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“American reporter James Foley, who was killed in Syria on August 19, was—and is—a brother to me. In the wake of his senseless slaughter, I am publishing ‘In the Absence of Sparrows,’ which I wrote during his 656-day captivity. In so doing, I intend to reclaim his image and memory. And I hope to stamp out the numbing vision of Jim in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling in a desert expanse, his captor clad in black, standing above him.”
—Daniel Johnson

Read more about the poem and Daniel Johnson’s friendship with James Foley.

In the Absence of Sparrows

Daniel Johnson
Rockets concuss. Guns rattle off.
Dogs in a public square
feed on dead horses.

I don’t know, Jim, where you are.
When did you last see
birds? The winter sky in Boston

is gray with flu. Newspapers,
senators, friends, even your mom
on Good Morning America—

no one knows where you are.
It’s night, cold and bruised,
where you are. Plastic twine binds

your hands. You wait and pray, pray
and wait, but this is where the picture goes gray.
We don’t know, Jim, where you are.


                                    *


In the absence of sparrows: a crowd of friends and family gather in Rochester,
New Hampshire to recite the holy rosary.


                                    *


We keep your picture on the kitchen table, pack of American Spirits,
airplane bottle of Scotch, a copy of Krapp’s Last Tape.


Don’t get me wrong; we expect you back. Skinny, feral,
coffee eyes sunken but alive, you’ve always come back, from Iraq,

Syria, Afghanistan, even Libya after Gaddafi’s forces
captured and held you for 44 days. You tracked time scratching

marks with your zipper on prison walls, scrawling notes on cigarette
boxes, reciting the Koran with other prisoners. Then, you called.

DJ, it’s Jimmy…I’m in New Hampshire, brother! I wanted
to break your fucking nose. We ate lobster rolls, instead,

on a picnic bench by Boston Harbor. You made a quick round
of TV shows, packed your camera and Arabic phrasebook.

You skipped town on a plane to Turkey. We talked once. You said
you’d play it safe. The connection was lost.


                                    *


In the absence of sparrows: American journalist James Foley disappeared
after being taken captive by armed gunmen near Aleppo, Syria on Thanksgiving Day.

In the absence of sparrows: our house burns blue with news.


                                    *


Winter solstice, 1991. You turned donuts,
drinking beers, in a snowy public lot next to the lake.
Girls yelped. You cranked the Pixies louder, cut the lights,
and steered Billy’s grandma’s Chrysler onto the Winnipesaukee ice.
The moon flamed bright as a county coroner’s light.
You revved the station wagon’s engine. Billy tied
a yellow ski rope off the hitch, flashed a thumbs up,
and you punched the gas—5, 15, 20, 25 miles per hour—
towing Billy, skating in high-top sneakers,
across the frozen lake. Chill air filled his lungs.
Billy pumped his fist. You torqued the wheel left.
Triumphant, you honked and flashed the lights.
You took a swig of Heineken and wheeled
the wood-paneled station wagon in a wide-arcing turn
to pick up Billy, bloodied but standing. People do reckless things
but your friends dubbed you the High King of Foolish Shit.
The nose of Billy’s grandma’s Chrysler broke the ice.
You jammed it into reverse. Bald tires spinning,
you flung yourself from the car. In seconds, it was gone.
You gave Billy’s grandma a potted mum
and a silver balloon. Standing on her screened-in porch,
you mumbled an apology. What am I supposed to do now?
she asked. What the hell do I do now?


                                    *


In the absence of sparrows: when falling snow, out the window, looks like radio waves, 
        your face appears, your baritone laugh.



                                    *



August 31, 2004

We read Abbie Hoffman, 1968, watched Panther documentaries,
The Weather Underground, and packed our bandanas, first aid kits,
fat markers, maps and signs for New York City. A31, they called it,
a day of direct action, a time to heave ourselves on the gears

of an odious machine. We marched, drumming and chanting, half a million strong,
through the streets of Lower Manhattan. Worst President Ever, A Texas Village
Has Lost Its Idiot. Protestors carried a flotilla of flag-covered coffins.
We hoisted homemade signs and cried out, Whose streets?

Our streets? No justice, no peace! I’d packed sandwiches,
water, mapped restrooms along the parade route, inked
the hotline for Legal Services on your forearm and mine.
You, my wild half brother, packed only a one hitter, notepad, and pen.

When the parade snaked past the New York Public Library,
we peeled off to confront 20 cops in riot gear blocking entry
with batons drawn. We took position on the library steps.
Stone-still, inches from police, we held our signs

stamped with a student gagged by padlock and chain.
I could feel breath on my neck. We narrowly escaped arrest,
then streamed toward the Garden, a ragtag troop of 200.
We evaded barricades. Cut down alleys. At Herald Square, only

blocks from the Republican Convention, cops on mopeds
cut us off. They rolled out a bright orange snow fence,
hundreds of yard long, then zip cuffed us, one by one.
I called Ebele. You called your brother, set to be married in just three days.

His best man, you were headed to jail. “I’ll be there Friday for the golf outing,”
you vowed, a cop cutting your phone call short. They took you first.
Threw you on a city bus headed to Pier 14 on the Hudson,
a giant garage stinking of axel grease and gasoline. Stepping off the bus,

I scanned hundreds of faces staring through chain link, newly erected
and topped with concertina wire. I couldn’t find you. I can’t. They transferred me,
in soapy light, to the Tombs, Manhattan’s city jail, and freed me after 24 hours
to wander the streets. I peered in Chinese restaurants, seedy Canal Street bars,

called your cell phone from a payphone, trekked to Yago’s apartment
in Spanish Harlem, eager to crack beers, to begin weaving the story
we would always tell. You were not there. Waiting outside the Tombs,
I missed my flight home. Waiting, I smoked your cigarettes on the fire escape.

They held you and held you. You are missing still. I want to hold you. Beauty
is in the streets, my brother. Beauty is in the streets.

                                   

*


In the absence of sparrows: trash fires, a call to prayer. Dusk.
Rockets whistling, plastic bags taking flight.

In the absence of sparrows: all of a sudden, you appear. Standing before a cinder block
           wall, you’re holding a video camera with a boom mic and wearing a bulletproof 
           vest.

In the absence of sparrows: the front page story says you’ve been missing since 
           November 22, 2012. Everything else it doesn’t say.

In the absence of sparrows: you simply wandered off, past the Sunoco, pockets stuffed. 
           The door to your apartment is open still—

© 2014 Daniel Johnson.

© 2014 Daniel Johnson.

Photo credit: Ebele Okpokwasili-Johnson

Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson published How to Catch a Falling Knife, winner of the Kinereth Gensler Award, in 2010 with Alice James Books. In connection with the book’s release, Johnson performed an illuminated version of the text involving poetry, original music, and the found home movies of William Bradley, a World War II-era Fuller Brush salesman from Davenport, Iowa.

by this poet

poem
We drank hard water.
Spoke in plain language.

Said what we didn't

with a joke or a look.
One went missing—

let silence drill its hole.
A second fell ill.

We cloaked our mirrors. 
Slashed a red X

on the door to our house.
Pass over us, I asked

the raven sky,
or burn in me 

a second mouth.