Archive for the 'Poetry' Category

Fragmentary Thoughts at the Killing Fields

Late afternoon sun through the trees, dusty lot and birds singing, the stillness of a temple. I slide off my shoes and the tiles are hot on my feet as I walk slowly around the pagoda, a tower of skulls.

And it isn’t the skulls that get me—sorted by age and gender, piles that are missing jaws and teeth, holes where the smashing happened, the jagged line were the cranium stitched itself together—lines that were hidden, kept under hair and skin, kept a secret from them, themselves for as long as they lived—and laid bare here now, with nothing to disguise it anymore: This is how you were sewn together, and this is where the wound occurred, and this is what is left.

But the skulls aren’t what gets me, because the skulls don’t seem real. It’s the piles of clothes on the bottom shelf. Shirts and shorts, dusty and tattered and vacant now, a limp pile—this is what is left.

We walk through the field, where the earth dips down into ditches (it’s not rain or erosion that made these), trees that stand stoicly, silently by. We come to stand beside an exhumed grave (but “grave” is too good a word—there’s no word for what this was). A sign says that teeth and bits of bones and scraps of clothes continue to come up, out of the earth, after it rains or floods.

Sometimes the earth write the metaphors for you, I think. Sometimes the ground itself is a poem—this place a poem you couldn’t possibly ever write, no one could write, just walk through—the stillness; the birds; the smell of incense and smoke; someone burning off wild grasses somewhere, behind the fence; schoolkids singing somewhere in the wind. Two monks walking, orange robes, reading the signs with impassive faces, round faces, young young faces.

There’s scraps of clothes everywhere. “Are these…?” we begin to ask each other, but don’t finish the question. (There is no question for what this was.) Surely someone would have gathered these scraps, dusted them off, “deordorized” them as the sign said, added them to the pile of All That Is Left.

But we keep walking and I realize there’s too many, too much—scraps of clothes existing like ghosts, or souls that haven’t quite made it up out of the earth, out of what there aren’t words for, poems for—this.

The trees all saw this, I think. These same trees, noble and twisted and standing here still. Some were forced to take part, and I imagine something in them weeping, their trunks dulled and bloodied. These same trees, bearing witness, the same way they bear witness now—silent, petrified in their places, the way parts of our brains are, the way parts of our brains bear witness (secret stitching, secret from ourselves)—roots tangling and rising out of the earth, with the teeth and bones and scraps of clothing and all the things there aren’t metaphors for: a dusty field in the afternoon sun.


The end of a Sunday,
pink on the edges,
the moon a white wound.
Birds laughing
in some other language
as they fly off someplace
behind the roofs,
the wires and branches
that tangle like lives.

A crippled incest
crawls off to die
somewhere amid the vines
that wrap around the stairs
like green fingers
around the throat of this—

cars hissing
against a light
that is already gone.

The Blues

Sometimes a harmonica sounds like a train,
a far-off train
as it passes
some lonesome landscape—
the sound of something leaving, an echo
through the window at night.

Which sounds like a heart breaking,
or the quiet wail
that escapes
when a heart breaks—
like steam through a valve
or a cry between lips
(“stay, stay”)—

when something leaves
and all you’ve got
to hold onto
is the sound of its going

and even that isn’t yours.
Even that leaves too.

Transit Fragments: Views from the Window

I. Bar to Ulcinj

Gypsy children at the intersection
bang on the windows
of stopped cars, pleading
until the windows roll up
and they see their reflections,
and pleading back.

II. Ulcinj to Shkoder

Carry that girl
through the rubbish
and field of dead,
the rusted carcasses
of cars,
and humming wind.
Take her,
hold her
under your arm
(bare feet and unbroken skin)
Carry her
down that road,
carry her,
take her home.

III. Shkoder to Tirana

Mosques and minarets,
half-constructed buildings
and skeletons
stripped-down cars
left to rust
in lots of dying
A boy with the cheekbones
of an ex-boyfriend
huddles, mutters
into the mouthpiece
of his cellphone
and you can only see
half is face
(turn around
and show me the whole thing, honey)
Corrugated tin and tires,
teepee piles of hay
that look like the insides of scarecrows
with nothing left to scare
Yell your stop
to the driver, and rumble
that big door open
(wrench the metal
from the metal)—
pay him your fare
and be left there
on the roadside
of somewhere
a gas station
and a cheap umbrella

Kotor Fragments

View from the bus
Little town tumbling—orange roofs and white walls, a piercing spire poking through. They huddle there, like that, against the flat glass of water and the great grey of the mountains, rising up, behind their shoulders, like a fanged phantom in an old movie.

Looking up
An opposite feeling from looking down from a great height—an inverted vertigo—but still something you feel in your throat: a mild choking, the sense of great force, the immensity of rock, a gravity that could crush you, take you, toss you up and swallow you whole—but instead just makes you utter one long “fuuuuck.”

Boy by the bay
Little tough guy, maybe 7 or 8, comes buzzing up on his bicycle. Buzzing because the plastic crate fastened to the handlebars has sagged down and is rubbing against the front wheel. He looks at me as he passes, nods at my arm, then stops—skids his worn sneakers on cement—and circles back.

He juts his chin at my right arm, an international gesture for “show me your tattoos.” I roll up my sleeve and he smiles. He juts his chin at my other arm, and I repeat.

He gives me a broad grin—one molded yellow tooth—and extends his arm in a thumbs up. I smile back with my gleaming row of American white. He nods again, then pushes off, pedals away, is gone.

Something of a little girl still in her, something in the smile and the slouch, that behind the grim skin and grey smile, under the coat-hanger bathrobe and shuffle of slippers, seems vulnerable—breakable but not broken.

Abandoned hotel
Broken glass and shattered tile, ruins of an old hotel—an exquisite home for the ravens.

I like this place better by morning—the umbrellas folded and the stones still wet, the sun a soft thing, haloing from behind the mountains’ immense back. I like the footsteps, the sound of voices, the rattle of stroller wheels. I like the cats in the doorways and the pigeons staring, staring from their stoop between green shutters.


Fog so heavy

it wept

the dust from my windshield


what I’d carried with me,

wore on me,

up and over

a road soggy with night—

always becoming, becoming

just up ahead.


So this is driving

across the Golden Gate—

yellow halos,

the swallow of white,

pillars into nothing,

and beyond

the railings—black, black,

the hiss of black

underneath the stereo speakers,

whispering, “this is the end

of the continent”


and you can’t even see it.

Leaving Town, in Your Sleep

It’s nearing the end of National Poetry Month, so I thought—why not torture everyone with another unpublished poem? It’s a favorite pastime of mine (unlike, apparently, regularly writing poetry anymore).

This one’s about a year old. Anyone that’s ever wanted to skip town in the middle of the night will know what I’m talking about.

Leaving Town

I packed my bags while you were sleeping.


I took the image of your face, half your face, cheeks stubbled and gasping.


I took your smell: deodorant and hair gel, wine-breath, wine-sweat—flesh.


I took the light, the streetlamp angling through bare branches, through the window, the thin curtain; I took the shadows on the wall.


I folded, carefully, your rolled-up sleeves and work shoes, your paperback and pile of black.


I took your arms, huddled around your head and clenched. I took the parted lips and phantom twitch, the stalking eyelids.


I tucked it all away, inside, a suitcase with a lock. I sent it off ahead of me, to some unknown destination, some other life, where it might find me. Where it might rattle around in the cargo compartment, my heart. Where it might never arrive, get lost among all the other bags, carrying all the other tender items, wrapped in old t-shirts and the smell of old lovers. Where it might sit and wait, in the dim corner of a dim station, to be reclaimed, reopened. Where it might grow old, in the part of me that won’t grow old, that will go on loving you like this, in this room and this unlivable life.

