Children of war often don’t have the words to process shocking violence and loss.
So they draw. Art gives them a way to bear witness and work through the horror zinging around their heads.
Several years ago, poet Shaindel Beers found herself captivated by a collection of drawings by children in Sudan’s Darfur region who had suffered the horrors of war. Intrigued at the response these images sparked in her poet’s brain, she gazed at children’s artwork from around the world, the product of wars, past and present.
Finally, Beers did what she does. She penned some poems.
“I felt like I should write a poem about each of the drawings that spoke to me,” she said. “It became obsessive.”
The result, “The Children’s War,” is a book of gritty, image-filled poetry. It isn’t a feel good read, but it’s a journey worth taking. The ekphrastic poems give voice to children of war from around the world and across the decades.
One drawing that struck Beers was of a heart-shaped cat with orange fur and a beaded collar around its neck. The young artist named Amira had watched the cat, Pepa, and most of her family die after a grenade exploded in their shelter in Croatia.
“Amira wants to own a pet shop and she will have 10 cats all named Pepa,” Beers said.
Each drawing tells a shocking story.
“One girl saw her mother beheaded,” she said. “She couldn’t even draw – she just makes these very angry, blood-colored paintings.”
Beers, who teaches English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, negotiated a two-book deal with Salt Publishing in 2008. She took her time, tackling some philosophical questions along the way and trying to decide whether an entire book of war poems would prove too difficult for readers. She opted to mix it up. “The Children’s War” includes 20 war poems and 36 others.
Partway through the writing, Beers gave birth to her son Liam, who is now two. Liam’s presence somehow made the children’s experiences that much more poignant.
Beers also felt an odd kinship with the children because of her own tumultuous childhood in rural Indiana. She says her parents walked the fine line between genius and insanity. Both had complex and unstable personalities. Her mother, an adjunct college professor and history book author, had spent time in jail after wielding a gun in a family dispute. One summer when Beers was four or five, her mom fled to Texas with her two daughters. Her brainy and volatile father worked erratically, hosting a Bible radio show.
Beers wrote her first poem after an adult cousin shot her puppy dead.
Poetry helped her deal with her unpredictable family and crazy early life, much as drawing gives children of war expression and escape.
“If you tell all your secrets, none of them can hurt you,” Beers said, addressing her candid treatment of her personal life in her poetry.
Drawing provides much the same release for children of war, opening up a window into their trauma and capturing devastating events with surprising accuracy as they document shooting, torture, bombing, blood and fire. Attackers frequently appear gigantic. The dead are often depicted upside down, head at the bottom of the page.
The drawings don’t appear in “The Children’s War,” though Beers provides computer links at the end of the book.
Writing the poems made Beers realize anew that children are war’s most innocent victims.
“Children are most affected by war,” she said. “They don’t have any say in whether or not a war starts.”
Beers starts out the book with a quote from E.M. Forster that mirrors Beers’ thoughts on war: “I am sure that if mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars.”
The poet said she hopes the subject matter doesn’t deter people from reading the book.
“It’s not all dark,” she said. “There’s hope – otherwise there would be no reason to go on.”
Copies of Beers’ book are available at Armchair Books, the BMCC Bookstore and online at Amazon.com. She also sells signed copies via her website http://shaindelbeers.com.
Beers’ first poetry collection, “A Brief History of Time,” was released by Salt Publishing in 2009.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.