Poems – Buff Whitman-Bradley

Realpolitik

 

Standing in the icy rain

Three of us

Holding signs, passing out leaflets

The people hurrying past us

Are going into the auditorium

To listen to an Important Person

Who once said

That the deaths of half a million children

Were worth the price

 

The people hurrying past us

Glance at our signs

And quickly avert their eyes

They are expensively dressed

And it is easy to see

From the way they carry themselves

Even in the icy rain

That they are pleased

Being who they are

They are well-off

Well-fed

Well-educated

And well-informed

They listen to National Public Radio

And read the New York Times

They are comfortable

With the arrangements of power

 

Some of the people hurrying past us

Take our leaflets

Some even thank us

But most let us know

By the tilt of a chin

The narrowing of eyes

A snort of disgust

That our presence here

Outside the auditorium

In the icy rain

Is contemptible

The people hurrying past us

Believe that we are naïve

That we are dreamers

That we do not understand

Realpolitik

Which is another way of saying

“Slaughter”

Which is another way of saying

“Collateral damage”

Which is another way of saying

“If you want to make an omelet,

You’ve got to kill a few hundred thousand kids”

Which is another way of saying

 “There is no sacrifice too great

For other people to make”

Which is another way of saying

“We like things the way they are”

 

 

We want to tell the people hurrying past us

In the icy rain

That they are right

We do not understand

Realpolitik

That we believe

In the politik

Of the separation

Of the Rich and State

That we believe in the politik

Of everyone has a seat at the table

That we believe in the politik

Of everybody gets what they need

That we believe in the politik

Of not one dead child

Is worth the price

 

When a security guard

Tells us to move across the street

We refuse and tell him

He’ll have to call the cops

But by now

Most of our leaflets are gone

And we are wet and cold

And they are turning people away

At the auditorium door

So when we see

The flashing lights of a police car

Coming up the street toward us

We fold up our signs

And shove our half-numb hands

Deep into our pockets

And walk away

In the icy rain

 

 

Street Theater  M19 ‘08

 

On the fifth anniversary of the war

we wear orange jumpsuits

and black hoods

and walk single file

through the streets of downtown San Francisco

guarded by soldiers

with cardboard guns.

 

George W. Bush is here

and Dick Cheney

and Condoleeza Rice

reminding us

that the upper case People Who Matter

can’t even imagine giving a fuck

about the lower case living

and the lower case dead.

 

On the fifth anniversary of the war

wearing orange jumpsuits

and black hoods

we kneel on the sidewalk

in front of people waiting

for the Powell Street cable car.

Soldiers with guns

drag a woman out of the crowd

put a hood over her head

throw her screaming onto the ground

and waterboard her

while she writhes and gags and pleads for mercy.

 

On the fifth anniversary of the war

wearing orange jumpsuits

and black hoods

we join others blocking traffic

on Market Street at noon

sitting down and chaining ourselves together

and waiting for the helmeted police

who arrive with bolt cutters

and cut through our chains

and remove our hoods

and handcuff us

and photograph us

and put us on a bus

that takes us to the county jail

where we wait in outdoor holding pens

to be cited and released.

 

On the morning after

the fifth anniversary of the war

there are pictures of us in the papers.

Our orange jumpsuits and black hoods

are folded up and put away

in dresser drawers and closets.

The pitiless sun rises

at Guantanamo Bay

and scorches bombed-out neighborhoods

in Baghdad and Basra

and what once was Fallujah.

The heat stings like clouds of wasps.

A hundred million bones

keen in the ground.

 

In stately, climate-controlled dining rooms

the upper case People Who Matter

read the Wall Street Journal as they

breakfast on eggs benedict, 

chilled, perfect strawberries

and freshly squeezed orange juice.

And as they remove the fine linen napkins

from their laps, fold their papers

and stand to go

they sigh with satisfaction

at how very nicely, thank you,

the war is proceeding.

 

 

Election year

 

On Sunday morning

I took my coffee early

to the park down the street

before the crowds came.

If you get up before everybody else

you can be King of America for a little bit.

I God-blessed everything,

you know the feeling –

God bless the green jazz band of the grass.

God bless the great, avuncular oaks.

God bless the picnic tables

and the benches

and the huge, sweet absence of portable radios.

As I sat there drinking my coffee

the sky dove right down into my cup

and leapt back out again.

That crazy sky.

God bless the sky.

 

In the afternoon

I found our neighbor’s cat

dead by the curb

under a sycamore.

I went next door and told him about it

and said I’d take care of the body

if he couldn’t bear it,

but he walked back with me

and picked up the cat

and laid it on the front seat of his car

and drove away.

 

A couple of days later

he came by in the evening

as I was sitting on the front steps

I could see he hadn’t shaved,

his shoulders slumped,

and he walked with a kind of old-man’s shuffle.

“It’s a terrible thing

to lose someone you  love,” he said,

and said he didn’t know

that he wouldn’t have given up

everything he had

rather than lose that cat.

 

I read the papers

I know the world is going to hell

and what’s another dead cat.

There are men in America

who hate their own minds so much

they’d kill us all.

But I’ll tell you this –

I’m voting for that neighbor of mine

for President.

He’d do everything he had to

to make the world safe for cats.

We could live here too.

 

 

The first morning after the end of the world

 

This morning on Death Row

we talked about the war.

Rudy said it made him sad

to think of all those soldiers

coming home with PTSD.

He said it was during a Viet Nam flashback

that his former tier neighbor Manny Babbitt

killed a woman and tagged her toe.

