Essay

Poems that kill

Children Beneath Our Sky

after a 'cartoon' by Michael Leunig

The sky was one of the redeeming features of the war

– Sigfried Sassoon

Here it billows and slides in from the west
in waves blown and broken above
the Southern Ocean. Sheet metal one day
ice driving into the mind the next
with the light from it within it riveting
our attention upon the slightest permeation
of the diurnal porn of one more wounded kid
in mother father brother or neighbour's arms.

Our weather, unchanging in this political clime
is distant and true, is photograph and drawing
acid etching and jpeg. All in one, all that is.

The mustard yellow that's just arrived
is barometrically perfect
is a kind of immaculate conception care of Al-Jazeera
is from the screen and brave pen of the lamb that loves.

THE FUNDAMENTALIST WILL give his life because he believes he is filled with God. He will lay his life down because he has a passport to eternity. He will kill others – the infidels – all those unworthy of God. He can kill with impunity – no guilt, with a clear conscience – because his faith is a sure thing. As a warrior he will go to his grave because he has a God-given body that pumps with certainty. This is his world: a holy circle of absolute conviction, a wheel of fire that consumes doubt as it rolls in the only direction it knows. Life and death, they become the same thing: a purifying path through any destruction in life, a renewal through sacrifice, even, if absolutely necessary, the sacrifice of one's children.

All of which is terrifying to us "in the West". Terrifying and enviable, surely. Would that one could be so at one with God. To know such fullness and purity, to be so secure in the prospect of eternity, a place in heaven. To be, day by day, free of doubt, to have such truth in one's heart, to be such a stranger to Hamlet. And to know one's enemy with such clarity, to be unburdened by the never-ending and complex task of tolerance. Above all, to be possessed of such certainty, to be so nourished by unmitigated, inviolable coherence. Away with the "thinking reed" of the self, and "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart". Enviable it is to contemplate the felt reality of such a blessed state, such an everlasting Golden Age of the Self. And to be so without the fretfulness of dialogue, without mental struggle and anxiety, without even a faith in art – and all as a given, all because of a self undivided, a state of being one, at one, and, even more enviably, one among many. One of the blessed crowd, one of the army marching towards heaven. One as a glorious atom of the great cosmic poem. One part of whatever might be brighter than a thousand suns.

"The future belongs to crowds," as Don DeLillo brilliantly wrote in Mao II, his 1991 novel where one crowd after another swarms into consciousness – close to home, the ecstatic Moonies, further afield the demented mob grieving for Khoumani, further east the Maoists. Name the crowd and you might locate the psychic point of maximum terror, and possible envy. One protagonist, a photographer with a flat looking up at the Twin Towers, is possessed by dual interests; on the one hand she has spent a life time shooting pictures of mass suffering, those images that we have to endure every day and which leave us hollow, marooned; on the other she takes portraits of writers, those specimens par excellence of the singular mind.

The writer in the novel is Bill Gray, a recluse who sees himself as a terrorist of sorts. For from his secret bunker he can lob his missives into the body politic. This strategic affinity runs deeper when Gray is lured out of his retreat to be of assistance to a boy – another writer, a young poet kidnapped by Maoists in Lebanon. From here on he is on a path towards extinction. The reader bears witness as DeLillo, with his incantatory prose, sings Gray off to be a hostage of the Maoists who, in the end, sell him to the fundamentalists. That is the last we hear of the novelist.

Above all, Mao II is a quintessentially American construction: the mass verses the tragic, albeit free, individual; the social group as alien, the collective as enemy. It is a grandly coherent bipolar tale – a prose poem with a closed circle that is the death of the writer.

The novel articulates a fundamental truth about crowds that Elias Canetti surgically dissected 40 years ago in his great book, Crowds and Power. This was to do with our primitive fear of being touched by the unknown, a defensive alert that accounts for so much until we are one of a crowd, when body is pressed to body so that, the denser the crowd gets, the more the fear is reversed. "The feeling of relief is most striking where the density of the crowd is greatest," Canetti wrote, "when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their difference and feel equal."

