Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Poetry for a New Century

Leave it to a poet to note that so many of the casualties on 9/11 at the World Trade Center were from many other parts of the world.

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,

like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.

Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen

could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:

Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,

Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh…


That’s how poet Martin Espada commemorated, in “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” the cooks, dishwashers, waiters and waitresses who died in the Windows on the World restaurant that day. 

This perspective sets the tone for With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, 2014), edited by Douglas Valentine, an edgy, protest-minded anthology presenting a hard-eyed, often bitter look at how many poets see the world today.

Julia Stein traces, in “Iraqi Poets Society,” the poetic impact of the US military invasion and overthrow of the monstrous dictator Saddam Hussein:

…dreams grew that poems would erase

all the roadside bombs…


Iraqi poets now were breathing poems again.

For a few days, a few weeks, a few months, poems sprouted…

up and down the Baghdad streets.


When they began the terrible count:

“One poet was threatened. One was kidnapped.

One was killed. One fled abroad.”…


… suicide bombs exploded on the street

leaving corpses and the wounded.


Many of the poems in this collection are by poets from other parts of the world raising their voices against the corrosive violence that swirls like desert sand storms through their homelands and other places they care about—Central America, Palestine/Israel, across the Middle East, North Africa. A poet from Tunisia, Tahar Bekri, worries about what is tearing Afghanistan apart. A poet from Morocco living in Belgium, Taha Adnan, worries about a friend’s Facebook page being overshadowed by nationalistic flags in a revolution-and-reaction-torn homeland.
Other poems are by American veterans of our wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and around the world. Brian Turner writes in “VA Hospital Confessional” about battles that continue long after coming home.


Some nights I hear a woman screaming

Other nights I shoot the crashing car.


When the boy brings us a platter of fruit,

I mistake cantaloupe for a human skull…


This collection of glass-smashed poetry tries to convey the horrendous impact on people of the seemingly ceaseless wars that politicians and the news media treat as backdrop to their preening self-promotions and heedless, reckless, careless ambitions.

The next time you see a VIP wrap himself in the flag of honoring the dead of 9/11 and calling for more war, remember these lines from Martin Espada’s tribute to the workers from around the world who died in the towers:


…When the war began, from Manhattan to Kabul

two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,

mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:

Teach me to dance. We have no music here.

And the other said with a Spanish tongue:

I will teach you. Music is all we have.


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