Manny used to shine everybody’s shoes,

Rudy said.

He was executed in 1999.

 

Back at home as we ate lunch

I was reading the paper 

and had a sudden image of children

in Afghanistan and Iraq and  Palestine

and in East Oakland and Pine Ridge

carrying their terrible wounds around

in gaily colored paper bags stamped “Made in the USA.”

The bags exploded and burned.

 

Rudy is staying up late tonight

watching Soul Train on television

as he does every Saturday night.

People say, “TV!  They pamper those bastards!”

His cell is 4 feet by 10 feet and he is locked inside it

from 1:30 in the afternoon until 7:30 in the morning.

Our son went with us to the prison today.

Tonight he is packing up his car

and leaving for college in the morning.

 

Children in Afghanistan and Iraq and Palestine

and East Oakland and Pine Ridge

should have known better than to be born there.  Ha-ha.

Rudy was born on death row.

In his letters to us he sometimes makes jokes

about the sameness of his days

and draws smiley faces and writes Ha-ha.

He has kept up with all the news about Afghanistan and Iraq

and Palestine and East Oakland and Pine Ridge

and he knows about exploding paper bags.

 

Later in the afternoon I worked in the yard

and as the light was going and I swept up cuttings and leaves

in the driveway 

I remembered a day last winter

when I walked over by Corte Madera Creek

near where it widens and flows into the Bay

and I watched about a dozen buffleheads,

small black and white ducks,

bobbing up and down on the waves.

I thought then how quiet it will be on the first morning

after the end of the world, when we are no longer here

and I hoped that the buffleheads would still be here

bobbing up and down on the water.

 

I do not want any more paper bags to explode and burn.

I would like to prove Rudy’s innocence

and walk with him right out of the front gates of San Quentin

all the way to Afghanistan and Iraq and Palestine

and East Oakland and Pine Ridge

and over to Corte Madera Creek

near where it flows into the Bay.

And I want our son to come home from college

with his love and his outrage intact. 

 

Sometimes it is hard to have hope

in a world with death rows and exploding paper bags.

But from deep inside the belly of Hell

Rudy keeps cracking jokes. Ha-ha.

And beautiful young men and women keep leaving home

to stand in front of bulldozers and sit in the tops of trees.

And the buffleheads keep showing up every year

to eat their fill and wait for the telegram

that will tell them it is time to come home.

 

 

And they do not go

 

            i.

 

There is frost on the sidewalk

this morning

and on windows and lawns.

The cold sky rings

like a great blue bell.

As I hurry to work

along the path through the park

I stop at the large tree by the pond

where the night herons perch.

The sun rises behind the houses

at the end of the street

and bathes the herons in light.

But they do not stretch their necks

or spread their wings to catch the warmth.

They are utterly still

like the herons in thousand-year-old Chinese paintings

or the ancient zen hermits who sat for hours

and gazed at the moon

and forgot to boil their rice. . .

Like the old Italian men I have seen

in the bleachers at the ballpark

who wear black suits and fedoras

even on the hottest days

and silently study the game . . .

Like the newspaper photos

of the mothers of the disappeared

standing on the Plaza de Mayo

holding pictures of their stolen children . . .

 

            ii.

 

At the women’s prison

when visiting hours are over

and the women in khaki

have held their children

for the last time

and kissed them goodbye

and embraced husbands and lovers

and family and friends,

the ones who will go

and the ones who will stay

pull away and stand apart.

They become suddenly shy

and do not speak with each other.

The visitors fidget and shuffle their feet

making nervous jokes

while they wait for a guard

to escort them outside.

On the other side of the room

the women inhabit their own loneliness again.

Beautiful and silent and still

standing at the edge

of some vast prairie

they gaze

past the visitors

waiting at the door

past the severely clipped lawns

and the razor wire fences

over freeways and cities

beyond where the earth curves

and falls away

toward a place where their bodies’ quiet songs

drift among tall, fragrant grasses

then

slowly

begin to rise.

 

When the guard comes

and the visitors leave

the women return

to the weight of their own limbs

and the rubbing of heavy cotton

against their skin

and the aching in their black, boxy shoes

and they turn

and they do not go.

 

 

A handful of wet earth 

for Rudolph Roybal

i.

 

The death row visiting room at San Quentin

is filled with cages.

Each cage has two doors,

one for visitors and one for the inmate.

In the inmate’s door there is a slot about waist-high

where a guard can reach in

to remove handcuffs

and put them back on.

The inmate and his visitors sit facing each other

in blue plastic chairs

with a small green plastic table in between them.

 

Yesterday we sat in one of the cages

with a man who has become our friend.

A late winter storm raged outside

roiling the waters of San Francisco Bay,

but inside we heard nothing

except air being blown through the heating vents

and from cages up and down the line

the low murmur of voices

like the conversations of lovers in airports

or parents putting their children to bed at night.

 

We spoke as we always do

about ordinary matters –

his family and ours, the news in the papers,

the latest lockdown,

how he and other inmates on his tier

sometimes share meals they cook

with packaged food from the commissary

using the kind of heating coil found in motel rooms

to warm coffee.

 

He hadn’t gone out to yard all week, he told us,

because of the rains.

The yard for North Seg is on the roof

and on dry days he goes out there

to walk or run laps

or play basketball.

Sometimes he stands on a table to look over the wall

at the top of Mt. Tamalpais

near where we live.

 

 “I miss dirt,” he said.

“I haven’t touched dirt in eleven years.”

