Category Archives: poetry

boat people

sitting up to the full height of her four foot frame
she paddles too aggressively
splashing us with water and giggles
leaning over to peer at her reflection in the water
and we yelp, shift our weight, cling to the sides
our laughter mixing with hers
floating up and around our small canoe
teetering in the four foot depths of this suburban river
that curves through highway underpasses tagged by teenage lovers
who learned but don’t remember
that this lazyday tubing water
that moved steamboat loads of cotton by day
secretly carried blistered bloody hands to dreams of freedom
under cover of night

on distant shores, a mother wraps her child in a blanket of darkness
looks up at a skyfull of stars
whispers dreams of freedom
waits for the boat she doesn’t know will come.
waits for the men she doesn’t know she can trust.
waits for the land she doesn’t know she will see.

on distant waters in salty wet wind
they have eaten the last of their rice
they have seen land close enough to touch
but touch does not suffice
when home is a crowded sinking boat

– a raft –
the news will later say
no bigger than the one floating by us today
children squealing, pushing, laughing,
lathering sunscreen on each others’ backs
carefree, on a hot summer day.

back on the bank,
arms poking out of a rented lifejacket
she had tugged on my arm. eyes wide
and with English still sticky on her tongue,
she had half-asked half-declared
I fall down water, I die?
no, I laughed, and pointed to her vest.
this will save you.

and so it is lifejackets tossed first
into rafts packed with migrants
adrift in the Agean
tempest-tossed and hope long lost
they buckle bags of air around empty bellies
they are pulled into fishing boats
like a good day’s catch
handed paper cups of water that can’t be spared
taken ashore in a country that shuns them,
shuffles them off to camps,
assures food and water fit to drink
but denies them work,
leaving them to wonder what good is safety
without a school
without a job
without a purpose.

the fisherman who found them bobbing in the sea
visits their camp with empty hands
having already given them all there is
he comes to hear stories
spoken in a language he doesn’t speak,
yet somehow understands.

there will always be boat people.

for as long as there is war, chasing us
to the edge of our known world,

she has heard her mother’s stories
told like fables
of soldiers’ boots and midnight raids,
of running with no place to hide,
of terror

her people didn’t escape by boat
but eventually, by a lottery and an airplane.

at nine years old, she was sleepily enthralled
by the shimmery bluegray ocean below
by the low but unceasing rumble of an engine,
by the miles of sea and sky between her and home.

once settled in our small canoe,
she paddles fiercely, relentlessly,
pulling us wobblingly forward in energetic spurts
until out of breath she folds,
sighs, and to her surprise –

we float.

today, we
are the boat people,
buoyed by laughter
by imaginary games of Olympic races
(she declares our boat TEAM AMERICA,
thus ensuring our victory)
the other teetering canoes
the only countries she can name,
places her friends can no longer call home.

today, we float,
and we splash,
surrounded on the calm water by our friends
rocking and squealing
crashing and singing,
learning that rowing is an art of memory and power,
of balance and communication,
of past and present.


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Filed under intercultural life & work, poetry

An Orchard and a Dome

I am a Literature teacher who hates the classics. I wasn’t an English major in college, never read Shakespeare, couldn’t be bothered with the old white guys of the canon. I discovered my love of literature when I discovered magical realism and post-modern and post-colonial (women) novelists and poets. I gravitate towards today’s rule-breakers: the outsiders, the daring.

It’s only through teaching Lit that I’ve learned to embrace those who came before. Teaching American Literature to teenagers who immigrated from refugee camps in Nepal, Thailand, and Kenya, from the slums of Malaysia and Ethiopia, and from temporary refuge in Turkey and Syria means teaching American history and culture alongside the literature. Teaching kids from other countries, from other cultural contexts, it’s impossible to separate – isolate – the writing from the culture in which it was written.

This way of thinking about history and art reminds me of my favorite museum, the National Museum of Mexican Art, in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Their permanent collection could be easily mistaken for an archaeological museum rather than an art museum – as you walk through the exhibit, you travel back in time to pre-Columbian pottery and paintings, cathedral murals inspired by Catholicism yet infused with Aztec and Mayan symbolism, portraits of presidents and battle scenes from the Revolution. The art tells the history.

The curators of the National Museum of Mexican Art realized something fundamental and often overlooked in Literature and Art classes: that art is a product of it’s time, and that artists are usually revolutionary.

To understand Shakespeare’s plays, you have to know something about the culture – the daily life, the sense of humor, the political climate, the fears – in which they were created. To understand Emily Dickinson’s poems, you have to understand her as part of a generation that was forging new ground, establishing a spirituality outside the confines of the Church – setting the stage for many of the ideas we take for granted 150 years later.  The canon is not so much full of boring old guys as it is a testament to the original rule breakers.

I remember reading Emily Dickinson poems as a teenager. My analysis of her writing was, shall we say, complex and nuanced. “It’s all about love and god and birds,” I would have told you. “She capitalizes stuff that isn’t even important, and uses this awful forced rhyme.” Clearly, I was a literature teacher in the making.

Standing with my class, watching these new English speakers unravel the vocabulary and puzzle out the meaning of “A Service of Song,” I stumbled upon the meaning myself.  Using Google Image searches, we pieced together that a “Bobolink” is a type of bird, a “chorister” is a member of a church chorus, and “surplice” is a kind of frock worn by a preacher. We figured out her preferred setting – an orchard, like a farm of fruit trees – and how she finds reverence there, rather than in the “dome,” or the church.

Yes, yes, god in nature, I thought. Sweet, but not super relevant for today’s world. I found the image calming, even enjoyable, but the cynic in me held strong. Then, unexpectedly, she hands us the whole point, in two tidy lines.

 “So instead of getting into heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along.”

In other words: While you suckers are preoccupied in life by dreams of heaven and fears that you won’t be righteous enough to “get in,” I’ve figured out how to live an experience of heaven.


Take that, Puritan forefathers.

Take that, everyone who isn’t living their own experience of heaven.

My teenage interpretation of the poem could not have been more off-base. It’s not about god, or even birds.  It’s about finding blessings, joy, and peace in life.  It’s about not holding out on yourself, not assuming that you cannot, will not, live a life that is blessed, joyous, and peaceful.

While I do find peace in nature, I am too much an extrovert, too dedicated to the idea that blessings and joy originate in and lead back to community, to truly follow Emily Dickinson into the woods.

Mine is an exploration of both the orchard and the dome.

Some Keep the Sabbath

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Filed under American Literature, English Language Learners, poetry