Poets have expanded the boundaries of what we call the “poetry of witness.” We are talking about both the passion that drives “witness” and the re-creation of that passion on the page, of course. But we are also talking about being transparent as well as accurate in description of extremity, allowing the reader to “see” clearly, without the shadow of the self obscuring what is seen.
We look to reimagine, for our moment, what is public and what is poetic — and how the two come together to broaden poetry’s expressive power and its outspoken voice. Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” comes to mind, as do the following collections.
For the record
March 6, 3:45 p.m.: In an earlier version of this post, the last name of writer Cecilia Woloch was misspelled as “Wolloch” in the headline.
Tom Sleigh’s new book, “Station Zed” (Graywolf: 96 pp., $16 paper), gives us the undeniable sense that he has “been there,” because, in fact, he has been there, as a journalist in Somalia, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya. His reporting, published separately, has inevitably flowed into his poems, which offer firsthand accounts of war and atrocities. Yet the poems’ witnessing doesn’t only reiterate reportage; rather it accelerates to where extremity and the poetic combine. Here is a witnessing self full of shock, full of outrage, but also full of the wonder and eloquence driving profound poetry.
Sleigh’s protean style has, over the years, held itself to ever higher ambitions, a creative restlessness combining scholarship and fierce wit in poems, essays and apt translations, along with signature skeptical music.
The book’s first poem looks into the timelessness of true empathy. It is inspired by real historical events, in the manner of Station Zed (military slang for a terminal outpost, beyond which is the unknown), but not contemporary events. In “Homage to Mary Hamilton,” an Everyman (named Tom) is driving fast, listening to the radio in a snowstorm, following the shocking twists of an old Scottish ballad of scandal and betrayal of women. Mary Hamilton, lady-in-waiting to the queen, is impregnated by “the highest Stuart of all” but commits infanticide and ends on the gallows. Speeding, empathizing, distracted, “Tom” appeals to us: “her hands/ under my hands wrestle / on the wheel ... / when out of the gliding dark / I spot his velvet rack.”
The ambiguous ending eerily conflates the death of a deer and “Tom’s” death with the “different Mary’s” of the ballad, and the one executed. “Last night there were four Toms / today they’ll be but three: / there was Tom Fool, Sweet Tooth Tom / Tom the Bomb, and me.” With “Station Zed,” Sleigh shatters into many “Toms” in the wild territory beyond “the known,” stretching the limits of the witnessed world.
Though Marilyn Hacker has won countless awards and remains an undisputed master of formal verse, she has not, in my opinion, been given her due as one of the most extraordinary innovative poets writing today.
This might be attributed to her style of witnessing, her “public” voice in poetry. (“The only Jewish lesbian in France.”) No other poet manages the casual pyrotechnics she accomplishes in form, as “A Stranger’s Mirror: New & Selected Poems 1994-2013" (W.W. Norton: 320 pp., $29.95) makes abundantly clear. Hacker identified herself early on as a lesbian but a lesbian who did not shun formal verse constructs as “patriarchal” or “written out and phallo-centered” — she continued writing in armored inventive form while wondrously remaking the public/private world.
Her subjects (addressed in ghazals, triolets, sapphics, sestinas, sonnet cycles and villanelles) included cancer, AIDS, youth suicide, friends, lovers, her daughter, gay marriage, war, refugees on the Turkish-Syrian border, voices of Palestinian and Israeli poets, her learning of Arabic, Paris cafes, New York bookstores, dreams, intimate conversations over coffee and wine.
Giving herself tough instructions, she has floated this effortless-seeming urban voice, with its uncanny ear for ordinary conversation, but in form:
“Take this book. Copy this poem. Make a list of the words
you don’t know. Mark the small vowel for each letter.
Learn it and recite it to me” said my brother.
“We are dust and ash, and beauty is brief as a flower.
But a stanza’s room; a single line is the house
you — you — can build, throw open the doors to your vision.”
— “Fadwa: The Education of the Poet”
Deborah Landau’s “The Uses of the Body” (Copper Canyon: 80 pp., $16 paper) looks hard at mortality, at the body and the body’s deadly limitations: “Just at the moment when the person has disappeared forever / they tell you he’s alive forever lucky him.” Her poems bear witness to ongoing grief, childbearing, the dissolution of youth — which will, as she says, burst and be gone forever (“I don’t have a pill for that / the doctor said.”)
Landau’s killer wit evokes Dorothy Parker crossed with Sylvia Plath — leaping spark after spark, growing to deadly dark fire. “The Uses of the Body” is her best book, its acerbic tone (“The uses of the body, illusion”) interspersed with lines of grave and startling beauty. “The mind rivers out, angle by angle. / He was sick and now nowhere / and soon the cities and soon the planet and yet.”
Finally, Cecilia Woloch’s “Earth” (Two Sylvias Press: 46 pp., $11 paper) spins lyrical lines combining witness and wonder. These graceful poems are filled with the voices of the lost: “Our faces the same faces all over again /...my cousin the Cossack, the gypsy, the Jew.”
The poems span continents, from America to Russia to Poland, turning empathy to transformation, as a child’s grass-covered grave bears eternal witness: “blood mixed with earth of the bones of itself / of which no one knows but the trees anymore / of which no one speaks but the child made of grass.”
Muske-Dukes is a poet, USC professor and former poet laureate of California.