Posted tagged ‘war’

Pashto: Rippling in a Sudden Silence

January 8, 2011

“Pashto” can be read on pp. 44-45 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948).

Write it. Take it all apart on the page and in the ear. Put the words back together like badly folded clothes tossed in a drawer, and then take out a few you thought were necessary but can do without. Get used to a poem that might feel a little odd, a little awkward, ready to fall off its edges into a tongue-tied heap at the bottom of the page. And then. And then reshape the drawer and its contents into echoes of their freshly laundered selves.

“Pashto” is one of these poems. It started as a pantoum (see the blog on “Baghdad”) with repeating lines and carefully interwoven stanzas. It started with an argument and an image. Arguing against while arguing for made for a poem that wrestles within itself and emerges tattered but fierce in its final lines.

While working and studying with the International Trauma Study Program, I was asked to view and comment on a rough cut of the documentary Echoes of War, directed by Joop van Wijk. It was an incredible film about the experiences of children in and after war, with a children’s book (A Little Elephant Finds His Courage, by Nancy Baron) being read to these children as a means of helping them to express their fears and grief.

The film convinced me that films could be designed as intricately as poems and that the form could tell stories that were lost to content. And the maker of the film, van Wijk, gave me the image of a yellow flag with an eye painted in its center that he rooted in each minefield and war zone he filmed, letting the eye serve as a witness to the children’s conversations.

This flag, flown in the minefields of Afghanistan, fights within “Pashto” just as the color yellow fights against light and poppies, symbols of fallen and wounded soldiers, fight for their opiate dreams rather than the reality of loss. Just as the children learn to share their experiences and to find their courage, the poem learns to tell its story by saying less, repeating only what brings silence, reflection, the promise of a future, the physical fragility of the living body. The poem is its own witness of grief, is its own conversation about violence and what remains.

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Book, Title, City

February 3, 2010

Why title a poem for a city about to be fractured by war? Why title a book not for the war but for something both more general and more individual? “Baghdad” is an inexplicable poem that insisted on its becoming.

“Baghdad” can be read on pp. 139-140 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948)

Before and After

The inspiration: it was March 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq. A former student of mine was living in Riyadh; we were communicating about the transitions in our lives. My heart hurt for him and the other Arabian students whose lives and assumptions had been already torn apart by September 11; I was deeply concerned for their well-being as the war became closer and closer to its violent and uncontrollable being.

I wrote this student to apologize and express my concern for his and his family’s safety. I assumed that this war, as the previous had, would expand far beyond the borders of the targeted country and that cities and citizens with little connection to the protagonists would be destroyed.

He responded with a phrase that comes from learning to speak one’s own tongue in a second, giving meanings a language might not have known it was capable of expressing. “It hearts me,” he wrote, “to speak of this.” And his heart/hurt became the voice wanting response, the voice pushing me to make a poem out of his fragmentation and mine, out of the shattering that had been part of the world I’d always known and that was now surfacing more urgently again.

The poem was revised to its present form in the spring of 2006 shortly after the death of my fiancé, who had suffered a stroke and struggled through six months of coma before waking and fighting to recover his voice and strength. He was unable to survive a heart attack on April 2, 2006.

The pattern: it’s an ecstatic poem, a pantoum broken across the page. Images repeated and broken, wounded in their reappearance, bearing traces of coherence like scars. Pantoums in English are simplified from a Malaysian verse form: it’s repetition that works like a braid, with the second and fourth lines of each stanza’s becoming the first and third of the next grouping of lines (four lines grouped together make a quatrain). The poem curls back on itself by bringing by the first and third lines, in reverse order, as the last set of even lines. And the end, like the snake swallowing its tail, is in the beginning.

The images: The Splintered, Howling Self

“It hearts me, he writes, to speak of this.” In a written statement about a written statement, the writer is not named. The “this” is not made explicit. The poem opens with statements that call themselves into question, following not the response to what is written but the response to a word used out of expectation, a word that calls the self as reader into question.

The next line pushes the participants further from each other, further from the line. “We furl back from these notes, you and I.” The he and the you disappear until only the 1st person is left. The reader of the poem is now face to face with the speaker. The he in profile and the you that were addressed can no longer be seen.

