Learning to See: The Art of Oswaldo Guayasamin

 

I’ve been inspired lately by the paintings of Oswaldo Guayasamin. Although he is well-respected in Latin America, I rarely see the type of eulogizing that over him that is so common with Frida Kahlo, whose identity as a mature and political artist has been submerged in a depoliticized portraitist school of thought that is infinitely less disturbing of the existing order. Like Kahlo, Guayasamin, born in 1919 into a feudal and neo-colonial state like Ecuador, took sides in a visceral and visible struggle against poverty, injustice and the invisibilization of suffering that was part of so much art contemporary to the time.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932
Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Table, 1940
Frida Kahlo, Marxism Will Heal the Sick, 1954

This is not an essay, but a few musings in response to the images I have been able to find online. Here, I share a few, in particular the  early Quito series which I find as interesting as some of his more well known pieces from the Age of Anger and the Age of Tenderness. Above, some of Frida Kahlo’s less popular artworks,  The Wounded Table ,  circa. 1940, Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and United States, 1932 and 1954, Marxism Heals the Sick, a reflection of her understanding of disability and the devalued lives we live under capitalism when we are incapacitated or chronically ill. 

Oswaldo Guayasamin, Self-Portrait, 1996

Born into a humble Kichwa and Mestizo family, he was one of 10 children, losing his mother, and then his closest friend at an early age. These experiences, along with searing social criticism of the sweeping inequities of race and class discrimination, shaped his approach to art both as a vehicle of personal expression, and as a tool for, and of, social change.

Oswaldo Guayasamin, Quito Negro
Oswaldo Guayasamin, Quito Azul

In particular, Guayasamin’s travels through South America, Mexico and the United States brought him into contact with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, both ardent communists and anti-imperialists. This influenced Guayasamin greatly both as an artist and social critic. Between the 1940s and 1960s he committed himself to the path of social justice and a Pan-American vision of  suffering and liberation. He firmly joined the political left and was close to Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda and Victor Jara, poets and songwriters of the Chilean left, active until they were assassinated by the U.S. backed Pinochet regime in 1973.

Oswaldo Guayasamin, Los Niños Muertos, 1940
Oswaldo Guayasamin, Quito Verde

Guaysamin’s final piece is the posthumous Chapel of Man built on his property overlooking Quito. He was a painter, muralist and architect whose deepening vision taught him to see the ignored and the silenced.

Oswaldo Guayasamin, La Edad de Ira/The Age of Anger: Manos de Protesta/Hands of Protest
Oswaldo Guayasamin, La Edad de Ira
Oswaldo Guayasamin, La Edad de Ira: El Grito
Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ternura/Tenderness
The Chapel of Man, Guayasamin Estate, Ecuador
Chapel of Man, Guayasamin Estate, Ecuador
Chapel of Man, Guayasamin Estate, Ecuador

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.https://multipolarista.com/2022/02/28/western-media-us-wars-ukraine-civilized/?fbclid=IwAR1FydF-cEysM3hML_9Mx7TLYzjCEmCwYo6nOm8sHyvKirWdaMK27TVCkOM

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.

Banksy

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,

love,

little things,

landscape and bread,

the poetry of everyone.

A Small Hope, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2022

All of Us or None! A Belated Return to the Virtual World

It’s been ages since I have posted on the blog. Pandemic fatigue and the onset of winter and lock-downs have exacerbated SADness and made writing a difficult chore. While I have been doing some drawing, I haven’t mustered up the focus to write. This blog, pays homage to the work of two poets, February birthday boy, Bertolt Brecht  (10 February 1898 – 14 August 1956), whose relevance and sardonic humour, make his poetry, equal to his fantastic play-writing skills.  Reading Brecht brought me to my second author in today’s blog, Nuyorican Boricua poet, Pedro Pietri (March 21, 1944 – March 3, 2004). Famed for his humour, commitment to anti-colonial liberation and his great poetry full of macabre and witty insights, like Brecht, Pietri found great moments of poetry in the little things, and on the side of the little people. 

Elsie Palmer Payne 1884-1971, Bus Stop,1943 USA

Additionally, in honour of February as Black history month in North America, Pedro’s approach to writing as an Afro Puerto Rican was underscored by his solidarity with a number of colonized and immigrant groups in New York City where he spent much of his adult life. As both an Afro-descended and Spanish/English speaking writer, as a member of a reluctant occupying force conscripted as a U.S. veteran for an imperial war; he was able to interweave these aspects of his life in his frequent use of “Spanglish” and tongue in cheek references to cultural practices and icons from his various experiences. 

