Uncategorized | March 15, 2005

Why is it that so few young American poets seem comfortable with politics? Is it the effect of American cynicism? Our lack of suffering? Is it the difficulty of writing from a place of relative privilege? Whatever it is, most young poets seem to ignore politics completely (sometimes with the exception of a token 9/11 poem). Here, though, are two young poets with a global sense of the world, and of history, and a belief that poetry is still an important medium for political expression.

(from Steve Gehrke, poetry editor, the Missouri Review)

Blue Earth by Aliki Barnstone

Learned, but always understated, poet, critic and translator Barnstone moves effortlessly through time and space, from Tibet to Greece to San Francisco, creating a shifting landscape that is not just lush, but dangerous. Among many other horrors, we witness the strange rituals of the corpse-cutters in Tibet, and an unnamed dictator who forces his prisoners to “play a funeral march as they’re shot.” While Barnstone knows that political history is always intertwined with personal history, the triumph of this book is that she doesn’t diminish history by using it to heighten personal tragedy, but understands that our engagement with the pain of others is an escape from solipsism, a way out of the self, into “some clear, unexpected blue place / where newspapers identify currents of the soul.”

Zodiac of Echoes by Khaled Mattawa

With its alluring rhythms, its sweeping energy and incantations, Zodiac of Echoes is a remarkable marriage between politics and lyric intensity. Mattawa, a Libyan-born poet who immigrated to the U.S. in his teens, refuses to be limited to identity politics or the cross-cultural experience (though he writes beautifully of both), but turns his attention towards poverty and the exploitation of workers as well, capturing our “American rage / and the attendant resignation” with an intensity that can only be compared to Muriel Rukeyser.

Not only are the poems musically enchanting, but they startle us with their images as well, as Mattawa describes the rain as “an iron press turning / roads into mush, and the lingering licorice/ scent of tar,” or “a sickle moon raking a field of violets.” The book is more personal than it is political, though, moving in and out of memories as quickly as it moves between landscapes. If for no other reason, Zodiac of Echoes needs to be read for its closing poem, “Dark Anthem,” a surreal tour de force in which the poet seems to move through his own subconscious and the world around him at once in an attempt to become “mortal and resonant.”