Guest Post, Adrianne Kalfopoulou: Patching the Cloth

Athens Graffiti Art

“Violence does not promote causes, neither history, nor revolution, neither progress nor reaction; but it can serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention.” Hannah Arendt

“Maybe you should work against the moment,” he said to me when I spoke of writing a post that would go up on 9/11. I happened to be reading Hannah Arendt’s ON VIOLENCE.

I picked up Arendt’s essay in the midst of this summer’s dire news; bombings in Gaza; the Ebola virus; ISIS. Arendt seems especially contemporary: “Nowhere is the self-defeating factor in the victory of violence over power more evident than in the use of terror to maintain domination….” This was written in the late 60s during student take-overs in American universities and the Vietnam War. Her premise, that power and violence are opposites, that violence will turn into terror (rather than power) when “having destroyed all power” it “does not abdicate but on the contrary remains in full control.”

I was getting my American passport renewed and stood a few minutes waiting to enter the embassy in the full glare of the August sun that glanced off wide marble steps. The embassy’s newly renovated and expanded buildings spoke very clearly of power and its being “expansionist by nature.” The buildings surrounded by high barred metal fences are couched in an oasis of olive trees and nicely mowed grass knolls inside very carefully monitored gateways. As I waited inside there was a running story of Amelia Earhart on the plasma screen. That sense of expanse, of freedom dramatized too by the clips of Earhart’s pioneering voyages and courage created a stark contrast between the inner sanctum of the bordered space and the world outside of it.

I am privileged to be a dual national, but I experienced a visual split between my worlds. “Power needs no justification, being inherent in the very existence of political communities;” writes Arendt “what it does need is legitimacy.” And legitimacy is a consequence of support. She explains “the current equation of obedience and support” is “misleading and confusing.” Support is what we offer each other in recognition of our common vulnerabilities.

I live in Athens, Greece, and it has been over 4 years now of crisis-ridden moments, and tragedy too. Work against the moment. A man in the midst of August’s sweltering humidity was singing in the street, a worker whose voice rose above the drill as he sang, in Greek, I will melt for you, for you I will melt my heart… It was a sweltering day; it had been a sweltering summer.

Delphi Frieze


“Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together….” I have a torn linen shirt I am fond of and want to patch, but the nature of the tear means I need a particular weave to iron against the cloth so it might blend in. Next to the post office is a fabric shop run by an elderly couple. The husband of the wife who runs it is always there; he’s had a throat operation and can’t speak though he picks out merchandise for customers. I show her the tear and she gives me a patch telling me to feel the rough side of it, to make sure to iron it so the rough side would heat against the frayed cloth. She doesn’t want any money. I want to leave her 2 euros, she vigorously shakes her head, placing the inch or two of cloth in a tiny plastic envelope and telling me again to make sure I don’t confuse the two sides of the cloth.

«Καλο Μινα» she says, “Good Month” a wish given the first of every month in Greece. It is September 1. Later that day I buy a salad at the bakery next to work, the cashier asks if I’d like bread, I point to a dark brown bun, she says, “these are good too” and adds a lighter crusted bun, saying it’s on them, maybe I’ll prefer it. “To act with deliberate speed goes against the grain of rage and violence,” Arendt writes. “The faculty of action” is for Arendt the essence of the political subject. Work against the moment…

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

from “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” W.H. Auden

Guest Post, Mark Neely: Poetry in the Age of Terror

A while back I was on one of those long plane trips that begins at sunrise in the west and somehow ends at sunset in the Midwest. With hours to go in my first flight, I decided to pass the time by doing some revisions to a manuscript I was working on. I propped my laptop on the seatback tray. When I opened the document, the book’s tentative title popped up on the screen in 18-point font:

Photo 1_dirty bomb

I was in an aisle seat and knew a few people would have a clear view of this, just as I had a good look at Fast and Furious 6 playing on the tablet of the teenager across the aisle and a seat in front of me. In this age of shoe bombers and reinforced cockpit doors, I knew seeing the word “bomb” on a stranger’s computer screen was liable to make a person uneasy, so I scrolled quickly past the title page, and even changed the file name from “dirty bomb_7” to “manuscript,” so the offending words would appear at the top of my screen.

Photo 2_Shoes

The phrase, “war on terror,” which the Bush administration proudly used to describe their various military operations around the world, has always irked me. I realize “War on Islamic Fundamentalist Radicals And Another Country We Sort of Feel Like Invading” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but “terror” is an emotion, and you can’t bomb an emotion.


noun [C/U]     /ˈter·ər/

1  :  a state of intense fear

Of course, you can manipulate emotions with language, something the last two administrations have worked very hard to do. Terrorism is actually a very small problem, of course—your chances of getting killed by terrorists are about 20 million to one. But terror, the kind peddled by the U.S. government (to keep us compliant) and by the news media (to keep us tuned in), may be the defining problem of our age. Terrorism is a rare occurrence, but terror is now a way of life, and the more terrified we become, the more likely we are to accept all kinds of nefarious behavior by the government—torture, drone strikes, phone tapping . . .

Photo 3_NSA

While I was writing the poems in Dirty Bomb (and long before I got on that airplane) I was thinking very consciously about how the deluge of terror pouring through our television and computer screens—the endless loops of a planes slamming into the towers, of dark men in in balaclavas lugging RPGs through the desert—is affecting our day-to-day existence. Our love lives, friendships, relationships with our children.

Photo 4_NYC

Early on in this book project, I came across this list [] and realized a lot of these words were already turning up in my writing. My poems—even the ones about relationships or children or aging—had been infected with the language of terror. Once I noticed, I decided to cultivate this trend. I wanted to build a language bomb, and imagined my writing racing through the computers of various spy agencies as my poems made their way out in the world.

Photo 5_CIA

Since I have sent this manuscript to various people as an email attachment, and since we now know the NSA is collecting all of our electronic correspondence, I’m quite sure my book manuscript is sitting in some government database right now, probably tagged with a red flag by whatever software they use to search for watchwords. I like to imagine some young spies (does the NSA have interns?) sipping a bad cups of coffee and reading through the poems, looking for coded messages in the text. I hope they find them.