Millard Sheets, Tenement Flats, 1933-34 USA

Wounded by chemical exposure during the Viet Nam war, he suffered a great deal from his time in service, and it served to open his eyes to the plight of  the poor and the colonized, people of colour, internationally. This internationalism while understanding the contradictions and ironies of his particular moment, link Pietri and Brecht across ages and political epochs and seminal wars of empire. While the trumpets of war sound off in the distance, this is an important time to remember and imagine that we are part of a great movement of people through-out time that believe another world is possible. In the meantime, skill, humour and critical thinking in all the arts– poetry is no exception– are necessary to survive the Neo-liberal bio-security, racism, war mongering, and financial finagling!

Jaune Quick- to- See Smith (1940-) Salish and Kootenai Confederation , 1991

As poets and play writes, Brecht and Pietri deserve to share a virtual stage ! I have shared the art of some ground breaking visual artists to accompany these pieces.

All of Us, or None- 

BERTOLT BRECHT

Slave, who is it that shall free you?

Those in deepest darkness lying.

Comrade, only these can see you

Only they can hear you crying.

Comrade, only slaves can free you.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

One alone his lot can’t better.

Either gun or fetter.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

You who hunger, who shall feed you?

If it’s bread you would be carving,

Come to us, we too are starving.

Come to us and let us lead you.

Only hungry men can feed you.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

One alone his lot can’t better.

Either gun or fetter.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

Beaten man, who shall avenge you?

You, on whom the blows are falling,

Hear your wounded brothers calling.

Weakness gives us strength to lend you.

Come to us, we shall avenge you.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

One alone his lot can’t better.

Either gun or fetter.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

Who, oh wretched one, shall dare it?

He who can no longer bear it.

Counts the blows that arm his spirit.

Taught the time by need and sorrow,

Strikes today and not tomorrow.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

One alone his lot can’t better.

Either gun or fetter.

Everything or nothing. All of us or none.

Puerto Rican Obituary

BY PEDRO PIETRI

They worked

They were always on time

They were never late

They never spoke back

when they were insulted

They worked

They never took days off

that were not on the calendar

They never went on strike

without permission

They worked

ten days a week

and were only paid for five

They worked

They worked

They worked

and they died

They died broke

They died owing

They died never knowing

what the front entrance

of the first national city bank looks like

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

All died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

passing their bill collectors

on to the next of kin

All died

waiting for the garden of eden

to open up again

under a new management

All died

dreaming about america

waking them up in the middle of the night

screaming: Mira Mira

your name is on the winning lottery ticket

for one hundred thousand dollars

All died

hating the grocery stores

that sold them make-believe steak

and bullet-proof rice and beans

All died waiting dreaming and hating

Dead Puerto Ricans

Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans

Who never took a coffee break

from the ten commandments

to KILL KILL KILL

the landlords of their cracked skulls

and communicate with their latino souls

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

From the nervous breakdown streets

where the mice live like millionaires

and the people do not live at all

are dead and were never alive

Juan

died waiting for his number to hit

Miguel

died waiting for the welfare check

to come and go and come again

Milagros

died waiting for her ten children

to grow up and work

so she could quit working

Olga

died waiting for a five dollar raise

Manuel

died waiting for his supervisor to drop dead

so he could get a promotion

Is a long ride

from Spanish Harlem

to long island cemetery

where they were buried

First the train

and then the bus

and the cold cuts for lunch

and the flowers

that will be stolen

when visiting hours are over

Is very expensive

Is very expensive

But they understand

Their parents understood

Is a long non-profit ride

from Spanish Harlem

to long island cemetery

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

All died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

Dreaming

Dreaming about queens

Clean-cut lily-white neighborhood

Puerto Ricanless scene

Thirty-thousand-dollar home

The first spics on the block

Proud to belong to a community

of gringos who want them lynched

Proud to be a long distance away

from the sacred phrase: Que Pasa

These dreams

These empty dreams

from the make-believe bedrooms

their parents left them

are the after-effects

of television programs

about the ideal

white american family

with black maids

and latino janitors

who are well train—

to make everyone

and their bill collectors

laugh at them

and the people they represent

Juan

died dreaming about a new car

Miguel

died dreaming about new anti-poverty programs

Milagros

died dreaming about a trip to Puerto Rico

Olga

died dreaming about real jewelry

Manuel

died dreaming about the irish sweepstakes

They all died

like a hero sandwich dies

in the garment district

at twelve o’clock in the afternoon

social security number to ashes

union dues to dust

They knew

they were born to weep

and keep the morticians employed

as long as they pledge allegiance

to the flag that wants them destroyed

They saw their names listed

in the telephone directory of destruction

They were train to turn

the other cheek by newspapers

that mispelled mispronounced

and misunderstood their names

and celebrated when death came

and stole their final laundry ticket

They were born dead

and they died dead

Is time

to visit sister lopez again

the number one healer

and fortune card dealer

in Spanish Harlem

She can communicate

with your late relatives

for a reasonable fee

Good news is guaranteed

Rise Table Rise Table

death is not dumb and disable—

Those who love you want to know

the correct number to play

Let them know this right away

Rise Table Rise Table

death is not dumb and disable

Now that your problems are over

and the world is off your shoulders

help those who you left behind

find financial peace of mind

Rise Table Rise Table

death is not dumb and disable

If the right number we hit

all our problems will split

and we will visit your grave

on every legal holiday

Those who love you want to know

the correct number to play

let them know this right away

We know your spirit is able

Death is not dumb and disable

RISE TABLE RISE TABLE

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

All died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

Hating fighting and stealing

broken windows from each other

Practicing a religion without a roof

The old testament

The new testament

according to the gospel

of the internal revenue

the judge and jury and executioner

protector and eternal bill collector

Secondhand shit for sale

learn how to say Como Esta Usted

and you will make a fortune

They are dead

They are dead

and will not return from the dead

until they stop neglecting

the art of their dialogue—

for broken english lessons

to impress the mister goldsteins—

who keep them employed

as lavaplatos

porters messenger boys

factory workers maids stock clerks

shipping clerks assistant mailroom

assistant, assistant assistant

to the assistant’s assistant

assistant lavaplatos and automatic

artificial smiling doormen

for the lowest wages of the ages

and rages when you demand a raise

because is against the company policy

to promote SPICS SPICS SPICS

Juan

died hating Miguel because Miguel’s

used car was in better running condition

than his used car

Miguel

died hating Milagros because Milagros

had a color television set

and he could not afford one yet

Milagros

died hating Olga because Olga

made five dollars more on the same job

Olga

died hating Manuel because Manuel

had hit the numbers more times

than she had hit the numbers

Manuel

died hating all of them

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

and Olga

because they all spoke broken english

more fluently than he did

And now they are together

in the main lobby of the void

Addicted to silence

Off limits to the wind

Confine to worm supremacy

in long island cemetery

This is the groovy hereafter

the protestant collection box

was talking so loud and proud about

Here lies Juan

Here lies Miguel

Here lies Milagros

Here lies Olga

Here lies Manuel

who died yesterday today

and will die again tomorrow

Always broke

Always owing

Never knowing

that they are beautiful people

Never knowing

the geography of their complexion

PUERTO RICO IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE

PUERTORRIQUENOS ARE A BEAUTIFUL RACE

If only they

had turned off the television

and tune into their own imaginations

If only they

had used the white supremacy bibles

for toilet paper purpose

and make their latino souls

the only religion of their race

If only they

had return to the definition of the sun

after the first mental snowstorm

on the summer of their senses

If only they

had kept their eyes open

at the funeral of their fellow employees

who came to this country to make a fortune

and were buried without underwears

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

will right now be doing their own thing

where beautiful people sing

and dance and work together

where the wind is a stranger

to miserable weather conditions

where you do not need a dictionary

to communicate with your people

Aqui

Se Habla Espanol

all the time

Aqui you salute your flag first

Aqui there are no dial soap commercials

Aqui everybody smells good

Aqui tv dinners do not have a future

Aqui the men and women admire desire

and never get tired of each other

Aqui Que Pasa Power is what’s happening

Aqui to be called negrito

means to be called LOVE

Dame Laura Knight, Britain, 1877-1970, The Madonna of the Cotton Fields, 1927

Pedro Pietri, “Puerto Rican Obituary” from Selected Poetry. Copyright © 2015 by Pedro Pietri.  Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.

Source: Selected Poetry (City Lights Books, 2015)

Our Eyes See the Blood on the Red of Your Flag

Christi Belcourt, Canada, 2021

I’ve slowed down on my blog due to health and other very important circumstances. But I have not stopped… I have been, like so many of us in Canada, overwhelmed by the physical forensic evidence of a genocide so recent that it is actually on-going.

Kamloops Residential School, Cowessess First Nation Marieval Residential School, and other Residential schools have provided evidence of over 1300 deaths in the last two weeks. That is in addition to the approximately 4000 deaths recognized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission had recommended the forensic examination of all residential schools for indigenous peoples, but that was denied by the federal government of Canada on the basis that a $1.5 million price tag at the time was “too high”.