 

At the end of the visit

we asked a guard to take a Polaroid picture of us

through the bars.

Then, handcuffs back on, our friend was taken away

and we were let out of the cage and cleared to leave.

The remote control door to the visiting room

slammed shut behind us with a heavy, metallic finality

and we walked out into the rain.

 

           

ii.

 

Today there was a break in the weather.

One by one the late winter storms that had soaked us all week

exhausted themselves and drifted away

and I woke up to a cloudless morning.

 

In the back yard I added seed to the bird feeder

and stood and listened to the quiet, irregular

drip . . . drip-drip . . .

from the branches of the fig tree

as juncos and finches and chickadees

took quick, nervous turns at the feeder.

The air was chilly and tasted like leftover rain.

 

After breakfast now, I walk up

into the heavily forested hills near our house.

The creeks are rushing

and the trails are slippery with mud.

I pause now and then to warm myself

in small bright patches

where sunlight has broken through the dense foliage overhead.

 

Higher up on the trail

I come to a partial clearing

where a stream, alive with light, spills and tumbles

down a steep, rocky gully.

I find a dry place to sit on a boulder at the water’s edge

and reach down to scoop up a handful of wet earth

and hold it tightly in my palm.

 

iii.

 

I close my eyes and this picture comes to me:

 

I am looking down from some high place

onto an empty beach where the Pacific,

like a great, blue, foaming horse

gallops up and down the white sand.

 

Two people appear on the beach.

They are surprised to be there

and dazzled by the sunlight.

They shield their eyes with their hands

as they gaze out past the breaking waves

at the vast prairie of ocean

between the shore and the horizon. 

They do not look at each other.

One has been murdered

and the other is a murderer.

 

They begin walking toward the water.

Their steps are slow and tentative

and they hold themselves stiffly

as they make their way down the sloping sand.

They step into the surf

and the water rises around them.

 

And suddenly it is as if their bodies were filled with birds –

their arms fly about wildly,

they leap and splash and dive

and see each other at last

and begin to play together like two dolphins,

throwing their bodies into the surf,

riding the curling waves,

tumbling through the foam headlong toward the shore,

swimming out again under the breakers

and shooting up out of the water,

gasping for breath and laughing

and looking into each other’s eyes.

 

And now there are more on the beach,

murderers and the murdered,

all stunned by the light,

all stumbling down the sand –

the shooters and the ones gunned down,

the stabbers and the knifed,

the stranglers and the asphyxiated,

the batterers and the broken . . .

 

Wave after wave they come,

the quick and the dead,

out of prisons and out of graves,

out of shacks and tenements,

out of tidy bungalows in the suburbs

and county hospitals

and mansions on manicured hillsides,

out of grubby little offices and penthouse boardrooms,

out of bars and morgues and cathedrals,

 

the tortured and the torturers,

the executed and the executioners,

the death squads and the disappeared,

the ones blown to bits and the ones who dropped the bombs

and hurled the grenades

and fired the cannons

and aimed the missiles

and made the policies

and prayed for victory,

 

the ones who starved

and the ones who got fat,

the ones worked to death

and the ones who counted the money,

the ones who died of silence

and the ones who said nothing.

 

We are all in the water together now.

The sea is filled with us.

The surf crashes over us again and again,

scrubbing away the grime and the old dead skin.

The new skin underneath

glistens like apples in the rain.

Salt spray and tears shine on our cheeks.

Tenderly, we touch each other’s faces.

Tenderly, we say each other’s names.

 

            iv.

 

I open my eyes

and then I open my hand

to let the dirt fall into the stream.

The day has grown warm and as I stand up

I take off my heavy shirt and tie it around my waist.

I brush the last few crumbs of soil off my fingers,

pick up a buckeye to carry in my pocket

and head back down the trail toward home.

 

 

The last child in Iraq died today

 

     In response to the Iraq sanctions, 1991-2003 

 

The last child in Iraq died today.

Her mother sat holding her on a hospital bed where countless other mothers had sat before her, holding their dying children.  The long, bright arm of the afternoon sun reached through a filthy hospital window and lay across the mother’s shoulders, as if it were trying to comfort her.

The last child in Iraq died today.

There wasn’t much left of her.  In her mother’s arms, her small, ravaged body looked like a bag of coat hangers.  Almost absently, her mother stroked her daughter’s matted hair, gone orange from malnutrition, and gently touched her tiny, twisted, thousand-year-old face.  In her cloudy, bottomless eyes floated a question vast enough to crack the world.

The last child in Iraq died today.

She did not cry at the end.  It took all the effort she could muster in her frail little body just to breathe.  Her final breath was so faint and faraway, it might have come from a distant star.  Ever so quietly, she left.

The last child in Iraq died today.

Her doctor could not determine whether the cause of death was acute malnutrition or the implacable diarrhea that came from drinking the only drinking water available, thoroughly contaminated because economic sanctions prevent the rebuilding of Iraq’s sewage-treatment and water-purification systems, destroyed during the Gulf War.

The last child in Iraq died today.  She was 4, born utterly innocent, as all children are, in the midst of the most thorough and brutal economic embargo in modern history, which has deprived Iraqis not only of food and medicine but of the equipment and supplies necessary to rebuild their shattered infrastructure — hospitals, schools, businesses, roads and bridges, community centers, park, homes.

The last child in Iraq died today.

It was only a matter of time, really, before there were no more children in Iraq.  For 10 years, the relentless embargo has starved them and has reduced the once nearly state-of-the-art Iraqi pediatric wards to virtual storage facilities.  For 10 years, thousands of children have died every month, as parents and doctors stand by helplessly.

