February 11th 1990 / Requiem for a Nest

Two poems today, because Wanda Coleman’s work is too good not to celebrate as much as possible. Wanda could write well about any topic, and from any angle, but she often focused on issues of class and race that affected her growing up in Los Angeles. She was an incredible poet, and one I highly recommend to virtually anyone.

The first poem today is “February 11th 1990,” written on the occasion of South African activist and poet Dennis Brutus, a refugee living in America at the time, being “unbanned” from South Africa. The second is “Requiem for a Nest,” a poem that screams Los Angeles to me in a way that is beautiful but dripping with sadness and frustration.

February 11th 1990
by Wanda Coleman

                                          —for Dennis Brutus
This year the leaves turn red green black
freedom colors each leaf
each stitch of grass. I am amazed
at my sweet harvest. The prison door has opened
and a nation’s heart is released. I am full
having spent my greediness in a ritual of joy.


Requiem for a Nest
by Wanda Coleman

the winged thang built her dream palace
amid the fine green eyes of a sheltering bough
she did not know it was urban turf
disguised as serenely delusionally rural
nor did she know the neighborhood was rife
with slant-mawed felines and those long-taloned
swoopers of prey. she was ignorant of the acidity & oil
that slowly polluted the earth, and was never
to detect the serpent coiled one strong limb below
following her nature she flitted and dove
for whatever blades twigs and mud
could be found under the humming blue
and created a hatchery for her spawn
not knowing all were doomed


I’ve been seeing Audre Lorde quotes all over the place lately, and justifiably so. Ms. Lorde wrote a lot of fantastic poems, many of them overtly political and heavy on social morality. Although she died in 1992, so much of her work could have been written specifically for events happening right now, and it’s that sorrowful timelessness that brought me to posting “Power” today.

by Audre Lorde

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being ready to kill
instead of your children.
I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds
and a dead child dragging his shattered black
face off the edge of my sleep
blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders
is the only liquid for miles
and my stomach
churns at the imagined taste while
my mouth splits into dry lips
without loyalty or reason
thirsting for the wetness of his blood
as it sinks into the whiteness
of the desert where I am lost
without imagery or magic
trying to make power out of hatred and destruction
trying to heal my dying son with kisses
only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.
Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done
and one Black Woman who said
“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
I have not been able to touch the destruction
within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85 year old white woman
who is somebody’s mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

The Bitter River

Having temporarily shelved the massive The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes a few months ago, I finally picked it back up this week. Incredibly, the first poem on the page where I had left off was “The Bitter River,” one of Hughes’s longer and more serious pieces. It’s a poem that’s about both a specific event and the broader African American experience.

It always strikes me how well Hughes is able to marry political and social cries with his usual jazzy sing-song style. All of his poems could easily be set to music, but where a lesser poet might not be able to carry the weight of such topics with such musicality, he does it with ease.

The Bitter River
by Langston Hughes

(Dedicated to the memory of Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, each fourteen years old when lynched together beneath the Shubuta Bridge over the Chicasawhay River in Mississippi, October 12, 1942.)

There is a bitter river
Flowing through the South.
Too long has the taste of its water
Been in my mouth.

There is a bitter river
Dark with filth and mud.

Too long has its evil poison
Poisoned my blood.

I’ve drunk of the bitter river
And its gall coats the red of my tongue,
Mixed with the blood of the lynched boys
From its iron bridge hung,
Mixed with the hopes that are drowned there
In the snake-like hiss of its stream
Where I drank of the bitter river
That strangled my dream:
The book studied-but useless,
Tool handled-but unused,
Knowledge acquired but thrown away,
Ambition battered and bruised.
Oh, water of the bitter river
With your taste of blood and clay,
You reflect no stars by night,
No sun by day.

The bitter river reflects no stars-
It gives back only the glint of steel bars
And dark bitter faces behind steel bars:
The Scottsboro boys behind steel bars,
Lewis Jones behind steel bars,
The voteless share-cropper behind steel bars,
The labor leader behind steel bars,
The soldier thrown from a Jim Crow bus behind steel bars,
The 150 mugger behind steel bars,
The girl who sells her body behind steel bars,
And my grandfather’s back with its ladder of scars
Long ago, long ago-the whip and steel bars –
The bitter river reflects no stars.

