23 April 2012

"i stand as a witness to the silences": bearing witness in poetry

i. witness: a loss

One of my favorite pictures of my
mom (her kindergarten picture)
When my mom died, there were no words. There was frankly nothing I could say to capture all the tumults of emotions bubbling inside me. I remember sitting on the phone with one of my best friends and, after numbly thanking her for her condolences, wondering aloud, “Is that right? Is that what I’m supposed to say?” No words felt right. Even today, when I speak of what the loss of her means to me, no words feel right.

Yet in the midst of the silence that filled me and the spoken words that failed me, I found myself able to write. I can remember writing in my journal what I felt I could never say out loud to anyone who stood in mourning with me: that in my heart, I think I already knew you were gone. and I remember, when there seemed nothing else to do with my body, going through the closet in my room and finding a bag of mom’s clothes—Suddenly there was nothing to do if I didn’t do it with my hands. I started folding some of her blue shirts and flowered blouses, but when even that felt wrong, I picked up a pen and wrote the poem I would ultimately read at her funeral.

ii. a witness to the silences

The poet Kwame Dawes once said, “I stand as a witness to the silences—to what goes unspoken and ignored—to the things that float away as if unsubstantial but that are filled with the simple breaths of people trying to make sense of their existence.”

The part of this quote that sticks with me is that idea of the poet as the witness of breath—that we are the ones who capture moments, as massive as wars and as tiny as sighs, in an effort to “make sense of existence.”

iii. poetry as witness

Poetry, for me, has always been a place of deep memory. It is a means of remembering. It is a vessel that can transport us between where we are and where we have been, and where we are going, even when memory and experience fail us. It is a way of becoming one with those who have come before us, with who we are now. It is a way of making sense of what has happened, even when what has happened causes us great sorrow—poetry can be both a means of mourning and a means of healing. It is, quite simply, a form of witnessing.

"It is the poet's obligation
to bear witness."--Plato
Plato is credited as having written: “It is the poet’s obligation to bear witness.” What I love in that language is that when you look up “obligation” in the dictionary, it is synonymous with “indebtedness”: we owe it to the world. Yet “indebtedness” is also synonymous with “gratefulness”: it is our gift to the world.

When war and senseless violence rage like cymbals crashing about us: we must witness. When babies are born and kisses petal cheeks and tears fall: we must witness. When our mothers go: we must witness. When our fathers break: we must witness. When we feel the weight of our ancestors pulling at our bones: we must witness. As long as there is life, as long as there is death, as long as there is day and night and joy and suffering and breath …

We are the world’s witnesses. It is our sacred charge to be so.

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  1. Khara, so much to ponder in your post but briefly would like to say that you have captured the essence of poetry here. I so agree about the witness aspect of being a poet. I have also heard the term "observer'' applied to poets.
    When I taught poetry to high school students, in History and Literature, I often selected poets as bards of their times, Woody Guthrie, William Carlos Williams and so many others bore witness to their times. I like that challenge that you state at the end.
    When my Mother died, writing helped me, also , to get through.
    Take care.:)

  2. Patricia, as I teach my poetry class now I find it interesting how my students pick up on and relate/respond to poems of witness, whether it's been Yusef Komunyakaa's war poems or Kim Addonizio writing on love or loss or on being womanly, or Matthea Harvey's unique voicing of the post-apocalyptic future. It's a delight to see them respond to it, and to mirror it in their own work.

  3. This is so beautiful... even in the sharing of the loss of your mother you were able to write and share your poem at her funeral. You can keep her memory alive through your words, too.

  4. Thank you so much, Laurie. I certainly am trying to do just that--it has given me such a sense of peace to be able to write out the memories and dreams and thoughts that keep her thriving in my heart.

  5. A wonderful post, and a wonderful family photo!

    I have a B & W photo, from 1934, of my mom, at age 5.

    I have a B & W photo of my oldest sister, age 5, 1970....

    Same hairdo as the 1934...

    Looking at the photos, side by side, with no information to guide you, I'd defy you to figure out who was who. :-D

    My sister hated that hairdo, later in life, and so when her daughter turned 5 she flat out refused to do the 'Do on her, despited my begging her to.

    When my neice was 10 she did it, why, I do not know, but when I saw the photo, a few years later, I showed her the other 2, beside it, and laughing said, "See! Even at age 10 it would have worked!" :-D

    Must be something in the female genes. :-D

    Oh, and thanks for stopping by Musings of a Mad Macedonian! :-D

    1. It was my pleasure!

      And thank you for sharing your family story here. That sounds like a pretty awesome family tradition! I know that when I was little, the first time I saw the picture of my mom, I thought it was me! I look at it now and wonder how I thought that, ha-ha, but at one time we looked very similar as youngsters :)


Thank you so much for your comments! Please feel free to share your thoughts here; I look forward to engaging in conversation with you!

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