W. Hunter Roberts
Troubled Tickets - War and Poetry
March 10, 2003
I was feeling the need, on the cusp of this particular genocide, to salve my soul and strengthen my conviction with poetry. Besides, it is nearly spring, and the tiger tulips are in bloom in my garden. So Sunday I had friends to tea, to read aloud from our favorite poets. A civilized pastime, anachronistic, on the verge of insanity; I wanted everything to be beautiful.
David, my English friend and erstwhile high tea consultant, arrived with little cakes made by an Iranian baker in Berkeley, transplanted from the North of England. These cakes are apparently normally found only within a 20-mile radius of Manchester, near to where David comes from, so he was jumping up and down at the flaky pastries filled with dense dark raisins. Together we made cucumber and watercress sandwiches with Irish butter, thinly spread Stilton, and salmon. We had scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam, and the first huge ripe red strawberries of the season, with crème fraiche. Sherry, nutty and sweet. And of course good English tea in a proper teapot and homemade lemonade from lemons in my own back yard.
We gathered around the table, Diane in her red taffeta wasp waist dress from the 1950's, looking like Anne Sexton, with her hair pulled back in a bun; I looking like something out “Reds,” just around WWI, in long bias cut chiffon skirt with big soft champagne colored flowers and drapey neck. Guests oohed and aahed over the delicate foods on silver trays, lace tablecloth, and spring flowers. Then I read "Prayer for Peace" to bless it and us, and the moment, aware that as we were eating cakes, others were preparing bunkers, hoping not to die.
And would we serve them better by not eating strawberries or reading poems?
Here in Northern California, with the sun shining over the bay, one could easily forget such travesties as war. We could turn off our news media, so Iraq would seem very far away, unreal even. I know people who call themselves “spiritual” and do just that. They do not allow the “negative” in. But to close oneself off from any part of life is to have the illusion of being separate from the all of life. It is this very stance that alienates us one from the other, allowing us to call the other ‘enemy.” We are related.
So the question then, is how to live, to sustain the gaze at the unspeakable, while celebrating life? For if embodied life be not ecstatic and precious in every taste and smell, why should killing be a sin?
“I must not die of pity/ I must live . . .eat happiness like bread,” wrote Edna Millay. So we read and ate, bathing in the sensuality of the syllables, taking strength from the conviction of those who had preceded us by centuries. "Conscientious Objector" by Millay, beginning with the startling declaration, "I shall die but that is all that I shall do for death," and W.H. Auden's polemic poem, Sept 1, 1939, written on the eve of the Second World War, which he later disowned (I could see why!), Yeats' Second Coming, "Turning and turning in the widening gyre . . .the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity . . ." Diane bemoaned that things had not progressed at all since Yeats wrote. But I disagreed. We are growing as a species. We are young yet. We are evolving. I am sure of it. Look how many of us there are marching and protesting this war all over the world.
We read more. Rumi. Hafiz. I was glad the Arab world was speaking at our table. Rebecca read one of her own about how we do not know them, really, those whom we go to kill in the richness of their temples. I read Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese, harsh and exciting--.over and over announcing your place in the family of things." Then someone read another Rumi poem contrasting the madness outside with the peace inside. A little one by Hafiz saying that the sun does not tell the earth, "you owe me." Ah yes. We are not owed anything. We only create and love--for their own sake.
As the sun set over the garden, and we nibbled the last crumbs of scones or dipped one last strawberry in cream, I ended the day with Maya Angelou's poem, written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. It is called " A Brave and Startling Truth." The final stanzas read,
“ . . .When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it."
It is noteworthy that there are so many poems relating to war or injustice from so many eras! Did they not recite at the wall of Troy? Neruda’s poetry is still spoken in the Bolero clubs in Cuba, between sets. The ancient priestess Enheduanna bemoaned the killing in Akkad, ironically in the place that is now Iraq. War laments date back to our earliest known literature. What is it about moments of terrible danger and evil, which seem to inspire great creativity?
Perhaps it is that in such moments we are arrested, as art must do, to reflect on our lives: their value and their preciousness. We stop, if only for a moment, the flurry of commerce and daily activity, to realize "Oh, so it could all end--just like that--the sweet kisses and the ice cream and the sound of children's voices." We stop. We reaffirm or question our values and convictions. Perhaps, if only for a moment, we stop whining about some petty offense to our ego and look to something larger. Perhaps in that moment, we remember to love.
© 2005 W. Hunter Roberts. All Rights Reserved.