Poetry for desperate times

‘Woman at War’ provokes, inspires

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir at war in paradise

On the recommendation of a friend, I saw a magnificent film this week: Woman at War. It is the story of a mild-mannered, environmentally aware, middle-aged Icelandic woman, the conductor of an a cappella choir, who regards the industrialisation of her island—specifically the building and powering of aluminium smelters—as an act of sabotage against the natural world. So she indulges in a little sabotage of her own, and brings down the wrath of the security state on her head.

The brilliance of the movie rests in large part on the compelling lead actress, Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who has given a couple of insightful interviews concerning her role and the issues the movie is addressing—environmental activism being front and centre.

“We all have an activist inside us,” she says, except most of the time it isn’t active. “The question is: How do you find a way for your activist to get active? One of the reasons this character is inspiring is she plans it and does it—everything we have in our minds.”

Raising awareness of contentious environmental issues by dramatising them in a movie is a difficult artistic challenge, Geirharðsdóttir admits. In fact, within Iceland she thinks the film may have failed to achieve the kind of national dialogue the director, Benedikt Erlingsson, was hoping for.

“The film aims to help the awareness of how important untouched nature is and how important it is not to let big industry rule our decisions. Iceland is really split between right and left, green and not so green, those who take a destructive view of the environment and those with a more philosophical view. It is a big debate we have there because, of course, big industries and people that believe in making fast money, they don’t agree. They say we have to use what we have and sell energy. [We hoped] this film would be good to start a dialogue, but many people don’t want to see the film in Iceland because it’s too confrontational.

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The speaking poles of Whanganui

A river of manifold voices

Adzed pole at Kakahi marae / Kennedy Warne

I first came to Whanganui River, Te Awa Tupua, 30 years ago, while working on a story by one of the river’s great narrators, David Young, for the third issue of New Zealand Geographic.

Last December, after proposing for several years that National Geographic publish a story on the legal personhood statutes that have been passed in New Zealand (Te Urewera in 2014 and Te Awa Tupua in 2017), I returned to the river to write a short story on just that subject, which appeared online last month.

As is always the case with writing, there were innumerable other things that could have been said, and today E-Tangata has published a story based on the journey I undertook for National Geographic.

Not included in either story was a stop I made at Kakahi, situated at the confluence of the Whanganui and Whakapapa Rivers, south-east of Taumarunui. At the marae, I noticed a tall, square-sided pole that rose high and cast a shadow over the lawn in front of the buildings. I walked to the pole and ran a hand over the adze marks, recalling that the Whanganui is renowned for these pou, which have been erected to make declarations of war, peace, boundary matters and more. And today the two people who are designated to speak on behalf of the river are themselves called poles—pou tupua.

An elderly woman was weeding and tidying graves in the urupa near the marae, and I asked her about the pou. Her father had made it, she told me. It was a peace pole, a pole that spoke of reconciliation. She said that in her day when children misbehaved they were sent to the pole to reflect on their misdeeds.

I thought this marvellous, that from the earliest age children learn that not just humans speak. Ceremonial poles do, too. And so does the river.

Tears for Our Lady

Remembering the beauty of the hunchback’s home

A sad day for those of us who have known the enchantment of Notre-Dame.

“His cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marble figures of kings, saints and bishops who at least did not laugh in his face and looked at him with only tranquillity and benevolence. The other statues, those of monsters and demons, had no hatred for him . . . The saints were his friends and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and kept watch over him. He would sometimes spend whole hours crouched before one of the statues in solitary conversation with it. If anyone came upon him then he would run away like a lover surprised during a serenade.”

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo

Breaking the heavy silence

Through a glass, brightly

I was browsing a book of Middle Eastern poetry and prose, looking for something that might lift the spirit of those weighed down by the Christchurch tragedy. Almost the last poem in the collection Tablet and Pen is by a young Iranian American poet, writer, satirist and calligrapher, Hamid Reza Rahimi. (Tablet and Pen says that Rahimi fled to exile in 1986 “because of his overt opposition to the Iranian government, which had forbidden him to write.”) I wanted to pair the poem with a photograph, and found one I had taken in Chicago, at the Field Museum, of a Marc Chagall stained-glass window. Chagall is an artist through whom beauty passes as if through a window, and his glass art, with Rahimi’s words, seem a glowing match.

