Saturday, August 30, 2008

Reader Poll: What Would You Choose for a Cover Image for Anthology of Peace Poems?

Ann Smith, Larry Smith, and I have been co-editing an anthology of peace poems called COME TOGETHER: IMAGINE PEACE, and we've been considering cover images. Here are a sample of some of them. Of these, which would you choose? If you have other ideas, send them along. Thanks in advance for your contribution. One of the difficulties of choosing is that peace itself summons, on the one hand, iconic images that tend toward the cliche, and on the other, not images themselves but attitudes, relations, emotions not limitable to image per se.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Replacements' "Maybelline" and "Bastards of Young"/For Mike Danko, Happy Birthday

This is for Mike Danko, the original Bedspins (not to be mistaken for the online Bedspins--this revolution was never televised) bassist, who taught me rock and roll has many branches, among them the Replacements, Cheap Trick, Husker Du, Kiss, Uncle Tupelo, Elvis, Led Zeppelin and Fugazi. (Apparently, he has Elton John on his facebook, just to keep everyone on their toes). I met Mike, a classics major in college, in an introduction to Russian language course. His bangs always dangled between us and his eyes. So it was always a wonder to see this retiring student of Pliny leap on stage and play bass on his back, like some sort of flipped bug.

Although we've never spoken about it, I'm sure he's approve both of the cover of "Maybelline" and the video of "Bastards of Young," which was a pretty provocative punk gesture during the early age of MTV. Even more strange is that MTV actually played this video a few times. My first impression was something on the order of "This Sucks!" Then I got it. In Westerberg's words, "Seen your video/That phony rock and roll/We don't wanna know."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Robert Creeley's "For No Clear Reason"

In celebration of the new Selected Poems of Robert Creeley edited by Benjamin Friedlander, here is a kind of rare catharsis poem by Creeley--though the fact that it's a dream should not be forgotten, that we must wake to the fright again and again.

"For No Clear Reason" by Robert Creeley

I dreamt last night
the fright was over, that
the dust came, and then water,
and women and men, together
again, and all was quiet
in the dim moon’s light.

A paean of such patience—
laughing, laughing at me,
and the days extend over
the earth’s great cover,
grass, trees, and flower-
ing season, for no clear reason.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Santa Susana (2006)

It's rare enough to have really great students, rarer still to have students who go on to be practicing artists. Today, I'm celebrating the short film of a former student of mine, James Day, who has directed Santa Susana, an exploration of subjectivity and place--in particular, the struggles of Susana and her attempt to find her way in a place that goes back generations, a landscape that is increasingly alien to her, and now under the threat of "development." Will she hit the road, as so many American narratives invite, or choose to stay?

Monday, August 18, 2008

"Official Ironman Rally Song" by Guided by Voices

"Official Ironman Rally Song" by Guided by Voices
Bitter fish in crude oil sea
You don't have to bother me
You just have to join in on this song

Crawling people on your knees
Don't take this so seriously
You just have to hum it all day long

To dine alone
To build a private zone
Or trigger a synapse
And free us from our traps

You won't see me turn my back
With my head against my stack
Spitting teeth and breaking open skin

Official ironmen you are free
Champions officially
But you won't catch me on an open chin

To dine alone
To build a private zone
Or trigger a synapse
And free us from our traps

Save your knock-out punches for the freaks
Happy little babies with red cheeks
You will rock them gently out of sync

Confirmations through the wire
Spitting gas into the fire
Am I also worthy of a drink?

To dine alone
To build a private zone
Or trigger a synapse
And free us from our traps

Has there been such a succinct definition of the pop song? Like Dickinson's notion of the poem that makes the top of the head feel as if it's coming off--"or trigger a synapse/and free us from our traps"?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Elegy for Mahmoud Darwish by Israeli poet Haim Gouri

Teaching Israeli and Palestinian literature in dialogue, I have found a surprising, but hope-building solidarity between the writers of these opposed nations. Israeli poet Haim Gouri here expresses his admiration of Mahmoud Darwish's work and life.

Fleeting words

By Haim Gouri

The death of poet Mahmoud Darwish, in an American hospital, far away from his land, grieves me. This man and his multifaceted poetry has occupied me since the 1960s. Even then he was already known as a young member of the group of poets and writers from Maki - the binational Israel Communist Party - whose work appeared in the party newspaper, Al-Ittihad, and its literary supplement, Al-Jadid. There you found names such as Emile Habibi, Saliba Hamis, Dr. Emile Toma, Samih al-Qasim, Mahmoud Darwish, Salem Jubran, "and others."

In those years a few encounters took place between Arab and Hebrew artists, which, if they did not offer a balm to the wounds of our land, stimulated mutual curiosity and forged personal ties that proved to be enduring. I remember one such instance in Haifa, in 1970, which still haunts me. My wife and I came from Jerusalem for a protest meeting held in a cinema in the lower part of the city. On the agenda: a military censor order demanding that Arab poets submit their manuscripts for review prior to publication! I no longer remember everyone who spoke. One of the speakers was Amos Kenan. We told a few of our Arab colleagues that despite the dispute between us, we shared their protest against a directive which we perceived as insulting, foolish and pointless.

We had lunch at a nearby restaurant. There were five of us: Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, Dahlia Rabikovitch, my wife Alika and me. Maybe there were others whom I've forgotten. Our Arab colleagues complained that despite the decision by the Knesset to abolish the Military Government [in 1966], the authorities continued to hound them, prohibiting free movement in the country and making them report periodically to the police.

Mahmoud Darwish then got up and, begging our pardon, said he had to report to the police station right then. Overwrought, Dahlia Rabikovitch joined him. We waited for them to return. Then, as I recall, I told them that despite the severe national-political dispute, this approach infuriated us as well, and if they found themselves being persecuted they should not hesitate to turn to us. Not long afterward, Mahmoud called me at home and informed me that he had been invited to visit Moscow, but did not know how he would get to the airport in Lod, as he was barred by official order from leaving Haifa. In the end, he left the country without an Israeli passport, which was not issued to him, but rather with a laissez-passer.

I learned this last Sunday from Samih al-Qasim in a phone call that brought back the memory of that meeting. Samih told me again, after all the time that had passed, that the authorities had pestered them, although Maki had been the only party throughout the Middle East that recognized Israel.

Mahmoud, he said, remained in Moscow for a year. He did not return to Haifa, but went on to Cairo. Thus began the protracted odyssey of the young poet, who hailed from the abandoned village of Birwa in Galilee, and who became over time - his power intensifying - known throughout the world as a poet in exile, the foremost Palestinian poet, and in the eyes of his many admirers, the unrivaled national poet. I also heard later that if peace were declared between Israel and Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish and Yehuda Amichai would be awarded the Nobel Prize.

I followed his progress - Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, Tunis, Paris, Amman, Ramallah ... As one who was conversant with the PLO leadership, he was a personal metaphor for the national condition: the uprooted, the refugee, the exile. But even among the leaders and the commanders, he preserved his autonomy as a poet and not infrequently voiced criticism of "the line."

