Home – by Warsan Shire – a poem for Refugee Week

The 20th Refugee Week begins on June 17th, with a look at #generations. The theme of Refugee Week 2019 is You, me, and those who came before. It is an invitation to explore the lives of refugees, and those who have welcomed them – throughout the generations.

I suppose there is an air of helplessness and resentment in those who don’t regard themselves as refugees. I share the sense of helplessness. But then I remember our own family story of a woman crossing the border in a boot of a car having past her baby to an unknown woman to cross separately. That woman never knew whether she would be reunited with her baby. Fortunately they were reunited. Without that baby our family would be incomplete and a generation of students would be missing out on a compassionate and art teacher.

This poem by Warsan Shire explores the terrifying circumstances which force people to flee for their lives. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. “You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well”. Warsan Shire (born 1988) is a fine British poet, born to Somali parents in Kenya. Here is her poem, Home:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Rags – a poem by Caroline Bird

This poem by young British poet and playwright Caroline Bird has more than a whiff of Pentecost about it. Caroline Bird was born in 1986. Already she has had five collections of poetry published. This poem is from her latest collection In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet, 2017).

Rags

When love comes through
the vents, you press wet rags against
the grill, lest you are smoked out
of your loneliness, you tape egg boxes
to your ears so you can’t hear
the hissing, you swathe yourself
in shame like vinegar
and brown paper. At sundown,
you gather up the rags
and press them to your face
like the dress of a lover, hoping for
a slight effect, the remnants of a rush –
not enough to change your mind – just
enough to pacify the night.

Yes, I’ve done all that. And now I am full of questions.

How do we make the most of love?
How do we make the most of every minute of love?
What do we do about our preoccupations and those things which make us unprepared for love?
How dare we hope for love and remain openminded to recognise love?
How do we avoid leaving it all too late?
How can we let love do her work in us and through us?

Breath – my chosen poem of the month

Breath by Adrian Rice was Carol Rumen’s Poem of the Week on Saturday and was Mark Oakley’s #APoemADay on Tuesday. It is stunningly beautiful and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. It is my poem of the month.

What is death
but a letting go
of breath?

One of the last
things he did
was to blow up

the children’s balloons
for the birthday party,
joking and mock cursing

as he struggled
to tie all
those fluttery teats.

Then he flicked them
into the air
for the children

to fight over.
Some of them
survived the party,

and were still there
after the funeral,
in every room of the house,

bobbing around
mockingly
in the last draft.

She thought about
murdering them
with her sharpest knife,

each loud pop
an angry bullet
from her heart.

Instead, in the quietness
that followed her
children’s sleep,

she patiently gathered
them all up,
slowly undoing

each raggedy nipple,
and, one by one, she took his
last breath into her mouth.

What is life
but a drawing in
of breath?

These short lines breathe love, speaking of life (teats, nipples and birthdays) and death, love and grief. I worry that the balloons took his last breath, and took a father away from his children and their mother. Did he die in that moment when there should have been celebration and fun? I’m pleased that the balloons remained for the funeral, and that they were there to be murdered with her sharpest knife (who might have been murdered otherwise?) and thankfully reprieved to become new life and consolation.

This is a drama well chosen for Easter. The rooms seem many, as in “my Father’s house” and there is a breath of Johannine Pentecost (and being born again) from the balloons’ nipples.  There is comedy in the tragedy. “One of the last things he did was to blow up.” And how simple the answers to the questions that open and close the poem. “What is life?” What is life but a letting go of breath? What is life but a drawing in of breath?

Mushrooms

Mushrooms, by Sylvia Plath, is my poem of the month. Do you want to know what it’s about? One person says it’s about mushrooms. The beauty of poetry is its surplus of meaning. Poems mean a lot – a lot more than the sum of their words and usually a lot more than the poet intends.

Context matters. Friend Helen Scarisbrick, who always wants to explore chaos and complexity, introduced this poem as part of opening worship for a leadership day in the Diocese of Chester alongside the parable of the mustard seed.

Jesus said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we sue to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.