Canetti begins with a typology of crowds – the open, the closed crowd, the Invisible Crowd of the Dead, the Baiting Crowd that kills, the Prohibition Crowd, the Flight Crowd, the Double Crowd of war. His list at first seems arbitrary, until he comes to the nucleus of the crowd that is the pack – that small primitive horde that is "the universal expression of communal excitement". The Hunting Pack. The Increase Pack. The Lamenting Pack. The Prayer Pack – in the exposition of which Canetti labels Islam as "a religion of war", compared with Christianity as "a religion of lament".

As if this grim analysis is not enough, Canetti's savage exposition opens into what he calls the "entrails of power", which is about killing and eating, and then, in turn, about the survivor who is left standing after the carnage, and who is, by felt definition, full of his power. Canetti's leaders are the survivors. Their mode is pride and paranoia. As a modern leader, the survivor is the greatest threat ever posed to mankind. This is because the weapon of mass destruction is in the hands of a paranoiac who had already imagined the extinction of the crowds around him. The last sentence of Canetti's self-confessed paranoid argument is: "If we would master power we must face command openly and boldly, and search for means to deprive it of its sting."

The sting. How to take the sting out of the lure of fundamentalism, with its atavistic swoon of certainties, while at the same time not weakening the vital source of our own ability to defend ourselves (whoever we are)? Start perhaps, with some fundamentals to which we claim to subscribe.

Leunig's sting is simple. It puts two things uncomfortably together. Child pornography, about which our pack mentality is now hysterical, and the children killed in war, about which we struggle with a crowd mentality, our war crowd, that wants to turn a blind eye. And the key to the sting is its test for what we claim to share as a fundamental: that there is an absolute value in the wellbeing of children, all children, not just ours. Leunig forces the issue: what, in us, is fundamental to what?

The second sting goes to the power of leaders. Here they are implicated – no, pinned by the drawing – in the death of children. Outrageous, surely. That is going too far. And yet, if our leaders cannot share some of the responsibility for some of the slaughter some of the time, what is being said? That the killing is part ofnature? That it has causes beyond human reach? That the causes of this war are not of this world? No, sooner or later our own leaders, bad intelligence or not, have to mourn the fact that they have survived these children.

After all, most of us, including our democratically elected leaders, share the notion that we make our own history and that when history is a mess, we must be to blame, along with, it goes without saying, the al-Qaeda network. Hence the enduring sting of the cartoon. No wonder then, that Leunig's hate mail has increased exponentially as his cartoons have named those fundamentally responsible for atrocities and chaos. "I hear that you are a father," they write. "I pity your children. Your wife must be a dog." Our own baiting pack would have him if they could.

As I write, a savage battle has been raging in Falluja. Before the full American assault, the civilians were warned, remember, that if they did not want to be bombed they should hand over the terrorists in their midst. The impossibility of this demand goes without saying. In effect, the Americans were holding the people of Falluja hostage; the children of Falluja had hoods over their heads. Since then the town has been razed and there is no firm figure as to how many of the 300,000 escaped.

We like to think that it is fundamental to our citizenship that we know what is done in our name. But early on in the war our leaders acquiesced to the American decision not to count the dead on the other side. The first of its dead were described as being liquidated into "pink mist". Now we know, thanks to the British medical journal, The Lancet, that 100,000 have died, half of them women and children. Mind you, we still do not have complete figures on the numbers of dead children, but the deaths had no impact on the United States presidential election. That is not surprising as most of the 100,000 were killed by US air strikes. So the figure for the children might be as much as "we" can bear and be destined to be swept under the carpet, as child abuse was for so long. Certainty, none of the Christian army that helped re-elect the President has gone on record lamenting the death toll of children, a fundamentalist response of a sort. In a better world, the news might have yielded a prayer crowd with some capacity for penitence, but instead we've had those gaudy political rallies, all sugared up for the crowd they really were: the war crowd.

Job At Our Elbow

The beauty and terror of the teeth,
The whites in the brown face
A smile fresh as a mango
To be skinned like plastic from
Explosives. He grins toward us as
The breeze turns, and it's there,
Wide and pearly as a young shark
Disturbing the shoal havens.

A grin to die for on TV:
"I know what I am doing."
And we think, "You know not,
You have not heard of Erasmus." We fancy
We frame his frame and ours then more some. We try
To see and be clear with Job at our elbow.

