken a stand. In the 1930s, writers in this country and elsewhere mobilized their talent and their bodies in the struggle for the Spanish Republic and against fascism. Sherwood Anderson, Pearl S. Buck, Countee Cullen, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Edna Ferber, Rockwell Kent, Katherine Anne Porter, Muriel Rukeyser, Upton Sinclair, Thornton Wilder, William Carlos Williams, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, among others, published Writers Take Sides: Letters About the War in Spain from 418 American Authors. The book sold well and became an influential rallying cry against Franco.
In 1965, Robert Lowell voiced his opposition to Washington’s adventure in Southeast Asia when he publicly refused an invitation to an arts festival at Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Shortly thereafter, poet Robert Bly and others set up American Writers Against the Vietnam War, an umbrella group that organized meetings and participated in rallies and teach-ins. Poets marched in demonstrations under their own banner. Lowell even published two powerful poems about the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Adrienne Rich, one of today’s voices of protest—and no stranger to MR’s pages—also took a stand against that war. In the 1970s a reviewer for The New York Times asked Grace Paley, now Vermont’s state poet laureate, why she hadn’t published in a long time. Her response: she had a war to stop!
So today’s Poets Against The War carries on in a great tradition. (Sam Hamill himself is a veteran of the poets’ struggle in the sixties.) It is no wonder that the poets—along with painters, composers, and others engaged in the work of imagination—seem to have a clearer view of our grievous times and the imperial folly that begins with the U.S. war against Iraq than do the acknowledged legislators: Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et. al. Through the din of misinformation and obfuscation, (what the Bush Administration calls “chatter”) at readings and rallies, in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet, the persuasive power and incorruptible conviction of these poets is being heard.
The poems that follow are all drawn from theweb site. Readers are encouraged to visit the site and read how today’s “unacknowledged legislators” confront the current crisis.
Citizen of a Superpower Sits At Abd El-Hadi’s Table
Where I come from, Abd El-Hadi,
we’re not encouraged
to the quiet falling
from a single tree
no longer standing
by your path, or to notice
the acrid breath
of a single calf
led to the slaughter.
to keep our chins up.
The constant prattle numbs.
Imagine one whole day
in my country when
no one makes a peep.
Even crying babies
stop as the air
softens and swells.
We’d feel the jolt
of the “Enterprise”
landing in your yard, flattening
the round-eyed cat
and the generous hen
flatter than the moon’s
reflection in the pond
doors around the globe
into their own
intricate music, and yours,
Abd El-Hadi, oil spitting
in the pan you heat for the
flight crew, weary, unable to speak
as one by one
your last eggs into the fire.
Note: This poem is in response to Taha Muhammad Ali’s poem—“Abd El-Hadi Fights a Superpower” (Never Mind). Abd El-Hadi is the semi-mythological character of the Fool.
What to Count
What does it mean to hold your mouth to another’s ear. What does it mean to make something stealth. Where do you feel it. Where do things happen when they happen on a train.
A shelter that falls in on itself. A hospital that can’t help you, a pencil without lead. Are there things you could use.
A whisper what does it excite in you. She said stand on the corner with a sign should I? Something falling soft in the air tiny disappear your skin damage with a capsule. It is a good way to eat all the time. He doesn’t want the numbers in the bag—100. 150. 200. 250. 300. Women, children, the old only.
What matters is that you are innocent when you die like this.
Step into the flash. Remember this day. Don’t throw rice for birds, a bubble you catch in your teeth. Smile’s not right. The scent behind your ear makes his head hurt.
Sent home crying when the visitors come through hands in pockets and chewing gum and pencils and penicillin and. taking notes. bombs dropped last week didn’t they. In the school yard. Where are your dual-use shoes?
What counts is the circle when you dance like this.
Up out of the water too much chlorine in the backyard pool, see it in their eyes. Children. Looking into the sun. What is on the other side.
They say we can’t fill the order not even one drop on a hot stone. Nothing will be clean or white again. The x-ray of your wrist, chest, lungs will be done by hand come back in seven hours. There are too many young men they will die of general malaise right in the street and there is one ambulance in the city and there is nowhere for it to take you.
What counts when you fall like this, is the way they lift you, bending at the knees.
What if we could and didn’t. What if
all those children’s eyes
in countries that we cannot name cried out to us
and we didn’t. The children’s eyes
are black, the color of mourning,
of fired wood, or of
the sky between the stars
where dawn gathers
but is not yet seen.
This year smells of bombs. What if we could
and didn’t. What if we just didn’t. The eyes,
empty as shells, are watching,
where tears gather
but have not yet begun to fall.
Love one another said the man
in the space between two thieves
but the Christians
were too busy for that.
There were far too many souls to be saved, and anyway,
who came to town following him?
