What I Meant to Say

Wendy Babiak's Visions and Revisions

Leave a comment

The Sanctity of Water


During my foray through Orthodox Christianity, before reconciling with the Catholic Church, one of my favorite discoveries was the blessing of the waters celebrated in January, on the day of epiphany. The coolest aspect was this: because Christ was already perfect, sinless, as God-made-man, when he submitted to baptism the grace that would have flowed into his soul in the sacrament, washing away sin, instead flowed out from his divinity into the water, into all water. Now, having witnessed many Catholic baptisms, I realize that this doctrine is also held true in the Catholic faith: because of this outflowing of grace at Christ’s baptism, all water is sacred. This is a tenet of the Church which corresponds beautifully to what is held true by most indigenous peoples, including the two nations from which I descend and to which I retain a certain loyalty.

That loyalty, to my indigenous heritage and to the land held sacred by my native ancestors, impels me to side with the water protectors at Standing Rock in North Dakota, opposing the desecration of their sacred burial grounds and the callous risk-taking with their water supply (and the supply of millions of Americans, native and settler, that live downstream!) that Dakota Access (and all the companies banking on their success) wants to commit for profit (don’t let them tell you it’s for energy independence…because much of that oil will be sold to other countries…true energy independence is found in renewables like solar, wind, and geothermal). Here’s a link to info regarding the legal status of the case. The company does not actually quite have legal permission yet to do what they want, but they’re trying to go ahead with laying the pipeline anyway, and even bulldozed through sacred burial grounds on the day a request for an injunction was filed because of those burial grounds, on the holiday weekend, in hopes that if they simply did it before they were told not to, there’d be nothing to stop them. And used a private security firm with attack dogs against non-violent families (including a sweet little two-year-old girl whose face was mauled–for shame!) when confronted. This is the sort of cultural genocide that has no place in 2016. (It was shameful in past centuries, but at this point it’s simply unconscionable and anyone who supports it ought to have their humanity membership card revoked.) The UN has recognized that human rights abuses are taking place at Standing Rock. And now the Governor of North Dakota, who stands himself to profit from this pipeline, is calling in the National Guard against these peaceful people. And yet the Obama administration is silent. Which makes them complicit. You can try, as I did, to call the White House at the number below, but you may find the line closed, as I did. Frustrating, to say the least.

So what can a Catholic of goodwill, who recognizes all of God’s children and His Creation as worthy of protection, do? Well, we can call our local representatives and ask them to speak for us, we can donate to any number of funds.

And we can pray. We can pray to the Holy Mother, who so loved God’s creation for His sake that before her death she willed her body to become part of the earth as a blessing for it, though He had other plans (for more on this, read The Mystical City of God). And who loves every one of the people, made in His image. We can pray to St. Kateri, Lily of the Mohawks and patroness of ecology. We can pray to the newly canonized St. Teresa of Calcutta, who ministered to the poor and downtrodden (our indigenous citizens on reservations are the poorest of the poor and the most downtrodden in this country, much to our shame). And we can pray to St. John the Baptist, who baptized Christ with that sacred water and who knows a thing or two about speaking truth to power (though it cost him his head).

What we can not do is pretend that this isn’t happening, that how we treat the earth and all its citizens doesn’t matter. Pope Francis, Vicar of Christ, calls us to treat Creation with the care it merits as the handiwork of God, and as a work of mercy, since a polluted earth impacts most profoundly the poor, who are our sacred responsibility. Please join me in all of the above.


In Defense of Useful Poetry

Somehow I had forgotten to include, in my “Works Online” page above, the two poems and the mini-essay in the second issue of the uber cool -esque magazine. (I’ve since rectified that error. And truly, you should take the time to explore the other poets’ offerings there.) I’m republishing the little essay below. I think it still applies.


In Defense of Useful Poetry

I hadn’t planned to be an apologist for engaged poetics, but after seeing a comment at Ron Silliman’s blog calling the folks at Poets for Living Waters (a group I’m happy to be counted among) “loudmouths,” and having heard reiterated ad nauseum the bromide that “poetry makes nothing happen” (a phrase well set in the jewel of Auden’s poem, but usually clunky in discussions of poetics), and further having the opportunity to write something for -esque’s ifesto, here I go.

