Jane Hirshfield’s “Those Who Cannot Act”

Bystanders watch the First Lady’s motorcade in Kyoto. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

This poem is by one of my favorite poets, Jane Hirshfield. It was republished in a recent 2017 anthology of poetry about gun violence entitled Bullets Into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. I discovered it while my junior students were writing argumentative essays about gun violence in the United States and thinking about whether or not we should support stricter federal gun control legislation. The poems raise important questions and bear witness to the victims and survivors of gun violence in a myriad of ways.

The best poems in the anthology, like this one, don’t really pick a side in the gun control/gun rights battle, but instead show us something we might have missed—a detail, a life not our own, or even an entirely new way of looking at what we see and hear about everyday—that helps us see the more complex picture. I love the second stanza of this poem, with its “banished” sister and nameless dog who both suffer despite their inability to change their situation. Vanishing, too, according to Hirshfield, is a form of suffering.

Even the bystanders vanish…

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Yusef Komunyakaa’s “We Never Know”

melvin_morris_and_a_fellow_soldier_take_time_to_pose_for_a_photo_taken_in_south_vietnam
Yusef Komunyakaa published his sixth book of poetry, Dien Cai Dau, in 1988. In Vietnamese, the title literally translates to “crazy in the head,” a term that the Vietnamese used to refer to U.S. soldiers fighting in their war-torn country. The poems in Dien Cai Dau, more than any other of Komunyakaa’s books, witness the events he saw and wrote about as an army correspondent during the Vietnam War. Often cited among the best books of poetry written about the Vietnam War — or any war, for that matter — the poems also explore the unique experiences of African American soldiers on the front lines. In 1968 — the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated — African Americans made up roughly 12% of the total Army and Marine soldiers fighting in Vietnam; however, they represented around 50% of the total front-line combat force and suffered significantly higher casualty rates than other soldiers. Komunyakaa’s poems are important in many ways, but especially for bringing attention to the military sacrifices of African Americans in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s.

There’s no other way
to say this: I fell in love…

Komunyakaa would go on to publish many more books of poetry, publish a book of essays and a translation of Vietnamese poetry, and co-edit two important anthologies of Jazz Poetry. Some of his other books focus on the Civil Rights era, his childhood growing up in the segregated South, and his African heritage. His book Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems won both the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1994. In 2001, Komunyakaa won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, widely considered the most prestigious award that can be won by an American poet while living. Komunyakaa currently teaches at New York University.

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Rita Dove’s “Yellow House on the Corner”

Rita Dove
Rita Dove

Rita Dove is an award-winning poet and author and the second African-American poet to receive a Pulitzer Prize, which she received in 1987 for her poetry collection Thomas and Beulah. Dove grew up in Ohio, taught for almost a decade at Arizona State University, and eventually settled in Virginia, where she teaches at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Among many awards and honorary doctoral degrees bestowed on her, Dove also served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-1995, one of our country’s most prestigious honors for American poets.

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Sharon Olds’ “Race Riot, Tulsa, 1921”

TulsaRaceRiot-1921
Sharon Olds’ poem “Race Riot, Tulsa, 1921” focuses on the racially-motivated violence that occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31 and June 1, 1921, in which whites burned 35 city blocks in Tulsa’s Greenwood district to the ground. Though records were not kept, it is estimated that as many as 300 black citizens and a dozen white citizens were killed in the riots, and over 10,000 black citizens were left homeless. At the time, the Greenwood area of Tulsa was the wealthiest black community in the United States, also known as the “Black Wall Street”. An estimated 1256 homes, 191 businesses, several churches, a junior high school, and the area’s only hospital were destroyed.

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