Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

A Monk's Tale

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

A Monk's Tale

Article excerpt

We begin to die the day we are silent about things that matter.

-M. L. King, Jr.

When I extracted the envelope from my post office box that crisp, clear January morning, I knew immediately what it was. The cream-colored square envelope had gold capital letters in the upper left-hand corner: THE WHITE HOUSE. I knew Laura Bush had sponsored several evenings with writers in her promotion of literacy. Clearly, there was going to be a poetry event, and equally clearly, I had been placed on the list. There could be no other possibilities. I didn't open it. I put it with other mail and returned to Copper Canyon Press, where I was in the midst of printing a broadside on my platen press. I felt intense stress, not joy. There was no way I could accept an invitation to George Bush's White House. I felt a little nauseous as I realized the situation into which I had been thrust. I couldn't simply act on my own, by my own conscience, because my actions would reflect, like it or not, fair or not, on Copper Canyon Press. I was going to have to look deeply into my own conscience and the practices of a lifetime as a socially engaged poet.

The night before, I had been exploring "shock and awe" on the Internet, reading various stories about Bush's plans to devastate Iraq with an intense and intensifying missile barrage, a weak nation of beleaguered people who had no relationship to the al Qaeda attack on the U.S. When I completed my four-year enlistment in the Marine Corps, I exited as a Conscientious Objector. I was born during WW II, grew up during Korea and the McCarthy era, and came of age under Kennedy while serving for a couple of years in Japan. My first public poetry readings were under the auspices of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Poets Against the War (in Vietnam), and part of my campaigning for Eugene McCarthy in 1968. I ran for California State Assembly that year as a socialist and devoted a lot of time to campaigning for McCarthy.

I had undergone infantry training at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, home of Camp Smedley D. Butler, named after the Marine Corps major general who won two Medals of Honor. This is what the good general had to say about serving his country: "I've spent 33 years being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism. . . . I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American Oil interests in 1914. I helped in the rape of half a dozen Central American Republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I was rewarded by honors, medals, promotions." And Henry Kissinger has a Nobel Peace Prize that sticks in the craw of every democratic Chilean.

For forty years I'd been a socially engaged antiwar poet. I was engaged in the civil rights campaigns of the sixties, supported feminist issues of the seventies, and had, in fact, been a devoted nonviolent revolutionary my entire adult life. And now I was being invited to the White House, where plans were well under way to sell our nation a pack of lies and fears, and an innocent nation-the very cradle of civilization-would be destroyed, our Constitution undermined, and all the worldwide sympathy and compassion extended toward us since the September 11 attack would evaporate. Several human rights organizations already claimed that a million Iraqis had died for lack of necessities under the embargo; hundreds of thousands more could die in an American shock-and-awe attack.

For an hour or so, I worked in the print room, mind reeling. But I couldn't focus. Finally, I opened the envelope. I was invited by Laura Bush to a symposium on "Poetry and the American Voice" (my emphasis). That "the" kind of caught my eye. There was no mention of which poets would be featured, only that the symposium would be held on February 12, 2003, three weeks away. I closed up shop and went home. …

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