In the January 2016 issue of Oxford American, poet Claire Schwartz interviews former poet laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey (Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, Thrall, and Beyond Katrina). Language and Ruthlessness is a wonderful interview. Below is an excerpt:
What were some of your early, formative models in language?
Tretheway: Well, I take it back to that time and place. My family lived next door to my great-aunt Sugar, who had helped to found the Mount Olive Baptist Church right across the street. It had begun as an arbor, but by the time I came along, the church was a large structure. For a long time Sugar worked with kids in the Sunday school, so I remember practicing recitations with her. She really loved language such that by the time she was near dying—she lived with Alzheimer’s for about ten years—she didn’t just speak; everything she said had a musical lilt to it. You heard the music of her sentences. At that time, the women from the church would come over to my grandmother’s house to read scripture. So I would listen to them reading things from the Bible, reading psalms, but also talking and singing, telling stories.
And my father was a poet. At that time, he worked part-time on the docks, and the rest of the time, he was in graduate school getting a Ph.D. at Tulane. But he was writing poems, and he would recite poems to me. I’d hear the poems that he was working on.
My mother had been an English and theater major in college, where my parents met. So, even as we were from Mississippi, there was such a precision to the way that my mother spoke. I think that when I read poems, I read like that. All of the words are very crisp. Language came to me in all of those places.
Read all of Language and Ruthlessness.
“This Advent, forgive, forgive, and forgive. Draw others close to you. Draw yourself near to other people. In bridging gaps we draw nearer to God who this season draws ever closer to us.”—Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic
“Balaam did not go as before to seek omens but turned toward the wilderness.”—Numbers 24:2
The story in Numbers 22 of Balaam and his ass is a favorite for Sunday school. The antics of the donkey who can see the angel of God while Balaam remains blind lends itself to classic comedy. In fact, it is the donkey who is actually the prophet because God speaks through her to correct Balaam.
Balak, the Moab king, is surrounded by Israelites who are prepared to attack. Balak has decided to fight fire with fire. He calls for Balaam, a Yahwist priest, to curse the Yahwist army. Balak thinks he’s got Balaam in his pocket because Balak can’t imagine anyone refusing money. But Balaam’s curse on the Israelites cannot be bought. Instead, God stuffs Balaam’s mouth with poems blessing Israel, which he then spews over the gathered army.
In this instance, the Moab king recognizes defeat and withdraws. The battle is won with poetry and without a single death.
The Christ-figure in this story is the donkey. She obeys God. She does everything in her power to keep Balaam on the path of righteousness. She submits to unjustified violence when Balaam beats her. And she speaks the words of God honestly. Filipino priest and activist Karl Gaspar would say this story exemplifies the “weapons of the weak.” The slave animal acts with honor and the war is won with weapons of beauty.
Pay attention today to the most overlooked living creature or person in your path. What example might they teach?
Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.
… The heart’s metanoia,
on the other hand, turns
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward,
as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time. …
–from Scott Cairns’ “Adventures in New Testament Greek: Metanoia” in the recently released Slow Pilgrims: The Collected Poems of Scott Cairns (Paraclete Press, 2015)
I love Scott Cairns poetry–and am delighted to see this offer of Slow Pilgrims, his collected works. Up from the stone, water, and praise of Orthodox Christianity come the new psalms of Cairns. Eat and be fed.–Rose Berger
Fourth-century Christian St. Ephrem (left), aka “the harp of the Holy Ghost,” is the only Syrian recognized as a doctor of the church. He wrote more than 1,000 poems, many of which were put to music or to chant.
Pope Benedict said: “Poetry allowed [St. Ephrem] to deepen his theological reflections through paradoxes and images. His theology became both liturgy and music at the same time: He was indeed a great composer and musician.”
Currently, there are an estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, taking refuge in neighboring countries or within Syria itself. (Right, Syrian refugee.)
With St. Ephrem, take a moment to pray for the people of Syria and the woman in this image.
“O Lord, make the priests and kings peaceful;
That in one Church priests may pray for their kings,
And kings spare those round about them;
And may the peace which is within Thee become ours, Lord,
Thou that art within and without all things!” –St. Ephrem
“Lay me not with sweet spices,
For this honor avails me not,
Nor yet use incense and perfumes,
For the honor befits me not.
Burn yet the incense in the holy place;
As for me, escort me only with your prayers,
Give ye your incense to God,
And over me send up hymns.
Instead of perfumes and spices,
Be mindful of me in your intercessions.”
(From The Testament of St. Ephrem)
One gift that holds a place of honor in my office is a signed copy of the long poem “abu ghraib arias” by Phil Metres. The chapbook’s cover is made of Combat Paper, veterans’ uniforms pulped into paper. It is a precious candle lit against such an enormous darkness.
A month ago, the poet Fady Joudah and I carried on a dialogue over email. The occasion was the publication of Sand Opera, but along the way we discuss quite a bit — including love and politics, Elaine Scarry and the theology of torture, the Oliver Stone Syndrome and American Sniper, empire, the Iraqs I carry, 9/11, Standard Operating Procedures, black sites, docupoetics, trance states, recursion, poems about children, the vital vulnerability of the human body, the openness of ears, the sound of listening, the War Story and its exclusions, the Umbra poets and the Black Arts Movement, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, RAWI (the Radius of Arab American Writers), and the state of Arab American literature.
We hope that this can be the start of a new conversation about the state of poetry, American life, and the role of Arab-American literature in our ongoing cultural and political debate about U.S. foreign and domestic policy regarding the Arab world. We welcome further conversation. More to come.
See an excerpt of their conversation below:
PHILIP METRES is the author and translator of a number of books, including Sand Opera (Alice James 2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (forthcoming 2015), Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Poetic Texts of Lev Rubinstein (Ugly Duckling Presse 2014), A Concordance of Leaves (chapbook, Diode 2013), abu ghraib arias (chapbook, Flying Guillotine 2011), To See the Earth (Cleveland State 2008), and Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront (University of Iowa 2007). His work has appeared in Best American Poetry and has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, the Cleveland Arts Prize, the Anne Halley Prize, the PEN/Heim Translation grant, and the Creative Workforce Fellowship. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Were it not for Ellis Island translation, his last name would be Abourjaili.
FADY JOUDAH: Sand Opera is ultimately a book about love, its loss and recapture, and the struggle in between. Many will completely misread it as another political book of poems, in that reductive, ready-made sense of “political” which is reserved for certain themes but mostly for certain ethnicities. So part of that misreading is due to the book’s subject matter or its Abu Ghraib arias, and also because it is written by an Arab American.
PHILIP METRES: I love the fact that you read Sand Opera as a book about love. The longer I worked on the book, the more I felt compelled to move past the dark forces that instigated its beginnings, forces that threatened to overwhelm it and me. Love, as much as I can understand it, thrives in an atmosphere of care for the self and other — the self of the other and the other of the self — through openness, listening, and dialogue. Because the book was born in the post-9/11 era, it necessarily confronts the dark side of oppression, silencing, and torture. Torture, as Elaine Scarry has explored so powerfully in The Body in Pain, is the diametrical opposite of love, the radical decreation of the other for political ends. The recent release of the so-called “Torture Report,” and the torrent of responses (both expressions of condemnation and defensive justifications) has felt like a traumatic repetition for me. Didn’t we deal with this during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the “Enhanced Interrogation” debate? Even now, the political conversation seems to skip over the fact that torture contravenes international law and is a profoundly immoral act, and moves so quickly to debate its merits — whether any good “intelligence” may have been gleaned from it. Why is that the writers who have gained the widest platforms were veterans of the war, some of whom participated directly in interrogation — for example, Eric Fair’s courageous mea culpa December 2014 Letter to the Editor in The New York Times — while Arab voices, like Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon’s, are so hard to find and so marginalized? …
Read the whole interview.
