Poetry and Community

I turn 35 today. May I ask you for a gift? My name is Kazim. Growing up, I always believed this name to mean “Patience,” which pleased me. And a complex “patience” at that—the name implied an ability to bear bad times without complaint, but also an ability to receive fortunes without being spoiled. Someone more recently told me the name more closely translates as “Restrainer.” A wild difference there.

When I visited Egypt I learned also that my Urdu speaking parents and family pronounce this name differently both in vowel and inner consonant than an Arabic speaker might. In Egypt my name is spelled as “Kadem.” How wonderful it feels to be lost and traveling with a secret identity. Kazim and Ali are my two middle names. My legal first name, imprinted on my paychecks, my driver’s license, my passport, is Mohammad. My family’s last name, which my father stopped using upon our immigration but which all my cousins and uncles and aunts still use, is Saeed.

I share my birthday with three amazing figures—sexy and dangerous all of them!—the performance artist Harry Houdini, the writer Kathleen Volk Miller, and the poet Marie Ponsot.

I learned that Marie and I shared a birthday when I was her student at NYU the semester I turned 30. After class I watched her wade into East Village traffic and hail a cab and told myself that when I reach my ninth decade I hope I am as fierce, as honest, as passionate as she is. Three years after the President’s pronouncement and you still won’t catch Marie in public without her big button proclaiming “STILL AGAINST THE WAR.”

There are poets for whom a commitment to community and a commitment to poetry do not diverge.

For June Jordan, political concern came in three different ways—firstly in her actual work of poetry, secondly in her large body of work in essays, memoir and fiction, and thirdly in her organizational work with Poetry for the People, as an educator, and as a political activist. It’s too bad that as a result of this political commitment, her own poetry is not often looked at for its own aesthetic value and craft.

Here’s a poem of Jordan’s from her recent edition of collected work, Directed by Desire:

One Minus One Minus One

This is the first map of a territory
I will have to explore as poems,
again and again

My mother murdering me
to have a life of her own

What would I say
(if I could speak about it?)

My father raising me
to be a life that he

What can I say
(in this loneliness)

Jordan is probably more known as a writer of long, Whitmanesque, political poems, but I like her best in her lyrical, compressed (and often heartbreaking) mode. Though even in this format, she can be political:

Calling on All Silent Minorities





Ann Waldman has dedicate much of her energy over her career to building links between various poetic communities, and also founding and helping to build strong, lasting institutions, among them the Poetry Project in New York City, and Naropa University in Colorado. Additionally, she has become an important part of the international poetry community. Her political work really privileges the importance of art as an instrument of social action and change, but also a deep commitment to spirituality and spiritual awakening.

As a poet and a performer, her sense of voice, body, and rhythm is sublime. Here’s the very end of her long poem, “Notes on Sitting Beside a Noble Corpse,” an elegy for Allen Ginsberg:

Allen Ginsberg will never embarrass China,
Russia, the White House, dead corrupt
presidents, Cuba, the C.I.A. Universe again

But Allen Ginsberg will ever ease the pain
of living with human song & story again
that's borne on wings of perpetual prophecy -
life & death's a spiral!
He's mounting the stairs now with Vajra Yogini

Full Century's brilliant Allen's gone,
in other myriad forms live on
See through this palpable skull's tender eye,
kind mind kind mind don't die!

Few poets’ work has been subjected to the political pressure—or few poets’ political commitment has been subjected to the aesthetic pressure—as Mahmoud Darwish, often called the “national poet of Palestine,” and who also served for many years on Palestinian National Council, the Parliament-in-Exile. Darwish resigned from the parliament after the Oslo Accords, not because he objected to peace, but because he felt his position on the council as an artist was a symbolic one, that once the actual political work began, he ought not be a part of it.

Darwish’s own poetry, for all his involvement as a public figure and as a poet of resistance, remains startlingly hermetic—true only to itself as poetry. I can’t think of any other analogy except to say imagine Emily Dickinson as an active abolitionist and suffragist, inspiring the troops by day, then going home and writing the poems we know her for by night.

It is sometimes hard to discern “meaning” in Darwish, because as many poets working as subversives in a dominant society, he frequently works in an idiom of codes. In a recent discussion about his work, Michael Wiegers of Copper Canyon Press, said, "Darwish resists being tethered to all reality—he wants the reader to feel displacement . . ." True to this assessment, much of Darwish’s work is in long prose lines, one-line stanzas, discontinuous from one another,.

