poem index

Poems of Witness and Remembrance

Poems of Witness and Remembrance
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Kwame Dawes

I sing requiem
for the dead, caught in that
mercantilistic madness.

We have not built lasting
monuments of severe stone
facing the sea, the watery tomb,

so I call these songs
shrines of remembrance
where faithful descendants

may stand and watch the smoke
curl into the sky
in memory of those

devoured by the cold Atlantic.
In every blues I hear
riding the dank swamp

I see the bones
picked clean in the belly
of the implacable sea.

Do not tell me
it is not right to lament,
do not tell me it is tired.

If we don’t, who will
recall in requiem
the scattering of my tribe?

In every reggae chant
stepping proud against Babylon
I hear a blue note

of lament, sweet requiem
for the countless dead,
skanking feet among shell,

coral, rainbow adze,
webbed feet, making as if

to lift, soar, fly into new days.

From Requiem. Copyright © 1996 by Kwame Dawes. Used with the permission of Peepal Tree Press.

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Martín Espada, 1957

Not songs of loyalty alone are these,
But songs of insurrection also,
For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world over.
                                                                                     —Walt Whitman

I see the dark-skinned bodies falling in the street as their ancestors fell
before the whip and steel, the last blood pooling, the last breath spitting.
I see the immigrant street vendor flashing his wallet to the cops,
shot so many times there are bullet holes in the soles of his feet.
I see the deaf woodcarver and his pocketknife, crossing the street
in front of a cop who yells, then fires. I see the drug raid, the wrong
door kicked in, the minister's heart seizing up. I see the man hawking
a fistful of cigarettes, the cop’s chokehold that makes his wheezing
lungs stop wheezing forever. I am in the crowd, at the window,
kneeling beside the body left on the asphalt for hours, covered in a sheet.

I see the suicides: the conga player handcuffed for drumming on the subway,
hanged in the jail cell with his hands cuffed behind him; the suspect leaking
blood from his chest in the backseat of the squad card; the 300-pound boy
said to stampede bare-handed into the bullets drilling his forehead.

I see the coroner nodding, the words he types in his report burrowing
into the skin like more bullets. I see the government investigations stacking,
words buzzing on the page, then suffocated as bees suffocate in a jar. I see
the next Black man, fleeing as the fugitive slave once fled the slave-catcher,
shot in the back for a broken tail-light. I see the cop handcuff the corpse.

I see the rebels marching, hands upraised before the riot squads,
faces in bandannas against the tear gas, and I walk beside them unseen.
I see the poets, who will write the songs of insurrection generations unborn
will read or hear a century from now, words that make them wonder
how we could have lived or died this way, how the descendants of slaves
still fled and the descendants of slave-catchers still shot them, how we awoke
every morning without the blood of the dead sweating from every pore.

Reprinted from Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. Copyright © 2016 by Martín Espada. Used with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. and Frances Goldin Literary Agency.

Poems of Witness and Remembrance
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Richie Hofmann

Because I am a boy, the untouchability of beauty
is my subject already, the book of statues
open in my lap, the middle of October, leaves
foiling the wet ground
in soft copper. “A statue
must be beautiful
from all sides,” Cellini wrote in 1558.
When I close the book,
the bodies touch. In the west,
they are tying a boy to a fence and leaving him to die,
his face unrecognizable behind a mask
of blood. His body, icon
of loss, growing meaningful
against his will.

Copyright © 2016 by Richie Hofmann. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 12, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

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Ross Gay

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

Copyright © 2015 by Ross Gay. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.

Poems of Witness and Remembrance
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Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Your names toll in my dreams.
I pick up tinsel in the street. A nameless god
streaks my hand with blood. I look at the lighted trees
in windows & the spindles of pine tremble
in warm rooms. The flesh of home, silent.
How quiet the bells of heaven must be, cold
with stars who cannot rhyme their brilliance
to our weapons. What rouses our lives each moment?
Nothing but life dares dying. My memory, another obituary.
My memory is a cross. Face down. A whistle in high grass.
A shadow pouring down the sill of calamity.
Your names wake me in the nearly dark hour.
The candles in our windows flicker
where your faces peer in, ask us
questions light cannot answer.

