Great art can make us look longer at something, especially where the reality of that “something” is painful or scary, and it’s all too easy to look away, stay comfortable by doing so. In this post I share some poems that call on the reader to take notice in the face of what’s wrong in the world and the tragedies of our past and present.
I found this beautiful poem “410,336” by Kerfe at the memadtwo blog. It’s about the Covid-19 pandemic, and in particular the US’ death toll (referenced in the title). The poem reminds the reader that behind the headline figures are names, faces, lives lived and then cut off. But it does something more, too – the poem’s construction (a pattern of repeats) forces the reader to linger, consider, pause and look. It’s not the morbid curiosity of rubbernecking, rather the words inspired in me a determination to pay attention, to participate in a collective grief rather than disengaging because it hurts.
Another poem I loved this month is Clint Smith’s “When people say, ‘we have made it through worse before'”. The balance it finds between addressing the realities of loss while also hoping for better days ahead is something I could really relate to. I can’t speak to Smith’s intentions, but when I read the poem I feel something of what it is to live in a world which is broken and so often cruel, while also believing that every human being is worthy of love and has the potential to bring beauty to the world. Things aren’t easy. The poem argues that responding to struggle, suffering, and loss with trite and insubstantial motivational phrases doesn’t cut it.
There is no
solace in rearranging language to make a different word
tell the same lie. Sometimes the moral arc of the universe
does not bend in a direction that will comfort us”Clint Smith “When people say, ‘we have made it through worse before'” readwildness.com. Retrieved 26th January 2021.
If you’ve kept up with the news from the US, I imagine that the name Amanda Gorman is familiar by now – she’s the young black poet and youth poet laureate who appeared at the inauguration of Joe Biden this month, reading her poem “The Hill We Climb”. In it, Gorman addresses America as “a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished”. Her words criticise inertia and apathy, and she uses the future tense “we will” to insist on action – that through a process of grieving, repair, and rebuilding, a truly united US might come to pass. I was impressed to see the attempted coup of 6th January mentioned too.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it.Amanda Gorman “The Hill We Climb” TheGuardian.com. Retrieved 26th January 2021.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
This effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.”
Elsewhere, I bought a copy of Antony Owen’s The Nagasaki Elder (V. Press, 2017). It’s a collection of poems dedicated “to all survivors (Hibakusha)”. The first section is themed around the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, and the shorter second section about other disasters and acts of war, including the Coventry Blitz and the bombing of Dresden in WWII, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.
In general, I like to read a single-authored poetry collection cover-to-cover, to find my bearings, get a feel for the whole, and to find connections between individual poems. I’ll then go back to spend longer with my favourites. With The Nagasaki Elder, I’ve realised that approach won’t work. I keep flicking through, glancing at the pages, and finding the subject matter just too brutally sad to contend with right now. Caught between wanting to read this book and fully expecting to find myself in tears when I do, I think I’ll need to take this in small bites.
In May 2020 I reviewed poetry books with similarly hard-hitting themes of disaster: Megan Hunter’s climate disaster fiction The End We Start From (2017); J. O. Morgan’s poetic critique of mutually assured destruction, Assurances (2018); and Suzannah Evans’ more hopeful and sometimes humorous Near Future (2018), which speculates on the relationship between everyday life and the unknowns of the future. I reread Near Future this January, and loved it just as much. Feel free to check out that post.
Clint Smith’s site, including details of his forthcoming nonfiction book about dealing with the legacy of slavery.
Amanda Gorman’s site, where you can learn more about her.
Antony Owen’s blog, where he posts original poetry.
Please do read the poems for yourself! As ever, I’m interested to know your thoughts on what I’ve shared.
Links correct as of 26th January 2021.