Contributor: Sean Morrissey
We often relive history along two parallel tracks; there is the prevailing narrative told by those in power, and the unfettered honesty of the artist. Occasionally these impressions do intersect and we’re right to consider both sides, as they reveal a complete picture of life in a given time and place.
The shock and scale of the Beirut explosion is difficult to comprehend, now when much of the world is equally gripped by its own surreality. The real-time footage of eviscerated newsrooms and photo shoots brought these scenes into our homes with shocking clarity. In honour and memory of those affected by the August 4th explosion, the words of Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck:
Fi Yom Wi Leila
Spare me this Arab love for dictators tonight.
Come closer, listen—Warda is singing,
Fi Yom Wi Leila. This day, this night, let us.
Push this talk of the land to the side. Spare me
this Arab love for conspiracy tonight. Lower your voice
to the sound of my pupils. Look at me. Let’s music
instead, let’s cigarette, let’s wine and laughter. Let’s call
friends. Remember how our mothers used to serve
cigarette packs on trays to their guests?
Fi Marlboro, fi Viceroy, fi Gitanes, they said.
Every house had them cigarette trays. Some nights, the politics
settled with the ashes, and the jokes came, the clapping,
the Allah Allah rising with the smoke, the dancing. Time tortures
everyone. Let’s heal a little. Ask me if I could ever
love again. Let’s exaggerate. Ask me if there will ever be
arms like mine. Warda is singing she’d been missing you
even before she’d met you. I missed you before I met you too.
And now, habibi, even more, even more.
[Warda refers to Warda Al Jazairia, a famous Algerian singer. Fi Yom Wi Leila is one of her songs, and it translates as “in a day and a night.”’ “Fi Marlboro, fi Viceroy, fi Gitanes” means “there’s Marlboro, there’s Viceroy, there’s Gitanes.”
From the opening lines we might infer that life for the speaker is intrinsically tied to the regions complex history, with references to the “Arab love for dictators” and “talk of the land”. Growing up in the northern city of Tripoli, Hashem Beck has seen her country grow and change so much over the last several decades, and yet many of its most persistent challenges remain.
It is important to note, however, that the speaker’s political misgivings never dominate the space. The poem’s greater half is so taken by these moments of familial love, how “mothers used to serve cigarette packs on trays to their guests” over evenings full of wine and laughter, that we forget the bubbling strife outside the door. There is hurt and pain to be sure, but the speaker is not devoured by circumstances outside her control; rather, she leans into love and the hard-won work of healing those close at hand.
On the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing
Contributor: Sean Morrissey
Additionally, the traditional haiku should incorporate elements of the natural world, and culminate with an unexpected turn or action in the final line. Consider the haiku of Matsu Basho, one of Japan’s most celebrated and influential poets, as he contemplates the cherry blossom:
How many, many things
They call to mind
It is difficult to overstate the juxtaposition of scale, from the pastoral tranquillity of haiku to the enormity of the atomic bomb. However, one could argue that is exactly what makes the Japanese haiku of Hiroshima so incredibly powerful. Take, for example, the following haiku by Yasuhiko Shigemoto:
Hiroshima Day -
I believe there must be bones
Under the paved street
There is nothing ephemeral about Shigemoto’s work, or in most haiku generally. It is a poetry rooted in the real, reflecting the simple joys (and enormous tragedies) of our lived experience. And what metaphor could rival the surreality of the atomic bomb?
Given the structural rigidity of haiku, with its strict adherence to form and syllable count, there is little room for haphazard language. The poet writes with great deliberation, as in the following, again by Shigemoto:
The sunset glow -
as if still burning
Shigemoto’s matter-of-fact diction is fairly characteristic, but here this plain spoken verse takes on greater democratic value. This poem, like all those featured, can be easily read and understood by everyone. There is nothing unattainable in Shigemoto’s language, thus ensuring maximum readership and exposure. It also speaks to a sense of urgency.
That so much is contained within these short poems is not only a testament to Japanese aesthetic, but also to the universality of experience. Our empathetic instincts are born of the fact that we have all known tragedy and lived to carry that weight. These poems serve to bring us closer, as after any seismic event, to share the writer’s grief in mourning what all was lost 75 years ago.
