Art Doc of the Week | Poetry of Resilience

“A good haiku is almost close to silence. – Yasuhiko Shigemoto

Art heals. That’s the (unnecessary, half-truth) sales pitch used by arts philanthropists, teachers, public speakers, and any number of TED talkers. When art becomes a commodity, it must have a measurable function, a tangible (and, in the most facile sense of the word, positive) purpose. It can’t be ambiguous or open-ended. It can’t be something that at best lances a wound without healing it.

One of many great things about director Katja Esson’s short documentary Poetry of Resilience is that it brings real complexity to the conversation about art – its purpose and function. The poets she profiles are all notably middle-aged or older at the time of filing (some have since died), most having been witness to some of the 20th century’s most horrific, bloody large-scale political episodes. None are practitioners of the grating, formulaic spoken-word delivery. There’s unforced, uncontrived gravitas to the grain of their words and their style of reading. And while many speak of the role their art has played in their survival, the film leaves ample space for the idea that sometimes art doesn’t heal, because it can’t. Its purpose is less medicinal than that: it allows people to bear witness, to record the history that still haunts them, to speak of wounds that will not scab and heal.

The film was shot at a meeting of global poets of all races and backgrounds at a gathering in a small Massachusetts town. They came together to discuss their experiences as survivors of political atrocities. It was the first gathering of its kind.

The speakers included: Li-Young Lee, born to Chinese parents in Jakarta, Indonesia, and whose father was a political prison who had to flee for his life with his family, leaving deep psychic scars on family members. Lillian Boraks-Nemtz, who as a girl was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust; her sister was killed. Alexandre Kimenyi, a Tutsi who had many family members killed in the 1973 Hutu uprising against Tutsis, and whose remaining family members were all killed in the horrifying déjà vu of the similar 1994 uprising. Choman Hardi, born and raised in Southern Kurdistan until her family was forced into exile. Yasuhiko Shigemoto, who was a fifteen-year-old living with his family in Hiroshima, Japan when the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb (nicknamed “Little Boy”) on his city. Majid Naficy, who had to flee Iran for the U.S. after the 1979 Revolution, during which his wife and brother were killed.

Poetry of Resilience Excerpt from Penelope Pictures on Vimeo.

The poets are filmed individually and in group sessions, in a basic point-and-shoot set-up. Recitations of their own work are buffered by conversations in which they share their experiences and what they have gleaned from them. Because the film is a crisp, lean forty minutes, and because director Esson knows the value of words – and how their potency is heightened when stripped of superfluous padding – what’s presented is dense with philosophical insight. But that insight is always rooted in heart wisdom.

In a roll-call of heavyweights, it’s perhaps Li-Young Lee who resonates most powerfully. His is the first voice we hear when the film begins, telling us, “People have been trying to kill me since I was born.” Later, speaking into the camera, he says, “There won’t be peace until we evolve…. In the East, the Buddhists, the Taoists, they all recognized that the writing of poetry was very integral to evolution. The Buddhists would make their students compose a poem on the spot.”

The words to his “After the Pyre” materialize onscreen as he reads it. It’s a poem about the ways that survival skills forged under duress might, later in life, paradoxically, “keep you from living.”

The moment that lingers, though, is when he’s speaking of the human spirit and its touted abilities of resilience and regeneration. “I wish I had good news,’ he says. “You know, to say that the spirit is resilient. But some days I feel that spirit is not so resilient.”

The thing is, just by his acknowledging that fact and feeling, he does more good, gives greater measure of the real depth and possibilities of art, than a slew of simple-minded “positive thinker” types. He captures the way so many real human beings (not circuit speakers) process their despair.

Photo: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert