The Last of the Line of Refugee Descendants

You give the world indigestion, and some other problems.
Don’t force the ground to vomit,
and stay close to it, very close.
A fracture that can’t be set,
A fraction that can’t be resolved
or added to the other numbers,
so you give rise to a certain confusion in global statistics.

Being a refugee means standing at the end of the queue
to get a fraction of a country.
Standing is something your grandfather did, without knowing the reason.
And the fraction is you.
The country: a card you put in your wallet with your money.
Money: pieces of paper with pictures of leaders.
Pictures: they stand in for you until you go back.
Going back: a mythical creature that appears in your grandfather’s stories.
Here endeth the first lesson.
The lesson is conveyed to you so that you can learn the second lesson, which is “what do you signify?”

On the Day of Judgment, they stand naked,
and you swim in the spillage from the cracked sewage pipes.
Barefoot — that’s healthy for the feet
but unhealthy for the ground.

For your sake we will set up rostrums and hold conferences,
and the newspapers will write about you in the appropriate manner.
A new formula has been developed to eliminate recalcitrant dirt,
and at only half the price.
Hurry to buy up half the amount,
because the water shortage is very acute.

Serious negotiations
are underway to provide ashes for free so that you won’t choke,
without affecting the right of trees to live on Earth.
Learn how to avoid using up all your ash allowance in one go.

They taught you how to lift your head up
so that you can’t see the dirt on the ground.
They taught you that your mother is the Earth.
And your father?
You’re looking for him to confirm your lineage.
They taught you that your tears are an extravagant waste of water.
And water . . . as you know!

Tomorrow,
It’ll be a good idea to get rid of you,
because the Earth would look better without you.

Children are like sparrows,
but they don’t build nests in dead trees.
And the U.N. agency isn’t responsible for planting trees.

Use yourself as a bargaining card,
as a piece of paper with a poem on it, a piece of toilet paper,
a piece of paper for your mother to light the stove
and bake some loaves.

The weather forecast:
The sun is lying in bed because it has a temperature.

The bones, clothed in flesh and then with skin.
The skin gets dirty and gives off a horrible smell.
The skin burns and is affected by supernatural factors.
Take yourself as an example.

Don’t give up hope.
Take heart from the exile from which you are fleeing!
This is intensive training for living in Hell
and in your harsh conditions.
My god, is Hell somewhere on Earth?

The prophets have gone into retirement
so don’t expect any prophet to be sent your way for your sake.
For your sake the observers submit daily reports
and are paid high salaries.
How important money is
for the sake of a decent life!

Abu Said’s felafel are exposed to contamination
and the dispensary is announcing that the inoculation campaign is ending
so don’t worry about your children being contaminated
as long as the dispensary is there.

Live coverage of the proceedings of the beauty contest.
That girl looks good in her bikini,
and that one has rather a large bottom.
Breaking news: Sudden Rise in the Number of Deaths
From Smoking.
The sun is still a source of light
and the stars are peeping in at you, because your roof needs
repairing.

An argument at the taxi depot:
“We don’t have enough passengers to leave yet.”
“But my wife is in labour.”

“This is her tenth pregnancy. Hasn’t she learnt anything? There are reports warning of random population growth. Random — that’s the word I’ve been looking for for ages. We’re living in a random world. We’re multiplying and our children stand naked. Sources of inspiration for film-makers, or for discussion around the table at the G8. We are small people but they can’t live without us. For our sake some buildings have fallen down and some railway stations have been blown up. Iron is liable to rust. For our sake there are plenty of picture messages. We are actors who don’t get paid. Our role is to stand as naked as when our mothers gave birth to us, as when the Earth gave birth to us, as the news bulletins gave birth to us, and the multi-page reports, and the villages that border on settlements, and the keys my grandfather carries. My poor grandfather, he didn’t know that the locks had changed. My grandfather, may the doors that open with digital cards curse you and may the sewage water that runs past your grave curse you. May the sky curse you, and not rain. Never mind, your bones can’t grow from under the soil, so the soil is the reason we don’t grow again.

