I’ve been watching Land Girls, the BBC series commissioned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII. It’s a recent favorite of my mother, whose aunt was in the Women’s Land Army all those years ago. No matter the high drama or historical liberties, it’s something I’m still glad to have the chance to share.
In last night’s episode, a young conscientious objector, or “conchie” was thrashed within in an inch of his life by local farmers’ sons. As the episode unfolds, he chooses jail over the alternative work he is offered (working the land, working with wounded vets), refusing to do anything that would actively support the war effort. One of the land girls tried to sway him with her own line of reasoning that contribution to the greater good is essential action and each action another step in bringing the war to its end. Despite her efforts, he holds fast. As he is shackled and shoved into a truck, the land girl walks away, slowly resuming her work in the field.
In the 1940 essay, “Thoughts on Peace in Air Raid,” Virginia Woolf commented on the difficulty and necessity of thinking peace into existence while bombs fall all around. “But there is another way,” she writes, “of fighting for freedom without arms; we can fight with the mind.” The obstacles to conflict resolution are many and her time sounds uncannily like our own. It is difficult to “go against the current” when the current itself “flows fast and furious” in a “spate of words from the loudspeakers and the politicians.”
Today the loudspeaker in my neighborhood is filled with the voice of the elementary school principal who is orchestrating the final moments of “Pinwheels for Peace.” Her voice rings out across the suburban lawns: we are assembled in the name of peace, peace beyond us depends on peace within. The voices of the children rise to accompany a song—we are keeping peace with what we do and say. A whistle cuts through the noise; classes are dismissed. The shiny pinwheels on the school lawn will spin until they are felled by the first snow.
Poetry, though, lives on as the “other way,”—a means of staking out our objections and imagining alternative perspectives. It’s a vision I’ve admired in the work of Ilyse Kusnetz (1966-2016), whose poems reflect a global reach, historical accuracy, and deep compassion. Carolyn Forché describes Small Hours, the 2014 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize winner, as “a radiant mosaic shot through with chips of historical time.” Kusnetz’s poems hold fast to a belief in poetry as action, as a way of resisting the current, as a reminder of the necessity of cultivating peace.
Hitler’s Alarm Clock, 1945
Für frieden freiheit und demokratie nie wieder faschismus millionen tote mahnen.
(For peace, freedom and democracy, never again Fascism, millions of dead admonish.)
—Written on a stone marker outside the house in Branau where Hitler lived as a boy
No one saw the Jewish baker
snatch it from its bedside perch
and slip it into his overcoat—
Hitler’s childhood room preserved
down to a pair of gabardine
short trousers hanging over his chair.
My uncle carried that clock
the rest of the war, woke each morning
to its empty crowing, then took it
back to Brooklyn. Three years later
his toddler sons, twin prodigies,
stole it from his drawer,
dismantling the mechanism beyond repair—
every wheel and cog and spring
spread across the living room table
like airplane wreckage he’d seen
a senseless array of parts,
forlorn as disassembled countries,
or memories who narratives
lie lost and scattered like ash.
For more on Small Hours and Ilyse Kusnetz:
Poetry International reviews Small Hours
Connotation Press interviews Ilyse Kusnetz and Brian Turner