Getting Centered: No Language Is Neutral - June/July Peace Press
No Language is Neutral
by Susan Lamont
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
- William Carlos Williams
And women. The New York Times Magazine recently ran an article titled “’Record My Voice, So That When I Get Killed, at Least You’ll Have Something of Me:’ Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry.” In Kabul, a women’s literary society operates openly. For women in the provinces, having a cell phone can link them to the group and women who will listen to and write down their poems. Being caught by family members can mean beatings or worse.
A popular poetic form is a landai, a two-line poem meaning “short, poisonous snake” – a form of women’s rebellion which questions their families, their country’s invaders, their god - in Pashto. Landai are passed from woman to woman, changing over the course of the repetitions. These are safer because no one woman is responsible for them. Zarmina, who set herself on fire after a relative caught her reciting into the phone and destroyed her notebooks, wrote:
I am shouting but you don’t answer –
One day you’ll look for me and I’ll be gone from this world.
The famous poet Safia Siddiqi said “In Afghanistan, poetry is the women’s movement from the inside.”
The feminist and radical poet Adrienne Rich, who died in March, wrote eloquently of the intersection of poetry and politics, of poetry as passionate witness. She understood that one of the roles of mainstream media and entertainment is to normalize pain and difference and make them acceptable and inevitable. In contrast, poetry’s role is to take us to the frontier of what it is to be human, to reclaim that which society expects us to deny about ourselves and our world.
In many countries, poetry is part of people’s lives. Here, we often feel blessedly released from it when we leave school. But do others know something we don’t? Certainly, Afghan women know something!
The Peace Press has always printed poetry, but in the last few years, I’ve made sure that we’ve printed more than usual. I want to see some small corner of this vehicle as something other than journalism. The poet David Mura wrote, “What does it mean when poets surrender vast realms of experience to journalists, to political scientists, economists? What does it mean when we allow the ‘objectivity’ of these disciplines to be the sole voice which speaks on events and topics of relevance to us all?”
For me, writing in this forum is usually some combination of witness and journalism, but I rarely strive for objectivity. As poet Dionne Brand wrote in “No Language is Neutral”
…..I have tried to write this thing calmly
even as its lines burn to a close. I have come to know
something simple. Each sentence realised or
dreamed jumps like a pulse with history and takes a
The writing of “political” poetry is difficult. It is too easy to hit someone over the head with the words. The subtlety and the extension of meaning beyond those words can be elusive. Some poetry we print succeeds at that and some less so. For most of us, the actual act of writing is a work in progress. No matter. It is important for poets to be heard. Adrienne Rich wrote, “A distaste for the political dimensions of art, in this time and place, is a dangerous luxury…..in a history of spiritual rupture, a social compact built on fantasy and collective secrets, poetry becomes more necessary than ever; it keeps the underground aquifers flowing; it is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.”
So we print it and hope you will find something there. We invite you to join in the poetic imagination. You may never want to go back.
Note: The Peace & Justice Center sponsors poetry readings, 100 Thousand Poets for Change, on the first Friday of each month at Gaia’s Garden Restaurant at 7:30 p.m. Call the Center for more details.