Home

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying —
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

— Warsan Shire

Warsan Shire was born in Kenya to Somali parents. Her family emigrated to the United Kingdom when she was only one year old.

[Research note: “Poets speak out for refugees,” Guardian (September 16, 2015)]

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The Prodigy

I grew up bent over
a chessboard.

I loved the word endgame.

All my cousins looked worried.

It was a small house
near a Roman graveyard.
Planes and tanks
shook its windowpanes.

A retired professor of astronomy
taught me how to play.

That must have been in 1944.

In the set we were using,
the paint had almost chipped off
the black pieces.

The white King was missing
and had to be substituted for.

I’m told but do not believe
that that summer I witnessed
men hung from telephone poles.

I remember my mother
blindfolding me a lot.
She had a way of tucking my head
suddenly under her overcoat.

In chess, too, the professor told me,
the masters play blindfolded,
the great ones on several boards
at the same time.

— Charles Simic

Charles Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1938, and spent much of his early childhood in a state of evacuation due to bombing raids. After the war, his father migrated to Italy in search of work, but he and his mother were not permitted to follow. Mother and son eventually made their way to Paris when Simic was 15, and the family was reunited in the United States when he was 16. The Simics subsequently moved to Chicago, where Charles attended high school and began studying poetry.

[Research note: J. M. Spalding, “Interview with Charles Simic,” Cortland Review Issue 4 (August 1998)]

Bystanders, All

O, the baggage we must carry
When this century is done
‘Cause the one to come, will ferry
All the deeds undone, forgotten
From benign neglect and fear
To complicity begotten (and denied)

Somalia and Bosnia …Rwanda …the Kurds…
Words that bespeak the unspeakable
Ethnic cleansing? Genocide?
Widely spread? We must be mad!
Unthinkable? Impossible?
Ah, but Auschwitz made it thinkable!
Evil festered — you stood by!
You wouldn’t believe… you couldn’t believe…
You screamed in vain — you watched our pain…
Bystanders all!!!

You built a wall around your soul
You wrapped a soundproof shawl
Around your heart, to stand apart
With blinders ‘round your eyes
Your ears accepted only lies
Until your active mind (and you)
Were safely left behind!!!
But now you know. Oh, yes you know.
Because last night you really saw
The horrors on the tube…

How will you keep the truth at bay?
How can you face another day
Of standing by in mute neglect?
And what effect your silence bears
Upon all future devastation
Another group? Another nation?
Another unborn generation…
Yes, now you know… Don’t look away;
The past is now and here to stay!

The more you know — the more you flee;
The fig-tree doesn’t hide you well
‘Cause you created your own hell
To haunt us all —
Unless we dare
To care
About each other.

— Sonia Weitz, 1998

Sonia Weitz's identity card from the displaced-persons camp.

Sonia Schrieber Weitz’s identity card from the United Nation’s displaced-persons camp.

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]

Casida of Sobbing

I have shut my balcony door
because I don’t want to hear the sobbing,
but from behind the grayish walls
nothing else comes out but sobbing.

Very few angels are singing,
very few dogs are barking,
a thousand violins fit into the palm of my hand.

But the sobbing is a gigantic dog,
the sobbing is a gigantic angel,
the sobbing is a gigantic violin,
tears close the wind’s jaws,
all there is to hear is sobbing.

— Federico García Lorca
(Trans. by Robert Bly)

Casida del llanto

He cerrado mi balcón
porque no quiero oír el llanto
pero por detrás de los grises muros
no se oye otra cosa que el llanto.

Hay muy pocos ángeles que canten,
hay muy pocos perros que ladren,
mil violines caben en la palma de mi mano.

Pero el llanto es un perro inmenso,
el llanto es un ángel inmenso,
el llanto es un violín inmenso,
las lágrimas amordazan al viento
y no se oye otra cosa que el llanto.

— Federico García Lorca

Spanish poet Federico García Lorca was abducted and executed by right-wing National forces during the Spanish Civil War (1935-1936). Casida of Sobbing was one of his last poems, published posthumously.

[Research note: Robert Bly, Trans., Selected Poems of Lorca and Jiminez (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973, 1997), pp. 188-189]

Lackawanna Elegy

America
   The tongues of your rivers burn with thirst
America
   The coal in your mountains goes mad with sunlight
America
   The arms of your sequoias ask pity of the storms
America America

     Your heart’s drum
     Eats its own bones
     The eyes of your clocks
     Turn counter-clockwise seeking the past

And on her crumbling headland the Indian woman
Turns toward you eyes weighed down with asphalt
Her mercury and orange head shrinks just slightly
Her small breasts bared to the gnawing white ants

     She paints on the sand
     The oracle which a night effaces
     A rattlesnake gripped in her teeth
     She exorcises the white ghost
     Locked in the Kiva of hate

A shiver of feathers down the reed of the spine
Stirs your ash body America
A thorn is stuck in your twilight brow
A thorn is sown in the fields of hemp
A thorn is screwed into the heel of your dancers

America beware of your past
Of the Katchinas filled with menace
For wrath ripens its fiery apple
In the orchards of the Appalachians
In the desert colored by witches

In the rose-garden of your sick soul
The holocaust waits to begin.

— Yvan Goll
(Trans. by Galway Kinnell)

Cover Lackawanna ElegyBorn on the border of Germany and France, poet Yvan Goll worked in both French (Surrealist) and German (Expressionist). Worried because of his Jewish background, he fled Europe for New York at the beginning of World War II. In 1945, he returned to Paris, where he died of leukemia in 1950.

Epitaph

I lived in those times. For a thousand years
I have been dead. Not fallen, but hunted;
When all human decency was imprisoned,
I was free amongst the masked slaves.

I lived in those times, yet I was free.
I watched the river, the earth, the sky,
Turning around me, keeping their balance,
The seasons provided their birds and their honey.

You who live, what have you made of your luck?
Do you regret the time when I struggled?
Have you cultivated for the common harvest?
Have you enriched the town I lived in?

Living men, think nothing of me. I am dead.
Nothing survives of my spirit or my body.

— Robert Desnos

L’Épitaphe

J’ai vécu dans ces temps et depuis mille années
Je suis mort. Je vivais, non déchu mais traqué.
Toute noblesse humaine étant emprisonnée
J’étais libre parmi les esclaves masqués.

J’ai vécu dans ces temps et pourtant j’étais libre.
Je regardais le fleuve et la terre et le ciel.
Tourner autour de moi, garder leur équilibre
Et les saisons fournir leurs oiseaux et leur miel.

Vous qui vivez qu’avez-vous fait de ces fortunes ?
Regrettez-vous les temps où je me débattais ?
Avez-vous cultivé pour des moissons communes ?
Avez-vous enrichi la ville où j’habitais ?

Vivants, ne craignez rien de moi, car je suis mort.
Rien ne survit de mon esprit ni de mon corps.

— Robert Desnos

Robert Desnos

The last known photo taken of Robert Desnos at Terezín Concentration Camp, 1945.
Public Domain

Surrealist poet Robert Desnos used his art in support of the French resistance during World War II, using a pseudonym to publish a series of essays that mocked the Nazis. This, in combination with his anti-Nazi poetry, led to his arrest by the Gestapo in 1944. After interrogation by torture, he was sent to a series of concentration camps: Compeigne, Buchenwald, and Floha. He died of typhus at Terezín on June 8, 1945.

We Survived Them

For a solemn opening
of his post-mortem exhibit
he will arrive and stand by me
in his old grey sweater.
Stooping,
strong.

Nobody will see him
only I will look at him.
He will say:
— We survived them.

— Anna Świrszczyńska
(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz)

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 Nazi occupation forces. More than 650,000 people joined the Polish resistance against the Germans in one way or another.

Pictures

My mother drives the goat
never has she owned her
over the green leaf-tops
my father’s clocks strike
one after another in the night
my brother died very young
his flowers grow wild
since he no longer counts
My city went up in flames
people ran into the churches
and burned up with the pictures
unafraid I saw them lying
I was small and mornings gleaned
ears of grain from the fields
when the midday hot was over
I practiced on the bike
or sat in our garden
wound jasmine to circular wreaths
laid them on the pretty
raised mounds of drowned birds
clatters the garden door now barks
this wandering dog
ah the father of my mother
drives me out of the full trees
and I stand before the rows
where the cold asters glisten
trample their late heads
under my postwar shoes

— Sarah Kirsch
(Trans. by Wayne Kvam)

German poet Sarah Kirsch changed her first name from “Ingrid” to “Sarah” during World War II to protest her country’s anti-Semitism. After the war, she was forced to emigrate to West Germany from East Germany because of her support for banned poet and songwriter Wolf Biermann.

[Research note: “Widely regarded German lyricist Sarah Kirsch dies,” Deutsche Welle, May 22, 2013]

Measure for Measure

go measure the distance from cape town to pretoria
and tell me the prescribed area i can work in

count the number of days in a year
and say how many of them i can be contracted around

calculate the size of house you think good for me
and ensure the shape suits tribal tastes

measure the amount of light into the window
known to guarantee my traditional ways

count me enough wages to make certain that i
grovel in the mud for more food

teach me just so much of the world that i
can fit into certain types of labour

show me only those kinds of love
which will make me aware of my place at all times

and when all that is done
let me tell you this
you’ll never know how far i stand from you

— Sipho Sepamla

South African poet Sipho Sepamla was an active member of the anti-Apartheid Black Consciousness Movement. His work, including his The Soweta I Love, a book of poems written in response to the 1976 Soweto Uprising, was banned the government.

[Research note: this poems comes from The Soweta I Love (Africa Book Centre, 1977), p. 14]