 

THE PEARLY TEETH of Jack the Knife. Amrozi's only boy, surely, but already he is living his poem of death. It has been written. He will act it out until he is in heaven.

The word that the smile forced out of me was "Satanic". Such was its pride in murder, the sheen of its righteousness. Then the double take: what do I know of his culture, and the place of the smile? Was I missing something? No: the scenes at the trial put me right. There is no way you could avoid the smile's murderous intent. And so the surge of rage in me: the instinctive anger that produces vengeance, that whole impulse that made even Senator John Kerry say, after bin Laden had appeared on America's pre-election screens, that those people are "barbarians", and that they should be "hunted down" with "whatever it takes".

But, of course, the idea of justice constrains one. So we like to think. So, I thought – the liberal optimist voice again, the secular humanist – surely the right social justice programs in the villages that produced the Amrozis would turn or tame that smile towards what we have called, since the 16th century, (Christianity's age of fundamentalism), religious tolerance. Sociology whistles in the dark.

"Satanic" is a dangerous word to use, I know. I misled myself with it, as I am not a practising Christian. But it is good to call evil by its name. I believe that evil exists in the world, and that a certain kind of glee – that grin on the face of Private Lynndie England, for example, with her thumbs up beside the naked hooded man in Abu Ghraib – is a clue to it. Evil is a force – it has an energy – with which one has to contend, one way or the other. Amrozi's smile left me feeling both militant and uncertain as to how to act – within and without. Militant, in the knowledge that some limit to tolerance might have been reached. Uncertain with regard to the means that justify the ends of self-defence.

But it is hard to affirm right action – strategically, spiritually – because so much so far has been botched by the Americans. You could start with the total obscenity (and cowardice) of the assaults from the air, where the collateral deaths of civilians are implicitly part of a strategic calculation, one that has been practised in Iraq since Winston Churchill thought it a good idea to bomb villages into compliance with the British Empire. Or take the prison tortures, which are firstly the product of incompetence, as the prisons in Iraq and Cuba were filled with men arrested by mistake, and secondly not "atrocities", (as in the work of "a few bad apples") but systemic humiliations essential to a military strategy in dire straits. The road to them was paved by the President's disregard for the Geneva conventions so fundamental to civilised men at war, common decencies swept aside by the true believers in the US Administration, men hell-bent on conducting their own religious war. Bush in his speeches gives signs to his born-again Christian army, and when under pressure, he will appeal to sources of authority beyond himself. As one of his generals in the Pentagon put it, Bush was "not elected", he was "appointed by God". The speaker – a key planner with Donald Rumsfeld's manhunt offensive, also equates the Muslim world with Satan. "Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army."

When I read this, I had an image of teeth flashing again: not pearly teeth but all those smiles of the born-agains, those huge, hollering and praying congregations of fearful Babbitts who voted Bush in on his permanent war ticket.

Pearly teeth, Pepsodent teeth, what's the difference? Job at my elbow or not, I feel like a shag on a rock.

Under the Pump

You've felt like this before. With a marriage shot
Your heart breaking, a small daughter slumped, a son
Sweating with the self-doubts of a good young man ...
When there is little or nothing you can do to save the day.
Events have minds of their own. The General you need
Is not vain, not ego, not Montgomery, not Macarthur, no.
It seems the great man must be a Kutuzov who will
"put in nothing of himself, contrive nothing, undertake nothing".

The taste of destiny has changed. Each morning a golden bowel
Of pop from Washington. You want wholemeal but foaming
Sugar cons you, is a buzz, is octane, some strange fuel.
Oh you protest, you talkback, incessantly with reason and anger.
But it enters. It seems to get in at night. You wake to find
Yourself shockingly drifting to their pump, their diesel lies.

 

THAT WAS AN extraordinary few months leading up to the attack on Iraq. We knew the Americans were lying about the United Nations: there was no genuine plan to "wait" for the UN as the decision to go to war had already been taken. The effect was both to arouse one's sense of political impotence – which our ineffectual peace marching confirmed – and to pin us, mesmerically, in the energy field created by militarism. This has always been the vortex leading up to war. That's how it is done. It is an appeal to fear and patriotism that tries to expel political conscience. The rumble of war, like the call to prayer, can put a seductive end to uncertainties. Now we belong somewhere, embedded with those who bring us the news of unity. Now, after the massive entry of will, fate takes its course.

If it were not for the fate of children, it might be possible to sit back and experience the unfolding forces of war, in the spirit, let's say, of the Mahabharata, that great Indian epic poem about incessant war, slaughter, total destruction. How modern its slow music feels as we accustom ourselves to permanent war, and the daily news culture of death. In the Mahabharata, the war goes on generation after generation as kin kill kin. In the beginning, there are rules of war but as each grieving clan despairs, the restraints are forgotten, the bloodbath deepens. And the war persists for another reason: each person creates his or her enemy anew: despite everything, he or she has it in mind – out of pride, out of anger, out of grief – that another round of killing is necessary. No victory, then, is definitive. Each seeds the next defeat. And so on until, in desperation, even the noble warriors break their vows and resort to their sacred weapons, their tools of cataclysmic destruction. Thus the great fire, and the deaths on a cosmic scale. But nothing ends absolutely, as there will be more time for the self-creation of enemies.

The war music around us is slow for similar reasons. Step by step, the US has created its own enemies – the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, the terrorists out of Saudi Arabia, nuclear-proliferating Pakistan. In Iraq, the war to pre-empt terrorism has created a magnetic force for terrorists. At the same time, the definition of terrorist has expanded to include everyone who resists the invasion. And, along with American purity of intent, that innocence so wilful about doing good, is measured as a faith in a god called democracy, one that will come good, that must fully reveal itself in a matter of years, if not a generation or more, since history is on its side. Leave aside the illusion that the US has democracy at home. Its rhetorical compulsion is to deliver to others what is true to its own lights: a compound of fear and greed and utopianism, each generating the other into a wilfully conceived future.

And so on. How else to experience the determinations of the US's patriotic poem to itself except under the heading of myth? I have been deeply taken by the Mahabharata, which was brought to this country by Peter Brook. What held his version of it together was not any cult of absolute belief – far from it. It was its ancient sense of itself as a poem, a story told by Vyasa, the son of the King of Fishermen. Vyasa recounts everything to the Boy, a most willing witness, the perfect audience for something that becomes real in the telling.

It was the Boy's voice that rang bell-like through the whole production. It seemed to have the clarity of Krishna and Arjuna and Vyasa put together. In the beginning, the Boy can hardly believe that "the poetical history of mankind" might be about him, but Vyasa says, "If you listen carefully, at the end you'll be someone else."

Towards the end, after the weapons of mass destruction have been used, the Boy can hardly believe that he had his beginning in the extinction of mankind.

"Vyasa," he says, "I'm very tired ... will the war end one day?"

"Yes, it will end," Vyasa says.

Boy: "I'm afraid, I thought I was going to die when Aswatthaman launched his weapon."

Vyasa: "So did I."

Boy: "But you told me, 'I'm the author of this poem.' Could your poem kill you?"

To which neither Vyasa nor the Mahabharata has any immediate answer.

Safety Pins

Binding a person's wound while looking into his face is an example of an attitude towards a soul.

– Raimond Gaita

Yes. A given. A condition, our compass.
Yet here's another Iraqi lad,
wishing to touch an American gun,
To cradle it in need of care
The soldier looking on with bubble gum.

For weeks you've been in the TV ward
waiting for the pain to lift
Pain like a mother's veil, perhaps
Pain torn like a badge from the dead
The mother and soldier in yourself looking on.

I'm waiting for a video dream to come good:
At last the Texan Marine on his knees
Face to face with the blood sodden Shi'ite kid
The soldier's lips tenderly tight with safety pins.

 

REPEATING YOUR GOD'S words may mean nothing: it may even mean more killing.Whereas a simple good deed that might be noticed by your god, even the god of your enemy – that might be something. This poem must have been written after seeing something like that – an American soldier helping an Iraqi kid. In any case, I wanted to write something that used Rai Gaita's aphorism.

