A plenitude of poetry.
Given By Wendell Berry Shoemaker Hoard. 152 pages. $22. Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan Foreword by Adrienne Rich Copper Canyon. 649 pages. $40. Jack and Other New Poems By Maxine Kumin Norton. 112 pages. $23.95. The War Works Hard By Dunya Mikhail New Directions. 78 pages. $13.95. You & Yours By Naomi Shihab Nye BOA Editions. 84 pages. $15.50. No Heaven By Alicia Suskin Ostriker Pittsburgh. 136pages. $12.95. My Nature Is Hunger New and Selected Poems: 1989-2004. By Luis J. Rodriguez Curbstone. 149 pages. $14.95.
A plenitude of poetry ushers forth each year, with the slender shoulders of the newcomers jostling against the greats on the bookstore shelves. I took my annual tour of those shelves, and have come away again impressed by the quality and range that contemporary poetry has to offer.
I'm drawn to those poets who engage in some way with politics. And in 2005, a year shadowed by the Iraq War, I turned especially to poets who got out the chalk to sketch it.
The poet Jimmy Santiago Boca once said that no leader should be allowed to invade another country until he could name a poet and a novelist and a singer from that country. This brings me to The War Works Hard, an urgent book by Dunya Mikhail, an Iraqi poet who served as the literary editor of The Baghdad Observer but then fled Saddam Hussein's regime in the late 1990s, eventually settling in the United States.
In her first poem, "Bag of Bones," she slaps her readers awake with her opening lines about a mass graveyard: "What good luck!/She has found his bones."
The title poem continues in this sardonic vein:</p> <pre> How magnificent the war is! How eager and efficient! Early in the morning, it wakes up the sirens and dispatches ambulances
to various places, swings corpses through the air, rolls stretchers to the wounded, summons rain from the eyes of mothers. </pre> <p>Her praise for the diligent war, which "entertains the gods/shooting fireworks and missiles/into the sky" and "paints a smile on the leader's face," ought to enter the anthologies of peace poems.
Several of Mikhail's most powerful poems relate to her immigrant experience. In "America," the narrator fends off questions from an immigration officer. "Please don't ask me, America/I don't remember," the poem begs. "Stop your questioning, America/and offer your hand."
"I Was in a Hurry" resonates, as well. "Yesterday, I lost a country/I was in a hurry/and didn't notice when it fell from me," Mikhail begins, adding later: "If anyone stumbles across it, return it to me, please." The same could be said of our own country, so carelessly discarded by Bush and by all of us who are letting him get away with it.
I admire the Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye for her own work, and for her discerning selections for The Texas Observer, which, like The Progressive, devotes a page to poetry every issue.
Nye's latest book, You & Yours, displays her sensibilities to good effect. She opens with an invocation about Paul Robeson, "Cross That Line." When U.S. authorities wouldn't let Robeson travel to Canada, "He sang into Canada./His voice left the USA/when his body was/not allowed to cross/that line." So she asks:</p> <pre> What countries may we sing into? What lines should we all be crossing? What songs travel toward us from far away to deepen our days? </pre> <p>The first half of Nye's book is quieter, more conversational and observational, than the second half, which grapples with weightier political matters. She nods to this in "Fold," where she says: "I am partial to poems about/little ruminations, explosions of minor joy." As she explains further down, "If you send something about a mound of lentils,/I will be intrigued. The general potency and power/of humankind, however, is hard for me to get my mind/around." And so we find a poem about her lover who mowed down her primrose patch by accident, and an ode to airports, and a paean to a Scottish pier, and a narrative about canoeing with alligators. I enjoyed these for their light touch.
But even in this first half, "You," she can't keep the problems of humankind at bay. In one poem, she is "running from the headlines." In another, "Renovation" (where she writes about "the carpenter who looks uncannily like my gynecologist"), her teenage son complains about having to wash dishes in a pan in the yard, so she asks him how he would he like to be in Palestine, where his home could be totally demolished.
