Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Secretary of Peace, maybe, and other notions

including the noisy clatter of destruction,
and grief according to Dylan Thomas,
and Palestinian grief according to Mahmoud Darwish

It's hard to tell whether Rita Dove is bearing witness on behalf of the people about whom she writes, or whether she is placing them beyond our reach, leaving us unable to do anything about what is happening to them. I want her to be clearer--to tell me what to do--after she shares with us the reflections of a slave or of, say, a Benjamin Banneker, who himself seems to have lived with only one foot in this life and one foot out.

Still, Banneker promoted the idea of a cabinet-level Secretary of Peace. And earned the devotion and respect of others. I guess it's fair to say that Dove, a former U.S. poet laureate has done the same.

And she writes some haunting and beautiful poems, too.

"Where his frail hands paused
breath lingered, so that I am now

"restless, a perfumed fan,"

Dove writes in "The Kadava Kumbis Devise a Way to Marry for Love," which appears to involve first marrying a gentle man with a loving touch, although perhaps lacking the robustness to endure, and then marrying another, maybe,

"that ragged man on the hill,
watching from a respectful distance."

And who are the Kadava Kumbis, anyhow? Perhaps a people out of African history, out of African-American lore. Dove's poems may be emotionally rich; they are certainly shrouded in mist, and call for careful exploration, maybe more care than I can muster.

Though Dove may be difficult, Dylan Thomas is more so, but also sonorous as a single bass note.

"And she who lies,
Like exodus a chapter from the garden,
Brand of the lily's anger on her ring,
Tugged through the days
Her ropes of heritage, the wars of pardon,
On field and sand
The twelve triangles of the cherub wind
Engraving going."


The stanza is from Thomas' "A Grief Ago," which, I suppose, is a grief one manages to get over, but almost everything Dylan Thomas wrote seems to carry multiple meanings. I would have thought she who lies could be lying or dead, maybe, or maybe simply lying down, but then there's the rest of the poem to contend with or, even, the next sentence, which is clearly a biblical reference, but even so is quite ambiguous, though I did find a guy writing on something called Insane Journal, who appears to believe the lying is actually "having a shag in  the middle of the garden," which is "the most romantic fucking thing you can think of," which I guess makes sense, given what went on in Eden.

One has difficulty imagining a lily's anger. It's hard to see how that could be the worst part of tugging a burden "of heritage" (family trauma survived for which she seeks absolution?) behind. But it seems also that most people who love Dylan Thomas "hear" his meaning, not think it. One should maybe focus on grokking Thomas' work.

Joy Harjo isn't very prescriptive, either. In fact, in "Who invented death and crows and is there anything we can do to calm the noisy clatter of destruction?" Harjo wants to know what we think. And so she asks,

"What do you make of it?"

A guy I know once stood by the side of a road, hitchhiking, and also tripping (on acid). He watched a whole lot of cars go by during a long wait for a new ride, was asked exactly the same question by a companion. "What do you make of it?" He is reported to have responded, "a potholder," which made no sense at the time, and does not do as an answer to Harjo's question, either.

For relief from ambiguity, we might turn to Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, who was both poet and PLO official. His "Earth Poem" is no call to go green. It concludes:

"And they searched his chest
But could only find his heart
And they searched his heart
But could only find his people
And they searched his voice
But could only find his grief
And they searched his grief
But could only find his prison
And they searched his prison
But could only see themselves in chains"

This message does not have the virtue of lifting our spirits, but it is truth-telling and there is something uplifting about that. Solidarity with Darwish and the Palestinian people also leads me to my own version of truth as I tried to spell it out (no ambiguity here) in my poem Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian, which can be found in its entirety on Outdoor Poetry Season:

"I am Jewish because I am a child of Abraham;
Palestinians, therefore, are my brothers and sisters.
We are all children of Abraham.
I am Palestinian because Jews, too, have been homeless.
I am Palestinian because we have a future together or none, at all.
I am Palestinian because Palestinian yearning is so like Jewish yearning.
I am Palestinian because Jews have been uplifted by the love of Palestinians.
I am Palestinian because peace in Arabic and in Hebrew bestows the same gift.
Although Sarah and Hagar are our separate birth mothers,
I am Palestinian because we all live in the embrace of one mother,
and will return to her.

"If you summon one of us for cruel judgment, there will be no telling us apart. "

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