Alexander Best: “The Soul in darkness”: 12 poems

Sherbourne Street vacant lot 1Sherbourne Street vacant lot 2Vacant lot, Sherbourne Street vacant lot 3

Alexander Best

“The Soul in darkness”


He’s destroyed his health — that much is plain.

A cough that never really leaves,

those hollows under his eyes.

Oh, it wasn’t any one thing he did…

but it all adds up.


Many of his habits were simple.

Taking his tea and a smoke by the window

while the sun rose, after a night of prowling.

He’d bring coffee to homeless guys with

winning, tooth-fractured smiles.

He’d talk to cats in the laneways;  crouched down,

scratched them under their chins.

When money was scarce, still he managed

to buy drinks for charming strangers whose charm vanished

once they asked if he could lend them sixty bucks…


It was no one thing, true,

yet it all added up.

Life diminished him,

no matter what.

.     .     .

Each day brought some small joy or other.

What people called boredom

he called freedom to roam.

He listened to the water rush along the gutter toward the grate

— it was full of energy and romance.

At night when it rained,

he heard the wet wheels of traffic going this way or that

while he lay in his bed.

The city-hall tower was many blocks away,

but once in a while he heard the bell striking the hour,

and it pleased him.

He thought to himself:

this must be what it’s like to live forever.

.     .     .

They started out as friends.

Nearly always, it was good times.

Each trusted him whom he didn’t know.

By the end, they’d hurt one another a lot.

Accidental hurts? It was hard to tell

— but they hit their mark.

By the time it was really over, they’d become strangers

of the type that make up the faceless throng.

.     .     .

The number of times I’ve looked on people with desire.

Turning a corner. In a streetcar, an elevator.

At the cinema, courthouse.

In a glance, I’ve given myself to hundreds, and

I’ve taken thousands.

.     .     .

A beggar asked for change. I rummaged in my pockets.

He took a good look at me, in my old wool greatcoat;

declared:  A blank cheque’ll do.

I smiled, gave him a two-dollar coin.

Noisily my awful boots squish-squished as I

strode up the street.

We both chuckled.

.     .     .

Nothing is clear to me.

Even the cloudless sky.

Every wall is a mirror.

So many years have passed that

some things are easier — time is thoughtful.

But nothing is clear.

.     .     .

The thought of living without him was unbearable.

And yet, that’s just what they’d been doing, for years.

Out of solitude came a knowledge he felt with his whole body:

their love was for all time.

Everywhere he went, he walked with a light step.

.     .     .

I waited.  On the bench

by the massive oak tree.

Noone came.

I stayed too long,

my feet were like lead going home.

But memory calls.

I must go back.

.     .     .

The one dearest to him was ill.

Said his head throbbed, like it was his heart

— a loud beating,

outside his body.

He knew what that was like.

.     .     .

He went out on a limb — the old oak tree.

He sighed. Looked at the rope held coiled in his hand.

A nighthawk squawked.

That’s the wisdom I needed, he whispered aloud.

He lowered himself to the ground, with care

— didn’t want to sprain an ankle.

.     .     .

In the darkness of his room,

one after another, he strikes wooden matches,

leans each one against the inside of a small copper pot.

They spark, then swell to a crisp.  And he says to himself:

Lovely they are, their whole life long.

.     .     .

Meal done, now’s the hour;  some light in the sky still,

and man-made glows begin to warm each room.


spirit’s gone to my belly

— words don’t come…and that’s that.


Poem, shall we lie down, you and I?

And write ourselves tomorrow?

.     .     .

The poet in 2008

The poet in 2008

Editor’s note:

I wrote these poems in 2003 during the years when I went from one temporary job to the next, and was numb from emotional distress in my personal life.  I seemed only to “camp” wherever I was living;  I moved nine times between 1999 to 2010.   Putting furniture out on the street, I would find what I needed for my next room on another curb.  Everyone has crises in his or her life and we respond variously – with adequate action or with the inertia and blah mechanisms of Depression.  I believe that this sequence of poems reflects – in its pensive, wistful, and “world-weary” tone – the influence of Constantine Cavafy (Konstantin Kavafis) whose poems in translation I was discovering at the time.  These poems wrote themselves;  my pen moved across the page of its own accord. The gift of composing Poetry has meant my survival;  I am most grateful for that.

