Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Joanne Arnott: World Poetry Day 2009: Part 3

"To tell the intimate, inside story of anything, to be relaxed enough to receive that story, to feel it completely, and to allow ourselves to be both affected by and motivated by what we have received, that is, in my view, the heart of poetry."

I put together a forty page collection, to send to a poet in Lebanon who was asking for forty pages of poetry from anyone in the world, and this was the title poem. I wove poems of love and despair, politics and yearning, to attempt to articulate an Aboriginal woman’s realm in a way that translates beyond culture: this needs a good edit, a few key poems are terribly flawed. Like myself, it’s a work in progress. Part of my progression has been to attempt to weave more, and more daringly—that is what I am reaching for, in the following poem. As I said, it is unfinished. But, to place more clearly my perspective on a poet’s place in the world, or at least, my own place as a poet in the world, I give you this: embodied awareness is the greatest gift.

If I am to receive or otherwise contemplate stories, like an immigrant man beheading an aboriginal man on a bus outside my home town—passing the very place I was taken and compelled to have sex when I was fifteen years old, among other hard-to-assimilate experiences— or the impact among four generations of people of a man stomping his wife to death with his work boots, if I am to assist writers who have these stories to tell and be a leader, a sane source of reference, in my own family, or my community, or my world, despite having been burned with cigarettes, locked in root cellars, beaten with a leather strap, and so on: and on and on: telling the truth is absolutely necessary.

Telling the truth also requires some delicacy, because brutality causes the human animal to withdraw into self-protection or to surge out to combat and defend against the incoming brutality: is it a poet’s job to recreate brutality? No, not in my view, but much depends upon what you intend your poetry to do. For one motivated by world repair, cherishing of the health of human being, the way is clear. Brutality must be broken down into elements that we can wholly understand. To tell the intimate, inside story of anything, to be relaxed enough to receive that story, to feel it completely, and to allow ourselves to be both affected by and motivated by what we have received, that is, in my view, the heart of poetry.

We can draw in metaphor and old stories of our own, or even of others, to articulate what it is on a dense feeling level we have become motivated to say, but we must remain true to the world. At the same time, we must gather whatever resources that we can, to make and keep our balance while walking in the world.

"...a slow and stupid evolution of how to go about telling my own truth, without sacrificing the privacy of others."

I have had over the years some (for me) wonderful conversations with Lee Maracle. One in particular stands out these days, a teaching received from her or (from another perspective) a point well-made: there are many different traditions, and we must choose with awareness those we want to cherish and bring forward and practise, and those that are best left behind us. The example that she used to illustrate this point was slavery, an indigenous west coast practise as well as a form of human relationship finding expression in many parts of the world. “Don’t be a slave, Joanne,” she said, and my uncomfortable world simply turned on its head.

I am still struggling to assimilate this; as a person of no value, what else is there for me to be? To offset the slave possibility, Lee offered a different tradition, “Honour the Position.” So, I have been practising that, in relation to the various positions that are mine to fill and fulfil, as well as those of others around me: able to perceive the value in the roles played, if still struggling with an underpinning effort to heal a base injury.

On my very first book, the writer Beth Brant told the world, I am a “truth-teller.” I have struggled with this in so many ways over the years—my own ignorance and confusion and lack of comprehension, weak theories evolved to explain half-understood situations, as well as family punishments, backlashes, screams of deep pain, in a slow and stupid evolution of how to go about telling my own truth, without sacrificing the privacy of others.

It has been a long journey. I cannot say that I am a truth-teller. I can say that I do strive to be, and that I do so from a humbled place, humble in the sense of having been taught, very young, that I am a person of no value, and in the sense of being a poor person in a wealthy land, and again, in the sense of a person with little arrogance: I have no need or desire to impose myself or my deep held beliefs and passionate opinions on others. What I have both needed and desired to do is to make sense of my world. My song arises as a part of that, and is both a dance of elation and pitiful struggle.

a night for the lady (shahrazad)
Dunyázad, free the world

my slave my slave my sister
leading me on by clever means to
better things
in a house
built of many rooms that spill
each one contained, conjoined, connected
altogether across the mountainside
through the riverbottomlands
deep in the wooded places
lost in the grass, covered
in the daily falling snow, hidden
in the shifting sands
all along the backs of hands and minds
the living and the dead together sing
poetry the whole world over
the whole world over
the whole world over, stories spill
and traverse the skins and permeate
our lives
the sound of the horses arriving at a run
the abrupt end of the scream that slashes
my heart
the rediscovered graves that now have sides
in human eyes
in human ears
in living minds
the concussions
of the bombs of the good

my slave my slave my sister
you who lead me on by
clever means
better things
a feast in the garden of our safekeeping
grandmother’s ancient laughter at
the timing of this
via peaceful means
of the glory of
of the glory of
of the glory of
our human being

my slave my slave my sister
i wrap the fabric round and round and round
i learn the arts
of careful draping
how to balance the water on my head
with the snake on the ground
how to balance the fathers of sedna, kuan yin, ma tsu
with the guardians of the oceans of compassion
wherein you and i must swim and swim and swim
calling forth
the children of tomorrow
through these sacred slippery gateless gates
of self
the sweatdamp limbs
that part
this one into self
this one in a linked but separate migration
into the world
not captured not endangered not callously
not sundered by the sword of death
not split by the rulebearing knuckles
of angry brothers
not slashed with impunity, kill this
and you kill the community
not slit and stitched with
well-meaning fingers
called forth
called forth, beckoned
called into the delicious warmth
of safe harbour
safe journey begins by
surging out toward that which
calls us in
gathering gathering gathering
the nourishing harvest
of all that we love

my slave my slave my sister
stories age and figures shift
slave becomes sister
counsellor becomes queen
the rise and the fall of world-freer
dismissed to diminutive roles
remember where you come from
remember upon whose body
you sup
remember the sound of her
and the deep thrilling peace
at the sound of her voice

my slave my slave my sister
mother of my heart
through all your many changes
there is none
more beautiful than you

Joanne Arnott, 21 March 2009

Images by permission of the artist, Christi Belcourt:
I Dreamt of Spiders In My Hair, Christi Belcourt, 2008
Bloodletting (does that make you more comfortable with who I am?) Christi Belcourt, 2008

1 comment:

  1. Wow - thanks. How could I not re-read this again and then again -- c