Reading: Stone by Nick Makoha

Nick Makoha (b. 1974) is a Ugandan poet who fled the terror regime of Idi Amin. He studied biochemistry and worked in a bank, but poetry was his calling. His most important publication is Kingdom of Gravity, “a searing, mysterious contemplation of exile, fatherhood and violence”. I read a poem about corruption.

The best thing I did was move my body from one side of the world
to the other. This required a visa, which required a bribe.

The bribe, placed in the palm of a man with a gun,
took my mother’s monthly wage packet. The man with a gun

let me speak to a clerk. He too wanted a wage
because it would be his job to have words with a judge
for another month’s salary. The official wanted his bribe
so listened to the clerk escorted by the soldier as he held his gun.

As I sat with my mother on the steps of the court,
drinking soda, waiting for one man to say yes, my mother said,

“In Uganda a bribe stops men doing nothing. It rolls away the stone.”
Her sips were slower than mine, each separated by this prayer.

The world is very simple. The poem makes it seem like the bribe has no moral dimension. It is part of the bureaucracy. De salient detail of the two month’s salary tells us that ‘salary’ is a stable measure, so there must be some income equality among those who have to bribe officials to get out of the country.

When I read these lines, and I remember visually similar scence at African borders where I was waiting for a stamp in my passport, without of course the anguish that Nick must have felt.

The soda. I know Coca Cola corporation operates in Uganda, and wouldn’t feel any scruples to do so under Idi Amin. Rolling away the stone could be a Christian metaphor, but I don’t believe that. “This prayer” is the line about rolling away the stone, that the mother repeats like a mantra.

Reading: Stone by Nick Makoha was originally published on Meandering home


To be a bad poet

who is not invited to exotic
poetry festivals in cultural capitals, not
celebrated for his otherness, not
for the soothing justice
that emanates from his professionally
__translated words, not
for the clapping of the audience when he reads
and they see the scaffolding of a pristine soul

To be that poet who loves
the colors and the sounds and the smells
and the people,
and writes “beautiful” in a beautiful language

To be that poet who loves
the sanctity of simple words when they sail an honest breath

To be the one whose dearest words
are thin and tenuous like singing ice

To be a bad poet was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: The Sign in My Father’s Hands by Martín Espada

Martín Espada (b. ) is an American poet, critic and attorney with Puerto Rican roots. His most important influence was his father, a community organizer and social justice activist. Poetry for him is giving a voice to the voiceless. I read a hommage to his father.

The Sign in My Father’s Hands

—for Frank Espada

The beer company
did not hire Blacks or Puerto Ricans,
so my father joined the picket line
at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, New York World’s Fair,
amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.
But the cops brandished nightsticks
and handcuffs to protect the beer,
and my father disappeared.

In 1964, I had never tasted beer,
and no one told me about the picket signs
torn in two by the cops of brewery.
I knew what dead was: dead was a cat
overrun with parasites and dumped
in the hallway incinerator.
I knew my father was dead.
I went mute and filmy-eyed, the slow boy
who did not hear the question in school.
I sat studying his framed photograph
like a mirror, my darker face.

Days later, he appeared in the doorway
grinning with his gilded tooth.
Not dead, though I would come to learn
that sometimes Puerto Ricans die
in jail, with bruises no one can explain
swelling their eyes shut.
I would learn too that “boycott”
is not a boy’s haircut,
that I could sketch a picket line
on the blank side of a leaflet.

That day my father returned
from the netherworld
easily as riding the elevator to apartment 14-F,
and the brewery cops could only watch
in drunken disappointment.
I searched my father’s hands
for a sign of the miracle.

The opening lines read like a newspaper article, until the cops start beating up Frank with their nightstickes ‘to protect the beer / and my father disappeared’. The subtle rhyme opens up the poetic dimension.

The boy mourned his father’s death, not knowing that he was still alive. It was 1964. The Jim Crow laws of racial segragation were abolished on 2 July 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson historically signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When the father reappears ‘days later’ (three days would have been kitsch) the boy begins to learn. He loses his endearing naivity (a boycott as a boy’s haircut – I have believed similar things when I was young, but never saw my father disappear like that).

The cops have turned into drunken thugs, disappointed about the freedom of the activist. And Martín searches his father’s hands for the sign of the miracle. I don’t know what to make of this. I don’t think there is a Christian connotation. The hands are just an activist’s hands. Maybe the miracle is what we can accomplish if we join hands.

Reading: The Sign in My Father’s Hands by Martín Espada was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: The Shirt by Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky (b. 1940) is one of America’s greatest poetry critics. He was elected Poet Laurate of the US in 1997. Today I read a social poem about sweatshops, written long before the incident in Bangladesh on 24 April 2013.

The Shirt
The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes—

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers—

Like Hart Crane’s Bedlamite, “shrill shirt ballooning.”
Wonderful how the patern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
to wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

The details about the shirt and the supply chain that made it possible is a tried and tested poetic technique to invoke in the reader a sentiment of injustice about the system of consumerism. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory incident of 1911 was the deadliest factory incident in the history of New York City. Sixty-two people indeed jumped and fell from windows.

In our time such an incident is only imaginable in underdeveloped countries that are a century behind the Western world when it comes to labor regulations or worker’s organization.

George Herbert (1593-1633) was a British metaphysical poet who served in the parliament under King James. Later he became a priest for a few years, before he died of consumption. The idea that Irma was his descendant is thus intriguing.

Reading: The Shirt by Robert Pinsky was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Mourning and Other Activities by Raza Ali Hasan

Raza Ali Hasan (b. ?) is a Pakistani-American poet who doesn’t care much about activism. He was born in Bangladesh and raised in Islamabad and moved to tue United States in 1991. He wants his poetry to paint a more accurate picture of the world. He teaches in Colorado. I read a verse about mourning and a horse:

Mourning and Other Activities
You take faith and a horse –
Reasonably Arab looking one – feed him
Rusgullas and milk for a year.
While you fatten him you terrorize him
With different Asiatic techniques
Into mildness and meekness.

Then you take a procession or
Two out in the month of June
With the horse leading
Properly bedecked with buntings and ribbons.
You mourn and cry your heart out in the heat,
And those of us who have faith
Then crawl under the belly of the horse
Whenever it comes to a stop.

And between the four brown hooves
Take refuge from the sun.

Going on living after the process of mourning requires faith in the harsh environment of the Hindu Kush, where I imagine the equestrian to be. This poem describes a mourning ritual that is strange to the western reader’s ear. Yet, we understand. We’ve seen movies and remember Leo diCaprio sleeping inside the horse in the Revenant.

Reading: Mourning and Other Activities by Raza Ali Hasan was originally published on Meandering home

When we’re old and done

When we’re old and done

How will our love feel? Will we be

Anxious, afraid we missed out on

What we could have done? Afraid of

Looking back and feeling like dry sand?

Life seems funny and meaningful when the people

Around us are younger and we, unwittingly

We become authorities on living

They say that we know how it is done

We say we must curtail our consciousness

Give it up for raw being.

They thank us

For our presence at the table.

When we’re old and done was originally published on Meandering home