“Let us now praise valiant women”, says Grace Cavalieri in her review of Women Write Resistance in the Washington Independent Review of Books. “Each poet spins an experienced reality with felt life. There’s a personal mantra I tell students:don’t write poetry unless you have to. These poets write for readers, but not because of them, with clear messages and great imperatives about ignorance and consequence.” The anthology collects poems by Alicia Ostriker, Maureen Seaton, Judy Grahn, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Ellen Bass, Kristy Bowen, Allison Hedge Coke, Jehanne Dubrow, Leslie Adrienne Miller, Khadijah Queen, Hilda Raz, Evie Shockley, Margo Taft Stever, Judith Vollmer, Rosemary Winslow, and many, many more.
Following is an excerpt from 4 poets in this urgent collection, which was edited by Laura Madeline Wiseman and published by Hyacinth Girl Press. Each author speaks to their views on poetry as action, followed by a poem from the anthology. Special thanks to Laura Madeline Wiseman who produced this special issue of Poetry Crush.
I’m in in St. Petersburg, Russia, a perfect place from which to consider poetry as action. The city is full of statues, plaques, and museums dedicated to poets. Here, there’s no question: poetry matters. Its power as a social force is shown not only by the devotion of the people, but also by the brutal repression poets have suffered here. Osip Mandelstam could fill a concert hall for his readings –until his works were banned by Stalin. Imprisoned and tortured, he died at 49 in a “correction camp”. Josef Brodsky could fill a stadium— until he was convicted of “parasitism” under Khrushchev. After serving a prison term, he was declared “not valuable person at all” and expelled from the Soviet Union. He went on to win the Nobel Prize. Brodsky’s mentor was Anna Akhmatova, considered the soul of Russia’s literary renaissance before Stalin. Nearly everyone in Akhmatova’s circle was imprisoned, exiled, or murdered by the State. Her first husband was executed; her last died in a gulag; and her son was imprisoned repeatedly, with stays of execution dependent on his mother’s “good behavior”.
Akhmatova often stood in line for hours at the prison to leave food for her son. She wrote: “One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there): ” ‘Can you describe this?’
“And I said: ‘I can.’
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”
This, to me, is poetry as action: giving voice to those who must speak in whispers, if at all. The right poem at the right time can make hope possible; revive our hunger for justice; resuscitate our souls. We need poetry, Mandelstam wrote, “to wake the dark we are, /to find us and bind us beyond us/to an age of wakefulness.”
In the U.S., ostensibly far from totalitarianism, many suffer deeply and die miserably. Women are routinely violated politically and commercially, often physically. Our bodies are bought and sold. Democracy is under siege, increasingly managed to fit the interests of corporate America. Must we accept that “cost efficiency” has become the coin of the realm? If enough of us remain in a passive torpor, we may wake to find our rights repurposed to better serve commerce.
What can poetry do against the threat of market totalitarianism? A poet is “not valuable person”. In fact, poetry undermines the assumptions about value that prop up Mr. Market’s rule, for a poem exists by virtue of an intimate exchange of subjectivities. The act of poetry, whether written or read, assumes—insists—that the persons on either side of a poem are inviolable ends in themselves, not objects, commodities, or means to some other end. Poetry addresses and sustains humans, not human “capital”. In this, all poetry is an act of resistance.
A Grecian OdeThe guy who approached me on the steps of the Athens museum said nothing inside is as beautiful as you.
Before we used “trafficking”
as the prime-time euphemism for the sex slave trade, he promised me a camera, one like Ansel Adams used. But I knew he would be disappointed;
because I was, on close inspection, artless, clumsy, monkey-minded definitely more asymmetric
than anything on an urn. So,
not wishing to disappoint him, I said no.
If he had asked me
to help him find his puppy, today I’d probably be a toothless discard
from some hellhole in Thessalonica. Even now my flaws make me comfortable in their home;
Father and Mother me.
“A Grecian Ode” first appeared in The Aphasia Café by Dawn McGuire and published by IF SF Publishing, © 2012 Dawn McGuire. Reprinted with permission of the author.