It Itches!: Feeling the Burn of Wanderlust

Itchy itchy...

“I’ve been home for nearly 4 months. My feet are so itchy, it feels like I got athlete’s foot.”

Okay, it was a bad joke. But that’s what Twitter’s for, right?

It’s not that I’m counting the days (not really). It’s not that I’m unhappy in my life at home or looking for escape. It’s just that I have this “incurable wanderlust” (what @cultoftravel speculated was worse than swine flu), and the more I read about travel, write about travel, tweet about travel, and am generally immersed in a virtual sea of travel, the worse it gets. I don’t have any problem going to a bar and not drinking, but reading travel blogs and knowing I won’t be doing any serious adventuring for a few more months—well, that’s tough. Ever since my first trip, I’ve gotten antsy when I’ve stayed at home too long. This whole travel writing business is adding a little more heat to the ring of fire.

I may be chomping at the bit, but it’s all good stuff that’s keeping me home. I have a niece on the way, my dad is retiring, and I have four friends getting married in the early half of the summer. All totally happy, exciting things that I’m grateful to be a part of. Plus it gives me a chance to save up for my next long trip, a three-monther around Southeast Asia.

In the mean time, I’m plotting a little solo California roadtrip for next month. Partly to visit an old friend, partly to see the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. Partly because I haven’t driven down Highway 1 since I was a kid, and partly because I’m curious what kind of conversations you get into with yourself after days of driving solo. Partly to debunk my own stereotypes of Southern California as a cultural wasteland of SUVs, strip malls and Kardashians, and partly to practice toting my laptop on the road with me. But, honestly, the trip is largely a keep-me-sane tide-me-over until the funds and circumstances—aka The Travel Gods—see fit to unleash me on the world again.

So as my feet are itching, my fingers twitching and my plans to high-tail it down the highway taking shape, I uncovered an old poem about restlessness, impulsivity and the physical road that hit the spot.

MacArthur Maze

Let’s drive this thing

into the blood burning sky.


Let’s take this road

potholed and hissing

past the pitched roofs

and pigeon wings,

past electrical wires

and blown-out streetlamps,

brown hills

where the grass cackles

and waits

to be lit.


Let’s curve

into the black, under

the overpass, past

the vacated bodies,

curled in and sighing—


Let’s take this thing

where it leads,

if it leads,

or stampedes


us into a sunburnt sky

the color of our own

sunburnt skin.

Now get me on the road!

Che Marti-ni: The Cuban Cocktail of National Heroes

Oh, the sweet taste of revolution. And martyr worship.

There’s no escaping Cuba’s two biggest icons. Revered, quoted and placed on pedestals/t-shirts, these tragical heroes loom large in the national psyche. They give impassioned words and a photogenic face to the struggle for independence that has characterized the country for centuries. One, you’ve heard of; actually, you’ve had him shoved down your throat by starry-eyed ultra-lefties. The other lurks in the dusty corners of used bookstores, in the syllabi of Latin American Studies courses; you’ve heard his words, but never his name. Until you land in Havana.

Che stencil I saw around in Berlin. In case you can't tell, Che's wearing a Che shirt.

Okay, okay, I’ll tell you. One is Che Guevara, the Argentine renegade who’s become synonymous with Cuba, guerilla warfare and revolutionary politics. He’s arguably the country’s biggest cultural export, and a ubiquitous presence within Cuba (hey, an atheist country’s gotta worship something). This is relatively unsurprising as a visitor; what’s more surprising is this fetish they’ve got for Jose Marti. You could call him the OG—he advocated and fought for Cuban liberation from Spain, calling on the same ideas of Latin American unity and anti-imperialism that Che later did. But when you actually start to read his essays and poems, you wonder why in hell you haven’t been inundated with Marti your whole life too (one answer: he shoulda swapped the funny moustache for a guerilla beard—far more flattering). Even more intriguing is what lies at the intersection of these two figures, and what they reveal about the country that adores them.