I’m honored to be on the receiving end of epistles from Quaker Friend Wendy Clarissa Geiger, peacemaker, poet, planter, and purveyor of historical memory, who roots herself on her family farm near Jacksonville, Florida. Here is her note from yesterday:
… Friday, January 30th, 2015, is the anniversary of M.K. Gandhi’s assassination at the age of 78 in New Delhi, India, in 1948. “He became much more than there was time for him to be” is a line Vincent Harding was very fond of quoting regarding Martin Luther King Jr. Although it is from a Robert Hayden poem about Malcolm X, the line could, also, describe Thomas Merton whose 100th birthday is [January 31]. M.K. Gandhi wrote: “God is Truth.”
For some reason, this 100th birthday of Thomas Merton is celebrated with great silent exuberance within me. I delight in its significance for being rather insignificant in the scheme of things as angels pause, trees bow. And, I bow and pause at the enormousness of one life lived so completely written out on paper that I giggle at the truth of Jim Forest’s words about Merton that appeared in a “Fellowship” magazine quoted in PEACE IS THE WAY, edited by Walter Wink: “Merton was a writer. He could not scratch his nose without writing about it.”
And, so, today’s offering about Truth and Beauty brings a chuckle. “The Philosophers” was written by Thomas Merton in 1940-42 and is published on page 145 of IN THE DARK BEFORE DAWN – NEW SELECTED POEMS OF THOMAS MERTON, with preface by Kathleen Norris and edited by Lynn R. Szabo.
by Thomas Merton
As I lay sleeping in the park,
Buried in the earth,
Waiting for the Easter rains
To drench me in their mirth
And crown my seedtime with some sap and growth,
Into the tunnels of my ears
Two anaesthetic voices came.
Two mandrakes were discussing life
And Truth and Beauty in the other room.
“Body is truth, truth body. Fat is all
We grow on earth, or all we breed to grow.”
Said one mandrake to the other.
Then I heard his brother:
“Beauty is troops, troops beauty. Dead is all
We grow on earth, or all we breed to grow.”
As I lay dreaming in the earth,
Enfolded in my future leaves,
My rest was broken by these mandrakes
Bitterly arguing in their frozen graves.
“We thought the word was gone. We thought we healed it out of our national vocabulary. We thought ‘torture’ belonged to a foreign language, spoken only by dictators, who ruled anywhere but here. We were wrong.”–Introduction to Cut Loose the Body, edited by Rose Marie Berger and Joseph Ross (2007)
From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in—black ice and squid ink—
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face. …
Read the rest here.
Poet and literature teacher Joseph Ross (Gospel of Dust and Meeting Bone Man) has written a lovely, graceful tribute to Seamus Heaney. He holds before us the broken bread of a broken heart in a world in which the word is breaking. But, as Heaney would remind, from which the phoenix rises.
Joseph Ross writes:
It is hard to know what to write today. Yesterday morning, at school, getting ready to discuss two of Anne Bradstreet’s poems with my American Literature students, I learned that Seamus Heaney had died. What I know today is this: my poetry heart is breaking.
And I am not alone. Irish Prime Minister, their Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said: “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people.” His death brings “…a great sorrow to Ireland.” Indeed. And not just to Ireland but to people who love poetry everywhere. Seamus Heaney was widely regarded as one of the finest poets of our time. No question. He was also considered a most humble and decent man. He was married, a father and a grandfather. His personal life was stable and not flashy.
He wrote of the Irish people who worked the land, the Irish people who suffered British oppression. He did this in such a way that honored the people, the land, and at times shamed the British. But he did not fall into a polemic. He refused to glorify the Irish Republican Army. He might have supported their goals but he opposed many of their methods. He resisted labeling sides as simply good vs. evil. He knew more complexity than that.
Read Joe Ross’ full essay.