Poetry of Disaster
It is not you who will speak: let the disaster speak in you.
—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster
Disaster shuts down language. Disaster cannot be fathomed. Disaster stops all speech because the suffering it causes is so total and complete.
This is a common way we speak about disaster. Yet, as a poet, as a reader, and as a teacher of poetry, I don't believe this. I can't. For the past eight years, which are marked, in our country, by two large-scale catastrophes, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, I've been thinking about, reading, and writing the poetry of disaster. I lived in New York City on 9/11. I grew up in New Orleans, and my parents are survivors of the storm. These two disasters altered the way I think about poetry and its relation to disaster.
Does disaster render language inadequate? What is its relation to the language of poetry in particular? In 1965, cultural critic Theodor Adorno asserted that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Disaster is so often discussed in terms of silence and the inability to speak, but I want to think about how disaster produces speech, writing, and testimony and how disaster is reproduced through language. I'm not talking about disaster as metaphor in poetry but about a poetry that arises in direct response to a disaster, a poetry of disaster.
As I write this, Haiti is still coping with the aftermath of the terrible earthquake of January 12, 2010, and the BP oil spill has devastated the Gulf Coast. Edwidge Danticat, in a piece titled "Suffering" in the January 25th issue of The New Yorker, observes that President Obama "vowed that America would not forsake Haiti, because its tragedy reminds us of 'our common humanity.'" I worry that these communities, in Haiti and on the Gulf Coast, will be forsaken. I worry that it is too easy to relegate disaster as "other," that we don’t see disaster as part of all of us. Yet I believe language—the language of poetry—can bring us back to that "common humanity" in crucial ways.
In her introduction to Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, Carolyn Forché writes, "Poetry of witness presents the reader with an interesting interpretive problem. We are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between "personal" and "political" poems....We need a third term, one that can describe the space between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal. Let us call this space 'the social.'" Here, at this juncture, I would situate the poetry of disaster, in the "social," the space of community where we might find new understandings of what poetry can do in the world.
Recently, there has been renewed media interest in disaster. In addition to newspapers, Web sites, and blogs offering accounts of disaster, studies by historians, public intellectuals, and sociologists from the emergent field of disaster studies have been important. Books such as Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) and Amanda Ripley's The Unthinkable: Who Survives when Disaster Strikes and Why (2008) attest to that interest. Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2009) is particularly suggestive for thinking about poetry, though she doesn't mention poetry at all, because she continually takes us back to language. She writes, "The word emergency comes from emerge, to rise out of....An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion. Catastrophe comes from the Greek kata, or down, and streiphen, or turning over. It means an upset of what is expected....The word disaster comes from the Latin compound of dis-, or away, without, and astro, star or planet; literally without a star." With Solnit's work in mind, I want to pose two central questions about the poetry of disaster. First, what kind of representation of disaster is possible—and necessary—in poetry? Second, what are the common elements of a poetry of disaster?
My own thinking about the poetry of disaster began on a day of national emergency. Two days after 9/11, in my poetry seminar at Queens College—City University of New York, we were scheduled to discuss Muriel Rukeyser's "The Book of the Dead," her 1938 sequence about the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in 1929. The poem relates the experience of the miners, mainly African American men, who contracted silicosis, a deadly lung disease, while building the Hawks Nest Tunnel for the Union Carbide Company. Poems in the sequence explore the incident from multiple perspectives, including those of the miners, the doctors who made the diagnoses, a mother who had lost all her sons. The text includes a range of kinds of language, from personal testimony to a Union Carbide stock report.
That afternoon, I stood at the door to my classroom, afraid to enter. I didn't want to teach at all that day, and I particularly didn't want to teach a poem about disaster. My students might be dead or missing. They might have lost family members. From the campus library, we could see smoke and ash still rising along the horizon. It felt wrong to discuss poetry—but that's exactly what my students wanted to do. We began with Rukeyser's "The Disease," spoken by doctors:
This is a lung disease. Silicate dust makes it.
The dust causing the growth of
This is the X-ray picture taken last April.
A student asked, what was missing? What could not be said, and how could the poem show this? Our discussion started with the omission in Rukeyser's second line, a silence that now spoke to all of us.
We saw a space that poetry could open for us. In the face of disaster, poetry was what we needed. What could the speaker in the poem not say? Why would the doctors not speak the word silicosis? "The Disease" offers an unnamed doctor's description of the diagnosis of the deadly illness set in opposition to a committee's questions. In the poem, there is no room, literally, for the suffering bodies, the dead and dying miners. And so our discussion moved between 9/11 and "The Book of the Dead." What was the answer or the "official" truth of 9/11 as it was told to us in those early days after the attacks? And in the weeks after, when the United States began to bomb Afghanistan? We talked about the poem "Praise of the Committee" which offers a description of the "facts" of the case, the voice of a senator, and at the poem's end, the perspective of the poet who asks:
Who runs through electric wires?
Who speaks down every road?
Their hands touched mastery; now they
demand an answer.
Our discussions about Rukeyser sparked our own "demand" for answers throughout that terrible September. For the rest of the semester, my students and I engaged with Rukeyser's text as a poem that might allow us to re-see the disaster around us, in a city that was still burning a few miles from our classroom. A number of us went down to 14th Street, to a makeshift poetry memorial in Union Square. Poems had been taped to the iron fence that surrounds the park, and people walked silently around the fence, reading. In class, we returned to the question over and over—what work can poetry do in the world, in the face of catastrophe?
