Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a 26-year-old poet, writer, artist, and journalist from the Marshall Islands, recited her poem about climate change and its effects to a delegation of world leaders at the United Nations who had gathered for the Climate Leaders Summit earlier this week on September 23. Jetnil-Kijiner had been chosen to perform her piece alongside the impassioned speeches of presidents, prime ministers, and celebrities, including Al Gore (Chairman of Generation Investment Management and the Climate Reality Project) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Actor and UN Messenger of Peace).
Her performance, which ended with her being joined by her newborn daughter and husband, brought many world leaders to tears:
Jetnil-Kijiner’s home is the Marshall Islands, a group of low-lying coral atolls in the northern Pacific Ocean, which have already witnessed the effects of rising ocean levels. Her poem, ‘Dear Matafele Peinem,’ was written to her daughter: “You are so excited for bananas, hugs and our morning walks along the lagoon.”
The lagoon becomes a key metaphor for her, her daughter, and the future of the Marshall Islands: “I want to tell you about that lagoon. That lucid, sleepy lagoon lounging against the sunrise. Men say, that one day, that lagoon will devour you.” The rising ocean levels have caused the waters in the lagoon overflow their banks, slowly ‘devouring’ the land around it.’
But in Jetnil-Kijiner’s poem, the lagoon does not yet win:
“And we are canoes blocking coal ships. We are the radiance of solar villages. We are the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past. We are petitions blooming from teenage fingertips.
We are families biking, recycling, reusing, engineers dreaming, designing, building, artists painting, dancing, writing.
“We are spreading the word. And there are thousands out on the street, marching with signs, hand in hand chanting for change NOW.”
Her performance received a standing ovation from world leaders and summit delegates, proving (yet again) the power of poetry. You can see Jetnil-Kijiner performing her piece at the UN Summit here and watch a high-definition video for it here.
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Melissa Wehler, PhD. serves as the Assistant Dean of General Education and Professor of English at Central Penn College where she teaches classes on writing, literature, and film. Her academic writing has been published in several essay collections including Demons of the Body and Mind, Transnational Gothic , and A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy where she discusses topics including madness, disability studies, the gothic, and nationalism.