National Poetry Month: Terese Svoboda

April 8, 2009 | 3 min read

Terese Svoboda’s fifth book of poetry, Weapons Grade, will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this fall.

A line of poetry by Terese: “A fly with a human head/ heads for your screen. It’s Mom.”

Since Weapons Grade, my forthcoming collection, is all about occupations, I thought I’d direct your attention this April to the poet’s pre-occupations: sex and death, with their romanticized corollaries, love and war. Since I’m an American, I write a lot about sex (though perhaps far less than Italians, judging from their magazine ads), have myself been death-struck and love-stricken, and produced the appropriate poems. What I’ve experienced of war, however, has mostly been secondhand and is harder to write about. The secondhand war stuff is what gets fingered as fake or gets the finger from the rest of the world. Three thousand dead at WTC? Nothing.

Take, for example, the war experiences of South Sudanese, whose 27,000 Lost Boys walked hundreds of miles to find refuge from war, only to be turned away at the Kenyan border and forced to walk hundreds more to Ethiopia. Many of these boys – now men – have now settled with their families within two hundred miles of where I grew up, in Nebraska. I met a number of them for the first time a few weeks ago when I was awarding a scholarship for their high school graduate’s best song.

By amazing coincidence, I had visited their tiny villages – remember, Sudan is the largest country in Africa – and collected and translated the songs of their parents and grandparents. Oh, such shrieks of delight there were when I shared their compositions, and my delight with the scholarship winner’s song.

For the Southern Sudanese, song is their most developed art form. Their homeland had few natural resources to encourage more concrete forms of artistic expression: no stone to sculpt, no metal to cast, and very little wood. Because they migrated every six months, or as the Nile flooding dictated, it was extremely difficult for them to transport anything extraneous to daily life such as sculpture or books. Song records their history, puts their children to sleep, attracts lovers, seals agreements, spreads the news. The role of song for the South Sudanese is so powerful that if a man sings well enough he may move up his wedding date, and it is sometimes used as evidence in a judicial hearing. Everyone knows hours and hours of songs and can recite them at will. I’d like our (my) poetry to make such a claim, as I peer at the world from my Cabaret-like comfort. Auden tried.

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade

The UN recently put out an arrest warrant for the Sudanese President for his part in the occupation of Darfur.

But how exactly is his case different from ex-President Bush’s occupation of Iraq? Both regions have oil, and Darfur has the further incentive of uranium. What poet will parse the subtle difference? Maybe Emmanuel Jal, an internationally renowned south Sudanese hiphop artist who most recently appeared in the movie Blood Diamond and in his own movie, War Child, about being a child soldier.

The song that follows was composed by the wife of a south Sudanese government official who had fought as a guerilla fighter near the Ethiopian border. It reminds me very much of Pound’s “translation” of the Chinese poet, Li Po, “The River-Merchant’s Wife.”

Road to the Congo

Yes, Jules sleeps but trouble
makes him toss and turn.
I wait for him across the border.
I’ve never seen Ethiopia but I know
he’ll be where there’s gunfire.

Bul Dieng, the village was torn apart
as if by weaverbirds.
Yes, Biel went to Khartoum,
Cuany went to Mading Buol.

We are all travel-weary.
We leave for Kator, for the town of Juba.
Let me say that on the road to the Congo
even the little girls of Riawang
answer us with a honk.

Yesterday, Tuyel, someone brought over his photo.
“Dieng, don’t blow on the fire inside the house –
you are blinding me. Let me see.
Jiok Lual, who is this stranger?
My heart is filled with longing.”

It will be a year before he returns, Gabriel.
Col Bewjiok, I stay by the bridge
to answer his greeting.
Writing just puts me further from him.

Sung by Nyagak Pinien

More National Poetry Month at The Millions

is a writer whose fifth book of poetry, Weapons Grade, will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this fall.