How We See

After Treblinka
And the spezialkommando
Who tore a child with bare hands
Before its mother in Warsaw
We see differently.

Men taken from workshops and farms to fight for kaiser and king
Lived in a world asleep in mist
The spezialkommando lived in a world of electric lights cinemas planes and radios
We see racist slogans chalked on walls differently
We see walls differently.

— Edward Bond

Polish Jews captured by Germans during the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Photo from Jürgen Stroop Report to Heinrich Himmler, May 1943.

Edward Bond is best known as a playwright. His experimental plays, which often featured scenes of violence linked to themes of social injustice, imperialism, war, and apartheid, tested the limits of censorship and morals laws in the U.K. in the 1960s and 1970s.

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A Few Days

Only a few days, dear one, a few days more.
Under oppression’s shadows condemned to breathe,
Still for a time we must bear them, and tears, and endure
What our forefathers, not our own faults, bequeath:
Fettered limbs, each impulse held on a chain,
Minds in bondage, our words all watched and set down
Courage still nerves us, or how should we still exist,
Now with existence only a beggar’s gown,
Tattered, and patched every hour with new rags of pain?
Yes, but to tyranny not many hours are left now;
Patience a little, few hours of lamenting remain.
In this parched air of an age that desert sands choke
We must stay now — not forever and ever stay!
Under this load beyond words of a foreign yoke
We must submit for a while — not for ever submit!
Dust of affliction that clings to your beauty today,
Crosses unnumbered that mar our few mornings of youth,
Torment of silver nights, a pain with no cure,
Heartache unanswered, the body’s long cry of despair —
Only a few days, dear one, a few days more.

— Faiz Ahmad Faiz
(Trans. by Victor Kiernan)

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 socialist English-language newspaper. He was arrested on March 9, 1951, and charged with plotting a coup against the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan. 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 Blood of Others

Alive, I read the poems of the dead,
I who laugh and cry and can shout
“Patria Libre o Morir!”
on the back of the flatbed truck
the day we enter Managua.

I read the poems of the dead,
watching the ants in the grass,
my bare feet, your straight hair,
the curve of your back
after hours of meetings.

I read the poems of the dead
and fear the blood that fuels our love
does not belong to us.

— Gioconda Belli
(Trans. by Margaret Randall)

La sangre de otros

Leo los poemas del los muertos
yo que estoy viva
yo que vivi para reirme y llorar
y gritar Patria Libre o Morir
sobre un camion
el dia que llegamos a Managua.

Leo lose poemas de los muertos,
veo las hormigas sobre la grima,
mis pies descalzos,
tu pelo lacio,
espalda encorvada sobre la reunion.

Leo los poemas de los muertos
y siento que esta sangre con que nos amamos,
no nos pertence.

— Gioconda Belli

Nicaraguan novelist and poet Gioconda Belli was an active member of the Sandinista resistance during the Somoza military dictatorship. She was forced into exile in 1975 and returned to Nicaragua in 1979.

Asking the Way

You fools who ask what god is
should ask what life is instead.
Find a port where lemon trees bloom.
Ask about places to drink in the port.
Ask about the drinkers.
Ask about the lemon trees.
Ask and ask until nothing’s left to ask.

— Ko Un
(Trans. by Suji Kwock Kim and Sunja Kim Kwock)

Korean poet Ko Un joined the democracy movement in South Korea in 1972. As a result of his activism, he was imprisoned three times in the 1970s. In prison, he was beaten and tortured. In May 1980, during the military coup d’état led by Chun Doo-Hwan, he was arrested again, charged with treason, and sentenced to twenty years. He was released in 1982 as part of a general pardon. He was denied a passport until 1990.

[Research note: Nicholas D. Kristof, “Voice of Dissent in South Korea Speaks in Verse,” New York Times (July 31, 1987)]

LINES,

ADDRESSED TO MY WIFE FROM THE KING’S BENCH
PRISON, MAY 15, 1820.

I NEVER will forget thee, love!
Though in a prison far I be;
I never will forget thee, love!
And thou wilt still remember me!

I never will forget thee, love!
When wakes on me the morning light;
And thou shalt ever present be,
When cometh down the cloud of night!

I never will forget thee, love!
When summer sheds her golden ray;
And thou shall be my comforter
Amid the winter’s cheerless day!

Oh! they may bind but cannot break,
This heart, so full of thine and thee;
Which liveth only for YOUR sake,
And the high cause of LIBERTY!

— Samuel Bamford

Poet and labor activist Samuel Bamford campaigned for parliamentary reform and universal suffrage. In August 1819, after the Peterloo Massacre, where the English military ran the cavalry into a crowd of 60,000 gathered to demand a repeal of the Corn Laws, he was charged for “assembling with unlawful banners at an unlawful meeting for the purpose of inciting discontent.” He was sentenced to a year in Lincoln jail.

