Tag Archives: Poetry

A Poetic Illumination at the Start of a New Year

1 Jan

[Prefatory Note: At the dawn of the new year, while the bitter embers of the departing year glow in the dark, it is the mysterious outreach of poetry, more than the sobering reflections of the Enlightenment mind, that best touches the raw nerves of the many disturbing realities that menace the human future. In this spirit I came across a few lines of the Zen poetry of the late eighteen century Zen poet, Ryōkan. For those with an interest in further exploration of Ryōkan’s meditative sensibility I suggest One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan, with superb translations by John Stevens, published by Weatherhill (Boston)  in a third edition, 2006.]

 

a verse from ‘The Long Winter Night: Three Poems’:

 Another year lingers to an end;

Heaven sends a bitter frost

Fallen leaves cover the mountains

And there are no travelers to cast shadows on the path.

Endless night: dried leaves burn slowly in the hearth.

Occasionally, the sound of freezing rain.

Dizzy, I try to recall the past—

Nothing here but dreams.

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The Nuclear Challenge: 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2)

19 Aug

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a poem by David Krieger on what happened 70 years ago during those few fateful days in August that forever altered the human condition followed by the joint introduction that we contributed to Geoffrey Darnton’s Nuclear War and International Law, which was just published, and is available for purchase at the usual online outlets and via book store

Poetry is for David a seamless mode of expression that merges his life’s dedication to human wellbeing with his inner reflective consciousness, and bears a special relevance to his central mission of achieving a world without nuclear weapons. In my understanding, David’s poem that follows and others he has written dealing with other aspects of nuclearism enables him to enter what Thomas Merton and James Douglass identify as the domain of the unspeakable, and indeed virtually unimaginable. Most of us need poetry, film, and art to make authentic contact in those private and public situations where prose language and even an enlivened imagination cannot adequately express the extremities of experience. I think of the French film of Alain Resnais, ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour’ (1959) and Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ as world class examples, but there are many.

Another form of authentic contact with the unspeakable is by way of pilgrimage to hallowed sites of desecration, and David has made such visits frequently, which often feature contact with hibakusha, survivors of the atomic attacks. As with the Holocaust, public atrocities of this enormity, constitute an inexhaustible occasion for mourning and reflections on the dark mysteries of evil, but unlike the memories associated with the Auschwitz experience, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have permanently and negatively affected the biopolitical contingency of the human species and its earthly habitat.

There is one further preliminary observation. Private atrocities, the death or terminal illness of one’s child or any deeply loved one, also gives rise to inexhaustible cascades of grief that can never be adequately expressed through reasoned narrative and never truly overcome. Such acute private losses because of their negative purity indirectly validate the reality of the absolute in human experience, and for closely related reasons helps us appreciate the extraordinary gravitational pull of the divine and sacred.

The special challenge of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is not merely to mourn and remember. It is rather a summons to devote our energies to rid the world of this curse that imperils human destiny for these past 70 years and as far ahead as we can discern. Denuclearization as a process of diminishing in all ways possible the threat posed by this weaponry and treating ‘getting to zero’ as the non-negotiable goal. This process and this goal can become attainable objectives if a sufficient political will is mobilized and becomes attached to a collective ambition to renounce nuclear weapons as an absolute prerequisite of human dignity.]

 

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A SHORT HISTORY LESSON: 1945

 

 

August 6th:

Dropped atomic bomb

On civilians

At Hiroshima.

 

August 8th:

Agreed to hold

War crimes trials

For Nazis.

 

August 9th:

Dropped atomic bomb

On civilians

At Nagasaki.

 

 

David Krieger

***********************************************************

 

 

Foreword to New Edition of Decision of London Nuclear Warfare

Tribunal

 

Richard Falk & David Krieger

 

When the London Nuclear Warfare Tribunal was convened in 1985, the Cold War set the tone of international relations. Beyond this, Ronald Reagan was the most anti-Communist and belligerent American leader since the end of World War II. There was every reason to be worried that the risks of nuclear war had become unacceptable from the outlook of political prudence additional to their dubious moral and legal status. In this atmosphere the London Tribunal sought an authoritative assessment of the status of nuclear weapons and warfare under international law with the hope that this might move the political debate toward the embrace of nuclear disarmament.

 

Now 30 years later, the Cold War is over and Barack Obama, the current American leader declared in 2009 his resolve to work toward achieving a world without nuclear weapons. This message of hope and commitment was reinforced at the time by four prominent American political figures with strong realist credentials (Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and William Perry) present the case for nuclear disarmament to avoid the further spread of nuclear weaponry. Yet as we reflect upon these issues in 2015 we note that there is not present among the nuclear weapons states the existence of a political will to place nuclear disarmament on the global policy agenda, much less evidence of a willingness by non-nuclear states to exert meaningful pressures.

 

Despite important shifts in conflict patterns, which make it more dangerous than ever that nuclear weapons will get into the hands of non-state political actors that would be inclined to disregard the horrifying consequences of use, there are no serious initiatives proposed by governments or through the United Nations to address this menacing challenge. What we find in 2015, instead of a sense of urgency, is a shared mood of complacency on the part of governments, international institutions, and international public opinion. Without the Cold War, and considering the absence of any use of such a weapon since 1945 at Nagasaki, there is a false sense of security, even as anxieties rise to fever pitch when contemplating the prospect of Iran armed with nuclear weapons. Indeed, the evident present priority of nuclear weapons states is to invest heavily in the modernization and further development of their existing arsenal of nuclear weapons, as well in the pseudo-stability of the nonproliferation regime.

 

And thus, even more so than in 1985, it would seem that it will be up to civil society activism to create the kind of climate of opinion that will force the hand of governmental actors. One step in this direction is to remind the people of the world that from the perspective of international law, nuclear weapons are unlawful, making their threat or use, crimes of utmost magnitude. In this regard, the material gathered in this volume is an invaluable resource for citizen activism on the basis of expecting governments in the 21st century to pursue security within the framework of the global rule of law. The clarity and authoritativeness of the conclusions of the London Tribunal are reinforced by the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice rendered in 1996, and especially by the historic dissent of Judge Christopher Weeramantry that is also included in this volume.

 

In 1986 there were some 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Since then, the number has fallen to approximately 16,000. It is a dramatic quantitative drop, but remains far from the only safe number, which is zero. Over 90 percent of the weapons are in the arsenals of the US and Russia, and their negotiations for further reductions have stalled while they engage in military posturing, including nuclear posturing over the conflict in Ukraine. The US and Russia still maintain some 1,800 nuclear weapons between them on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired within moments of an order to do so. Neither country has a commitment to No First Use of its nuclear arsenal, leaving open the threat of a preemptive attack, or other initiating use of the sort sometimes suggested as the best means to destroy Iran’s underground nuclear facilities.

 

The United States unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 under Bush II, a treaty that was designed to limit the number of missile defense deployments in order to discourage defensive-offensive escalation cycles. This US withdrawal from the treaty coupled with the subsequent deployment of missile defense installations near the Russian borders has generated Russian anxiety about a possible US first strike, which increases tensions between the two countries and makes more nervous the fingers on the nuclear buttons.

 

In addition to the US and Russia, seven other countries possess nuclear weapons: the UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. All of them have joined the US and Russia in modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Each of these arsenals is a source of nuclear danger, as are those of the US and Russia. Atmospheric scientists found through modelling studies that a relatively small nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan using 50 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons each on the other side’s cities would put enough soot into the upper stratosphere to block warming sunlight from reaching the Earth, reduce temperatures on the planet to the lowest levels in 1,000 years, shorten growing seasons, cause crop failures and result in nuclear famine that could take two billion lives of the most vulnerable people on the planet. A larger exchange of nuclear weapons between the US and Russia could send the world tumbling into a new ice age, destroy civilization and annihilate the human species and most complex forms of life on the planet.

 

Article VI of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligates the parties to the NPT to negotiate in good faith on effective measures for a cessation of the nuclear arms race and an early date and for nuclear disarmament. These negotiations have never taken place, despite the unanimous legal support of the Article VI obligations in the 1996 ICJ Advisory Opinion: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

 

In 2014, one of the smallest countries on the planet, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), took a bold action to enforce the Article VI obligations and the customary international law obligations that derive from them.   The RMI brought lawsuits against the nine nuclear-armed countries in the ICJ, seeking declaratory judgments that they are in breach of their nuclear disarmament obligations and injunctive relief ordering them to commence the required negotiations within one year.   Because only three of the nine nuclear-armed countries accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ, only the cases against the UK, Pakistan and India are currently going forward at the ICJ. The other six countries would have had to affirmatively accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ to have their cases go forward and none have chosen to do so.

 

The Marshall Islands also brought a separate lawsuit against the US in US federal court, due to the pivotal position of the US in terms of its leadership on nuclear issues. That case was dismissed by the lower court and is currently being appealed in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The cases are drawing interest throughout the world and currently over ninety civil society organizations, including the World Council of Churches, Greenpeace International and the Nobel Women’s Initiative, have joined a consortium headed by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in support of the RMI’s Nuclear Zero lawsuits (see www.nuclearzero.org).

 

The Marshall Islands acts with great moral authority, as their territory was used as a site of US nuclear testing in the early years of the Nuclear Age. The US conducted 67 nuclear tests in the RMI between 1946 and 1958, with the equivalent explosive power of having tested 1.6 nuclear Hiroshima bombs daily for 12 years. The Marshall Islanders suffered cancers, leukemia, stillbirths, birth defects and other radiation-induced illnesses. Some of their islands still remain uninhabitable, and they have never been adequately compensated for their pain, suffering, premature deaths and the loss of their lands.

 

In addition to the Nuclear Zero lawsuits by the Marshall Islands, one other positive initiative in relation to nuclear weapons is the series of inter-governmental conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons that have taken place in recent years in Oslo, Nayarit (Mexico), and Vienna. At the Vienna conference in December 2014, the Austrian government made an Austrian Pledge to work to close the legal gap to achieve the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. Since then, over 100 other states have joined Austria in taking this pledge, now known as the Humanitarian Pledge. The hope is that one or more of these countries will convene a meeting of states to initiate a Nuclear Ban Treaty, similar to the Ottawa Conference that was convened to create a Landmine Ban Treaty. This can be done with or without the initial participation of the nuclear-armed countries.

 

This year (2015) marks the 70th anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The survivors of those bombings, the hibakusha, have been outspoken in their calls to abolish nuclear weapons so that their past does not become someone else’s future. Every year, every day, that this advice is not heeded, increases the danger to the human future. This is a legal issue, as this book makes clear, but it is also a moral issue, a security issue and, ultimately, a spiritual issue. Humankind must step back from the nuclear abyss now, before it is too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Aug

Poetry and War

 

During these days of continuing massacre in Gaza I have found it difficult to focus the mind elsewhere. I came across a short statement of about 200 words by the great, enigmatic 20th century poet, Wallace Stevens, stuck between poems in his Selected Poems, p.270, with a characteristically unemotional title—‘A Prose Statement on the Poetry of War.’

 

Stevens seems to be telling us that true poetry is a peacetime activity generated by the imagination while poetic responses to war are products of our consciousness derived from the domain of fact. In his words, “consciousness takes the place of imagination.” It is, to be sure, a special kind of consciousness, imbued with what Stevens refers to as the ‘heroic,’ and I would add, the ‘tragic’ and ‘unimaginable.’ We witness horror visually and viscerally, and yet we still too often rely on statistics about killing and dying to shape our sense of the gravity of all that is happening.

