Sophia Terazawa introduces poems that lead us to encounter both the beloved and the enemy, seeing them blurred and intertwined—seeing them as human. She shares Joy Harjo’s prayer of courage for the heart (“This Morning I Pray for My Enemies”), Khaled Mattawa’s recognition of the faceless dead (“Face: To the One Million Plus”), and Carolyn Forché’s liturgy for the last hour (“Prayer”). To close, Terazawa reads her poem “Gibbons Howling,” a prayer spoken from dreams into dust.
Watch the full recordings of Harjo, Mattawa, and Forché reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Joy Harjo (2017)
Khaled Mattawa (2018)
Carolyn Forché (2007)
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Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.71] This is Poetry Centered where you'll hear recordings of poets reading and speaking about their work selected and introduced by a contemporary poet. The show comes to you from the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and our online archive of poetry readings, Voca. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson here to welcome you.
[00:00:24.31] Today, our host is Sophia Terazawa, a performance artist, writer, poet, and visiting professor at Virginia Tech. Her most recent book of poetry is Anon, and her first novel is Forthcoming. In this episode, Sophia asks us to look at the overlapping figures of the enemy and the beloved to see their faces and our face in their reflection. You'll encounter these figures in recordings by Joy Harjo, Khaled Mattawa, and Carolyn Forché. Sophia, thank you for being our guide on this journey.
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[00:01:02.15] Hello, this is Sophia Terazawa, and I'm speaking from Blacksburg, Virginia. Yesterday, I met the most flirtatious swallow on my walk outside. The bird would flutter ahead of me, hop on to a big rock or fence railing, and then turn around to make sure I was keeping up. We moved like this for what felt like infinity.
[00:01:32.88] I found myself laughing the whole time. Chatting with the bird about little stories I read that afternoon, innocent playground gossip, platonic love, and all of my friends. It was wonderful. Today, with great pleasure, I move like this tree swallow dipping West to Tucson where the University of Arizona Poetry Center once held me not long ago as its student.
[00:02:07.24] Browsing the archive, I can sense its wonders awash with such care. Gratitude follows. Together, you and I are about to sit with three poets who have meant so much to me. What an honor to select and share these voices with you now. There is a unifying theme woven across each poem, that is the beloved and the enemy. Often both being inseparable within their contexts of history. Through liberating modes of the sacred, the incantation, and the candlelight of prayer, I hope this brief contemplation with poetry may raise a wing to our spirits, the world, and the present.
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[00:03:07.77] The first recording I'd like to share is Joy Harjo's poem, This Morning I Pray for My Enemies recorded on the first day of December, 2017. I remember growing into my practice as a performance artist when first encountering Joy Harjo's work as an undergrad student. A friend had introduced me to recording of A Poem to Get Rid of Fear from 2003 for a television series called Def Poetry Jam then hosted by Mos Def for HBO.
[00:03:49.83] Witnessing this poem would strike as one says, a deep chord of justice on my tongue. On stage was evidence of an artist who could face the soldiers of war across all timelines, human greed, and the ongoing effects of colonialism and genocide. Harjo spoke unflinchingly in the face of her enemy which would often multiply intangibly.
[00:04:20.86] I remember looping this performance over and over on my computer merging its poetic wisdom with my innocent questions of rage and exile. Eventually, with much difficulty in many years of heartbreak, I would later come to understand what the following poem would mean by its words, a furious mind and the blessing of everything.
[00:04:52.34] From her timeless collection, conflict resolution were holy beings. The poem you're about to receive draws on a critical but benevolent space for attention, indigenous futurity, and an act of collective courage beyond weapons of terror and domination. I note the enemy's proximity to this poem.
[00:05:23.41] An enemy, Harjo writes, must be worthy of engagement. Indeed, this is a poem to expand the possibilities of love without forgetting as the poet Lucille Clifton once wrote about the thing that has tried to kill her and has failed. Here is Joy Harjo reading this morning, I Pray for My Enemies.
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[00:06:04.21] - I'm so honored to be back here in Phoenix, Arizona to be back in the Southwest. I'm from Oklahoma. A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, but my travels have taken me I wound up at Indian boarding school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lived in New Mexico and was here for a time. And my poetry has come from all of these places. And then I returned home.
[00:06:30.03] I'm going to start with-- and then to be here with Sandra and Rita to come to this place, this place in our lives after all of these stories. It's an amazing journey. It's an amazing journey we've been on and we're continuing. It's an amazing journey our generation has been on this country, and how this country came about. It all makes-- everything all makes-- you know, it all makes sense. It will all make-- it all-- poetry makes sense of it all.