Twelve ragged hippies, and one of those
was a snitch for the FBI.
We deloused the pew cushions after they left.
More blood, Father: the first time
clearly was inadequate. ii It snowed in Tokyo that summer;
the white flakes whispered in
on the wind from Hiroshima,
and a small boy laughed
at the way the light lifted
from his brother’s body
who had been there
and was now coming home.
We mourn for those who cannot mourn;
We walk for those who cannot walk.
The day stands at the brink of dawn,
But sidles backward into dark.
No gun can guard against the fear
That love might labor in disguise,
Clad as an enemy in war,
Clad as a dark-eyed child who dies.
Who rides the black horse of his hate
Needs a wise hand to take the rein,
Calm the wild steed, unset the bit,
And watch the dawn return again.
Poem for Peace
I’d rather be writing about skin, the smooth breath of contact, an effortless kiss, or this latest deep snow, the pendulum of winter now arching its ample back.
Birds dig the patched earth for seed, and a woodpecker taps the barn doors, and I think how good it is to carry wood to the fire in these dark long days.
I’d rather be writing about how accustomed I’ve become to the slow slide of winter, when the only sound is ice cracking from the roof or the quiet whoosh of snow slipping softly toward earth, and I can feel myself soften along with it, happy, at last, to just be here now.
Instead, I’ve got to find poetic meaning in words like bombs, genocide, axis of evil, weapons of mass destruction, killing,
I don’t want to mingle an aesthetic of passion and blood, too many hips and thighs, the secrets of bodies unhinged with the bloodshed of war, a litany of desolation and sorrows no one was meant to sing;
but, there are stories out there worse than you know apocalyptic love songs, fists crushed against memories of murder, the torture we’ve done in our own name. I can’t stomach one more act of aggression.
In America, there’s a basin wider than the bones of all our dead and the fragments of history we shove through these words into the gleaming light.
You think Iraq or North Korea or Somalia have cornered the market on genocide? That only dark skin chips away under desert heat?
Listen, there’s a wilderness more than lightning in this splintered alien land the tattoo of whispered voices in the cowering night: They say they kill the poets and philosophers first in any war, and the first among us have fallen now, their words clapped shut like the lid of night over day.
So I’m turning my face to the rise of nuclear winds, leaving this small mountain cabin behind, this fresh offering of snow, the promise of one more kiss, to make love the only way I know how:
in the words running off this page, in the language of my birth.
In Times Like This
In times like this, I want a real God,
not the universe exploding, still
expanding, atoms churning
the surface of the earth, bursting
in granite, not the intricate
union of chemicals, the twisted proteins,
nor the whole green world—the algaes and mosses,
ferns and flowering plants—the vast
array of dependent beings
from fungi to frog to me,
in yellow roses, in our own soft bodies;
each raindrop coalescing and, alone,
falling into gravity’s embrace; each shape
unique as your lover’s face;
the pattern of my own arteries repeated
in the branching veins of leaves;
moonlight on moving water. No,
I want an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes God,
one with calloused hands and grease
under his nails, who’ll reach down and twist
our arms and legs into position.
I want him to knock that father off the sweaty,
terrified body of the child, and drag him back
and back into his own infant skin. Put him
in the arms of a father who can’t take his eyes
off him, who lies by his side through the night,
a big finger clasped in the tiny grip.
And let there be enough
sandwiches. And bikes.
I want a god who’ll flick the knife
out of the boy’s hand, hear it rattle
on the scuffed wood, then sit him
back at his own kitchen table
where his mother’s peeling potatoes.
And take the woman out of jail,
rub her body with almond oil
and shield her up to her trembling neck in warm sand
until she feels the roots of her own body.
Carry back the butchered clitoris of every crazed girl
and plant each one, a tulip bulb, in its scarred cradle.
Then gather up all the tiny silver guns
like a handful of paperclips.
Pluck the cars off the roads,
toss them in a celestial toy chest.
And while he’s at it, spread the doctors
evenly around the globe, like candles
in the thick icing of birthday cake,
and redivide the money, like at the start
Give me a working man’s God. Someone
handy with a hammer and nails, who could fix up
the mess these tenants left, the punched-in walls,
cigarette burns on the sill.