.     .     .     .     .

Poemas para El Día Internacional de la Mujer: una poetisa anishinaabe que deseamos honrar: Joanna Shawana / Poems for International Women’s Day: an Anishinaabe poet we wish to honour: Joanna Shawana

ZP_Manitoulin Island artist Daphne Odjig_Echoes of the Past_Daphne Odjig_Pintora indígena de la Isla de Manitoulin_Ecos del Pasado

ZP_Manitoulin Island artist Daphne Odjig_Echoes of the Past_Daphne Odjig_Pintora indígena de la Isla de Manitoulin_Ecos del Pasado

Joanna Shawana / Niimkiigiihikgad-Kwe

(Anishinaabe poet from Wikwemikong, of the Ojibwe-Odawa First Nations Peoples, Mnidoo Mnis/Manitoulin Island, Ontario)

Grandmother Moon”


During this cold dark night

Grandmother Moon sits high

Above the sky


Our Grandmother

Surrounded with stars

Emphasizing the life of the universe


As the night comes to end

Our Grandmother Moon slowly fades

Over the horizon


To greet Grandfather Sun

To greet him

As the new day begins


Grandmother Moon will rise again

She will shine and guide me on my path

As I walk on this journey.


.     .     .


Joanna Shawana / Niimkiigiihikgad-Kwe

(Poetisa anishinaabe de Wikwemikong, Mnidoo Mnis/Isla de Manitoulin, Ontario, Canadá)

La Luna – Mi Abuela”


Durante esta noche fría y oscura

La Luna Mi Abuela se sienta

Alta en el cielo


Nuestra Abuela

Está rodeada de estrellas

Que hacen hincapié en la vida del universo


Como cierra la noche

Lentamente Nuestra Abuela La Luna destiñe

Encima del horizonte


Para dar la bienvenida al Abuelo El Sol

Para saludarle

Como comienza el nuevo día


Ella saldrá de nuevo, La Luna-Abuela,

Brillará y me guiará en mi camino

Como ando en este paso.


.     .     .


All I Ask”


My fellow woman

My sisters

I am weak

I am hurt

All I ask of you is


Hear what I have to say

Hear what I have to share

I am not here

To be looked down

I am not here

To be judged

For what had happened to me

All I ask of you is


Hear what I have to share

My fellow women

My sisters

Listen to my words

See the pain in my eyes

All I ask of you is


Hear what I have to say

Hear what I have to share

Help me

To get through my pain

Help me

To understand what is happening

Help me

To be a better person

So please

Hear what I have to say

Hear what I have to share.


.     .     .


Todo lo que te pido…”


Mi compañera

Mis hermanas

Soy débil

Estoy dolida

Todo lo que te pido es

Por favor, escucha lo que tengo que decir

Escucha lo que tengo que compartirte

No estoy aquí

Para ser mirada por ustedes por encima del hombro

No estoy aquí

Para ser juzgada de

Lo que me había pasado

Todo lo que les pido es

Por favor, escuchen lo que tengo que compartirles,

Mis compañeras, mis hermanas,

Escuchen mis palabras

Vean el dolor en mis ojos

Todo lo que les pido es

Por favor,

Escuchen lo que tengo que decir

Escuchen lo que tengo que compartirles

Ayúdame a

Superar mi sufrimiento

Ayúdenme a

Comprender lo que pasa

Ayúdenme a

Ser una mejor persona

– Entonces,

Por favor,

Escucha lo que tengo que decirte,

Escuchen lo que tengo que compartir con ustedes…


.     .     .




Hidden secrets

Hidden feelings

Hidden thoughts


Why do people need to hide

Their secrets

Their feelings and thoughts?


What are people afraid of?

Afraid of their own secrets

Afraid of their own feelings and thoughts


How can one person reveal?

To reveal their secrets

To reveal their feelings and thoughts


There is no reason to hide their secrets

There is no reason to hide their feelings

There is no reason to hide their thoughts.


.     .     .




Secretos escondidos

Sentimientos escondidos

Pensamientos escondidos


¿Por qué la gente necesita ocultar algo?

Ocultar sus secretos, sus sentimientos y sus pensamientos


¿De qué tiene miedo la gente?

Tiene miedo de sus propios secretos,

Tiene miedo de sus corazonadas y sus ideas


¿Cómo revele una persona?

A revelar sus secretos

A revelar sus pensamientos


No hay razón para ser una tumba

No hay razón para engañarse a sí mismo sus sentimientos

No hay razón para esconder sus pensamientos.


.     .     .


“Wandering Spirit”


This wandering spirit of mine

Wanders off to the world of the unknown

The unknown of today and tomorrow


This wandering spirit of mine

Waits to hear your voice

Waits to listen for what will be said


This wandering spirit of mine

– Help me to discover the unknown

– Help me to understand

What the unknown needs to offer


Help this wandering spirit

That wanders off to the world of the unknown

That wonders what the future holds


This wandering spirit of mine

– Help me find peace and harmony

– Help me find tranquillity in life.


.     .     .


“Espíritu vagabundo”


Mi espíritu vagabundo

Se aleja al mundo de lo desconocido

Lo desconocido de hoy, de mañana


Este espíritu mío errante

Está aguardando tu voz

Está aguardando por lo que diremos


Espíritu mío, espíritu vagabundo

– Ayúdame a descubrir lo desconocido

– Ayúdame a entender

Lo que lo desconocido necesita ofrecerme


Ayúda a este espíritu errante

Que se aleja al mundo de lo desconocido

Y que se pregunta lo que va a contener el futuro


Este espíritu mío, mi espíritu andante

– Ayúdame a encontrar la paz y la armonía

– Ayúdame a encontrar la tranquilidad en la vida.


Walk with Me”


Come and walk with me

On this path

Which I am walking on


We might slip and fall

To the cycle

That we once lived in


Let us

Help each other to understand

What we have been through


Let us walk together

Come and hold my hand

Hold it tight and never let go


Come and walk with me

Let us find what our future holds for us

Let us walk together on this path.


.     .     .


Camina conmigo”


Ven – camina conmigo

A lo largo de este camino

Donde estoy caminando


Resbalemos y caigamos

Al ciclo

Que estaba nuestra vida


Ayudémonos a comprender,

La una a la otra,

Lo que salimos adelante, lo que sobrevivimos


Caminemos juntos,

Ven – toma mi mano –

Agárrate bien – nunca suéltame la mano


Ven – camina conmigo

Busquemos lo que habrá para nosotros en el futuro

Caminemos juntos en este camino.



.     .     .

Joanna Shawana moved down to Toronto in 1988.  She began writing in 1994.  A single parent, and now a grandmother, she has worked for an agency providing services to Native people in the city – Anishnawbe Health Toronto.  Her bio. from her book of poems Voice of an Eagle states:  A Catholic upbringing clashed with Native heritage teachings, which confused her path.  However, through the years she gained more knowledge from her Native elders and began to clearly understand what it meant to be Nishnawbe Kwe (Native Woman).  Thus, her journey in stabilizing her identity began…   Joanna writes:  ” When I look back and see what I have left behind, inside I cry for the little girl who witnessed that life, the teenager who was abused, and the woman who almost gave in, but I know now that my inner strength will never allow me to leave my path.  Healing is a continuous part of life and it will be so until the day comes that the Creators call me.  So as you travel along your path,  remember – do not give in or give up! ”


Joanna Shawana fue víctima de mucho maltrato durante su juventud, también como una mujer joven.  Desde 1988 ha vivido en la ciudad de Toronto donde trabaja con la agencia indígena Fortaleza de Anishnawbe Toronto.  Dice:  ” La curación es una parte continua de la vida y ésa será hasta que el día que me llamarán los Creadores.  Entonces, mientras viajas en tu camino, recuerda –  ¡no te des por vencido y no dejes de intentar! ”


Translations into Spanish / Traducciones en español:   Alexander Best

.     .     .     .     .

Ngày Quốc tế Phụ nữ : Thơ Việt Nam / Poems for International Women’s Day : Vietnamese Voices : “I have crushed my dreams and turned them into a life…”

Untitled_photograph © photographer An-My Lê, born 1960

Untitled_photograph © photographer An-My Lê, born 1960

Dieu Nhan (Buddhist nun, 1041-1113)

“Birth, Old Age, Sickness, Death”


Birth, old age, sickness, death

Are commonplace and natural.

