Review: “Poems Against War: Bending Toward Justice”


Poems Against War: Bending Toward Justice, ed. Gregg Mosson
Wasteland Press, October 2010, $11.95


As someone who spends roughly a quarter to a third of her collegiate studies writing poems, I am quite familiar with the raised eyebrows. The questions, too — I haven’t ignored them. In fact, I’ve asked them of myself. After all, in the evolution of the Relevance of poetry, its importance to the workings of society, and, for that matter, the relevance of Poetry, in the lyrical, elevated sense we all know from painful memories of our ninth grade English class — we’ve entered an era of considerable neglect. What’s the use of writing poetry? What does it matter? Does anyone truly care about my mud-squelching observations of early spring, and who is the audience for my rhapsodical heartbreak besides sentimentalists and my very tolerant friends? And no matter the adjectives, what news or message could I possibly relay that isn’t better suited to the essay form? That couldn’t be condensed to a lead paragraph?

In the case of Poems Against War: Bending Toward Justice, edited by author and activist Gregg Mosson, the answer is no: These stories couldn’t make their point in a thesis statement, and their stanzas couldn’t wrap their way around a press release. The proof is in the pudding (see Item A, coverage of the U.S.-Iraq War*, Item B, our current political climate). Their criticism of the U.S.-Iraq War as well as past wars and conflicts, the U.S. government, and societal conscience and consciousness would not – could not be so powerful without the pain and bravery that overflows from these pages. Reading this collection is not easy, certainly, nor is it wholly pleasant; but it is fulfilling and, I would say, a necessary task. These are not just the perspectives of your traditional poets and professors — Robert Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate, is bylined more than once in the anthology — but also the voices of environmental educators, peace activists, new Nigerian poet Tolu Ogunlesi, and, notably, two U.S.-Iraq War veterans. They share their connection to the winding historical road of war and of peace in poignant verse, given titles like, “We Are Not Your Heroes,” and last lines like, “I wish I never came back.” Poems Against War is a stew of umbrage, boiling over, pervasively outraged from in every segment. Its poems are not for the faint of heart and its sentiments not faintly written. That elusive creature of poetic punctuation, the exclamation point, litters the pages. In fact, the only thing that stops the collection from being cover-to-cover soul-crushing is its separation into three sections: The first entitled, “War,” the second, “Thinking Through History,” and the final ruminating on the subject of “Justice.” The effect is that the anthology ends as a kind of manifesto, a call to arms for its readers and for societies the world over, to remember history, know not to retrace its tumultuous, bloody path, and create a better present and future. As inscribed in the beginning of the book and excerpted in its title, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was certain that “we shall overcome because the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The talks of peace and occasional mentions of Mother Earth, etc. in these poems might seem trite, all clasped hands and “Kumbaya” anthems, if it weren’t so sincere, substantiated with real, intimate pain and the gritty backdrop of events such as September 11. The poems are more about the stories than the poetry, but both combine to make the perfect vehicle to convey, as Gregg Mosson says in the collection’s introduction, “who we are we may aspire.”

*Not to cast aspersions on the work our nation’s generally good journalists do — but it doesn’t often get the job done quite like a poem pounding away at your heart. For example: “Have the winds blown enough / that by now all of us have breathed / particles of the burned-up corpses?” From “Skyscraper Apocalypse,” by the “wilderness visionary poet” Antler.