Friday, March 20, 2020

Wild Fridays #11: Words From Our Community


Addressing Darkness – How?

What 'interesting times' we do live in! No sooner do we finally put out raging fires, experience some small relief from drought, deal with severe floods in various countries ... than we get hit by a global pandemic and its resulting fear and divisiveness. As well as trauma, hardship and death, it will no doubt result in some powerful new writing*. 

Meanwhile, many of us have already been struggling with how to address, in our writing, the evils and traumas of the world we inhabit – the wars, disease, environmental disasters … not to mention more personal things such as grief, depression, poverty. Do we take issue with them in our writing? Do we vent the emotions that arise from them? Do we turn away from them to more uplifting subjects? Do we let them paralyse our writing hands (and minds) altogether? Can we transform them into something beautiful in our art – and if so, should we?

Perhaps the world has always been a mixture of the beautiful and the terrible, but it does seem these days that the worst things are writ large – in the media in particular. As recipients of these messages, I think we all try to make choices between, on the one hand, staying informed and responsible, and on the other, allowing the intrusion of too much negativity into our consciousness to influence us for the worse. It’s never an easy choice! Where is the balance? Is there some sane middle point, somewhere between putting one's head in the sand and succumbing to panic?

And, as poets, with our own messages to convey...?

We also have options. The best thing is that we’re not limited to only one option forever; we are free to take different approaches at different times. Here are some of my favourites from our online community, illustrating various possibilities.
 



Bearing Witness

One way – and a powerful way it can be – is simply to record what we observe and let those facts speak for themselves. That often means focusing on the particular rather than the world-wide, as in this piece by the poet we know as dsnake1 (aka Cheong Lee San or Lawrence Cheong; I call him Lee San) who blogs at urban poems and i write too.


the stories are a bit grim 

It's tough when you have almost nothing. No water. No electricity. Just a hut. And your wits. 


In the morning the sun brushes our squatter huts
           with loving fingers of gold.

The politicians thump chests and assure us
      that our squatter village is safe.

An old man lives in an abandoned pill box
      and sells candy by day.

Aunt goes early to the market to pick
           discarded vegetables to make achar.

Little Brother is playing with the mothballs again,
           oh please not the mouth!

Some out-of-towners lost their way
           but we do not speak English well.

Me and cousins raid the pill box for candy,
           find only old books and blades.

The kind fisherman gives me and sister
           a big catch of wrasses, all for 30 cents.

Dad comes back from work and says
           someone is shipping missiles to Cuba.

Some nights, the groans and noises from 
           the neighbours' thin walls are too loud

We get very paranoid when the police come visiting,
           it has to be something big.

Surely, we are not having pigeon soup 
           with wolfberries again, it's awful!

Mother says go back to sleep but the neighbours
           are fighting like wild cats.

Little Sister is out in the yard playing
           with the chicks, squeezing them.

Some shore-leave sailors lost their way
           and pretend to take pictures of us.

Uncle asks how does a man flies three times
           around the world, folding his paper.

For a week the cops come, plain-clothes,
           shoving mugshots into our faces.

We are expecting something better 
           for dinner tonight other than missiles.

Government officials come and tell us
           that our huts have to make way for a port.

Dad says we are moving to the city core 
           but the stories there are a bit grim.



I asked Lee San (pictured on his recent visit to Japan) for more details.

Me: Would you like to say a bit about how you came to write that poem, the impetus for it and/or the back story? I'm also interested that you describe it, on your blog, as a 'variant of a ghazal'; would you care to elaborate on that?


Lee San: Yes, I do believe that a poet is in a way, a witness to events that move or excite him or her, as a painter or photographer might be too.

Actually, I spent many nights fine-tuning this poem. It started when I wanted to write about the tough, but also innocent and carefree times of my childhood. When I was a kid, I lived in a squatter colony, and followed my father to some political rallies, not that I know or care what the politicians were shouting about. Later we moved to an apartment in the city core, a notorious part of town. And came to hear about the horror stories of the place. (There was a lot of exaggeration but it really was a hotbed of gangland activity). I can't remember what triggered the response, perhaps some online news or article, that's how sometimes my mind meanders.

