Colorado Plateau, Spring 1999

This place comes from a time where no formula exists
Its measure of time courses through my veins
If I choose to observe the plateau like my grandfathers before . . .

My color reflects the land
My shiny Oakley sunglasses are lost in the mass of
related pigments
Natural vision is best in the peak hours of observation
I take companion in my reptile relations
I breathe in the dry heat and
my soul is quieted once again.

It feels good to leave my hair in the crags of this sandstone
My sit-bones are planted into ancestral land
My early spring fly calls attention to the forecast
Whose home do I snuggle?
The impression of my bones are not new to this landscape

I learn to acknowledge the unsaid and
I learn of its presence
both are possible
variables exist
to sit at this place of emergence . . .

I have not told you how the extensions of my brain
wander aimlessly
along the path I leave
My lack of discipline places me
again

There is a place
Sandstone grit can filer pollution accumulated from birth
Is it only my body that resits such solid a foundation?

It is the memory of my origin
existing in the grooves of my finger tips
and canyons of my blood
and the twisted curves of my skull

I will be swatted as a pest at your ear
I remain gripped by my tongue
My landscape nursing a thirst
like rocks in my pocket
sand in my shoes
transporting my home on my being.

— Esther Belin

 Artist and poet Esther Belin grew up in Los Angeles and describes herself as a U.R.I., or Urban-Raised Indian, “one of the myriad indigenous peoples on the planet to survive in urbanized areas.” Her parents were relocated from the Diné (Navajo) country (father: Birdsprings, AZ; mother, Torreon, NM) in the 1950s as part of the U.S. Federal Indian Relocation Policy.

I Will Live and Survive

I will live and survive and be asked:
How they slammed my head against a trestle,
How I had to freeze at nights,
How my hair started to turn grey …
But I’ll smile. And will crack some joke
And brush away the encroaching shadow.
And I will render homage to the dry September
That became my second birth.
And I’ll be asked: “Doesn’t it hurt you to remember?”
Not being deceived by my outward flippancy.
But the former names will detonate my memory —
Magnificent as old cannon.
And I will tell of the best people in all the earth,
The most tender, but also the most invincible,
How they said farewell, how they went to be tortured,
How they waited for letters from their loved ones.
And I’ll be asked: what helped us to live
When there were neither letters nor any news – only walls,
And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies,
And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal.
And I will tell of the first beauty
I saw in captivity.
A frost-covered window! No spy-holes, nor walls,
Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain —
Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass,
A cast pattern- none more beautiful could be dreamt!
The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed
Those brigand forests, campfires and birds!
And how many times there was bitter cold weather
And how many windows sparkled after that one —
But never was it repeated,
That upheaval of rainbow ice!
And anyway, what good would it be to me now,
And what would be the pretext for the festival?
Such a gift can only be received once,
And perhaps is only needed once.

— Irina Ratushinskaya

Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years in a Soviet labor camp and 5 years of internal exile for “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime.”

[Research note: Irina Ratushinskaya arrives in the U.S. New York Times (March 24, 1987); Interview with Irinia Ratushinskaya Christian Science Monitor (March 27, 1987); Irina Ratushinskaya’s return to Russia Independent (June 5, 1999)]

(untitled)

I leave nothing behind,
I burn the boats,
I burn, burn, I do not cool.
Cool, I say, do not burn!

Towards the steppe wastes I shall turn,
the yellow sands,
I shall leave no sign that I have ever been,
no, nor lines of verse.

— Natalya Gorbanevskaya (1965)
(Trans. by Daniel Weissbort)

Poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya was arrested in December 1969 for her dissident activities — particularly her protests against the Warsaw Pact nations’ 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. After her arrest, she was committed indefinitely to a prison psychiatric institution. She was still incarcerated in 1972 when Daniel Weissbort prepared a volume containing this poem and a transcript of her trial. She was released from prison on February 22, 1972, two weeks after Weissbort’s book was published in London. Gorbanevskaya went into exile and was stateless until Poland granted her citizenship in 2005.

Crimson Flooding into the River

Just a short stay at the Capital
But it is already the mid autumn festival
Chrysanthemums infect the landscape
Fall is making its mark
The infernal isolation has become unbearable here
All eight years of it make me long for my home
It is the bitter guile of them forcing us women into femininity
We cannot win!
Despite our ability, men hold the highest rank
But while our hearts are pure, those of men are rank
My insides are afire in anger at such an outrage
How could vile men claim to know who I am?
Heroism is borne out of this kind of torment
To think that so putrid a society can provide no camaraderie
Brings me to tears!

— Qiu Jin

Qiu Jin (Jianhu Nüxia) fought for women’s rights during the late Qing Dynasty, demanding an end to the subjugation of women, including arranged marriage and footbinding. Together with poet Xu Zihua, she founded a feminist newspaper called “China Women’s News” in 1906. When interrogated about her revolutionary activities, she remained silent. When given a brush to write a confession, she wrote her surname, Qiu, followed by six other characters: Qiu yu qiu feng chou sha ren (Autumn rain and autumn wind, such eviscerating, life-smothering sorrow!). On July 15, 1907, at the age of 32, Qiu Jin was beheaded for fomenting a revolution against the government.

[Research note: see Kang-i Sun, Haun Sassy, Charles Yim-tze Kwong, Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticisim (Stanford University Press, 1999): 634.]