Granddad, I’ll stand in for you on the Day of Judgment, because my private parts are no strangers to the camera.
Do they allow filming on the Day of Judgment?

Granddad, I stand naked every day without any judgment, without anyone needing to blow any last trump, because I have been sent on in advance. I am Hell’s experiment on the planet Earth.

The Hell that has been prepared for refugees.

— Ashraf Fayadh
(Trans. by Jonathan Wright)

Palestinian-born Ashraf Fayadh was arrested by Saudi religious police in August 2013 and charged with cursing Allah and the prophet Muhammad, insulting Saudi Arabia, and promoting atheism. He was released on bail, but was rearrested on January 1, 2014. On November 17, 2015, he was sentenced to death by beheading for heresy. In February 2016, his death sentence was commuted and he was sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes.

[Research note: Ashraf Fayadh, Instructions Within (Brooklyn: The Operating System, 2008); Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Court Spares Poet’s Life but Gives Him 8 Years and 800 Lashes,” New York Times (February 6, 2016)]

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The Sobbing School

is where I learned to brandish the black like a club
you know, like a blunt object, or cobalt flashes of strobe
dotting damp walls after dusk drops the dark motion
our modern world can’t hold. There’s a process
by which bodies blend in, or don’t, or die, or roll on
past the siren’s glow so as not to subpoena the grave.
Mama never said surviving this flesh was a kind
of perverse science, but I’ve seen the tape,
felt the metal close & lock around my wrists, witnessed
bone bisected by choke hold. A crow turns crimson
against the windshield & who would dare mourn
such clean transition, the hazard of not knowing
you are the wrong kind of alive. But enough
about extinction. Entire towns mad with grief, whole
modes of dreaming gone the way of life before lyric,
all faded into amber & archive, all dead as the VCR,
all buried below the surface where nothing breaks, bleeds.

— Joshua Bennett

American poet and performance artist Joshua Bennett studied English and Africana Studies as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania before earning his Ph.D. from Princeton University.

The Sobbing School was inspired by the words of Zora Neale Hurston: “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. . . . No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

[Research note: Joshua Bennett, The Sobbing School (Penguin Books, 2016)]

Half-Mexican

Odd to be half-Mexican, let me put it this way
I am Mexican + Mexican, then there’s the other half
To say Mexican without the half, well it means another thing
One could say only Mexican
Then think of pyramids — obsidian flaw, flame etchings, goddesses with
With flayed visages claw feet & skulls as belts — these are not Mexican
They are existences, that is to say
Slavery, sinew, hearts shredded sacrifices for the continuum,
Quarks & galaxies, the cosmic milk that flows into trees
Then darkness
What is the other — yes
It is Mexican too, yet it is formless, it is speckled with particles
European pieces? To say colony or power is incorrect
Better to think of Kant in his tiny room
Shuffling in his black socks seeking out the notion of time
Or Einstein re-working the erroneous equation
Concerning the way light bends — all this has to do with
The half, the half-thing when you are a half being

Time

Light

How they stalk you & how you beseech them
All this becomes your lifelong project, that is
You are Mexican. One half Mexican the other half
Mexican, then the half against itself.

— Juan Felipe Herrera

The son of Mexican migrant workers, United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera grew up in the agricultural areas of the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys. As a young man, he became involved street and spoken-word performances as part of the Civil Rights movement. After graduating from high school in San Diego, he earned a B.A. in Social Anthropology from UCLA, a Masters in Social Anthropology from Stanford, and an MFA from the University of Iowa. He is a Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at UC-Riverside and CSU-Fresno.

[Research note: Juan Felipe Herrera, “Half-Mexican,” Notes on the Assemblage (San Francisco: City Lights Book, 2015), pp. 87]

Minidoka, Idaho

In Minidoka
I ordered a pair of white
majorette boots
with tassels from
Montgomery Ward
and swaggered in
ankle deep dust.

I heard
bullsnakes were sprinkled
along the edges
to rid of us dread
rattlers.
A few of their orphans
hatched and escaped behind
barbed wires
befriended by boys
with mayonnaise jars.

