Thursday, December 31, 2009

Satyagraha Forum, Dennis Brutus, and the Gaza Freedom March

Check out this Satyagraha Forum: The Poetry of Peace and Politics. Thanks to Kazim Ali for directing me to this video.

South African activist and poet Dennis Brutus died recently, but this video suggests what and how poetry intervenes on the brutal and divisive political issues of our age--climate change, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, etc.

Last, but not least, is the ongoing Gaza Freedom March, in which activists are attempting to end the blockade of Gaza...
From Codepink
The Gaza Freedom March continues in Cairo, we hope in Gaza, and around the world. Because of all your emails and the determination of the almost 1,400 people who came to Cairo to be a part of the March, including 300 French nationals who have been camped out in front of their embassy for three nights, we secured a meeting with Madame Mubarak, the president´s wife. Madame Mubarak arranged for 100 marchers to enter Gaza to deliver the humanitarian aid we had brought with us, under the umbrella of her organization The Red Crescent. This was considered a success until we began the difficult task of figuring out which 100 of the 1,400 would go.

To make matters more complicated, the Foreign Minister, who had not wanted ANY of us to be allowed in and was angry he had been overruled by Mrs. Mubarak, decided to fan the flames by saying in a press conference that the 100 seats were for the "good people"; and the rest of us were bad "hooligans" who were being left behind. Some of the country representatives declined their seats, and some delegations decided they would prefer not to send anyone if the whole group was not allowed to go. Those who boarded the buses towards Rafah included journalists who had come to report on the conditions in Gaza, Palestinians who would be reunited with family they had not seen in years, and some members of the team who were committed to delivering the aid that had been collected.

One of the desired results of the march was to focus world attention on the continuing and devastating effects of the blockade on Gaza. The outpouring of support from around the world for the Palestinians in Gaza has been amazing. Twenty-two marchers began a hunger strike in Cairo, including 85-year-old Hedy Epstein, a Holocaust survivor, who has been interviewed by journalists from around the world. This morning´s New York Times piece on the march and the hunger strike was a huge success in getting the story of Gaza to a wider audience, and reflected the passion of those who had traveled so far to be a part of this historic movement.

The hunger strikers ask that sometime during the period marking the Operation Cast Lead invasion anniversary--December 27-January 18--you join them in remembrance by skipping a meal, or fasting for a day or a week. Sign up here.

And please be a part of the international solidarity movement for the Palestinians of Gaza by doing what you can to spread the story, tweet or Facebook the NY Times story and keep up with the ever changing tides of the march on the PINKtank.

I wish all of you a joyous New Year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Hugging and Wrestling : Contemporary Israeli Photography and Video

Hugging and Wrestling : Contemporary Israeli Photography and Video
On view September 12th, 2009 through January 10th, 2010
MOCA Cleveland

Marjorie Talalay, Peter B. Lewis, and Video Galleries

Curated by Margo A. Crutchfield, Senior Curator

ARTISTS ON VIEW>> Yael Bartana, Rina Castelnuovo, Natan Dvir, Barry Frydlender, Ori Gersht, Dana Levy, Adi Nes, Michal Rovner, Rona Yefman

In recent years, Tel Aviv has emerged as a vibrant artistic center that has increasingly gained recognition on the global art stage. Hugging and Wrestling presents outstanding photographic and video works by some of the most talented Israeli artists working today, most of whom live in or are from Tel Aviv.

The phrase "hugging and wrestling with Israel" was coined by MAKOM Israel Engagement Network, and is explored on their site, and in this article.

In Hugging and Wrestling, a vivid portrait of Israel emerges through the perspectives of nine artists who respond to the complex shifting realities of the country today. The images are both beautiful and powerful, some deeply personal, others more philosophical, some political. With distinct points of view, the artists portray a land rich in history, and the convergence of multiple cultures, beliefs, and ways of life. But while the artists embrace Israel, they wrestle with political discord, religious divisions, and social inequities. They search for personal and collective identity in a vibrant, evolving, contemporary culture, while wrestling with the vulnerabilities of a country with contested territories where conflict is imminent and ever present.

Ori Gersht's evocative photographs of ancient olive trees portray the Israeli landscape as a sacred space, a land of indisputable beauty and strength that is nonetheless scarred and fragile. More universal are Michal Rovner's ambiguous, almost abstract works of projected video imagery that probe such issues as loss, survival, change, and humanity's place in the universe.

Bartana's video installation, Trembling Time, 2001, explores Israeli social mores and rituals, examining the relationship between the individual and society. The large-scale panoramic photographs by Barry Frydlender depict daily life in Israel, ranging from a cosmopolitan Tel Aviv street scene, to a beach rock concert, to the aftermath of a suicide bombing at a popular café.

From a Christian baptism to a Purim celebration, Natan Dvir portrays the depth and rich diversity of religious faith in Israel. Adi Nes draws on his religious heritage in portraits that are based on biblical stories. But Nes does so in contemporary terms, using the homeless as his subjects in striking works that become social critiques that metaphorically fuse the past and present.

Both Rina Castelnuovo and Natan Dvir's images of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict portray the human cost of that tragedy, from both sides. Artist Dana Levy 's poignant video installation Dreamers, 2007, presents individuals from various walks of life - Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian - as they relay their dreams, their hopes, and wishes for a better world. In their video installation, Rona Yefman and Tanja Schlander recreate the persona of Pippi Longstocking, who, performed by Tanja Schlander, engages in a preposterous yet humorous attempt to pull apart the Abu-Dis wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories. Representing a cultural shift among some from a younger generation of Israelis who are more open to political change and transformation, this work of art holds the promise of hope and resolution.

Thoughtful, at times re-evaluating long held beliefs, and often poignant, the art in this exhibition embraces Israel while wrestling with its internal and external challenges. In the end, the exhibition presents a celebration of artistic excellence through the work of a selection of Israel's most talented and celebrated contemporary artists.

This exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Rosalie and Mort Cohen

Artists' websites:

Yael Bartana:

Rina Castelnuovo:

Natan Dvir:

Barry Frydlender:

Ori Gersht:

Dana Levy:

Adi Nes:

Michal Rovner:

Rona Yefman:

Tanja Schlander:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Carl Kabat's Crime Against Nuclear Missiles

Kabat, in the tradition of conscientious objection, of resisting unjust laws, calls to mind the legacy of rabble-rousers and gadflies like Thoreau and Gandhi; like them, his acts of resistance are often met with annoyance and worse. The act of the resister is not one that invites or exhorts the law-abider, as any comment stream will tell you. It risks arrogance, self-righteousness, and the madness of isolation. But that doesn't automatically make it wrong--or, perhaps, even necessary. Thanks to Tim Musser for keeping me in the loop on this one.

Protesting priest guilty, free, defiant

by Sharon Dunn (courtesy of the Greeley Tribune)

In the end, a jury had no choice but to convict.

The Rev. Carl Kabat, 76, was photographed at the N-8 missile silo in northeast Weld County. Two-foot bolt cutters were found on the ground. There was a hole in the fence surrounding the facility, and he was waiting inside for his eventual arrest.

Kabat had breached nuclear missile facilities like these for the past two decades, and had 17 convictions behind him in his quest to do his small part to rid the earth of nuclear weapons, which the Catholic Church has deemed a crime against humanity.

But the members of the jury had to look beyond the message. After one hour of deliberations, they convicted him of the two misdemeanor criminal mischief and trespassing charges.

“We understand what he was standing for,” said jury member Ben Salgado, 56, of Windsor, after the verdict. “We just wish he would have chosen a different forum.”

As the jury was dismissed, Kabat applauded them, some walking out with tears in their eyes. One said as she left the courthouse: “It was very emotional.”

The St. Louis priest was immediately sentenced to the time he'd already served behind bars — 137 days — though deputy district attorney David Skarka asked for the maximum of one year for each of the misdemeanors to be served back to back. The county already had shelled out roughly $7,950 to keep him in jail for almost five months, based on a cost of about $58 per day per inmate. Had he been sentenced to Skarka's request, the county would have paid $26,000 more to keep him for a remaining 456 days.

“It's unfortunate that they didn't have any significant stance,” Kabat said as he left the courthouse. “I understand because these people are ordinary people, and they don't realize the power they have ... or the insanity (of those weapons) in the ground.”

Weld County Court Judge Dana Nichols opted not to fine Kabat but did impose standard court costs totaling $254.50 and gave the prosecution time to file a notice of restitution to Warren Air Force Base for damages. Kabat promised more civil disobedience.

“I will not make restitution, or pay fines or make any payments. That will be supporting nuclear weapons,” Kabat vowed.