There is a recoil here (“coiling like a knife-stroked ribbon”), a forced shape and a flexibility that enact a physical transformation to the cutting off and artificial containment of something formerly living and connected to a larger organism. The lily’s stem, once cut and left to stand in water rather than soil, splits itself and begins to spiral toward the surface where exposure will drain its sustaining fluid and speed its decay.

The lily’s stem is named here but not the lily. One sees the flower without seeing the flower. It is the stem as support and self-destruction that is described, the evidence of action in a setting of inertia.

As the stem becomes cord, the body itself becomes a line, stretching across the poem as a tension between the retreat of the plural first person and the resistant stasis of the lily, now seen un-stemmed. The body is strung: it is intentional, constructed, segmented and fluidly connected.

Again, it is a poem of identity destined and created, self destroyed and reconstructed.

The question of shape appears: “Like beads in the form of melons.” The artificial represents the natural, the round/oval represents wholeness and maturity, the ripeness ready to be harvested and consumed. Is that the aim of developing the self? To ripen to the point of consumption?

There are multiple ways of seeing refracted here. In this poem, seeing is challenged to reconcile and balance opposites not as opposites but as options. There is an impossible depth to sight suggested by “in the eyes behind my eyes.”

Then the I asserts itself by falling, another falling back or retreat from the stability and centrality associated with identity. The I not only falls but startles (“clatters”) and disintegrates (“splinters”). The lost balance is broken control. The fall is liberation, release from intentionality into accident and happenstance.

Fallen, the I is “fierce to stretch beyond myself and run.” This is no beaten victim on the floor, no shattered identity unable to gather itself. There is more power and desire in the scattered self than in what was contained, delimited, and erect. This is the first mention of desire and the first constructive extension beyond limitations. The self desires to be more than itself, more than self, to overcome in an explosion of movement.

“For time has never been my problem.” Why has time never been the self’s problem? Either it is not a question or it is not a factor. Perhaps for this self there is no conception or ripening toward a goal. Perhaps there is no temporality. No mortality.

And yet, within the self the heart is as contained as the lily, as oval and ready to splinter as the beads shaped like melons. The heart is wounded and trapped. It “howls.” The heart is the self’s voice, the self who has addressed the you but not itself as self until now.

“I am smeared with dreams, bloody and chaste.” Unlike Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose self is “smeared, bleared with toil,” the I here is blurred with the unconscious self, an unconscious that is itself ambivalent, innocence and implication confused like fingerpaints slurred across paper and skin.

The unconscious, confusion, and clairvoyance leave the I literate and dumb: “I read my future in leaves fresh-plucked from branches,/my past lost to my tongue.” The future is visible the immediacy of the present. New growth is plucked like petals, like the lily whose stem is echoed in these branches. The past, however, is lost as the branch is lost to the leaves and the roots are lost to the stem. What cannot be held cannot be spoken. Broken connection=not only silence but an inability to break silence. The tongue cannot find what would make its identity coherent. The self de-stabilizes through the plucking, coiling, and reading. Is presence the silencing of the past?

The search for another present, a different spatio-temporal consciousness, persists. “Still, I twist, seeking somewhere else to wake.” Perhaps the self is the root here and has confused its self-consciousness with its extension and appearance in a world where the unconscious has been self-presentation rather than an intentional, woven identity, the knife-stroked ribbon sought at the return, an image in which both ends are also beginnings, and the fabric of the I can be re-formed both externally and internally to reach for “heart, speech, this.”

The resolution: A Knife-Stroked Ribbon

The chain set in motion by the pantoum coils back on itself in the repetition of lines and images. The chain, like beads, like melons, splinters in the self’s turning away from an external relationship with a familiar other into self-examination as an internal relationship with an estranged, scattered self. The form reflects the content; the broken self that cannot retain its past is itself the source of its own movement and cohesion. Repetition and return indicate a self capable of relation and continuity. It is resiliency in the spiral followed down the page and through the ribbon, the stem, the unstrung beads, the self that twists toward futures, spaces, somewhere else to breathe. In the act of respiration and inspiration, the speaker recovers the loss of identity, expression, and place.