Rejecting Despair: Poems of Lament, Rage, and Resistance
I am grateful to the poets featured here for contributing their perspective, their eloquence, ferocity, generosity, and poetic wisdom. Here are full-throated laments, songs that sing the blues, poems urging us to cast spells but not forget to VOTE. They caution that there will be a greater need to care for children in harm’s way. In the face of destruction they create beauty to offset the harm. They envision the evil but conjure goodness. And then… acknowledging that laughter can temper sorrow…they celebrate how resourceful, indomitable, and determined women are. The courage we muster to confront the present will also help us rise again, and every day take up the journey to find ways to put things right.
lament for endangered species
—Justice Stephen Breyer*
The light is no longer the light
nor window the window–
the time for looking out having soldiered by
nor is a room a room
of our own, but vanquished by writs & edicts
our bodies are no longer our bodies
everyone knows this
but we forget
our forgetfulness a useless thing
arising from defeat
here in the winter of our shame
no longer our fierce selves
our voices disappearing in the lost flickering
*From the dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe and Casey, authored by Justice Breyer, June 2022.
**Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher, interviewed on the Ezra Klein Show, in regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, April 2022
I Would Be a Witch
How did I come to be an exacting
I’d have been a witch
in New England, tortured
and humiliated in public,
a scold’s bridle caging my head,
against my tongue
should I form a word.
If I were
a Quaker, free in Meeting
to speak my mystical heart,
feel the sun reflecting on snow
wavy glass panes,
myself become the Light’s host
lilting and revising
prayers and spells.
When I leave the simple
sanctuary, I know
to pull the hood of my wool cloak
close around my face, wrap
around my mouth
and nose to protect against piercing air
and the villagers’ iced blue stares,
the monotonous drum
of their doctrine composed
of metaphors of danger,
the soul usurped, threats
of the scaffold.
And as I tilt and bow
before Atlantic winds, friend
to oceans and hills and the forest’s
umbrella shielding the secret
the back of my shrinking
I send my spirit down a passageway
where sages’ specters light candles
and conduct me
to the future,
a remote city, its busy streets
momentarily emptied by plague.
A blizzard has buttressed walls
with snow and strung the eaves
with bright icicles.
The mob is shut in
against its will.
Outside my window, five ravens
with present tense,
peck at black sunflower seeds
on the ground the storm blanched.
Quickly they fly off when I look
up from the page.
lights my face as I score
giving it space
to rise with my sentences,
eat toast for lunch, concoct
ointment for dryness and rashes,
postcards urging courage,
voice, and the vote.
The world needs to sing the blues, but can’t remember how to
Darlings what have we this May
Page after page with names of the dead
One million dead —vampiric the virus enters
The blunt horror quickly dis-remembered
Continuous funeral corteges
Burial after burial after burial
Families burdened with grief publicly performed
Black faces latticed with tears.
On the radio a Fats Waller song sways too politely
As if all the rude has been bled out, the cackling
Sarcasm rendered bland as white toast.
So much rude selling—bullets personified
Why is a bullet personified—is this naming the poison
Or tolerating the blood in the parking lot, in a church
In a classroom, a lunchroom, the post office. Oh
Bullet what is your name—Butch, Billy, or Bob—
Bullet what is your name?
Where is that butterfly, the one that is to be pimped
Or to be fracked, shipped turned into heat
Who names the lapidary who gives a fuck
Oh why cannot we cry for the millions broken
Oh damn, we need to cry.
Oh lord, we need to cry.
Cento: Ode to Choice
Pour down, light strands of the difficult—
Your own life depends on it.
Your own, unwritten life.
From music and from wonder and from joy,
actually a person, I had
to decipher my stitches, my womanhood—
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free—
that would mean something.
To know as we do know:
you had the chance to choose.
Across the river, music begins.
In what do you believe?
Brenda Hillman, Mary Oliver, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, Louise Glück, Jacqueline Kolosov, Elizabeth Bishop, Kimiko Hahn, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Caryl Pagel, Kate Northrop, Olena Kalytiak Davis
Soon There Will Be
More Unwanted Children
As fragile as the flowers
that scatter at the slightest
stir of the autumn wind,
the abandoned child
by the Fuji River
reaches out wailing,
face streaked with mucus
and tears. Basho, moved
with pity, leaves food
but passes on. Here I stop.
Here I stop each time.
Basho’s footsteps fade
along the trail. He turns a corner.
Centuries pass, water
rushes over the stones,
chrysanthemums wither, leaves
fall and cover the little bones.
—lines from Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones
The Kid They Care So Much About
Someone wants to know how I feel about women in war, women in war, I mean sending women, I mean we’re talking mothers here, some kid if the woman gets shot, loses his mother, hey they’ve been losing fathers down the tubes since who knows when but what the hell, no one ever sent a father home for the kid’s sake, fathers I guess they figure fathers expendable, send the woman home, have to take care of our women, send her home, someone wants to know what I think about women and rape, someone wants, every six minutes a woman is raped a daughter is raped a wife is beaten every eighteen seconds, someone wants to know what I think, have to take care of our women, send her home, what I think, send her home to raise the kid, the kid they care so much about, the one that will grow and go to war
Traveling Shoes (For Voices & Drums) An Excerpt
He said come on, mother, are you ready to go?
Well, my mother stooped down
And she buckled on her shoes
She counted up her cost and began to move
She moved on down by the Jordan stream
Cried, Oh Lord, I have been redeemed
She said, Lord, I done my duty
Got on my traveling shoes
I ran up Riggs Road though all of me hurt. I was heading down South Dakota Avenue towards Providence Hospital when my mother saw me. She stopped the car. I kept running. Somebody at the hospital will help you. It really, really hurts. You can’t tell anybody. Keep running.
She backed the car up until she caught up with me. The cars were honking.
“Get in the car.”
Get in the car.
Get in the car.
Get in the goddamned car. What are you doing running like that? What’s wrong with you? Get in the car!”
I stopped running. It seemed like the window was closed. She never curses. Does she know? I could see her mouth working, but I couldn’t hear her. You could hear her all right. Why should you go with her? It’s her fault!
“Get in the car,” she said, reaching across the front seat to open the car door. I got in. “What happened? Why are you up here? What happened? she asked, her voice quavering. Her voice never did that. I want to go home, mommy. Can we go home? I want to go home.
I sat in the car shaking and crying and unable to say anything. She drove back to the school and saw my windbreaker near the curb. “We’re not going anywhere until you say what happened.” We sat in the car. I looked at her and shook my head. She got out and got my jacket. She looked up and down the street. She got back in the car and drove around the school neighborhood three times. She drove slowly, looking in windows and backyards.
Why didn’t you tell? Why didn’t you say something? It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t her fault. What about that man? He could hurt other people. Who would believe it? Mommy. No, she wouldn’t.
She drove home. I turned my head away from her and looked out the window. It was good watching the houses go by. You still need to tell the story. It’s too late to tell. I wasn’t showing anything… It hurts, Mommy.
When we got home, she took me upstairs to the bathroom. “Did you get in a fight? Did someone hurt you?” she asked as she took my clothes off and inspected me slowly. She saw the blood. I didn’t do anything bad. I didn’t do anything. It was that man. He was bad. Not me.
As I stood there in my underwear, she saw the scratches, bruises, and welts on my legs and the dirt and stuff on my panties. I thought she was going to start yelling. She went into her room. I thought she was gone to get the strap. But she came back with her special bubbles and made me a bath. She took my underwear off and put it in the trash. She helped me get in the tub. She hadn’t done that in a long time. She sat along the tub. She washed me, emptied the tub, refilled it, and washed me again.
“Sometimes, I wish I could go far away, far away…” she said softly as she dried me off. Me, too. After a long while, she added, “You need to tell me what happened. It’ll be okay.”
It’s hard to reach back to who that six-year-old was. It’s hard not to come up with a fictional character on the other end of my memory. I can’t even see myself at that age unless photographs prompt me. I do recall, however, quite vividly how I really wanted to be home on that day. How I needed to be home. How my body stopped being my home.
Though I am still here, decades and decades later, I still wonder about that day when everything was what-ifs with no protection in sight. And I wonder, have I learned to be too quiet, too compressed, too patient, too compromising, too ready to hold on to things that are not mine, too good at making a home for what does not belong to me? Will the wave of anger growing since I was six finally drown me? As I struggle with rage and fear and an enemy who keeps making sure I am full of anger and fear, how can I keep from hurting someone? Can I please hurt someone? And I wonder, when will there be protection? When will someone return my body to me?
I done my duty but can’t get no traveling shoes.
Yes, Meth, petty theft, skateboarding on
sidewalks, midnight firecrackers, kids
leaving toys in the street. But,
in this tiny mountain town where for thirty years
only two killings bloodied our dreams?
At dusk we gather in the park and watch an owl dig
her talons into an electric pole, great horned
owl who swivels her head to candles spilling wax
over our stunned hands, an offering
for the 21-year-old daughter stabbed to death
at the only all-night gas station in town.
Afraid to work alone past midnight, Jaydah
complained to her male boss. She knew her ancestors’ history
of slaughter. Her blade of fear
came true in the disturbed hands of a white teen.
Who knows what he was after—money or her.
It doesn’t matter. A juvenile, he’s nameless.
Some speculate drugs—Meth,
another native woman’s death. Some feel for the boy’s family
who will never outrun violent shame.
Jaydah’s mom sobs for her kind daughter
who died for minimum wage, while
her grandma swears to gun the killer down.
We have no name
for the teen’s rage. We are simply neighbors
grieving near the rush of Los Pinos River over night stones
at Eagle Park, our vigil silent as grass, struggling
for words to carry Jaydah and her dreams to the stars.
As we lift candles to her memory, Jaydah’s mom
tells us that each night
since her daughter’s death a mule deer
glides up to her back door, a doe
who lets the family feed her, lets them touch her face.
I know my daughter’s spirit is in that deer.
One by one, all of us hug this family caught in the cracked maw
that is loss—whatever divides us melts in the tops of blue spruce.
Between us, mother tears swell night’s glass bulb of sorrow.
Quiet, we watch owl’s great wings flex
launching her blunt body over us, then circling the river
losing itself to last light.
Bayfield, Colorado August 5th, 2021
Breaking It Down
At the cafe last week, a friend and I talked of societal decay.
How people are exhausted from the plague, January 6, and the war.
How democracy diminishes.
Some don’t care anymore about fascism, white nationalists.
Which ideas hold sway.
Somehow, the topic of aging came up.
What happens to bodies as they get old.
How skin thins over time.
Epidermis losing collagen, wasting away.
Pressing layers of years against time.
How we attempt to hold onto life as we age.
While some let democracy slip through their hands.
This country cosmetics over cracks in its skin.
Denies the homeless.
Immigrants, refugees, and the poor.
Imprisons the unwanted.
Moves toward nuclear war.
Summer’s heat rising from urban pores.
Layers of pavement plied over heating up lands.
Tented cities littering ground.
That brick chimney on the side of my centuried house
will at some point fall.
Unleashing asbestos painted in layers of dust.
And the dust becomes friable,
floating urban putrefied air.
Like thinning layers of democracy’s skin
as it begins to break down.
The Poets Decide to Keep the Moon
Although the general imaginative capacity
might seem to have been plundered by a man
having set foot on the moon, poets decided,
without deciding, to just keep dropping it
into their poems as if nothing much had
happened. They let it shine down on lovers
as an ancient power and, in the bedtime stories
of children, you still had to say goodnight
to it. My part Cherokee mother was alive
at the time this man-step took
place. I remember her black hair falling
to her waist like a horse-hair shawl when
she took it in: “So a man walked on the moon,”
she said. “They have been walking on women
for years and haven’t discovered them. I
think the moon is safe.” She could be severe,
like someone who would leave you to die
on the mountain when your time came. “The moon
carried your great-grandmother out of a river once
when it flooded her bed in the night,” she said.
“She climbed on its back and it floated her
to shore.” Then my mother went back to her
astonishment that while men could walk on the moon
they continued to walk on women, years into
years, moons into moons, without realizing
step into step, they were on sacred
soil, the far off flesh of their birth into death into
birth mothers. We sat silent together
trying to take in such ignorance and star-fall.
