The Colonel

I am going to state right now this poem is about listening. But, first you have to get through the horrors of reality that this piece brings to the forefront.  It is also about timing -the beat of the words, the rhythm of the reporting and the selection of images are masterful. And I can’t imagine a better ending to a poem.

“We have two ears and one mouth and we should use them proportionally.” Susan CainQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

 

The Colonel                           Carolyn Forché

What you have heard is true. I was in his house.

His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His

daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the

night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol

on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on

its black cord over the house. On the television

was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles

were embedded in the walls around the house to

scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his

hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings

like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of

lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for

calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes,

salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed

the country. There was a brief commercial in

Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was

some talk of how difficult it had become to govern.

The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel

told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the

table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say

nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to

bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on

the table. They were like dried peach halves. There

is no other way to say this. He took one of them in

his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a

water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of

fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone,

tell your people they can go f— themselves. He

swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held

the last of his wine in the air. Something for your

poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor

caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on

the floor were pressed to the ground.

 

“The Colonel”relates Forche’s experience in El Salvador in 1978 and exposes the military brutality of Latin American dictatorship. El Salvador was in the midst of a civil war waged between the country’s US-backed military-led government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

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Sorrow Home

Margaret Walker

Walker was born in Birmingham, Alabama on July 7, 1915.
– Her mother was named Marion Dozier Walker and she was a musician
– Her father was named Sigismund C. Walker and he was a Methodist minister
– She was taught philosophy and poetry as a young child
– In 1943 she married Firnist James Alexander
– She had four children
– She passed away on November 30, 1988 in Chicago due to cancer

Sorrow Home                                     Margaret Walker

 

My roots are deep in southern life; deeper than John Brown

 

or Nat Turner or Robert Lee. I was sired and weaned

in a tropic world. The palm tree and banana leaf,

mango and coconut, breadfruit and rubber trees know

me.

 

Warm skies and gulf blue streams are in my blood. I belong

 

with the smell of fresh pine, with the trail of coon, and

the spring growth of wild onion.

 

I am no hothouse bulb to be reared in steam-heated flats

 

with the music of El and subway in my ears, walled in

by steel and wood and brick far from the sky.

 

I want the cotton fields, tobacco and the cane. I want to

 

walk along with sacks of seed to drop in fallow ground.

Restless music is in my heart and I am eager to be

gone.

 

O Southland, sorrow home, melody beating in my bone and

 

blood! How long will the Klan of hate, the hounds and

the chain gangs keep me from my own?

 

 

Another poem from Margaret Walker:

 

For My People

 

I want to write

I want to write the songs of my people.

I want to hear them singing melodies in the dark.

I want to catch the last floating strains from their sob-torn

 

throats.

 

I want to frame their dreams into words; their souls into

 

notes.

 

I want to catch their sunshine laughter in a bowl;

fling dark hands to a darker sky

and fill them full of stars

then crush and mix such lights till they become

a mirrored pool of brilliance in the dawn.

 

 

Tomorrow’s Child

I can’t imagine a poem that fills me more with hope or speaks truths as I feel them. It is a balm in a world filled with the kind of disruption that encourages fear and only acknowledges limitations and negativity. When you get to the end of the poem you will want to embrace life again and look to the future. Happy New Year.

Tomorrow’s Child                                                    Rubin Alves

What is hope?
It is the pre-sentiment that imagination
is more real and reality is less real than it looks.
It is the hunch that the overwhelming brutality
of facts that oppress and repress us
is not the last word.
It is the suspicion that reality is more complex
than the realists want us to believe.
That the frontiers of the possible are not
determined by the limits of the actual;
and in a miraculous and unexplained way
life is opening up creative events
which will open the way to freedom and resurrection –
but the two – suffering and hope
must live from each other.
Suffering without hope produces resentment and despair.
But, hope without suffering creates illusions, naïveté
and drunkenness.
So let us plant dates
even though we who plant them will never eat them.
We must live by the love of what we will never see.
That is the secret discipline.
It is the refusal to let our creative act
be dissolved away by our need for immediate sense experience
and is a struggled commitment to the future of our grandchildren.
Such disciplined hope is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints,
the courage to die for the future they envisage.
They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hopes.

Concerning That Prayer I Cannot Make

How do you reconcile aloneness with that sharp need for answers and affirmation in a world that seems largely without redeeming qualities? This poem shows us one way that might happen when you’re not expecting it. Also, what is soul and what do I believe about it? What I was taught as a child? How do I see or find soul as an adult?

