Poems from “The Cycle” (1943)
These poems, distilled from my experience,
Exactly tell my feelings of today,
The cruel and the vicious and the tense
Conditions which have hedged my bitter way
Of life. But though I suffered much I bore
My cross and lived to put my trouble in song
– I stripped down harshly to the naked core
Of hatred based on the essential wrong!
But tomorrow, I may sing another tune,
No critic, white or black, can tie me down,
Maybe a fantasy of a fairy moon,
Or the thorns the soldiers weaved for Jesus’ crown,
For I, a poet, can soar with unclipped wings,
From earth to heaven, while chanting of all things.
. . .
The millionaire from Boston likes to write,
His letters scintillate the daily news.
He wrote a Left-ish paper to indict
My thoughts of Negroes – and oppose my views.
He has a Negro friend and thinks, therefore,
Himself authority on the Negro race,
And whites and blacks who disagree are poor
Damned fools who know their sole not from their face.
Our millionaire was once a Socialist,
But thought his party wrong on World War Two,
So liberal turned, like many who enlist,
In this grand fight for good old life or new.
I will not hint it was safer for his money,
For that would neither be polite or funny.
. . .
Where the Bostonian lives – I’m not aware,
Perhaps Waldorf or Astor shelters him,
In New York or some good place of lesser fare,
But Harlem’s out of bounds – dismal and grim.
And he is one of those who like to parrot
The popular song of Negro segregation,
His features lengthen and redden like a carrot,
When he pours all into his agitation
Of Negro separation from the white.
It is this thing that offers us no hope,
That understanding whites with blacks unite
To make the slogan of the Negro group.
In these times when means are sufficient to ends,
My prayer to God is: Save us from our friends!
. . .
In Southern states distinctions that they draw
Are clear like starshine in the firmament,
But in the North we’re equal under the law,
Which white men make their plans and circumvent.
What law can hold whites in a Northern street,
When blacks move in? They flee as from the devil,
As if God quickly energized their feet,
To take them far from the impending evil.
Meanwhile the ghoulish landlords rents inflate,
To save them from the inevitable slump,
For banks down Negro homes to lowest rate,
And soon the street becomes a Negro dump.
Oh Segregation! Negro leaders bawl,
And white liberals join them at the wailing wall.
. . .
I wonder who these wealthy whites are fooling
– themselves, the poor whites or the poor black folk?
To imagine that their smooth, infantile drooling
Will make the poor whites shoulder black men’s yoke.
Why should poor whites aspiring to those things
Their rich possess by black men be encumbered,
Pay heed to hypocrites who are pulling strings,
Merely among the “leaders” to be numbered?
Were I a poor white I would never surrender
My privilege to advance as other whites,
But let the powerful group be the defender
Of decency and progress – people’s rights.
Their wealth and privilege and education
Should teach them how to serve the entire nation.
Our boys and girls are taught in Negro schools
That they are just like other Americans,
And grow up educated semi-fools,
And ripe for spurious words of charlatans.
The group from which they spring they all despise,
For they imagine that if not for it,
They’d have a better chance in the world to rise,
Instead of being branded as unfit!
Thus they are ready for any crazy scheme
That carries with it an offer of escape,
Although elusive as a bright sunbeam,
Or empty as the cranium of an ape.
But thus we’re educated, friends and brothers,
To the American way of life – just like the others.
. . .
There is a new thing, pretty and dime-bright,
Which subtly they are peddling through the states:
That Negro people have turned anti-white,
With trembling whites afraid within their gates!
The Cracker grabbed the Negro by the neck,
And New York’s Irish fought him tooth and nail,
But neither ever cried to him: By heck!
You must love us white people without fail.
This new thing started out in New York City,
With one main object: To hum-bug the nation,
And rob the Negro of all human pity,
And multiply his harsh humiliation:
To make blacks anti-white and anti-semitic
Is just a damnable oriental trick!
. . .
Now I should like to ask for illustration
– why should blacks be overwhelmed with love of whites?
Does the Jew waste love on the German nation
for dooming him to mediaeval nights?
There are German thousands who are not anti-Jew
– more than friends of blacks in the U.S.A., perhaps –
But all are blamed for what the Nazis do,
And must take the righteous world’s unfriendly raps.
Now I do love the United States, so grand
In bigness, frankness – and brutality,
Love it because this great amazing land
Is so free from the Old World’s hypocrisy:
But this new Negro anti-white-ism rumour
– why? has America no sense of humour?
The Communists know how Negro life’s restricted
To very special grooves in this vast land,
And so pursue and persecute the afflicted,
Hiding betimes their bloody Levantine hand.
From futile propaganda they have turned
To welfare work and local politics,
Where plums are big and sweet and can be earned
By playing hard the game with devilish tricks.
For the Negro people, for so long plaything
Of elephant and ass the C.P. has a role,
They seek to tie their leaders with a string,
And thus over the Negroes get control.
And they use means foreign to our Western way,
That should make the elephant roar and the donkey bray.
