A SELECTION OF POEMS OF ENGAGEMENT By Eugene Ruggles
Black Elk Steps Upon Alcatraz
The seams of our afternoons creep
out to the rocks the ones that float
where dark hair is spreading the oil apart,
at last we are everywhere,
only sleep welds s together ---
their teeth sag in like a snow fence
from South Dakota, from the wind
behind their laughter I pity our sleep.
As for the work you have left
waiting before you inside the ice floes,
there are the tools of stars.
Everything else you need is in losing it --
the strips of a dream
still hanging there in the smoke house,
and the days like coin, the ones
already handed out again
to a few lucky graves.
There are millions of holes
with arms and legs
walking through Somalia.
for seven years they have been
listening for water, her descendants.
They are opening wider every day
as they swallow the heat.
the sun never stoops blowing through them,
as though they were disciples.
their only shade falls
from the lungs of Ethiopia and Sudan.
The holes burn deeper
between the arms and legs of Somalia.
the younger ones drink
from the emptiness at the bottom,
they slide from the arms holding them.
They sink without tears,
even for death there is no water.
Their blood will no longer
make its pilgrimage toward the heart
to eat. The sand is their sanctuary. At night,
another famine rages around the living,
as young packs of automatic weapons crawl
and steal closer to their flanks to feed.
The millions of holes are beginning to kneel
with a great silence, their knees
are as black tongues entering the sand.
There is no bush that will burn for them in the dessert. They are the bush.
A grain of rice would cover their sleep.
They curl around their holes
waiting to be filled
with a crust of the worldÕs seed.
As they reach for the map
made of sackcloth laid out before them,
they are filled with the flies
and the ashes of sand.
Insects anoint their eyelids.
We have come this far
from the cave.
-- San Francisco, 1977
The Line At The Social Security Disability
Office in Santa Rosa, California
Every problem in the county
with two legs that can stand
or lean on crutches and canes
is in line before me
and behind me clutching forms
like pages from their family bibles,
where the dates of birth and marriage,
of pain, loss, disease, and death
are written down, where all the echoes
of the emergency rooms in Sonoma County
are written down. Their children are told to sit,
be quiet, and stop running, again and again
in English, Spanish, and Native American,
they are told to sit down, be quiet and stop running.
Of these people before me and after me,
some have worked all their lives for this line,
some have broken their bodies for this line,
some have lost their minds for this line,
others are without homes to live in this line.
The lives of the poor and the sick
are recorded in the history of lines.
So many millions upon millions have gone
to their death in lines; waited for bread in lines.
You will not find the names of wealth
and power in the history of lines.
The history of lines is the history of lies.
At the front of this line an old woman
cannot speak clearly enough for a social worker.
Her hands flutter around her mouth
as though searching for a nest of words,
as though a gag were tied around her mouth
and her words a stain coming through it.
On the other side of this enormous room
is another line for those in wheelchairs
and one for those who are blind.
They also have children who will not
be quiet, sit down, and stop running.
You May Do That
Without a struggle there can be no progress
For Rosa Parks
ÒYou may do that.Ó
This was Rosa Parks,
gently, to white bus driver James Blake,
threatening to arrest her
if she didnÕt move to the back of the bus.
This was Montgomery, Alabama.
December 1, 1955. It was 5:45 in the afternoon.
She was forty-two years old.
She didnÕt move and he became himself
face down in the front of the bus,
he arrested her, after The Arrest,
Grand Central Station and OÕHare runway
were catching their breath without maps and radar.
Waiting for more police to arrive,
she turned very gracefully, very quietly
so very full of grace in her seat,
to gaze out the window on her left.
Johannesburg had waited long for this evening,
for these four words behind her gaze,
a young Nelson Mandela began to inhale them
for the rest of his life. For this struggle.
Harriet Tubman had been waiting for this window
of dignity to pass and now it had passed releasing her.
By barely speaking Rosa Parks had put the
words of destiny in young Martin Luther King JrÕs
In August, 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen year old
came south from Chicago to Mississippi for the summer.
