's new book, One Child Sold
(Salmon Poetry, 2010), is about human rights and trafficking, and as such addresses the sickness and depravity of human trafficking and the necessity of cleansing such wounds for societal health. This book would seem to be filled with horror and sadness in dealing with such a depressing subject. However, the poems in this book can't seem to help themselves from believing in love and hope. Scars are touched gently and given the honor they deserve but at the same time the human spirit is shown with all its courage along with flags and drums and fifes of forgiveness for a hopeful future.
Review: by Ed Bennett for Quill and Parchment, September 2010
Larry Jaffe's book of poems, One Child Sold Human Trafficking and Rights,
is introduced by Ilya Kaminsky, a Russian American poet whose work deals primarily with social justice and human rights. He states that Larry Jaffe's voice is much like Langston Hughes, simple and forthright without the usual pyrotechnics found in this genre of poetry. Yet while the directness of the language does grab the reader's attention there is a complexity to the way he tells this story of human travail that is reminiscent of Dante's trip through the Inferno. The unfortunate side of these poems is that while Dante' work was of a spiritual world, Larry Jaffe holds up a tableau of suffering that is of our own doing. One Child Sold
is written for those of us who seek the esthetic and ignore the reality of this world. As he has so eloquently stated in his forward:
'We can no longer slip away quietly in the darkness. Our survival depends on our responsibility to others and ourselves.'
The book is divided into five parts, each a discrete examination of human rights, human trafficking, dreams of freedom, the horror of Terezin death camp and finally freedom itself. It is a cycle that takes us from the high mindedness of the UN's Declaration of Human Rights to the reality of child warriors, child suicide bombers and slavery of this present day. He slips back in time to Terezin and the Nazi horrors that emanated from there, showing where the ultimate ending of modern human rights violations can, and did, end. He ends with 'Speaking of Freedom' a grouping of poems covering items as diverse as Darfur, the victories of the Civil Rights movement, drug use and finally a love poem, 'You' that is reminiscent to Dante's ending of the Divine Comedy
with a hymn to his love and muse, the guiding spirit of Beatrice.
At first glance, one might think that the main theme of this book is slavery, especially the slavery of children in the sex trade or as soldiers. After a second or third reading, the theme seems to become Freedom and its ultimate victory being in our own hands. Larry Jaffe has a strong belief in the ultimate victory of freedom over abuses of human rights but he reminds us of our historic track record. He is not shouting paeans of social justice from the rooftops as much as he is instructing the uncommitted on their duties to each other and to those who have fallen into the darkness.
The first section of the book, 'Speaking of Human Rights', is a tutorial for the reader. We are told that Human Rights are 'wherever you are' In three words he has distilled 'unalienable rights' for everyone who has opened the page to the first poem. In 'Everyman' he takes us a step further with
'The middle-aged white man
is now timeless
he is no longer white
his skin the color
With this done, we begin our descent into the world of human rights abuses.
Larry Jaffe gives voice to people in bondage in his poem 'Owned'.
'I am owned
possessed by others
in the highest places.'
Slavery goes beyond the simple dynamic of master and slave in this poem, showing that its very existence depends on denial at the highest levels of government. 'Rifles' is a terse poem linking the twin evils of child soldiering and child suicide bombers into a single evil from the hands of adults. Before one can get their bearings, Jaffe's poem 'What Color is Slavery' tells us about the realities of bondage:
'Slavery is the color
The most powerful section in this book is 'Speaking of Terezin', a Nazi death camp in the Czech Republic that had been a 'showcase' camp used to demonstrate how the incarcerated people were being treated decently. It was also a 'feeder' camp for Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Hannah Arendt's phrase 'the banality of evil' is echoed in 'What I Did Today'.
'Today I had nothing
except the scraps
of food scraps
that no longer
stick to bones
or builds bodies
in any way.'
As a child of the 50s, I was struck by the echo of the old Wonder Bread ads on television touting how it 'builds strong bodies twelve ways'. This poem is the obverse, the scraps of scraps, the starvation rations, the death of adults and over a million children in the camps. If I admire Larry Jaffe for anything it is for his refusal to refer to the people in Terezin as victims. He refers to them as people, holding their humanity as sacred and refusing to let us see them as anything except humans and, by extension, our brothers and sisters. Terezin is the nadir of the journey he has created in these pages and is not a final solution but the final predicament of a world without humanity or the belief in the humanity of others.
The final section of the book is 'Speaking of Freedom'. I was expecting a hopeful ending, something on the level of 'everything will be all right because we will right these wrongs'. Before he does so, we are given poems dealing with Darfur, the Shan fight for freedom in Burma and the self examining 'Walking in Sand'. In this poem, he shifts his life from Muslim to Jew and back again in the hotbed of the Middle East and needs to deal with hatred, self hatred and all of the abuses of one group upon another. There is a flicker of hope in the concluding lines where the narrator's final wish is to
bloom in the sand.
There is something for everyone in "One Child Sold". The naked evil of our denial of injustice, our prejudices and our refusal to speak out is placed before us. The imagery and use of accessible language does not allow us to take cover in poetic obscurity. Each of us has an emotional Achilles Heel and Larry Jaffe can find them. I am a New Yorker by birth and worked for 10 years in the World Trade Center. I lost friends there in the tragedy of September 11th and wrestle with those demons more often than I care to admit. The poem 'War Zone' reached out of the pages with three simple lines that underlined the hurt and the anger:
'I don't know which hurts more
the dissolution of the illusion of peace
or the pretense of being a pacifist.'
Shelley wrote 'Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Perhaps that was true in the 1820s but the blatant fact is that we live in a world where the powerful too often take command and Stalin can always smirk when he asks how many divisions the Pope has. Consequently, the poetry of social protest has diminished and few ply the trade beyond an occasional poem or two. Larry Jaffe is the Poet Laureate for Youth and Human Rights. He has a body of work that does not rest on laurels but is dedicated to casting light on the enslavement of human beings. He lives the role not as a pedant but as a poet dedicated to making our planet more human, more sane.
This is an important book. It is a brick to throw through the windows of the oppressors. It is a balm meant to succor the suffering. Most importantly, this is a book that parses the evil around us and demands that we become an active part of the solution. Larry Jaffe has taken a stand and invites us to stand with him. Don't just buy this book, live it.