(This is the first post I’ve made in a week. When the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon last week, I noticed my level of interest in the unfolding events going from intrigue, concern, despair, depression, discovery and finally hope. Processing my understandings of the event – and listening to the conversations happening all around me – has been a long, consuming task, much like the writing of this poem which has become something of a tome. I have worked on this every day because it seemed to me that such a complex event is never simple or easily described… and it’s is only possible to appreciate it when we bother to consider all the complex feelings that went into making it. Although I am somewhat glad to have finished this, I also know that I am not done processing, and it will be with me for a long time).
My Brother’s Keeper
It is a tangled web
that ties together our pain
with the promise that
all the unique, separate
dangling identifiers of our life
will ally together
for one great collective cause.
Someday, strands once barely seen
will be hardly denied to anyone
to the small and weak forces
at work in this new global culture.
Someday, networks of hope will emerge
from the discards
of malice and shame.
And the passion of our own suffering
will become the essential catalyst
for all the empathy
needed the world over.
Someday we will prompt an understanding
of the tragic sacrifice
inherent worth is put on trial.
For whenever and wherever it happens,
the verdict is predictable:
it always has the familiar shape
the kind carried best
in the center of our soul.
The city of Boston
last week, was placed in lockdown
searching for the culprit(s)
who stole a nation’s sense of safety.
Two bombs exploded
at the finish line
of the Boston Marathon.
They were crude devices
spewing scrap metal
at an unsuspecting crowd.
Martin Richard – an eight year old boy was killed.
As was Lu Lingzi – a foreign exchange student
and Krystle Campbell – a young restaurant worker.
The media reports
that many others remain in critical condition.
We were not built
and poorly trained
to carry such a bulky load
of tragedy like this.
So, not surprising,
after it was reported that the suspects were
foreign born and ferociously armed,
over legislation on guns
– born in a country so far away
that nine out of ten Americans
can’t find it on a map…
…bearing names too hard to pronounce
without having sat beside them
at a friendly supper
more than once –
were identified as suspects.
The media swarmed like a mob
gathering people’s attention
like throwing chum for sharks
and the world has been holding its breath
waiting for justice
It is a tangled web
when feelings of horror and grief,
fear, anger and despair
crisscross our thinking
and overwhelm our tenuous grasp
It is reminiscent of a similar time
eighty three years earlier
one August day
when Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith
were hung from a tree
in the center
of the Marion, Indiana town square.
It is said
That on that day, as well,
a mob of thousands gathered.
It was years before
the media looked anything like
what it is today.
The antecedents of innuendo and gossip
were enough then
to bring everyone together.
And, together, they broke into the jail
where the three boys were being held.
People came with sledgehammers and crowbars
brought from their homes
to, first, break down the walls
of civil and legal justice,
and only later ask
on which side of those walls
and on which side they ended up.
They pulled the three
from their cells
demanding that justice be done.
and brought children to watch
because it felt clear
that a sense of safety
had turned up missing in the world
the kind, they believed,
their lives deserved.
I have known people who scorn the church
having patched so many holes in their pants
– and their conscience –
both split open
by years kneeling
in pews too hard
for their soft hearts to abide.
They say they were taught
to measure out their expectations
with an unaccountably crooked ruler.
They say we’ve all been conditioned by stories
of having been born and raised
in the garden of an angry and vengeful God.
That may be, I say.
But we have written every article of association
for the complex we moved to
when our lease in the garden was finally revoked.
We are in charge
of the maintenance agreement now.
We hire the exterminators
who are paid to walk the grounds
trapping and ridding
all the serpents and spiders
that live in our imagination.
After the first two boys were hung
they went after James Cameron
– the third boy arrested
the day before
when Claude Deeter
a white factory worker
and his female companion
announced she’d been raped.
After the awe-filled groans
of the crowd subsided
when even the pendulum arc
of the two boys bodies
had become still,
an ominous silence descended for a brief moment.
But standing on holy ground
is hard on the feet
and a commotion soon returned
as people thought to pose
as local photographer, Lawrence Beitler,
took the pictures that needed taking
so people in the future
would know what justice looked like.
