This Mother’s Day 2021, I share the poem “Mother Did You Know” written by fellow blogger, Swarn Gill. He captures with precision my own experience as a woman and mother. I’m heartened that he’s able to see the truth of millions of years of social conditioning of the human species.
*I dedicate this poem to women in general, but also to my mom, who is an amazing woman and still inspires me to be more to this day.
mother did you know
it’s all your fault
you caused the fall
that them’s the breaks
when you talk to snakes
mother did you know
you’re not quite human
humans should be a male
those other parts
aren’t on the chart
My Poetry Corner April 2021 features the poem “Cruel Radiance” from the debut poetry collection A Nail the Evening Hangs On (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) by Cambodian American poet Monica Sok. Born in 1990 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Sok is the daughter of refugees. She is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and teaches poetry to Southeast Asian youth at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants in Oakland, California.
Sok dedicates her poetry collection to her grandmother Bun Em who arrived in the USA in 1981, two years after escaping genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime with her four daughters and two sons. A master silk weaver, Bun Em’s loom, grief, joy, and perseverance infuse Sok’s real and imagined collective memory.
In “The Weaver,” Sok transforms her grandmother’s grief into nourishment for others around her. It made her happy / as she worked on silk dresses / and her hair never ran out. / Sometimes, when she was tired, / she’d tie it up / and let all the tired animals around her house / drink from her head. Her loom becomes an old friend and an ancestor she prays to in the poem “Ode to the Loom.” Her grief is re-imagined as nails falling like rain in the darkness, so that when her hair falls / not as rain does / but as nails the evening hangs on, / and her hands slip no longer / from silk but on walls in the dark / hall to her room…
As the daughter of genocide survivors, Sok grew up with familial silence. Her poems came out of silence, she told Danny Thanh Nguyen during an interview in May 2020. “I’m writing about the genocide, but I’m writing more about the inheritance of that trauma…. I had to give myself the permission to write the stories and I went into myth-making, tried to mythologize my family’s narratives.” But the narratives are not just about her family’s experience, she noted. Rather, she was working towards a collective history of all Cambodian families.
My Poetry Corner March 2021 features the poem “The woman without a name” (A mulher sem nome) from the poetry collection Lot’s Wife (A mulher de Ló) by Carlos Machado, a Brazilian poet and journalist. Born in 1951 in Muritiba, Bahia, Northeast Brazil, Machado earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Federal University of Bahia. He studied journalism at the Faculty of Cásper Libero in São Paulo, where he lived for forty years before returning to his home state of Bahia in 2020. He is the creator and editor of the fortnightly bulletin, poesia.net, in which he promotes contemporary Brazilian poets.
Machado’s poetry collection Lot’s Wife, published in 2018, reflects his deep concern for the condition of women. In support of the feminist movement, he is involved in studying the causes and means of combating the increasing incidents of violence against women in Brazil. The biblical story of Lot’s wife is a story of violence against a woman whose only crime was that of looking back.
For readers unfamiliar with the biblical story told in the Old Testament Book of Genesis, chapter 19, the God of Abraham destroys the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sinful ways. Two angels warn Abraham’s nephew Lot, living in Sodom, of the coming cataclysm. They instruct him to flee with his family and not to look back until they had reached the next town. Only Lot’s wife and two daughters heed the warning. Other members of Lot’s extended family refuse to join them, declaring it fake news. We don’t know why Lot’s wife looks back as they leave Sodom. We know only that her punishment is immediate and severe: She is transformed into a pillar of salt. Silenced.
My Poetry Corner February 2021 features the poem “Islands” from the poetry collection, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, by the Caribbean poet and historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite (1930-2020). Born in Bridgetown, Barbados, into a middle-class family, he won a British scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge. There he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1953 and gained a diploma in education the following year.
Brathwaite’s illusions of regarding himself as a British citizen were shattered on arrival in the Mother Country. He felt “rootless” and, like other British colonial West Indians of the time, he was ready to become an “Afro-Saxon.” This changed when he took a job as an Education Officer in Ghana, then the West African colony of the Gold Coast. For him, it was a spiritual homecoming. The eight years (1955 to 1962) that he spent travelling to villages across the country also expanded his thinking about history, culture, and ways of perceiving the world.
On returning to the Caribbean, he held teaching posts at the University of the West Indies, first in St. Lucia, and then in Kingston, Jamaica. While working in Jamaica, he began writing Rights of Passage, his first poetry collection, later published in 1967. Set in the Caribbean, the collection traces the movement of the black people’s dispossession of their African homeland, the sufferings of the Middle Passage and slavery, and struggle to find their footing in the new world and beyond. The people lament in “New World A-Comin’”:
It will be a long time before we see
this land again, these trees
again, drifting inland with the sound
of surf, smoke risingIt will be a long time before we see
these farms again, soft wet slow green
again: Aburi, Akwamu,
My Poetry Corner January 2021 features the poem “No Island Is an Island, & So Forth” from the poetry collection As One Fire Consumes Another (2019) by John Sibley Williams, an award-winning poet, educator, and literary agent. Born in 1978 in Massachusetts, Williams earned his bachelor’s degree at the University at Albany in New York in 2003. Then in 2005, he received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Rivier University in New Hampshire. He moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2009 where he earned a Master of Arts in Book Publishing from Portland State University. He lives in Portland with his partner and twin toddlers.
Williams’ poetry collection As One Fire Consumes Another comes at a critical time in American history with the empowerment of white supremacist and white nationalist groups. Framing his poems in column-like boxes, resembling coffins, the poet confronts the violent side of American history and bears witness as one fire consumes an unending series of fires in our homeland, on our southern border, and in distant lands. In an interview with Jeanne Huff of Idaho Press, Williams confessed that he struggled in exploring the extent of his “personal privilege as a white, CIS, able-bodied male whose labors and strains are so trifling compared to others.”
In the poem, “Everything Must Go,” a house is portrayed with ghost-white covering sheets and that new coffin smell. Its mossed gables are weighed down by a full century. Out-of-synch always with the dark drift of history, and hopeful that these are not self-repeating tragedies, the poet proposes that we must sell off what we fear owning. To remain silent is not atonement for our dark history.
We have become so numb to the cruelty we inflict on others with our unending wars that nothing stirs the / birds from our oak when we learn that six children were killed in Kabul, the poet observes in “When instinct matures into will.” The horizon sits / precisely where we left it. Fat with / faith. Fat, faithful, choosing what to / feel, feeling nothing.
Fire also rages in the homeland. The poem “A Gift of Violence,” in memory of the Charlottesville riots in August 2017, speaks of the racist hatred still alive across generations.
Memories of burning buildings raw
& righteous. A grandfather’s flames
passed down, undimmed. A full set
of knives in the drawer without time
to blunt from underuse. A city never
quite white enough. A city furiously
lit by misremembered histories…
Even Noah’s ark would not be big enough to un- / ruin, no flood more violent than our / own, the poet laments in “Dear Noah.” Like a ghost haunted by itself, / we move along old scars terrified of / what would happen if left to heal.
As a nation, we remain disunited and self-destructive. Call it by its true name: schism, the poet declares in “The Bones of Us.” Before we were a country of / burning buildings & protest & want, / we were the same. A shining city on / a shining hill raised on the silenced / bones of others.
In the featured poem, “No Island Is an Island, & So Forth,” the poet calls on white Americans to consider the role they all play in the hate and violence permeating our society. Holding on to illusions of bygone glories serve only to sever our body politic.
Sign your name to ruined Civil War
forts. Next time, use a Sharpie when
listing your demands to god. Instead
of touching forehead to ground as if
in supplication/ecstasy/grief, set fire
to the old battlefield & let the winds
unsever your strings to the past. In
dust & degrees, redraw boundaries.
This is what happened & this might
be what we let happen again…
When Williams penned these words, did he envisage white insurrectionists carrying the Confederate Flag while they stormed Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021? They fashioned their strings to the past into a Jim Crow-styled noose to hang our Vice President who, they believed, had sold out their cause to hold onto political power.
No island is an island; no body just a
body, & so forth. When the South
rises again, carry your father with the
rebel flag tattoo to the window to
watch the burning. Let the world
laugh at itself. Break from tradition.
To men who want & want & want,
admit you’ve tried so hard not to be
one of them.
Emboldened and incited by their leader in the White House, white supremacists and white nationalists among us have risen to prominence. To men who want & want & want there is no end to the burning. Fire consumes lives and livelihoods—black, brown, and white alike. No island is an island; no body just a / body, & so forth.
Only we can set ourselves free from the coffins, filled with hate and fear, that imprison our bodies and souls. Are we up to the task?
To read the complete featured poem, “No Island Is an Island, & So Forth,” and learn more about the work of the poet John Sibley Williams, go to my Poetry Corner January 2021.
My Poetry Corner December 2020, featuring the poem “Poema de Natal” (Christmas Poem) by Brazilian poet and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes (1913-1980), is dedicated to those among us who have lost a loved one this year to COVID-19.
Born in the city of Rio de Janeiro, in Southeast Brazil, Vinicius de Moraes is the poet of love and passion. At twenty years old, he published his first book of poetry. Two years later, his second collection won Brazil’s National Poetry Award. He served as a diplomat during the period 1946 to 1969. His first diplomatic post was as Vice-Consul in Los Angeles (1946-1950) where he immersed himself in North American cinema and jazz.
His featured poem, “Christmas Poem,” written in 1946, appears unconnected with the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in Judea. Instead, as the title suggests, the poem is more like reflections on the passing year. The poet ponders over death and what is truly essential to our lives. Why such somber thoughts during the Christmas festivities? Had the sudden death of a great friend, the year before, unsettled his life? The loss of a loved one has a way of giving us a new perspective of human existence.
My Poetry Corner November 2020 features the poem “Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move” from the 1995 poetry collection, To Us, All Flowers Are Roses, by Jamaica’s second Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison (2017-2020) and the first female to receive this honor. The eight of nine children, six boys and three girls, she was born in 1947 in Kingston, capital of the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica. She grew up in a lower-middle-class family on a noisy street with concrete yards. No roses grew in the neighborhood gardens of potted plants, so the people gave the name roses to all their flowers.
The hymns the young Lorna sang during Sunday Mass at the Anglican Church laid the foundation for her poetry. In her interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama for the Image Journal, Goodison recalled that her mother sung hymns as she did her household chores. “In the Jamaica I grew up in,” she told him, “it seemed to me that women sang hymns all the time—washing, doing chores, working—so it was all around me, that language.”
That language of the great composers of Anglican hymns shines through in the opening poem of her third book of poetry, Heartease (1988), in which the persona declares:
I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heartwhich shall not be put out.[…]By the illumination of that candleexit death and fear and doubthere love and possibilitywithin a lit heart, shining out.
Goodison’s trips in her youth to the lush rural landscapes, to visit her extended family, shaped her imagination for the rest of her life. Though she began writing poems from seven or eight years old, she kept them a secret. Growing up in the shadow of her oldest sister who excelled in writing, she questioned her poetic gift and opted instead to focus on painting, her other passion. Then, at fifteen years old, tragedy struck. Her father, who had brought humor and laughter into their lives, passed away.
“It was terrible watching him die of stomach cancer, and maybe brought on a loss of faith, but that was when I really turned to painting and reading and writing poetry,” Goodison told Tuama. “So I guess the arts became my religion, and I’d consider that good religion because I felt connected, I felt cleansed and healed by poetry and painting and music.”
On completing high school, she worked for a year as a bookmobile trainee librarian with the Jamaica Library Service. She traveled deep into rural areas, where small humble places like Heartease, became mythic and real, strengthening her connection with place that runs through her poetry. Deciding to pursue a career in art, she studied painting at the Jamaica School of Art (1967-1968), and then moved to New York City to attend the Art Students’ League (1968-1969).
Her poem “Who Was the Mother of Jamaican Art?” from her 2005 poetry collection, Controlling the Silver, was inspired by an article about enslaved women making carvings of human figures representing their children sold to other plantation slave owners.
She was the first nameless woman who createdimages of her children sold away from her.She suspended those wood babies from a roperound her neck, before she ate she fed them,touched bits of pounded yam and plantainsto sealed lips; always urged them to sip water.She carved them of heartwood, teeth and nailswere her first tools, later she wielded a blunt blade.Her spit cleaned face and limbs, the pitch oilof her skin burnished. When the woodwormsbored into their bellies, she warmed castor oil;they purged. She learned her art by breakinghard rockstones. She did not sign her work.
While Goodison considered herself as an artist, she never stopped writing poetry. But poetry chose her. “It’s a dominating, intrusive tyrant,” she said in an interview for the Guardian newspaper, as quoted in The Walrus Magazine. “It’s something I have to do—a wicked force.”
Many of Goodison’s poems speak of ordinary women, their struggles and the many roles they play. Her country’s traumatic past of colonialism and slavery permeates the people and the landscape. The featured poem “Mother, the Great Stones Got to Move” addresses Jamaica’s violence and poverty, legacy of empire. In the first of her six-stanza poem, the poet invokes the untold stories of slavery, kept hidden by empire, that need to be told.
Mother, one stone is wedged across the hole in our historyand sealed with blood wax.In this hole is our side of the story, exact figures,headcounts, burial artifacts, documents, lists, mapsshowing our way up through the stars; lockets of brasscontaining all textures of hair clippings.It is the half that has never been told,and some of us must tell it.
These untold stories, she writes in the second stanza, live on through generations, like the stone on the hearts of some women and men, preventing the small / dreamers of this earth from healing. But there is yet another obstacle destroying their future, raised in the third stanza, that mothers want removed as we think of our children and the stones upon their future. In the following fourth stanza, the poet describes the poisonous stone, born of hunger, that drives the violence in their communities and kill their children.
For the year going out came in fat at firstbut toward the harvest it grew lean,and many mouth corners gathered whiteand another kind of poison, powdered whitewas brought in to replace what was green,And death sells it with one handand with the other death palms a gunthen death gets death’s picturein the paper’s asking“where does all this death come from?”
Driven by the drug trade, death comes to a people already broken by the legacy of slavery and colonialism. As the poet notes in the fifth stanza, narcotics become the soup and meat for its users, leaving the homeless to sleep on concrete sheets. In her call to action in the final stanza, the poet links the great stones of the past with the present and the future.
Mother, the great stones over mankind got to move,It’s been ten thousand years we’ve been watching them nowfrom various points in the universe.From the time of our birth as points of lightin the eternal coiled workings of the cosmos.Roll away stone of poisoned powders cometo blot out the hope of our young.Move stones of the sacrificial lives we breedto feed to suicide god of tribalism.From across the pathway to mount morningsite of the rose quartz fountainbrimming anise and star waterbright fragrant for our children’s futureMother these great stones got to move.
Poverty, drug addiction, gang violence, and homelessness are not just the scourges of the Jamaican people. They afflict all humans worldwide. For the sake of our children’s future, mothers must remain vigilant and work tirelessly to remove these scourges from our communities.
My Poetry Corner October 2020 features the poem “Going Out of Business” from the poetry collection Inside the Money Machine (2011) by Minnie Bruce Pratt, a lesbian-feminist award-winning poet, educator, and activist. The following excerpts of poems are all sourced from this collection. Born in 1946 in Selma, Alabama, Pratt grew up in Centreville. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Alabama in 1968, where she met her ex-husband. In 1979, she took her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of North Carolina.
After her ten-year-old marriage, Pratt divorced her husband in 1975 to live as a lesbian, upending her life as a privileged white heterosexual woman. Living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, at the time, she lost custody of her two sons under the state’s “Crime Against Nature” law. Her loss and grief shaped her morality and led her to a life of activism for women’s rights and specifically lesbian rights. When she shared her emotional journey through shame and anger in her poetry collection, Crime Against Nature, published in 1990, her sons were too old for their father or the law to prevent them from being a part of her life.
After thirty years of adjunct teaching, punctuated by several stints of standing in unemployment lines, Pratt joined the faculty of New York’s Syracuse University in 2005 where she played a key role in launching their LGBT Studies Program. She retired in February 2015.
My Poetry Corner September 2020 features the poem “Begin Again” (Recomece) from the poetry collection Poetry that Transforms (Poesia que Transforma) by Bráulio Bessa, a Brazilian poet and motivational speaker. The poet was born in 1985 in Alto Santo, a city of an estimated 17,000 people located in the semi-arid interior region of the State of Ceará in Northeast Brazil.
At fourteen years old, Bráulio began writing poetry in high school after learning about the work of Patativa do Assaré (1909-2002), a popular oral poet and son of poor peasant farmers who were also from Ceará’s impoverished hinterlands.
“When I had contact with [Patativa’s] poetry, I perceived that a poet with very simple language was capable of speaking about that which is most complex in the world, of passion, and of forgiveness,” Bráulio Bessa told Katy Navarro during an interview on TV Brasil in August 2019. “I put it in my head that I wanted to be a poet and started writing. The most beautiful thing in this was to feel the transforming power of literature, education, and art in my life. I realized that it was possible to also be an agent of transformation in the lives of other people.”
“Living in a small city, I had this sensibility of understanding that a popular Northeastern poet generally goes to the local city market to recite poems as loud as possible to get people’s attention, and I looked at the Internet and said: This here is the world’s largest market, with all kinds of people, never closes, and doesn’t have borders. I began recording videos of poems, covering such themes as fear, prejudice, love, depression, and identity, and published them on the Internet.”
In 2012, Bessa’s videos gained national attention with over 250 million views. His “Northeast Nation,” launched on Facebook, promoting the culture of Brazil’s Northeast Region, has more than a million fans, earning him the nickname “Ambassador of the Northeast.” With his trademark Cearense accent and inseparable hat, and down-to-earth poetry, he enchanted the hearts of viewers.
The poet’s Facebook fame caught the attention of TV Globo, Brazil’s largest television network. Beginning in 2015, Bessa became a weekly participant on their TV program Encontro com Fátima Bernardes to speak about Brazil’s Northeast Culture with a poetic outlook.
The featured poem “Begin Again” is probably Bessa’s best-known poem. Inspiration for this nine-verse poem came from the tragic story of Laura Beatriz. In 2010, at eight years old, Laura lost her entire family in a landslide in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro. He speaks to her about hope, faith, and strength to begin again despite her adverse situation.
Every day is a day to begin again, no matter the magnitude of our problem. Cited below are verses 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, and 9 from Bessa’s poem “Begin Again.”
When life hits hard
and your soul bleeds,when this overbearing worldhurts you, crushes you…It is time to start over.Begin TO FIGHT again.When everything is darkand nothing illuminates,when everything is uncertainand you only have doubts…
It is time to start over.Begin TO BELIEVE again.[…]When evil is evident
and love conceals itself,when the heart is empty,when the hug is missing…It is time to start over.Begin TO LOVE again.When you fall
and no one catches you,
when the force of what is bad
succeeds in knocking you down…
It is time to start over.
Begin TO RISE again.When hopelessness
decides to whip you,
if everything that is real
is hard to bear…
It is time to start over.
Begin TO DREAM again.[…]Begin again, redo yourself,remember what was good,rebuild each dream,rediscover some talent,relearn when you make mistakes,shake the hips when dancing,and if one day, way ahead,
life gives a reverse,recover your faith
and BEGIN AGAIN anew.
My Poetry Corner August 2020 features the poem “The Punt Trench” from the first poetry collection, Unfathomable And Other Poems (2020), by Guyanese-Canadian author Ken Puddicombe. Since retiring from his accounting work, Puddicombe has been pursuing his love of writing. To date, he has published two novels and a short story collection.
His poetry collection is filled with nostalgia of his boyhood days in Guyana. As an immigrant living in Canada since 1971, he writes in “Nostalgic”:
As they grow older, the yearning
For a return to the old country increases.
Memories plague them, of a childhood in a familiar spot.
Any little incident will send their senses reeling and take
them back in time and place.
The punt trench is a recurring memory in Puddicombe’s poems. For readers unfamiliar with Guyana’s coastal lowlands of sugar cane fields crisscrossed by canals or trenches, a legacy of Dutch colonizers (1648-1814), a punt or cane-punt is a flat-bottomed iron barge for transporting harvested canes along the system of canals or punt trenches from field to factory. About 20 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 3 or 4 feet deep, the punt is drawn by a mule (in the early days) or tractor, attached by a long chain, moving along the punt-trench earth dam or unsurfaced road. The punt trench also serves as a drainage canal during low tides and periods of flooding, controlled by kokers or sluices.
Puddicombe’s memories of the punt trench are somber and haunting. The title poem, “Unfathomable,” the longest narrative poem with seventeen stanzas, recounts the tale of the unfathomable death of his playful and daring friend—crushed between two punts moving along in a convoy on their way to the sugar factory.
The punts in the mule-train linked
With short lengths of chain hooked
Into metal clasps welded at the front
And rear of each craft. Six mules up front
Kept the convoy moving, each animal
Bound to a punt by a length of chain.Lincoln was clinging to the connecting
Chain between two punts in the middle
Of the convoy, hanging on for a ride,
When the distance narrowed swiftly
Between the punts.
“Drowning” describes the time the author/poet almost lost his life in the cocoa-brown waters of the punt trench. Though he could not swim like the older boys, he plunged into the deep / Murky, swirling pit of the Punt Trench, made murkier still when his feet stirred up the mud and silt at the bottom of the trench.
On his first return visit to Guyana in 1987 after a sixteen-year absence, Puddicombe questions whether one could ever really go back to a time and place long gone. In his poem, “Middle Road,” the street where he had once lived, he finds The bridge over the Punt Trench where / I fell into the water now collapsed, the Trench / Filled in with debris.
In the featured poem, “The Punt Trench,” he reflects on the changes over time in four stanzas, each beginning with a different theme: Memory,Despair, Change, and Hope. His Memory of the punt trench as Fast moving torrential / Waves flashing through / The Koker to the raging Atlantic is no more. Instead, he feels only despair.
Despair.The Punt Trench is a dumping
Ground filled with debris and
Castoffs. Empty shell of a car.
Rusting frame of a bicycle. Bags of
Garbage piled in mounds. A dog’s bloated
Carcass. Tall paragrass and wild eddo bush
Reaching to the sky.
The punt trench, once a haunting memory of youthful joy and dread, is now a symbol of the decay of a neighborhood and of a nation; of promises not yet realized. It is not the change promised by the founding leaders of the independent nation.
Change.From the Koker in Public Road
All the way to the Backdam
The Punt Trench is now Independence
Boulevard. Every time the breeze zips
Across from the north-east,
It reeks and fills my
Only birdsong brings the poet Hope that Life goes on!
As the author and poet acknowledges in “You Can Never Go Back,” the final poem in the collection, the places of his idyllic youth have changed or no longer exist. People are no longer the same. Yet…some among us grasp a dream of returning to a time we consider our days of glory. Life goes on, for better or for worse, with or without us.
To read the complete featured poem, “The Punt Trench,” and learn more about the work of Ken Puddicombe, go to my Poetry Corner August 2020.