Homing in: The place of poetry in the global digital age
My wife and I went shopping for smartphones recently, beholding these modern votives with equal parts wonder and worry. We, digital immigrants and introverts who tote a decade-old “flip” phone only for emergencies, see the benefits of these magical devices. They have the fairy-tale power of a digital genie, released with the mere swipe of a screen. But what genie will we unleash when we bring this technology into our lives? Doesn’t the servant, in the end, always change the master?
Despite the fact that digital technologies offer global connectedness, they also appear to isolate us further into our own self-created reality and dislocate us from the nondigital world. And the greater our privilege, the more we can cordon off the real, the stronger our myopia. Amiri Baraka once wrote: “Luxury, then, is a way of/ being ignorant, comfortably.” Yet privilege does more than damage our vision; it starves the heart. In the biblical parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man’s flaw is not merely being unable to see Lazarus in pain right outside his gate; after his death, when the rich man looks up from Hades, he clearly recognizes Lazarus next to Abraham in heaven and begs Abraham to ask Lazarus for a bit of water to cool his torment. The rich man knows Lazarus by name but even in hell does not see fit to address him directly.
In our global digital age—with its information flood, its attenuation of attention, its transmogrification of subjectivity, its obscuring of our connectedness—what can poetry and the arts do? The artist’s challenge is not merely to chronicle the hectic present but to develop an understanding of how we find ourselves at this time and place, to explore what binds us to each other and to ask Leo Tolstoy’s question: “How, then, shall we live?”
Poetry’s oldest and least-marketable power, paradoxically, offers us a secret vitality. Poetry’s slowness, its ruminativity, enables us to step back from the distracted and distracting present, to ground ourselves again through language in the realities of our bodies and spirits and their connections to the ecosystems in which we find ourselves. The form of a poem is one that forms us, holding us in its thrall. To dwell with singular lines or phrases, lines that puzzle or clarify, carries us back to the ancient practices of ritual chant and shamanic trance, fundamental to the ecstatic possibilities of communion and healing. In the words of C. D. Wright, pace Horace: “Some of us do not read or write particularly for pleasure or instruction, but to be changed, healed, charged.”
Poetry, at its root, is a “making” (poesis). This making is often akin to prayer, or parallel to prayer—a reaching for or an appeal to the great mystery of the Beloved, the Great Maker. One of things I love about Ignatian spirituality is its fundamental emphasis on an active imagination, what St. Ignatius calls composición—often translated as “seeing in imagination” or “mental representation.” Composición comes from the Latin compositio, meaning “putting together, connecting,” but the word’s roots suggest that imaginative visualization involves placing oneself with (“com” plus “position”).
The imagination can locate us in our own lives (what Ignatius calls the daily examen), as well as bring us to far-flung places, to stand with others. Ignatius asks the exercitant, for example, in contemplating the Nativity, to “see in imagination the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Consider its length, its breadth; whether level, or through valleys and over hills. Observe the place where Christ is born; whether big or little; whether high or low; and how it is arranged.” Such grounded visionary practice is both exercise and meditation. The work of the imagination invites us to slow down, pay close attention, to visualize, to wonder. Poetry tunes us to ultimate things.
Poetry is not a mere throwback, some atavistic practice for the vestigial few. On the contrary, poetry’s discipline of entering us into our minds and bodies—our restless bodies, our roiled souls—is an ancient practice that invites grace to enter our brokenness, to hold us together, to waken us again. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “the wound is the place where Light enters you,” 700 years before Leonard Cohen sang:, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”—thus proving Thomas Merton’s thesis that “that which is oldest is most new.”
An Essential Human Endeavor
Poetry is also a technology of embodied inquiry, a way of locating ourselves and others within contexts heretofore outside of our understanding, yet which include us within their operations. Michael Davidson has proposed that “perhaps poetry, in its proximity to affective states, is the dreamwork of globalization.” Poetry and the arts indeed can help us perform what Fredric Jameson calls cognitive mapping, “enabl[ing] a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.” I love this strange quote; Jameson, a postmodern Marxist theorist, has in mind a materialist totality, and that we are subjects (and objects) in the system of late capitalism. Yet Jameon’s phrasing is mystical, inviting us to consider not only human structures, but also planetary, cosmic structures. Perhaps, even, the unrepresentable Divine.
