Reading to strangers: part four of five

A while back, poet J.lynn Sheridan asked on her blog, Writing On The Sun, if poets did anything positive with our poetry in the past year. One of the things I did the past two years was participate in public poetry readings. Part four of five tells of some experiences that influenced me and the poetry I read and write.

By high school nearly all sharing was eclipsed by posing. This would change in my junior year after the student walk out. Before this was an art teacher Mr. Teibolt who encouraged us to share and one English teacher who said I should write more in a way that made me think I could write. I do not remember her name. I remember the high cheek bones of her face her smoky alto voice and thick raven hair. She was so wise tender and kind. Her presence is still with me quite clear. Her name is a blank. Maybe it didn’t fit her. We meet people like that whose name does not fit them. If I gave her a name it would be either Diana or Sofia.

The high school years before the big protest walk out were a time when most all of us had become mirrors of each other. We wished to be larger than what we saw in the mirror. All the while the child and the wild within was shrinking barely able to be heard. This was that way we were until the day we all walked out.
Students protesting the Vietnam War were shot by their own countrymen. We all saw it on the television evening news one night in May. The National Guard killed four in Ohio and two black students farther South. All shot for being who they were. The television pictures made us all know we could die so we all or most all of us got ready to die.
A few days later the word traveled in the hallways and soon we were all marching around the school. The principal had a bullhorn telling us we would be suspended. This we thought silly. We were beside ourselves by the killing and anyway what high school student suddenly alive with purpose and expression drawing strength from each other cared whether or not we  would be expelled from school. This was happening all over the country too. We were ready to take some risks even die now and being kept from school was no threat.
After school one of the janitors asked me what I was doing out there today. I said marching to stop the killing and bring my brother home from the war. He said something like you can’t fight city hall. I don’t want to fight them I only need convince them I said. He was a nice man who did not and could not understand what we were doing. He was a gentleman though and said well good luck to you then.
We learned a lot in those days. We learned about authority that day more than we learned during a whole lifetime at school. We learned the power of numbers and agreement too. We even found that some of the teachers were on our side. We came back the next day and I do not think one student was suspended. We grew that day and the days after and many of us went on to other protests later in Washington D.C.
I would tell more but this is the short version so I won’t tell about those times now.

Anyway our voices were now sometimes heard so some of us could begin to share all the things we never shared before about who we were and the world and its wars. This was another way of sharing. It might even be the most important kind of sharing at that time. It was clumsy and sometimes angry but it was sharing like we hadn’t before. It was about us not really all about us and that made it different than what we were doing prior to the shootings. It was in that tumultuous time we learned to live with uncertainty in the world and in our hearts. Yet this would take a long time for some of us to write about.

Poets were already writing about the movement to end the war and change policies supporting dictators around the world. Only much later would I discover Carolyn Forche’s poetry of witness.

College was a mixed bag. College classes were larger than high school. Vast lecture halls in enormous and new office buildings coupled with 10-story dormitories with buffet food made me feel sometimes like a steer in a cattle drive. We sharing among students and a few teachers but college was mostly the same as high school only more independent reading. I like reading on my own. New book and new ideas were everywhere. New music too. I identified with teachers who were slightly older than ourselves and the ones much older than ourselves really seem to care. We talked more than in high school about what was happening in the world not only in class but after in restaurants and bars and in their homes and apartments long into the night. This was the sharing in college.

Robert Bly Grand Valley State College 1975

Robert Bly Grand Valley State College 1975

We learn more about the Viet Nam War. The propellants of economics and politics driving the war. This was all very well but it wasn’t until I heard Robert Bly read poetry in Ann Arbor I begin to understand the war wasn’t only half a world away. Was not only in our street protests here and in Washington. The war was in our schools our institutions and even in ourselves.
He appeared in a colorful poncho and sombrero carrying books and papers. He paced the large room removing hat and cloak. He began by thanking everyone for attending then asked that all the recording devices be tuned off. There was a groan from the audience. No one wanted them turned off. This was at the height and power of television. This is wonderful you want everything recorded but some things can not be recorded. He eventually said I don’t want to become a small man in a little box. I remember when he said that a hush went over the audience. There was a sudden understanding. This was something amazing because the crowds in Ann Arbor were always verbal and hissing when they thought they were right about something and they always thought they were right about everything they thought. Everyone was for freedom and filming everything. This was what freedom meant to them. Today it is called transparency but transparency is another story entirely. When Bly said I don’t want to be a small man in a little box everyone understood. I never forgot that line. In that wonderful moment we understood technology was distortion because there is no heart or art in machines. We understood all that within that one line. It wan’t merely a sentence. This is an example of how powerful a line of poetry can be. I was hooked.

So all the cameras monitors went dark. This was a new kind of sharing. Close sharing. Communion without the church schedule. After some people said Bly was afraid that he didn’t want the CIA or FBI to know what he was saying. This was not that at all. In fact I am sure he would have loved to read his poetry to any government official. He read many Spanish and South American poems rich in living under the boots and guns of oppression. Bly and they would rather write and die then not write and live dead. I have been reading them all ever since. He read from his violent and beautiful poem The Teeth Mother Naked At Last. He danced around the audience while reading. He was never still. I never saw someone so animated while reading. He asked others to read poems. We heard their voices too. He encouraged us to hear our own voices when reading. That our own voices bring something to each poem. To each hearing. He was an unlimited spring of ideas.  He made us aware we all had voices and that it is the most beautiful thing to use. A poem is foremost a voice.

