Poems for Peace
In May 2009, in a backyard in Portland, Oregon, a few poets and artists found themselves possessed by what appeared to be a simple question: if we were to suggest that bookstores have a “peace shelf” of books, what should it carry? We were in Portland for “Another World Instead: William Stafford Peace Symposium,” and Kim Stafford, the poet’s son, posed the question.
I began scribbling furiously as Kim and Jeff Gundy, Fred Marchant, Paul Merchant, Haydn Reiss, and I widened the imagined shelf until it was a whole bookcase, and then it seemed that we’d need a whole store; as dusk fell, and later on e-mail (when Sarah Gridley joined the conversation for our panel at Split This Rock 2010), we probed a concept that teeters between immensely practical and dangerously amorphous: how to canonize a list of books and other resources that would envision a more just and peaceful world—for bookstores, for teachers, for interested readers—without turning it into Jorge Luis Borges’s famous “Library of Babel,” which contains every book ever written?
And how to overcome—in ourselves, in the poetry world, and in all the wider communities in which we situate ourselves—our own resistances to an engaged poetry that stakes specific claims about the world, a poetry that could be partisan and provocative and even utopian? After all, many of us feel as John Keats did, despite his friendship with the partisan poet Leigh Hunt: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.”
And if the poetry that presses “palpable design upon us” were not challenge enough, then what to do about poetry that proposes something about peace, the very word of which veers into a kind of New Age ganja haze and evades the pungency of real life; or, to let Keats muse on the subject, “for axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses.” Ezra Pound’s Imagiste manifesto similarly exhorted poets to avoid fuzzy abstractions: “Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”
Yet we Americans live in the most powerful country in the world, whose adaptably postmodern empire is marked by what William James calls Pure War, a state in which the real war is the constant preparation for war. Though our poetry has ably represented the traumatic and unmaking operations of war—from the rage of Achilles on to our present day—it has also often unwittingly glorified and perpetuated a culture of war. We have yet to give adequate attention to how our poetry also contains the seeds of other ways of dealing with conflict, oppression, and injustice, and how it may advance our thinking into what a future without war might look like.
How to imagine peace, how to make peace? In our conversations on the Peace Shelf, three general subcategories emerged, though these were full of overlap and contradiction: Sorrows, Resistance, and Alternative Visions. It’s simple enough: we need to witness and chronicle the horrors of war, we need to resist and find models of resistance, and we need to imagine and build another world. Even if modern poetry has been marked by a resistance to the glorification of war, vividly shown by the World War I soldier poets and many others, the important work of poetic dissent has been, too often, via negativa—resistance to the dominant narrative, rather than offering another way.
Even Denise Levertov—one of the self-consciously anti-war poets on any Peace Shelf—found herself at a loss for words at a panel in the 1980s, when Virginia Satir called upon Levertov and other poets to “present to the world images of peace, not only of war; everyone needed to be able to imagine peace if we were going to achieve it.” In her response, “Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Dimensions” (1989), Levertov argues that “peace as a positive condition of society, not merely as an interim between wars, is something so unknown that it casts no images on the mind’s screen.” But she does proceed further: “if a poetry of peace is ever to be written, there must first be this stage we are just entering—the poetry of preparation for peace, a poetry of protest, of lament, of praise for the living earth; a poetry that demands justice, renounces violence, reveres mystery.” That Levertov lays out succinctly what we ourselves, the Peace Shelf collective, took some weeks to arrive at, illuminates the challenge of the peace movement and of the literature that engages it; our conversations, our living history and past, are scattered, marginal, unfunded, and all too easily forgotten.
