Claude McKay’s “The Cycle” (1943): Poems for Veterans Day / Remembrance Day

Aaron R. Fisher of Lyles Indiana_a U.S. soldier who fought in France during WW1 and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his role in a battle against the Germans on September 3rd 1918

Claude McKay
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.

Black soldier during WW2_unidentified

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?
February 1945_members of the Black American Womens Army Corps
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!

Gerald Bell born 1909 in Hamilton Ontario_Gerry Bell was Canadas first Black pilot_ the second being Alan Bundy_They served during WW2
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.
Photograph from 1942_soldier from Chad who fought for France during WW2
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.

. . . . .

A poem for Remembrance Day: “What our dead can do” (translation from the Polish)

Zbigniew Herbert (Poland, 1924-1998)
What our dead can do
Jan came this morning
—I dreamt of my father
he says

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: Report from the Besieged City / Raport z oblężonego Miasta

Near Krakow Poland_a boxcar at the former Auschwitz site_photo from 2013

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

. . . . .

Poems for Remembrance Day: El Salvador’s Civil War

Families looking for quote unquote Disappeared relatives in The Book of the Missing at the Human Rights Commission Office in San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph copyright Eli ReedFamilies looking for “Disappeared” relatives in The Book of the Missing at the Human Rights Commission Office in San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph © Eli Reed


Carolyn Forché (born 1950, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A.)

The Colonel”


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.

May 1978

.     .     .

Carolyn Forché (nacida en 1950, Detroit, Michigan, EE.UU.)

El Coronel”


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,

so impassive.


Translation from Spanish: Wilfredo Castaño


National Policemen using an ice-cream vendor as a shield during a skirmish with demonstrators_San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph copyright Etienne MontesNational Policemen using an ice-cream vendor as a shield during a skirmish with demonstrators_San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph © Etienne Montes

Arrest of an autorepair mechanic for failure to carry an ID card_San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph copyright John HoaglandArrest of an autorepair mechanic for failure to carry an ID card_San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph copyright John Hoagland


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,

casi cadáver,

solitario fantasma de la noche,

agoniza…  y usted:

tan impasible.

.     .     .

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.



A Salvadorean government soldier with his automatic rifle and a sleeping toddler_after an anti guerrilla manoeuvre in Cabañas province_El Salvador_May 1984A Salvadorean government soldier with his automatic rifle and a sleeping toddler, after an anti-guerrilla manoeuvre in Cabañas province, El Salvador_May 1984


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 Sassoon

ZP_Book cover for Eva Gallud Jurado's Spanish translations of War poems by Siegfried Sassoon_Ediciones El Desvelo 2011ZP_Siegfried Sassoon in 1915ZP_Siegfried Sassoon in 1915


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!

.     .     .

The Investiture”


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.

.     .     .

La investidura”


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) 

.     .     .     .     .

Remembrance Day 2012: “War is like a flower…”: poems of War world-wide


Louise Glück

“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

permit yourselves

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.

.     .     .

Remembrance Day: poems about Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan


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:


محمود درويش
انا من هناك
محمود درويش
أنا من هناك. ولي ذكرياتٌ . ولدت كما تولد الناس. لي والدة
وبيتٌ كثير النوافذِ. لي إخوةٌ. أصدقاء. وسجنٌ بنافذة باردهْ.
ولي موجةٌ خطَِفتها النوارس. لي مشهدي الخاص. لي عُشْبةٌ زائدهْ
ولي قمرٌ في أقاصي الكلام، ورزقُ الطيور، وزيتونةٌ خالدهْ
مررتُ على الأرض قبل مرور السيوف على جسدٍ حوّلوه إلى مائدهْ.
أنا من هناك. أعيد السماء إلى أمها حين تبكي السماء على أمها،
وأبكي لتعرفني غيمةٌ عائدهْ.
تعلّمتُ كل كلام يليقُ بمحكمة الدم كي أكسر القاعدهْ
تعلّمتُ كل الكلام، وفككته كي أركب مفردةً واحدهْ
هي: الوطنُ…
We are grateful to A. Z. Foreman for the above translation from Arabic into English. Visit his site:
.     .     .

Sami Mahdi

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)

“The Prisoner”

(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!

How eager

and efficient!

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

summons rain

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

achieves equality

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…”


.     .     .


Alex Cockers

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.


Poverty-stricken people

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. ”

.     .     .     .     .