. . .
When I go out into the crowded street
And a white person smiles – I return the smile,
Stop not to ask the motive, for my feet
Are busy like thousands in the usual style.
I want not to find out what whites say “nigger”:
I have never been curious to know,
Nor do I want to waste my time to figure
How many are anti-black, how many pro!
I do not wear a chip upon my shoulder,
As I go elbowing among the crowd,
I do not feel I am the perfect holder
Of my race’s honour, arrogantly proud.
I’m only a human being – if you will let me –
Taking a sidewalk jaunt with naught to fret me.
. . .
Whichever way the whites may writhe and squirm,
The fact remains that Negroes are suppressed,
Kept underfoot as far down as a worm
– Jews under Nazis are not more unblest.
If Hitler ever gets Jews to their knees
– as abjectly as Negroes in these States –
Then baiting of the Jews at once will cease,
For they’ll be of all bereft without the gates!
So expect me not a hypocrite to say
Some other people is worse off than mine,
For facts remain in war and peace to flay
The falsehoods from the propaganda line.
If I tell the truth, it may not be in vain,
To another suffering group it may bring gain.
. . .
Lord, let me not be silent while we fight
In Europe Germans, Asia Japanese,
For setting up a Fascist way of might
While fifteen million Negroes on their knees
Pray for salvation from the Fascist yoke
Of these United States. Remove the beam
(Nearly two thousand years since Jesus spoke)
From your own eye before the mote you deem
It proper from your neighbour’s to extract!
We bathe our lies in vapours of sweet myrrh,
And close our eyes not to perceive the fact!
But Jesus said: You whited sepulchre,
Pretending to be uncorrupt of sin,
While worm-infested, rotten stinking within!
These intellectuals do not want to face
Our problems here: Europe is Fascist but
– why fifteen million Negroes in their place
Know that it’s Fascism keeps them in the rut!
The Fascist white South rules this land again,
Its sons are dominant in the armed forces,
(Its daughters marry powerful Northern men)
And incontestably shape the Negroes’ courses.
The South completely rules in Washington,
In industry takes all the better jobs,
The nation tells what with “niggers” should be done,
And set the paces for our Northern snobs!
Oh, go to Russia, my lily-white writer friend,
And leave the South our liberties to defend!
. . .
Of course, we have Democracy but it
Is plain Fascist Democracy for whites,
Where fifteen million blacks are not thought fit
To partake of Democracy’s delights.
The fact is we are not considered human
By our rulers who control from birth to tomb,
Are not considered children born of woman,
As whites who issue from their mother’s womb!
Since Colour is the most expressive brand
Of American Fascism and forms its basis,
Europe, of course, we cannot understand,
Where Fascism thrives on differences of races.
So Europe we must conquer, educate
The World by mark of colour to separate.
. . .
America said: Now, we’ve left Europe’s soil
With its deep national jealousies and hates,
Its religious prejudices and turmoil,
To build a better home within our gates.
English and German, French, Italian,
And Jew and Catholic and Protestant,
Yes, every European, every man
Is equal in this new abode, God grant.
And Africans were here as chattel slaves,
But never considered human flesh and blood,
Until their presence stirred the whites in waves
To sweep beyond them, onward like a flood,
To seek a greater freedom for their kind,
Leaving the blacks still half-slaves, dumb and blind.
. . .
This is the New World that we left the old
To build, here in America, they say.
From kings and lords and gentlemen bad and bold,
We turned to follow life the Indian way.
From oppressive priests and creeds to find release,
And feel the air around us really free,
To found a place where man may live in peace,
And grow and flower and bear fruit like a tree.
But from the beginning the Old World’s hand
Was heavy on the movement of the new,
Though wars and revolutions shook the land,
The grip remained and even tighter grew,
Until the New World opened up its gates
As an outpost of the Old World’s feuds and hates.
Oh can a Negro chant a hymn
And say, My task is yours
Oh fill my glass up to the brim,
This war, white man is ours.
Oh can he feel as white men do,
He’s fighting over there,
To save some precious thing and true
From dire destruction here?
Oh Lord, help us to understand,
For us, can it be sin
Not to feel smart and over grand
When battles white men win?
Oh Lord, grant us a ray of light,
For this we surely need,
Black children groping in the night
Of Christian chaos and greed.
WE want to live as white men live,
Oh even as they do –
But let us not ourselves deceive
“To thine own self be true.”
In wartime there are basic rights,
We can’t give up, oh Lord,
So help us to discern the lights,
According to thy word.
. . .
No lady of the land will praise my book.
It would not even be brought to her attention,
By those advising where and how to look
For items which make favourable mention.
Because my writings are not party stuff,
For those who follow the old trodden track.
There are nothing of the tricks – the whine and bluff –
Which make politicians jump to slap your back!
Because I show the Negro stripped of tricks,
As classic as a piece of African art,
Without the frills and mask of politics,
But a human being cast to play a part.
A human being standing at the bar
of Life, with face turned upward to a star.