The following poems, dating from the 20th century onward—which appear in the anthology Come Together: Imagine Peace—provide a foretaste of the larger feast, which could begin with the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna’s laments against war, with Sappho’s erotic lyrics, or with Archilochus’s anti-heroic epigrams. Yet this feast isn’t mere sweetness and light. “Peace” is no mere cloud-bound dream, but a dynamic of living amid conflict, oppression, and hatred without either resigning ourselves to violence or seizing into our own violent response; peace poems vividly and demonstrably articulate and embody such a way. At their best, peace poems, as John Milton did in “Aereopagitica,” argue against “a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.” If, in Milton’s words, “that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary,” then peace poetry must also interrogate the easy pieties of the peace movement and its own ideological blind spots. And indeed, Michael True’s exploration of nonviolent literature confirms that “although writings in [the nonviolent] tradition resemble conventional proclamations recommending peace reform, their tone and attitude tend to be provocative, even disputatious, rather than conciliatory.”
Perhaps peace poetry is not quite a tradition but a tendency, a thematic undertow, within poetry, and within culture. Yet it has been with us as long as we have been writing. Peace poetry, such as it may be—like the peace movement that it anticipates, reflects, and argues with—is part of a larger human conversation about the possibility of a more just and pacific system of social and ecological relations.
Muriel Rukeyser, “Poem”
If Walt Whitman were a Jewish woman born in the age of documentary films and social radicalism, he might have written a little like Muriel Rukeyser. Were it not for the reclamation by Adrienne Rich and others, Rukeyser’s name and work could have been almost lost today. For her wide-ranging (from the documentary to the scientific, the mystical to the profane) and socially radical work, Rukeyser is a crucial touchstone for peace poetry.
Rukeyser, though, in contrast to the anti-war poets of the 1930s and 1960s, avoided the bloody screeds that some otherwise great poets occasionally (in both senses) produced. She hearkened back to the original meaning of poetry as poeisis, a making, when she wrote, “I will protest all my life . . . but I’m a person who makes … and I have decided that whenever I protest . . . I will make something—I will make poems, plant, feed children, build, but not ever protest without making something.” Though there are at least a dozen more dazzling poems of hers, in “Poem” we have a chronicle of an ordinary citizen trying to reclaim a space for reconciliation (“ourselves with each other, / ourselves with ourselves”) through words, in a time of perpetual and global war.
* * *
I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane.
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
I lived in the first century of these wars.
William Stafford, “Peace Walk”
William Stafford, a conscientious objector during World War II, is perhaps the most important American pacifist poet (though peace poetry is not limited to pacifists or pacifism); he wrote a lifetime of deceptively simple poems concerned with confronting the problem of violence and the breakdown of human community. The poem for which he is best known, “Traveling Through the Dark,” may be one of the best poems about both World War II (engaging the question of whether killing can be justified) and ecological relationships.
Unlike most of Stafford’s other poems—which hail the reader from a quiet and nonpartisan place—“Peace Walk” actively embodies the collective “we” as a group of war resisters on an “un-march.” The poem represents a peace walk that defies the conventions of protest and collective action. Yet though the poem clearly situates its identification with the demonstrators, its ambiguity and self-critique render it a “quarrel with ourselves”—what William Butler Yeats saw as that which distinguishes poetry from rhetoric. Stafford self-effacingly points to the limits of the demonstrators’ vision (both physical and metaphorical) and of the walk itself; “We held our poster up to shade our eyes” suggests a desire to flee both the protest and the judging gaze of the bystanders.
Despite the fact that any ideological placard narrows a person’s perception, Stafford does not condemn the demonstration or demonstrators. The final lines contain in their lonely description of the protest’s dispersal a vision of egalitarian society. It would be easy to read the final couplet simply as the failure of the demonstration, of Stafford’s poetic skepticism of a public protest. Yet the fact that “no one was there to tell us where to leave the signs” forces the individual demonstrators and not some authority figure to decide what to do with the “signs”—not just the physical placards, but also the things they signify: the dangers of nuclear testing, the resistance to warfare, a vision of the beloved community.
* * *
We wondered what our walk should mean
taking that un-march quietly;
the sun stared at our signs—“Thou shalt not kill.”
Men by a tavern said, “Those foreigners . . . ”
to a woman with a fur, who turned away—
like an elevator going down, their look at us.
Along a curb, their signs lined across,
a picket line stopped and stared
the whole width of the street, at ours: “Unfair.”
