Two Poems

After the Tempest

March 7, 2012 (New York Daily News) - Pat Robertson believes the victims of the tornadoes that swept through the nation brought the death and devastation upon themselves by not praying enough.

"God didn't send the tornadoes," the … TV evangelist said …. "God set up a world in which certain currents interfere and interact with other currents. If enough people were praying, He would intervene.”

These shards of wood
      are the roof of our home,
      which His finger flicked away,
               along with our infant daughter
                    asleep in her crib,
      like so much lint
      plucked from
a dishcloth.

This twisted frame
      is our bed,
      which He blew
          across fields and villages and cities,
      until it came to rest
      among startled cows
      who, to their consternation,
      had been left to graze
by the highway.

He does this every so often
this El Maleh Rachamim*
     in His infinite jest
     His careless cruelty
a tsunami here
a plague there,
causing the rivers to swell
            or bleed,

            causing the winds
            to howl,
to show us He can
  to mock our absurd impermanence
  to avenge His son, perhaps
   to test our faith
    to start anew when He cannot
     find the ten righteous souls
who are now interred
in the Lower 9th Ward.

And these damp scraps of cloth
      are our children
          their bodies
               lost in waves
                    like Pharaoh’s army,
          their lives poured out
          like so many grains of salt
          that were once
          not so long ago
Lot’s wife.

* - Hebrew for “God, full of compassion”. The opening words in a Jewish memorial prayer recited at a gravesite and upon the observance of the anniversary of a loved one’s death.

"American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it."
James Baldwin

Stand Your Ground

Stand your ground
like a tree that’s planted by the water,
near the banks
of the North Canadian River
this clear day in May,
as you jostle with others
for a good spot
to take pictures
of Laura and
her 15 year old boy Lawrence*
hanging from the bridge
like strange fruit.

Stand your ground
by the large sycamore tree
near City Hall in Waco
on another day in May,
as 17 year old Jesse,**
his body muscled
from hauling bales of hay
now naked and beaten,
baptized in coal oil,
hoisted like a flag
by his neck, and
lowered into the fire,
as the flames lick his skin
and his wordless screams fill the
spring sky.

Stand your ground
near the noisy fairgrounds
by the silent railyard
as young Henry***
is placed upon a scaffold,
ten feet high,
and his body is caressed
by red hot iron brands
as kerosene is poured upon him,
and set alight,
as little ones eat fried dough
and wave banners.

Stand your ground
along an asphalt road
this dark night in June,
as James,+ his feet bound -
like a latter-day Saint Sebastian -
is driven across the back roads
of Jasper
greeting every rock
every stone
until his body
gives out.

Stand your ground
for this child,
          his skin,
          the color of
          the soil of those river banks
          the bark of that sycamore
          the lumber of that kerosene-soaked scaffold
          the dirt of that Jasper road
has not been the first
who has been laid low
for no reason.

Stand your ground
though it quakes
though it opens beneath you
though it threatens to swallow you whole.

Stand your ground,
like a tree that’s planted by the water;
you shall not,
no, you shall not be moved.

—Neil Silberblatt, New Milford, CT

* - Laura Nelson was raped; she and her 15-year old son Lawrence were then hanged from a bridge over the North Canadian River on May 25, 1911. Hundreds of sightseers gathered on the bridge the following morning, and photographs of the hanging bodies were sold as postcards.

** - Jesse Washington was a 17-year old farmhand who was tortured and lynched on May 15, 1916 after he was found guilty in a one-hour long trial for the rape and murder of a wealthy 53-year-old white woman. Although Jesse signed a confession, he was by all accounts illiterate.

*** - 17-year old Henry Smith was tortured and murdered at a public, heavily attended lynching on February 1, 1893 at the Paris Fairgrounds in Paris, Texas. Six days later, Henry's stepson, William Butler, was also lynched due to suspicion that he had known, and not divulged, the whereabouts of Henry Smith after he had fled.

+ - James Byrd, Jr. was murdered by three white men in Jasper, Texas on June 7, 1998, when he was dragged behind a pick-up truck with a heavy logging chain wrapped around his ankles. Byrd was pulled along for about three miles as the truck swerved from side to side. Byrd - who reportedly remained conscious throughout most of the ordeal - was killed when his body hit the edge of a culvert, severing his right arm and head.