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Max Wheat: The poetic language should be on the agenda of any meeting of those who are waging peace

Max Wheat, former Poet Laureate of Nassau County (left)

Max Wheat:former Poet Laureate of Nassau County

Full story and lots of other good stuff at PeaceSmiths.org

Heralding the Beginning, October 2, 2009,
of The World March for Peace and Nonviolence
With a Poetry Reading

Maxwell Corydon Wheat, Jr.
September 26, 2009

Smalls Jazz Club
183 W. 10th Avenue
Greenwich Village, New York City

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes about the death of a Union soldier. Here is the first stanza from his poem…

Killed at the Ford

He is dead, the beautiful youth,
The heart of honor, the tongue of truth,
He, the life and light of us all,’
Whose voice was blithe as a bugle-call,
Whom all eyes followed with one consent,
The cheer of whose laugh, and whose pleasant word,
Hushed all murmurs of discontent.

My reading tonight is poems for peace, heralding the beginning, October 2, of The World March for Peace and Nonviolence

The World March will begin in Wellington, New Zealand, on October 2, 2009, the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi´s birth, declared the International Day of Nonviolence by the United Nations. It will end in the Andes Mountains in Argentina, January 2, 2010.

The March will last 90 days, traveling through 90 countries over all six continents, celebrated by activities and events involving millions of people along and beyond its route. It will pass through all climates and seasons, from the hot summer of the tropics and deserts, to the icy cold of Siberia and Antarctica.

Before the Iraq War I wrote an open letter to the First Lady, Laura Bush, suggesting that she host a poetry event exploring how the compelling language of poetry can be mobilized into service for peace

What characteristics of poetic language can move people in the direction of peace?” I asked. “Are there existing avenues,” I wrote in the letter, “by which we can bring a group of poems before the public to help people see the need and possibilities for settling a conflict peacefully? Can avenues be evolved by which poetry of Rupert Brooke, a World War I casualty, and his poem, ‘Safety’, (‘War knows no power’) can actually be read at a crisis meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

“If poetic passages about war with their vividness and poignancy could be introduced into such deliberations they could powerfully affect people’s (generals’, ambassadors’, military advisors’) sensitivities about wounding and killing for issues that could be resolved around the horseshoe table of the Security Council at the United Nations. Have them hear the language of Wilfred Owen, killed in action at age 25, November 4, 1918, a week before the Armistice, who, in his poem, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, asks:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle. . .

Poetic language exerts power. The poetic language could make even a practitioner of war, a general or an admiral, think about what he/she is doing. l The poetic language should be on the agenda of every meeting involving war–and in any meeting of those who are waging peace. To be a force there has to be a lot of the poetic language Think of the effect the poetic language can have on a chief-of-state in actually quoting from or reading a poem about war in a speech. . Have you heard a poem or an excerpt in any of the speeches at the 2009 meeting of the United Nations? The poetic language should have been on the lips of every president and prime minister in his or her address.

Poetic language displays what war is about. It is this dramatic and compelling language our contemporary poets are furnishing us–much of it about Iraq and Afghanistan. Theirs is language that, if anything can, cause one in power to think about the consequences of placing young people in uniform, empowering them to kill and subjecting them to be killed.

This afternoon I am sharing poems from my chapbook, “Iraq and Other Killing Fields: Poetry for Peace,” the first being “Soldier’s Anguish.”

This poem is based on a front page story by John J. Burns, “G.I. Who Pulled Trigger Shares the Anguish of Two Deaths,” that appeared on the front page of The New York Times, April 12, 2003. Many of my poems about war my poems are taken newspaper stories and television.

Soldier’s Anguish

In dusk of evening
at checkpoint in southern Baghdad
American soldiers remember suicide bomber
killing four soldiers at another checkpoint.
They aim at vehicles approaching on Highway I,
running up slipway toward overpass

The 22-year-old Corporal from Chicago,
gunner aboard tank bearing barrel legend, “Bush & Co,”
fires cannon shells,
sees two men in silver gray Toyota Camry die
“in an explosion of blood and steel.”

Two days later, the Corporal returns.
White flags ripple in breezes over hurriedly-covered graves.
White cloth pulled over their faces against stench, flies,
brother and friends with shovels lift and throw dirt off
“huge barrel” of a body, Bahir Handi, 28,
off body of Wadhar Handi, 34,
brothers who conduct the family tannery,
sell leather goods to fashion houses in Italy.
Days before Iraqi-American War, Bahir Handi
returns from making new business deals in Milan.
Forty-five days before Iraqi-American War, Wadhar Handi marries

Helmet pulled up so he hears who the dead are,
“his face tightened,” the Corporal looks up,
asks that a message be given the people:
“Tell them the fact that I pulled the trigger
that killed some of these people makes me very unhappy.
Tell them that America did not want things to happen this way.
Tell them that I wish Iraqis will have a better life.”

The Corporal climbs back aboard tank.
Memories of southern Baghdad cling to his life

There should have been poetry at the White House meetings planning the Iraq War like the ones referred to my poem, “Iraq.” I call this a political science poem. I minored in political science in college and this equipped me to see the mechanisms of politics; in this poem the political process for creating a war. .


Males and one woman
sip coffee mornings in the White House,
talk of desires about Iraq.
For ten years
Less-than-Elected-Vice-President Cheney
evolves The Plan,
the Empire of the United States of America.

Empire building requires “pre-emptive strikes.”
When is the strategic time to promote a strike against Iraq?
Not summer,
not with Less-than-Elected-President Bush vacationing in Crawford,
ensconced in his golf cart,
quipping “crawfished” about Saddam Hussein.