The last child in Iraq died today.

“Not our fault,” says the United Nations, although the U.N. Security Council imposed and continues to maintain the murderous sanctions, in direct contravention of international law.  This occurs despite the fact that two career U.N. officials, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponek, appointed to oversee the oil-for-food program, have resigned from that body and given up their careers to protest the program’s inadequacy and the appalling humanitarian situation in Iraq.

The last child in Iraq died today.

“Not our fault,” says the Pentagon, even though its war planes obliterated the country’s infrastructure during the Gulf War and the deadly, radioactive residue of depleted uranium ammunition has thoroughly contaminated much of Southern Iraq and has caused childhood cancer rates to rise astronomically.

The last child in Iraq died today.

“Not our fault,” says Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, stating that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis, not us, are the bad guys.  We must force them to permit further weapons inspections to do what former inspector Scott Ritter calls impossible — that is, to prove a negative, that they don’t have weapons of mass destruction. And if the deaths of children are the price that must be paid, well, that price, Albright repeats, is worth it.

The last child in Iraq died today.

“Not our fault,” says President Clinton, who feels the pain of the Iraqi mothers and fathers whose children have died, but who says that the U.S.-crafted-and-enforced embargo must remain in place until Saddam Hussein is removed from power, even though sanctions have strengthened Saddam’s position.

The last child in Iraq died today.

“Not our fault,” say most members of the U.S. Congress, who surely do love little children, but believe it is necessary to grind Iraq into the sand to assure a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction (not counting, apparently, the 200-plus nuclear warheads in Israel’s arsenal).

The last child in Iraq died today. 

“Not our fault,” say the U.S. media, which practice a virtual blackout on news of the continued, almost daily U.S. bombings and of one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern times.

The last child in Iraq died today.

“Not our fault,” says much of the U.S. public, which has so uncritically accepted the U.S. government’s version of the Iraq story and failed to cry out and demand an end to the slow, silent, and merciless slaughter of innocent human beings.

The last child in Iraq died today.

Not our fault.

God have mercy on us all.

 

News of war   

 

A small boy is sweeping a back porch.

He is two, and the broom

is twice as tall as he is

and difficult for him to handle.

He drops it again and again

and keeps tripping over it

as he grapples with it.

But he is determined in his work

and manages to gather a good-sized pile

of large, yellow leaves

before he drops the broom one last time,

climbs into the chair next to a man

with a newspaper in his lap

who has been watching him work,

and sighs with satisfaction at what he has done.

 

The man puts aside his paper

and reaches over to rub his grandson’s back.

He is remembering when his own children were small.

He is noticing the October light like golden palominos

grazing among the branches and dying leaves

of the fig tree in the garden.

He has been reading news of war

and is imagining the infernal thwack-thwack-thwack of helicopters,

and is imagining the high, angry whine of jet fighters,

and is imagining the searing air,

and is imagining the screams,

and is imagining the smoking bodies

and the piercing stink of charred flesh and burnt hair,

and is imagining the severed limbs twitching in the dirt

and the spilled intestines and the brain-spattered stones,

and is imagining splintered trees

and birds on fire

and blood oozing from the shattered eardrums

of small animals trembling underground.

 

After a few minutes the boy

gets down from his chair

and runs to the edge of the porch.

His grandfather rushes to catch up with him

and takes his hand

while they walk down the steps and into the garden

where they hunt among the fallen leaves

for the ones that are the most beautiful.

 

 

Later, now, after the boy has gone,

after the man has swept the porch himself

and watched the persimmons on the neighbor’s tree

fade into the twilight,

after he and his wife have eaten together

and settled the supper dishes into their cupboards,

after they have walked hand in hand

in the chilly evening air

watching their breath cloud and rise under street lights

and laughing about the broom and the boy,

after they have locked the doors and opened a window,

after they have lain in bed and held each other,

she is asleep and he is lying quietly next to her, awake,

thinking of the children again,

listening to the noises the night makes

and trying to picture what it is that is coming now,

rustling and scratching and scraping through the dark.

 

 

Freshly shelled peas

 

I was sitting at the kitchen table this afternoon

shelling peas and listening to the radio

tossing the empty pods into the compost bucket

and admiring the vivid green of the little spheres

accumulating in the white china bowl

when the 5 o’clock news came on and they announced

that the President wants to go to war

and probably because I was home alone and there was no one to tell

I burst into tears

 

All I could do after that was to sit there shelling peas and weeping

Some of the tears that slid down my cheeks

fell into the bowl

making tiny little splashes

and I thought of a story I used to read to the children in kindergarten

about an owl who made tear-water tea

by thinking sad thoughts and crying into a kettle

 

Afterwards I would ask the children what made them sad

“When I fight with my friend” some said

“When my parents get mad at me”

“When my dog died”

We didn’t talk about when children die

when their homes explode and collapse on them

when their bodies are perforated with razor sharp bits of metal

when the air they breathe turns to fire and incinerates their lungs

when their little shattered bodies are nearly indistinguishable

from the rubble

We didn’t talk about what lullabies mothers sing when bombs are falling

We didn’t talk about frantic fathers

clawing through chunks of concrete and hot, twisted metal

even when there is no skin left on their bloody hands

 

And I didn’t tell them about all the fine young fathers

with neatly trimmed hair

who leave their houses at dawn

and climb into the cockpits of terrible airplanes

and fly thousands of miles to rain death

upon those who are not us

then bank steeply and return

arriving home just in time

to watch their children’s Little League games

 

Slowly the bowl filled up with peas

Freshly shelled peas for our family’s supper

Peas salted with sorrow and bursting with life

Freshly shelled peas to offer as a prayer

Peas of outrage, peas of grace

Freshly shelled peas to fling into the face of Death

Freshly shelled peas to keep airplanes from taking off

and bombs from exploding and guns from firing

Freshly shelled peas to drop on the dark path behind us

Freshly shelled peas to scatter across the earth

to bring back to life the innocent dead.