That capped a two-day trial that brought with it one big twist: After his attorneys presented to the jury a multitude of banners he had hung up at the silo facility, Kabat fired them — a move he'd planned months ago so he would have the freedom to say what he wanted to say in court.

But Kabat's testimony on his own behalf didn't go quite the way he planned, as evidenced by the prosecution's objections to him continually bringing up arguments about the destructive power of weapons of mass destruction.

“I wish you'd object to nuclear weapons,” Kabat said.

After several attempts by Nichols to get Kabat to focus on the evidence against him, Kabat decided it didn't matter what he said.

The jury members, however, immediately wrote down their questions.

One juror asked why he wouldn't rather just protest peacefully outside the perimeter of the fence.

“Why in the civil rights (era) did they march down the street when they said, ‘You can't march down the street?' Because it's wrong,” Kabat answered. “I guess I think it's up to us to try to get rid of these things.”

Skarka asked him simply, “Are you above the law?”

Kabat replied: “All wrong law, yes. God's law is above all these man-made things.”

During his closing arguments, Kabat quoted Albert Einstein and Ghandi, and he beseeched the jury to be the conscience of a nation.

“I don't know you, but you are my sisters and brothers,” Kabat said. “We're all God's children, and we have to look after one another. We have to be significant actors. How many times have you written to your senator, to your congressman? ... For some of us, (it's been) countless times.”

Salgado, of the jury, a postal worker by trade and a former military man, said the potential sentence did weigh on the jury's mind.

“That really weighed on all of our hearts,” he said. “It wasn't an aggressive (protest), and he wasn't in there to really damage things. It was just a political statement.”

He said the trial was an eye-opener, however. Some on the jury, he said, didn't even know there were silos in Colorado. But, he said, he wouldn't be surprised to see Kabat protesting again someday. Kabat had earlier said he'd be happy to die in prison for peace.

“I think he's the type of guy that stands for his faith and what he believes,” Salgado said. “I wouldn't be surprised at all, actually.”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Another Take on Obama's Peace Prize Speech

Published on Friday, December 18, 2009 by Foreign Policy in Focus
A Lesson on Nonviolence for the President
by Eric Stoner

In Oslo last week, President Barack Obama ironically used his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize to deliver a lengthy defense of the "just war" theory and dismiss the idea that nonviolence is capable of addressing the world's most pressing problems.
After quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and giving his respects to Gandhi — two figures that Obama has repeatedly called personal heroes — the new peace laureate argued that he "cannot be guided by their examples alone" in his role as a head of state.

"I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people," he continued. "For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

Unfortunately, this key part of Obama's speech, which the media widely quoted in its coverage of the award ceremony, contains several logical inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies that tragically reveal Obama's profound ignorance of nonviolent alternatives to the use of military force.

The Power of Nonviolence
Almost immediately after acknowledging that there is "nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King," Obama equated nonviolence with doing nothing.

To live and act nonviolently, however, never involves standing "idle in the face of threats." Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Dave Dellinger, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and countless other genuine peacemakers have put their lives on the line in the struggle for a more just world. Advocates of nonviolence, like Gandhi, simply believe that means and ends are inseparable – that responding in kind to an aggressor will only continue the cycle of violence.

"Destructive means cannot bring constructive ends, because the means represent the ideal-in-the-making and the end-in-progress," Martin Luther King explains in his book Strength to Love. "Immoral means cannot bring moral ends, for the ends are pre-existent in the means."

Therefore, to put it bluntly, it's impossible to create a world that truly respects life with fists, guns, and bombs. As A.J. Muste, a longtime leader of the labor, civil rights, and antiwar movements, famously said: "There is no way to peace — peace is the way."

Using a broad array of tactics — including strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, and protests — nonviolent movements have not only gained important rights for millions of oppressed people around the world, they have confronted, and successfully brought down, some of the most ruthless regimes of the last 100 years.

The courageous, everyday citizens who spoke out and took to the streets to stop the murderous reigns of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, to name only a few examples from recent decades, were anything but passive in the face of evil.

Moreover, these incredible victories for nonviolence were not flukes. After analyzing 323 resistance campaigns over the last century, one important study published last year in the journal International Security, found that "major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns."

Victories Against Hitler
Contrary to Obama's speech and the dominant narrative about World War II, nonviolent movements in several different European countries were also remarkably successful in thwarting the Nazis.

In 1943, for instance, when the order finally came to round up the nearly 8,000 Jews in Denmark, Danes spontaneously hid them in their homes, hospitals, and other public institutions over the span of one night. Then, at great personal risk to those involved, a secret network of fishing vessels successfully ferried almost their entire Jewish population to neutral Sweden. The Nazis captures only 481 Jews, and thanks to continued Danish pressure, nearly 90% of those deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp survived the war.

In Bulgaria, important leaders of the Orthodox Church, along with farmers in the northern stretches of the country, threatened to lie across railroad tracks to prevent Jews from being deported. This popular pressure emboldened the Bulgarian parliament to resist the Nazis, who eventually rescinded the deportation order, saving almost all of the country's 48,000 Jews.

Even in Norway, where Obama accepted the peace prize, there was significant nonviolent resistance during the Second World War. When the Nazi-appointed Prime Minister Vidkun Quisling ordered teachers to teach fascism, an estimated 10,000 of the country's 12,000 teachers refused. A campaign of intimidation — which included sending over 1,000 male teachers to jails, concentration camps, and forced labor camps north of the Arctic Circle — failed to break the will of the teachers and sparked growing resentment throughout the country. After eight months, Quisling backed down and the teachers came home victorious.

Alternatives to the War on Terror
Obama's rejection of negotiations as a possible solution to terrorism also doesn't square with the evidence. After analyzing hundreds of terrorist groups that have operated over the last 40 years, a RAND corporation study published last year concluded that military force is almost never successful at stopping terrorism. The vast majority of terrorist groups that ended during that period "were penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies (40%), or they reached a peaceful political accommodation with their government (43%)." In other words, negotiation is clearly possible.

For his book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, University of Chicago professor Robert Pape created a database on every suicide bombing from 1980 to 2004. Pape found that, rather than being driven by religion, the vast majority of suicide bombers — responsible for over 95% of all incidents on record — were primarily motivated by a desire to compel a democratic government to withdraw its military forces from land they saw as their homeland.

"Since suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation and not Islamic fundamentalism," Pape said in an interview with The American Conservative, "the use of heavy military force to transform Muslim societies over there, if you would, is only likely to increase the number of suicide terrorists coming at us."

Apart from pulling U.S. troops out of the Middle East, calling off the deadly campaign of drone attacks, and ending military, economic, and diplomatic support for repressive regimes in the region, how can the threat of terrorism be best minimized? A recent article in the Independent by Johann Hari may provide an answer.

Through interviews with 17 radical Islamic ex-jihadis over the course of a year, Hari discovered that they all told strikingly similar stories about what drew them to extremism, and what eventually got them out. They all felt alienated growing up in Britain, and connected their personal experiences to the persecution of Muslims around the world. In most cases, however, coming into contact with Westerners who took the values of democracy and human rights seriously, opposed the wars against Muslim countries, and engaged in ordinary acts of kindness first made them question whether they were on the right path.

As I silently carried a cardboard coffin from the UN headquarters in New York to the military recruiting center in Times Square during a protest on the day of Obama's speech, I couldn't help but cringe to think of the president justifying the deployment of 30,000 more troops to the "graveyard of empires." Every nonviolent alternative has not been exhausted. In reality, they have yet to be tried.

Eric Stoner is a freelance writer based in New York and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. His articles have appeared in The Nation, NACLA Report on the Americas, and the Indypendent.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lev Rubinstein's "Questions of Literature"

This was one of the better Poetry in the Everyday Projects, in which students brought poems and poetry off the page and into their worlds. Thanks to Leila Hojat for having fun with Lev Rubinstein's "Questions of Literature." The photographs are mine, but David Essi put them together for the YouTube format. The text can be found in Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein, translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Laniece Hurd's "American Pie"/Poetry in the Everyday Project

One of my students, Laniece Hurd, composed this poem, inspired by flarf and collage, derived in part from "Strange Fruit," pie-baking instructions, and her own imagination--the YouTube clip is the "everyday" portion of her Poetry in the Everyday Project (PIE Project), an assignment that I give students to bring poetry off the page and into their worlds.

