A Literary Call to Arms

As human beings and writers, we are questioning the power of ink in altering the headline news. Some editors and publishers consider a literary call to arms a prerequisite, a necessary step in the global healing process; others find it a tacky, trite, and opportunistic maneuver toward personal publicity, rather like dressing up bloodshed for a cocktail party. Publishing poetry and opinion on the terrorist attacks is a risky straddle for writers, for emotion is dictating the behavior of us all. To deny that fact is to erase the human identity. I respect those publishers who believe in "silent mourning"; I have more respect for pens with the courage to grieve and speak, regardless of the rejection letters, pronounced condemnation, and volatile ambiance of a country in the jaws of terror.

If art is not a conversation, then social consciousness poetry is nothing but hurt and opinion lifted to a higher plane by evocative imagery. As a reader, I want to hear from all sides of the grieving coin. From the firemen who have dug through the rubble with their bare hands. From the women who are pressing their draft-age sons to their heaving breasts and crying out vociferously for a different means than all-out war. Yesterday, in an effort to find what the literary giants are saying in response to the terrorist attacks, I read The New Yorker. They called in the likes of John Updike, Susan Sontag, Denis Johnson, Aharon Appelfeld, and Rebecca Mead.

Collectively, these writers mourned the attack on civilization, aptly describing the falling towers as a "nightmare ballet" (Updike). Sontag's essay was the only one in the bunch that overtly slaughtered the attitudes and behavior of both the press and our leaders: she pointed to our "robotic President" and assured the American public that these perpetrators were not cowardly at all, for they themselves were willing to die for their beliefs. If the conversation is to continue, someone needs to interject, indeed argue her points. Laden, the ostensible leader of these attacks, has not shown that same conviction, for he is (if our news sources are reliable) hiding from the world at large like a bearded mouse in a stolen basement, thereby endangering the lives of those he pretends to protect.

Anger is everywhere; grief brings out the worst and the best in all of us. Like many writers in America, I am using art to cope with the impossible magnitude of both certain and potential death. My emotions run the gamut of hatred for the terrorists, to unbounded compassion for those trapped in Afghanistan, their very lives on the edge of the end. I am selfishly congratulating myself for being a small-town girl. Who would bother to terrorize the tiny acreage of a small town in Southern Oregon? Immediately, the broader issues intervene and my own life is little again. If the suffering of New York and Washington and Pennsylvania is to be transformed into a global lesson, we must ride out the emotive current and give credence to the purging process of grief.

The crimes I witnessed on television, now matter how slanted their coverage may have been, have awakened my senses about a city I once thought callous and pompous, arrogant and self-involved. Last April, a poem of mine was featured at The United Nations Exhibit Hall. The sponsors of the event flew my husband and me to New York for the opening ceremonies. We were served smoked salmon rolls, Heineken, and delicate pastries. They pinned a white rose to my dress and I was interviewed by a reporter for a Japanese television station. I am ashamed that I wandered the New York streets complaining of the cost of cabs, the incessant sounds of sirens in the middle of the night, and the aura of general apathy. New York has shown me she has a tender and inviting side; for this I must be grateful. Those who say that God has a reason for all that happens on earth will look for an explosion of humanitarianism to follow in the footsteps of these tragedies. The question is, will we sort through the rubble and find that hope?

Words right now feel like salt in an open wound, like rubbing a bedsore with a slab of sandpaper. We are running on the adrenaline of anger, the fuel of hysteria, a milkshake of wasted blood and deserved tears. Our syllables extend the torture of the terror; but they also remind us, as Updike says, "we have only the mundane duties of survivors--to pick up the pieces, to bury the dead, to take more precautions, to go on living." For me, this includes waving the almost limp appendage of a sorrowful quill.

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