Tuesday, January 6, 2009




A week ago, on Christmas Eve, a hero of mine died.

In his December 26 obituary of Harold Pinter, Mel Gussow wrote: "His plays often take place in a single, increasingly claustrophobic room, where conversation is a minefield and even innocuous-seeming words can wound." But, Gussow continued, "it is what comes between the words that he is most famous for." He was, in Gussow's words, the "playwright of the pause."

Wednesday night – no, Thursday morning, the first hour of 2009 – I watched, listened again to Pinter deliver that 2005 Nobel speech so strewn with mines and wounding words and, in the pauses, reflected on the rasping breaths of a dying man speaking of his art…and the task of every man. Toward the end, he said:

A writer's life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity.We don't have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection - unless you lie - in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician….

When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

I found many of Pinter's words in that remarkable speech – words about my country and my dereliction as a citizen – wounding…stinging all the more because they spoke of self-inflicted wounds. But it is these closing words – and what lies between them - that stick with me this morning, not so much wounding as goading. And now, I find, I've got to act on the words…and pauses…the silences any monk will tell you are the proper, necessary antecedent to action.

I have been a politician, too long self-protecting, self-deluding in a swirl of lies, personal and national. Now I try to write, to smash mirrors, to stare unflinchingly at truth. But how to smash those mirrors in such a way that others, too, will want to look?

I've tried, like Pinter, poetry, seeking to cut to the bone, to cut to the chase, leaving old delusions on the floor midst all the broken glass. But I've found my poems too much like crutches to help me navigate through shards of shattered dreams, too often an opiate to ease the pain of loss and what will never be.

And, so, upon my return from Palestine just weeks ago, I tried through poetry to ease the pain of a truth that still waits for others behind our elaborate polished mirror – the real truth of children still hoping in the garbage of their refugee camps for justice and deliverance.

Aida broke my heart

As did Balata and Aroub.

Children picking through the garbage

Beneath an obscene wall,

Others asking, hands upraised,

"Why do you come?"

Why, indeed, I ask myself

Now safe at home,

Still crying for the children

In their dusty alleyways.

The grafitti on the wall

Cries out loudly:

"Don't forget Palestine!"

And other voices

From another place

Haunt my soul this sunny Sunday.

"Don't forget the children,"

They shout in unison.

How could I, how could I,

Condemned now to remember

A place called Palestine

And all its lovely children?

But, then, just days ago, I found all the hopes and yearnings – theirs and mine - buried once again beneath a recurring avalanche of hate and lies and bombs, no longer visible through clouds of ash, no longer heard above the concussions and screams and sirens. In the long moment of a holy week of so much death, the poet's pen seemed so effete, so ineffective. Reaching through my tears for every verbal stone I could find, I found solace in the despairing solidarity of yet another hero, Bertolt Brecht:

What times are these

When to write a poem about love

Is almost a crime

Because it contains

So many silences

About so many horrors….

What times indeed. How deep, how sad the silences. I raged for awhile at the horrors, frustrated that all I had with which to fight the crimes were verbal stones and wounding words. But, in the silence of the monks and the "unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination" of the Pinters, Brechts, Bonhoeffers, and Kings, who still live in their words, I've regained my balance, restored my strength, and am ready to write again in other ways, to take up again the duty of a citizen, the moral imperative that is the search for truth.

But what to write? How to write?

I think I'll pick up where I left off two years ago when I unplugged this blog in anger and frustration. I ended, then, with a tribute to Molly Ivins. My last lines were hers – "Keep banging those pots and pans!" Mine have been silent these past two years and, for that, in shame and sadness, I apologize. But, as they say, I'm baaack! I've got some big pots and pans and a bigger metal ladle to bang them with.

Let's get on with it.

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