"For We Have Seen/We Build a World": A War Tax Resisters Chorale

This past November, I led a group of war tax resisters, meeting in Cleveland for their national conference, in a "warm-up" exercise. I read two poems from COME TOGETHER ("The Story So Far" and "Jerusalem") and invited them to do two free-writes:

1) describe an image or moment of rupture or violence that you experienced or witnessed that has always stayed with you, that you carry with you, that motivates your war resistance;

2) describe an image or moment of resistance, reconciliation, peacemaking, healing, courage that gives you hope in dark times. Then, with a chorus, we shared our poem-moments. The first chorus was "For we have seen..." and the second "We work to build a world..."

The instant reading was quite powerful, in ways that the text below cannot dramatize, as a testament to individual experience and collective labor. I'd walk around the circle, and point to those ready to read their portion, and then bring us back to the chorus.

Mindful of that gap (poetry is what's lost in translation), I share the vestige of that collective symbolic action.

For information on what war tax resistance is, please see the

"For We Have Seen/We Build a World"
A War Tax Resisters Chorale

by the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee meeting
Cleveland, Ohio
November 7, 2009

(note: the italicized refrains spoken by all)

1. For we have seen

For we have seen

The Guatemalan peasant shares the horrors of the massacre that left many buried, they know not where. Life goes on. The corn is planted; then the harvest. Yet sorrow remains entangled in its roots.

For we have seen

The father weeping inside holds his children
As their mother leaves for greener and richer fields.

For we have seen

A little joke, a play on words, expectation twinkling in her eyes

For we have seen

Their heads blown apart, crying, begging, but my hand came back from my face covered in blood. And for them I could do nothing.

For we have seen

She was deceived,
Then she was raped,
And the bond with her true love
Was not broken.
Now he lifts up her light
That others may discover
The truth about themselves
And pass on the light.

For we have seen

She struggled hard to live, her eyes closed slowly against the light, and all was dark. What now?

For we have seen

Shots crack the stillness. Sirens scream, a sea of green 70s police units. It’s a hideous colon and I don’t feel safe. Shooter still at large. Time to walk to school. “You’ll be fine,” my mother says, and “don’t be late.”

For we have seen

It was the night of my seventh or eighth birthday, when he locked the front door, pushing me out of his way, to top the window to scream and call my mother a bitch.

For we have seen

Numbers pulled from a jar cleaved a room of young men—a lottery of death that is our job to rescramble.

For we have seen

The heat bore down the blood flowed out of her leg and watered the plants. She who was left there.

For we have seen
Dusty Indian village in evenings cool untouchable side of town, sari-clad woman approaches, lifts infant to me and says (in translation): take him to your county and give him a good life.”

2. We build a world…

We build a world

By what right, she the angry one
Do you impugn the sacrifice
Of our brave?
And why don’t
You go back to
The country you came from
And the answer that came
I was here before your ancestors.
And my descendants shall carry on
When I am no more.

We build a world

The police officer, tired of her constant crawling through his legs, lay fingers in her hair and clenched then into a fist, and dragged her screaming across the Pentagon floor, twinkling eyes and all.

We build a world

From the knowing fear of dogs and baseball bats on Selma bridge to the triumphal march as far as one could see, front and back.

We build a world

He makes sense. He speaks truth. What a gift to the world. So rare.

We build a world

Swimming with the outboard motor, set adrift, not wanting to drop it and let it sink. Finally heave-ho aboard. Meanwhile, swim for your dinghy, which you didn’t secure to the main ship.

We build a world

It was when she was being dragged away and I, I was being pushed back, she was on the ground being choked and I was being detained when she pulled the cop down with her, and kicked him down. We escaped.

We build a world

Awaking to pre-dawn bomb and machinegun fire. It’s thanksgiving in the U.S.A. No more hiding in Guatemalan jungles for 13 years. The call goes out to “illumine all the lamps!” and show the U.S.-issue helicopter gunships where we are: civilian farmers and human rights witnesses standing in the open clearing as targets of strength.

We build a world

A young boy caught a fish and could not get the hook out. It was dying, the spiny fins stuck his hands. An older boy, a teenager, came along and simply said, “hold the fin backwards hard, and pull out the hook,” and calmly walked away, before the miracle of success.

We build a world

We exchanged war stories. Her ten years from age 12, insisting on being allowed a combatant role. Once so scared, she turned the gun with its last bullet toward herself until the danger passed. “So, how long were you there?” “Well,” I say, “the usual tour was a year. But I was wounded and spent months in the hospital” She stopped short and gave a sigh and a look of sorrow. “You were only a tourist.”

We build a world

Her eyes shining in the lungs of the world looked at us, in the Colombian rainforest, and said, I can’t believe you came all the way here to see me.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Poet and Psychotherapist Edward Tick on PTSD

Edward Tick, poet and psychotherapist, recently visited Kent State University, as part of the Wick Poetry Series, to talk about PTSD, to read his poems, and though I could not attend, I was terribly pleased to find this clip of him discussing his work. My father, Philip Metres Jr., and Tick have been doing similar work to address the critical conditions for returning veterans, whose woundedness is not apparent on the body, but is evident in what my father (and others) call "the thousand yard stare"--that gaze which is both inhabited and absent, a kind of modern haunting. The work of Tick, Jonathan Shay, and others couldn't be more timely.
This is a short bio:
Edward Tick, author of the groundbreaking book “War and the Soul” and founder of Soldier’s Heart, is a practicing psychotherapist specializing in veterans with PTSD. Ed received his master’s in psychology from Goddard College, Vermont and his doctorate in communication from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY. Ed has been in private psychotherapy practice since 1975 and began focusing on veteran’s issues in 1979. His pioneering work with Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or, in his words, ‘loss of the soul’, is the basis for his recent book “War and the Soul”. He continues his healing work with veterans and other trauma survivors with innovative yet time-honored methods. Ed has extensively studied both classical Greek and Native American traditions and successfully integrates their methods into modern clinical work. A widely published writer, he is also the author of “The Golden Tortoise: Journeys in Viet Nam”, “Sacred Mountain: Encounters of the Vietnam Beast”, and “The Practice of Dream Healing: Bringing Ancient Greek Mysteries into Modern Medicine”.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"Poems Can Stop Bulldozers." Thus Saith John Kinsella

Poet and environmentalist John Kinsella, in his "Vermin: A Notebook" (Poetry Magazine, December 2009), asserts the power of poetry as a mode of resistance in a direct way, as a direct way. Here's a bit of the essay (the link to the full article here). Let awake people be awake, as William Stafford once wrote.
A pacifist, which is what I am, can be the strongest resister, and pacifism the most defiant form of resistance. Same with language usage: I mix the old and the new to engage with a debate about protection, preservation, conservation, and respect of the “natural” world. I am aware of the problems these words carry in terms of implying complicity, because I am a poet rather than a speech writer. For me, because of this, poems can stop bulldozers. Not because they just say “stop bulldozer,” but because the intricacies of language challenge, distract, and entangle the bulldozer. I am using a semantics not of analogy, but of opposition. My words are intended to halt the damage—to see what shouldn’t be seen, to declare and challenge it.

* * *

I have not yet written the poems that go hand in hand with these actions, though I have seen them in my mind’s eye, because they happen as I interact and respond physically and emotionally to the world around me, and also they appear between the lines in my notebook, attaching themselves to broader ideas and counterpointing received systems of thought. Really, though, the activist moment that becomes a poem is often away from the incident or the moment of witnessing. It becomes a moment where the figurative merges with a politics of response, forming what we might term the “para-figurative”—not didactic, but still informed by a genuine political-ethical idea / l. Last night, for example.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Surge (of Empire?): Jon Stewart and Ralph Nader on Obama/Bush

Check out The Daily Show on the Obama Surge.
Is Obama a tool of empire?

These are complicated issues, yes, and we risk reducing the complexity of the foreign policy issues at stake--but I don't find this policy to be a "middle ground" between Bushian expansionism and our radical fantasy of a peace-making president: 30,000 not 40,000, a timetable (sometime at the end of the 2011 or something) not an endless war, etc. This is not a middle ground.

Is this the liberal revitalization of a longer-lasting policy?

Ralph Nader thinks so. Though his piece occasionally dips into the harangue (the first sentence, for example), the arguments are well worth further consideration:
Published on Thursday, December 3, 2009 by
The Afghan Quagmire
by Ralph Nader

Misusing professional cadets at West Point as a political prop, President Barack Obama delivered his speech on the Afghanistan war forcefully but with fearful undertones. He chose to escalate this undeclared war with at least 30,000 more soldiers plus an even larger number of corporate contractors.

He chose the path the military-industrial complex wanted. The “military” planners, whatever their earlier doubts about the quagmire, once in, want to prevail. The “industrial” barons because their sales and profits rise with larger military budgets.