Many of his poems were translated into Hebrew in periodicals and in literary supplements. Some of his books appeared under the imprint of the Israeli publishers Schocken, Babel and Andalus: "Bed of the Stranger," "Memory for Forgetfulness," "Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone," "A State of Siege," "Mural." The Hebrew reader, too, found him to be a true poet, touched with greatness, blending different styles stemming from the generations-long Arabic poetic tradition and modern streams in international poetry. Yossi Sarid, as minister of education, wanted to include Darwish's poems in our high-school curriculum, and caused a scandal.

In a riveting interview with Dalia Karpel ("Return of the 'Modest Poet,'" Haaretz Magazine, July 13, 2007), Darwish says: "I believe in the power of poetry, which gives me reasons to look ahead and identify a glint of light. Poetry can be a real bastard. It distorts. It has the power to transform the unreal into the real, and the real into the imaginary. It has the power to build a world that is at odds with the world in which we live. I see poetry as spiritual medicine ... I have no other tool with which to find meaning for my life or for the life of my nation ... I built with words a homeland for my nation and for myself."

I, too, was a reader of his poetry. Among the poems were powerful works, in both personal and political terms, richly expressive, wise, interweaving pathos with irony, lacing gentle lyricism with sarcasm. They evoked a world that had been destroyed in this land, where the redemption of Israel took place through trials and tribulations. He rebuilt it from ruins by means of well-known symbols such as the prickly pear cactus, the oak and the vine, the fig and the olive, the pit and the well, and all the other sights, smells and objects. But in the unendurable reckoning he made with us, the Hebrew-Israelis, one found also - regrettably, astonishingly and shamefully - poems that were hard to read, that outraged me, because they attacked not the occupation regime, which he loathed, but my nation in this land, which we see as our ancient homeland, our "poor man's lamb," whose significance in the annals of civilization was conferred by my people, whence our right to realize independence and sovereignty, if only in part of the land.

In March 1988, I read in the daily Maariv Darwish's poem "Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words," in which he writes: "O those who pass between fleeting words / Carry your names, and be gone / Rid our time of your hours, and be gone / Steal what you will from the blueness of the sea / And the sand of memory / Take what pictures you will, so that you understand / That which you never will: / How a stone from our land builds the ceiling of our sky / ... From you steel and fire, from us our flesh / From you yet another tank, from us stones / From you teargas, from us rain / ... As bitter dust, go where you wish, but / Do not pass between us like flying insects / ... Pile your illusions in a deserted pit, and be gone / ... And we have what you lack / A bleeding homeland of a bleeding people ..."

And he concludes: "It is time for you to be gone / Live wherever you like, but do not live among us / It is time for you to be gone / Die wherever you like, but do not die among us / ... So leave our country / Our land, our sea / Our wheat, our salt, our wounds / Everything, and leave / The memories of memory / those who pass between fleeting words!"*

The poem sent shock waves among Israelis, particularly on the left, many of whom viewed Mahmoud Darwish as a poet expressing the afflictions of his people, but recognizing Israel's existence and aspiring, despite everything, to a brotherhood of nations in this bleeding land. I remember the fierce reaction of Halit Yeshurun.

The poet Siham Daoud, whom I respect, explained to me at the time: "He is referring only to the territories. He is not a fool. He is a world-class poet!" And Samih al-Qasim added, "It is unfair not to understand the pain in the face of what is going on in the West Bank and Gaza - 100 dead, hundreds wounded, thousands arrested. We are human beings, not angels, and every person at a certain moment can fly off the handle."

In the wake of the furor, Tom Segev went to Paris and conducted a long interview with Mahmoud Darwish. He told Segev, among other things: "Haim Gouri sometimes writes bad poems, too." I plead guilty.

Mahmoud continued to occupy me. I wanted to meet him. It was hard to get to him. I was given phone numbers in Amman and Ramallah. He was almost always abroad. From my young friend Prof. Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, who was in touch with him continuously and also saw him occasionally, I learned more details about his loneliness, about his worsening heart condition, and also about the changes he had undergone.

On July 16, 2003, the Hebrew literary supplement of Haaretz published my review of his book "State of Siege," under the headline, "The Blood and the Stone of Blue." The book held me spellbound. It is not a narrative poem linked by an unfolding plot. The poems are read individually. Sometimes they identify with their neighboring poems, sometimes they conflict with them. Sometimes two parts of the same poem are in contradiction with each other. This is a crucially important book for understanding the lengthy and lethal conflict between us and our neighbors. Along with the high regard in which he is held as a poet, Darwish is a representative. I, who grew up in the "culture of the besieged and the just," saw how the "culture of guilt and remorse" trickled into the work of many of our poets.

There is no mention of this in the other nation's poetry, but this book is characterized by its ambivalence. The reader will find a certain desperate attempt at dialogue, at possible conciliation. It is a book that is very different from the poem I quoted above: "leave our country, our wounds, our land, everything." I found in it many splendid poems, felicitous formulations, subtleties and a refinement of description, as well as a feeling of being tired of blood. The concluding section deals entirely with a possible peace. He bursts into words that recall Natan Zach: "Quiet, Please." And then Darwish writes: "Truce, truce. A time to review the orders: can helicopters be turned into ploughshares? / We said to them: truce, truce, to examine intentions. / The flavor of peace may be absorbed by the soul." Yes, this too is in the book, in which there were other poems that pained me, and I was compelled to respond to them.

We did not meet. Upon his return to Ramallah and his visit to Haifa last year, where a very festive event was held in his honor, sponsored by Masharaf magazine and the Hadash party, we spoke at length by phone. His Hebrew was excellent. We talked about illnesses and old age, and we evoked the memory of that meeting in Haifa, before he set out on the long odyssey that has now ended in Houston. As these lines are being written, I do not know whether his body will be granted the right of return to Galilee.

This English translation was published in "Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Occupation," edited by Zachary Lockman and Joel Belnin, South End Press, 1999. It is not identical to the Hebrew version published in Maariv.

And a poem by Gouri:

Account Current

And again, as always in the Land of Israel, the stones boil,
earth gives no cover.
And again my brothers call out from the depths.

Crop-eared dogs cry out at night to passing strangers
and their brothers answer back.

And again, as always in the Land of Israel, the headstones are dangerous.
Many of those who sleep see a ladder.

The moon is huge and rouses
poetic Gemulas and other somnambulists
and those who lie in ambush doze on the crossroads, as always.

And again, as always in the Land of Israel,
the gate of mercy is still locked
and so are the gravestones in the shade of the wall.

And a late summer sun and the mountains dripping sweet wine
and the hills melting away
and the honey overflowing.

And again, as always in the Land of Israel,
eyes peer through Virgo’s hands
and the stone ridges are black with distant fires
and before dawn the valley fills with fog
and the watermelons are ripe and the sea storms.
And again, as always in the Land of Israel,
roads groan with the footsteps of pilgrims
and God feels at home
and my brothers still call out from the depths.

And the might of fire
and the might of night
and a needle won’t pass through
and a feather in the mountains.