The notion that poetry makes nothing happen seems to arise to counter the notion Shelley put forth that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And surely that’s hyperbole. Not to mention too heavy a burden to take on, sitting down to scribble on a blank page. If any thoughtful person took it to heart she’d never write another couplet. But wait. Do we really believe poetry makes NOTHING happen? James Baldwin said, “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world…The world changes according to how people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way…people look at reality, then you can change it.” So it seems it might be worth a try to write poems that do that, that change the way people see their reality. As usual, the middle way between the two extremes, “poetry makes nothing happen” and “poets are the unacknowledged [and unelected!] legislators of the world,” arrives at the truth.

That said, I have to admit, being the judge of a monthly poetry contest, that attempting to engage the big issues, the things a poet might want to change (read: enlarge) the reader’s perspective on, like politics, ecology, religion or philosophy, runs the risk of making very bad poems. It’s too easy to fall into didactic preaching, or ranting, or sap (mea culpa to all three! I should burn my notebooks). But lots of things worth doing are hard. And writing poems that attempt to be “art for art’s sake” is no more a guarantee of making artful poems than any other approach. But the right chickens with the right wheelbarrows can get your message across. Which isn’t to say a poet should be afraid to just say it. Auden certainly did. Just say it, that is. Witness the poem from which the above is taken.

I once wrote a poem that dealt with something that for me was occupying a lot of my mental space. Surviving on a resident’s stipend, with two small children, I had chosen to buy the front-loading washer (to save something like 40 gallons of water per load!) even though it meant that I had to wait a while before we could afford a dryer to go with it. I installed, in the middle of a sunny spot in the back yard, a nifty collapsible clothes-line that met our needs so well I ended up thinking, who needs a dryer? Using all that electricity when the sun can do a fine job. Until, at a certain point in early summer, hordes of tiny celadon grasshoppers decided to try out their mandibles on my calves every time I went out to hang the wash. The ones that survived being brushed off –– they popped with distressing ease! –– grew up to make lace of my roses’ leaves. Pesticides were unthinkable, but tempting. So I wrote a poem called “Dilemma,” trying to decide which would be the lesser evil, using the dryer or spraying the yard. Because to me, it was a dilemma. Feedback online included a comment from one woman who couldn’t believe anyone would be so foolish as to take these things so seriously. So I changed the title to “Fool’s Dilemma.” And understood that it would be a while before that poem would make sense to most readers.

If one is a thoughtful person, considering the repercussions of one’s choices, I don’t know how one could not engage these issues in one’s poetry. Looking around oneself, between ecological collapse, government corruption, religious misunderstandings leading to violence, patriarchy poisoning all our relationships, and pollution poisoning everything else, how could one NOT find these things bubbling up in one’s poems? Whether or not any given poem turns out to be useful will depend on the craft of the poet and the receptivity of the reader. But let’s lay to rest the idea that poetry doesn’t make anything happen. It may not make the things happen we want to make happen as quickly as we’d like to see them happen, but that’s not the same thing as making nothing happen. Poetry runs like a stream parallel to life, and it’s there, always, for everyone to dip a hand in and refresh themselves.

So how best to offer them a drink that does that, that allows them to return to the challenge renewed, perhaps even better equipped? Craft, yes. And intention. Do the words flow from a loving place? Make of your heart a compass, and make north compassion, east, wisdom, south, humility, and west, courage. In another old poem, “Poetry: A Syllabus,” I say, “Park your carcass right here and we’ll chat/about poetry and how we can live it.” To write a poem that speaks deeply from one human being to another (and I think all useful poems do that) one has to live fully as a human being, which means humanely. Isn’t that the news we hope people get from our poems? It is for me. I guess I’m with the visual artist Hogarth, who, when chastised for creating what some called propaganda instead of art (his famous “Beer Street” hangs in my breakfast nook as a reminder), said that he’d rather lessen humanity’s suffering even a little than have created the works of Vermeer. A little humor never hurts, either. I opted for the dryer, btw.


