By Raye Weigel
There are regions where but ruined churches
And forgotten place names point the way
To Armenian helmets or Jewish streets
Or Szekler lands that only yesterday
Homed these people but now it’s hard to find
Anyone who remembers his own kind
This is an excerpt from “Armenian Tombstones” by well-known Hungarian poet Sándor Kányádi, translated by Paul Sohar. Kányádi was concerned about Hungary’s minority cultures that, before WWI, lived side-by-side almost peacefully. His poetry shows the incessant nature of imperialism and the repetitive cycle of history.
A document released Tuesday from the Department of Homeland Security detailed President Trump’s ambitions to increase deportations, publicize crimes by undocumented immigrants and build new detention facilities.
In the wake of President Trump’s inauguration, Americans have been retreating into the worlds of Orwell and Huxley, seeking some sort of understanding in fictional, dystopian novels. However, though these fictions are based in reality and even go so far as to be almost prophetic, it is easy to forget that as bad and worse as what happened has been happening for centuries and is now.
One way to discover these parts of history is through poetry, from both today and the past.
Poets from around the world, countries that are far older than we and that have experienced decades-long oppressive regimes, detail their experiences with heartbreaking intensity.
“How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” by Native American poet Sherman Alexie shows the destructive power of the United States’ erasure of cultures, of re-writing them and appropriating them:
In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,
All of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.
Without understanding America’s history of oppression and genocide, it is impossible to fully comprehend the current administration. Furthermore, poetry is a unique vehicle for this understanding because beyond news stories and nonfiction books, it provides a far greater understanding through ranges of emotions.
The German poet Peter Huchel was asked to step down from editor of the literary journal Sinn Und Form because government restrictions constricted his artistic integrity. He was born in 1903 and lived through both World Wars, witnessing the moral destruction of his country.
His poetry calls on natural imagery as allegory for political power. In “View from the Winter Window,” he describes foxes in the woods on a winter night:
Pollarded willows, the snow dancing around them,
Brooms that sweep the mind …
The soothsayers of the forest,
The foxes with bad teeth
Sit in the dark, apart,
Staring into the fire.
Poems like this help reflect on the nature of authority and oppressive brainwashing.
It might be easier not to delve into the poetic mind of Warsan Shire, the Kenyan-born Somali poet, who writes about current issues surrounding immigration and femininity. In “Home,” she deconstructs the idea that refugees would rather come to the United States or Europe than stay home:
No one leaves home unless
Home is the mouth of a shark
You only run for the border
When you see the whole city running as well
Your neighbors running faster than you
Breath bloody in their throats
The boy you went to school with
Who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
Is holding a gun bigger than his body
You only leave home
When home won’t let you stay.
Reading Orwell is a good start, but until someone explores poetry specific to current events today, the lesson will be incomplete.
Poets from oppressed cultures and from countries far older than the United States provide evidence of how powerful and insidious forgetting is. Reading Orwell is necessary, but not reaching farther is like stargazing; thinking about what it would be to be incinerated on that star while the world around you burns.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Wonderlane’s Flickr account.
Raye Weigel is a sophomore multiplatform journalism and English major and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.