Cosmopoetics is a good way to describe art that performs cognitive mapping. It suggests both cosmopolitanism—the philosophy of global human solidarity—and also something cosmic, where the universe offers us traces of a great Totality. When I look at my own writing—which began only as a blind reaching-out into the epistemological dark—a cosmopoetics, a geographical imagination, seems to have taken shape. Like many poets, I began writing to make sense of what was happening to me and around me; as my interests have orbited further outward, I was challenged—and the language challenged me—to reach beyond comfortable frames of understanding. Each place became a portal to new worlds. Traveling to my grandparents’ houses in Brooklyn or Rhode Island, or climbing inside the ancient step pyramid at Chichén Itzá, or after college, living in Russia for a year, were quantum leaps where my language flailed to reach for some sort of handhold.
The questions of travel, as Elizabeth Bishop called them, have often been at the center of my writing. Travel exposes us to otherness (other cultures, other histories, other people) and exposes us as other to ourselves. Yet, as Mary Louise Pratt argues in Imperial Eyes, the trope of “anti-conquest” in Western travel writing—in which an innocent Westerner encounters other places and culture—becomes a strategy of representation that enables one to “seek to secure their innocence at the same moment as they assert European hegemony.” So many writers have exploited their travel experience as yet another subject to plunder, the imagination as a marauding imperial Columbus. That is why in one poem in To See the Earth, I cite my Russian mentor, Dimitri Psurtsev, who once remarked after reading some of my poems, “This is your version of Russia, not Russia.”
When I speak of “cognitive mapping,” of cosmopoetics, I am talking about an essential human endeavor—to connect our apperceptive physicality to our surroundings. It is a dirty little secret, but I love getting lost, because getting lost also entails a new kind of knowing. Just when you think you know where you are going, you are lost. When you see you are lost, you are going to find something larger than the self.
Yet cartography and its abstractions are deeply political and often have extended exploitative power arrangements, carved people and peoples apart for the aims of empires. That is why I am wary of broad claims about the representativity of my representations. To See the Earth is “my” creation story, Pictures at an Exhibition is “my” Russia, A Concordance of Leaves is “my” Palestine, Sand Opera is “my” Iraq. Or rather, this is where “I” come from, this is the Russia in which I lost and found myself, the Palestine that absorbed me, the Iraq that carries me.
A Meditation in the Desert
Sand Opera began as a daily Lenten meditation, working with the testimonies of the tortured at Abu Ghraib, to witness to their suffering; it became an attempt to find a language that would sight (to render visible) and site (to locate in the geographical imagination) the war itself, constantly off-screen. War is so distanced that the closest most Americans get to it is when they encounter a veteran or refugee. That it was illegal for 18 years—from Operation Desert Storm in 1991 until 2009—to take photos of flag-draped coffins of U.S. military personnel suggests the level of censorship during war. This policy is designed not only to make the enemy abstract but also to render the cost of war invisible and suppress domestic questioning. More recently, our contemporary program of “targeted assassination” by drones has yet to be made fully apparent to the American people.
My desire in Sand Opera is to make the Iraq War and the wider war on terror visible, to make a visible and audible map of it, a map that we would carry in our eyes and ears, in our bodies and hearts, to replace the maps of pundits and demogogues. As a poet, I wanted to do this mostly through language—often through language which renders the ruptures of violence, through the black bars of redaction and fractured syntax—but I also found myself drawn to the strange images that point toward the operations of war.
Throughout the book, for example, unexplained drawings of rooms appear, with language floating on a vellum page above them. These are renderings by Mohamad Bashmilah, a former prisoner from Yemen, of what have come to be known as black sites—secret prisons where the United States and its allies would illegally hold and interrogate detainees. These drawings are the renderings of one who has been “rendered,” sundered from everything he knew. To witness them is to enter the mind of a person utterly dislocated, yet rigorously, obsessively, trying to locate himself.
Sand Opera also contains a diagram of a proper “Muslim burial” from the Standard Operation Procedures manual for the Guantanamo Bay prison. The S.O.P. notes the importance of the treatment of the body—the enshrouding process, the prayers that should be uttered—and how the body should point toward Mecca. Alongside the testimonies of prisoners who saw the Quran thrown into the toilet, we are struck again by the gap between our measure of cultural sensitivity and our manipulation of that knowledge for cruel and degrading acts.
A poem is a momentary home, a way to home in. Their architectures, their forms, inform how we perceive and feel insides and outsides. In Sand Opera, we stumble among the broken syntax of the tortured in Abu Ghraib prison; stare at the thick walls of the vellum-paged “Black Site (Exhibit I),” trying to read the words on the next page seeping around the prison cell; we confront the words of a bereaved widow of a soldier who has the chance to enter the military tank where her husband died, in “Home Sweet Home,” nested inside another poem, based on a letter of a marine lamenting his own entrapment in a war where he cannot fight the evil he faces. War always comes home, not just in the bodies and minds of military veterans but also in the militarization of prisons and police; the distance between Ferguson and Baghdad is closer than some would like to think.