Let them go I said to Joe
they will poison us.
But they are lost, and see? Blind
Joe said.
We rescued them
from the bullies.

— Mitsuye Yamada

Mitsuye Yamada was born in Japan and moved with her family to Seattle when she was three years old. Her father was the founder and president of the Senryu (Japanese 17-syllable poetry) Society in Seattle. Mr. Yamada was arrested, accused of being an enemy of the state, on December 7, 1941. In 1942, Mitsuye was imprisoned with her family in the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho.

[Research notes: Camp Notes and Other Writings (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press: 1976), p. 18]

With A Lantern of Hope

Drifted in by tidal waves
with hugs of attachment
on the shore of the North Sea
a poem from Burma washed up.

No sun, no moon, can be seen
on the Norwegian beach.
Wearing the robe of mist
going up the Scandinavian mountain
with a shaken, broken voice
singing a home-sick song.

Someday
I will surely arrive at some point.

Though our homeland is under darkness
it will be short-lived.

Soon in the sky
dull darkness will clear,
a brightly coloured dawn
will arrive.

A journey of ten years
as short as a snap of the fingers.

A poem
will pack treasure
enter the village gate
greet ‘hello’
a chance to hug the public.

But now . . . atop a snow-covered mountain
while hoping for the light
singing homesick songs
lighting up a lantern of hope,
to keep singing of what I miss.

— Tin Moe
(Trans. by Wai Yan Phone, Violet Cho and David Gilbert)

Poet Tin Moe was active in the Burmese democracy movement and became a member of the National League of Democracy after the August 1988 uprising. As a result of his political activities, he was held for six months without charge in 1991 before being incarcerated in the Insein prison for four years. He was not given any reading or writing materials during his imprisonment. He escaped Myanmar in 1999 and received political asylum in the United States in 2000.

[Research note: Tine Moe, Kabya paung choat-1999 (A Collection of Tin Moe’s Poems — 1999) (Blacktown, Australia: Alinga Publishing House, 2004); Sean O’Brien, “Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets – review,” Guardian (February 8, 2018)]

When It Happened

I was playing, I suppose,
when it happened.
No sound reached me.
The skies did not darken,
or if they did, one flicked
away the impression:
a cloud no doubt, a shadow perhaps
from those interminable aeroplanes
crossing and recrossing
our sunbleached beaches, Carbis Bay
or the Battery Rocks, where
all summer long we had dived
and cavorted in and out of
the tossing waters, while
the attention of the adults,
perpetually talking,
seemed focused,
unaccountably,
elsewhere.

No sound reached me
when it happened
over there on that
complicated frontier
near Geneva. (Was the sun
shining there too?)
I did not hear you cry out,
nor feel your heart thump wildly
in shock and terror. ‘Go back,’
they shouted, those black-clad figures.
‘Go back. You are not permitted to cross.’
Did the colour drain from your face?
Did your legs weaken?
‘You are under arrest,’ they barked.
‘Go back and wait.’ Back to the
crowd waiting for the train, the train. . .East?
Did you know what it meant?
Did you believe the rumours?
Were you silent? Stunned? Angry?

Did you signal to them then,
When it happened?
To the welcoming committee
one might say, on the other
side of the border.
To your husband and his friends
just a few yards away,
there, beyond the barbed wire,
beyond the notices saying,
‘Illegal refugees will be shot.’
They called across, they said,
‘Run, jump, take the risk,’
the frontier is such a thin line,
the distance so short between you and us,
between life and death,
(they said afterwards).
How was it you lacked
the courage (they said
afterwards, drinking tea).

No sound whatsoever disturbed me
when it happened.
I slept well. School
was the same as usual.
As usual I went swimming,
or raced down the hill
on my scooter or on foot
laughing with friends.
Often at night
in the dark of my bed,
I would hear the trains being
shunted down at the station,
their anguished whistling
stirring my imagination
drawing me towards oblivion.
At last, no more embarrassing letters
arrived in a foreign language
witnessing my alienation
from the cricketing scene.

