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All Our Children: A Series of Poems 

One thing that's certain though is this: Third World
or one beyond, they're all our children now . . .
—David Ray, from "Bhopal" 

El Trabajo



Where they crossed does not exist on any map.
People will only say that it is impossible.  

That boy, Juan, Rene, Eddie, Raul—
That boy works to make sure his footprints are erased. 

He uses old tire shreds, tying them to his shoes
As if they were skis, sliding instead of stepping. 

Being invisible will be his work even after he stops walking.
Being quiet will be his life, Marco, Picho, Ulises,

His mother says, he is a good boy.
He works hard.  He has made himself and his family unseen.

However old he becomes, he has done such a good job
No one will ever see him.  Paco, Bobby, Moisés, 

Thin as wind, gone as fast.
Pablo, Ricardo, Kiki, Nando, Ladislao. 

Erasing their movement, he has dragged
An old ocotillo-branch screen

Behind where his family has walked,
Has stopped, has caught what breath there is to catch,

All of it summer fire.  Carlos, Flaco, Wicho
Laughs with his mother and his sisters.

They cry, but they laugh harder: It is all so close,
Everything.  So close, which is now another way to say so far.

Every step taken creates one more step that needs to be taken—
Such are the rules of this world.

A scholar, an architect, a doctor, a race car driver
At work in the mesquite scrub and hard dark of the desert.

Trumpet player, inventor, teacher, believer: Somewhere,
He will be all of these.  Arturo, Memo, Benny, José.


(Posted: July 18, 2018)




The woman at the party slipped him in my arms
so she could fix herself a plate of food. Sometimes,
this happens—a mother with brown skin, an island voice
will see in me her own mother, her sister,
a tributary of the blue river that runs through her veins.
But this baby was so new—His eyes still bloodshot from birth,
the red spreading like a stain through the sclera’s milky white.
I held his swaddled body while he stretched those thin,
alien fingers, then clenched them back into the flannel caul.
From time to time he squinted up at me, this woman
in whose arms, for a moment, his life rested.
He did not cry, though now and then
his mouth moved in that familiar gesture of hunger.
And I did not dare sit, for fear he would disapprove,
my knees remembering the boat-like bobbing
that the new-to-land prefer. I looked down
at his squinched face, the whispered trace of eyebrows,
delicate folds of his lids, black hair, curls fine
as the whorled loops of a fingerprint,
and I wanted to whisper into his intricate ear
tell him the lie I couldn’t make true:
that this is a world where he will always be safe
in the arms of a stranger. Even as he grows tall
in the darkness of his skin, he can walk down
any street, day or night, feet scuffing the rough ground,
hands in his pockets, his heart, whole, in his chest.


From The Moons of August (Autumn House Press, 2014). (Posted: July 16, 2018)






If it were, say, Satan loping among the rocks.
Everyone understands if a man sweats snakes
And scorpions breed in his armpits. You can get
Ahold of a forked tail, even if it’s wet. 

I mean that you do not lie. I don’t mean you lie.
There is no dishonesty so lays me flat
As when you say what you mean, and my reply
Is a lie, and must be a lie, and another lie.



Really, here is a meadow in May light,
My son half-dazzled, your skin brown and bright
And boys’ things: how to build a castle, snare
A toad, tussling and tossing him in the air.

I mean, you are innocent. Please for all our sakes
Know that I know that you would not touch his hair
With the minutest harm, for all our sakes.
It is I who sit in the buttercups sweating snakes.



A wart-faced old man under an oak in the mist.
The wicked are those who will not share a crust
With his hunger. The pure in spirit do, from whence
The warts drop off, and the toad becomes a prince.

I can tell hunger. You are starving for a child.
Must I deliver out the dazzling prince?
Let toads be toads for once, and die in the wild.
I am famished too. I will not share this child.


(Posted: July 11, 2018)


Letter to the Children



In the new cold of late September
the prongs of Queen Anne’s lace that held
their doilies up like jewels
rise then stiffen, crushing toward center,
making wooden enclosures to die in
like the ones the Celts built to hold their enemies
then set aflame.  The goldenrod leans,
licks at their cages.  And all that’s left of daisies
are burnt-out eyes.

I walk these back fields
past the swish of cattails in their silver
grasses, the old ones
showing the woolly lining of their suede jackets
while the thistle, dried to gray,
bends her trembling head
and spills her seed.

It is the time—the great lying-in of Autumn—
and I am walking its wards.
And I remembr it was now, late September
then on into the deep gully of fall—when the hackberry
groans and the black oak strains in its sockets, the winds
pushing in the long forest corridors—
that I too was born and gave birth.

And you are all Autumn’s children, all
given to sadness amid great stirrings,
for you were rocked to sleep in the knowledge
of loss and saw in the reflection outside your window,
beyond the bars of your reach, your own face
beckoning from the burning promise
that little by little disappeared.  What can I give you
for your birthdays this year, you who are the match
and the flaming jewel, whose birthright consumes itself
in the face of your desire?

If you were here with me now
walking down this day’s death,
I would try to show you two things: how the last light
plays itself out over the thistle’s labors,
over the wild cherry heavy with fruit, as if comfort
lay in what it had made.  And how that black bird
with flame at his shoulders
teeters for balance on a swaying weed.

From Inverted Fire (BkMk Press, 1997). (Posted: July 9, 2018)





I've often wondered how it is at times
Good people do what are as bad as crimes.



Eyes open, glazed like isinglass, the fire
behind gone out, this child of Bhopal lies
in his shallow grave of cinders­—no time
for weeping as when we lost our son Sam
and stood, hands joined, to wish him well in some
life beyond. In fact he might have gone on
to Bhopal just in time to die again
at just three months. Not likely, but who knows?
One thing that's certain though is this: Third World
or one beyond, they're all our children now,
though borne by millions in brown arms and black,
and not much mourned by those who think their own
are wonders, others somehow less. And thus
I'll say good-bye to this son too, and yours.


From Sam’s Book (Wesleyan University Press, 1987). (Posted: July 6, 2018)


Song of Ira



It was years ago I learned the job
of caring for him, Ira of the deep
brown eyes and impish curls,
whose name means mighty or watchful,
whose body, at twelve, couldn’t walk,
speak, return
my look. I would change
his diaper, feed him lunch from a bottle.
His mother could be bitter
about the birth. The shunt. His father cracked
jokes to draw blood. Ira, who came to us
impeccably dressed, the latest
in surf shirts and sweats. Some mornings,
I’d get to the house and discover him
overspilling his mother’s lap, a living pietà.
I was still a student, unversed
in children. But it seemed right 
that she should hold him and sing,
old folk tunes, lullabies
in other tongues. He would know
her vibration, her smell if nothing else,
and maybe something more, an else,
a grace I can hardly conceive of. Ira
the adored, Ira the mourned.


(Posted: July 5, 2018)





The sun's up in El Paso
rising over the red volcanic plain,
igniting the dry Rockies, setting ablaze
the eastern walls of our towered city
at the edge of the other world.
Where Rockies become the worn Chihuahuas
and the muddy Rio Grande churns by fencing
strung with razor wire.  Where the sun
glints off a watertruck bumping through
the tarpaper barrios in Juarez, flares off
the International Bridge already jammed
with old Fords and Chevys, with packed pickups,
jornaleros on foot with their bundles,
the lame, the illiterate, the bent and weary,
walking to Texas for a day's pay.

A boy, fifteen, wispy moustache, straw hat,
stops amid the traffic on the bridge.
Holds in hand a card of the Madonna
in princess gown, tiara, attendant angels.
He whispers to the picture.  Shuffles on.


from, Locusts at the Edge of Summer (Copper Canyon Press, 1997). (Posted: July 2, 2018)





As I’m walking on West Cliff Drive, a man runs
toward me pushing one of those jogging strollers
with shock absorbers so the baby can keep sleeping,
which this baby is. I can just get a glimpse
of its almost translucent eyelids. The father is young,
a jungle of indigo and carnelian tattooed
from knuckle to jaw, leafy vines and blossoms,
saints and symbols. Thick wooden plugs pierce
his lobes and his sunglasses testify
to the radiance haloed around him. I’m so jealous.
As I often am. It’s a kind of obsession.
I want him to have been my child’s father.
I want to have married a man who wanted
to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much
that he marked it up like a book, underlining,
highlighting, writing in the margins, I was here.
Not like my dead ex-husband, who was always
fighting against the flesh, who sat for hours
on his zafu chanting om and then went out
and broke his hand punching the car.
I imagine when this galloping man gets home
he’s going to want to have sex with his wife,
who slept in late, and then he’ll eat
barbecued ribs and let the baby teethe on a bone
while he drinks a cold dark beer. I can’t stop
wishing my daughter had had a father like that.
I can’t stop wishing I’d had that life. Oh, I know
it’s a miracle to have a life. Any life at all.
It took eight years for my parents to conceive me.
First there was the war and then just waiting.
And my mother’s bones so narrow, she had to be slit
and I airlifted. That anyone is born,
each precarious success from sperm and egg
to zygote, embryo, infant, is a wonder.
And here I am, alive.
Almost seventy years and nothing has killed me.
Not the car I totalled running a stop sign
or the spirochete that screwed into my blood.
Not the tree that fell in the forest exactly
where I was standing—my best friend shoving me
backward so I fell on my ass as it crashed.
I’m alive.
And I gave birth to a child.
So she didn’t get a father who’d sling her
onto his shoulder. And so much else she didn’t get.
I’ve cried most of my life over that.
And now there’s everything that we can’t talk about.
We love—but cannot take
too much of each other.
Yet she is the one who, when I asked her to kill me
if I no longer had my mind—
we were on our way into Ross,
shopping for dresses. That’s something
she likes and they all look adorable on her—
she’s the only one
who didn’t hesitate or refuse
or waver or flinch.
As we strode across the parking lot
she said, O.K., but when’s the cutoff?
That’s what I need to know.


