In each of the books listed at the bottom of this post, a poet serves as our witness to the world in ways that conventional news does not, cannot. The list is far from inclusive, but each book is especially meaningful to me. Most timely this summer is Sharif S. Elmusa’s Flawed Landscape: Poems 1987-2008. Now an American citizen, he was born in Palestine and brings us news that only he can. We need to know that he could “go around,/like an ancient Chinese poet,/ watching moons and donkeys.” And that he has trouble going around freely because “Gaza is a cage.” And that he wants “to cross borders/unseen/like salmon/like contaminated wind” (from “Moons and Donkeys”). Here is a real person in a real life seeing his birth country torn apart.
We won’t get such a complex, first person point of view as this from the news agencies, and yet, we need to hear his experience in his words. And to thank poets who brings us news, not only of battles and beheadings, but of daily life lived in a war zone, whether it’s Iraq or Appalachia. Auden said that “poetry makes nothing happen.” But I stand with William Carlos Williams who said in “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”
When Sharif read his poems in a bookstore in Maine, he seeded into the world a truth we sorely need. Poetry is an enzyme in the body politic, a vital stimulant and we could die miserably for lack of it.
Elmusa reads at Gulf of Maine Books, August 2014
Brian Turner, Here, Bullet
Jack Hirschman, Front Lines
Martin Espada, ed., Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press
Betsy Sholl, Otherwise Unseeable
David Mason, Ludlow