Belfast, 1942


Alexander Best

“Belfast, 1942″



“Mrs. Thompson, I’ll take your Aileen to The Camp,

and she’ll play for the P.O.W.s.

Are you agreeable to it?”

“Aye, Mr. Nutt – she can play, so take her.”


And the Rev. James Nutt took 11-year-old Aileen

to The Camp – in his little Austin car.

At the barb-wire gate British soldiers let the minister pass

– and the child.

Inside the Nissen hut was a large platform and

an upright piano upon it.

Those foreign fellows had bombed

blitzed – Belfast


shot down,

they were now the luckiest of boys

– would have God’s grace in this far-off place.


And the child knew every chord progression for Luther’s hymn:

A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

And the young German prisoners sang strong in their

own tongue:  Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.


After she’d played the hymns Aileen was

borne aloft the shoulders of a Tommy and

off they were to the NAAFI canteen where she got a

Rock Bun and a beaker of cocoa – her first time of

hot chocolate.


And, tasting that flavour, she thought to herself:

Those wee Germans know all our same hymns !


Jo Westren: the Poet was a Nurse

ZP_Toronto sculptor Florence Wyle's memorial to Nurse Edith Cavell 1865 to 1915ZP_Toronto sculptor Florence Wyle’s memorial to Nurse Edith Cavell (1865-1915)


Brief Sanctuary


You from the guns

and I from tending,

made love at an inn;


in a narrow room

were freed from war,

from fear of our fear,

made of our smooth limbs

our sweet love


each for the other.

In the empty saloon

drank then cool wine

and sang as you

strummed the piano.

When time moved from us

and we must go,

we drew our glasses close

on the bare table,

their shadows one.

Look, we said,

they will stand here


when we have gone,

images of ourselves,

witnesses to our love.

As we left

you smiled at me

lifting the latch,

then the bombs came…




Behind the Screens



I dress your wound

knowing you cannot live.

In ten swift rivers

from my finger-tips

compassion runs

into your pale body

that is so hurt

it is no more

than the keeper

of your being.

Behind these screens,


we two are steeped

in a peace deeper

than life gives,

you with closed eyes

and I moving quietly

as though you could wake,

all my senses aware

that your other self

is here,

waiting to begin

life without end.



.     .     .

Jo Westren, the author of these exquisite poems,

was born in Essex, England, in 1914.

During World War II, she served as a nurse at Colchester Military Hospital.

.     .     .     .     .

Joy Kogawa: Where there’s a wall there’s a way…


Where there’s a wall


Where there’s a wall

there’s a way through a

gate or door.  There’s even

a ladder perhaps and a

sentinel who sometimes sleeps.

There are secret passwords you

can overhear.  There are methods

of torture for extracting clues

to maps of underground passages.

There are zeppelins, helicopters,

rockets, bombs, battering rams,

armies with trumpets whose

all at once blast shatters

the foundations.

Where there’s a wall there are

words to whisper by loose bricks,

wailing prayers to utter, birds

to carry messages taped to their feet.

There are letters to be written —

poems even.

Faint as in a dream

is the voice that calls

from the belly

of the wall.




Joy Kogawa was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1935.

This poem is from her 1985 collection, Woman in the Woods.

Kogawa and many other Japanese-Canadians were forcibly removed

from their homes during World War II, and sent to to internment camps

for the duration.  Many lost their property and businesses, with no

compensation.  This ugly racist chapter in Canadian history – the design of

Mackenzie-King’s government – was brought fully to public attention in the 1980s,

partly through the power of Kogawa’s 1981 novel, Obasan.

À propos du Génocide Rwandais de 1994: Matthieu Gosztola

À propos du Génocide Rwandais de 1994:

Poème par Matthieu Gosztola


Pourquoi une nouvelle journée
renoncer à s’élancer

les disparus
en parler à voix basse

jusqu’à ce que le sommet
nous rattrape

le « n   ous » qu’une personne
a sorti de sa volonté
s’expose à la machette

on a diminué de solitude

on apprend à mesurer notre cri

on fait nos peurs moins sillonnantes
dans tous les sens

devant la mort et ses tracas
au premier jour
on n’avait pas les mêmes lois

on a appris à rebrousser chemin dans nos murmures

et à se contenter sans murmurer de ce qui
ne propose plus de cachette

pardon  …………  espérer.




À propos the Rwanda Genocide of 1994:


by Matthieu Gosztola


Why a new day

gives up throbbing


the dead

speak of it in hushed tones


until the ‘crown’ of our head

catches us


the “We” that nobody

‘exited’ of his own will

is right under the ‘machete’


Diminished is one’s solitude


we learn to measure our cries


making our fears less furrowed,

less cross-hatched – in every sense


before death and its troubles

on that first day

we hadn’t the same laws


we taught ourselves to retrace our steps in mutterings,


to be satisfied without complaint over

no more offers of any hiding place


Forgiveness … … …  ( is ) … … … to hope.




Matthieu Gosztola (né en France, 1981) est un écrivain et poète.

Ce poème vient de son recueil de 2010, Débris de tuer (Rwanda, 1994).

Rwanda, un pays de l’Afrique de l’Est, est entrée dans une guerre civile

en 1990 et puis, plus de 800,000 Rwandais ont trouvée la mort durant

simplement cent jours entre avril et juillet, 1994.


Matthieu Gosztola is a French writer and poet, born in 1981.

This poem is from his 2010 collection, Debris of killing (Rwanda, 1994).

A small country in East Africa with a history of ethnic strife between

Hutus and Tutsis – greatly exacerbated under German then Belgian colonial

rule – tensions built until the stupefying hundred-day massacre of 1994

in which 800,000 people died.  Rwanda’s Genocide was the final “slaughter”

in the most violent century known to humankind – the 20th century.


Translation/interpretation from French into English:  Alexander Best

Traduction/interprétation en anglais:  Alexander Best


The Siege of Sarajevo: Sarajlić and Simić



Izet Sarajlić:

Theory of maintaining distance



The theory of maintaining distance

was discovered by writers of post-scripts,

those who don’t want to risk anything.


I myself belong among those who believe

that on Monday you have to talk about Monday,

because by Tuesday it might be too late.


It’s hard, of course,

to write poems in the cellar,

when mortars are exploding above your head.


Only it’s harder not to write poems.






To my former Yugoslav friends



What happened to us in just one night,

my friends?


I don’t know what your’re doing,

what you’re writing,

with whom you’re drinking,

in which books you’ve buried yourselves.


I don’t even know

if we are still friends.






Goran Simić:

The beginning, after everything



After I buried my mother, running from the

shelling of the graveyard;  after soldiers returned

my brother’s body wrapped in a tarp;  after I saw

the fire reflected in the eyes of my children as

they ran to the cellar among the dreadful rats;

after I wiped with a dishtowel the blood from

the face of an old woman, fearing I would

recognize her;  after I saw a hungry dog licking

the blood of a man lying at a crossing;  after

everything, I would like to write poems which

resemble newspaper reports,  so bare and cold

that I could forget them the very moment a

stranger asks:  Why do you write poems which

resemble newspaper reports?






Back Door



While I watch the front door, officers with gold

buttons for eyes enter my back door and look for

my glasses.  Their gloves leave the prints of their

ranks on the plates in which I find my reflection,

on the cups from which I never drink, on the

windows bending outward.  Then they leave

with crude jokes about the women I once loved.



Through my back door the police enter

regularly, with rubber pencils behind their belts.

Like kisses their ears splash when they stick to

my books which whine at night like pet dogs

in the snow.  Their fingerprints remain on my

doorknob when they leave through my back

door, and their uniforms fade like cans in the




Why do postmen enter through my back door

with bags stinking of formalin?  Their heavy

soldier boots march through my bathroom and I

can hear them looking for the pyjamas hidden in

a box of carbon paper.  I ask them why they need

my pyjamas and their eyes flash for a moment

with April tenderness.  Then they slam the door

and the room is illumined by darkness.


And I still watch the front door where the

shadow of someone’s hand lies by the doorbell.

Someone should enter.  Someone should enter







Izet Sarajlić (1930-2002)  was a Bosnian poet

who lived in Sarajevo for 57 years.  The two poems

featured here are from his Sarajevo War Journal (1993).

Translation from Serbo-Croatian into English:  C. Polony




Goran Simić (born 1952) was active in Bosnia’s literary life

and ran a bookstore in the capital, Sarajevo.  He survived the city’s

Siege (1992-1995) by Serbian troops and the Yugoslav Army – an assault

that cost 11,000 lives.  Simić has lived in Canada since 1996.

Written during the Siege, the two poems above were part of a collection

Simić had published at the time – then lost control over, being cut off

from the world.  The vagabond volume took on a life of its own,

turning up in Serbia, Slovenia, Poland, France and England – in

piecemeal forms and translations.

In 2005 From Sarajevo with Sorrow was finally re-published,

in Canada, in a translation that gives the poems a new home in the

English language.


Translation into English:  Amela Simić

Mendez y Kintana: una voz contra la Guerra, una voz por el Armonía



Contra la Guerra:

Carlos Mendez  (Venezuela)


Odio la guerra casi tanto,
como odio los zapatos escolares de mi niñez.
Odio la pluma que firma decretos de muerte
casi tanto,
como odio a quienes pretenden apagar mis sueños
obligándome a dejar de ser niño.
Odio la paz,
por estar tan ausente.




Against War:


I hate War so much,

like I hate those stiff school-shoes of my childhood.

I hate the pen that signs death certificates

– so much,

Like I hate anyone who tries to shut down my dreams,

forcing me to abandon being a kid still.

And I hate Peace,

for being so absent.




Por el Armonía:

Jenaro Mejía Kintana  (Colombia)


En el principio también nació los Andes

Paso a paso, día a día;
Se sumaron los meses a los pies cansados.

Fueron los años y el camino

Así las centurias se sucedieron caminando
Y en los siglos nacieron las pisadas.

Perseguidos, perseguidores;

Sol, viento, lluvia, tierra,
tierra nuestra y de nadie.

Naciste y nacimos para todos

De la misma arcilla bajo el mismo sol

Todos somos nosotros.




For Harmony:


In the beginning were born The Andes mountains,

Step by step, day by day;

adding up to months measured in weary feet.

Years went by – and the path,

In this way the eras – walking along – followed one another,

And over the centuries footprints came to be.

Pursuer, pursued – persecutor, the persecuted;

Sun, wind, rain, earth,

The Earth – ours and nobody’s.

You were born, we were born, all of us

Of the same clay from below + the same sun.

Everyone is Us.




Traducción al inglés:  Alexander Best

Translation from Spanish to English:  Alexander Best

Call for Submissions at Zócalo Poets — we want YOUR poems — in any language!

Algo Más en esta Vida: El Día de los Muertos / The Day of the Dead: Something Else in this Life


La Vida es un Burro



Sigan cabalgando este Burro tenaz de la Vida,

hasta la meta – El Fin.

Allá nos premiará con guirnaldas de cempasúchiles

La Diosa Coatlicue *.

¡ Todos nosotros ganaremos esta carrera !

* Coatlicue  –  para los Mexicas/Aztecas, la diosa madre de la Vida y la Muerte


*   *   *


Life is a Donkey



Keep on riding this tenacious donkey called Life

till our goal:  The  End.

There the goddess Coatlicue will reward us with

a garland of marigolds.

All of us get to win this race !



* Coatlicue  –  Aztec mother-goddess of Life and Death

**  marigolds  –  Mexican Day of the Dead flower



Sombrío – con brío



Dice Alejandro:

¿ Dónde está la sepultura de mi familia ?

No recuerdo…

aúnque yo la buscaba entre un mil de tumbas de piedra

en el camposanto.

La verdad:  Está quebrada, mi familia.  Con nosotros la

tradición es un árbol de ramas bien cortadas.

El panteonero me miraba, apoyando en su pala,

royendo contentamente unos churros tiesos.

Jefe, ¿ está perdido ?

Mi Hombre, no – pero está perdida mi familia.

¡ Claro ! Cada diez años volteamos el suelo y…y…

¿ Y entonces ?

¿ Conoce usted la fábrica de fertilizante…por la carretera

…entre Ciudad-Carrona y Los Cuervos…?



*   *   *


Gloomy – with spirit !



Says Alexander:

Where’s my family’s tomb?  I don’t remember…

even though I’ve been searching for it among a thousand

other tombstones in the cemetery.

In truth:  my family’s busticated – with us tradition is

a tree whose branches are hacked off.

A gravedigger was watching me, leaning on his shovel,

gnawing contentedly on some stale, hard crullers.

Boss, are you lost?

No, my Man – but my family is.

Of course!  Every ten years we turn over the soil here and…and…

And ?

Do you know the fertilizer factory…up by the highway…

between Carrion City and  Crow Corners…?




En la Voz de la Guacamaya



“ El TIEMPO es Trácala de la Vida, ”

chacharea la guacamaya.

“ Pásenlo bien – AhoraPues:

Silencio, bobos – n’hay nada más

– nada más

– nada más

– nada más… ”


*  *  *


The macaw squawks



“TIME – that swindler of this Life,”

squawks the chatterbox-macaw.

“Party now, yes NOW, and THEN:

It’s silence, fools, ain’t nothing more

– nothing more

– nothing more

– nothing more…”



A Sincere Tale for The Day of The Dead :

“ Lady Catrina goes for a stroll / Doña Catrina da un paseo ”



“¡ Santa Mictecacihuatl  !

These Mandible Bone-nix (Manolo Blahniks) weren’t meant for

The Long Haul – certainly not worth the silver I shelled out for ’em ! ”

Thus spoke that elegant skeleton known as La Catrina.

And she clunked herself down at the stone curb, kicking off the

jade-encrusted, ocelot-fur-trimmed high-heel shoes.

“ Well, I haven’t been ‘bone-foot’ like this since I was an escuincle.

She chuckled to herself as she began rummaging through her Juicy handbag.

Extracted a shard of mirror and held it up to her face – a calavera

with teardrop earrings grinned back at her.  ¡Hola, Preciosa!,

she said to herself with quiet pride.  Then adjusted her necklace of

cempasúchil blossoms and smoothed her yellow-white-red-and-black



Just then a lad and lassie stumbled across her path…

“ Yoo-hoo, Young Man, Young Woman !

Be dears, would you both, and escort an old dame

across La Plaza de la Existencia !  My feet are simply

worn down to the bone ! ”


“ Certainly, madam – but we’re new here…

Where is La Plaza de la Existencia ? ”


“ We’re just at the edge of it – El Zócalo ! ”

And La Catrina gestured beyond them where an

immense public square stretched far and wide.

She clasped their hands – the Young Man on her left,

the Young Woman on her right – and the trio set out

across a sea of cobbles…


By the time they reached the distant side of the Plaza the

Young Man and Young Woman had shared much with the

calaca vivaz – their hopes, fears, their

sadness and joy.


The Woman by now had grown a long, luxurious

silver braid and The Man a thick, lush, salt-and-pepper

beard.  Both knew they’d lived full Lives – and were satisfied.

But my – they were tired !


In the company of the strange and gregarious Catrina 5 minutes

to cross The Zócalo had taken 50 years…


“ Doña Catrina, here we are at your destination – will you be

alright now ? ”


“ Never felt better, Kids !  I always enjoy charming company

on a journey ! ”  And she winked at them, even though she had

no eyeballs – just sockets.  “ Join me for a caffè-latte?  Or a café-pulque,

if you’re lactose-intolerant ! ”


“Thank you, no,” said the Man and Woman, in unison.

And both laughed heartily, breathed deeply, and sat down

at the curb.


When they looked up, Doña Catrina had clattered out of sight.

And before their eyes the vast Zócalo became peopled with

scenes from their Lives.  The Man and Woman smiled, sighing

contentedly.  Side by side, they leaned closer together – and died.





Mictecacihuatl  –  Aztec goddess of the AfterLife, and Keeper of The Bones

La Catrina  –  from La Calavera Catrina (The Elegant Lady-Skull),

a famous zinc etching by Mexican political cartoonist and print-maker

Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913).  Posada’s “calavera” prints depict

society from top to bottom – even the upper-class woman of wealth –

La Catrina – must embrace Death, just like everyone else…

She has since become a “character”,

invented and re-invented, for The Day of The Dead (Nov.2nd).

escuincle  –  little kid or street urchin

calavera  –  skull

¡Hola, Preciosa!  –  Hello, Gorgeous!

cempasúchil  –  marigold  (the Day of The Dead flower)

huipil –  blouse or dress,  Mayan-style

El Zócalo  –  the main public square (plaza mayor) in Mexico City,

largest in The Americas

calaca vivaz  –  lively skeleton

pulque  –  a Mexican drink make from fermented

agave or maguey – looks somewhat like milk



Walt Whitman: “Living always, always dying”

ZP_Walt Whitman with Peter Doyle who was quite possibly his lover_1869ZP_Walt Whitman with Peter Doyle who was, quite possibly, his lover_1869


Of him I love day and night


Of him I love day and night I dream’d I heard he was dead,

And I dream’d I went where they had buried him I love, but he was

not in that place.

And I dream’d I wander’d searching among burial-places to find him,

And I found that every place was a burial-place;

The houses full of life were equally full of death, (this house is, now,)

The streets, the shipping, the places of amusement, the Chicago,

Boston, Philadelphia, the Mannahatta *, were as full of the dead

as of the living.

And fuller, O vastly fuller of the dead than of the living;

And what I dream’d I will henceforth tell to every person and age,

And I stand henceforth bound to what I dream’d,

And now I am willing to disregard burial-places and dispense with


And if the memorials of the dead were put up indifferently

everywhere, even in the room where I eat or sleep, I should be


And if the corpse of any one I love, or if my own corpse, be duly

render’d to powder and pour’d in the sea, I shall be satisfied,

Or if it be distributed to the winds I shall be satisfied.


* Mannahatta  –  the original Delaware/Algonquin Native name

for Manhattan


O Living Always, Always Dying


O living always, always dying!

O the burials of me past and present,

O me while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever;

O me, what I was for years, now dead, (I lament not, I am content;)

O to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and look

at where I cast them,

To pass on, (O living!  always living!) and leave the corpses behind.

ZP_1886 photograph of Walt Whitman with Bill DuckettZP_1886 photograph of Walt Whitman with Bill Duckett


Walt Whitman was born in 1819, at Long Island, New York.

By his mid-teens he was working as a typesetter in Brooklyn

and began to contribute juvenilia to newspapers.

At twenty he was a schoolteacher but being a

restless fellow, one to get fired, or to quit, he went from job

to job, writing being the only steady thing.

His poetry collection “Leaves of Grass”, from 1855, is considered

a cornerstone in what might now be called “the American voice”

– plain-spoken and egalitarian – yet grandiose and self-centred, too.

Whitman is the 19th-century father of free-verse poetry in the

English language, basing the form and cadence of his poems

on the Psalms of the King James Bible.

The two poems featured above take the Victorian-era (even in the U.S.)

morbid maudlinism surrounding Death and give it a 180-degree turn.

Whitman died in 1892.

All Souls Day: lover, cat, mother, son, child

Alexander Best

To my Estranged, on the Death of a Cat



Her spirit, yes.

Intensely I loved it;  the years flew, and

occasional fur.

And the body that housed her spirit, that little body

– I loved her body, too.


Wake me she would, by

soft-claw botheration of eyelids;  she,

guardian of my sleeping eyes.

And if it pleased her to

walk over my face to get to her bowl

– well, she walked over me.


Where are you, vanished lover?  Untouchable fact who

even now lies in my bed.   Once, you were a tender sprite;

and she was my Bastet *, exact and serene

– both of you my old souls.

That little animal’s death – where were you?


Remember, my barren life when she came to me

from out of the tall grass?  You were not there, but

remember still.

Met me at the train station, daintily crossing two sets of tracks;

led me home in a heart-made vehicle borne on gravel paws.

From her I knew patience and living in the moment;  that

Beauty kills, then Life is renewed via licks of the tongue – a

miniature slice of sandpaper-ham.

To have known such a creature!


We bury a childhood friend,

We bury a father,

We bury distinctive old ladies,

We bury a cat.

Must we also bury love?




* Bastet  –  Cat-goddess of ancient Egypt




D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)

“Brooding Grief”



A yellow leaf from the darkness
Hops like a frog before me.
Why should I start and stand still?

I was watching the woman that bore me
Stretched in the brindled darkness
Of the sick-room, rigid with will
To die: and the quick leaf tore me
Back to this rainy swill
Of leaves and lamps and traffic mingled before me.




An 18th-century Children’s prayer



Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.