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.