The 8:00 reading for Split This Rock day 3 was a blockbuster, including Dennis Brutus, Kenneth Carroll, Mark Doty, Carolyn Forche, and Alicia Ostriker, and I am not going to try to review all of that. Instead, just the highlights.
Mark Doty began with a gorgeous snippet of a poem by Taha Muhammed Ali:
it has taken me
all of sixty years
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people's hearts.
"A measure of splendor in people's hearts" -- again that theme of speaking joy to power, of creating an expansive imagination that bends the heart toward reconciliation. Some of his reading you can see for yourself:
I also found Alicia Ostriker charming; her reading was cheeky and erotic and lighter in tone than any of the others.
Kenneth Carroll was also funny, with a trash-talking would-be Army recruit named Snookie Johnson (scroll down for the poem) who reminded me of Arlo Guthrie ("I wanna see blood and guts and gore and veins in my teeth!"), and a Presidential Love Letter that recast W. with his wiretapping illegal-searching ways as a spurned lover creepily stalking us.
Both of these were quite a contrast with Dennis Brutus, who delivered a serious reading that provided the political heart and soul of the conference.This is Brutus (the picture is Karren Alenier's, and is featured on her blog):
He is a South African poet who has also spent many years in the U.S. He was an anti-apartheid activist, and thus was jailed at Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and other activists in the 1970s. He did not read much in the way of poetry, but instead spoke about that experience, and what relevance it has to how we should respond to the Iraq War now, in a way that reminded me very much of Nelson Mandela's own comments about the experience.
He spoke about the physical hardships of his imprisonment. Robben Island was a spectacularly isolated, brutal, maximum security prison, and he and the other activists were jailed with the most security and isolation available there. "Split this rock" was no metaphor to Brutus -- he was made to split rocks, to spend day after day turning boulders into gravel, until, as he said, the blisters on his hands had burst, and new blisters formed on top of them. This was actually light labor -- Brutus had been shot years before in a through-wound, where the bullet entered his back and exited through his chest, and he was considered too frail for the difficult labor assigned to Mandela and the other prisoners, which involved traveling to a limestone quarry and quarrying and splitting rocks there.
He also said that his time at Robben Island was not as psychologically shattering as you would imagine, but only because he and the other activists there were aware of the anti-apartheid resistance and worldwide support of their cause by people on the outside -- and especially Americans, people like Arthur Ashe. He said this awareness, the fact that they were physically but not psychologically isolated and silenced, gave them an unquenchable optimism that -- despite their life sentences -- neither they nor their cause would die on Robben Island.
He also pointed out that there is no such movement, no such resistance, to the injustices in Iraq now.
He said this was unconscionable. He called upon us all -- at length, so long they asked him to stop speaking and leave the stage -- to stop paying our taxes, to besiege and strangle this unjust war at its source.
His talk was long, and it was uncomfortable. You could see the audience shifting in our seats, fidgeting uncomfortably around our own guilt, the reality that few (none?) among us would risk even the the relatively low likelihood of the relatively comfortable prison or the relatively light consequences that might befall anyone with the cojones to illegally stand up to the IRS.
It made me angry that they stopped him. In a conference of poets many events had run late -- 30 minutes late, an hour late -- so the decision to stop him was not made out of an exaggerated American sense of timeliness. It was made from discomfort, but Brutus has earned the right to make us uncomfortable.
It is uncomfortable to feel guilty for more than the alotted quarter hour. It is uncomfortable to listen to an ugly speech instead of pretty poetry. But not nearly so uncomfortable as literally splitting rocks under the South African sun, with your hands bleeding until the scars come.
Of course he earned a standing ovation. But I wonder how many who heard him will even take the risk-free step of advocating for a peace tax alternative at the Lobby Day on March 31st:
(Oh, and there is an organized tax boycott for April 2008 to defund the war. Here's a primer on war tax resistance, for any who are reading this who are willing to put their money where their mouths are and engage in this modest risk of civil disobedience.)