So Out of Words
In a world where too many people
have their fingers on the triggers
of guns aimed directly at black people,
we have borne witness, time
and time again, to executions
filmed on tiny cameras—
Which allow us to see too much
Which allow us to see not enough.
Judge, jury, executioner—
It’s due process in the suburbs
and the city streets, on winding
country roads and highways, sidewalks
in front of the convenience store,
where the streetlights don’t shine
in the back corner of a parking lot,
on the playground, behind the fence
in a field near your children’s school
on the street in front of your house.
This interminable spectacle
of black death playing on a loop
over and over again until
we become numb to something
that is now a permanent part
of the American memory.
How could these grainy videos
not translate into justice?
I just don’t know how to believe
change is possible
when there is so much
evidence to the contrary.
I am so out of words
in the face of such brutality.
Black lives matter, and then
in an instant, they don’t.
(Published in Sojourners June 2017) https://sojo.net/magazine/june-2017
This poem is inspired by Roxanne Gay’s editorial “When Black Lives Stop Mattering” The New York Times 7/16/16
In the Shadows of Nuremberg
Written in Commemoration of The 70th Anniversary of Closing of the International Military Tribunal At Nuremburg (1946). For Henry Barbanel
Because we are forever weak
and wounded, looking for someone
to follow or blame; sometimes
we become savage and change
the rules to ease our minds.
Clouded by delusions
of power or fame, human
beings can justify anything.
Too often things can go wrong
in a hurry, and the masses
go along as if their hearts
were turned inside out, and hatred
was something long hidden
but there, like a riptide
pulling below the glittering
smooth surface of the sea.
we know is right, we become
tribal and primitive,
tearing the ties that bind us
one to another, as if
they were made of air. And love
dissolves into something
lost in the cruel cacophony.
And though it may be far,
there is always a storm
swirling somewhere. The sea
that connects and creates us,
holds the seeds of our destruction.
Still, God keeps nothing from us.
Each new wave is a renewal;
every day a gift of our own making.
As we stumble from the shadows
of the twentieth century,
covered in blood and ash,
cradling the bones of those who are lost,
we know there can be justice;
the pattern has been set.
No matter how long it takes,
there is no peace without redemption.
Without shadows, there is no light.
Charleston Mayoral Inauguration poem, written with Marcus Amaker.
Though Charleston is a shrine to the past,
where every alleyway and weather-worn road
tells the story of a city resurrected;
time is never standing still.
Running beneath the surface
are fault lines of our own making,
reshaping memory brick by brick.
Hours crumble in the soil of Hampton Park,
where horses ran laps for sport,
and Union soldiers were laid to rest,
honored as “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Now, a statue of Denmark Vesey stands
in this place named for a confederate general,
as flowers bloom among the ruins.
This year, we’ve done laps around despair;
and we’ve grown tired of running in circles
so we stepped off the track and began to walk.
As the earth shifted beneath our feet,
we moved forward together. Our hearts
unhinged, guide us toward a city
remade by love, into a future
that our past could never have imagined,
Let us gather and be
silent together like stones
glittering in the sunlight
so bright it hurts our eyes
emptied of tears and searching
the sky for answers.
Let us be strangers
together as we gather
in circles wherever we meet,
to stand hand in hand and sing
hymns to the heavens and pray
for the fallen and speak their names:
Clementa, Cynthia, Tywanza,
Ethel, Sharonda, Daniel,
Myra, Susie, and DePayne,
They are not alone. As bells
in the spires call across
the wounded Charleston sky
we close our eyes and listen
to the same stillness ringing
in our hearts, holding onto
one another like brothers
like sisters, because we know
wherever there is love, there is God.
Waterboy sprung from the sea,
return whenever you feel
a longing for something
luminous you cannot name.
When turtles swim through your sleep
follow them into the deep,
though it is dark and difficult
diving into those places
of multiplying silence.
Because your home was built
on a narrow mound of sand
held down by wandering vines,
where turtles dig deep holes
into the dunes for nests,
the eggs they will abandon
with blind hope and the kind
of faith we all hunger for,
return with flipper and wing,
scales that sparkle near the sun-
lit surface of the sea, to float
beneath a blur of clouds,
letting black sand spill slowly
from your opening hands.
“Waterboy” appears in the 2013 Summer issue of Prairie Schooner, www.prarierschooner.unl.edu.
Rain Coming From a Bright Sky
Caught by something unexpected
as sudden summer rain
in a place where everything
astonishes: the cool lake
that seemed to be waiting for them
when they stepped down off the bus,
Eiderdown pillows and quilts
in every sunlit bedroom,
afternoon chocolates with wine
the color of gold. All of it
like a continuous dream
of home, as if the river
carried these things to Solahuette,
for the women of the SS
and uniformed officers
posed on a wooden bridge,
laughing like little children
as the accordion player,
the one still wearing a cap,
played a familiar tune.
Giddy and giggling
they threw up their hands and ran
toward the alpine lodge, tucked
into the sloping wooded hills
on the outskirts of Auschwitz,
stopping just long enough
for a photograph, despite
mud filled shoes and drizzle
dampened hair, because they were young,
on holiday, waiting for
evening, beer and cigarettes
on the terrace under the stars,
dreaming of romance, because rain
seemed just right for Solahutte.
Because they were far away
from the office and telephones,
piles of paperwork, bad coffee,
endless orders from Berlin;
far from barbed wire fences
humming with electricity,
guard dogs, gunshots at The Black Wall,
and pistols echoing
through the long night. Gone were rows
of white barracks, the masses
of prisoners— their stench,
their cries, incomprehensible
mumbling, mindless stumbling;
far from the crematorium,
broken down from overuse,
and the smell of bodies
burning in open pits.
It didn’t matter how loud
they sang around the fireplace
after dinner or how many
doors were shut tight in the lodge;
the low rumble of trains
travelling from all directions
at every hour, lifted
from the pines like music
playing in the background
of every room at Solahutte.
This long note of human
suffering would stay and hum
inside them, not only when
trains passed through their village,
but in odd quiet moments
that would comprise their long lives,
while standing in the field behind
the house, for example,
pinning socks and damp sheets
to the clothesline, at the sink
washing carrots, or later
when heads bowed over for prayer
around the table. And after
in the darkness, there would be
no end to the noises, imagined
or otherwise. It doesn’t
matter if it’s actually
something heard, when the heart
quickens and the mouth goes dry.
That is when their memories
return to Solahutte,
and the first time they saw
a slow ripple spread across
the lake as transport trains passed
through the forest, and later,
the sudden summer rain.
* The title, “Rain Coming From a Bright Sky” is the caption for Photograph #34585 depicting Nazi officers and 18 female auxiliaries (Helferinnen) posing on a wooden bridge in Solahuette, July 1944, from Auschwitz through the Lens of the SS: Photos of Nazi Leadership at the Camp, Holocaust Memorial Museum.