[00:07:11.37] This morning, I pray for my enemies. And whom do I call my enemy? An enemy must be worthy of engagement. I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking. It's the heart that asks the question. Not my furious mind. The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun. It sees and knows everything. It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing. The door to the mind should only open from the heart. An enemy who gets in risks the danger of becoming a friend.
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[00:08:04.38] The second recording is Khaled Mattawa reading an early draft of a serial poem, Face to the One Million Plus recorded on the 8 of February 2018. This will later appear in his collection titled, Fugitive Atlas. OK, buckle up. Please allow me to shift between present and past tenses. It's the only way I can set the scene.
[00:08:39.35] I witness the pages to this poem being shared live at the Poetry Center as a graduate student. Around that time, my spirit had been completely shriveled after a difficult separation from a long-term partner. On that particular night, friends had convinced me to go out. Come on, I remember one of them saying at my front door. Let's all go together. Everything is going to be OK.
[00:09:10.11] So I washed my face and let myself be swept away. It was going to be a lecture about the long poem. Mattawa had been the teacher of my teacher, Farid Matuk. The lecture is brilliant. It was brilliant. Mattawa eventually offers to present his own "long poem." He begins almost apologetically. He admits, I will do this. I will kill the time, I will take all the time.
[00:09:46.76] Laughter ripples through the audience. To say how I was not prepared would be an understatement. It was like being thrust into a torrential river. It was like meeting the eyes of my truest enemy. Not myself and not the beloved, but mid poem my face berries and berries into itself.
[00:10:22.56] I am, and I was entirely undone. This poem needs little introduction. But again, allow me to draw your attention elsewhere to the photograph placed before us. The man in this photograph has no face. In fact, a million faces look upon his faceless face. Who is gazing at this man? When did he become a soldier? What are the names of the nameless looking back? Why are we looking? Where does that terror go?
[00:11:14.65] Like Joy Harjo, this poem evenly considers each possible angle of a face in a time of war. Of the enemy who stands obliquely alongside the beloved asking him to be loved. Who turns to whom in that hour of death? I don't know the answer still to this question. Though my dreams have been shaken ever since. So close your eyes. Here is Khalid Mattawa reading Face to the One Million Plus.
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[00:12:08.50] - I will do this.
[00:12:10.76] I will kill the time. I will take all the time.
[00:12:13.64] Since I've been working on something here, I will read something. It should not take me too long, but it is on the longer side. This is called Face to the Million Plus. And here, maybe the thing that I really sort of kept this poem in place is the idea of face. So sometimes-- I mean, in the Iliad, you have lines like the wine-dark sea, and you have this very long story. But even in a long story with a continuous narrative, you find that Homer felt like he has to bring some sort of recurring images. It has something-- it has to make us feel like we're all in the same text.
[00:12:57.69] So with modern poetics, the way-- if you will, people have used this idea of how to maintain interest, how to keep intensity is to actually-- it's almost like you put these thumbtacks in a Google map. So you put these sort of familiar images. It's almost like a McDonald's in the middle of a highway. Oh, I know that. I don't need to eat there, but I'm glad this familiar thing exists.
[00:13:30.69] So in a way the long poem is filled with these moments of familiarity just so that you have a sense of where you are, right? So but this is-- so for visual, for the oral effect, the word face appears. But the poem is really about the idea of face. And it's also about the faceless people because we're talking about many American wars. We are very keen on counting our dead knowing who they are. But we're also very clear about the fact of maintaining the facelessness and the non-human nature of the people we fight, and we end up killing in huge numbers.
[00:14:19.30] Face to the One Million Plus. It's true we've gotten used to your absent faces. While the soldiers are enumerated, name, age, sex, branch of service, cause of death. How did you die? Who buried you and how? Are you in heaven now? Are you still waiting? Do your relatives still remember you? Does the dirt know you? The water drink you? Do lavender and clematis still shoot out of your remains?
[00:14:55.77] The other day, I saw a photo of a bride and groom. He is a veteran Marine. His face is unlike anything I'd ever seen. And that's after the dozens of surgeries to repair him. His nose is flattened into two holes. In the middle of his face, there are no ears, he has no hair on his head, skin covers the whole of his skull.
