October 25th, 2009 11:36 EST
When The Palestinians Speak to Us in An American Accent
The trouble with most poetry that addresses contemporary injustice " war, inequality, class, immigration, etc "is that it`s bad or mediocre.
I say this as one who in his zombie youth complained that Allen Ginsberg`s Howl was mediocre poetry, however just its complaints. I passed those days in some kind of altered state, but I think I can fairly say that I wouldn`t have had this reaction to Kim Jensen`s Bread Alone, which is also about injustice and sorrow. And anger.
I now read Howl as I listen to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others, with that appreciation that sometimes comes with age and its not-giving-a-damn luxuries. It was important to me then to make the case for elegance and ambiguity, and neither Allen nor Jerry Lee suited the purpose.
It would be easy, facile even, to remark of Bread Alone that it is an extended jeremiad, and there would be an irony in that, Jeremiah having been a Hebrew prophet and Bread Alone carrying many an unspoken complaint about his heirs. And the collection is a lament, but it is much more. It is the rueful observations of a canny observer sorting through ironies, paradoxes and absurdities as a child might sort through rubble for her family after a bombing.
We have all heard the girl or young woman, someone breathtakingly intuitive and vigilant, between the ages of 12 and 20 "on the brink of something momentous and inevitable and heartbreakingly lucid about human foibles and her own fragility. Movies have been made to give this person voice, whether she lived in Appalachia or a secret Dutch attic. Novels have been written. We know life will silence her. We know her voice will change. But for now her innocence and clarity are almost too much to bear.
That is often the sound of these poems. Sometimes they`re so painful and cutting that we shush the poet. But other times we read the book through yet again because we know this particular voice is so precious and rare, so likely to be lost.
When protest poetry overtly protests it misses the mark. It overstates itself. It`s rather like listening to a Hamas or Fatah functionary haranguing the world about the plight of the Palestinians as compared to hearing the Palestinians themselves or watching them pick through the ruins of their lives. Jensen is an American who has lived in California, France and the Middle East. She is married to the Palestinian painter Zahi Khamis. Because she is an American the voices of these Iraqis, Lebanese and Palestinians come to us in our own accents and idioms and therefore do not feel foreign to us.
When you consider how remote the drowning of New Orleans seemed to the politicos in Washington you can begin to take the measure of our distance from the tragedy of the Palestinians. They have no effective lobby in Washington, as do the Israelis. They have only other Arabs who regard them almost as remotely as we do, except as ideological straw horses. This is what makes Bread Alone so powerful: an American voice fully in tune emotionally with distant sufferers. Moreover, they are often as not suffering at our hands as well as the Israelis`.
Nothing makes historical experience memorable like poetry. A thousand kraters, steles, the deductions of historians "nothing makes the Trojan war come alive like Homer`s Iliad. The parent of the Western novel it may be, but it is poetry, and it is the reason we still care about the Trojans and what befell them. Similarly, the Bible and the Qu`ran. Whatever else they are, they are poems, memorable and powerful enough to sway events century after century.
When Achilles calls Agamemnon a dog-eyed wine sack and a venal hack we remember it because Homer is a great poet, but most protest poetry is less than memorable, and that`s why Bread Alone is worth celebrating. Her poems sing the sorrows of Palestinians, Iraqis and Lebanese into the collective unconscious so that by the time we put down this elegant jeremiad the knowledge has become instinctual in us that this is our tragedy and to ignore it is to risk our own souls in just the way so many souls were irreparably disgraced by ignoring the plight of European Jewry in the middle of the last century, which is to say in the middle of one of the darkest nights in history. Looking away is evil. Let the poet tell you why in the very last poem of the volume:
at the end
of the war
Try to forget that and not lose your soul. That thin trickle of words, like coins falling, invites, demands extrapolation: at the end of the debate over health care, at the end of the debate about Afghanistan, at the end of the debate about almost all the ills that befall us "the noise of coins jingling.
