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Compassion, Poetry, and DACA

By Joy Jacobson

September 6, 2017

Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, J. Stephen Conn, flickr

“There is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws,” attorney general Jeff Sessions said yesterday, in a surreal usurpation of the word compassion. In announcing the end of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, he made 800,000 young adults brought to this country illegally as children vulnerable for deportation as soon as March of next year.

 

Compassion literally means “to suffer with.” But like me you may be blocked from this suffering by a bout of compassion fatigue, brought on from the relentless assault of terrible news. Others have called it outrage fatigue or resistance fatigue. But because Sessions bastardized compassion, I think it’s important to reclaim that concept.

 

To suffer with: I am not vulnerable for deportation, yet I want to cultivate the ability to understand what this policy change means for people who are. I’m also overwhelmed; I’m afraid of the responsibility I bear in our culture; I want to hide from it.

 

And so I turn to poetry.

 

Sherman Alexie’s new poem, “Hymn,” is an incantatory series of rhyming couplets through which we can, along with the poet, declaim: “I will sing for people who might not sing for me. / I will sing for people who are not my family.”

 

Claudia D. Hernandez crossed the Rio Grande/ Rio Bravo with her family when she was 10 years old. “The River Never Happened to Us (ii.)” ends with this startling image: “Yet   we   continued   to trickle / shards   of   mud,   as   if   the river   had never happen to us.” Hernandez’s poem is part of an online collection featuring nine undocumented poets, curated by Christopher Soto and published by Southern Humanities Review.

 

Li-Young Lee describes his writing of his poem “Immigrant Blues,” which begins with a line his father told him as a boy: “People have been trying to kill me since I was born…” Click the audio link to hear him read the poem, and then listen again.

 

Eduardo C. Corral provides the poetic perspective of a child of an undocumented immigrant. “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishespresents a series of heartbreaking images, told in a heartbroken voice: “Once, borracho, at breakfast, / he said: The heart can only be broken // once, like a window.”

 

Guatemala-born poet Alex Alpharaoh performed “WET: A DACAmented Journey” in Los Angeles in August. “Soon the witch-hunt will begin,” he chants. “Which one of you brought the matches?” In an interview posted yesterday, he said of people who deny the importance of immigrants to America’s culture: “They’re not paying attention, and they’re not really looking at their history.”

 

Let’s pay attention. Let’s look at our history. Tell me what you’re reading.

Joy Jacobson
Joy Jacobson is the CHMP’s poet-in-residence and cofounder of our Writing Reflective Narratives for Clinicians program.

When Beautiful Turns Ugly

By Joy Jacobson

August 18, 2017

Pedro Reis, flickr

Beautiful. I overuse the word too. It’s a superlative that has denigrated from its Proto-Indo-European roots meaning “reverence” to the ubiquity of emoji. Almost half a billion Instagram posts bear the hashtag #beautiful.

 

Though it still resides in the eye of the beholder, this week we saw beauty twisted into a poisonous usage. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” President Trump tweeted in reference to confederate statues, followed by this, in his typically passive locution: “…the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”

 

This Orwellian twist in meaning enacts a kind of linguistic violence. It may be that all wars begin as wars of words, internecine splittings and divisions within a shared tongue: civil wars, where your beautiful is my ugly. . . But when our political leaders engage in this sort of carjacking of meaning, the consequences resound throughout the culture.

 

Today, members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, some of our standard-bearers of beauty, resigned in a letter of protest of Trump’s “support of the hate groups and terrorists who killed and injured fellow Americans in Charlottesville.” Of the many reasons cited for their resignations is this indispensible statement addressed to the president:

 

Art is about inclusion. The Humanities include a vibrant free press. You have attacked both.

 

Each of us has to find our own no, that universal utterance in the face of oppression. The monuments in question are indefensible, themselves expressions of racist terrorism, and must be resisted. That is, white supremacy isn’t a beautiful part of our national heritage to be celebrated. The Charlottesville violence made that very plain.

 

A couple of friends and I are slowly making our way through The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, a 1966 book by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The authors brilliantly demonstrate how language, a human construct, has its role in constructing humans, as well. They write that language has the ability to “crystallize and stabilize for me my own subjectivity” and that people “must talk about themselves until they know themselves.”