[00:15:21.00] His eyes peer at her through two slits; no eyelashes, no eyebrows. Some of the lips had been recovered. He must have looked-- she must have looked at him this way numerous times, and looked away in horror. But she can't do that now. The picture must be taken, and it measures her grief. And horror is what it is when he moves to kiss her with his nonexistent lips.
[00:15:51.06] When he leans into her bosom gratified for the safety he finds there. Why did she have to keep her promise for richer and poor, through sickness and in health, until death do them apart? Hasn't death done them apart? And as in this worse than death? Why can't she give up this man who perhaps was once handsome and kind? Give him back to those who sent him to war and say, you love him. I was his girlfriend. His girlfriend, not his nation.
[00:16:27.61] And why must she keep looking at his maimed face when it is not a veil? Not a distortion of recovery or recovery, but a truth screaming out its hideous and wordless pain. And now you, oh, million plus, how many of you were burned? Still burning? This place is now yours, and you are so many.
[00:16:54.32] What shall it be? A country, a state, a territory, an authority? And what shall you be? A nation, a people, a faith, a sect, helpless as children, countless like dust? So tenuous that we have to give you a symbol. Something like you, scarred and disfigured. A mother who has no arms for all the arms that you, oh, million plus have lost and housed for all the houses that fell on your heads.
[00:17:29.48] Yes, we are her children. We are her already dead parents, but we know so little about her, this lady, our symbol, our nation. How do we symbolize the sectarian violence that ensued the rundown hospital? The electricity that never comes on. How to describe the wealth stolen, the wealth made by those who came to liberate us, the uranium in the water and in the dirt. How do we, her children, we the million plus fit her in the stories we know? This woman, our mother sheltering us in the tent of her meaning.
[00:18:16.04] Every second, a face. The 60 in the minute, the 3,600 in the hour, the $2.5 billion in my projected life. Each one a face. The apparition of these faces, the ones born every 8 seconds, the ones that die every 12, the ones living in the street, and the we living and streaming between each face.
[00:18:44.79] And I look at hers, my daughters, held in my hands and how when sleeping beside me she take my hand and put it on her face. And she is that face, the face that adds them all together, and she is what the human race, the human face stands for in me. A drop, a clot, and its infinitesimal divisions seconds and faces of human time here on Earth. Past and future intertwined. Redeemable, held by my hands asking what will do next together this afternoon? As if time can bind us forever, as if I have not already done my time in use as if I can still bear to look. This world I'm leaving in the face.
[00:19:40.06] No aggressor, no victim, you say. We have become one, the same, you and I you say. You had no choice being here, you say. I must give the other cheek because you're obliged to take it, you say. But you have torn me to pieces, remember? You have blown me to bits, remember? You have destroyed my house and village. Can't you see that all is burned and charred around us?
[00:20:09.71] Why do you keep coming to me, oh, brother aggressor? Haven't you had enough revenge? Haven't you satisfied your desire to save, and free, and liberate? Why do you keep looking at my face when I have none? No ideas, no concepts, only the weight of things, the fate of things, the card you carry that has no face. Something must be in my bones that makes them brittle blowing in the wind like ash.
[00:20:46.93] Something in my blood that makes it seep out of me, and dry out like leather in the sun. Or in my flesh some mistaking fuse that makes it want to explode into a million faces. In multiplicities of fire and loss, I see my body shaped in shadow. Feel it struck down against the ground. How it's whole and enduring woman like other women, men like other men clinging to its breath. Seeking to see its own face reflected in the changing sky. This is two more sections.
[00:21:34.77] So what happened to our brother, the soldier with the lost face? The one whose wedding was attended by senators and governors. The one whose disfigurement was supposed to become an essence of courage and beauty. Where is he now and what happened to him? What did we expect to happen? Did we expect the marriage to last? That he would prosper and she would stay. We were really surprised when we found him one January night lying face down on hard snow dead from smack and booze.
[00:22:26.21] Love, when are you coming to rescue me? How long must I wait in the million plus? My selves, my others, are they the pores on my skin, the hair on my head, my eyelashes, my eyebrows, the signature of god on my face? Are you love always an essence? Must I find you like a path through a minefield? A ghostly shadow on a smudged shroud.
[00:22:57.80] Or are you everywhere and I simply can't see you? Can I insert you into me? My body, my mind, my dream, are they refusing you? And how do I reach this essence? How much must I forgive and accept? What must I untouch and use and believe? Is there a summit that this acquiescence will lead to? Will the sinking redeem itself like water turning to ice and rising to meet the sky?
