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
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.
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
is obvious and earnest.
Whose wishes are simple:
everything to be negotiated.
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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
in the classrooms teachers rolled close
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
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?
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
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
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
“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