Distracted and displaced
when it happened
I did not hear you ask
which cattle truck to mount,
nor, parched in the darkened
wagon, notice you beg for
a sip of water. On the third day,
perceiving the sound of Polish voices,
I did not catch you whisper to your neighbour,
‘It is the East. We have arrived.’
Nor, naked and packed tight
with a hundred others
did I hear you choking
on the contents of those well-known
canisters marked ‘Zyklon B Gas’
(It took twelve minutes, they say.)
I was not listening
when it happened.

Now I hear nothing else.

— Hilda Schiff

Hilda Schiff arrived in the United Kingdom as a seven year old school girl, sent from Germany with her sister Gitti (Gisela) on a Kindertransport in February 1939. In London, she was separated from her sister and was eventually evacuated to Penzance. Schiff’s father escaped Germany to Switzerland and survived the war. Hilda Schiff’s book, Holocaust Poetry, grew from her efforts to learn the exact circumstances of her mother’s death during the war. Schiff died before she could publish the book she was writing about her mother and the Holocaust.

[Research note: Hilda Schiff, Ed., Holocaust Poetry (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995)]

Claudette Colvin Goes to Work

Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. This is the second time since the Claudette Colbert [sic] case. . . . This must be stopped.
— Boycott Flier, December 5, 1955

Menial twilight seeps the storefronts along Lexington
as the shadows arrive to take their places
among the scourge of the earth. Here and there
a fickle brilliance — lightbulbs coming on
in each narrow residence, the golden wattage
of bleak interiors announcing Anyone home?
or I’m beat, bring me a beer.

Mostly I say to myself Still here. Lay
my keys on the table, pack the perishables away
before flipping the switch. I like the sugary
look of things in bad light — one drop of sweat
is all it would take to dissolve an armchair pillow
into brocade residue. Sometimes I wait until
it’s dark enough for my body to disappear;

then I know it’s time to start out for work.
Along the Avenue, the cabs start up, heading
Toward midtown; neon stutters into ecstasy
as the male integers light up their smokes and let loose
a stream of brave talk: “Hey Mama” souring quickly to
“Your Mama” when there’s no answer — as if
the most injury they can do is insult the reason

you’re here at all, walking in your whites
down to the stop so you can make a living.
So ugly, so fat, so dumb, so greasy —
What we have to do to make God love us?
Mama was a maid, my daddy mowed lawns like a boy,
and I’m the crazy girl off the bus, the one
who wrote in class she was going to be President.

I take the Number 6 bus to the Lex Ave train
and then I’m there all night, adjusting the sheets,
emptying the pans. And I don’t curse or spit
or kick and scratch like they said I did then
I help those who can’t help themselves,
I do what needs to be done . . . and I sleep
Whenever sleep comes down on me.

— Rita Dove

Claudette Colvin in 1953. Image courtesy: The Visibility Project / Claudette Colvin

Rita Dove, former Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote this poem about Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old high school student from Montgomery, Alabama. On March 2, 1955, as Colvin was on her way to school at Booker T. Washington High School, the bus driver demanded she give up her seat so a white woman could take it. Colvin refused to get up and was subsequently dragged off the bus and sent to an adult detention center. She was eventually convicted in juvenile court of disturbing the peace, violating the segregation law, and assault.

[Research note: Rita Dove, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.), p. 79]

For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts Where My Cousin Estaban Was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks

I have noticed that the hostess in peasant dress,
the wait staff and the boss
share the complexion of a flour tortilla.
I have spooked the servers at my table
by trilling the word burrito.
I am aware of your T-shirt solidarity
with the refugees of the Américas,
since they steam in your kitchen.
I know my cousin Estaban the sculptor
rolled tortillas in your kitchen with the fingertips
of ancestral Puerto Rican cigarmakers.
I understand he wanted to be a waiter,
but you proclaimed his black dreadlocks unclean,
so he hissed in Spanish
and his apron collapsed on the floor.

