Monday, May 30, 2011

Shara McCallum's "History is a Room": Widening the Frame of Memorial Day

I first discovered Shara McCallum's poetry while co-editing the anthology, Come Together: Imagine Peace.  Her "The Story So Far" was stark and vivid enough to lead off the "witness" section of the book.  Her "History is a Room" explores that odd awareness we have, in imperial America, of our privilege and dislocation, our protection and vulnerability, on the "homefront."  What better poem to dilate our sense of what to memorialize on this Memorial Day--not just the soldiers who've fought in wars, but the civilians who've engaged in their own battles to reclaim rights and dignity at home and abroad.

History is a Room

The study of History is the study of Empire.
—Niall Ferguson

I cannot enter.

To enter that room, I would need to be a man who makes History, not a girl to whom History happened.

Mother to two daughters, I guard their lives with hope, a pinch of salt I throw over my shoulder.

To enter that room, I would need to wield a gun.

Here, I brandish weapons that serve an art my mother and grandmother knew: how to make of plantain and eggs a meal.

To enter that room, I would need to live in the past, to understand how power is amassed, eclipsing the sun.

Beneath my children's beds, I scatter grains of rice to keep duppy at bay.

To enter that room, I would need to live in the present: This election. This war.

Beneath my children's pillows, I place worry dolls to ensure their peaceful sleep.

To enter that room, I would need to bridge the distance between my door and what lies beyond.

Standing in my foyer at dusk, I ask the sea to fill the crevices of this house with its breath.

History is recounted by the dead, returned from their graves to walk in shriveled skins.

In our yard, I watch my daughters run with arms papering the wind.

History is recounted by children in nursery rhymes, beauty masking its own violence.

In my kitchen, I peel an orange, try to forget my thumb must wrest the pulp from its rind.

History is recounted in The Book of Explanations: AK-47 begat UZI, which begat M-16 ... and all the days of their lives were long.

Pausing at the sink, I think of how a pepper might be cut, blade handled so the knife becomes the fruit slit open, its seeds laid bare.

History is recounted in The Book of Beginnings: the storey of a people born of forgetting.

In our yard, I name the world for my children—praying mantis, robin's egg, maple leaf—words for lives they bring me in their palms.

To enter that room, I would need to look into the mirror of language, see in collateral damage the faces of the dead.

In our yard, I sow seeds, planting myself in this soil.

To enter that room, I would need to uncover the pattern of a life woven onto some master loom.

Here, I set the table, sweep the floor, make deals with the god of small things.

To enter that room, I would need to be armed with the right question: is History the start of evening or dawn returning the swallow to the sky?

Here, I light candles at nightfall, believe the match waits to be struck.

Shara McCallum
This Strange Land
Alice James Books
thanks to Poetry Daily for reprinting this poem.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rae Abileah Disrupts the Fantasy

from Amy Goodman's introduction to Rae Abileah:
AMY GOODMAN: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech was warmly received by Democrats and Republicans in Congress. According to ABC News, Netanyahu received 29 standing ovations during his address, four more than President Obama received during his State of the Union earlier this year. However, there was at least one dissenting voice inside the halls of Congress Tuesday...


RAE ABILEAH: I just wanted to say that the people that were sitting around me in the gallery of Congress yesterday were mostly wearing badges from the AIPAC Israel lobby conference. And I did not expect that people holding such power and representing such a huge lobby group would respond so violently to my peaceful disruption. And after I spoke out, Netanyahu said, you know, "This is what’s possible in a democracy. And you wouldn’t be able to get away with this in other countries like Tunisia." And I think that is ridiculous and absurd. If this is what democracy looks like, that when you speak out for freedom and justice, you get tackled to the ground, you get physically violated and assaulted, and then you get hauled off to jail, that’s not the kind of democracy that I think I want to live in.

Read more from this courageous woman.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Muriel Rukeyser's "Elegy in Joy"

This weekend, I happened to read Muriel Rukeyser's "Poem" which begins "I lived in the first century of world wars" at a Peace Show fundraiser. When this poem came over the email from the Academy of American Poets (due props), I thought that I could have just as well read this one. Rukeyser was one of those poets whose fierce opposition to war and her progressive social politics was always articulated in a vision of "the love that gives us ourselves." In that way, she avoided the blood-lust of so much anti-war and anti-capitalist verse of the time (not to mention our time). Even if some of her lines wobble a bit, she seems to snap our attention back with a kind of mystic attention.

Elegy in Joy [excerpt]
by Muriel Rukeyser

We tell beginnings: for the flesh and the answer,
or the look, the lake in the eye that knows,
for the despair that flows down in widest rivers,
cloud of home; and also the green tree of grace,
all in the leaf, in the love that gives us ourselves.

The word of nourishment passes through the women,
soldiers and orchards rooted in constellations,
white towers, eyes of children:
saying in time of war What shall we feed?
I cannot say the end.

Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.
Not all things are blest, but the
seeds of all things are blest.
The blessing is in the seed.

This moment, this seed, this wave of the sea, this look, this instant of love.
Years over wars and an imagining of peace. Or the expiation journey
toward peace which is many wishes flaming together,
fierce pure life, the many-living home.
Love that gives us ourselves, in the world known to all
new techniques for the healing of the wound,
and the unknown world. One life, or the faring stars.

This poem is from Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems, published by New Directions. Reprinted with permission. Click here to purchase book.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Nathan Deuel in Beirut, "Beirut, After Osama"

Journalist (and my friend) Nathan Deuel, in Beirut, on hearing about the death of Osama bin Laden.