And again, as always in the Land of Israel,
the stones remember.
Earth gives no cover.
Judgment pierces the mountains.

© Translation: 1996, Stanley Chyet

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

"Waking Life" (for David Metres and Brian Gunn)

We watched "Waking Life" last night, recommended by my brother Dave, and enjoyed its dreamy meditation on dreams and waking. Amy saw it as a stunning adolescent text--in fact, the main character seems to be dreaming his way through college (mini-"lectures" on telescopic evolution, language, physics, authorship, cinematic theory and the Holy Moment, consciousness, the collective unconscious, Zen, the psychology of aging, Philip K. Dick, existentialism, all get scenes). They may not always be the most complex renderings of these various disciplines and ways of knowing, but they gesture toward many of the great human dilemmas (free will v. biological determinism, consciousness v. the unconscious, theory v. praxis/action, Marxian false consciousness, individuality v. collectivity) and create a richly broad palette of a liberal arts education.

On existentialism:

In fact, it brought me back to my senior year in college, when my roommates would return from classes and provide synopses of the eye-opening ideas they were still digesting. Once, Brian Gunn returned from Chinese Philosophy to discuss Chuang Tzu's famous koan about the butterfly:

Those who dream of a banquet may wake to lamentation and sorrow. Those who dream of lamentation and sorrow may wake to join a hunt. While they dream, they do not know that they dream. Some will even experience a dream within a dream; and only when they awake do they realize they dreamed of a dream. By and by comes the great awakening, and then we may find out that this life is really an extended dream. Fools think they are awake now, and flatter themselves they know if they are really princes or peasants. Confucius and you are both dreams; and I who say you are dreams—I am but a dream myself. This is a paradox. To-morrow a wise man may come forward to explain it; but that tomorrow will not be until ten thousand generations have gone by.

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly I awaked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a barrier. The transition is called metempsychosis.

This is for Ron Silliman, and his recent posts on the end of theory, and the persistence of poetry:

What is language?

On Philip K. Dick, Lady Gregory, and dreams...:

Some of it is pretty damned hilarious, and demonstrate why the film should not be dismissed as just a bunch of philosophy 101 clips strung together haphazardly; they are ideas set in the motion of a story, which is why narrative is often more compelling than total theories of the universe. Good narratives seem to enact the limits of the frame, in the way that Derrida would recognize, but without the aggravation:

Two final notes: in addition to all the intellectuals' points of view, Linklater includes a kind of ars cinematica that captures fairly well his own loose, breezy, narrative style:

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Armenian Radio on WJCU!--Talking Vahan Tekeyan and the Armenian Genocide

On Sunday, I had the opportunity of joining Raz Pounardjian and the other hosts of the Armenian Radio Show on WJCU 88.7, to talk about Armenian poet Vahan Tekeyan, and his remarkable poems. A while back, I posted on his poem, "The Forgetting," a poem that captures the double-edged sword of remembering, which we discussed in earnest in relationship to the genocide. That poem poses forgetting as a kind of death, and death, perhaps, as a kind of forgetting.

We talked as well about his poem, "Prayer on the Threshold of Tomorrow," a beautiful counterpoint to the darkness of "The Forgetting," that contains the lines: "Lord, now is the time to send/your wisdom and kindness/to the tortured who, although/ they have forgotten, need you as they hurl/ themselves closer to the precipice." I ended up by reading Mahmoud Darwish's poem, "We Travel Like Other People," a poem consonant with the realities of exile and dispossession faced by Armenians and Palestinians alike, which contains the phrase, "we have a country of words."

Here's another poem that I read online:

To God

Whatever the gift, I gave back.
Here, God, it is yours.
The seeds you gave I planted
under the pillow of my crib
and the harvest grows from by palms.

How meager it is. How small.
If I open my fist no one sees it at all.
Or perhaps can only see dust and sense
a vague, fragrance, the wind can sweep.

Some never blossomed and some
seeds grew and were festooned
into wreaths and rings
that fade this autumn.

It is my fault, mine alone,
if I do not harvest again
to fill the other side
of the abundance you provide
with more than pain and regret.

But if this is all,
with more than pain and regret.

And, finally, if you have not had enough talk of memory, a BBC special on the genocide.

Mahmoud Darwish, Our Third Day of Mourning

In recognition of the three days of national mourning for poet Mahmoud Darwish, which is happening in what is left of Palestine, and in the hearts of Palestinians everywhere, I offer a third day of links to the poet.

It is astonishing to think that a poet would cause a nation to stop in its tracks for three days, to reflect and to mourn what has passed--but that is a measure of Darwish's importance to the Palestinian people, and some echo of poetry's once-pivotal role in articulating what Benedict Anderson once famously called "imagined communities."

Poets Sinan Antoon and Fady Joudah on Democracy Now to talk about Mahmoud Darwish's legacy.

On Darwish as humanist, by Saifedean Ammous on "The Saif House" blog

At Salam+Shalom: "State of Siege"

Monday, August 11, 2008

More on Mahmoud Darwish

Check out Amal's "Improvisations" blog for a beautiful group of posts about Darwish, and one about "Those Awesome Palestinians" in the Olympics--which made me, actually, suddenly happy about the Olympics.

Finally, Halvard Johnson sent me a translation of part of Darwish's 2002 long poem, "State of Siege"--a poem written in the midst of actual siege, as well as the ongoing systemic and psychological siege under which Palestinians live every day. A great translation is also available in The Butterfly's Burden, by Fady Joudah--the most recent work of Darwish available in translation, including his stunning poems in Don't Apologize For What You've Done.

"State of Siege"

Here, where the hills slope before the sunset and the chasm of time
near gardens whose shades have been cast aside
we do what prisoners do
we do what the jobless do
we sow hope

In a land where the dawn sears
we have become more doltish
and we stare at the moments of victory
there is no starry night in our nights of explosions
our enemies stay up late, they switch on the lights
in the intense darkness of this tunnel

Here after the poems of Job, we wait no more

This siege will persist until we teach our enemies
models of our finest poetry

the sky is leaden during the day
and a fiery orange at night . . . but our hearts
are as neutral as the flowery emblems on a shield

here, not "I"
Here, Adam remembers the clay of which he was born

He says, on the verge of death, he says,
"I have no more earth to lose"
Free am I, close to my ultimate freedom, I hold my fortune in my own
In a few moments, I will begin my life
born free of father and mother
I will chose letters of sky blue for my name

Under siege, life is the moment between remembrance
of the first moment, and forgetfulness of the last

here, under the mountains of smoke, on the threshold of my home,
time has no measure
We do what those who give up the ghost do . . .
we forget our pain

Pain is when the housewife forsakes hanging up the clothes to dry and
is content
that this flag of Palestine should be without stain

There is no Homeric echo here
Myths come knocking on our door when we need them
There is no Homeric echo here… only a general
looking through the rubble for the awakening state
concealed within the galloping horse from Troy

The soldiers measure the space between being and nothingness
with field-glasses behind a tank's armoury

We measure the space between our bodies and the coming rockets
with our sixth sense alone

You there, by the threshold of our door
Come in, and sip with us our Arabic coffee
[you may even feel that you are human, just as we are]
you there, by the threshold of our door
take your rockets away from our mornings
we may then feel secure
[and almost human]

We may find time for relaxation and fine art
We may play cards, and read our newspapers
Catching up on the news of our wounded past
and we may look up our star signs in the year
two thousand and two, the camera smiles
to those born under the sign of the siege

Whenever yesterday comes to me, I say to her,
Now's not the right time. Go
and come tomorrow!

