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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
For an excellent follow-up piece with lots of information:
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”
.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!
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!
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.
A great resource to understand Chile’s struggle in context, is Uruguyan journalist Eduardo Galeano’s classic text, The Open Veins of Latin America.