Poetry in a Violent World

Today, despite the news that I heard on the radio, I had to go to school and teach children who are vulnerable and brave and hopeful and wise. I want their generation (which is still my generation) to be the one that ends the senseless gun violence that we’re living with.

Here’s a poem for them:

The Opposites Game
by Brendan Constantine

for Patricia Maisch

This day my students and I play the Opposites Game
with a line from Emily Dickinson. “My life had stood
a loaded gun,” it goes and I write it on the board,
pausing so they can call out the antonyms –

My // Your
Life // Death
Had stood ? // Will sit
A // Many
Loaded // Empty
Gun ?

For a moment, very much like the one between
lightning and it’s sound, the children just stare at me,
and then it comes, a flurry, a hail storm of answers –

Flower, says one. No, Book, says another. That’s stupid,
cries a third, the opposite of a gun is a pillow. Or maybe
a hug, but not a book, no way is it a book. With this,
the others gather their thoughts

and suddenly it’s a shouting match. No one can agree,
for every student there’s a final answer. It’s a song,
a prayer, I mean a promise, like a wedding ring, and
later a baby. Or what’s that person who delivers babies?

A midwife? Yes, a midwife. No, that’s wrong. You’re so
wrong you’ll never be right again. It’s a whisper, a star,
it’s saying I love you into your hand and then touching
someone’s ear. Are you crazy? Are you the president

of Stupid-land? You should be, When’s the election?
It’s a teddy bear, a sword, a perfect, perfect peach.
Go back to the first one, it’s a flower, a white rose.
When the bell rings, I reach for an eraser but a girl

snatches it from my hand. Nothing’s decided, she says,
We’re not done here. I leave all the answers
on the board. The next day some of them have
stopped talking to each other, they’ve taken sides.

There’s a Flower club. And a Kitten club. And two boys
calling themselves The Snowballs. The rest have stuck
with the original game, which was to try to write
something like poetry.

“It’s a diamond, it’s a dance,
the opposite of a gun is a museum in France.
It’s the moon, it’s a mirror,
it’s the sound of a bell and the hearer.”

The arguing starts again, more shouting, and finally
a new club. For the first time I dare to push them.
Maybe all of you are right, I say.

Well, maybe. Maybe it’s everything we said. Maybe it’s
everything we didn’t say. It’s words and the spaces for words.
They’re looking at each other now. It’s everything in this room
and outside this room and down the street and in the sky.

It’s everyone on campus and at the mall, and all the people
waiting at the hospital. And at the post office. And, yeah,
it’s a flower, too. All the flowers. The whole garden.
The opposite of a gun is wherever you point it.

Don’t write that on the board, they say. Just say poem.
Your death will sit through many empty poems.

The Absence of Empathy

This post was originally written on April 11, 2017. For the contextual speech by Sean Spicer, then White House Press Secretary, see the L.A. Times Story.

When my students speak “Hitler” with smirks in class, complain about Nazi teachers, or joke about the Holocaust, it’s not because they’re ignorant. They know what happened in Nazi Germany. They didn’t forget. In fact, being in American high school, they’re likely to have had at least one major unit of study on World War II and the Holocaust within the past year or two. They may have more paragraphs of Elie Wiesel’s Night haunting them than most adults.

When my students make these Nazi-referent moves in search of humor or hyperbole, I don’t believe they’re making earnest declarations of their own anti-Semitism. I don’t believe they’re being overtly hateful. They’re embarrassed, not defiant, when they are called out. They have a sense of social sensibilities, and they know “offensive” when they’ve created it.

So why do they still do it?

I am thinking of this question today not because of any event in my classroom, but because of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s asinine and offensive remarks today. His words display the kind of ugliness that make us close our eyes and shake our heads in anger.

“You have someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” he says in obvious falsehood. And then, in clarifying, well– Hitler didn’t use them “on his own people.” He didn’t go in the middle of towns and drop them “on innocent people.”

Those modifying words are most telling to me — not “his own people.” Not “innocent people” (which might be better expressed as “random people”). In covering his mistaken separation of genocide and warfare, he goes around in a circle to separate the two histories once more. The acts committed by Hitler and his followers and collaborators, to Spicer’s fast-acting brain, can be distinguished as deliberately targeted against others. And because he has already cast the “Hitler” side of things as the better side, he is now in a position of justifying racial genocide. He didn’t forget. He accessed names that have hyperbolic power, and he misused that power.

This is the problem that I see. Sean Spicer and my misguided high school students know what happened. But they don’t feel it.

It’s because they don’t see literature and stories as “exhuming bodies,” in the words of Viola Davis.  It’s because they lack an awareness of their place in history, of their role, of their privilege. It’s because they see black and white, not shades of gray — much less rain-slaked skies of gray that soak all comers with the aftermath of violence and trauma. It’s because the ugly parts of history are far from the center of their minds, dismissed as past and far and buried.

This is why part of my job is to teach empathy. I don’t shy away from difficult conversations, and I teach literature about people who are different from my students (and in many cases, different from myself.) I don’t want my students to studiously avoid offending anyone. I want them to feel the offense themselves. I want them to know that when they trivialize the Holocaust or other traumatic violent events, they are doing harm. Even if they can’t see anyone in the room who might be hurt, even if the harm isn’t done to “their own people,” their words have power, and power in the absence of empathy is corruption.


Into The Crucible

I want power. I desire social status. I covet money and possessions. I jones for my continued privilege, and I fear losing it.

What shall I do?

“Witch.” “Tranny.” “Commie.” “Feminazi.” “Fag.” “Social experiment.”

In The Crucible, as multiple student essays have informed me this week, people used accusations of witchcraft to deflect blame, gain social status, and augment their own power. It was less about belief in actual witchcraft than using this social stigma to put others down. By accusing vulnerable people of crimes, the accusers cemented their own power.

They’re right; they got it. It’s satisfying when students are able to analyze power dynamics, reveal hidden motivations, and make connections to historical problems.

It’s devastating that they then inform me that “we learn about this so that it never happens again.”

This opens the conversation to talk about what’s happening today, to explain the term “witch hunt” as used in the media. My students asked: are the accusations against Bill Cosby or Donald Trump witch hunts? I answered: the term can also be used to deflect guilt from oneself, to claim special status as a persecuted, innocent, wrongly accused “witch.” It doesn’t mean that the person is innocent, or guilty– it means they are claiming their treatment is unfair.

I thought I did well with that charged moment, today. Then I read the news. When Donald Trump proposes a ban on transgender people serving in the military, even if his Twitter-impulse proposal never comes close to being enacted, it is a harmful statement. It’s targeting and scapegoating people who are marginalized and whose social position is precarious because of a history of discrimination and prejudice. I won’t use the word vulnerable, as I did above– there’s a toughness here that I don’t dare touch.

What’s more, it’s a desperate move. Military service members and veterans are pretty universally respected by Americans. They’re lauded as heroes, they’re portrayed in uniforms of sacrificial nobility. Trump’s chosen wrongly– they’ll fight back.