During all the self commendation
hardly anyone noticed
that the third boy had slipped off the radar.
And it might have occurred to some
to let the sleeping dogs
of vengeance lie,
especially after such a hearty meal.
But nobility is fragile
like the faint breathing
under the weight of a heavy rule.
It reminds us
that undisciplined power
cannot endure discomfort for very long.
When the question was finally resurrected
in the minds of the crowd
about the third boy taken from the jail,
a contagious uneasiness began to rise
like the way an addict begins to feel
the very thing they’ve run out of
crawling on their skin.
A whispered murmur began to swell
in the heat of the day
until it became strong enough
to call for its craving.
‘Cameron!’ came one low voice.
The call grew into an echo and then to a chant.
‘We want Cameron! We want Cameron! We want Cameron!’
The crowd bellowed in unison
as though summoning a favorite football star
to a curtain call.
The face of the town’s sheriff
was nervous and covered in sweat.
He turned in exasperation
before the mob leader.
‘Go on. Get the hell out of here.
You already hung two of ‘em
… that ought to satisfy ya.’
But the mounting roar
had gained too much momentum
to be stemmed by
simple logic or reason.
Cameron came into view
pushed back in place by a taunting crowd
toward the tree already holding his two friends.
He carried the look of a lost man
possessed by a fear
not only his own.
He scoured the faces of the people he passed
searching for any sign of doubt.
But the overwhelming need
to be part of something
greater than themselves
had grown so high for the crowd
it obscured the path doubling back
to their humanness.
“They got a rope,” Cameron remembered
“… and they put it around my neck.
Then they began to push me under the tree…”
His words are still sewn into history
because Cameron did not die that day.
Some say his survival is owed to a single man
– on a side street
away from where the rest of the crowd gathered –
who got up on the hood of his car
and called out for the people to stop.
“Mercy!” was what the voice cried.
“He’s innocent. He didn’t do it.”
Some say it was one man
from a block away
who turned a lemming crowd away from the cliff
and saved a life
from being strangled by blind vengeance.
We seem to like theories that
one perfect moment
can do anything
and turn everything around.
I like to think
it was more than that.
It is in a tangled web
that sorrow seeks relief
and both are woven fine.
There are two ways to be a spider:
you can work
to balance the pest population,
reduce the numbers
of cockroaches, mosquitoes and aphids
that carry disease toward our children,
and make the garden untenable for creation.
Or, you can harbor fangs
and carry venom,
build sticky webs
eat baby birds
devour your own species
maybe even your mate.
Either way, you are simply a spider –
true to everything you were born to be
carrying within you
the evolutionary code
that allows you to spin a web
capable of catching
and holding everything together.
Either way, it is up to everything
Within the web to learn
that every strand connecting us
– even those only now being spun –
stretches across eternity.
Every strand transmits the quiver of tension
announcing the struggle
of something caught years ago.
Abel Meeropol wrote about the pain he felt
upon first seeing a postcard
made from the photograph taken that day
Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith
were hung from the tree.
A Jew in the Bronx
a thousand miles away
had enough distance to see
that his whole world
was tied into the same
And like the strands from which
the two boys hung
he knew that he too
would be regarded as prey
to the spider whose hunger
does not make distinctions
about what to feed on.
The disturbing contrast
of two boys
hanging by a community’s indifference
prompted him to write the poem, ‘Strange Fruit’.
He wrote it under the pseudonym Lewis Allen
because the reality of anti-Semitism
made it clear that such trees
stand at the center of almost every garden.
born outside the garden,
was led by his brother
into the field and ‘killed.’
‘Sacrificed’ is the word
some preachers use to describe the slaying.
But ‘sacrifice’ has the dignity of purpose
which makes it inaccurate.
Even the deft tongues and shuffling feet of generations
cannot lift the curse
brought when the feeling of threat
and the deafening silence
toward critical questions
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
one might have asked
the person standing beside them
in the square at the center of town
in Marion that day.
But only the voice of God
shouting from the hood of His car
had the power
to call back the spider.
When police caught up to the suspects
who planted the bombs in Boston,
the news described a standoff.
