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Poetry for Humanity

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Plato banned the poets from his ideal Republic, claiming they lied and flattered the powerful.

Percy B. Shelley reinstated them as the “legislators” of the world.

W. B. Yeats, in the 1930s, excluded the poets of WW I from his edition of the Oxford Book of Verse, arguing, sullenly, that Wilfred Owens’ theme, “the pity of war,” was not a fit subject for poetry. Poetry, he said majestically, does not celebrate “passive suffering.”

Harold Pinter, in his late years, during the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, took Poetry by the throat and turned it into plain poetry, a lava-heated stream of roiling outrage.  “There’s no escape. /The big pricks are out. /They’ll fuck everything in sight. /Watch your back,” he wrote in 2003 in a poem, titled “Democracy.”

Douglas Valentine’s anthology of poetry, With Eyes Wide Open, subtitled, ironically, Poetry for the New American Century (a reference to the “Plan for a New American Century,” the foreign-policy document launched at the start of the presidency of George W. Bush), gathers a world-community of poets, who, far from praising power, vocally defy it, denouncing, among other abuses, the ruthlessness of a ghoulish “American Century,” stalking the world for loot, slouching like a dog of war toward barbarism. In this apocalyptic context, the voices of the poets recall us to human rights, to justice, to sanity, and to humanity. And, yes, the “pity is in the poetry,” as Wilfred Owens characterized his own war poetry, but theirs is no “passive suffering” (whatever Yeats meant by that). Armed with words, they fling them back at the weapons of mass economic destruction, at the drones, the tanks, and the bombs. This is not to say that tears do not stream from their eyes, and often lyrically, but “wide open” they stay as the pen delivers language as raw as the social reality they see: “Come and see the blood in the streets,” they invite in an echo of Pablo Neruda’s  “I’m explaining a few things.”

Blood circulates thematically through the anthology like an artery flowing with life, often severed by sudden and violent death—and, in between life and death, the river of life ripples and trembles with tentative dreams and impossible longings, disturbed by loss. Tim Seibles’ poem,  “Faith,” catches the recurring motif of traumatic experience:

Picture a city

and the survivors: from their

windows, some scream. Others

walk the aftermath: blood

and still more blood coming

from the mouth of a girl.

This is the same movie

playing all over

the world: starring everybody

who ends up where the action

is: lights, cameras, close-ups – that

used to be somebody’s leg.

Valentine is the author of four non-fiction books—The Hotel Tacloban (a book about his father’s harrowing experiences in a Japanese POW camp in World War Two.); The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs; The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA; and the unsurpassed expose’ of the American secret assassinations in Vietnam during the war years, The Phoenix Program. Author of a novel, TDY, and a book of poems, A Crow’s Dream, Valentine thus edited the anthology with the intuitive sensitivity of the poet and novelist and the critical acuity of the non-fiction writer. As a result, the subtle plotting of the poems in With Eyes Wide Open offers a compelling narrative in itself. It takes us on a journey of discovery of the bellicose “New American Century.”

At the starting point, the voyage places us at the carnage of the World Trade Center, “a hundred and seven flights up,” with forty-three kitchen workers—singing and joking in various and disparate languages, about to die–in Martin Espada’s magnificent tribute “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100.” The journey pauses to hear Eduardo Galeano’s cry of despair, almost a funeral lament on the loss of Espada’s forty-three victims:

The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The

nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying

through life, screwed every which way.

Our Virgilian guide of hell-in-the-city then walks us on a night’s street with a lone immigrant Salvadoran woman, returning home after a “double shift” of work in San Francisco; we see her stabbed and killed for forty dollars in Daisy Zamora’s “Salvadoran Woman Killed on Fillmore Street.” We are shipped across oceans to continents where the conflagration on Church Street continues to shake, directly or indirectly, the social, economic, and political order, finally landing us in a place of consciousness and EYES-WIDE-PROOF-COVER-3epiphany.  Sam Hamill’s closing poem, “Eyes Wide Open,” marks how far we have traveled. With Hamill’s speaker, we “realize just how willfully [we] had been blind.” The journey’s end however, is not without hope. There is a girl in Hamill’s poem, a “little olive-skinned girl.” She is “very beautiful, as only/ the young can be,” and she is tasked with remaking the world—but only if we remain “with eyes wide open.”

