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“Poets Change the World”

By Kwame Dawes

I had great plans for these posts, I confess. I was going to do what so many people are doing, which is to do these “shout outs” these reviews of really new and interesting work. I even went as far as to solicit help from folks I knew asking them to tell me some of the poets they really admire and why they should be featured. I was going to focus on African American poets especially, hoping that I would be adding to a paltry body of criticism about what is clearly a renaissance in African American poetry. But I got distracted. I got distracted by life, by what others were writing, and now by Haiti. It is not hard to be distracted by Haiti when you are in Haiti. The numbers keep haunting me as I move through the city of Port-au-Prince: Over two hundred thousand people dead. Over two hundred thousand people dead in the space of a few seconds–just twenty seconds. One man said to me, “I twenty four seconds, life suddenly became meaningless.” Two hundred thousand people crushed. An entire nursing school–the leading nursing school in Haiti, completed wiped out, everyone of the students, the professors, everyone lost! Every mound of rubble I pass, every monument of twisted steel, and crushed cement–these mounds that spill into the road and that are now almost solid interruptions to the landscape, like works of art–they are shibboleths, shrines of the lost. Eighty percent of the buildings in the down town area were destroyed. On the Champs de Mars, the Presidential palace is almost comic in its brokenness–almost comic, if it were not so tragic. These things are distracting. That everyone in the city had to have been affected by this quake–had to have lost someone close, a relative, a friend, a lover–is a haunting truth that distracts me. Then to get an email from a doctor who I wrote to hoping he would let me interview him about the situation with HIV in Haiti that begins, “Hello M Kwame Dawes, It will be a pleasure to meet you. Poets change the world”, I am understandably distracted. Poets change the world.  A medical doctor who deals with HIV AIDS every day, who is faced with the repercussions of this disaster everyday, who must contend with his own losses, his own need to keep moving, to keep working so as not to slow down long enough to think of how big this thing is–this is the person who believes that poets change the world.  I suppose, he understands something about the fickleness of the world, something about the startling fact of our fragile mortality, and something about the leveler of all of us.  Only then can someone say that poets change the world.

The thing is I don’t think poets even believe this.  It might be sheer hubris to believe this, but perhaps not. Perhaps it makes sense to ask how something like that is possible.

Here, watching Haitians squat and stand before a large crucifix with Christ hanging from the corss–an alabaster image with only Christ’s beard in deep black–to seem standing outside of the gates of the completely destroyed Catholic Cathedral–the Notre Dame cathedral, to see a young man with a small prayer book in his hand, raising his hands in the air, and the bringing them down, his eyes open, having a conversation with the Christ, and then walking off in a hurry, as if on an errand; to then see a young woman, in a powder blue skirt, her hair in tight plaits, lean against the wrought iron fence, look up at the crucifix and shrug, and shake her head, and nod, and and sigh while talking to the sky–talking as if she is having a familiar conversation, as if this conversation is a continuation of one she was having yesterday, a conversation that would seem to be about the most ordinary things in life–those things that are bothering her, and to see her mark the sign of the cross and walk away–makes me think that somewhere in this chaos and tragedy is the quest for the sublime for that which will bring language to experience in ways that make sense.

Only in this way must poetry be prayer.  It is not true that poetry is too deliberate to be prayer.  Prayer too can be deliberate.  It can be formed, it can be a case made, a story told, a silence caught up in the constant failures of language.  And this is poetry for so many of us.

It is now early evening in Port au Prince.  My hotel is a shelter–there are trees, and the music is softly piping in.  The volunteers, journalists, NGO workers, diplomats, are decomposing now.  I am thinking about poems.  I am thinking of what to make of my discovery that Sean Penn is doing really important work while living in the tent city in Haiti.  But in Haiti some tent cities are more equal than others.  And sean Penn is not living in a tent city, really. He is living in a tent set aside, a tent that is well guarded by people who tell us we must get credentialed to write about Penn’s work, but are quite free to go into the real tent city, no problem.  There has to be a poem there somewhere, in that contradictory reality of how Hollywood serves the world.

Poets change the world.  That is something to think about.  Something to think about.  Salud Haiti.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 28th, 2010 by Kwame Dawes.