This callous indifference characterizes the Canadian State’s approach to First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples when it is not engaged in the antics of the Indian Act or helping its corporate partners in resource extraction.

So I took the Haiku challenge set by Ronovanwrites (https://ronovanwrites.com/2021/06/07/ronovan-writes-weekly-haiku-poetry-prompt-challenge-361-home-and-weep),and decided to think about the word prompts. I approached them in terms of the confirmation of genocide and ethnic cleansing that recent revelations about child abuse and murder at Residential schools, have proven.

Christi Belcourt, Our Lives are in the Land

I fear there may be thousands more children found before this is over. And as an ally of colour or person in solidarity with indigenous nations in this settler country, I feel we need to use all our means of protest to say that this Canada we have built is rotten, from and to, the core. Supporting both treaty and unceded nations, we have to add our voices to the Landback movement. Taking our cues from the demands of Indigenous people, water, and earth protectors from various parts of the country shows us how interconnected abuse and genocide of people is to dispossession from their lands

I am sharing below the art and haiku I have created in homage to these living struggles on our current lands. Justice must not only be seen to be done, it must be done. And words like “reconciliation” are hysterically cynical in my humble opinion. Where are the words, “accountability”, “due process”, “law enforcement”, “justice”? Some of the perpetrators of abuse and worse, are still alive– protected by the Catholic Church and Canadian state.

Why are aboriginal peoples incarcerated and survivors of a social apartheid at inhuman rates, while those who squeeze their life blood out of them, get to run free? All of us who tread this soil, who weep at the dehumanization of children and entire peoples, who struggle for equality, respect and liberation in our own lives, must realize that all of that is meaningless without a fundamental shift in what it means to live on Indigenous land.

Weep/Home

Home, weeps this land, fenced
by greed disguised as civil-
ization. Landback.

Home, they cry, you have
taken the ground beneath.
Give us back our souls.

Thousands of children
home. Weeping parents shattered.
Kkkanada fed blood.

Home, they wept, take us
back. Hug these small bodies back to
families, lands, names.

They Tried to Bury Us, They Did Not Know We Were Seeds, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2019

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/residential-school-records-missionary-of-oblates-of-mary-immaculate-1.6078260?fbclid=IwAR0IUmZpdIEAZtxU1IUlpBaCfjMzN3LwMkCq4dCdt6-4lAAkIY0j4w6ggVI

https://si-rshdc-2020.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2021/06/MassGravesFramework_2021.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2BfRPGR0KPuB9zvnMM8UsID-SSom8G49onLy6F4Enhi44mtcg14gS9Bcw

Poetry for the Peeps! Adam Zagajewski

I’ve been away from the blog for nearly a month this time. I’ve been grappling with flares of chronic health issues and also been feeling somewhat disheartened by the announcement of a surge of covid-19 patients where I live, the increasing shuttering of small businesses, the business as usual approach of capitalist warlords, the rise of tent cities in the parks around me and an ad-hoc business model of health care and public health management. It’s been hard to feel hopeful!

Meanwhile, the restrictions that exist are ludicrous and haphazard. Young people’s mental health has been seriously affected in Canada. Statistics show an increase in the demand for services with regard to mental health support. Insomnia and other problems are on the rise. Lone individuals are experiencing unprecedented isolation. All of these issues are having a huge psycho-social impact. It’s a time for this poem by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021).

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

BY ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI
TRANSLATED 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.

May Twilight, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

Reluctant Witness: Kids Books, History, and Whiteness

For many years I have thought of reflecting upon and examining certain conjunctures and countries where I have had the opportunity to spend some time. Unlike many of my middle-class peers in Canada, my experiences of studying, researching and living abroad were often shaped by both overt and covert racism and sometimes homophobia and sexism. Instead, I have been focussing on where I make my home, rather than other places in which I have been fortunate to spend time.

As a young student before the #MeToo era, I was vulnerable in a male-dominated academic field at the time. As a “mature” graduate student, I experienced sexual harrassment again. But my experiences gave me the input and analysis to make links between the varied ways in which people of colour can experience our lives in differing contexts and the sometimes contradictory ways in which we can be called up or dismissed as the occasion warrants.