A poet’s gifts

In loss, there is life

merwin
“. . . a repairer of dissolution and ruin” / The Merwin Conservancy

On the same day that New Zealand’s Muslim community was shattered by the Christchurch mosque attacks, a poet renowned for gentleness of nature and compassionate insight died at his home in a town with the poetically apt name of Haiku, on the island of Maui.

W. S. Merwin was one of the most acclaimed poets of his generation. His words evoke some of humanity’s deepest longings and fears—about loss, absence, memory and the fleeting nature of life.

But he was also a poet of hope and loyalty to the heart’s affections, virtues he displayed not just in his words but in the other great project of his life: the restoration of seven hectares of barren land with his wife, Paula, in their adopted Hawaiian home.

The land was an abandoned pineapple plantation when Merwin bought it. Over the years it had been deforested, overgrazed and then cultivated to the point of exhaustion.

One day in 1977 Merwin planted a palm tree in this impoverished soil. The next day he planted another. And the next, and the next. Today that once desolate plot of land has become one of the largest palm collections in the world, with more than 2700 palms of more than 400 species. A living treasury of palm DNA.

Merwin was once described as “a channeler of ancient paradoxes.” One of his poems that I cherish contains such a paradox. Called “Separation,” it is just three three lines long, but, oh, the longing in those lines:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

How can it be that something that goes so sharply and painfully through the heart of a person can pull such threads of colour in its wake? We see something of that paradox in the aftermath of the Christchurch tragedy. An attack meant to divide and scatter has instead brought people together in demonstrations of solidarity and love.

Merwin was known as “a repairer of dissolution and ruin.” His words and example encourage us to rebuild, and show us how.

For more about Merwin’s work and words, go to the Merwin Conservancy website.

Swords into ploughshares

. . . and survey pegs into peace symbols

Parihaka installation on Waiheke Island / Kennedy Warne

Yesterday I was asked by National Geographic to write a “letter from New Zealand.” When I thought about what I might write, I reflected that on Friday 15th, the day of the mosque attacks, I had kayaked to Waiheke to see the annual sculpture show, which sprawls along the coastal hills above Matiatia.

I paid particular attention to one installation about Parihaka—a place and community and history I feel close to, having written at length about it. The installation, by Anton Forde, consists of 1881 survey pegs, the number referring to the year of the Parihaka invasion, and the pegs representing the issue that led up to the attack: government appropriation of Taranaki land, with surveyors the front-line agents of dispossession.

Viewers were invited to take a peg from a boundary line and place it in a triple-feather design that had been laid out on the land. The triple feather has become the symbol of Parihaka, evoking its stand of nonviolent resistance in the face of state aggression. I placed a peg and paddled back to Auckland.*

When I came to write my letter, I thought about the symbolism. Parihaka literally opposed the sword with the ploughshare—the community’s chief act of resistance was to plough up the surveyors’ pegs and lines. The great outpouring of aroha I am seeing in my own neighbourhood of Avondale towards the Muslim community here, and across the country, is a Parihaka-style response to the evil that struck in Christchurch: facing down an ideology of hatred with a demonstration of love. A symbolic melting of the cold steel of violence in the hot tears of compassion, welcome, and the radical identification that says: “They are us.”

Here is the letter.

*By the time the sculpture show closed in late March, 9000 people had participated as peg shifters. Such is the enduring resonance of Parihaka.

Although it is the night

In the dark times will there also be singing?

At my local Islamic centre this morning / Kennedy Warne

At the end of my January post, a tribute to the poet Mary Oliver, I quoted from her “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness,” in which she urges us to “go on / though the sun be swinging east, / and the ponds be cold and black, / and the sweets of the year be doomed.” I concluded with the words, “Yes, much that is sweet is gone or going, but Oliver’s poems will continue to pour their syrup on sorrowing souls. We will go on.”

What a pang those words bring me now. How different they look. How different our world looks. I have been thinking about Bertolt Brecht’s little poem, which asks a desperate question and receives an encouraging answer:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

Who sings about the dark times? I suddenly remembered I know someone who has: Seamus Heaney. Here is his poem about those times.

Station Island, XI

As if the prisms of the kaleidoscope
I plunged once in a butt of muddied water
Surfaced like a marvellous lightship

And out of its silted crystals a monk’s face
That had spoken years ago from behind a grille
Spoke again about the need and chance

To salvage everything, to re-envisage
The zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift
Mistakenly abased…

What came to nothing could always be replenished.

‘Read poems as prayers,’ he said, ‘and for your penance
Translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.’

Returned from Spain to our chapped wilderness,
His consonants aspirate, his forehead shining,
He had made me feel there was nothing to confess.

Now his sandaled passage stirred me on to this:

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.

That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.

But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.

No other thing can be so beautiful.
Here the earth and heaven drink their fill
although it is the night.

So pellucid it can never be muddied,
and I know that all light radiates from it
although it is the night.

I know no sounding line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night

And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven and all peoples
although it is the night.

And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.

And from these two a third current proceeds
which neither of these two, I know, precedes
although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
within this living bread that is life to us
although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
although it is the night.

Vanishing into something better

Mary Oliver showed us how to take the world into our arms

‘May I stay forever in the stream’ / Kennedy Warne

On cold winter nights, Mary Oliver wrote in her poem “In Praise of Craziness, of a Certain Kind,” her deranged grandmother would spread newspapers on the floor of her porch so that ants could crawl beneath them and keep warm. Such kindness from a woman “with ownership of half her mind—the other half having flown back to Bohemia,” prompted in Oliver the wish that when she, too, was “struck by the lightning of years,” she should prove as loving.

And so it turned out. Love for the small, the meek, the insignificant and the overlooked became a hallmark of the beloved American poet, who died this month, aged 83.

Whether she was writing about finches bathing in a puddle or mussels clinging to the sea rocks of Provincetown, Massachusetts, her home for more than 50 years, whether of oaks or otters, geese or green beans, her affectionate regard cast a glow around these ordinary things, restoring to them the luminous worth that a careless mind misses. And being herself restored in the process.

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Martin in the mangroves

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis, Tennessee. I made an unexpected connection with that event when I was exploring mangrove forests in the Bahamas . . .

Mangroves of Bimini, which Martin Luther King Jr visited days before his death.
Photo by Kennedy Warne

On February 1, 1968, two Memphis rubbish collectors took shelter from pelting rain inside their compactor truck. Moments later, the dilapidated and defective vehicle malfunctioned, crushing Echol Cole and Robert Walker in its machinery.

For the city’s 1300 mostly black sanitation workers, the men’s horrible death was a spark in their long-simmering protest against miserable pay and dangerous working conditions. Ten days later, they went on strike, demanding the right to belong to a union and to earn a living wage.

Through February and March, while trash piled up in the streets of Memphis, the workers marched to City Hall to voice their protest. They faced intimidation and police brutality. Photographs from the time show wary workers walking past a phalanx of young white National Guardsmen holding rifles with fixed bayonets. The workers wear placards around their necks saying “I am a man”—a line from an address by Rev James Lawson, a Memphis pastor and chairman of the strike committee. “For at the heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person,” he had told the workers. “You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity.”

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Happy birthday, HDT

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who observed, among many other quotable remarks, that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and that in wildness is the preservation of the world.

Thoreau lived for two years in a cabin he built on the shores of Walden Pond, in Massachusetts. In 2009, I visited Walden with National Geographic photographer Tim Laman, and today National Geographic has published a selection of the photographs Tim has made over the years at the pond, along with a short tribute from me.

I suppose that for many people Thoreau seems ancient, remote and irrelevant—a poet out of time. Yet the questions he asked are timeless—and arguably more pertinent than ever. What is the secret of contentment? What should our relationship be with nature? Can we live with less? Is less, in fact, more?

As the photo above suggests, let us stay in sync with Walden’s wanderer, wherever the path leads.