Janet Aalfs on Poetry & Democracy

Leading up to our “What Is It, Then, Between Us?”: Poetry & Democracy event in Morristown on March 23, 2019, we’ll be sharing blog posts with some of the poets and organizations who will be part of the day.

Today, we’re sharing a reflection on Poetry & Democracy written by poet Janet Aalfs.

Janet Aalfs 200 x 200In democracy’s terrain, where each citizen counts and is accountable to each and every other citizen, poetry that is brave and honest invites us to listen more deeply with our whole selves. Shifting is what we notice; it’s what energy does. Lucille Clifton‘s “I Am Not Done Yet” reminds us that we are individual and collective works-in-progress: “a changed changer/ i continue to continue/ where i have been/ most of my lives is/ where i’m going.” Poetry, from poiein, to make. One deeper breath, one truer word, one kinder step, one more generous action at a time, and barriers become less dense. Hope, then, is between us.

I am inspired by countless poets whose voices carry the powers of breath, bone, muscle, blood, the full range of senses. Enheduanna, the first known author in the world, inscribed her living words in clay tablets 4300 years ago: “You have hung them over your fingers,/ You have gathered the many powers, You have clasped them now/ Like necklaces onto your breast.” That I am able to feel her spirit these many centuries later encourages me in the belief that what one human body creates can make a lasting difference, and that the energy we each generate day by day matters to the entire web: past, present, and future.

In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in the same stanza as the title phrase, Whitman asserts, “That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.” When I was in my late teens, and coming out as a lesbian, Audre Lorde inspired me in the art of moving through fear. I believed her words, on the page and in person, with every fiber of my being, “So it is better to speak/ remembering/ we were never meant to survive.” After a reading she gave in the late 1970’s, I had the opportunity to thank her, and to hear from her in response, “Not only can you do this work – you must.” Catalyst and catapult, the energy that she directed through her full-bodied language, voice and arms uplifting, thrives in my cells.

Another salient moment and turning point for me as a young adult was when I shared with Adrienne Rich that hearing her poems made me want to run home and write. The generosity in her response, “that is the greatest compliment one poet can give to another,” is for me what constitutes the foundation of democracy – reciprocity in all dimensions. In The Dream of a Common Language, Rich reminds us that it is possible to keep honing our skills of discernment and protection when freedom is threatened in any way: “in these hands/ I could trust the world, or in many hands like these/…such hands might carry out an unavoidable violence/ with such restraint, with such a grasp/ of the range and limits of violence/ that violence ever after would be obsolete.”

Calling on our potential to continue evolving, in How We Became Human Joy Harjo invokes: “Remember the earth/ whose skin you are:/ …Remember all is in motion,/ is growing, is you.// Remember that language comes from this.” However, we are vulnerable to forgetting, and to being silenced by force. Fear, then, is between us. Our differences become walls without doors, chasms without bridges, words without roots. These stuck places of pain, when we pay attention, can provide important information about what and how we need to change. Poems encourage us to take notice. Rumi, for one, keeps calling us to action: “There is no companion but love,/ No starting, or finishing, yet, a road./ The Friend calls from there:/ Why do you hesitate when lives are in danger!”

Poems that face and move through fear, mysterious at the heart and welcoming from every angle, transform suffering into healing. These poems converse across perceived barriers of time, space, and identity. They interrupt cultural assumptions and stereotypes. They expose and work to dismantle the odious constructions of patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism. They ask difficult and necessary questions, layer after layer, incisive and expansive. Quest, a journey, + ion, energy. A poem-question offers sustenance for the challenge of each step.

One poetic movement meditation that I enjoy sharing, Triple Ripple, is useful in supporting people to engage regardless of opinions and beliefs. This activity uses a simple rocking motion, sitting or standing, three expanding circles with the hands, and these call-and-response lines: “This fear I face/ Is a deeper breath I take/ Is the courage I share.” In creating sites for revelation, healing, and cultural exchange, a friend and colleague, Ingrid Askew, who is African American, and I, descended from European immigrants, made a version that expresses Ubuntu. This universal principle from southern Africa clarifies humanity’s essence, and gives us the heart of what democracy needs: “I am because you are/ You are because I am/ We are all connected through spirit. Ubuntu.”

The poetry that most moves and informs me imagines a world in which we recognize, as in Cheryl Savageau‘s Dirt Road Home: “Everything is a gift,/ there is no such thing as necessity./ Even the air we breathe, the sunlight,/ this mysterious music of breath and heartbeat.” Gratitude, then, is between us. Unconditional positive regard arises from spirit confidence – no place for shaming, blaming, undermining, destroying. Courage – couer, core, corazón, kokoro – in any language, heart. Like Mary Oliver‘s “wild geese, harsh and exciting –/ over and over announcing their place/ in the family of things,” real democracy affirms that we are all made of each other.  Sun-Buer, a 12th century Taoist poet and Immortal Sister has said it this way: “Before our body existed/ One energy was already there.”

The following poem I’ve woven from core strands of three movement languages that I practice and teach – Taiji/Qigong, Okinawan karate, and Filipino stick arts – beckons me onward: “Follow the natural/ Flow, that which comes from within,/ As the lotus flowering rises through mud/ Of the river pool into sun,/ Vast, vast, vast is Divine Wisdom.” In brilliant paradox, democracy both celebrates and transcends differences to nourish the whole. This one sky we share supports and sustains every celestial body, infinite in scope and variation, in constant motion guiding. One earth. One dark and light. One moment. This, between us.

–Janet Aalfs

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