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'n lewe wat IETS BETEKEN | 26/03/2023

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Vir Alles & Almal | Gedigte & skrywes

Lees, luister en reflekteer saam op die volgende:

“Praising Dark Places” by Yusef Komunyakaa:

“If an old board laid out in a field

Or backyard for a week,

I’d lift it up with a finger,

A tip of a stick.

Once I found a scorpion

Crimson as a hibernating crawfish

As if a rainbow edged underneath;

Centipedes & unnameable

Insects sank into loam

With a flutter. My first lesson:

Beauty can bite. I wanted

To touch scarlet pincers—

Warriors that never zapped

Their own kind, crowded into

A city cut off from the penalty

Of sunlight. The whole rotting

Determinism just an inch beneath

The soil. Into the darkness

Of opposites, like those racial

Fears of the night, I am drawn again,

To conception & birth. Roots of ivy

& farkleberry can hold a board down

To the ground. In this cellular dirt

& calligraphy of excrement,

Light is a god-headed

Law & weapon.”

*           *           *           *           *

Luister hier na die gesprek tussen Christa Tippet en Yusef Komunyakaa oor die gedig.

The first thing about this brilliant poem is that the earliest part of it is a description of a boy, I think, picking up a piece of board to see what’s underneath it. And you see his amazement at the color, the movement of insects going down into the earth, the different “[c]entipedes and unnameable / Insects” sinking into loam. And he gets bitten, and he wants to touch, and he’s fascinated that they don’t kill each other, but nonetheless, they do bite him.

And the second thing about this poem is the way that the voice changes partway through it and begins to reflect on what is happening in the context of light coming into this part of the earth that was covered over by a board, where darkness was the natural way within which these insects seem to flourish; that light in this context is some kind of interruption, that it’s something that they scuttle away from.

So partly, I always think that this poem is responding to the curiosity in poetry, in public language, in religion: is light always a metaphor for good, and is dark always a metaphor for difficulty? And this poem is exploring that through the curiosity of a child and then the adult reflections of that grown-up child.

*           *           *           *           *

Years ago, I was at this big meeting; I was speaking at it. It was a religious meeting. And the people there were singing a hymn, kind of like a contemporary Christian chorus. And the chorus of this song said: “Jesus, make me whiter. Jesus, make me whiter. Jesus, make me whiter than the snow.” And there were a few thousand people singing this, enthusiastically. And I find it difficult to join in in choruses like that anyway, but this one just seemed to me to be so unaware of what was being repeated: “Jesus, make me whiter.” How, in this planet, with the history that this planet has and the contemporary stories of this planet — how can you say that? I was so disturbed.

And I suppose I began noticing from then, where else is it that the idea of white or light is a metaphor for something good, and the idea that dark or black, that that can be a metaphor for difficulty? And it’s so many places, in so many old poetries. And this poetry has a profound intelligence, looking at the curiosity of a child to bring light, and the way that the light, therefore, is an interruption to the lives of these insects, and then, within the context of that, how he begins to reflect on: what do I think about light and dark as metaphors?

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the line “Beauty can bite” is that he’s thinking about how perhaps he might have reached down, out of curiosity, to a scorpion and been bitten back, or almost been bitten back by it. So: beauty can bite. But also, he is lifting something up and exposing these insects to something that they don’t want. So maybe he’s the bite.

And in the context of all of this he’s beginning to see himself through all kinds of ambivalences. And that’s the brilliance of this poem. This poem is not saying: Everybody’s got it wrong, it’s exactly the other way around. This poem is saying: We live in a situation of profound ambivalence. What do you need? What happens for you? How do we go about this? It’s an invitation into magnificent subtlety and magnificent ambivalence. It is saying the world doesn’t operate in this kind of a way, in a binary way. He is saying over and over again, in this poem: Pay attention. Look. Notice from the earth.

It starts in the field, it goes into a bit of abstract philosophical speculation, and then it ends, back in the earth: “Roots of ivy / & farkleberry can hold a board down / To the ground.” And then he goes even further: “In this cellular dirt / & calligraphy of excrement, / Light is a god-headed / Law & weapon.” Whose weapon? Whose law? Whose god? In all of this he’s introducing brilliant ambivalence to the question of, who gets to say light’s great, and darkness isn’t? Who gets to say that one thing is only one thing?

