I Saw Your Mother

I saw your mother
with two guards
through a glass plate
for one quarter hour
on the day that you died.

‘Extra visit, special favour’
I was told, and warned
‘The visit will be stopped
if politics is discussed.
Verstaan – understand!?’
on the day that you died

I couldn’t place
my arm around her,
around your mother
when she sobbed.

Fifteen minutes up
I was led
back to the workshop.
Your death, my wife,
one crime they managed
not to perpetrate.
on the day that you died

— Jeremy Cronin

Jeremy Cronin was raised in a white, middle-class family in Cape Town, South Africa. A member of the banned South African Communist Party, he was arrested in 1976 and charged with conspiring with the African Nationalist Congress to circulate anti-apartheid propaganda. He plead guilty and was subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison under the Terrorism Act. Six months into his sentence, his wife, Anne-Marie, died of a brain tumor. Three of his seven years were spent in a maximum security prison on death row. Cronin began writing poetry while awaiting trial and continued writing secretly in throughout his incarceration. Many of his poems were smuggled out, and when he was released in May 1983, he gathered and revised them into the collection Inside.

[Research note: Robin Malan, Ed. A Collection of Poems for the Young People of Southern Africa, 5th Ed. (Cape Town and Johannesburg: David Philip, 2004): 163; Inside; Andrew van der Vlies, “An Interview with Jeremy Cronin,” Contemporary Literature Vol. 49, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 514-540]

Tense Times

Tense times for me,
and sleep’s acting like a newly love-struck teen.
I shall disregard the state my heart’s in
and my mind’s upheavals like water bubbling
past the boiling point.

I am a part of the universe with which the universe is angry,
a part of the earth of which the earth feels utterly ashamed,
a wretched human towards whom
other humans cannot maintain neutrality.

Neutrality: an illusion
like all the graces of which humans speak, so shamelessly theoretical.
Truth is an inadequate term, just like Man,
and love bumps about,
a miserable fly
trapped in a glass box.
Freedom is very relative:
all said and done we live in a ball-shaped prison
barred with ozone.
Set free, our fate
is certain death.

I am incapable of laughing.
Completely incapable of smiling, even.
Incapable, at the same time, of crying.
Incapable of acting like a human being,
which doesn’t upset me in the slightest
though it hurts so
to have a body covered with light down,
to walk on two limbs,
to depend wholly on your mind,
to be drawn after your desires to the furthest point,
to have your freedom trapped,
to have others decide to kill you,
to miss those closest to you
without a chance to say farewell.

What good does Farewell do
but leave a sad impression?
What good’s meeting?
What good’s love?
What good is it to be this alive
while others die from sorrow
over you?

I saw my father for the last time through thick glass
then he departed, for good.
Because of me, let’s say.
Let us say because he could not bear the thought
I’d die before him.
My father died and left death to besiege me
without it frightening me sufficiently.
Why does death scare us to death?
My father departed after a long time
spent on the surface of this planet.
I didn’t say farewell as I should have
nor grieve for him as I should have
and was incapable of tears,
as is my habit, which grows uglier with time.

The soldiers besiege me on all fronts
in uniforms of poor color.
Laws and regimes and statutes besiege me.
Sovereignty besieges me,
a highly concentrated instinct that living creatures cannot shake.
My loneliness besieges me.
My loneliness chokes me.
I am choked by depression, nervousness, worry.
Remorse, that I’m a member of the human race, kills me.
I was unable to say goodbye to all those I love
and who departed, even temporarily.
I was unable to leave a good impression of a last meeting.
Then I yielded to the rifles of longing
leveled my way.
I refused to raise my hand
and became incapacitated.
Then I was bound by sorrow
that failed to force me to tears.

The Knowing gnaws at me from within,
killing every shot I have at survival.
The Knowing is killing me slowly
and it’s much too late for a cure.

— Ashraf Fayadh
(Trans. by Guardian.com)

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 for heresy. In February 2016, his death sentence was overturned and he was sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes.

I Was Not There

The morning they set out from home
I was not there to comfort them
the dawn was innocent with snow in mockery-
it is not true
the dawn was neutral
was immune
their shadows threaded it
too soon they were relieved that it had come
I was not there to comfort them

One told me that my father spent a day in prison
long ago he did not tell me
that he went
what difference does it make now
when he set out
when he came home
I was not there to comfort him
and now I have no means to know
of what I was kept ignorant

Both my parents died in camps
I was not there to comfort them
I was not there
they were alone
my mind refuses to conceive the life
the death they must have known
I must atone because I live
I could not have saved them from death
the ground is neutral underneath

Every child must leave it’s home
time gathers life impartially
I could have spared them nothing
since I was too young-
it is true they might have lived to succour me
and none shall say in my defense
had I been there to comfort them
it would have made no difference

— Karen Gershon

Karen Gershon

British poet Karen Gershon (Kaethe Löwenthal) was born in Bielefeld, Germany in 1923. After Kristallnacht (September 9-10, 1938), she was sent to England with the Kindertransport. Her parents died in a Nazi prison camp in Riga, Latvia.