We have not, we see, been walking a very long mile with the Palestinians; instead we have broken bread at the altar of the paramount tragedy of our time: endless war waged for the benefit of a pirate class. Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. Or Gaza or Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan "or anywhere where the pockets of the corrupt and greedy can be stuffed. Bomb, bomb, bomb, and say it`s about security or religion or democracy; only poetry will point out, as Achilles in The Iliad does, that it`s about something so squalid we would move heaven and earth not to talk about it. But the good poet will talk about it, and you can more readily destroy a country than you can a good poem. Homer wrote of places that are gone, buried, forgotten, but he is not.
And yet nowhere does Jensen say anything so overt. She does not talk of Hamas, Fatah, Likud, settlements, extremists, terrorism " she gives voice to the humans they afflict with their grandiosity. Take the poem called Wired " on page 57. The speaker, evidently a Palestinian, having said:
A new barbarity
has sprung up between us "
I`ll stay here
on my side.
Isn`t that what we want the migrants south of the Rio Grande to say? Isn`t it what we want everyone who disagrees with us to say? Isn`t that the very essence of The Other, the one who doesn`t belong, whom we don`t want to embrace? Isn`t it the very disgrace of exceptionalism, our own sense of entitlement?
The speaker could be a Mexican or any ghetto dweller or an Arab in a Paris suburb. The speaker could be an abused, bullied child. And tomorrow`s terrorist. New barbarities are always springing up, new razor-wire fences. Here and there are always waiting to be redefined. And none rise to the task as mightily and well as poets.
Perhaps because Arabs know a lot about thirst the silvern flash of water in the sun is a recurrent theme in their poetry, whether the water is the Guadalquiver or the Tigris or, metaphorically, a respite from war and the encroachment of settlers in Israel. It is a theme in Jensen`s poems "not as overt imagery or intellectualization "but in the watery, quick, glistening passage of the poems down and through the pages, a poetics not unlike much Arab poetry. The Arabs have always known what we are only now learning at great cost: water is everything.
The subtleties of these poems are many, but the reader runs on past them, like a trickling brook, because the poems are lithe and fleet. Here is one such subtlety, The Color Grey ":
The color grey.
When memory is left.
I refrain from quoting the whole of this short poem so as not to spoil it for the reader. But notice two aspects of these opening lines. Gray is spelled the British way because e better conveys the color`s bleakness than the American a, even though they both sound the same. It`s not an affectation, it "s the deliberate decision of a color-sensitive person. Then note the double, possibly the triple meaning of the word left. It denotes leaving, left-sidedness, as in sinistral, and possibly the idea of being bereft. And yet the reader can quickly read through all this, like one walking in a brook and not taking particular notice of each pebble.
Color, like architecture, expresses not just a culture but also the aims of its leaders. Two instances comes to mind. By any standard, the FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, DC, is menacing, looming, and yet big buildings do not need to be either. The choice is deliberate. The Chrysler Building in Manhattan is bigger, taller, and yet it`s beautiful and inspiring, while the FBI building flattens the spirit. Or take the feldgrau, field gray, of Wehrmacht uniforms in World War II: abandon all hope of resistance or humanity, these uniforms say. They are grey as winter and they are meant to inspire despair in everyone but the wearer. And as for the black SS uniforms, well, little need be said.
Is this to make too much of a single word choice? It would be were Jensen not so consistently particular and considered. A word, a poem, may say one thing and mean another, or they may say several things at once.
In Long Shelf Life " she says:
We became accustomed to a world
without water "
grew at home in a world
We raised our children on the prospects
and more wars.
Who is we? The Arabs? Sure. But stick this book in your coat pocket and read a few verses as you walk in most big American cities. You`ll see people living in cardboard hovels and you`ll savor the prospect of more wars. And some of those people in those boxes served us in Iraq. So, at the end of the day, it isn`t just the Arabs or the Israelis or the Afghans who suffer endless war, it`s also we who allow ourselves to be frightened into it.
It would have been a shame to have presented such exquisite poetry in an ordinary vehicle. Fortunately, that is not the case. Syracuse University Press has given us a collector`s object of art, in many ways the perfect hardcover book of poems. It is what a volume of poems ought to look like, not a run-of-the-mill dash-off.
Jensen is also the author of The Woman I Left Behind.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller`s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
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