“The world is ruled by madmen.” – David Krieger

When writers win prizes, something valuable beyond distinction flairs into being: Folks actually reach for their honored books and read them. One recent contest winner published by Santa Barbara’s Capra Press should interest anyone hoping for the survival of the human race. The poetry collection Today Is Not a Good Day for War gained David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, the 2005 Peace Writing Award from the Omni Center for Peace, Justice, & Ecology. Recently, at the City University of New York’s Lifting the Shadow: Toward a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World disarmament conference, Krieger read from this latest volume and shared the stage with such noted poets as Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Hacker, C.K. Williams, and Quincy Troupe.

A remarkable achievement occurs when political protest poetry – poetry that deals with the raw events of contemporary history – also survives as art. Krieger’s satiric, passionate, and hopeful collection broods over the many disasters of violence we’ve experienced, from Hiroshima to Iraq. Often, poetry that speaks to immediate horrors and woes – certainly worthy subject matter – tips over into the sort of harangue and bare assertion best suited to an editorial page. It takes supreme ingenuity to bring such work alive to the heart and mind.

“Patriotic words always mean that someone soon / will die,” one poem insists, and another mourns the 500th death of an American soldier in Iraq: “Let us lay the heavy bag at your feet / like a terrible wreath.” Krieger’s urgency to think peace constantly shifts tactics, from the evocation of a politician’s face – “a face with furtive eyes . . . that falls hard and fast / like the blade of a guillotine” – to the aftermath of 9/11 when “White flowers grow from bloodstained streets,” to God responding to the slow descent of the Hiroshima bomb “with tears that fell far slower / than the speed of bombs. / They still have not reached Earth.”

Some of these pieces do fall away from poetic force into straight-out teaching and testimony, as in the longer, essayistic “On Becoming Human,” where undeniable ideas droop from being offered flat-out: “To be human is not always to succeed, but it is always to learn. / It is to move forward despite the obstacles.” But what’s remarkable about Krieger’s book is how seldom it falls out of freshness while attacking stupid pain and bloodshed from ever new angles. The pieces to whom the book is dedicated – the Hibakusha, those survivors of the Japanese nuclear devastations – are particularly moving:

For every hibakusha many must obey.

For every hibakusha many must be silent.

The volume also ranges out to related topics, from giving advice to graduating seniors and celebrating the poet Robert Bly “who gave us the gift of freshness,” to expressing a longing for a simpler time when men “could read the stars” and “knew how to greet bears.” A shatteringly stark alphabetical listing of 52 “Unhealed Wounds of Humanity” – “Kent State, Kosovo, Kuwait, / Manhattan, Midway, My Lai” – shares these pages with a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., a visionary visit of Einstein to the poet’s garden, and “Fifty-One Reasons for Hope,” a listing that includes “Pablo Neruda,” “Teachers,” “The Ascendancy of Women,” and “Our Capacity to Love.”

From WWII to Abu Ghraib, here we have a voice that will not let us forget or turn away. What Terry Tempest Williams wrote of an earlier volume of poems edited by Krieger, The Poetry of Peace, holds equally well for this collection: “May we read each of these poems as a prayer.”

Originally published by the Santa Barbara Independent.