Winter 2009 - THE POTOMAC

Five Poems
   Joseph Ross

Darfur 1: The Boy

My hands move as slowly
as they have ever moved.

I carefully wrap
the stiff, brown body

of this child,
in a bright orange and blue cloth.

A boy, seven years old,
very old, for here.

Elbows, like crickets’ legs
teeth, luminous white.

The canvas walls of the tent
gasp for air

as the colored cloth
covers his face.

Darfur 2: The Tent

This tent
seems to breathe.

It inhales quietly:
sucking and hissing and living.

It exhales louder:
hot and sand and canvas.

It breathes
far better
than the seven bodies
I washed and wrapped
this morning,

now lying outside
in the heat
like wood.

I listen for the rumble
of the UN truck
that collects the bodies
each morning.
All is hear now
is the simmering
of sun on sand.

Darfur 3: The Girl

She just appeared
as if by magic,
this girl of twelve or thirteen.

One moment the date palm
stood alone at the edge of the camp.
The next moment,
she stood under it.

Her hands pressed
to her face
in a silent sobbing
we could not stop.

She ate some rice
and cried.
She drank some mineral water
and cried.
She slept for a few hours
and cried.

Tears leaked through her fingers
and carved a path
down the back of her hands.

I never fully saw her face,
her tears, a wedding veil
of untold stories.

She was declared “healthy.”
A strange declaration
for a girl, twelve or thirteen,
who has cried ceaselessly
for five days.

The doctor knew
the inadequacy of the declaration.
He wrote:
Visible wounds: none.
Psychological state: mutilated.

Cause of injuries: unknown.

Darfur 4: The Colleagues

We sat in camp chairs with our feet up
in this tent where we also sleep.
It is 2am and for once,
the crickets are louder
than the babies.

Someone got a bottle of wine,
from a visiting doctor, French.

Three of us:
the two with me, my heroes.

Matthias is a genius.
A twenty-three year-old Kenyan
who can organize lines
for food distribution where
no one gets angry
and everyone gets food.

Annette, a forty year-old Italian doctor
who can sew any wound,
calming children while pulling shrapnel
from their quivering legs.

The wine is hot but crisp.
The tent seems to smile around us
as we laugh
and then suddenly stop,
leaning forward to listen intently
to what sounds like horses.

No, we settle back relieved.
It is only machine gun fire
rattling in the distance.

Darfur 5: The Child Soldiers

A German doctor
brought four rescued boy-soldiers
to our camp today,
on their way to the airport.

They are silent and frightened.
They look worn out,
their skin like bark,
resigned and careless.
I only saw the tops of their heads
because they crouched beside the truck
with their heads down
all morning.

Later, I sat with them in the lunch tent.
They ate jello for the first time in their lives.
They did not smile as it jiggled.
Bright red and green cubes
sliding and shimmying
on a paper plate.
What child doesn’t laugh
at that?

Outside, after lunch,
the doctor told us
through his optimistic white beard
that each boy had his vocal chords
cut by his superiors.
They were on their way to London
for surgery.
He said none of them
wants to go.

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