May La Migra handcuff the wait staff
as suspected illegal aliens from Canada;
may a hundred mice dive from the oven
like diminutive leaping dolphins
during your Board of Health inspection;
may the kitchen workers strike, sitting
with folded hands as enchiladas blacken
and twisters of smoke panic the customers;
may a Zapatista squadron commandeer the refrigerator,
liberating a pillar of tortillas at gunpoint;
may you hallucinate dreadlocks
braided in thick vines around your ankles;
and may the Aztec gods pinned like butterflies
to the menu wait for you in the parking lot
at midnight, demanding that you spell their names.

— Martín Espada

Poet and activist Martín Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Frank Espada, was active in the labor and civil rights movement. Much of Espada’s poetry focuses on immigration, Latino rights, and the working class experience in the United States.

Invisible Walls, Whose Walls?

Father
Where are we going
Smoke is curling
Galaxies, fossils, modern living
Streets and cities footsteps thronging
Stars arranged in rows of buttons
Gravesites chewing streams of people
Phosphor spittle rinsing memories
Treeroots, grassroots touch the sunlight
Lao Tzu, Confucius, one after the other
Wandering soul in lonely craniums
Five thousand years beating diamond grains
An earthworm a pendulum going through back and forth
Empty shell
Crackling universe
The city’s sharp teeth
Abacus moved so quickly by whom
Crowded earth like a flood
Crowded and crowded again
Wind’s soft fingers flicking tree boughs
Organ music in the clouds
Doves in the folds of the roof hide their wings
Green bacilli jumping in the remains
Your claws are teasing mother’s nipples
Under wrinkles
Uterus exposed
Universe exploded
Images shattered
Blood stream voyage
Foundering on reefs distant comets
Amniotic fluid with seven duckweeds
Root of life in water and fire burns into one fish after the other
What kind of fish are we then
Why are there no duckweeds for us to repair our roofs on this world
Pale blue flames scorching the heavens
Stars like flies blinking eyes in the bloom of the night
Fu river rubbing the feet of the city
Crows return and hide with the sunset
Fireflies flickering
Amber, the moon and the stars
A box
Of pearls pressed by clouds into marble pillows
Shining hermits
Wings take flight from mother’s breasts
Many fishhooks
Desire controlling lines of time the rod of the mind
Under the bait of life
Long, long necks stretching out from the soil
Mouths pitted against other mouths
Head fish emit psychedelic drugs
Innumerable mothers in labor float down a bottle
Hungry feet stretch out fingers with the kid’s leaky bowls going begging
Lamps, lamps, lamps
Who occupied the everburning lamp that shines on all things
Yellow earth everywhere
So many people
So many boats
Many pairs of soft oars killed by their feathers
Night’s frosty cave
Fallen leaves splashing splinters of jade
Dark snakes build their nests on ancient roofs
Water fowls trample ripples like pearls
Eyes look up and down picking food in the eyelashes
Stepping into the River of Chu and the border of Han
I am looking for flowers in the mist
Father
Our family’s flowers, where do they bloom?
Who cut away the writing at will
On the Temple of Heaven, Temple of Earth
Emperors spinning tops with their whips
“Tied up mouths as the Middle
Whips surrounding as Kingdom”
Misty waves and rolling waters
Sunken ships pile up five thousand years
Reeds blooming, sails billowing, random whistling, pulling the net
Hopping about at the harbour fish market
Stone steps at the ferry crowded with beggars hunting for fleas
One
Two
Three
We, you, they
So many people, so many mouths, so much blood
Heads flocking in front of the temple
Countless bugs jumping in crotches
Two oval scalpels dismember people rapidly into millions of fish
It is raining
It is raining
Who poured a big pot over the skies
So many people, so many mouths, many underlings
Flood, famine over heaven and earth
Where is King Yu
People are drowning themselves
Living space
Where is their living space
Ruins remain
Ruins of temples and palaces inscribed with laws and color glaze
Only the dead are classless
So many skulls under our shoes in silent protest
Ignored by the living
Harmonica tune comes from afar
Whose little mouth swallowed up
In this world
In the museum’s display cases
Stuffed with rigid ears and eyes
Terracotta warriors phalanx
Sent to battle
Sculpted by the Qin and Han
Skulls are cast with molten lead
So many people
