Public Lives/Private Lives
My handwriting is rough, a prisoner’s scripted
letter, the cropped fields and your winter hands
folding into my pockets for lack of gloves.
I could go in any direction in this field of nocturne.
They place fistfuls of pebbles in my shoes.
A message stuck in someone’s mouth.
I wander after ancestry, in long brocade,
in tattered coat. Does the voice call
from shrapnel and dung, wood and smoke?
Do I begin in this past, the famine field?
My mother once knew nothing but snow
but knew it was made from cold,
and its opposite: ash, burn, splinter, ruin.
I am guided now by a river
but I cannot return to that state of water.
It is a lie. That love might save.
They took away another prisoner yesterday.
I hear a wrestling, a drag from that deep,
a face rippling in the undercurrent.
I don’t remember the struggle.
I am landlocked, no more responsible
for my own body. I am summoned
into the new year by firecrackers,
a detonation, a good luck orange bursting
from its hot center. I wonder
how I’ve come to surrender, settle into
the blind familiar. It is not a revolution,
when I get to admit my mistakes,
when I wear my wrongs like a shining badge,
where my confessions lead me to a final world.
In the morning, my soaked bread a slumped body.
A Full Life
The devil takes stock of cans, food, rations
in the large factory. Takes out a roll of bandages
and a loaf of bread and gives to those who ask.
If they beg for more, he imprisons them or orders
them to kneel on cement, makes them look out
at a wide expanse of water or a table full of men
eating a freshly cooked meal, their tied women
on their laps. The devil is pulling a rope, feasting
on pork, wiping his face with the back of his face.
Modern Day Ethiopia, Ogaden Desert
The rebels march 300 strong across the crunchy earth.
The entire village lines up, one sunken cheekbone
to the next, to squint at them. May God bring you victory.
Impoverished nomads against the biggest armies in Africa.
Ethiopian solders gang raping women, burning down
huts and killing civilians at will. It is the same military
the American government helps train and equip.
Anab, a 40 year old camel herder, too frightened
to give her last name, said soldiers took her
to a police station, put her in a cell and twisted
her nipples with pliers. She said government officials
routinely rounded up young women under the pretext
that they were rebel supporters so they could bring them
to jail and rape them. “Me, I am too old,” she said,
“but they raped me too.”
The devil likes to laugh and likes the women
to laugh too. Laugh, he says, when they
are ordered to shoot. If you don’t laugh,
we’ll shoot you too. The devil wears a mask
with a hole for the mouth, painted cheeks
like shining silver dollars, eyebrows locked
into their official pallor. The mask is universal.
The mask hangs on the wall. When the devil sleeps,
the mask still watches.
Lion. Radio. Fearless. Peacock. Most of the men
have nicknames that conceal their real identities.
Peacock shared the bitter little plums the soldiers pick
from thorn bushes—“Ogaden chocolate,” he called them.
Skimming water from the top of a mud puddle,
he pointed out to the anthills, the coming storm clouds.
In the desert the women put on their clothes
after the soldiers have left, fix their hair, though
they walk in circles all day looking for a body
of water, a surface in which to view themselves.
If I trust history, does that mean my memory
will remain there? What if the futures fails me?
We have found it increasingly difficult to govern
You, believer, sitting there with your toe touching
water, can you stir a whole continent by your jostling,
your incessant questions:
Is the stomping more of a march or a dance?
What do you make of our new president?
Have you drunk our native wine? Aren’t
the women of our country the most beautiful
in the world? Are you governed by saints
or radicals? Should I address you in the formal
or the familiar? When is curfew hour?
When is the next plane to New York?
Do you carry bourbon or whiskey?
“A camel is delivering a baby today
and the milk of the camel is coming,”
goes one campfire song.
“Who is the owner of this land?”
The devil does not sit in a throne nor in the brush
where he whispers to a soldier to take his share.
The soldier takes to dreaming and wishes
the terrain with its dominion of bird, beast,
women to be his. He dreams that he has 49
wives, the 50th will be his newborn daughter.
And God set to fighting the devil with a sword.
In the year 2007, we can hear a clanging, not
in the heavens but in a backyard, not celestially,
but in the dry mouth of a woman who watches
her daughter forced into a room with soldiers.
The nation of ______ is carrying me home.
I am carried home by this one long gospel
that seems to have no end, but I think
the final line may have something to do
with battling the one who made me.
* Italicized portions are from “Searing Reports Back a Rising U.S. Worry” by Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times, June 18, 2007
Dream blood, dream red, dream.
The r and then the ea and the dm.
Let the letters ride there, then subtract it.
The roof of a shelter, the grandeur
of smoke, a sun print on a rocket.
I have come to the border town.
Take away the I and put it in a shelter dream,
now fill it up with bullets, now dream
bull. Now take the b out of it which is
the engine that makes it go.
There’s a baby in a basket. There’s
a burning basket lullabye.
You know the words, mixed with soil
when the soil is lifted with a shovel.
Place the soil on top of the wooden boxes
whose bodies dream ooh’s and aah’s,
of fireworks branching out in the sky
on holiday, pots and pans clanging,
children playing at dawn, a dream
nailed down to a box.
In a dream city constructed
from paper, flames were lit.
My God, I am the Japanese beetle
green and shining in front
of the dark door. World,
I grieve into your small,
disinterested ear. I am quivering
inside a thousand rooms
of one cell, where I hover
and freeze, black as a speck
descending the far, blank page.