It Wasn’t Poetry
it wasn't poetry, those years
(summer toothsome as a ripe fruit,
juice dripping down our wrists)
it was trees and shadows
pieces of wind blown in from the sea
boats and waves and bodies
it was the passion moon
yellow as a smoker's tooth,
palms pressed red against the sky
it was voices climbing atop each other
like crazed people in a locked room,
a child's wail pulled from a private place
it was moonlight pooling on the concrete,
long oars of light,
the silver odor of blood
it was sentinels falling, dregs of desperation,
ceasefire seizing the streets,
and the future, lifetimes away,
dreaming us safe
Copyright 2004 by Lisa Suhair Majaj
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "It Wasn't Poetry" by Lisa Suhair Majaj, is a haunting evocation of a lost paradise that is sure to resonate with anyone whose beloved homeland has been torn apart by war. The half-glimpsed hope at the poem's end is a scrap of nourishment for us in these violent times.
The first three stanzas seduce the reader into thinking this is going to be a benign pastoral or nostalgic poem. The disruption comes without warning, as disorienting as war's sudden invasion of normal life. We are thrown from a realm of sultry pleasures into a Holocaust-like scene of "voices climbing atop one another/like crazed people in a locked room". This phrase immediately reminded me of the Nazi gas chambers.
Again we shift dizzily back and forth between beauty and horror, as "moonlight pooling on the concrete" turns into blood. By the poem's end, chaos has taken over, and the inhabitants of this landscape cannot tell what the future holds. The "sentinels falling" suggests that the war persists, but on the other hand there is mention of a ceasefire.
"Ceasefire seizing the streets" is a powerful line, growing in intensity with the repetition of "E" and "S" sounds. The unusual word choice "seizing" tells us so much about the people's distance from true peace. The ceasefire is experienced here as paralysis, an uncertain lull rather than a reliable end to the conflict.
Set against this strife, the remembered summer of pleasure seems even more precious than it did at the time. Why does Majaj say, "It wasn't poetry"? Perhaps because it was too fleeting, only a moment separating the fruits of Eden from the autumnal decadence of "the passion moon/yellow as a smoker's tooth". These joys were taken for granted, never subjected to the process of reflection and preservation that produces poetry, and thus they were easily lost.
Alternatively, Majaj may be saying that our ordinary lives are sublime enough to deserve this elegy. Even if the people in the poem didn't produce high culture and poetry, they had something worth saving that the war destroyed.
A third interpretation, in tension with the other two, would be to read "It wasn't poetry" as a warning against idealizing the past. On this reading, the idyll already contained the flaws that would undo it, thoughtless pleasures and harmful overindulgence (the interchangeable "bodies," the stained hands and teeth). I'm less enamored of this negative reading because the first two stanzas feel predominantly life-affirming to me. Still, it is another possible layer of meaning, and one that fits well with the poem's ending.
The last two lines imply that salvation will come, if at all, from looking to the future and not the past. Peace is still only a dream that may be "lifetimes away," but the fragile hope must be preserved along with the memory of the good life that was lost. It wasn't poetry, but turning it into poetry may be a step toward its restoration.
Where could a poem like "It Wasn't Poetry" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
James Wright Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: October 1
Sponsored by Mid-American Review; read work by 2004 final judge Michelle Boisseau here
National Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 31
Major British prize sponsored by the Poetry Society
New Millennium Writings Awards
Postmark Deadline: November 19
We promote this magazine so often because, well, it deserves it. Recent winning poems have explored war and peace, cross-cultural encounters with suffering and grace.
Poetry Society of America Awards
Postmark Deadline: December 22 (changed to December 15 in 2006)
Several high-profile contests on various themes, some for members only (we recommend joining); see especially the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award for poems on a humanitarian theme
This poem and critique appeared in the September 2004 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques