I don’t get a suit of armor. I’m exposed, like a nerve. It’s a nightmare.
You know, I’ve got a cluster of shrapnel, trying every second to crawl its way into my heart. (points at the MINI-ARC REACTOR in his chest) This stops it. This little circle of light. It’s part of me now, not just armor. It’s a… terrible privilege.
The Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon
Freedom is a nebulous concept. With election season bearing down upon us, it is a word that gets bandied about. Partisan polarization and extremism have rendered the word all but meaningless in everyday communication. What is freedom? What does it mean? Freedom from what? Freedom to do what? Freedom fries, freedom fighters, and Freedom, the magazine bankrolled by The Church of Scientology focusing on “Investigative Reporting in the Public Interest.” Somewhere George Orwell is having the last laugh.
Unlike the dank swamp of political discourse, poetry is and should represent something higher and more immediate. Poetry is the “exposed nerve” Bruce Banner talks about. Despite his herculean alter ego, he wears no armor and he feels every bullet and every punch. If poetry can be equated to a superpower, it is one of ultimate vulnerability. Modern post-war poetry presents a confessional immediacy from the poet. Poets also shoulder a “terrible privilege,” to borrow Tony Stark’s description of his self-made, armored superpower suit. Liberation: New Works on Freedom from Internationally Renowned Poets, edited and introduced by Mark Ludwig, casts a wide net. Spanning the globe and ranging from amateurs to academics, Liberation seeks a poetic exploration of freedom. It is both tightly snarled together with immediate political concerns, but also approaches these same mundane practical issues with poetry. What results is a literary alchemy, akin to coal plus pressure plus heat plus time resulting in diamonds. Or grit in an oyster producing a pearl. The pain, oppression, tragedy, horror, and atrocity that seems to engulf the globe has given the world these poetic selections.
Beyond the geographic and political, these poems also range from the rhymed to free verse to more experimental forms. Formalistic variations either distance or draw in the reader. The challenge of the poet is to reverse engineer a harrowing tragic experience and turn it into an enjoyable piece. But not every poem here is tragic and despairing. Also included are poems of joy and consuming life’s simple pleasures. In participatory democracies, everyday activities we take for granted can also represent small victories in personal freedom.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation from the Nazi concentration camps and the end of the Second World War. Mark Ludwig, who edits and introduces this poetry collection, “is the founding executive director of the Terezín Music Foundation (TMF), dedicated to preserving and performing the musical legacy of composers imprisoned in the Terezín concentration camp and all artists lost in the Holocaust.” This collection aims to dispel the oft-quoted (and misquoted) saying from philosopher Theodore Adorno, “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” (The well-known variation being “There is no poetry after Auschwitz.”) Unfortunately, even the scope, singularity, and sadism of the Holocaust now seems like a nexus where future barbarities bloomed, whether in Soviet gulags, CIA black sites, and the torture chambers of US allies. One can also add the victims of cartel violence, whether in Colombia or Mexico, and the periodic spats of bloodletting that characterizes the Israelis and Palestinians murdering each other over yards of desolate desert real estate. When one dwells on these everyday atrocities or watches the evening news, the only response seems apocalyptic despair. The only sane sensible thing seems to be give up.
Yet poetry offers a respite, a chance to re-balance the scales, if only from a highly personal perspective. Percy Bysshe Shelley once said, “Poets are the unrecognized legislators of the world.” Probably why every regime, whether democratic, communist, fascist, monarchist, or theocratic, has sought to silence, censor, or kill poets who don’t follow and obey with an unthinking, unblinking, animalistic obedience. Sometimes these rebellions happen with direct poetic attacks on the oppressors. At other times, it is a single poet writing about his or her daily experiences with a tenacious honesty.
An anonymous Afghani woman poet wrote: “When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers./When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.” (Translated from the Pashto by Eliza Griswold.)
Liberation also contains poetry by world renowned American poets like Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove, and Yusef Komunyakaa, in addition to a constellation of foreign language poets less well known to an American readership. This volume of new original poetry is a timely rumination on the concept of freedom. Unlike scientific discoveries that yield answers to questions, “What is freedom?” (and also, “What does it mean to be free?”) are questions that require us to re-think and re-answer them every day.