Latha Naomh Anndra / Scottish Gaelic poems for Saint Andrew’s Day: Sorley Maclean


Sorley Maclean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain)

(Raasay, Scotland, 1911-1996)

“Should I even strip off…”


Should I even strip off

My deceit-proof clothing

And go naked and eager

As a blaze of supreme reason,

I’d then reach the core-love

Of my reason for living

And I’d add to your pleasure

The blaze of supreme reason.


.     .     .


“Ged chuirinn dhiom éideadh”


Ged chuirinn dhiom éideadh

Faireachaidh na cluaineis

‘S nam falbhainn 10m gleusta

‘Nam chaoir céille buadhmhoir,

Ruiginn an-sin cré-ghaol

Mo chéille luaidhe

‘S liùbhrainn do t’ éibhneas

Caoir na céille buadhmhoir.


.     .     .




My eye is not on Calvary

nor on Bethlehem the Blessed,

but on a foul-smelling backland in Glasgow,

where life rots as it grows;

and on a room in Edinburgh,

a room of poverty and pain,

where the diseased infant

writhes and wallows till death.

ZP_Glasgow Street, Toronto, Canada

ZP_Glasgow Street, Toronto, Canada



Chan eil mo shùil air Calbharaigh

no air Betlehem an àigh

ach air cùil ghrod an Glaschu

far bheil an lobhadh fàis,

agus air seòmar an Dùn Èideann,

seòmar bochdainn ’s cràidh,

far a bheil an naoidhean creuchdach

ri aonagraich gu bhàs.


.     .     .


“The Choice”


I walked with my reason

out beside the sea.

We were together but it was

keeping a little distance from me.


Then it turned saying:

is it true you heard

that your beautiful white love

is getting married early on Monday?


I checked the heart that was rising

in my torn swift breast

and I said: most likely;

why should I lie about it?


How should I think that I would grab

the radiant golden star,

that I would catch it and put it

prudently in my pocket?


I did not take a cross’s death

in the hard extremity of Spain

and how then should I expect

the one new prize of fate?


I followed only a way

that was small, mean, low, dry, lukewarm,

and how then should I meet

the thunderbolt of love?


But if I had the choice again

and stood on that headland,

I would leap from heaven or hell

with a whole spirit and heart.


.     .     .


“An Roghainn”


Choisich mi cuide ri mo thuigse

a-muigh ri taobh a’ chuain;

bha sinn còmhla ach bha ise

a’ fuireach tiotan bhuam.


An sin thionndaidh i ag ràdha:

a bheil e fìor gun cual’

thu gu bheil do ghaol geal àlainn

a’ pòsadh tràth Diluain?


Bhac mi ’n cridhe bha ’g èirigh

’nam bhroilleach reubte luath

is thubhairt mi: tha mi cinnteach;

carson bu bhreug e bhuam?


Ciamar a smaoinichinn gun glacainn

an rionnag leugach òir,

gum beirinn oirre ’s gun cuirinn i

gu ciallach ’na mo phòc?


Cha d’ ghabh mise bàs croinn-ceusaidh

an èiginn chruaidh na Spàinn

is ciamar sin bhiodh dùil agam

ri aon duais ùir an dàin?


Cha do lean mi ach an t-slighe chrìon

bheag ìosal thioram thlàth,

is ciamar sin a choinnichinn

ri beithir-theine ghràidh?


Ach nan robh ’n roghainn rithist dhomh

’s mi ’m sheasamh air an àird,

leumainn à neamh no iutharna

le spiorad ’s cridhe slàn.


.     .     .     .     .

Poemas y Oración para el Día de Acción de Gracias


Dos poemas por Alexander Best


“Thanksgiving ‘Getaway’ March”


Rrrrum pa pum pa pum-key – that turkey’s on the run.

Rrrrum pa pum pa pum-key – he got away too late.

Dinner’s almost rrread-y – an hour and it’s done.

Our house smells good for comp’ny – a drrrumstick on your plate!

.     .     .

“Poema pavo”


Señor Ave distinguido,

¿Porqué eriza las plumas?

Totole, totole, manojo de nervios,

¿Te marchas a las lomas?

