NO LONGER CASUAL
Eileen R. Tabios
Someone is always dying. One day, I read about a murderer receiving the death sentence. Death breeds death.
A poet, I was moved to write. I wrote:
IN THIS INSTANCE, THE NAME IS ELIZABETH
When anger is maintained, it’s often from a lack of imagination. That wouldn’t have caused the governor to stay the execution. Because sometimes anger is appropriate. There was a father who tied a son to a tree and made the son sing “Ave Maria” while the father threw rocks until the son’s head burst into a bloody pulp that could sing no more.
The father punished his son because … actually, the reason doesn’t matter. By the law governing the governor, the father received the death penalty. And the governor stayed the execution, though not because he conceived of a better alternative to a decision that serves only as pure punishment.
The governor stayed the execution because he read through the murderer’s files. When he stumbled across the name of the father’s mother, the name of the son’s grandmother, he stumbled across the inescapable humanity of the perpetrator and victim. Thus, did the governor stay the execution of a man he saw anew as a man. A man birthed by a mother named “Elizabeth.”
I wrote a prose poem. Death breeds death. But it also breeds life, in this case, the life created through writing a poem. In this poem’s life, the application of a name, which after all is a type of word if not minimalist poetry (there is a life behind a name!), opens up (the reader’s) assessment as regards the unnamed murderer. It wasn’t enough to rely on the abstraction “murderer” for judgment. Poetry demands specifics: Did the murderer deserve the death sentence? Were there mitigating circumstances—was self-defense involved though not ably proved in the court process? Did the murderer suffer from mental illness? Was the victim in such severe pain that death was considered by someone to be a reprieve? What really happened? Would the murderer’s death actually atone to the resulting bereaved? What really happens?
And lurking underneath the questions is the largest question of all: can the death sentence ever be … justified? I am getting agitated as I write these words, becoming bothered—I am feeling the onset of a huge headache.
I began writing poetry at age 35. I have been a poet for 20 years. At age 55, I have a very clear delineation in my mind about life before and after poetry. Pre-poetry, I would have read about a murderer receiving a death sentence, mentally noted it, but then moved on to keep reading about other matters, matters that I felt were other to me: Iran, Donald Trump’s hair, Lea Salonga, baby pandas, whatever. (Why do I say, “I would have …”? I did. Pre-poetry, I did read about a murderer receiving a death sentence and reacted simply by moving on…)
Post-transition-to-poetry, I read about humans sentencing another human to die and I pause. I linger over the words. I think. I wonder. I am saddened. I am … irritated. I get on the internet and begin to research death penalty, crime, studies on the related psychology… My head starts to hurt.
Pre-poetry, my life was, actually, it was okay. But post-transition-to-poetry, my life became engaged. One can’t be an effective poet without thinking, without feeling, and bringing both mind and heart to whatever surfaces in life because a poet must be present. A poet must notice, and then more difficult, be concerned over what is happening in hir environment.
That concern can be difficult to bear. But it can also open up the poet to the vividness of life: the beautiful becomes more beautiful, the low becomes more depressing. As a poet, I am more invested. As a result:
Pre-poetry, I casually accepted the death penalty.
With poetry, I no longer accept.
If action unfolds after thought, mine will proceed from that thought.
With poetry, I am no longer casual about how life unfolds, or may not unfold.
Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released about 30 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her most recent is INVENT(ST)ORY: Selected Catalog Poems and New (1996-1915). With poems translated into seven languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized ten anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays in addition to serving as editor or guest editor for various literary journals. She maintains a biblioliphic blog, “Eileen Verbs Books”; edits Galatea Resurrects, a popular poetry review; steers the literary and arts publisher Meritage Press; and frequently curates thematic online poetry projects including LinkedIn Poetry Recommendations (a recommended list of contemporary poetry books). More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com