From Political Person to Poet

I used to call myself a “political person”, a phrase that I now experience clearly as a contradiction in terms. People are, by nature, far more than political, which is a reduction of our limitless ways of being in the world. Anyhow, I called myself a militant, a revolutionary, a third world feminist, a queer woman of color, a comrade. I performed very publicly all my very intimate experiences of oppression, on the stage at the week’s demonstration, facilitating the daily meetings, in the blog posts.

What we unspokenly absolutely required from ourselves was conviction, certainty and a sense that to question or doubt the political perspectives or organization was to show weakness. We were far from being the most dogmatic tendency on the revolutionary left… and yet. With the arrogance of youth and a sneaking suspicion that no one would follow me into battle if I showed vulnerability or confusion, I played the part well. I allowed someone else to be the moral authority, the author, even as I acted the part of the “strong woman.”  

I spent some time in Palestine almost ten years ago. After I returned, I felt that I “knew” more about the situation before I went than after I left. I experienced a giant chasm between my lived experience of the place and the slogans, talking points and campaign demands of the solidarity movement. I thought the solution was simply to move farther to the left and allow my more radical, more finely nuanced arguments to stand in for an alignment between my body and my mind.

My emotions took a backseat. I was often troubled by the behavior of “comrades”, but as a newcomer I lacked the intellectual arguments to support my emotional positions. It would take me weeks, sometimes months, to be able to process why my emotions, the source of my intuition, actually had pointed in the direction of a “correct” strategic position.

Just before I entered revolutionary politics, I had begun to have some success as a poet. When I entered the organization, no one told me that I should stop writing. But other comrades had given up their own creative dreams, people said things like, “the world doesn’t need more artists, it needs more militants” and my mentors assumed that I, unlike others, would be able and willing to sacrifice every other aspect of myself for the organization. So I did.

When I burned out and burned bridges a few years later, I realized that in embracing revolutionary politics, I had rejected the dysfunction of my family in form (patriarchy, capitalist aspirations), but not in content (emotional warfare, rigid standards for acceptance.) Even as I advocated for feminism and anti-patriarchy, I suppressed my very real feminine aspects, the part of me that loves to paint pictures, tell stories, to be and not do. I even embraced an androgynous gender representation.

It’s been three years since I’ve left… why am I mulling over all of this now? I have made enormous changes and sacrifices in order to pursue writing. I feel more singlemindedly focused on my writing than I have in many, many years. And I am deeply appreciative for the role of the poet as opposed to that of the political person. If the political person is required to maintain a hard line, the poet is celebrated for his or her confusion, vulnerability, willingness to embrace beginner’s mind and ask the questions that no one else will ask. The poet is willing to take a clear, fresh look at reality, strip away the bullet point version of our stories about the world and paint their experience as gelatinous mess of colors and texture.

And yet, I have no regrets about my time in politics. The revolutionary organization was the most demanding learning experience that I have ever had- it taught me to be the reader, writer, thinker, teacher and public speaker that I am today. And I’m now using those skills to develop a creative curriculum for myself, with the desire to fall in love with poetry again, that lover and companion whom I’ve ignored for years.

In that vein, I’m spending the next thirty days with a different poem by Pablo Neruda; reading it over and over, writing about it, writing to emulate it. Today’s poem I picked randomly, but it’s perfect for this transition from marching as a soldier to resting as a spiritual warrior.

Soldier Asleep

By Pablo Neruda

Translated by Ben Belitt

Derelict there in the leafy encirclement,

the soldier arrived. His weariness struck at him then,

and he fell in the leaves and lianas,

at the foot of that Providence, the plumed and omnipotent


alone with His universe, still

warm from the jungles.

Godhead looked long

at the warrior outlandishly born from the sea-water:

stared long at those eyes, at the blood-clabbered beard

and the sword, the black scintillation

of armor, the weariness weighing

like haze on the head

of the bloody young man.

How many zones

in the darkness, till the God of the Feathers

could be born and entwine on the wood

and the roseate stone, the web of his volume!

What a chaos of lunatic water,

nocturnal ferocity, what ravening

troughs for the light, unregenerate yet, what

crazed fermentation of lives and destructions, what bran

of fertility, before the decorum could come:

the orders of plants and of clans,

the cut stone disposed on the stone,

the smoke of the ritual lamps,

soil firm for the stance of a man,

disposition of tribes

and tribunes of terrestrial gods!


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