Concerning That Prayer I Cannot Make                                                       Jane Mead

 

Jesus, I am cruelly lonely

and I do not know what I have done
nor do I suspect that you will answer me.

 

And, what is more, I have spent
these bare months bargaining
with my soul as if I could make her
promise to love me when now it seems
that what I meant when I said “soul”
was that the river reflects
the railway bridge just as the sky
says it should—it speaks that language.

 

I do not know who you are.

 

I come here every day
to be beneath this bridge,
to sit beside this river,
so I must have seen the way
the clouds just slide
under the rusty arch—
without snagging on the bolts,
how they are borne along on the dark water—
I must have noticed their fluent speed
and also how that tattered blue T-shirt
remains snagged on the crown
of the mostly sunk dead tree
despite the current’s constant pulling.
Yes, somewhere in my mind there must
be the image of a sky blue T-shirt, caught,
and the white islands of ice flying by
and the light clouds flying slowly
under the bridge, though today the river’s
fully melted. I must have seen.

 

But I did not see.

 

I am not equal to my longing.
Somewhere there should be a place
the exact shape of my emptiness—
there should be a place
responsible for taking one back.
The river, of course, has no mercy—
it just lifts the dead fish
toward the sea.

Of course, of course.

 

What I meant when I said “soul”
was that there should be a place.

 

On the far bank the warehouse lights
blink red, then green, and all the yellow
machines with their rusted scoops and lifts
sit under a thin layer of sunny frost.

 

And look—
my own palm—
there, slowly rocking.
It is my pale palm—
palm where a black pebble
is turning and turning.

 

Listen—
all you bare trees
burrs
brambles
pile of twigs
red and green lights flashing
muddy bottle shards
shoe half buried—listen
listen, I am holy.

 

Thanksgiving

This poem fits right into the true feel of what it is like to gather with family members and is a great portrait of several different personalities and characters. There is so much of it that feels southern yet the story is set in Connecticut. It just shows you how connected we all are. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving                                                                                                Martín Espada

This was the first Thanksgiving with my wife’s family,
sitting at the stained pine table in the dining room.
The wood stove coughed during her mother’s prayer:
Amen and the gravy boat bobbing over fresh linen.
Her father stared into the mashed potatoes
and saw a white battleship floating in the gravy.
Still staring at the mashed potatoes, he began a soliloquy
about the new Navy missiles fired across miles of ocean,
how they could jump into the smokestack of a battleship.
“Now in Korea,” he said, “I was a gunner and the people there
ate kimch’i and it really stinks.” Mother complained that no one
was eating the creamed onions. “Eat, Daddy.” The creamed onions
look like eyeballs, I thought, and then said, “I wish I had missiles
like that.” Daddy laughed a 1950s horror-movie mad-scientist laugh,
and told me he didn’t have a missile, but he had his own cannon.
“Daddy, eat the candied yams,” Mother hissed, as if he were
a liquored CIA spy telling secrets about military hardware
to some Puerto Rican janitor he met in a bar. “I’m a toolmaker.
I made the cannon myself,” he announced, and left the table.
“Daddy’s family has been here in the Connecticut Valley since 1680,”
Mother said. “There were Indians here once, but they left.”
When I started dating her daughter, Mother called me a half-Black,
But now she spooned candied yams on my plate. I nibbled
at the candied yams. I remembered my own Thanksgivings
in the Bronx, turkey with arroz y habichuelas and plátanos,
and countless cousins swaying to bugalú on the record player
or roaring at my grandmother’s Spanish punch lines in the kitchen,
the glowing of her cigarette like a firefly lost in the city. For years
I thought everyone ate rice and beans with turkey at Thanksgiving.
Daddy returned to the table with a cannon, steering the black
steel barrel. “Does that cannon go boom?” I asked. “I fire it
in the backyard at the tombstones,” he said. “That cemetery bought
up all our farmland during the Depression. Now we only have
the house.” He stared and said nothing, then glanced up suddenly,
like a ghost had tickled his ear. “Want to see me fire it?” he grinned.
“Daddy, fire the cannon after dessert,” Mother said. “If I fire
the cannon, I have to take out the cannonballs first,” he told me.
He tilted the cannon downward, and cannonballs dropped
from the barrel, thudding on the floor and rolling across
the brown braided rug. Grandmother praised the turkey’s thighs,
said she would bring leftovers home to feed her Congo Gray parrot.
I walked with Daddy to the backyard, past the bullet holes
in the door and his pickup truck with the Confederate license plate.
He swiveled the cannon around to face the tombstones
on the other side of the backyard fence. “This way, if I hit anybody,
they’re already dead,” he declared. He stuffed half a charge
of gunpowder into the cannon, and lit the fuse. From the dining room,
Mother yelled, “Daddy, no!” Then the battlefield rumbled
under my feet. My head thundered. Smoke drifted over
the tombstones. Daddy laughed. And I thought: When the first
drunken Pilgrim dragged out the cannon at the first Thanksgiving-
that’s when the Indians left.