In "Our Time," a knockoff of Robert Frost, she writes:</p> <pre>
We grew up proud of our country Forests of wonderful words
to wander through--freedom, indivisible. Now my horse is lost in a sheen of lies. </pre> <p>This tone predominates in the second half, "Yours." Many of these poems express themselves in the simplest language. Consider "Your Weight, at Birth," about the difference between Israelis and Palestinians:</p> <pre> One is born to wear a helmet, carry large artillery. One is born to be thin, to wear raggedy clothes & be shot in the leg. And some are born to wonder, wonder, wonder. </pre> <p>She also has a beautiful poem comparing stateless Palestinians to migrating whooping cranes:</p> <pre> By now the sorrowing people make secret refuge in the sky. If the ground satisfied their dreams,
the sky would miss them. </pre> <p>As in Mikhail's book, the Iraq War casts a pall over You & Yours. In "He Said EYE-RACK," Nye imitates Bush's rhetoric as he launched the war:</p> <pre> Relative to our plans for your country, we will blast your tree, crush your
cart ... Freedom will feel good to you too. Please acknowledge
our higher purpose ... </pre> <p>In "During a War," Nye takes off from a friend's salutation, "Best wishes to you & yours," a phrase she grabs for her title. She asks: "Where does 'yours' end?" She wonders, "What could we have done/differently," about this war, which "we did not want,/we tried to stop,/we were not heard."
She agonizes in this work about our obligations as citizens, and she urges us to sing--and to listen--across borders.
I called on some old favorites on my tour. In a poem or two in their latest works, which cover a variety of topics, they offer guidance and challenge and rebuke for our time.
For instance, Luis J. Rodriguez, in My Nature Is Hunger: New and Selected Poems: 1989-2004, presents "Nightfall: Poems to Ponder in War and Uncertainty." The first section consists of ten aphoristic couplets ("When we sacrifice lives, including our children's/evil becomes as common as breathing"). From there, he writes, like Nye, about our stymied system of government: "This is a democracy that doesn't care that people care." He includes a stanza at the end that is awfully harsh: He faults the parents of a soldier who died in Iraq for their "quiet complicity, their confused collaboration," even as they memorialize her. It is not a nice ending; it is not intended to be.
Alicia Suskin Ostriker, in No Heaven, has a poem entitled "Elegy Before the War." She writes: "Greedy teeth smile at the microphone./They know where the oil is. They have plans, big plans/To connect the imperial dots." She adds, many stanzas later:</p> <pre> The trouble with America Is that her morale is still too high She needs to be a bit more depressed Before she starts behaving better. </pre> <p>Similarly, Maxine Kumin, in Jack and Other New Poems, has a prewar poem, "New Hampshire, February 7, 2003." In relief which she knows will be ephemeral, she exhales:</p> <pre> No reruns today of the bombings in Vietnam
2 million civilians blown apart, most of them children. </pre> <p>Kumin then takes a sweeping view in "Appropriate Tools: An Elegy and Rant." This is both "an elegy for the century I was born in" and "an elegy for this century born in blood and bombs/and for the simple rights we once took for granted."
Wendell Berry is worried about those simple rights, too. In Given, he warns:
This, then, is to be the way? Freedom's candle will be snuffed out by freedom's sworn defenders, chanting hourly the praise of freedom.
Continuing on in this long series of poems, "Sabbaths, 2003," he calls us to the barricades:
All that patriotism requires, and all that it can be, is eagerness to maintain intact and incorrupt the founding principles of the nation, and to preserve undiminished the land and the people. If national conduct forsakes these aims, it is one's patriotic duty to say so and to oppose. What else have we to live for?
June Jordan knew how to say so and oppose, as anyone who remembers her essays in The Progressive can attest. Now we have Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan, with a loving and insightful foreword by Adrienne Rich. Jordan died in 2002, and it is a treasure to have all of her poems between two covers. I give her the last word. Here is how she ends "From Sea to Shining Sea":
This is a good time This is the best time This is the only time to come together Fractious Kicking Spilling Burly Whirling Raucous Messy Free Exploding like the seeds of a natural disorder.
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 2006|
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