Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Humanity of Love

I realize I haven't blogged in some time. I wonder why that is. Did I get so caught up in the euphoria of 11/4, against my better senses, that I actually believed that love would reign once again? But....has it ever? Whatever the reason may have been, I now find myself filled with cynicism about love's manifestations in society. After Zimbabwe today declared a national cholera emergency in what was once the breadbasket of Africa - all because of a megalomaniac's utter disregard for his people, after last week's terror attacks in Mumbai, after the way the "insignificant" hotel worker or cab driver's personal sacrifices to help those in distress during the attacks was not at all celebrated by mainstream media, after the reports about the irreversible effects of climate change and global warming, after the sectarian strife in Jus, Nigeria leaving hundreds dead, after CEOs of the Big Three in the US had the audacity to ask for a bailout from the government but remained silent as to whether they were willing to give up their private jets....after all this, it is difficult to believe that love can actually prevail over the groundswell against peace and justice.

So I'm back here, realizing more critically than ever that we need to talk about love. Just today I was reminded of this, and what immediately came to mind was a poet I have had the good fortune of seeing in person. Her name is Shailja Patel, a Kenyan woman. You can check out her work at What I was particularly reminded of was a sentiment she shares with her audiences - that for every poem she writes about greed, hatred, violence, and injustice, she promises to herself that she will a poem about love.

It's not about giving up the fight - but just making sure that we fight with love in our veins, in our blood, in our hearts, all around us. Otherwise, it is easy to be overwhelmed, to crumble beneath the weight of it all...and if we do that, haven't the forces that we rail against -- the forces that suppress peace and justice -- haven't those forces won out in the end anyway?

So here I share with you one of Shailja's poems about love. A tough love, a love that is earned. I hope you enjoy it.

Shilling Love
Shailja Patel


They never said / they loved us

Those words were not / in any language / spoken by my parents
I love you honey was the dribbled caramel / of Hollywood movies / Dallas / Dynasty / where hot water gushed / at the touch of gleaming taps / electricity surged / 24 hours a day / through skyscrapers banquets obscene as the Pentagon / were mere backdrops / where emotions had no consequences words / cost nothing meant nothing would never / have to be redeemed

My parents / didn't speak / that / language
1975 / 15 Kenyan shillings to the British pound / my mother speaks battle
Storms the bastions of Nairobi's / most exclusive prep schools / shoots our cowering / six-year old bodies like cannonballs / into the all-white classrooms / scales the ramparts of class distinction / around Loreto Convent / where the president / sends his daughter / the foreign diplomats send / their daughters / because my mother's daughters / will / have world-class educations

She falls / regroups / falls and re-groups / in endless assaults on visa officials / who sneer behind their bulletproof windows / at US and British consulates / my mother the general / arms her daughters / to take on every citadel

1977 / 20 Kenyan shillings to the British pound / my father speaks / stoic endurance / he began at 16 the brutal apprenticeship / of a man who takes care of his own / relinquished dreams of / fighter pilot rally driver for the daily crucifixion / of wringing profit from business / my father the foot soldier, bound to an honour / deeper than any currency / you must / finish what you start you must / march until you drop you must / give your life for those / you bring into the world

I try to explain love / in shillings / to those who've never gauged / who gets to leave who has to stay / who breaks free and what they pay / those who've never measured love / by every rung of the ladder / from survival / to choice

A force as grim and determined / as a boot up the backside / a spur that draws blood / a mountaineer's rope / that yanks / relentlessly / up

My parents never say / they love us / they save and count / count and save / the shilling falls against the pound / college fees for overseas students / rise like flood tides / love is a luxury / priced in hard currency / ringed by tariffs / and we devour prospectuses / of ivied buildings smooth lawns vast / libraries the way Jehovah's witnesses / gobble visions of paradise / because we know we'll have to be / twice as good three times as fast four times as driven / with angels powers and principalities on our side just / to get / on the plane

Thirty shillings to the pound fourty shillings to the pound / my parents fight over money late in the night / my father pounds the walls and yells / I can't -- it's impossible -- what do you think I am? / My mother propels us through school tuition exams applications / locks us into rooms to study / keeps an iron grip on the bank books

