Having our human dignity “shattered through fear” is not a new phenomenon as Sarah Jameel writes in her open love letter on Medium. Throughout the world every moment of every day, people are murdered, terrorized, abandoned, diseased, starving. Throughout the world fellow humans struggle to survive. Throughout the world fellow humans destroy other fellow humans because they have ceased to see the humanity in the other. Terror and tragedy are so commonplace that often we don’t even acknowledge them. They are the daily news. They are happening to someone else, somewhere else. They are boring.
God, my god, please sing for me and dance
your dance. Please sing my song—it’s only small. My song:
the butter. You stole that butter
and ate that butter with your tongue.
My tongue is the stolen butter.
The hunter, your hands. Your hands
are my hands, hands
with which you killed a one-thumbed hunter
on behalf of your favorite prince. You sang
bloodlines into law—please refuse to sing that song.
Sing my song instead, the one
whose insolence forgives me for loving you. My song
is not, my dancing god, for kicking you
on the curb, snapping your thumb. I only want to grant you
the broom-touch in my voice.
Hari Alluri “A Begging”
When a large-scale tragedy occurs in the first world, it can often be reported as if this type of horror is novel. Amid cries of horror and outrage, it can appear that we have forgotten the millions of other suffering humans in other-than-first-world countries. Even as many stand together in solidarity for those slain in Paris, others are wondering where was that solidarity months ago for those in Kenya? The day before for those in Beirut?
You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.
What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.
Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.
They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
Czesław Miłosz “Dedication”
Tragedy is not a popularity contest. Every sorrow is its own without comparison, deserving the same compassion and empathy that we see filtered in red, white, and blue. Yet it is impossible to hold it all. Our heart-cups run over with private heartbreak; they are deluged in public pain. Because we collectively share our humanity, when one human suffers, we all are diminished even though sometimes we seem to close our hearts to that suffering because we are fearful. Because we want to hold onto the fragile dignity that tragedy strips. Sometimes horror can be so big that we cannot grasp it. We need a filter. A way to perceive this world that increases empathy for all humans without crushing us with wretchedness. We need fresh eyes and a way to respond so that we can ache for both the humans we share culture with as well as those we do not.
When we are bewildered by how there can be such a paradox in this world of beauty and horror, joy and suffering, we need to seek places of transformation like poetry that can then open our hearts by giving us the words to see things. Poems, like “Dedication” above, can “construct a safe-conduct from almost unbearable pain into the terror and pity of […] catharsis” as Jane Hirshfield notes in Ten Windows. She continues that through poetry, we find a way to “unclench mind and heart,” restoring our “capacity for humanness [through] the realignment that comes from finding ourselves simply, decently, moved.”
That is what poetry does: it moves us from one state of being to another. It opens our hearts to other humans by giving us a graspable whole. News stories can offer details and information about the wide world of humanity, but it cannot empower us to identify, to respond. Poetry can. It disarms us with beauty then changes our perception, changes our very selves. It unclenches the fear that strangles our hearts. Hirshfield notes that “one of the roles of poetry, in and after the dark times of crisis, is to remind that a life can keep faith with full feeling, full knowledge, no matter what it has come to see and know. For this, we need to be lured into the condition of being undefended.” We need to be open to other humans.
We were afraid building the barricade
Barman, jeweler’s mistress, barber,
all of us cowards.
The housemaid hit the ground
hauling a cobblestone and we were more afraid,
all of us cowards—
groundskeeper, stallholder, pensioner.
The pharmacist dragging the toilet door
hit the ground,
and we got very scared,
smuggler girl, dressmaker, tram driver,
all of us cowards.
The boy from a reform school fell dragging a sandbag,
and we got scared for real.
Although no one forced us,
we built the barricade
Anna Swir “Building the Barricade”
(Trans by Piotr Florczyk)
Poetry unites. It creates solidarity. It shows the reader that she is not alone in her humanness. It restores dignity to the fearful and helps us apprehend the mountain that is human suffering by giving us small windows that we can hold in our hearts. These windows then draw our eyes outward; they expand our perception, grow our empathy. We can see that tragedy is part of a large and ancient conversation; the particulars may differ but the human moments stay true.