Anyway, it started out as 4-line verses, and I found the imagery a little mixed up and muddled. So to tidy it up, I chopped them into a ghazal-like form, to let the reader focus easier on the images. It is not a true traditional ghazal because there are no repeating words, but there are recurring themes or images in the different lines. For example, Little Brother/Little Sister playing, going to the market, the police, the neighbours, and so on. So I called it a variant of a ghazal, for want of a better name.  I think I have earlier posted another poem with this same form, "every morning the sun looks in". I have started to fall in love with this "form".  :)

Me: I too love to try variants of the ghazal, and sometimes even the more traditional version. It's a form I fell in love with too.

Lee San: I find the variants of the ghazal allow me the flexibility and freedom to write imagery otherwise only possible with long prose. I have some poems in progress that are of these variants.

I for one will be looking out for those!


Imagining the Future (1: Elegaic)

Others, looking at the larger picture, may use imagination to project a possible future. Lately, a number of us have been postulating dystopian scenarios – based very much on the present global problems we are forced to confront. Some of these projections are horrifying, and/or filled with grief. Some are resigned, as if our doom is assured. Some also offer a glimmer of hope, a tiny light in the surrounding darkness – such as this by the poet we know as Brendan, of the blog Oran’s Well, who says that Brendan is ‘my online name; in real life I go by David’.


Nearer My God 

The future arrives just as water
survives our exhaustion, wells empty,
seas full. A conveyance drowned.
Get used to it. Become that glass
that matters even as it buries
in silt. Grow wings for harrowing smoke.
Sing where no marrow remains
for voices once dearly invoked.
I think of the string ensemble
bowing the old cheer while the
Titanic sank, sowing comfort while
not enough lifeboats were boarded.
Offering distant glints of Paradise,
something still to be richly said,
daring a sort of welcome into
the waters’ icy rise. Such is the path
to the stars 
they played as they drowned.
Nearer, my God, to Thee. A music
for history. Dark waters and starlight
and voices gone vast undersea.


This seems to me an uncompromising poem, looking squarely at what we have done to our only home. The final lines are unutterably sad, elegaic. And yet the poet urges us to ‘Become the glass that matters … grow wings … sing….’ Even if we cannot escape the doom, he suggests, we can defiantly assert that we lived. Yes, it’s one way to deal with impending doom – and not only in poetry.


In the past Brendan has shared his poetry at imaginary garden with real toads, dVerse and (our previous incarnation, still accessible) Poets United.

Oran’s Well is his personal blog. This year he has also created earthweal* as primarily a place where poets may share their responses to the current state of the planet, but inclusive of other topics too.

I asked Brendan: ‘Is there anything you'd like to say about the poem – its genesis, its crafting, anything?’

He replied: For the past several years, most of my poetry has been increasingly shadowed by our rapidly changing Earth. The poetic vantage ranges from fleeting hope to political rage, humorous aside to deep despair. “Nearer My God” is of the most latter ilk. Yet there is strange serenity in such surrender. A voice drifts in from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus II, 13 (eg. “be the glass that shattered even as it rang”) and points to the quintet of musicians who played on while the Titanic sank. To me it’s an apt expression of comfort in despair: The ship is going down, there’s no stopping that; but there are songs which can ease the transition.  

Seeing into that, even celebrating it, goes back to the Rilke’s sonnet, which begins,   

Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.

(Steven Mitchell translation)

Maybe the comfort really belongs to the world, to see humanity sink in its tide. 

Ah, what can one add to that? It's hard not to think the planet and its other life forms might be better off without us.


Imagining the Future (2: Explosive) 

Chrissa Sandlin, of the blog Moon Pools and Mermaids, also gets imaginative in the following poem. Her vision (or dream) is quite personal.


Some Other Light 

I almost get the picture but my brain and thumb
Are out of synch, one dreaming, the other balancing stuff.
It's an old dream in a new-ish city, oil leaking skylights
Across the entire dome of tomorrow until we see
The universe and the blue sky in the same puddle;
Until the flight that carries and the flight that punctures
Are the same thing, explosions and ribbons
Ripping and lacing the sky open and whole simultaneously.
We are dreaming in gloves and calipers, only a little
Star stuff and gunpowder before the colors rend
Our sight from darkness and give us light.
Daydreaming in the city already smothered
By creeks and bayous and rivers dreaming of salt depths,
Of the deep darkness where islands are born,
Some other current, some other light
One facing the heart, one facing the heights.


