Community, then action
By Wesley Rothman
Epiphany is not enough. Having a realization, making a discovery, or feeling a profound change of perspective is essential for personal growth and human progress, but it is only the beginning.
January 5, 2016. The Academy of American Poets’s Poem-a-Day is “Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz” by Matthew Olzmann. As poetry-lovers wake across America, this poem stuns person after person. The letter of the poem is addressed, borrowing Miłosz’s words, to “You whom I could not save,” those who have died by America’s gun violence. In addition to the gradual and artful poignancy of the poem, people’s encountering of this poem echoed what happens to them every time another innocent is taken from this life by trigger-squeezing. This poem didn’t only stir heartache or outrage or some heightened visceral response — what some of the best poems achieve — but a unity, a collective, a moment of recognizing our communal self.
This effect for poems is not new, but it seems particularly prominent in contemporary poetry. We, fortunately, are hearing and reading more poems that work democratically, in the concept’s purest sense. What I mean is that more poems are reflecting and inciting the urgency for unity. Olzmann’s poem considers gun violence, and in closing, warns us against bickering, finger-pointing, talking, and talking, and talking:
That’s just our voices,
the deadbolt of discourse
sliding into place.
While discourse is so often encouraged and appears necessary, it is not enough. Discourse quickly moves past the profundity of human life, the extreme violation of a bullet taking it. Discourse quickly becomes the selfish pursuit of being “right.” And as long as we are locked in discourse, action is put on hold.
Beyond Olzmann’s we hear other poems urging not only poignancy but community and action. Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact,” Morgan Parker’s “Magical Negro #84: The Black Body,” Ailish Hopper’s “Did It Ever Occur to You That Maybe You’re Falling in Love?,” Danez Smith’s “From ‘summer, somewhere’,” Javier Zamora’s “Looking at a Coyote,” Tarfia Faizullah’s “100 Bells,” Cathy Linh Che’s “Self Defense” and “Projector,” all call not only for us to feel reality in an epiphanic way but to act, to recognize there is a community, much larger than the self, that shares a massive sorrow, shares hurt, shares loss. To move past this realization — that when one person is killed or abused, many more people break; that when one person is damaged in our society, it is our responsibility to understand the root causes and act to change them — in discourse and media hype is to fuel injustice.
We know poetry can give us joy and solace and memorials, but poetry right now is shouting at us for something in return. Acknowledge the poet, the person who wrote it. Acknowledge the community of readers, the people whose lives are impacted by any given poem you encounter. Change of heart and mind is the first step. Now act.
Wesley Rothman’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 32 Poems, Copper Nickel, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Four Way Review, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Harvard Review, Mississippi Review, Narrative Magazine, New England Review, Poet Lore, Post Road, Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, Third Coast, Vinyl Poetry, Waccamaw, Waxwing, and The White Review, as well as the Golden Shovel Anthology, Poets on Growth, and It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop, among other venues. His criticism has appeared in Boston Review, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Southeast Review, and regularly in American Microreviews and Interviews. Rothman serves Salamander Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, and Mass Poetry in advisory capacities. Recipient of a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, his work has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthologies, and he teaches writing and cultural literatures throughout Boston.