Words of Protest

Words of Protest

Poetry has many uses. We write to capture a moment, illuminate an idea, express visual delight, mark a significant event, confess an emotion. Another one of poetry’s roles includes persuasion and protest. From classic epics to the most personal, poets have always responded to injustice, danger and suffering. As the Poetry Foundation points out, “poetry is necessary and sought after during crises.” See the remarkable collection below.


In my work I’ve taken opportunities to voice fear, disgust and rage. When readers ask why I treat these themes instead of joy, togetherness, the beauty of nature, all I can say is that I’m a citizen of the world. Using language and image, I speak to what I see, what I wish I could avoid seeing.

An early published poem sprang from anxiety about the nuclear arms race. Teaching literature and watching my students graduate into a dangerous world, I recovered memories of my fears during the Fifties. In school air raid drills, my classmates and I scrambled under desks and covered our eyes. I imagined everything could disappear in a flash. My poem “War Games” remembers it this way: One day a vigil light exploded in our hands/and glass ran in our veins/like fire traveling up the capillaries in rivers of pain. /And we lay down to die deliberately . . .

 More recently, the poem “School,” employs the same atom-bomb scare imagery: “Cities melt like clotted cream in the streets/citrus-colored clouds rise to incandescent skies/cauliflower clouds metastasize/behind closed eyes. However, this poem progresses to a 21st Century child’s nightmare, a scene where schools, now protected by high fences, enact active shooter drills. A schoolroom of children hide under desks, play dead, whisper calls to 911. The poem asks the reader: What will they remember of fear/Narrowed to the barrel of a gun?

The Iraq War pushed my focus into the Middle East. The poem “CNN” pictures the bombed neighborhood scene so common in media coverage: ash over asphalt, rumpled sidewalks/ gold of evening in a burst of fire’s dire intent. The poem ends with a plea not to look away: Let voices not deny what stars and planets see.

 Most recently, the withdrawal from Afghanistan gave us all images of service members killed and desperate crowds surging toward planes. In “Abbey Gate,” I write: “Kabul falls / sends me to my knees/ pressed face beneath a flat screen TV/crowds overhead. The volta or turn in this poem considers women’s fate as they return to traditional forms of control.

                                    Today I want to say their names

                                    The surgeon confined at home

                                    The mother unfolding a burka

                                    forgotten in a chest of drawers

                                    The middle child sold and wed . . .

 Finally, there is “Hamas,” the newest poem in my series for the 2024 Emerging Artist Exhibition. In reading the New York Times article published late in December I forced myself to finish the story, despite its horrific details. (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/28/world/middleeast/oct-7-attacks-hamas-israel-sexual-violence.html).

This brutality demands attention. Hamas’ attack during an Israeli concert forces us to acknowledge rape as a weapon of war. Medieval artists pictured evil as a battle between angels and monsters. We presume the angels will win. But what can angels do with such inhumanity? In the poem I lay out the cold facts of the raid and challenge its continued destructiveness. The poem’s beginning tests our willingness to stay focused on one victim: Beasts of   a nation came for you/pulled you by your hair/from the car/where your daughter hid/beneath the dashboard./Did you scream and kick/or go limp?/Did you know you entered/the gates of hell?

My poem is yet unfinished because I am afraid of evil, of the perversions human beings visit on each other. The poem needs to evolve, to ripen, to rinse off weakness, to shed convention. If words can support outrage and mitigate grief, my poem has a distance to go. It’s only the start of genuine protest. I acknowledge my poem must learn to be brave.














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