Poet-Journalists and Central Questions:
I have pondered lately about the world’s need for poet-journalists. (The hyphen is key here.) There are many great journalists who venture into terra incognita in order to tell the true stories of the victims of war, violence, poverty, ignorance, disease. Some of them, placing themselves “in the line of fire,” have been “killed in action,” —sometimes by “friendly fire”—while “just doing their jobs.” And, there are poets and artists in America who eschew the ease and comforts of an academic position—the foundation grants, the sinecures—because they are driven to sing their unique songs while they live—come hell or high water! (“There is some shit I will not eat!” wrote e.e. cummings).
Notwithstanding, the worlds of journalism and the Arts are seldom bridged. Universities endow “chairs” for poets who eschew the ugly side of human existence, so that those “honored few” may focus on their own cerebral delectations. The prose of modern journalists seldom, if ever, rises to the loftiest levels of observers like Shakespeare, Euripides, Dante, Hemingway or Edna Millay.
And yet, as journalists or artists, many strive to weave ourselves into the fabric of our times; to capture the Zeitgeist—to make it knowable; to join the conversation. David Smith-Ferri is one such weaver, one such poet-journalist, who proves his value again in his third collection of poems, Where Days Are Stones (143 pp; Haley’s, Athol, MA; 2014).
Subtitled “Afghanistan and Gaza Poems, 2012-2013,” the book is our Baedeker as we accompany Smith-Ferri when he meets with Afghan peace-activists, struggling to survive on the mean streets of Kabul; enduring the cold and violence, and somehow keeping faith with them; letting them know they are not alone.
Smith-Ferri’s academic and professional background is in social-service programs. Active with Voices for Creative Nonviolence, he first traveled to Iraq in 1999. (The US was already at war with Iraq then—the “Gulf War” of 1990 continuing with “low-level, strategic air-strikes,” or with sanctions that would ultimately deprive half a million children of life-saving medicines.) In 2013, after 12 years of war against Afghanistan, Smith-Ferri describes the present scene in this small gem of a poem:
An unnatural thing.
Designed without eyes or ears
buried on the side of a road,
a thing without heart or lungs,
a thing without appetite.
A thing with a small mind
but with a hundred hands,
every one of them holding a knife.
Personification is a “literary device” well-employed throughout this book. It sharply contrasts with the mechanics of war; indeed, one of the most frightening and disturbing aspects of modern warfare (and, too often, policing!) is the mechanization of violence: the facelessness and incomprehensibility of invisible drones suddenly dropping bombs on wedding guests, etc. The people fight back with their voices. Smith-Ferri does them the honor of listening:
“Every day they spoke to us.
We heard them echoing in canyons
off red limestone walls,
issuing from newly plowed soil,
falling with apples from trees,
moving like a wind through pomegranate orchards,
like the breathing of the earth itself at night,
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And what is the point of all this witnessing? Even the poet-journalist must wonder about his/her effectuality—the power to change, to improve:
"If I tell you we have come to Kabul
to stand and listen,
will you think
‘All that way
to do something so small,
But all week
these few words
have been waiting for us,
following us like shadows.”
In her fine foreword, Colonel Ann Wright, United States Army (retired) synopsizes the point: “His poems powerfully capture feelings and emotions of a story that could take thousands of words to flesh out… David writes about direct experiences with people in Gaza and Afghanistan, often creating poems in the voice of Palestinian and Afghan people. He includes their own words and draws us in to a very personal encounter.”
A “very personal encounter” with those strangers “over there”! We strive to know “those people” because we are moral creatures—those of us who are!—and we know that our lives are woven together in the tapestry; and now, through the Internet, mass-communications, etc. But, how to communicate a baby’s smile, a mother’s fear for her children; two young people in love?
“‘But naan,’ Abdulhai says,
‘is not our only basic need.
Love is also a basic need.’”
In this Islamic land, can we get any more Biblical? Not by “naan” (bread) alone!
This is a book about the nature of perceiving and perceptions: What we see, and cannot bear to see; horrors that must be made palpable—even personified—to be recognized… so that we preserve some shred of dignity amidst the mindless, implacable machinery of war.
The poetry of witness is art that challenges us to be better human beings—to realize our capacity to know fully and to feel deeply. What must be affirmed is the necessity of the honest broker. Our Mainstream Media has abandoned this function; thus, the burden falls on the artist to experience and interpret; to describe objectively, but indelibly, while making us feel personally and intimately. The “take-away” of the encounter between artist and audience depends, necessarily, on the conversational skills of each—to define and refine and interpret the message. This is the nature of Goya’s art, depicting the Spanish resistance against Napoleon; this is Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” again against Napoleon’s wars. This is Picasso’s “Guernica” against the barbarisms of 20th Century war. This is the role of the artist in the 21st century--after a half-century of too much quiescence and back-patting. It is time to break out!
The central, vital question, the fundamental point, of Smith-Ferri’s book about “us” and “them” is this:
“Now there is nowhere to hide
from their message
and the question it implies:
War is a horror. Always.
What am I doing to stop
and prevent it?”
Gary Steven Corseri