Even among brothers and sisters,None dared to converse with the other,Trifles often infuriated our masters,They shouted, “Death to the captured slaves!You deserve the blades of our knives—We have no use to keep you alive.”...We wished to die, but found no way.We wished to live, but knew not how.Oh, what sins have we committedTo deserve such bitterness and misery?”
~Ts’ai Yen (c. a.d. 200), “The Lamentation”
These words might easily have been penned in any of a number of regions of the world today. Stories about residential schools often evoke precisely these same thoughts and observations, and many of us who grew up in less than ideal circumstance, reverberating with the cascading impacts of social oppression, have lived days, moments, long years or lifetimes, with these very words simmering within.
Some of the best memoirs that I read as a growing girl, that reflected a country like the one I was living in, are rarely remembered or lionized as great Canadian literature, but Goddam Gypsy and Within the Barbed Wire Fence are stories of war and social oppression, and an intrinsic part of our collective stories.
Covering the entire back,~
The rising sun on their shirts
The inmates are made to wear.
Ecstatic are the wearers ~
but what a fine target.
~Takeo Ujo Nakano, poem from Within the Barbed Wire Fence
Running a search on "best war poems" brings a deluge of fine writings by and about UK, Canadian, and US soldier-poets, or settler-soldier-poets, with an occasional nod to those marked to play the role of "forefathers" to this cobbled-together "western culture" ~ called Roman and called Greek, today, whatever they may have called themselves. This is the preferred way to consider war, in Canada, to have the whole story thoroughly explored by a handful of cousins.
Running a search on the poet Ts'ai Yen brings a reference to the Sunflower Anthology, and a single Canadian paper, comparing the memoirs of Maria Campbell and Eavan Bolans with the first novel of Maxine Hong-Kingston (Jeannie Willis, 2000). In Woman Warrior, the author of the twice-presented and variously translated poem "The Lamentation" or "Poem of Affliction," Ts'ai Yen becomes the Woman Writer to the Woman Warrior of the way more famous, Disneyfied even, Mulan.
Another truly awesome poem of war, available in english, is Prussian Nights by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
This booklength gift of memory, witnessing, and poetic rendering holds all of the wonders of war, and is an antidote to the nightly news versions of them-us, them-us, them-them-us. Read aloud, the final words arrive with full impact, a project that I'd like to see mounted in galleries and cafes across the land. To each performance, invite indigenous poets of the region, and those who fled or misplaced their home regions and settled into your neighbourhood. Invite the poets of Gaza, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Colombia, all living right here.
Instead of rolling along debating the monetary cost and the procedural errors in the shopping list of the PCP's war machines, what about discussing the reality of war and Canadian complicity, and the dismantling of-- instead of completing the task of-- human rights for all the peoples of Canada, of the world. What about calling a war monger a war monger, a capitalist war machine a capitalist war machine, and bring the truth of the immigrant and refugee experiences up close and personal with the experiences of indigeneity: a Somalian Canadian knows what social oppression looks like, whether seen in the past, across the way, or in the present in-your-face Canadian context.
I was speaking recently with a New Zealand born poet, living & working in the north, about the role that Gallipoli plays in NZ/Australian collective life. He noted that it was perhaps odd that a scene of defeat should come to be a gathering place of some importance, and I noted Heather Harris' [Metis poet, BC] complaint (in a poem) about Batoche playing the same role for the Metis people.
He sent me this quote, words of Ataturk, commanding general in Turkey of the time (first world war):
" Those heroes that shed their blood and
lost their lives...! You are now lying in
the soul of a friendly country, therefore
rest in peace. There is no differences between
the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they
lie side by side here in this country of ours...
You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away
countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now
lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having
lost their lives on this land they have become
our sons as well."
As this correspondence arrived just after Louis Riel Day, it has become quite entangled in my mind, Louis' words of the artists leading the way & so on. I have been thinking about the generosity of Ataturk's statement, the compassion & healing power, & wondering where in our history of Canadian colonization we can find & bring forward, or if need be provoke now in the present time, similar words.
~personal correspondence, my archives
John Asfour's book of poetry, Blindfold, is one of the best collections of war poetry published in Canada in recent years. Check it out. This poem, "Silver Threads," evokes a prairie standard,
"Silver threads and golden needles/can't patch up this heart of mind/and i'll never drown my sorrow/in the warm glow of your wine...."
Heart of mind, heart of mine, whatever. By the end of Asfour's collection, the question of who is wearing the blindfold and who is able to see has become thoroughly unpacked, in all the poetic realms of human being.
We can use Nakano and Asfour's texts for the elementary school readings, next Remembrance Day, to amplify the real realities of war. Let's save Solzhenitsyn and Ts'ai Yen for the high school students' "celebrations."
Notes & sources:
~ Ts’ai Yen, “The Lamentation” in Sunflower Splendour: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry, edited by Wu-Chi Liu
~ Ronald Lee, Goddam Gypsy
~Takeo Ujo Nakano, poem, p. 56, Within the Barbed Wire Fence
~Maria Campbell, Halfbreed (Link to "Biography with a purpose," Historical Perspectives on Canadian Publishing)
~ Jeanie Wills (2000), WRITING THE HEROES LEARNED FROM THE FOREMOTHERS ...
library.usask.ca/theses/available/etd.../Wills_jeanie_2000.pdfFile Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat - View as HTML
~ Chinese Aesop, Ts'ai Yen and her poem of affliction
~ youtube, Prussian Nights 1
~jo's correspondence, the archives, Nov 2007
~John Asfour, "Silver Threads," Blindfold (2011) taken from the invitation to book launch last May, posted here
~ Wanda Jackson, Silver Threads & Golden Needles (1956) youtube
~ for more war poems, see my ma's favourites, in poems for housework
~ see Chief Dan George's Lament for Confederation
~Louis Riel & Greg Scofield discussion
+ a link to Louis Riel's best war poem, here (st Vincent Memories blog)