In this time of dramatic national overreach, two impulses compete for my attention. A sense of outrage requires me to speak out and to act. Need for perspective guides me to contemplative practice.
In one ear, I hear the tearing sound of what surely must be opposed: preemptive war, reasons given never found—this is a fundamental crime. Rule of law abandoned, habeus corpus disappeared. Torture—torture!—openly practiced, without consequence. Impeachment “not on the table.” Each day I don’t say NO to these abuses is a day I myself allow the unacceptable to continue.
Dharma wisdom, vast beyond apprehension, transcends these concerns. Isn’t outrage a form of aversion, a product of illusion? But how can I limit my empathy? Having befriended the cultured city of Baghdad, I suffer its destruction. Having been a soldier, I see behind my eyes what soldiers see this very day. Night after night, my sleep is interrupted by dreams of being called up to fight again.
Poetry helps me find my way. Mark Falkoff, in his preface to Poems from Guantanamo, observes that writing poetry is “a way to maintain [one’s] sanity, to memorialize [one’s] suffering, and to preserve [one’s] humanity through acts of creation.” Reading poetry serves equally, and completes the circle of witness.
For “Poetry Saves,” we are honored to present the work of the following poets:
Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost (Poems from Guantanamo)
Sami al Haj (Poems from Guantanamo)
Li Po (translated by Taylor Stoehr)
Ko Un (translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Gary Gach)
Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak (University of Iowa Press, 2007) is an anthology of twenty-one poems written by men held in the United States military detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The poems were translated from Arabic and compiled by Marc Falkoff, a defense lawyer. Mr. Falkoff, who got a Ph.D. in English before he went to law school, represents seventeen Yemeni prisoners at Guantánamo Bay; he dedicated the book to his clients whose poems were written, as he puts it, “inside the wire.”
Most of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay are in their sixth year of captivity in near-total isolation, imprisoned without charge or trial. According to former prisoners, any poem found by the American prison guards was confiscated and usually destroyed. Mr. Falkoff reports that most of the poetry he was aware of was written by prisoners who had not written poems before being arrested. Although the prisoners weren’t given pens or paper until 2003, some scratched their poems into foam cups with spoons or small stones.
Several other poems included here are from Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace (Koa Books, 2006), the writings of eighty veterans and peace activists edited by National Book Award–winner Maxine Hong Kingston.