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Beyond Words: Poet’s Lament

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Hiroshima,_AutumnPoetry at its finest stretches the expressiveness of language beyond its prior limits, not necessarily by its choice of words, but through the magical invocation of feelings embedded deeply within consciousness. Yes even poetry has its own frontiers that if crossed lead to a word-less terrain littered with corpses of atrocity, what Thomas Merton and James Douglass have soulfully identified for us as the realm of ‘the unspeakable,’ and then are brave enough to explore forbidden terrain. When we do not respect the unspeakable by our silence we domesticate the criminality of the horror that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, and give way to the eventual emergence of normalcy as has happened with nuclear weapons detached from the happenings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I came across an utterance by one of my heroes, the Jesuit priest/poet, Daniel Berrigan, while on trial for pouring blood on draft cards during the Vietnam War: “I was in danger of verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence.” These words appear at the start of a haunting poem by another one of my heroes, the recently dead poet, Adrienne Rich; the poem’s title is “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” and I recommend it not only as a stunning poetic achievement but also as a text for meditation.

Such thoughts seem far from the recent controversies here about the competing justice and victimization claims of Israelis and Palestinians, and the sort of language that seems historically validated for some to discuss such matters of life and death, while being hateful to others. It made me appreciate anew that there are some rivers of divergence that are too wide to cross, and that the attempt, first generates anger and frustration, but eventually brings despair, even sadness. Of course, the blogosphere is a new kind of undefended public space that can be entered by anyone with good will or ill. To appoint myself as a kind of censor, given the capacity to exclude or include comments, was neither congenial nor tenable as a role, and I have decided to give it up except in relation to hate speech or defamatory material, although even here I acknowledge that some degree of subjectivity will always be present, at least unconsciously.

I am of course aware that the Israel/Palestine conflict is almost impossible to approach in a spirit of moderation, and I realize that many of the hostile comments are directed at my particular understanding and way of presenting the issues. Indeed, my posts have been scrutinized by pro-Israeli zealots so as to find some turn of language or alleged opinion that can be used to discredit me in other settings, especially in relation to my role as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. Unlike comments that can be excluded, the posts are in the public domain, source material for those who seek to mount a personal attack, and there are no rules of the game to ensure that allegations are at least fair and reasonable. I have tried my best not to be intimidated or hurt by such concerted efforts to harm my reputation and destroy my self-esteem, but have not always succeeded.

As the person who dares to continue to write a blog under such circumstances, I have tried to devise for myself a code of responsible behavior for my own benefit, and to establish an atmosphere of trust and respect. I have selected two main principles as guidelines: (1) sustain integrity, especially whenever the suffering of others is involved, especially if it is unpopular to complain about what is happening, or worse, to mount sharp criticism of the perpetrators; in effect, talk truth to power, acknowledging, as I do, in the process that for Gandhi a dedication to truthfulness should never be separated from a dedication to nonviolence. (2) Admit mistakes, and explain their occurrence as honestly and helpfully as possible. In addition, I would add a couple further principles to this informal code, which like the Japanese game of Go has never put its rules in the form of an authoritative written text: (3) use the blog space to challenge whenever possible the ‘politics of invisibility’ that shields from our awareness structures of suffering, abuse, and exploitation; I attempted to do this, for instance, by calling attention to the extraordinary Palestinian hunger strikes that were almost totally ignored by the mainstream media in North America while giving daily coverage to Chinese human rights activists who were enduring far less. (4) use the blog space from time to time to consider a complementary aspect of the way reality is so often obscured and twisted by media, government, special interests, a pattern I label ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, diverting attention from the message to the messenger, or condemning the auspices under which allegations were made while ignoring their substance; this is happening all the time, perhaps most damagingly by convincing much of the public for decades that the menace of nuclear weaponry has to do mostly with its proliferation rather than with its possession, deployment, threat, and possible use; more controversially, to obscure the violence of energy geopolitics behind a protective screen of counter-terrorism as in fashioning a rationale for attacking Iraq in 2003.

The work of poetry is poetry, but there are times when poets do produce lines here and there that illuminate the human predicament in unforgettable ways. Of course, the recognition of such an illumination is highly personal, and should never be defended. For me the following lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Fragment of an Elegy had this kind of explosive impact upon my imagination:

Once poets resounded over the battlefield, what voice
can outshout the rattle of this metallic age
that is struggling on toward its careening future?

Although composed almost a hundred years ago, this image of triumphal militarism illuminates current conditions and obliquely addresses our worst fears. We need to be thankful for these poems that make the outer limits of the speakable more accessible, especially in dark times of torment, great risk, and confusion.


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