Four years later, Hurricane Katrina left much of the Gulf Coast and my native city, New Orleans, in ruins. In late August 2005, I found myself on the phone with my parents in New Orleans, begging them to leave the city as Katrina approached the Gulf Coast. "We are not leaving," my mother said. "This is our home." For several days, my sister, my brother, and I didn't know if they were dead or alive. We called FEMA, the Red Cross, the Louisiana State Police, the local hospital. All the phones were out, circuits busy. In that first week after Katrina, none of us knew the scope of the damage or the number of people who were missing or dead. All I could do was watch the news—the roads in and out of New Orleans shut down, my childhood city filling like a bowl.
Remembering that other autumn, I turned back to Rukeyser, to the final poem in "The Book of the Dead": "What three things can never be done? / Forget. Keep Silent. Stand alone." As I watched familiar landmarks disappear on my computer screen—the city literally drowning, with my parents still in it—I began to write everything down, as Rukeyser's speaker does, to document e-mails sent by my parents' friends, forms from the Coast Guard Web site, phone calls with my sister and brother as we tried to imagine how we could get our parents out. After I knew they were safe, after I could go down to New Orleans, three months later, I began to write poems responding to these two disasters, which would become two books, Breach, and Milk Dress. I began to explore the kinds of representations of disaster that are possible in poetry—and I began to teach and try to write these texts.
Teaching, reading, and writing—as well as personal experience—have led me here and have led me to speculate on the elements of a poetry of disaster and to search for its commonalities in order to think more deeply about the larger questions about the work that poetry can do in the world.
A poetry of disaster relies on fragments. From Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee, focused on the Japanese occupation of Korea, to Peter Balakian's poems about the Armenian genocide to Claudia Rankine's recent documentary works that conjoin video and poetry, the poetry of disaster refuses chronology and teleology. When we think about writing about disaster, we envision telling coherent stories of events—but the poetry of disaster has a different relation to narrative. The only way these events can be spoken of or voiced is through broken forms. Chris Llewellyn's Fragments from the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911 represents the devastating effects of the fire that killed 144 immigrant workers at the Triangle garment factory in New York City. Doors had been locked to keep out union organizers, and workers could not escape when the fire started. From its title on, the book privileges the fragment as a poetic mode, using forms such as the Italian cento, as in the poem "Survivor’s Cento," composed of pieces or "patches" of text, and juxtaposing photographs of the dead women with the poems.
A poetry of disaster invokes the collective alongside the individual, often in tension with each other. Notably, this tension is different from the opposition of a split versus a coherent voice, found in much current poetry. A large-scale catastrophe involves the deaths of many, maybe even mass casualties, and much of the work I would consider the poetry of disaster sets the voice of many speakers alongside the voice of the individual poetic subject. In the sonnets that comprise "Love in the Time of War," in Yusef Komunyakaa's Warhorses, for example, the poems shift between the collective and individual voices. Within a single poem, the language moves from "When our hands caress bullets & grenades, / or linger on the turrets & luminous wings / of reconnaissance planes" to "I touch your face, your breasts, the flower / holding a world in focus." By juxtaposing two lovers with the "shock and awe" Iraq war discourse, through the linked stanzas of sonnets, Komunyakaa shows how war's catastrophe is bound to all of us—we are all destroyed by war's horror. A book using the collective to represent disaster very differently is Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan's The Book of Medicines. There, tension manifests itself through a single speaker or voice who speaks alongside land, plants, and animals, collective voices protesting the disaster of environmental destruction.
The poetry of disaster asks ethical questions about voice. Contemporary poetry does not often ask such questions. Who is speaking and who can speak for whom? How close to a disaster does a poet need to be to write about it? Can one write about a disaster without firsthand experience? Many questions arise in the special fall 2006 issue of the journal Callaloo titled American Tragedy: New Orleans Under Water. What's most compelling and heartbreaking about the issue is its refusal to privilege one voice of Katrina over any other and its inclusion of oral histories and poems by writers with a range of relationships to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
The poetry of disaster challenges our thinking about poetry as a genre. The poetry of disaster not only requires us to question "official history" but also asks that we question poetry as a discourse, as a way of using language to represent the world. Tory Dent's collection, HIV, Mon Amour, shows there may be no other way of documenting the tragedy of the AIDS crisis than through rethinking poetry as form of representation. The book is a compendium of non-traditional texts on which the poems are built: songs, an AIDS quilt text panel, magnetic poetry kits, diary entries kept in quarantine. Over and over, Dent's poems return to visual modes as the body suffering within catastrophic illness becomes an object. Photography and film recur not just as tropes but also as modes of writing the disaster, as in the long poem "Fourteen Days in Quarantine," in which Dent writes, "I'm forced / to witness my own participation in the clinical process, a kind of snuff film / culturally condoned." By referencing the genre of the pornographic film that culminates in the murder of the female "star," Dent highlights the continual bodily violations the poem and the body undergo and encourages us to ask a different set of questions about the roles of the poet and the reader.
Finally, by revealing the voices, testimonies, and experiences not visible in mainstream representations of disaster, the poetry of disaster, according to Rukeyser, "demands" that we answer. This demand is crucial to our thinking about disaster. Finally, poetry becomes a place where we gather, a space for grief. This May, the group Poets for Living Waters formed as "a poetry action in response to the BP Gulf oil disaster." This idea echoes Rukeyser's belief in poetry as action. I believe we again see a space that only poetry can make for our understanding of disaster—not just a place where we might find solace—though I hope we can—but also a place where we remember how important it is to speak, to give voice to the experience of disaster. A place like the fence taped with poems in Union Square. Like a classroom where we sit together in a circle at a table.