At the Intersection of Personal and Political: Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now edited by Amit Majmudar

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One duty of the poet is to bear witness to the truth.
– W. H. Auden

Unlike most of the work in Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now, some of this essay will be self-righteous. It will also be as personal as most of the poems, and occasionally digressive.

American writers have a long, distinguished history of calling out injustice. Black Nature, edited by Camille Dungy, Poetry of Witnessedited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu, and The World Split Open, edited by Louise Bernikow, are excellent examples. So is Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston. Just last year, Norton published Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin. All of these volumes are filled with superb, complicated work.

I have been immersed in these anthologies since they were published, thanks to a poem my grandfather shared with me when I was in middle school. He was born on a boat, taught high school English, and left a modest bequest to the ACLU. Longfellow’s “The Arsenal at Springfield,” a formal antiwar screed, was one of many poems he introduced me to. It made me seek more of its kind, which is what I hope readers will do after going deep into Resistance, Rebellion, Life.

The title of this anthology, edited by Amir Majmudar, is a nod to Albert Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion, Death, and the packaging a tribute to the small square paperbacks City Lights Books pioneered. With its solid DayGlo orange cover, it is clearly designed to be kept close at hand, easily spotted in the depths of a messenger bag or backpack, to be declaimed and shared. Majmudar, the Poet Laureate of Ohio, assembled the anthology after New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof held a contest for political poetry and Majmudar’s sestina was selected. The sestina, titled “Swearing the Oath,” is about his mother’s naturalization, and the declarations in it are inevitable:

In 2016, my mom became a naturalized
Citizen just in time to watch
America denature

These are the last three lines of the piece, and it is understandable that Majmudar would think that America has denatured, meaning changed its molecular structure. Except it hasn’t. And here’s another twist: His mother was naturalized twenty years ago, and the poem is a riff on fake news, as is his introduction, in which he admits he has come a long way from an earlier dislike of “protest poetry” and its simplifications.

This is an anthology that asks readers to put themselves at the intersection of the personal and the political, as A.E. Stallings has, in Greece. Her “Refugee Fugue” is brilliant:

The sea is for holiday makers, summer on the beach
Surely there is space enough to spread a towel for each;
Dry land isn’t something you should have to pray to reach.

Look how glad our kids are, making their sandy town,
And how they build the battlements the laughing waves tear down.
But it’s the selfsame water where some swim and others drown.

The sea is full of dangers, the shallows and the deep.
The sea is full of treasures, down there five fathoms deep,
The sea is full of salt: there are no more tears to weep.

The ferryman says we cross tonight; and everyone pays cash.
Charon don’t take Mastercard; you have to pay him cash.
The water seems so calm tonight, you hardly hear the splash.

There was a boy named Icarus, old Daedalus’ son.
He turned into a waxwing, black against the sun.
Drowned because he tried to fly. (He’s not the only one.)

Why would a kid lie in the sand, and not take off his shoes.
Why would he lie there face down, the color of a bruise?
The sea can make you carefree, nothing left to lose.

There’s indigo and turquoise, there’s cobalt, sapphire, navy,
And there’s dark like wine, my love, out there where things get wavy.
Listen, that’s the worry note, reminds me of my baby.

And speaking of the intersection of the personal and the political, a few years ago when my husband and I were at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, we saw a painting by John Frederick Peto. Called “Toms River,” it was created in 1905 and features, among other images, a photo of a middle-class white male, a six-pointed star, and a looped rope. Island Heights, where Peto’s studio is now a museum, was described to me by a knowledgeable local as a “hotbed of anti-Semitism” in the early twentieth century. Klansmen paraded in Point Pleasant in the 1920s. These towns are in New Jersey, where I grew up, and as we’ve seen with the post-election rise of hate crimes and hate speech, anti-Semitism, along with other forms of racism and prejudice, are still alive and well.

Bob Hicok engages with this urgent truth—this vein of white supremacy American has never been able to eliminate, and now has permission from the White House to glorify—in his poem “We’ve Come a Long Way Toward Getting Nowhere,” which flawlessly melds the personal, political, and historical:

My obsession with Jews is an obsession
with one Jew. I look at her walking
and wonder what anyone could have against Jews, at her sleeping,
or hunting for her keys in the morning,
which she does often, lose her keys
when she has to go to work, suggesting
she doesn’t want to; and maybe this
is the problem with Jews:
they don’t want to leave. Or they eat
lots of chicken. Or worry the black
of their skirts doesn’t match the black
of their tops. Or like children more
than babies. Or fret over their mothers.
My Jewish problem is figuring out
why America in 2016 has a dab
of 1930’s German fascism to it—
people at political rallies
yelling crap about the Jews.
If I thought it would do any good,
I’d go to Topeka, or wherever
and bring Eve with her troubled wardrobe
and her love of chicken and fascination
with children between two and thirteen,
when they can talk but before
they’ve begun planning the murder
of their parents, bring her face to face with the screamers and ask, So these
are the freckles you hate? I would
—We have a lot of Amex points and I’ve
never been to Topeka or wherever,
and I’m sure wherever is very nice.
And whenever we travel to wherever,
whatever people say, and however
they say it, Eve’s freckles will be the same,
kind of cute and kind of Jewish,
just like all her other parts
that do and do not have freckles,
in an inventory I alone
get to take, though trust me—
after repeated inspection I can attest
that underneath it all she, like many
of the people you know or are,
is ticklish, wrinkly, sexy, scarred—
since Jews really are relentless
when it comes to being human.

