Warscapes editors choose poems that reflect on home, exile, journeys, war and humanity in light of the current refugee crisis.
By Linda Hogan
There is a place at the center of earth
where one ocean dissolves inside the other
in a black and holy love;
It’s why the whales of one sea
know songs of the other,
why one thing becomes something else
and sand falls down the hourglass
into another time.
Once I saw a fetal whale
on a black of shining ice.
Not yet whale, it still wore the shadow
of a human face, and fingers that had grown before the taking
back and turning into fin.
It was a child from the curving world of water turned square,
Sometimes the longing in me
comes from when I remember
the terrain of crossed beginnings
when whales lived on land
and we stepped out of water
to enter our lives in air.
Sometimes it’s from the spilled cup of a child
who passed through all the elements
into the human fold,
but when I turned him over
I saw that he did not want to live
in air. He’d barely lost
the trace of gill slits
and already he was a member of the clan of crossings.
Like tides of water,
he wanted to turn back.
I spoke across elements
as he was leaving
and told him, Go.
I was like the wild horses
that night when fog lifted.
They were swimming across the river.
Dark was that water,
darker still the horses,
and then they were gone.
From The Book of Medicines by Linda Hogan (Coffee House Press, 1993)
Ellis Island (an excerpt)
By George Perec
How did all these people
eat, wash, go to sleep, dress?
It doesn’t mean anything, to want
to make these images talk, to force
them to say what they wouldn’t know
how to say.
At first, one can only try
to name things, one
by one, flatly.
to enumerate them
in the most banal possible way
in the most precise possible
in trying not to forget
From Ellis Island by George Perec with Robert Bober
Earth Presses against Us
By Mahmoud Darwish
Earth is pressing against us, trapping us in the final passage.
To pass through, we pull off our limbs.
Earth is squeezing us. If only we were its wheat, we might die and yet live.
If only it were our mother so that she might temper us with mercy.
If only we were pictures of rocks held in our dreams like mirrors.
We glimpse faces in their final battle for the soul, of those who will be killed
by the last living among us. We mourn their children’s feast.
We saw the faces of those who would throw our children out of the windows
of this last space. A star to burnish our mirrors.
Where should we go after the last border? Where should birds fly after the
Where should plants sleep after the last breath of air?
We write our names with crimson mist!
We end the hymn with our flesh.
Here we will die. Here, in the final passage.
Here or there, our blood will plant olive trees.
We Journey Towards A Home
By Mahmoud Darwish
We journey towards a home not of our flesh. Its chestnut trees are not of our bones.
Its rocks are not like goats in the mountain hymn. The pebbles' eyes are not lilies.
We journey towards a home that does not halo our heads with a special sun.
Mythical women applaud us. A sea for us, a sea against us.
When water and wheat are not at hand, eat our love and drink our tears...
There are mourning scarves for poets. A row of marble statues will lift our voice.
And an urn to keep the dust of time away from our souls. Roses for us and against us.
You have your glory, we have ours. Of our home we see only the unseen: our mystery.
Glory is ours: a throne carried on feet torn by roads that led to every home but our own!
The soul must recognize itself in its very soul, or die here.
From Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, Selected Poems by Mahmoud Darwish (Author), Sinan Antoon (Editor), Amira El-Zein (Editor), Munir Akash (Translator), Carolyn Forché (Translator), Fady Joudah (Foreword), University of California Press, 2013.
By Yannis Ritsos
For a moment we took refuge
against the latrine wall.
The wind was cutting.
An old man stared at a cloud.
I looked at him smiling
in the light of that cloud-so peaceful,
so far removed from desire and pain-
I was jealous.
Old people agree with the clouds.
And it’s taking us a long time to get old.
After the rain the buildings and the stones
Two old men sit on the bench. They don’t talk.
So much shouting and so much silence remains.
The newspapers age in an hour.
Stressed, unstressed, stressed, unstressed
the monotony of change-stressed;
unstressed, stressed, strophe, antistrophe
and neither rage nor sorrow.
Evening lights out;
just as heavy for the one who struck
as for the one he struck.
The men sit on the stones
pare their nails.
The others died.
We forgot them.
From Diaries of Exile by Yannis Ritsos. Poems excerpted in Sampsonia War Magazine.
Journal in Jumunjin
By Hahm Dong-Seon
As if painted with a thick brush, the horizon
Goes down to dusk
And night begins to settle in the empty shoreline fields.
My hometown, like the stars just blinking on,
Is somewhere on the other side of a wide, wide river —
More sensation, more memory than town.
The raw-fish restaurant sways
With the dizzy give and take of the ocean waves.
The lights from docked fishing boats are doubled
In my cup of rice wine —
I drink and drink
And though I will soon quit this work, I haven't yet looked enough
Through the train window at the trees and fields slipping out of eyeshot.
A handful of wind rises
Hauled away by night's dark skirt.
After the rain
Fell hard on the autumn roofs,
From the most far-flung house to the nearest village
You can hear the ripe persimmons
Heavy with the sun's red setting
Muttering now amongst themselves
That they are on the verge of falling.
As soon as the sun went under
As if hiccupped by the horizon,
The wind pulled in behind a train arriving from the suburbs
And let the night swell across
The field that turns
An annual crop, more or less, for fifty homes.
Before long electric bulbs are hot with light
And the first night of frost goes warm
Like the spot on the floor above the heat piped in from the kitchen fire,
A crescent moon pokes out its face
Like the curved back of a long-toothed comb.
From Three Poets from Modern Korea (with Hahm Dong-Seon and Choi Young-Mi) translated by Yu Jung-yul & James Kimbrell, Sarabande Books, 2002. Excerpted here.
By Warsan Shire
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
Originally published here.
No Search No Rescue
By Jehan Bseiso
To the families and lovers at the bottom of the sea, trying to reach Europe.
How do we overcome war and poverty only to drown in your sea?
Habeebi just take the boat.
In front of you : Bahr.
Behind you : Harb.
And the border, closed.
Your Sea, Mare,Bahr. Our war, our Harb.
Where is the interpreter?
This is my family.
Baba, mama, baby all washed up on the shore. This is 28 shoeless survivors and thousands of bodies.
Bodies Syrian, Bodies Somali, Bodies Afghan, Bodies Ethiopian, Bodies Eritrean.
Your Sea, Mare,Bahr. Our war, our Harb.
Habeebi, just take the boat.
Behind you Aleppo and Asmara, barrel bombs and Kalashnikovs.
In front of you a little bit of hope.
Your Sea, Mare,Bahr. Our war, our Harb.
Maps on our backs.
Long way from home.
Originally published here
Linda Hogan is a Chickasaw novelist, essayist, and environmentalist, born in Denver, Colorado. She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and an MA in English and creative writing from the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Georges Perec was a novelist, filmmaker and essayist. He was a member of the Oulipo group. Many of his novels and essays abound with experimental wordplay, lists and attempts at classification, and they are usually tinged with melancholy. Perec's first novel, Les Choses (Things: A Story of the Sixties) was awarded the Prix Renaudot in 1965. In 1978, Perec won the prix Médicis for Life: A User's Manual (French title, La Vie mode d'emploi), possibly his best-known work. The 99 chapters of this 600 page piece move like a knight's tour of a chessboard around the room plan of a Paris apartment building, describing the rooms and stairwell and telling the stories of the inhabitants.
Mahmoud Darwish was born in al-Birwa in Galilee, a village that was occupied and later razed by the Israeli army. Because they had missed the official Israeli census, Darwish and his family were considered “internal refugees” or “present-absent aliens.” Darwish lived for many years in exile in Beirut and Paris. He is the author of over 30 books of poetry and eight books of prose, and earned the Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize from the Lannan Foundation, the Lenin Peace Prize, and the Knight of Arts and Belles Lettres Medal from France.
Yannis Ritsos was born in Monemvasia, in 1909, the youngest child of a wealthy family of landowners. His childhood was the only happy period of his early life, since the family soon faced financial ruin. "Yannis Ritsos," wrote Peter Levi in the Times Literary Supplement of the late Greek poet, "is the old-fashioned kind of great poet. His output has been enormous, his life heroic and eventful, his voice is an embodiment of national courage, his mind is tirelessly active." At their best, Ritsos' poems, "in their directness and with their sense of anguish, are moving, and testify to the courage of at least one human soul in conditions which few of us have faced or would have triumphed over had we faced them," as Philip Sherrard noted in the Washington Post Book World. Twice nominated for the Nobel Prize, Ritsos won the Lenin Peace Prize, the former Soviet Union's highest literary honor, as well as numerous literary prizes from across Eastern Europe prior to his death in 1990.
Hahm Dong-Seon was born in 1930 in Yonbaek, Hwanghae Province. When Korea was partitioned, the plain of Yonbaek marked the northenmost part of South Korea, south actually of the 38th parallel; but when hostilities ceased at the end of the Korean War in 1953, Yonbaek found itself with Kaesong in North Korea. Hahm Dong-seon did advanced study in Korean Literature at Chungang and Kyunghee Universities, completing his master's and doctorate. Subsequently he was on the faculty of Cheju University and Sorabol Art College and he ended up in the Creative Writing Department of Chungang University where he remained till he retired. Currently he is professor emeritus at Chungang University. He has been Chairman of the Korean Modern Poets Association and vice president of the Korean Writers Association; currently he is vice chairman of Korean PEN. He was awarded the Modern Poet's prize in 1979, the PEN Literature Prize in 1995, and the Republic of Korea Culture and Arts Prize in 1997.
Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali poet, writer and educator based in London. Born in 1988, Warsan has read her work extensively all over Britain and internationally – including recent readings in South Africa, Italy, Germany, Canada, North America and Kenya- and her début book, ‘TEACHING MY MOTHER HOW TO GIVE BIRTH’ (flipped eye), was published in 2011. Her poems have been published in Wasafiri, Magma and Poetry Review and in the anthology ‘The Salt Book of Younger Poets’ (Salt, 2011). She is the current poetry editor at SPOOK magazine. In 2012 she represented Somalia at the Poetry Parnassus, the festival of the world poets at the Southbank, London. She is a Complete Works II poet. Her poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. Warsan is also the unanimous winner of the 2013 Inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize.
Jehan Bseiso is a Palestinian poet, researcher and aid-worker currently based in Cairo. Her poetry has been published in the Electronic Intifada and the Palestine Chronicle among others. Bseiso is currently working on a collection of poems entitled “Conversations Continued”. It is a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations—always interrupted, never really complete or closed. There’s a chapter dedicated to the Arab Uprisings, titled Conversations Thawra.