Yes, I fear we have. Any poems being written about the children left for days beside their dead mothers? Any essays? Any stories? I hope so. Our government has forgotten, but I hope our writers have not.
Scrawled in my notebook as the new year began, these barely legible words---
For three days the children
stayed with their mothers, their dead mothers.
For three days the children
kept trying to call to their mothers,
How do we wake ourselves up? How do we break the silence? I asked this question in a 9/11 essay last year.
A few weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center, I retrieved an old poem begun after visiting Smoky Mountain High School to talk about poetry. In the middle of my speech about the importance of literature, the fire alarm had sounded. We all trooped out into the cold wind, waiting for the principal to time our escape, since this was a trial run to make sure everyone knew how to exit the building in case of a real disaster. Because I had been trying unsuccessfully to write from my own horror after the attacks, I concluded the poem by asking, “What can poetry say in the midst of disaster?”
In the years that have followed, I’ve decided that poetry has a great deal to say in the midst of large and small disasters. Language is always sounding in our ears, and it can help us make sense of our times.
Recently I came across a song by Sandy Denny, an English singer and songwriter during the turbulent ’60s. The song, no doubt written in response to the Vietnam War, is titled “In Silence” and in it a nameless woman caught in the midst of a war that could be any war asks of her listeners, “Can you hear me, can you touch me? Or will you leave me here in silence?” Listening to this song decades after it was first sung, I realized anew that the poet’s and storyteller’s role is to rescue those voices from the silence that any country wishes to cast around the victims of war, terrorism, an other disasters.
Just yesterday, I discovered a book titled “Poems from Guantanamo,” published by the University of Iowa Press. It contains 22 poems by men still caged in the prison established after our invasion of Afghanistan, an invasion launched to rid us of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Pentagon refused to allow most of the poems written in the prison to be published, thus the brevity of the collection, but from it one sees the same human desires we all share — to be home again with family, to see the landscape one loves, to dream of justice and peace.
“Why is the only suffering that matters our own?” a letter to Newsweek asked in the Sept. 11 Memorial issue last year. That question still echoes in my imagination, along with Sandy Denny’s and the one that concluded the poem I revised after Sept. 11. Now I realize more urgently than ever before that our own suffering is the only thing that matters if we are not lifted out of it by the voices of others who have suffered along with us. The ones who bring those voices most movingly to life? Our poets and storytellers.
Without them, the question that Sandy Denny asks in her song will always be answered the same way. In silence.
Causes Kathryn Byer Supports
Any environmental causes to keep our Southern mountains and our planet from devastation. Conservation Trust of North Carolina Nature Conservancy ADC,com...