Should we seek relief from one,

Another will surely consume us.

Blind are those praying to Buddha,

Duped are those praying in Zen.

Pray not in Zen or to Buddha,

Speak not. Linger with silence.


(translation: Huu Ngoc, Lady Borton)

Buddhist nun Dieu Nhan_Birth, old age, sickness, death

Dam Phuong (1881-1947)

“Flood Relief” (around 1928)


Harsh winds and the relentless rains drown

Districts that were once Thanh Hoa towns,

Swirling them down river, the water brown.

Warn the world: Silence is a stand,


Silence without opening your heart and hand.

Labourers reach out in crises of need,

Women with their gentleness take a lead,

Only then do the palace chiefs heed.


From this time on, we understand “kindness”,

Everyone joining in to ease public distress,

Those from humble trades with help appear,

Women draw on friends far and near.


(translation: Lady Borton)

Dam Phuong_Flood Relief

Mong Tuyet (1914-2007)

“The price of rice in Tràng An” (1945)

(for Van Muoi, clerk at a flower shop in Tri Duc Garden)


I hear the price of rice in Trang An is high.

Starving for food, thirsting for life-saving rain,

Our friends and family in the centre and the north

Are desperately hoping rice will be sent from Dong Nai.


Grief dazes our nation’s artists.

You encouraged me to study poetry,

You want to release the ink of my poetic spirit.

Lost in a literary forest, I was building a road out.


I carried your books back home.

The people awaiting rice are in agony.

Sister, with my poor skills, how can I help?

You’d answer:

“I’ll sell literature, you sell flowers.”


(translation: Xuan Oanh, Lady Borton)

Tràng An is an old name for the city of HaNoi.

An important railway route and main road lay destroyed at the end of WWII,

hence rice did not reach enough people.

In Viet Nam, two million people had died of starvation by the end of the war.


Mong Tuyet_The price of rice in Trang An

Tran Thi My Hanh (born 1945)

“The road repair team at Jade Beauty Mountain” (1968)


Jade Beauty Mountain at Van River

Deserted at mid-day, buzzes with heat.

The mountain looks like a beautiful girl

Reclining, her eyes searching the azure sky.


Clouds like friends surround the Beauty.

Below are women workers from a road team,

Their youth and strength breaking a new trail,

Their hands skilled with hoes and quick with guns.


Pity the road circling the mountain,

Bomb craters slashing into bomb craters,

Olive trees, oak trees blackened with resin,

The birds scattered, ripped from their flocks,

Every rock on Beauty Mountain cringing in pain,

The earth tumbling down into the lowland paddies,

Night after night as the Beauty Mountain lies awake.

The women repairing the road are uneasy;

With torches, they search their way forward.

For them, a bite of dried bread is a delicious treat.


The green jackets that arrived yesterday

Were completely mended today (it was nothing).

Despite beating sun, pouring rain and bitter smoke,

The chop chop of hoes lifts skyward until after midnight.


The battlefield is here – The Front is here,

We fight the enemy for every inch of this road,

We shovel, shovel rock that smells of the mountain,

Our blood and sweat blending with the mountain’s basalt.


I hear the startling horns of passing trucks,

Feel my blood and the road’s blood pulse as one.

We, women with hearts as pure and dazzling as jade,

Stretch in a silhouette along the ridge of Beauty Mountain.


(translation: Lady Borton)

Jade Beauty Mountain is in northern Viet Nam’s Red River Delta. Route 1 is nearby,

and this major north-south road served as supply route during the U.S.–VietNam War.

Route 1 was bombed often by American planes.

Tran Thi My Hanh_The road repair team at Jade Beauty Mountain_part 1Tran Thi My Hanh_The road repair team at Jade Beauty Mountain_part 2

Ha Phuong (born 1950)

“A meal by a stream” (1971)


A platoon of twelve

Four mess kits of cold rice

A packet of jerky

Wild vegetables from the forest

A minute to rest by a stream.

The fire hisses, as if urging the soup to boil –


With no dining table,

Some stand, some sit.