The US soldiers – many of them kids themselves, really – are not there wanting to kill, even if, in order to kill, they had to fill their tanks and armoured vehicles with the ghetto-blasting coherence of Raining Blood andAngel of Death. Their soundtracks to war, the grinding techno urban poems that wrapped round them as they slaughtered the Iraqis, were the narcotic for doing what they were barely trained to do: kill large numbers of people at close range, including, once the invasion had been completed, civilians and their children. Children, whom, it has to be said, had by then often become combatants themselves, kids, wired up as bombs, who might innocuously approach.

But the innocence of the US boys disappeared once the first battle had been won. They wanted to help all the Iraqis – including the young men who might have been their brothers in some other life. The Baghdad boys drifted up to the vehicles wanting to hear the other soundtracks – the rap and the rock and the country. And after all, these city boys – jobless and poor and half-educated, like most of the American troops – had all that in common, too. At the level of desire, you might say, all belonged to the American Dream. And so the US troops were for a while acting in the spirit of their gospel music and helping out in the schools and the hospitals and cleaning up the Baghdad streets. But not for long. Rubbish was thrown back on the streets. Bombs began to blow up the streets as the American boys – loathed invaders now – rumbled their armoured vehicles along them.

Incomprehension and a wild sense of "their" ingratitude – set in among the Americans. Then fear, as the insurgency increased. Then desperation, as the terrorist strategies, in which the fundamentalists take pride, escalated. And it lured the Americans into their retaliations: the night raids on houses, the removal of suspects, their own species of kidnappings, as terrified families saw their own men effectively "disappear". In the beginning, the Americans had been advised about the ethnic differences of Muslim people: how, for instance, "placing a detainee on the ground or putting a foot on him implies you are God". This from a Marine Corps manual. The logic of prison tortures was its reversal, as the thugs of military intelligence played God. Thus the staging of that theatre of humiliation called Abu Ghraib, a production funded at the top, and sustained in the mirrors of the beheadings, in the round of mutual rage and fear, pride and shame and provocation, all now bound together in grief and vengeance.

American mothers and fathers are not grieving much yet, relatively speaking. American trauma is on a slow fuse. At the time of writing, the liberal US analysis wants to speak of how this new war has not prepared its soldiers to kill – not kill as this new technology and this war demands. In the old days, apparently, during World War II, for instance, it was natural for only 15 per cent of US soldiers to fire their guns at all. They tended to freeze in the heat of battle, to become, at a vital point, conscientious objectors. When the army realised this it trained the men accordingly: to shoot at what they were conditioned to conceive impersonally – at what were called, in the new drill, "targets", rather than a man who might have five children. By Vietnam, 90 per cent of soldiers were firing their guns in the heat of battle. One result of this instilled fury was the Mai Lai massacre. Another was those battalions of soldiers who came home crazed from what they had done.

The boys in Iraq have been trained well enough to shoot at their targets. But it seems that they are traumatised by the capacity of their weapons to kill so many at such close range so often. "They shoot, we return fire, and they're all dead." The low morale of the US soldiers has already been reported in the papers. Their suicide rate is 30 per cent higher than usual in the army. If they are shot up themselves, they are rushed to a German hospital, and then shipped back home, and the care they get is something of a contrast to that of an Iraqi kid in a Baghdad hospital. Even so, it's possible that the mental state of the American boys might be worse. Not only have they crossed the world to kill men, women and children in their own city, they have been returned to hospital wards where they are discouraged to speak of what they have done. Their debriefings cue them to say what has "happened" to them. The trauma of having killed is denied and, if it does come up, it is psychologised rather than engaged in full. That is to say, as one Veteran Affairs psychologist has put it, it is not faced as a spiritual task. "You recognise you did the unthinkable. You blasted away a piece of yourself, violated some trust with God."

In any case, that is out of the question as battles of faiths are made to rage. Falluja played it all, all over again. The American boys were pumped for battle by Christian prayer; they joined the battle on the ruined streets of the town as loud speakers pitted one poem against the other: from one set of speakers the Muslim cries of "God is great", from the other the homicidal rants from AC/DC. As the music roared, wild boys killed wild boys, one lot hurling themselves into martyrdom, the other hollering and bragging about their kill count.

Against such a terrifying convergence of conviction, a safety pin looks good.

