The fine silk of earth covered their bodies, one long shallow grave,
rain, wind, and finally snow exposing their faces, brackish masks, eyes wide open.
It was enough to make you want to puke.
We knew then what had happened that night to our loved ones,
we knew the men and the cruel women who had come with them who had done this.
We did not own enough power to do anything about it.
Men live to be old and survive on memories, forgetting some, remembering others.
There were times we would wake at night, pause mid day,
dead eyes looking at us, bloodied and blood shot, staring through clumps of dirt.
We buried our dead in individual graves, marked each one,
went on with our lives farming, building life with our hands.
Did you think this a song of revenge,
those of us young, well developed, going after the murderers one by one
until a fear within them grew so great it warmed the soil and the air?
They grew old and died.
We became friends with their children and their children's children.
Life went on in our valley and our gardens grew strong.
TSTmpj: I'm again struck by the vivid detail in your poem. How do you account for your acutely perceptive eye?
Michael H. Brownstein: I often find myself reflecting on the meaning of friendship and how friends endure impossible conditions at times. Somehow I took the leap into a poem about war and terrorism—probably more about war—ethnic war, to be more specific. I wanted to create something that would engage the reader and let them see how actual turmoil and violence impacts on everyone from the victim to the bystander to the murderer because, in fact, in this poem, the cruel ones are murderers.
I can’t explain at what point an image comes to me. The other day I was looking at a series of clouds bunching up in the sky and jotted down in my journal that they looked muscle-bound—and from that image a few days later more images came until a poem developed around it. In this poem it was the image “the fine silk of earth.” As a writer, and more specifically a poet, I try to always have pen and paper to write down ideas and/or images that come to me. Some of them lie dormant forever, others can't leave me alone. Thus this poem.
TSTmpj: There's almost a Zen-like acceptance and peace in your poem's tone. Would you care to share some thoughts on your philosophy of life?
Michael H. Brownstein: I have worked in very trying environments as a teacher in Chicago, Illinois’s inner city. Some of the schools where I have worked were so wracked with violence, it’s amazing anything was ever taught. I became so well prepared for the nuances of working in what was at the time the world’s largest housing project that I could actually smell the violence when I exited the train that carried me within a half mile to work. But even in this world where spiritual poverty ruled the minds and bodies of so many, I worked hard with my students—and their families—on conflict resolution, creating the threads of life long friendships, how to forgive and be forgiven, and most of all the idea that peace can cure almost anything even when war seems the only viable answer.
For the most part, pacifism goes well with me, and charity—making sure all of us have a worthwhile life and one full of principles and faith. (Not the faith derived by religion—but the faith of spiritualism: Do we really need a four car garage? A twenty centimeter TV screen? Designer jeans?)
Do the best you can and leave wherever you have been—or continue to be, for that matter—better because you have been there.
TSTmpj: And, finally, a powerful note of reconciliation and love for humanity. It echoes for me a review I read many years ago of Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture, which said something like "reading this book made me wish to have the author as my friend." Do you feel it's important for a reader of poetry -- in general, not even especially your own work -- to have an attitude like that to the poet they are reading?
Michael H. Brownstein: I hope the reader takes away from this poem the idea that revenge was not in the violence towards the ones who hurt others, but in the reconciliation with their families and their friends—and the strengthening of all of us because we were capable of reconciliation.
Do I need the reader to be my friend? No.
Do I want the reader to read my poem and somehow feel within it some new source of hope and guidance? With this poem, yes.
Michael H. Brownstein recently published I Was a Teacher Once (Ten Page Press) and editor First Poems from Việt Nam.