 

Melissa Quits School

Melissa understands that no one really has her back and that she ultimately has to make her own decisions. She starts here by stating her truths and strengthening her voice. She already has a place where feels free. I think she’s a survivor.

Melissa Quits School                                                             Lucile Burt

 

I’m not going down into that cave anymore,

that room under everything

where they stick us freaks

surrounded by storage rooms

and one hundred years of dust

caking little windows near the ceiling.

 

We’re buried under the weight

of all those rooms above us,

regular rooms with regular kids,

buried where we won’t be a bad influence.

 

Mrs. Miller says I’ll be sorry,

but I don’t care. I can’t think

down there. It’s hard to breathe

underground.

If school’s so great for my future,

what’s Mrs. Miller doing buried here

like some sad dead bird

teaching freaks

and smelling like booze every morning?

 

I may be stupid, but I know this:

outside there’ll be light and air

and I won’t feel like I’m dying.

Outside, someone will pay when I work,

give me a coffee break when I can smoke.

No one will say “where’s your pass?”

Sandy and Tina won’t dance away from me,

sidestepping like I’m poison ivy,

and boys won’t try to pry me open.

Steve won’t be hanging on me,

wanting me

to take a couple of hits before class,

wanting me

to cut class to make love,

even though it’s really screwing

and he calls it “making love”

so I’ll do it and he can brag later.

 

I may be stupid, but I know this:

even just a little light and air

can save your life.

That shark Steve thinks he owns me,

but I know this:

when we cruise in his car

so he can show off his Chevy and me

him looking out the window all the time,

going nowhere, just cruising,

I’m there ’cause we’re moving.

I’m there alone with Tori Amos,

singing her sad true songs,

leaning my head back,

watching the streetlights come and go,

each flash lighting my face

for a minute in the dark.

 

 

Please Call me by my True Names

This is a well known poem, particularly as the plight of the young girl who is raped is based on a very real truth. The author, Thich Nhat Hanh asserts that he could be either a saint or a devil, he is both. Can any of us say otherwise?

Please Call me by my True Names                                                  Thich Nhat Hanh

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—

even today I am still arriving.

 

Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a Spring branch,

to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,

learning to sing in my new nest,

to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

 

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,

to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death

of all that is alive.

 

I am a mayfly metamorphosing

on the surface of the river.

And I am the bird

that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

 

I am a frog swimming happily

in the clear water of a pond.

And I am the grass-snake

that silently feeds itself on the frog.

 

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.

And I am the arms merchant,

selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

 

I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.

 

I am a member of the politburo,

with plenty of power in my hands.

And I am the man who has to pay

his ‘debt of blood’ to my people

dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm

it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,

so vast it fills the four oceans.

 

Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can wake up

and the door of my heart

could be left open,

the door of compassion.

 

From Thich Nhat Hanh: After a long meditation, I wrote this poem. In it, there are three people: the twelve-year-old girl, the pirate, and me. Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The title of the poem is “Please Call Me by My True Names,” because I have so many names. When I hear one of the of these names, I have to say, “Yes.”

Yes

Let us hope for a time of striving to understand each other right now and in the future. Presently, there seems to be a great deal of discussion around what was meant, what is truthful and what is respectful as well as based in intelligence. We need to remember there are valid differences between each of us, practice listening and asking openly framed questions. There is a lot to discover out there, not just protect.

Yes                                                                              Denise Duhamel

According to Culture Shock:

A Guide to Customs and Etiquette

of Filipinos, when my husband says yes,

he could also mean one of the following:

a.) I don’t know.

b.) If you say so.

c.) If it will please you.

d.) I hope I have said yes unenthusiastically enough

for you to realize I mean no.

You can imagine the confusion

surrounding our movie dates, the laundry,

who will take out the garbage

and when. I remind him

I’m an American, that all his yeses sound alike to me.

I tell him here in America we have shrinks

who can help him to be less of a people-pleaser.

We have two-year-olds who love to scream “No!”

when they don’t get their way. I tell him,

in America we have a popular book,

When I Say No I Feel Guilty.

“Should I get you a copy?” I ask.

He says yes, but I think he means

“If it will please you,” i.e. “I won’t read it.”

“I’m trying,” I tell him, “but you have to try too.”

“Yes,” he says, then makes tampo,

a sulking that the book Culture Shock describes as

“subliminal hostility . . . withdrawal of customary cheerfulness

in the presence of the one who has displeased” him.

The book says it’s up to me to make things all right,

“to restore goodwill, not by talking the problem out,

but by showing concern about the wounded person’s

well-being.” Forget it, I think, even though I know

if I’m not nice, tampo can quickly escalate into nagdadabog

foot stomping, grumbling, the slamming

of doors. Instead of talking to my husband, I storm off

to talk to my porcelain Kwan Yin,

the Chinese goddess of mercy

that I bought on Canal Street years before

my husband and I started dating.

“The real Kwan Yin is in Manila,”

he tells me. “She’s called Nuestra Señora de Guia.

Her Asian features prove Christianity

was in the Philippines before the Spanish arrived.”

My husband’s telling me this

tells me he’s sorry. Kwan Yin seems to wink,

congratulating me–my short prayer worked.

“Will you love me forever?” I ask,

then study his lips, wondering if I’ll be able to decipher

what he means by his yes.

 

The Year I Was Diagnosed with a Sacrilegious Heart  

This poet grew up with an activist father and he certainly took it to heart as you’ll see in this poem.  That the concept of compromise is offered in school amazes me. I also remember my own unwillingness to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and wish today that we lived in a world where compromises seem possible.

The Year I Was Diagnosed with a Sacrilegious Heart                              Martín Espada

At twelve, I quit reciting

the Pledge of Allegiance,

could not salute the flag

in 1969, and I,

undecorated for grades or sports,

was never again anonymous in school.

 

A girl in homeroom

caught my delinquent hand

and pinned a salute

against my chest;

my cafeteria name was Commie,

though I too drank the milk

with presidential portraits on the carton;

but when the school assembly stood

for the flags and stiff soldiers’ choreography

of the color guard,

and I stuck to my seat

like a back pocket snagged on coil,

the principal’s office

quickly found my file.

A balding man in a brown suit

asked me if I understood compromise,

and we nodded in compromise,

a pair of Brooklyn wardheelers.

 

Next assembly, when the color guard

marched down the aisle,

stern-faced,

I stood with the rest,

then pivoted up the aisle,

the flags and me

brushing past each other

without apologies,

my unlaced sneakers

dragging out of the auditorium.

 

I pressed my spyglass eye

against the doors

for the Pledge:

no one saw my right hand

crumpled in a pocket

instead of spreading

across my sacrilegious heart.

 

Ceremony done, the flagpoles

pointed their eagle beaks at me,

and I ducked

under their shifting banner wings

back to my seat,

inoculated against staring,

my mind a room after school

where baseball cards

could be stacked by team

in a plastic locker.

 

Happiness

When might happiness come to you? Does it come to everyone equally? It just might especially the way this poem frames that possibility. Read and enjoy.

Happiness                                                                                                      Jane Kenyon

There’s just no accounting for happiness,

or the way it turns up like a prodigal

who comes back to the dust at your feet

having squandered a fortune far away.

 

And how can you not forgive?

You make a feast in honor of what

was lost, and take from its place the finest

garment, which you saved for an occasion

you could not imagine, and you weep night and day

to know that you were not abandoned,

that happiness saved its most extreme form

for you alone.

 

No, happiness is the uncle you never

knew about, who flies a single-engine plane

onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes

into town, and inquires at every door

until he finds you asleep midafternoon

as you so often are during the unmerciful

hours of your despair.

 

It comes to the monk in his cell.

It comes to the woman sweeping the street

with a birch broom, to the child

whose mother has passed out from drink.

It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing

a sock, to the pusher, to the basketmaker,

and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots

in the night.

It even comes to the boulder

in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,

to rain falling on the open sea,

to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.