I think that night turned my heart forever toward poetry. I saw what great good power poems had. Amazing. Reading poetry is astonishing.


Rereading A Country Between Us

There is that old platitude about reading widely to expand your horizons, yet once in a while a book comes along that convinces the reader to retreat into a literary cocoon. Some reading is painful. I have a hunch this is why some people retreat into sentimental novels and saphappy poetry. This may be the case for some readers of Carolyn Forché’s, A Country Between Us. After reading it in the early 80’s I was unnerved by her personal bravery and riveted by her literary sophistication. Rereading more than three decades later, it still provokes and disturbs. More than this is directs our attention where it should always be, on the human cost of tyranny, injustice and war.

I like to think the best literature is timeless and wrestles beauty from an ugly world. A Country Between Us, Forché’s second book of poems, accomplished this feat with pluck and grace. Published in 1981it made me aware of horrors I didn’t want to know my country’s government implicitly and sometimes directly supported.  Through the lens of this women’s poignant lyric poetry, I was shown how tenacious hope lives amid those who would crush it. “As she walked through her village // the site of her opened its windows. // It was simple. She had come // to flesh out the memory of a poet // whose body was never found.” This was a poetry both biographic, historic and metapoetic. These poems re-sensitize us to the beauty of the human spirit in the pitch battle against cruelties inflicted on innocents in the name of democracy.

The book generated a barnstorm of critical literary reflection that continues to this day. It broke new literary ground by placing the political prominently into the personal poem. She was not the first or fortunately the last to do this but she did it with astonishing results. The Country Between Us spread across the American poetic landscape like a flash flood fertilizing sterile valleys. Her slim volume of poems won the Lamont Poetry Selection prize and even became a bestseller — an almost impossible feat in American poetry. Since then, Forché has become one of the most decorated of American poets, yet like all contemporary American poets, she is not a household name.

Poetically, The Country Between Us unveiled new possibilities for the poem. Up to this time, the poetry establishment (like the majority of Americans) ignored the messy, murky and arcane business of international politics. The support of dictators, despots and deadbeats (read Manuel Noriega, Papa Doc Duvalier, Myanmar Gaddafi) went under the radar of the general public and the mass media. With great skill she brought inside the poem horrific images, yet she did so without dulling our emotional responses with overwrought poetic effects or putting us off with didactic rants—never lecturing us on corrupt foreign policy. What she did do with unflinching aim was show us the enormous cruelties, both physical and emotional, inflicted on innocent people caught in the cross fire of  civil war. “…people who rescue physicists, lawyers and poets // lie in their beds at night with reports // of mice introduced into women, of men // whose testicles are crushed like eggs.”

The book reads somewhat like a lyrical travelogue exploring the themes of admiration and alienation. It addresses the tender and painful emotional distance between people – thus the country between us. “I am the women whose photograph // you will not recognize, whose face // emptied your eyes, whose eyes // were brief, like the smallest // of cities we slipped through.” Another explores the world of strangers she returns too: “…a woman who has so rubbed her bright grey eyes // during grief that all she has seen can be seen in them //the century, of which twenty years are left,  // several wars, a fire of black potatoes.” Yet another tells of a naïve young women being admonished by an older,  savvy woman: “Your problem is not your life as it is // in America, not that your hands, as you // tell me, are tied to do something. It is // that you were born to an island of greed// and grace where you have this sense // of yourself as apart from others.”  In addition to this unifying theme, these poems are memoirs of witness of regional wars which leave lasting personal scars and haunting memories.

Like many writers, Forché had the curious luck as a young writer of traveling in a country torn by war. She traveled with an Amnesty International group as an activist when the El Salvadoran civil war of 1978 began.  There she met activists and legendary figures of the leftist revolution, the beleaguered poor and a wealthy colonel who became the subject of what would become a well known prose poem (excerpted below). In her presence this  unnamed colonel becomes unglued and issues a terrifying rant because he mistakenly believes Forché and her companion were U.S. government operatives. This moment among others changed her forever and helped to shape one of America’s outstanding contemporary poets.

As you read this excerpt from The Colonel, you find yourself in the room, not merely as a fly on the wall but as a potential victim. As the narrative progresses the tension rises and terror and fear overtakes the room. This is a rare picture of an evil man capable of civility and hospitality or cruelties and mass murder. This prose poem reminds me of those circles of hell described by Dante, but in this hell there is the uninterrupted terror of unchecked abuse of authority and no sense of social or divine justice. This is a portrait of a man blinded by his rationalizations from which he can justify any murderous cruelty in the name of civil order.

This poem, like the book it appeared in, is useful in understanding contemporary literary history and revolutionary history of democratic movements at large. It also gives us some perspective on contemporary democracy movements not only in Central and South America but those of the Arab world. There seem to be no end of men willing to shed innocent blood in the name of order, progress or patriotism. We should remember too that our history is littered with the blood of people who ran afoul of the cruel arm of governmental authority and out of this blood freedom was hard won in but a few places.

Warning: though this excerpt is no more distasteful then what most people see in action films or nightly television, its impact and greater since it represents historic crimes and atrocities against once living and breathing human beings — atrocities that continue around the globe in the name of law and order, leadership and governance.

…On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away….There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there…

You can read the entire poem and hear it read by the author hereThe Country Between Us, by Carolyn Forché, Copper Canyon Press, 1981.