Friday, April 24, 2015

Poems for the 100 Year Anniversary of a Genocide

One hundred years ago today, the first genocide of the twentieth century began, as Turkish authorities rounded up Armenian artists and intellectuals to deport them.  Students of history know that this genocide would be one of many in the twentieth century:  Jews, Gypsies, Russians under Stalin, Cambodians, Rwandans, a variety of people who lived in Bosnia at the wrong time in history . . . and I'm probably missing a few.

We might be tempted to say that the 20th century urge to genocide was made possible because technology made killing more efficient--but in the 1990's, the Rwandan genocide was carried out by machete.

What do we do in the face of this history?  How do we retain our hope?  How should we observe this day that commemorates the first of many genocides?

I'd argue that we should make some sort of art, that we should celebrate our intellects.  After all, if the Turkish authorities thought that artists and intellectuals needed to be rounded up first, it shows the value of those activities.

I looked through my poems for something to post here.  First I'll post the hopeful one, and then the one inspired by despair--something for every mood.

You'll notice that the first poem suggests baking bread in the face of despair--that's always one of my first instincts, to do something that affirms life.  I also love the metaphor of yeast.  Even during times of despair, granules of hope and transformation may be incubating, ready to leaven the loaf!

I often return to bread baking in an effort to remind myself of who I am at my essential core. It's nice to have that practice. Years ago, I wrote this poem, as I thought about those high school years when I made the most bread, from 1979-1983. It was published in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review.

Demands of Dough

Each decade ushers in a new genocide;
each bloody crime introduces histories
of humans I’ve never heard of before. Each
year’s newscast schools me in ways to slaughter
masses of humans efficiently, human rights
violated in ways I never would have imagined. Yet,
the familiarity persists as well. Auschwitz,
Cambodia, Rwanda: an ongoing, constant
story of corpses stacked like cordwood, rivers choked
with bodies, a consistent backdrop
to the bloodiest century on record.

I turn off the news and declare a news fast.
I pull out my old recipe books to revisit
an earlier self, the vegetarian pacifist with a quick
temper, the girl who marched on Washington
to protest Apartheid and arms races and abortion
rights backsliding. I pull yeast and flour
out of my cupboard and knead myself younger.

My first loaf of homemade bread. What possessed
my mother to suggest it? Vegetarian seminarians
coming for dinner and a long, summer afternoon
to fill. What kept me baking? Praise.
An excuse to play with dough. Desire
for more nutritious food. By age seventeen, I’m the only
high school senior with her own garden.

I can think short term. I may not live
to see my twenties, especially if our president
continues to joke about bombing the Soviet Union.
But I’m able to invest the space and time
a rising bread dough demands.
I’m willing to commit to a germinating seed,
willing to hope for one more season of growth.

That was before cable brought us multiple news
channels. Somehow the abstraction of a cold
war and an arms race disturbed me less
than these scenes of neighbors butchering
each other. I cannot process misery at this scale.
I return to what I can handle:
yeast and a pinch of sugar, oats and flour,
a window sill of seedlings,
an afternoon of tea and books.

And now for the poem that offers less hope, which was first published in Pacific Review:

New Societies

          “Violence is the midwife to the new society.”
                                                                 Che Guevara

Births explode in eastern Europe.
Twins and triplets bloody the midwife,
a new society of ethnic hatreds.

Bodies dam the rivers throughout Africa.
Agrarian governments produce more field hands,
soldiers for the new society.

In the U.S., technology marries indifference.
Their warped offspring practice killing on video screens,
use their skills on a new society of scared classmates.

What a new society this century creates:
world wars, societal revolutions, painting the planet
in stripes of blood and bone.

No comments: