*For optimal viewing, please read on a laptop/desktop.
Hold onto Time
Beyond the off-white metal door
down the hall past the electric chair
and the dank room where men use
the flying carpet to splay women
their spines like split rivers, stands
a wall ten feet high, in the cell where
women trace Arabic calligraphy
with their fingertips. A makeshift
blackboard or date book for those
without pencils. Yara Badr called
it an improvised calendar
counting the days inside, scribbles
that run like EKG lines. Perhaps
Yara’s father engraved her name
in delicate script on a prison wall
when she was a child. She etched
her husband’s name now. When women
get thrown inside, the wall keeps watch
as inmates make toys from matches, sew
coin bags from torn trousers. Before
Yara’s husband was taken, his body,
not his spirit, he wrote the line, I feel
sorry for us all, meaning those who man
the flying carpet and those strapped
below, each caught in a terrible storm.
Call the wall Robben or Attica
or Abu-Ghraib. Related by mortar
and blood. Made of steel feathers.
Note: This poem references the work of Yara Badr and her colleagues at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.
If We Were Boys
for my cousin
If we were boys
panties would be shorts
and shorts would be protection
and protection would be a stop sign
we wouldn’t need on weekends
and playing would be with tractors
and nights would be for sleeping
and sleeping would be for dreaming
and dreaming would be a city
and cities would be big lights
and aching would not be hidden
and hidden would not be constant
and constant would not mean running
and uncle would not mean nickels
and nickels would not mean rubbing
and rubbing would not be sweaty
and fingers would not smell nasty
and cousin would not be taken
and makeup would not mean selling
and selling would not mean cousin
and cousin would not go missing
If we were boys
we’d slice up hot dogs
and serve them after grilling
and grilling would lead to flaming
and you’d be on the menu
and we’d serve you at a picnic
swords and daggers would be our costumes
and not sorry would be forever
Instructions to a Young Mother
If you need to steal your girls from a Utah town
Do it in the middle of the night.
Shape a blanket into a bassinet on the back seat
So the baby doesn’t roll onto the floor.
Press the gas pedal if your husband tries to run behind the car.
When your first daughter asks why a Phoenix
Boulevard is named Indian School Road point to a building.
Tell her it’s a prison.
Tell her about stolen children & cutting their hair.
When your father votes for George Wallace
Snatch your girls & run out of his house.
Refuse to speak to him again
Even though that means no grocery money.
It’s okay that you hate swimming
After being dunked 42 times
To save the souls of the unsaved.
Smoke Camels on the way to work & coming home.
Blow smoke rings while listening to Ode to Billie Joe on the radio.
Flirt with all the handsome men you meet.
Steal lipstick from the pharmacy.
Rock your four-year-old through thunderstorms.
You are a storm sometimes.
If the Days of Abomination come you won’t be saved.
Who needs it?
Find a way to get free Valium.
Count on your looks.
Dye your hair red & wear dangly earrings.
Steal saltines & sugar packets from the restaurant.
Cover with powdered milk & serve.
It isn’t really stealing since the owner pays you squat.
Count your tips.
Hide the dirt floor in the bathroom with a rug.
Read Rukeyser & Levertov out loud to your girls
along with the picture book about Ping & la la la la lee.
What they don’t get yet, they can still feel.
Becky Thompson is currently finishing a collection of poetry, Atlas In Transit, which will include “Hold onto Time.” She recently co-edited a collection for poems, Making Mirrors: Righting/Writing by and for Refugees with the Palestinian poet, Jehan Bseiso. She is the author/editor of eight other books, including memoir, ethnography, social history, and poetry. Her writing has earned the Gustavus Myers Award for Outstanding Books on Human Rights in North America, a Rockefeller Fellowship in African American Studies (at Princeton) and other awards. She has held appointments at Duke University, the University of Colorado, Wesleyan University and am currently a Professor at Simmons University in Boston. She continues to teach “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” poetry workshops in refugee centers in Greece.
Image by Becky Thompson