I wrack my head, but uselessly.
What can someone like me think of, there,
on the tip of the hillside, for the past 3 thousand years,
and in this passing moment?
My thoughts slay me
my memory awakens me

When the helicopters disappear the doves fly back
white, very white, marking the cheeks of the horizon
with liberated wings. They revive their radiance and their ownership
of the sky, and of playfulness. Higher and higher they fly,
the doves, very white. 'O that the sky
was real' [a man passing between two bombs cried]
A sparkling sky, a vision, lightning!
all very similar . . .
soon I will know if this is indeed
a revelation
or my close friends will know that the poem
has gone, and yoked its poet

[to a critic]: Don’t interpret my words
as you stir the sugar in your cup, or munch your breast of chicken!
Words put me under siege in my sleep…
the words I did not utter.
They write me, then leave me searching for the remains of my sleep

The evergreen Cypresses behind the soldiers are minarets protecting
the sky from falling. Behind the barbed wire
are soldiers urinating--protected by a tank.
The Autumn day completes its golden stroll on the pavements of
a street as empty as a church after Sunday prayers

Tomorrow we will love life.
When tomorrow comes, life will be something to adore
just as it is, ordinary, or tricky
gray, or colourful . . . stripped of judgement day and purgatory. . .
and if joy is a necessity
let it be
light on the heart and the back
Once embittered by joy, twice shy

A satirical writer said to me:
If I knew the end of the story at the very beginning
there would be nothing to laugh about!

[To a killer:] If you reflected upon the face
of the victim you slew, you would have remembered your mother in the
full of gas. You would have freed yourself
of the bullet's wisdom,
and changed your mind: 'I will never find myself thus.'

[To another killer:] If you left the foetus thirty days
in its mother's womb, things would have been different.
The occupation would be over and this suckling infant
would forget the time of the siege
and grow up a healthy child
reading at school, with one of your daughters
the ancient history of Asia.
They might even fall in love
and give birth to a daughter [she would be Jewish by birth].
What, then, have you done now?
Your daughter is now a widow
and your granddaughter an orphan.
What have you done with your scattered family?
And how have you slain three doves in one story?

This verse was not
really necessary. Forget about the refrain
and forget about being economical with the pain.
It's all superflous
like so much dross

The mist is darkness--a thick, white darkness
peeled by an orange, and a promising woman

The siege is lying in wait.
It is lying in wait on a tilted stairway
in the midst of a storm.

We are alone. We are alone to the point
of drunkenness with our own aloneness,
with the occasional rainbow visiting.

We have brothers and sisters overseas..
kind sisters, who love us . . .
who look our way and weep.
And secretly they say
"I wish that siege was here, so that I could . . ."
But they cannot finish the sentence.
Do not leave us alone. No.
Do not leave us alone.

Our losses are between two and eight a day.
And ten are wounded.
Twenty homes are gone.
Forty olive groves destroyed,
in addition to the structural damage
afflicting the veins of the poem, the play,
and the unfinished painting.

In the alleyway, lit by an exiled lantern,
I see a refugee camp at the crossroads of the winds.
The south rebels against the wind.
The east is a west turned religious.
The west is a murderous truce minting the coinage of peace.
As for the north, the distant north,
it is not a place or a geographical vicinity.
It is the conference of heavenly divinity.

A woman said to a cloud: cover my dear one,
for my clothes are wet with his blood.

If you are not rain, o dear one,
then be a tree,
fertile and verdant. Be a tree.
And if not a tree, o dear one
be a stone
laden with dew. Be a stone.
And if not a stone, o dear one,
be the moon itself
in the dreams of she who loves you. Be the moon itself.
[thus a woman said
to her son, in his funeral]

O you who are sleepless tonight, did you not tire
of following the light in our story
and the red blaze in our blood?
Did you not tire, you who are sleepless tonight?

Standing here. Sitting here. Always here. Eternally here,
we have one aim and one aim only: to continue to be.
Beyond that aim we differ in all.
We differ on the form of the national flag (we would have done well if
we had chosen
o living heart of mine, the symbol of a simple mule).
We differ on the words of the new anthem
(we would have done well to choose a song on the marriage of doves).
We differ on the duties of women
(we would have done well to choose a woman to run the security
We differ on proportions, public and private.
We differ on everything. We have one aim: to continue to be.
After fulfilling this aim, we will have time for other choices.

He said to me, on his way to jail,
"When I am released I will know that praise of nation
is like pouring scorn on nation--
a trade like any other!

A little of the infinite blue
to reduce the burden of our times
and cleanse the mud from this place right now

The spirit needs to improvise
and walk upon its silken soles
by my side, as hand in hand, two old friends
we share a crust of bread
and an old flask of wine
walking the path together,
then our days fork off into two separate paths:
I to the unknown, and she
sits squatting upon a high rock

[to a poet] Whenever the sunset eludes you
you are ensnared in the solitude of the gods.
Be 'the essence' of your lost subject
and the subject of your lost essence. Be present in your absence

He finds time for sarcasm:
My telephone has stopped ringing.
My doorbell has also stopped ringing.
So how did you know
that I am not here?

He finds time for song:
Waiting for you, I cannot wait
I cannot read Dostoyevsky
nor listen to Umm Kalthum, Maria Callas or another.
Waiting for you, the hands of the watch go from right
to left
to a time without a place.
Waiting for you, I didn't wait for you.
I waited for eternity.

He asks her, "What kind of flower is your favourite?"
She says, "The carnation. The black carnation."
He asks her, "And where will you take me, with those black carnations?"
She says, "To the abyss of life within me."
She says, "Further, further, further."

This siege will endure until the besiegers feel, like
the besieged
that anger
is an emotion like any other.

"I don’t love you. I don't hate you,"
The prisoner said to the interrogator. "My heart is full
of that which is of no concern to you. My heart is full of the aroma
of sage.
My heart is innocent, radiant, brimming.
There is no time in the heart for tests. No.
I do not love you. Who are you that I may give my love to you?
Are you part of my being? Are you a coffee rendezvous?
Are you the wind of the flute, and a song, that I may love you?
I hate imprisonment. But I do not hate you."
Thus a prisoner said to the investigator. "My feelings are not your
My emotions are my own private night . . .
my night which moves from bed to bed free of rhyme
and of double meanings!"