Christmas Day

The Buddha waits in the garden,
Among the hydrangeas, taking a space
Where the old cats still piss. They are forgiven.
Take in the world as it is under a grey sky.
Everyone who arrives, who comes and goes,
Has done something regretful, harmful,
A shameful act, perhaps criminal.

Yesterday a poet I know wrote from Kyoto.
He lives in a five tatami mat room
And, each morning, the monks walk by
On their way into the city to beg.

I can't reply. He gave no address.
The Zen-garden postcard signalled:
For the New Year, till the best silences!

 

WHEN THAT POSTCARD came from Kyoto, it was close to Christmas 2002 – after Afghanistan (which was after the Taliban had obliterated the Buddhas of the cliffs), but before Iraq. It was the most poignant of Christmases, when we were about to hit the streets with peace demonstrations, making our crowds that created an illusion of hope. A time for Christ and the Buddha to get together.

Of what value life? That is the fundamental question the terrorists have put in our faces. Who values it for what, when, and if at all? What faith in what do we secular humanists (if that's what we are) need for the present crisis?

It is commonplace to say that at heart Christianity, Islam and Judaism are in accord. They share a faith in the sanctity of life that is demonstrated by the Abraham who did not kill his son. I suppose you can't argue with this as common ground. But as narrative, I find it hard to see how the Jesus story, with its self-erasures, is really compatible with the warrior life of Mohammed. It seems to me intellectually and even spiritually mushy to put these two religions in bed with each other, but perhaps this need to be so cut and dried is my being fundamentalist.

Better to focus on the temperate zones of each religion and the ways in which, worldwide, Muslim teachers preach against zealotry and terrorism, even when their political geography makes it dangerous to do so. And it may be a good thing that even Paul Wolfowitz, that fundamentalist of democracy, is at home with the moderate Muslims of South-East Asia, and a personal friend of Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, and Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president of Indonesia. Maybe it is possible to imagine, even inside the American war music, quiet pragmatic spaces where faiths speak with each other.

The least impositional belief system is probably Buddhism. It has an elaborate set of teachings about time, the self and suffering, which comes down to the modest exhortation to be mindful, day by day, minute by minute, of the suffering of others. No more, no less. The steely truth of Buddhism, a religion without a god, is that it solicits a wakeful mind at home with uncertainty. Its system of respect is an application of tolerance. It has no absolute except perhaps to constantly remind its adherents about the play of mind, its constant process. As a result, Buddhism is in a strong position to undercut delusions about the categories such as "terrorism" and "fundamentalism". One need not imply the other. Terrorism is political strategy as much as it is religious zealotry. Coming to grips with one – combating one – need not necessarily entail combating the other. The "skilful means" of Buddhism offers fluidity with regard to political solutions – call them "negotiations", if you will – that the circle and cycle of religious furies close off.

Of course the pivotal teaching of Buddhism is to protect the life of all sentient beings. Some Buddhists will argue that this entails, in a context of war, an absolute pacifism. In which case, the self-immolations of monks in the Vietnam War was a natural outcome. My anguish about Iraq makes sense of it. But I am not a conscientious objector, not in the way, say, that the heroic Daniel Berrigan has been, in his long "swords into plough shears" fight against US militarism. I find it hard to travel all the way with Berrigan because he keeps quoting his Isaiah. Today, those who cite their gods are a menace.

But we – the humanists – need more than political stamina. Inwardly we need more than modernity's emptiness – even though the Buddhist teaching is about emptiness. The paradox is that that emptiness goes right back to the great debate in the Marabharata, where those in the situation of continuous war have to find a way to right action. For doing nothing – the retreat to the meditation mat – is not an option (even though some doing nothing is action). I mean action – action as Krishna advised Arjuna on the field of battle. For, faced with the inevitability of war, and the prospect of having to fight his own kin when the world was conceived as kin, the agonising task for Arjuna was to find a conception of his duty. He had to find the right kind of detachment. Essentially, he had to act without anger and pride.

"Victory and defeat, pleasure and pain are all the same," Krishna tells him. "Act but don't reflect on the fruits of the act. Forget desire, seek detachment."

Arjuna: "You urge me to battle, to massacre. Your words are ambiguous. I am confused."

