The Common Good
July-August 1995

The Braided River of Language

by Rose Marie Berger | July-August 1995

Poets and their everyday art.

Last winter, sitting at my kitchen table listening to National Public Radio commentator Scott Simon report on Bosnia, I heard him close with this line of poetry: "It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably everyday/for lack/of what is found there." With The Washington Post in my hands, I broke down and cried.

After following the atrocities of the Bosnian war for months and engaging in long despairing discussions about what to do, I finally had my heart split open by a line of poetry and was jump-started into action.

For six weeks during that snowy Lent, a small band of Christians gathered for prayer and public witness at sites representing Sarajevo's religious communities. With a banner, candles, and a violinist, we offered our witness for peace. We prayed with Muslims who thanked us for not forgetting them and with an Orthodox priest who invited us to view his church's icons under restoration by Russian iconographers recently allowed to leave the former Soviet Union. As they say, it didn't change the world, but perhaps it kept the world from changing me.

Adrienne Rich's recent collection of essays, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, takes its title from the same William Carlos Williams poem ("Asphodel, That Greeny Flower") that Simon quoted. While it is clear through Rich's prose that she has no fondness for Christians whose faith appears as only a theological undergirding for protecting their social status, she does have a deep wisdom about the spiritual power of art and its relationship to the political life.

Rich says, "I see the life of North American poetry at the end of the century as a pulsing, racing convergence of tributaries-regional, ethnic, social, sexual-that, rising from lots of long-blocked springs, intersect and infuse each other while reaching back to the strengths of their origins. (A metaphor, perhaps, for a future society of which poetry, in its present suspect social condition, is the precursor.)"

This is the essence of art: always straining toward the horizon to see what is coming next and to bear witness to that vision. It carries the prophetic twin stars of social critique and social transformation. It points us in the direction we say we want to go, need to go, are sometimes afraid to go, and lets us know when we have strayed from the path.

IN THE INTRODUCTION to E. Ethelbert Miller's collection First Light (Black Classic Press, 1994), Haki Madhubuti writes:

Poetry has a way of attaching itself to strangers. Most people do not read poetry but hear it on urban streets from midnight to dawn....We create and discard [language] daily whether it comes from gang members coding the language for secrecy or Baptist ministers opening the door to everlasting life in their Sunday morning sermons. However, it is our poets who study language. They preserve it, change it, melody it up, beautify it, and give it back to the public as pictures of a complicated people and a difficult world.

Ethelbert Miller's poems are certainly part of Rich's "pulsing convergence of tributaries" and reflect the artistic life of a complex poet. Sensuous, political, blues-rooted rhythms give back pictures of a people in love, held in the arms of a vibrant language. In "Only Language Can Hold Us Together," Miller writes, "i watch the women/bead their hair/each bead a word/braids becoming/sentences.../she never understood why/no one ever understood the/beauty of her hair...." But the poet understands, and sees the craft work of the Divine in the everyday.

Sitting at Miller's desk tucked in the corner of Howard Univer-sity's African-American resources center, he tells me that his spirituality is "very personal, very private. It's intimately linked to my writing, my art." That mystical contemplative nature, forged early on by his brother who was a Trappist monk, and later through Islam and the Sufi poets, takes him into an art that is explosive in love and political by nature.

As part of the black arts movement and cultural revolution of the '60s, Miller was baptized into the struggle to raise the consciousness of black people. "My work is rooted in black unity, treatment of black women, dispelling stereotypes, feeling good about blackness and self, choosing poetry and imagery that preserves rage, but resolves it in a pro-black way." This is the poem "A Death In The Family": "it was dinky's father/mr. skinner who told my mother/that someone shot malcolm x/malcolm x?/my mother repeated/wasn't he the one who looked/so much like our own sonny boy?"

Miller says that his spirituality is leading him deeper into the definitions we have for love-"romantic love, platonic love, friendships, families, love of one's community, and also the absence of love and how that affects things." His poetry is rich in the language of love and provides framing for our intimacies. From "Jasmine": "tomorrow when my daughter becomes a woman/i will give her this small bottle/filled with the beginnings of herself/on that day she will hold love/in her hands."

