(born 1988, London, England)
At last we are alone
At last we are alone
And I can tell you how it felt
To stand in front of a blank wall
And spray ‘NF’ in white letters
So big they shone against the gloom.
I’m amongst the crowd watching
It being scrubbed from the school wall.
It’s eight a.m. The low clouds are yellow
With rain. Two men in council overalls
Are blasting the thin, erect letters
That salute the dark morning.
My classmates are nervous.
The head teacher, unaware, calls me a thug.
I am a thug. I lie down in the soft grass
After school and rub my bald head.
I call myself Tom. I am Tom from 1980:
I am from a story my father told me –
I am Tom who sees my father
And chases him down the street.
A wet afternoon shrunk to a red bus
Slurring past a vast estate. Scratched windows.
Tinny hits leaking from an earphone.
A chicken bone slides back and forth
In the aisle.
We come to the superstore that draws breath
From everything around it; the one pound shop
With its leaning towers of garish tack.
I honestly don’t know which I prefer:
The bored employee or the pot bellied shop owner;
The girl with orbits dangling from her ears or the girl
With the peculiar god, bangled and painted in a
Procession of relatives –
And I don’t know if I can talk:
My eyes are English spectacles and everywhere
I see decay; I see cheap shoes; I see fast food; I see women
With fake hair and plastic gems on their toenails.
I see pierced children. I see bags in the trees and animal entrails
On the road. I see damp take-away boxes. I smell weed.
I hear a girl call her son a dickhead when he cries.
And who am I to judge?
And if I don’t, who will?
And who knows the depth of my hypocrisy
When I cross the road,
When I change seat,
When I move to another carriage,
To avoid the sound and the smell?
One night a boy comes upstairs
And begins playing music from his phone.
I ask him to stop and he ignores me.
I ask him again and he stares.
When we are alone, I take a sword from my bag
And cut upwards from the navel to the chops.
I draw him and set alight each quarter.
We asked Jay Bernard to tell us about these poems…
At last we are alone
My dad moved to the UK in 1970 when he was ten. He hated it, not least because he was regularly the target of racial abuse. It was so frequent, in fact, that he and his other black friends had come to anticipate it whenever they saw groups of white boys. One afternoon, he was walking home with a friend when they came across just that – a group of schoolboys who had spotted them coming down the road. My dad noticed that they were looking and said to his friend, “shall we keep going?” When there was no response, he turned, and saw that his friend was already running for his life. This poem is not a re-telling of that story, but it came out of thinking about it. I ended up writing from the perspective of a black girl who graffities her school with racist slogans and imagines being a white fascist. Being the perceived victim of a particular ideology does not stop someone from fantasizing about the associated power. In this case, the power to instil fear, to mess with others and to get away with it.
When I was young, around seven or eight, I was conflicted because on the one hand, I recognized my position as a member of a marginalized group (endlessly re-enforced by tales of butchery, injustice and poverty); on the other, I did things like write “FUCK” and “BITCH” across the toilet walls (I could never bring myself to write racist things). Then I’d report it to the teacher, who was always white, and with whom I felt some solidarity. They never once suspected it was me. In fact, there were a few Soviet-style interrogations and innocent children were sent to the gulag. I feel terrible about that now, but it was an insightful childhood. I was always aware that I had limited power, so I played with what I had, and this surfaces again in “At last we are alone”; at last, I can talk about this.
This is based on a true story. I once asked a boy to stop playing music out loud on his phone and he essentially said he’d stab me if I didn’t go away. As far as I’m concerned, this poem is unfinished. I think the rhythm is off, the part about ‘my eyes are English spectacles’ and ‘if I don’t judge, who will?’ comes off badly. I always feel strange reading it in public, because it doesn’t fully express the ambiguity of my feelings about Croydon (which is where the incident happened and where I’m from). I regularly berate myself for being ‘judgmental’ when I feel something approaching hatred for people whose raison d’être is to make everyone else’s life miserable; I say, “no, no, it’s society; it’s class; it’s race. You have to forgive.” Which I do, most of the time, but increasingly I feel this approach means that people get away with all kinds of bullshit in public. It’s analogous to those old chestnuts: how do you deal with the freedom of people who are anti-freedom? How do you deal non-violently with people who are violent? How can you be both polite and effective in getting someone else to stop their aggressive impoliteness? Since these questions are not going to be answered any time soon, I wrote a violent, angry poem. I continue to be mild mannered and soft spoken to people who spit on buses, swear loudly, smash shit up or play their music. If they read my poems, I’m sure they’d laugh at my repression.
Jay Bernard is from London and is currently the writer in residence at The Arts House and the National University of Singapore. She has performed all over the UK and internationally, and her first book “Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl” (Tall Lighthouse) was PBS pamphlet choice for summer 2008. She is currently working on her second, to be published this year by Math Paper Press, Singapore. Visit her site: http://www.brrnrrd.wordpress.com
Aqqaluk Lynge is a Kalaallit (Greenland Inuit) poet who writes
in the Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) language – closely related to the Inuktitut
language of the Canadian Arctic.
The poems below were translated into English
by Ken Norris and Marianne Stenbaek, with the poet.
A Life of Respect
In the old days
when we still lived our own lives
in our own country
We could hear
a faraway thunder –
the caribou approaching
two or three days in advance
Then we did not count the animals, but knew
that when the caribou herd arrived
it would be seven days
before all the animals crossed the river
We did not count them
We had no quotas
We knew only
that a child’s weeping
or a seagull’s cry
could frighten the animals away
Then we knew
that there is a balance
between the animals and us,
lives of mutual respect
Now it is as if we are under arrest
the wardens are everywhere
We are interrogated constantly.
In Your hungering after more riches and land
You make us suspect,
force us to justify our existence
On maps of the country
We must draw points and lines
to show we have been here –
and are here today,
here where the foxes run
and birds nest
and the fish spawn
You circumscribe everything
demand that we prove
that We use the land that was always ours,
that We have a right to our ancestral lands
And now it is We who ask:
By what right are You here?
Qanga – ila qanga
uagut nammineq nunatsinni
ullut pingasut sioqqullugit
Qanga – taamani
ullut unnuallu arfineq-marluk
tusassagaa meeqqap qiarpalua
Qanga – taamani
Ullumikkulli tigusatut inuuvugut
sissuertut sumut pigaanni
uanngaanniit uunga titarlugu
aana ilissi aana uagut
aamma aaku aalisakkat
Suna tamaat killormut pivaat
Ataqqeqatigiittut aaku kisimik
We listen to the Elders
I meet him on the land
Today is Sunday, he says,
No-one is allowed to shoot
That’s what the Elders say
And we listen to the Elders…
A flock of geese is coming
fighting against the wind
He takes a rifle
and shoots at them
One falls to the ground
the others fly away
– Well, it is Sunday
A flock of ptarmigans
jumps in a circle around us
no cries are heard
They are afraid, the elder says,
the owls are out hunting
and the ptarmigans seek protection among Men
– so We don’t hunt Them,
that’s what the Elders say.
And We listen to the Elders…
Nunap timaani naapippara nerlerniaq
– utoqqartatta oqaappaatigut
naalattarpavut – ilaanni
Nerlerpaaluit assorlutik timmisut qulaappaatigut
aallaaniap timmiarsiunni kiviinnaqaa
– ullumi sapaat
“Aqissit uppinnit piniarneqartillutik
naalaattarpavut – ilaanni
NASA photo: Planet Earth and its ‘near-Space’ debris
(1909-1993, Yamanashi, Japan)
The Endearing Sea
As I lived far away from the sea,
it gradually passed more out of my mind every day,
like its distance.
After days and days,
it became like a dot, no longer looking like a sea.
I felt compelled to go the movies
to see the sea
on the screen.
But when I slept at night,
the sea came to me, pushing down my chest
and raising clear blue waves.
I just slept, even in the daytime,
the sea kept mounting big waves
on my chest,
covering me with spray from a storm.
And sometimes it washed up beautiful white bones,
which had sunk to its bottom,
up around my ribs.
(1914-1990, Tokyo, Japan)
The Wild Duck
Did the wild duck say,
“Don’t ever become a wild duck,”
at that time ?
We plucked the bird,
burned off its hair,
broiled its meat and devoured it,
and, licking our lips,
we began to leave the edge of the marsh
where an evening mist was hanging,
when we heard a voice:
“You could still chew
on my bones.”
We looked back
and saw the laughter of the wild duck
and its backbone gleaming.
(1919-1980, Hiroshima, Japan)
There is the mouth of the river.
That is where the river ends.
That is where the sea begins.
The river made sure of that place
and ran over it.
Riding over that place,
the river also produced the fertile riverbed.
It has defined its banks
with two streaks of intention
which cannot mix with the sea,
while the river itself keeps flowing
into the sea,
farther than the sea,
and more slowly than the sea.