Growing up in Canada, I experienced overt racism at both the primary and middle school level. While hurtful and exclusionary, overt racism pushed me into the world of books, a world which I inhabited as a largely disembodied being, in which the bothersome nature of my skin and increasingly sexualized body were left behind. I suspect that I was not alone in disassociating as both survival and resistance. I was a voracious and quick reader, blocking out the sounds, sights and smells of a bewildering childhood, where the “leave it to Beaver” ideology of Canadian primary schools in the 1970s seemed to have nothing to do with my own life and experiences.

While I made a sense of my own experiences and observations through stories, I also revelled in the popular children’s fiction of the time—again, an act of deconstruction and self-erasure. But it was the very alien nature of what I read that made it a fiction— whether about an animal or a person! Thus, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Black Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons, The Saturdays, Ballet Shoes, or any one of the beloved books of childhood became a complicit act of whitening myself, an escape to a no-trouble zone. A development of a desireable schizophrenia encouraged by all levels of the education system throughout Canada, in particular at the post-secondary level!

Thanks, in large part to my father, I recieved books from all over the world, an opening and flowering of the richness of language and experience from non-hegemonic viewpoints from Andrew Salkey’s Jamaican children’s books, George Lamming’s incomparable In the Castle of My Skin, the stories of the Salish and west coast Dene, of Australia’s colonial outback and natural disasters, of Farley Mowat’s experiences in the Canadian bush or James Kruss’ Happy Islands Behind the Winds. Magnificently illustrated folk and fairy tales and Bengali ghost stories, biographies of artists and scientists and stories of the Underground Railroad and anti-fascist kids’ books such as The Diary of Anne Frank, developed a sense of solidarity in me. The realm of poetry also opened up an exciting and emotionally powerful world.

By the time I started to see the world on my own, I had already developed these multiple and simultaneous positions of non-white/white, male/female and later gay/straight. I read the world through a complex set of filters of self-erasure and began to develop a consciousness about the nature of longing and belonging. Much of the poetry I wrote and was drawn to, explored those themes, siting them as points or moments of resistance in a complex and cotidian struggle.

Over the last few years, I have started re-reading many of the books I loved as a child, viewing them with the lens of accumulated struggles, victories and defeats that are both personal to me and part of the world in which I inhabit, like all of us. Recently, watching the deplorables on the U.S’s Capitol Hill, I asked myself where does so much dispossesion and entitlement come from? Rather than reading essays and newsmedia op eds, I turned to kids’ books.

Not only the obviously ideological Little House on the Prairie Series of my public school, that extolled the libertarian contradictions of a settler class that relied on the government to displace and murder Indians for their westward expansion, while glorifying their individualist “pioneer” spirit, but also other books that were widely available in schools when I was little.

Lois Lenski’s books on the (mainly) white working-class children of America, written in a post-world war two moment of euphoria and nation-building, plagued by Jim Crow and segregation, provide some clues.

While in these books, benevolence and tolerance of Afro-descended or Indigenous people is conveyed, whiteness is the currency of last resort. The children in these books may be dirt poor, but their whiteness gives them a pinch of superiority over any child of colour. In the current context, rereading these incredibly descriptive and honest accounts of numerous childhoods of sharecroppers, travelling migrant workers, coal producers, and cotton-pickers depict how recently public education and public health took effect in the world’s most grandiose country.

When I took time to reread England’s Enid Blyton as a comparator, the upper-class world of Blyton’s child detectives is plagued with class, colour, and ethnic references constructed around racism and the innate superiority of white people.
So, while describing entirely differing worlds of whiteness and childhood- an ocean apart- the books had one glaring commonality— the currency of whiteness in a society of commodification.

This little foray of mine into understanding some aspects of the white supremacy movement on display during the Trump presidency, must be complemented by understanding the ways in which becoming “American” since the inception of the country, is also becoming, white.

No where is this more telling than in some of the ethnic language newspapers which welcomed European immigrants into their new homes, often in urban centers. For many, who had never met or interacted with Afro-descended peoples or other people of colour, nor spoke English yet, these newspapers covered the growing use of lynchings and active racism in the 1900-1930s era as a mechanism for anti-Black violence and socio-political control. The ways in which these crimes were described and the ways in which their victims were discussed, gave recent immigrants a fast track to “Americanness”, by providing them clues on appropriate “white” behaviour with regards to a post-slavery multiracial society.

This converges with a time in which the great migration of Afro-Americans from South to North was occurring, and labour, dominated by urban white working class agendas, had to accomodate Black workers. Unfortunately, these accomodations have barely been succesful and continue to be contested in various ways even now.

So looking back at the varied roots of the current entanglement we in the U.S and Canada are witnessing, children’s literature can provide much insight into why our society’s hierarchies perpetuate and mutate into groups hell-bent on holding on to social power, by, dare I say it, the skin of their teeth!

