The Map of Syria: Another Graveyard?

In Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, a ghostly old couple adopt a baby that has been in desperation left in their cemetary. Thus the dead again care for the living – as we must care for the dead. Neither of “us” have done such a good job.

Such were my thoughts after reading Liz Sly’s brutally comprehensive front-page Washington Post piece this morning. on the history of the “map” – political, sectarian, religious – of the former Ottoman empire. After three years of war and no end in sight, Syria is of course the focus.

Here are some quotes taken, but re-arranged,  from the article.


We never had borders…. a long time ago, the French came and drew these lines. —  Mohammed Shamas,  shopkeeper near the line between Syria and Lebanon

If Syria is partitioned, there will be war for 100 years to come. The Alawites will have the coast, the Kurds will have the oil, and the Sunnis will be in the middle with nothing. — Abu Zeid, 37, Syrian refugee.

They made sure when those borders were drawn to maintain trouble between us forever. —  Mohammed al-Jamalhis farm in Syria and Lebanon.

The wars will change, but there will always be wars. — Issam Bleibeh, deputy mayor of Hermel, Lebanon-Syria.

The only solution is to share everything. Abu Zeid.

…it is all very difficult to predict.  Fawaz Gerges, London School of Economics.


Gravedigger, pt.2

Here is the poem I misremembered a line from, in my sleep, in my grief, in the previous post (“Gravedigger”).

It was written over 40 years ago, after my sister died. Her maternal Grandfather, Sabbatai (“Sam”), died in 1950 or 1951, some months before Susan was born.



Sandy Among Angels

Who are these gauze-and-bandage
diaphanous birds squatting in clouds?
I fell out of green,
I fell out of green! Nothing
but to search among the dead
for grandpa Sam’s grey eyes.
My face is bruised in the torn cotton.
Sam, grandma, any-
one, where has the world gone?
It fell from behind my eyes
in a hospital, in a quivering
rosepetal on the sill; someone said
Her pulse fluttered like a just-born bird!
and then it leapt
still blind, white, still-born
among the eternal corrupt angels.






Susan and her grandma Sadie, c. 1960


Tuesday afternoon I dug a hole in the rocky clay hill behind our house. It was a small hole, but difficult for my unlimber body to dig into the spot I had chosen beneath a laurel bush. I knew the grave was large enough when I carefully laid the stiff body of our cat Pooh alongside of it.

We were away for three days. It seemed as if Pooh had waited for us, because when we found him he started to cry, and then howl as Lilia tried to give him water within eyedropper. He was our baby, and his howl was a baby’s puzzled protest and cry for help. We could only comfort him and cry ourselves. He vomited and then rattled terribly for about a minute. I got up to look for some antibiotic. When I returned, Lilia said He’s gone.

Pooh was 19; we learned from our niece who was feeding him while we were gone that he had bled from his nose and begun stumble sideways. So the shock was grave, but without much surprise. During those few minutes Lilia mobilized like the caring skillful nurse-mother that she is. Her own expressions of pain cause me to sob harder, from a place beyond words. Later I thought of my father saying It wasn’t supposed to be like this, as he lay dying in my arms. In the middle of the night I awoke thinking “Her heart fluttered like a just-born bird,” which is a misquoted line from a poem I wrote over 40 years ago, after my sister had died.

My mother, who is 91, through the first handful of earth into the grave; I had to help her remain standing. Lilia’s mother Florinda, who is 99, was also there. Her mind is often in the past, but never more in the present then with our baby grandson, and the animals who live in our home. Florinda used to pick Pooh up like a baby and wrap him in the blanket on her lap.

In my mind, lives and deaths have always flowed merging and separating like streams of water. I think of one, I think of many. The warm rising and falling of Pooh’s chest that I could no longer find as I kneeled on the living room floor. Hospitals and the Holocaust. Baltimore and Africa. Frederick, Maryland and Falastin. That is who I am. Almost – maybe – like a professional mourner. Brother. Teacher. Grandpa. Gravedigger.

Life goes on, “they” say, usually leaving out that death, too, goes on. So, for now, our family goes on – without one beloved creature that added so much to it. On top of the mound of earth I placed a round plaster plaque that had been in our garden: Kindness is the greatest wisdom.






Hiroshima, My Love

author’s note;  *On August 6th, 1945, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima , Japan. Three days later, the American B-29 found its primary target, Kokura, covered by clouds. The bomb was detonated on the city of Nagasaki instead.

