Dennis Brutus's longing
Recasting poetry in a time of global warming
Just months before his death late in 2009, this video of Dennis Brutus reading "Longing" was posted to YouTube. Seated before brilliant orange flowers , Brutus opens his book, A Simple Lust—first published in 1963—to “Longing,” and reads the poem built of four tercets. He is reading on a patio, and midway through his reading, rain falls briefly, eerily rhyming with the closing phrase of the poem, “rains of poison.”
“Longing” is not a new poem. Rather, he explains in the video, he was recasting a poem from 1960. Had he not framed it otherwise, I might have read “Longing” as addressing anti-apartheid struggles, as some of Brutus’s other poems did during that period. But in this video, Brutus describes how the initial subject of the poem was lost love, and now, he wishes us to read it through the context of unmitigated climate disruption.
In my commentary “Recasting Poetry” I wondered how a poet might take an active role in recasting work, so that a poem might bend, alter, accrue in new contexts. Brutus’s decision to recast “Longing” is a fine example of a poet doing just that.
"I wrote it at the end of a sad love affair, a long time ago," he said, explaining that like this experience of lost love, climate change "seems simple but is actually very complex."
There is a coiled energy of a love lyric from its intensive gaze on an other, the beloved. By explicitly reframing the poem as one that is concerned with environmental justice, Brutus takes that coiled energy, that intensive gaze, and makes it social. This is especially powerful as a choice near the end of his life. Brutus moves the poem from addressing the beloved, the intimate known, to addressing all the other people he will never know who will suffer the affects of unmitigated climate change, the intimate unknown.
Some of Brutus's last acts were directed at climate justice; he voiced a longing, in fact, to be in the streets during the Copenhagen accords, but was too sick for this to happen, and died a few weeks later, on December 26, 2009. Brutus's activism for climate justice followed decades of organizing most recently for economic justice, and in the many decades before, to overthrow the apartheid system in South Africa (I recently wrote about his creativity using sports to protest apartheid).
"Longing" is a kinesthetic poem, dynamic, motioning explosively. Verbs blast, mushroom, explode[s]. Nouns quiver with their verb potentials: trajectory, detonation, ballistic, fission, devastation, sound-swift. The images accumulate into an extended metaphor of weaponry and physics. In a different poem, "Absence and hunger mushroom..." might read less nuclear, but the wash of weaponry defines this kind of mushroom. This speaker is responding strongly, in a way he perceives to be permanently altering.
In the first stanza of the poem, two words stand out as both outside this extended metaphor and washed anew: “obfusc” and “expletive.” Obfusc is startling in how it does as it means--it blurs, distances, makes unclear. Yet here it describes “logic”--not a word I usually think of as obfusc.
The subject is “the heart,” a simple symbol of love. While one might expect a heart to be contrasted with logic, Brutus creates a more interesting proposition. First, he opens the possibility of the “heart comput[ing]”—piecing together, making sense, building. And, thwarting expectations again, it is “logic” that is “obfusc.” Can the heart make sense of a logic that is clouded, confused with the shifts and confusions of language?
Again, he creates a startling opposition when he describes an “simple ache” has having an “expletive detonation.” Because Brutus established an extended metaphor of war, weaponry, and technology, I read a crypt meaning in “expletive”: I see "explosive detonation." But, again, Brutus makes the more interesting choice. The manner the “ache” detonates is “expletive,” a kind of cursing in its action. Brutus does not bring expletives into the poem; he points outward, outside language, so that a feeling signifies the cursing.
Brutus’s decision to recast theses lines in the context of climate change fascinates me: “To try to make [climate change] sound simple is in fact very difficult, and misleading,” he said as he introduced the video. How does one deal with these complexities in ways that are passionate, full of action? How might paradoxes describe the challenge of harnessing a tangle of intellect and a range of emotions—from cursing to tenderness— in the service of activism? In his memoir, Brutus writes that he hopes the poem’s “argument build[s] up also to an emotional intensity where the intellectual part is not lost, but reinforces the emotional part.” (178)
Two months before the Copenhagen accords, Brutus drafted an open letter, writing that “we know that Africa and the countries of the South least responsible for historical carbon will feel the worst effects,” and going on to warn that the “trade in natural resources that allowed Europe to develop must not translate into a trade in waste byproducts and pollution that again distributes the greatest burdens on the poor.”
Some will suffer more from global warming than others. In addition to this being about where one lives, this is also about wealth. As Naomi Klein’s warns in Shock Doctrine, “wealth provides an escape hatch from most disasters.” Power elites cannot be trusted to make choices beneficial to the planet’s majority because they can always build luxury retreats that are not possible or sustainable for the many.
It is this many I think of when I read the line O my heart, my lost hope love, my dear, in the third stanza of Brutus’s poem. I think of his concerns for the poor, for all the people on this planet who will suffer unmitigated climate change, the people he has worked his whole life for, and whom he will soon leave through death. A life of activism as an act of love.
“Many love lyrics are also political, if one would read them that way,” Brutus writes in his memoir (175). In the case of “Longing,” he chose to recast the poem to layer it with a new political context.
He begins his last stanza with the powerful line:
My heart knows now such devastation.
Recast as the words of a man nearing his death, these are jarring words. Despite all he had done, he saw so much work left to be done, so much left for us, the living.
Brutus, Dennis. Poetry & Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader. Lee Sustar and Aisha Karim. ed. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006).