FROM THE INTRODUCTION
. . . When we made our call for submissions for an anthology of poems in defense of human rights, the allegations of torture were foremost in our minds. We knew people were outraged, saddened, profoundly moved and ashamed. But we also wanted to reach people who had suffered violations of their own rights from circumstances across the globe, or whose families had, or for whom preventing or healing these violations had become a life’s work. We drafted our call loosely: we are increasingly witness to torture, terrorisms and other violations of human rights at unprecedented degrees. What do our instincts tell us and what is our response to these violations? What is our vision of a future wherein human rights are not only respected but expanded?
What we received were both first hand accounts of violation—see prisoner Adrian English’s “raped man’s stream of consciousness,” or Farnoosh Moshiri’s poem recounting the terror of giving birth in Iran, or Li-Young Lee’s “self-help for fellow refugees”—and responses from people who feel struck personally by the blows enacted on others: to speak for, to speak as, and to speak against. We were surprised at the range of issues spoken to by the poets. While torture remained a critical topic, as well as issues at stake in the Iraq war, there were also poems that addressed immigrant rights, prisoners’ rights, the holocaust, the wars in Cambodia, Vietnam, Serbia, South America, Palestine and Israel. We received poems that spoke of suicide bombing, violence against women, the aftermath of 9/11, and outlawing marriage for gay Americans.
We were also moved at the range of experience among the responders: homeless advocates, civil rights workers, clinical social workers, medics, the mentally ill, veterans, humanitarian aid workers, teachers, conscientious objectors, and, of course, many writers who work and fight daily for social justice in their communities. We are particularly proud of the number of Native American poets included in this anthology, something unusual in anthologies of this sort. It seemed to us impossible to collect a group of poems on human rights issues if we didn’t acknowledge the far reaching and often appalling violations that have taken place in our own country, upon the first citizens of this land who belong to five-hundred-sixty-two federally recognized tribes who function as sovereign nations. It is the acknowledgement of this history, among others, that will allow us to move forward as a country with a clearer conscience, extending our hand to other nations and other peoples who continue to endure neglect and abuse.
—Melissa Kwasny & M.L Smoker, Editors
Sandra Alcosser | Adrian D. English | Adrian C. Louis | Mohja Kahf | Gabe Furshong | Tiffany Midge | Bridget Whearty | Frank Ortega | Matthew Kaler | Lois Red Elk | Lowell Jaeger | Carolyne Wright | Eugenia Toledo | Ilya Kaminsky | Ellen Bass | Judith H. Montgomery | Farnoosh Moshiri | Joseph Bathanti | Dr. Peter Anderson | Kim Goldberg | Sarah Conover | Eric Torgersen | Christi Kramer | Willa Schneberg | Stacey Waite | Jeremy Halinen | Tamiko Beyer | Roger Dunsmore | G.M. Grafton | Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan | Benjamin L. PÃ©rez | Elizabeth MartÃnez Huergo | Prabhakar Vasan | Marilyn Krysl | Ann Hunkins | Erika T. Wurth | Nicholas Samaras | Christopher Howell | Peter Marcus | Martha Collins | Mark Brazaitis | Philip Metres | Marvin Bell | Mark Pawlak | Philip Memmer Warren Slesinger | Rhonda Pettit | Aimee Parkison | Natalie Peeterse | Susan Rich | Joel Long | Donna Brook | Scott Hightower | Sheryl Noethe | Victor Camillo | C.K. Williams | Carolyn ForchÃ© | Yusef Komunyakaa | Li-Young Lee
I Go to the Ruined Place
by Alicia Gregory, July 16, 2010
The infamous torture photos from Abu Ghraib were first released to the public in 2003. The horrific images of prisoners hog-tied and beaten naked, leashed like dogs with bags over their heads, and posed in forced sexual positions—all with grinning U.S soldiers in the background—rode with us on the morning commute, made their way onto our computers at lunchtime, and sat with us during the six o'clock news. The pictures were a challenge as well as a revelation. As editors Melissa Kwasny and M.L Smoker write in their introduction of I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights: "We suddenly seem[ed] to be asked to decide to what extent we will stand up and speak out for human rights."
The photos of Abu Ghraib, and the questions that arose in the aftermath, motivated Kwasny and Smoker to put out a call for poems that spoke in the defense of human rights. The anthology, I Go to the Ruined Place, is a collection of both first-hand accounts and responses to a range of violations of humanity. The authors paint pictures, through language, that are just as startling as photographs.
In all of the poems, the authors take on the role of witness, unearthing details that put the reader inside the experience. Tamiko Beyer likens a tongue to the blister on a burned boy in "Report." Philip Metres recalls a family war story told over baklava and tea in "Letter to My Sister." In "World Music," Peter Marcus describes countryside vegetable planters made out of old shell casements. And Gabe Furshong unearths the ring around a finger-bone of a woman long dead and secretly buried in "Reburial."
Poetry provides a necessary space for the details that make the stories come alive—details that are lacking in much of today's disengaged, drive-by journalism.
Mainstream media's coverage of social ills has desensitized us to the horrors reported in the headlines. The language of poetry, with its precision and specificity, pushes readers to confront the ugly side of human nature that is often concealed in banal, bureaucratic phrases. In the introduction, Kwasny and Smoker use the terms "alternative set of procedures" and "enhanced interrogation techniques" as examples of the hollow, abstract language used to describe torture.
While the poems cover an intense range of experience—the thoughts of a man raped in prison (Adrian English's "Raped Man's Stream of Consciousness"), the aftermath of 9/11 (Susan Rich's "Mohamud at the Mosque"), the arrest of an illegal immigrant (Aimee Parkison's "Undocumented"), and even an exploration of the word lynch (Martha Collins's "Lynch")—each and every single poem speaks of the human connection we all share.
Though the original call for poems asked for words in defense of human rights, the work submitted reaches far beyond that call. At the heart of this collection is the repeated declaration that we are one. In her poem "Noorjahan," (translated by Carolyne Wright) Taslima Nasrin writes of a woman stoned. In one startling question, she challenges us to embrace our moral obligation to one another:
Noorjahan's fractured forehead pours out blood, mine also.
Noorjahan's eyes have burst, mine also.
Noorjahan's nose has been smashed, mine also.
Through Noorjahan's torn breast, her heart has been pierced,
Are these stones not striking you?
Alicia H. Gregory, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, works for Split This Rock Poetry Festival.
WE LIVED HAPPILY DURING THE WAR
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of hands
in the street of hands in the city of hands in the country of hands
our great country of hands, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.