Jose Marti and Che Guevara share more than just a saintly status in the heart of a nation. The die-hard revolutionaries were both privileged boys of good education, who gave voice and garnered fame for the struggles of Cuba. Both were seasoned travelers; both had a vision of a unified Latin America free of imperialism; both died fighting battle for their cause, the cause of “the people.” Both pumped out enough good quotes to rival Mao, and both are exalted in the streets of Cuba. And both were, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, guided by feelings of love.

"Viva Che." Etched into the sidewalk in Berkeley. Spotted this on my Marti hunt this morning.

Jose Marti was a 19th-century Cuban-born revolutionary, poet, writer, thinker and traveler. His writings about the Cuban struggle for independence captured the culture in a way no one previously had, and his words served as the voice of a people. So much so that the first lines from his famed poems “Versos Sencillos” were adapted as the lyrics of Cuba’s most famous song and de facto anthem, “Guantanamera.” But what’s most interesting about Marti is how his writing has endured, and the ways it’s remained relevant.

Already a national hero, Marti’s anti-colonial, pro-America (Latin America, that is) ethos was invoked during Castro’s revolution. Castro framed his revolution as an extension of the one Marti fought and died for, and depending on your politics, it’s pretty easy to agree. What fueled all Marti’s work was a fierce defense of justice inspired by a complex and tender understanding of human nature. I won’t play lecturer and drag you through tedious citations, as the Marti Wikiquote page serves as evidence enough. But the famous poem “I Grow A White Rose” captures the Marti sentiment pretty well:

I grow a white rose
In July just as in January
For the sincere friend
Who gives me his frank hand.
And for the cruel man who pulls out of me
the heart with which I live,
I grow neither nettles nor thorns:
I grow a white rose.

Che cigarettes, purchased in Peru. Each cigarette had a tiny Che on it.

And then there’s Che. Aside from being charismatic and hot as hell (yeah, I said it), Che’s enduring legacy, I’d argue, comes from his compassion. Not necessarily for his enemies, but for the people, the struggle. Sure, he had the bad-ass lines like, “I would rather die standing than live life on my knees,” but he also came out with quotes like, “One must harden without ever losing tenderness.” It’s not just rebel girls that swoon at lines like these; a whole nation does. And that says a lot about them, wouldn’t you say?

You definitely get beaten over the head with the two in Cuba, a combo that will flatten you faster than a Cube Libre (not really). Che’s legacy does retain a little more depth here than in the rest of the world, where the commodification of Che is more depressing than consumerist Hot Topic punk. And to be fair, the elevation and exaltation of national poets isn’t purely a Cuban phenomenon, but a Latin American trait; Gabriela Mistral is also pictured on the currency of her native country, Chile. (Imagine paying for groceries with a Walt Whitman note.) Call it the Latin flair for passion, but it’s enough to make a US Creative Writing major weep.

Wheatpaste in London. Che's image composed of corporate logos.

Together, Che and Marti conspire to create a revealing picture of the Cuban culture and psyche: revolutionary, lyrical, learned, passionate, martyred. Both figures have been reduced, their lives and work co-opted for the purposes of others, commercial or otherwise. And while the world is oversaturated in Che juices, Marti remains little-known, a recluse of national monuments and smelly old bookstores. But the true picture, I think, lies somewhere between the two—between national fame and international obscurity, the commodification and the worship, the intrigue of an outsider and the love of a people.

I’ll end with a Marti poem I worked hard to bring you. I once owned a Marti collection; who knows who I lent it to or what move it got lost in. I remembered a poem that captured the intricate relationship between colonizer and colonized, and decided to find it. Google gave me nothing, so today I missioned to 3 book stores and 1 library. In a dim, 4th-floor corner of an independent bookstore, I finally found the poem, in the lone Marti book stuffed amid the over-packed shelves. I slyly photographed the pages with my phone, and transcribed them. As far as I know, this is the only available translation of “Little Prince” on the web. Enjoy. And keep fighting.

Little Prince

This party is for

A little prince.

He has long hair,

Soft blond hair

That hangs over

His white shoulders.

His eyes appear

To be black stars

That move like the wind,

Shine, quiver and give off sparks.

He is my crown,

My pillow and my spur.

My hand, that bridles

Horses and hyenas,

Goes where e’er he takes it.

When he frowns, I tremble.

If he complains,

My face, like a woman’s,

Turns white as snow,

Then red, as blood

Pours through my veins.

His pleasure causes

My blood to ebb and flow.

This party is for

A little prince.


Come, my gentleman;

Come this way.

Come, my tyrant,

Into this cave.

When he appears

Within my sight,

It seems a pale star

Casts its opal

Brilliance o’er all

In a dark cavern.


When he goes by

The shade acquires textures

Like the sun,

That wounds the blackest clouds.

Behold me, at arms,

In the struggle.

The prince wants me to fight again.

He is my crown,

My pillow and my spur.

And, just as the sun,

Breaking up the black clouds,

Turns shadows

into bands of colors,

When he touches the thick wave,

He embroiders

My red and violet

Battle colors there.

So, my master wants

To return to life?

Come, my gentleman;

Come this way.

Come, my tyrant,

Into this cave.

Let me offer life

To him, to him.

This party is for

A little prince.

Get Ready for Cuba

Cuba’s been on the mind lately. A series of conversations, events and rejections have stirred up the sleeping memories of my ’07 trip to the infamous island, and I’ve realized that I actually have something to say about it all. And that it might be of use to someone.

It started about a month ago, when I replied to a post on A Little Adrift in which Shannon mulled over whether to go to Cuba or not. I commented that she should eff the nay-sayers and high-tail it down there. We took the conversation off the blog, and I sent her a breakdown of my first-hand tips for sneaking in and out, and traveling around, the only country Americans are banned from. I’d forgotten there were still folks out there who didn’t know how to negotiate the embargo, and were intimidated by the red-tape and chorus of American voices saying it was too difficult and dangerous. It felt good to send along accounts of my positive experience, as well as some tangible tips.

Next I exchanged blog comments and emails with T-Roy from Fogg Odyssey on his post discussing the presence of government propaganda in Cuba (I argued that part of the reason it feels so overbearing is that there’s no advertising to counterbalance it—all the billboards are for the revolution, not cell phones and perfume). I read more of T-Roy’s Cuba posts, and they got me all itchy for the Caribbean country free of consumerism and crackheads.

Add into that the reassurances given to a friend who’s currently making the trip, and a lonely unpublished narrative about my New Year’s Eve in Havana (complete with moonshine rum, a broken toilet and Rick James), and recent twitterings over the end of the embargo, and the need for a series of Cuba posts was obvious.

Here’s what to expect: a post of general travel tips, especially as related to independent budget travel (often deemed “impossible” in Cuba); a post devoted to American travelers and the how-tos of Customs evasion; the aforementioned raunchy narrative; and a photo essay composed of shots by my very talented brother, who traipsed off the the forbidden island on his own trip a couple years back. Excited?

So, to dim the lights and get everyone in the mood, here’s a poem I wrote that attempts to capture the ambiance and lingering images of Havana:

Plaza Vieja


in slow motion

the stretch of grey crumbling,

edifices revealing their insides

tenderly, like virgins

with weathered skin.


Suddenly heat and crashing

waves on the sidewalk,

chrome and fins,


rumbling like stomachs.


In front of a faded hotel,

a procession of flags

limply waves

to the ghosts of gone,

brown legs of schoolgirls

disappear up darkened stairwells.


Suddenly a square,

a plaza

whose dreams creep

through the stone cracks,

catch in the branches

of tired trees,

in balcony bars

and bench slats,

swell in the ankles ankles

of the women sitting—

the past

like a pulse

growing fainter.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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