Kyoto had been removed from the target list by Secretary of War Stimson because of its beauty and cultural significance. Tokyo was scheduled for destruction on August 19, but on August 15 Emperor Hirohito announced the capitulation of Japan.

Nazim Hikmet is the great Turkish poet who wrote “I come and stand at every door.”

The “sisters” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki speak. I wrote this poem as an act of witness — more so than other poems, though all poems are, against forgetting.

Hiroshima Mon Amour*

for Nazim Hikmet


Oh no. Oh yes.

Some are vaporized

that others may rest.

That day, the clouds

played lesser gods,

and a B-29,

American Wotan.

We are still whistling Dixie

in the cockpits of F-16s,

while the big boys deploy

the children machines

into targeted Gotterdammerung

like a line of thunderhead engines

rumbling to the end of the line.

(Kyoto speaks):

O my sisters! What can the lovely one say

as she stands in the sun in her tresses and lace?

Yes: In the company of rapists are cultivated men

who would not disfigure beauty. One spared me.

Yes: Before the smiling countenance of the sun

I stood, as bitter fire fell down from heaven

until I longed to throw myself over the bodies

of my spindly sisters upon the violated earth.

And all who did not shut their doors in the face of that day –

boys, graybeards, retired colonels and courtesans, became,

all became, sisters: mute, unmoveable, griefstruck

as oxygen fled from air.

August 19 (Tokyo speaks):

What is it to you

if I do not come and stand at every door

as my little sisters do?

Who is it that cannot see their ghosts?

Sister H., honored in all heavens

and all hells — the eldest, the first —

smooths her torn gray dress.

God has truly blessed


Sister N., forever condemned

to walk in a sister’s fiery shadow,

forever wrapped in sister-love

and the love of all who love the dead,

smooths the isotopes from her faded dress

and stands at your door.

Do you not see them there,

the two sloe-eyed girls?

Do you not have a door?

Do you not have eyes?

I come now to stand with them.

We will stand here forever, and longer,

with our sad eyes and black hearts,

like triplet invisible sunflowers

climbing the steps of the sun.

And you. What are you doing there

in your backyard with its brushed-metal grill,

its razor-wire, its fire, with your progeny

that speed over oceans, brighter than a million suns?


We forgive where there is nothing

We forgive where there is nothing

to forgive. We forget nothing

dead or alive or dead. We live,

a sisterhood of ashes

smearing love-characters

on doorsteps and pale skin.


Stupor Bowl XLVII

Did you watch the Big Game? I did not.

I used some of that time to do some quick research instead, because of what I have been thinking about schools, the Pros, and the everylovin’ fans.

So: What would happen if every school PE and Health class included something like the following information? If you make it to the NFL you will have in any year a 1% chance of injury leading to permanent paralysis, a 5% chance of permanent brain damage, and a 15% chance of spinal cord injury., also permanent.

Well. The large insurance companies who are in a legal battle with the NFL might have more precise numbers. Mine are broad estimates,  based on an NFL roster of maybe 1500 players, and a study of these pro football injuries 1977-1998. (Try looking up “NFL health issues” on Wikipedia, or a broader inquiry to Mr. Google for a better picture.)

I ask this question to suggest that, given its huge audiences, football on all levels is a cultural issue– even before we look at health or education. You can imagine what howls a sportscaster would provoke, for example, if he or she broadcast my question.

Among the many counterarguments to my “football as gladiator entertainment” screed, I only want to address one: Of  those whose say something like “It’s a personal choice. The players know the risks and want the ($$$) rewards,” I would ask that they look closely at what the players — present and retired– and their representatives including the Players Association, are themselves  saying.

Some of the readers of this post may be bigger football boosters than their favorite linebacker. And for some — both players and fans — the Stupor of my title will not be metaphorical.


Presidential Politics
In 2008 I worked hard to elect him.
In 2009 I was heartbroken,
in 2010 — numb.
In 2012 I “threw my vote away”.
On inauguration night, 2013, I dreamed of Barack Obama.
It was anxious, conflicted, and short.
Second chances? Maybe.
But I am again heartbroken,
that even now  my dreams
are strangers to audacity.

The Killers of Children

For those who read “The Right to Bear Airliners” , and just had to get something similar  or anyone else who cares to see this, written in the 1990s and inspired by apologists for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, here is:

The Killers of Children

To stop the killers of children
We will hunt them down
Wherever they are
Destroy their safe houses
And kill them.
We will stop
At nothing. Demolish
The outrage. Stop nothing.
No they shall not hide
Amongst the frail, or behind
The young. No, not prevent us,
They, god-cloaked assassins!
Killers of children!

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