On Violence and Empathy: Winter Editorial

From Poetry Wales Winter 2014/2015

I started writing an editorial about violence. I realised that this was going to be a violent issue. I wrote myself questions like this: Is Wales safer than Mexico for women? Why partake in poetry when poetry cannot on the face of it do much about violence? When does a depiction of violence become a re-enactment? What is the violence that uses no force?

I wrote down some statistics: There are 43 student teachers currently missing in Mexico, handed over to drug cartels by corrupt officials. Four women were killed by men within the space of a couple of months in Wales in 2009. Still in the UK in 2014, 2-3 women are murdered by men every week.

I wrote and rewrote this piece. Because the poets in this issue whose work I was thinking about, assembled over the late summer in 2014, can never be solely defined by the violence their writing bears witness to. From some of the poems by three Mexican poets translated by Richard Gwyn – Julián Herbert, Luis Felipe Fabre and Fabio Morábito – to Hannah Silva’s ‘Kathy Doll’, to two War Reporter poems by Dan O’Brien, Mir Mahfuz Ali’s poems reviewed by Joey Connolly and Ilya Kaminsky’s poems of a ‘Deaf Republic’ at war. This work considers violence but is much more than this.

So could the act of grouping these works together like this under what we might call editorially, perhaps suspiciously, ‘a theme’, be a form of re-enactment? It’s possible. But in placing this writing side by side I was struck by the different ways poetry deals with violence. And empathy. I was struck by the way these writers ‘open both eyes in the dark’ and write what they see, as Roberto Bolaño put it more than once. Bolaño himself was such a writer. His enormous novel 2666  is dominated by the ‘part about the killings’ in which he describes in flat stark detail the repeated brutal murders of women in a fictional city, based on Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico. Instead of becoming desensitised to each of these descriptions – and they really do go on – many readers report of being sensitised like I was. Disturbed.

The shock of the scale and repetition of violence can do this. Should do this. ‘One skull next to another next to another skull’ (as Luis Felipe Fabre puts it) or ‘invisible house by invisible house by invisible house’ (Ilya Kaminsky in ‘We Lived Happily During the War’). Writing that shocks, antagonises, bears witness to or imagines violence can create radical empathy. ‘At least touch what you kill’ writes Julián Herbert in ‘Dark’, his speaker telling of a night spent with his arm in the crack between two beds trying to prevent his young son from falling to the floor.

In this way poetry can, I think, create empathy – however incomplete, however nonintentional on the writers part. But it can also critique the structures in which violence is allowed to be repeated. In ‘The Kathy Doll’ Hannah Silva takes words from Fifty Shades of Grey  and intersplices them with Kathy Acker’s texts. She changes words from FSOG: ‘dominant’ becomes ‘child’ and ‘submissive’ becomes ‘mother’. In a recent interview Silva reports reading FSOG for her related project Schlock! It was ‘uncomfortable and disturbing. I find it shocking that the woman doesn’t want a BDSM relationship and yet Grey doesn’t accept this. When she asks if he could please not hit her again because she doesn’t like it, he replies “you’re not supposed to like it”. Yet teenage girls are reading it unquestioningly as if it’s today’s Pride and Prejudice .’

In Dan O’Brien’s poems the War Reporter Paul Watson is looking at the photograph that won him the Pulitzer Prize: ‘The world has become a frame. You’re looking/ at yourself. And we are violating/ whatever makes us human.’ O’Brien’s poems, made in close collaboration with Watson, seem to be about reconstructing or even failing to reconstruct empathy in the face of dehumanisation – including your own dehumanisation as witness. The poem attempts to come to terms with the moment in which Watson took a photograph instead of helping a soldier being mauled to death in front of him;

And I hear
a voice as clear as yours, clearer even,
saying, If you do this I will own you
forever. Forgive me, just understand
I don’t want to do this. No. We have to
do this. Yes. We have to do this until
we don’t.

We have to do this until we don’t. The snippet hints at both a belief and disbelief in this mission – a compromised empathy, because perhaps all empathy is flawed. And a confusion over who is doing the violence. To be sure, the radical empathy of poetry and all art is needed alongside inhuman and staggering statistics if we are to stop the violence that comes in patterns, one skull after another. So I hope this is an issue about empathy as much as it is about violence.

The new Wales PEN Cymru initiative is one way people can work together to create empathy and solidarity in and through literature. I’d encourage readers in Wales to become members.

*

Whilst writing this editorial the fact of violence came shockingly close to home into the poetry community. On Saturday 1st  of November the poet Anne Cluysenaar was found murdered in her farmhouse in the Usk countryside. Anne was not and never will be a simple statistic or someone to be remembered only for the circumstances of her death. As well as a poet she was a renowned educator, thinker, painter, smallholder and friend to many. ‘Sharing with others a “language of natural signs”, was what Anne as a poet did. It describes her special gift of creative friendship’ writes Jeremy Hooker in a tribute to Anne in these pages – a beginning of an attempt to remember her in the fullest way we can.

NIA DAVIES

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