Leave a comment

A Gift To The World: A Moon-The-NSA Emoticon

This is the problem I have with the NSA invasion of privacy.

Soon I’ll be making a more involved post, giving the world a new poetic form I’ve been experimenting with for the past several years, a hybrid of the crown of sonnets and the sestina which I’ve dubbed Poetic Resonance Imaging. But for now, a minor gift: an emoticon for mooning the NSA. Here you go:


In case it’s not clear, that’s a lowercase “l” and a 3. And you can tell them I said so. Voyeuristic death-eating earth-haters.

PS — Feel free to elaborate on the basic frame here, and post it in the comments.

Leave a comment

Talking About Trees and What They Mean

So fellow poet Metta Sama and I engaged in a week-long conversation for Her Kind about the natural world and what it means, how issues of race and gender play into it, what the persistence of rape culture and how the Mother Earth trope plays out within it are destroying the life systems of the planet. Get a cup of tea when you have a moment and eavesdrop on two earnest souls. And then engage us there in the comments section, if you feel moved to do so.

Leave a comment

Get It Done! (Another Climate Failure in Durban)


Despite this rousing speech by youth delegate Anjali Appadurai, the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa, have once again ended without any agreement to lower carbon emissions, essentially damning the world to catastrophe.


Are you okay with this?



I’m not. The time for action is now. Well, really, the time for action was decades ago, but scientists say we now have a five-year window, AT MOST, in which to turn this doomsday machine around, after which climate change will be irreversible and the planet will become unrecognizable and unlivable. The primary obstacle to action is the inertia caused by the confusion, thanks to denialist propaganda funded by the fossil-fuel industry and promulgated by their corporate media outlets, regarding the reality of climate change. This has created the lack of political will we see evidenced every time the UN meets to confront carbon emissions. We need to get it done. This is not a political issue; this is an issue of survival. Conservative or liberal will mean nothing when the water rises at the coast and refuses to fall from the sky on former breadbaskets. Those who oppose action on carbon emissions stand on the wrong side of history. In the end I suppose that won’t matter. No one will be around to write it.

Leave a comment

Comment to the NY DEC Draft SGEIS on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program (September 2009)

I’m writing as a concerned citizen of Tompkins County. Whether or not my voice carries any weight compared to the corporate profits of the “persons” who have pushed to be allowed to carry on this dangerous process (hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus Shale) is doubtful, which is a shame and a commentary on the level of corruption evident in the approval process thus far.

This extractive process, using dangerous chemicals and water that would be better used for drinking and agriculture, puts at risk the health of everyone here by contaminating our drinking water with chemicals known to cause nerve damage and cancer. Even if none of the wells experienced a leak (hardly likely), the fluid would so tax our water treatment plants that contamination would be unavoidable. It also threatens to disrupt the relatively healthy existing local economy, which is based on organic dairy farms, vineyards, and the many small farms that feed us, as well as the tourism attracted to the bucolic surroundings and good, healthful cuisine in our many locavore restaurants. Our roads will also be over taxed by heavy trucks hauling hazardous chemicals. It is all around a very bad idea that will benefit only the few who will profit. Everyone else will suffer. It is a glaring example of the corruption of our society by corporations that put their profits above the welfare of human beings. New York State is collaborating with these corporations instead of protecting its human citizens. If our government refuses to protect its citizens, it should not be surprised if some of them use a diversity of tactics to frustrate the fossil-fuel industry’s ability to operate here. I would hate to see anyone harmed by such tactics, but I would also hate to see children suffer cancer because our government failed to protect them from gas drilling and its affects on human health.

We moved to New York from Shreveport, Louisiana, where we witnessed a disturbingly high cancer rate, with victims among our friends. We discovered afterward that the area we left had been contaminated by this same process decades before. We chose this area because we wanted our children to be able to grow their bodies in a relatively healthful environment. I implore the Department of Environmental Conservation to rethink its collaboration with the fossil fuel industry and stand instead with the citizens of Tompkins County.