1982 / gunshots / in the streets of Nairobi / military coup leaders / thunder over the radio / Asian businesses wrecked and looted Asian women raped / after / the government / regains control / we whisper what the coup leaders planned

Round up all the Asians at gunpoint / in the national stadium / strip them of what / they carry march them / 30 miles / elders in wheelchairs / babies in arms / march them 30 miles to the airport / pack them onto any planes / of any foreign airline / tell the pilots / down the rifle barrels / leave / we don't care where you take them / leave

I learn like a stone in my gut that / third-generation Asian Kenyan will never / be Kenyan enough / all my patriotic fervor / will never turn my skin black / as yet another western country / drops a portcullis / of immigration spikes / my mother straps my shoulders back with a belt / to teach me / to stand up straight

50 Kenyan shillings to the pound / we cry from meltdown pressure / of exam after exam where second place is never good enough / they snap / faces taut with fear / you can't be soft / you have to fight / or the world will eat you up

75 Kenyan shillings to the pound / they hug us / tearless stoic at airports / as we board planes for icy alien England / cram instructions into our pockets like talismans / Eat proper meals so you don't get sick / cover your ears against the cold / avoid those muffathias / the students without purpose or values / learn and study / succeed / learn and study / succeed / remember remember remember the cost of your life
they never say / they love us


I watch how I love / I admonish exhort / like a Himalayan guide I / rope my chosen ones / yank them remorselessly up / when they don't even want to be / on the frigging mountain like a vigilante squad I / scan dark streets for threats I / strategize for war and famine I / slide steel down spines

I watch heat / steam off my skin / when Westerners drop / I love yous into conversation / like blueberries hitting / soft / muffin dough / I convert it to shillings / and I wince

December 2000 / 120 shillings to the British pound / 90 Kenyan shillings to the US dollar / my sister Sneha and I / wait for our parents / at SFO's international terminal

Four hours after / their plane landed / they have not emerged
And we know with the hopeless rage / of third-world citizens / African passport holders / that the sum of their lives and labour / dreams and sacrifice / was measured sifted weighed found / wanting / by the INS

Somewhere deep in the airport's underbelly / in a room rank with fear and despair / my parents / who have travelled / 27 hours / across three continents / to see their children / are interrogated / by immigration officials

My father the footsoldier / numb with exhaustion / is throwing away / all the years / with reckless resolve / telling them / take the passports / take them / stamp them / no readmission EVER / just let me out to see my daughters

My mother the general / dizzy with desperation / cuts him off shouts him down / demands listen to me I'm the one / who filled in the visa forms / in her mind her lip curls she thinks / these Americans / call themselves so advanced so / modern but still / in the year 2000 / they think it must be the husband in charge / they won't let the wife speak

On her face a lifetime / of battle-honed skill and charm / turns like a heat lamp / onto the INS man until he / stretches / yawns / relents / he's tired / it's late / he wants his dinner / and my parents / trained from birth / to offer Indian / hospitality / open their bags and give their sandwiches / to this man / who would have sent them back / without a thought

Sneha and I / in the darkened lobby / watch the empty exit way / our whole American / dream-bought-with-their-lives / hisses mockery around our rigid bodies / we swallow sobs because / they raised us to be tough / they raised us to be fighters and into that / clenched haze / of not / crying

here they come

hunched / over their luggage carts our tiny / fierce / fragile / dogged / indomitable parents

Hugged tight they stink / of 31 hours in transit / hugged tighter we all stink / with the bravado of all the years / pain bitten down on gargantuan hopes / holding on through near-disasters / never ever / giving in / to softness

The stench rises off us / unbearable / of what / was never said
Something / is bursting the walls of my arteries something / is pounding its way up my throat like a volcano / rising / finally / I understand / why I'm a poet

Because I was born to a law / that states / before you claim a word you steep it / in terror and shit / in hope and joy and grief / in labour endurance vision costed out / in decades of your life / you have to sweat and curse it / pray and keen it / crawl and bleed it / with the very marrow / of your bones / you have to earn / its / meaning

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