. . .
Claude McKay, (1889-1948, born in Clarendon parish, Jamaica), is remembered as one of the founding literary voices of The Harlem Renaissance, and as the foremost Left-wing, Black-American intellectual of the 1920s through ’40s. A militant atheist once he emigrated to Harlem in the teens, he would end his career as a poet with a series of intense declamatory poems after his conversion to Catholicism before his death. Inbetween times the discreetly-bisexual McKay would publish tender, non-gender-specific love poems, as well as Race and Class-conscious verse. The Harlem Renaissance’s seminal poem collection was McKay’s Harlem Shadows (1922), and he would also pen a novel and a volume of short stories: Home to Harlem (1928) and Gingertown (1932). In 2012, an unknown McKay manuscript from 1941 was authenticated via the Samuel Roth Papers in Columbia University’s archives: Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem. This unpublished work centres on ideas and events – such as Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia – that animated intellectually the Harlem of 1935-1936.
. . .
McKay’s 1943 “The Cycle” series of poems – 18 of which are reproduced here – consisted of 53 mostly sonnets which took as their subject matter a complex amalgam of The War Effort, Fascism/Communism/Democracy, Race Relations and Racism, plus Segregation in the U.S.A.
Biographer William J. Maxwell (Complete Poems, published in 2004) describes McKay as a “worker-intellectual” of the international Labour Movement whose oeuvre as a poet has been difficult to categorize – indeed he has been roundly criticized – because of his “form-content schizophrenia”. By this Maxwell means: a form of modified traditional (English or Shakespearean) sonnet – 14 verses structured as 8 and 6, in iambic pentametre – with a Black Intellectual Radical’s content. Yet though McKay was definitely not involved with the 20th-century’s high-Modernist experiments in poetic form, still he “inverts the sonnet form’s orthodox emotion” – even as he adheres precisely to the structure. McKay’s passion – idealistic yet bitter, and angry with ‘a clean hatred’, as Maxwell calls it – is everywhere in evidence, whether he decries the Negro bootlicker or the White false-Liberal. “Cycle” poems not included here include: #31, about Westbrook Pegler (1894-1969), a Right-wing journalist and champion of fake populism whom McKay describes as “the great interpreter of the American mediocre mind”; #45, about Sufi Abdul Hamid (born Eugene Brown, 1903-1938),
who was a Harlem religious and labour leader – nicknamed The Black Hitler; and #50, about Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), the Jamaican-born Black-nationalist / pan-Africanist orator, whom McKay rightly deems to be an underappreciated hero.
. . . . .
Zbigniew Herbert (Poland, 1924-1998)
What our dead can do
Jan came this morning
—I dreamt of my father
he was riding in an oak coffin
I walked next to the hearse
and father turned to me:
you dressed me nicely
and the funeral is very beautiful
at this time of year so many flowers
it must have cost a lot
don’t worry about it father
—I say—let people see
we loved you
that we spared nothing
six men in black livery
walk nicely at our sides
father thought for a while
and said—the key to the desk
is in the silver inkwell
there is still some money
in the second drawer on the left
with this money—I say—
we will buy you a gravestone
a large one of black marble
it isn’t necessary—says father—
better give it to the poor
six men in black livery
walk nicely at our sides
they carry burning lanterns
again he seemed to be thinking
—take care of the flowers in the garden
cover them for the winter
I don’t want them to be wasted
you are the oldest—he says—
from a little felt bag behind the painting
take out the cuff links with real pearls
let them bring you luck
my mother gave them to me
when I finished high school
then he didn’t say anything
he must have entered a deeper sleep
this is how our dead
look after us
they warn us through dreams
bring back lost money
hunt for jobs
whisper the numbers of lottery tickets
or when they can’t do this
knock with their fingers on the windows
and out of gratitude
we imagine immortality for them
snug as the burrow of a mouse.
. . .
from the collection Elegia na odejście (Elegy for the Departure), published in 1990
Translation from Polish into English © 1999, John and Bogdana Carpenter
. . . . .
Zbigniew Herbert (Poland, 1924-1998)
Report from the Besieged City
Too old to carry arms and fight like the others –
they graciously gave me the inferior role of chronicler
I record – I don’t know for whom – the history of the siege
I am supposed to be exact but I don’t know when the invasion began
two hundred years ago in December in September perhaps yesterday at dawn
everyone here suffers from a loss of the sense of time
all we have left is the place the attachment to the place
we still rule over the ruins of temples spectres of gardens and houses
if we lose the ruins nothing will be left
I write as I can in the rhythm of interminable weeks
monday: empty storehouses a rat became the unit of currency
tuesday: the mayor murdered by unknown assailants
wednesday: negotiations for a cease-fire the enemy has imprisoned our messengers
we don’t know where they are held that is the place of torture
thursday: after a stormy meeting a majority of voices rejected
the motion of the spice merchants for unconditional surrender
friday: the beginning of the plague saturday: our invincible defender
N.N. committed suicide sunday: no more water we drove back
an attack at the eastern gate called the Gate of the Alliance
all of this is monotonous I know it can’t move anyone
I avoid any commentary I keep a tight hold on my emotions I write about the facts
only they it seems are appreciated in foreign markets
yet with a certain pride I would like to inform the world
that thanks to the war we have raised a new species of children
our children don’t like fairy tales they play at killing
awake and asleep they dream of soup of bread and bones
just like dogs and cats
in the evening I like to wander near the outposts of the city
along the frontier of our uncertain freedom.
