Mar '03 [Home]

Series/Event Reviews

"The Poet's Novelist":  Michael Hulse on W.G. Sebald at Poets House (2/26)

Women on War, with editor Daniela Gioseffi, Molly Peacock, D.H. Melhem, Pwu Jean Lee at the Graduate Center (3/4)

"What Part of Me Could They Come From?":  Kinnell Leads Anti-War Reading Conceived by Bly at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square (3/6)

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"The Poet's Novelist":  Michael Hulse on W.G. Sebald at Poets House (2/26)

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Women on War, with editor Daniela Gioseffi, Molly Peacock, D.H. Melhem, Pwu Jean Lee at CUNY (3/4)
Women Telling Truth, World Splitting Open

An audience of about forty gathered on March 4 at the CUNY Graduate Center to mark the release of and hear contributors read from Women on War:  An International Anthology of Writings from Antiquity to the Present, a 416-page volume edited and with an introduction by Daniela Gioseffi. A major reading is planned for April. The book's underlying premise, naturally enough, is that women's experience of war is quite different from, or at least adds something unique to, that of men, who have traditionally been the sole combatants in the field.

Referring to her thirty-page introduction, editor Daniela Gioseffi, a long-time activist, confided that she had become more politically "hard-nosed" since her first compilation. This second edition, from The Feminist Press, adds, she said, a good deal of new material since the book first appeared in 1988 from another publisher. Gioseffi praised Jean Casella, her FP editor for encyclopaedic knowledge of the world and of the women in it.

Neither had anticipated how timely the new edition would be now in March, as the United Nations struggles with a dogmatic Bush administration eager for peace through invasion and with Saddam Hussein, another implacable, iron-fisted tyrant in a succession of same whom the U.N. has confronted since its charter first saw light in San Francisco in 1945. The central governing precept of that document, and thus the first principle of international law, appears right away in Article 2, Section 4:  "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."

Contributors Molly Peacock, Pwu Jean Lee, and D.H. Melhem read and offered interesting background on the state of women who have sought a place at the peace-making table, if not in the situation room. Artist Käthe Kollwitz, was the first woman to head the German academy of arts, and a pacifist. "Daughter" in Chinese is "female son." Muriel Rukeyser once asked, "What would happen if one women told the truth about her life? The world would split open." A treatise is appearing soon which may help dispose of the question of whether Rukeyser was a 'real' poet. Denise Levertov, an opponent of the Vietnam War, may have gotten more respect. She was quoted:  "The poets must give us the imagination of peace, not just the absence of war." In her nightmare, the world will burn through the hole in the being of the guy on the controls who was unloved by his mother—"Of all the men whose hands you'd hoped to be in…" An upcoming event at the Cornelia Street Café will return Mother's Day to its true origins:  the honoring of women who lost their sons in battle.

The work gathers together writings by more than 150 women, including renowned poets, novelists, essayists, journalists, and activists, as well as non-writers with first-hand experience of armed conflict as survivors, refugees, rape victims, nurses, and soldiers. Spanning the globe and traversing more than two centuries, the pieces in this collection range from an ancient verse by Sappho to an essay by Arundhati Roy about the meaning of September 11. It is intended as a portrait of war that has "too seldom been seen," and a plea for peace that has "too seldom been heard."

Contributors to the anthology include:  Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Barbara Ehrenreich, Carolyn Forché, Nadine Gordimer, Kimiko Hahn, Barbara Kingsolver, Maxine Kumin, Doris Lessing, Denise Levertov, Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, and Christa Wolf.

(ISBN: 1-55861-409-5, Paperback $19.95, available through Feminist Press at CUNY, 365 Fifth Ave., Ste. 5406, NYC 10016, phone:  (212) 817-7920 fax:  (212) 817-1593, and at better bookstores. Event sponsored by The Center for the Study of Women and Society.

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"What Part of Me Could They Come From?":
 Kinnell Leads Anti-War Reading Conceived by Bly at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square (3/6)

No one was quite sure at first who had organized this packed event; not even the stewards of the flyer table, where ANSWER, Not In Our Name, and The Gabriela Network of Philippine-US Women's Solidarity were represented. Among a crowd of some three hundred, familiar faces were rare. How exciting. It seemed this was going to be an event such as Dana Gioia might have had in mind a dozen years ago, one where poetry was going to matter a great deal to that much larger segment who seldom, if ever, write it.

Peter Larman, Judson's Senior Minister followed welcoming words—"You honor the church with your presence and the world with the sensibility that seeks its preservation"—with a sharp condemnation of New York Times columnist William Safire's exhortation of this morning:  "War cannot be waged apologetically." The next line, offensive but not distinctive or memorable, was bellicose rhetoric about a clear and present duty to call up some measure of spirit that thrives on invasion. "This," said the Minister, "is the kind of language that attempts to pass for 'moral clarity.' Only poetry can achieve that." The crowd burst into applause, and then roared as he quickly and simply announced Galway Kinnell.

Kinnell said it often falls to the poet to be among the first to refuse to be silent. Gentle, but always powerful, he wondered for all present, "Are those polls really true?" He observed that it had taken First Lady Laura Bush's two 'gaffes' to move poets to break that silence en masse:  The first mistake was to invite poets to the White House [to honor the safely silent Dickinson, Hughes, and Whitman]. ("What idiot thought Sam Hamill would be a good candidate for Laura Bush's tea party? Somebody's going to get fired over this."—Sam Hamill [The Guardian]) The second, Kinnell said, was to disinvite us.

Night after night, Kinnell recounted, Anna Akhmatova had waited outside the prison doors for news of loved ones. For seventeen months, with many other women. One night, someone recognized Russia's famous poet. Another, her lips blue with cold, asked her then, "Can you describe this?" When Akhmatova replied, "Yes, I can," those lips formed into a smile.

Presenters drew lots to determine the order for the reading produced by Tim Ginney. Tom Skine began with "Exposure," a poem by Wilfred Owen, who served as an officer with British forces during WWI. Though fiercely critical of the war, he wanted to resist from within and felt a duty to be with his men, exposed in mid-winter trenches. The dawn attacks the grey, but 'nothing happens.' The frost sits on the men's dead faces, the burial unit comes, but 'nothing happens.' Skine's own poem recounted the destruction of the city of Ur and the bombing of the Ziggurat in Iraq in the '91 Gulf War. "May this disaster too / be torn out of mind."

Marie Howe recalled studying with Joseph Brodsky in grad school some twenty years ago. He was tough. She had had to memorize a hundred lines of poetry a week­­including the punctuation. "You Americans are so naïve," he'd said. "You think evil will come into your house in big black boots. But no, it enters first through the language." 'Collateral damage,' she pronounced it warily, letting the audience imagine innocent, dismembered bodies, maybe children's bodies. ('Shock and awe,' Kinnell said later.) She read work by William Stafford:  "the parade of our mutual life / should not get lost in the dark. . . . The dark is very deep." She quoted William Blake—"What is now proven was once only imagination."—and read a 6-line poem written by a young boy just after 9/11 that helped her imagine a future without violence. A window appears on a battlefield. One by one, each soldier looks into the window and sees his childhood. He goes home. When she was young, she was excited by the excited air in the white spaces around the text in books whose language was too hard for her to read. "Doesn't it feel like that, now?" she said. "Right here? We're on the verge of imagining a new sentence."

Broadly acclaimed for poems from his Vietnam War experience (though not only), Yusef Komunyakaa learned "the wisdom of camouflage, / not to stand out. . . . Let them think I am / a shadow of a doubt." [See his contributions to 'Only the Dead,' the magazine's Jun '01 Vietnam issue.] It took him a long time before he was able to write about it. In "You and I Have Disappeared," he watches a burning girl "glo[w] like the fat tip of a banker's cigar, . . . like a burning bush driven by a God-awful mind." (Many in the room were audibly shaken by that close.) He read "Thanks" ("for the tree between me / and the sniper's bullet"), with its image of the monarch butterfly he saw suspended as though in air, but in fact on the otherwise invisible wire of a booby trap. He closed with "Facing It," his moments at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, the wall etched with names, "half-expecting to find my own," and sees reflections in the marble, a woman brushing a boy's hair.

Tracy Morris offered three experimental poems ("Buildings are people with Quasimodo humps / and spires like dousing forks"), the last, a sound poem called "Heaven." Originally written about women victims of spousal abuse, she said she sensed it related to the feeling which we have [the millions of us, perhaps, who cried 'No' in the streets and were regarded by George W. Bush, he said, as little more than 'focus groups'], namely, that we "do not accept it." Ms. Morris sang, she babbled, she wheezed, Heaven, I'm in—, as her hands fibrillated rapidly over her chest like the heart of a terrified bird.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Beyond Vietnam" speech, given at the Riverside Church, were evoked by Rose Stein, who also called on Osip Mandelstam who spoke of Joseph Stalin as "the Kremlin mountaineer," went to prison and died for it. Most striking, though, were the lines she read from "Ogres," a new poem by W.S. Merwin. After a lyrical opening on a wakeful night, listening to the room's sea ("this unspoken favor"), his mind drifts back to those "frauds in office," and he asks himself, "What part of me could they have/ come from were they made of my/ loathing itself and dredged from/ the bitter depths of my shame". As we all will ask ourselves repeatedly this month and for many. She also offered Neruda's "Dictators" and her translation of a poem from the 80's by a Palestinian writer who conceived a sultan at the end of his patience who orders, "Execute this poem!" Ms. Stein let Czeslaw Milosz close with "Child of Europe," which reveals our nature that, we who enjoy April "are better than those who burned," that we, given a choice, will prefer that the other die, and will say, "Let it be done quickly."

Galway Kinnell chose poems about the suffering of children in wars, real and imagined, including his own Fergus ("The Olive-Wood Fire"). Neruda, in Kinnell's round voice, addressed Lorca, mourned him and their time in Spain, his own house of flowers there, geraniums spilling off the balcony. He imagines that friends back home in Chile will ask why his poetry speaks no more of volcanoes, but rather, of "jackals" and "vipers." "Come see the blood in the streets," he says. "Come see the blood in the streets." The President told lies in a second piece Kinnell read by another, had "private information" about which of two cities is the capital of Wyoming. His was the thrill that thrives, the "deep longing for death." This speaker, fearing, then seeing the worst, would drop on all fours, screaming his vocal chords blue. And it would be days before he could hold his own children again.

Gerald Stern and Sharon Olds also presented. Robert Bly and Grace Paley were both in ill health and could not appear.