Poets have been clamorous in protesting transgressions against human rights for millennia. Unfortunately there is no shortage of inspiration or material; it seems that each subsequent generation has something pertinent to include, sometimes in the form of afflicted memories, horrors lived or tragedies endured, but usually as indictments of current conflicts and genocides. Every book published on the expanding topic would be opportune. With the relatively recent revelation of the Abu Ghraib photos, constant hostilities in the Middle East and the escalation of suicide bombings across the world, poets have responded with characteristic outrage. Opposed to Theodor Adorno's amnesiac dictum that "to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric," the poetry featured in I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights strives to remember when many would rather forget the horrors meted out to themselves and their respective countries; it candidly demonstrates that the voices of universal protest have not been quieted or enfeebled. Although the poets in this anthology are not always as aggressive as those presented in others, they are certainly clearer in their articulation and enlightened views.
I Go to the Ruined Place is no breezy summer reading. It's like leafing through a diary of diverse people inexplicably persisting in the shared wreckage of their world. Serious and horrifyingly precise, it revitalizes the genre of politically dissident verse to include poems of sexual liberation and cultural rights. Local poet Matthew Kaler intimately evokes a woman held prisoner in a chicken coup in Darfur in "Kalashnikov Staccato." In "KZ," Carolyne Wright reminisces walking through the nightmare of an abandoned concentration camp on a frigid day, writing, "But we must learn the signs: they hungered/they were cold, and in Dachau it was always winter." In the art-inspired "Interrogation II," C.K. Williams bewails the metaphysical verity of human-made misery in one sense or another, while in her frank portrayal of a dark, enforced sexual chronology, "No Exchange of Livestock," local Sheryl Noethe questions the very basis of morality and freedom:
No choice. No chance.
And where was God?
They say God saved the few he could.
The rest, however, he kept
Widely published poet Li-Young Lee details the trials of fleeing his violence-ridden Indonesia and the contemporary anxieties and fears of assimilating into a society completely estranged from familiar traditions:
If your name suggests a country where bells
might have been used for entertainment
or to announce the entrances and exits of the seasons
or the birthdays of gods and demons,
it's probably best to dress in plain clothes
when you arrive in the United States,
and try not to talk too loud.
In Tiffany Midge's agonized "After Viewing the Holocaust Museum's Room of Shoes and a Gallery of Plains' Indian Moccasins: Washington, D.C." we have perhaps our closest estimation of the book's intent: "The portrait is clear:/one is art, the other evidence." Throughout these poems and brief, insightful biographies that accompany them, the line is blurred between the two, and in the end it's apparent that neither distinction can be separated from the other. The book confronts the reader with evidence of awful crimes, but it does so in language filled with stirring images and compelling metaphors.
Compiled and edited by Montana poets Melissa Kwasny and M.L. Smoker, the slim volume is about as heavy and heartbreaking a collection of poems as you are likely to find. Ostensibly gathering works for an anthology focused primarily on the concept of torture, the editors note they were "surprised at the range of issues spoken to by poets." And this is perhaps the triumph of the book: Its themes are global and profoundly personal at once. There are stories of Cambodia and child sexual abuse, American Indian frustration and prison rape, lynching and Rwanda, gay rights and the Holocaust. Because it allows itself to stretch the limits of its ambition, the concerns of the book are as atypical as the poets, aid workers, soldiers and other activists who created it.
A wise selection almost never lacking in consistency or originality, I Go to the Ruined Place mesmerizes with its unabashed honesty. With only one or two exceptions of billboard-style politicizing, the poems are chiseled to the essentials of the craft. The standouts of the entire collection, however, are the editors, who scoured both lesser known and influential publications for powerful works of modern poetry. They have managed to unify a manifold of styles into a genuine narrative of inhumanity and its impassioned resistance. Finalist for a High Plains Book Award, it is a valuable addition to the rows of shelves dedicated to struggle, survival and hardship. There is pain and dread herein, but somewhere amid the bruised dignity of the oppressed who limp through these pages, a slightly clouded, tiny fragment of hope sputters audibly beneath every line.
Co-editors Melissa Kwasny and M.L. Smoker present a reading with local writers for I Go to the Ruined Place at UM's Del Brown Room in Turner Hall Wednesday, Sept. 15, at 7 PM. Free.