I look at the swarms of soldiers below their lights
I listen to the noise of drums barbarian shrieks
truly it is inconceivable the City is still defending itself
the siege has lasted a long time the enemies must take turns
nothing unites them except the desire for our extermination
Goths the Tartars Swedes troops of the Emperor regiments of the Transfiguration
who can count them
the colours of their banners change like the forest on the horizon
from delicate bird’s yellow in spring through green through red to winter’s black
and so in the evening released from facts I can think
about distant ancient matters for example our
friends beyond the sea I know they sincerely sympathize
they send us flour lard sacks of comfort and good advice
they don’t even know their fathers betrayed us
our former allies at the time of the second Apocalypse
their sons are blameless they deserve our gratitude therefore we are grateful
they have not experienced a siege as long as eternity
those struck by misfortune are always alone
the defenders of the Dalai Lama the Kurds the Afghan mountaineers
now as I write these words the advocates of conciliation
have won the upper hand over the party of inflexibles
a normal hesitation of moods fate still hangs in the balance
cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller
yet the defence continues it will continue to the end
and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City
we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all – the face of betrayal
and only our dreams have not been humiliated.
. . .
from Raport z oblężonego Miasta i inne wiersze (Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems), published in 1982, English translation © 1983, John and Bogdana Carpenter
. . .
Here is the poem in its original Polish:
Raport z oblężonego Miasta
Zbyt stary żeby nosić broń i walczyć jak inni –
wyznaczono mi z łaski poślednią rolę kronikarza
zapisuję – nie wiadomo dla kogo – dzieje oblężenia
mam być dokładny lecz nie wiem kiedy zaczął się najazd
przed dwustu laty w grudniu wrześniu może wczoraj o świcie
wszyscy chorują tutaj na zanik poczucia czasu
pozostało nam tylko miejsce przywiązanie do miejsca
jeszcze dzierżymy ruiny świątyń widma ogrodów i domów
jeśli stracimy ruiny nie pozostanie nic
piszę tak jak potrafię w rytmie nieskończonych tygodni
poniedziałek: magazyny puste jednostką obiegową stał się szczur
wtorek: burmistrz zamordowany przez niewiadomych sprawców
środa: rozmowy o zawieszeniu broni nieprzyjaciel internował posłów
nie znamy ich miejsca pobytu to znaczy miejsca kaźni
czwartek: po burzliwym zebraniu odrzucono większością głosów
wniosek kupców korzennych o bezwarunkowej kapitulacji
piątek: początek dżumy sobota: popełnił samobójstwo
N. N. niezłomny obrońca niedziela: nie ma wody odparliśmy
szturm przy bramie wschodniej zwanej Bramą Przymierza
wiem monotonne to wszystko nikogo nie zdoła poruszyć
unikam komentarzy emocje trzymam w karbach piszę o faktach
podobno tylko one cenione są na obcych rynkach
ale z niejaką dumą pragnę donieść światu
że wyhodowaliśmy dzięki wojnie nową odmianę dzieci
nasze dzieci nie lubią bajek bawią się w zabijanie
na jawie i we śnie marzą o zupie chlebie i kości
zupełnie jak psy i koty
wieczorem lubię wędrować po rubieżach Miasta
wzdłuż granic naszej niepewnej wolności
patrzę z góry na mrowie wojsk ich światła
słucham hałasu bębnów barbarzyńskich wrzasków
doprawdy niepojęte że Miasto jeszcze się broni
oblężenie trwa długo wrogowie muszą się zmieniać
nic ich nie łączy poza pragnieniem naszej zagłady
Goci Tatarzy Szwedzi hufce Cesarza pułki Przemienienia Pańskiego
kto ich policzy
kolory sztandarów zmieniają się jak las na horyzoncie
od delikatnej ptasiej żółci na wiosnę przez zieleń czerwień do zimowej czerni
tedy wieczorem uwolniony od faktów mogę pomyśleć
o sprawach dawnych dalekich na przykład o naszych
sprzymierzeńcach za morzem wiem współczują szczerze
ślą mąkę worki otuchy tłuszcz i dobre rady
nie wiedzą nawet że nas zdradzili ich ojcowie
nasi byli alianci z czasów drugiej Apokalipsy
synowie są bez winy zasługują na wdzięczność więc jesteśmy wdzięczni
nie przeżyli długiego jak wieczność oblężenia
ci których dotknęło nieszczęście są zawsze samotni
obrońcy Dalajlamy Kurdowie afgańscy górale
teraz kiedy piszę te słowa zwolennicy ugody
zdobyli pewną przewagę nad stronnictwem niezłomnych
zwykłe wahanie nastrojów losy jeszcze się ważą
cmentarze rosną maleje liczba obrońców
ale obrona trwa i będzie trwała do końca
i jeśli Miasto padnie a ocaleje jeden
on będzie niósł Miasto w sobie po drogach wygnania
on będzie Miasto
patrzymy w twarz głodu twarz ognia twarz śmierci
najgorszą ze wszystkich – twarz zdrady
i tylko sny nasze nie zostały upokorzone
. . . . .