 

 

Shock and Awe haiku

 

Storm in the desert

Bombs rain from a howling sky

Bloody flowers bloom

 

And what lullabies

will Iraqi mothers sing

as bombs are falling?

 

Hush, my little one

The bombs know you are my Dear

They will not hurt you

 

 

In kindergarten I wore bright yellow socks

                                    — for child victims of war, oppression, and injustice

 

In kindergarten I wore bright yellow socks

as soft as dandelions

and smelling of pineapples

Over my bright yellow socks I wore

bright green parrot-shaped slippers

that could actually talk

In kindergarten I had long conversations with my feet

In kindergarten isopods lived in my pockets

among the crumpled-up recipes I kept

for Henry David Thoreau

In kindergarten, except for my feet, my whole body

smelled like sweet, wild onions

In kindergarten sourgrass grew everywhere

and we whistled through our teeth

In kindergarten I was a famous poet

In kindergarten I was Pablo Neruda

who wrote an ode to his beautiful socks

knitted for him by Maru Mori

socks that were so lovely

they made him rethink his feet

In kindergarten I did not rethink my feet

but in kindergarten my feet reconsidered me

 

I was the Captain of Kindergarten

I was the Captain of Love in kindergarten

and I was the King of Rock and Roll

I was the Elvis Presley of kindergarten

In kindergarten I wore blue suede shoes

over my parrot slippers

over my pineapple-scented socks

over my reconsidering feet

and went out in that kitchen

and I rattled those pots and pans

I was the Julia Child of kindergarten

In kindergarten we played with our food

In kindergarten we made soufflés that reached the ceiling

and pineapple upside down cake

for Henry David Thoreau

 

One day in kindergarten we were looking at a book trying to find a little boy in a red-and-white-striped shirt lost on a page with hundreds of other little boys and girls when Henry David Thoreau appeared at the door and said, “Where’s Waldo?”  and we said, “Exactly!” and “Would you like some pineapple upsidedown cake?”

 

“Can I have the recipe?” asked Henry David Thoreau with crumbs of pineapple upsidedown cake spilling out of his mouth and children climbing up and down and all around him as if he were some kind of nineteenth-century New England anarchistic tax-resisting, bean-growing jungle gym. “This class is out of control!” hollered the visiting bureaucrat.  “In wildness is the preservation of the world!” Henry David Thoreau retorted, showing the bureaucrat the door, taking the door off its hinges and hurling it into the void, out of which drove Frida Kahlo in a Buick resembling Diego Rivera.  Trotsky was in the back seat with W.E.B. DuBois.

 

And not long after that, a philosopher who looked like Gary Cooper appeared at the hole that used to have the door in it and said, “What are you doing in there, Henry?” and Henry David Thoreau cried, “Waldo! What are you doing out there?”  “There’s Waldo!” we all shouted.  “Would you like some pineapple upsidedown cake?”  “How about a cappuccino?” said Ralph Waldo Emerson,” and one for my friend Mistress Bailey.”  “Make it a double, Honey,” crooned Pearl, skating into the room on razzle-dazzle roller blades.

 

We colored our fingernails and smelled all the books

and W.E.B. smeared fingerpaint on the walls

and Frida drew a moustache on Henry David Thoreau

who was building with Lincoln Logs and who said to me,

“What’s it like now, out there?”

and I answered sotto voce

so the children wouldn’t hear

“It’s the same goddamn thing all over again, Henry

It’s the Mexican War all over again

It’s the rich beating up the poor

and the powerful beating up the powerless

all over again

It’s the slaughter of the innocents all over again

It’s massacres from the sky

It’s exploding children

It’s houses demolished with people inside

It’s corpses rotting in the streets . . .”

 

And Diego and DuBois rose up in outrage and Pearl and Trotsky held each other while they sang “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” and Henry David Thoreau kicked over his Lincoln Log house and groaned . . .

 

. . . but then he did something wonderful

He took off his L.L. Beans

revealing his bright yellow socks

as soft as dandelions

and smelling of pineapples

and the rest of us took off our tennies and our sandals

our blue suede shoes

and our parrot slippers

and Waldo took off his neon sneakers

and Trotsky took off his huaraches

and Frida took off her stained-glass slippers

and Diego took off his snake-skin boots

and DuBois took off his brogans

 and Pearl took off her razzle-dazzle skates

then Henry David Thoreau took out his Different Drum

and began slapping out some sweet Afro-Cuban rhythms

and we all lined up behind him

and conga’d in our stocking feet

out the hole that used to have a door in it

Even though our mothers had always told us

“Don’t go outside without your shoes on

you’ll ruin your socks”

we went outside without our shoes on

and we ruined our socks

We conga’d in dirt and mud and gravel

We conga’d in the shrubbery and up and down the streets

We  conga’d without our shoes on

and got our socks filthy

and ripped our socks

and tore holes in our socks

and ruined our socks just like our mothers said we would

“Don’t worry!” shouted Pablo Neruda

“We will knit you new ones!”

