Sharan Strange: 'Words During War'

Poet Sharan Strange reads her poem "Words During War" about how words in any language can hurt, but they can also heal. Strange teaches creative writing at Spelman College in Atlanta. Her collection of poems is titled Ash.

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ED GORDON, host:

In any language, words can hurt. They can also heal. That's the lesson imparted by poet Sharan Strange in her poem, Words During War.

Ms. SHARAN STRANGE (Poet, Author of "Words During War"): (Reading) The landlady's low hum of Spanish prayer mixes with the sound of eastbound planes overhead. She lights candles for the people there who are under siege, who will get no food, no water, and cannot, without the bomb's flash, see a loved one's face. I glimpse her family now and then, hear their cadenced voices, the heavy thumping of their steps.

I'm taunted by the spicy smell of rice and beans simmering in her kitchen below me. The walls chatter, breathe salsa, their heartbeat insistent as my own. The house we live in, partitioned, some country with parts seceded, a body amputated. Blood, flesh, bones, skin--warm boundaries holding us--and words, reducing us always to language, destiny, intention.

When the rhythms I move to are disrupted by reports from the battlefront, I let the barrage explode around me, grasp at meanings that linger like artillery's smoke trails, or the dust cloud shadows of fleeing refugees. Downstairs, stillness descends like fallout. Outside, underground darkness, the electric tremors of people passing.

I feel the gentle thrumming silence of our house this evening. I think of those others in the desert, their speech a code unbroken, their vigilance and combat breathing, the twisted glowing, wreckage of their land like a loveless machine.

I wrote Words During War during the first Gulf War when I was feeling very upset and emotionally shut down in the midst of the general sort of cheerleading about the war. At the time, my sister and I were sharing a house with our Puerto Rican landlady and her family. And as I listened to them speaking Spanish, I also felt another sense of alienation because I didn't share their language.

So it led to this meditation on how words divide us and how words can be manipulated, especially during wartime. But I was also able to imagine the landlady's prayers as sort of redemptive thread because I could imagine that the prayer was for the victims of the war.

So the poem is hinting at other possibilities of words during war. And ultimately, it's suggesting that we always have the ability to reach out to connect, to learn and to heal through words.

GORDON: Sharan Strange teaches creative writing at Spelman College in Atlanta. Her collection of poems is titled Ash.

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