United for Peace of Pierce County

Speaking with an Elder Poet
on an Anti-War Poem

(for Elizabeth Bishop)

       One day you said to me,
       "There's nothing you can do,"
       and recited Auden's line:
       "Poetry makes nothing happen."
       Although I honor your pinched music,
       the poems you dipped in light,
       those pulsing like a rainbow
       before slipping from our sight,
       I wanted to ask you why
       several dives out of the self,
       a sweet woman's open caress,
       a hundred books with stories
       gyrating with people and places
       never diminished my confusion.

       You did agree that at least
       Old Socrates was right
       in telling his Athenian friends
       that governments are only that--
       a person with many heads
       that cannot think as one.
       History will go on showing
       them swing from peace
       to war and back again,
       in one wide gallows-sweep
       just as the pendulum
       of the world's clocks
       returns its towns to craters.

       Fifteen cobalt-blue years later,
       I must ask myself, if the dust
       and rubble of each new war
       that settles in our bones
       and deadens a generation,
       are little more than negatives
       of the Kennedys, King, and Lennon,
       has less weight than what
       we felt the day the Apollo spaceship
       landed on the moon,
       and Auden's line is true,
       then why did you till your last breath,
       live with your eye on the dark,
       sing into your ruin?

              -- Duane Niatum

              Revised December 2002
              From Ascending Red Cedar Moon
              Reprinted in The Collected Poems

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Last updated: January 19, 2003