 

Stevens also reminds us that the imagination is not without its own ambitions, seeking to impart a sense of reality that supersedes the facticity of what Stevens is calling consciousness. Ambitions of this sort, situated in the hidden recesses of mental activity, also reflects the strong pull of desire, which if it challenges the prevailing images of what we might call ‘heroic fact’ generates severe feelings of hostility. It is a war zone of its own. Stevens alludes to “the endless struggle with fact” whether in peacetime or during a war, and adds, almost as a cautionary warning, “[b]ut in war, the desire to move in the direction of fact as we want it to be and to move quickly is overwhelming.”

 

There is of course a haunting ambiguity in Stevens’ use of the word ‘we’ in this sense. Who are we? Does not our answer, usually not articulated, tell us how we join imagination to fact under the stress of war. The intensities of the ongoing violence in Gaza stifles the imaginative voice because the domain of fact becomes truly, even appropriately, overwhelming. Yet fact can be as victimized by subjectivity as the realms of the imagination, especially when it collides with desire. I think these days of those who would rationalize ‘massacre’ as ‘self-defense’ or dehumanize and demonize victims by branding ‘the other’ as ‘terrorist.’

 

While attentive to the terrible reality confronting us by the ongoing happenings in Gaza, we should strive for root causes. What is it about our world that allows the Guernicas, Auschwitzs, Hiroshimas, Srebrenicas to keep happening? How do we best identify this genocidal virus that keeps attacking the body politic, and yields tears, but no antidote? Is it the reification of ‘the other’ and of ‘the self’ that allows us to see mostly ‘villains’ and ‘heroes,’ and not children, women, and men? Up to now, we allow these lines of division to be drawn and to dominate the public sphere, and affirm partisanship as ‘realistic’ because the tensions of our world means that either I die or you die, and our leaders find good reasons for us to live and you to die. And so atrocity

begets atrocity, a ceaseless cycle with periods of calm and shifts of place, culprit, and victim.

 

In reflecting along these lines I am reminded of Theodor Adorno’s extraordinary comment—“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Adorno’s meaning is not immediately evident, nor will it ever be. The cultural critic, Brian Oard, insists that the assertion must be read in its broader context, and in light of Adorno’s own later clarification that softens the specific injunction. If so approached, the statement is meant less literally than if read or invoked as an isolated indictment of what could be described as the indecency of any return to ‘cultural normalcy’ after the enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust.

 

What Adorno wants us to grasp is that Western culture that allowed Auschwitz to happen included its cultural artifacts, incorporating even the work and worldviews of poets in an overall totality that facilitates the grotesque. It encourages the coldness of indifference and helplessness in the face of the severe abuses of all those who fall outside the protective umbrella of our conscience.

 

Can we capable of learning anything at all from the corpses being drawn from the rubble of devastation in Gaza day by day? Is not the beginnings of a response, whether in the domains of imagination or consciousness, a refusal to embrace the moral and political delusions of sub-species identities, whether of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, and civilization? Until the self merges with the other on a planetary scale, we will feel the pressure to avert our gaze from those crimes against humanity committed on our behalf or against those with whom we have no tribal or national identification. Is such an affirmation of species unity a dangerous utopian dream? We cannot know, but we should realize by now that the its rejection helps explain the recurrence of genocidal nightmares.     

Beyond The Haunted Imagination

12 Feb

 

            Ever since atomic bombs were exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II end of the world forebodings have been present in Western cultural consciousness. In the background of such thinking is the religious anticipation of a day of judgment when life in earth will be replaced by the consignment of everyone then living to either the hell of damnation or the heaven of salvation. The first type of end time thinking is based on the fear that the Promethean gift of technological innovation when carried to its omega point will produce a big bang terminal moment in the human experience. The second kind of end time thinking imagines that the gift of planetary life was a testing time for the human species that would end with endless punishment for the many and eternal rewards for a few, and was divinely programmed in a fatalistic manner beyond human capacity to control or alter. We live now amid both types of end time thinking, a realization made more troublesome because such alarmist patterns of awareness while rather widespread have not generated any strong reactive movement based on prudence and preservation. Instead, all of us avert our eyes most of the time, and most manage to look away all the time often with the help of drugs and denial. Only a few are able to fix their full gaze on the impending cosmic wreck without turning away.

 

            One of those few is a poet named C.K. Williams who in an essay, “Nature and Panic,” which appeared in the October 2012 issue of Poetry magazine, acknowledged panic in response to what he observes in the world around him. In words that resonate with me Williams wrote: “Like many people I know, I often have a somewhat—no, a wholly—frightening vision of the future of humanity and of our earth. There are periods when I live in a state of acute anxiety, indeed, near panic, about what awaits our children and grandchildren. Last year, I realized one day that every poem I was writing or attempting to write, had global warming and its consequences either as its overt or implied theme. Sometime I’m depressed beyond writing or saying anything at all; I fall into a funk that threatens never to end.”

 

            Williams goes on to refer to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which paints the darkest possible picture of the desperate aftermath of a totalizing apocalyptic catastrophe that reduces human existence to the barest of survival struggles waged among roving gangs of desperate people ready to feast on one another. Such an extreme playing out of dark forebodings provokes an attitude of resentment in Williams, not because it is an exaggeration of what lies in store for humanity, but because it rings true! In Williams’ words: “I’m not the only person I know who’s expressed regret at having injested the book: I feel sometimes indignant that I have to have it in my consciousness. If there ever was a book that embodies the extremity of the emotion we call panic, this has to be it. I find it’s like having a piercing scream in my mind, one that, when the book comes to mind, which it does more often than I’d like, goes off like a siren.”

 

            From this low point of panic, Williams finds his solace in beauty as an authentic manner of not succumbing to the torments of reason and the all too realistic tremors of a beckoning end time. He takes note of the pervasiveness of beauty in all its forms—music, painting, architecture, poetry—“if not in every day then in every age” as something that lifts human experience to a higher realm of being that is no longer vulnerable to panic no matter how dire the warning signs. Williams writes “[o]ften our first experience of beauty will be the first hint of what each of us at some point will dare call our soul.’ This allows our exposure to great art of any kind to carry us beyond ourselves and whatever conditions we fear in the world. Williams notes that the first creators of painting retreated to caves so as to avoid being distracted by the lesser wonders of nature that he seems also to regard with awe, yet a lesser awe, because these wonders are there to be found rather than there to be discovered in the solitary mineshafts of the creative imagination. Williams ends his extraordinary pilgrimage beyond the realms of end time with these almost hopeful words: “Beauty saves us. Beauty will save us. The world, though, is still ours to cherish, and ours to protect.”

 

            This brave sentiment is less an act of will than a refocusing of the human spirit. While we are alive, let us be saved by beauty, and I would add by love, but let us not forget that the world is not yet alien, but contains flowers and birds and stars and moonlight and rainbows and many beautiful people of all shades and beliefs. It is worth protecting, and cherishing, and who really knows what the future will bestow? Despite sharing with Williams  “a pessimism of the intellect” I also know deep down that the struggle for the human future is far from over, that the world and all those who are being made to daily suffer close by and at great distances are both “ours to protect.”      

Beyond Words: Poet’s Lament

5 Aug

Poetry at its finest stretches the expressiveness of language beyond its prior limits, not necessarily by its choice of words, but through the magical invocation of feelings embedded deeply within consciousness. Yes even poetry has its own frontiers that if crossed lead to a word-less terrain littered with corpses of atrocity, what Thomas Merton and James Douglass have soulfully identified for us as the realm of ‘the unspeakable,’ and then are brave enough to explore forbidden terrain. When we do not respect the unspeakable by our silence we domesticate the criminality of the horror that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, and give way to the eventual emergence of normalcy as has happened with nuclear weapons detached from the happenings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I came across an utterance by one of my heroes, the Jesuit priest/poet, Daniel Berrigan, while on trial for pouring blood on draft cards during the Vietnam War: “I was in danger of verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence.” These words appear at the start of a haunting poem by another one of my heroes, the recently dead poet, Adrienne Rich; the poem’s title is “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” and I recommend it not only as a stunning poetic achievement but also as a text for meditation.

Such thoughts seem far from the recent controversies on this blog about

the competing justice and victimization claims of Israelis and Palestinians, and the sort of language that seems historically validated for some to discuss such matters of life and death, while being hateful to others. It made me appreciate anew that there are some rivers of divergence that are too wide to cross, and that the attempt, first generates anger and frustration, but eventually brings despair, even sadness. Of course, the blogosphere is a new kind of undefended public space that can be entered by anyone with good will or ill. To appoint myself as a kind of censor, given the capacity to exclude or include comments, was neither

congenial nor tenable as a role, and I have decided to give it up except in relation to hate speech or defamatory material, although even here I acknowledge that some degree of subjectivity will always be present, at least unconsciously.

I am of course aware that the Israel/Palestine conflict is almost impossible to approach in a spirit of moderation, and I realize that many of the hostile comments are directed at my particular understanding and way of presenting the issues. Indeed, my posts have been scrutinized by pro-Israeli zealots so as to find some turn of language or alleged opinion that can be used to discredit me in other settings, especially in relation to my role as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. Unlike comments that can be excluded, the posts are in the public domain, source material for those who seek to mount a personal attack, and there are no rules of the game to ensure that allegations are at least fair and reasonable. I have tried my best not to be intimidated or hurt by such concerted efforts to harm my reputation and destroy my self-esteem, but have not always succeeded.

As the person who dares to continue to write a blog under such circumstances, I have tried to devise for myself a code of responsible behavior for my own benefit, and to establish an atmosphere of trust and respect. I have selected two main principles as guidelines: (1) sustain integrity, especially whenever the suffering of others is involved, especially if it is unpopular to complain about what is happening, or worse, to mount sharp criticism of the perpetrators; in effect, talk truth to power, acknowledging, as I do, in the process that for Gandhi a dedication to truthfulness should never be separated from a dedication to nonviolence. (2) Admit mistakes, and explain their occurrence as honestly and helpfully as possible. In addition, I would add a couple further principles to this informal code, which like the Japanese game of Go has never put its rules in the form of an authoritative written text: (3) use the blog space to challenge whenever possible the ‘politics of invisibility’ that shields from our awareness structures of suffering, abuse, and exploitation; I attempted to do this, for instance, by calling attention to the extraordinary Palestinian hunger strikes that were almost totally ignored by the mainstream media in North America while giving daily coverage to Chinese human rights activists who were enduring far less. (4) use the blog space from time to time to consider a complementary aspect of the way reality is so often obscured and twisted by media, government, special interests, a pattern I label ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, diverting attention from the message to the messenger, or condemning the auspices under which allegations were made while ignoring their substance; this is happening all the time, perhaps most damagingly by convincing much of the public for decades that the menace of nuclear weaponry has to do mostly with its proliferation rather than with its possession, deployment, threat, and possible use; more controversially, to obscure the violence of energy geopolitics behind a protective screen of counter-terrorism as in fashioning a rationale for attacking Iraq in 2003.

The work of poetry is poetry, but there are times when poets do produce lines here and there that illuminate the human predicament in unforgettable ways. Of course, the recognition of such an illumination is highly personal, and should never be defended. For me the following lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Fragment of an Elegy had this kind of explosive impact upon my imagination:

Once poets resounded over the battlefield, what voice

can outshout the rattle of this metallic age

that is struggling on toward its careening future?

Although composed almost a hundred years ago, this image of triumphal militarism illuminates current conditions and obliquely addresses our worst fears. We need to be thankful for these poems that make the outer limits of the speakable more accessible, especially in dark times of torment, great risk, and confusion.