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The Refuge of Poetry

By Sharan Strange

Through the Words of Miss Brooks,” 2017
(Cover illustration by Tyrue Slang Jones for the June 2017 issue of Poetry)

Over the past few months, I’ve developed the habit of avoiding news broadcasts. I’m not completely oblivious to what’s going on. I’ve simply chosen to avoid saturating my consciousness with awareness of these increasingly chaotic political times. I can barely stand the stridency of The Disingenuous and The Hypocritical, whose opinions and policies seem to dominant the day—or at least the endless news cycle. But far from having a stick-my-head-in-the-sand attitude, I feel an even greater sense of urgency about the state of things—fueled in turns by anger, anxiety, and mostly determination to not be undone by either of these emotional states. Ultimately, I look to poetry—which encompasses not only the anguish, bewilderment, even despair, but also the wonder, wisdom, and strivings of countless voices past, present, and future—for sanity in this world.

Which likely comes as no surprise to fellow poets. We’re committed to the practice of language to enliven our sense of what it means to be human and to instigate shifts of being in ways that only poetry—not political rhetoric—can. I mean the kind of poems that do so fundamentally by telling the truth as wholly as they can, something we might rarely these days (if ever we did) trust those who govern us to do. Poetry can be unsettling, certainly…can be spur as much as salve, call to fight as much as paean to harmony. But poems that matter don’t shirk their responsibility to wrestle with complexity, expose and explore vulnerabilities, question, resist, encourage, enlighten. There’s no real power to be gained from what lies, obfuscates, “others” and diminishes us, fomenting ignorance, fear, and hatred. Rather than close us off, drawing boundaries that would separate and isolate us, poetry opens us up to the potential of deep engagement, real freedom, and joy. So, it is in that possibility that I will dwell. Poetry is the news that I turn to during all the controversy and divisiveness wracking our society.

The work of Gwendolyn Brooks, whose 102nd birth anniversary we will celebrate on June 7th, has always been a touchstone. Her poems are hardly “easy,” yet they sustain me because of their quality of truth-telling. I am grateful for their bracing eloquence, for their immediacy and their timelessness. Saint Gwendolyn, who reminds us that “Art hurts. Art urges voyages—”

And who also says:

I pass you my Poem.

A poem doesn’t do everything for you.
You are supposed to go on with your thinking.
You are supposed to enrich
the other person’s poem with your extensions,
your uniquely personal understandings,
thus making the poem serve you.
. . .
My Poem is life, and not finished.
It shall never be finished.
My Poem is life, and can grow.

Wherever life can grow, it will.
It will sprout out,
and do the best it can.
I give you what I have.
You don’t get all your questions answered in this world.
How many answers shall be found
in the developing world of my Poem?
I don’t know. Nevertheless I put my Poem,
which is my life, into your hands, where it will do the best it can.

I trust the vulnerability, honesty, and courage, the gesture of mutuality in these words. They contain an inherent confidence that there is something to work with, even if we don’t have all the answers to the difficult problems we face. The poem honors uncertainty as much as agency because human experience involves both, yet it adamantly affirms life because that is what it means to “do the best [we] can.” Brooks has the adopted persona here, political activist Winnie Mandela, take refuge in poetry, not as a result of resignation or escape, but in order to proclaim poetry’s vital, even revolutionary status.

Despite the bombardment by media outlets—the distressing droning of politicians and pundits—I find assurance in the fact that poets are everywhere and always addressing our myriad concerns. The weekly postings on Poets Respond (Rattle.com) offer examples of how poets provide the currency of their whole-hearted engagement with the news of the day:

Sharanya Manivannan

THE MOTHERS

A mother wearing glass beads looking for
another handkerchief, the melted candy
in the one she is carrying as sticky as
the nose being wiped on her arm, under
church fans too slow for this April heat.

A mother whose only existing photograph of him
was borrowed permanently by someone who
told her they could be trusted with her story,
praying to the saint who restores what has
been lost, on her knees again
—again, as many times as it will take.

A mother whose own countenance howls
in frames the whole world scrolls past,
captured by someone who did not care to
learn her name or the names of her dead.

A mother who is Amma, her other name forgotten—
the word a scream in the room at the morgue where
bodies beloveds are identified by wedding rings
and blood-splashed shoes on a projection screen.

A mother who wishes they could have gone for a swim
first, but they are so hungry she has to stand between
them in the buffet line so they don’t break into a fight.

A mother with a baby keeping time
inside her body, a mother with a bomb.

A mother in the kitchen measuring the sugar
generously, preparing this Easter’s feast,
waiting for the little ones who must just now
be saying grace in a circle at Sunday school,

waiting for the little ones
to come home.

(Read Manivannan’s comment about her poem here.)

Amy Miller

TO WHOEVER INHERITS THE EARTH

If it still stands,
find the bench on the bend
of Crystal Springs trail with a view

of the cold lake
and cormorants. We were idiots,
but we liked this. Also cats on our belly

at night. Taqueria
windows white with steam.
A certain shade of lilac that painted

the hills
for a single week in May.
We had a saying about the meek,

but the crops
failed all of us equally,
the Earth so democratic for a moment.

We kept writing—
bless you if you’re reading this—
because to stop would have been death

before death
before death. To know
the mistakes we made, with everything,

made a long
and foolish memoir.
And what was there to do but write it?

We are
so young. Tonight
white blossoms blaze outside the door,

a scent
like spring has lost
its mind and pumped out all

the pheromones
in the arsenal. We are
so in love as well—this place—

three deer walk
down the center of the street,
lit for a moment, then crossing to the dark.

(Read Miller’s comment about her poem here.)

I’ll venture to say that Brooks, who died almost twenty years ago, would celebrate a daily forum with “Big Poems” (rather than “…perfect unimportant pieces. / Poems that cough lightly—catch back a sneeze.”). During these difficult times, we might do better to turn away from the worst aspects of corporate journalism and take refuge in such poems, allowing them to further prompt and enrich our thinking, our feelings, and our actions.

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