(Posted: June 29, 2018)


Thrown voices



One day duff under the conifers
swelled up here and there, as though people
underground were making fists
below, next day a big white mushroom
materialized on the red
wrought-iron café table waiting
always in the shade of the spruces
(we have iced drinks there
in summer), day after that I pretended
the big white mushroom was a skull
saying things, like I'm just the first,
plenty of us below tunneling head-first,
bringing pain and its analgesic,
children eating through dirt, squeezed
beings at the isthmus, we're not the first,
be our conductor to true north
Then gobs of big mushrooms poked up
through spruce needles, I left them
to what devours.  They darkened,
shriveled, eating it turns out themselves.


(Posted: June 27, 2018)


For My Father


Sturdy English oak, deep-rooted
in the Wealden clay,
now ivy is slowing down your pacing
still in muddy fields
to sow, mend hedges, count cattle
or grow an oasis of vegetables and roses
in a wilderness of stinging nettles.
You take pride in your honesty
yet know that acorns are the food of pigs.
The brown eyes, observing England
for eighty-three years now,
have dimmed, yellowed like the leaves
in autumn.
Through two World Wars, when brothers
and nephews wore uniforms,
and bombs left smooth craters even
in the quiet Front Meadow,
you went on supplying milk and sugar beet.
But when an angry cow attacked,
you threw the toddling daughter down
beneath you in the ditch
and took goring horn in your own back.


From Fathers (anthology, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997). (Posted: June 26, 2018)



  an excerpt



You yawn,
so I harvest stars from your sleep
and stick them in the notebook:
may they bring you joy
when I’m not here.

You start walking
and follow the moon
while I follow you.
Behind us: the mirage of a country
you were not born in.

You wave your hand
and I know
you’re mixing rivers
and lakes
and continents
with a teaspoon or a straw.
You bear the Euphrates and Atlantic, together,
to school.
You spray colors,
dark and light,
at temperatures,
high and low,
and all sides make peace
because you, Larsa, are beautiful.
and like snowballs rolling to a halt,
the countries, for a moment, stop fighting
because you, Larsa,
are beautiful.

You open your arms
and I know just how much I love you:
I love you from here to Baghdad;
I love you more than all the words;
I love you higher
than the smoke in the city;
I love you louder
than the explosions;
I love you deeper than the wounds,
Iraqi and American,
from a bomb;
I love you sweeter than a lily
unfolding in the morning;
I love you warmer than a nest
that lacks only birdsong
and a single piece of straw;
I love you wider than the fear
that brims in a time of war;
coming and going
from here to Baghdad
I love you.


Translated by Kareem James Abu Zeid, from The Iraqi Nights (2014, New Directions). (Posted: June 22, 2018)


That Boy



Halfway around the world, that boy who wore
blood in his hair and sat obligingly
because he could not comprehend Assad’s
reign of evil is, I now believe,
the son I would have had, if only I
were younger and if only I could have
had a child and if he did not belong
already to a family in Aleppo.

I too can’t comprehend Assad’s black reign
of evil. Does it cheer him up to fling
small boys into a cauldron of hurtling fire?
I think it must. Yet all a little boy
wants is a toy or two and his parents
and if he has a sibling, then he wants
his sibling. Pita bread would also be
good, but there is no pita bread.

From New Letters vol.  84 no.1. (Posted: June 20, 2018)



Kansas City Literary Events

Morse, Plum, & Savich

Thursday, July 19, 2018
Kansas City, Mo.


New Letters Summer 2018 Poetry Series

Follow our new series of poems about children, each day or two through July. Begin reading here. 


Clarion Awards Selection CD Special

Jamaica KincaidJim ShepardGloria Vando & Anika ParisLuis Alberto Urrea, and Alex George, normally $7.99 per episode, this cd collection comes with over $15.00 in savings. Downloads of these programs have been reduced and are available through our archives.