The other day I ventured out into the sun-drenched city of Beirut, where I saw cafes and restaurants packed with young people spending money. At a stainless steel table, buff men ate olives. Nearby, two young women in gold shirts talked over a stack of books. One title: Elite Management Training. Down the block, a gleaming red Ferrari rolled by and a transvestite teetered on heels. Osama bin Laden had just been killed...

read more.

Friday, May 13, 2011

From the "The More Things Change" Department: on the "Irvine 11"

I just learned about the "Irvine 11" case regarding a nonviolent protest of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in 2010. What disturbs me the most about this case is the way, yet again, that speech critical of Israel is so frequently branded as "anti-Semitic" and the dissenters punished disproportionately to their civil disobedience. Whether or not you agree with their criticism, these people will not be silenced by character assassination or disproportionate punishment. Nor, I expect, will playwright Tony Kushner, or Roger Waters, or anyone else recently punished by their conscientious critiques of Israel's policies toward Palestinians.

Here's the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's statement:

ADC Stands with the "Irvine 11"

Washington, DC | | May 11, 2011 - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) expresses support for the eleven students from the University of California (UC) Irvine and UC Riverside. According to the official website of the group known as the “Irvine 11,”, the students peacefully protested the February 8, 2010, speech of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine. At the event, the students stood up and made individual statements of dissent; they were thereafter immediately taken into custody. The students did not resist arrest, did not commit any property damage, or engage in violence. Following a year of criminal investigation, including the impaneling of a secretive grand jury, the Orange County District Attorney charged all eleven students with two misdemeanors.

ADC, along with other supporters of the “Irvine 11,” calls for the immediate dismissal of all charges against the students. Furthermore, ADC calls on the Orange County prosecutors handling the charges against the students to be immediately removed from the case based on prosecutorial misconduct due to expressed ethnic and religious prejudices. There is evidence that the prosecutors handling the case acted discriminatorily – calling the students “anti-Semitic,” comparing them to the “Klu Klux Klan,” and even internally labeling the case the “UCI Muslim Case.” Recently, attorneys for the group filed a motion seeking to bar the prosecutors from making any more public statements about the case. The attorneys argue in court filings that prosecutors have violated their clients' rights to a fair trial by making "ethically irresponsible" public statements, including wrongly branding the students anti-Semitic and declaring them guilty.

ADC is a firm believer in the first amendment rights of all individuals – regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. The actions by the Orange County Prosecutor’s office violate the basic fundamental principle of freedom of expression, afforded to the “Irvine 11” students and to all Americans.

ADC will continue to monitor this case. Accordingly, ADC asks the Orange County District Attorney to reconsider the actions of his office, and promptly move to dismiss all the charges against the students who were merely exercising their First Amendment constitutional rights.


NOTE TO EDITORS: The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), which is non-profit, non-sectarian and non-partisan, is the largest grassroots Arab-American civil rights and civil liberties organization in the United States. It was founded in 1980 by former Senator James Abourezk. ADC has a national network of chapters and members in all 50 states.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Peace Show Fundraiser 2011: Music and Poetry (May 14th, 7pm, St. Paul's Community Church)

The Cleveland Non-Violence Network presents Music & Words for Peace, a coffeehouse fundraiser for the 10th Annual Labor Day Peace Show, with music by Deborah Van Kleef, Ian Heisey and the Cleveland Hip-Hop Club, and poetry by Kate Sopko, Phil Metres, Kazim Ali, Dianne Borsenik, John Burroughs and Sammy Greenspan. Free will donations accepted at the door. Baked goods & fair trade coffee. Parking on Franklin Boulevard an and adjoining streets. More info:, 216-932-8546,

Monday, May 9, 2011

"I learned the grass as I began to write": the poetry of Arseny Tarkovsky

Our new translation of Arseny Tarkovsky's "I learned the grass..." is now at Two Lines Online. You can also read my short statement of translating Tarkovsky here.

Speaking of Soviet poetry during an interview toward the end of her life, Anna Akhmatova called Arseny Tarkovsky the one “real poet.” In her words, in 1965, “of all contemporary poets Tarkovsky alone is completely his own self, completely independent. He possesses the most important feature of a poet, which I’d call the birthright . . .” He somehow survived the Soviet Age and all its compromises to create an unforgettable verse.

Here's a beautiful scene from "Mirror," directed by his son, which features Tarkovsky's "First Meetings" poem, just to give you a taste of his music:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Dear Tiara" by Sean Thomas Dougherty

Dear Tiara
by Sean Thomas Dougherty

I dreamed I was a mannequin in the pawnshop window
of your conjectures.

I dreamed I was a chant in the mouth of a monk, saffron-robed
syllables in the religion of You.

I dreamed I was a lament to hear the deep sorrow places
of your lungs.

I dreamed I was your bad instincts.

I dreamed I was a hummingbird sipping from the tulip of your ear.

I dreamed I was your ex-boyfriend stored in the basement
with your old baggage.

I dreamed I was a jukebox where every song sang your name.

I dreamed I was in an elevator, rising in the air shaft
of your misgivings.

I dreamed I was a library fine, I've checked you out
too long so many times.

I dreamed you were a lake and I was a little fish leaping
through the thin reeds of your throaty humming.

I must've dreamed I was a nail, because I woke beside you still

I dreamed I was a tooth to fill the absences of your old age.

I dreamed I was a Christmas cactus, blooming in the desert
of my stupidity.

I dreamed I was a saint's hair-shirt, sewn with the thread
of your saliva.

I dreamed I was an All Night Movie Theater, showing the
flickering black reel of my nights before I met you.

I must've dreamed I was gravity, I've fallen for you so damn hard.

(thanks to the Academy of American Poets, BOA Editions, and Sean Thomas Dougherty, whose new book, Sasha Sings the Laundry on the Line, is available for purchase)