Here’s Darwish’s lyrical way of being political, from the beginning of his poem “Passport”:

They did not recognize me in the shadows
That suck away my color in this Passport
And to them my wound was an exhibit
For a tourist who loves to collect photographs
They did not recognize me,
Ah . . . Don’t leave
The palm of my hand without the sun
Because the trees recognize me
Don’t leave me pale like the moon!

These three poets are just a brief example of the spectrum of politically committed poets, writing what might be called “political poems.”

It is exciting to think about the possibilities of art and performance in the purely political arena. Something like that happened, I think, in New York City after the events of September 11, 2001. Immediately afterwards people began holding candlelight peace vigils in Union Square. While support for the war grew strong across the country, in New York City itself people were lighting candles and talking about peace.

There also came a collective accumulation, a group sculpture—candles, letters, flowers, toys, prayers to the lost, notes written on posters, pictures of missing or lost people . . . A poster for a young Indian software designer taped to the streetlamp might have an inscription written on it in magic marker: “We miss you, where are you?” Pat Brown, the firefighter who would shortly appear in the October issue of Yoga Journal gazed serenely from a poster tacked up to the impromptu bulletin boards at Grand Central. Someone wrote on the poster in red pen, “Namaste, Pat.”

Our grief came in a wellspring of collective expression, both at Union Square, at the arch in Washington Square, and at the boards in Grand Central. But it was at Union Square that the nightly peace vigils continued to take place and opposition to the war, promised at that time to be brief, continued to grow.

One day, as a friend was passing by, police officers arrived at Union Square to begin collecting all the memorial material, all the letters, and notices, the candles and flowers. “Where are you taking this?” several passersby asked and were told, “It’s all being archived.” But it was taken away in clear trash bags without any care.

Soon after this Union Square was cordoned off, closed for renovations.

But peace as an expression is truly the natural state of humans. There can be no endless war. Art and poetry can both speak against death and speak of a commitment to life and to human understanding.

Layla Al-Attar, the Iraqi painter, was like this. Her beautiful paintings, stark and luminous at once, showed reverence for the human form and the natural world. One painting shows a woman, nude, in the forest, in the moonlight, dissolving into the trees themselves, dissolving into the yellow-white light of the full moon.

She too was politically engaged, speaking out actively against the still ongoing US bombardment campaign of Iraq. Though the first Gulf War had ended a few years earlier, the US was still targeting military installations in Iraq. Frequently these missiles were hitting civilian targets and Al-Attar was active in the campaign to call attention to these deaths. She was quite a public figure as an artist also, representing Iraq at the Venice Biennale, and also receiving medals and citations for her work from the governments of Poland and Kuwait, and serving as director for the national gallery in Baghdad.

I would give anything for you to not know already how the story ends.

Al-Attar was killed early in the morning of June 27, 1993 when a tomahawk missile struck her house, destroying it and killing her husband also. Al-Attar had been preparing for a retrospective her work, and so countless paintings were also incinerated by the precision missile which left standing both houses on either of side of the Al-Attar home. 3 of the 23 precision missiles launched that morning at military targets went astray and landed in residential areas.

The individual body does die. Death takes brilliance with it. Art and poetry fold quickly under fire from the sky, under power exercised.

I had moved from New York City three weeks before September 11. I felt desperately isolated from the pain I knew my friends were feeling. Marie Ponsot is one of the first people I reached on the phone after that day. “My dear,” she said softly, “I am afraid it means war . . . for the rest of my lifetime.” Before I could appreciate the terrible wisdom of her dark prediction of both war and mortality, she added the kicker, “And I fear for the rest of yours.”

How does one continue to work through the state of despair? After a time, it ceases to be despair, and only work—a commitment to peace and to peaceful methods of achieving it.

Rachel Tzvia Back is a poet living in Western Galilee. Here’s the end of her poem “Notes: from the Wait” from her book Azimuth:

You are right to stay away
Those prayers on the doorpost
will protect no one

As to why we remain:
we’re busy now

behind bolted doors
for the season that will not pass
to pass

Originally Published: April 6th, 2006

Poet, editor, and prose writer Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA from New York University. Ali’s poetry collections include The Far Mosque (2005), which won Alice James Books’ New...