On October 18th, I listened to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! report from outside the Morton County Courthouse in Mandan, North Dakota, where she was preparing to turn herself in on criminal trespass charges that the local prosecutor had switched to riot charges in the twenty-four hours before her surrender. I thought, All she is doing is illuminating the critical need for clean water. Why is this a criminal act? The judge ended up throwing out the charges.
As I leaned into my living room radio further to hear Goodman’s interviews with Native American activists from all over the country, I discerned that the protection of the Dakotas is about much more than drinking water and the fear of pollution. Since the sites slated for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) run through Native burial grounds, this resistance makes visible broken treaties and desecrations of Mother Earth. This stand at Standing Rock is about polluting the souls of the living and disrupting the souls of the Lakota dead.
And it begins with water—just as life begins in the water of our mothers’ wombs.
I grew up on the water, five hundred feet from Long Island Sound, and I live now in the crook of Puget Sound. To say that water orients and grounds me is an understatement. When I am with water, particularly vast bodies of water that expand well beyond my vision, I feel at home, at peace. And I know the difference, because for eight years I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, becoming acquainted with the peoples who have inhabited those landlocked, exquisite, golden prairies for centuries. The Great Plains felt like another country to me. The cities felt like small towns, and the towns like single streets, interrupting the farms spread as far and wide as my eyes could see, straining sub-consciously in search of water. I write a lot about the loss of life associated with water in the guise of maritime disasters, most notably the Titanic sinking of 1912.
For over two centuries, American journalists have reported on what citizens immediately needed to know to about their various communities. And for centuries, poets have too. In 1991, the groundbreaking anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness offered a persuasive case that world poetry informed by the human experience of political unrest was a necessary part of the poetic landscape. At the time, the resurgence of formalism sparked a deep debate in American poetry with some literary critics equating the New Formalist movement with Reagan conservatism, a backlash against the freedoms associated with free verse.
Poet Carolyn Forché edited Against Forgetting from direct experience. Forché wrote her 1982 poetry collection The Country Between Us as she reported on human rights violations in El Salvador. In the anthology’s introduction, Forché described the numerous approaches poets employed to chronicle the unseen, the unwanted, the undocumented, all with the intention to bring critical, watershed world events into clear focus for posterity. Where the dominant culture turned a blind eye to injustice, Forché curated a compelling record of poetry’s ability to bear witness, to testify on humanity’s behalf.
Between poetry that is wholly personal or entirely political, Forché defined the poetry of witness as a third “social” space that is “a place of resistance and struggle,” reminding us, in fact, that a poem “might be our only evidence that an event has occurred; it exists for us as the sole trace of an occurrence.” Against Forgetting spanned the globe to document the Armenian genocide, repression and revolution in the Soviet Union, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the Shoah/Holocaust, repression in eastern and central Europe, and the fight for civil rights in the United States, among other human rights fissures. Over thirty years later in 2014, Forché and literary scholar Duncan Wu, extended the timeline and published Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001; with no lack of global injustices at their disposal, the editors selected an entirely new complement of twentieth-century poets.
By Forché and Wu’s definition, the intentional coming together of Native peoples and allies to protect the water and future generations is a necessary site for poetry. Jessaca Ann, originally from Sitka, AK and a facilitator with the Port Angeles Racial Justice Collective (PARJC), is a Tlingit, queer, indigenous writer, artist, and activist. In September, she and two other members of PARJC travelled to North Dakota. Ann camped at Red Warrior, a part of the larger Oceti Sakowin Camp, located across the Missouri River from Sacred Stone and did most of her work with the developing Medic and Healer Council. Her poem “Weave” generates a litany of things observed in an attempt to give voice to the protectors’ profound experiences at the camp.
Of course, the poetry of witness does not always require an immediate physical presence. The force that drives poets is often a spiritual connection as with Afrose Fatima Ahmed’s “Body of Water” based on the work of Aaliyah Gupta currently on exhibit at CORE Gallery in Seattle. Ahmed’s two-part poem evokes “the conflicting ways in which we experience water; both as what drowns us and what revives us, as our connection with the Divine & also our separation from others. ‘Body of Water’ was written while I was watching, from a distance, the protests at Standing Rock. I was struck by how Black Lives Matter had to fight for air with Eric Garner’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe’ and now people from Flint, Michigan to Standing Rock are demanding the right to drink. Our access to the earth’s basic elements is being challenged and curtailed.”
