The poems I submitted to the National Endowment for the Arts grew out of an enormous sense of helplessness over the ways my government-and the governments it supports-used and misused language toward violent ends. As a result, my grandfather died a victim of war, as did many family friends, old neighbors, and some animals. So while this award is especially meaningful, its irony is not lost on me. Too often, my government's loudest voice endorses violence. That an endowment exists for writers and artists is a sign of hope. And where there's hope, there is at least the capacity for change. This is a start.
Of course, I trust poets more than politicians, and I have more faith in poems than in policies. And while I don't believe that poems will keep bombs from falling on schools, or bullets from entering bodies, or tanks from rolling over houses, or men or women or children from being humiliated, poetry insists on the humanity of people, which violence steals away; and poems advocate the power of the imagination, which violence seeks to destroy. Poets change the world. I don't mean literally, though some try. I mean with words, with language, they take the many things of this world and make them new, and when we read poems, we know the world and its many things differently-it might not be a better or worse place than the one we live in-just different-but without the imagination, without poetry, I don't believe that the world as most of us know it would be tolerable.
That's right, I'm talking to you, not him or her.
You have been randomly selected
for a security check. It has nothing to do
with you, your physical features, or your name.
Do you now belong or have you ever
belonged to a radical political organization?
Do you have weapons training?
Have you ever visited a training camp?
Did you pack your own bags?
You people send your sons and daughters
on suicide missions.
You animals, you!
If you will please step aside.
If you will please remove your shoes.
If you will please come with me.
If you will please leave the premises.
If you will please not harm us.
May you live in interesting times.
Out of you, an example must be made.
As Americans, you know exactly what I'm talking about.
As Americans, you may be subject to this.
As Americans, you should be worried.
Is it you who are to blame?
We cannot help you.
There is nothing we can do for you.
The agents came looking for you,
at your father's house.
They wanted to ask you questions.
I heard about you being suspected, detained,
interrogated, jailed without charges,
prosecuted with secret evidence,
found not guilty.
There's no sense in you making a fuss--
they let you free, didn't they?
Once you begin to see you differently,
as separate from you, wholly other from you,
then you can become like us.
What has history made of you?
Let's get to the point. It was always like looking in the mirror--
that face is you. I am you.
Hayan Charara is the author of two poetry books, The Alchemist's Diary (Hanging Loose Press, 2001), and The Sadness of Others (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006). He is also the editor of Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2008).
Photo by Rachel de Cordova