We sat far from our destinies, like birds
which build their nests in cracks in statues
or in chimneys, or in tents
erected on the prince's path at the time of the hunt

On my ruins the shadows grow green
and the wolf sleeps on a hybernating poem,
dreaming, like me, and like a guardian angel,
that life is pure and free of label

Myths refuse to amend their patterns.
Perhaps they were struck by a crack in the hull;
perhaps their ships have been stranded on
a land without a people.
Thus the idealist was overcome by the realist.
But the ships will not change their mould.
Whenever an unpleasant reality crosses their path
they demolish it with a bulldozer.
The colour of their truth dictates the text: she is beautiful,
white, without blemish.

[to a semi-orientalist] Let's say things are the way you think they
that I am stupid, stupid, stupid
and that I cannot play golf
or understand high technology
nor can fly a plane!
Is that why you have ransomed my life to create yours?
If you were another -- if I were another
we would have been a couple of friends who confessed our need for folly
But the fool, like Shylock the merchant,
consists of heart, and bread, and two frightened eyes

Under siege, time becomes a location
solidified eternally
Under siege, place becomes a time
abandoned by past and future

This low, high land
this holy harlot . . .
we do not pay much attention to the magic of these words
a cavity may become a vacuum in space
a contour in geography

The dead besiege me with every new day
and ask me, "Where were you? Give back
to the lexicon all the words
you offered me
and let the sleepers sleep without phantoms in their dreams!"
The dead teach me the lesson: there is no aesthetic beyond freedom

The dead point out to me: "Why search beyond the horizon
for the eternal virgins? We loved life
on earth, between the fig and the pine trees
but we couldn't find our way even there. We searched
until we gave life all we owned: the purple blood in our veins"

The dead besiege me. "Do not walk in the funeral
if you did not know me. I seek no compliments
from man nor beast"

The dead warn me. "Do not believe their rejoicing.
Listen instead to my dad as he looks at my photo crying.
'How did you take my place, son, and jump ahead of me?
I should have gone first! I should have gone first!'"

The dead besiege me. "I have only changed my place of abode and my
The deer now walk on my bedroom's roof
and the moon warms the ceiling from the pain
thus putting an end to my pain
to put an end to my wailing.

and the moon warms the ceiling
to put an end to my wailing."

This siege will endure until we are truly persuaded
into choosing a harmless slavery, but
in total freedom!

To resist: that means to ensure the health
of heart and testicles, and that your ancient disease
is still alive and well in you
a disease called hope

in the remains of the dawn I walk outside of my own body
in the remains of the night I hear the footsteps of my own being

I raise my cup to those who drink with me
to an awakening to the beauty of the butterfly
in the long tunnel of this dark night

I raise my cup to those who drink with me
in the thick darkness of a night overflowing with crippled souls
I raise my cup to the apparition in my being

[to a reader] Don't trust the poem
She is the absentee daughter. She is neither an intuition
nor a surmise, but a sense of disaster

If love is crippled, I will heal it
with exercise and humour
and with separating the singer from the song

My friends are ever preparing a party for me--
a farewell party, and a comfortable grave in the shadow of the oak
together with a marble witness from the tombstone of time
But I seem to be first in attending their funerals.
Who has died today?

The siege is transforming me from a singer
to a sixth string on a five-string violin

The deceased, daughter of
the deceased, who is herself daughter of the deceased, who is the
deceased's sister
The deceased resister's sister is related by marriage to the mother of
the deceased, who is grandaughter of the deceased's grandfather
and neighbour to the deceased's uncle (etc. . . . etc.)
No news worries the developed world,
for the time of barbarism has passed
and the victim is Joe Bloggs. Nobody knows his name,
and the tragedy, like the truth, is relative (etc. . . . etc.)

Quiet, quiet, for the soldiers need
at this hour to listen to the songs
which the dead resisters had listened to, and have remained
like the smell of coffee, in their blood, fresh

Truce, truce. A time to test the teachings: can helicopters be turned
into ploughshares?
We said to them: truce, truce, to examine intentions.
The flavour of peace may be absorbed by the soul.
Then we may compete for the love of life using poetic images.
They replied, "Don't you know that peace begins with oneself,
if you wish to open the door to our citadel of truth?
So we said, "And then?"

Writing is a small ant which bites extinction.
Writing is a bloodless wound.

Our cups of coffee, and the birds, and the green trees
with the blue shade, and the sun leaping from wall
to wall like a doe
and the waters in the skies of infinite shapes, in what is left to us
of sky . . . and other matters the memory of which has been put on hold
prove that this morning is strong and beautiful
and that we are guests of evermore

Tr. Ramsis Amun

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mahmoud Darwish, Voice of the Palestinian People, Rest in Peace

We've lost a great poet, a poet whose work spoke not only to the Palestinian people (though he is considered the greatest Palestinian poet), but to all of us. Mahmoud Darwish, rest in peace. He once said that history laughs at both victim and aggressor; it is a rueful joke that he never received the Nobel Prize, nor--more importantly--saw his country in freedom. In dispossession, exile, statelessness, oppression, Darwish became a poet who could, at the end of his life, write, "my throne is margin."

Here are some resources on Darwish's life, work, and passing.
I have defeated you, death
All the beautiful arts have defeated you
The songs of Mesopotamia, the obelisks of Egypt, the carved tombs of the pharaohs on the altar have defeated you, and you are vanquished.

This is from the Reuters article:
RAMALLAH, West Bank, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Mahmoud Darwish, whose poetry his fellow Palestinians embraced as the voice of their suffering, died on Saturday after heart surgery in Texas.

President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of national mourning to honour the 67-year-old writer who, a close friend said, never came round from a major operation two days earlier.

"The passing of our great poet, Mahmoud Darwish, the lover of Palestine, the pioneer of the modern Palestinian cultural project, and the brilliant national leader, will leave a great gap in our political, cultural and national lives," Abbas said.

"Words cannot describe the depth of sadness in our hearts," he added. "Mahmoud, may God help us for your loss."

The death of a man whose life and words were tightly bound up in a struggle for a Palestinian national rebirth that seems little closer now than when his first work was published in 1960 immediately triggered a wider outpouring of popular emotion.

I recently reviewed a translation of Mahmoud Darwish's The Butterfly's Burden for Jacket Magazine:
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of poet Mahmoud Darwish to Palestinian culture and national aspirations, not to mention to Arab and world poetry; at the very least, we might think of him as the poet laureate of Palestine for the past forty years, and in perpetuity. Born in Birwe in 1942 and exiled to Lebanon in 1948 during the war (when Birwe was wiped off the map), Darwish’s family returned to Israel as internal refugees, called “present-absent aliens.” Over the course of the next sixty years, he has lived all over the world, participated in the political and cultural life of Palestine as an exile, and then finally was able to come back, post-Oslo Accords, to live in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 1996.

His early work, in now famous poems such as the blistering “Identity Card” and the bitter-sweet elegy “My Mother,” Darwish embodied what Ghassan Kanafani and Barbara Harlow have termed “resistance poetry” — explicitly political writing conceived as a force for mobilizing resistance, and acting as a repository of national consciousness. Yet the range of his work — from the stark social realism of “Identity Card” to the visionary mode of “We Travel Like Other People” — makes him both a figure of Palestinian persistence and proof that Palestinian life is not reducible to victimization and loss.