Macho gordo – está listo

– no buscamos bronca.

Da tu vida por plato de mole,

¡Hoy día – la gran tertulia!

Guajolote, guajolote,

Pajarote indio.

Comida antigua americana

– y ésta tarde, ¡p’ra todo!

.     .     .

“Oración dulce, sincera – y juguetona”


Padre nuestro, Madre nuestra –

que estén en el cielo,

Santificado sean sus nombres,

Venga el reino de ustedes,

Háganse la voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo,

Dennos hoy nuestro pan de cada día,

 (– y hoy día guajolote al horno con chilmole y flan de calabaza también, por favor –)

Perdonen nuestras ofensas,

como también nosotros perdonamos a los que nos ofenden,

No nos dejen caer en tentación y líbrennos del mal.


.     .     .     .     .

Remembrance Day 2012: “War is like a flower…”: poems of War world-wide


Louise Glück

“The Red Poppy”


The great thing

is not having

a mind.  Feelings:

oh, I have those;  they

govern me.  I have

a lord in heaven

called the sun, and open

for him, showing him

the fire of my own heart, fire

like his presence.

What could such glory be

if not a heart?  Oh my brothers and sisters,

were you like me once, long ago,

before you were human?  Did you

permit yourselves

to open once, who would never

open again?  Because in truth

I am speaking now

the way you do.  I speak

because I am shattered.

.     .     .

Remembrance Day: poems about Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan


Mahmoud Darwish (born 1941, Palestine/Israel, died 2008, USA)

“I am from there”


I am from there and I have memories.

Like any other man I was born, I have a mother,

A house with several windows, friends and brothers.

I have a prison cell’s cold window, a wave

Snatched by seagulls, my own view, an extra blade

Of grass, a moon at word’s end, a life-supply

Of birds, and an olive tree that cannot die.

I walked and crossed the land before the cross

Of swords banqueted on what its body was.


I come from there, and I return the sky

To its mother when it cries for her, and cry

For a cloud on its return to recognize me.

I have learned all words befitting of blood’s court to break

The rule; I have learned all the words to take

The lexicon apart for one noun’s sake,

The compound I must make:


محمود درويش
انا من هناك
محمود درويش
أنا من هناك. ولي ذكرياتٌ . ولدت كما تولد الناس. لي والدة
وبيتٌ كثير النوافذِ. لي إخوةٌ. أصدقاء. وسجنٌ بنافذة باردهْ.
ولي موجةٌ خطَِفتها النوارس. لي مشهدي الخاص. لي عُشْبةٌ زائدهْ
ولي قمرٌ في أقاصي الكلام، ورزقُ الطيور، وزيتونةٌ خالدهْ
مررتُ على الأرض قبل مرور السيوف على جسدٍ حوّلوه إلى مائدهْ.
أنا من هناك. أعيد السماء إلى أمها حين تبكي السماء على أمها،
وأبكي لتعرفني غيمةٌ عائدهْ.
تعلّمتُ كل كلام يليقُ بمحكمة الدم كي أكسر القاعدهْ
تعلّمتُ كل الكلام، وفككته كي أركب مفردةً واحدهْ
هي: الوطنُ…
We are grateful to A. Z. Foreman for the above translation from Arabic into English. Visit his site:
.     .     .

Sami Mahdi

Poems from “War Diaries”

(translated from Arabic by Ferial J Ghazoul)


I (Feb.14th 1991)

From gazelles’ eyes the pupils dropped

When the bridge was bombed

Lovers’ rings shattered

And mothers were bewildered.


II (Feb.16th 1991)

With fire we perform our ablutions every morning

Collecting our remnants

And the debris of our houses

We purge our souls with the blood of our wounds.


III (Feb.24th 1991)

Plenty we have received

What shall we offer you, O land of patient destitutes?

Plenty we have received

So receive us

And pave with us the paths of wayfarers.




Sami Mahdi (born 1940, Iraq) wrote the above poems about the Gulf War (1990-1991) when he was living in Baghdad and working as editor of an Iraqi daily newspaper.


.     .     .


Dunya Mikhail (born 1965, Baghdad, Iraq, now living in the USA)

“The Prisoner”

(translated from Arabic by Salaam Yousif and Elizabeth Winslow)


She doesn’t understand

what it means to be “guilty”

She waits at the prison door

until she sees him

to tell him “Take care”

as she used to remind him

when he was going to school

when he was going to work

when he was going on vacation

She doesn’t understand

what they are uttering now

those who are behind the bar

with their uniforms

as they decided that

he should be put there

with strangers in gloomy days

It never came to her mind

when she was saying lullabies

upon his bed

during those faraway nights

that he would be put

in this cold place

without moons or windows

She doesn’t understand

The mother of the prisoner doesn’t understand

why should she leave him

just because “the visit has finished” !




“The War works hard”

(translated from Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow)


How magnificent the war is!

How eager

and efficient!

Early in the morning

it wakes up the sirens

and dispatches ambulances

to various places

swings corpses through the air

rolls stretchers to the wounded

summons rain

from the eyes of mothers

digs into the earth

dislodging many things

from under the ruins…

Some are lifeless and glistening

others are pale and still throbbing…

It produces the most questions

in the minds of children

entertains the gods

by shooting fireworks and missiles

into the sky

sows mines in the fields

and reaps punctures and blisters

urges families to emigrate

stands beside the clergymen

as they curse the devil

(poor devil, he remains

with one hand in the searing fire)…

The war continues working, day and night.

It inspires tyrants

to deliver long speeches

awards medals to generals

and themes to poets

it contributes to the industry

of artificial limbs

provides food for flies

adds pages to the history books

achieves equality

between killer and killed

teaches lovers to write letters

accustoms young women to waiting

fills the newspapers

with articles and pictures

builds new houses

for the orphans

invigorates the coffin makers

gives grave diggers

a pat on the back

and paints a smile on the leader’s face.

It works with unparalleled diligence!

Yet no one gives it

a word of praise.




Dunya Mikhail’s poem “The War works hard” has been described as being not about a specific war – although it could easily be about The Iraq War (2003-2011) – but rather “about War itself, seemingly a force as insistent and powerful as Life, in fact the very motor of human history.  The poet’s verbs (“works” “sows”, “reaps”, “teaches”, “paints”) work rhetorically to make war seem like any other worthwhile human activity.  Her (Mikhail’s) speaking voice  exhibits not the slightest trace of shock, but in doing so forces the reader into shock…”


.     .     .


Alex Cockers

The Brutal Game


I’m sitting here now

Trying to put pen to paper

Trying to write something

That you can relate to.


It’s hard to relate

To my personal circumstances

I’m out here in Afghanistan now

Taking my chances.


Read what you read

And say what you say

You won’t understand it

Until you’ve lived it day by day.


Poverty-stricken people

With mediaeval ways

Will take your life without a thought.


And now we’re all the same

Each playing our part in this brutal game.


.     .     .


Morals……two for a pound


I’ve been and seen

And feel slightly unclean

About the things I’ve done

Under a hot sun.


Away in a place

The British public don’t understand

A place where every day

Man kills fellow man.


Is it right to fight

In an unjust war?

Well I don’t have a choice

And peace is such a bore.


Being paid tuppence

To put my life on the line

Trying to pretend

That everything is fine.


.     .     .


Alex Cockers (born 1985, UK) was a Royal Marines Commando from 2005 to 2009.  He served in Helmand province, Afghanistan, for fourteen months.  He explains:

” I had many feelings and thoughts that I was unable to share with anyone…Under the stars in the desert, rhymes would manifest in my head.  I would write them down, construct them into poems and somehow I felt better for getting it off my chest. “

.     .     .     .     .

Remembrance Day: “No Secret: the Rwandan Genocide”

“Revenge is barren of itself;  itself is the dreadful food it feeds on;  its delight is murder, and its satiety, despair.”

(Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller)


Paul Hartal

(Canadian painter and poet, born 1936, Hungary)

“No Secret:  the Rwandan Genocide”


A remote source of The Nile,

the Kagera River originates in Burundi.

On its way to Lake Victoria it flows

into a steep gorge along the natural border

between Rwanda and Tanzania.

Before entering the ravine,

the river cascades in a small waterfall

that swells in the rainy season.


