a review of
With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century
Edited by Douglas Valentine
Published by West End Press, 2014
ISBN 10: 0991074203 /
ISBN 13: 9780991074204
Poetry of witness serves several purposes. First, it does just what is implied in its name. It documents, bears witness to historical events primarily human suffering at the hands of the American Empire. It is a combination of the personal and what Pound called 'poetry with history'.
Secondly, it gives voice to many people who otherwise would not have one or have had their voices silenced.
Thirdly, poetry of witness is a public poetry. A rally, a march, any public gathering with a political purpose can be steeled by the passion of a poem and poetry of witness is often evoked in such contexts.
In his anthology, With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century, Doug Valentine presents an admirable collection of the poetry of witness. Also, it must be said, this collection of work is made more effective because of the background of the editor himself.
Mr. Valentine is an astute and uncompromising historian and critic of US foreign policy.
That the US and its global hegemonic aspirations are at the center of Mr. Valentine's anthology is made evident in its title. It's the 'New American Century' echoing the Post War imperialist plans laid out by Post-Cold War elitist think tanks, in particular the Project for the New American Century or PNAC. But, of course, there are many other lobbying groups, think tanks and corporate and university associations too numerous to reprise here.
The anthology bears witness to the devastation caused by this bloody reality of a New World Order. The poems are grim, lines strewn with body parts, collapsed buildings, rape, murder, torture and death. Streets are filled with righteous anger and the cries of the wounded and mourning.
Devastated lives are chronicled as the opening poem, 'Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100' honors those union workers killed in the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center.
The volume quickly moves to embrace 'The Nobodies' by Eduardo Galeano, that part of anonymous humanity that faces poverty and violence on a daily basis.
Then quickly onto 'Salvadoran Woman Killed on Fillmore Street' by Daisy Zamora, a name familiar to many of us on the FlashPoint staff since we shot raw footage of CISPES' many 'actions' here in Washington DC in the 1980's. The raw footage was sent on to the FSLN so that they could see that some Americans supported their cause and were willing to go to jail to demonstrate that support.
The anthology moves on to poems concerning human rights abuses in the US, Australia, Sudan, Congo, South Africa, Serbia, Vietnam, Chile et al.
The volume is divided into 6 sections. Part One of the book is called 'Alabanza' and primarily deals with victims as collateral damage of US instigated conflicts. Part 2: Love at a Distance; Part 3: Jumping Jack; Part 4: Cell Phones Burning; Part 5: Drums in the Night; Part 6: Eyes Wide Open.
I am unable to suss out what connects or distinguishes the poems of each section. However, Part 5 has a number of poems dealing with the US Invasion of Southeast Asia and other sections have loose connections authentic to the main thread of witness.
As implied above and as Carolyn Forche puts it, the poetry of witness is both “political” and “personal” but utterly unlike the personal/confessional poetics so much in vogue these last 5 decades.
Language is heightened in both but in an entirely different way. The poetry of witness is often not credited because the experience that drives the conviction is too intense and partisan for many readers of poetry especially of the thoroughly culturally domesticated kind.
The theory might go that readers and writers of poetry in the West sucking from the teat of the Belly of the Beast do not experience first-hand the suffering that drives the poetry of witness. In fact, they are usually benefiting from the violence perpetrated in the name of the Empire, e.g. the US corporate/foreign policy machine.
By making a stab at excluding 'confessional' elements from their poetry of witness poets inside Empire can at best sentimentalize their pathos with those suffering at the hands of their Empire.
Guilt aside, and even though such poetic reporters lack first-hand knowledge of the violence, it's their poetry's tone and structure, in a fashion befitting an Empire, that dominates the world's poetry, I might say especially with the poetry of witness which begins with the assumption of not only literary/cultural contact but of a kinship between products of Empire and its victims.
The poetry of ex-servicemen is another matter. Rarely accomplished poetry, it can be very useful reportage. Aside from what Ezra Pound calls 'luminous detail', these poems are at their best when they provide insights not intended by the author. We still do not have a David Jones for any American conflict. Philip Frenau anyone?
Even a poet of Margaret Randall's stature becomes almost tongue tied when she is confronted with the question of her poetry being so political. She responds:
Of course, no poem is quite like “a razor across your throat.” In part, such hyperbole speaks of desperation to justify an action, writing poetry, which simply lacks much cultural force and has limited recourse to acts of overt revolutionary violence.
Many of the poems in this anthology have luminous imagery from those who have suffered first hand or adopted the voice of those who have suffered.
Adrie Kusserow's vivid language in her 'War Metaphysics for a Sudanese Girl' is aided by simple iambic rhyme:
“she coughs up more and more,
Or Muesser Yeniay's lines in 'Now Do Not Tell me of Men':
“the world stands here
Such as to say, images as acute as the suffering abound in this collection. And so does history in all of its luminous detail and vivid blood red infamy.
Mr. Valentine gives a judicious sampling of the world's pain in this collection. Just as US foreign policy has scarred the globe with the Mark of the Beast, Mr. Valentine has been true to the reach of this unparalleled evil by providing testimony from virtually every part of the globe.
Then there's Bill Tremblay's chilling poem 'The Colonel Comes Calling'.
Also in FlashPoint #17:
Douglas Valentine interviews Pierre Joris:
Paul Celan and the Meaning of Language
An Interview with Pierre Joris
About Douglas Valentine: