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The ghosts of Chechnya

By E.R. PulgarApril 17, 2017

The ghosts of Chechnya
The ghosts of Chechnya Olga Maltseva / Getty Images

I found out about Chechnya not through a news report, but through a poem by Sam Sax:

 

Sam Sax
pic.twitter.com/ev2bRY3zcb Sam Sax

 

I’ve been lucky enough to see Sax read in person at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey; he was reading in a church, at one point asking the audience to raise their hands if they had a butthole. I don’t know what shook me more: the fact that the word butthole was reverberating through sacred icons, or the powerful set of unapologetically queer poetry that followed. It was that same power––the details, the empathy, the experience of the queer man in a world that wants to silence him––that made his poem about the camps hit home for me before I even started reading about what had happened.

Being a queer man in New York City comes with a specific brand of privilege that accompanies comes with living in a large liberal bubble. The city is overflowing with queer spaces and history; the Stonewall Inn is still running, the anti-Trump protests are rife and frequent. The possibility of Pussy Riot coming to town to give a lecture about queer and feminist activism in Russia is celebrated without a squadron of police close to follow. I’m lucky enough to feel accepted to love whoever I please, to walk down the street holding hands with a man and not receive so much as a glance. I’m lucky enough to feel safe.

 

Being a queer man in New York City comes with a specific brand of privilege that comes with living in a large liberal bubble.

Another of the privileges of living in New York––and working in media, for that matter––is the constant stream of news, and the ability to keep up with current events in a city that the world looks to. We are well-informed without limits. We are aware of fake news; we have teams of journalists dedicated to sifting through it. We are aware of human rights abuses. We get organized. We protest, we write articles. It doesn’t seem like enough to share a piece about the Chechnya camps. Even donating comes with a kind of distancing effect.

It was Sax’s poem, not a news report, where I learned about how men like me were made to sit on bottles in Chechnya. It was through poetry, a medium that has never strayed from the political and has become more political than ever, that I found out about the men in Chechnya who didn’t exist.

 

It was through poetry, a medium that has never strayed from the political and has become more political than ever, that I found out about the men in Chechnya who didn’t exist.

A few weeks ago, I remember being horrified about Donald Trump’s quiet removal of LGBTQ+ people from the census, and then reading conflicting reports about whether or not this was “fake news.” Since the election, the world has been rife with concern for the marginalized, with artists speaking out. Art, now more than ever, has become a sight of resistance. The poet Ariana Reines once said in a lecture that poetry was “reporting the soul,” and I wondered if that pertained to the poet’s soul, or the soul of the world. I came to the conclusion that the most explosive work, the poetry that keeps me awake at night, was a combination of the two.

If there are no ghosts in Chechnya, it is our duty to conjure them. If there are no ghosts in Chechnya, it is the poet’s duty to find the haunted places and invoke awareness. If there are no ghosts in Chechnya, why can we hear them weeping?