Thursday Poem: Personal by Tony Hoagland

This week’s poem is ‘Personal’ by Tony Hoagland, an award-winning American poet. I enjoyed this poem greatly when I read it a few days ago, but I had yet to decide between it and another of his poems (I always try to read more than one when I come across a poet I’ve not read before), and it wasn’t until this morning I settled on it.

This morning is important because of the recent decision in America of a grand jury to not indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death. It follows another decision just days ago to not indict the police officer who killed Mike Brown. And on. And on. The names are endless. The dominant narrative from entrenched powers, from the media and the government, is always this: don’t take it personally.

It’s not about you. It’s not about race/privilege/sexuality/gender. It’s not about the thing that it’s about. It’s just a thing that happened, regrettable, sure. But just a thing. Remove yourself from this narrative, distance yourself from the picture, sterilise your emotion, look at it as a camera lens looks at life – without humanity. The horrible thing is that this is a narrative we often internalise.

I keep telling myself not to read the news. Not to pay attention to what’s happening in Gaza. Not to take in too many of the stories in which people like me are attacked for who we are, for what we look like, for whom we love, and for no other reason. It hurts too much. I sink into the quagmire; I get stuck; I drown. I feel so much like I’m suffocating, like the world is spinning off its axis, like I’m screaming and no one can hear, or worse – that they can but are ignoring it.

It’s hard to ignore a story when it’s a life you’re living. Just three days ago I landed back home in Sydney, and for the first time, was taken through to a secondary Customs inspection area. An officer asked me dozens of questions, went through my phone, my laptop, my bags. It was the most thorough and most invasive procedure I’ve gone through to date, and it happened here at home. In the country I was born and raised in, the one place I didn’t expect it. The officer asked for evidence that I was a writer, as I’d said. I showed him some of the articles I’ve written for SBS Comedy.

He asked me to go back, ‘what was that one, it said Islamophobia?’ He’d seen an article I’d written called ‘Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism’, a piece in which I argued that Muslims and Jews over the past decade have been seen a dramatic upsurge in discrimination, and how odd it was that we didn’t bond over this, that a lot of it came from outside groups, from places in which we’re considered outsiders no matter whether we were born there. The article included a picture of myself and my Jewish housemate, one of my closest friends, holding up a sign saying ‘Arabs and Jews Refuse to be Enemies.’

Did it matter? Did he care? No. He’ll still pull aside the next Arab to walk through the airport, Australian citizen or not. In fact, the only other group of people in this secondary Customs area were an Arab family, two women in hijabs and their children, who ran about giggling, as yet blissfully unaware of the burden their skin carries. My point is this: I try not to take it personally. I do. It just never works. It never works and this piece by Tony Hoagland is a lovely, musical little poem which explores this idea — albeit from a slightly different angle. Today of all days, it resonates so strongly I am surprised I’m not shaking where I sit, and this is why it is this week’s choice.

Go ahead and check it out here.

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