Rug Hydrangea

I regret that I’m not a beast,
running along a blue path,
telling myself to believe,
and my other self to wait a little,
I’ll go out with myself to the forest
to examine the insignificant leaves.
I regret that I’m not a star,
running along the vaults of the sky,
in search of the perfect nest
it finds itself and earth’s empty water,
no one has ever heard of a star giving out a squeak,
its purpose is to encourage the fish with its silence.
And then there’s this grudge that I bear,
that I’m not a rug, nor a hydrangea.
I regret I’m not a roof,
falling apart little by little,
which the rain soaks and softens,
whose death is not sudden.
I don’t like the fact that I’m mortal,
I regret that I am not perfect.
Much much better, believe me,
is a particle of day a unit of night.
I regret that I’m not an eagle,
flying over peak after peak,
to whom comes to mind
a man observing the acres.
I regret I am not an eagle,
flying over lengthy peaks,
to whom comes to mind
a man observing the acres.
You and I, wind, will sit down together
on this pebble of death.
It’s a pity I’m not a grail
I don’t like that I am not pity.

I regret not being a grove,
which arms itself with leaves.
I find it hard to be with minutes,
they have completely confused me.
It really upsets me terribly
that I can be seen in reality.
And then there’s this grudge that I bear,
that I’m not a rug, nor a hydrangea.
What scares me is that I move
not the way that do bugs that are beetles,
or butterflies and babystrollers
and not the way that do bugs that are spiders.
What scares me is that I move
very unlike a worm,
a worm burrows holes in the earth
making small talk with her.
Earth, where are things with you,
says the cold worm to the earth,
and the earth, governing those that have passed,
perhaps keeps silent in reply,
it knows that it’s all wrong.
I find it hard to be with minutes,
they have completely confused me.
I’m frightened that I’m not the grass that is grass,
I’m frightened that I’m not a candle.
I’m frightened that I’m not the candle that is grass,
to this I have answered,
and the trees sway back and forth in an instant.
I’m frightened by the fact that when my glance
falls upon two of the same thing
I don’t notice that they are different,
that each lives only once.
I’m frightened by the fact that when my glance
falls upon two of the same thing
I don’t see how hard they are trying
to resemble each other.
I see the world askew
and hear the whispers of muffled lyres,
and having by their tips the letters grasped
I lift up the word wardrobe,
and now I put it in its place,
it is the thick dough of substance.
I don’t like the fact that I’m mortal,
I regret that I am not perfect,
much much better, believe me,
is a particle of day a unit of night.
And then there’s this grudge that I bear
that I’m not a rug, nor a hydrangea.
I’ll go out with myself to the woods
for the examination of insignificant leaves,
I regret that upon these leaves
I will not see the imperceptible words,
which are called accident, which are called immortality,
which are called a kind of roots.
I regret that I’m not an eagle
flying over peak after peak,
to whom came to mind
a man observing the acres.
I’m frightened by the fact that everything becomes dilapidated,
and in comparison I’m not a rarity.
You and I, wind, will sit down together
on this pebble of death.
Like a candle the grass grows up all around,
and the trees sway back and forth in an instant.
I regret that I am not a seed,
I am frightened I’m not fertility.
The worm crawls along behind us all,
he carries monotony with him.
I’m scared to be an uncertainty,
I regret that I am not fire.

— Alexander Vvedensky

Alexander Vvedensky

Early in his career, Futurist poet Alexander Vvedensky worked in children’s publishing. In 1931, he was arrested and charged with belonging to a group of “anti-Soviet” children’s writers. He was exiled to Kursk. In the mid-1930s he moved to Kharkov, where he was arrested in 1941 for “counter-revolutionary agitation.” He was transported to a labor camp in Kazan, but died of pleuritis on the way. Most of his work has been lost.


My father was a slave of the Soviet State
in the gold mines of Kolyma
and my destiny, too, is repeating this pattern
and the brutality of Kolyma.

My father was tried in court as an Enemy of the People,
so it turns out I am a “Son of the Enemy”.
I break rocks with a pickaxe alongside him,
no different to him.

Russia is my Mother; my Father is Kazakhstan.
A childhood on the Volga, I grew up in Almaty
to kick open the doors to the Throne Room of those in power,
with a strong belief in my rights and in righteousness.

Ah, Borchzhigan-Berish, the Kagan tribe
endowed me with mystical power and strength.
The people followed me in rapture
and our might was invincible
as we fought for and won our Shanyrak
and, with it, the whole country of Kazakhstan,
inspired by the spirit of Makhambet
to be free of fear.

The truth is discernible even in a drop of reality.
We fought against Nazarbayev — a Dzhungar,
his rule is venal and base.
He is a traitor to the Land of Kazakhstan.

Shanyrak lives on and will stand forever.
But we — and so be it — we will endure our term of imprisonment in the camps.
Trust us, the day shall come when we will see
The Dzhungar’s head at our feet!

The nightmares of the labour camps will pass.
To suffer for our nation is our duty, and a great cause.
I am writing this poem in the Zone,
And the world responds: RE-ZONA-NCE.

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

The emblem of Kazakhstan features the shanyrak, the circular opening at the top of the yurt. The shanyrak is surrounded by the Sun’s rays and cradled by the wings of flying horses. The shanyrak symbolizes “a common home and a common homeland.”

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

An Argument: On 1942

— for my mother

Near Rose’s Chop Suey and Jinosuke’s grocery,
the temple where incense hovered and inspired
dense evening chants (prayers for Buddha’s mercy,
colorless and deep), that day he was fired . . .

— No, no, no, she tells me. Why bring it back?
The camps are over. (Also overly dramatic.)
Forget shoyu– stained furoshiki, mochi on a stick:
You’re like a terrier, David, gnawing a bone, an old, old trick . . .

Mostly we were bored. Women cooked and sewed,
men played black jack, dug gardens, a benjo.
Who noticed barbed wire, guards in the towers?
We were children, hunting stones, birds, wild flowers.

Yes, Mother hid tins of tsukemono and eel
beneath the bed. And when the last was peeled,
clamped tight her lips, growing thinner and thinner.
But cancer not the camps made her throat blacker.

. . . And she didn’t die then . . . after the war, in St. Paul,
you weren’t even born. Oh I know, I know, it’s all
part of your job, your way, but why can’t you glean
how far we’ve come, how much I can’t recall —

David, it was so long ago — how useless it seems. . .

— David Mura

March 1942: The owner of the store at 13th and Franklin Streets in Oakland, California, a graduate of University of California, placed a large sign in the window of his store on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed and the owner sent to a U.S. concentration camp.
Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

Poet David Mura is sansei, a third-generation Japanese-American. This poem grew from his desire to represent his parents refusal to talk about their interment in prison camps in the United States during World War II.

[Research note: David Mura’s website]

game 88

when the officer of the state patrol asks you to step out of the
vehicle you translate this to mean, I feel it, I too feel I must vomit . . .
when the sergeant of the utah state patrol asks you do you have any
weapons on you? will you lift up your sweater? you translate this to
mean that even out here on the steppes, our spirits are fried in the grease
of an automatic entropy

when officer lilly of the beehive state says there is a strong smell of
alcohol, I’m going to search your vehicle, you translate this to mean,
I refuse however to recall the frogs flattened on this highway of a summer,
I must live in this present.

when his backup arrives in the form of a plainclothes officer in
sunglasses and t-shirt and they converse in whispers out of earshot,
you translate this to mean they do not wish you to hear about
the incident at last weekend’s departmental barbecue.

when the cleft palate backup officer of the Utah state patrol takes
you behind the patrol car and his fellow officer takes your brother
up the highway to get the stories straight, you translate this to mean
it’s not so much we don’t trust you, it’s that we no longer trust ourselves
in a situation like this.

when the officer of the scar and the fuzzy stiff upper lip behind
sunglasses asks you where are you coming from? you heading to moab?
studying your face fixedly as you reply, you translate this to mean
I myself would like a Budweiser as much as the next man if only I were
not somehow nailed to the mast of this ship hurtling toward its doom

and when you restate again that you came from monument valley
this morning and canyonlands this afternoon, you really mean
to say I am searching for common terms here, something even you
should understand.

and when they search the vehicle, pulling out beer cans from the
camping gear and pouring empties onto the tarmac, and you step
forward to ask, what are you looking for? and officer lilly puts a hand
on the butt of his pistol and says, get back over there! what he really
means to say is, I may not know, but I sure as hell don’t have to admit
that on a public right of way!

and when the shorter scarred lip officer escorts you back to the
patrol car and stands immediately behind you, and you do get a
chance to ask him something close to its own meaning, what is this
about? he’s already given up pretending to be the good cop; they
won’t be discussing anything further with you after this point.