Massacre

Leap! Howl! Fly! Run!
Freedom feels so good!
Snuffing out freedom feels so good!
Power will be triumphant forever.
Will be passed down from generation to generation forever.
Freedom will also come back from the dead.
It will come back to life in generation after generation.
Like that dim light just before the dawn.
No. There’s no light.
At Utopia’s core there can never be light.
Our hearts are pitch black.
Black and scalding.
Like a corpse incinerator.
A trace of the phantoms of the burned dead.
We will exist.
The government that dominates us will exist.
Daylight comes quickly.
It feels so good.
The butchers are still ranting!
Children. Children, your bodies all cold.
Children, your hands grasping stones.
Let’s go home.
Brothers and sisters, your shattered bodies littering the earth.
Let’s go home.
We walk noiselessly.
Walk three feet above the ground.
All the time forward, there must be a place to rest.
There must be a place where sounds of gunfire and explosions cannot
be heard.
We so wish to hide within a stalk of grass.
A leaf.
Uncle. Auntie. Grandpa. Granny. Daddy. Mummy.
How much farther till we’re home?
We have no home.
Everyone knows.
Chinese people have no home.
Home is a comforting desire.
Let us die in this desire.
OPEN FIRE, BLAST AWAY, FIRE!
Let us die in freedom.
Righteousness. Equality. Universal love.
Peace, in these vague desires.
Stand on the horizon.
Attract more of the living to death!
It rains.
Don’t know if it is rain or transparent ashes.
Run quickly, Mummy!
Run quickly, son!
Run quickly, elder brother!
Run quickly, little brother!
The butchers will not let up.
An even more terrifying day is approaching.
OPEN FIRE! BLAST AWAY! FIRE! IT FEELS GOOD! FEELS SO
GOOD! . . .
Cry cry cry crycrycrycrycrycrycry

We stand in the midst of brilliance but all people are blind.
We stand on a great road but no one is able to walk.
We stand in the midst of a cacophony but all are mute.
We stand in the midst of heat and thirst but all refuse to drink.

In this historically unprecedented massacre only the spawn of dogs
can survive.

— Liao Yiwu
(Trans. by Wenguang Huang)

Chinese poet Liao Yiwu wrote Massacre on the morning of June 4, 1989, to commemorate the Tiananmen Square protests. He dedicated it to both his compatriots who were killed by the Chinese military on June 4, 1989, and to the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Believing it would never be published, he recorded the poem on tape — the words here are symbolic of his own voice howling. For his support of the democracy movement, Liao was imprisoned for four years. His writings are banned in China.

La Pathétique

I put on La Pathétique
the sound invades my skin
enlarges my heart

the notes drop
into channels
of sadness

piercing
puncturing
pain

Beethoven
must have been
brokenhearted
when he wrote this sonata

I hum
I nod my head
I conduct the performance
from my car

this listening
to music
is new to me

for years
I required silence

I was listening
for murderers

I was expecting
menace

I was prepared
for peril

I was waiting
for disaster

and
couldn’t be disturbed.

— Lily Brett

An unidentified family in the Łódź Ghetto, c. 1940-1941.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Raphael Aronson

Australian poet and novelist Lily Brett was born in Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp, Bavaria, in 1946. Her parents had been living in Łódź, Poland, when the German army invaded their country. They were confined to the Łódź Ghetto for four years before being sent to Auschwitz. The couple was separated but (miraculously) survived camp and were reunited late in 1945.

Migratory Birds

you were born
to gypsies
though you didn’t
want to be
every spring
when orange blossom’s
perfume
filled the air
your world was packed
into a few bundles
then your family
was off
living in tents
trailers
dirt floor shacks
you were born
to nomads
though you didn’t
want to be
longed to live with
the settled and the straight
work in the five and dime
go to school
play tennis
but every time
you found a friend
it was time to go
another town
another round
in a world
that made
you dizzy

you were born
to migrants
though you didn’t
want to be
from Texas to Illinois
living a blur
out a car window
roads endless
as fields of crops
to be picked
by the piece
never making enough
to eat
let alone
for the trip back home
pleading for the
traveling to stop
words in the wind
whooshing by ears
of the gypsy king

you were born
to wanderers
though you didn’t
want to be
when you got the chance
you planted
yourself
deep
in concrete
and steel
to make sure
you or your
offspring
wouldn’t
branch out
too far
from home
you were
settled
for
ever

I was born
to a life of never change
though I didn’t
want to be
same familiar streets
same people
year after year
until one sweltering
Chicago summer night
the moon full
color of sun
reflecting off
fields of green
and the sweet scent
of lilacs from
our back yard
helped me sprout wings
so that I
could fly
away

— Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Poet and activist Odilia Galván Rodríguez was born in Texas and raised in Chicago. She’s published four volumes of poetry and co-edited Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice (University of Arizona, 2016) with Francisco X. Alarcón.

[Research note: Claudia D. Hernández, Interview with Odilia Galván Rodríguez, posted February 17, 2015]

Unpacking A Globe

I gaze at the Pacific and don’t expect
to ever see the heads on Easter Island,

though I guess at sunlight rippling
the yellow grasses sloping to shore;

yesterday a doe ate grass in the orchard:
it lifted its ears and stopped eating

when it sensed us watching from
a glass hallway—in his sleep, a veteran

sweats, defusing a land mine.
On the globe, I mark the Battle of

the Coral Sea—no one frets at that now.
A poem can never be too dark,

I nod and, staring at the Kenai, hear
ice breaking up along an inlet;

yesterday a coyote trotted across
my headlights and turned his head

but didn’t break stride; that’s how
I want to live on this planet:

alive to a rabbit at a glass door—
and flower where there is no flower.

— Arthur Sze

Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 17.
NASA

American poet Arthur Sze was the first poet laureate of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

[Research note: Andy Fogle, “Interview with Arthur Sze: Seeking the Silk Dragon,” Teachers and Writers Magazine (June 12, 2015)]

Leave Us

Forget us
forget our generation
live like humans
forget us

we envied
plants and stones
we envied dogs

I’d rather be a rat
I told her then

I’d rather not be
I’d rather sleep
and wake when war is over
she said her eyes shut

Forget us
Don’t enquire about our youth
Leave us

— Tadeusz Różewicz
(Trans. by Adam Czerniawski)

Children of Lodz Ghetto

Children digging for food scraps in Lodz Ghetto, c. 1940-44.
Image: Public Domain / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Muzeum Sztuki w Lodzi

Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz was a member of the Home Army (resistance) during World War II. Tadeusz survived the war, but his older brother, Janusz, was murdered by Gestapo in Łódź in November 1944.