Turning 40 in the ’90s

April 1990

We promised to grow old together, our dream
since years ago when we began
to celebrate our common tenderness
and touch. So here we are:

Dry, ashy skin, falling hair, losing breath
at the top of the stairs, forgetting things.
Vials of Septra and AZT line the bedroom dresser
like a boy’s toy army poised for attack —
your red, my blue, and the casualties are real.

Now the dimming in your man’s eyes and mine.
Our bones ache as the muscles dissolve,
exposing the fragile gates of ribs, our last defense.
And we calculate pensions and premiums.
You are not yet forty-five, and I
not yet forty, but neither of us for long.

No senior discounts here, so we clip coupons
like squirrels in late November, foraging
each remaining month or week, day or hour.
We hold together against the throb and jab
of yet another bone from out of nowhere poking through.
You grip the walker and I hobble with a cane.
Two witnesses for our bent generation.

— Melvin Dixon

Melvin Dixon’s poems and fiction explored homophobia, racism, and the complexities of a life lived as an openly gay black man. Dixon’s partner, Richard Horovitz, died of complications from AIDS in 1991. Horovitz was 44 years old. Dixon died on October 26, 1992, also of complications from AIDS. He was 42 years old.

The Right to Resistance

The light that shines only in palaces
Burns up the joy of the people in the shadows
Derives its strength from others’ weakness
That kind of system,
like dawn without light
I refuse to acknowledge, I refuse to accept
I am not afraid of execution,
Tell the world that I am the martyr
How can you frighten me with prison walls?
This overhanging doom,
this night of ignorance,
I refuse to acknowledge, I refuse to accept
“Flowers are budding on branches,” that’s what you say,
“Every cup overflows,” that’s what you say,
“Wounds are healing themselves,” that’s what you say,
These bare-faces lies,
this insult to the intelligence,
I refuse to acknowledge, I refuse to accept
For centuries you have all stolen our peace of mind
But your power over us is coming to an end
Why do you pretend you can cure pain?
Even if some claim that you’ve healed them,
I refuse to acknowledge, I refuse to accept.

— Habib Jalib

Writer and poet Habib Jalib was imprisoned several times — his poetry banned — for his protests against the military coups and authoritarian governments of General Ayub Khan and Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan.

Healing Gila

for The People

The people don’t mention it much.
It goes without saying,
it stays without saying —

that concentration camp
on their reservation.

And they avoid that massive site
as they avoid contamination —

that massive void
punctuated by crusted nails,
punctured pipes, crumbled
failings of foundations . . .

What else is there to say?

This was a lush land once,
graced by a gifted people
gifted with the wisdom
of rivers, seasons, irrigation.

The waters went flowing
through a network of canals
in the delicate workings
of balances and health . . .

What else is there to say?

Then came the nation.
Then came the death.

Then came the desert.
Then came the camp.

But the desert is not deserted.
It goes without saying,
it stays without saying —

wind, spirits, tumbleweeds, pain.

— Lawson Fusao Inada

Lawson Fusao Inada was born in 1938 in Fresno, California. A third-generation American, he was four years old when his family was incarcerated by the U.S government. Along with more than 5,000 other Japanese-Americans from the Fresno area, the Inadas were kept at the county fairgrounds under armed guard before they were forcibly relocated to concentration camps around the U.S., including one on the Gila River Indian Reservation.

Forgetting Is Dangerous

When memory dies
In the face of lies
Hope is crushed forever
And prayers are severed
And dreams are forsaken …
But if we awaken
And dare to care
All things are possible
Even undoing future genocides;
Even preserving our planet earth;
We have the power
To plant a flower
To love a child,
To save a tree,
To be free …
To be one
With the rising sun …
But only
If we remember
That forgetting is dangerous

— Sonia Weitz

Holocaust survivor Sonia Schreiber Weitz was eleven years old when Germany invaded Poland. In 1941, her family was forced into the Kraków ghetto. From the ghetto, Sonia’s mother was sent to the Bełżec extermination camp, where she was murdered. In 1943, Sonia, her sister Blanca, and her father were sent to the Plaszów forced labor camp. Sonia and Blanca were then sent to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Venusberg, and finally to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. Sonia was 16 years old when U.S. troops liberated her and Blanca, together with 85,000 other prisoners, from Mauthausen in May 1945. Sonia and Blanca spent three years in a displaced-persons camp after the war, waiting for relatives to claim them, but no other family members survived.

[Research note: Sonia Weitz, 81; Holocaust survivor kept history alive]

To Be A Poet

— Abraham Nouk

Abraham (Abe) Nouk was 15 years old when he arrived in Australia via Egypt as a Sudanese refugee in 2004. An estimated 2 million people have died in Sudan from war and famine since 1983. The Nouk family’s first two applications for asylum were rejected by the Australian government.


Eight paces from the gate,
Sixteen paces toward the wall.
Which scroll speaks of this treasure?

Oh, earth!
If only I could feel your pulse
Or make a jug out of your body.
Alas! I’m not a physician.
I’m not a potter.
I am only an heir, deprived,
wandering in search of a marked treasure.

