Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Blood: Poetry Against War

I didn’t think that yet another outbreak of war would be the only response in a world reeling from the impact of pre-existing wars and the covid19 pandemic. But here we are, in a bizarre lexicon of words and media where everything seems stripped of meaning and context,  like a tsunami of global anomie. And because we are stuck in fantastically nasty, centuries- long loop in which some people’s lives matter so much more than others.

Everywhere, beaurocracies use their powers to strip peoples’ lives of all that makes and gives meaning— from human connection, to the right to live with dignified wages, to housing , health, education, mobility and sustainable employment ,and the right to peace. 

Plunder and pillage of the earth coincides with armaments bursting and spewing toxins, just as politicians and kleptocrats spew toxic bloodshed with their real-life maneuvers and internet trenches. Never have so many been bamboozled by so few, it seems! 

Asano Takeji, 1960s

So it’s time, time to go back to those words of other times and other wars, to remind us that war is NEVER the answer. It is the time to remember as Aime Cesaire did, that the victors may win, but in winning they lose their souls.  And to join with him in his praise for a cooperative and non-expansionist way of of being:

Eia for those who never invented anything

Eia for those who never explored anything

for those who never conquered anything

but yield, captivated, to the essence of things

ignorant of surfaces by captivated by the motion of all things

indifferent to conquering, but playing the game of the world…

Time to go back to seeds of hope, glimmers in the crack of geopolitricks, to measure time outside of (the aptly named) Tik-Tok and value humanity and our common future. It’s time to remember those who can be erased so easily, by a click or a swipe. 

I’ve put together a few poets whose old words and not-so-old words, sing in these bleak times.  I hope you too will be inspired to raise your voice against war, not just in Europe, but throughout the world!

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Adam Zagajewski, Poland

TRANS. BY Clare Cavanagh

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June’s long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,

you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.


The War Will End

Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine

The war will end.

The leaders will shake hands.

The old woman will keep waiting for her martyred son.

The girl will wait for her beloved husband.

And those children will wait for their hero father.

I don’t know who sold our homeland

But I saw who paid the price.

What Were They Like?

Denise Levertov, USA

Did the people of Viet Nam

use lanterns of stone?

Did they hold ceremonies

to reverence the opening of buds?

Were they inclined to quiet laughter?

Did they use bone and ivory,

jade and silver, for ornament?

Had they an epic poem?

Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.

It is not remembered whether in gardens

stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.

Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,

but after their children were killed

there were no more buds.

Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.

A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.

All the bones were charred.

it is not remembered. Remember,

most were peasants; their life

was in rice and bamboo.

When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies

and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,

maybe fathers told their sons old tales.

When bombs smashed those mirrors

there was time only to scream.

There is an echo yet

of their speech which was like a song.

It was reported their singing resembled 

the flight of moths in moonlight.

Who can say? It is silent now.

Epitaph on a Tyrant

W.H. Auden, England

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

And with Federico Garcia Lorca (Ode to Walt Whitman), we should exhort ourselves to vilify and not glorify war : 

Agony, agony, dream, ferment and dream.

This is the world, my friend, agony, agony.

Bodies dissolve beneath city clocks,

war passes weeping with a million grey rats,

the rich give their darlings

little bright dying things,

and life is not noble, or sacred, or good.

In the Barracks

Yannis Ritsos, Greece

The moon entered the barracks
It rummaged in the soldiers’ blankets
Touched an undressed arm. Sleep
Someone talks in his sleep . Someone snores
A shadow gesture on the long wall.
The last trolley bus went by. Quietness
Can all these be dead tomorrow?
Can they be dead from right now?
A soldier wakes up.
He looks around with glassy eyes
A thread of blood hangs from the moon’s lips.

Warsan Shire, Somalia/Britain

Conversations About Home ( At a Deportation Centre)

Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like tongue against loose tooth. God, do you know how difficult it is, to talk about the day your own city dragged you by the hair, past the old prison, past the school gates, past the burning torsos erected on poles like flags? When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget. 

They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer than the land. I want to make love but my hair smells of war and running and running. I want to lay down, but these countries are like uncles who touch you when you’re young and asleep. Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate. I’m the colour of hot sun on my face, my mother’s remains were never buried. I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck, I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body. 

I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing, I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory. I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood. The lines, the forms, the people at the desks, the calling cards, the immigration officer, the looks on the street, the cold settling deep into my bones, the English classes at night, the distance I am from home. But Alhamdulilah all of this is better than the scent of a woman completely on fire, or a truckload of men who look like my father, pulling out my teeth and nails, or fourteen men between my legs, or a gun, or a promise, or a lie, or his name, or his manhood in my mouth. 

I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second and the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return. All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun. I’ll see you on the other side.

Roque Dalton , El Salvador

Trans. Jack Hirschman

Like You

Like you I

love love, life, the sweet smell

of things, the sky-blue

landscape of January days.

And my blood boils up

and I laugh through eyes

that have known the buds of tears.

I believe the world is beautiful

and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

And that my veins don’t end in me

but in the unanimous blood

of those who struggle for life,


little things,

landscape and bread,

the poetry of everyone.

A Small Hope, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2022

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