For 22 years I assembled at my workplace before 0630 and again before 1700. Many brave men and women in those units, and I, rendered honors to a symbol of our national experiment (the one that’s still trying to find out if a set of ideals and rule of law rather than religion and skin color can unite us as a country).
We had each, for our own reasons, signed on to protect our nation’s borders, to defend the constitution, and to give the last measure of our life if it were required. Our occupation was (and is) filled with symbolism. And it was often in that moment of silence before the bugle played Reveille or Retreat that I thought about the symbols. Watching the flag raised and lowered reminded me there were ideals worth defending that were greater than my self interest.
Being united rather than divided in our particular profession enabled successes that didn’t seem possible and brought many of us back alive from challenging situations.
I’m reminded now that not everyone needs this cloth to serve such an ideal. First responders run into danger daily with less symbolism. Seeing a fellow citizen, or family member, in peril brings many to that conclusion. And protecting those we care about many would agree is an ideal worth fighting over.
Sometimes though we appear to be blind to the idea that a stranger may have a family whose safety, whose right to live, is also worth fighting for. Focusing on abstraction sometimes takes that attention from where it needs to be.
If you read war poetry (or war fiction, or war essays) you rarely find abstraction. The words ‘freedom’ or ‘commies’ doesn’t appear unless it’s in a quote by a politician.
A conversation with a bunkmate, the cool skin of a dead body, the smell of shit, the sound of artillery, and blood. Those appear. There’s the taste of mom’s fried chicken, the scent of a girl’s perfume. Those also appear. The things we find ourselves fighting for. And sometimes we find ourselves thinking about them while holding our hands canted, arms parallel with the ground and fingertips touching the edge of our eyebrows, rendering honors to a cause greater than our politics and ourselves.
Protesters are doing the same thing when they place their bodies in harm’s way for the idea that their children should be able to live without fear of being shot for the color of their skin.
There’s a poem in the book Phantom Noise titled ‘Illumination Rounds.’ In the poem, Brian Turner’s speaker finds himself in his back yard digging in the middle of the night. He’s seeing the war dead and trying to convey this to his wife who hasn’t seen what he’s seen. However it is the wife, on faith, who understands that what he is seeing is real and that abstraction and stock answers do not help. In fact it is the abstraction, the separation from those in harm’s way that perhaps created the war dead. She says:
‘We should invite them into our home.
We should learn their names, their history.
We should know these people
We bury in the earth.’
This is the beginning of a refusal to accept the idea of collateral damage, and an acknowledgement of what happens when we see the abstraction instead of the people affected whether it’s in our own country or overseas. You often don’t get that from news stories or history books.
Returning from the gym I stop to check my messages, come across a rejection notice for three poems. I’d submitted the set to a journal geared toward social justice. No. More accurately, a conversation being had in verse, in response to world events and the changing landscape.
I don’t mention this to talk about my disappointment. Rejections, often because a piece is not right for a magazine or doesn’t touch the right nerve with the editor, are part of the game. I actually appreciated the candid response by the editor, who wrote (paraphrasing) the reader, a few years from now, might not understand the events that these poems refer to.
While I don’t share the same idea on what events and descriptions are memorable or even understandable, the sentence was one of the best in telling me specifically what the journal aims for. It is that question, what events, what responses and what descriptions will stand the test of time and give insight to a person looking back.
I did not know much about mustard gas attacks when I first read Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est.’ Extracting the full effect of the poem required from me the supplemental reading I was willing to bring to the table. However, the poem can be read and appreciated without the scavenger hunt process of determining whether this or that is a reference and to what.
I’m staring at a silent television screen. Our president is speaking to the United Nations. I know I’ll find the text and read it later. In real time, political speeches feel like being bombarded with agenda masquerading as fact – too fast to refute and almost arm twisted into submission.
For the moment, this is the event that captures our attention and most have determined how they will react before a word has been spoken. But while the event creates the anxiety, we’ve learned for more than a decade that the news is in how people like us respond in living rooms, in diners and other public spaces, or in the workplace talk. Reactions, whether educated or erroneous or prejudiced or thoughtful, affect what happens next.
Afternoon comes and I’m standing in a public kitchen. A man, respected in the community, leans on the door frame having listened to pundits pour over the speech. He starts with small talk while I’m chopping vegetables, focused more on blade and fingertips than events. He says, ‘This is what happens when you’re more concerned about political correctness.” (He never explains whether the you is me or some broader group.)
“How so?” I ask. Then think about it. Then say, “Back up. First define political correctness.”
We argue (but in a low tone) for a while. Which isn’t the point.
Point is this. The event that triggered the discussion has happened. We are not near the end of thinking about what it means. , or how to bridge people rather than becoming more entrenched.
The event is happening in New York City, 1700 miles away, roughly. I can’t write the witness poem. I could write a political, a didactic piece, and probably a bad one.
But there is a news we tend to ignore in our 24 hour news cycle of fact spewing – which is the reaction to it, locally, maybe in our own homes. The reaction becomes news because it is the story of how each person will view the world afterward – a small chance of changing, a greater chance of having that view hardened. What happens next, perhaps an image of political refugees from war torn Myanmar, already has meaning attached. It is in tens of millions of living rooms like this where the tension rises. Somewhere it reaches a crescendo. In which living room does the next Dylan Roof sit glued to the screen, or the next activist for positive change?
Writing about these fault lines provides a glimpse of the movement beneath the surface, the impending collision that makes these words relevant at some unknown place down the road.
This week has been blessed with the opportunity to visit poets in a variety of settings, from workshops offering critiques to groups that function as each other’s support to a group that prompts each other to write, to generate new art.
What struck me most about these diverse groups is the desire to be supportive. Regardless of the structure, regardless of the experience level.
The poems exchanged each caused us to look at some aspect of the world differently – a far cry from the daily social media debates that seek to squash difference. Sides in the normal settings come armed with a set of ‘facts’ gleaned from reputed news sources around the world.
Facts have become a commodity, with a set of facts for every taste. Each point of view, no matter how destructive and no matter how fallacious, can find nourishment from a group with a specific agenda. The only limit to the ‘facts’ you can find to support your prejudice is the distance you are willing to travel out on the fringe of reason.
The facts in these cases are devoid of context. I can make the statement that members of a certain religion have carried out 23 attacks in this year so far. While the number may be correct, the number does not identify who was being attacked, and where the attacks took place. Without the context the ‘fact’ becomes a source of fear where the listener assumes a greater danger to self.
I was originally talking about poetry.
Which arises from the explosions, both literal and figurative, happening around us.
The difference is that poetry, by telling the story of the one who is living in the history making events of our time, tells a deeper story than any fact could. Perhaps it is the mother of a victim of one of the 23 attacks. Perhaps the victim is from a different country than the news led us to believe. Perhaps the bomber is from the place whose flag we are waving. Or perhaps the truth falls in line with what we suspected. We learn from poetry that likely all three stories can be true, and often are.
Whatever we learn from the poem we are hearing tonight in our group – at its best -- we will be sure that it will tell us a story that will cause us to step outside of our comfort zone and to see something we were not expecting. We will learn to question what maybe we were taught as children to accept and maybe, as a result, we will look at the person approaching us with a look of empathy and learn to treat them as the person they are. That is what we are supporting when we read together, and when we listen.