“The County Jail”

This is a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca, a terrific poet who formed part of the late twentieth century renaissance in prison literature in the United States (he continues to write).

I have taken a keen interest in writing about the prison experience and find Baca’s poetry, like the work of Etheridge Knight, to be riveting and enlightening.

The Country Jail

Men late at night cook coffee in rusty cans,
just like in the hills, like in their childhoods,
without rules or guidance or authority, their fathers
dead or wild as gypsies,
their mothers going down for five dollars.
These are the men who surface at night,
The sons of faceless parents,
the sons of brutal days dripping blood,
the men whose faces emerge from shadows,
from bars,
and they join in circles and squat on haunches,
share smokes, and talk of who knows who,
what towns they passed through;
while flames jump under the coffee can,
you see new faces and old ones,
the young eyes scared and the old eyes
tarnished like peeling boat hulls,
like wild creatures they meet,
with a sixth sense inside of them, to tell them
who’s real and who’s the game;
and their thoughts are hard as wisdom teeth,
biting into each new eye,
that shows itself around the fire.

The coffee is poured steaming hot into cups,
and the men slowly sip.
Shower stalls drip bleakly in the dark,
and the smell of dumb metal is inflamed
with the acrid silence, and once in a while,
a cab horn will sound from outside the windows,
and the man with only a cheek illuminated by the fire,
the rest of his face drenched in shadows,
will get up and leave the circle,
return to his bunk.

Jimmy Santiago Baca


This is my way of saying “thank you.”

for John

For I had found that I’d come
to the end of it:
Tragedy I once admired become
a woman, her children drawn
in a cart

Words now are my wishes;
ink in their fetters
birds by their irons
but what you see are my fingers
fumbled inept to their fastenings
tapering, a scheme towards
this new way

Why we must milk thorns
into muslin dresses,
clothe silk in the worm
of its subtleness?
Again, friend, I only know
what it has meant to be
competent for one.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

“Emily, my child”

On November 2nd, 1965 Norman Morrison, a 31 year old Quaker from Baltimore, Maryland doused himself in kerosene and set himself on fire on the steps of the Pentagon. He was trying to get the attention of the world but also of the Johnson Administration, especially Defense Secretary Robert McNamara who was present in his office at the Pentagon that day.

According to his wife Anne, Morrison decided that this was a necessary act of protest against the Vietnam War and the horrific suffering of the Vietnamese people. Anne’s account of his passing and his apparent rationale for taking his own life can be found in the film “Loin du Vietnam” and in the book Fire of the Heart: Norman Morrison’s Legacy In Vietnam And At Home.

Morrison’s act emulated the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức who burned himself to death on the streets of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in May 1963 to protest against the persecution of Vietnamese Buddhists by the government of President Ngo Din Diem. The act was caught on camera and became a symbol of resistance to violence and to war. That famous image can be found here: http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2043123,00.html

After Morrison’s death the Vietnamese poet Tố Hữu wrote a poem “Emily, my child” which was dedicated to Morrison’s youngest child whom he carried with him that day and who was present at his death (she was handed off to someone nearby just before Morrison ended his life). Emily was only a year and a half. This is that poem:

Ê-mi-ly, con (Emily, Child)

Ê mi-ly, con đi cùng cha
Emily, come with me
Sau khôn lớn con thuộc đường, khỏi lạc…
Later you’ll grow up you’ll know the streets, no longer feel lost
– Đi đâu cha?
Where are we going, dad?
– Ra bờ sông Pô-tô-mác
To the banks of the Potomac
– Xem gì cha?
To see what, dad?
Không con ơi, chỉ có Lầu ngũ giác.
Nothing my child, there’s just the Pentagon.
Ôi con tôi, đôi mắt tròn xoe
Oh my child, your round eyes
Ôi con tôi, mái tóc vàng hoe
Oh my child, your locks so golden
Đừng có hỏi cha nhiều con nhé!
Don’t ask your father so many questions, dear!
Cha bế con đi, tối con về với mẹ…
I’ll carry you out, this evening you’ll going home with your mother…
Buổi hoàng hôn
Ôi những linh hồn
Oh, those souls
Còn, mất
That remain or are lost
Hãy cháy lên, cháy lên Sự thật!
Blaze, blaze the Truth!
Tội ác bay chồng chất
You fucker, your crimes accumulate
Cả nhân loại căm hờn
All humanity detests
Con quỷ vàng trên mặt đất.
The yellow demon upon this earth.
Mày không thể mượn nước son
You cannot borrow the crimson waters
Của Thiên Chúa, và màu vàng của Phật!
Of God, and Buddha’s yellow.
Mác Na-ma-ra
Mày trốn đâu? Giữa bãi tha ma
Where are you hiding, asshole? In the burial yard
Của toà nhà năm góc
Of a five corner building
Mỗi góc, một châu.
Each corner a continent
Mày vẫn chui đầu
You still squeeze your head
Trong lửa nóng
Inside hot flames
Như đà điểu rúc đầu trong cát bỏng.
Like the ostrich buries its head in the scorching sands

Hãy nhìn đây!
Look over here!
Nhìn ta phút này!
Look at me right now!
Ôi không chỉ là ta với con gái nhỏ trong tay
Oh it’s not only me with my little daughter in my arms
Ta là Hôm nay
I am Today
Và con ta, Ê-mi-ly ơi, con là mãi mãi!
And my daughter, oh Emily, you are forever!
Ta đứng dậy,
I stand awake,
Với trái tim vĩ đại
With the great heart
Của trăm triệu con người
Of a hundred million
Nước Mỹ.
Để đốt sáng đến chân trời
To flame, light up the horizon
Một ngọn đèn
A light
Công lý.
Of Justice.

Hỡi tất cả chúng bay, một bầy ma quỷ
Hey all you fuckers, pack of devils
Nhân danh ai?
In whose name?
Bay mang những B 52
You bring B52s
Những na-pan, hơi độc
Napalm, poison gas
Từ toà Bạch Ốc
From the White House
Từ đảo Guy-am
From Guam
Đến Việt Nam
To Vietnam
Để ám sát hoà bình và tự do dân tộc
To liquidate peace and national freedom
Để đốt những nhà thương, trường học
To incinerate hospitals and schools
Giết những con người chỉ biết yêu thương
Murder people who only know love
Giết những trẻ em chỉ biết đi trường
Murder kids who only know going to school
Giết những đồng xanh bốn mùa hoa lá
Murder green fields, four seasons of leaves and blossoms
Và giết cả những dòng sông của thơ ca nhạc hoạ!
And even murder rivers of poetry, music and art!

Nhân danh ai?
In whose name?
Bay chôn tuổi thanh xuân của chúng ta trong những quan tài
You bury the bloom of our youth in coffins
Ôi những người con trai khoẻ đẹp
Oh, those strong, handsome sons
Có thể biến thiên nhiên thành điện, thép
Who can transform nature to into electricity, steel
Cho con người hạnh phúc hôm nay!
For people’s happiness today!

Nhân danh ai?
In whose name?
Bay đưa ta đến những rừng dày
You bring me to dense jungles
Những hố chông, những đồng lầy kháng chiến
Spiked pits, muddy fields of resistance
Những làng phố đã trở nên pháo đài ẩn hiện
Villages that become fortress that disperse to reappear
Những ngày đêm đất chuyển trời rung…
Nights and days where the heavens and earth shake and jolt
Ôi Việt Nam, xứ sở lạ lùng
Oh Vietnam, a strange land
Đến em thơ cũng hoá thành những anh hùng
To the children who become heroes
Đến ong dại cũng luyện thành chiến sĩ
To the wild bees who train to be warriors
Và hoa trái cũng biến thành vũ khí!
And the trees and flowers become weapons!

