Phoolan Devi

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From birth, caste encircled you,
a python entwined about the roots of the earth,
like a lineage of humid afflictions.

You were a lowborn girl,
which meant liabilities of blood,
poverty to your kin,

and for this, your first disobedience,
India could only offer you violations.

But the beset soul of the child,
instead of falling meekly like a shattered grain,
or surrendering to the high-born,

those who lorded their existence like a dagger over you,
instead of slavery, the child chose fury,
and the freedom of the bandit queen.

The world that encircled you
was fortified by the violence of centuries,
humiliating scriptures,

the proscription of dirt
that they said clung easily to your beautiful body,

but worst of all, the defilement
which they reserved to themselves like a proud insignia.

From this swamp of agonies you burst like a night of refusal,
and from the ravines of wind,
to which you fled with your clan of rejected children,

strange and joyous music was heard,
a music of emancipated hunger
that terrified the well-bred villages

when the clanging of pots,
the sound of rifles approached.

The defilers who had fallen on you
like a pack of dogs were wrong,

they could not teach you the permanence of their order,
their heritage of divided salt.

When you went from village to village
setting fire to history, to bloodlines,
the retribution of your dispossessed heart
swept the wind

and ignited the downtrodden in the wasted fields,
in the provinces of the suffering north.

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Beggars on Lambton Quay

Today I will not speak of my impotent anger,
my self-inflicted indignation
when I saw yet more beggars
hunched like open sores on Lambton Quay.
I will not ask this indifferent and
preoccupied crowd
to feel pity
(enough with this pity which gets us nowhere)
for the ‘victims’ of the iron laws of economics,
or the erosion of basic social services,
these ‘unfortunates’ who fell
through the ever-widening cracks
and landed hard on their backsides,
on the pavement
outside James Cook Arcade or Cable Car Lane.
No, I won’t ask for empathy
from the hard-headed, practical crowds.
I will only ask that you view these beggars
for what they are;
the unflinching mirror image
of the society we have chosen to live in.
There in the slick and glittering windows,
a reflection,
the incongruous, squat figure and his cardboard plea,
the apotheosis of our cynical and threadbare
social contract.

A Woman Guerrilla in Vietnam

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You did not make this war,
but it came to you anyway
and it has cleaved you into a woman of fury.
It was the steel men
disgorged from the bellies of their steel beasts,

who knew nothing of
the abundant tenderness of your terraced paradise,
they were the ones
who spread these black scars across the bright jungle,
and tore the villagers from their earth,
scattered their bones in the ruined dykes.
They inflicted the black scar in your youthful heart.

Once, you were the strong peasant child,
girl of the rice husk,
arms browned by the ancient years of a limpid sun,
those smooth pillars of Vietnam,
which held up the beautiful cities of Hue and Hanoi,
the poet scholars, the plaintive music of the gulf,
the ancient palaces cupped by an indulgent flower.

Now, you have the steeled body of the warrior,
and your strong arms have learned to
wield their own iron righteousness.
The jungle is your skin and the enemy cannot see you,

nor does he reckon with the violence of
your threatened womb.
You will avenge the child, the child not yet born,
the hope of your Vietnam.

There is no Housing Crisis

Last night, it plunged as low as four,
boreal palms of air puckered my cheeks.
Gazing up, a cough-lozenge moon,
a radiant bas-relief of stars,
I could believe in something
that was almost an ideal,
a palpable purity just beyond reach.

Ah, smug stars, I thought,
in the winter you shimmer in arctic richness,
while I pile on extra sheets,
another jersey for good measure.
But I don’t dare switch on the heaters.
Since when did heat become
an extravagance
to thaw the toes of the well-heeled?

At least I am one of the luckier ones.
There’s a roof over my head,
four walls that stop
grim needles of wind at my door.
Tonight kids cough behind frosty car windows
in some shady domain,
a four bedroom home
downgraded to four seats and a steering wheel.

The government’s just sold off
another round of state houses,
euphemisms abound,
the buzzword on corpulent lips is market rationalization.
Well, the dead hand of the market
spreads its icy fingers wider over the city tonight.

Toasty speculators in suburban gold
dream of never-ending spiral staircases,
dreams that go up-up-up
to penthouses in the chandelier sky.
Outside in the streets,
old and young bodies,
(the euphemism is market inefficiencies)
roll over on their cardboard mattresses,
pull useless hats over their ears,
while the temperature drops like a guillotine.

Refugee

I cage a ride out of Africa,
a boat packed with war-torn emissaries,
a crew of blind, leprous kids.
Behind me,
only the afternoon of a broken sun.

Here, the sea alone, is sea,
time alone, can be without hours of dread,
air alone, without the indrawn breath,
and the sky, an arc into all directions.

Out here, what is state,
or territory for the unmoored?
What is symbol?
The ocean takes us all in her abundant folds,
like a flag or a body bag.
Here, at last, we are free.

But my fellow refugees
know no other way
than how to recreate ancient animosity,
and replay the whole hopeless farce
of our scorched memory
on this waterlogged plank.

Already the society of worms
breeds in our midst,
division of skin,
and words sharpened into toads.
Already the new world is old.

Those who die,
we slip into the quiet, waiting water
and watch them float like buoys
marking the failure of our diplomacy.
We could have rebuilt a country of love
on this raft lost beyond the dry earth,

a brief paradise
between the weapons we left behind
and those that await us.
Countries and martyrs revolve
in our starved minds.
We send our dead ambassadors
ahead to shore.