Krishna: "You must not withdraw into solitude. You must not stay without action, for we are here to serve the world."

For Arjuna, there was much confusion to come. Arjuna has to contend with the instability of his mind, his sense of being swept towards evil, his belief that his mind is unfree and full of illusion, its incoherence – all of this as well as the trickery of Krishna. He has to learn to live with all such doubts and uncertainties about the world, and about the "true battlefield", which is his deepest being, "where each man must fight alone".

The unfolding, of which the Marabharata speaks, seems to me to encompass whatever wars will demand of us next. The best silences might help us resist and counter more than one enemy at a time, including the enemy of the self.

A Concession

And not one breath
Was restored
To one
Shattered throat

– Hayden Carruth

OK, say they make nothing happen.
Better then to write with silence
Blessed repetition close to prayer
But not prayer, naturally, as prayer
Like a poem may be so much air
That goes to waste like dust
Gales of dust then rain, then sludge.

So consider one, a good one, thumbed in mud

Or by a fingernail to mark the clay
Of a pot re-turned to the oven
Its heat blast storming your face
Your eyes your mouth dumb.

By that door your courage forms
Waiting for your words to fire.

 

HAYDEN CARRUTH WAS writing against the Vietnam War and his poem says it did no good. It is an old sentiment, most famously stated by Auden. Even after his inspiring poem, September 1, 1939 – "show an affirming flame" – he said, poetry makes nothing happen. Auden retreated from the war music of Europe for exile in America. In times of war, atrocity, and abuse of public office, poets have been naggingly tempted by exile. Think of the wise men of the Tang Dynasty, whose presence has inhabited my own poems as I have been writing my way through this war. Writing not as proclamation: more like a private survival strategy. Poems "are born", as John Berger puts it, "of a sense of helplessness – hence their force".

In our culture – for which we now have to fight, or at least affirm in a strong fresh way – the poem is not only a form of praise, as it is in a theocracy.

Our poems, as utterances, know their limits, their relative merits. Poems as manifestations of scepticism, doubt, uncertainty.

Poems that have no project other than to be – well, to be as particular as they like, in keeping with a state of mind that has not settled on a God-given coherence.

Poems that can't help but be anti-doctrinal.

Protestant poems that have no one burnt at the stake.

Poems that do not fire up from the crowd.

Poems that can't help but be – well, lonely, even as they yearn for the crowd.

Poems that issue from individual minds and hearts, that dissent, that can't help but be different.

One way or the other, poems strike out alone. They sting in their own way. One sting leads to another. Poems as strings of stings.

(Or poems as cats' cradles, suspended between the head and the heart – delicate, strong constructions that are open to inspection.)

In my case, one poem about this war has led to the other. One after the other they have gone out for peace and worried about the extent of our being implicated in the war. Each poem is different, none of them in uniform. I can see, too, that they have gone out without being properly dressed (philosophically, metaphysically, emotionally), and that sometimes they've been sent out in order to find out who they are, if you know what I mean ...You, the reader, you in your singularity (unless you have found a reading group, and even then ... )

It is strange to be writing this with such an angular sense of reality, but that's how it seems to be: the poet invested in this Western sense of discomfort. Writing without the luxury of praise. Writing outside the lovely circles of the ancient languages.

Remember the shocking question in the Mahabharata: will your poem kill you? There seemed no answer, because the narrative moved in circles of death upon death, illusion after illusion creating more death.

Vyasa, in fact, does not directly reply.

But he has a scribe: none other than the elephant-headed Ganesh, the son of Shiva. "I am the bringer of peace," Ganesh announces, when he was about to start writing. "But I warn you, my hand can't stop once I start to write. You must dictate without a single pause."

It was as if to say: as soon as the death-creating narrative draws breath – shows a chink, offers an opening – the act of writing can shift the ground. Writing, because it can't help but be critical, might help make peace.

The libraries are full of anti-war poems, most of which have not had the good fortune to be action in the world. But I don't want to absolutely give up on the Yanks. Here is my favourite anti-war poem, written on the walls of a US Army latrine during World War II.

Soldiers who wish to be a hero
Are practically zero
But those who wish to be civilians
Jesus, they run into millions.

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