My Poetry Corner March 2023 features the poem “A Dream” (Um Sonho) by Brazilian poet, writer, and cultural agitator Sérgio Vaz from his 2007 poetry collection Stone Collector (Colecionador de Pedras). He is known across Brazil as the “Poet of the Periphery.” Born in 1964 in Ladainha in the interior of the southeastern State of Minas Gerais, he was five years old when he moved with his family to Taboão da Serra in the outskirts of the City of São Paulo where he completed high school.
“Poetry for me is when it comes down from the pedestal and kisses the feet of the community. I had to take off that elegant outfit, that sophisticated word. Poetry presented itself like this, in a humble way for me, fighting against the [military] dictatorship [1964-1985], against tyranny. That’s how I became interested in poetry, knowing that it could be an instrument of struggle through words.”
During the same interview, Sérgio said that his poem, “Stubbornness” (Teimosia), defines him a lot because one must be stubborn to be Brazilian today.
It is of no use
should they break my legs
pierce my eyes
or talk behind my back.
What sustains my body
are my ideas.
I have a brain with wings
and I am all heart.
If they should forbid me to walk on water,
I swim over the land.
Radical social change is possible. I saw it unfold as a teenager growing up in Guyana, a former British colony caught in the tight grip of the rich and powerful white sugar plantation owners. Such change demands courage, persistence, and self-determination. It means pushing upstream against the flow, ignoring the voices of naysayers, and not succumbing to discouragement and hopelessness when faced with setbacks and defeats. Winifred Gaskin (1916-1977) was a woman who displayed such traits to the fullest measure.
Winifred was born of humble origins on May 10, 1916, into a world engulfed in the First World War (1914-1918). Born in the village of Buxton on the East Coast of Demerara, eleven miles (18 kilometers) from Georgetown, the capital, Winifred shared the indomitable spirit of her African slave ancestors. Seventy-six years earlier in 1840, a group of 128 ex-slaves had pooled their savings to buy an abandoned 500-acre cotton plantation, New Orange Nassau, for an inflated price of $50,000. They renamed it Buxton in honor of Thomas Fowell Buxton, an English parliamentarian and abolitionist.
Forgive me, Mother Gaia. I come before you with my head bent in shame. How could I ever believe that it was okay for humanity to destroy so much life and treat Earth’s oceans and atmosphere as dumping grounds? I have pondered our beliefs that have brought our species to a global climate and ecological catastrophe: entitlement, surety or certainty, control, autonomy, progress, and exceptionalism. Jem Bendell refers to these assumptions as humanity’s e-s-c-a-p-e ideology. Our great human enterprise stands on pillars of The Dead. I share in the plunder. I must also share the guilt.
I hear you, Mother Gaia. Your signs of distress are everywhere, even in my home state of California. I admit that my way of being is detrimental to the preservation of our planet’s web of life. I know that a shift of being is essential. Am I up to the task? Destructive practices and attitudes have become second nature to me. Beliefs have become sacrosanct.
I have begun the work of letting go of my sense of entitlement and exceptionalism. I acknowledge that I hold no divine right of dominion over the non-human lives with whom I share this planet. As you have made clear, Mother Gaia, my well-being depends upon their well-being. When I harm the condor, the Monarch butterfly, and the great forests, I harm myself.
Through my succulent and vegetable garden, I work at reconnecting with other threads in nature’s web of life. In our chaotic world of conflicting interests and desires, the flowering trees and plants, birds, and butterflies bring joy to each new day. Not so, the caterpillars that gorged on the leaves of my young cucumber plants. My inner conflict got intense: This year, I will not be planting cucumbers. Then, there is a wild cat that roams our apartment complex at night, leaving unwelcome mounds of poop in my garden beds. I know, Mother Gaia, you never promised it would be easy.
When it comes to my consumption of durable and disposal goods, I adhere to a simple and frugal lifestyle. With adult children, I no longer contend with pressure to buy the latest stuff that kids and teenagers crave. Plastic products remain a challenge. They are everywhere, cajoling me with their convenience, durability, and usefulness. I struggle, in vain, for control, Mother Gaia.