For the cry from the well

For the cry from the well of “mama!”
for the crucifix torn from the wall,
for the lie of your ‘telegrams’
when there’s an order for an arrest —
I will dream of you, Russia.
In the accursedness of your victories,
in the anguish of your impotence,
in the nausea of your hangover —
why will fear break through?
All has been mourned, all have been sung to rest —
who will you flinch from all of a sudden?
Though you’ll deny it, take refuge in illusion,
put all the blame on those who have been killed —
I will still come and stand before you
and look into your eyes.

— Irina Ratushinskaya

Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years in a Soviet labor camp and 5 years of internal exile for “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime.”

[Research note: Irina Ratushinskaya arrives in the U.S. (March 24, 1987, New York Times); Interview with Irinia Ratushinskaya (March 27, 1987, Christian Science Monitor); Irina Ratushinskaya’s return to Russia (June 5, 1999, Independent)]

The Account of a Recent Travel

The road is in constant digestion. A continual bowel
movement in sync with my recent pattern of being
behind the wheel of a car — cataloguing each roadkill
into my database, each scrap of litter, each pocket
of whispers like the garbage trapped in the barbed
fence barriers. My travels to the reservation filter

like a giant kidney. Congressional ink flittering, like
tattered American flags, reformulates nourishment.
A recalculation like a coyote trickster inserting road
signs on my path. And I am left pattering along
like distressed platelets bouncing and bumping,
pressing and pinching along fatty fluid. My travel

is acute like the early morning songs of a Blessingway
ceremony. My travel renews as the white dawn.
My travel satisfies like beauty all around me, like
a King’s longing for the sweetest water drawn from
the well of Bethlehem.

— Esther Belin

Artist and poet Esther Belin grew up in Los Angeles and describes herself as a U.R.I., or Urban-Raised Indian, “one of the myriad indigenous peoples on the planet to survive in urbanized areas.” Her parents were relocated from the Diné (Navajo) country (father: Birdsprings, AZ; mother, Torreon, NM) in the 1950s as part of the U.S. Federal Indian Relocation Policy.

[Research note: this poem came from Liberation, a poetry collection edited by Mark Ludwig and published by Penguin Books in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nazi concentration camps.]

Building the Barricade

We were afraid as we built the barricade
under fire.

The tavern-keeper, the jeweler’s mistress, the barber
all of us cowards.
The servant-girl fell to the ground
as she lugged a paving stone, we were terribly afraid
all of us cowards —
the janitor, the market-woman, the pensioner.

The pharmacist fell to the ground
as he dragged the door of a toilet,
we were even more afraid, the smuggler-woman,
the dressmaker, the streetcar driver,
all of us cowards.

A kid from reform school fell
as he dragged a sandbag,
you see we were really
afraid.

Though no one forced us,
we did build the barricade
under fire.

— Anna Świrszczyńska
(Trans. by Piotr Florczyk)

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 German occupation forces. More than 650,000 people joined the Polish resistance — in one form or another — to fight the Nazi army.

To Celia, A Disappeared Comrade

The roses will bloom once again in Europe
while back there, far away, they have stopped time
decreeing hunger
decreeing fear
decreeing a state of death.
The aromos bloomed
. . . and no one saw them.

— Sonia
(Trans. by Aurora Levins Morales)

“Sonia” is the pseudonym of a political prisoner held in Santiago Prison during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). Under Pinochet, more than 40,000 people imprisoned, an estimated 28,000 tortured, and at least 3,000 executed or “disappeared.”

In the Prison-Camp Barracks

I can’t sleep, and the blizzards are howling
In a time that has left no trace,
And Tamerlane’s gaudy pavilions
Strew the steppes . . . Bonfires blaze, bonfires blaze.

Let me go, like a Mongol tsaritsa,
To the depths of the years that have fled;
I’d lash to the tail of my steppe mare
My enemies, lovers, and friends.

And you, the world that I’d conquered
My savage revenge would lay waste;
While in my pavilion the fallen
Ate the barbarous meats of my feast.

And then, at one of the battles —
Unimaginable orgy of blood —
At defeat’s ineluctable moment
I’d throw myself on my own sword.

So I am a woman, a poet:
Now, tell me: what purpose has that?
Angry and sad as a she-wolf
I gaze at the years that are past.

And burn with a strange savage hunger,
And burn with a strange savage rage.
I am far from Tamerlane’s bonfires,
His tents are far away, far away.

— Anna Barkova
Karaganda Gulag Camp, 1935
(Trans. by Catriona Kelly)

In December 1934, Anna Alexandrovna Barkova was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for criticizing the Soviet state. After her release in 1939, she was sent into internal exile. In 1947, she was re-arrested and sentenced to 10 years in a hard labor camp. She was released in 1956, but arrested again the next year, accused of slandering the Soviet press. She was given another 10-year sentence. Most of her poetry has been lost.

On Request for a Poem

Do not tell me women
are not the stuff of heroes,
I alone rode over the East Sea’s
winds for ten thousand leagues.
My poetic thoughts ever expand,
like a sail between ocean and heaven.
I dreamed of your three islands,
all gems, all dazzling with moonlight.
I grieve to think of the bronze camels,
guardians of China, lost in thorns.
Ashamed, I have done nothing
not one victory to my name.
I simply make my war horse sweat.
Grieving over my native land
hurts my heart. So tell me:
how can I spend these days here?
A guest enjoying your spring winds?

— Qiu Jin

Qiu Jin (Jianhu Nüxia) fought for women’s rights during the late Qing Dynasty, demanding an end to the subjugation of women, including the practices of arranged marriage and footbinding. Together with poet Xu Zihua, she founded a feminist newspaper called “China Women’s News” in 1906. On July 15, 1907, at the age of 32, she was beheaded for fomenting a revolution against the government.