Friday, May 23, 2008

In the Mourning Time

I thought I’d post a poem that’s a little darker, a little heavier, than my recent posts. Not that I’m feeling morbid or anything on this lovely holiday weekend; I just thought I’d do something different. And it doesn’t get any heavier than this Robert Hayden gem.

"In the Mourning Time"
by Robert Hayden

As the gook woman howls
for her boy in the smouldering,
as the expendable Clean-Cut Boys
From Decent American Homes
are slashing off enemy ears for keepsakes;

as the victories are tallied up
with flag-draped coffins, plastic bodybags,
what can I say
but this, this:

We must not be frightened nor cajoled
into accepting evil as deliverance from evil.
We must go on struggling to be human,
though monsters of abstraction
police and threaten us.

Reclaim now, now renew the vision of
a human world where godliness
is possible and man
is neither gook nigger honkey wop nor kike

but man

permitted to be man.

I don’t normally like poems that preach. I especially don’t normally like poems that “hurt” to read. But this hurts in a way that reminds me of the power of words. “We must go on struggling to be human.” What a powerful thought. Why should be have to “struggle” to be human? Why should we have to fight to be our true selves?

Wouldn’t it be paradise to live in a “world where godliness is possible”? Wouldn’t it be amazing to completely ignore the stereotyped identities we have thrust upon us (and that we invariably thrust upon others, though we don’t admit it even to ourselves)?

To start the poem with the reference to Vietnam establishes a very dark tone. “As the gook woman howls” is a deadly first line. Very dangerous. He makes this uncomfortable to read, and he doesn’t pull any punches as he progresses through the poem (just look at that last line in the 4th stanza). Yet to be made “uncomfortable” means that I have been affected, in some way, which is to say that I have been impacted. It makes me think of Brokeback Mountain. That movie, especially the end, hurt to watch. When Jake G’s character is beaten to death at the end… breathless. I remember leaving the theater and not even wanting to talk. That’s what this poem does to me, too. It hurts to read, but that in turn makes me want to read it more.

There are too few poems like this. And those to do exist should be known to the more mainstream public. It would do the world some good to feel something every now and again.

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