Our mistaken belief that humankind could control Nature and carve it into our own image has led us to existential crises. Extreme weather has become my new reality. Beginning on February 23rd, record-breaking severe winter storms struck our state. That afternoon shortly after 4:00 p.m., I was seated at my desk when I heard a strange pounding on the windowpane. Outside, hailstones the size of green peas littered the ground. I rushed outdoors to witness and record the rare event (see my photo below). Is this yet another sign of more extreme weather to come, Mother Gaia?
The storm brought destructive winds, much-needed rainfall, blizzards, and heavy snowfall, including low-elevation snow to areas unaccustomed to snow, like the Hollywood Sign on Mount Lee in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the City of Los Angeles. I give thanks that my garden suffered minor damage. The wind knocked over the potted Red Cactus and partly uprooted the Petra Croton plant from the ground. With warnings of another storm on the way, I secured both plants as best as I could (see photo below). Our apartment complex got off easy with just a little flooding. For how much longer will we escape Nature’s wrath, Mother Gaia?
Towns in the mountain regions have been hit hardest with record levels of up to ten feet deep of snowfall, trapping people in their homes. On March 1st, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in thirteen counties, including Los Angeles County. As temperatures have dropped by ten to twenty degrees Fahrenheit below normal for our area, I must be diligent in staying warm while still conserving on energy and gas usage. We have only ourselves to blame, Mother Gaia. We ignored your early warning signs of distress. We thought that we could keep on pumping our carbon waste into the atmosphere without adverse consequences.
Our destructive e-s-c-a-p-e narrative no longer works in favor of humankind, except for a tiny minority who profit from disaster and chaos. Until the day that they, too, will perish. We need a new narrative that recognizes our oneness with Nature’s web of life and with each other. Jem Bendell has proposed the c-o-s-m-o-s remedy: compassion, openness, serenity, mutuality, oneness, and solidarity. I will explore his proposed remedy over the next six months. I invite you to join me.
The crisis faced by combat veterans returning from war is not simply a struggle with trauma and alienation. It is often, for those who can slice through the suffering to self-awareness, an existential crisis. War exposes the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. It rips open the hypocrisy of our religions and secular institutions. Those who return from war have learned something which is often incomprehensible to those who have stayed home. We are not a virtuous nation. God and fate have not blessed us above others. Victory is not assured. War is neither glorious nor noble. And we carry within us the capacity for evil we ascribe to those we fight.
Excerpt from The Greatest Evil is War by Chris Hedges, Seven Stories Press, New York, USA, 2022 (p. 77).
CHRIS HEDGES was a war correspondent for two decades in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, including fifteen years with the New York Times, where he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of fourteen books, including War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and What Every Person Should Know About War. He holds a Master of Divinity from Harvard University and has taught at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University, and the University of Toronto.
MyPoetry Corner February 2023 features the poem “Avocado” from the poetry collection Wordplanting by Kendel Hippolyte, published by Peepal Tree Press (UK, 2019). Born in 1952 in the Caribbean Island nation of St. Lucia, Hippolyte is a poet, playwright, and director. In the 1970s, he studied and lived in Jamaica where he earned a BA from the University of the West Indies in 1976.
He is the author of seven books of poetry. Fault Lines, published in 2012, won the OCM Bocas Prize in Poetry in 2013. In 2000, he received the St. Lucia Medal of Merit (Gold) for Contribution to the Arts. He lives in St. Lucia.
I do not usually feature very long poems, but Hippolyte’s fourteen-stanza poem “Avocado” captivated me with its compelling narrative, rich imagery, and Caribbean rhythm. As I question what will become of America with its deepening divide and a world seemingly hellbent on self-destruction, the first line drew me close. Attentive.
[Kindly note that Hippolyte is known for writing in Standard English (British spelling) as well as Caribbean English and Kweyol, his nation language.]
Jem Bendell uses the word “exceptionalism” in e-s-c-a-p-E ideology to describe two kinds of exceptionalism that cause him concern: firstly, that we and our kin are different and better, or at least more entitled than others and their kin; secondly, that humans are an exceptional species in natural history (Bendell, p. 135). He notes that, throughout history, we humans have acted as though our family, community, country, race, or religion are more important than others outside our sphere. These assumptions continue to create conflicts between us at home and worldwide. We rarely question our participation in systems of oppression and our complicity in the suffering they inflict on others. The degradation and destruction under colonialism of ‘ordinary’ humans and non-human lifeforms persist to this day.