A majority of Americans are opposed or skeptical about getting deeper into a bloody, costly fight in the mountains of central Asia while facing recession, unemployment, foreclosures, debt and deficits at home. Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), after hearing Mr. Obama’s speech said, “Why is it that war is a priority but the basic needs of people in this country are not?”

Let’s say needs like waking up to do something about 60,000 fatalities a year in our country related to workplace diseases and trauma. Or 250 fatalities a day due to hospital induced infections, or 100,000 fatalities a year due to hospital malpractice, or 45,000 fatalities a year due to the absence of health insurance to pay for treatment, or, or, or, even before we get into the economic poverty and deprivation. Any Obama national speeches on these casualties?

Back to the West Point teleprompter speech. If this is the product of a robust internal Administration debate, the result was the same cookie-cutter, Vietnam approach of throwing more soldiers at a poorly analyzed situation. In September, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen told an American Legion Convention, “I’ve seen the public opinion polls saying that a majority of Americans don’t support the effort at all. I say, good. Let’s have the debate, let’s have that discussion.”

Where? Not in Congress. There were only rubberstamps and grumbles; certainly nothing like the Fulbright Senate hearings on the Vietnam War.

Where else? Not in the influential commercial media. Forget jingoistic television and radio other than the satire of Jon Stewart plus an occasional non-commercial Bill Moyers show or rare public radio commentary. Not in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and the Washington Post.

A FAIR study published in the organization’s monthly newsletter EXTRA reports that of all opinion columns in The New York Times and the Washington Post over the first 10 months of 2009, thirty-six out of forty-three columns on the Afghanistan War in the Times supported the war while sixty-one of the sixty-seven Post columns supported a continued war.

So what would a rigorous public and internal administration debate have highlighted? First, the more occupation forces there are, the more they fuel the insurgency against the occupation, especially since so many more civilians than fighters lose their lives. Witness the wedding parties, villagers, and innocent bystanders blown up by the U.S. military’s superior weaponry.

Second, there was a remarkable absence in Obama’s speech about the tribal conflicts and the diversity of motivations of those he lumped under the name of “Taliban.” Some are protecting their valleys, others are in the drug trade, others want to drive out the occupiers, others are struggling for supremacy between the Pashtuns on one side and the Tajiks and Uzbeks on the other (roughly the south against the north). The latter has been the substance of a continuing civil war for many years.

Third, how can Obama’s plan begin to work, requiring a stable, functioning Afghan government—which now is largely a collection of illicit businesses milking the graft, which grows larger in proportion to what the American taxpayers have to spend there—and the disorganized, untrained Afghan army—mainly composed of Tajiks and Uzbeks loathed by the Pashtuns.

Fourth, destroying or capturing al Qaeda attackers in Afghanistan ignores Obama’s own intelligence estimates. Many observers believe al Qaeda has gone to Pakistan or elsewhere. The New York Times reports that “quietly, Mr. Obama has authorized an expansion of the war in Pakistan as well—if only he can get a weak, divided, suspicious Pakistani government to agree to the terms.”

Hello! Congress did not authorize a war in Pakistan, so does Obama, like Bush, just decree what the Constitution requires to be authorized by the legislative branch? Can we expect another speech at the Air Force Academy on the Pakistan war?

Fifth, as is known, al Qaeda is a transnational movement. Highly mobile, when it is squeezed. As Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, the former CIA officer operating in Pakistan, said: “There is no direct impact on stopping terrorists around the world because we are or are not in Afghanistan.” He argues that safe havens can be moved to different countries, as has indeed happened since 9/11.

Sixth, the audacity of hope in Obama’s speech was illustrated by his unconvincing date of mid-2011 for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan. The tendered exit strategy, tied to unspecified conditions, was a bone he tossed to his shaky liberal base.

The White House recently said it costs $1 million a year to keep each single soldier in Afghanistan. Take one fifth of that sum and connect with the tribal chiefs to build public facilities in transportation, agriculture, schools, clinics, public health, and safe drinking water.

Thus strengthened, these tribal leaders know how to establish order. This is partly what Ashraf Ghani, the former respected Afghan finance minister and former American anthropology professor, called concrete “justice” as the way to undermine insurgency.

Withdraw the occupation, which now is pouring gasoline on the fire. Bring back the saved four-fifths of that million dollars per soldier to America and provide these and other soldiers with tuition for their education and training.

The principal authority in Afghanistan is tribal. Provide the assistance, based on stage-by-stage performance, and the tribal leaders obtain a stake in stability. Blown apart by so many foreign invaders—British, Soviet, American—and internally riven, the people in the countryside look to tribal security as the best hope for a nation that has not known unity for decades.

Lifting the fog of war allows other wiser policies urged by experienced people to be considered for peace and security.

Rather than expanding a boomeranging war, this alternative has some probability of modest success unlike the sure, mounting loss of American and Afghani lives and resources.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. His most recent book - and first novel - is, Only The Super Wealthy Can Save Us. His most recent work of non-fiction is The Seventeen Traditions.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

TO SEE THE EARTH in its second printing

My first full-length collection of poems, To See the Earth, just went into its second printing. My great gratitude to Cleveland State Poetry Center for their support, editing, and guidance--Michael Dumanis & crew, thanks for making this dream happen. If you haven't read it yet, or want to spread the love, check it out, pass it on.

Here's a poem from the collection, about my time living in Russia, about getting lost in language, in distance, in distant towns, in one's self.

"Ashberries: Letters"


Outside, in a country with no word
for outside, they cluster on trees,

red bunches. I looked up
ryabina, found mountain ash. No

mountains here, just these berries
cradled in yellow leaves.

When I rise, you fall asleep. We
barely know each other
, you said

on the phone last night. Today, sun brushes
the wall like an empty canvas, voices

from outside drift into this room. I can't
translate—my words, frostbitten

fingers. I tell no one, how your hands
ghost over my back, letters I hold.


Reading children's stories by Tolstoy,
Alyosha traces his index

over the alphabet his mouth so easily
unlocks. Every happy word resembles

every other, every unhappy word's
unhappy in its own way. Like apartments

at dusk. Having taken a different street
from the station, I was lost in minutes.

How to say, where's the street like this,
not this? Keys I'd cut for years coaxed open

no pursed lips. How to say, blind terror?
Sprint, lungburn, useless tongue? How say

thank you, muscular Soviet worker, fading
on billboard, for pointing me the way?


Alyosha and I climbed trees to pick berries, leaves
almost as red. On ladders, we scattered

half on the ground, playing who could get them
down the other's shirt without their knowing.

Morning, the family gone, I ground the berries
to skin, sugared sour juices twice.

Even in tea they burned. In the yard,
leafpiles of fire. Cigarettes between teeth,

the old dvorniks rake, scratch the earth,
try to rid it of some persistent itch.

I turn the dial, it drags my finger back.
When the phone at last connects to you, I hear

only my own voice, crackle of the line.
The rakes scratch, flames hiss and tower.


This morning, the trees bare. Ashberries
on long black branches. Winter. My teacher

says they sweeten with frost, each snow
a sugar. Each day's dark grows darker,

and streets go still, widen, like ice over lakes,
and words come slow to every chapped mouth,

not just my own, having downed a little vodka
and then some tea. Tomorrow I'll bend down

branches, brittle with cold, pluck what I can't
yet name, then jar the pulp and save the stones.

What to say? Love, I live for the letters
I must wait to open. They bear across

this land, where I find myself at a loss—
each word a wintering seed.

The Use of Poetry Readings (1)

The use of poetry readings, beyond the selling of books...
Poetry reading helps show solidarity with Palestinians

Daily Star staff
Tuesday, December 01, 2009

BEIRUT: The Gathering for Dialogue at the northern Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared held a poetry reading evening on Monday to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. The event was held at the new section of the camp and was attended by representatives of Palestinian factions, cultural and social figures as well as Nahr al-Bared residents. The head of the gathering Mohammad Qasqous confirmed that solidarity with Palestine should be put into action by treating refugees in a more humane way. He also called on reconstructing Nahr al-Bared after it was destroyed during the armed conflict between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Al-Qaeda-inspired group Fath al-Islam in 2007. The Popular Organizations for Palestinian Democracy also met in the Beddawi refugee camp to show their solidarity. – The Daily Star

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mandates from the Masses: Or, A Monty Python Break

"Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. "

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Philip Levine on Robert Lowell and John Berryman as Teachers

A charming reminiscence (thanks Don Share for sharing it), in which poor Lowell gets another gash to his reputation, and Berryman emerges as a kind of prophet for poetry's value in the face of McCarthyism and the political foolishness of the time.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


This Thanksgiving, I have had much to be grateful for, so much that when I consider what small flaws and perturbations I suffer, I find myself slightly ashamed by their triviality. When our family took to splitting the trunk of a 150 year old oak tree into firewood, I was amazed by the tree's sheer gravity, its brute weight, its stolidity that once expressed itself in seasonal shifts. How, even months after its cutting, it still bled sap. Then I read this.

