Bud Osborn's 'Signs of the Times': Finding hope in sorrow

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 Signs of the Times
A meditation on the downtown eastside

"Compassion is not something peaceable and inoffensive. The exercise of compassion is directly to support and save victims; indirectly, but necessarily, it is to denounce and attack tormentors.

Jon Sorbino quoted in Signs of the Times

Tonglen meditation instructs its practitioners to breathe in suffering and to breathe out compassion. In this form of Zen meditation, one is invoked to touch upon one's own suffering by inhaling the suffering of others, and exhaling healing energy, directing compassion towards others, to the world, and to, at the same time, oneself. This form of meditation focuses on the interconnections between oneself and the world, recognizing that the suffering and healing of one is shared by all.

This meditation perhaps encapsulates the experience of Bud Osborn's poems, 13 of which have most recently been published in Signs of the Times. Osborn speaks the pain and suffering he sees in the lives of those who carry the signs those more socially and economically fortunate turn their gaze from on a daily basis, recognizing the links to his own life and to the broader stories of people living on the margins of mainstream consumer-driven societies:

across North America
hand held pieces of cardboard
crudely lettered
or painstakingly printed
express
the lived poetry of poverty

no home
no job
no money
no food
and name
preventable diseases
untreated
because of inability
to pay relief or healing

The subjects of his poetry in this and his last four volumes are largely found in Vancouver's downtown eastside, one of the poorest urban neighbourhoods in Canada.

Accompanied by the haunting woodcut prints of Richard Tetrault, the book is printed on a textured paper that itself encourages pause as one flips through the pages of bold images, juxtaposed with Osborn's words. Tetrault, an activist and long-time resident of the downtown eastside himself, collaborates with Osborn for the second time in this collection. The art and the poetry were not created in tandem, but come together in what the artists call a collage, forming a kind of conversation between two forms of art that are born of a shared caring for a place and its people.

Osborn invites readers to, in effect, take in a slow breath and with it experience the suffering that he shares in a language that is simple and often brutal. The powerful images and words invite us into places that are often horrific and always uncomfortable, as he for instance asks in Excruciations of Compassion

what do you do
when the most hated human being in
society
is the only man who loved you
and was your gangsta-hero-stepfather
but molested your sister
and was convicted of raping a 9-year-old girl?

Hope, Osborn believes, can come from the public expression of sorrow. In all of his work, Osborn challenges us to hope, as he demonstrates, in the unlikeliest of places, ways to find compassion, community and healing.

I first came across Osborn and his work in 1998, and was surprised by the hope I gleaned from his writing and the harsh realities and hard questions he exposes. I witnessed the impact of his poetry when he toured Ottawa in 1999. Whether in City Hall, at the universities, in a bar, or in youth or men's shelters, Osborn's poetry inspired individuals from disparate groups and circumstances to seek the means to share their own stories, to work for social change, or to find the courage to seek their own healing.

In sharing the individual stories of struggle, and often cruelty, Osborn painstakingly resists individualizing, and rather politicizes the experiences he tells by linking the individual to a context of fledgling communities of resistance existing among those outcast by a dehumanizing system of global capitalism.

Osborn's approach to poetry is informed by his study of the history of liberation movements, particularly in Latin America, and liberation theology. He explained this when I interviewed him in January 2006:

Liberation theology brings an awareness that your trouble is not so much your fault, but is a result of your oppression by this system. Suffering is privatized, commercialized, individualized in this system, and people are afraid to talk about it. People are suffering enormously here and they blame themselves. Just in one day, think about the number of therapy groups, individual sessions, pharmaceuticals purchased, all to reduce the suffering of pain, because it is a system that produces pain. People are afraid to speak that. That is one thing I try to do. I try to give voice to the people whose voices are the most powerful and who are unlikely to be able to have the circumstances to put something into a book.

Signs of the Times is a prescient book. It is a significant social history, rich in details with layers of connections, from individual suffering to global terrorism, and always focusing back on what Osborn exposes as the key to resistance: community.

Osborn reclaims the role of poet as social catalyst: "As a poet you need to make a stand: where do you stand in this society; where do you stand in expressing the pain that exists; and also attempting to do what you can, to your ability, to alleviate and to change that; that is to me what a poet is." In the case of the downtown eastside, Osborn is a poet in a community that has developed against all odds, among those most disenfranchised, yet often invisible to those more powerful:

and our enemies gloat over how easy it is
to destroy our community
how easy it is
to divide our community
how easy it is
the hearts of the people of the downtown eastside
cry out
oh hard-pressed homes of the
economically poor and politically powerless
let your tears fall like November rains
day and night
give yourself no distraction or sedation
give your eyes no rest
arise! come alive! resist!

An activist himself, Osborn is a former heroin user who survived the streets of major North American cities, before finding himself in Vancouver and beginning the long process of recovery and healing. He learned his poetry on those streets:

When I first began with poetry I saw three ways to go. I was in New York City, and the first way was the New York school of poetry, they were apolitical at the time of the Vietnam War, but they were very good at hustling scenes. They raised money and they got grants; people's suffering out there was as if it did not exist. The other kind was the academic kind. You could go to university, get the degrees for poetry and write a poetry which, for me, too often says nothing, risks nothing. The third kind a man Jack Micheline, a mentor to me, introduced me to. He would rant and rave about the commercialization of the so-called beat movement. When I met him he was 40 years old, had holes in his pants, no where to live and he was the most alive person I've ever met, and I knew then that poetry was something that no one could ever take away from you. His poetry was from the very bottom, and he was a very powerful voice of the people from there. A poet has to be part of a community struggle.

Too often, good-hearted attempts to share the voices and stories of marginalized groups are guilt-evoking in their heavy-handedness or bring with them a promise of guilt-absolution through the individualizing and depolitizing of suffering. Both tend to result in inaction. Signs of the Times, however, is a call to action.

Osborn challenges us to not turn away as he presents his characters in the harshness and brutality that result from the economic and social oppression they experience. (Dare I, one might ask, breathe in this suffering?) and through this come to a compassion and hope that is rooted in an understanding of our shared suffering in the interlocking systems that oppress and dull us:

This global economy has made me live in powerlessness
Like those long dead
It has walled me in so that I cannot escape it
It has weighed my heart down with chains
And with thoughts it has inflicted into me
So that I become this system of oppression
I make scapegoats of others
I hate and I resent and I fear and I am greedy

And yet I also bring something else to mind
and therefore I have hope
Because of our deep and hidden and oppressed
Love for one another
Deeper than any economics of greed and madness
No we are not completely dehumanized
Or entirely turned against one another
For true compassion never fails
Compassion is new every morning
Compassion means suffering with
The one who is different from us
The one is most like us
And from compassion comes hope

These poems and prints are a revelation to those who live in the downtown eastside and to those who observe and are perplexed by the complexities and contradictions of this community. These two remarkable artists have offered themselves and their experience with generosity, openness, and compassion.

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