Carolyn Forché (born 1950, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A.)
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
. . .
Carolyn Forché (nacida en 1950, Detroit, Michigan, EE.UU.)
Lo que has oído es verdad. Estuve en su casa. Su mujer llevaba
una bandeja con café y azúcar. Su hija se limaba las uñas, su
hijo salió esa noche. Había periódicos, perritos, una pistola
sobre el cojín a su lado. La luna se mecía desnuda con su
cuerda negra encima de la casa. En la televisión daban un
programa policíaco. Era en inglés. Había botellas rotas
empotradas en la cerca que rodeaba la casa para arrancar las
rodilleras de un hombre o cortar sus manos en pedazos. En
las ventanas, rejas como las de las tiendas de licores. Cenamos
cordero a la parrilla, un buen vino; una campanilla de oro estaba
sobre la mesa para llamar a la criada. Ella nos trajo mangos
verdes, sal, un pan especial. Me preguntaron si me gustaba el
país. Hubo un breve anuncio en español. Su mejor se lo llevó
todo. Luego se habló sobre lo difícil que ahora resultaba
gobernar. El loro dijo “hola” en la terraza. El coronel le dijo
que se callara, y se levantó pesadamente de la mesa. Mi amigo
me dijo con sus ojos: no digas nada. El coronel volvió con
una bolsa de las que se usan para traer comestibles a casa.
Esparció muchas orejas humanas sobre la mesa. Eran como
orejones dulces partidos en dos. No hay otra manera de decirlo.
Cogió una en sus manos, la sacudió en nuestra presencia, y la
dejó caer en un vaso de agua. Allí revivió. Estoy hasta las
narices de tonterías, dijo. En cuanto a los derechos humanos,
dile a tu gente que se joda. Con su brazo tiró todas las orejas
al suelo y levantó en el aire el resto de su vino. Algo para tu
poesía, ¿no?, me dijo. Algunas orejas del suelo recogieron este
retazo de su voz. Algunas orejas del suelo fueron aplastadas
contra la tierra.
Mayo de 1978
Traducción del inglés: Noël Valis
. . .
Jaime Suárez Quemain (Salvadorean poet and journalist, 1949-1980)
“A Collective Shot”
In my country, sir,
men carry a padlock
on their mouths,
only when alone do they meditate,
shout and protest
because fear, sir,
is the gag
and the subtle padlock you control.
In my country, sir,
(I say mine because I want it to be mine)
even on the fence posts
you can see the longing
…they divide it, they rent it, they mortgage it,
they torture it, they kill it, they imprison it,
the newspapers declare there is total freedom, but
it’s only in the saying, sir, you know what I mean.
And it’s my country,
with its streets, its shadows, its volcanos,
its high-rises – dens of thieves –
whose children succeeded in escaping Malthus,
it’s my country, with its poets, its dreams and its roses.
And my country, sir,
is nearly a cadaver, a solitary phantom of the night,
and it agonizes,
and you, sire,
Translation from Spanish: Wilfredo Castaño
Jaime Suárez Quemain (poeta y periodista salvadoreño, 1949-1980)
“Un Disparo Colectivo”
En mi país, señor,
los hombres llevan un candado
en la boca,
sólo a solas
meditan, vociferan y protestan,
porque el miedo, señor,
es la mordaza
y el candado sutil que usted maneja.
En mi país, señor,
– digo mío porque lo quiero mío –
hasta en los postes
se mira la nostalgia,
lo parcelan, lo alquilan, lo hipotecan,
lo torturan, lo matan, lo encarcelan;
la prensa dice
que hay libertad completa,
es un decir, señor, usted lo sabe.
Y es así mi país,
con sus calles, sus sombras, sus volcanes,
sus grandes edificios – albergues de tahures –
sus niños que lograron
escapársele a Malthus,
sus poetas, sus sueños y sus rosas.
Y mi país, señor,
solitario fantasma de la noche,
agoniza… y usted:
. . .
Alfonso Quijada Urías (Salvadorean poet, born 1940)
The dead man’s mother is buying flowers,
the village is lovely, yellow flowers bloom on the hills;
the day seems happy, though it’s really very sad,
nothing moves without God’s will.
And the police are buying flowers, which they’ll send
to the dead man’s mother,
and a humble righteous man sends a note of condolence
for the death of the man they killed.