The Parable of the Axe: Reflections From a Small Sliver

So, I was recently challenged to rethink the ideas I put forward in my blog about the 2020 U.S. elections. In fact, the very idea that “the battle is over, but the war goes on”,  is rooted in the validity of the present capitalist  system, a system that has proven time and time again to be morally and materially bankrupt when it comes to the common people—i.e., you and I. 

Dylan Miner, Harm Reduction

Under the circumstances of bourgeois democracy, it seems to me , a good moment to remember the adage ascribed to Malcom X, that our liberation, comes about “by any means necessary”. That is why my discomfort with the reigning social system and my belief in a better, more just and equitable future— is both a contradiction, and— a strategy, that doesn’t simply see the debate as being between reform and revolution. 

May Day, Historical Demands

Under this lens, I feel we should work on numerous fronts and through numerous ways to change society to be more inclusive, just and equitable. As we know, institutions will not accomodate progressive demands (the unsurvivable minimum wage is maintained, costs are going up, hydro has raised its rates in this winter country, evictions have resumed, tiny pandemic wage increases are long gone, public sanitation and hygiene appear haphazard and determined by market force)s.  The poor and working sectors are crammed onto unaffordable petrie dishes with haphazard service, ie, public transportation. Where is the pressure on municipal, provincial and federal governments? Why were we locked down in March for 2 months, with 1/3rd of the current covid19 cases, but now are laissez-faire, willing to make Darwin’s theory a eugenicist accelerationist’s wet dream?

Sudarshan Reuben Durayappiah, Facebook

This is the state of affairs to which we will return under the business as usual model touted by Wall street and Biden/ Harris. How ironic that Trump’s initial run was characterized by a wall, but it is the wall of money that was behind Obama and is now deployed by his Democratic successor Biden, that may be the end of Trump. 

Of course, fascism is another thing altogether. The freeing of socially temporarily unacceptable ideas regarding race, gender, sexuality, eugenics, and social engineering– guns, pandemics, starvation, trigger happy racist policing, the expansion of self-defence laws in states such as Florida, the immense wealth of private prisons and the exponential growth of Amazon, Walmart,  Facebook, What’sApp, Instagram, etc. is a cash and data grab of immense proportions. The looters of this virus are not the poor, nor the small business sector, but the mega-rich. These ultra-affluent bastards have set the tone and the stage for the rest of us. 

Bloor Street Hoarding (Pun Intended), Kaushalya Bannerji, Summer 2020

The amount of sheer misery that haunts and weighs down our planet these days  is a collective mourning for our little daily freedoms, and our big ones, like international travel. A grief for our departed too. Of course, lockdowns and restrictions unaccompanied with food and shelter support, are fundamentally class genocide, and exercises in social obedience. That’s because while things are being strangely locked down, dedicated COVID 19  facilities have not been made, shelter has not been put in place for the homeless during the winter season, affordable housing remains as elusive as ever for  those struggling with poverty and food banks are begging those a little better off to help those less fortunate with cheap processed food—often laden with chemicals and toxins that we already know so much about. 

Meme, Pinterest

During a winter where people are being forbidden to socialize indoors, municipalities are stopping snow removal services, leaving hundreds of thousands of “inner city” dwellers with minimal ways to get around during this upcoming pandemic winter. We can point our self-righteous fingers south of the border, or also , take a moment to look down the street and see our own worlds floundering. 

https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/canada-s-rate-of-homelessness-may-be-higher-than-reported-nanos-survey-1.5060801

It’s hard for me to end this piece on a positive note. I hope, in my lifetime we will see the world played, not as an endgame, but as the beginning of a glorious festival of labour, shared humanity, a culture of non-violence and social support and a celebration of spirit. “From each according to [their] abilities, to each according to [their] needs”. May we, trees, and slivers alike, see ourselves rooted in this grieving and resilient earth, and not wielded, by sinisterly banal elites.

Remedios Varo, Banqueros en Action/Bankers in Action, 1962
Kae Tempest, 2020

For an excellent follow-up piece with lots of information:

Naomi Klein, November 2020

I read the news today, oh boy…

I was unfriended during the summer of “we’re all in this together” on my social media page for writing the following poem. You can have a look for yourselves. Not surprising that a white woman would find it offensive, if she feels her position somehow needs defending. This reminds me of the old story, that if you talk about racism, acknowledge its existence– you are a RACIST! This was the most common argument I heard from peers and teachers growing up non-white in the urban Canada of multiculturalism’s heyday. But, one asks– what about the police? If talking about racism makes you racist, then surely talking about crime makes you a criminal?

