Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s “Dear Matafele Peinam”


For several years now, I have been teaching middle and high school students a unit of protest poetry that focuses on climate change and the environment. I use the recent EcoPoetry anthology edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, a groundbreaking collection of recent poetry that moves past a simple collection of nature poems and focuses on the fact that we as human beings, in everything we do, are a part of that nature. As a culminating project, I have kids watch Jetnil-Kijiner’s video performance reading this poem before the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit in New York and then write a poem of their own from the persona of someone who is similarly affected by climate change. I give students a list of geographical islands to choose from, but quite a few end up writing about their own culture, which hits much closer to home.

Jetnil-Kijiner’s protest poem is a very moving spoken-word piece and a great modern example of how poetry can create great change in the political arena by witnessing events and holding an audience’s attention. Jetnil-Kijiner, a native of the volcanic Marshall Islands in the central Pacific Ocean, speaks candidly about how climate change is slowly decimating her homeland and threatening many islands in Micronesia from rising ocean levels. She does it by addressing the poem to her daughter, an interesting technique that allows her to speak passionately about the future of her culture and home. For many students, this very particular audience is a lesson in how limiting your audience can actually make your voice gain in power and reach a much wider audience (she is, after all, reading this in front of the United Nations).

dear matafele peinam,

you are a seven month old sunrise of gummy smiles
you are bald as an egg and bald as the buddha
you are thighs that are thunder and shrieks that are lightning
so excited for bananas, hugs and
our morning walks past the lagoon

dear matafele peinam,

i want to tell you about that lagoon
that lucid, sleepy lagoon lounging against the sunrise

men say that one day
that lagoon will devour you

they say it will gnaw at the shoreline
chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees
gulp down rows of your seawalls
and crunch your island’s shattered bones

they say you, your daughter
and your granddaughter, too
will wander rootless
with only a passport to call home

dear matafele peinam,

don’t cry

mommy promises you

no one
will come and devour you

no greedy whale of a company sharking through political seas
no backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals
no blindfolded bureaucracies gonna push
this mother ocean over
the edge

no one’s drowning, baby
no one’s moving
no one’s losing
their homeland
no one’s gonna become
a climate change refugee

or should i say
no one else

to the carteret islanders of papua new guinea
and to the taro islanders of the solomon islands
i take this moment
to apologize to you
we are drawing the line here

because baby we are going to fight
your mommy daddy
bubu jimma your country and president too
we will all fight

and even though there are those
hidden behind platinum titles
who like to pretend
that we don’t exist
that the marshall islands
tuvalu
kiribati
maldives
and typhoon haiyan in the philippines
and floods of pakistan, algeria, colombia
and all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidalwaves
didn’t exist

still
there are those
who see us

hands reaching out
fists raising up
banners unfurling
megaphones booming
and we are
canoes blocking coal ships
we are
the radiance of solar villages
we are
the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past
we are
petitions blooming from teenage fingertips
we are
families biking, recycling, reusing,
engineers dreaming, designing, building,
artists painting, dancing, writing
and we are spreading the word

and there are thousands out on the street
marching with signs
hand in hand
chanting for change NOW

and they’re marching for you, baby
they’re marching for us

because we deserve to do more than just
survive
we deserve
to thrive

dear matafele peinam,

you are eyes heavy
with drowsy weight
so just close those eyes, baby
and sleep in peace

because we won’t let you down

you’ll see

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