“From a marketing point of view,”
says the White House Chief of Staff,
“you don’t introduce new products in August.”

Oil waits in the Iraqi womb,
second biggest oil field in the earth.

Think of the Oklahoma bombing.
Whom did the bomber call “Collateral Damage?”
Think of bombing, invading Iraq.
Half Iraq’s population,

Here is what happened to one of those children.

Ali Ismaeel Abbas, 13

His mother with child
his dad and brother
his aunt and three cousins
did not survive “Shock and Awe”

for newspaper war sections, war wrap-arounds
flown to Queen Mary’s Hospital, London
arms severed from elbows

this handsome teen’ sits in wheelchair in front of television
excitedly watches British soccer champions maneuver ball past goalie
wants team’s name written in black ink on his prosthesis

Ali will be fitted with rotating wrists
electrical hands
He will be able to hold a book, turn pages

The poem about the children of Sarajevo is about children in all wars.

Children of Sarajevo, 1994

Laughing, shouting
arms tight around waists
riding long red sled down slope

mortar shell shrapnel

In the morgue
Mirza Dedovic, 8
face sheared off

Adir Subasic, 9
leg gone
eyes still open
skin “strangely pink”

Jasmina Brkovic, 5
her sister, Indira, 11
stomach, chest demolished
their corpses in matching purple snow suits

World War II. On the 50th anniversary of D-Day, one of the three networks announced weekend coverage. Well, I wasn’t going to sofa-bound myself to all that war stuff. Friday evening I did turn on the beginning. I rarely left the sofa until Sunday evening.

D-Day + 50

“Bodies, heads, flesh, intestines:
That’s what Omaha Beach was.”

Corporal Samuel Fuller
US 1st Infantry Division

For three days
we finally watch the war
we missed on nightly TV news

“Operation Overlord”
Convoys strewn across the English Channel
In the lead: battleships, cruisers, destroyers
Guns blaze toward the Normandy shore

After every commercial break
same gray scene
helmeted silhouettes splashing onto the beach
square-hunched with packs
and every time I stare at the soldier on the right
I know what is going to happen
his legs fold, he crumples

I watch veterans interviewed on Omaha Beach
GI hats tipped slightly over gray hair
ribbons paraded across tight-fitting GI jackets

With tears the old medic
remembers the boy he could not help

“He had a gaping hole from his collarbone
to his belt. He wasn’t dead–
he was looking around–but you could see
his heart beating with his lungs breathing in and out.”

I conclude with a poem about the Vietnam War followed by Iraq.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I spent a half dozen days at the Memorial over three or four visits to our daughter, Emilie, in nearby Alexandria. She dropped me off around 10 in the morning, picked me up about 3. With my notebook I observed, I overheard. I wrote names — trying them out in lists. I needed ethnic representation. I wanted names with sounds to represent America. Yes, and that meant names that did not sound poetic. I felt poignant every time I put aside a name.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Row by row across black granite
walled in by Washington earth
the names bleed white

Row by row across black granite
The bearded man in fatigues stands in review
“They go in the order of their dying.”

Row by row across black granite
The young man on the stepladder points down his camera
“I was nine when my brother went away.”

Row by row across black granite
The old man gathers the girl’s shoulders in his arm
“There’s your father’s name.”

Row by row across black granite
The Illinois mother touches each letter
“It makes me feel better.”

Row by row across black granite
Three nights and three days to say all the names

I conclude with…

American Mourning Poem

American Service Men and Women Dead*
Iraq—- 4,349

“Intelligence gathered by this and other governments
leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal
some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”

George W. Bush
President of the United States
State of the Union Address
January 28, 2003

Coming Home

in catacombs of military transports
destined for Dover Air Force Base,
loves, beliefs, ideals, plans:
Hancock Community College,
University of Miami,
New York Police Academy,
weddings, children,
barbeques, baseball, bass fishing-
All lidded down inside caskets
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

25-year-old Marine Corps Corporal
St. George, Maine.
Sailor, rock climber, stargazer.
On dance floor, “. . . like a magnet.”
Loves lobsters, mussels-
All lidded down inside casket
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

30-year-old Army Private First Class
Tuba City, Arizona.
“. . . young, a single mother and capable.”
Her boy, 4 – her girl, 3.
Woman proud of her Hopi heritage-
All lidded down inside casket
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

20-year-old Marine Corps Corporal
La Harpe, Illinois.
High school football, basketball player,
lifeguard at health club pool,
lifts weights,
going to be a physical trainer.
Joins Marine Corps Reserve
to pay for studies at Southern Illinois University-
All lidded down inside casket
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

21-year-old Marine Corps Corporal
Gallatin, Tennessee.
Nurses dying mother with his humor,
dresses in clown costume for nieces’ birthdays.
History buff, reads fat books about generals,
presidents, the Revolutionary War-
All lidded down inside casket
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

24-year-old Coast Guard Petty Officer
Northport, New York.
Wife, three months pregnant.
Wants to be a policeman like his father.
“. . . the kind of person that you fall in love with
the minute that you meet him,” a friend says-
All lidded down inside casket
carefully, caringly covered with The American Flag

A father, a mother grieve for their only son, an Army Specialist.
“He wanted to be an engineer,” the father remembers.
“He wanted to set up his own business when he got out.
And I says, ‘Amigo, I’m waiting for you to get out
so we can put up our own business.’
And all that, well, you know, is history.”

The Major General carefully, caringly folds The American Flag,
places the nation’s ensign into the mother’s hands

*September 26, 2009


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