At a writing residency last year, during a discussion about what is now known as “these difficult times,” one of my writing mentors, the poet and essayist Lia Purpura, reframed our discussion with a challenge that she has given herself. “I want to live more like a poem asks me to live,” she told us. This has become an invitation that fascinates me. Instead of poetry as an island of escape or solace, let me welcome it, the practices it demands, and try to imagine the kind of life it requires. Each of the essays I’ll share in this space are my response to Lia’s invitation.
* * *
A Poem Asks Us Not to Look Away
In July 2014, when the most recent war on Gaza reached its horrific zenith, and by this I mean when the Israeli military’s bombings which decimated the Shejaعiyeh neighborhood were in full swing, I wrote a poem entitled “Running Orders.” The poem went on to lead a life that I could not have imagined from where I stood, drafting it longhand at my kitchen counter in Redmond, writing out of utter desperation. I’ve received videos of people in London and Philadelphia and Toronto reciting it at protests or reading it in prayer circles. I’ve read translations of it into Spanish in a Bolivian newspaper and into Hebrew for a resistance Seder. I’ve received a copy of it set to music by a woman who wrote: “I want you to know that I am Jewish. I don’t know what to do but at least I can do this.”
Unfathomable and deeply humbling as this poem’s journey has been, it’s not an outcome I strive for in writing any poem. Especially with “Running Orders,” I wrote it first and foremost for myself. The weeks of that war, I lived the privilege of safety provided me by my American citizenship. It is unnatural and must remain unnatural for a besieged population to be subjected to the indiscriminate force of a military occupation. It is unnatural to begin each morning by logging on to social media websites to look for postings by people you know for evidence that they are still alive. It is unnatural to know that people are suffering, to watch them suffer, and to know intimately the meaning of their cries and to be incapable of alleviating any of their suffering. But these were the conditions of the summer of 2014 and “Running Orders” was the outcome of that extreme duress.
I do not wish to speak about the bulldozer and the
not quite covering all of the arms and legs
Nor do I wish to speak about the nightlong screams
the observation posts where soldiers lounged about
begins June Jordan’s majestic poem “Moving towards Home.” It would be so much easier to look away. I, too, do not want to revisit that grainy newsreel, the sound of Robert Fisk’s voice, his hand pointing to what I first thought was a mound of earth and then, as the camera zoomed in, I realized was a pile of corpses. The bodies of Palestinians massacred. It would be so much easier to look away. And I did not wish to speak of the rubble to which Shejaعiyeh was reduced, nor to speak again, of the bodies of Palestinians, this time on the shore of Gaza. Our task as poets is not simply to record events. There were journalists documenting both in Shatila and in Gaza. There are most often journalists documenting the savagery to which human beings subject one another. There were Israeli settlers, dragging sofas out onto a hillside like drunken frat boys and watching, cheering as the bombs fell and Palestinians died. The CNN reporter who could not hide her disgust with the spectacle of their delight was reprimanded for her lack of what is so quaintly called “objectivity.” This is to say, there was no shortage, never is a shortage, of documentation.
Nor is the task of poetry to invite an artistic voyeurism—an enumeration of atrocities that stands in for art. What compels the poem is something more than a descriptive act. What compelled Jordan to write about the massacre at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps was her own need to live, to hold on to and make room for life.
because I need to speak about home
I need to speak about living room
where the land is not bullied and beaten to
I need to speak about living room
where the talk will take place in my language
And poetry is my language. Poetry is that ancient cry, that truth of the body, our breath made word. And what if our bodies are hunted? What if that is not a metaphor but an actual experience of daily living? Can there be a less metaphorical hunting than the picking off of protestors, marching without weapons toward a border fence, military snipers waiting for them on a hilltop aiming at hearts and kneecaps? Can there be clearer evidence of a body hunted than the video of a black man in his own grandmother’s backyard, shot in the back by police eight times for holding his cell phone up to his ear? These are our homes, the bodies we live in and where we are hunted. How do we make living room for these bodies? What, in these eternally infernal times, are the features of our language?
Last December, on a visit to Palestine, I toured Banksy’s Walled Off Museum inside the hotel across from the apartheid wall in Bethlehem. I went with trepidation, weary of the artist’s spectacle, the “hotel” that invites tourists to experience life behind the wall—that suffering and dehumanization can be something the privileged can dip into to feel, to empathize, and then return to the spaces of comfort and privilege made possible quite literally at the expense of other human lives. The museum was worth the visit: interactive exhibits, short videos, and harrowing artifacts. A lopsided Lord Balfour greets you as you enter, an automated dummy with a shock of white hair and fountain pen in his hand. You press a button and he signs the miserable document that inaugurates the next one hundred years of Palestinian suffering. There is no question that British colonialism is the first and most enabling villain in the narrative here.
Toward the end of the tour, I reached the Gaza room. Among the maps and images, there was a glass case with a pink backpack, its edges shredded, and a pair of little sandals salvaged from one of the bombings of the 2014 war. And then a faint ringing from the wall beside me. A telephone mounted there, beside a leaflet, framed under plexiglass. The leaflet is one of those dropped on the residents of Gaza telling them to evacuate in order to save their lives. To evacuate a besieged land they have no permission to exit. And the phone, whose receiver I put to my ear, played the message that Gaza’s citizens received from Israeli generals, the messages that inspired “Running Orders.”
I need to talk about living room
where I can sit without grief without wailing aloud
for my loved ones
where I must not ask where is Abu Fadi
because he will be there beside me
I need to talk about living room
because I need to talk about home
Audre Lorde says of poetry that “it forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” It is not documentation, and more than protest, to which the poem aspires. The glaze of “political,” which is slathered over so many of our poems when they speak from within the precise moments we are living, is so often reductive and seems to stand apart from whatever else poetry does or is supposed to do—create, engage, celebrate. But I believe Jordan and many poets who write of the red earth not covering the bodies are simply doing the work of art. In this tradition, we are looking. And by implication, we will not, we cannot, look away.
I was born a Black woman
I am become a Palestinian
against the relentless laughter of evil
there is less and less living room
and where are my loved ones?
It is time to make our way home.
As the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba nears, there are more marches planned, one this weekend, to the edge of that obscene border fence that has caged in nearly two million people for a decade, so many of them already refugees. There have been more murders of black men at the hands of police officers who see phantom weapons, who are trained for a war that unfolds on our streets every day. More people are going to lose their lives. What will we, human beings who are alive with varying degrees of safety and privilege, do? Poetry is nowhere near enough. Poetry is one possible way of engagement. Poetry is one way of not looking away.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, writer, and translator. She is the winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize for Arab in Newsland, and the author of Water & Salt, a book of poems from Red Hen Press published in April 2017. She is currently Poet-in-Residence at Open Books: A Poem Emporium.