“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
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
And, tasting that flavour, she thought to herself:
Those wee Germans know all our same hymns !
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
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
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.
. . . . .
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
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 —
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:
Poème par Matthieu Gosztola
Pourquoi une nouvelle journée
renoncer à s’élancer
en parler à voix basse
jusqu’à ce que le sommet
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
speak of it in hushed tones
until the ‘crown’ of our head
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
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,
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.
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?
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
Translation into English: Amela Simić
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
como odio a quienes pretenden apagar mis sueños
obligándome a dejar de ser niño.
Odio la paz,
por estar tan ausente.
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.
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.
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
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
¿ Dónde está la sepultura de mi familia ?
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 !
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…
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 – Ahora – Pues:
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
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
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.
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.
To my Estranged, on the Death of a Cat
Her spirit, yes.
Intensely I loved it; the years flew, and
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
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)
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.