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“Voices of Haiti” — Our Common Humanity

I have never seen a more stirring and crafted fusion of poetry, photography, and music, than in “Voices of Haiti: A Post-Quake Odyssey in Verse.” Poet Kwame Dawes, composer and poet Kevin Simmonds, singer Valetta Brinson, and photographer Andre Lambertson combined their significant collective talents to create a masterpiece. “Voices of Haiti” gives voice to HIV-positive people after the January, 2010 earthquake. It does so with respect, tenderness, honesty, and power. “Voices of Haiti” is a project of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, which has just released an iBook of the project. I was fortunate to see this amazing performance  last night at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Kwame Dawes’ poetry stuns the reader and hearer with its simple elegance. His poems observe and surprise. They carry craft effortlessly. They welcome the reader/hearer into the mind of an observer, and sometimes into a person in Haiti whose life has been upended by the earthquake. His capacity to show detail and emotion is without par. The poems that moved me most include “Boy in Blue,” an observation of a young boy in the broken city. Also, “Bebe,” an immersion into the world of a Haitian woman. Also, “Job,” a poem which explores human suffering with care and truth. Simply put, these poems work. They are accessible to readers/hearers who might not be accustomed to contemporary poetry, and they challenge a bit, in their language. Mostly, they tell a richly human story of people whose lives have changed due to elements beyond their control.

Kevin Simmonds, who is a talented poet in his own right, wrote the music for this project. He uses a grand piano and recorded strings to great effect. His piano is beautiful and melodic, while at the same time restrained. Sometimes it sounds like cement falling. At other times, it sounds angelic. It’s a challenge to write music for poetry, text not written with music in mind. But Kevin Simmonds meets the challenge. His music echoes, deepens, and enhances the poetry.

Valetta Brinson’s voice is a masterful instrument in itself. Sometimes her voice soars with a wild quality and at other times it obeys a monastic, psalm-like chant. She gives life to Simmonds’ music that allows us to hear the poetry more deeply.

Andre Lambertson’s images, like the one above, add visual texture to this project. His photographs reveal the humanity and the dignity of his subjects. He zeroes in on a boy’s hands, a woman’s hesitant eyes, the sky about to unleash rain on a ruined city. His photographs show balance and color and depth but most importantly, they show people. While his images are visual, they “give voice” too, in an authentic and moving way. There is something about hearing poetry, its words dancing above music, perhaps the gentle melody of a piano, and seeing a husband’s eyes looking at his own wife in admiration and wonder. Andre Lambertson gives these suffering people a voice, showing the myth of “us vs them.” They might be in a situation I’ve never experienced, but the expressions he photographs look like expressions from my own family and my own life.

I felt a good sadness after experiencing “Voices of Haiti.” One can’t observe human suffering without something of sadness. But I also felt an overwhelming wideness, a breadth. I felt alive and connected to the people around me, to the people of Haiti I’d just watched and heard, to the artists who gave us such a rich opportunity, and to the wider world, of which we are all just a part.

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