Cosmopoetics is ultimately not just about mapping, or even seeing. It is also about listening, about a radical vulnerability to the other. As Isaiah writes, “Morning after morning/ He opens my ear that I may hear.” Sand Opera is the sound of my listening. These poems carry forth voices that have opened me—the Iraqi curator Donny George Youkhanna, sharing slides of lost art from his cherished museum, abused Iraqi prisoners and U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison, a recipe in Nawal Nasrallah’s Iraqi cookbook, the detained Mohamad Bashmilah, a drone operator who isn’t sure who he’s killing, an Arab-American living through the paranoid days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and my daughter’s coming to consciousness in a world where war leaks through the radio and television. The words of my daughter at the end of the poem “Hung Lyres” embody what I hope I can continue to open myself into:
How can we map these connections and distances without losing our focus on what is directly in front of us—this tendency toward hyperopia, that longsightedness that is another kind of myopia? I have thought a lot about all the ways that my obsessions with distant wars and places and people have frayed me to loose ends, distracting me from intimate joys and domestic peace. At times, I have wondered if I have engaged in the poetic equivalent of the father scrolling through his phone while his child finally balances on her bike and glides down the sidewalk, in perfect rhythm with herself and her conveyance. How to hold the sight of my daughters’ faces, dearer to me than any other faces on this dear earth, alongside the sight of someone else’s daughter’s face—first seen on Facebook—pulling schoolbooks out of a bombed house in Gaza, to continue studying another day? How to hold and be held by my beloved wife, and also teach my classes, catch up on emails and messages, mow the lawn, take out the garbage, and also find time to click a microloan to a Gazan farmer named Ahmad, who needs to buy some hens for his egg business? How do we carry our others and ourselves on this fragile planet?
Antonio Gramsci once asked himself so poignantly:
[Is] it really possible to forge links with a mass of people when one has never had strong feelings for anyone, not even one’s own parents, if it is possible to have a collectivity when one has not been deeply loved oneself by individual human creatures. Hasn’t [this]...tended to make me sterile and reduce my quality as a revolutionary by making everything a matter of pure intellect, of pure mathematical calculation?
Gramsci’s question is an old theme, as old as Diogenes’s idea of cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitan idea that we are all connected and that a person on a distant part of the globe is as dear as our neighbor has always engendered the profoundest critique of the cosmopolite—that he is one who loves everyone in the abstract but hates (or ignores) all particular people. It is a real danger I have occasionally blundered into, blinkered by vanity or distracted by novelty.
Poetry is one of the ways we might try to home in—to claim our own ground—not on our digital platforms but on the raw earthiness of our own bodies, our beloveds, our kin, our distant next-door (human and sentient) neighbors of the communities in which we live and ones to which we are tied. Like any other technology, poetry contains powers that both distract and focus us; it is a danger like any power. Yet it is one of the ways I answer the question—how to ground myself in my own body, my breath, exercising something I have no other word for but love, that radical opening of self to the other. “For we are put on this earth a little space,” William Blake writes, “that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
I would like to circle back to the smartphone for a moment. It is strange to think that the very smartphone that enables you to Google Map your way in any strange city in the world does not advertise the often deplorable conditions for workers assembling these phones. Nor does it divulge that the rare earths that go into its construction (exotic elements like tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold) may have come from—and fueled conflict in—places like the Congo. And once a new model emerges and we have worn out the phone, where does this material go when we have thrown it out? Whose child will be paid pennies to pull out its innards? Who will inherit its poisons?
I trace my awakening to this question from my early days at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Ill., where, in a freshman religious studies class taught by the improbably ancient George Steenken, S.J., we watched “The Wrath of Grapes”—a documentary exposé on pesticide exposure among migrant workers—and the filmic adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Ignatian spirituality—from social justice conscientization to existential exploration of a condemned man’s longing for freedom—lit my imagination and dilated my empathy. What I long to write and to encounter is art that can help us make a quantum leap in our moral imagination. As a poet, I long for Isaiah’s fire, for a “well-trained tongue,/ That I might know how to speak to the weary/ A word that will rouse them.” To make poems that will open not only our eyes, but awaken us, pry open our hearts and souls, induce metanoia—transforming how we spend our breath on this earth.