That God would lift the general by his collar, crush
ice for margaritas, lock him
in the grip of a no-nonsense woman
til he’s hypnotized by the revolution
of constellations in her hair. Meanwhile,
the heat and light of a flaming star
rush 93 million miles to reach us,
water flows over the gills of fish, wind
thickens the trunks of trees,
baby girls are born with their four hundred thousand
egg cells already formed, otters
keep grooming their guard hair, whirling
the water, working air into the deep
underfur, beluga whales
swim along the earth’s magnetic field,
chicks pip a circle of holes counterclockwise
around the blunt end of their eggs, pressing
with their feet and heaving with their shoulders,
larvae eat their way through the soft
mesophyll of oak leaves, leaving a trail
of dark feces in their wake,
tart juice swells within the rinds of lemons,
mosquitoes impale the skin of their hosts
and fill their guts with blood,
and under the earth,
the god of roots goes on, a dreamy artist,
painting the lustrous fringe with a brush
so delicate, only one sable hair, painting
as though there were all the time in the world.
Comments to Bush
In 1988, your Dad wrote a letter to 2000 poets from 57 countries saying “I am looking to the poets of the world to bring peace to the world.” Many of us that received the letter attended a poets convention in Washington, DC. In response to President Bush’s request, we attached original poems to balloons and released these poems at one time. Most of them polluted the Potomac but some went further and in 3 months the Berlin Wall was torn down.
The poets have united to protest a war. Please listen to your Dad’s request.
(Statement of Conscience)
Karl Marx said that the second time history repeats itself, it’s a farce. If lives weren’t in the balance, the irrationally aggressive actions of the U.S. government would seem farcical. As it stands, innocent people will die so that Cheney and Bush can practice their first-strike policy against Iraq. I hope rational people everywhere will oppose this nonsensical stance and save lives. I hope other reasonable countries in the world (and I trust there are those on either of our borders and on every continent) help dissuade the American government from launching such an attack.
After the Attack
Rufina Amaya will always be
in the forest of felled bodies
looking for her four young children.
Her mouth is stuffed with death
and skewered shut.
Rufina Amaya will always be
dreaming of the last child’s mouth
pressed into the grave of her breast.
Something like a starved dog
gnaws in her womb.
Rufina Amaya will always be
digging in the unclaimed wombs of men,
her eyes blind with
the unclaimed power of women.
Where was it she lost
the shadowed wrists,
the brave ankles of her children?
And where are the winged brown backs,
the first snows of the eyes,
the wet violets that streamed
like music to their palms?
Oh, where are the small
furred animals of their breath
that leapt and leapt and leapt and leapt?
O HEAVEN JUST WAIT, Alittle
Tahseen al Khateeb
O Heaven , just wait… a little ,
to open the Color Blood a little ,
to stay naked a little ,
and to dance with your Wolves a
what’s shining there : in that Redness ,
in the White dimming with me…a little ,
in that hovering butterfly ,
between what is a little ,
and what is a—more-or-less of
the Soldier’s hanging
grave is leaning without
me—bleeding—a little :
into the Untrodden
into the low Darkness of the LITTLE .
what’s in that Eternity : is
it the God America
is it the Rose
the River Hell crossed…
The Olive Wood Fire
When Fergus woke crying at night.
I would carry him from his crib
to the rocking chair and sit holding him
before the fire of thousand-year-old olive wood.
Sometimes, for reasons I never knew
and he has forgotten, even after his bottle the big tears
would keep on rolling down his big cheeks
—the left cheek always more brilliant than the right—
and we would sit, some nights for hours, rocking
in the light eking itself out of the ancient wood,
and hold each other against the darkness,
his close behind and far away in the future,
mine I imagined all around.
One such time, fallen half-asleep myself,
I thought I heard a scream
—a flier crying out in horror
as he dropped fire on he didn’t know what or whom,
or else a child thus set aflame—
and sat up alert. The olive wood fire
had burned low. In my arms lay Fergus,
fast asleep, left cheek glowing, God
Modern Daguerreotype I
(for Sebastiao Salgado)
In the photographs of Salgado,
behind the aperture of his retina, I see
how his sweat could flood
across the landscape of bodies, stripped
of dresses and hats—
gazing from tall ladders, leaning
into the faces with skin of thin paper lanterns
wearing torsos like the tongues of Jesus,
below one detached arm above the world.
Thirty-six different versions of war
all with the same phoneme— the fingers—
falling leaves from forests of extinction,
pointing at us from every direction
Would you rather have health insurance
you can actually afford, or bomb Iraq?
Would you rather have enough inspectors
to keep your kids from getting poisoned
by bad hamburgers, or bomb Iraq?
Would you rather breathe clean air
and drink water free from pesticides
and upriver shit, or bomb Iraq?
We’re the family in debt whose kids
need shoes and to go to the dentist
but we spend our cash on crack:
an explosion in our heads or many
on the TV, where’s the bigger thrill?
It’s money blowing up in those weird
green lights, money for safety,
money for schools and headstart.
Oh, we love fetuses now, we even
dote on embryos the size of needle
tips; but people, who needs them?