For saying hello to a white woman his head was
his tongue and eyes cut out and he was found
with barbed wire and the Tallahatchie River
around his neck. Rosa Parks would never sit and rest
as his torn body passed through Montgomery to
For 381 days and nights after The Arrest her peoople
walked to work,
passing all the empty buses of Montgomery, Alabama,
the first deep boycott of struggle to challenge Jim Crow.
A seamstress by day guided by Gandhi at his spinning
her arms a shelter for children at night,
the shroud she had put off sewing for years
was now spread out before them as a wedding dress.
With her beloved husband, Raymond,
she carried the death threats north with her,
the hundreds of white death threats thrown at her,
and that winter dropped them into the Detroit River.
She watched them flowing south. Melting. By June,
a barge of black roses was passing Memphis,
passing its overflowing garbage containers,
its blisters of light preparing a motel balcony
for the riot that would explode inside Dr. KingÕs neck
from a 30.06 rifle, a riot of bones and flesh, blood and
igniting a storm of roots that would rip apart cities
and shame us before the world. The riot
that would shatter the temple of his throat!
Listen, you will hear the sobbing of roses and angels.
The barge drifting further south through the heart,
the old, dry underside of the heart,
of Montgomery, Alabama.
After Proposition 187 and Liberty
"I look backward
toward the beginning"
north toward home tonight,
between Tijuana and San Diego,
I watch a young girl standing alone
in our rearview mirror. The wind
is beginning. Her right arm is raised,
holding the light from a lantern,
the light falls to her as to a witness.
She is about twelve years old.
My family and I left her there,
she wouldn't come any farther north,
she is waiting to meet her people there,
even without schools and clinics there is work.
A witness to our weather, its walls. Its old walls.
A year ago her brother was shot to death
for climbing that weather. He was sixteen years old.
Before leaving, she embraced us, giving us a Bible
for the ride. I told her how to reach us up north
and handed her the wool Mexican blanket
we had bought that morning for the wet Pacific wind.
She slipped from the car and began her vigil,
with the cold tides of sand around her ankles.
Was it red clay that stained her sandals,
why does she limp to her place on the road,
I put the car in low gear, as if the underside of the car
was loaded to the freeway. Silence entered our children
and stayed there. The glow of a town went dark before us.
Water was rising fast in my head. Here was the future
of ice. In the mirror our tired daughter was leaning forward.
"She accords a great importance
How far can
how tired the road leans
into this late November morning.
There is nothing between you
and any of the lords today.
This road sinking deeper in the east
with each loaf of bread,
where you have placed the knife
in so many hands of the unnamed poor
to separate the wheat from the chaff,
to lift up a cup from each husk, to drink.
You prayed, love comes with community.
A procession moves from Maryhouse to the Mass.
Six grandchildren carry the simple pine box
through the snow and choir drifting around you.
There is no end to this first beginning,
the healing from giving.
There is only one word,
with many echoes,
for you. Now you are inside of them.
Between two lives
a river is leaving the city.
One For Nineteen Seventy
All week the rain has stayed on like sleep
I haven't grown so much as a leaf in years
it seems there must be
room in my throat for one more,
I feel this space there with nothing
in it and I think I'm up to stealing one,
and it's true all that I have now
they have come from others,
each morning I wake with my hands
sunk to their elbows in the bushes
of my neighbor my brother the land broken,
the winter holds me down
where sleep itself desires a deeper sleep
with a quarantine of stumps about me
I hear a wind off the madrone and oak
dropping one or two psalms into the grass,
fitting their imprints along layers of coal.
Last week the boy Christ was born again
with that hump of Vietnam
protruding from his side like a tongue,
before going to bed we still bury
the smaller bones within reach
like sets of teeth wrapped in money overnight,
we scatter the darkness over them
and just before dawn we have these dreams
of a great yellow harvest of flashlights
and thin cotton dresses swaying
from a line hung through a cemetery,
perhaps the seas grow used to the ache
of men upon them,
all I know is today is outside
after falling heavy for five days
the December rain has forgotten the land,
it simply goes on falling into itself,
like your life and there is nothing
but these stairs of water before you.
After the Persian Gulf Burial
brought this crime home
to rest aside the others, at home,
you who now boast of it openly,
strutting through the streets of America—
remove a breath from your life
for every lie you give to us
of the forty–three day massacre
from thirty thousand feet in the air,
spreading disease through the Gulf,
through the bread and the water
through the breathing of children
for many years to come.
Hold a breath from your lungs
for every lie you speak
and print and film
and strut before us,
remove a breath for all of these
and you will have cut many years from your life by tonight—
for every lie you give to us
of the forty–three–day massacre
is another shovelful of earth above you,
they are falling from that darkness toward you,
it will be years before they turn into prayers for you.
The Unemployed Automobile Workers of Detroit
Prepare To Spend Christmas Standing In Line
ItÕs December, nearly Christmas. Nineteen Eighty–three.
The Detroit River is choked with ice. Woodward Avenue
is empty of cars and flowing with a foot of snow.
The snow drifts under doors and into the taverns
along Highland Park. This is the spine of Detroit
where the snow turns grey as it nears the factories.
ItÕs nine a.m. as I enter a bar near Grand Boulevard,
the jukebox is dark, a woman drinking leans into it.
The bar is long and empty, the bartender hands me a glass,
saying heÕs been waiting months for GM to call him back.
A black man comes in to cash his unemployment check.
HeÕs at my right elbow, looking down, signing his name.
He has four children to feed, today. He turns to ask
if I want to shoot pool. We flip a coin
to see who breaks. He wins. I was born around here,
forty–two years ago today, just before Pearl Harbor.
The last of five children from parents who never sang,
they broke their lives over each other until they ended.
The snow never stoops looking for men in Detroit.
It spreads out through the suburbs and small towns
to the farms up north looking for men, closing roads.
It hires them in the spring and summer delivers them
to a landlord, a woman, their children. Fall is whiskey.
The oil drains to the bottom of the machinery. Gears lock.
This is December. I lift up a glass. So does he. Here is
to the five horses grazing at the end of your wrist.
The World's People After This War
would love to see me dead, to say:
He belongs to us, he is ours."
--for Eqbal Ahmad, 1934 to 1999
After this massacre,
we will drop the smallest body bags ever made
they will be made of black rubber
with zippers like those we filled in Vietnam,
they will be from one to four feet long,
for the last mothers alive in Baghdad.
They will drift down as thousands of black leaves,
after our missiles have burned through water and skin.
We will try to drop them before the world can see
the remains these last mothers alive in Baghdad
will carry from our craters of sand
in their broken arms the rest of their lives.
Do you still see the young Vietnamese girl
running naked from Hanoi,
screaming with horror with her back on fire with Napalm;
her sisters running toward her from Baghdad.
Yes, we have seen to the future of Iraq--
these smallest body bags ever made
if rolled up tight enough,
can even fit inside the womb.
We cannot remove our government of wide graves
by ourselves. We will need your help
to pull us back from the desert of quicksand
beneath their great fleet of knives on fire,
to heal we will need your help
with the impeachment and the trial
of war crimes,
with the prison to be built with light. In light.
We will need your help
to lift these tears of blood from us after Iraq.
This is what we have grown for you.
This is what this Empire eats.
You and Rodney King
As you did
with the Native Americans,
you have now put the African Americans
on reservations, this time in the inner city,
to die. This time there are more of them.
And when you are gone, will you believe us
when we tell you again we were a racist nation,
from the White House down, that our children
were sinking out of reach beneath it,
as they inhaled the bottom of it, they were
to the nation what oxygen is to the body,
calcium to bone and waking to sleep,
what life is to death.
The underside of all skin is black.
Do you see I was the one, with this white arm
who bent and delivered the last, fifty–sixth,
blow to King's body,
to my own son's body, and to your son's body.