Mar 162013
 

Poetry Against the War

An Open Letter from Sam Hamill

 

 

Dear Friends and Fellow Poets:

 

When I picked up my mail and saw the letter marked “The White House,” I felt no joy. Rather I was overcome by a kind of nausea as I read the card enclosed:

 

Laura Bush requests the pleasure of your company at a reception and White House Symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” on Wednesday, February 12, 2003 at one o’clock

 

Only the day before I had read a lengthy report on George Bush’s proposed “Shock and Awe” attack on Iraq, calling for saturation bombing that would be like the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo, killing countless innocent civilians.

 

I believe the only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam.

 

I am asking every poet to speak up for the conscience of our country and lend his or her name to our petition against this war, and to make February 12 a day of Poetry Against the War. We will compile an anthology of protest to be presented to the White House on that afternoon.

 

Please submit your name and a poem or statement of conscience to the Poets Against the War web site.

 

There is little time to organize and compile. I urge you to pass along this letter to any poets you know. Please join me in making February 12 a day when the White House can truly hear the voices of American poets.

 

 

Sam Hamill, founding editor of Copper Canyon Press

http://www.poetsagainstthewar.org/default.htm

 

 

The Olive Wood Fire

 

When Fergus woke crying at night.

I would carry him from his crib

to the rocking chair and sit holding him

before the fire of thousand-year-old olive wood.

Sometimes, for reasons I never knew

and he has forgotten, even after his bottle the big tears

would keep on rolling down his big cheeks

– the left cheek always more brilliant than the right –

and we would sit, some nights for hours, rocking

in the light eking itself out of the ancient wood,

and hold each other against the darkness,

his close behind and far away in the future,

mine I imagined all around.

One such time, fallen half-asleep myself,

I thought I heard a scream

– a flier crying out in horror

as he dropped fire on he didn’t know what or whom,

or else a child thus set aflame –

and sat up alert. The olive wood fire

had burned low. In my arms lay Fergus,

fast asleep, left cheek glowing, God.

 

— Galway Kinnell

 

 

 

State of the Union, 2003

 

I have not been to Jerusalem,

but Shirley talks about the bombs.

I have no god, but have seen the children praying

for it to stop. They pray to different gods.

The news is all old news again, repeated

like a bad habit, cheap tobacco, the social lie.

 

The children have seen so much death

that death means nothing to them now.

They wait in line for bread.

They wait in line for water.

Their eyes are black moons reflecting emptiness.

We’ve seen them a thousand times.

 

Soon, the President will speak.

He will have something to say about bombs

and freedom and our way of life.

I will turn the tv off. I always do.

Because I can’t bear to look

at the monuments in his eyes.

 

–Sam Hamill

 

 

 

Refusing

 

Refusing the invitation

I was not given,

being given instead

the invitation to refuse.

Which I accept.

Am grateful for.

The chance to be part of

the poet’s chorus,

the caucus of those

whose politics

is obvious and earnest.

Whose wishes are simple:

sensible diplomacy,

everything to be negotiated.

Tough bargaining,

but easy on the violence.

That’s what we poets

learned from poems:

it’s all on the table,

but it’s stupid

to break up the table

with an axe,

to splinter the chairs.

 

And it’s madness

to ask poets to celebrate,

when people can’t even

breathe deeply

for fear of war’s imminence.

 

— Gregory Orr

 

 

 

Letter to Hayden Carruth

 

Dear Hayden, I have owed you a letter for

one month, or two – your last one’s misplaced. But

I’m back in New York. The world is howling,

bleeding and dying in banner headlines.

 

No hope from youthful pacifists, elderly

anarchists; no solutions from diplomats.

Men maddened with revealed religion

murder their neighbors with righteous fervor,

 

while, claiming they’re “defending democracy,”

our homespun junta exports the war machine.

They, too, have daily prayer-meetings,

photo-op-perfect for tame reporters.

 

(“God Bless America” would be blasphemy

if there were a god concerned with humanity.)

Marie is blunt about it: things were

less awful (Stateside) in1940.

 

I wasn’t born… I’ve read shelves of books about

France under Vichy after the armistice:

war at imagination’s distance.

Distance is telescoped now, shrinks daily.

 

Jews who learned their comportment from storm-troopers

act out the nightmares that woke their grandmothers;

Jews sit, black-clad, claim peace: their vigil’s

not on the whistlestop pol’s agenda.

 

“Our” loss is grave: American, sacralized.

We are dismayed that dead Palestinians,

Kashmiris, Chechens, Guatemalans,

also are mourned with demands for vengeance.

 

“Our” loss is grave, that is, till a president

in spanking-new non-combatant uniform

mandates a war: then, men and women

dying for oil will be needed heroes.

 

I’d rather live in France (or live anywhere

there’s literate debate in the newspapers).

The English language is my mother

tongue, but it travels. Asylum, exile?

 

I know where I feel more like a foreigner

now that it seems my birth country silences

dissent with fear. Of death? Of difference?

I know which city lightens my mornings.

 

You had New England; I had diaspora,

an old folk song: “Wish I was where I would be,

Then I’d be where I am not.” Would that

joy claimed its citizens, issued passports.

 

“First, do no harm,” physicians, not presidents,

swear when inducted. I’m tired of rhetoric,

theirs or journalists’ or my own ranting.

I’d like to hole up with Blake and Crashaw –

 

but there’s a stack of student endeavors that

I’ve got to read, and write some encouraging

words on. Five hours of class tomorrow;

Tuesday , a dawn flight to California.

 

— Marilyn Hacker

 

 

 

Collateral Damage

 

(for Miss Tin in Hue)

 

“The girl (captured; later, freed)

and I (collapsed by a snip of lead)

remember well the tea you steeped

for us in the garden, as music played

and the moon plied the harvest dusk.