So it doesn’t surprise me that many of my former colleagues are so invested in a system that they think a simple land acknowledgement about Aboriginal displacement should suffice, but that people of colour speaking out about a world in which they are dehumanized moment by moment, from womb to tomb– is aggressive and anti-white, if not, “reverse racism”

Hallam Road, Necessary Neighbours, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

.Before I go on, I want to address this aspect of “cancel culture” that started not on Facebook or the internet, but in real academic institutions, the unofficial blacklists of BIPOC students perceived as too “coloured”, too “radical”, too much with a “chip on their shoulder”, too ready to “play the race card”. The blacklists of Marxist and Anarchist academics. The silencing of racial discrimination complaints by Unions filled with people who want to be the boss. As most academic unions– comprised as they are of graduate students– membership is seen as transitory. As grad students become professors, they join another more senior advocacy body, faculty associations. Teaching Assistantships and Course Directorships are replaced by contractually limited appointments (if you’re lucky) and the right to join Professors’ Unions.

Well, the race card has been played ever since race has been a central organizing force in savagely brutal Euopean centered modes of production from mercantile/slaveholding/trading /breeding capitalism. These modes of thinking about physical differences in peoples, were engineered to reduce the humanity of kidnapped, bought, and sold labour. If Black signifies “not human”, then the social whole benefits from, and is immured in, this characterization’s cosmological apartheid.

We play the hand we’re dealt, in the skin we’re in, with the consciousness we develop as our circumstances dictate. My poem is a dirge for THIS white world which nullifies our core–our humanity and personhood. Let me know if this poem touched you at all in light of the recent events of the last year!

Montreal Gazette, September 2020, Justice for Joyce Echaquan

Fuck this white world

and the sun that shines out of its ass.

Fuck this white world

which brought us here to torture and to maim

our beautiful souls.

Fuck this white world 

which pits my brown brokenness 

against your black tear.

Fuck this white world

which pits your red blood against my yellow fear

Justice for Breonna, MerlinFoof, Reddit 2020

Fuck this white world

which rips out our veins

with its sterility and the burning plastic of 

restraints applied in the u.s.,

made in china.

Internet Poster, 2020

Fuck this white world

that holds us in its restraint.

demolishes our individuality

forces us to pay

over and over again

for the privilege of being human

A Moment of Silence

Today I am sharing a poem by Emmanuel Ortiz. It was written back in 2002. I remember receiving it in my email so long ago. But it speaks to the importance of this date, September 11th, for millions of Americans–no, not from the United States, but from Chile. Like millions of people, the word “American” for me is not confined to the stars and stripes. As long as we take Amerigo Vespucci’s name for these vast continents, we need to remember that they include all who live in their lands. September 11th has been a day of mourning and reaffirming commitment to a better way of living since 1973. A day that puts people at the centre of human society, that rejects colonial conceptions of human worth as being linked solely to productivity and profit; that celebrates the voices of the silenced.

The September 11th U.S backed coup in Chile is memorable, because it turned Chileans into refugees and exiles. Its repercussions are being felt today throughout South America’s neo-liberal economies and the widening gap between rich and poor, white and non-white. I share below, along with Ortiz’s poem, a song of Victor Jara, mutilated and murdered for the power of his song and commitment, by the forces of General Pinochet. This song, referencing the Viet Nam War, shows us how the world is a vast cobweb of interconnections.

Chilean copper and other goods had been a part of imperial trade since the British informal empire in the 19th century. By the post-World War II period, Chile was increasingly under the sights of the United States. Although turning to import substitution had helped the Chilean economy expand a national elite, its benefits did not trickle down to the vast majority of country’s people. This led to support for Salvador Allende and his project of social services, public infrastructure and bread with dignity for the poorest of compatriots. Awareness of anti-empire struggles like the Viet Nam war, inspired and motivated Chileans to fight the loss of their country’s sovereignty.

Intolerable to the 1 percenters of the time, the U.S. backed General Augusto Pinochet to assassinate Allende, and impose Martial law on the country, a situation that lasted until the election of Patricio Aylwin. During the years of dictatorship, countless people were “disappeared”, children were kidnapped, and people were tortured for believing another world is possible.