— Sesshu Foster

Poet, teacher, and community activist Sesshu Foster was born and raised in City Terrace, Los Angeles. He has taught composition and literature in East L.A. for 20 years.

[Research note: Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder, Eds., State of the Union: 50 Political Poems (Seattle: Wave Books, 2008): 15]

Deception Story

Friends describe my DISPOSITION

as stoic. Like a dead fish, a lover said. DISTANCE

is a funny drug and used to make me a DISTRESSED PERSON,

one who cried in bedrooms and airports. Once I bawled so hard at the
border, even the man with the stamps and holster said Don’t cry. You’ll be
home soon. My DISTRIBUTION

over the globe debated and set to quota. A nation can only handle so many

class, I break into my friend’s dad’s mansion and swim in the Beverly Hills
pool in a borrowed T-shirt. A brief DIVERSION.

My body breaking the chlorinated surface makes it, momentarily, my house,

of driveway gate and alarm codes, my dress-rehearsed DOCTRINE

of pool boys and ping-pong and water delivered on the backs of sequined
Sparkletts trucks. Over here, DOLLY,

an agent will call out, then pat the hair at your hot black DOME.

After explaining what she will touch, backs of the hands at the breasts and
buttocks, the hand goes inside my waistband and my heart goes DORMANT.

A dead fish. The last female assist I decided to hit on. My life in the
American Dream is a DOWNGRADE,

a mere DRAFT

of home. Correction: it satisfies as DRAG.

It is, snarling, what I carve of it alone.

— Solmaz Sharif

American poet Solmaz Sharif was born in Istanbul to Iranian parents. She holds degrees from UC Berkeley and New York University. She’s working on a poetic rewrite of the US Department of Defense’s dictionary, of which this poem is a part. Words appearing in all caps are terms in this dictionary of war.

[Research note: Solmaz Sharif, LOOK (Minneapolis: Gray Wolf Press, 2016): 15]

Self-Help for Fellow Refugees

If your name suggests a country where bells
might have been used for entertainment

or to announce the entrances and exits of the seasons
or the birthdays of gods and demons,

it’s probably best to dress in plain clothes
when you arrive in the United States.
And try not to talk too loud.

If you happen to have watched armed men
beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house
and into the back of an idling truck

before your mother jerked you from the threshold
and buried your face in her skirt folds,
try not to judge your mother too harshly.

Don’t ask her what she thought she was doing,
turning a child’s eyes
away from history
and toward that place all human aching starts.

And if you meet someone
in your adopted country,
and think you see in the other’s face
an open sky, some promise of a new beginning,
it probably means you’re standing too far away.

* *

Or if you think you read in the other, as in a book
whose first and last pages are missing,
the story of your own birthplace,
a country twice erased,
once by fire, once by forgetfulness,
it probably means you’re standing too close.

In any case, try not to let another carry
the burden of your own nostalgia or hope.

And if you’re one of those
whose left side of the face doesn’t match
the right, it might be a clue

looking the other way was a habit
your predecessors found useful for survival.
Don’t lament not being beautiful.

Get used to seeing while not seeing.
Get busy remembering while forgetting.
Dying to live while not wanting to go on.

Very likely, your ancestors decorated
their bells of every shape and size
with elaborate calendars
and diagrams of distant star systems,
but with no maps for scattered descendants.

* *
And I bet you can’t say what language
your father spoke when he shouted to your mother
from the back of the truck, “Let the boy see!”

Maybe it wasn’t the language you used at home.
Maybe it was a forbidden language.
Or maybe there was too much screaming
and weeping and the noise of guns in the streets.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is this:
The kingdom of heaven is good.
But heaven on earth is better.

Thinking is good.
But living is better.

Alone in your favorite chair
with a book you enjoy
is fine. But spooning
is even better.

— 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.

[Research note: Li-Young Lee, Behind My Eyes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008): 16]

At the Border

The scenery cannot be here
without our understanding and so can’t love.

Deep in the night where the roads end
the supplication shrinks as does the question

how another one can help us
the same us who in the flat beaten silence

of a shaky forest, hear mice
and martens rustling as well as border guards

the us who in spite of cold and rain
have to regain silence on the crying

of their drenched children.
The scenery is an idea that’s spread

around all those shopping bags.
Love is the question lying next to the bread

and the piece of sausage that’s
tucked between the children’s shirts.

— Jan Baeke

Dutch poet Jan Baeke works with screenwriter and videographer Alfred Marseille under the name Public Thought to create ciné poèmes, data poems and digital poetic installations.