Poets Against War-Summer Newsletter 2006

In this issue:

Breyten Breytenbach: "Imaging Africa"
Prabal Kumar Basu: "Bengali Poetry"

Sam Hamill: Director's Report

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Director's Report by Sam Hamill

Dear Friends:

Apologies for the tardiness of the Spring '06 edition of the Poets Against War newsletter, and profound apologies for the problems we've had in recent months with Poems of the Month and with the Poetry Matters section. Most of these headaches have been technical and have finally been resolved, thanks to the very generous support and contributions of David Habib, Colin Foden and Jill Beaumont. Other problems arose over shifting personnel: Sally Anderson, our devoted editor and organizer from Day One, and Barbara Bowen, who gave us a couple of tireless years, have both been called by demands of their personal lives and will rejoin us somewhere down the road, I'm sure.

Meanwhile, we are adding new volunteer editors to make those sections both current and more rewarding, and we will further expand the Board of Directors to help assure our stability in the future.

The Spring and Summer issues of the Poets Against War Newsletter have been combined. We have new editors for Poems of the Month (Courtney Hudak and Nancy Flynn), and board member Sarah Browning has taken over as volunteer coordinator and liaison with other organizations. We hope to work much more closely with like-minded political organizations in this election year, and to motivate our membership to take an active role and make Poets Against War a meaningful presence.

We will soon be adding personnel to greatly expand and develop our Links and Poetry Matters sections to make them much more useful resources and extend our communications base. And I have a volunteer or two for further developing this newsletter.

The feature essay in the new issue is Breyten Breytenbach's “Imagine Africa,” a call for us all to take a moment to reconsider Africa and what we might do to help those who suffer most.

In the next week or two we will also post Prabal Kumar Basu's brief history of Bengali poetry of the last century. He has sent out a formal call to the poets of India to form a Poets Against War organization there, and I'm sure that we will all benefit from increased knowledge, communication and cooperation in the difficult days to come.


If you have not already done so, I hope you will join the board of directors and members of Poets Against War in visiting the VotersForPeace.us web page and signing the pledge not to support any candidate who supports wars of aggression. We can send an important message to the Democratic Party by signing the pledge, and we must remember that the Democratic Party is the party of Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton. It is also the party of Dennis Kucinich, Jim McDermott, John Conyers, Maxine Waters, and Marcy Kaptur and other friends in the House and Senate who welcomed and supported us in our outcry before the war. Many of them entered our poems into the Congressional Record. It is possible to make the Democratic Party more responsive to our needs and demands.


I ask you to join us in supporting Lt. Ehren Watada, the Fort Lewis army lieutenant who has struggled bravely with his crises of conscience and ultimately attempted to resign from the army once he found out he could not be reclassified as a Conscientious Objector because he is not opposed to all wars, only, apparently, to illegal and immoral ones. He had refused to ship out to Iraq with his unit, declaring, “I refuse to be silent any longer. I refuse to watch families torn apart while the President tells us to ‘stay the course.' I refuse to be party to an illegal and immoral war against people who did nothing to deserve our aggression.”

Surely Lt. Watada understands that he will become a target of right-wing fanatics, will be savaged on Fox news and in right-wing newspapers; he also realizes the army will charge and try him, and probably do its best to make an example of him. He is probably headed for prison and a bad conduct discharge. His courage in taking a moral stand at great personal cost is exemplary. He stands in striking contrast to the chickenhawk pseudo-Christians responsible for the on-going bloodshed in Iraq .


Columbia University Press has published an important anthology, American War Poetry, edited by Lorrie Goldensohn. While some of the omissions are confounding (Why are Edna St. Vincent Millay's “Conscientious Objector” and Galway Kinnell's “Vapor Trail Reflected in a Frog Pond” not included? And it is clearly a university anthology, which is to say establishmentarian in its tastes), it is, nevertheless, a decent survey of war poetry—pro, con, and sometimes almost indiscernibly between those two—of our country. Organized war by war, none of the modern wars that the U.S.A initiated in Central or South American is even mentioned. Only El Salvador . Governments overthrown at the behest of Standard Oil or the United Fruit Company apparently do not qualify as wars. Support for the Trujillos, Batistas, Pinochets and Noriegas and their death squads don't count—just U.S. business as usual. The Drug Wars that have devastated Columbia and its neighbors aren't really wars. The dead go uncounted. Our friends in the South remember that Kissinger, Bush Sr. and friends overthrew the duly elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile on September 11, 1973 . Ike and Patton were lieutenants in Pershing's army that marched against Pancho Villa. The U.S. penchant for obliterating every attempt at agrarian reform south of its border—anywhere south of its border—for a hundred years is a war. Millions of people still suffer its consequences. Despite such serious problems, I recommend this groundbreaking work for its historical as well as its literary value. The evolution of styles and stances is remarkable.