Bendell observes that this exceptionalism also manifests in another detrimental way when people think that their difference as ‘exceptional’ beings will spare them from suffering the same fate as the rest of humanity. They act as though building bunkers, moving to New Zealand, buying farmlands, and such like, will give them an edge over the rest of us when catastrophe strikes. In this way, they lose opportunities for collaboration with ‘ordinary’ humans for solutions to our shared predicament.
The grandest exceptionalismis our story of humanity being separate, and completely different, from the natural world (Bendell, p. 137). This assumption is evident in some religions and in secular cultures. When we believe this to be true, we open the door to the destruction of non-human lifeforms and the natural world. Bendell invites us to answer the question ‘Why did humanity destroy so much life on earth?’
In the midst of our Christmas Day preparations, local meteorologists warned that a severe winter storm brewing over the Pacific Ocean was headed towards the U.S. West Coast. They described it as a densely saturated atmospheric river. Thanks to advanced technological methods for studying our atmosphere, we now know that the atmosphere can hold an entire river of water vapor. These rivers in the sky are about 250 to 375 miles wide and can be more than 1,000 miles long. That is an awful lot of water vapor. Californians living in high-risk zones for flooding and mudslides were put on high alert.
After seven months of mandated water rationing, due to California’s three-year drought conditions, I was elated about the news. My water-deprived plants would be happy. But the Sky God can be merciless or overzealous when answering our prayers for rain. Beginning on December 27, 2022, California was hit by wave after wave of intense storms that dumped more water than our outdated water infrastructure could handle. In the first week of the New Year, I braced myself for what the meteorologists described as a “bomb cyclone,” as shown in the captioned photo, captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Who does not know the pain of loss? We call it grief. We call it bereavement.
The grandmother who loses her son to the coronavirus, leaving his wife and three kids behind, knows the pain of loss. The grandfather whose violent son-in-law takes the life of his daughter knows the pain of loss. The mother whose son takes his own life knows the pain of loss. The father whose daughter is killed during a police home raid knows the pain of loss. The wife who loses her husband of more than thirty years of marriage, after his long illness, knows the pain of loss. The husband who buries his wife killed during a mass shooting knows the pain of loss. The girl who loses her father during a bomb attack on their city knows the pain of loss. The boy who loses his mother following the birth of his baby sister knows the pain of loss.
We humans are all bound by the pain of our loss when a loved one dies or disappears from our lives. There is no escape.
As I struggle with another loss in my life, I hold onto the pain of loss I share with all of humanity. I know that I will rise once again above the pain.
MyPoetry Corner January 2023 features the poem “Ode to the Soccer Ball Sailing Over a Barbed-Wire Fence” by Martín Espada from his poetry collection Floaters, winner of the 2021 National Book Award in poetry. Espada, a poet, editor, essayist, and translator, was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1957 to a politically engaged Puerto Rican family.
After studying history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Espada earned his law degree from Northeastern University-Boston. For many years (1987-1993), he was a tenant lawyer and legal advocate for low-income, Spanish-speaking tenants in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a town across the Tobin Bridge from Boston. Today, he teaches poetry and English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Jem Bendell uses the word “progress” in e-s-c-a-P-e ideology to describe the assumption that material progress is possible and good for the advancement of human civilization. This assumption or narrative of progress, he argues, means that new technologies and ideas are given the benefit of the doubt, and the hidden or unforeseen costs of those ideas tend to be downplayed or fixed with even less tested ideas (Bendell, pp. 134-135). In prioritizing our drive for progress, we humans push ahead to use technologies that disrupt Earth’s natural systems and unravel the Web of Life upon which human societies depend. The Men of Progress reject any alternative way of organizing society that does not guarantee them material or financial gains. Capital accumulation reigns.
Without a doubt, I have benefited from humanity’s technological progress. Thanks to this progress, I enjoy a comfortable life with all my needs met for energy, food, shelter, and water. With just a click, I can connect with others worldwide. Motor vehicles, trains, and planes make getting together with loved ones so much easier and less time-consuming. Advances in medicine lengthen my lifespan. What is there not to love about human progress?