Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Brecht, Bombs, and Elm Trees: Lisel Mueller's "Triage" and Processing Tragedy

Lately I've been thinking a lot of Lisel Mueller's poem, "Triage," which I first read in an Illinois poetry class in college. "Bertolt Brecht lamented that he lived in an age when it was almost a crime to talk about trees," Mueller writes "because that meant being silent about so much evil." A German-born writer who emigrated to America at the beginning of WWII, her life bore witness to its share of historical tragedy.

I think about that poem a lot now with all of the tragic events that have rocked our world this summer and have splashed over my Facebook feed, from the current operation in Gaza to the racial turmoil in Ferguson, MO. A common complaint from those sympathetic to Israel is, why focus on Israel's human rights abuses instead of Syria, where ISIS is killing thousands of civilians each week. Or, why get so sad over the death of a celebrity like Robin Williams when young black men are getting shot in the street? Or isn't pouring ice water over one's head to brag about charity work ultimately self-serving. In her poem, Mueller notes the beauty of Elm trees on the Chicago lakefront, but acknowledges that "to celebrate them is to be silent about the people who sit and sleep underneath them, the homeless poor who are hauled away by the city like trash, except it has no place to dump them."

Mueller comes to the dismal conclusion that, "To speak of one thing is to suppress another." This was true enough in the post-WWII era, but in a 24-news cycle where new horrible, soul-crushing information floods at us every time we refresh a page, it can feel downright paralyzing.

For many, the answer is to stop watching the news and try to inoculate oneself from the depressing crap raging on. If bad stuff is always going to happen, they figure, what is the point of trying to make a difference if it will only cause us to stress out? But I was raised by barn-storming activists, under the mantle of a grandfather with a Horace Mann quote on his grave stone that intones, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." And I have to believe that if we take ourselves out of the fight for good. we are empowering hateful people who depend on our apathy to secure their power.

I wish I had an easy answer to this dilemma. I don't. But it's a great poem that makes me feel a little less alone. Maybe it will do the same for you.

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