Chrissa says: Re-reading the poem, I'm pretty sure the impetus was (as it's been for a while) the way that Houston begins in the very swamp and reaches out until the last vestige of mud seems to be gone...only to discover that we're always going to carry that vestige in ourselves and it's always going to provide a spillway for whatever flood of humanity (good or bad) we open ourselves to while trying to refine ourselves. It was composed sitting at my desk, window to my right, feet curled beneath me to leave space for a dog to dream under my desk. 

We know what Chrissa looks like, from seeing her smiling at us in the profile photo on her blog. Here instead is Arthur under Chrissa’s desk – a homey image in contrast to the wild scenarios of her futuristic poem. Yet there's a touch of the fantastical even so. She says, ‘We picked the name Arthur because our oldest dog is Merlin.’ (I love that!)



Accentuating the Positive

Finally, a poem of triumph, joy, hope fulfilled. Many turn to the beauty and restorative power of nature in troubled times. Jae Rose’s ‘Howl’, from her Jae Rose blog, is a lovely example of that – even though I always read Jae’s poems, including this one, as metaphorical. It works either way, or both. 


Howl 

A million years howl
When voices whisper among the trees
We are on the forest floor
Looking up
The leaves are crisp and brown
Spidery veins patterned from root to tip
We collect them up
They are like ancient paper in our hands
Stories unfolding
Wishes scattered
Our feet ache from the wooded path
We imagine taking off our shoes and socks
Let the moss cushion our steps
The damp ground moisten our blisters
But we decide to keep walking
Following the path
Listening to the trees
It is as if it has always been
And will continue to be
An owl hoots in the distance
We would like to see his wings unfold
As he flies off to the moon
But he is too quick for us
All we can feel is his song
The trees are full of life
They breathe and dance
They have borne witness to many a traveller
And dreamer
They are a guide and a light
They understand the whispers
Absorb up all the howls
We are glad to tread this path
It will lead us to morning
And carry us home.


I asked Jae, too, for her comments on the poem I chose.

Jae: I can’t remember how Howl evolved. I like the physical sensations – the moss and wetness.

I like the sense of journeying, particularly with Alice [Jae’s familiar companion in her poems]. This feels like a night time adventure and a sense of looking both outside and inside. Noticing the world around us – be it real or imagined 

I always like the sense of ending with home. It feels like a cycle – a comforting pattern. Home is a feeling not just a roof over your head. And home wouldn’t be home without Alice. She is a faithful companion.

Many of Jae’s poems have dealt with struggle and despair – not shirking the truth of that, yet managing to make the poetry beautiful even so. I was happy to see one that feels more positive. She also sent me this beautiful photo illustrative of that mood, and of her trees 'full of life'.


 


I wasn't sure where this exploration would end up when I began it. Now that I've had a closer look at these pieces, it seems evident that all possible responses to trouble and evil are valid in poetry – and I think all these examples demonstrate that we can make art out of any subject matter, without destroying or diluting the truth of our messages. Perhaps that is all that we can hope to do. It certainly seems to be what we are called to do.


*Note: In the current weekly challenge at the new 'earthweal' site, we're invited to share some of our writing on, and/or read how others have been addressing, the pandemic. I'm particularly struck by pieces from Sarah Connor, grapeling and Misky – whose work (along with that of others there) is known to many in this community.


Material shared here is presented for study and review. Poems, photos, and other writings and images remain the property of their copyright owners, usually the authors.

26 comments:

  1. We poets are becoming chroniclers in these 'interesting times', Rosemary, together with the media, and I expect to be reading some powerful new writing over the coming months. Your questions are pertinent and depend on the various situations, personal and geographical, as well as political opinions. Thank you for sharing poems to illustrate the possibilities. They all resonated with me in different ways.

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    1. That's a great word, Kim, 'chroniclers'. Yes, I can wear that. I think it's an excellent way to look at it. I'm happy with the idea of chronicling both current events and my responses to them, as one of many poets who will between us build up a picture, a record.