Valentine’s original intention, as he explains in his “Preface,” had been to “gather together a collection of poems about America’s values and impact on the world.” “I wanted to hear,” he continues, “what poets in other nations thought about America, its relentless wars, and its self-proclaimed ‘exceptionalism.’ I was looking, in particular, for poems about the war on terror and America’s wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. “ In the process of collecting the poems, however, this original intention expanded “to include the plight of exiles, immigrants, outcasts, the poor, the homeless, the working classes, and victims of race and gender discrimination”—in other words, global reality, poetically recreated in With Eyes Wide Open.

Eric Hobsbawm maintained in one of the essays collected in his 1997 book On History  that “one of the few things that stands between us and an accelerated descent into darkness is the set of values inherited from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.” Perhaps the salient point to note about all aspects of this anthology is their link to that “set of values” which the cosmopolitan eighteenth-century bestowed on humanity: the inherent value of individual lives and, at the same time, their necessary commitment to the common good and a just society. This is essentially the faith and spirit that inform With Eyes Wide Open.

The poets in this collection are accomplished. Some are established poets and writers with long lists of honors and publications to their name: Daisy Zamora, Wanda Coleman, Margaret Randall, Martin Espada, Eduardo Galeano, Adrie Kusserow to name a few. Many are young poets with vibrant, innovative voices, but the astonishing thing about the anthology is its global range: from Lesotho, Rethabile Masilo and Phomolo Lebotsa; from Chile Patricio Manns and Jorge Montealegre; from Chechnya, Jazra Khaleed (writing in modern Greek!); from Serbia, Bratislav Milanovic; from Kashmir, Rafiq Kathwari; from Russia Elena Fanailova; from Australia, Lionel G. Fogarty; from Nicaragua, Gioconda Belli and Daisy Zamora; from Turkey, Metin Cengiz; from Tunisia, Tahar Bakri; from Oman, Ali Saif Al Rawahi; from Morocco, Taha Adnan;  from Poland, Izabela Morska; from Italy, Valerio Magrelli and Italian-American Pina Piccolo; from the United States a choral symphony of experiences in  ethnicity, gender, and class, including the voices of sorrowing veterans. Very affecting, too, are the poets who recall us to the war in Vietnam—Teresa Mei Chuk, Vuong Tung Cuong, among others—and in Iraq–Dunya Mikhail, for example.

These poets fill in the gaps on a map of humanity that would have them be invisible—the “nobodies,” in Galeano’s indignant metaphor. Rethabile Masilo, author of a collection of poems, Things That Are Silent, reflects on the reality of Africans in Paris: “At nighttime we are spent, but bright/ in the morning. Much as the train/ clatters underneath to wake Paris up/ we’re stopped and we’re frisked again/ and again, every street a new frontier.”

Lionel G. Fogarty, evokes his brother’s Murri voice from a white jail in Queensland, where he died in 1993: “Jail not for me
/ but a lot of my people in jail
/ White jail are cruel/ Fuck, they hung us all.”

Adrie Kusserow’s “War Metaphysics for a Sudanese Girl,” envisions an American assisting Aciek, a victim of violence, “In America, we say, ‘Tell us your story Lost Girl/ you’ll feel lighter, / it’s the memories you must expel, / the bumpy ones, the tortures, the rapes, the burnt huts.’” But, in the end, the American must “leave the camp, unable to breathe,” because Aciek’s story is both unbearable and inaccessible to the American psychological narrative canon.  The Chechnyan poet from Grozny, Jazra Khaleed, in exile in Athens, lives “within words,” has “no fatherland,” but is “waiting for a revolution to invent me/ Hungering for the language of class war.”

This anthology should find a place in syllabi across the humanities: the “stories” are compelling, the language “puts you there”– as students like to say–the imagery carefully crafted, the meters and forms varied, a cornucopia of talent in verse, and a bounty of global experiences. It is, in fact, a necessary anthology.

Today, one can’t live in the world without being affected by America—or, to include its allies and friends, the West. The reality of Western economic and military imperialism won’t allow it. Thus the remarkable achievement of this anthology is to present American readers with a vivid testimony of the effects of the West’s cultural, economic, political, and military hegemony in all spheres of life—effects, which aggravate xenophobia, racism, sexism, poverty, and unemployment. That is one of its messages.

There is another. As Valentine writes, “There is blood, anger, fear, and sorrow in this anthology. There are ghosts of the victims of torture and death squads. There are people whose languages and customs were stolen from bankers in New York City. There are poems that will shake you from your dreams and open your eyes.”

Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and teaches at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: lbohne@edinboro.edu

Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and teaches at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: lbohne@edinboro.edu

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