(1919-2006, Fukuoka, Japan)
The rocket was blasting away.
Green apples were swaying.
The void was blowing up reality.
Through the silver sky a snake went flowing by.
The rocket was blasting.
While blasting, it stayed motionless.
Stars were scattering over the ground.
Jewels were dreaming with their eyes closed.
The Earth fell in the garden of a future morning.
The rocket, unable to fly, kept blasting.
Translations from Japanese into English:
Naoshi Koriyama and Edward Lueders
(1923-1986, Prince Edward Island, Canada)
“Live with me on Earth under the invisible daylight moon”
Live with me on Earth among red berries and the bluebirds
And leafy young twigs whispering
Within such little spaces, between such floors of green, such
figures in the clouds
That two of us could fill our lives with delicate wanting:
Where stars past the spruce copse mingle with fireflies
Or the dayscape flings a thousand tonnes of light back at the
Be any one of the colours of an Earth lover;
Walk with me and sometimes cover your shadow with mine.
On Speaking Ojibway
In speaking Ojibway you’ve got to watch the clouds
turning, twisting, raising their heads
to look at each other and you.
You’ve got to have their thoughts for them
and thoughts there’ll be which would never
exist had there been no clouds.
Best speak in the woods beside a lake
getting in time with the watersounds.
Let vibrations of waves sing right through you
and always be alert for the next word
which will be yours but also the water’s.
No beast or bird gives a call
Which can’t be translated into Ojibway.
Therefore be sure Ojibway lives.
There’s no bending or breaking in the wind,
no egg hatching, no seed spring
that isn’t part of Ojibway.
Therefore be sure Ojibway lives.
The stars at night, their winking signals;
the dawn long coming; the first
thin cut of the sun at the horizon.
Words always steeped in memory
and a hope that makes sure
by action that it’s more than hope,
That’s Ojibway – which you can speak in any language.
. . . . .
Dos poemas por Juan Felipe Herrera / Two poems by Juan Felipe Herrera
de un homenaje al Pueblo Maya / from an homage to the Mayan People
Morning opens like the grasses
of my pueblo, leaves of corn and orange squash.
The dreams of the wounded
rise to caress her, they weave yellow crosses,
woolen suns, rivers of lances.
It rains on the streets,
maids scurry to the market.
Their laughter and jokes, their heavy dresses.
The twittering kiosk lets go of its copper
and city life begins. Once more
another river happens. Flows down my braids
all the way to my heart.
My mother Pascuala’s hands
weave onto mine. At times the wounds
close and what is left is only
the act of being reborn.
La mañana se abre como las pastos
de mi pueblo, hojas de maíz y anaranjada calabaza.
Los sueños de los heridos
suben a acariciarla, tejen cruces amarillas
soles de lana, ríos de lanzas.
Llueve en las calles,
las criadas se apreseran al mercado.
Sus risas y sus chistes, sus enaguas pesadas.
El quiosco cantarín suelta su cobre
y empieza la vida en la ciudad. Una vez más,
otro río nace. Desciende por mis trenzas
hasta mi corazón.
Las manos de mi madre Pascuala
se tejen en las mías. A veces las heridas
se cierran y queda solamente
el acto de renacer.
The pueblo’s triumph will rise from a torn branch,
in a landscape of a wounded mare and a ruined cornfield.
It will be in your sisters, their instruments transformed
across the world. In the international pollen
the mountain’s sudden conversion
into birds and serpents and women and hard thunder.
* pueblo means village – also people
El triunfo del pueblo emanará de una rama rota,
en un paisaje de yegua herida y un maizal trastornado.
Estará en tus hermanas, sus instrumentos renovados
a través del mundo, en el polen internacional
las montañas que de repente se convierten
en aves y serpientes y mujeres y relámpagos duros.
Juan Felipe Herrera was born in 1948 in California
to parents who were migrant farm-workers.
A Chicano poet, he has been writing for 40 years,
freely combining Spanish and English.
He has been described as “a factory of hybridity”
and “an eclectic virtuoso”.
In these two poems Herrera speaks in the voices
of a Mayan mother, Pascuala (“The pueblo’s triumph…”) and her
daughter Makal (“Morning opens…”)
Herrera’s poem-story, Thunderweavers/Tejedoras de rayos (2000),
is an homage to the Mayan people of Acteal, Chiapas, México,
where paramilitaries massacred townsfolk in 1997.