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April 8, 2005

Poetry From the Battlefields


Rick King's stirring documentary "Voices in Wartime" is not, as you might guess from the title, a compilation of soldiers' battlefield letters to their families back home. This intense little film is about poetry, and not just Homer's "Iliad" ("Hurling down to the house of death so many sturdy souls") and Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade."

Contemporary poets have a lot to say about war, which the first lady, Laura Bush, learned a little over two years ago when she invited a number of them to a White House symposium on Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson. Sam Hamill, co-founder of Poets Against the War, received his invitation and promptly organized his fellow writers to submit antiwar work in response. (The event was promptly canceled.)

"It's a stupid, naïve, virtually illiterate way of thinking," Mr. Hamill says of the belief that the event would have nothing to do with politics. The poets being honored were, in fact, extremely political. One Hughes poem begins:

We will take you and kill you,
We will fill you full of lead,

Side by side, images of American conflicts from the Civil War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the words of poets about those events make an elegant statement not only about the devastation of war but also about poetry's power to amaze.

The writers whose work is read include Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Randall Jarrell, Sherman Pearl, Marilyn Nelson, Sinan Antoon, Chris Abani and Cameron Penny, a 12-year-old boy from Michigan.

The little boy wrote about soldiers on a battlefield who see, instead of the enemy, reflections of themselves as children.

At an event at Lincoln Center, Marie Howe, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, read his poem, "If You Are Lucky in This Life," which ends:

And they stop fighting
And go home and go to sleep.
When they wake up,
The land is well again.

Some living poets recite their own work in the film. Sampurna Chattarji, from India, speaks her words with particular feeling:

A country burns.
The death-dealers deserve to die, you say.
Death is easy to pronounce.
It's the smell of burning children that's hard.

'Voices in Wartime'

Opens today in Manhattan

Directed by Rick King; edited by Dan Loewenthal; music by Anton Sanko; produced by Jonathan King and Rick King; released by Cinema Libre Studio. Running time: 74 minutes. This film is not rated.

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