In “Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness,” Carolyn Forché writes, “The poem might be our only evidence that an event has occurred: it exists for us as the sole trace of an occurrence. As such, there is nothing for us to base the poem on, no independent account that will tell us whether or not we can see a given text as being ‘objectively’ true. Poem as trace, poem as evidence.” Teaching in Ms. Lena’s ESL classroom at Doolen Middle School this semester, I considered what it means to inadvertently teach poetry of witness as I saw these young poets seeking to make sense of the largest existential crisis humanity has ever faced: climate chaos, and its attendant causes and effects. They grappled with legacies of nuclear testing, colonialism, racial capitalism and industrialization, massive displacements, rising seas, and disappearing island.
“Poem as trace, poem as evidence” takes on another meaning when I read the final line of poetry from a student from the Marshall Islands. “Please, come home,” he writes of his island home that is threated to become a trace of rooftops and fortified walls washed away, erased. His poem came out of an exercise based off “Hunger” by Nicolás Guillén that begins with the lines, “This is hunger. An animal all fangs and eyes,” and ends with the line “Please stand back.” This student began his poem “This is sadness. An island.” He asked that it not be destroyed. He asked to return. The Marshall Islands are barely six feet above sea level. With the current predictions for green house gases, seas are estimated to rise one to four feet across the globe by the end of the century. In “The Marshall Islands Are Disappearing,” Coral Davenport writes that changing global trade winds have already raised sea levels in the South Pacific by a foot in the last thirty years. For the Marshallese, this increase in sea level has meant near monthly tidal flooding that destroys homes, salinates the soil and clean water tables, ruins breadfruit crops, spreads raw sewage, increases infectious diseases, and makes all aspects of life precarious. During the Cold War, the US military tested sixty-seven nuclear weapons on Bikini Atol and Enewetak Atol after relocating its citizens to the Marshall Islands. In exchange citizens from Bikini Atol and the Marshall Islands have the right to immigrate to the US and are doing so in increasing numbers. Without knowing the specifics of my student’s immigration history, I can guess it has to do with this agreement. I can see his writing as evidence of this history. His words trace the outline of home, of those 1,000 islands, of an atomic flash, of sadness, homesickness, and the desire to protect what is loved.
After I read the students’ poems based on “Hunger” and their writings about home, I struggled with a desire to convey to them the significance of what they have to say. I wanted to tell them they’re writing against forgetfulness and erasure. I wanted to express the urgency that they keep writing what they’ve witnessed, and what they experience living in exile (if in the conditions of banishment we include the persecuting waves). And yet I didn’t want to drown us all in hopelessness or put further responsibility, yet again, on those who are the least responsible for and most impacted by this harm.
Fortunately, I was teaching poetry, so the answers came organically. If I’d attempted to teach using approaches from social studies or history, I might have too easily forgotten to couple the imagination’s buoyancy with the necessity of naming longing and loss. I might have forgotten the ways in which making beauty and meaning and sometimes just being playful allow us to continue turning toward what is difficult. In a dominant culture built on control and denying that which can be too painful, too overwhelming to face, a practice of asking for what we want to see becomes an act of hope. Please come home. I want it to be safe there… Students envision what safety in Sudan and Palestine looks like, and what a liveable Marshall Islands feels like. In the body of poems, students’ descriptions of mundane pleasures, curiosities, memories, and joys hold the losses and pain afloat.
I think of Tony deBrum, the former Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, who desperately pled for financial support from the seventeen countries most responsible for climate change in order to build stilts for homes and walls to hold back the sea; who heard, directly or indirectly, “Who cares?” as the response to his pleas. If in these meetings with cabinets and heads of state he asked everyone to not only listen to poems like the one written by my student, but to write something themselves, could they find language to capture both what they fear and what they long to protect? And if so, how differently might negotiations go? Because what other than poetry (perhaps translated by some as prayer), as it summons the imagination, the regenerative, the impossibly-possible, could help them from turning away?
On the final day of class we meet in the garden. The students show off their plot where lettuce and cilantro have flourished from the late winter rains. After a pizza and too much sugar it takes a few minutes to quiet down enough to listen to each other read their poems aloud. When it’s quiet, they burst forth like their garden; peas exuberant after the rains, the tomatoes quiet, hesitant at first and then showing off with a reveal. Giving voice to silliness, wisdom, sorrow, and longing, they root deep and soar. They hold far more than their share, and yet if more of us could witness and honor these students’ resiliency, we might be able to answer their pleas: “Please, come home.” “Let it be safe.”
Berkley Carnine is a queer organizer, educator, writer, and musician of mixed European descent who grew up in Oregon and lived in the Bay Area. After receiving her MFA from Arizona State University, she lived in Flagstaff, Arizona for five years teaching activist themed courses at Northern Arizona University, organizing around indigenous solidarity, and fostering queer creative community. She's currently living in Tucson and is a teaching artist for the University of Arizona Poetry Center's Writing the Community program. She is completing her first novel. Her short stories have appeared in Entropy Magazine, Educe Literary Press, Cahodaloodaling, and Crab Fat Magazine. Her non-fiction and essays have appeared in Left Turn, Counter Punch, and Waging Nonviolence.