In Miller's recent anthology, In Search of Color Everywhere: A Collection of African-American Poetry, he writes: "From Phyllis Whitney to Public Enemy, African-American poets continue to write about the world they see and the world they wish to change. There is faith in tomorrow, a vision for a better world. There is the resilience of the blues, for we are also, in our blackness, blues people."

Using Amiri Baraka's phrase "blues people," Miller digs to the roots of African-American faith. "There is Africa, there is the Middle Passage, and there is America," he says. "The first time that the first slave looked up at the stars and said, 'Who am I and why am I here?' with no memory or knowledge of Africa, that moment is the birth of the blues. It is music, rhythm, poetry that speaks to the basic elements of the human condition, embracing that condition, and transcending that condition." From the Exodus, through slavery, to contemporary America, the resurrecting power of God's poetry finds form and scent, flesh and music in the life of such blues people.

LABOR POET CHRIS Llewellyn's faith is also wrapped in the majesty of music, especially the language of the hymns. "In my Welsh-American family," she says over a cup of tea in her Washington, D.C. rowhouse, "with both parents musicians, music influenced me as a poet....They gave me sensitivity to language-passionate, rhetorical language, the musicalness of language that expresses ideals. Most hymns were written by poets, and the founders of Methodism, the Wesley brothers, were poets and composers."

Llewellyn's father died when she was 15 of the toxic solvents he used in his dry cleaning shop. Her memories of him singing hymns and folk songs in Welsh, of growing up in and out of family-run businesses where she took short-cuts after school through the meat-packing factory or the Seed and Feed store, all imbue her writing with a sense that work is not separate from life but part and parcel of it.

Llewellyn's poetry is another of Adrienne Rich's "long-blocked springs." The history of Western labor poetry goes back at least as far as William Blake and George Eliot, who conveyed in their art the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society.

"They wrote about the work-a-day world and preserved it for us," says Llewellyn. "Today we talk about coal miners and steel workers in their own language, but many of those jobs don't exist any more. This language now takes on a different kind of value, the naming of things. Even if we don't know what these work words mean, they still have a rhythmic value and power."

Llewellyn's labor poetry is notable for its attention to job descriptions and the tools of a work place, such as, "Punching the timeclock propped on the pork/renderings barrel, she crossed the curing room/of hanged hogs....At lunchtime, she dragged/a lard pail past the gravel lot to the only maple" ("Portrait of a Packer"). Also the narrative labor poem is an important tool in remembering events and teaching people today the history of sacrifice involved with, for example, getting the Social Security Act, eight-hour work days, and the right to a safe work place.

In Llewellyn's first collection, Fragments From the Fire, she commemorates the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, in which 146 women died, many jumping to their death, and from which our current fire safety laws come: "'I could see them falling,'/said Lena Goldman. 'I was sweeping out/in front of my cafe. At first some thought/it was bolts of cloth-till they opened/with legs! I still see the day/it rained children'" (from the poem "March 25, 1911").

Her work is feminist, she says, because she is feminist, and political because is relates to the "polis"-the city, the gathering of people, their economy, their labor. From her dining room table surrounded by the tools of her trade as well as her daughter's school drawings and projects, she says, "Muriel Ruckeyser has a poem about a 'violent woman waking in a violent day' ["Waking this Morning"]. This seems to capture it more and more. Ruckeyser says 'we must find our shinings amidst the mutilations.' This is what it means to be a poet in America. It means slogging along in blood up to your knees; so you must put on your poetry hip-boots and wade in and keep moving. You must always keep moving."

Llewellyn's poetry finds life not only in her own work and family world with husband and young daughter, but also in D.C.'s St. Elizabeth's hospital for the criminally insane, in elementary schools with "at-risk" kids, and in the maximum security blocks of Lorton federal penitentiary in Virginia, always seeking "the shinings" to be found there.

Rich reminds us that as a people we must allow our artists to be the "relayer of possibilities...to bear witness to realities from which the public, and maybe part of the poet, wants to turn away." Only then can we fully reclaim the ancient role of poetry: keeping memory and the spiritual community alive.

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