And that’s what he and Maru Mori did

 

They knit us bright yellow socks as soft as dandelions

and smelling of pineapples

and we put them on and they could not be ruined

 

We conga’d in parking lots in our yellow socks

to Henry’s drum

We conga’d on lawns and driveways

to Henry’s drum

We conga’d up and down the aisles of supermarkets

to Henry’s drum

We conga’d in bowling alleys and pizza parlors

to Henry’s drum

We conga’d all around the mulberry bush

to Henry’s drum

Then children with ruined socks started showing up

from all over the place

Children from slums and ghettos

Children from refugee camps

Children from hospitals

They came exhausted and terrified and hungry and dirty

Children with great gaping holes in their bodies came

Children with mangled and missing limbs came

Blind children and deaf children came

Children with no mothers or fathers left

to warn them about ruining their socks came

Children struggled out of rubble

and rose up out of graves to come

 

So we washed them and gave them food

while Pablo’s and Maru’s knitting needles flashed in the sunlight

and we held their feet in our hands

and so carefully, so carefully

we removed their ruined socks

and onto those feet

those small, tormented feet

we pulled Pablo Neruda’s and Maru Mori’s

indestructible, un-ruinable socks

bright yellow, as soft as dandelions

and smelling of pineapples

 

 

DeSoto Bend

 

Not far from Blair, Nebraska,

and the Loess Hills of Iowa

there is an oxbow lake –

an old bend in the Missouri River

where great flocks of snow geese stop to rest and feed

on their winter journey south.

I am here on a November morning

to walk in the woods at the water’s edge.

 

I’ve come back to Nebraska to be with my mother

for her first cancer treatment.

Her chemotherapy begins tomorrow.

Today I am taking this time to be alone

among the bare, quiet trees

that separate the lake from the wide, flat, fertile fields

of the flood plain.

 

The sky is close and colorless

and except for a few patches of white here and there

left over from a recent snow

everything else is brown –

the turned-over earth and stubble in the fields,

the leafless trees,

the brittle grasses and undergrowth.

 

The air is bitterly cold

And I have to walk fast to keep warm.

Every breath I take hurts my lungs.

Through the stillness that flowers

in between inhaling and exhaling

I drop deep into my body

where every one of my cells is a pond

with wild geese floating on the bright surface of the water.

 

Nothing moves.
Then all the geese take off at once,

their tremendous wings beating furiously

as if they were fighting with the air.

A kind of fierce elation fills me

and my spirit rises with my steaming breath

up through the naked branches.

 

Without knowing why, exultant and outraged,

I begin shouting at God:

 

            What about the hollow-eyed homeless

            shivering on sidewalks and sleeping in cardboard boxes?

            What about disposable children sleepless from hunger and fear?

            What about bodies shattered and shredded by war?

            What about the jailed and the tortured,

            the disappeared and the executed?

            What about the abandoned, the abused, the haunted, the hunted?

            What about broken promises and broken hearts?

            What about the forgotten, dying of loneliness?

            What about the grasping, the grabbing, the fat-fingered greedy?

            What about the slaughter of species, the mauling of Earth?

            God of the helpless and the hopeless,
            God of the weak and the needy,

            God of the bent and broken,

            God of the spare, of the plain, of the ordinary,

            of the small and insignificant,

            God of creeks and muddy lakes and skinny trees,

            God of beetles and lichen and seeds,

            God of dirt under my feet,

            Let springtime arrive,

            Let justice sprout from the earth and cover the land like new grass,

            Let justice rattle the windows and soak the ground

            like a storm in April,

            Let justice perfume the air like apple blossoms,

            Let justice leaf the trees,

            Let justice write its name across the sky

            in the shifting patterns of migrating birds

            flying north to their summer homes.

 

Out of breath now, I stand on the shore of the lake.

A great blue heron passes by overhead

riding the icy air.

Small groups of ducks bob up and down on the choppy water,

but I see no geese.

I think for a moment about gathering sticks and fallen branches

and building a fire I could keep going all day

to warm me while I waited for the geese to come

and the light to go.

But I have been away long enough

and my mother is waiting for me back in her apartment.

I break off a piece of dead branch

and throw it spinning out across the water.

Then I turn from the lake

and walk the narrow, frozen path

through the woods and back to my car.

 

 

We’re gonna shoot those looters on sight

 

“These troops are battle-tested. They have M16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will.”

— Kathleen Blanco, governor of Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

 

Maybe 1,000 dead, somebody says, and more dying

from lack of food

from lack of water

from lack of sanitation

from lack of medicine and medical care

 

We’re gonna shoot those looters on sight

 

We’re not gonna shoot the good, upstanding white folks

who are “finding” food and supplies in abandoned Seven-Elevens

But we’re gonna shoot those looters on sight

You know who they are

We know who they are

 

We’re gonna shoot those looters on sight

 

Tell them the cops are coming

Tell them the National Guard is coming

These goddamn looters are no better

than terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan

The RoboCops and the RoboTroops are geared up, combat ready,

packing lots of heat,

heavy with ammo belts

They have their orders:

Shoot those looters on sight.

 

Looters’ bodies floating face down in the water

Looters’ corpses rotting in ditches

Looters’ babies crying from hunger

Looters’ sons and daughters missing

maybe dead

Looters’ grandparents dying in front of them

Looters desperate

Looters terrified

Looters angry

 

We’re gonna shoot those looters on sight

 

They’re irresponsible

They’re lazy

They’re stupid

They’re vicious

And they’re dangerous

They should have left before the levees broke

like the folks who live in the good houses,

like the folks who live in the clean neighborhoods,

like the guests in the fine hotels

We can’t save them from themselves

But we can shoot them on sight

 

We’re not gonna shoot the government officials

who gave away the buffering wetlands

or the developers who dried them up

We’re not gonna shoot the heads of Homeland Security

and the Federal Emergency Management Agency

who claim to protect us from terrorists

but have no evacuation plans in place for the poor

because the poor are not us

they’re the looters

We’re not gonna shoot the President of the United States

who slashed the budget for repairing the levees

and played golf at a San Diego country club

while looters had to piss and shit in the streets

and who promised a Looziana political crony

“We’re gonna build him a new house

better than the old one.”

We’re not gonna shoot the heads of corporations

feasting off disaster —

the CEOs of oil companies

jacking up the prices and gouging at the pump

the CEOs of construction companies in their gleaming wet-bar jet planes

circling like TurboTechnoBuzzards

over the drowned, ruined body of the city

the CEOs of sham charities and relief organizations

that skim millions off the top

We’re not gonna shoot the reporters and editors

who serve up endless stories and images about “chaos in the streets”

and the looting of convenience stores and donut shops

but overlook the theft of the commons and the public treasury

by corporate boards and the Senators they keep in their desk drawers

Those aren’t the ones who endanger The American Way of Life

It’s the looters

 

And we’re gonna shoot those looters on sight.

 

 

Who says they bungled it?

(In answer to those who said that the Federal Emergency Management Administration “bungled” its response to Hurricane Katrina))

 

Who says they bungled it? 

 

Who says the government wanted to protect its citizens?

Who says the government ever intended to save the poor of New Orleans

who couldn’t get out?

Who says not repairing the levees

was a mistake?

Who says waiting 5 days before sending in “help”

was bad judgment?

 

Who says they bungled it?

 

What kind of “help” did they send?

Edgy troops just back from Iraq.

Blackwater assassins deputized to kill.

Shock Troops and Tac Squads to enforce evacuation orders,

to drag people out of their homes,

to bag up the bloated dead,

to keep the press away,

to keep America from getting the real story

about the war that the rich

continually wage against the poor.

 

Who says they bungled it?

 

Who says they didn’t anticipate the chaos,

didn’t want a “war game” they could play

with real storm troopers,

with real bullets?

Who says they didn’t want to impose martial law

and “secure” an American city?

Who says they don’t have plans

to do it over

and over

and over again?

 

Who says they bungled it?

 

Who says they didn’t know

that TV and the press would hyperventilate about looters

and refuse to tell the stories about

spontaneous communities of mutual support and assistance

springing up in refugee camps

and on highway medians

and in half-drowned neighborhoods

in the poorest parts of town?

Who says they didn’t know

that unsubstantiated stories

of murders and the rape of children

by gangbangers and junkies deprived of a fix

(you know who we mean)

would be accepted as fact?

 

Who says they bungled it?

 

Who says they couldn’t guess

that Americans would give hundreds of millions

for hurricane relief

and be tempted to delude ourselves with stories of our own generosity

into believing that there is no class war raging in America

no systemic racism lacerating our souls

and that everything is fine after all?

Who says they didn’t lick their chops

at billions in rebuilding money

to be doled out to each other’s outlaw corporations

that have always made their profits

by looting public funds

and savaging the poor?

 

Who says they bungled it?

 

Who says they do not pray to a savage God —

the God of Power and Privilege

the God of Obscene Opulence

the God of Insatiable Greed

the God of a Thousand Teeth

Devourer of Children, Shredder of Flesh

the God of Annihilation

the God of Death-in-Life?

And who says that that God

does not answer their prayers?

 

 

The United States of Torture

 

In the United States of Torture

we will do what we must

to protect the American Way.

In the United States of Torture

we will strip our enemies naked

and humiliate them

and terrify them with ferocious dogs

and deprive them of sleep

and send powerful jolts of electricity

screaming into their genitals

and hold their heads under water

until they nearly drown

and tie them into bags and stomp them to death

to protect the American Way.

 

In the United States of Torture

where we believe in the right to counsel

and a fair trial

and the opportunity to confront our accusers

and to know the charges against us

we will make it perfectly legal

to hold secret tribunals

to reach foregone conclusions

to convict and condemn our enemies

to protect the American Way.

 

In the United States of Torture

we are the Lords of War

spreading fear across the land

and out of the miasma of that fear we call forth

shadowy archipelagos

gulags of perpetual pain

with secret black box prisons

where our enemies huddle in the corners

of stone cold cells

mumbling incomprehensible prayers

to their false and puny god

forever and ever amen

while we stand vigilant at the right hand

of the One True Pumped Up and Almighty God

to protect the American Way.

 

In the United States of Torture

we are the Heroes of the Battle of Fallujah

where we rained white hot phosphorus

and new improved napalm

down upon our enemies

and the children of our enemies

and the children of our enemies’ children

frying their skin to a blackened crisp

and burning their flesh to the bone

to protect the American Way.

 

In the United States of Torture

it has always been this way —

concentration camps we call

reservations, ghettoes, barrios, prisons,

where we warehouse millions

of the dangerous poor;

death by interrogation

in the dank basements of police stations;

tac squads, hit squads, death squads

pumping bullets into the backs

of the wrong kind of people.

Terrorists are everywhere among us

and we will do what we must

to protect the American Way.