Above our heads the sound truck blared—
by the park, under the autumn trees—
it said that love could fill the atmosphere:
Occur, slow the other fallout, unseen,
on islands everywhere—fallout, falling
unheard. We held our poster up to shade our eyes.
At the end we just walked away;
no one was there to tell us where to leave the signs.
Denise Levertov, “Making Peace”
In the debate carried out between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov in their letters during the Vietnam War, Duncan argues for poetry’s utter independence, while Levertov found her poetry changing from the influence of the war and the resistance to the war. The general consensus among poets is that Duncan is right. That consensus, it seems to me, is to our loss. The debate itself is the thing. In other words, the argument between a poetry that favors the aesthetic, the formal, the individual, and a poetry that favors the political, the rhetorical, and the cultural-political movement suggests the ongoing and necessarily provisional rapprochement between artistic production and the peace movement (or any social movement and political ideology). Even during the Iraq War—yet the most recent—Kent Johnson’s upbraiding of the avant-garde position of the radicalism of form articulated by Charles Bernstein demonstrates the persistence of these debates. They represent not an unbridgeable impasse between politics and poetry, but an ongoing negotiation over how poetry’s particular power might best bear witness to and serve a culture of resistance.
The truth is that neither Duncan nor Levertov wrote their best work about or against the Vietnam war; but Levertov’s intimate relationship to the peace movement merits particular attention, even admiration. “‘Tell Denise to wear a helmet,’ Joe Dunn wrote from Boston: ‘she’s our Joan of Arc and we can’t afford to lose her.’ . . . Denise Levertov has put her life over there on the picket line” (qtd. in Bertholf, Duncan Notebook 43: September 21, 1971). In “Making Peace,” Levertov tries to answer the criticism that she has written too much about the war, that she has lost the very meaning of poetry and life, and has not provided a positive vision of peace. This definitional probing proposes that peace is not an end, it is a way (A.J. Muste: “There is no way to peace—peace is the way”), and that to prescribe a certain vision of the possible might be to proscribe what may unfold. In Levertov’s vision, peace requires a fundamental “restructur[ing of] the sentence our lives are making.” Peace is not defined by an absence of war, but it is an energy field.
* * *
A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.
Audre Lorde, “Power”
Peace poetry—like the peace movement itself—is not limited to middle-class white Boomer liberals dreaming to the sounds of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The courageous and outspoken African American poet Audre Lorde (among many others) helped bring the peace movement back home, into the streets and courtrooms and bedrooms. Her work widened the occasionally limited vision of what war looks like and what peace might require.
In “Power,” written in response to a not-guilty verdict in the case of a police officer who killed a 10-year-old boy, Lorde casts the stakes of poetry in starkly violent terms: “The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being / ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children.” In Lorde’s recalibration of Yeats’s distinction between poetry and rhetoric, poetry is a kind of self-murder, insofar as it calls one to be ready to sacrifice the self for the sake of the future. The line breaks exacerbate the tension between violence against another and violence against oneself—and suggest that these violences are intimately connected. Lorde’s desire to overcome her own need for self-protection—just as she wished the single black juror had, in order to stand up for the sacredness of that murdered child—requires her to access her own destructive impulses and, in her words, “to use / the difference between poetry and rhetoric” to be able to live without hating.
* * *
The difference between poetry and rhetoric
ready to kill
instead of your children.
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
The policeman who shot down a 10-year-old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove that. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size or nothing else
only the color” and
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37-year-old white man with 13 years of police forcing
has been set free
by 11 white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one black woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4'10" black woman’s frame
over the hot coals of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
I have not been able to touch the destruction within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85-year-old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in ¾ time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”
Wisława Szymborska, “The End and the Beginning”
The great anti-war poems written by soldiers (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Randall Jarrell, Yusef Komunyakaa, Brian Turner, etc.) have often confronted war with frank honesty, bitter anger, and great compassion for war’s victims. Yet too often in our literature, the soldier’s own victimization has tended to efface that of the civilian victims, who have borne the costs of war disproportionately in modern time. According to Sayre P. Sheldon, “during World War I, 5 percent of the casualties were civilian. The figure rose to 75 percent in World War II. In the 1990s, 90 percent of the many millions of casualties in wars around the world were civilians, most of them women and children.”
