conscient podcast

e88 robin mathews – on radical listening & political poetry

Episode Summary

My conversation with my father-in-law, the poet and educator Robin Mathews, which combines a 2021 recording about radical listening with a 2004 recording about political poetry and the role of the artist on society, including Robin reading 3 of his poems: at the Café Lenin, The Lady From Iraq and Unmarked Graves.

Episode Notes

Robin Mathews, Vancouver, 2021

This is a special edition of the conscient podcast. You’ll hear two recordings that I did with my father in the law, the poet and educator Robin Mathews. I did not narrate his extensive biography however there are some links in the episode notes below for you to learn more about his distinguished career as a writer and activist. 

The first recording is from just a few days in Vancouver, where I ask him to help me understand the origins of the term radical and also the notion of radical listening, which is the theme of this 3rd season. The second recording is from 17 years ago, in 2004 which was a series of conversation I had with Robin about political poetry and the role of the artist in society. I thought I would bring these two conversations together in this episode.

You’ll also hear him read three of his poems. The first is at the Café Lenin from his Think Freedom book of poetry published in 2004 by Northland Publications.  The second is The Lady From Iraq, written in 1991. The third is from this year, called Unmarked Graves

In particular I like this quote from our 2004 conversation about the role of the artists in society:

It doesn't do to dictate about the artist, because artists are as various as it is possible to be. A great many artists can only have their being in withdrawal and insularity, retreat and silence and so to call upon them to be social activists would be wounding and maybe destructive but in the large picture of the artist in the society, even the artists that I have described, must in himself or herself, recognize that to be artists is a special function and a special blessing and in response to it, the artist must take responsibility for the nature of the society in which he or she lives. And that's asking a great deal, but I don't think it's asking too much.

I want thank Robin for sharing his deep knowledge of arts and culture and his passion for poetry and literature. I also thank him for being a generous and supportive father-in-law to me and a loving grandfather to our children. Though she does not appear in this episode, I also recognize the work and wisdom of Esther Mathews as an activist and cultural worker.

Poems narrated in this episode

at the Café Lenin (2004)

We'll meet at the Café Lenin. 

when the midnight hour has toiled.

We'll drink to the hopes, the past held dear

on a planet grown tragically old 

We'll mourn the loss of the ozone, 

the oceans depleted of fish; we’ll remember the songs that were sung by the frogs,

we’ll remember and wonder and wish 

We'll sit in the Café Lenin 

with its decor of scarlet and black 

mourning the million's gone down to their grave

so the markets can stay ‘on track’. 

We'll drink to the men and the women 

who fight for the Good and the Just

and are torn from hope and human love 

by Imperial greed and lust. 

We'll praise all revolutions – 

no matter how poor or small – 

where the weak and the tortured fight to break free 

of Capital's murdering thrall. 

We'll meet at the Café Lenin 

in the darkness and dead of our night. 

We'll remember, dream - and then plan a fresh

for a New Day filled with Light.

The Lady from Iraq

The lady in the High-Class Store, backs the madmen on the Hill. She blesses them and thinks it right, that they should kill and kill, because the world, she says, is bad and good. Our leaders stand up for the right. The bad must feel our heavy wrath falling on them in the night.

The lady in the High-Class Store Doesn't wish her neighbour ill, Doesn't have a racist hate, Doesn't rifle from the till.

Like you and me she starts her day with coffee by her lawn side view, Sews for her daughter, loves her son, Fears the different and the new.

She talks about our U.S. friends. She says they need to go to war. As friends we ought to follow them. We can't do less, she thinks, or more.

She's built herself a fortress mind. She wanders in a burning wood where admen tell her what is True, The TV tells her what is Good.

She doesn't know her choice has been. Packaged somewhere far away. When she sees there's throwing stones, She wants to throw some of her own.

Her leaders know that. They depend that she'll continue being she. They build their banal madness on her firm predictability.

Unmarked Graves (2021)

Hearing voices rising from unmarked graves 

seeing forms as though of bodies

bound in ill-fitting cerements

moving away from habitations
moving silently through unbroken forest

as if along worn trails

Hearing voices murmuring unintelligible phrases 

and seeing the shapes of bodies 

(or what were once bodies)

bound in ill-fitting cerements
moving silently through unbroken forest
moving where there is no pathway….
Their voices rising from unmarked graves
echo in the empty passageways of memory.

When they speak
(as if they are speaking to one another)
their voices rising from unmarked graves
are not wise and rounded and certain voices
(as the voices of the dead should be:
voices that rise from completed lives)
they are uncertain voices 
echoing in the empty passageways of memory.

No history can restore them.
No intention can give them wholeness back, 
as if their destiny
is barely to be heard or seen
except as voices rising from unmarked graves -
except as shadows bound in ill-fitting cerements
moving through unbroken forest - 
having been given release
to utter cries of forlorn hope
cries that come to the ears as the cries of those
lost in the empty passageways of memory -
as cries uttered in sadness and abandonment
rising from the unmarked graves of those not known
or remembered
but walking on the ghostly pathways
of a past erased
and only found again in palsied memory … 
and in dream.

Links mention in this episode

Robin and Esther Mathews, November 2021, Vancouver

Robin Mathews and me, November 2021, Vancouver