For this week’s Peace of History:
We continue our celebration of National Poetry Month with two more poems. Yesterday was the 50th annual Earth Day -- the most unique in the half-century history of the holiday due to covid-19. So in acknowledgment of the holiday, as well as the extraordinary circumstances in which we celebrated our home planet, our poems this week offer differing perspectives on our relationship with Earth. In the first poem, by Dunya Mikhail, the narrator describes a utopian planet in contrast to Earth: the other planet is safe, comfortable, beautiful, peaceful. But what is the value of such a life if there is no one else with whom to share it?
On the other hand, the narrator of the second poem, by Robert Frost, is content with Earth except that he must share it with others. The poem is also reminiscent of the covid-19 quarantine “loud birds” phenomenon, in which people around the world have noticed the high volume of bird sounds as the sounds of human activity have diminished. The responses to the dramatic increase in “natural” sounds in our built environments have been varied, but Frost reminds us that if we are offended by the songs of Earth, perhaps it is we who adjust ourselves.
I have a special ticket
to another planet
beyond this Earth.
A comfortable world, and beautiful:
a world without much smoke,
not too hot
and not too cold.
are gentler there,
and the governments
have no secrets.
The police are nonexistent:
there are no problems
and no fights.
And the schools
don’t exhaust their students
with too much work
for history has yet to start
and there’s no geography
and no other languages.
And even better:
has left its “r” behind
and turned into love,
so the weapons sleep
beneath the dust,
and the planes pass by
without shelling the cities,
and the boats
look like smiles
on the water.
on the other planet
beyond this Earth.
But still I hesitate
to go alone.
Dunya Mikhail. "Another Planet," The Iraqi Nights (2013).
“A Minor Bird”
I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;
Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.
The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.
And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.
Robert Frost. “A Minor Bird,” West-Running Brook (1928).
For this Week’s Peace of History:
We share two more poems in celebration of National Poetry Month. This time, our first poem comes from Wendell Berry. “Let Us Pledge” concerns the awful truths of our society, the stories we tell ourselves to stay sane in an insane world, and how paper-thin those defenses can be. The narrator starts sentences with familiar phrases but ends them in extreme, unexpected ways; he gives voice to that which too often goes unsaid, revealing the contradictions between our values and our behaviors. As our governments debate the premature reopening of the economy and other deadly actions to take in this pandemic era, Berry reminds us of how important it is for us to articulate the horrible unspoken consequences and the logical conclusions.
Our second poem is the very famous and popular Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again.” In it, Hughes masterfully contrasts the national story of freedom, opportunity, and equality with the realities of living in the United States for anyone who is not a privileged white man. Hughes lays bare how the national narrative told through text books and federal holidays fools and manipulates us to accept injustice. So many prominent U.S. politicians today rely on vapid rhetoric and puerile pronouncements -- thoughtful policies (or lack thereof), voting histories, and personal indiscretions have not seemed to matter much at all in the past few years. And yet, Hughes reminds us that the purest version of that American Dream belongs to the most oppressed in this nation, for they have experienced it the least. Like Berry, Hughes’ poem is also about narratives and lived experiences, but while Berry’s poem ends with bitterness and perhaps even resignation, Hughes ends his poem defiantly, prophetically: certain of a brighter and more just future led by yesterday’s victims.
“Let Us Pledge”
Let us pledge allegiance to the flag
and to the national sacrifice areas
for which it stands, garbage dumps
and empty holes, sold out for a higher
spire on the rich church, the safety
of voyagers in golf carts, the better mood
of the stock market. Let us feast
today, though tomorrow we starve. Let us
gorge upon the body of the Lord, consuming
the earth for our greater joy in Heaven,
that fair Vacationland. Let us wander forever
in the labyrinths of our self-esteem.
Let us evolve forever toward the higher
consciousness of the machine.
The pool of our engine-driven fate
unwinds, our history now outspeeding
thought, and the heart is a beatable tool.
Wendell Berry (1934-)
“Let America Be America Again”
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
For this week’s Peace of History:
We present two poems that speak to the complexity of our relationship with the rest of life on this planet. The first is from Judith Wright (1915-2000), a major Australian poet, critic, and early advocate of pacifist and conservationist causes. In her poem “Australia 1970,” Wright describes righteous fury refusing to go quietly into that good night -- except the fury belongs to a place, a habitat, an ecology. Fifty years ago, Wright pointed unequivocally to the source of the “natural” threats to us: not to the jungles or forests or “nature” itself, but to us. Now, many of the best ecologists have caught up to her.
(To learn more about the relationship between covid-19 and ecological destruction, please visit the following link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsible-for-covid-19-aoe).
The second poem is from Denise Levertov (1923-1997), a British-born American poet whose themes often involved peace and social justice. Somewhat less wrathful than Wright’s poem, Levertov’s piece “Kin and Kin” begins in despair and self-loathing at the violence and injustice “our species” has committed upon the earth. But then the narrator remembers that our destructiveness is not inevitable or even universal. After the bitterness of Wright’s poem, Levertov in “Kin and Kin” reminds us that human nature is diverse, mutable, both ancient and ever-evolving, and it seems that Levertov offers one possible solution to the salvation of “our species”: listen to indigenous leaders.
(To learn more about indigenous peoples and covid-19, please visit the following link: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/03/24/news/covid-19-crisis-tells-world-what-indigenous-peoples-have-been-saying-thousands-years)
Die, wild country, like the eaglehawk,
dangerous till the last breath’s gone,
clawing and striking. Die
cursing your captor through a raging eye.