The Butterfly’s Burden — a collection of his most recent books translated by Fady Joudah into a supple and lush English — The Stranger’s Bed (1998), A State of Siege (2002), and Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done (2003) — aptly represents the range of Darwish’s mature style. From the courtly and ecstatic love lyrics of The Stranger’s Bed, to the diaristic and penetrating political poem of A State of Siege, to the colloquial meditations on mortality, history, and the future in Don’t Apologize, The Butterfly’s Burden bears witness to the generous breadth of Darwish’s poetic and cultural achievement.

Here is a blog posting of mine about his poem, "Identity Card."

And from Ha'aretz.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Thoughts on the Poet Laureateship and Charles Simic's Tenure

I recently read an interview with Charles Simic, the outgoing Poet Laureate, and it was probably the first thing I'd read or heard of his tenure. After one year, the 70-year-old Simic decided to step down:
Simic, who succeeded Donald Hall, another New Hampshire poet, said the job required far more work than he expected. He traveled so much, attended to so many duties and performed at so many events that he went the entire year without writing a new poem.

Especially for a prolific poet like Simic, this is a serious flaw in a job, no matter how much fame and money come with it. The poet laureate is paid $35,000 and has a modest travel budget, but he or she is also in demand for paid readings.

"One year is enough," said Simic. "Washington is too far, and the travel these days is no fun."

I happen to like Charles Simic's work, and he seems to be a charming fellow. Once at a reading in a classroom at Indiana University, Simic pointed to an obscure mathematical equation still scrawled on the board behind him, and said, "that should pretty much explain everything."

His own poems and his work in translation, were certainly worthy of the award (though I've always disliked his dismissiveness toward experimental poets like Jackson Mac Low and John Cage, to whom he is at least partially indebted for his own employment of chance operations). The fact that he was unapologetic about his political distaste for the Commander-in-Chief makes me admire him, particularly when one gets invited to the White House as PL:
Simic's feeling for Bush is not the typical snub of a liberal academic of his generation. Simic began life in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on the eve of World War II, and his earliest memories are of what bombs do to a city. A series of poems in his most recent book catalogues horrors of war, some witnessed, some imagined. One begins:

The president smiles to himself; he loves war
And another one is coming soon.
Each day we can feel the merriment mount
In government offices and TV studios
As our bombers fly off to distant countries.

Yet, somehow, this article seems to want us to feel sorry for the guy. ONLY $35,000 a year, a MODEST travel budget. Poor fellow! The article fails to mention that the Poet Laureateship enables a poet to charge upwards of $10,000-$15,000 per reading. No one should ever feel sorry for a poet laureate, nor should we feel that they are being underpaid.

I do feel a little sorry that he didn't write anything new, but taking a year off from writing new work is not always a terrible thing.

We learn in the next paragraph, however, that he didn't even take a leave from his normal teaching duties:
Beginning last fall, he made nine trips to Washington. He did dozens of interviews with newspapers and electronic media, arranged readings and a poetry fellowship and answered hundreds of letters and e-mails. He went to New York each week to teach a course at Baruch College and read at other colleges in the East, Midwest and California. "I was like a traveling salesman," he said.

And as for the "dozens" of interviews, I recognize in "dozens" the hyperbolic vagary that I sometimes shamefully employ to mean, some number over 12.

What if the Library of Congress were to choose a mid-career civically-engaged (if not politically-engaged) poet for whom such duties are not perceived as a devil's bargain, but a tremendous boon, for which any number of younger, hungrier, poets would happily work? When I think back on the highest-profile tenures of Poets Laureate, the following come to my mind: Rita Dove, Robert Hass, and Robert Pinsky--all mid-career, civic-minded poets. Others (who shall "rename mainless") have gratefully received their laurels and did their duty and rode off into the sunset.

Perhaps I am trying to make something out of something that's meant to be a sinecure, rather than a site of real cultural engagement.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Simulated Killing at the (Cleveland) Air Show

Just yesterday, I was having a conversation with my colleague about her son, who is playing some video war game set in the mythic past (fire-breathing giants and the like), and we talked about the uneasiness that we have about exposing our children to such violence and imperial thinking.

I recalled that, when I was a young boy, my mother forbade my father from even buying toy guns; then, a few days later, she saw me outside, playing with a friend, holding a nice stick as if it were a gun. I suppose I turned out all right, but it's fascinating how boys are so drawn to the mechanics and fictions of warfare.

Of course, it's not just boys:

What happens when such psychobiological urges and imperatives (which could be mostly about "techne" and empowerment, rather than violence and domination--though I'd argue that even fantasy violence has a place in the world, even a pacifist's world) get exploited and harnessed by the military-industrial complex?

Waiting to Kill (Virtually)

You get:
Simulated Killing at the Air Show

This year, the Cleveland National Air Show is hosting a new exhibit called the “Virtual Army Experience” (VAE) that we think is inappropriate and unacceptable. Participants in this virtual urban warfare game hop into full-size Humvee simulators and fire machine guns at life-size people projected onto giant, wraparound screens.

Consider the following:
• The Cleveland Air show is promoted as a wholesome family activity.
• Technology that simulates killing human beings has no place at an event that purports to be a celebration of aviation.
• The VAE misleads people about soldiering. It portrays a sanitized picture of war that disrespects what real soldiers experience in combat and trivializes the burden they carry the rest of their lives. War is not a game.
• The Army may call it “virtual,” but it inflicts real pain on those who have experienced the physical and psychological trauma of combat, have lost loved ones in war, or have lived with those who carry the scars of war.
• The VAE desensitizes young people to killing in our region, which has experienced far too much urban violence.
• Labor Day celebrates working men and women. The Cleveland Air Show’s stated pur- pose is to assist young people who seek careers in aviation.
• Tax dollars are being used to pay for the VAE.
Veterans For Peace opposes the inclusion of the VAE in this year’s Air Show. We respectfully ask the Army, the organizers, and the sponsors to remove the VAE as an activity. We ask that other peace activist groups, government officials, churches, mental health and educational professionals, and most importantly, PARENTS, join us in voicing their opposition.

What you can do:• Share this information with everyone you know including friends and family, churches, health and educational professionals, community associations, etc.
• Contact elected officials:
- Mayor: Hon. Frank Jackson (216.664.3990), or your own mayor
- City Council: Individual Councilperson or Clerk (216.664.2840), or your own council members
- Cuyahoga County Board of Commissioners: Individual Commissioner or
Administrator: 216.443.7215
• Contact local sponsors:
- Cleveland Air Show: Kim Dell;; 216.781.0747
- Discount Drug Mart: Anita Fontana;; 330.
725.2340 Ext 4478
- Cleveland Coca-Cola Bottling Company: Randy Cornette; 216.690.2653
- Metro Life Flight: Dr. Craig Bates;; 216.778.2100
- Parker Hannifin: James Cartwright; 216.896.3000
- Cleveland Magazine: Lisa Sands; 216.771.2833
- The Wave (107.3): Lonnie Gronek; 440.236.9283
- WKYC-TV3: Micki Byrnes; 216.344.3333
- WDOK (102.1): Joe Restifo; 216.696.0123
• Contribute to a signature ad in the Plain Dealer. If the VAE is cancelled, the ad will thank the sponsors for taking action.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Tom Raworth and the Poetics of Speed

I got to see the poet Tom Raworth read in Orono as part of the National Poetry Foundation Conference on "Poetry and the 1970s," and he was a revelation. Raworth read his poems at such a breakneck clip, without breaks or patter between them, that it destroyed the polite conventions of the traditional poetry reading.

