Haiti Adrift

This is my country decked in prongs and spikes
barbed-wired from top to bottom, a world black
with the fury and bitter laughter of Haitians.
Haiti without Sunday, at the end of its rope,
a beast of misery to be tamed, a sleeping volcano
without a foreboding alarm to rouse it from the ashes!

— René Depestre
(Trans. by Anita Sagástegui)

Hàïti a la dérive

Voici mon pays garni de dents et de pointes
pays barbelé de pied en cap, monde noir
de la rage et du rire amer des Haïtiens.
Haïti sans dimanche au bout de ses peines,
le grand malheur à dompter, volcan endormi
sans réveil prévu à l’horloge de ses cendres !

cortor

Eldzier Cortor, “L’Abbatoire No. III,” c. 1967
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

Haitian poet René Depestre published his first book of poems when he was nineteen. After he followed up this success with the publication of an anti-colonial, revolutionary journal, he was imprisoned by the state and subsequently exiled. He moved from country to country for several years, stopping in Paris, Prague, Argentina, and Chile (where he met Pablo Neruda) before returning to Haiti. He hoped to contribute to the nation-building project led by his childhood friend, François Duvalier, but soon distanced himself from Duvalier’s dictatorship. He was forced to again leave Haiti. He moved to Cuba where he had friends in the Communist Party. In 1978, disillusioned with Castro’s state, Depestre left Cuba for France.

The Dictators

An odor stayed on in the canefields;
Carrion, blood, and a nausea
Of harrowing petals.
Between coconut palms lay the graves, in their stilled
Strangulation, their festering surfeit of bones.
A finical satrap conversed
With wineglasses, collars, and piping.
In the palace, all flashed like a clockdial.
The gloved laugh redoubled, a moment
Spanning the passageways, meeting
The newly-killed voices and the buried blue mouths. Out of sight,
Lament was perpetual, and fell, like the plant and its pollen,
Forcing a lightless increase in the blinded, big leaves.
And bludgeon by bludgeon on the terrible waters,
Scale over scale in the bog,
The snout filled with silence and slime
And vendetta was born.

— Pablo Neruda

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was a true cosmopolitan and traveled the world as poet-diplomat for his country. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), he used his poetry to support the leftist faction and to document the murder of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca by Franco’s army. He continued to lean left after his return to Chile and joined the Communist Party of Chile in 1945. He was an ardent supporter of Stalin and Castro, and was forced to flee Chile in 1948 because of the government’s crackdown on communism. He was allowed to return to Chile in 1952. A support of the socialist president Salvador Allende, Neruda was considering leaving Chile after the dictator Pinochet seized power in September 1973, but he died just a few days after the coup.

[Research note: Pablo Neruda, “The Dictators,” Poetry (January 1952), p. 207; Rita Guibert, “Pablo Neruda, The Art of Poetry No. 14,” Paris Review 51 (Spring 1971); Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, “Pablo Neruda’s importance was as much political as poetic,” Guardian (April 10, 2013)]

The Black Messiah

A black GI stood by the door
(I never saw a black before)
He’ll set me free before I die,
I thought, he must be the Messiah.

A black Messiah came for me . . .
He stared with eyes that didn’t see,
He never heard a single word
Which hung absurd upon my tongue.

And then he simply froze in place
The shock, the horror on his face,
He didn’t weep, he didn’t cry
But deep within his gentle eyes
. . . A flood of devastating pain,
his innocence forever slain.

For me, with yet another dawn
I found my black Messiah gone
And on we went our separate ways
For many years without a trace.

But there’s a special bond we share
Which has grown strong because we dare
To live, to hope, to smile…and yet
We vow not ever to forget.

— Sonia Weitz

weitz

Sonia Weitz’s identity card from the 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]

Will V-Day Be Me-Day Too?

(A Negro Fighting Man’s Letter to America)

Over There,
World War II.

Dear Fellow Americans,
I write this letter
Hoping times will be better
When this war
Is through.
I’m a Tan-skinned Yank
Driving a tank.
I ask, WILL V-DAY
BE ME-DAY, TOO?

I wear a U. S. uniform.
I’ve done the enemy much harm,
I’ve driven back
The Germans and the Japs,
From Burma to the Rhine.
On every battle line,
I’ve dropped defeat
Into the Fascists’ laps.

I am a Negro American
Out to defend my land
Army, Navy, Air Corps —
I am there.
I take munitions through,
I fight — or stevedore, too.
I face death the same as you do
Everywhere.

I’ve seen my buddy lying
Where he fell.
I’ve watched him dying
I promised him that I would try
To make our land a land
Where his son could be a man—
And there’d be no Jim Crow birds
Left in our sky.

So this is what I want to know:
When we see Victory’s glow,
Will you still let old Jim Crow
Hold me back?
When all those foreign folks who’ve waited —
Italians, Chinese, Danes — are liberated.
Will I still be ill-fated
Because I’m black?

Here in my own, my native land,
Will the Jim Crow laws still stand?
Will Dixie lynch me still
When I return?
Or will you comrades in arms
From the factories and the farms,
Have learned what this war
Was fought for us to learn?

When I take off my uniform,
Will I be safe from harm—
Or will you do me
As the Germans did the Jews?
When I’ve helped this world to save,
Shall I still be color’s slave?
Or will Victory change
Your antiquated views?

You can’t say I didn’t fight
To smash the Fascists’ might.
You can’t say I wasn’t with you
in each battle.
As a soldier, and a friend.
When this war comes to an end,
Will you herd me in a Jim Crow car
Like cattle?

Or will you stand up like a man
At home and take your stand
For Democracy?
That’s all I ask of you.
When we lay the guns away
To celebrate
Our Victory Day
WILL V-DAY BE ME-DAY, TOO?
That’s what I want to know.