Many contests in a row
Who will reach the goal most slowly
Sun sucking blood out of the earth
Draught, the fields are cracking up
Empty souls in rustling leaves
From the wind the brains go wandering
Some shriveled seeds taking root, sprout and bloom, forming fruits
In the end in harvest’s empty spaces
Waiting to be cast into fire
In the ashes
We are but nursery attendants and arsonists
In the year of
1989
Nineteen-eighty-nine
Someone set fire at his own door
Golddiggers
Rows and rows of golden crowns
Holding down tear-drenched history records
Gravestones of characters buried alive
Banquets all over
Heaps of bones on plates and bowls
Wipe the night’s impurity
Sun drunk as a fish
Wind meridians
Play on glazed tiles
My old dad
Last night hugging mother drunk and tired in the dregs
Did he try to count the grain
He would need to buy wine
How many baskets of cowries
Facing the heavens
My blazing eyes put out by thunderstorms long ago
To be alive is a wall
Death is the only plasterer
Snowstorms raging in winter
People are still building laws with ice-cubes
Waiting for the sun in spring
Only the sea, ever surging with spirits
Steaming, leaping, ejected, dispersed
Prison van, raising wind, moving clouds
Water forced into rain, into ice, into mist, into fire
Since time immemorial
Who has refused sugar-coated bullets
I only heard many times someone said
That he could
Eat the sugar and hand the bullets back to the bribers
Hemmed in by swamps
We look for wood piles, saws, screws and chains
Gods leaking fluids in their coffin-like statues
Death rippling deep under the skin eroding supports
Oh my helmsman!
Are you still steering my taxi boat paddling back and forth between water and land?
Home is a broken branch going down by the day
Green claws rip up sunlight
Stars go out in your mouth one by one
Bees fly by soft moist pistils
In rubber teats
Art, philosophy, religion mixed in a magic liquid
Ants in a row carry one rotten leaf after the other into their cave
Countless explorers dig out from the hole of that full stop one shiny gold coin after the other
Tablets collapsed
Human heads evolve into squares
Scales shell hairy verdigris covers your vision
Pained eyes reflect blood-dripping holes
Maple leaves sweep autumn shades
Footsteps from afar coming
Close
Who pounds at my study windows
Chains are coming debt collecting
Usury for generations
From our fathers, forefathers
?
Debt bills flowing in our blood
Down from the peaks of our ancestors
Inheritance is our spring
Whether it is clear or muddy
We can’t change it anymore
No-one can pay back
The debts of his forefathers
Tell me
?
Who will press out our last drop of blood
Then hand us back to the underworld banks
When we go to our deaths
Who will go to their lives
Go on, take it
My skull is my capital
Where are we going
Where are we going
Oh my god
Your hips are clasping me, it hurts
I cannot move
Heavenly dog eating the moon
Fish heads jump in a row before the rain
Storms crushes the balls of the stars
With one fist I punch out my own eye
Rushing blood in river beds
Warden dressed up as the sun
Walking back and forth outside
Traitors with a million reasons short of one drop of blood
Cheaters with a million features short of one honest look
Tyrants with a million knives short of one human heart
Destiny with a million chances short of one past
The world has always been like this
After aeons
Life is a blank page every time

— Li Bifeng
1992, Sichuan #1 Prison, Nanchong

In 1989, dissident poet Li Bifeng was sentenced to five years in prison for participating in the Tiananmen Square democracy movement. After his release in 1994, he became a labor rights activist. He was arrested in again in 1998 and sentenced to seven years in prison. He was arrested again in 2011 and given 12 years in prison for “contract fraud.” He is currently in Chuanbei Prison in Sichuan province.

Nostalgia

Oh if a man could crawl out of here
as a snake or lizard, and go — no!
Grow wings
and take flight, fly
to a place where the world no longer resembles a dirty rumor
a place where the scorched feast of sand
stretches
To be alone without
even hands or feet, without head, without cock
to be . . .
And the sea wash him constantly
like the luminous presence of a stone, smooth
circular
the sea wash him constantly

— Reza Baraheni

An Azerbaijani Turk from Iran, Reza Baraheni was imprisoned, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement by both the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran.