New Internationalist

As if _poetry_ mattered

Issue 413

Poems that confront human challenges – an international selection.

From the garden of a woman once fallen: Thyme

Woman alone, living
in a tenement of enmity.
One room of back-biting
standpipe flowing strife.

Recall one dry Sunday
of no rice and peas no meat
how you boiled a handful
of fresh green thyme

to carry the smell of Sunday
as usual.
Thyme, herb of contraction
rising as steaming incense
of save-face.

When you dwell among enemies
you never make them salt your pot.
You never make them know
your want.

Lorna Goodison

Lorna Goodison was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1947, one of nine children. She developed an early love of reading as both her mother and a sister were voracious readers. She has worked as a painter, teacher and government official, and published 11 collections of poems.

On the genesis of this poem, Goodison told NI: ‘I wrote this poem during the l970s during Jamaica’s “Democratic Socialist” experiment. I once interviewed a woman who lived in a new high-rise housing scheme in Kingston’s inner city. She told me that when she did not have money to cook the traditional Jamaican Sunday dinner – rice and peas (which is seasoned with thyme) – she boiled thyme so her neighbours would not know about her lack of money.’

 

The Dance

In a field of cinders where Armenian life
was still dying,
a German woman, trying not to cry
told me of the horror she witnessed:

‘This thing I’m telling you about,
I saw with my own eyes.
Behind my window of hell
I clenched my teeth
and watched the town of Bardez turn
into a heap of ashes.
The corpses were piled high as trees,
and from the springs, from the streams and the road,
the blood was a stubborn murmur,
and still calls revenge in my ear.

Don’t be afraid; I must tell you what I saw,
so people will understand
the crimes men do to men.
For two days, by the road to the graveyard…

Let the hearts of the world understand,
it was Sunday morning,
the first useless Sunday dawning on the corpses.
From dawn to dusk I had been in my room
with a stabbed woman –
my tears wetting her death –
when I heard from afar
a dark crowd standing in a vineyard
lashing twenty brides
and singing filthy songs.

Leaving the half-dead girl on the straw mattress,
I went to the balcony of my window
and the crowd seemed to thicken like a clump of trees.
An animal of a man shouted, “You must dance,
dance when our drum beats.”
With fury whips cracked
on the flesh of the women.
Hand in hand the brides began their circle dance.
Now, I envied my wounded neighbour
because with a calm snore she cursed
the universe and gave up her soul to the stars…

“Dance,” they raved,
“dance till you die, infidel beauties
with your flapping tits, dance!
Smile for us. You’re abandoned now,
you’re naked slaves,
so dance like a bunch of fuckin’sluts.
We’re hot for your dead bodies.”
Twenty graceful brides collapsed.
“Get up,” the crowd screamed,
brandishing their swords.

Then someone brought a jug of kerosene.
Human justice, I spit in your face.
The brides were anointed.
“Dance,” they thundered –
“here’s a fragrance you can’t get in Arabia.”

With a torch, they set
the naked brides on fire.
And the charred bodies rolled
and tumbled to their deaths…

I slammed my shutters,
sat down next to my dead girl
and asked: “How can I dig out my eyes?”’

Siamanto
Translated by Peter Balakian and Nevart Yaghlian

Siamanto (Atom Yarjanian) (1878 – 1915) was born in the town of Akn (formerly within the Ottoman Empire, now Kemaliye, Turkey). Primarily a writer of epic poems, he also brought the difficult subject of genocide into verse. He used blunt language to express the suffering of the Armenian people during massacres perpetrated by the Ottoman army in 1895-96 and 1909. In 1915, Siamanto was one of a group of Armenian intellectuals rounded up for deportation to Anatolia and slaughtered on the way.

That year marks the beginning of the genocidal killings of Armenian (and Anatolian and Greek) people by the Ottoman Empire, which were carried out under the wings of the First World War. It is estimated that one and a half million Armenians were murdered as a result.

It is claimed that when Hitler embarked on his plans to eliminate Jewish people in Nazi Germany, he referred to how the world had forgotten the Armenian holocaust. Turkey insists no genocide took place. When the US Congress was considering officially recognizing the Armenian genocide, Turkey threatened the closure of US bases in the country. Turkish intellectuals who have raised the issue have faced persecution and prosecution.

 

Psalm

How leaky are all the borders
we draw around our separate nations!
How many clouds cross those boundaries
daily, without even paying the toll!
How much desert sand
simply sifts from country to country,
or how many mountain pebbles
hop down slopes on to foreign turf, just like that!

Need I remind you of each and every bird
as it flies over, and now sits,
on a closed border-gate?
Even if it’s small as a sparrow, its tail is abroad
while its beak is still at home.
And if that weren’t enough, it keeps fidgeting!

Out of countless insects, I will single out the ant,
who, right between the guard’s left boot
and his right, pays no attention to any questions of
origin or destination.

If only this whole messy affair
could be studied more, in detail,
all around the world!
Look! Isn’t that familiar hedge on the far bank even
now smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf
over the river?

And who else but the squid, unashamed
of the length of its arms, would violate
the precious boundary of our territorial waters?

How can we speak
of any semblance of order around here
when we can’t even rearrange the stars
to show which one shines for whom?

Not to mention the fog,
which reprehensively goes wherever it pleases. Or that
dust blowing blithely all over the prairie
as if the land had never been partitioned.
And the voices gliding on the obliging airwaves! All
these conspiratorial gurglings
and suggestive sounds.

Funny, isn’t it, how only what’s human is truly
alien? Everything else is just mixed vegetation,
a few subversive moles, and the wind.

Wisława Szymborska
Translated by Mark Belletini

Wisława Szymborska (born 1923) is Poland’s most celebrated poet and a 1996 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Paradox and wit are the hallmarks of her poetry, and those who know her personally remark on her modesty. In her Nobel acceptance speech, Szymborska reflected: ‘Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”’

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