The sun keeps shining on the hills,
then a man playing the saddest music feels sorry to be there
among those men much deader than the dead man himself
who is swallowing with his open eyes the flowering hills,
the village and the walls, where once he wrote: long lib liberti.
Translation from Spanish: Barbara Paschke
. . .
Alfonso Quijada Urías (poeta salvadoreño, nacido 1940)
La madre del muerto compra flores,
el pueble es bello, en los cerros crecen las flores amarillas;
parece un día alegre aunque realmente es muy triste,
nada se mueve sin la voluntad de Dios.
También los policías compran flores que mandaran a
la madre del muerto,
también un hombre bajito de conciencia manda
una nota en la que se conduele
por la muerte del muerto que mataron.
El sol sigue brillando sobre los cerros.
Entonces un hombre que toca la música mas triste
se conduele de estar allí
entre esos hombres mucho más muertos que el mismo muerto
que va tragando con sus ojos abiertos los cerros florecidos,
el pueblo y sus paredes, donde escribió una tarde: biva la libertá.
El Salvador, at the advent of the 20th century, was governed by presidents drawn from its oligarchical families; these had a cozy yet volatile relationship with the nation’s military. In the last decades of the 19th century, mass production at fincas (plantations) of coffee beans for export as the main cash crop was already being emphasized through forced elimination of communal land ownings belonging to campesinos (peasant farmers). In fact, a rural police force was created in 1912 to keep displaced campesinos in line. Social activist Farabundo Martí (1893-1932), one of the founders of the Communist Party of Central America, spearheaded a peasant uprising in 1932 which resulted in 30,000 deaths by the military – La Matanza (“The Slaughter”), as it came to be known. Decades of repression followed, then a coup d’état in1979 plus the 1980 assassination of human-rights advocate, Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero, triggered a brutal civil war that lasted more than a decade. In the U.S.A., the newly elected President, Ronald Reagan, was determined to limit what he perceived as Communist and/or Leftist influence in Central America following the popular insurrection that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in neighbouring Nicaragua, so the U.S. administration supported the Salvadorean junta with military and economic aid throughout the 1980s. During this time, death squads associated with the military terrorized civilians, sometimes massacring hundreds of people at a time, as at El Mozote * in December of 1981. All told, the war cost the lives of 75,000 civilian noncombatants – this, in a country of a mere 5.5 million people (1992 estimate.).
In the U.S.A. the general population was divided about Washington’s deepening engagement in El Salvador. University student committees and humanitarian church groups coalesced around the issue. While there were major demonstrations in U.S. cities protesting its government’s policies in the tiny Central American country – 1981 saw rallies in several U.S.cities, and one that grouped in front of the Pentagon in May that year had 20,000 participants calling for Solidarity with the People of El Salvador – the continued violence against el pueblo salvadoreño and the U.S. foreign policies that enabled it – made the unfolding “story” of the Salvadorean civil war of the 1980s one of the central parables of the Cold War era. Then, unexpectedly, in 1989, it was a crime truly capturing international attention – the murder by Salvadorean government forces of six Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter – that began to set in motion the wheels of peace. A United Nations Truth Commission investigated and this gradually led to a UN-brokered peace agreement, signed at Chapultepec Castle in México City in 1992. Today, there are free elections in El Salvador, and both sides of the conflict have been integrated into the political process. Yet the economy remains unstable—about 20 percent-dependent upon remittances sent home by Salvadoreans working in the U.S.A. and other countries.
* El Mozote, a hamlet in the mountainous Morazán region of El Salvador, was the scene of an orgy of killing by the Salvadorean Army’s Atlacatl Battalion (trained by the U.S.military) which had arrived in the vicinity searching for guerrillas of the FMLM (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). Campesinos had gathered in El Mozote seeking a safe haven. The Atlacatl forced everyone into the village square, where they separated the men from the women. The men were interrogated, tortured, then executed. The women and girls were rapedthen machine-gunned down. Children had their throats slit then their bodies were hung from trees. Every building – and numerous piles of bodies – were set ablaze. The entire civilian population of El Mozote and its peripheral farms was eliminated. Author Mark Hertsgaard, in his book On Bended Knee – a study of the media and the Reagan administration – wrote of the significance of the first New York Times and Washington Post reports (January 1982) of the massacre: “What made the El Mozote/Morazán massacre stories so threatening was that they repudiated the fundamental moral claim that undergirded U.S. policy. They suggested that what the United States was supporting in Central America was not democracy but repression. They therefore threatened to shift the political debate from means to ends, from how best to combat the supposed Communist threat—send US troops or merely US aid?—to why the U.S.A. was backing state terrorism in the first place.”
. . . . .
Poems for Remembrance Day: Siegfried Sassoon / El soldado sincero – y amargo: la poesía de Siegfried SassoonPosted: November 11, 2013
Siegfried Sassoon (United Kingdom, 1886-1967) is best remembered for his angry and compassionate poems of the First World War (1914-1918). The sentimentality and jingoism of many War poets is entirely absent in Sassoon‘s poetic voice. His is a voice of intense feeling combined with cynicism. He wrote of the horror and brutality of trench warfare and contemptuously satirized generals, politicians, and churchmen for their incompetence and blind support of the War.
