Hungry Chair – a fourth poem for Refugee Week

Hungry Chair is my fourth poem to mark Refugee Week – picking up the “chair” theme of inclusion from Nicola Davies’s poem I posted yesterday, The Day the War Came. A common response to the refugee crisis is “there isn’t any room” – sometimes there is an apology about it, but usually not. Once in a while someone will make room in their home, school or community. Hungry Chair, like The Day the War Came, is a poem which thanks and praises those who do make room.

Denel Kessler is the author of Hungry Chair. The principal she refers to is Maha Salim Al-Ashgar, Principal of Khawla Bint Tha’alba Elementary School for Girls, Jordan. The poem is a “thank you for showing the world what compassionate action looks like”. The Principal’s action challenges my lack of compassion. The video is well worth watching.

Hungry Chair

Let’s talk about heroes
the everyday kind
a Jordanian principal
at a school for girls
offering a simple solution
rather than slamming the door
in the faces of children
who have done nothing
to create the war
forcing the families to flee
or die in the hateful dust
clouding the world’s vision

the school is overcrowded
but when Syrian mothers beg
for their children to be taught
instead of saying     no room
the principal asks each girl
to bring a chair and she will
find room for one more
students walk to school
carrying multi-hued chairs
so many eager daughters
classrooms full beyond bursting
but the principal keeps her promise
none are turned away

a loving heart refusing
to be the lock on the gate
offering instead a key
a  mother’s simple wish
for her daughter to write her own name
becoming “maybe she will be a doctor”
a seven-year-old girl declaring
“I want to be smart”
the world begins anew
with open arms, willing minds
perched on the edge
of bright plastic chairs
asking only teach me

I am hungry to learn

I found The Hungry Chair here

What poem would you choose for Refugee Week?

The Day War Came – another poem for Refugee Week

I am posting a poem a day during Refugee Week. I have already posted Home by Warsan Shire and My Hazara People by Shukria Rezaei.

The Day War Came was written by Nicola Davies in 2016 when she heard that the British government was refusing to allow lone refugee children entry into the UK. Nicola Davies is a children’s author and zoologist. The poem has been published as a book with illustrations by Rebecca Cobb.

it is striking how many of these poems I have selected for Refugee Week are about children. Here the child’s safe space is undermined in a split second: the place where they belonged becomes lost to them and they have no choice other than to go on the run.

One person responded to this poem by drawing a chair – I suppose there is a real welcome in our phrase “draw up a chair”. That idea grew into parading #3000chairs across the internet for 3000 child refugees alone and fleeing “all kinds of ghastliness” to “make the people who voted to shrug their shoulders and throw those kids to the traffickers hang their heads in shame”. Posting this is my offer of a chair – but as well I asked Vincent to draw one up for me as my way of saying “refugees welcome”.

The day war came

The day war came there were flowers on the windowsill
and my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.
My mother made my breakfast, kissed my nose
and walked with me to school.

That morning I learned about volcanos,
I sang a song about how tadpoles turn at last to frogs
I made a picture of myself with wings.

Then just after lunch,
while I watched a cloud shaped like a dolphin,
war came.
At first, just like a spattering of hail
a voice of thunder …
then all smoke and fire and noise, that I didn’t understand.

It came across the playground.
It came into my teacher’s face.
It brought the roof down.
and turned my town to rubble.

I can’t say the words that tell you
about the blackened hole that has been my home.

All I can say is this:

war took everything

war took everyone

I was ragged, bloody, all alone.

I ran. Rode on the back of trucks, in buses;
walked over fields and roads and mountains,
in the cold, the mud and the rain;
on a boat that leaked and almost sank
and up a beach where babies lay face down in the sand.

I ran until I couldn’t run
until I reached a row of huts
and found a corner with a dirty blanket
and a door that rattled in the wind.

But war had followed me.
It was underneath my skin,
behind my eyes,
and in my dreams.
It had taken possession of my heart.

I walked and walked to try and drive war out of myself,
to try and find a place it hadn’t reached.
But war was in the way that doors shut when I came down the street.
It was in the way the people didn’t smile and turned away.

I came to a school.
I looked in through the window.
They were learning all about volcanos
And drawing birds and singing.

I went inside. My footsteps echoed in the hall.
I pushed the door and faces turned towards me
but the teacher didn’t smile.
She said there is no room for you,
you see there is no chair for you to sit on,
you have to go away.

And then I understood that war had got here too.

I turned around and went back to the hut, the corner and the blanket
and crawled inside.
It seemed that war had taken all the world and all the people in it.

The door banged.
I thought it was the wind.
But a child’s voice spoke.
“I brought you this,” she said, “so you can come to school”.
It was a chair.
A chair for me to sit on and learn about volcanos, frogs and singing
And drive the war out of my heart.

She smiled and said:
“My friends have brought theirs too, so all the children here can come to school.”

Out of every hut a child came and we walked together
on a road all lined with chairs,
pushing back the war with every step.

Nicola Davies

van-gogh-chair-1888-89-the-chair-and-the-pipe-6252763

My Hazara People – a poem by Shukria Rezaei (15)

shukria-rezaei

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’m observing Refugee Week with a poem a day. This poem highlights the horrors faced by children – such horrors and distress that they can’t find the words to describe what has happened to them. This poem, brought to our attention by Kate Clanchy, is by Shukria Rezaei (pictured right) who “can’t write” about her Hazara people – she just can’t find the words. I read her poem side by side this report on the growing outrage over the separation of children from their parents at the southern US border.

Shukria’s Hazara people have been persecuted for centuries. They settled in Afghanistan in the thirteenth century but for much of that time have lived on the edge of economic survival, being driven from their land and being sold as slaves. They are Shi’a and have been persecuted by the majority Sunni population. The Taliban declared jihad on the Hazaras when they seized power in 1996.

This is the first poem Shukria wrote when she came to the UK aged 15.

I can’t write about my Hazara people
who have suffered for decades
in Afghanistan where they come from
in Pakistan where they are murdered
in Iran where they offend
because of their almond-shaped eyes
my mind is blank!

I can’t write about how loud the shooting was
just two miles from my house.
How my aunt fainted.
How nervous my mom got,
how the cup fell from her hand.

I can’t write about how innocent people died,
how the Martyr’s necropolis gets bigger and bigger,
how my people suffer,
how cruel this world can get,
how frightening it is

for kids like me.

Shukria Rezaei (15)

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