Hãy chết đi, chết đi
Go ahead and die, die
Tất cả chúng bay, một bầy ma quỷ!
All you jerks, a pack of demons
Và xin nghe, nước Mỹ ta ơi!
And I ask that you listen, my America!
Tiếng thương đau, tiếng căm giận đời đời
To the voices of pain, of eternal hatred
Của một người con. Của một con người thế kỷ
Of a child. Of a person of this century

Ê-mi-ly, con ơi!
Emily, oh child!
Trời sắp tối rồi…
It’s beginning to get dark…
Cha không bế con về được nữa!
I can carry you no further
Khi đã sáng bùng lên ngọn lửa
When I ignite, light up as a flame
Đêm nay mẹ đến tìm con
Tonight, your mother will come find you
Con sẽ ôm lấy mẹ mà hôn
You’ll hug her and kiss
Cho cha nhé
Her for me
Và con sẽ nói giùm với mẹ:
And tell your mother this for me:
Cha đi vui, xin mẹ đừng buồn!
I left happy, mother don’t be sad!
Buổi hoàng hôn
Còn mất?
Remains or is lost?
Đã đến phút lòng ta sáng nhất
It’s come, the moment when my heart’s brightest
Ta đốt thân ta
I set fire to myself
Cho ngọn lửa chói loà
So the flames dazzle
Sự thật.

Tố Hữu (1965)

Note: I retrieved this bilingual version of the poem here: http://taybui.blogspot.ca/2010/09/e-mi-ly-con-emily-child-to-huu-1965.html

For retrospective coverage of Morrison’s death you can go here: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1995-07-30/features/1995211002_1_norman-emily-morrison

Loin du Vietnam

I have spent a great deal of my adult life reading, studying and thinking about the Vietnam War. My interest in the subject goes back to my childhood and was stoked, I think, by television footage I watched as a child. Even though I was born in 1979, the Vietnam War still came into my living room when I was growing up because documentary films often appeared on television (most notably on PBS) which my father would record on our old VHS (and Beta) machines and which I would watch with him or on my own when I became old enough to operate the equipment.

My father had two books on the Vietnam War that I used to pull off of the shelves even before I had the patience and skill to read them: The Ten Thousand Day War, an oral history of the conflict written and compiled by the Canadian journalist Michael Maclear and Stanley Karnow’s narrative history Vietnam: A History (both books were companions to television documentaries). I would thumb through them and look at the photographs. When I was quite young -eleven I think- I had a dream of being on a street in Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge were set to enter the city. I had no idea that it was Phnom Penh until I was watching something later and recognized an image in the news footage which seemed to correspond to my dream. I admit that dreams and memories are not always reliable and I have never been certain just how closely my dream images actually corresponded to the actual news footage, but I think it is fair to say that the Vietnam War has been influencing my subconscious for most of my life.

I recently discovered the film “Loin du Vietnam” (“Far from Vietnam”), a 1967 collaborative work made by a group of predominantly French filmmakers (including Jean-Luc Godard) which was released as a statement of solidarity with the people of Vietnam (North and South) who were suffering immensely from the protracted conflict. The filmmakers were quite explicit that the United States had launched a war of aggression against the Vietnamese and from the outset they make it clear that the conflict was about a rich nation (the United States) attacking a poor nation (Vietnam) in order to impose its imperial culture even at the risk of annihilating not only the cities, towns and countryside of Vietnam but also its culture. This is an idea that was not always confined to the American (and international) antiwar left, it was also raised in John M. del Vecchio’s superb 1983 novel The Thirteenth Valley, a book which can hardly be described as an “antiwar” polemic and which is told from the point of view of “boonierat” soldiers fighting in the highland jungles.

When the movie came out it was essentially banned in the United States on the grounds of being Communist propaganda. The New York Times ran a highly dismissive review in 1968 which you can read here: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9907E5DF153AEF3BBC4F53DFB0668383679EDE

Now that I have seen the film I find that the reviewer misses what I think is a critical point. At the beginning of the film the filmmakers note how lopsided the conflict was and how the United States had firepower, supplies and money far in excess of anything North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front (NLF) ever could have hoped to acquire. This is hardly a controversial point: throughout the conflict it puzzled U.S. policymakers, the military brass and the press (not to mention the public) how North Vietnam and the NLF (which were separate entities, I should add) could withstand truly punishing air strikes and the use of defoliants and herbicides. It also was mysterious how the U.S. military could run up such lopsided “body counts” and yet the war would not hasten to its conclusion. The Times review ignores entirely the spectacle of the world’s most powerful military and industrial economy waging war on a developing world nation, a fact the filmmakers argue had galvanized global opinion against the United States. Instead, the reviewer criticizes the film’s narration and observes that “I seriously think it is impossible for anyone concerned with facts, or words or the war to sit through it.”

Being concerned with facts myself and also being quite aware of the persuasive power of sound and image -especially images in motion- I do not think that the narration is a distraction since the filmmakers are trying to make a point: the war we are showing you is a war of aggression; the U.S. clearly has more sophisticated weaponry; look at the devastation chemical weapons and constant bombing raids are doing to a largely rural, agricultural country; consider that the U.S. controls the skies and can bomb at will; consider what napalm does to the human body. I think that to be concerned with facts it is worth considering what the filmmakers think about the information they have assembled and why they have chosen to tell their version of the story in this manner (this film is not simply a documentary, it also includes a dramatic monologue by a well-known French actor of the period, Bernard Fresson). Film is a device designed to convey messages (like any speech, pamphlet, article or book) and can be treated as a form of rhetoric subject to technical and rhetorical evaluation.

“Loin du Vietnam” is almost fifty years old now and of course there is far more information available today about the Vietnam War than there was in 1967. A person could spend their entire adult life reading and studying the conflict if they so chose. However, I do not think that this film and the questions it raises is out of date or irrelevant. At the end the narrator makes the point that Americans as well as Europeans remain “far from Vietnam,” far from the actual realities of the battlefield and its terrors (and the battlefield was ubiquitous in Vietnam). The war could carry on as it did because the field of battle was far from Washington, Paris and Middle America. One African American minister tells the camera that Americans “don’t mind fighting that war as long as it’s 10,000 miles away. The worst thing that could happen to the American morale would be some damage to a city on its own shores. Americans do not know what it’s like to live under bombardment; they feel very happy waging a war 10,000 miles from its own shore.” [sic]

When I consider that last statement and the events of the last forty-eight years -especially those of the last fourteen years- I think the relevance of Vietnam and this film is quite clear.

A Matter of Words – Losing a Customer and Opening a Conversation

Jeremy Nathan Marks:

I read this eloquent blog post and thought it deserved to be shared (I hope more people with more reach than I share it just as Daily Kos has).

I admire Jarek Steele’s words, his intentions and his insight. And I especially admire his compassionate understanding and honest stock taking of being a white person in modern America. As a small business owner myself I admire his willingness to stand up for what he believes even if it risks alienating his customers who are the lifeblood of any business.

Originally posted on jareksteele:

Yesterday, we received an anonymous letter in response to this window display commemorating the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting:

blmThere was no return address, and it wasn’t signed.  It was a very short message on a note card telling us that we had lost a customer.  In it, the person said we stoked the flames of enmity between races and promoted division.  The person asked us why we insisted upon doing that.

It’s hard to know how to respond.  What I want to do is call up the customer and chat.  I want to take him or her out for coffee and talk about what those three words mean and why I and our store feel compelled to repeat them in a window along a busy street in what seems to some to be an act of ill will.

There is no way to do that in this case so…

View original 1,326 more words

Telegraph Avenue


Telegraph Avenue
“If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.” -Leo Tolstoy

I don’t know if it is true that the doctor who
helped build the bomb was
as cold and distant from his wife
as he was rumored to be
or whether he was fired by a strain
of Wilsonian idealism common
in his day

I met the journalist who had hoped to uncork
the mind of the good doctor
only to find out that he
had died
forced instead to turn to the man’s children
who had split his earnings three ways
one share for each case of

I was stuck with a narrative he said one day
in a café on Telegraph Avenue
and what did Tolstoy say
like Jesus in the flesh
our bodies are doomed to play out
the tiny dramas of our species being

In his hand he held out a locket which
had belonged to the wife of the good doctor
go ahead and open it
inside there was a photograph of a red sleigh
you’ve got to be joking, I said

Yes, it always comes back
to Rosebud.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

Photo link: https://ixquick-proxy.com/do/spg/show_picture.pl?l=english_uk&rais=https%3A%2F%2Fs16-us2.ixquick.com%2Fcgi-bin%2Fserveimage%3Furl%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.copblock.org%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2013%2F07%2Fcopblock-policeaccountabilitytour-stop-oakland-skyline-bay.png%26sp%3D3d225de4c3dc969a2c16a4d9aa717a89