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The Peace of Poetry



Maybe every life contains one shining moment, an instant when a surge of mystical conversion lifts it to a greatness far beyond what it would ordinarily be.

There's nothing ordinary about the poet Nikki Giovanni, of course. But it's hard to imagine that her life has contained many moments more soaring than the one when she faced a convocation of grievers last week in Blacksburg and lifted them to their feet.

"We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid/ We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be/ We are alive to the imagination and the possibility/ We will continue to invent the future/ Through our blood and tears/ Though all this sadness/ We are the Hokies/ We will prevail/ We will prevail/ We will prevail/ We are Virginia Tech."

Not "were," not "used to be," but "are" Virginia Tech.

Watching, listening, not just to those lines, but all the rest, I gasped, and not for the words alone, but for the whole of it, for this white-haired, off-beat woman, slightly odd, punctuating her poem with defiant energy, with hands that flicked upward, inviting, compelling her audience to fuse.

For the second time in as many days, an involuntary choke filled my throat.

The first came last Monday with the official word that the death toll at Virginia Tech stood not at one, as thought, but at 20 and rising. Who could breathe?

Listening to Giovanni, I remembered the stream of gorgeous sounds, the sonatas and chorales, that streamed from the radio in the days after 9/11 like a musical lifeline, a pure and tender reminder that the exquisite, as well as the depraved, spring from the human well.

Yes, that.

But this too.

The role of the artist — a Vincent Van Gogh pushing through his own torment to paint a starry night, a Bruce Springsteen invoking New Yorkers to "Come on up for the rising," a Giovanni admonishing that "no one deserves a tragedy" — cannot be overestimated in times like this.

Sometimes it takes a collective soul to overpower, or at least blunt, the force of a single, demented one.

I asked my friend Leslie Shiel, a poet who teaches at both Virginia Commonwealth University and the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, for an artist's view of the way a poem or any work of art can speak to tragedy.

Not surprisingly, her answer isn't simple.

The artist's role, she said, is to listen deeply and "to create a silence or a quiet big enough" to reflect back what is heard. "You hear that, and you're the advocate for that voice later in the culture," she said.

"You give people a station big enough to stand in, big enough to hold multiple truths, and in order to do that, you have to be able to tolerate ambiguity and dissonance yourself, without trying to come up with easy answers.

"We've got to let our hearts be cracked open in order to grow a heart big enough to hold all of these realities, both sorrow and joy and all in between," she said.

Poets don't just create; they also look to the creation of others. And so, last week, Leslie found herself drawing for ballast on the writings of fellow poets, words she's often taught in class.

I asked her to share.

University of Virginia's Gregory Orr, whose life and writing are defined in part by a childhood hunting accident in which his brother died, is among her mainstays. In a February 2006 piece on NPR's "All Things Considered," he spoke of poetry's saving grace.

"I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive," he said, recounting his own experience.

"Whenever I read a poem that moves me, I know I'm not alone in the world. I feel a connection to the person who wrote it, knowing that he or she has gone through something similar to what I've experienced, or felt something like what I have felt. And their poem gives me hope and courage, because I know that they survived, that their life force was strong enough to turn experience into words and shape it into meaning and then bring it toward me to share.

"The gift of their poem enters deeply into me and helps me live and believe in living."

Leslie had been scheduled long before the Tech shootings to read at her daughter's elementary school as part of a poetry celebration. Searching Tuesday for words that would comfort both 40-year-old teachers and 7-year-old children, she quoted from Adrienne Rich's "Integrity" and read Jane Hirshfeld's "Rebus."

"Anger and tenderness: my selves./And now I can believe they breathe in me/ as angels, not polarities./Anger and tenderness: the spider's genius/ to spin and weave in the same action/ from her own body, anywhere —/even for a broken web," the first reads in part.

And a stanza from Hirshfeld:

"As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty/ we become our choices./ Each yes, each no continues,/ this one a ladder, that one an anvil or cup."

Fortunately, anyone—not just the experts—can experience the healing power of artistic creation.

Carole McNamee knows. As a research professor and director of the Arts in Health Care project of the family therapy center at Virginia Tech, McNamee has helped scores of individuals find comfort through art, both their own and that of others.

Some of the earliest research in the field deals with World War II veterans finding relief through music for post-traumatic stress disorder. "When folks get into the long term part of dealing with grief, art-making is a healing mechanism for expressing the inexpressible," she said.

Collage — simply cutting images from magazines around a certain theme — is one of the most accessible art forms, she said. So is creating a personal mandala, a Sanskrit term involving a circular image or pattern. Clay and soapstone are pliable, easily melded mediums. And then, there is poetry.

We are sad today

And we will be sad for quite a while

We are not moving on

We are embracing our mourning

We are Virginia Tech.

We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly

We are brave enough to bend to cry…

And sad enough to know we must laugh again

We are Virginia Tech.

Yes, last week was Cho Seung Hui and all that the name will forever imply.

And also, hallelujah, this too. S

Margaret Edds is a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot, where this column first appeared.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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