Soon it was time for breakfast. The moon
had forgotten us altogether. I shook out some
Cheerios into our bowls, those dependable moons
with holes in the middle that miraculously
float in milk. We took up our spoons
like two planetary insurgents, women
brave enough, every day, for the journey.
A lifeboat’s slung above the looming sea.
Her torch lights the shore with a quiver like green jelly—
a tadpole at the center of amok.
But it’s unraveling—the rough cloth
of a monster in the deep with unimaginable weapons.
Foot traffic snarls in rope ladders, the struggle for life vests.
Survivors will speak of the hand extended to steady a child.
Sunbeams hoist metallic brilliance from spikes in her tiara.
A sea soft as cashmere wraps the creaking struts
above the sunken hull, the lowering lifeboats.
Portality: the past
The past dropped off a ledge today I’d walked toward it again
the roar and fog of avalanche at last the wrong-way sign
the jarring cracked a portal eternity the space
a heal-all lace of bandages now holds me
close/away I float around cocooned
memory’s galaxy of stones
revolving trial, exam, and cross-
I thought I proved my case the words in trance all memorized
the pain in corners fallen through the scraps dispelled
until unstitched the dark within revives the stars
as asterisks each point explicit to the place
unwraps a vow inside the wake
thought’s body left behind.
House Made of Stones
And the gods made a house of stones,
though it wasn’t the first house
they’d made: the one built of
fossils they’d been collecting,
putting them in the walls
in the order of disappearance––
but no, this time the stone
was made of crushed skulls,
pulverized bones, teeth pulled
from the bombed city, skeletons
wrenched from the glacier’s melting
grip, thawed things that appeared
when the permafrost went.
From the meadowlands they took
the memory of the music of bees, the thrum
and insect hum of evening, the whisper
of wind through long grass, and they
crushed those old, disused sounds
into a carpet to soften
the hard marble floor, its chill,
and the frost that clung
to the stones no matter how high
the flames rose in the hearth,
the walls splattered with light
where tinder spat sparks and bits
of burning twig and the fire
lit the writing on the wall ––
until the walls began to crumble,
words lost their hold on one another,
words we were desperate to write,
to add our voice to the general cry…
but the thunder you hear
as the gods disappear,
is the thunder
of plummeting stone…
All That Year
We were body surfing a wave of public rage
attempting to swim it was terrific thrilling
hate sprayed us on the left and on the right
we wondered would it smash us into a reef
the swaggerer loosed lies from his lips like eels
it was a good moment for cartoonists and journalists
and billionaires and lovers of guns
a good moment
for poets poets thrive on disaster
born as we are within the wound
9 Comments on “Fourteen Poems”
There is healing in these poems and anger and humor in some pieces. These poems are like bread or water. Women need poems now in a time of censorship and the rescinding of rights. We need rebellion as well. Equality is an essential, not a maybe or maybe not
By “rebellion” (a word in my previous comment) I don’t mean physical rebellion. I mean peaceful legal dissent, the power of the vote and, yes the power of the written word.
Thank you for these poems. I am grateful on so many levels. A few weeks ago, I spoke at a march for reproductive rights. I could not believe I needed to return. I was there when I was 20. I am 74 now. I told the truth about my illegal abortion. I thanked the 19 & 20 year-olds who organized it. These poems, your powerful words, sustain and nourish.
Yet another powerful and moving collection of poems in Persimmon Tree. Thank you all.
Terrific poems, thank you to each writer. They convey the perfect outrage and urgency for our times. I pray that their messages (and wonder) reach far beyond boundaries! KHerseth Wee
These poems enter me, remind me I’ve been there in many ways, and can’t wrap words around loss of so much. Thank you for bringing poets and poems together. Perhaps now the time of healing begins.
So pleased to see your words here, Marie! You are in perfect company! KarenHerseth Wee
I hope to use these powerful “Fourteen Poems” on post-voting Sunday, November 13th at 4pm(PST) as the foundation for “Speaking of Poetry and … ” a monthly Zoom conversation via my website. Please join us if you can.
What glorious heart rending poems—thank you for offering them at a time when we all desperately need poetry to sustain us in these fractured times.