Several years ago, I fell into despair after hearing a report about millennials questioning the wisdom, even morality, of having children given the climate crisis and projections of the type of world their children would inherit. Setting aside the merits of such arguments , the discussion struck at the heart of my own anxieties raising two children who are aware that their entire lives will be affected unpredictably by climate change. Succumbing to these fears, I was plagued with insomnia, joyless, and felt physically ill at my own daily contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.
Looking beyond scientific articles and the news, I turned to artistic responses to the crisis and discovered the work of the Marshall Islander poet, spoken-word artist, and climate activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. “Dear Matafele Peinam” was written for and first performed at the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit. Written to her then seven-month-old daughter, the poem addresses climate change in general and the specific and urgent threat to the Marshall Islands and similar island countries through the lens of the most intimate of relationships—a parent seeking to protect their child.
we are artists painting, dancing, writing
In setting the poem, I’ve done my best to capture its meaning and provide a musical context for the text without losing the overall directness, succinct articulation of the threat and subsequent focus on the collective fight, and especially the touching depiction of the poet’s daughter. The poem is presented in four sections, realized as four separate movements. “You are” captures the simple delights of a young child (bananas, hugs, walks by the lagoon) and concludes with a slightly exhausted mother and a still bouncing baby. “I want to tell you” hints at the threats facing the Marshall Islands, with peaceful lagoons devouring shorelines, sea walls, and roots of breadfruit trees, rendering the islands uninhabitable, their inhabitants left to wander without a home. The third and by far largest section of the poem (“Don’t cry”) channels anger at “blindfolded bureaucracies” and companies “with broken morals” into personal and collective action. “You’ll see” is (mostly) a lullaby, reassuring a drowsy child and recalling the melody from the first movement most associated with her.
i apologize to you
The most challenging portion of the text to set was a passage in the third movement in which Jetñil-Kijiner changes voice, directly apologizing to other Pacific Islanders who have already become climate-change refugees. At this point, the music is suddenly torn off and the text is framed by a strident chord. This same chord recurs in three separate passages: the first recurrence accompanies lines about those who pretend that the Marshall Islands and similar island nations, as well as the many disasters attributed to climate change, don’t exist. The chord next accompanies text about people marching in the streets “chanting for change NOW.” Finally, this chord associated with apology slightly colors the closing repeated chords recalling the bouncing baby from the opening movement.
Since the poem was completed in 2014, there have been many other climate-change disasters and refugees—devastating cyclones striking southern Africa and Puerto Rico, wildfires in Australia and California, massive floods in south Asia, severe droughts in east Africa and central America, European heatwaves. Indeed, Marshall Islanders are having to contemplate raising their islands or the construction of artificial islands in case it becomes impossible to remain on their homeland in its natural state. Will we have to apologize to this daughter? To our own children?
we won’t let you down, you’ll see
We can’t promise our children that everything will be okay, but we can assure them that we are going to fight, which begins with those most vulnerable to climate change. The best chance we have to protect our own homeland is to do everything we can to preserve theirs.