“Catastrophe is indeed already the condition of language, the condition of the ruins of time.” Harold Bloom
In the midst of catastrophe we can become silent, shocked by events, withdrawing into our grief. Most of us empathize greatly with the suffering of others. As poets we may then wish to express our solidarity through words. To write what is unspeakable, unfathomable, and incomprehensible. As such the poetry of disaster is often fragmented. Catastrophe rarely leaves us with clear narrative and an understanding of causality. The suffering of thousands or millions can overwhelm our ability to find a voice with which to cry out.
Poets have always written of disaster, personal and global, performing a tightrope act. As Nicole Cooley asks in “Poetry of Disaster”, ‘what work can poetry do in the world in the face of disaster?’ In the end she posits that poetry creates a necessary space in the face of disaster, to ruminate, mourn, and make sense of the senseless.
We may question the ethics of writing about disaster, the words of cultural critic Theodor Adorno replaying in our minds. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” How close do we need to be to a disaster to claim it in writing, to express solidarity, or demand accountability? How do we express without exploitation? To “Try to praise the mutilated world” as Adam Zagajewski’s poem explores.
I struggled with the question of who could speak for whom when writing a piece on the Sand Creek Massacre. In the end I decided to use the words of people involved from the testimony provided at trial, from the peace treaty signed prior, and public statements by civilian and government officials. To connect the fragments I used screenplay formatting and let the action of the poem ‘play out’ in scenes. I did not feel I had the right to speak for the Native American tribes, that I had no place in the poem as that felt like another claiming, another invasion, and perhaps constituted a kind of violence.
Mary Jo Bang addressed the issue of personal tragedy head on in her book Elegy, a collection of poems written about her son after his suicide. The writer reveals and expresses grief, shock, and reminds us of our common humanity. Poets sometimes express the feelings of many as W.B. Yeats captured the sense of chaos created by World War I in “The Second Coming”
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
For further information about the poetry of disaster I highly recommend these two articles: Poetry of Disaster & The Poetry of Catastrophe. In the following poem I investigate the toll that art can take on its maker in sharing tragedy (personal and national) and the complex role the reader/consumer plays.
Brutality Between the Lines
by Anna Elizabeth Graham
click here to hear the poem read
“I don’t really like human nature unless…”
requiem for the unsung
Phillip Glass scores
drama at river Ouse
mourning, death grimace
art forms suicide note
Bas Jan Aders
missives of pain
I’m too sad to tell you
broadcast without expatiation
Rothko’s emanating spirituality silences
she fills her overcoat pockets with stones
sexual abuse knocks mental illness
click and add the weight
there are more
you won’t drown with less
art as consoler
doesn’t transform the pain
allures with vows of immortality
Pol Pot slaughtered millions
driving toward the tabula rasa
an entire society stripped
cinematic epic can’t revive
or ferry spirits home
from killing fields
burnishing aesthetic pall
this poem is a postcard
sugared and heating on the stove
Helen Chadwick’s golden locks
entwined with sow’s intestine
“You see, I can’t even write this properly.”
Ars memorativa; parlor tricks
trauma plays on the mind
positive bias memory distortion
works its illusions on all:
schema of selective processing
regulates the current state
cooing emotional well-being
smoothes the heinous crimes
stories we tell evolve
voyeuristic titillations for consuming masses
molding the world into utopias of art
ignorant of the price
products worth infinitely more
than the life that birthed them
aftershock of naïveté
Adeline Virginia Stephen had a name before she was
“…all candied over with art.”
Notes: “I don’t really like human nature unless all candied over with art.” Virginia Woolf. “You see, I can’t even write this properly.” is from her suicide note. She drowned in the Ouse River. Bas Jan Aders was lost at sea while performing “In Search of the Miraculous”. His body was never found. Mark Rothko overdosed on antidepressants and slit his wrists. His estate was contested in a 10 year court battle known as the Rothko Case. Helen Chadwick died from a viral infection contracted at the hospital while shooting ‘Unnatural Selection’, a series on IVF embryos rejected for implantation. Killing Fields won 3 Oscars (nominated for 7), 8 BAFTAs (nominated for 13) and grossed $34,609,720 US. Haing Somnang Ngor, who won both the Oscar and BAFTA for his performance, survived the Khmer Rouge only to be murdered in Los Angeles. After the release of The Killing Fields, Ngor had told a New York Times reporter, “If I die from now on, OK! This film will go on for a hundred years.”
Today I am asking you to write about catastrophe. You may explore recent events like the Boston Marathon bombing, past disasters, personal tragedies, or address the ethical questions directly.
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