Poetry and disaster

This is an extract from ‘Poetry and Disaster’, published in Beatrice Gibson’s Deux Soeurs, published by Bergen Kunsthall and Sternberg, February 2020. Originally commissioned by Camden Art Centre, London, in 2019, this text was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who gets to speak of disaster? Who can name it, 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 abridged shock of disaster, their boundaries are more diffuse.

If one can even speak of a ‘natural’ disaster (of which there are few in comparison with its opposite), such a catastrophe can brutally expose pre-existing social and economic rot within sites already so decayed that their messy deficiencies defy the eventfulness of disasters that have been compressed into a name. In such instances, the oft-attendant word ‘tragedy’ can sometimes be deployed immediately after the event to obscure or delay charges of criminality, as if such lamentable and numbing things not yet sheathed in the definition of catastrophe 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 that also endow pre-selected groups with unique and extraordinary abilities to intervene into the democratic order of civil life to use 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 accountability 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 how the explosive quality of catastrophe—its apparently “momentary” compactness in history (frequently whittled down to encapsulating nouns: Katrina, Hillsborough, Grenfell or simply the word “disaster” itself: Shoah, Al-Nakba)—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.”1 Glissant succinctly points out that disaster is rarely exceptional. With effort and attention, 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 regularly discussed in terms of “the inability to speak.”2 She counters these 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 include the reliance upon fragments, where the very constitution of broken chronicles performs the disjointed nature of disaster itself. Immediate responses to disaster are always delivered in shards of eye-witness statements, testimonials that seek resonance with others, the partial and the incomplete. Those who gather together these fragmented languages become the interpreters for tangles of time, trauma and information. Cooley’s assessment can be coupled by observations from poet and translator Rob Halpern who describes disaster not only in terms of communal experience but 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.”3 Ben Okri also offers a site in his poem “Grenfell Tower, June 2017,” 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 disaster’s survivors? Quoting and paraphrasing a traumatic event—especially others’ personal experiences of disaster—has the potential to ventriloquize 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 thirty-five 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 and the levees failed. “You can either call it exploitation or you can call it witnessing.” Becoming a witness for those who had none, Smith points to the thin line between either appropriating violence, or else reimagining it into a strange new form that might offer room for reflection. Blood Dazzler purposefully operates in the register of the unfamiliar, embodying disorientation (a defining quality of disaster), and opening in the voice of Katrina herself: “[…] I become / a mouth, thrashing hair, an overdone eye. How dare / the water belittle my thirst, treat me as just / another / small / disturbance, / try to feed me / from the bottom of its hand? / I will require praise, / unbridled winds to define my body, / a crime behind my teeth / because / every woman begins as weather, / sips slow thunder / knows her hips. Every woman / harbours a chaos, can / wait for it, straddling a fever.” Smith’s Katrina brings to mind the speech of an ancient Sibyl, a woman oracle Heraclitus describes as possessing a “frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches through a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.” After all, it was not Katrina alone who brought the fullness of disaster; she may be the ‘natural’ symbol of blame, but in actuality her damage fatally exposed the flaws of man-made structures meant to protect its residents.4

The raving oracles—especially women—who anticipate or interpret disaster have traditionally been placed in the genre of myth due to the inconvenience of their voices. The information of sphinxes, sibyls, and witches is pushed into the lyric form—a blend of the fragment, the unfamiliar, and meaning at the edge of what we (choose to) understand. Cassandra, the prophet of disaster to whom no one listened; Iambe, the consoling jester who hanged herself after suffering the disgrace of verbal abuses; Medea, judged as criminal for refusing to maintain the order of the mother and, by extension, the world. These women experience disaster and become it; their truth is made mad, shunned or punished; and their personal disasters are often produced by or result in war. In more recent times, one wonders if much has changed. American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1968, “I lived in the first century of world wars. / Most mornings
I would be more or less insane, / The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories, / The news would pour out of various devices / Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen. / I would call my friends on other devices; / They would be more or less mad for similar reasons. / Slowly I would get to pen and paper, / Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.”

Battle cries and poetry can sound the same. Plato was acutely aware of such power when he banished poets—who he described as “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. Certainly, thinking and speaking through disaster can be an attempt to articulate a desire for as-yet undelivered justice, and simultaneously be a space for 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 future disasters. Therein lies the rage and capacity for action. And after action, or indeed through it, the possibility of healing.


1 Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (Charlottesville/London: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 63.

2 Nicole Cooley, “Poetry of Disaster,” poets.org, 2014, https://poets.org/text/poetry-disaster.

3 Rob Halpern, “Post Disaster,” in Disaster Suites (Long Beach, CA: Palm Press, 2009), 82.

4 A late note from 22 April 2020: Listen to podcast Floodlines, for further first-person experiences of Katrina and its aftermath. Floodlines, The Atlantic, 2020.


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