The steep mountain pass has quickened our hunger,

We hastily spread a leaf to make a small tray;

A mouthful of dry rice

When you’re hungry is delectable.


Jokes, teasing, the crisp sound of laughter,

A mess kit of cold rice, a few minutes’ pause.

“There’s still salt. The rice is tasty…”

The sound of laughter

The sound of laughter spreads.


Our unit’s meal is strangely joyful:

We’re far from our parents

But share the love of comrades.

On the Trail these days as we fight the Americans,

Our forest meals are delicious feasts.


(translation: Lady Borton)

Ha Phoung_A meal by a stream

Thuy Bac (1937-1996)

“Thread of Longing, Thread of Love” (1977)


Truong Son East

Truong Son West


On one side, sun burns

On the other, rain circles


I extend my hand

I open my hand



To cover you


Pull this thread of love

To splice a roof


Pull this thread of longing

To weave a blue dome


Bend the Eastern Range

To cover you from the rain


Bend the Western Range

To spread a cool shadow


Canopy the sky with love

Of purest blue


I bend everything

Toward you.


(translation: Le Phuong, Wendy Erd)

The Ho Chi Minh Trail – a series of old mountain paths used for supply routes

by the North VietNamese during the U.S.–VietNam War –

passed through Truong Son (the Long Mountains).


Thuy Bac_Thread of longing, thread of love

Doan Ngoc Thu (born 1967)

“The city in the afternoon rain” (1992)

Doan Ngoc Thu_The city in the afternoon rain

The city in the afternoon rain:

A beggar sits singing

A song from the war.


The city in the afternoon rain:

Roaming children

Vie for the bubbles they blow

And for fallen almonds.


The city in the afternoon rain:

Near a small roadside inn,

Cigarette ashes eddy with a burnt match

And a return ticket filled with nostalgia.


The city in the afternoon rain:

Suddenly I run into you,

You’re just as before – proud and harsh.

You step silently through the rain

To the beggar’s side

And weep –

At the song echoing the time of war.


(translation: Xuan Oanh, Lady Borton)

The war referred to is the U.S.–VietNam War.

.     .     .

Untitled, Nam Ha, 1994 © An-My Lê

Untitled, Nam Ha, 1994 © An-My Lê

.     .     .

Tran Mong Tu (born 1943)

“Lonely Cat” (1980)


The cat sprawls in the yard

Lonely, playing with sunlight.

Inside the window

Lonely, I’m watching him.


On grass green as jade,

Alone, his white back spins.

Sun shimmers down, drop by drop

The cat turns round my sadness.


I see myself in the glass,

A dim shadow, its outline vague:

The gate to marriage shut tight,

Imprisoning me so gently.


The cat has his corner of grass,

I, my dim pane.

We two, so small.

Our loneliness uncontained.


Dear cat in the sun,

Assuage my sadness.

My ancient homeland, my former lover,

Still soak my soul.


(translation: Le Phuong, Wendy Erd)

Tran Mong Tu_The lonely cat

Tran Thi Khanh Hoi (born 1957)

“The Pregnant Woman” (1990)

Tranh Thi Khanh Hoi_The pregnant woman

She came to me,

Her eyes like the waves of a river in flood,

Her voice choking

At its source, then gushing like a waterfall,

Her breasts throbbing with milk about to flow,

Her unborn child kicking at my side.

In a few days, birth will release

The child’s hands and feet, its wails and cries,

But right now the mother sits waiting in weariness,

Like an arid field as the rising flood approaches its limit.


Angry at her husband, who won’t stop drinking,

She’s been pregnant throughout a season of hard labour.

Fears about her ill-treated baby

Have aged her,

Have left her fearful

Of the wealthy screaming for the money owed them,

Unmoved by the pain of a worried

Woman who is pregnant.


She came to me,

Seeking consolation, protection, sympathy.

What could I say when we can’t stop the inevitable?

The time is soon for this pregnant woman.

I swim through waves of silt from the flood,

Tonight –


(translation: Xuan Oanh, Lady Borton)

.     .     .

Men and Joy of Cooking, 2010 © Dinh Thi Tham Poong, born 1970

Men and Joy of Cooking, 2010 © Dinh Thi Tham Poong, born 1970

.     .     .

Huong Nghiem (born 1945)

“I don’t know” (1991)


Thinking of

The endless Universe,

I am suddenly aware:

The sun is very small.

Thinking of

Endless love,

I realize:

I am limited by you.

Instead of letting my own ego expand,

I am absorbed

In scrubbing

Your shirt collar clean.

But to what end

I don’t know.


(translation: Nguyen Quang Thieu, Lady Borton)

Huong Nghiem_I don't know

Le Thu (born 1940)

“My Poem” (1990)


I want you to be the ocean

Never ending, forever strange.

But I fear your heart may run too deep

For me to reach its limits.


I want you to be a river

Depositing rich soil on its banks.

But I fear the river’s length;

When does flowing water return?


I want to hear your words in a vow

To be sure you are mine forever.

But I fear flying high unfettered;

Yet how can I bind your wings?


I want you to be the moon,

Full on the fifteenth of the lunar month,

But I fear the next days’ waning;

Would our love also fade with the season?


So! You should be a poem

Gently entering my heart.

Then, our love forever young

Can be compassionate and complete!


(translation: Xuan Oanh, Lady Borton)

Le Thu_My poem

Nguyen Bao Chan (born 1969)

“For my father” (1995)


Looking at your hands

I see the lines

Splitting into the future and an exhausting past

I see also the sky of my youth,

How I drifted in dreams, following the moon and stars.


Time has rushed on

I have crushed my dreams and turned them into a life

I have held the broken pieces of your life in these frail hands

I have ground the shards to bluntness, ground them some more,

In order to live, love, and protect myself.

If ever I’m inattentive to you, broken

And reduced to pieces,

I know you will pick up the shards

Even though they cut your hands and give you pain.


(translation: Lady Borton)

Nguyen Bao Chan_For my father

Y Nhi (born 1944)

“Longing” (1998)

Y Nhi_Longing

To leave

like a boat pulling away from a dock at dawn

while waves touch the sandbar, saying goodbye


Like a still-green leaf torn from a branch

leaving only a slight break in the wood


Like a deep purple orchid

gradually fading and

then one day closing off like an old cocoon


To leave

like a radiant china vase displayed on a brightly lit shelf,

as the vase starts to crack


Like a lovely poem ripped from a newspaper

first sad

then elated

as it flies off like a butterfly in late summer


Like an engagement ring

slipping off a finger

and hiding itself among pebbles


To leave

like a woman walking away from her love.


(translation: Thuy Dinh, Martha Collins)

.     .     .

My Angel 1_2007 © Nguyen Thi Chau Giang, born 1975

My Angel 1_2007 © Nguyen Thi Chau Giang, born 1975

.     .     .

Lam Thi My Da (born 1949)

“I return to myself” (2004)


Free the moon for its fullness,

Free the clouds for the wind,

Free the colour green for the grass.

I return to myself.


Free the gentle girls

To be unaffected;

Free people from suffering,

From competing for fame,

Free them all, free them all.

I return to myself.


Free teenage girls

From hiding away,

Free grey hair

To be white forever.


Everyone carries a smile

To chase away tears.

Joy has colours,

Sorrow is transparent.

I return to myself.


Poetry is the scarlet of blood

Seeping into the voice.

Life has untold blessings and disasters;

We sow, then unexpectedly reap.


The weary can never rest,

The pained can no longer cry,

The silent ones are like shadows.

I return to myself.


Luckily, a small child

Remains inside the soul,

Her gaze fresh,

Shimmering at the roots,

Her heart still naive.

I return to myself.


(translation: Xuan Oanh, Lady Borton)

Lam Thi My Da_I return to myself_part 1Lam Thi My Da_I return to myself_part 2

.     .     .     .     .

All of the above translations from Vietnamese into English are the copyright © of the following translators:

Huu Ngoc, Lady Borton, Le Phuong, Martha Collins, Nguyen Quang Thieu, Thuy Dinh, Wendy Erd, and Xuan Oanh.

This compilation of poems is the copyright © of editors Nguyen Thi Minh Ha, Nguyen Thi Thanh Binh, and Lady Borton.

.     .     .     .     .