“Wait, be patient,” you say.
“Your folks will have a better day.”
But the swirl of the bitter river
Takes your words away.
“Work, education, patience
Will bring a better day-”
The swirl of the bitter river
Carries your “patience” away.
“Disrupter!  Agitator!
Trouble maker!”you say.

The swirl of the bitter river
Sweeps your lies away.
I did not ask for this river
Nor the taste of its bitter brew.
I was given its water
As a gift from you.
Yours has been the power
To force my back to the wall
And make me drink of the bitter cup
Mixed with blood and gall.

You have lynched my comrades
Where the iron bridge crosses the stream,
Underpaid me for my labor,
And spit in the face of my dream.
You forced me to the bitter river
With the hiss of its snake-like song-
Now your words no longer have meaning-
I have drunk at the river too long:
Dreamer of dreams to be broken,
Builder of hopes to be smashed,
Loser from an empty pocket
Of my meagre cash,
Bitter bearer of burdens
And singer of weary song,
I’ve drunk at the bitter river
With its filth and its mud too long.
Tired now of the bitter river,
Tired now of the pat on the back,
Tired now of the steel bars
Because my face is black,
I’m tired of segregation,
Tired of filth and mud,
I’ve drunk of the bitter river
And it’s turned to steel in my blood.

Oh, tragic bitter river
Where the lynched boys hung,
The gall of your bitter water
Coats my tongue.
The blood of your bitter water
For me gives back no stars.
I’m tired of the bitter river!
Tired of the bars!

self-portrait in case of disappearance

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks, and I’ve been turning to poetry more and more as both an outlet for and an interpreter of my emotions recently. This short piece by Safia Elhillo perfectly expresses a lingering fear I’ve been feeling.

self-portrait in case of disappearance
by Safia Elhillo

i am afraid that everyone died & it did not fix
the world      this was meant to be the afterlife
to the burning countries our mothers left behind
girls with fathers gone or gone missing
sistered to dark boys marked to die      & our own
bodies scarved & arranged in rows on prayer mats
we go missing too      & who mourns us   who
falls into the gap we leave in the world

The Betrayal

On a day when over 1,000 Yemeni bodega owners in New York City are on strike to protest the president’s immigration ban, here is a gut-wrenching poem by one of Yemen’s best known poets, Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Maqaleh.

The Betrayal
by Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Maqaleh

My faith in poetry is betrayed, as blood,
gushing from the heart of the square,
now masks the face of words

My eyes can no longer
make out the shape of things,
the tone of things

Blood, blood, and more blood

It shrouds my soul, my tongue
it envelopes the horizon
and stains people’s bread,
falling on plates,
coffee cups,
and the eyes of children.

What dark shadow
casts its corpse across our homeland,
in this city made of light?

What day long bloody hours
lurk over the public square,
in a time of darkness,
hunting for young men
at the age of youthful dreams
and the most beautiful vision
of days to come?

What shame it brings
when the light dies,
shot by bullets of blind hatred

I have no words
but pale ones,
and can offer only tears
streaming down my face,
onto the pages

I tell you: this people
has sent many, many heroes,
and offered many, many sacrifices,
along the path to freedom!

Oh Ghaymaan!  Oh Aybaan!
Aren’t you crushed as tears
shed by the street turn to stone,
and the heart of the public square
anguishes at the passing of sons
who sacrifice for the meaning of change?

They bare their chests
and raise their heads high
catching betrayal’s bullets
in a full embrace
of the nation’s precious soil

Tens killed, hundreds injured,
is it enough, oh Ghaymaan,
that your heart weeps,
is it enough, oh Aybaan,
that your soul is touched by tragedy?

Or must we construct
a dam and mountains
made of human beings
to obstruct this savage rising tide,
and stop the blood baths?!