Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 22: Not to Forget the Things Which Your Own Eyes Have Seen (And Not Seen): “Home Sweet Home,” + Joe Hall & Mary Austin Speaker

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 22: Not to Forget the Things Which Your Own Eyes Have Seen (And Not Seen): “Home Sweet Home,” + Joe Hall & Mary Austin Speaker

However, take care and be earnestly on your guard
not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen,
nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live,
but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.

Today’s passage taken from Deuteronomy reminded me instantly of Herodotus. I took solace in Herodotus’s notion of writing “to prevent these deeds from drifting into oblivion,” and find peace in the durability of art—its ability to stay in our minds longer than our historical memory. Of course, part of the trouble is that so much is hidden from us (sometimes by our own ideological blindness), that we don’t even know what we haven’t seen to remember it.

The scholar Patrick Deer wrote to me not long ago about these observance pieces, saying that I’d found a way to perform my own “longue duree,” and I was glad to find a name for my strange perseveration. According to Wikipedia, “the longue durée … is an expression used by the French Annales School of historical writing to designate their approach to the study of history, which gives priority to long-term historical structures over events— what François Simiand called histoire événementielle, "event history"— the short-term time-scale that is the domain of the chronicler and the journalist; the longue durée concentrates on all-but-permanent or slowly evolving structures, and substitutes for élite biographies the broader syntheses of prosopography.” Amen to that.

Today’s poem, “Home Sweet Home,” relies upon a letter from a friend (a Marine) and an interview of a widow taken by Jim Sheeler and published in Final Salute. Alongside, Joe Hall has written a fascinating piece on the politics of water in the Middle East, and Mary Austin Speaker, the designer of Sand Opera and a poet in her own right, has written a poem inspired by “Home Sweet Home.”

“Home Sweet Home” by Joe Hall

Here I’m speaking to the block of testimony on a translucent page overlaid within the void of “Home Sweet Home.” As Philip lets us know, it’s the testimony of a widow whose soldier husband died in a tank driven into the Tigris river: “I climbed inside, they closed / the hatch. Sat there thinking, / this is such a little hole, / and my love was so much / bigger than me.” Crushing.

Tanks and tankers – I think immediately of Ghassan Kanafani’s novella Men In The Sun in which three Palestinian refugees in a camp in Lebanon hire a smuggler to take them to Kuwait. At checkpoints the three men hide within the tank of water truck. They die at the last one, their life baked out of them by the sun. One tank in the Tigris filling with water, one water tanker at a checkpoint, bone dry. These are not equal and I cannot weight them.

What is it here I can’t quite say? Metres’s poetry delivers me constantly to this place.

My own work has taken me to water in Iraq and the West Bank and the more subtle, staggering costs of war and settler colonialism. Behind every “surgical strike” has been the destruction of crucial water infrastructure, the expropriation of water resources, the pollution of traditional watercourses, and sanctions that prevent the rebuilding of water infrastructure. One result is that the poorest residents of Gaza, the West Bank, and Iraq must do things like buy water at a steep cost--perhaps from a man driving a water tanker--or drink dirty water. The result has been hundreds of thousands of deaths of the most vulnerable: children. Thomas Nagy’s “The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq’s Water Supply” is one early place to start learning about this slow, spreading violence.

“Home Sweet Home” ends like this: “I remember lying on my cot at night and looking up at the ceiling and thinking I had looked directly in the eyes of evil and could do nothing about it. I could do nothing about it.” 

For more on the politics of water in the Middle East, see here:

Joe Hall is an author and scholar living in Buffalo, New York. His three collections of poems are Pigafetta Is My WifeThe Devotional Poems, and Utopia (forthcoming). With Cheryl Quimba, he wrote the chapbook May I Softly Walk. He is a founding member of Hostile Books, a collective working to radically materializing language. 

“Daughters of the Confederacy” by Mary Austin Speaker
            after “Home Sweet Home” by Philip Metres

So you have seen the face of evil.
You have looked right in. 

Was it cold? Was it on fire?
Which is the greater crime—

To shrug off the pain of others
or to seek it? One murder,

or the murder of thousands?
Perhaps evil is a force that comes

in degrees so small this question
doesn’t matter. To tell you the truth,

I do not want to know
what you have seen. And yet

because I know you loved,
I cannot look away

from your grief. And yet
I am a citizen of a country with a military

that occupies elsewheres. And yet
I am an occupant of that country,

a descendant of men
who prized slavery.

A priest in Texas told me hell
is made by human beings.

I was sixteen and told him
I did not believe in hell

some fantastic burning  pit
where everyone gets

what they deserve, when we
so rarely do. And yet.

Justice is a force I want
to believe in. A benevolence.

Who can take the bad to task
for their sick power?

I know we are not simple.
Everyone sleeps, sings, some of us

even love, and in these things
a tender root that complicates

the fire and ice. Perhaps a sordid few
burn through or crystallize their hate,

but not many. Not most. And yet
the casualties accrue.

We are left with only dirty wars.
and all my empathy can do

is grieve, and recognize a thrall,
witness how we all

let cruelty flourish in
the name of honor, power,

flash of red that left unchecked
would leave us darkly limitless, bent

on punishment, correction,
justice a mutable and sudden hammer,

a shadow blue with grief.
If you saw evil in its purest form,

would you recognize it?
I hope I would, and yet.

--Mary Austin Speaker is a poet and book designer. She is the author of The Bridge, released in January 2016 from Shearsman Books. Her first full-length collection of poems, Ceremony, was selected by Matthea Harvey as winner of the 2012 Slope Editions book prize and was published in February 2013. She is the author of four chapbooks: In the End There Were Thousands of Cowboys (Menagerie Editions 2009), Abandoning the Firmament (Menagerie Editions 2010), The Bridge(Push Press 2011), and 20 Love Poems for 10 Months (Ugly Duckling Presse 2012), as well as a play, I AM YOU THIS MORNING YOU ARE ME TONIGHT, collaboratively written with her husband, the poet Chris Martin for the journal Bridge. She runs a tiny design studio in Minneapolis, and regularly designs books for Milkweed Editions, The Song Cave, WW Norton, HarperCollins, Alice James Books and others.


Maureen said...

"Home Sweet Home" is an unforgettable poem. The image of behind inside the tank filling with water is haunting.

Mary Austin Speaker's response underscores the difficulty of coming to terms with "evil" in the abstract. We turn away from what we know we have seen, and what we see we call into question.

Nagy's and so many other articles about Iraq's water conditions point up the devastating effects of the war in that country. It's chilling to read about the effects on children, referenced as they are in parentheses, i.e., "(particularly children)", as if enclosing the facts within parentheses somehow disguises the truth about the sanctions. How can anyone regard U.S. actions as anything but criminal?

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Maureen. The more I study the Middle East, the more water seems to be part of the resource wars that are happening there.