Die like the tigersnake
that hisses such pure hatred from its pain
as fills the killer’s dreams
with fear like suicide’s invading stain.
Suffer, wild country, like the ironwood
that gaps the dozer-blade.
I see your living soil ebb with the tree
to naked poverty.
Die like the soldier-ant
mindless and faithful to your million years.
Though we corrupt you with our torturing mind,
stay obstinate; stay blind.
For we are conquerors and self-poisoners
more than scorpion or snake
and dying of the venoms that we make
even while you die of us.
I praise the scoring drought, the flying dust,
the drying creek, the furious animal,
that they oppose us still;
that we are ruined by the thing we kill.
Judith Wright. Poems of Protest for the Year 2000.
Kin and Kin
Perhaps Jeffers was right, our species
best unborn, and once born
better soon gone, a criminal kind,
the planet’s nightmare. Our going
would leave no hauntings at all, unless
to the last of those we’ve tamed or caged;
after those, a world
fierce in the hunt but free from malice
and free from remembrance.
Yet there have been the wise, the earthen elders
humble before the grass.
When from the torturers, picking their teeth
after a full meal, relaxed
after a full day of their routine job, we turn
to regard such others remote as they are, yet kin--
as wheat and weed are kin, each
having root, stem, seed--or when
we hear some note of kindness
innocent of its own courage amid
the clamor of lies, it seems after all
there might be open to us, even now,
a chance to evolve, a swerve we could take,
a destiny still held out (if we would look)
in the Spirit’s palm.
Denise Levertov. Poems of Protest for the Year 2000.
For this week’s Peace of History:
For National Poetry Month, we will be sharing poems to reflect on our own current moment. Today we share a poem from the HIV/AIDS crisis. To those who are feeling helpless and anxious, to those who are worried about their own vulnerability to covid-19, or the vulnerability of a loved one, this is for you. And yet we must remember that Paul Monette, who wrote this poem about his own HIV+ partner, must have felt so much more alone than most of us do. With the near-universal spread of covid-19, most of us are going through the common experience of quarantining at home. In addition, we are able to connect with each other remotely through social media and other technology to extents impossible in the 1980s. Let us read Paul’s words and, for a moment, feel his anxiety and isolation as our own -- but then remember that we are not alone. We are all in this together.
ate me alive day and night these land mines
all over like the toy bombs dropped on the
Afghans little Bozo jack-in-the-boxes
that blow your hands off 3 A.M. I’d go
around the house with a rag of ammonia
wiping wiping crazed as a housewife on Let’s
Make a Deal the deal being PLEASE DON’T MAKE
HIM SICK AGAIN faucets doorknobs the phone
every lethal thing a person grips and leaves
his prints on scrubbed my hands till my fingers
cracked washed apples ten times ten no salad but
iceberg and shuck the outer two thirds someone
we knew was brain dead from sushi so stick
to meatloaf creamed corn spuds whatever we
could cook to death DON’T USE THE D WORD
EVEN IN JEST when you started craving deli
I heaved a sigh because salami was so de-
germed with its lovely nitrites to hell with
cholesterol that’s for people way way over
the hill or up the hill not us in the vale
of borrowed time yet I was so far more gone
than you nuts in fact ruinous as a supermom
with a kid in a bubble who can’t play and ten
years later can’t work can’t kiss can’t laugh
but his room’s still clean every cough every
bump would nothing ever be nothing again
cramming you with zinc and Haagen-Dazs so wild
to fatten you up I couldn’t keep track of
what was medicine what was old wives’ but see
THERE WAS NO MEDICINE only me and to
circle the wagons and island the last of our
magic spoon by spoon nap by nap till we
healed you as April heals drinking the sun
I was Prospero of the spell of day-by-day
and all of this just the house worry peanuts
to what’s out there and you with the dagger at
your jugular struggling back to work jotting
your calendar two months ahead penciling
clients husbanding husbanding inching back
and me agape with the day’s demises who
was swollen who gone mad ringing you on
the hour how are you compared to ten noon
one come home and have blintzes petrified
you’d step in an elevator with some hacking
CPA the whole world ought to be masked
please I can’t even speak of the hospital fear
firsts bone white the first day of an assault
huddled by your bed like an old crone empty-
eyed in a Greek square black on black the waiting
for tests the chamber of horrors in my head
my rags and vitamins dumb as leeches how did
the meningitis get in where did I slip up
what didn’t I scour I’d have swathed the city
in gauze to cushion you no man who hasn’t
watched his cruelest worry come true in a room
with no door can ever know what doesn’t
die because they lie who say it’s over
Rog it hasn’t stopped at all are you okay
does it hurt what can I do still still I
think if I worry enough I’ll keep you near
the night before Thanksgiving I had this
panic to buy the plot on either side of us
so we won’t be cramped that yard of extra grass
would let us breathe THIS IS CRAZY RIGHT but
Thanksgiving morning I went the grave two over
beside you was six feet deep ready for the next
murdered dream so see the threat was real
why not worry worry is like prayer is like
God if you have none they all forget there’s
the other side too twelve years and not once
to fret WHO WILL EVER LOVE ME that was
the heaven at the back of time but we had it
here now black on black I wander frantic
never done with worrying but it’s mine it’s
a cure that’s not in the books are you easy
my stolen pal what do you need is it
sleep like sleep you want a pillow a cool
drink oh my one safe place there must be
something just say what it is and it’s yours
Paul Monette. Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog. 1989.