Poets provide us with unique and insightful perspectives on matters of human importance. In a departure for Humanist Perspectives, we offer here some voices of poets on our theme of Abuse of Power.
SEA LIONS DURING THE AMERICAN ELECTION, JAY RUZESKY
BAFFLED IN ASHDOD, BLIND IN GAZA, STEVEN HEIGHTON
HENRY VIII, TIMOTHY BROWNLOW
WELLNESS, DELANI VALIN
THE RIVER SPEAKS, JUDY ROWE MICHAELS
This poem was written during the 2016 American Presidential election, but, sadly, it speaks to current US politics too. JR
Sea Lions During the American Election, JAY RUZESKY
The dock at Cowichan Bay is not safe
for sailors, covered as it is by
sea lions that stop off here this
time of year on their way south.
Graceful in water they are less
so when they emerge, like novice
swimmers eschewing the stairs to
heave first flippers and then more
and more and more and more and blop,
blop, blop up the edge and onto
the dock where they wheeze and catch
their breath. Today, I watch them
from the safe distance of
the government pier as I wait from
the safe distance of my country
for one hundred and thirty-three million
voters to decide the future. Like a congress of
American politicians, these sea lions
bellow and snort, shout out to you on
social media: YOU’RE WARPED WARPED
WARPED! No, it’s you that’s WARPED
WARPED WARPED. No, it’s you. They
hold the microphone to their empty
bellies and the sound of the hollow
growls echoes across the bay. They jostle
for territory on the planks, holding their noses
high, bite and body slam to eke out space
to lie down and sleep the day away
as though nothing in the world
matters as much as a dream of salmon
swimming toward the mouth of the
river where they began their delicious journey.
Jay Ruzesky teaches English, Creative Writing and Film at Vancouver Island University. He is working on a nonfiction book called After Antarctica about his experience in Svalbard in the European Arctic.
BAFFLED IN ASHDOD, BLIND IN GAZA, STEVEN HEIGHTON
Eden Abergil: former Israel Defense Forces soldier who, in August 2010, posted photos of herself smiling beside bound and blindfolded Palestinian prisoners. She labeled her Facebook album, “The army . . . best time of my life.”
Eden of Ashdod, you only did
what any young recruit might do —
what I might have done myself, a little scared, a little
stoned (on your own strength, Eden,
as if each beautiful bullet you packed
were a pill — designer hybrid
of Percocet and blow, to anneal you against all
that’s frail and slow, that’s bound,
beyond help) —
And so these Facebook pics
and that bit of bad press (don’t worry, Eden, the news —
save on Al Jazeera and in the tabloids of Tehran —
has already moved on).
You don’t get it. You protest. Your little shoot
killed no one! So then, why are the great Jews —
the poets and performers, the scientists, inventors,
philosophers, reformers — those truest
People of the Book — all weeping quietly
in their tombs: Paul Celan,
Hannah Arendt, almond-bitter Mandel-
stam, Marx and Einstein, all of them sad
insomniacs of the hinterlife, tallowing
hours away in the earth
to understand this “Facebook,” as well as the smirk
this now-world wears: failed future that won’t leave them to sleep,
not even the adamant suicides — Benjamin, Levi, Celan—
especially not the suicides.
And you sit baffled in Ashdod, Eden,
wondering why nobody caught the joke;
meantime the army’s marketing folks
Photoshop your face to a blur, but
too late, you’re famous! Your poses
pathogenic, spreading via tweets and texts, and sickening . . .
sickening no one at all — we’ve all gone immune — all
but the hopeful dead, though of course
they’re dead and can’t die again
of our indignities.
Eden of ash, your grand-
parents were the Nazi War — Eden
of Ashdod, der Tod
is still in the story, the frontier
between millennia didn’t keep it out,
the Human Future didn’t phase it out,
now it’s posted, grinning, on your wall.
Let every wall wail.
Steven Heighton received the 2016 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, for The Waking Comes Late. His most recent book, Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos, was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Nonfiction Prize. In 2021 Anansi will publish his Selected Poems 1983-2020 and Wolfe Island Records will bring out his first album, a single from which has just been released: 2020 (Cohen’s Future).
On observing the famous portrait by Hans Holbein (see cover of this magazine):
HENRY VIII, TIMOTHY BROWNLOW
Look, the ultimate male chauvinist pig.
Wouldn’t you know it from the pursy mouth,
The cruel eyes, the fat, podgy fingers.
Is your priceless collar too tight? It chokes,
It seems, the milk of nature out of you.
Hold tight to that purse, cherish those jewels,
People have paid dearly for that booty
You wear so nonchalantly: gilt or guilt?
Beware of flattering artists—they see
Through the momentary pose, and a lot else.
Strut your persona all you like, when things
Come around, what kind of person are you?
I saw through you when I was a child,
O yes, King/Emperor, you have no clothes.
After moving to Canada from Ireland in 1970 and teaching in Nova Scotia, Timothy Brownlow moved to British Columbia and taught English for many years at Vancouver Island University. His books include Hiding Places, Climbing Croagh Patrick and John Clare and Picturesque Landscape. His poetry has appeared in a number of anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Irish Verse.
Delani Valin explores what she refers to as the “wellness industrial complex” and how unscrupulous proponents use the power of their appearance of expertise to sell some really dubious products, seminars and services, effectively duping people in vulnerable positions.