 

Copyright © 2013 by Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-a-Day on February 21, 2013. 

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Karen An-hwei Lee

Say we no longer bear witness to a body-politic of trauma
after revolution
                by anesthesia or erasure. Say we cover our eyes 
to crossed olive-wood beams on a hill.  Modes of witness   
expose our inadequacy, the human.  Forgetting
is a sign—yes, a thing once existed. Say we are unworthy
of witness, internal or external—
                         our damaged wisdom, for instance,
our diminished capacity for empathy
             and heightened apathy to torture
mingled with doves     
                      of unfettered desire
                                         or an eclipsed divine.

Copyright © 2015 by Karen An-hwei Lee. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on September 24, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets

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Teddy Macker

dear lord in this time of darkness
help us see the darkness

dear lord help us to not pretend
no more pretending

dear lord may our gaze be defenseless
and unshardable

teach us the piety of the open eye

dear lord in this time of darkness
may we be unafraid to mourn and together and hugely

may dignity lose its scaffolding
faces crumble like bricks

dear lord let grief come to grief

and then o lord help us to see the bees yet in the lavender
the spokes of sunlight down through the oaks

and the sleep-opened face of the beloved
and the afternoon all around her
and her small freckled hands

Copyright © 2015 by Teddy Macker. This poem originally appeared in This World (White Cloud Press, 2015). Used with permission of the author.

 

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Dora Malech

As if the lucky might ride it to shore
while the others go under.

Some dogs make for higher ground,
spurred by a shake or a sound
in a frequency to which we never tuned.

Dogs’ ears rise now
to the scream of the still-black screen,
the pitch before the picture.

Breaking here means broken elsewhere.
All our instruments, and still we’re late.

It’s six o’clock. In the windows,
families flicker on,
faces splashed blue in the wake.

From Shore Ordered Ocean. Copyright © 2009 by Dora Malech. Reprinted by permission of the author and The Waywiser Press.

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Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952

         (for Adriana Corral)

Before dawn, trembling in air down to the old river,

circulating gently as a new season

delicate still in its softness, rustling raiment

of hopes never stitched tightly enough to any hour.

I was almost, maybe, just about, going to do that.

A girl’s thick dark hair, brushed over one shoulder

so regularly no one could imagine it not being there.

Hair as a monument.   Hovering - pitched.

Beloved sister, maker of plans, main branch,

we needed you desperately, where have you gone?

Here is the sentence called No no no no no.

Come back, everything grants you your freedom,

here in the mire of too much thinking,

we drown, we drown, split by your echo.

Copyright © 2015 Naomi Shihab Nye. Used by permission of the author.

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D. A. Powell, 1963

You only watch the news to find out
where the fires are burning, which way
the wind is blowing, and whether
it will rain. Forecast ahead but first:
A mother’s boy laid out
in the street for hours.
These facts don’t wash away.

Copyright © 2016 D. A. Powell. Used with permission of the author.

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Danez Smith
let ruin end here
 
let him find honey
where there was once a slaughter
 
let him enter the lion’s cage
& find a field of lilacs
 
let this be the healing
& if not   let it be
 

From Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Danez Smith. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org.

Poems of Witness and Remembrance
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Tracy K. Smith, 1972

The sky is a dry pitiless white. The wide rows stretch on into death.
Like famished birds, my hands strip each stalk of its stolen crop: our name.

History is a ship forever setting sail. On either shore: mountains of men,
Oceans of bone, an engine whose teeth shred all that is not our name.

Can you imagine what will sound from us, what we’ll rend and claim
When we find ourselves alone with all we’ve ever sought: our name?

Or perhaps what we seek lives outside of speech, like a tribe of goats
On a mountain above a lake, whose hooves nick away at rock. Our name

Is blown from tree to tree, scattered by the breeze. Who am I to say what,
In that marriage, is lost? For all I know, the grass has caught our name.

Having risen from moan to growl, growl to a hound’s low bray,
The voices catch. No priest, no sinner has yet been taught our name.

Will it thunder up, the call of time? Or lie quiet as bedrock beneath
Our feet? Our name our name our name our fraught, fraught name.

From Wade in the Water. Copyright © 2018 by Tracy K. Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.