On Request for a Poem

Do not tell me women
are not the stuff of heroes,
I alone rode over the East Sea’s
winds for ten thousand leagues.
My poetic thoughts ever expand,
like a sail between ocean and heaven.
I dreamed of your three islands,
all gems, all dazzling with moonlight.
I grieve to think of the bronze camels,
guardians of China, lost in thorns.
Ashamed, I have done nothing
not one victory to my name.
I simply make my war horse sweat.
Grieving over my native land
hurts my heart. So tell me:
how can I spend these days here?
A guest enjoying your spring winds?

— Qiu Jin

Qiu Jin (Jianhu Nüxia) fought for women’s rights during the late Qing Dynasty, demanding an end to the subjugation of women, including the practices of arranged marriage and footbinding. Together with poet Xu Zihua, she founded a feminist newspaper called “China Women’s News” in 1906. On July 15, 1907, at the age of 32, she was beheaded for fomenting a revolution against the government.

Think of Me Sometime

think of me, sometime
as you rise at dawn
the day, like your heart,
filled with dreams and
hopes that will come true
while I am filled with doubt
think of me, sometime
as you walk unshackled
and your movement takes you
into shaded walks and pleasant places
horizon stretched beyond the eye
while I am confined
think of me, sometime
as you fill your cup with wine
and sing your song
finding merriment in your meaning
with friendship all around
while my cup is dry
think of me, sometime
as you lay enfold
in your lover’s arms
enchanted by the music
of hearts beating in time
while I make love to myself
think of me, sometime
as you look at your son
at play with his sister
around their mother’s feet
a scene of family complete
while I have fathered none
think of me, sometime
as you enjoy life
and watch flowers bloom
to grow and give delight
life as light as air
while life for me has died

— James Matthews

Most of James Matthews’ poetry was banned by the government of South Africa during the era of apartheid. He was denied a passport for 13 years and imprisoned from September to December 1976. Listen to Matthews recite this poem at the Poetry Archive.

Barracks Home

This is our barracks, squatting on the ground,
Tar papered shacks, partitioned into rooms
By sheetrock walls, transmitting every sound
Of neighbor’s gossip or the sweep of brooms
The open door welcomes the refugees,
And now at least there is no need to roam
Afar: here space enlarges memories
Beyond the bounds of camp and this new home.
The floor is carpeted with dust, wind-borne
Dry alkalai, patterned with insect feet,
What peace can such a place as this impart?
We can but sense, bewildered and forlorn,
That time, disrupted by the war from neat
Routines, must now adjust within the heart.

— Tojo Suyemoto Kawakami

Tojo (Toyo) Suyemoto Kawakami was imprisoned with her husband and son in the Central Utah Relocation Center (Tapaz Japanese Internment Camp) for three years.

In this country we can only stay in hibernation

But winter has come too soon
Our trees begin to dry

We do not have any more nourishment
So our hair is frozen

and has turned gray
by the snow of years

Our skin
looks like a field full of cracks

Winter is here
We are happy to stay in hibernation

The heart is tired
the blood also

Under the snow,
we remain in hibernation

— Li Bifeng

In 2012, dissident poet Li Bifeng was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was previously imprisoned for five years for his pro-democracy activism.

No, I’m Not Afraid

No, I’m not afraid after a year
Of breathing these prison nights
I will survive into the sadness
To name which is escape.

The cockerel will weep for freedom for me
And here — knee-deep in mire —
My gardens shed their water
And the northern air blows in draughts.

And how am I to carry to an alien planet
What are almost tears, as though towards home …
It isn’t true, I am afraid, my darling!
But make it look as if you haven’t noticed.

— Irina Ratushinskaya
March 4, 1954
(Trans. by David McDuff)

Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years in a Soviet labor camp and 5 years of internal exile for “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime.”

My Throat Will Die

My throat, unable to speak, will die
For the sounds of my homeland.
My ancestors’ patter will vanish
Like water into sand.
I am a storyteller of immortality
In Semitic and Etruscan tongues;
I am the dust of Turkic dialects
Writing in Russian.
Many lives’ twisted fates
Are lost inside me, mourning,
And I myself am a naked tangle of nerves
Pulsating with verses.

— Aron Atabek
(Translated by Alfia Nakipbekova and Niall McDevitt)

Aron Atabek was sentenced to 18 years in prison for protesting the demolition of the shantytown Shanyrak by Kazakh authorities.