Oh, hand that will bury me,
This is the mark of my tomb:
Eight paces from the gate,
Sixteen paces toward the wall.
In the Cemetery of the Infidels.

— Majid Naficy
(Trans. by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.)

A critic of the Khomeini regime, Majid Naficy fled Iran in 1983 after the execution of his wife by firing squad. The above poem documents the search for his wife’s unmarked grave in Khavaran Cemetery.

An Eagle’s Cry

Listen to me!

I am the Indian voice

Listen to me!
I am the Indian voice.
Hear me crying out of the wind,
Hear me crying out of the silence.
I am the Indian voice.
Listen to me!

I speak for our ancestors.
They cry out to you from the unstill grave.
I speak for the children yet unborn.
They cry out to you from the unspoken silence.
I am the Indian voice.

Listen to me!
I am a chorus of millions.
Hear us!
Our eagle’s cry will not be stilled!

We are your own conscience calling to you.
We are you yourself
crying unheard within you.

Let my unheard voice be heard.
Let me speak in my heart and the words be heard
whispering on the wind to millions,
to all who care,
to all with ears to hear
and hearts to beat as one
with mine.

Put your ear to the earth,
and hear my heart beating there.
Put your ear to the wind
and hear me speaking there.

We are the voice of the earth,
of the future,
of the Mystery.

Hear us!

— Leonard Peltier

Leonard Peltier, an Ojibwa-Lakota from Turtle Mountain, North Dakota, was charged with the deaths of FBI agents Jack Coler and Ron Williams during a shoot-out on Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. In February 1977, Peltier was convicted and given two life sentences. The American Indian Movement considers Peltier a political prisoner, arguing he did not receive a fair trial and has been treated unjustly since his conviction. Peltier has been eligible for parole since 1986, but the U.S. Parole Commission has denied all applications. He will not receive another parole hearing until 2024.

Freedom to Breathe

A shower fell in the night and now dark clouds drift across the sky,
occasionally sprinkling a fine film of rain.
I stand under an apple tree in blossom and I breathe.
Not only the apple tree but the grass round it glistens
with moisture; words cannot describe the sweet fragrance
that pervades the air. I inhale as deeply as I can, and the
aroma invades my whole being; I breathe with my eyes open,
I breathe with my eyes closed — I cannot say which gives me
the greater pleasure.

This, I believe, is the single most precious freedom that
prison takes away from us; the freedom to breathe freely
as I now can. No food on earth, no wine, not even a woman’s kiss
is sweeter to me than this air steeped in the fragrance of flowers,
of moisture and freshness.

No matter that this is only a tiny garden, hemmed in by five-story
houses like cages in a zoo. I cease to hear the motorcycles backing
radios whining, the burble of loudspeakers. As long as there is fresh
air to breathe under an apple tree after a shower, we may survive a little longer.

— Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in prisons and labor camps after his arrest for writing a letter critical of Josef Stalin. After his release from prison, he spent three years in internal exile. On February 12, 1974, Solzhenitsyn was arrested and deported from the Soviet Union.

In my spare time

During my long, boring hours of spare time
I sit to play with the earth’s sphere.
I establish countries without police or parties
and I scrap others that no longer attract consumers.
I run roaring rivers through barren deserts
and I create continents and oceans
that I save for the future just in case.
I draw a new colored map of the nations:
I roll Germany to the Pacific Ocean teeming with whales
and I let the poor refugees
sail pirates’ ships to her coasts
in the fog
dreaming of the promised garden in Bavaria.
I switch England with Afghanistan
so that its youth can smoke hashish for free
provided courtesy of Her Majesty’s government.
I smuggle Kuwait from its fenced and mined borders
to Comoro, the islands
of the moon in its eclipse,
keeping the oil fields intact, of course.
At the same time I transport Baghdad
in the midst of loud drumming
to the islands of Tahiti.
I let Saudi Arabia crouch in its eternal desert
to preserve the purity of her thoroughbred camels.
This is before I surrender America
back to the Indians
just to give history
the justice it has long lacked.

I know that changing the world is not easy
but it remains necessary nonetheless.

— Fadhil al-Azzawi

Fadhil al-Azzawi was one of the many academics and activists incarcerated after the 1963 coup in Iraq. He spent two years in prison. In 1976, he was jailed again for reading a banned poem in public. After his release, he fled to Germany. He has been living in exile since 1977.

Oil is Harmless

Oil is harmless, except for the trace of poverty it leaves behind

the day, when the faces of those who discover another oil well go dark,
and your heart — will be filled with new life so that your soul is resurrected as oil
for public consumption.
This is the promise of oil — a promise that will come to pass—

The end

— Ashraf Fayadh
(Trans. by Mona Kareem)

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 with his poetry. He was released on bail, but was arrested again on January 1, 2014. On November 17, 2015, he was sentenced to death for heresy. In February 2016, his death sentence was commuted to eight years in prison and 800 lashes.