Twilight Zone / Mourning uprooted olive trees in West Bank villages

By Gideon Levy

The old tractor sputtered up the hill, its engine seemingly about to expire, but its big wheels bumping across the rocky terrain. We stood in the back, swaying wildly, holding on for dear life. On the hilltop loomed the big antenna of the settlement of Yitzhar, whose houses lay on the other side of the hill. The very knowledge of their presence inspired dread. It was a glorious sunny day, the spectacular valley sprawling below. The houses of the Palestinian village of Burin lie in this valley, which lies between two hills: on one stands Yitzhar; on the other, Har Bracha, outside Nablus.

Burin is caught between a rock and hard place, between Har Bracha and Yitzhar. We have visited Burin often, most recently after settlers burned down some of its homes. Settlers once stole a horse from a villager, torched fields, demolished a home in the village and uprooted olive trees. We have frequently documented the uprooting of olive trees: Less than a month ago, in this space, we told the story of the beautiful vineyard belonging to the agriculture teacher Mohammed Abu Awad from the village of Mureir, whose 300 trees were felled by intruders - probably from the illegal outpost of Adei Ad - using buzz saws.

Here, clues left by the criminals suggest that they used handsaws and ripped out the crowns of the trees with their hands, one crown after another, one branch after another, rending and wounding the trees. In Mureir, the agriculture teacher wrapped the stumps in sacks, giving them the look of figures in shrouds. Here, in Burin, the stumps remain where they were hurled on the ground, stacks of dead wood, branches withering, until finally the farmer will use them as firewood to heat the village's clay ovens, the tabuns.

But the feeling is the same, the affront is the same and so is the grief. In October, the farmer Abu Awad said about the ruins of his vineyard in Mureir: "What must you feel if you plant and tend and then it's all cut down? What must I feel? If I had been there, I'd have told them, cut off my hands, but don't cut down my trees - What did the tree do to them, for them to treat it like this?" (Haaretz Magazine, October 16)

And now the farmer Ibrahim Imran tells us in Burin: "These trees are like my children." Hands or children, the grief of those who tend their olive groves is searing and deeply moving. The inability of the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and of the officers of the Israel Police to protect the groves of these farmers, to protect their property and their honor, is the inability of all of us.

We stood on the rear fender of the tractor as it clambered its way up the hill. Standing with us was Ruth Kedar, an activist from Machsom Watch, which monitors checkpoints, and Yesh Din (Volunteers for Human Rights). She has crisscrossed the territories in her private car for years, documenting wrongs and injustice. Her husband, retired colonel Paul Kedar, is also active in Yesh Din. It's worth lingering over his riveting biography: Paul Kedar comes from a Revisionist family; his father was one of Ze'ev Jabotinsky's secretaries. He himself was one of the founders of the Israel Air Force and later served as air attache in Paris during the period of the Sinai Campaign. He has been in the Mossad and served as consul general in New York, among other state posts. He was a friend of Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres. He too now devotes his time to documenting the occupation and struggling against its abuses. The Kedars, now in their eighties, will soon receive the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and deservedly so.

Above the noise of the tractor, one of the Palestinian farmers tells us that he heard that his neighbor, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, from Yitzhar, has permitted the killing of all non-Jews. Indeed, Shapira, head of the Od Yosef Hai yeshiva in Yitzhar (named for the biblical Joseph), recently published a book, "The King's Torah," in which he states that it is permissible to kill every gentile who constitutes a threat to the Jewish people, even if he is a child or an infant.

When Imran arrived to work his land early Thursday morning, he was appalled. It was, he says, "the height of frustration," and adds: "After God, I rely only on my olive trees. These trees are no less than 70 years old. My great-great-grandfather planted them."

Imran called everyone he could think of - the District Coordinations Offices, the International Red Cross, B'Tselem and Yesh Din - and also filed a complaint with the Israel Police at Ariel. Investigators came to the grove and took fingerprints, he says, but he has yet to receive confirmation of having submitted a report. Yesh Din is now handling his complaint.

An IDF jeep suddenly arrives to see what's going on - just the kind of jeep that rarely shows up when the settlers go on a rampage.

A spokesman for the Shai (Samaria-Judea) District of the police stated in response: "On November 12, a resident of Burin complained that he noticed that 90 olive trees on his land had been chopped down. The damage was documented by the criminal investigations department at the site, and trackers scoured the area to find footprints. Testimonies were taken from two locals: the owner of the land and his worker. The police are conducting additional investigative activities, among them locating suspects and witnesses. The Samaria District police are also operating on the intelligence plane."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Kim Jensen's "Song of Qana"

Here's a poem from Kim Jensen's stark new book, Bread Alone.

Song of Qana

Thirteen narrow streets
Thirteen lines of white
sheets. Thirteen children of dust
in the dust.
********Just then, the jets.

Thirteen houses
of stone. Thirteen of cement.
Thirteen deferred
from next until next
********Just then, the jets.

Thirteen from the South.
Thirteen from the North. Thirteen
********from the West.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Remembering the Jesuit Martyrs

I'm thinking of the assassinated Jesuits in El Salvador, twenty years later, and all the deaths of people whose names we do not know, and how the circuitous routes of imperial practice wind from here to there, and back again.
Remembering the Jesuit Martyrs
by John Dear SJ on Nov. 10, 2009 On the Road to Peace

Twenty years ago, on November 16, 1989, I was studying theology at the Jesuit community in Berkeley, Calif., when my friend Steve Kelly knocked on the door and asked if I had heard the news. I hadn’t. He broke down telling me of the brutal deaths early that morning of six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America, the Jesuit university in San Salvador. I had known those Jesuits from my time in El Salvador in 1985, when I lived and worked in a refugee camp. I was shocked and grief-stricken.

Their deaths set in motion a series of actions that changed my life. Steve and I decided then and there to do something. We gathered friends, drove into San Francisco and held vigil at the Salvadoran Consulate. That night, we facilitated a large public meeting about the murders and our response. Over the weekend, we held prayer services and organizing meetings, and on Monday morning, nearly 2,000 of us gathered outside the U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco to demand an end to U.S. military aid to El Salvador. That day, 120 of us, including 18 Jesuits, were arrested and jailed for kneeling down and blocking the building’s entrance. It was the largest Jesuit protest in U.S. history.

Soon we were organizing similar demonstrations at the nearby Concord Naval Weapons Station and joining the protests at the Federal Building in Los Angeles. Steve and I and a group of priests and Salvadoran women embarked on a 21 day fast for an end to U.S. military aid to El Salvador. Martin Sheen and I flew to D.C. to sit in at the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building. I helped organize a rally in front of San Francisco’s City Hall with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Kris Kristofferson that brought out 12,000 people. We worked tirelessly for an end to U.S. military aid, and I think our efforts made a difference. But the deaths of the Jesuit martyrs touched us permanently.

Twenty years later, I call them to mind and heart:

Segundo Montes. Head of the University of Central America sociology department, director of the new human rights institute, superior of the Jesuit community, Segundo worked every weekend with the poor in Quezaltepeque. He had a big red beard, and people called him “Zeus.” “I consider it a duty to work for human rights,” he once said. “It is the duty of every human being who has the sensibility and sensitivity to the suffering of people.”

Ignacio Martin Baro. Vice president of the University of Central America, social psychologist, expert in the field of public opinion in El Salvador, he worked every weekend in the poor parish of Jayaque

Juan Ramon Moreno. Assistant director of the pastoral institute at the University of Central America, secretary of the Jesuit province, teacher of novices, he founded a Jesuit newsletter and set up a state of the art library in the new Romero Center which the death squads completely destroyed after killing the Jesuits. “The vocation of the church and of the followers of Jesus,” he wrote “is to be the innermost recess of Christ’s compassion.”

Amando Lopez. Former head of the San Salvador seminary and of the Jesuit University in Managua, Nicaragua, he worked every weekend among the poor in Soyapango. I remember having lunch with him once and asking him about his friend, Jean Donovan, killed in 1980.

Joaquin Lopez y Lopez. The oldest, he had recently been diagnosed with cancer. One of the founders of the University of Central America, he also founded “Fe Y Alegria,” a network of 13 schools that served eight thousand impoverished Salvadoran children, as well as two clinics which served 50,000.

Elba and Celina Ramos. Elba was the cook of the Jesuit house of studies down the road. That night, she brought her 16 year old daughter Celina to the University of Central America thinking they would be safer there on campus during the rebel offensive. They had been sleeping in a parlor room next to the Jesuit house when the death squads stormed the community. A few weeks earlier, Celina told a classmate that she hated violence so much that she would never again even kill an insect.

Ignacio Ellacuria. The university president, a world renown theologian and philosopher, and well known public figure in El Salvador, he helped write Archbishop Romero’s pastoral letters, envisioned a new type of Jesuit university committed to social justice, and in 1985, held a nationally televised open forum at the university where he methodically outlined, exposed and denounced the right wing government and its death squads.

Ellacuria was fearless and outspoken, a true prophet of justice and peace. He disturbed the so-called peace of the U.S.-backed regime, so the warmakers killed him. And they took no prisoners.

In other words, there was a reason they were assassinated. Their deaths were not an accident. The government knew what it was doing. Many think the Salvadoran president approved the assassinations a few hours earlier. He was using the same logic of violent deterrence that killed every martyr from Jesus to Dorothy Stang. But what these governments never understand is that nonviolent martyrs for justice and peace rise up in the people, pushing us to take similar risks for justice and peace, urging us to disturb the false peace, forcing us to speak out.

When our group of Jesuit scholastics met Ellacuria in 1985, he told us: “The purpose of the Jesuit university in El Salvador is promote the reign of God. But you can’t be for the reign of God unless you are also publicly actively against the anti-reign.” You are not truly for peace and justice unless you are also speaking out publicly and working actively to end war and injustice. That night, during a dinner for us, the university Jesuits showed us the bullet holes from the many attacks and bombing raids they had suffered over the years.

Twenty years later, El Salvador’s war has subsided but its poverty and crime have increased. We’ve suffered through two wars on Iraq, September 11th, Afghanistan, Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Obama, and watched the steady increase of extreme poverty, global starvation, global warming and global violence. What can we learn from the Jesuit martyrs that will help us today? Recently, I spoke during a week-long commemoration at St. Louis University and offered a few possible lessons.

First, the Jesuit martyrs were concerned about the world as it really is, what they called “Reality,” and the world they saw is the same world today--a culture of violence, war and empire. Today, the notorious El Salvador of war, poverty and unimaginable violence has become the world. The whole world has become El Salvador! Like the martyrs, we need to talk about it, name it and do what we can to stop global poverty, wars and violence. If we do, we might also reach the heights of El Salvador’s spectacular saints, prophets, theologians and martyrs.

Second, the martyrs denounced war, poverty and violence as “social sin.” They knew these tragedies were unjust, immoral and impractical, but they went further and named systemic injustice as a violation of God’s will, as blasphemy and idolatry. We are all guilty of mortal sin by allowing billions to suffer under poverty, war and violence, they taught, and true repentance means working to eradicate these injustices.

Third, the martyrs call us to take sides--to side with the world’s poor and margainalized, to live in solidarity with them as best we can. They challenge us to befriend the poor, serve the poor, learn from the poor, liberate the poor, defend the poor, struggle with and for the poor, and ideally practice a downward mobility that leads us to become one with the poor. That was the journey of Jesus and the Jesuit martyrs; it’s our journey too.

Fourth, the martyrs teach us to move from charity to justice. Yes, we have to serve specific suffering people, as each of them did, but we also have to ask why the poor are suffering and impoverished. As we do, we join the struggle for social and economic justice. The martyrs teach us to connect the dots around the world and learn that the struggle is one.

Fifth, the martyrs call us to make a preferential option for peace and nonviolence. They urge us to pursue global disarmament for a global redistribution of wealth, and thus to herald a new world of nonviolence. They want us to make sure that no one ever takes up the gun again. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemani, their blood, spilled in the garden in front of their house, cries out: “Put down the sword!” It says: the age of the death squads is coming to an end. The martyrs push us to resist and end the work of the ultimate death squads--in the Pentagon, Los Alamos, Livermore Labs, the SAC base, Creech AFB, Fort Hood, Congress and the White House.

Sixth, the martyrs call us to follow the nonviolent Jesus “as he carries his cross” in pursuit of God’s reign of justice and peace. They spoke about the cross, wrote about the cross, and took up the cross as nonviolent resistance to war and systemic injustice. They knew from the deaths of their friends, including Rutilio Grande, Archbishop Romero, and Ita Ford, that the only way to radical social change is through the paschal mystery. Today, few speak about the cross. This anniversary reminds us that every Christian is summoned to take up the cross of nonviolent resistance to global injustice.

Seventh, the Jesuit martyrs demonstrate how every Catholic university, college, high school, retreat center, and parish could become a center for justice and peace. The University of Central America was the model Jesuit university. There was no other place like it in the hemisphere. I was amazed, as they toured us around in 1985, at their ambitious attempt to change national opinion and “reality.” It was a training camp in peace and justice. Every course, paper, and department was aimed at the nonviolent transformation of El Salvador. Imagine if every Jesuit, Catholic, and Christian university today were aimed at the disarmament and transformation of the United States; if these universities refused to take a penny from the Pentagon, banned ROTC, taught nonviolence, required every student to labor on behalf of the poor, and became a school of justice and peace! Not only would we begin to change our society; we would start to match the example set by the martyrs.

Eighth, Ellacuria and the Jesuit martyrs call us to become prophets of justice and peace. They were not afraid to speak publicly and became fierce communicators. The right wing accused of them being political, but they understood their public stand for justice and peace as a requirement of the Gospel. They expected every Christian to speak out. They would not tolerate our silence, our fear, our apathy, or our false humility (which lets us off the hook). I’m convinced that Ellacuria and the other martyrs would want us to denounce our government’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our massive military budget, our funding of the occupation of the Palestinians, our failure to protect the environment, our nuclear arsenal, and our refusal to eradicate global starvation. They would want us to be the voice of the voiceless, to communicate with our people as best we can so that this militarism ends and those resources are spent instead on food, homes, healthcare, education, employment and dignity for the world’s poor.

Ninth, the Jesuit martyrs remind us that life is short. Their blood calls us to wake up, practice a mature Christianity, use our talents wisely, and spend our days working on behalf of the world’s poor. Their deaths warn us not to waste the precious time we have been given. They cry out: Seek God! Seek God’s reign! Love one another! Serve the least, hunger and thirst for justice, and make peace while there is still time.

Tenth, Ellacuria and the Jesuit martyrs invite us to be people of true hope. They avoided the cheap hope so common in our comfortable, apathetic culture. Instead, the martyrs point us to the hope of Jesus on the cross, the hope that comes close to despair, the hope that pursues justice and peace even though it seems so futile. The martyrs teach us to place our hope in God, and so, to know that the outcome, the results of our work, are in God’s hands. As we learn this hard lesson, we find the strength to give our lives too for a new world without war, poverty, nuclear weapons and global warming, whether or not we live to see the fruit of our work. We know it is God’s work, and so we go forward in hope, even joy, because we know now that our lives have joined the cause of God.

“We are people of the Gospel, a gospel that proclaims the reign of God, and that calls us to try to transform this earth into as close a likeness of that reign as possible,” Ellacuria wrote.

As we remember Ellacuria and the Jesuit martyrs, let’s pledge to carry on their work, follow their Gospel example, share their prophetic mission, and practice their fearless faith and bold hope. As we do, we too will be blessed.


This week, John’s new book, Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, appears from Orbis Books. With his other recent books, A Persistent Peace and Put Down the Sword, along with Patricia Normile’s John Dear On Peace, it is available from For information, or to schedule a speaking event, visit:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Celestial Poets vs. Prophetic Poets: Pablo Neruda by way of John Dear

Last month, in the mix of reading hundreds of Neruda poems from Ilan Stavans' edition called THE POETRY OF PABLO NERUDA, I came across this poem, a blistering critique of the poetry of quietism (as opposed to quietude). Neruda is at his most vituperative and prophetic in various moments in CANTO GENERAL, including this one, when he attacks the poets who "take flight" when "confronted with the reign of anguish" of the imperial oppression.