Siegfried Sassoon’s Declaration against The War (July 1917)
“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not, and which they have not, sufficient imagination to realize.”
. . .
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)
“Suicide in the trenches”
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
. . .
“Suicidio en las trincheras”
Conocí a un soldado raso
que sonreía a la vida con alegría hueca,
dormía profundamente en la oscuridad solitaria
y silbaba temprano con la alondra.
En trincheras invernales, intimidado y triste,
con bombas y piojos y ron ausente,
se metió una bala en la sien.
Nadie volvió a hablar de él.
Vosotros, masas ceñudas de ojos incendiados
que vitoreáis cuando desfilan los soldados,
id a casa y rezad para no saber jamás
el infIerno al que la juventud y la risa van.
. . .
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to, meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
. . .
Surge al alba enorme y parda la colina
en el salvaje sol púrpura de frente fruncida
ardiendo a través de columnas de humo a la deriva
la amenazadora pendiente arrasada; y, uno a uno,
los tanques se arrastran y vuelcan la alambrada.
La descarga ruge y se eleva. Después, torpemente agachados
con bombas y fusiles y palas y uniforme completo,
los hombres empujan y escalan para unirse al encrespado
Filas de rostros grises, murmurantes, máscaras de miedo,
abandonan sus trincheras, pasando por la cima,
mientras el tiempo pasa en blanco apresurado en sus
y aguardan, con ojos furtivos y puños cerrados,
luchando por flotar en el barro. ¡Oh Dios, haz que pare!
. . .
God with a Roll of Honour in His hand
Sits welcoming the heroes who have died,
While sorrowless angels ranked on either side
Stand easy in Elysium’s meadow-land.
Then you come shyly through the garden gate,
Wearing a blood-soaked bandage on your head;
And God says something kind because you’re dead,
And homesick, discontented with your fate.
If I were there we’d snowball Death with skulls;
Or ride away to hunt in Devil’s Wood
With ghosts of puppies that we walked of old.
But you’re alone; and solitude annuls
Our earthly jokes; and strangely wise and good
You roam forlorn along the streets of gold.
. . .
Con una lista de caídos en Su mano, Dios
se sienta dando la bienvenida a los héroes que han muerto
mientras ángeles sin pena se alinean a cada lado
tranquilos en pie en los prados Elíseos.
Entonces, tú llegas tímido al jardín a través de las puertas
luciendo un vendaje empapado en sangre en la cabeza
y Dios dice algo amable porque estás muerto
y añoras tu casa, descontento con tu destino.
Si yo estuviera allí, lanzaríamos calaveras como bolas de
nieve a la muerte
o nos fugaríamos para cazar en el Bosque del Diablo
con fantasmas de cachorros que antaño paseamos.
Pero estás solo y la soledad anula
nuestras bromas terrenas; y extrañamente sabio y bueno
vagas desamparado por calles de oro.
. . .
From: Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918)
Spanish translations © Eva Gallud Jurado (Salamanca, 2011)
De: Contraataque y otros poemas(1918)
Traducciones de Eva Gallud Jurado – derechos de autor (Salamanca, 2011)
. . . . .
“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
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.
. . .
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:
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)
(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!
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
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
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…”
. . .
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.
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. ”
. . . . .
“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)
(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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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? ”
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
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.
the United Nations Security Council
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,
He was referring to the promise
made after the Holocaust.
. . .
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.)
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”.
. . .
(U.S. Vietnam War Veteram, born James William Brown, 1947, Bogalusa, Louisiana)
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
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
. . .
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
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
Ouchi Yoshitaka (a “daimyo” or feudal lord, 1507-1551)
Both the victor and the vanquished are
but drops of dew, but bolts of lightning –
thus should we view the world.
. . .
Uesugi Kenshin (a “daimyo” or feudal lord, 1530-1578)
Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of ‘sake’;
A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream;
I know not what life is, nor death.
Year in year out – all but a dream.
Both Heaven and Hell are left behind;
I stand in the moonlit dawn,
Free from clouds of ‘attachment’.
. . .
雨雲の おほへる月も 胸の霧も はらひにけりな 秋の夕風
我が身今 消ゆとやいかに 思ふべき 空より来たり 空へ帰れば
吹きとふく 風な恨みそ 花の春 紅葉も残る 秋あらばこそ
. . .
Hojo Ujimasa (1538-1590)
Hojo was a “daimyo” and “samurai” who, after a shameful defeat, committed “seppuku” or ritual suicide by self-disembowelment. He composed a poem before he killed himself:
Autumn wind of evening,
blow away the clouds that mass
over the moon’s pure light
and the mists that cloud our mind –
do thou sweep away as well.
Now we disappear –
well, what must we think of it?
From the sky we came – now we may go back again.