Chileans have a vociferous and active struggle for human rights and social development, indigenous survival and anti-poverty movements. The feminist and LGBT movements are also more vocal in the twenty-first century. I have included the beautiful “Gracias a la Vida” by Chile’s Violeta Parra, arguably the most famous song of Chile. Although her sudden death before Allende’s election may lead us to believe that she was not a political artist, Parra’s work testifies to her many social and musicological concerns that were rooted in hope for a better life for her country’s people.

For many in solidarity with Chile’s vision for justice, September 11th has shown, in the words of Peter Gabriel, that “You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire”. I end with the words of Salvador Allende, himself; comrade, leader and fighter. It’s a good time to remember that elected officials and their supporters with progressive views have been in danger from fanatical right wing elements in other places and other times in history. We would do well to take a moment to think about where we go from here!

Moment of Silence, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020

A Moment of Silence by Emmanuel Ortiz

A moment of silence before I start this poem

Before I start this poem, I’d like to ask you to join me
In a moment of silence
In honor of those who died in the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon last September 11th.
I would also like to ask you
To offer up a moment of silence
For all of those who have been harassed, imprisoned,
disappeared, tortured, raped, or killed in retaliation for those strikes,
For the victims in both Afghanistan and the U.S.

And if I could just add one more thing…
A full day of silence
For the tens of thousands of Palestinians who have died at the
hands of U.S.-backed Israeli
forces over decades of occupation.
Six months of silence for the million and-a-half Iraqi people,
mostly children, who have died of
malnourishment or starvation as a result of an 11-year U.S.
embargo against the country.

Before I begin this poem,
Two months of silence for the Blacks under Apartheid in South Africa,
Where homeland security made them aliens in their own country.
Nine months of silence for the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Where death rained down and peeled back every layer of
concrete, steel, earth and skin
And the survivors went on as if alive.
A year of silence for the millions of dead in Vietnam – a people,
not a war – for those who
know a thing or two about the scent of burning fuel, their
relatives’ bones buried in it, their babies born of it.
A year of silence for the dead in Cambodia and Laos, victims of
a secret war … ssssshhhhh….
Say nothing … we don’t want them to learn that they are dead.
Two months of silence for the decades of dead in Colombia,
Whose names, like the corpses they once represented, have
piled up and slipped off our tongues.

Before I begin this poem.
An hour of silence for El Salvador …
An afternoon of silence for Nicaragua …
Two days of silence for the Guatemaltecos …
None of whom ever knew a moment of peace in their living years.
45 seconds of silence for the 45 dead at Acteal, Chiapas
25 years of silence for the hundred million Africans who found
their graves far deeper in the ocean than any building could
poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing or dental records to identify their remains.
And for those who were strung and swung from the heights of
sycamore trees in the south, the north, the east, and the west…

100 years of silence…
For the hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples from this half
of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen,
In postcard-perfect plots like Pine Ridge, Wounded Knee, Sand
Creek,
Fallen Timbers, or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced to innocuous magnetic poetry on the
refrigerator of our consciousness …

So you want a moment of silence?
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut
A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust.

Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be the same
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be. Not like it always has
been.

Because this is not a 9/11 poem.
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.

This is a poem about what causes poems like this to be written.
And if this is a 9/11 poem, then:
This is a September 11th poem for Chile, 1971.
This is a September 12th poem for Steven Biko in South Africa,
1977.
This is a September 13th poem for the brothers at Attica Prison,
New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem for Somalia, 1992.
This is a poem for every date that falls to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories that were never told
The 110 stories that history chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC, The New York Times, and
Newsweek ignored.
This is a poem for interrupting this program.

And still you want a moment of silence for your dead?
We could give you lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces of nameless children
Before I start this poem we could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.

If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit.

If you want a moment of silence, put a brick through the window
of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost.
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses, the jailhouses, the
Penthouses and the Playboys.

If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton’s 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt fills the room where my beautiful
people have gathered.

You want a moment of silence
Then take it NOW,
Before this poem begins.
Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the second hand,
In the space between bodies in embrace,
Here is your silence.
Take it.
But take it all…Don’t cut in line.
Let your silence begin at the beginning of crime. But we,
Tonight we will keep right on singing…For our dead.

EMMANUEL ORTIZ, 11 Sep 2002.

Hope is a Thing with Feathers, Kaushalya Bannerji 2020
Singer/Songwriter, Actor/Dramaturg, Activist: Victor Jara
One of Chile’s most recognized songs, Thanks to Life/Gracias a la Vida, Violeta Parra
One of Violeta’s most powerful songs

A great resource to understand Chile’s struggle in context, is Uruguyan journalist Eduardo Galeano’s classic text, The Open Veins of Latin America.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Veins_of_Latin_America