Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

D.C. Poets Against the War

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

D.C. Poets Against the War: an Anthology.
Sarah Browning, Michele Elliot, and Danny Rose, editors.
Argonne House Press (2004) 129 pp.
ISBN 1-887641-98-X.

In the aftermath of World War I, the artist Augustus John is reputed to have said that he thought the Germans were the cruelest and most inhuman people on the planet... until he reflected upon the war poetry that had been published in the British dailies. Matters have changed considerably since then and a reader is not likely to find much poetry being published in support even of an ongoing war. In general we may consider this an advance.

But one further question remains: Is the poetry now written against wars any better written than that which once supported wars? Has there been any advance in that regard?

Although reviewers do not, as a rule, have an exhaustive acquaintance with World War I newspaper poetry, it seems safe, even based upon limited evidence, to say that D.C. Poets Against the War argues that war poetry has improved considerably over the intervening years. There is nothing of the saccharine flavor of the earlier product, no unreflective patriotism. At times the poems are even exceptional in their own right.

While D.C. Poets Against the War is uneven in quality it is due to the limitations of the anthology form rather than war poetry per se. More importantly, the better poems in the volume exceed expectations. A poem like Zein El-Amine's "Afternoon in Deir Keifa" is so well written and so uniquely to the point, that it is impossible to excerpt a representative quote from it. Every word, every image is essential to the effect of its simple, deceptively quiet closing lines. It inflicts emotional shock and awe.

Naomi Ayala's "Within Me" ("Adentro") courageously turns the mirror upon the reader:

It is with me that war begins
Right here on my street...

There can hardly be enough of this kind of honesty. The final lines of DJ Renegade's "Monday Poem" ask a curious question, and, in the process, make a solid poem into a lingering one. Martin Galvin's "March 3, 1998", about a grandfather and his grandson in war-torn Yugoslavia, is another poem of unusual and deceptively quiet impact.

Among those poems in which the poet succeeds more by a quirky idea than by deftly rendering some aspect of the humanity shattered by war, Mike Maggio's "Weather Report" stands out:

Artillery shells will fall through the day
and there will be scattered skirmishes
throughout the metropolitan area.

Judith McCombs's "Advice to the Photographers of Atrocities" also succeeds quite well in this vein:

You must not show us
a field full of victims,
they will look like clothing,
or abandoned wreckage,
we will not react.
Too many bodies
are cordwood...

Dean Smith's "At the Halliburton Family Picnic" is an enormously promising idea that either has not found its proper poet or not been given the requisite time and effort in order to reach its potential.

But the poem that asks the vitally important question is the poem that serves as the opening paragraphs of Cornelius Eady's "Forward":

          ...what poem ever stopped a bomb
Unknotted a lynch rope?

There is no simple answer to this but parts of an answer are clear enough. Poems written at the time bombs are dropping or lynchings are in progress have little immediate effect. Also, direct, accusatory poems do not begin to be enough.

Poets need to be writing the poems now that go to the root of the next war and the next after that. The root of war is not to be found in the bombs that are falling as one writes. As impressive as the anti-war movement has been, at times, during Iraq War II, its effect has been limited.

It is not unreasonable to suspect that we may be (unwittingly?) planting the seeds of more such wars. The two seemingly endless bull markets in the U. S. today are debt (private and public) and armaments. As more and more segments of the U.S. population find themselves in ever more vulnerable financial positions—wages stagnant or worse, our impressive medical technologies beyond their reach, retirement a luxury they can not afford, Constitutional protections defined away—the next generation of neo-Conservatives will have a vulnerable, undereducated audience looking for a safe way to release its anger, for some "other" to be blamed for its disempowerment.

It is likely to be an audience receptive to the idea that it is someone else's fault, someone whose cousin blew up an embassy, or made an idle threat, or who was otherwise imperfect while occupying oil rich land. They will blame a nation that manipulated its markets in some fashion our traders consider unfavorable to their prospects and will claim, through their pervasive media outlets, is the source of our economic injustices. We may prove unable to resist warming up on illegal immigrants, luring them to us as we make sub-minimum wage slaves of them by declaring them bereft of legal protections. To put it in a nutshell, we may prove unable to resist correcting our excesses by using our national and international might to make up our losses at the expense of others.

There will always be an available excuse and among the only ways of dealing with that fact is to help people to recognize excuses and to have the humanity and the courage to reject them even under difficult circumstances. Once the bombs are falling they will continue to fall until we have taken whatever we deem worth taking or until the cost threatens to outweigh our collective desire to choose the easy way out of the enormous dilemmas we face. They can only be stopped by a continuing determination within the poetry community (and all communities of conscience) to learn the skills required in order to reach its audience at the deepest levels and to have something genuine to add to its understanding of what it means to be fully human. That is to say, they can only be stopped before they have begun to fall.

While the poems of D.C. Poets Against the War do not necessarily recognize these criteria, the volume may, nevertheless, prove to be a spirited step in a long, long journey. We will know whether or not it is such a step once we see toward where subsequent steps are directed.


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