*           *           *           *           *

Toward the end of the poem, Yusef Komunyakaa has a couple of lines where he lifts the locale of this poem and suddenly begins to look at the whole world: “Into the darkness / of opposites, like those racial / Fears of the night, I am drawn again / To conception & birth.” What’s he doing in these few words, thinking about: do conceptions happen in the light of the day? How much growth happens in the dark? How much dark is a repository for racial fears being projected onto other people? In these couple of lines, he is looking at the earth. This is the voice of a man, now, not the voice of a child. He’s looking at the earth and reflecting on how the earth calls to mind rituals, and considerations of questions to do with birth, with conception, and also with death and protection. What’s he saying about the nature of trying to fight for your own life?

In this poem, Yusef Komunyakaa is posing a philosophical question about how is it that we live in the world, and what metaphors are good enough for the way that we talk about good and evil? And he is saying: Look. Observe. Be educated by the earth, what you think works as metaphor for good and for evil. Pay attention as to whether that works for other living beings, too, and adjust your language accordingly. Be educated by the scorpion. Be educated by the crimson insect or the way that a rainbow creeps underneath the board. Be educated by all of this. Displace yourself from assuming that your curiosity is the center point of analysis, and find a way to listen and learn from the intelligence of the earth and the intelligence of praising dark places.


“The Truceless Wars” by Marilyn Nelson:

“among beasts, and among men, are worlds apart.

The pigeon lays down fluttering life to flash

a russet tail. The haddock becomes harp seal,

then polar bear. The squirming termite licked

from a sharp stick awakes to invent tools.

The lamb lies down within the lion, yawns

yellow-fanged, and sleeps. Life struggles to evolve

higher in us, through questioning, toward hope.

But we sow salt. We leave a ground-zero wake

of futurelessness. Take the way a life

devolves from thought to blind mouths in the dust

wasted by semiautomatic fire.

This flesh is foolscap. We think we’re so smart,

but we create nothing, nothing. Nothing.”

*           *           *           *           *

Luister hier na die gesprek tussen Christa Tippet en Marilyn Nelson about her poem

The first time I read this poem I counted the lines and thought, this is a sonnet, my God. And I always think of a sonnet as a punch of a poem, like a fist, hitting you to make you look at something not just once, but twice, because that’s part of the technique of a sonnet, is that it has a volta in the middle of it. “Volta” is an Italian word. It’s where in English we get the word “revolver” or “revolt” or “revolution.” So the idea in a sonnet is that it makes you look at something and then turn around and look at something else again, or look at something in a new light. This sonnet compares the wars of beasts with the wars of humanity, the wars of us and we and “men,” as she calls it.

A sonnet is usually in two halves, not necessarily of equal length, and this one is based on eight lines followed by six lines, making a 14-line poem. And the first eight lines mostly describe the kind of destruction you see in nature: it’s not pretty, but it’s functional. Marilyn Nelson goes into the biblical idea of the lion lying down with the lamb and says: Actually, no. “The lamb lies down within the lion,” as food. So there’s no sentimentality at all. And a polar bear eats a seal that had itself eaten a fish, and the termite is the brain food of an animal that makes its own tools. And even the pigeon creates art in its death, fluttering that russet tail.

And then there’s the statement about observing death, which begins to bring us into a turn: “Life struggles to evolve / higher in us, through questioning, toward hope.” And in this, Marilyn Nelson is proposing in a certain sense the great quest of humanity, that we are part of a world full of beasts who are evolving, who are staying alive. And she says that the vocation of us as humanity is that life is trying “to evolve higher in us, … toward hope,” by the use of questions.

And then the second part of the poem, it turns completely. It starts off with a “[b]ut,” almost like she’s contradicting herself. And she turns back on herself and says, “we sow salt.” What happens when you sow salt? It doesn’t grow. It stops things growing. “[L]eave a ground-zero wake / of futurelessness” — in a certain sense what she’s saying is that our wars, our “truceless wars” as humanity are without the possibility of a future. They’re simply for the purpose of annihilation.