 

 

Suppose these are not the end times

 

Suppose these are not the end times.

Suppose these are the last, murderous spasms,

the final desperate tarantella of a dying system

and the manicured thugs who profit from it.

Suppose the meek really are going to inherit the earth after all.

(I don’t believe for a second

that Jesus said meek; he was talking about the poor.

And I don’t believe for a second

he said poor in spirit.)

Suppose the meek are getting ready.

 

Suppose this is the last hurrah of the oligarchs.

Suppose the fat cats panic and scurry madly about

spending all their darling money

to buy camels to ride through the Needle’s Eye

and suppose only the camels make it

to the other side.

 

Suppose the armies of the night

are growing weary of spilling their own blood

and massacring their sisters and brothers

to protect the wealthy few who couldn’t care less about them.

And suppose the armies of the night are planning to switch sides.

 

Suppose this is the Dåmmerung of Kapital

The Great Fall of the necrophiliac elite.

Suppose los pobres de la tierra are refusing the crumbs

and eyeing the table

Suppose they are joining their voices together in a

resounding, rambunctious, rebellious, cacophonous, ear-splitting,

earth-shattering, life-affirming NO!

And suppose the walls come tumbling down

The walls behind which the groomed and fragrant elites

congratulate themselves

come tumbling down

The walls of gated communities and corporate cathedrals

come tumbling down

The walls of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank

come tumbling down

The walls of  Empire

come tumbling down

The walls of  Bureaus and Departments and Agencies

come tumbling down

The walls of prisons, of death rows, of Abu Ghraibs and Guantanamos

come tumbling down

 

Suppose the starved and the slaughtered, the tortured and the terrorized,

the enslaved and the imprisoned, the exploited and abused

the oppressed and brutalized, the invisible and disposable and discarded

walk out of the slums and the barrios and the ghettoes

out of tenements and freezing doorways

out of homeless shelters and soup kitchens

out of  sweatshops and migrant camps and jail cells and dungeons

into a new day, to make a new world

where all bellies are filled, all houses are safe, all beds are warm

A world without the cowardly plutocrats and their beloved money

A potluck world where everyone brings something to share

A Sunday night zocalo world strung with colored lights,

ice cream carts tinkling, lovers murmuring, old folks chatting,

children shouting, dogs barking, bands playing

everybody dancing.

 

Suppose these are not the end times after all

 

 

Property damage

 

On the telephone from Germany

the young soldier says he wants out

He has gone AWOL two times, he says

to try to get the Army to discharge him

and says he’d rather go to prison

than return to Iraq

 

On the telephone from Germany

the young soldier recalls

the exploded body he saw

plastered against the outside of a house

the chunks of bone

embedded in the wall

“We laughed about the dead Haji

who’d blown himself up,” he said

“You laugh about it, or you cry about it,

or you say nothing and go insane”

 

On the telephone from Germany

the young soldier remembers

the daily mortar attacks at Bi’aj

and all the memorial services at Camp Ramadi

and the NCO whose head he held

while the medic worked on him

His body was riddled with shrapnel

His jaw was shattered

and his throat torn wide open

“Hang on, hang on,” the young soldier kept saying

as the man died in his arms

 

On the telephone from Germany

the young soldier talks about the day

members of his platoon killed a dog

that scavenged around their camp

They smashed her skull with a shovel

they slit her throat and her belly

they broke her legs

and stuffed her into a trash bag

and when they discovered that she had a litter of puppies

they killed the puppies too

and buried them

and put a cross the grave

“They made a big joke out of it,” he said

“and we all laughed”

 

You laugh about it or you cry about it

or you say nothing and go insane

 

On the telephone from Germany

the young soldier says

that he has been burning himself –

“just to feel pain, to feel human” –

holding his palms to flame, raising large blisters

again and again

blister upon blister upon blister

and afterwards curling his fingers into fists

and squeezing the blisters hard

When someone saw what he was doing, he says

he was told he could be punished

for damaging government property

 

You laugh about it or you cry about it

or you say nothing and go insane

 

On the telephone from Germany

the young soldier says

he has tried to commit suicide several times

with vodka and pills

and when he has asked for someone to talk to

all they do

is recommend pills

 

You laugh about it or you cry about it

or you say nothing and go insane

 

On the telephone from Germany

the young soldier says

he has always tried to be good

he has always tried to do the right thing

and now he is waiting for some good times

waiting to stop checking for his weapon

whenever he leaves his room

waiting to stop looking for IEDs

as he drives down the street

waiting to stop thinking that every stranger he sees

might be trying to kill him

waiting for the images and memories to fade

waiting to feel again

without having to burn himself

and waiting for the Army to decide

what to do with this damaged piece of government property

 

You laugh about it or you cry about it

or you say nothing and go insane

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted in World. 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “Poems – Buff Whitman-Bradley”

  1. Roger Stoll Says:

    beautiful, sometimes shattering.

    especially heartbreaking is your haiku:

    Hush, my little one
    The bombs know you are my Dear
    They will not hurt you

  2. Sherwood Ross Says:

    Buff Whitman-Bradley: Thank you, thank you, thank you, for your anti-war poems. They are outstanding. Sherwood Ross
    Coral Gables, Florida

  3. Tony Press Says:

    Beautiful, powerful, terrible. And overwhelming, too. When I catch my breath, and give myself some space, I will return to read them again, read them as they are meant to be read. I found myself going too quickly, out of excitement, but also out of aversion. Some things are not easy.
    Your poems are crafted from the heart, and from careful attention.


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