Sincerely,
GI Joe.

— Langston Hughes

Born in 1902, poet and playwright Langston Hughes fueled the civil rights movement — particularly during the first half of the 20th century — with his poetry, journalism, and children’s literature.

[Research note: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad (New York: Vintage Classics, 1994): 303.]

June 2, 1989

— for Xiaobo

This isn’t good weather
I said to myself
standing under the lush sun.

Standing behind you
I patted your head
and your hair pricked my palm
making it strange to me.

I didn’t have a chance
to say a word before you became
a character in the news,
everyone looking up to you
as I was worn down
at the edge of the crowd

just smoking
and watching the sky.

A new myth, maybe,
was forming there
but the sun was so bright
I couldn’t see it.

— Liu Xia

Chinese poet Liu Xia has been under house arrest since her husband, Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned human rights activist and scholar, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize prize in October 2010. She has yet to be charged with a crime.

1700% Project: Mistaken for a Muslim

1700% Project: Mistaken for a Muslim is a collaboration between Anida Yoeu Ali and Masahiro Sugano. Anida Yoeu Ali is a first-generation Muslim Khmer woman born in Cambodia and raised in Chicago. She earned a B.F.A. in Graphic Design from University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and an M.F.A. in Studio Arts/Performance from School of the Art Institute Chicago. Masahiro Sugano came to the U.S. from Osaka, Japan, in 1990 to study and make movies. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy from California State University (Northridge) and an M.F.A. in film/video/animation from the University of Illiniois, Chicago.

Text of poem available at: 1700% Project

[Research note: Anida Yoeu Ali website; Studio Revolt website]

At the Bomb Testing Site

At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense,
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.

— William Stafford

William Stafford  at Camp 36, Civilian Public Service.
Source: Lewis and Clark Digital Collection, Special Collections, William Stafford Archives

American poet William Stafford, a pacifist, was drafted during World War II. He declared himself a conscientious objector and served in the Civilian Public Service (CPS) instead of joining the military. His memoir of his time in the CPS, Down In My Heart, was published by the Church of the Brethren.

To Live in the Borderlands

To live in the borderlands means you

are neither hispana india negra espanola

ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed

caught in the crossfire between camps

while carrying all five races on your back

not knowing which side to turn to, run from;

To live in the Borderlands means knowing that the india in you, betrayed for 500 years,

is no longer speaking to you,

the mexicanas call you rajetas, that denying the Anglo inside you

is as bad as having denied the Indian or Black;

Cuando vives en la frontera

people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,

you’re a burra, buey, scapegoat,

forerunner of a new race,

half and half-both woman and man, neither — a new gender;

To live in the Borderlands means to

put chile in the borscht,

eat whole wheat tortillas,

speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent;

be stopped by la migra at the border checkpoints;

Living in the Borderlands means you fight hard to

resist the gold elixir beckoning from the bottle,

the pull of the gun barrel,

the rope crushing the hollow of your throat;

In the Borderlands

you are the battleground

where enemies are kin to each other;

you are at home, a stranger,

the border disputes have been settled

the volley of shots have scattered the truce

you are wounded, lost in action

dead, fighting back;

To live in the Borderlands means

the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off

your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart

pound you pinch you roll you out

smelling like white bread but dead;

To survive the Borderlands

you must live sin fronteras

be a crossroads.

— Gloria E. Anzaldúa

Texana poet, author, and critical theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa re-shaped the American feminist landscape with her work, breaking down the boundaries of a white, middle class, heterosexual movement and building a feminism that recognized and celebrated what would now be called “multiculturalism,” but is actually just “reality.” With Cherrie Moraga, she co-edited This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), one of the most influential set of writings for broadening the feminist movement. Anzaldúa’s poetry and essay collection, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), gave a lyrical voice to her theories. Her Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color (1993) is also a good place to start if you’re reading up on (pan-)American feminist perspectives.

Military Exercises

Imagine for a moment that I live
right here, was born here, that my parents always
have had a shop here, and on Boulevard
du Temple there’s a bistro with a nice

young waitress—I’ll be there. Imagine that
there’s no such thing as Eastern Europe, no
cellars for hiding neighbors, no transports,
no round-ups, never any dreams of going

from house to house—for a moment suppose
it looks like this: a cat stretches its neck
in sunlight on a porch, a secret game
of chess unfolds between the waitress and

that guy. He tracks her moves, she brings him coffee,
as if by chance her hip jostles the board.

— Tomasz Różycki
(Trans. by Mira Rosenthal)

Polish poet Tomasz Różycki grew up in Opole, Silesia, in southwestern Poland. When Silesia was awarded to Poland after World War II, an estimated 4 million citizens of German descent were expelled from the region. Silesia was resettled by Poles, including Różycki’s family, who were forced out of eastern cities such as Lviv (present-day Ukraine) during the post-war re-drawing of European boundaries.

After Celebrating our Asylum Stories at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

So, define her separately,
She is not just another
Castaway washed up your
Rough seas like driftwood,
It’s the nameless battles
Your sages burdened on her
People that broke her back;
Define him differently,
He is not another squirrel
Ousted from your poplars,
It’s the endless cyclones,
Earthquakes, volcanoes,
Floods, mud and dust that
Drafted him here; define
Them warmly, how could
Your economic émigré queue
At your job centres day after
Day? If you must define us
Gently, how do you hope
To see the tales we bear
When you refuse to hear
The whispers we share?

— Jack Mapanje

Jack Mapanje was imprisoned in 1987 after publishing Of Chameleons and Gods, a collection of poetry critical of the Malawi president, Hastings Banda. Despite international protests, he was incarcerated for more than three years. Upon his release in 1991, he went into exile in the United Kingdom.