When I think of “action,” maybe I first think of how it’s an integral part of “reaction,” how my understanding of what’s reactive is semantically dependent on my understanding of what’s active, and yet, how in seeking to explain “action” I’ve come to depend on “reaction” first. I also think of test tubes, Erlenmeyer flasks, and Bunsen burners. This complex, abstract relationship that was essential to my minimal mastery of college biology is also essential to the art and act of poetry. In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde defines poetry-as-action as a kind of three-part process: a translation of feelings into language, a transformation of that translated material into ideas, and then a kind of sublimation of those ideas into action, a process realized through poetry, which she calls “a revelatory distillation of experience.” The idea of distillation of course helps keep me rooted in this poetry-as-action laboratory I’m envisioning, and it also speaks to essence and origin, which seem to define both the catalysts and purposes of action. Lorde goes on to call these catalysts, these feelings-which-become-ideas-which-become-action “sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.” It seems to me then that she’s talking here about poetry, and what precedes it, as a space, or spaces, for action. Maybe that’s what I’m most interested in, the cavities, the interstices, the hollows and containers and crevices formed by our boundaries—and fractures—the spaces in which we act (and react) and fill in the holes. This also in part explains my fixation on the body, in its cavities and fractures, its spaces, as a site for action and reaction, and for poetry.
Nude with circular sawShe wanted to circumscribe be circumscribed it’s circumstantial that letter he left in the hole he left in her body that said he just wanted her to open up he wanted to open her wanted to fill her with water the river flooded that afternoon. It turns out the body is hemispherical and responds well to division.
2009: With the rest of Pittsburgh, I survive the G-20 summit—thousands of extra police, truncheons and tear gas clouds that some protesters and bystanders escape and others don’t. But on a theater marquee downtown, just outside the cordon sanitaire erected to protect the powerful, is my haiku:
WE HARVEST LEAFLETS
BLOWN LIKE AUTUMN LEAVES: OUR HOPES
SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER
Inverting the rallying cry of second-wave feminism, my political poems are personal, springing from an electric period in my youth. I distributed hundreds of leaflets (each an illustrated poem), marched in dozens of protests, committed civil disobedience seven times, spent a week in jail.
One afternoon, Sri Lankan Buddhist monks dance beneath my haiku, saffron robes swirling.
1988: While browsing in New York’s Gotham Book Mart, I pick up Adrienne Rich’s Leaflets, poems written in the late 1960s in the heat of protests against the Vietnam War. The title poem vaults into my consciousness across a generation of activism:
…What else does it come down to
but handing on scraps of paper
little figurines or phials
no stronger than the clay they are baked in
yet more than dry clay or paper
because the imagination crouches in them.
Even if—as Rich wrote—the message is crushed into your hand/after passing a barricade/and stuff[ed] in your raincoat pocket.
2007: My parents try to argue me out of calling my first book of poems Arab on Radar. Too radical, they say, too off-putting—when it is the fact of being an Arab in the post-9/11 world that pushed me from being a “drawer” poet to being a published poet. The name stays. My brother Chris adds crosshairs to the cover design, appropriate to the ending of the title poem:
… My grandfather, slowly dying, speaking to me in Arabic from
his hospital bed. My aunt saying, Bayee, you know she doesn’t understand.
Your father should have taught you, he replied in English as heavy as a punishment. But your father said to me, What do I need it for? What do I
need it for now except that the pain of denial persists like a blip on the screen
of consciousness in every war, declared or silent.
1977: I am in college. After surviving an attempted rape by a stranger (an assault that the police shrug off, for which no one is even questioned), I come across a poem by Marge Piercy in a new anthology. In its directness and ferocity, “Rape Poem”—which first appeared in 1975 in “Red War Sticks,” Feminist Alliance Against Rape Newsletter—gives me a sense of solidarity and strength:
…Fear of rape is a cold wind blowing
all of the time on a woman’s hunched back.
Never to stroll alone on a sand road through pine woods,
never to climb a trail across a bald
without that aluminum in the mouth
when I see a man climbing toward me.
As Sylvia Plath wrote: The blood jet is poetry,/there is no stopping it.
Slippery SlopeI didn’t stop that day—no time— too fast—no place to turn around— but the next day—on that ordinary stretch—something pulled me over. I climbed the slope to see it again— the girl who looked eleven but may have been older—fighting his grip— the thin furious man—the long arm striking her face. She was still standing— after—my rear-view mirror told me. No footprints in the slick grass—no blood— just one glint—like a broken bottle. A child’s glasses with thick lenses— intact—reflecting that day upside down.
“Slippery Slope” first appeared in Voices from the Attic, Volume XIV (Carlow University Press, 2008) and from Spared by Angele Ellis and published by Main Street Rag, © 2011 by Angele Ellis. Reprinted with permission of the author.
You hurl a butcher’s blood onto her shopping spree. You lay down in New York City streets, daring taxis. I can’t stop you from diving into the cove with pliers, from setting all the captive dolphins free. I’m amazed that you are brave enough to hold a dirty stranger’s hand on the beach, scream about oil spilling into the sea. I don’t know if you’ve ever really participated in extreme activism; but I’ve placed you in the line of fire psychologically. I won’t lie, I have participated in my fair share of active activism, but I regard myself as a “poet activist.” Poetry, with all its fragmentation, sophisticated slang and obscurity, seems to be more powerful than all of the actions above. It’s not a statistic. It’s not an unknown student in a local news story; it’s a life’s mind on the page— a mind-reading session. A reader, betrothed to the poem he or she absorbs, cannot circumvent its mental triggers. With poetry, like a fishing net or gory scene, I seize attention silently, freely, mischievously. My two favorite colors are hot pink and aqua. This isn’t a suicide, but it’s a gamble to drink tequila on my neon float in the Port of Miami’s heart. I’m pink as Florida postcard thongs and defenseless as a girl on calle ocho. I know these ships are blue whales, and I’m plankton. I know what I am doing! I know I’ve been raped. My body oozes oily teenager. I taunt the massive powers. Here, pink as daybreak, I am stronger than Royal Caribbean and my father. I petrify these vessels. They will not penetrate my mother ocean’s dawn. Perhaps I am a coward for sneaking up on you with written words, for imprinting a scenario that would clog any harbor, instead of grabbing that bikini and my pair of beach balls. Maybe I should be squaking at policepersons like a balding sea gull in a restaurant about pollution and sea life and karma, but I don’t think they would listen to me for very long down there in the Port of Miami. I’d probably get arrested, questioned by a psychologist and declared insane after ten minutes. Then my feminist, ecological message would be erased by this corrupt diagnosis and a more gruesome news story. But with poetry— you must read— and you must envision the remarks. I’m not antagonizing the city forces or the innocent tugboat captains. I’m not using tax dollars. I’m not turning you off. I’m turning you on.
Maybe a girl on a hot pink float is the start of beach themed pornography, or just a silly anecdote. Maybe you are aroused by the mentioning of thongs and oil and teens; you noiselessly sit on this discomfort while you read. What you might objectify, patronize or desire commandeers command of your deliberations; you can’t escape.
(a night with The Misfits)
[Montgomery Clift’s] the only person I know who’s in worse shape than I am.
– Marilyn Monroe“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” but they don’t save her as they drop down her face, smearing paint. The driver tries to catch them, stash them for his pocket or fly. All men drive drunk. All men drive drunk. All men drive drunk. The blonde bombshell chants gently to herself. She swims in fluid on the rocks, dodges iced constellations, waits for the ride to end. While she dances with an Oak tree, her arms are clearly woman, despite her piggy tail attempts. The recent divorcee sits quietly, then talks about dancing interpretively, dubs Arthur Miller’s voice. Montgomery Clift bites his finger, as seductively as Marilyn. Eyes divert to him. The pair’s tumblers melt tulips. Their hips close in. They swallow the tulips and chew. “I don’t like the way they grind women up out here,” Montgomery says. Marilyn’s knees seem dark in the dirt, her white shoes, filthy under star light. They crookedly hug. Their lips too full and soft for society, sip. Their eyes— crystal vases full with water and sunrise, await flowers. His vodka and grapefruits say to her, “you got such trust in your eyes.” She whispers, “it’s the Nembutal.” Clark Gable rolls on the ground, plastered—a temper tantrum. He argues belligerently, “didn’t your papa ever spank you and then pick you up and give you a big kiss?” A man’s pain is erotic. Like her cheeks, cherries and nipples. The foggy dust whirls about her moist face and lashes; diamonds stamp roadways. A large gloved hand muffles Montgomery. Blackness. She screams out, “murderer!” Her feelings spray bullets at households. She catches a ride home from Clark. He promises to love her.