Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest (eds. Ona Gritz and Taylor Carmen Savath)

Reviewed by Sheila Black

One of the pleasures of reading any anthology is that you begin to think about the process of anthologizing. What drives an editor to put certain poems together? What is the difference between an anthology which merely feels like a collection and one that seems to put forth its own vision or argument—to become, as it were, a poetry page-turner where you feel the poems speaking to one another, accreting in meaning or power? Anthologizing is a mysterious process. One the one hand, an anthology is usually expected to be compendious, covering the ground explored; on the other, covering the ground in question often works against the reader’s longing for a book of poems that read like a cohesive whole. After reading Welcome to the Resistance, I’ve come to believe that what binds a good anthology together is much more similar than I expected to what makes a great poetry collection. A good anthology is somehow more than a collection of individual poems and poets. It takes on a voice and personality of its own. A good anthology foregrounds tone—that mysterious, flexible quality that denotes attitude toward a subject. A good anthology encourages you to ask in what spirit is the content presented considered, how does this spirit handle the contradictions and paradoxes of lived experience?

Perhaps no subject for an anthology could be more of the moment than poetry of resistance. The Trump years, our pandemic crisis, and growing awareness of what has always been fractured, pasted over, and lied about in our shared history—not to mention the looming cliff of global environmental disaster—have led us to think deeply about the need to resist.  Yet, Welcome to the Resistance still manages to surprise.

After the clamor of the Trump years, one would expect to find poems boiling with resistance capital R—and there are many of these here, but there are also many quieter poems that approach the same topics through the sideways and minor-key moments of our daily lives. I think of the funny-but-biting exchange between a husband and wife we encounter in Alina Macmeal’s “Informed” or a child’s sharing of an apple in a third-grade classroom in Catherine Doty’s “For Thomas Mosby.” Both are poems about small events with big roots—and both tell us so much about the structures of the world we live in. In Welcome to the Resistance, we find resistance and the need to resist arising out of even the most apparently innocuous social interactions. We come to see, moreover, how many of the issues we face are knotted together like crab-grass roots across a lawn. While the poems cycle through many contemporary issues and causes, the editors make the decision not to break into the different sections, which, paradoxically makes us think more deeply about the fundamental intersectionality of racism, sexism, and ableism.  This emphasis on the connections between different forms of oppression also allow the poems to collectively worry at a much knottier question: where do the engines of our collective oppression spring from?

A number of the poems in the first third of the anthology, such as Ellen Bass’s “Pines at Ponary,” gesture backwards to iconic moments in 20th century history: the Second World War, the Holocaust.  Bass writes:

And before I have gone
ten feet into the forest, I hear the sound.
Of course. There would have to be a train.
But I hadn’t expected it still to run
like this, people getting off and on with their packages.

Bass’s image of the modern train—apparently harmless, but still evoking those past fearful trains—underlines how much our history influences and continues to inflect our ways of living and relating.  This is a common theme in many of the poems here—how history shapes us, ofen against our will, and also how by not grasping the true outlines of our history, we set ourselves up for its repetition—“people getting off and on with their packages.”

Many of the poets collected here are deeply concerned with the idea of history and complicity or how each of us in our own ways enter history both consciously and/or through the accident of our births.  In “Upon Finding the Anthropocene’s Golden Spike,” for instance, Vernita Hall writes sardonically:

Gouge out a long line in the sand
then fill it with your crap.
In streams of gold piss-mark it with your scent.
Claw your signature on any trees
still standing. In the gray between
what has unfurled and is unfurling now

plant your flag. Claim this brave new world,
this time. Name it for yourself:

In these lines, she deftly excavates the original world of the Americas—or maybe of humans—the need to claim, own, control, disregard “what has unfurled and is unfurling now,” and speaks to the need for a resistance that is much more profound that just “standing strong,” or standing “against” something, but is significantly about acknowledging the need for multiple perspectives, multiple sources of power.

The idea of complicity—or, the question of how we are each implicated in making judgments about the society we find ourselves in—is an important thread in this anthology, As I read through poems like Vernita Hall’s, I found myself thinking that this book could not have written before the Trump Years—that is to say, perhaps one small silver lining of the Trump years is that now can we see much more clearly that the idea of  “American exceptionalism,” which veiled for so long all that we would rather not acknowledge in our history, is a lie, albeit a complicated big lie, because, like all really big lies, it contains some small grains of truth. As Rachel Bunting writes in “This Country Works Best on Fear,”

             Who can remember anymore
what safe feels like?  They say it’s the difference between
a wall that keeps in and a wall that keeps out. Which side
of that we belong on. We run from one house to the next
ringing doorbells. No answer.  No answer.  No answer.

This theme of erasure or silence carries through the second two-thirds of the book, where silence becomes ever more equated with oppression. The silence about race, the silence about sexual abuse, the silencing of LGBTQ and disabled voices, the silence about the AIDS epidemic.  In instance after instance, the first and last strategy of oppression become defined as the act of producing this silence. As J.C. Todd writes in “Master Plan for Pruitt Igoe: “what got built/was a nowhere/to put them in/so they would disappear.”

Against this “nowhere,” where the voices and bodies of all those defined as other are encouraged to “disappear,” Welcome to the Resistance provides a cornucopia of joyful, human, distinct voices, making noise. From Barbara Crooker’s assertion in “Orange,” “I am no longer using this color because of our toxic/President.  Nothing in English rhymes with it anyway,” to Jericho Brown’s lyrical cry in “Duplex,”: “I still believe in God. What else keeps me/From slaughter?  who else holds the butcher’s hand,” we encounter in these pages a multitude of voices, calling out in anger, in humor, in joy, in hope, in wondering. Their vitality provides its own counter-argument—a prescription against erasure and oppression.

One of the important distinguishing features of Welcome to the Resistance is its inclusion throughout of disability voices, and its extended critique of ableism. Along with this comes an emphasis on embodiment and the importance of experiential learning and thinking, a hallmark of disability poetics.  Kenny Fries, a disabled, LGBTQ activist poet writes in the poem “To the Poet Whose Lover has died of AIDS”:

     If we are given love
only to have it taken away, what solace
can anyone offer but your voice be present
among the shifting chairs, the embarrassed noises
of absence. The wait is always too long.

These lines speak to the idea present throughout Welcome to the Resistance of the power of the voice, of being present, but also signal the awareness—emphasized in poem after poem—that the strength is in not one voice or one perspective, but a presence “among,” a multitude, listening, shifting, and understanding. It is this multiplicity, intersectionality, and understanding and affection for diverse human voices that give this anthology its verve and originality.

W. H. Auden’s famous and often quoted assertion that “poetry makes nothing happen,” feels  relevant here.  Primarily because Auden’s words are so often misquoted or only partially quoted and as a result misunderstood. What Auden actually said is:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making where executives Would never want to tamper, flows on south From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.

Welcome to the Resistance incarnates what I believe Auden was intending to get at—namely, that the value of poetry is in its location in the “raw towns that we believe and die in,” or, put another way, the poet cannot simplify the life in order to reflect the idea, but insists on remaining a voice “a way of happening, a mouth.”

Poetry survives because it provides the intense experience of many voices and also because of the way image and metaphor can alter the shape or perspective we have of our “raw towns.” We see this in the diversity of feelings and moods expressed in this anthology.  From the wonderfully fierce yet playful “In Due Time,” where Peter E. Murphy reimagines Trump and Melania as a pair of bald eagles (“He flies over a swamp that needs to be drained/She perches on a tower looking down over the world,”) to Kim Addonizio’s startlingly lyric “High Desert, New Mexico,” in which she asserts for us “Not everything is broken,” this anthology shines in giving us a multi-faceted portrait of what there is to resist and how.  In her beautiful poem “Small Kindnesses,” Danusha Laméris declares “What if they are the true dwellings of the holy, these /fleeting temples we make together when we say, ‘Here,/ have my seat.’ ‘Go ahead you first,’ ‘I like your hat.’”

After so many fierce poems that honestly (and often remorselessly) portray the cracked seams and fissures of our times, this poem opens us to such a complex tenderness that characterizes the delicate yet profound balancing act of this anthology as a whole—how to be clearsighted but also open. I feel that if someone in the future wanted to understand what we are living through now, they would be able to grasp it through reading this book. Similarly, if a reader today was looking for a way to feel both the hard outlines of the present and yet have a way to hold his, her, or their heart open, this would be the book I would give them.  Contradictory adjectives came to me as I read through this volume—furious, fierce, angry, anguished, remorseful, but also humorous, humane, generous. I was thrilled to find so many poets I knew, but also so many I had never encountered before. This is a book that provides a nuanced and alert primer on the forms of resistance and poetry’s role in being a bridge between the “raw towns that we believe and die in,” and the world we would like to build if we could.

Title: Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest
Publisher: South Jersey Culture and History Center
Editors: Ona Gritz and Taylor Carmen Savath
Date: 2021

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About the Reviewer

Sheila Black is the author, most recently, of a chapbook, All the Sleep in the World (2021), from Alabrava Press. Her fifth full-length collection, Vivisection, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry.  Poems and essays have appeared in The Spectacle, The Birmingham Review, Poetry, The Southampton Review, The Kenyon Review Online, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She is a co-editor of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and a co-founder of Zoeglossia, a non-profit that strives to build community for poets with disabilities. She lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Read a review of Black’s poetry chapbook, All the Sleep in the World, in this issue of Wordgathering.