Poetry and Disaster
Who gets to name a disaster? Who can define its duration, and say when it has come to an end? Breaking news favours the event, the crisis. But what of slow, plural catastrophes, the ones that seem to stretch on without the singularity of a time and a place? In news cycles, there is little drama in the narrative of managed decline, the slow desertion of justice, conflicts that begin and end and blend with others. These things extend beyond the conventionally compressed time of disaster, and they occupy something more diffuse than tragedy.
If one can even speak of a ‘natural’ disaster (of which there are few in comparison with its opposite), such a catastrophe often serves to brutally expose pre-existing social and economic rot within sites already so decayed that their messy deficiencies defy the ‘eventfulness’ that allows an ensuing disaster to be named. In such instances, the oft-attendant word ‘tragedy’ can sometimes be deployed to obscure or delay charges of criminality, as if such lamentable and numbing things might be fated rather than structured.
Natural or not, the onset of disaster often sets in motion events unlike social life. Declaring a state of emergency enables the triggering of predetermined sets of actions usually hidden from daily operations: rapid response units, exceptional procedures, disaster protocols, emergency powers. These things can be activated by ruling forces who also endow pre-selected groups with unique and extraordinary abilities to intervene into the democratic order of civil life to deploy strategies already anticipated for future textbook disasters. In her book Thinking in an Emergency (2012), philosopher Elaine Scarry notes the tendency to create a binary between ‘acting’ and ‘thinking’ in moments of disaster, where acting is immediate, and thinking too slow and ponderous to deal with problems effectively. This binary exists to forestall responsibility when things go wrong within a disaster response. “There was not enough time,” or “we had to do something”. Of course, in practice, thinking and acting are not so easily disentangled.
When the majority of citizens are disenfranchised from ‘acting’ (where such activity — or, indeed, inactivity — is the reserve of a ruling power), what of a citizen’s ‘thinking’, and why is it lesser than acting? Certainly, the denigration of thinking in times of disaster tends to serve a commanding elite and its desire for a single, coherent narrative. But in its fullness, disaster rarely congeals so conveniently, despite attempts to name it otherwise.
The poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant has described the ‘explosive’ quality of catastrophe — its momentary compactness in history (often appearing as single encapsulating nouns: Katrina, Hillsborough, Grenfell) — as something that deliberately overwhelms the ability to think of historical precedents, patterns that lead to the present, and possibilities for future resistance. Speaking from the context of the French colonial erasure of Caribbean history, Glissant writes: “Our history emerges at the edge of what we can tolerate, this emergence must be related immediately to the complicated web of events in our past. The past, to which we were subjected, which has not yet emerged as history for us, is, however, obsessively present. The duty of the writer is to explore this obsession, to show its relevance in a continuous fashion to the immediate present.” Glissant succinctly points out that disaster is rarely exceptional; with effort, it can be read and written.
Reflecting on 9/11, the earthquake in Haiti, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in her hometown of New Orleans, the poet Nicole Cooley notes that disaster is so often discussed in terms of “the inability to speak”, and yet she counters such assumptions of muteness by instead pointing to ways in which disaster is reproduced through language. Cooley seeks to define a poetry of disaster, the criteria of which includes the reliance upon fragments, where the very constitution of broken chronicles mirror the disjointed nature of disaster itself. Her assessment can be well coupled with poet and translator Rob Halpern, who describes disaster both in terms of communal experience and also of absence: “Unlike the death of any one, disaster is what we hold in common as a community, despite its not being here for us to share as a site for communion.” So, too, Ben Okri in his poem ‘Grenfell Tower, June, 2017’ offers a tall stack of compact lines inside the pages of the Financial Times, black text in place of a scorched tower: “The voices here must speak for the dead. / Speak for the dead. / Speak for the dead.”
What are the ethics of distributing languages and openings into the experiences, sufferings, and grief of survivors of disaster? Quoting and paraphrasing the event ventriloquises its harm anew, creating a reductive loop wherein the disaster is simply replayed rather than transformed. Poet and writer Patricia Smith describes the need to ask each time “whether I have the right to enter other lives.” Her collection of poems Blood Dazzler was inspired by 35 elderly residents of St. Rita’s Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish, just outside New Orleans, all of whom died because the facility did not evacuate them before Katrina arrived “You can either call it exploitation or you can call it witnessing.” Here, Smith points to the thin line between simply appropriating violence, and reimagining it into a new, strange form that might offer a space of reflection and ritual healing. Blood Dazzler tirelessly occupies the latter terrain, opening with the voice of Katrina herself: “I will require praise, / unbridled winds to define my body, / a crime behind my teeth”.
Battle cries and poetry can sound the same. Plato was acutely aware of such power when he banished poets — “the eulogists of tyranny” — from his Republic. “Can poetry mourn in a spirit that does not lead its audience toward the thirst to punish someone?” asks activist and poet Alicia Ostriker. Indeed, thinking and speaking through disaster can be an attempt to articulate a desire for as-yet undelivered justice, but it is simultaneously an act of collective grief. Crucially though, this grievance is not procedural, legal or bureaucratic. It does not speak in the form of the manager; it speaks in the form of the catastrophe. This form, this thinking, has the ability to harness asymmetrical voices into a chorus that argues against the repetition of manufactured disaster. Therein lays the rage and capacity for action. And, after action, the possibility of healing.
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human cruelty through
I am haunted by
since breakfast’ CAConrad, 2014
Beatrice Gibson (b.1978) is an artist and filmmaker based in London. Her films are often improvised in nature, exploring the pull between chaos and control in the process of their own making. Drawing on figures from experimental modernist composition and literature — such as Cornelius Cardew, Robert Ashley and William Gaddis — Gibson’s films are often participatory, incorporating cocreative and collaborative processes and ideas. Gibson is twice winner of The Tiger Award for best short film at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and winner of the 2015 Baloise Art Prize, Art Basel. In 2013 she was nominated for both the Jarman Award for Artists Film and The Max Mara Whitechapel Prize for Women artists. Gibson’s films are distributed by LUX, London and Argos, Brussels. She is represented by Laura Bartlett Gallery.
Mason Leaver-Yap works with artists to produce texts, exhibitions, and events. They are based in Glasgow and Berlin.
Supported by Fluxus Art Projects and the Beatrice Gibson Producers’ Circle: Candida Gertler, Diane Silverthorne and Tom Woo and those who wish to remain anonymous. Both films are commissioned by Bergen Kunsthall, Mercer Union, Toronto and Camden Arts Centre, London, with support from Arts Council Norway. I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead is also commissioned by KW Institute, Berlin, with support from Julia Stoschek Collection and Outset Germany_Switzerland; and Deux Soeurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Soeurs is also commissioned by Borealis festival, with support from Arts Council England.