The great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s “The End and the Beginning” offers a sympathetic civilian’s-eye view of the battlefield, where unphotographed “someones” must clean up the rubble churned up by mass violence. I love the opening tone of this poem, which captures the annoyed-mother voice that we could obey more fervently. Is there any more wonderfully surreal description of a survivor in poetry than one who “nods with unsevered head”?
* * *
After every war
someone has to clean up.
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
and bloody rags.
Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
We’ll need bridges back
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.
From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass which has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.
Mahmoud Darwish, “A State of Siege”
Mahmoud Darwish, the poet laureate in perpetuity of the Palestinian people and exiles throughout the world, became famous early in his career for poems such as the blistering “Identity Card” and the bittersweet elegy “My Mother.” Darwish’s early work embodied what Ghassan Kanafani and Barbara Harlow have termed “resistance literature”—explicitly political writing conceived as a force for mobilizing resistance and acting as a repository of national consciousness. Yet the full range of his work—from the stark social realism of “Identity Card” to the visionary mode of “We Travel Like Other People”—resists any easy reduction of Darwish to “resistance poet.”
A State of Siege—a book-length poem written during the beginning of the Second Intifada and the siege of Ramallah in 2002—ranks among the great political long poems in recent memory, in the tradition of Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem and Peter Dale Scott’s Coming to Jakarta. Like the best political poems, A State of Siege succeeds because it is not merely outraged protest, but a fragmented diaristic rumination on the psychology of siege—the siege of bodies and consciousness alike. It summons the voices of the neutral, the voices of the outraged, the voices of future bombers, the voices of victims, one after another, as if we’re in a crowd caught in cross fire. The poem’s focused glimpses enable those of us privy only to the bone-crushing images of street beatings of rock throwers to have a glimpse inside, as it were, at the subjective tremors of being that such upheaval inevitably causes.
What makes this a peace poem is that it moves from a catalog of loss to a litany for peace. By the end, echoing Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s “Wildpeace,” Darwish predicts that “[t]his siege will extend until / the besieger feels, like the besieged, / that boredom / is a human trait” (143). The succession of salaams proposes a future coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, bringing the poetry of peace through the poetry of longing and eternity: “Salaam is a train that unites all its passengers / who are coming from or going to a picnic in eternity’s suburbs” and “Salaam is the turning toward an errand in the garden: / What will we plant in a little while?”
Aharon Shabtai, “Lotem Abdel Shafi”
Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai was known first for his translations and then for his erotic verse, and more recently for his excoriating protest as poetic prophet in his book J’Accuse. Like the Hebrew prophets who attacked the people’s wayward way of life and advocated for the poor and oppressed, Shabtai has relished his role as anti-Zionist gadfly to the state.
In “Lotem Abdel Shafi”—the name his daughter would have if she married into the family of well-known Palestinian Haidar Abdel Shafi—Shabtai echoes Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis as he proposes a classically comedic solution to the conflict. Writing about the building of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, he suggests that this closing off is in fact cutting off the moral horizon—for without those beyond the wall, the poet feels that he’s “half a person.”
* * *
The heart dies without space for love, without a moral horizon:
think of it then as a bird trapped in a box.
My heart goes out with love to those beyond the fence;
only toward them can one really advance, that is, make
Without them I feel I’m half a person.
Romeo was born a Montague, and Juliet came from the Capulet
and I’m a disciple of Shakespeare, not Ben Gurion—
therefore I’ll be delighted if my daughter marries the grandson
of Haidar Abdel Shafi.
I mean this, of course, as a parable only—but the parable is my
and since it has more to do with my body than teeth or hair,
this isn’t just some idle fancy that, out of poetic license,
I place our fate in my daughter’s sex.