“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.” —Shelley, “In Defense of Poetry”


“If there is a humanistic view about the mission of Art, this, I believe, is the only way it can be understood: like an invisible operation, which is a facsimile of the mechanism we call Justice—and naturally I am not talking about the Justice of the courts but about the other Justice, which is consummated slowly and equally painfully in the teachings of the great magistrates of mankind, in the political struggles for social liberation and in the loftiest poetic accomplishments. From such a great effort, the drops of light fall slowly every now and then into the vast night of the soul like lemon drops into polluted water.” —Odysseas Elytis, Open Book


The following poem is by Salah Al Hamdani, an Iraqi poet who escaped Sadam's reign to live in exile in Paris for the last thirty years. A year ago, he managed to return to his beloved Baghdad and visit his family for the first time. His remarkable memoir and poetry, Exile & Return, is translated from the French by Sonia Alland, and from Arabic into French by the poet and his companion, Isabelle Lagny. It will be published in the U.S. eventually by Curbstone Press.

Here, from Baghdad ,

we say to you that we are alive

I didn't know that the palms, assassinated, would arise again

accompany the prisoners' souls

and walk together towards the day


I say that it's fright

when, in waves, my eyes weave

straw houses

with Baghdad , in the distance

a mirage of fire


I say it's Autumn

when I hoist my skin

strand my writings

without weight or wind



the sky of Iraq

without Saddam

is blue!


I say it's Spring

in spite of the war among clans

when I anchor the sun

and absurdity makes happiness iridescent


I think sometimes of us,

of that other existence

with which you've papered my home

of that affecting sky

of those memories that are kindled

when I open the notebook of time

of that river that slumbers in the clay


At the coming of dawn,

from your inner storm

where the thirst to vanquish

was to have surged forth

I stepped over your body and the acid sand,

then with violence

the rocky ground seized hold of me


Drawn by the desert

I also wandered along your banks

moving over the immense obscurity of your flesh

and the incandescent silence of prayers

Then the soul, like a stork in the river

moored itself

in the drunkenness of the dune...


I've supped of your sky until I've cried out

I've drowned your wounds in my rough drafts

long governed by distress

by fearful nights


To return or not to return?


I've wandered the multiple days of our existence

my imagining refreshed...


On this invented line, this country of stones

this frontier twisting through a hamlet

along an abandoned road

where pirate-men cross in the dark

I felt the anguish of the condemned

but there was no door to close against the wind


My only dread,

that night,

was to be lost along the interminable path

never again to see my mother...


I followed the Euphrates and its waters calcinated with the dead

For a long time, I stirred the cinders

turning them to flames

without forgetting to render the cadavers

and the names of the executed, beautiful

Your sky was desert


My being was immersed in the crowd

when your sun purified the houses

and the ruins of the war

And while the soldiers slaked their thirst with our tears

I helped you endure your night of stupefying fever

I ran to you, in spite of the smoke of the occupier

and the ever present torture of tyrants

to cover your nakedness with my memory...


And the night suddenly set its body on mine

under the carpet of stars flooding the eye

How will I ever be able to tame this shuddering?

Thus you knew the pangs of death

the drowning of your history and the blood-letting of your days...


"Yes, from Baghdad , we say to you that we are alive!


"So leave us our crescent moon,

the laughter of the light

and the hair of our women, brushing our face

as they lean over us..."


Here I am Baghdad

inhabited by the scars of exile

I pass through you, confronting my tormented childhood

my voice inaudible

Perhaps I see standing midst your mirage

a mirage, my love, existing since the god, Shamash *

wove his light on your back

incarnate now in the mild heat

that captures the murmur of your headless palms


In your great souk, without geometry

a hamlet in the city's heart

breathing the certainty of spacious things

a dizziness nourishes my passionate, fleeting gaze


Everything is made for man and for light's transparency

in spite of the trace left by days of tears and the imprint of tyranny.


If you were a woman, Baghdad

you would be my river of sorrow

and I would know the dying of love


I would at last see your immense eyelids

amidst a store of solitude

where no one knows us

but love is learned from taking measure of life

from man's hate

from death, as well


Baghdad-Damas-Paris. April 11, 2004

* Sun god in the epic of Gilgamesh

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