Instantly the poem becomes much more than about mushrooms. It was then a poem about everything that ever lives – for me, anyway, who carries at the back of my mind these words from Dee Hock, (founder of Visa), railing against failed command and control methods and thinking his way to a better understanding of life from the earth beneath his feet. In Birth of the Chaordic Age he wrote the words which forever challenge my understanding of organisation and leadership:

Soil is building as thousands of gophers, mice and moles work assiduously carrying grass underground and dirt to the surface. Beneath us, billions of worms, ants, beetles and other creatures till the soil around the clock. Trillions of microscopic creatures live, excrete, die beneath my feet, fulfilling their destiny and mine as well, just as surely as fulfil theirs.

In that context it becomes a poem about the power of perseverance, the power in weakness, the place of the seed. It becomes a reminder of the organisms that are part of our organisation which we ignore or oversimplify to our peril, and a reminder that there is “room” in “mushroom” to think again about life, organisation and leadership. It becomes a reminder of what and who we don’t notice, a voice for the voiceless. That makes it my Poem of the Month.

Mushrooms

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

PS. Mushrooms is from Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poems, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960).

Mornings at Blackwater – Mary Oliver shines through

Mary Oliver died January 17th 2019. She survived her past and made much of her “one and precious life”. Hers is the poetry of mindfulness and love. Here she writes of Mornings at Blackwater.

For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
it was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.

And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.

What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what will be,
darling citizen.

So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.

photo taken at Stavanger

A Saviour Stitched to a Star

moravian starThe Feast of Epiphany – when wise ones followed a star, seeing in it the shape of things to come.

Poet Mary Karr stitches crucifixion and resurrection to a star (not her words) in a poem called Descending Theology: The Resurrection. I wonder if it is that same star, and I wonder whether the wise ones saw the shape of things to come in the star they followed.

I have stitched Mary Karr’s poem to a particular image of the star of Bethlehem. It is particularly three dimensional, with a reach not just from east to west, but in all directions – to all the nations. (In fact, it has 26 points – that makes a full alphabet for me.)

The poem:

From the star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in – the black ice and squid ink –
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely even in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now

it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.

If you liked this poem you might also like Descending Theology: The Nativity, also by Mary Karr. There’s an interview with Mary Karr by Krista Tippett here. Here’s how to get instructions to make a Moravian star (as pictured).

An Old Woman – a poem by Arun Kolatkar

An old woman grabs
hold of your sleeve
and tags along.

She wants a fifty paise coin.
She says she will take you
to the horseshoe shrine.

You’ve seen it already.
She hobbles along anyway
and tightens her grip on your shirt.

She won’t let you go.
You know how old women are.
They stick to you like a burr.

You turn around and face her
with an air of finality.
You want to end the farce.

When you hear her say,
‘What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?’

You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.

And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.

And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls

With a plateglass clatter
around the shatterproof crone
who stands alone.

And you are reduced
to such much small change
in her hand.

Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004)

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Arun Kolatkar was a poet from Maharashtra in India. He was a prolific poet writing in both Marathi and English. He was also an award winning designer. He won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for his collection of poems, Jejuri, published in 1976.

This poem describes a fairly typical experience. The reader stands in the shoes of someone accosted in the street by a beggar desperate for money for something to eat. The reader knows what it’s like, to be stuck to “like a burr”. What we often forget, because we want to look past them as if they weren’t there, is that, for the desperate too, it’s part of their everyday, to latch on to others in the hope of charity. The tendency for the accosted is to shake off the attention. The norm for the beggar is to be shaken off.

But, in this poem, there is a notable turn towards compassion. The speaker looks “clear through the bullet holes she has for her eyes”. “You” look through and past her, but as you do so what you look at begins to shatter, and it’s only the “shatterproof crone who stands alone”. Is it then that the bullet hole eyes take on their significance? Is it at this point you recognise her wounds, the battles she may have fought and lost? Is it at this point that you realise what has become of her, and what has become of you in the hands of poverty – that “you are reduced to so much small change in her hand”?

There is such pathos in that last line. There is such small change in small change for a life that should be demanding huge change.