That I grant myself this imaginary gift, testifies to the extent
to which we’re living, still, in the underworld,
where we’re granted the hope and potential of an amoeba.
But all mythology begins with creatures that creep and crawl,
spring out of the ground and devour each other,
until a sacred union occurs, healing the breach in the world.
The Arab groom from Gaza, too, will extend to my daughter a
on which is embroidered the Land redeemed from Apartheid’s
our Land as a whole, belonging equally to all of its offspring,
and then he’ll lift the veil from her face, and say to her:
“And now I take you to be my wife, Lotem Abdel Shafi.”
Robert Pinsky, “Stupid Meditation on Peace”
Robert Pinsky is not the first poet who comes to mind when one thinks of peace poetry. There are a host of people not on this list who should be (cf. coda below), but I can’t help but include this acerbic pill of a poem in the cornucopia. I teach peace poetry for a week in my creative writing classes, and some of the classes’ best poems come out of imitations of “Stupid Meditation on Peace,” in which students write against the notion of peace.
In an email, Pinsky told me that, “The poem was commissioned in connection with an unusual event: a Korean foundation named for a poet and author of the South Korean constitution, the Manhae Foundation, invited me to give the keynote address at a conference of poets from all over the world—held at an important Buddhist site in North Korea! Wole Soyinka and I pulled aside a cover, revealing maybe a hundred poems about peace by poets from all over the world. In response to the heavy honor, the religious setting, the profound feelings of my hosts (some of the poets from the South wept as our bus crossed the border into the North, where they had not been since childhood) . . . in response to all that, to keep from being paralyzed, and in tribute to the Buddhist notion of monkey-mind, I wrote what I wanted to be a poem of heartfelt—and not affected—self-deprecation.”
Pinsky’s poem wonders whether peace itself opposes our monkey minds, our productive conflictual selves, our inner anarchists, the turbulence of the main stream of being. But I think it’s intriguing that the poet calls it a “stupid” meditation, not a reasoned one; in resisting peace, the speaker wonders whether he’s embracing his “restless, inferior cousin” self. What is it about us, in us, as Robert Bly says, that really wants a war?
* * *
“He does not come to coo.”
—Gerard Manley Hopkins
Insomniac monkey-mind ponders the Dove,
Symbol not only of Peace but sexual
Love, the couple nestled and brooding.
After coupling, the human animal needs
The woman safe for nine months and more.
But the man after his turbulent minute or two
Is expendable. Usefully rash, reckless
For defense, in his void of redundancy
Willing to death and destruction.
Monkey-mind envies the male Dove
Who equally with the female secretes
Pigeon milk for the young from his throat.
For peace, send all human males between
Fourteen and twenty-five to school
On the Moon, or better yet Mars.
But women too are capable of Unpeace,
Yes, and we older men too, venom-throats.
Here’s a great comic who says on our journey
We choose one of two tributaries: the River
Of Peace, or the River of Productivity.
The current of Art he says runs not between
Banks with birdsong in the fragrant shadows—
No, an artist must follow the stinks and rapids
Of the branch that drives the millstones and dynamos.
Is peace merely a vacuum, the negative
Of creation, or the absence of war?
The teaching says Peace is a positive energy.
Still something in me resists that sweet milk,
My mind resembles my restless, inferior cousin
Who fires his shit in handfuls from his cage.
Naomi Shihab Nye, “Jerusalem”
If there’s one poet who has assumed the mantle of William Stafford, it’s the Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. Like Stafford, Nye often writes in an approachable style whose surface clarity belies the complex currents within. As importantly, Nye’s poetry embraces the tough conciliatory spirit—steely in its commitment to openness and generosity—that marked Stafford’s life and work. While peace poetry may occasionally provoke, it also must dramatize the sometimes tentative, sometimes outlandish reaching across the distances between antagonists.