Wellness, DELANI VALIN
To whom do we turn, we intractable malcontents—Sip-sick
on whisky or the brew of our own bloodstreams. Undiagnosed,
darting from doctor to doctor. Knock, knock in a new office,
another workup to do. I’m here for sadness and for the flapping
of my hands when I’m scared, and the way the sun glints off
rooftop barbwire, like childhood cheekbone glitter, and the fluff
white marshmallow dog that heeds his toddler before lapping at the lake,
the light frames that emanate from apartment windows, each square
expressing a resident’s particulars—glaring white bulbs and microwaved
meatloaf before sleep, blue flashing re-runned Lenos and Lettermans and minty
melatonins under tongues. The orange glow of dimmer-switch dining room
chandeliers presiding over table-top family game nights — gather round,
and see how healthy I am in my wrongness, how many hereditary disorders
declared then dismissed, as I calmly waver on my will to live. Every new pill
a wager on whether nausea and joint pain and headaches caused by sentient
Weed-Whackers haunting my neighbourhood will be worse than what plagues me.
Is it any wonder why we turn ourselves over to the altar of wellness? Swap
white coat for green juices. The celery and spirulina hollow out my hydro bill.
Use your cookie budget for organic strawberries, says my naturopath,
who has misinterpreted my fatness for mindless misinformation. Cookies
haven’t graced my cupboards since indigestion, yet they’re a more reliable tonic
than Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candles and an Oprah-sanctioned
soundbath. My prescription involves getting a better sleep and four-hundred
dollars worth of vitamins, a waltz through a crystal emporium, charcoal smoothies,
and a ceremony seemingly swiped from an ancestor’s dance. I scrape and borrow
for seminars in which middle-class white women rock out and re-wild
and implore me to connect with an inner child that smudges sage imported
from endangered shrubs in Southern California. Hands pass over my back
to centre my energetic field and the tea-leaf reader tells me I will one day die,
the lazy certainty of Assam settling in porcelain cup. Cured cancer and Crohn’s
testimonials plaster a website for a master class on breathing, as a chiropractor
unveils the quantum mechanics that fix quadriplegia, for a fee. A rose petal yoni
steam might not combat chlamydia, but it could release toxins to reveal
an inner goddess with good humour and a more robust immunity. Conspiracy
theories proliferate: perhaps my issues stem from that polio vaccine, or a deficiency
in coffee enemas, alkalized blood, and hemp bed sheets. The yoga studio sighs
an empty Namaste while it sells pickle-juice gut-shots. What is wellness
when what’s valued is the wheat stalk standing to golden attention, relentlessly
productive, ignoring its seasons unless going on a paid-for, team-building retreat?
I pace the carpet in my bedroom as I contemplate the prescriptions of Ritalin
and Ativan stacked with B vitamins and zinc on top of my fridge. Caught between
paradigms—they overlap in their cost and disconnection. And what’s wrong? Seven
disorders, weak boundaries, and doubt. The sun pearls a thousand water drops
from a Malamute’s back, his child-master’s laugher spirals into puberty and crackles
in old age. Apartment tenants trade up to houses and down to suites, the cupboards
exchange one sentimental mug for another. My face ages and my body rounds.
My Aloe Vera sprouts a new shoot. Green, living, and fragile. What is there to fix?
Delani Valin is a Cree-Métis writer on Snuneymuxw Territory in British Columbia. Her poems have been awarded The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize, subTerrain’s Lush Triumphant award, and have been nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her work has appeared in Room Magazine, Adbusters, Soliloquies Anthology, Those Who Make Us, Bawajigaan, and is forthcoming in Arc Poetry.
After seeing a photograph of Hasankeyf, Turkey, in The New York Times, July 6, 2020 – one hundred miles of the ancient Tigris Valley to be flooded for progress.
The River Speaks, Judy Rowe Michaels
I’ll miss the green caresses
of your hanging gardens
of ripening figs
Five black-robed, veiled women
eyes barely visible, backs turned away
from their ancient river town and its submerged
squares, alleys, stalls, where they’d pause
for family news and gossip,
its golden cliffs honeycombed with caves,
once homes and shops,
its family farms, memories of gathering
the last pomegranates in their aprons
One hundred miles of Tigris Valley flooded for the new dam two hundred villages
I watched your ancestors
traders in caravans crossing my bridges
herders bringing flocks down from the hills
children who’d throw sticks
to catch my current
Two of the women bend over one phone, a third
is turned part way to the water, maybe listening to it lap against
her favorite teahouse taste of warm mint
or against her husband’s shop in the bazaar, where at the end
he set fire to their whole stock of rugs, can she forget
”They’ve made migrants of us”
Always there’d been
the sounds of the river.
If only she knew its language—
What are you doing here?
What could you hope?
The old bazaar bulldozed
The citadel that I made secure
by carving down
through layers of rock
I cannot help you Some powers
defeat even the mightiest river
He, your Big Man, closed the dam gates months ago,
released the reservoir
to drown my banks
I see one of you wears a mask over your veil—
again, the plague?
Judy Rowe Michaels, a poet-in-the-schools for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, is the author of three poetry collections, The Forest of Wild Hands (University Press of Florida), Reviewing the Skull (WordTech Editions), and the chapbook Ghost Notes (Finishing Line Press), as well as three books on teaching creative writing.