Letter to an Archaeologist

Citizen, enemy, mama’s boy, sucker, utter
garbage, panhandler, swine, refujew, verrucht;
a scalp so often scalded with boiling water
that the puny brain feels completely cooked.
Yes, we have dwelt here: in this concrete, brick, wooden
rubble which you now arrive to sift.
All our wires were crossed, barbed, tangled, or interwoven.
Also: we didn’t love our women, but they conceived.
Sharp is the sound of pickax that hurts dead iron;
still, it’s gentler that what we’ve been told or have said ourselves.
Stranger! move carefully through our carrion:
what seems carrion to you is freedom to our cells.
Leave our names alone. Don’t reconstruct those vowels,
consonants, and so forth: they won’t resemble larks
but a demented bloodhound whose maw devours
its own traces, feces, and barks, and barks.

— Joseph Brodsky, 1985

Joseph Brodsky teaching at the University of Michigan.Image: 1973 University of Michigan Yearbook, Michiganesian

Joseph Brodsky teaching at the University of Michigan.
Image: 1973 University of Michigan Yearbook, Michiganesian

Joseph Brodsky gave his first public poetry reading at the Gorky Palace of Culture in 1960. In January 1961, he was arrested by the KGB for the first time. In the early 1960s, he was twice imprisoned in a mental institution for producing “pornographic and anti-Soviet” poetry. In 1964, he was sentenced to five years of hard labor for “parasitism” (not holding a State-approved job). The Soviet state commuted his sentence to 18 months in response to international protests. Brodksy was forced onto a plane and into exile in June 1972. He became a U.S. citizen in 1977.

[Research note: Alexandra Berlina, “Afterlife Beyond Translation: Joseph Brodsky,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature (December 2013): 370-383.]


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

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

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
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
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying —
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)]

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]