*           *           *           *           *

One of the most difficult questions that I always found, working in conflict resolution, was to ask people who were locked in conflict, what do you want?, because it is so difficult in the midst of conflict to name what you want, because somehow a positive outcome can often seem synonymous with: I want to win, and I want them to lose. And disentangling those things from each other, those energies from each other, can be so difficult. To win, to destroy, to create a “nothing,” to see somebody else suffer, to be vindicated, all of these questions are so difficult to discern, when you’re locked in conflict yourself.

And this is why I think it’s so brilliant that Marilyn Nelson is posing this subterranean question in this sonnet, because a sonnet is a little song — that’s what the word means — and what she’s offering is a little song, offering the capacity, with fairly harsh questions, to ask yourself, what am I creating? What am I doing? What am I sowing? In what way am I corresponding to the way that the future is seeking to evolve in us, with hope, through questions? It’s a song of self-examination, a song of interruption, and a song of a hoped-for accountability.

*           *           *           *           *

This 14-line poem isn’t just a magnificent example of a sonnet, but it’s also a magnificent example of using sonics in a sonnet. So she uses alliteration: “among … among,” in the early part of the poem, and “fluttering … flash[ing],” “haddock … harp,” “sharp stick,” “lamb lies,” “yawns / yellow-fanged,” “sow salt,” and then the end, “nothing, nothing. Nothing.” There’s an extraordinary beat and a percussion in the poem.

I find that her capacity to create these sonic percussions between those sounds reaches, again, not only an alliteration; it reaches out through some of the syllables of certain words. And it is most particular in this line: “wasted by semiautomatic fire.” Six syllables in “semiautomatic,” and it almost feels like you’re hearing the bam-bam-bam-bam-bam of a semiautomatic weapon, in the way that that word comes across. So there’s an urgency in the poem, and the poem is creating the sound of some of the very threats that it’s addressing and asking, as a summons of attention, to say, Pay attention to this. What do you wish to create?

*           *           *           *           *

The idea that art is meant to disturb the comfortable I think is particularly found in this extraordinary short punch of a poem. Throughout it there’s a deep knowledge of what she’s saying the particular call of humanity is; to evolve through questioning, toward hope, and to do that alongside animals. Often the idea can be that humans have evolved more than animals, but in this poem Marilyn Nelson is saying that when you look at the economy of understanding, resource, even in carnivorous animals, even in ways within which beasts and birds are able to find a way to flutter with flourish into their last moments, she is highlighting that to us to say, well, what are we creating in our relationship with resources, in our relationship to life?

So this poem has a really firm belief in the role of being alive, which is to be the site in which life builds upon itself with questions. I think it’s asking really pragmatic questions about the here and now. What do you want? How can we live alongside each other, and who am I, and who are you, and who are we together? Even as we know we’re living and dying and hopefully evolving, how are we contributing to the longevity of a planet that can flourish in itself?

At the heart of this poem is a play on the idea of human nature and nature. Often, we speak of ourselves like we’re not part of nature. We are part of nature. And in this holding together of these two halves of the sonnet, there is nature as exhibited in beasts and nature as exhibited in terrible actions by humanity. I was almost going to say “beastly” actions by humanity, but I think that’s unfair on the beasts.

*           *           *           *           *

This poem ends on the threefold repetition of “nothing, nothing. Nothing.” And it’s arresting, and it’s hard to feel happy at the end of this poem. And I don’t know that this poem is wanting people to feel happy by the end of it. But one of the things that I think the poem does want is to pay attention to the middle. “Life struggles to evolve / higher in us, through questioning, toward hope” — here Marilyn Nelson is saying: this is the point of being human — to evolve, to struggle with questions, towards hope; that hope is the possibility that calls humanity into continually evolving and paying attention.

And hope isn’t something abstract. She’s finding hope in the way that animals are part of a sustaining ecosystem, rather than engaging in wars, because the wars of animals, she says, are worlds apart from the wars among men. And in this way hope is found in the most present reality and awareness of nature and recognizing that human nature can sometimes be an aberration from what we might call “unconscious” animals, who aren’t aware of themselves but who nonetheless are demonstrating a way of being in the world, evolving in the world, that is sustainable, unlike ourselves.