As the Kagera sweeps down from

the highlands it carries within its currents

vast clusters of uprooted trees embedded

in gigantic dollops of elephant grass.

In the spring and summer of 1994

it was still much the same.

However, this time also thousands

of human corpses floated on the river.


Rwanda and Burundi

are two tiny African countries,

each with a territory somewhat smaller

than Belgium. Most of the population

belong to Hutu tribes,

who are traditionally crop growers.


But beginning in the 1300s

warrior herdsmen

from the highlands of Ethiopia

migrated to the region.

They originally spoke Somali or Oromo,

but in adopting the local Bantu language

and settling among the Hutus,

they became known as Tutsis.


The German colonists favoured

the Ethiopian look of the Tutsi minority.

They employed them as overseers

in the administration of Ruanda-Urundi,

as the colony was called then.


Then during the First World War Belgium

took over governing the territory

but continued to support the Tutsis

as the ruling class.


In 1919 Brussels received a mandate

from the League of Nations to administer

the colony. The Belgian colonists divided

Tutsis and Hutus on the basis

of cattle ownership, church documents,

physical measurements

and physiognomic appearance.


Basically, they had designated

the wealthy and tall as Tutsis,

and classified those poorer

and shorter as Hutus.

The Tutsis got used fast

to their privileged status

as Rwandan aristocrats.

They worshipped their king

as a god-like ruler and treated

the Hutus with disdain as peasants.


But the aristocratic Tutsi monarchy

came to an end in 1959

when Belgium allowed holding

universal elections.

King Kigeli V of Ruanda-Urundi

was forced to go to exile

and the majority Hutus

assumed control of the government.


These were turbulent times

that deteriorated into wide spread

communal violence.

In 1962 two independent countries

emerged from the former colony,

Rwanda and Burundi.

But the transition from colony

to independence was not

a peaceful one.


At the time that Rwanda

became independent,

Hutus comprised more than 80 percent

of the country’s seven million people.

Nevertheless, the Tutsi minority

was reluctant to give up

its privileged ruling status.


Consequently, Hutus and Tutsis

were at each other’s throat

in the power struggle

for governing the country.

In Rwanda hundreds of Tutsis

were killed while thousands of others

fled to neighbouring Burundi and Uganda.


In the aftermath of the atrocities,

President Grégoire Kayibanda

made the Hutus the governing majority

of the nation. Yet the leaders

of the new regime did not choose

a policy of national reconciliation.

Instead, they opted for oppression

and discrimination.


They blamed the problems of Rwanda

on the Tutsis. In the 1970s

the Hutu-led military

continued to murder Tutsis in Rwanda.

They excluded the Tutsis

from the governmental administration,

the armed forces, even from schools

and universities.


Yet meanwhile Tutsis had their share

in violent ethnic cleansing as well.

In 1972, in response to a Hutu rebellion,

the Tutsi controlled army

in the Republic of Burundi

killed over 100,000 Hutus.


Similarly to Rwanda, over 80 percent

of the population in Burundi

consists of Hutu tribes.


Harking back on the shame and humiliation

of the past, the Hutu leadership in Rwanda

intensified their hateful propaganda,

inflaming bitterness and hostility

against the tall, aristocratic Tutsi.


They claimed that the Tutsis

intended to restore a feudal system

to enslave the Hutu population.

They recruited writers and teachers

to travel the country to raise Hutu pride

and to create a pan-Hutu consciousness.

They sowed the seeds of spite,

unfurled the propaganda of hate

and prepared the hurricane of genocide.


However, in the neighbouring countries

the Tutsi refugee Diaspora organized

militia forces to overthrow

the Hutu regime in Rwanda.

In 1990 civil war broke out

as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)

of the Tutsi minority

invaded the country from Uganda.


Then on April 6,1994, an airplane

carrying the Hutu presidents

of two African nations,

Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and

Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi,

had been shot down.

The fanatic Akazu organization

of the Hutu Power ideologists

immediately blamed the Tutsis

for the shooting down of the plane.


They spread hate and hysteria.

By radio and word of mouth

they told Hutu civilians that it was

their patriotic duty

to “fill the half-empty graves”

with the bodies of Tutsis.

They called for the slaughter

of all Tutsis, as well as of Hutus

who sympathized with the Tutsi.


They even incited Hutu wives

and husbands to murder

their own spouses.


Although throughout the centuries

both Hutus and Tutsis

unleashed violent actions

and slaughtered each other,

the tragic events of 1994 culminated

in one of the most horrible atrocities

of history.


The Rwandan radio exhorted people

to fight for Rwanda and to kill

the Tutsis like ‘cockroaches’

and sweep them from the country.

The radio inflamed the Hutus

to massacre the Tutsis,

urging them to use

every kind of weapons;

if not guns and grenades,

then arrows, spears,

machetes, knives and clubs.


And so they did.

Frenzied Hutu squads killed

Tutsi men, women, children

and babies by the thousands

in the streets, in churches,

schools and in their houses.

In the countryside the murderers

covered the dead with banana leaves

in order to screen them

from aerial photography.


In about100 days,

between April 6 and mid-July in 1994,

approximately one million people

were killed. The victims also included

Hutus who refused to participate

in the massacres or were

on friendly relations with Tutsis.


The cold blooded murderers

who perpetrated these heinous crimes

were fuelled by fanatic dedication

to a pan-nationalist identity politics.


The killers were often not strangers

but familiar faces to the victims,

neighbours and workmates,

even relatives or former friends.


The December 1993 issue

of the Hutu Kangura magazine shows

a picture of the Rwandan President

Grégoire Kayibanda next to a machete.

Adjacent to the picture appear the words:

“Tutsi: Race of God”, and then

the magazine poses the question:

“Which weapons are we going to use

to beat the cockroaches for good? ”


The genocide

that followed was no secret!

It occurred uninterrupted

by United Nations forces

that were in place

monitoring a ceasefire.


And journalists and TV cameras

from all over the world reported

the massacres.

Viewers in cities and villages

on different continents

sat in front of their television screens,

sipping coffee or eating popcorn,

and watched in shock

the horrible mass murders.


The genocide ended in July 1994

when the Tutsi rebels of the RPF

defeated the Hutu military forces

of Rwanda. Fearing retributions,

two million Hutus fled

to neighbouring Burundi, Tanzania,

Uganda and Zaire. Many of them

participated in the massacres.


Conditions in the refugee camps were

dreadful and thousands died

in epidemics of cholera and dysentery.


The international community

could have intervened in order to stop

the Rwandan genocide, but governments

lacked the political will to do that.

And, indeed,

the United Nations Security Council

accepted responsibility

for failing to prevent the massacres.


The unchecked brutality

of the perpetrators of this genocide

“made a mockery, once again,

of the pledge ‘never again’”,

said the Canadian Foreign Minister,

Lloyd Axworthy.

He was referring to the promise

made after the Holocaust.



.     .     .

Editor’s note:

Paul Hartal presents this poem to us almost like a computer printer dishing up page after page of a dense document.  There is little of the poem in his poem but perhaps that’s because the most urgent thing – if one can speak urgently of an event in time from 18 years ago – is to make history known, to tell the facts, to keep on telling the facts, of the Rwandan Genocide.


Ask yourself – honestly – do you remember very much about world events in the summer of 1994?  Because the Canadian and U.S. media’s scandal-vulture coverage after the murder of O.J. Simpson’s wife was top of the news in June and July while Rwanda’s horrific social cataclysm received far less scrutiny on TV news programmes.  Rwanda, Burundi – Hutus, Tutsis?  What countries were those?  And which people were they?  And: who are they – today?


Any reader wishing to find out more is encouraged to make a beginning by reading Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, published in 2003 by Canada’s Roméo Dallaire.  In 1993 Lieutenant-General Dallaire received the commission as Force Commander of UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda.


Lloyd Axworthy quotation (April 15th 2000, BBC News):  “The unchecked brutality of the genocidaires made a mockery, once again, of the pledge ‘Never again’.” (‘Never again’ – this phrase is inscribed in several languages at the Dachau monument marking the Nazi Holocaust.)


“There’s a man who drinks nothing but memories”: Vietnamese poems: Nguyen Quang Thieu, Nguyen Ba Chung, Thich Nhat Hanh


Nguyen Quang Thieu (Vietnamese poet, born 1957)

“The Inn of Snake Alcohol”


The snakes are buried in alcohol.

Their spirits creep over the mouth of the jug,

They lie in the bottoms of cups.

Creep on, please creep on through white lips –

Listen:  Drunk is shouting his vagabond song.


With the top of a hat, with a pair of shoes

With glazed eyes that search the horizon

With anger setting fires in the temple

A whole life stunned by nothingness –


Like a broken stone, like a bending reed

With the startling turns of a poem

With a frenzy of fears that lick like fire

With the laugh in the sleepwalker’s crying –


Creep on, spirits of snakes, creep on!

Dazzling venom spurts from the jug.

There’s a man who drinks nothing but memories

Whose veins are the paths of snakes.


The little inn buries the great night

The forest recalls the name of Autumn

Alcohol carries the spirits of snakes

And Drunk is making a song from his own venom.



My Mother’s Hair


One of your hairs fell out last night,

a piece of your life was gone without a sound.

I know a difficult day is coming,

my heart, pierced, utters a quiet cry.


Let my childhood smile again, in the sun,

and turn me into an innocent little headlouse

so I can crawl through the jungle of your hair

and sing a song of darkness in its fragrance.


Under your fingernail-roof I’ll sleep in my house;

in my black dream I’ll water your black trees.

I’ll pick black fruits, and hair-jungle bees

will bring me black poems to be opened.


How will I live, without your hair?

How will I breathe without its fragrance?

How will I survive when I am discovered

by ghosts of wooden combs combing your hair?


Let me wear shows made of dawn-flowers

and crawl without a sound into your sleep.

I’ll take the place of the hair that’s gone

and sing of hair-clouds flying from night to  day.




“The Inn of Snake Alcohol” and “My Mother’s Hair”  ©   Nguyen Quang Thieu

Translations from Vietnamese by the poet – with Martha Collins


.     .     .


Nguyen Ba Chung (born 1949, Vietnam)



Let’s gather every fragment of our memories,

it’s all that we have at the end of our life.

Warring days and nights, showers of sun and rain –

what’s left of love?

Let’s gather what remains of our memories,

it’s all that we have at the close of our life.

Warring days and nights make us wonder:

Should the bundle we gather be empty or full?


.     .     .


Thich Nhat Hanh

(Buddhist monk, poet, peace activist – born 1926, Vietnam)

“For Warmth”


I hold my face between my hands

– no, I am not crying

I hold my face between my hands

– to keep my loneliness warm

– two hands protecting

– two hands nourishing

– two hands to prevent my soul from leaving me

– in anger.


.     .     .     .     .

Remembrance Day: reflections upon the Vietnam War: Yusef Komunyakaa


Editor’s note:

What eventually came to be known as The Vietnam War began in 1955 and ended twenty years later when Saigon “fell” to Communist North Vietnam and became known as Ho Chi Minh City.  (In 2012 Vietnam is a unified Socialist-oriented free-market economy.)  Vietnam was a a Cold-War era ‘hot button’ zone for the USSR and the USA.  The U.S. sent  soldiers in the early 1960s but American troupes did not become involved in combat until 1965 and by 1973 had withdrawn.  Three million Vietnamese (from both sides) died, a million and a half Laotians and Cambodians, and close to 60,000 U.S. soldiers.  It was not a war that could be “won”.


.     .     .


Yusef Komunyakaa

(U.S. Vietnam War Veteram, born James William Brown, 1947, Bogalusa, Louisiana)

“Roll Call”


Through rifle sights

We must’ve looked like crows

perched on a fire-eaten branch,

lined up for reveille, ready

to roll-call each M-16

propped upright

between a pair of jungle boots,

a helmet on its barrel

as if it were a man.

The perfect row aligned

with the chaplain’s cross

while a metallic-gray squadron

of sea gulls circled.  Only

a few lovers have blurred

the edges of this picture.

Sometimes I can hear them

marching through the house,

closing the distance.  All

the lonely beds take me back

to where we saluted those

five pairs of boots

as the sun rose against our faces.


.     .     .


“The Dead at Quang Tri”


This is harder than counting stones

along paths going nowhere, the way

a tiger circles and backtracks by

smelling his blood on the ground.

The one kneeling beside the pagoda,

remember him?   Captain, we won’t

talk about that.  The Buddhist boy

at the gate with the shaven head

we rubbed for luck

glides by like a white moon.

He won’t stay dead, dammit !

Blades aim for the family jewels;

the grass we walk on

won’t stay down.
.     .     .


“Tu Do Street”


Music divides the evening.

I close my eyes and can see

men drawing lines in the dust.

America pushes through the membrane

of mist and smoke, and I’m a small boy

again in Bogalusa. White Only

signs and Hank Snow. But tonight

I walk into a place where bar girls

fade like tropical birds. When

I order a beer, the mama-san

behind the counter acts as if she

can’t understand, while her eyes

skirt each white face, as Hank Williams

calls from the psychedelic jukebox.

We have played Judas where

only machine-gun fire brings us

together. Down the street

black GIs hold to their turf also.

An off-limits sign pulls me

deeper into alleys, as I look

for a softness behind these voices

wounded by their beauty and war.

Back in the bush at Dak To

and Khe Sanh, we fought

the brothers of these women

we now run to hold in our arms.

There’s more than a nation

inside us, as black and white

soldiers touch the same lovers

minutes apart, tasting

each other’s breath,

without knowing these rooms

run into each other like tunnels

leading to the underworld.


.     .     .


“A Reed Boat”


The boat’s tarred and shellacked to a water-repellent finish, just sway-

dancing with the current’s ebb, light as a woman in love. It pushes off

again, cutting through lotus blossoms, sediment, guilt, unforgivable dark-

ness. Anything with half a root or heart could grow in this lagoon.


There’s a pull against what’s hidden from day, all that hurts. At dawn the

gatherer’s shadow backstrokes across water, an instrument tuned for gods

and monsters in the murky kingdom below. Blossoms lean into his fast

hands, as if snapping themselves in half, giving in to some law.


Slow, rhetorical light cuts between night and day, like nude bathers em-

bracing. The boat nudges deeper, with the ease of silverfish. I know by his

fluid movements, there isn’t the shadow of a bomber on the water any-

more, gliding like a dream of death. Mystery grows out of the decay of

dead things – each blossom a kiss from the unknown.


When I stand on the steps of Hanoi’s West Lake Guest House, feeling that

I am watched as I gaze at the boatman, it’s hard to act like we’re the only

two left in the world. He balances on his boat of Ra, turning left and right,

reaching through and beyond, as if the day is a woman he can pull into his



.     .     .


“Facing It”


My black face fades,

hiding inside the black granite.

I said I wouldn’t,

dammit: No tears.

I’m stone. I’m flesh.

My clouded reflection eyes me

like a bird of prey, the profile of night

slanted against morning. I turn

this way – the stone lets me go.

I turn that way – I’m inside

the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

again, depending on the light

to make a difference.

I go down the 58,022 names,

half-expecting to find

my own in letters like smoke.

I touch the name Andrew Johnson;

I see the booby trap’s white flash.

Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse

but when she walks away

the names stay on the wall.

Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s

wings cutting across my stare.

The sky. A plane in the sky.

A white vet’s image floats

closer to me, then his pale eyes

look through mine. I’m a window.

He’s lost his right arm

inside the stone. In the black mirror

a woman’s trying to erase names:

No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.


.     .     .


“Ode to the Maggot”


Brother of the blowfly

And godhead, you work magic

Over battlefields,

In slabs of bad pork


And flophouses. Yes, you

Go to the root of all things.

You are sound and mathematical.

Jesus, Christ, you’re merciless


With the truth. Ontological and lustrous,

You cast spells on beggars and kings

Behind the stone door of Caesar’s tomb

Or split trench in a field of ragweed.


No decree or creed can outlaw you

As you take every living thing apart. Little

Master of earth, no one gets to heaven

Without going through you first.


.     .     .     .     .

All poems (except “Reed Boat” and “Ode to the Maggot”) are from the poet’s 1988 collection, Dien Cai Dau.

© Yusef Komunyakaa


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