[00:23:26.85] Will you be a current of blessing that runs through my body binding me to others in a fire of joy? Can I thrust into you, oh, love? Will you penetrate me, touch me, hold me, empty me, mold me, scatter me? When is our arrival, oh, love. Where will we land? What will you be so we can find you, oh, love? Will you know us when you see us we the million plus, oh love? OK. All right.
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[00:24:09.77] The poem is never to be a killing machine. Audre Lorde once asserted that we cannot use the master's tools to bring down his house. We must fight for life in a way that refuses mechanical duplication. Mechanical erasures and all forms of dehumanization. What does this say about living in a loveless time next to empires and dishonor?
[00:24:51.66] Here we must shout, protest, shake, sing, take up blossoms instead of arms and exalt each other in the name of sorrow and joy. The third and final piece I'd like to share is Carolyn Forché reading a poem simply titled, Prayer recorded on the 15 of February, 2007.
[00:25:27.35] This is indeed a prayer. What might be meant by words which fall mightier than the bullet? What I take have taken two moments of grief in the darkest seasons of heartbreak. Words to murmur and share like good healing music. In this poem, spoken language comes from the mouth of a still river though it is set next to no one's mouth.
[00:26:03.28] I like the juxtaposition very much. It builds a way of thinking while simultaneously refusing the mind's mastery over the heart. The enemy here is not as obvious. One is troubled by time. A flatbed truck can hold a carcass of flies or refuge. Time is not the real enemy here and neither is death.
[00:26:48.56] But one surpasses the other leaping ahead to the next rock, tree, and bird. A teacup is illuminated. The poem offers a space for the last hour. Do with it what you will, this line seems to say. And what will you take to your last hour? After this, silence. So here is Carolyn Forché reading Prayer on a dimly-lit stage.
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[00:27:43.46] - This next one is called Prayer. Is from the first Iraq war. Begin again among the poorest, moments off, in another time and place. Belongings gathered in the last hour, visible invisible. Tin spoon, teacup, tremble of tray, carpet hanging from sorrow's balcony. Say goodbye to everything.
[00:28:12.24] With a wave of your hand, gesture to all you have known. Begin with bread torn from bread, beans given to the hungriest, a carcass of flies. Take the polished stillness from a locked church, prayer notes left between stones. Answer them and hoist in your net voices from the troubled hours.
[00:28:41.49] Sleep only when the least among them sleeps, and then only until the birds. Make the flat bed truck your time and place. Make the least daily wage your value. Language will rise then like language from the mouth of a still river. No one's mouth. Bring night to your imaginings. Bring the darkest passage of your holy book.
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[00:29:23.08] Thank you for sitting with me. I'll end with the poem from one of my books. Gibbons Howling. Can be found at the end of my second collection, Anon. Which is a series of love poems dedicated to an adverb. I wrote this book over an ecstatic month in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
[00:29:51.77] Visions of a gibbon had spoken to me. I also saw scorpions for the first time in my dreams. Reading this final poem for you today, it's clear how my poetry often speaks to no living human, but to feathers, and dust, and stone. For the gentle bird I pray.
[00:30:26.69] For the howling apes, for the howling gibbons gone extinct I pray. For the dying planet I pray. I'm praying for the dear god, and the dear spirit. Both of the sacred and the profane. Thank you once more for being here. I appreciate your presence for being a witness today. Now, here is my poem, Gibbons Howling.
[00:31:10.25] Later on, that scorpion I enter you Anon. A faded tree, a shapeless life. Our name I called you then could you thus write to me. My dear Anon, our trees that pentacle of shift that wording for its word another word for life. Proverbial Anon to wait for one who has in us returned. Good bye, stay well. May your dreams bring truth and light. May your words bring justice.
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Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:32:26.82] Sophia, thank you so much for putting those three poems in conversation with one another and putting them in the context of your own writing and thinking. Thank you also for that benediction and may it be so. Listeners, thank you so much for sharing your time with us. We're always so grateful to have you here.
[00:32:45.40] If you're new to the podcast, we have a steadily growing back catalog of episodes that I hope you'll check out. You're also enthusiastically invited to explore Voca where you can find more than 1,000 hours of poets reading their work for the Poetry Center. Find Voca at voca.arizona.edu. Thanks again for joining us. We'll see you next time.
[00:33:11.31] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the Indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui. Poetry Centered is the work of Aria Pahari, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at voca.arizona.edu.