What to do before the suffering of others? What to do for Haiti, for Palestine, for Irak, for Darfur? What to do for girls forced into prostitution, for women battered, for rape victims, for those without the comfort of home or friends? Peruvian poet César Vallejo writes:
“A cripple walks by, giving his arm to a child.
After that, I’m going to read André Breton?
Another trembles with cold, coughs, spits blood.
Will it ever be possible to allude to the deep Self?
Another searches in mud for bones, rinds.
How to write, after that of the Infinite?
An outcast sleeps with his foot to his back.
To speak,after that to anyone of Picasso?”
As we are confronted daily with human suffering, and stories of violence and images of terror continue to exercise their power, yes, suddenly, love, art, and literature can seem beside the point. But I believe it is precisely in these moments that love and poetry become most necessary. We live in the heart of a savage world, violent and indifferent. Relentlessly, it tries to strip us of our humanity and our compassion; relentlessly we must resist to retain our tenderness. We do so with our light and our personal voice. If we are not to take the name of poetry in vain, we must turn the terrible sounds of disaster into music. This from Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali:” ..Art is worthless unless it plants a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.”
Another one of the most urgent commandments of poetry is to remember, to bear witness, and to do so “with blood- as if it were your last.” as the Bulgarian poet Dimitrova compels us to do:
“Write each of your poems
as if it were your last.
In this century, saturated with strontium,
charged with terrorism,
flying with supersonic speed,
death comes with terrifying suddenness.
Send each of your words
like a last letter before execution,
a call carved on a prison wall.
You have no right to lie,
no right to play pretty little games.
You simply don’t have the time
to correct your mistakes.
Write each of your poems,
with blood — as if it were your last.”
Even in the most desperate times, poets dare fight with their words and their song against weapons of war. The Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai, who unwaveringly identifies with his Arab neighbors, has written this scathing indictment against the Israeli Government:
“I, too have declared war:
You’ll need to divert part of the force
deployed to wipe out the Arabs-
to drive them out of their homes
and expropriate the land-
and set it against me.
You’ve got tanks and planes,
and soldiers by the batallion;
you’ve got the ram’s horn in your hands
with which to rouse the masses;
you’ve got men to interrogate and torture;
you’ve got cells for detention.
I have only this heart
with which i give shelter
to an Arab child.
Aim your weapon at it;
even if you blow it apart
it will always,
always mock you.”
so, on days when all seems dark, when the world pours in and your pain blows words out of my mouth, i look at opened windows and running trains with a craving hard to explain, but i rush by quickly, eyes shut tight, and count my breaths, and when i catch a glimpse of myself, a talking shadow in full light, hair blowing and blind, i must seem, not knowing my left from my right, always lost, but as i stand here, in my age of reckoning, a woman at the end of her history, i tell you i know i have found myself, i have found happiness where i did not seek it and grief has come frequently when i did not expect it, and come to stay, like an unwelcome guest you cannot turn away, but it has marked me to allow my heart to break with tenderness and i give thanks for the voice i have been given, for the little song i can sing, for the light i can add to everyone else’s, for i have tasted it all, the bitter, the sweet and what was forbidden me, but i am alive, and have learned to live in this world which is beautifully hopeless and hopelessly beautiful, and if i am remembered at all, it will be because whatever else is true or false, and because i have craved its light, i have unflinchingly faced love and embraced it.
michele voltaire marcelin