Let’s explore this for a few chilling moments. Part of what America is saying in 2016 is that 1930s German fascism is here and real, and people who accept its fictions as fact feel entitled to inventory and murder men and women whose ethnicities and sexualities they don’t share. This is, of course, directly connected to the worldview and actions of our country’s founders, who owned slaves and rationalized slavery, which included the right to inventory, and commit violence against, the bodies of the humans they considered their property. These are self-evident truths that we must continue fighting. The kleptocrats in Washington, Riyadh, and Moscow might disagree, but I don’t. My Chinese-American husband was beaten up because of his race. A Filipina-American in our extended family has seen only some progress toward acceptance from the relatives of her white, longtime partner. Their frightened children are in grade school in California’s Central Valley.

“Pain” is a word that turns up often in Resistance, Rebellion, Life, and rightly so. In Kevin Young’s composition, there is a “snow globe of pain” he wants to shake as real flakes fall in Mississippi. He knows better than to permit forgetfulness—of the murder of Emmett Till or any other outrage. Young’s snow globe of pain is bracketed by well-placed reminders that the poem itself encloses, like a snow globe, collective memory that ought to be stronger than a fragile glass object. How can we conquer the brutality that left Till’s face “a marred, sightless stump?” “There are things / that cannot be seen / but must be,” is Young’s persuasive answer.

Tomás Q. Morin also puts pain to good use in his prose poem “112th Congress Blues.” He explores Thomas Jefferson’s well-known hypocrisies, as well as platitudes spoken by people who either pretended to know the Gospels’ verities or had convinced themselves that they had the divine right to deny the Christian call to dignity. Morin makes compelling music:

on a day without clouds he could see down from the little mountain past the apple and peach trees all the way to the debating loons on Capitol Hill who believed then and now in evil, that there is a hell with a devil two shades redder than Oklahoma dirt, that you can know him by his goat hoof or his famous chicken foot which you can buy, nails intact, at the grocery store where they are called chicken paws, not feel, which is no doubt for the squeamish who can’t bring themselves to eat a foot, though they have probably chewed and ripped apart a fried leg or a breast.

This is around the middle of the poem, and it is imperative to follow it to its precise end:

it’s never really been about money
or God as about the pain in which we trust.

Another poem engaging with our nation’s elephant in the room is Kay Ryan’s “The Elephant in the Room,”—characteristically brief, a sharp arrow guaranteed to draw blood.

The room is
almost all
Almost none
of it isn’t.
Pretty much
solid elephant.
So there’s no
room to talk
about it.

In highlighting the lack of room to talk, “The Elephant in the Room” becomes another call to engage.

The New York Times recently ran a story with a variety of reactions to the removal of Confederate monuments. In it, a minister about my age says those monuments represent the “sublime.” In contrast, Elisha Wiesel, son of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, wrote a hopeful piece for Tablet, about a young white supremacist who now speaks out against race hatred. The scales fell from his eyes after a Jewish student broke bread with him and offered steadfast friendship (this story was first reported by Eli Saslow in the Washington Post). The Times also published a front-page feature about workers in Storm Lake, Iowa, who understand that corporations, not immigrants, have depressed wages. “I harbor no ill feelings for anybody who’s trying to make a better life for themselves,” said a man who has been a forklift driver for four decades. He has a lot to teach the minister, and I want to be in the room where it happens.

In “Now,” Frederick Seidel’s cri de coeur, he says more than once, “it’s over,” suggesting we should read his poem as a eulogy for the Republic. In “The Morning After Election Day,” Alex Dimitrov writes “We have voted and proven again / we do not know each other.” To my mind, Dimitrov has reached the most necessary part of the task that Seidel, who is a generation older, seems to have given up hope on.

“It is ourselves or nothing,” Carolyn Forché wrote in The Country Between Us in 1981. How right she still is. We have to get to know one another, even if that other person is aligned with what my cousin Rachel’s friend calls the “alt-Reich.”

Allow me to name the project: The Patriotism of Humane Engagement, which I have been working on since early last fall when I learned that some of my high school classmates supported Trump. Resistance, Rebellion, Life is a welcome tool for this essential task of patriotism, and many others.


Postscript, also from Stallings’s “Refugee Fugue”:

(found poem, from the Guide to Volunteering in Athens, as updated March 17, 2016)

Welcome to Greece!
Thank God for your safe arrival (greeting after trip)
Good morning
Good evening
Good night
Thank you
You’re welcome
I don’t understand
I don’t speak Arabic / Farsi
Come here
You’re safe
Are you wet / cold?
Yes / No
My name is…
What is your name?
He / She / It is
We / They are
God is with the patient (will make people laugh)
Give yourself a break (comforting words)
free (no charge)
I am hungry
Does it hurt?
mother / father
brother / sister
What country is your family from?
medicine hospital
Sorry, it has run out
We do not have it now
New shoes only if yours are broken
Wait here, please
I will return soon
Follow me / come with me
Come back in…
5 / 15 / 45 minutes
one hour
quarter / half hour / half day
today / tomorrow / yesterday
How many people?
Stay calm
One line, please

Next person


Photograph of Amir Majmudar © Ami Buch Majmudar.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →