Immigrant Blues

People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
a man tells his son, trying to explain
the wisdom of learning a second tongue.

It’s an old story from the previous century
about my father and me.

The same old story from yesterday morning
about me and my son.

It’s called “Survival Strategies
and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation.”

It’s called “Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons,”

called “The Child Who’d Rather Play than Study.”

Practice until you feel
the language inside you, says the man.

But what does he know about inside and outside,
my father who was spared nothing
in spite of the languages he used?

And me, confused about the flesh and the soul,
who asked once into a telephone,
Am I inside you?

You’re always inside me, a woman answered,
at peace with the body’s finitude,
at peace with the soul’s disregard
of space and time.

Am I inside you? I asked once
lying between her legs, confused
about the body and the heart.

If you don’t believe you’re inside me, you’re not,
she answered, at peace with the body’s greed,
at peace with the heart’s bewilderment.

It’s an ancient story from yesterday evening
called “Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora,”

called “Loss of the Homeplace
and the Defilement of the Beloved,”

called “I want to Sing but I Don’t Know Any Songs.”

— Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents who had been exiled from China after a falling out with Mao Tse-tsung. Lee’s father was arrested in Indonesia and spent 18 months in prison. After his release, the family fled, traveling through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan to reach the United States. Lee was 7 years old when his family settled in Pennsylvania in 1964. The first line of this poem comes from something his father said to him when he was young.

For Don M — Banned

it is a dry white season
dark leaves don’t last, their brief lives dry out
and with a broken heart they dive down gently headed for the earth,
not even bleeding.
it is a dry white season brother,
only the trees know the pain as they stand still erect
dry like steel, their branches dry like wire
indeed it is a dry white season
but seasons come to pass.

— Mongane Wally Serote

South African Mongane Wally Serote was arrested in June 1969 by the apartheid government under the Terrorism Act. He spent nine months in solitary confinement before being released without charge. Serote wrote this poem for Don Mattera, a poet who was banned — prohibited from appearing and or speaking at public functions —by the government between 1973 and 1982.


Mighty Willamette!
Beautiful friend,
I am learning,
I am practicing
To say your name.

Sure, I go to school
Same as you,
I’m an American.

Who? What?
When? Where?

Rounded up
In the sweltering yard.
Unable to endure any longer
Standing in line
Some collapse.

— Shizue Iwatsuki

Shizue Iwatsuki immigrated to the U.S. in 1916 with her husband. They settled in Hood River, Oregon, where she raised strawberries and apples to help feed their three children. In 1926, the Iwatsukis became founding members of Hood River’s Japanese Methodist Church. During WWII, Shizue and her husband were incarcerated at Pinedale Assembly Center. From there, they were sent to Tule Lake Prison Camp in California, then Minidoka Prison Camp in Idaho. These “mini-poems” come from the Standing Stones of the Japanese America Historical Plaza in Portland, Oregon.

Resist, My People, Resist Them

Resist, my people, resist them.
In Jerusalem, I dressed my wounds and breathed my sorrows
And carried the soul in my palm
For an Arab Palestine.
I will not succumb to the “peaceful solution,”
Never lower my flags
Until I evict them from my land.
I cast them aside for a coming time.
Resist, my people, resist them.
Resist the settler’s robbery
And follow the caravan of martyrs.
Shred the disgraceful constitution
Which imposed degradation and humiliation
And deterred us from restoring justice.
They burned blameless children;
As for Hadil, they sniped her in public,
Killed her in broad daylight.
Resist, my people, resist them.
Resist the colonialist’s onslaught.
Pay no mind to his agents among us
Who chain us with the peaceful illusion.
Do not fear doubtful tongues;
The truth in your heart is stronger,
As long as you resist in a land
That has lived through raids and victory.
So Ali called from his grave:
Resist, my rebellious people.
Write me as prose on the agarwood;
My remains have you as a response.
Resist, my people, resist them.
Resist, my people, resist them.

— Dareen Tatour
(Trans. by Tariq al Haydar)

On October 3, 2015, Palestinian-Israeli poet Dareen Tatour posted “Resist, My People, Resist Them” to YouTube. On October 11th, she was arrested and charged with the intent to incite violence and supporting a terrorist organization. After three months in prison, she was placed under house arrest in Tel Aviv.

Building the Barricade

We were afraid as we built the barricade
under fire.

The tavern-keeper, the jeweler’s mistress, the barber
all of us cowards.
The servant-girl fell to the ground
as she lugged a paving stone, we were terribly afraid
all of us cowards —
the janitor, the market-woman, the pensioner.

The pharmacist fell to the ground
as he dragged the door of a toilet,
we were even more afraid, the smuggler-woman,
the dressmaker, the streetcar driver,
all of us cowards.

A kid from reform school fell
as he dragged a sandbag,
you see we were really

Though no one forced us,
we did build the barricade
under fire.

— Anna Świrszczyńska
(Trans. by Piotr Florczyk)

An editor and poet, Anna Świrszczyńska (Swir) joined the Polish resistance movement during WWII, where she wrote for underground publications. She worked as a nurse during the 63-day Warsaw Uprising against German occupation forces. More than 650,000 people joined the Polish resistance — in one form or another — to fight the Nazi army.


you visited me that day
and the black night, without stars
without moonbeams
without fireflies without future
without anything
you could cut it with a machete
like the night when my feet
lost their way behind
the village hut
oh God in heaven
beat down on me
and you oh earth
yes you oh earth
you had stopped

— Enoh Meyomesse
(Trans. by Grace Hetherington)

In October 2011, Enoh Meyomesse unsuccessfully ran for president of Cameroon as a member of the opposition party. In November 2011, he was arrested, charged with theft, possession of a firearm, and plotting a coup against Cameroon’s sitting President, Paul Biya, who had then been in office for 30 years. The charges were dropped, but Meyomesse was held in prison, charged with illegally selling gold. Though no evidence was presented at his trial, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. After months of appeals and international pressure, Meyomesse was released from prison on April 27, 2015.


This is the season of passion, this is the season of the chain and noose
This is the season of repression, this too the season of resistance.

— Faiz Ahmad Faiz
(Trans. by Ali Husain Mir and Raza Mir)

Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz was a politically active leftist and member of the Communist Party. After Partition, he worked as the editor of The Pakistan Times, a English-language socialist newspaper. He was arrested on March 9, 1951, charged with plotting a coup against Liaquat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Faiz was given the death penalty and spent four years in prison before his sentence was commuted by Prime Minister Huseyn Shurawardy. After his release, he lived in exile until 1964. (Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated on October 16, 1951.)

The Condemned

Where people gather,
there are always gunshots.

Today, someone else
is publicly executed.

You should never sympathize;
Even if he’s dead, you must kill him again.

The proclamation is cut short.
“Bang bang,” the gun speaks.

Why is the silence of the crowd heavier today?

For the crime of stealing a sack of rice:
90 bullets.

And his extraordinary occupation?
A farmer.

— Jang Jin-Sung
(Trans. by S. N. Johnson-Roehr)

Jang Jin-sung (Jin-seong) was a state-appointed poet under Kim Jong-il in North Korea. In 2004, Jang defected to South Korea by way of China to escape arrest and probable execution for lending a forbidden book to a friend. He wrote this poem about a public execution he witnessed in his hometown.

How Good It Is

How good it is that I’ve no fear of dying
Nor ask myself how ponderous my toil
Nor bow to cunning magistrates, decrying
Presentiments of unfamiliar soil,
That I have lived and loved, yet never burdening
My soul with hatred, curses or regret.
My people! It is to you I am returning.
In death I somehow find my fate.
I turn my pained but goodly face to living
And in filial prostration I begin.
I meet your eyes in fair thanksgiving
And join my kindred earth as closest kin.

— Vasyl Stus

(Trans. by Marco Carynnyk)

vacUkrainian poet Vasyl Stus was arrested in 1972 during a Soviet campaign to silence Ukrainian dissidents. He was subsequently charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and sentenced to five years of hard labor and three years of internal exile in Kolyma. He returned to Kiev after completing his sentence in 1972, but was re-arrested in 1980. He wa

s charged again with anti-Soviet activities and given a ten-year sentence in a hard-labor prison, to be followed by five years of internal exile. Stus died of emaciation on September 4, 1985, during his fifth year in prison. Soviet authorities destroyed an estimated 600 poems written by Stus; a handful of verses were smuggled out to western Europe and the U.S.

[Research note: photo taken by KGB after Stus’ 1980 arrest]


Life — rereading mine
From cover to cover.
Forced into watchfulness
In this icy sludge.

From a hint, a silhouette
I recognize friends in the mist.
Really, nothing is secret
In a guileless land.

— Varlam Shalamov
(Trans. by S. N. Johnson-Roehr)

Varlam Shalamov was first arrested in 1929 and sentenced to three years of hard labor for making statements critical of Stalin. After his release, he worked as a journalist in Moscow. He was arrested again in 1937, accused of being a Trotskyist. He was sentenced originally to five years of hard labor in the Kolyma prison camp, but was given an additional ten years for making anti-Soviet statements. He was released in 1951 and allowed to return to the Moscow region only after Stalin’s death in 1953.