The Ghost of Heaven
Sleep to sleep through thirty years of night,
a child herself with child,
for whom we searched
through here, or there, amidst
bones still sleeved and trousered,
a spine picked clean, a paint can,
a skull with hair
Night to night:
child walking toward me through burning maize
over the clean bones of those whose flesh
was lifted by zopilotes into heaven.
So that is how we ascend!
In the clawed feet of fallen angels.
To be assembled again
in the work rooms of clouds.
She rose from where they found her lying
not far from a water urn, leaving
herself behind on the ground
where they found her, holding her arms
before her as if she were asleep.
Blue smoke from corn cribs, flap of wings.
On the walls of the city streets a plague of initials.
Walking through a fire-lit river
to a burning house: dead Singer
sewing machine and piece of dress.
Outside a cashew tree wept
blackened cashews over lamina.
Outside paper fireflies rose to the stars.
Bring penicillin if you can, you said, surgical tape, a whetstone,
mosquito repellent but not the aerosol kind.
Especially bring a syringe for sucking phlegm,
a knife, wooden sticks, a surgical clamp, and plastic bags.
You will need a bottle of cloud
Like the flight of a crane
through colorless dreams.
When a leech opens your flesh it leaves a small volcano.
Always pour turpentine over your hair before going to sleep.
Such experiences as these are forgotten
before memory intrudes.
The girl was found (don’t say this)
with a man’s severed head stuffed
into her where a child would have been.
No one knew who the man was.
Another of the dead.
So they had not, after all,
killed a pregnant girl.
This was a relief to them.
That sound in the brush?
A settling of wind in sorghum.
If they capture you, talk.
Talk. Please yes. You heard me
right the first time.
You will be asked who you are.
Eventually, we are all asked who we are.
All who come
All who come into the world
All who come into the world are sent.
Open your curtain of spirit.
We were thirty-one souls, he said, in the gray-sick of sea
in a cold rubber boat, rising and falling in our filth.
By morning this didn’t matter, no land was in sight,
all were soaked to the bone, living and dead.
We could still float, we said, from war to war.
What lay behind us but ruins of stone piled on ruins of stone?
City called “mother of the poor” surrounded by fields
of cotton and millet, city of jewelers and cloak-makers,
with the oldest church in Christendom and the Sword of Allah.
If anyone remains there now, he assures, they would be utterly alone.
There is a hotel named for it in Rome two hundred meters
from the Piazza di Spagna, where you can have breakfast under
the portraits of film stars. There the staff cannot do enough for you.
But I am talking nonsense again, as I have since that night
we fetched a child, not ours, from the sea, drifting face-
down in a life vest, its eyes taken by fish or the birds above us.
After that, Aleppo went up in smoke, and Raqqa came under a rain
of leaflets warning everyone to go. Leave, yes, but go where?
We lived through the Americans and Russians, through Americans
again, many nights of death from the clouds, mornings surprised
to be waking from the sleep of death, still unburied and alive
but with no safe place. Leave, yes, but go where?
To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged?
To camp misery and camp remain here. I ask you then, where?
You tell me you are a poet. If so, our destination is the same.
I find myself now the boatman, driving a taxi at the end of the world.
I will see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there.
Letter to a City Under Siege
Turning the pages of the book you have lent me of your wounded city,
reading the Braille on its walls, walking beneath ghost chestnuts
of chestnuts, past fires that turn the bullet-shattered windows bronze,
flaring an instant without warming the fallen houses
where you sleep without water or light, a biscuit tin between you,
or later in the café ruins, you discuss all night the burnt literature
borrowed from a library where all books met with despair,
I wanted to give your notes back to you, so they might be
published in another language, not yours or mine but a tongue
understood by children who make bulletproof vests out of cardboard.
We will lie down in the cemetery where violets grew in your childhood
before snipers fired on the city using gravestones for cover.
Friend, absent one, exile, I can tell you that your tunnel is still there,
mud-walled and hallowed of earth, dug for smuggling
oranges into the city—oranges!—bright as winter moons by the barrow-load.
So let’s walk further up the street, to the hill where one could see
the city woven in fog, roofs filled with sky, uprooted bridges
and a shop window where a shard of glass hung over the spine of a book.
The library burns on page sixty, as it burns in all the newspapers of the world,
and the clopping of horses’ hooves isn’t the sound of clopping horses.
From here, a dog finds his way with through snow with a human bone.
And what else, what more? Even clocks have run out of time.
But, my good friend, the tunnel! There is still a tunnel for oranges!
-from In The Lateness of The World: Poems (Penguin Press, USA, 2020; Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2020), selected by POW Spring 2021 Guest Editor, Cyrus Cassells.
On April 28, 1950, Carolyn Forché was born in Detroit, Michigan. She studied at Michigan State University and earned an MFA from Bowling Green State University. A poet, memoirist, translator, and editor, Forché's books of poetry include: In the Lateness of the World (Penguin, 2020); The Angel of History (HarperCollins, 1994), which received the Los Angeles Times Book Award; The Country Between Us (HarperCollins, 1982), which received the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award and was the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets; and Gathering the Tribes (Yale University Press, 1976), which was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets by Stanley Kunitz. Her memoir What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance (Penguin Press/Penguin Random House, 2019) was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award in Nonfiction. She is also the coeditor of Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001 (W. W. Norton, 2014) and editor of Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (W. W. Norton, 1993). Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1992, she received the Charity Randall Citation from the International Poetry Forum.nIn 2013, Forché received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, given for distinguished poetic achievement. In 2017, she became one of the first two poets to receive the Windham-Campbell Prize. She is a professor at Georgetown University and lives in Maryland.