In “Jerusalem,” Nye addresses the conflict at the heart of the holy city by naming our fundamental woundedness, a pain that often leads us to lash out: “each carries a tender spot: / something our lives forgot to give us.” Though this poem’s eagle-eye view of the conflict is provocative (one Palestinian student argued eloquently against the first stanza’s seemingly blithe approach to historical grievances), Nye’s visionary declaration about the riddle of healing, the possibility of fighting off hate, and the necessity of orienting ourselves toward a future where “everything comes next” feels like a necessary antidote to the hopeless poisons of past and present.
* * *
“Let’s be the same wound if we must bleed.
Let’s fight side by side, even if the enemy
is ourselves: I am yours, you are mine.”
—Tommy Olofsson, Sweden
I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.
Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddles: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother’s doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Lately his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.
Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
“I am native now.”
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.
Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
There’s a place in this brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddles: wind and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.
It’s late but everything comes next.
The Peace Shelf is larger than these annotations could suggest, and in these ten poems, I am aware of all the poets and poems I could have chosen. Just among Americans in the 20th century, I can think of poems by John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Daniel Berrigan, Wendell Berry, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Bob Dylan, Martín Espada, Carolyn Forché, Allen Ginsberg, William Heyen, Kent Johnson, June Jordan, Lawrence Joseph, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rachel Loden, Robert Lowell, Jackson Mac Low, Fred Marchant, W.S. Merwin, E. Ethelbert Miller, Kenneth Patchen, Bob Perelman, Adrienne Rich, Leslie Scalapino, Pete Seeger, Karl Shapiro, Gary Snyder, Anne Waldman, Barrett Watten, Richard Wilbur, C.D. Wright, James Wright, etc., etc.
I haven’t even mentioned poets more or less of my generation—whether School of Quietude (as if quietude were quietism) or Post-Avant—who actively engage these questions, who have been helpful interlocutors for me as a poet and critic, like Kazim Ali, Jules Boykoff, Hayan Charara, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Jeff Gundy, H.L. Hix, Fady Joudah, Khaled Mattawa, Anna Meek, Mark Nowak, Kaia Sand, Leonard Schwartz, Susan Schultz, Juliana Spahr, Rachel Zolf . . . and of course the Split This Rock festival . . . I’m missing too many names, but I drone on.
I agree with flarf poet Michael Magee that “like a crafty virus, the problem of language [and its easy commodification and co-optation] has mutated,” and that the old ways of writing confront a brutal and perhaps lyric-resistant strain of power. Yet I believe we also still need visions and stories of witness, resistance, and reconciliation. I fear that a wholesale abandonment of the ship of representation, a fleeing of the bulwarks of the illusion of the authorial “I” and the warm den of imagery (however shadowy), will only leave us even more vulnerable to the dismal future proffered as our inevitable end.
We need poets to reawaken us to the ways in which our way of life may be contributing to conflicts at home and abroad. Just as I was completing this piece, I received an e-mail from my sister: “If you have a cell phone, then you have a direct connection to the deadliest war in the world. The conflict in the eastern Congo is fueled by a multimillion-dollar trade in minerals—tin, tungsten, tantalum (the 3Ts), and gold—which power our cell phones, laptops, and other electronics. Urge the biggest buyers of the 3Ts and gold—major electronics companies—to produce conflict-free products. Please take two minutes to send an e-mail now to the 21 biggest electronics companies—.” To compose poetry that’s at once large and small enough to make those connections—deeply global and yet scaled locally—is no easy task. Yet I can’t imagine how we can do without it.
As I’ve written before, the work of peacemaking, and the work of peace poetry, is at least in part to give voice to those small victories—where no blood was spilled but lives were changed, justice was won, and peace was forged, achieved, or found. And words bring us there, to the brink of something new. Peace poetry is larger than a moral injunction against war; it is an articulation of the expanse, the horizon where we might come together. To adapt a line by the Sufi poet Rumi: beyond the realm of good and evil, there is a field.
Philip Metres was born in San Diego and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He earned a BA from Holy Cross College and both an MFA and PhD from Indiana University. Metres is the author of the poetry collections To See the Earth (2008), A Concordance of Leaves (2013),...