Collateral damage. Babies, kids,
goats and alley cats, old women sewing
old men praying, they’ll become smoke
and blow away like sandstorms
of the precious desert covering treasure.
Let’s go conquer more oil and dirty
the air and choke our lungs till
our insides look like stinky residue
in an old dumpster. More dead
people is obviously what we need,
some of theirs, some of ours. After
they’re dead a while, strip them
and it’s hard to tell the difference.
The School Among the Ruins
Beirut. Baghdad. Sarajevo. Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of course here.
Teaching the first lesson and the last
—great falling light of summer will you last
longer than schooltime?
When children flow
in columns at the doors
BOYS GIRLS and the busy teachers
open or close high windows
with hooked poles drawing dark green shades
closets unlocked, locked
questions unasked, asked, when
love of the fresh impeccable
order without cruelty
a street on earth neither heaven nor hell
busy with commerce and worship
young teachers walking to school
fresh bread and early-open foodstalls
When the offensive rocks the sky when nightglare
misconstrues day and night when lived-in
rooms from the upper city
tumble cratering lower streets
cornices of olden ornament human debris
when fear vacuums out the streets
When the whole town flinches
blood on the undersole thickening to glass
Whoever crosses hunched knees bent a contested zone
knows why she does this suicidal thing
School’s now in session day and night
in the classrooms teachers rolled close
How the good teacher loved
his school the students
the lunchroom with fresh sandwiches
lemonade and milk
the classroom glass cages
of moss and turtles
A morning breaks without bread or fresh-poured milk
parents or lesson-plans
diarrhea first question of the day
children shivering it’s September
Second question: where is my mother?
One: I don’t know where your mother
is Two: I don’t know
why they are trying to hurt us
Three: or the latitude and longitude
of their hatred Four: I don’t know if we
hate them as much I think there’s more toilet paper
in the supply closet I’m going to break it open
Today this is your lesson:
write as clearly as you can
your name home street and number
down on this page
No you can’t go home yet
but you aren’t lost
this is our school
I’m not sure what we’ll eat
we’ll look for healthy roots and greens
searching for water though the pipes are broken
There’s a young cat sticking
her head through window bars
she’s hungry like us
but can feed on mice
her bronze erupting fur
speaks of a life already wild
her golden eyes
don’t give quarter She’ll teach us Let’s call her
when we get milk we’ll give her some
I’ve told you, let’s try to sleep in this funny camp
All night pitiless pilotless things go shrieking
above us to somewhere
Don’t let your faces turn to stone
Don’t stop asking me why
Let’s pay attention to our cat she needs us
Maybe tomorrow the bakers can fix their ovens
“We sang them to naps told stories made
shadow-animals with our hands
washed human debris off boots and coats
sat learning by heart the names
some were too young to write
some had forgotten how”
(First published in Connect: Art Politics Theory Practice, #3.)
The Game is Over
- “It’s not a game. It’s not over.”
- “We are still in the game.”
The baby’s forehead knots, now dimpled,
now crazed above his eyebrows’ lift
and curl. His whole face works,
as, silent, reddening, he makes ready
to cry. Nothing seems to stop him,
not song or speech, not the back and forth,
rockers creaking, slips of filtered
sun sliding along our arms.
He tenses and kicks, feet in my ribs.
Outside, forsythia rattles its bared
fronds against the weeping cherry,
the garden still enclosing sunlit
grays and browns, while beyond the fence
sky thickens with sleet or snow
in a strange, pooled, split light.
Even the wind, which I can feel
as it insinuates its change
between sash and sill, seems charged
with troubled news. As suicides
find death’s design in every cup
and courtesy, so now I catch
in every incident a hint,
an immanence of war and war’s
What possible reprieve? This tiny
fist, which I now palm, this face—
even it—insists on none. There, there.
He churns, unappeased. Our fragile
peace turns on a mere intake
of breath. What satisfaction or relief?
Notes: title quote: U.S. President George W. Bush, first epigraph: French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, second epigraph: Hans Blix, Chief UN Weapons Inspector. Also, note that, for Protestants, satisfaction is given to God for sin.
If There Were No Days, Where Would We Live (excerpt)
Primus St. John
The heart line begins
on the thumbless side of the palm
traveling horizontally under the fingers,
when it is clear & deeply etched
you have deep emotions…
so the war is over, my love,
and we have killed enough of them,
torched their homes
trampled their fields
mutilated their arms
burned their legs
harvested their ears
and wore them like dark pearls
drove them crazy
made night a sure sign
their schools, lost canyons
with nothing blowing through them
and an exact count of
and all that was given
What do you do now
with the hunger
and the poverty glaring in their faces?
would have probably kissed it,
but we were not saints
we were soldiers
hiding in the enemy’s world.
How many times
must I be dipped into the water
to be a child again?