In a way, Raworth's performance recalled for me other instances of speedtalk--the famous pitchman from the 1980s John Moschitta--

--and the relentless hardcore of Minor Threat--

Though it's strange to place Moschitta and Minor Threat side by side--given that one is an ad man and the other is a band that situated itself as an underground anti-capitalist scourge--both emerge from the conditions of late capitalism, the increased time/space compression articulated so well by David Harvey, where the subject is increasingly subject to the hurtling of postmodern life.

In his reading style, Raworth likewise has devised not only a distinct counterpoint to the mostly-vertically slim poems as they appear on the page, but also a response to the cultural conditions of speed. In his own way, Raworth is performing that "pushing back" against the pressure of reality that Wallace Stevens in his essay "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" saw as the fundamental work of poetry.

While Robert Creeley, one of Raworth's influences, often would read poems like "I Know a Man" with a kind of slowness that made each line break function as a kind of painful silence, as if they were stunned words of lovers at an impasse, Raworth speeds down the page--as if he imagined that letting up might allow his lover to leave. (In this way, just as Creeley was said to have "misread" William Carlos Williams' notion of the linebreak, Raworth "misreads" Creeley's linebreaks back to Williams' sense of the linebreak as an increase of speed).

At the Orono conference, Raworth read so headlong that, when he finished the main portion, the audience applause resembled one after a bravura musical performance--the words themselves had neared the status of pure signifiers, disconnected from any system of meaning but the sounds themselves. As Stevens says,
Those of us who may have been thinking of the path of poetry, those who understand that words are thoughts and not only our own thoughts but the thoughts of men and women ignorant of what it is they are thinking, must be conscious of this: that, above everything else, poetry is words; and that words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds.

For Stevens, it is the sounds of words themselves, in the end, that can save us. That's the grandiosity of modernism talking, perhaps, but it's also someone who believes that art has a role to play beyond being consumed, or merely understood.

When I asked Raworth about his "reading style," in pure punk fashion, he rejected the notion that it was anything like a style:
I never thought of it as a style: simply the way I read what I've written, if aloud -- and now I've realised, over the years, that people think I read quickly, it would seem totally false to deliberately slow down. But I don't see mine as any sort of definitive reading... I'm quite happy if others read my writing slower, or differently (which has happened many times... a now-dead friend in Italy, Corrado Costa, used to insist on reading the same piece after me, but much slower.... fine. My assumption is that if I'm asked to read, I should read as I want to.... the texts, after all, are available for anyone thinking they've missed something.
(from an email exchange July 2008)
Indeed, at other readings available online, I've discovered that Raworth varies his tempo by situation and poem. You can hear him read, for example, this diatribe against the Iraq War at a relatively midtempo pace:

"Listen Up"

Why should we listen to Hans Blix
and all those other foreign pricks:
the faggot French who swallow snails
and kiss the cheeks of other males:
the Germans with their Nazi past
and leather pants and cars that last
longer than ours: the ungrateful Chinks
we let make all our clothes; those finks
should back us in whatever task--
we shouldn't even have to ask:
and as for creepy munchkin Putin...
a slimy asshole-- no disputing!?
We saved those Russians from the reds--
they owe support. Those wimpish heads
of tiny states without the power
to have a radio in the shower
should fall in line behind George Bush
and join with him and Blair to push
the sword of truth through Saddam's guts
(no need for any ifs or buts)
we'll even do it without the backing
of UN cowards and their quacking--
remember how we thrashed the Nips
and fried them like potato chips?
God's on our side, he's white and Yankee
he'd drop the bombs, he'd drive a tank: we
know he's stronger than their Allah
as is our righteousness and valor!
We'll clip Mohammed's ears and pecker
And then move on to napalm Mecca.

For me, this poem most reminds me of the work of another British poet, Tony Harrison, whose working class political aesthetic relies often on a rhyming that in our culture seems closer to hip hop than to the couplet...

And why is no one moved to move quite like this to a poetry reading? Is the object of the poetry reading to tutor stillness in us?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Clips from Israeli documentary "Land of the Settlers"

Insight into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; the first deals with settlements and checkpoints in the West Bank, the second with Hebron.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Help Educate (Nicaragua)

My brother Dave, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua, has helped establish an NGO that can send promising Nicaraguans to universities for pennies on the dollar (about $400/year!). If you have pennies or dollars that you wish to donate, they'd be mighty appreciative. Given the fact that El Presidente Boosh gives less money to Latin America that Hugo Chavez, you'd be doing a patriotic duty as well.

Here's information from their website:

What is Help Educate?
Help Educate is an international development organization built on the idea that education has the power to transform individuals and communities. We work with local Nicaraguan community leaders to identify students with the greatest potential for making a positive impact in their communities. We provide these students with scholarships to leading Nicaraguan universities, where they learn the technical abilities and leadership skills necessary for moving Nicaragua forward.

How can you Help Educate?
Take some time to learn more about our organization by browsing our site. Make sure you visit our photo gallery, student biographies, and maps pages, and check back soon for student blogs and videos. Make a contribution online or by mail. Contact us by email or phone for additional information about how you can Help Educate.

Ten Propositions on (What Was?) Flarf

Ten Propositions on (What Was?) Flarf (for a future essay) by Philip Metres

1. Genealogy: Dada was its Grand-Dada, Stein its Grand-Motha. Parentage may or may not include: collagists of all stripes, objectivists, New York School hijinx (Koch and Ashbery), stand-up in the mode of Richard Pryor to Sarah Silverman, LangPo funnyman Charles Bernstein, frothmouth Bruce Andrews, performance art, etc. Deep ancestors may include: 18th century insulters like Dryden and Swift, classic scatalogists from the ancient world.

2. Google as Muse.

3. If lyric is neurotic (superegoic), then flarf is psychotic (id).

4. Politics: variable. From comically fatalist to cosmic revolutionaries.

5. Demotic (i.e., re-reads Wordsworth et. al. and takes it to its logical end). Not purifying the language of the tribe, but amplifying it to eleven.

6. Favors Charlie Sheen over finish and sheen, Groucho over Karl, asses over Parnassus.

7. Apotheosis of Anti-Poetry as poetry. Daddy, what did you do during the poetry wars?

8. Tonally: diverse. From the melancholic machinery of loneliness to the hysterical hiccuping of the masses.

9. In its collective subjectivity, organs of sharing work and publication, festivals and publicity, demonstrates the power of poetic collectivity. It's MY poetic collectivity, get OFF!

