Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop

There are too many waterfalls here, the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
--For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare and some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
--Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
--A pity not to have heard
the other,  less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
--Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr'dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
--Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
--And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there...No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?"

war photography

A friend put this on his Facebook profile, http://www.visuramagazine.com/katie-orlinsky-libya.

It's about a mutual friend who we both met in Oaxaca in  2003.  We were all arriving in those days.  Three years later, as a conflict between Oaxaca's civil society and it's government escalated into a street "battle" (the quotes because the weapons were largely sticks and rocks on  the side of the people and canisters of tear gas on the side of the police which, albeit unpleasant and quite frightening, are indeed not usually deadly), the three of us along with other friends and colleagues met up in the central square of Oaxaca in order to make revolution.  As the confusion of conflict buzzed about us, I heard a man say into his walkie talkie, "The police are making a front on Bustamante (a block away), we all need to go there and get ready for the face off."

I'd always been stubbornly confident to a fault, and apparently received Highest Honors on my undergraduate thesis because I'd gone into a war zone to do my research, but in that moment I remember a feeling flooding through my bones and down to my feet that made me certain that I was a) not willing to die for the battle that I'd until then thought myself a part of and b) therefore had no business whatsoever being all up in it.  Coincidentally, Katie's then boyfriend, a Oaxacan very much in his own struggle, looked at my face in that precise moment and perfectly read what my mind and body were thinking.  I remember that without a word he extended his arm toward me, at the end of which his hand was wrapped around the handle bar of the bike that he and Katie shared.  I accepted it with unspeakable gratitude and promptly jumped on and fled the center of the conflict through eerily quiet streets and the caustic remnants of tear gas.

I imagine something akin to this is what Katie must have felt on Tripoli Street in Misurata, Libya on April 20th, as she watched her colleagues fall and bleed.

My head can't decide how to feel about it all, and yet I can't just leave it at that either.

Last night I looked at some of the work of one of her fellow disaster photographers who was killed that day, who did 14 tours in Iraq, and many others among all manner of war-torn peoples.  The tragedy of each image is always the same.  It makes me feel that the side of me that wants to say "their work is important because it gives the rest of the world images of what is really happening" is actually quite wrong.  It makes me feel certain that the side of me that wants to say "they have no business being there whatsoever" is right.  Who are we to know what a child looks like when she's covered in the blood of both her parents, who were just shot dead in front of her because they didn't stop their car promptly when a foreign officer told them to?  Isn't that the sort of thing we should only know if we are truly going to know it by truly living through it?  This child felt her parent's blood fall on her, heard the blasts of gunshots and shattered glass, felt the confusion thereafter, only to be taken from the car by men dressed as non-men, in head-to-toe combat wear, and then photographed like a starlet on the catwalk with no frame of reference whatsoever that could explain the western obsession with "seeing" to "believe".  I imagine that the flashes from the camera in the night must have been just as terrifying to her as the bullets that killed her mother moments before.  Later, the "image" won merits and was discussed by media.  The girl was called "doll like" but was by no means a doll.  The media itself turned her into a doll.  They did NOTHING whatsoever to help her or her people in so doing.  We do NOTHING to stop our soldiers from killing innocent civilians each day, because we simply can't. 

So why?  By what right does a western, white press move in and out of places where not-so-white refugees wait and die during months of war to do the same?  By what right do these talented and daring photographers gain prestige for themselves upon the misery that they capture in the faces of others?

I don't mean to judge Katie or the men who died.  I am proud to know such a brave soul, though I wonder what purpose she'll find for her life now that the innocence inherent in bravery shattered and left her shell shocked.  I'm sure (knowing her) that it will continue to be a noble purpose, and pray that she can mentally leave Tripoli street as her body and soul were fortunate to do.

I wish that the horror that is war, fighting and killing and loving and losing amongst people, were not so hackneyed as it is in our society. (Especially considering that for more than a century we have not experienced a single war as civilians.  This, to me, is KEY).

I wish that saying "Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me" were enough for the entire Earth and all it's people.  (I wish it were enough for me).  I wish that we could all leave our yellow curiosity for blood and misery behind and look for images of peace and love on faces of all the colors of the world.

Finally, I wish Katie all the best and, in spite of it all, thank her for her images www.katieorlinsky.com, which are not so bloody, but rather are beautifully human.