Perhaps it’s this illness, but my mind is a windowless basement. At the moment, a bit feverish, pallid, shaky—on the broader realm, the memory for spelling, for names, for words, receding, the disappointments, harder, the distractions, more enticing. Am I alone to think that here, early December, deep winter has arrived?
I need comfort. Spiritual comfort, heart comfort. I need a light burden, an easy yoke.
Yet when I turn on the radio I find myself sitting with my face in my hands listening to a journalist talk of the killings in Central African Republic. “A genocide,” the spokesperson says, “is trending.” Tribal and economic divisions are fast hardening along religious lines. Muslim militia and mercenaries fighting the Christian pick-up armies. Reprisals, always reprisals.
In Bossangoa, 40,000 people have taken refuge in a Catholic mission. The bishop and Imam are still friends and are urging peace while, not far away, a mother is being hacked to death; on her back, an infant is screaming. It will be silenced.
I didn’t need to hear that. And I didn’t need to know young men are being bound and thrown into crocodile infested waters, that girls are enduring the debauched wont of militia and marauding gangs, that children are valued soldiers, “because they believe they are invincible.”
Who needs to hear this? And once heard, what do I do? What’s my responsibility to feel, to say, to act, to give, to sign something, to shout at someone to stop it. To shout at God. To make a deal. To fast and pray, wondering if these small invocations are effectual.
And why do I feel I need to pass it on, here, on this small space? Doesn’t passing it on simply bring more darkness? How will mercy grow out of any of this?
And isn’t it a western luxury to even have the time and distance to ponder the questions? To write about what rises. To make something out of raw emotions, some art, to write something down. To write a poem about it.
Is this an honest need, an honest human response? Or is it brutish?
Is this how Adorno felt? when he dashed off: “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch.” It is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. I see how the statement makes immediate sense. And then, on reflection, how it falls apart. How Adorno has it wrong.
For it’s only through art and language that we can grapple with maniac, indifferent violence. This kind of empty madness needs emotional purging, for the sake of sanity.
This morning, before light arrives, mindful of Bossangoa, deserted but for the Mission and Mosque, I read the five lyric poems of Lamentations:
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
Farther in, the poet becomes personal…
He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “Gone is my glory,
and all that I had hoped for from the LORD.”
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
Reading these laments you feel the author’s struggle. The struggle to render overwhelming calamity into language. For these poets, victims and witnesses to depraved oppression, it’s either writhe-and-write, or die.
The imagery of Lamentations is all about fragmentation and discontinuity. There’s no clear narrative structure to give shape to the raw emotions expressed, nor is there, as you often find in the laments of Psalms, a rhetorical movement from grief to hope. Everything says suffering.
I check a commentary and find that most of this poetry is composed in “qinah,” a meter in which the lines are unbalanced, giving a sense of language “broken off in grief.”
I also discover, that in contrast to this grim sense of fragmentation, the structures of the poetic form itself produce a strong sense of coherence. I’m told that these are alphabetic acrostic poems—a formal scheme where, if I read Hebrew, I would find that each stanza begins with successive letters of the alphabet. The commentary concludes:
“To contain the poet’s fragmented lyrics within the frame of the alphabetic acrostic, thus becomes the attempt to control and contain, and ultimately to transform, the suffering and hurt that engulfed Jerusalem and its inhabitants.”
Perhaps, far from being barbaric, this is poetry’s higher calling. Perhaps, somehow, mercy takes root here.