by Alison Ross
Poetry that's worth a damn typically boasts what I will term an "internal conscience," meaning it is acutely aware of its own merits and brims with artistic integrity. A good poem has a sense of ethics, in other words, and consciously follows its own creative code and linguistic logic. A good poem can even violate its own code of ethics, and get away with it unscathed! That's what I would call a smashingly good poem.
A good poem is, after all, a tiny universe unto itself, pulsing with energy and charisma.
Poetry that's worth a damn can also have an "external conscience" - but it doesn't necessarily have to. An external conscience in my mind would be one that would promote some sort of social message. Many people believe that poetry MUST have some sort of clear-cut message or point, but I would disagree. Often the most arresting poems are those that have no point at all, and simply exist intrinsically for themselves.
But a poem with an external conscience is one that somehow lives and breathes beyond itself. It communicates a memorable message in an indelible fashion.
The poetry of Anya Achtenberg succeeds on the dual levels of internal and external conscientiousness. Her poems in the book, The Stone of Language, are magically mystical and yet gorgeously grounded in the here and now. They exist for the mere pleasure of existence, and yet exist also to convey devastating truths.
Theme-wise, the poems in The Stone of Language span the spectrum of topics, from occupations to schools to the violence between Israel and Palestine and the Bosnian conflict and the 9/11 attacks. The poems are concerned with tackling injustice and at the same time seek healing and harmony. These poems do not stink of preachiness or even appear to have a polemical point to make; instead, they seem to simply search for some sort of truth in how social controversies are handled. They are elegantly written with a deeply humanitarian core.
To illustrate, I quote some excerpts from "Work Abroad: Riddles":
“The Thai woman sits behind
a display window
between folded limbs
of other women, a yellow pin
with a price over her breast.
Who will buy a woman, or parts of a woman,
the sacred parts: soft fire of the temple,
breasts of life, the whisper behind her eyes,
her dreaming hands, the ancient animal that shadows her,
tongue of her cries, light she reaches for?
Who will buy her mother a refrigerator,
save her sister
from the same business,
who will buy her
after a good meal, know her
and know nothing, take her
and have nothing?”
Or this, from the title poem:
“I chase the day, its rise and fall, its workers
finding their way to the death that awaits them
in the screaming of metal and machinery
or in the hushed maze of circuitry,
and its farmers
coaxing the grain under the awful faces of bankers
whose oily speeches slip like stones into the bloodstream
until farmers begin to punctuate the rise and fall
of the sun with gunshots:
their families, themselves.
I go to the houses where the children lie in rubble
while their parents sit with the magic that enters their blood
to numb the ancient rage or push it to explode.
Babies tossed from windows
sail past my open arms,
the birds chattering at how
like a stone
they hit, and how
they shatter and weep
the colors of sunset.”
Achtenberg’s words here and elsewhere alternately ache with tenderness and terror. She writes with such pathos that you’re never really sure what you’re feeling as you read these poems, whether it’s fear or love or something less tangible. All you can be sure of as you read these pieces is that you’re caught in a mesh of emotions, which can be as uncomfortable as it can be exhilirating.
Although her poems are anchored in concrete reality and language, Achtenberg does fly off into more abstract places, and this is where her poetic lexicon (as in the lines, “the moon is in a glass bottle on my windowsill”) begins to recall the lucisious mysticism of Latin American writers like Octavio Paz.
Indeed, Achtenberg is fond of weaving in soothing nature references as if to blunt the wrenching reality of such horrors as sex slavery and abuse of workers. After all, nature is the place of peace and goodness, whereas human nature, although capable of peace and goodness, often lazily lapses into viscious behavior.
Achtenberg is a titantic talent, and her ability to jolt us from the stupor of our “conscience comas” (as I like to term our social apathy) in a way that doesn’t hammer us over the head, is refreshing, to say the least.
Achtenberg’s words have a peculiar gravity; they sink like stones into our hearts.