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  2. Thank you for this opportunity to be in good company Rosemary - a real honour to be involved

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  3. Thanks, Rosemary, for opening the window, letting some uncontaminated air into our solitary confinement. And thanks to the featured poets (and all of the other wonderful poets at P/S United) for making our enforced isolation more bearable.

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    1. Yes, suddenly we see the positive side of social media!

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  4. Rosemary, you have hit my squawk button. I have empathy for those living in "substantial" housing and the homeless. Lee San's poem I could identify, per your words, "It's tough when you have almost nothing. No water. No electricity. Just a hut. And your wits."
    First though, thank you for introducing Chrissa. She is a fellow Houston or Metro Houston writer, there are at least four of us writing here in our area. I don't know personally any in person.
    Chrissa, if you could possibly be of the Hippie era you might have seen my on my Red Honda motorcycle, riding or parked in the parks full of music and singing, or sitting, talking and … ,on the loading docks behind the downtown stores, or along Buffalo Bayou, especially gathered at Allen's Landing. Those were the good days of our world, they won't be back.
    My first encounter with Shanty Town was along the Rio Grande on the Mexican Side. I would ride my Vespa scooter across at Juarez (I was station in El Paso at the U.S. Army base, Fort Bliss) and ride along the small side roads to the east. The kids would wave and the dogs were barking if they woke up.
    Places like that but not so thickly populated are outside many towns, have been at least since Bible days of 'those living outside the city gates.' My next vivid visit was in Cairo where folk were living in the cemetery tombs. I was told that their rooves were better and that outside they would still have not lights and have to carry water.
    Last December and January we again saw those large area of makeshift homes, house made from scrounged materials and with little of our modern conveniences. Living there in South Africa mostly were the displaced Apartheid members and their descendants. Sad for me to see people living like that, Many did have jobs but surely were not highly paid or they would have moved to the suburbs.
    In our U.S. towns we have people living in groups, their home being a cardboard box. We call them homeless though some are quite settled. They live in the parks and under our bridges, you may have them too. When a family loses their home they generally try to keep the car for a decent place to sleep.
    The U.S. has over 500,000 homeless folk, Houston last fall had 3900, down 5% from the year before. I am not sure what constitutes being counted as homeless person. In my single lives times I have had no home but was staying with a friend. Probably not homeless.
    The problem is world wide, partly depending on the various economies how much exists. Probably it should be treated as a world problem with world orchestrated corrections and cures.
    Again, nice posting, Rosemary. Thank you.
    BTW, my father share cropped and our four-room house had two bedrooms and no utilities or running water or inside plumbing. And no electricity, only wood burning stoves. We got electricity when I was five, things were some better then.
    ..

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    1. Thanks, Jim, for this detailed reminiscence. I think Chrissa is far too young for the Hippie era. I'm not, but have never been to Houston. However, you bring it all vividly alive!
      Those introductory words to Lee San's poem are his, not mine. It seems you and he have both come a long way since childhood!

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    2. Thank you, Jim, for your great comment.
      what i was writing about was a long time ago (the 60's), and half way around the world from the USA. True, there are still lots of shanty towns around the world, even in developed countries. When i was in Japan recently, i encountered many homeless people in Tokyo. It was quite a cultural shock to me.
      I am in much better shape now, i have an apartment home. Small, cluttered, but with reliable electricity and water.
      once again, thank you! :)

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  5. Thanks for this piece. As a poet I write the world as I see it and feel it. My moods change, but my urge to write keeps fueling my pen. I keep remembering my parents, how they took what they had and created what they needed. There are times I must write dark poetry, to get it out, to release some of the weight of life, anger. Other times I am bird wing and moonlight. Hope arrives on my windowsill as a sparrow, and begs me to write it into a poem.

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    1. Even your dark poetry manages to uplift me by its sheer brilliance, dear Susie. But may you often be 'bird wing and moonlight'!

      And of course you exemplify that other thing I didn't think to mention in my article – that, for most of us, we can't help but write anyway ... write SOMETHING, whatever it may be.