The Tanka, or “short song”, is another classical Japanese form that relies on a similar syllabic structure to haiku. However, where the haiku is comprised of 17 syllables, the tanka is extended to 31 syllables and often appears as a single line (though English translations will often depict the tanka in five-line stanzas). While it may be the lesser known of the two traditions, at least among western readers, the tanka dates back some 1,000 years before haiku, making it one of the oldest poetic styles in Japanese history.
As its name suggests, the tanka provides just enough length and stylistic freedom to make for a short song, even a complete scene. These poems feel even more deeply rooted in the world, replete with characters and speech, setting and dramatic turns of phrase. As readers we may be disarmed by their size and, with guards down, are all the more vulnerable to the impact of the poem. Take the following by Imai Tokusaburo:
Alas, my wife still hopes
Though setting his plate already for a month in vain.
In two short lines, Tokusaburo has distilled the entirety of Hiroshima and its enduring impact on survivors. The poem offers a glimpse into the bomb’s aftermath which, far from the visceral extremes of that fateful day, are now filled with a more muted, lingering grief. The scene is private and domestic and otherwise unknown to the world were it not for Tokusaburo’s writing. Or consider the spectral voice in the following tanka by Haruka Tanimura
Hiroshima said to me every day:
"If you neglect to treasure those around you, you will surely regret it.”
Again, we are brought into the world of the ever after, what that which stays long after the military offences and media reporting and eventual peace treaties. The prevailing narratives of history are often criticised for telling the victor’s story, or perpetuating those on either side of power. Here the poet provides an essential people’s history of events, that which might otherwise be overlooked and lost to time. That so much is contained within these short poems is not only a testament to Japanese aesthetic, but also to the universality of experience. Our empathetic instincts are born of the fact that we have all known tragedy and lived to carry that weight. These poems serve to bring us closer, as after any seismic event, to share the writer’s grief in mourning all that was lost 75 years ago.
Read about the 75th Anniversary of Hiroshima here
Contributor: Sean Morrissey
As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day on May 8th, a poem from World War II veteran Alan Dugan is appropriate. Dugan served in the U.S. Air Force during the last stages of the war, an experience he described as “crucial” to his own life’s trajectory and development.
Dugan’s “Aubade: Chant of the Innocents” lays out the gentle reflection of its speaker, a serviceman long-home and looking back on those crucial years when tomorrow’s fate remained an open question. It reads as if from the other side and yet, at the time of writing and the poem’s first publication in January 1945, the world and this soldier-poet were both still very much at war.
here to edit.
I shall arise in the morning and make my bed.
I shall walk to the door and admire things.
I shall remember neither the sick mornings
When eyeballs grated on the lid,
And the mind clenched, refused to breathe,
Or mumble and cough over small indigestible portions of dreams,
Nor your frayed voice, speaking also in the morning
To the mirror of its self, saying,
What terrible days we must expect to endure
As a price for this decay around us;
For these contortions we have,
Until the time that I can say;
All in all I remember it (and you)
With a good deal of nostalgia,
I shall mop the floor and stand reveille,
And when the hangar doors open in a huge yawn
I shall enter its noisy intestines
To perform the function for which I am best fitted.
I shall stand with mechanics, grouped like surgeons
Over the engine. (whose black blood
Will camouflage fumbles, delicacy,
Waving of words and change all hands
Into ratchets, wrenches and soft, ineffectual mallets.)
I shall work with pleasure in great intensity.
I shall say, Good morning. Good morning. What a fine morning.
Note the even keeled tone of the poem and its focus on those mundane domesticities of life; the simple joy of labour and one’s being part of the big picture (standing “with mechanics, grouped like surgeons / over the engine). Above all, though, Dugan’s poem speaks to the innate resilience of humanity, that even during periods of great fear and uncertainty we hold out hope toward the light.
Contributor: Sean Morrissey
First published in 1855, the following (known most commonly as “This is What you Shall Do”) served as preface to American poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman, whose ethos of compassion and humanity would coincide with a most inhumane period of history in the United States, speaks to our enduring need for community.
This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
There is a repetitious, incantatory quality here, as if the poet were giving a sermon on the righteous life; one full of love, introspection, and freedom. These are inalienable human rights, and a far-away privilege for those millions living through war, poverty, and famine around the world: it is for those we must fight and give alms every day.