While I love certain aspects of "celestial poetry," I struggle with how it seems to dodge its own protection and privilege in a world of violence. Even a poet like Wallace Stevens--arguably one of the great celestial poets--still found it essential to address the conditions of violence and despair in his essay, "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," when he wrote about poetry as an attempt to hold off the violence of the world. Perhaps, in a sense, Neruda's poem reduces the "celestial" to a straw man category; at the same time, he provides an opening for thinking further about what prophetic poetry might look like. Here's the poem:

"The Celestial Poets" from CANTO GENERAL, by Pablo Neruda, trans. Martin Espada

What did you do, you Gideans,
intellectualizers, Rilkeans,
mystifiers, false existential
sorcerers, surrealist
butterflies incandescent
in the tomb, Europhile
cadavers in fashion,
pale worms in the capitalist
cheese, what did you do
confronted with the reign of anguish,
in the face of this dark human being,
this kicked-around dignity,
this head immersed
in manure, this essence
of coarse and trampled lives?

You did nothing but take flight:
sold a stack of debris,
searched for celestial hair,
cowardly plants, fingernail clippings,
"Pure Beauty," "spells,"
works of the timid
good for averting the eyes,
for the confusion of delicate
pupils, surviving
on a plate of dirty leftovers
tossed at you by the masters,
not seeing the stone in agony,
no defense, no conquest,
more blinds than wreaths
at the cemetery, when rain
falls on the flowers still
and rotten among the tombs.

In John Dear's recent essay, the prophetic priest lays out a basic definition of what a prophet is and does; by his definition, Neruda more or less fits the bill. There is little doubt that the prophetic mode has been in decline for some time in the United States--not limited to poetry--but we have had some remarkable prophetic poets: Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Muriel Rukeyser, among others. Still others who have written prophetic poetry (the Merwin of The Lice) have also written celestial poetry (the Merwin of everything else). The way of prophetic poetry is fraught with danger, but isn't everything?

The school of prophets
by John Dear SJ on Nov. 17, 2009 On the Road to Peace
Last weekend in Adelaide, Australia, seventy of us gathered for a retreat entitled “The School of Prophets.” The idea was dreamed up by my friend Tim Deslandes as a time for contemplative prayer which would lead us toward prophetic speaking and action.

Tim says the time has become ripe to raise a new generation of “prophetic people,” given churchly scandals and failures and worldly horrors and wars.

For my part, I offered reflections on the prophets John the Baptist, Jonah, Isaiah, Mary and Jesus. And during my months of preparation, I lingered over the simple question: what is a prophet? It’s a question we seldom hear raised. “It’s not something we hear anyone speaking about these days,” I was told from a reporter of one of Australia’s Catholic papers.

That’s particularly strange and sad because the term was so important to Jesus, who clearly trained his disciples as “students of the prophetic way,” particularly in his Sermon on the Mount. He admonished them: Rejoice despite almost certain persecution, because you emulate “the prophets of old.”

What is a prophet? The prophets were “the most disturbing people who ever lived,” Rabbi Abraham Heschel famously penned. The Hebrew word means “to speak for someone else.” Adds theologian Megan McKenna in her great book, Prophets: “The prophets have no personal spirituality. They live for one thing: the word of God is in their mouths. Their spiritualities are, in a certain sense, the very words that come out of their mouths. Each prophet becomes the message. They embody the word that is to be spoken to this people, at this time, in this place. Their very presence becomes a message in itself.”

Daniel Berrigan says a prophet is simply one who speaks the truth to a culture of lies. Philip Berrigan once wrote, “The poor show us who we are and the prophets tell us who we could be, so we hide the poor and kill the prophets.”

During the weekend, I recalled the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador -- surely great prophets if there ever were -- who spoke of becoming “a prophetic people,” even “a prophetic church.” They broke new ground in being persecuted -- and assassinated -- as a community of prophets. I suggested we consider ourselves as members of the global prophetic movement for justice, disarmament and peace. And I offered a dozen points to get us started.

First, a prophet is someone who listens attentively to the word of God, a contemplative, a mystic who hears God and takes God at God’s word, and then goes into the world to tell the world God’s message. So a prophet speaks fearlessly, publicly God’s message, without compromise, despite the times, whether fair or foul.

Second, morning, noon and night, the prophet is centered on God. The prophet does not do his or her own will or speak his or her own message. The prophet does God’s will and speaks God’s message. Simply put, a prophet is spokesperson for God. God invariably sends the prophet with a word to proclaim. “Go say to my people: ‘Thus says God…’” In the process, the prophet tells us who God is and what God wants, and thus, who we are and how we can become fully human.

Third, a prophet interprets the signs of the times. The prophet is concerned with the world, here and now, in the daily events of the whole human race, not just our little backyard. And also, not in some ineffable hereafter. The prophet sees the big picture -- war, starvation, poverty, disease, nuclear weapons, global warming, greed, selfishness. The prophet looks at these current realities and interprets them through God’s eyes, not through the eyes of analysts or pundits or Pentagon press spokespeople. The prophet tells us God’s take on what’s happening.

Fourth, a prophet takes sides. A prophet stands in solidarity with the poorest, with the powerless and the marginalized -- with the crucified peoples of the world, as Ignacio Ellacuria once put it. A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless. Indeed, a prophet is the voice of a voiceless God.

Fifth, all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible are concerned with one main question: justice. They call people to act justly and create a new world of social and economic justice. For justice lies at the heart of God; God requires justice on earth. And the prophet won’t shy from telling us -- if we want a spiritual life, we must work for justice.

Sixth, prophets simultaneously announce and denounce. They announce God’s reign of justice and peace. And at the same time, they publicly denounce the world’s regimes of injustice and war. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, they hold high the alternatives of nonviolence and disarmament, and lay low the obsolete ways of violence and weapons.

Seventh, a prophet confronts the status quo. With the prophet, there is no sitting back. The powerful are challenged, empires resisted, systemic injustice exposed. Prophets vigorously rock the leaky ship of state and shake our somnolent complacency. Matters are urgent, they say. Drop what you’re doing. Justice is a matter of life or death. Brush aside all tin patriotism; put nationalism behind you. Like the Roman standards the Judeans recoiled at, nationalism is today’s idolatrous banner. A banner that incites toward mass murder. The prophet would challenge such idolatry head on.

Eighth, for the prophet, the secure life is usually denied. More often than not the prophet is in trouble. Prophets call for love of your nation’s enemies. They topple the nation’s idols, upset the rich and powerful, and break the laws that would legalize mass murder. The warlike culture takes offense, and it dismisses the prophet, not merely as an agitator, but as obsessed and unbalanced. Consequently, the prophet ends up outcast, rejected, harassed, and marginalized. And eventually, punished, threatened, targeted, bugged, followed, jailed, and sometimes killed.

Ninth, prophets bring the incandescent word to the very heart of grudging religious institutions. There the prophet confronts the blindness and complacency of the religious leader, the bishops and priests who keep silent amid national crimes; the ministers who trace a cross over industries of death and rake blood money into churchly coffers. A bitter irony and an ancient story -- and all but inevitable. The institution that goes by the name of God often turns away the prophet of God.

Tenth, true prophets take no delight in calling down heavenly bolts. Rather they bear an aura of compassion and gentleness. They are good and decent, kind and generous. They exude joy. True, the common image of John the Baptist portrays white-hot anger and indignant rage. But such a characterization is one-dimensional. In his own words, he’s the best man who listens attentively to the voice of the bridegroom, and so, he concludes, “My joy is complete” (John 3). He was, I submit, a person of joy.

Eleventh, prophets are visionaries. In a culture of blindness, they offer insight. In a time of darkness, they light our path. When no one else can see, the prophet can. And what they see is a world imbued with God’s purposes. A world of justice and peace and security for all. A world where all of creation is safe and at rest. The prophet holds aloft the vision -- it’s ours for the asking. The prophet makes it seem possible, saying, let’s make it come true and we shall be blessed.

Finally, the prophet offers hope. Now and then they might sound despairing, but only because they have a heightened awareness of the world’s darkest realities: wars, violence, greed, nuclear weapons and global warming. Such reality overwhelms us; we would rather not hear. But hearing is our only hope. For behind the prophet’s unvarnished vision lies a hope we seldom understand -- the knowledge that God is with us. To realize the hope we must trust ourselves to plumb the depths and trust God to see us through.

* * *

A dozen characterizations of the prophet, and still most of us probably find this edgy calling confusing if not terrifying. My friend, the late Pax Christi leader, Jim McGinnis spent some time in recent years pondering this and wrote about the difference between true and false prophets.

True prophets do not call attention to their own person as much as to their message, whereas false prophets often seek personal glory and praise and perhaps material reward. True prophets, although often at the center of controversy, are most often people of peace, compassion, nonviolence and justice; while false prophets often create dissension for its own sake or to serve the goals of a very small, vested interest group. True prophets are willing to sacrifice their lives if necessary in order to be true to the message they proclaim; false prophets seldom go the extra mile if confronted by the threat of harm. True prophets are devoted to others; false prophets are ultimately selfish or in serious error about the true nature of people. True prophets are outside the establishment and empire and powerbrokers; false prophets, in the biblical tradition, were inside the court, advising the rulers, and making a career of it.

