The Common Good
March-April 2003

A Poetry Roundup

by Rose Marie Berger | March-April 2003

Yesterday I got a call from a friend I hadn't spoken with in more than a year. "I have to tell someone this," she said.

Yesterday I got a call from a friend I hadn't spoken with in more than a year. "I have to tell someone this," she said. "I just wrote a poem." It was her first ever, a tribute to Catholic prophet Phil Berrigan, who died in December. She read it to me over the phone; it was filled with the sounds of hammers clanging on the alloyed hearts of terror-riddled nose cones. Oregon poet and pacifist William Stafford once said, "Poems don't just happen. They are luckily or stealthily related to a readiness within ourselves." In this case, he was absolutely right.

Minneapolis' Milkweed Editions is preparing a manuscript of Stafford's poems on peace and war, due out this fall. Most were published in previous works, but the collection brings a few gems into the glistening light for the first time. One piece Stafford wrote during the Gulf war says, "It's a madness almost everyone has, war/ years, to choose a person to hate/ and get hated by...." Though Stafford was a conscientious objector in World War II and served in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Arkansas and California, he never once shied away from the abysmal contradictions that war forces on the human conscience. In "Family Statement," Stafford is wearing his brother's clothes ("I wear the old hat, and the tie he sent") while his brother fights in the war. "My brother and I are both crying," Stafford admits, "in this glittering chromium time/ in the saddest war."

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation has published a similarly themed collection, The Poetry of Peace, which honors poet Barbara Mandingo Kelly, who greatly influenced its work. This collection is an anthology of prize-winning poems from the foundation's Peace Poetry Awards that "encourage poets to explore and illuminate positive visions of peace and the human spirit." It includes work from children, teen-agers, and a few poems from the contest judges. While the collection is not consistently great art, greatness is not its only purpose. As Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams writes in the book's foreword, "peace is an act of remembering. War is an act of forgetting." This tribute calls to mind our humanity and douses the reader with unadulterated hope. It encourages a person to resurrect, as William Stafford wrote, "the field where the battle did not happen, where the unknown soldier did not die."

The final poem in populist peace worker and hip-hop poet Jim Perkinson's first collection, Dreaming Moorish, is "parted lips." He writes "in leaving you/ your lips are all i will take/ infinitely changing/ across an ivory field/ shaping air into a quivering/ roundness like a body...." The printed version of Perkinson's work doesn't quite convey the electric shock of hearing this writhing, grinding, and gritty griot spew art like lifeblood into the gutters south of Detroit's now famous Eight Mile. This is Coltrane moving into Mingus—not for the uninitiated.

Perkinson's meditation on Luke 24 ("ascension—stay, until you are clothed") guided me through Advent. Out of season perhaps, but lines like "the cloth woman comes/ and the spirit calls/ as the hour falls/ to stand with all the ones/ who are fighting the nail" kept me awake in the dark times. And "it is indeed the little/ things that kill you/ the line of a hip/ where the cover folds back" (from "the corner of the mouth") just kept me awake.

MILKWEED EDITIONS also has just published the most recent collection by the wonderful Washington, D.C. poet Jean Nordhaus, The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn. These poems are tesserae piecing together the story of the 18th-century figure Moses Mendelssohn—known as the Jewish Socrates, father of Jewish Enlightenment, and grandfather of the composers Felix and Fanny. Each poem is an exquisitely crafted figurine that filters into the present day the light of a Jew in Berlin in the 1760s.

One of the more byzantine aspects of anti-Jewish regulations of the day was the decree "that every Jew must buy his wedding-right/ in unsold porcelain/from the royal china works." Mendelssohn—who beat Immanuel Kant in a metaphysics contest at the Berlin Academy of Science—was forced to purchase 20 life-sized porcelain apes. "The manager thought it a fine joke—/ selling apes to the Jew, beasts/ to the beast. But I am not ashamed./ The dumb beasts have less vanity/ than many a man who vaunts himself/ created in God's image." Nordhaus is a laser optician with the language. No word slips out of place. Every nerve dilates the eyes until one sees, really. The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn is the flickering light of the Sabbath candles—given to be cherished. n

Rose Marie Berger is associate editor and poetry editor of Sojourners.

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