I know something about how I write. I usually am not the poet of witness compelled to be at the site of resistance that we see in the sensory poetry of Jessaca Ann that places us with her at Standing Rock. And we need these imperative poets of witness.
I usually am not the poet of witness we see in Afrose Fatima Ahmed’s ekphrastic, lyrical allusion to immediate events from a far-away tributary. And we need these associative poets of witness.
As Carolyn Forché implores from her vantage point in Poetry as Witness: “When we read the poem as witness, we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us. . . . Witness begets witness. The text we read becomes a living archive.”
The fact that I am writing an article about the poetry of witness specific to the events continuing to unfold at Standing Rock likely forecasts one of my own poems, more slow-cooked, studied, long after we know the outcomes that these current waves of water protectors on the Great Plains provoke. I look ahead to a time when I write that poem and beyond to a time when I am not needed to write that poem.
Sandra Yannone is a poet, educator, and antique dealer in Olympia. She is a Member of the Faculty and Director of the Writing Center at The Evergreen State College.
Body of Water
afrose Fatima ahmed
my body lies over the ocean
my body lies over the sea
my body lies over the ocean
so bring back my body to me
when i was small, i thought these were the lyrics and i never questioned their coexistence with the laws of physics. whatever “I” was was here, on this western shore, and my body? my body was elsewhere.
so bring back my body to me
absolution. the sinning of the sea slug. ablutions. the worship of water. absolutism. able-bodied as a sea animal.
how do we not experience ourselves as liquid? how is it that we believe we are so very solid? when there is water in every square unit of our skins? when original sin was committed for the juice?
when the heat & the honey are flowing through us constantly, cyclically, revolutions around our bodies which are not just clay & mud, they are not just dust to dust, but sea to radiant, illuminated, numinous, shining sea.
the sin of the modern world is the belief that we are all solid. and that we should be. that oceans don’t erect their own boundaries. they do. they do as salt imbues, eats away, corrodes at the edges.
we learned to dance by opening our mouths upward to the heavens raining sustenance on us. & we thought, if it is so easy to be nourished & nurtured, let’s move our bodies & wriggle & roll & twist our souls just a little bit. the dance of water. the joy of the deep.
let’s be all liquid. we won’t be exacting & count & cut to measure all the ways that we owe each other. let’s be Piscean. just for one early morning, i want to be a fish with you. flounder around in the oceans of origins & the seas of surrender. let’s go to school together. learn to swim as a set. mimicking each other’s movement.
holding the heart in our hand. holding it as humbly as we can. ask the goddess for grace & gentleness as we caress & cradle it, for lord, we do not know our own strengths.
i came to you. i came, closer & closer. you invited me inward, yielding, like the softest spots of jellyfish but with the antidote to your stinging. you didn’t close up as a sea anemone does. though i cut you with my fins, you stayed serene, tentacles waving in the watery winds. signaling me, a lighthouse at the bottom of the sea, guiding my ship into your port.
be with me. be with me. be one with me. bring me into yourself. hold me. hold all of me, even the parts of me that are holding you. wrapped around you. suckerfish. squid tentacles flexed. suction cups growing from our chests so we will stay like this. forever.
we must be our own mothers on this side of saturn’s return. our own fathers. siblings to our selves. we are the children born of our own bodies. flesh of our own flesh.
don’t leave me. please don’t leave me. when I am playing so many people to myself, sometimes it’s hard to see me. to see you. seeing you see me is enough to bring me back to life. back to myself. back to water.
bring back, bring back, bring back my body to me, to me.
we were all once fishes
in the womb
swimming these seas of ancestors
& distant futures
floundering about in oceans of origins
breathing in through our bellies
this body of water
how do you find the words
to describe something you’ve never seen before?
coffee + stew,
venison + buffalo,
beef, bones, potato, tobacco
split between lips
passed back and forth between strangers
fire smell on everything
NDN radio, a low rumble in the distance
un-shoed horse hooves, mud
the birds I can’t see without my binoculars
the crickets and coyotes
the wind and sky
—something else that brings two things together
that might otherwise not be joined.