04 October 2010

Voices and Soul

1 October 2010

by Justice Putnam
Black Kos Poetry Editor

On 2 October 1977, my Son Israel Putnam was born. I assisted in his birth and placed his wrinkled, writhing body on his mom's stomach. I let the others attend to the umbilical cord and such. I had already done so with several calves and foals on the farm and ranch growing up in Oregon, it was enough to stroke my wife's forehead and help clean his tiny hands. It was a momentous day, to be sure.

On 2 October 2010, thousands will march in Washington; a show of solidarity against the TeaBircher demonstrations that have taken place recently. A gathering of workers and mothers, small business owners and students, gays and atheists, catholics and lesbians, protestants and teachers, nurses and shias, housekeepers and lawyers. I expect it to be a momentous day.

I visited Israel and my three grandkids in Salem, Oregon a week ago. I love to take the train. It was a practice our family embraced when I was a toddler in the late 50's; and I've used it often since. I enjoy the trains in Europe much more of course, but the Amtrak Coast Starlight is a great way to see the West Coast of the United States. Sitting in the Salem rail station for my return back the the Bay Area, I engaged in a conversation with a young Army Ranger, dressed in desert camo and burdened with desert camo duffle bags, who was on his way to visit relatives in Portland. A pretty black-haired goth girl gave the perfunctory genuflection, uttering the requisite mantra of patriotic thanks. I was more curious when and where he was going back. I was more concerned he had to go at all.

He was closing a camp near the Euphrates and moving it to the Afghan-Pakistan border. He only had two days with his relatives in Portland; on 2 October 2010, he would be with his fellow Rangers in Iraq.

On the train, I was sat next to a young man who works for an NGO in Ecuador building schools. In the mid-80's, I worked for a contractor hired by UNICEF drilling water wells for schools in Honduras; so we talked of Latin America and how the problems of abject poverty complicate matters. He was on his way to the offices in the Mission District of San Francisco, California, before traveling back to Guayaquil. He was then due to be in the tiny village of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on 2 October 2010.

As I sat in the viewing car that night, watching the full moon as we rolled through the Cascades, I thought of the petty nature of bigotry; and how the actions of those two men, the actions of the marchers in DC stand against that pettiness. I thought how the struggle is long and hard; and how we cannot allow that pettiness to go unchallenged; lest we return to another 2 October, this time in 1937, when Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, ordered 20,000 blacks killed because they could not roll the letter “r” in perejil, the Spanish word for...


1. The Cane Fields

There is a parrot imitating spring
in the palace, its feathers parsley green.
Out of the swamp the cane appears

to haunt us, and we cut it down. El General
searches for a word; he is all the world
there is. Like a parrot imitating spring,

we lie down screaming as rain punches through
and we come up green. We cannot speak an R—
out of the swamp, the cane appears

and then the mountain we call in whispers Katalina.
The children gnaw their teeth to arrowheads.
There is a parrot imitating spring.

El General has found his word: perejil.
Who says it, lives. He laughs, teeth shining
out of the swamp. The cane appears

in our dreams, lashed by wind and streaming.
And we lie down. For every drop of blood
there is a parrot imitating spring.
Out of the swamp the cane appears.

2. The Palace

The word the general’s chosen is parsley.
It is fall, when thoughts turn
to love and death; the general thinks
of his mother, how she died in the fall
and he planted her walking cane at the grave
and it flowered, each spring stolidly forming
four-star blossoms. The general

pulls on his boots, he stomps to
her room in the palace, the one without
curtains, the one with a parrot
in a brass ring. As he paces he wonders
Who can I kill today. And for a moment
the little knot of screams
is still. The parrot, who has traveled

all the way from Australia in an ivory
cage, is, coy as a widow, practicing
spring. Ever since the morning
his mother collapsed in the kitchen
while baking skull-shaped candies
for the Day of the Dead, the general
has hated sweets. He orders pastries
brought up for the bird; they arrive

dusted with sugar on a bed of lace.
The knot in his throat starts to twitch;
he sees his boots the first day in battle
splashed with mud and urine
as a soldier falls at his feet amazed—
how stupid he looked!— at the sound
of artillery. I never thought it would sing
the soldier said, and died. Now

the general sees the fields of sugar
cane, lashed by rain and streaming.
He sees his mother’s smile, the teeth
gnawed to arrowheads. He hears
the Haitians sing without R’s
as they swing the great machetes:
Katalina, they sing, Katalina,

mi madle, mi amol en muelte. God knows
his mother was no stupid woman; she
could roll an R like a queen. Even
a parrot can roll an R! In the bare room
the bright feathers arch in a parody
of greenery, as the last pale crumbs
disappear under the blackened tongue. Someone

calls out his name in a voice
so like his mother’s, a startled tear
splashes the tip of his right boot.
My mother, my love in death.
The general remembers the tiny green sprigs
men of his village wore in their capes
to honor the birth of a son. He will
order many, this time, to be killed

for a single, beautiful word.

-- Rita Dove

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