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  6. Thank you for the effort and thought you put into Wild Friday scribblings. At 86, I am most likely the eldest contributor here. For years a small slate hung in my kitchen on which I'd written in chalk "Count blessings. Choose happy". I believe we are what we think, and dwelling on doom and despair is injurious to our health. Coming from that mind set, I often find the dystopian nature of many of the poems oppressive, while I admire the skill displayed, and agree with Kim poets are the chroniclers of the times, I look for my time spent perusing the poems to be uplifting, and that is often not the case. The mutual respect and camaraderie, however, are a wonderful experience. I am reminded of the old golf joke that ends "Hit the ball and drag Harry". In this case, it would be "Hit the ball and drag Bev"!

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    1. Not being a golfer, I didn't know the joke. Having looked it up, yes I get it but not sure how it applies here. Never mind; I like 'Count blessings. Choose happy.' Apologies for any upset my dystopian outbursts in recent times may have caused, dear Bev. I think I had to express (and thereby release) what was there before being able to find my way again to joy and beauty. But I don't mean to wound the sensitive. Feel free not to read my poems if they're too dark.(Maybe I could put a warning in the comments to a prompt.)

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    2. PS I don't know if you're the oldest here, but older than me (grin). I'm a mere child of 80. May we both go on reading and writing a long time yet!

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    3. Oh, Rosemary, never NEVER apologize for your beautiful writing. It's totally understandable the dreadful fires in your homeland are heavy on your mind as you write and you are eloquent in expressing their impact. I was referring to the occasions when it seems everyone's poems seem to carry a dark theme. I agree with Susie that there are times we all need to express a dark mood. I just feel it needs to be tempered with hope and humor. I meant only to express my personal reaction, never to be critical of the work itself.

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    4. Thank you, Bev. I must admit I am always grateful for your warmth in responding to my words. And I don't wish to wound your loving heart. But what's to do? The times are indeed dark lately, and that does need expression sometimes. Still, we poets are actually quite good at finding that hope again, and the joy life can bring us even now. You are one whose poems tend to lighten the mood, and I'm grateful!

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  7. Thank you Rosemary for featuring these talented poets in this post. Their words helped me realize how sad I am. Up to now I've been trying to be cheerful, to look at positives, to see brightness. Yet, after reading this, I realize though my efforts at maintaining cheerfulness are valid, I must also recognize that I grieve for those who suffer, for this planet, for the fact that at times I view humanity as earth's virus.
    Now I must do some more thinking, self-exploration and allow myself to go with the flow of what's happening, while accepting my emotions.

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    1. Thank you, Myrna. I think we are all sad really. And although it is well to stay positive, I believe we need to acknowledge our perfectly appropriate 'negative' feelings and even express them, before we can find ways to move forward into a frame of mind which will be beneficial.

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    2. @Myrna, I am so glad Rosemary's post helped you see more and nudged you towards exploring the not-so-positive feelings brewed by the world's current situation. Holding in negative feelings can be exhausting. Best to find a way to explore the bad and write it until we get something good out of it, if we can (and together, we can... most of the time).

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  8. Such a wonderful feature Rosemary! I so enjoyed reading all these amazing writers' poetry!! Poetry is such a wonderful way of expressing the struggles we face, and the goodness we see in the world. These poems prove that beautifully!!

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    1. As I so often ask myself, 'What on earth do people do who don't have poetry? How do they cope?'

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  9. A few days ago, another writer told me that she doesn't feel like writing much because everything her ink sees is dark. I understood her words, but at the same time the sentiment makes no sense to me. When things get extra tough, I look for balance in words (which might explain my current torrent of spring-is-coming-soon themed pieces). That doesn't mean that I don't write doom and gloom, while the world is at its ugliest. It just means that I believe that sometimes writing the dark is what keeps us from being swallowed by darkness.

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    1. Well put, Magaly. And a nice accompaniment to a reply I just wrote to Myrna (above).

      And yes, Spring does serve to lift our spirits, no matter what.

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  10. Our human need for self-expression only gets louder during times during times like these I think. And thank goodness, because I think just the act of trying to give our emotions a visible shape and form is a powerful act of catharsis and self-care. It's also one of those rare self-care things that helps heal others when you share it too.

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    1. Well articulated, Rommy. I think you're absolutely right on all counts.

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  11. Thank you Rosemary, I enjoyed reading.

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Please be respectful of all the people on this site, as each individual writer is entitled to their own opinion, style, and path to creativity.