 

But, they write, we also inherit our language, and therefore our self-knowing. They posit that this semantic heritage, both personal and historical, results in a “social stock of knowledge” that is passed down from generation to generation. And it makes me wonder: can we become more aware of how language shapes us? Can we somehow make visible the unseen roots of our implicit biases?

 

And so for today’s resistance, I say, let’s reclaim beauty. It can begin with a poem, with a video of newborn’s first smile, or it can begin with no.

Joy Jacobson
Joy Jacobson is the CHMP’s poet-in-residence and cofounder of our Writing Reflective Narratives for Clinicians program.

Nurse Tina Carlson’s Poems on the Generational Consequences of War

By Joy Jacobson

April 28, 2017

It’s National Poetry Month for another minute or two, and since you probably haven’t dedicated as much time to memorizing poems as the month might suggest, I offer you absolution in the form of a poem composed by a woman whose work concerns itself with absolution.

 

Tina Carlson, Ojo Caliente, NM

Tina Carlson, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, released her first book of poems, Ground, Wind, This Body, through University of New Mexico Press in March. The book is a chronicle of sorts, one that winds through the wretchedness wrought by war and the deep, lifelong impression it leaves in the lives of a returning soldier’s children.

Tina is a dedicated nurse who works with the homeless in Albuquerque and a true poet—and what a combination: a carer both of human beings and of the language we use to shape and reshape our experience—who is also one of my dearest friends.

 

Try reading this poem aloud. It comes about midway through her book (offered here with the poet’s permission): 

Summer Nights

 

After rain, the earth shines in gratitude. We are nine,

awake on wet grass and the sky, a vast cup of stars.

Because our lives are small fires buried under dry fields,

the muddy homes of childhood, auditoriums of weeds, and trees.

Even discomfort glistens here.

The whole world breathes together, watches messages

pass across the wide face of the moon. We were born into wildness

after the war. Each year, watch the hillsides burn aspen yellow,

then the wind changes everything to brown.

For you, I am an arsonist.

Our fathers take aim at us behind doors with imaginary weapons,

still living in battle. Almost criminal, our desire to thrive in this world.

Our futures arrested, like the cat’s gift in the doorway:

birdlike, perfectly curled into the shape of an egg, gelatinous.

Even after several re-readings I am left breathless by that last image.

 

With the astonishing opening lines we begin in thankfulness for a thirst quenched, for the simplicity of wet grass and cupped stars—a childlike sweetness that gives way immediately to an underground fire. By line 3 we know we are in hell, navigating atemporally a place that by some unnamed grace makes even pain beautiful.

 

The poem doesn’t let on who “we” are, and so it allows me to step as a nine-year-old into that space. “For you, I am an arsonist,” the speaker says, implicating me in the near-criminality of a “desire to thrive,” despite our aborted future that has been left uncannily as a “gift.”

 

When the speaker states “We were born into wildness / after the war” she means the Second World War, but she could also be referencing our current landscape of perpetual War on Terror. Regardless, wildness in this poem’s universe is a two-headed thing, both a natural and a manmade chaos, one that helps us survive our wounded fathers and also nearly annihilates us.

 

Such antipodal tensions abound in this poem, as throughout the book. Redemption is almost always at hand, as in these brilliant lines, in which it seems that the entire world is being born and dying at the same time:

The whole world breathes together, watches messages

pass across the wide face of the moon.

Yesterday was Poem in Your Pocket Day, but it’s not too late to print this one out, or another of her poems from the book, “Ojo Caliente: Metamorphoses,” that recently appeared on Verse Daily. Carry it with you. Give it to a colleague. Read it to a friend over lunch.

 

I asked Tina what it’s been like to have this book published. She said by email: “Having this book out in the world was initially terrifying. So much was never supposed to be spoken. But the book itself, like a child, has its own life now, and wants the secrets to be over and the war wounds to be healed.”

 

Poetry has often served to bear witness and to speak the unspeakable.

 

I’ve been reading Tina Carlson’s numinous poems for more than 20 years. It thrills me that now you can read them, too.

Joy Jacobson
Joy Jacobson is the CHMP’s poet-in-residence and cofounder of our Writing Reflective Narratives for Clinicians program.