You read the poem on a Chinese vase

that stood outside your father’s room,

where he dozed in a mandarin dream

of King Gia Long’s reposing at Ben Ngu.

We worry that you all are safe.

A house with pillars carved in poems

is floored with green rice fields

and roofed by all the heavens of this world.”

 

…..Well, that was the poem, written

in fullest discovery and iambics

by a twenty-four-year old feeling lucky

not long after those scary events.

Three years later, he (i.e. yours truly)

went back with his young American wife

(not the girl above “captured…freed, etc.”)

and the night before the ’72 Spring Offensive

(which, you’ll recall, almost took the city)

tried to find Miss Tin’s house once again

 

…..in a thunderstorm, both wearing ponchos,

and he (a version of “me”) clutching a .45 Colt

while she, just clutched his wet hand. Of course,

anyone might have shot us–the Viet Cong

infiltrating the city, the last Marines,

the jittery ARVN troops, or, really,

any wretch just trying to feed his family.

So here’s the point: why would anyone

(esp. a: me, or b: my wife, or versions of same)

even dream of going out like that? …Simple:

A. To show his bride a household built on poems.

B. To follow love on all his lunkhead ventures.

Anyway, when we found the gated compound,

we scared the wits out of the Vietnamese inside

on the verandah reading by tiny kerosene lamps

or snoozing in hammocks under mosquito netting

who took us for assassins, or ghosts, until

my wife pulled off her poncho hood, revealing

the completely unexpected: a pretty. blonde. White Devil.

Since Miss Tin wasn’t there, they did the right thing

and denied knowing her, as night and river

hissed with rain and a lone goose honked forlornly.

 

The next night, we headed out again,

the monsoon flooding the darkened city,

the offensive booming in nearby hills,

and montagnards trekking into Hue in single file

as their jungle hamlets fell to the barrage.

I kept our jeep running, as my wife dashed out

to give away our piasters to the poor

bastards half-naked in the driving rain.

She gave it all away. Six month’s salary,

a sack of banknotes watermarked with dragons,

(except what we needed to get back to Saigon,

but that’s another story)…the point here being:

I often think of Miss Tin’s pillared house in Hue

and those events now thirty years ago

whenever leaders cheer the new world order,

or generals regret “collateral damage.”

 

— John Balaban

 

 

 

American Wars

 

Like the topaz in the toad’s head

the comfort in the terrible histories

was up front, easy to find:

Once upon a time in a kingdom far away.

Even to the dreadful now of news

we listened comforted

by far timezones, languages we didn’t speak,

the wide, forgetful oceans.

Today, no comfort but the jewel courage.

The war is ours, now, here, it is our republic

facing its own betraying terror.

And how we tell the story is forever after.

 

— Ursula K. Le Guin

 

 

 

The School Among the Ruins

 

Beirut.Baghdad.Sarajevo.Bethlehem.Kabul. Not of

course here.

 

 

1.

 

 

Teaching the first lesson and the last

–great falling light of summer will you last

longer than schooltime?

 

When children flow

in columns at the doors

BOYS GIRLS and the busy teachers

 

open or close high windows

with hooked poles drawing darkgreen shades

 

closets unlocked, locked

questions unasked, asked, when

 

love of the fresh impeccable

sharp-pencilled yes

order without cruelty

 

 

a street on earth neither heaven nor hell

busy with commerce and worship

young teachers walking to school

 

fresh bread and early-open foodstalls

 

 

2.

 

When the offensive rocks the sky when nightglare

misconstrues day and night when lived-in

 

rooms from the upper city

tumble cratering lower streets

 

cornices of olden ornament human debris

when fear vacuums out the streets

 

When the whole town flinches

blood on the undersole thickening to glass

 

Whoever crosses hunched knees bent a contested zone

knows why she does this suicidal thing

 

School’s now in session day and night

children sleep

in the classrooms teachers rolled close

 

 

3

 

How the good teacher loved

his school the students

the lunchroom with fresh sandwiches

 

lemonade and milk

the classroom glass cages

of moss and turtles

teaching responsibility

 

A morning breaks without bread or fresh-poured milk

parents or lesson-plans

 

diarrhea first question of the day

children shivering it’s September

Second question: where is my mother?

 

 

4.

 

One: I don’t know where your mother

is Two: I don’t know

why they are trying to hurt us

Three: or the latitude and longitude

of their hatred Four: I don’t know if we

hate them as much I think there’s more toilet paper

in the supply closet I’m going to break it open

 

Today this is your lesson:

write as clearly as you can

your name home street and number

down on this page

No you can’t go home yet

but you aren’t lost

this is our school

 

I’m not sure what we’ll eat

we’ll look for healthy roots and greens

searching for water though the pipes are broken

 

 

5.

 

There’s a young cat sticking

her head through window bars

she’s hungry like us

but can feed on mice

her bronze erupting fur

speaks of a life already wild

 

her golden eyes

don’t give quarter She’ll teach us Let’s call her Sister

when we get milk we’ll give her some

 

 

 

6.

 

I’ve told you, let’s try to sleep in this funny camp

All night pitiless pilotless things go shrieking

above us to somewhere

 

Don’t let your faces turn to stone

Don’t stop asking me why

Let’s pay attention to our cat she needs us

 

Maybe tomorrow the bakers can fix their ovens

 

7.

 

“We sang them to naps told stories made

shadow-animals with our hands

 

washed human debris off boots and coats

sat learning by heart the names

some were too young to write

some had forgotten how”

 

— Adrienne Rich

 

 

 

 

 

The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in 2003

 

 

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