10. Always (already?) in danger of (poetic) absorption. I.e. What was flarf?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Palestinian Hip-Hop

I saw this on Marcy Newman's blog, Body on the Line, in the context of recent violence in the West Bank, including this stunning video of a cuffed and blindfolded Palestinian boy getting shot point-blank:

Ben Friedlander's "Somebody Blew Up America"/The Reaction to the Reaction to 9/11

The attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 elicited an enormous poetry response--thousands upon thousands of poems by everyday people posted on the internet, anthologies by professional poets, and readings all over the world.

But perhaps none of these poems (including those written by then-poet laureate Billy Collins and read at Congress) gained more notoriety than Amiri Baraka's "Somebody Blew Up America," read at the Dodge Poetry Festival and subsquently published in multiple forms (including on the internet by Baraka).

Much of the hullaballoo surrounded Baraka's dropping of a reference to a pernicious and hateful web rumor that 4,000 Israelis alleged to have abandoned the building prior to its attack:
Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away ?
Who,Who, Who/
explosion of Owl the newspaper say
the devil face cd be seen Who WHO Who WHO

(Interestly, one poem written in response to Baraka's poem, Robert Pinsky's "The Forgetting," forgets that the poem references "Israelis" and calls them "Jews." Obviously, in either case, there is a pernicious anti-Semitic insinuation of conspiracy, but it's a poem about forgetting, after all!)

Baraka's poem, which I wrote about in Behind the Lines (the book), oscillates between a dramatization of paranoid and totalizing thinking and simply being paranoid. Baraka's defense of the poem literalized the paranoid reading, to my chagrin. This is a quote from the BTL:
While the poem’s catalogue of crimes committed by this efficacious empire is mostly irrefutable (with the glaring exception of the notion that Israelis and American administration official knew about the attacks), the desire to place all the blame on a singular, though unnamed “Somebody” dramatizes the temptation and weakness of a totalizing critique of empire. The ending of the poem clinches this reading:

Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog
Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO (+) who who
Whoooo and WhoooooOOOOOOooooOooo!

In its concatenation of “Who’s,” the poem concludes with a comic-gothic, loony-bird quality that suggests the libidinal excess that conspiracy-theorizing brings with it. Baraka’s poem thus suggests the dangers of the slippery thinking of conspiracy theories, even as it courts the same conspiracy-theorizing in the process.

Finally, it suggests that, while the documentary impulse-—and its information-gathering and dissemination procedure—-is an essential aspect of war resistance poetry, information itself in the Internet Age is extremely vulnerable to manipulation, and poets need to take care in how the handle it, lest their handiwork become weakened by its misuse.

Or you could just read Ben Friedlander's comic tonic response, which takes a step away from all of that, and questions the authenticity impulse adduceable from Baraka's poem (or his response to it). I first heard it at Bob Perelman's talk on "bathos" and poetry, and the poem clearly emerges from a flarfy sensibility; by the end, though, it re-engages the possession trope in Baraka's poem, and offers to exorcise Baraka's own demons (our own, of course, our own!)...


The poem you just heard was ironic and this one is sincere.
How can you tell? Because it was written in “my” voice.

Of course, when Carla reads it with her accent
you may mistake the meaning

for something less deliberate, say, Snoopy’s F86E Sabre
dropping napalm on Korea.

You didn’t know that? I always let the reader know.
It’s only reasonable:

if you leave your popsicle in the sun,
you have to expect the pages to get sticky.

It’s one of the reasons Lynne Cheney is careful with any book,
but especially peanuts: a protein-rich liquid mixed

with animal-infected soy,
all its ducks lined up in a row

of teeth, the smile behind the visor.
in Denmark? No pussy there, just a bunch of cartoonists.

That’s why Satan only has ten kills in the Bible.
The meaning of history is something anyone can understand

from the “inside,” except that there aren’t any sides
in poetry, just folds of sound

where the dust of old meanings
collect. A poem is not a spoil of war,

nor a spoiler warning,
but a soiled conscience

spread across a table where the meals are shared.
Poetry is only as sturdy as the wood underneath.

True? True,
your starter hole is big, but I’ve got a plan for how to fill the vacancy.

First, a “throne council” needs to establish
some mind-share. Then a “thug class” can be appointed

to keep the population in line,
or we can just sprinkle hallucinogenic corn.

PS As you can see, sucky politics is why I beat
Dick Cheney to a pulp of soaked alfalfa cubes

a horrid little abortion such as one sees in a glass jar of flies devoured by vermin has 4000 listeners

a huge audience by poetry standards. Neruda without
shooting myself in the foot b/c i am admitting i have a security hole

a disturbance of bubbles played on the E-flat trumpet.
Just to be clear, I don’t think music should be illegal

Though some people question the usefulness
of the concept,

and some deny it exists. I believe
in a bizarre collection of ideas about language.

Did you know, for example, that stuttering affects
many more men than women?

This is why women chew slowly
and men eat steak. Now make a fist

and place the thumb side of your fist
against Amiri Baraka’s upper abdomen, below the ribcage

and above the navel. Grasp your fist
with your other hand and press into

the upper abdomen with a quick upward
thrust. Do not squeeze Amiri Baraka;

confine the force of your thrust to your hands.
Repeat until the terrorists are expelled.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Howard White, on meeting Palestinian poet Fawaz Turki

I found this at Quillblog, quoting from an essay by Howard White that appears in Imagining British Columbia: Land, Memory and Place. It speaks to the unusual power of Palestinian poets to articulate and name Palestinian experience, and thus present a counternarrative to the notion that "there is no such thing as Palestine." It also suggests the seemingly abyssal difference between their situation and our own cultural situation in the United States, as poets and cultural workers.

I met Fawaz at a big Amnesty International jamboree of oppressed writers in Toronto a few years ago, and one of the things that intrigued me about him was a rumour that he might be reduced to chopped liver by a Mossad hit squad at any time. I found it invigorating to think that I was sharing the planet with people who cared enough about poetry to shoot anybody over it.

I made use of a bar break to ask Fawaz if his notoriety wasn’t maybe to do with something besides versifying, like bombing buses. Fawaz was a bit piqued by this suggestion. Any damn fool can chuck a bomb while it takes brains to write a poem, and the Palestinian people understand this, he pointed out.

Back in Jordan it was nothing to have a crowd of several thousand gather on a few hours notice to hear him at an open-air reading. When he appeared in public, throngs of grown women followed him around ululating and fluttering their hands like leaves, chanting his name. His broadsheets outsold the newspapers. Poets like him and his buddies Mahmoud Darweesh and Fawazi el Asmar were far more important to the Palestinian cause than bomb-throwers, and far more worrisome to the authorities, and this was because of their ability to express the feelings of their people, Turki said. That is why so many of the poets known to Amnesty were behind bars, not only in Palestine but around the world.

You can see Fawaz talk about his life and work here.