That’s at least one point of view.
. . .
The following poem by Akiko Yosano was composed as if to her younger brother who was drafted to fight in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). It was never specifically anti-war only that the poet wished that her brother not sacrifice his life. At the time the poem was not censored but in the militaristic 1930s it was banned in Japan.
Akiko Yosano / 与謝野 晶子 (1878-1942)
Oh, my brother, I weep for you.
Do not give your life.
Last-born among us,
You are the most belovéd of our parents.
Did they make you grasp the sword
And teach you to kill?
Did they raise you to the age of twenty-four,
Telling you to kill and die?
Heir to our family name,
You will be master of this store,
Old and honoured, in Sakai, and therefore,
Brother, do not give your life.
For you, what does it matter
Whether Lu-Shun Fortress falls or not?
The code of merchant houses
Says nothing about this.
Brother, do not give your life.
His Majesty the Emperor
Goes not himself into the battle.
Could he, with such deeply noble heart,
Think it an honour for men
To spill one another’s blood
And die like beasts?
Oh, my brother, in that battle
Do not give your life.
Think of mother, who lost father just last autumn.
How much lonelier is her grief at home
Since you were drafted.
Even as we hear about peace in this great Imperial Reign,
Her hair turns whiter by the day.
And do you ever think of your young bride,
Who crouches weeping behind the shop curtains
In her gentle loveliness?
Or have you forgotten her?
The two of you were together not ten months before parting.
What must she feel in her young girl’s heart?
Who else has she to rely on in this world?
Brother, do not give your life.
Nogi Maresuke / 乃木 希典
Two poems written during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905
– Nogi Maresuke was a commanding general:
Mountain and river, grass and tree, grow more barren;
for ten miles winds smell of blood in the fresh battlefield.
Conquering horses do not advance nor do men talk;
outside Jinzhou Castle, I stand in the setting sun.
Emperor’s army, a million, conquered the powerful foe;
field battles and fort assaults made mountains of corpses.
Ashamed – how can I face their fathers, grandfathers?
We triumph today?
. . .
Kenzo Ishijima (Japanese Kamikaze pilot, WW2)
Since my body is a shell
I am going to take it off
and put on a glory that will never wear out.
A popular soldiers’ song of the Japanese Imperial Navy during WW2 in which a Kamikaze naval aviator addresses his fellow pilot – parted in death:
“Doki no Sakura” (Cherry blossoms from the same season)
You and I, blossoms of the same cherry tree
That bloomed in the naval academy’s garden.
Blossoms know they must blow in the wind someday,
Blossoms in the wind, fallen for their country.
You and I, blossoms of the same cherry tree
That blossomed in the flight school garden.
I wanted us to fall together, just as we had sworn to do.
Oh, why did you have to die, and fall before me?
You and I, blossoms of the same cherry tree,
Though we fall far away from one another.
We will bloom again together in Yasukuni Shrine.
Spring will find us again – blossoms of the same cherry tree.
. . .
Sadako Kurihara (1912-2005)
Sadako was a controversial poet in Japan, censored during the post-War American Occupation for describing in detail the horrors post-Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima (she was present Aug.6th 1945). She also took a tough, critical stand toward Japan’s aggressions (sometimes referred to as the Asian Holocaust) against China and Korea.
“ When we say ‘Hiroshima’ ”
When we say Hiroshima, do people answer,
gently, Ah, Hiroshima? ..Say Hiroshima,
and hear Pearl Harbor. Say Hiroshima,
and hear Rape of Nanjing. Say Hiroshima,
and hear women and children in Manila, thrown
into trenches, doused with gasoline, and
burned alive. Say Hiroshima, and hear
echoes of blood and fire. Ah, Hiroshima,
we first must wash the blood off our own hands.
. . .
Hiroshi Kashiwagi (Librarian and poet, born 1922, Sacramento, California)
Hiroshi is a “Nisei”(2nd generation Japanese-American). He was interned at Tule Lake Segregation Camp from 1942-1946. Here is a poem he wrote about his childhood in California:
“Pee in the puddle”
Wes was fat, something
of a classroom joke
we laughed when he
was late which was
almost every day and
we laughed when he
came on time. John
was always so fair
he let me play
Chinese tag with
them on the way
home from school
but I’d like to remember
him as our fourth
grade Santa Claus
though actually he
was slender with
a high nose and
very German it was
he who thought we
should pee in the
puddle. He called
our things brownies
I know he got it
from mine theirs
were white blue
white I wonder
what became of
Wes. I know John
was killed during
World War II
flying for the RAF
crazy guy couldn’t
wait for the U.S.
to enter the war.
I suppose Wes is
still fat and lazy
probably a father many times
anyway we wasted
a lot of time
after school. Three
golden loops rising
out of the
brown puddle into
which in time we
all three were
shoved when at
last I came home
crying for my
bread and jam I
was smelling quite
a bit of pee.
I can almost
smell it Wes’s
John’s and mine.
. . . . .