During the retreat, I raised a few questions which I pass on here. What to you is a prophet? Who are the prophets you listen to? What prophets have you known personally? Who has shed unexpected prophetic light on your path? Where is the prophetic vision shaping up around you? How have you joined in, and how can you join in even more? How might you add your voice anew to public denunciations against imperial injustice and war? Poverty and greed? Nuclear arsenals and military adventures? How can you help others to reinvigorate the ways of the prophet? How can we be “students of the prophetic way”?

“It’s not so much that we are political,” Daniel Berrigan once advised me. “We just speak out publicly.”

In a time of deafness, blindness and muteness, we are called to listen even more attentively to the God of peace, and to speak even more publicly God’s word of peace, to break through the silence, complicity and acceptance of our world’s violence and be a prophetic people, with all the pain, persecution and blessings that come our way.

The weekend in Adelaide was a great chance to pray, reflect and ponder these challenges. Participants agreed to spend one year praying through this material and taking steps “along the prophetic way.” I hope and pray that the God of peace will raise a new generation of holy prophets who speak the truth and call us back to God’s way of justice and peace.


This week, John’s new book, Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, appears from Orbis Books. His other recent books, A Persistent Peace and Put Down the Sword, along with Patricia Normile’s John Dear On Peace, are available from For information, or to schedule a speaking event, visit:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cost of Empire: $130 billion for occupying Iraq and Aghanistan (priceless!)

Thanks to Tim Musser for this commentary by Art Laffin, a Catholic Worker, on the recent military spending bill that President Obama passed into law.
680 billion military budget an affront to God, the poor
Nov. 12, 2009
By Art Laffin

President Obama signed into law Oct. 28 the $680 billion 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, the largest military spending bill of its kind. The bill includes $130 billion in funding for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and only modifies the military commissions system at Guantánamo Bay, rather than abolish it.

The bill included several military spending projects Obama had previously opposed, including $560 million for a new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine the Pentagon had rejected. Then there is the approximately $16 billion tucked away in the Energy Department's budget, money dedicated to maintaining the huge U.S. nuclear arsenal. Overall, the bill increases military spending $24 billion from the last fiscal year.

However the president or members of Congress may try to justify this military budget, it is an affront to God and constitutes a direct theft from the poor. This budget is more than a bailout for the weapons industries; it is a massive giveaway to the war profiteers.

Where is the moral outrage at this gross misuse of the public treasury and the political doublespeak used to justify it? How is it possible that so much money could be appropriated in this time of recession when so many billions of taxpayers' funds have already been used to bail out Wall Street, banks and other private financial institutions? Why are there few, if any, public officials saying that this money should instead be spent on providing universal health care for the poor, addressing the global climate crisis, and alleviating poverty? Finally, why is there such deafening silence from the church leadership regarding this colossal misappropriation of wealth and resources?

What would Jesus have us do? I believe Jesus would have us say that to appropriate any money for weapons, war and killing betray his command "to love one another," and is a sin that must be condemned without hesitation.

The poor and the victims cry out for justice — for bread, not nuclear weapons; for affordable housing, not F-35 Joint-Strike Fighters and drones; for universal health care, not war-making and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If people of faith and conscience won't speak out for the poor, the victims and the marginalized, call for an immediate suspension of this immoral war budget, and take action for justice and peace, who will?

Despite the difficult challenges we face, signs of hope abound. There are growing numbers of groups and individuals who are speaking out for peace and social justice, and who are taking nonviolent action to bring about universal health care, climate justice and economic justice; to end U.S. war-making in Iraq and Afghanistan; to stop the drone attacks in Pakistan; to abolish torture and close Guantánamo and Bagram U.S. military prisons; and to disarm our nuclear arsenal.

Recently, two disarmament actions of note have occurred. Oblate of Mary Immaculate Fr. Carl Kabat, who has spent more than 15 years of his life in prison for disarmament actions, is currently in jail in Greeley, Colo., and is facing trial in December for his Aug. 6 Plowshares action at a Minuteman III missile silo. On Nov. 2, All Souls' Day, five peacemakers called the "Disarm Now Plowshares" carried out a Plowshares action at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington state.

It is time to end all of our war-making, beat all the swords of our time into plowshares, and redirect all monies and resources of this military budget to meet the urgent human needs of our country and world.

[Art Laffin is a member of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, D.C.]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall: Berlin and Israel/Palestine

This video shows Palestinian activists breaking down a section of Israel's "security barrier"/"apartheid wall" (depending on your point of view), on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Never let it be said that Palestinians are ignorant of history!

Ever since first reading Robert Frost's "Mending Wall," I've been thinking about the poem's political implications. The poem is a dramatization of a liberal speaker's attempt to understand his neighbor's conservative (and in this case, seemingly rather unthinking) arguments for keeping the wall between their two properties.

In a simplistic reading of the poem, the liberal speaker's questioning exposes the conservative neighbor's inability to think for himself. In the speaker's mind, really, there is no need for the wall at all. They don't keep animals that should be penned in. The trees won't eat each other. Why the wall? In the neighbor's mind, "good fences make good neighbors." But why, the speaker wonders. And we, too, are invited to wonder. The speaker sees the neighbor as "mov[ing] in darkness...not of woods only." He appears, suddenly, as "an old stone savage armed."

A more nuanced reading of the poem notes that the speaker himself was the one to remind his neighbor that it was time to mend the wall. And also, that the speaker himself turns out to be rather judgmental about the neighbor, creating a metaphorical wall between himself and the other.

Frost's poem, then, does not merely side with either, but dramatizes these two human impulses; the impulse to break down barriers, toward mobility and exploration, and the impulse to protect ourselves from incursion, invasion, and oppression.

The ecstasy of East Berliners liberated from their prison is something undeniable, but its also true that some walls protect and nurture. A wall between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast, to reduce conflict, seems to be working, but probably because both sides felt it an interim confidence-building measure. A crucial question might be: who gets to decide the wall is necessary?

Here's the poem:

"Mending Wall"

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

In a recent post, Robert Naiman offers a critique of what some call the "Apartheid Wall" that cuts between and into Israel/Palestine. What's at stake here is not just the wall per se, but where the wall is placed (in this case, often confiscating Palestinian land and between Palestinian towns).

Mr. Netanyahu, Tear Down This Wall
by robert naiman on 9 November 2009 - 4:41pm
On the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western leaders are full of self-congratulation. But their paeans to universal freedom ring hollow, when they bear large responsibility for another wall constricting human freedom: the apartheid wall dividing the Palestinian West Bank.

Israeli authorities refer to it as a "separation barrier," but that's misleading. The wall doesn't separate pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank. If that's all it did, it would be an entirely different political object. Instead, the wall cuts deep into the Palestinian West Bank, separating Palestinians from each other and from their land, and signaling to the Palestinians that Israel intends to annex territory that Palestinians want for an independent Palestinian state. The fact that Western countries that support the Israeli government - above all the United States - say nothing about the West Bank wall signals to Palestinians that Western support for Palestinian statehood is merely rhetorical.

Today, AFP reports, Palestinians tore down a chunk of the wall near Ramallah.

AFP notes that 85 percent of the planned wall is inside the West Bank, and it would leave 9.5 percent of the West Bank and 35,000 West Bank Palestinians between the barrier and the Green Line that marks the 1967 border with Israel.

The World Court issued a resolution in 2004 calling for those parts of the barrier that are inside the West Bank to be torn down and for further construction in the territory to cease. Israel and Western countries have ignored the World Court resolution.

Two years ago Israel's own High Court ruled against the route of the wall near the Palestinian village of Bilin, but the Israeli government ignored the ruling of its own highest court.

Today, the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" and the Palestinian Authority are at the brink of collapse, the New York Times reports.

We've reached this point in large measure because of the unwillingness of the Obama Administration to put real pressure on the Israeli government to implement past agreements - in particular, to implement a freeze on the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. When the first President Bush demanded a settlement freeze, he backed up his demand with real pressure - holding up loan guarantees to Israel. The Obama Administration never indicated that there was any "or else" associated with its demand for a settlement freeze, leading the Netanyahu government to conclude that it could just wait the Obama Administration out - a conclusion that appears to have been borne out by events.

This would be an especially opportune time for U.S. officials to indicate that they intend to meaningfully oppose the ongoing construction of "facts on the ground" that are constricting the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and undermining their hopes for national independence - facts on the ground like the apartheid wall.