Both sides heavily armed.
The shootout lasted for hours.
It ended when one brother
was fatally shot
and run over by the other brother
driving away from the scene.
Police caught up with the surviving outlaw
the next day
hiding in a small boat
hoping, perhaps, to sail somewhere
a little less crazy.
Hoping, perhaps, to live in a world
a little less predisposed
to the turmoil and tragedy
that lived in his head
– the one given to him
by the world he was born in.
“I’m glad they caught him,”
said someone who worked in the trauma ward
that treated the 260 people injured in the explosions.
“I’m glad he’s alive.”
There are a lot of people who yearn to understand
how anything could get this out of hand
before they decide
whether to take matters into their own hands
and pursue the death penalty.
It was for protection
and because only those resigned
to the fragility of life
can speak of death,
that Meeropol chose to publish his poem
in the New York Teacher
the Marxist journal, New Masses.
He took his pen name from the first names
of his two sons
Lewis and Allen
both arriving stillborn
both understanding what it’s like
when you aren’t given a chance.
It’s impossible to know
whether Meeropol knew
the tragedy of Billie Holiday’s life
when he showed her the poem
at that club in New York city
where he went to hear her sing.
It’s possible he was aware
of how she was overpowered
and raped by a man
when she was twelve
and how she turned to prostitution
It’s possible he recognized
that there was no one who came
with sledgehammers and crowbars
to break her out
of the prison sentence she served every day.
It’s possible he knew
how many drinks
and other distractions
she needed to salve
the shape of emptiness
in the center of her soul.
Or perhaps he only recognized
the voice of an angel
carrying the word of God –
the kind willing to stand on the hood of car
and call a callous world
to its senses.
Whatever the reason
Strange Fruit became Holiday’s
reaching number sixteen
on the charts.
When it was released
Time Magazine denounced the song
as a ‘prime piece of musical propaganda’
for the NAACP.
Though he managed to write a few songs for
Sinatra and Peggy Lee
Meeropol stopped getting work
as a writer during the 1950s
due to his ties with the Communist Party
during the red scare
Perhaps that gave him the time – and maybe the reason –
to adopt two boys –
the orphaned sons
of Ethyl and nephews of Julius Rosenburg
convicted of trading national secrets
during the building of weapons
of mass destruction.
The case swept the country
and the Rosenburgs were declared ‘guilty’
Nobel Prize winning playwright Jean-Paul Sarte
described the case as
“A legal lynching which smears with blood
a whole nation.”
The two boys were lost in the madness.
Writer, Joanna Moorhead explains:
“From the time of their parents’ arrests,
and even after the execution,
the young Rosenburg boys
were passed from one home to another
- first one grandmother looked after them,
For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter.
It seems hard for us to understand,
but the paranoia of the McCarthy era
was such that many people
- even family members –
were terrified of being connected
with the Rosenberg children,
and many people who might have cared for them
were too afraid to do so.”
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
has always been a question
of timid and tender conviction.
Billie Holiday introduced “Strange Fruit”
to Greenwich Village’s Cafe Society
It always came at the very end of her set.
Each time she sang it
she recreated a collision
between defiance and despair.
The voice of an angel
singing the work of the devil.
The waiters in the Sheridan Square basement club
would suspend service so the room was quiet.
Holiday was illuminated
by a small pin light on her face,
which went dark at the song’s end.
There were no curtain calls.
Abel Meeropol is dead.
As is his namesake
As are Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.
Billie Holiday is dead.
As are Ethyl and Julius Rosenburg.
Lu Lingzi and Krystle Campell
Guilty of standing next to the bombs
at the finish line of the Boston Marathon
who built the bombs
which some will argue is a good thing.
And from the mounting whispers of his brother’s name
some might conclude that Dzhokhar
is as good as dead.
Just like the media that covered the story
and the justice we hoped to find
Just like the empathy that’s been lost in the madness
carrying our ability to understand ourselves
as all part of an interdependent web
connecting each to all.
It is when we notice
that angels sing in basements
and spiders run the world
that it begins to feel like
we are all descendants of Cain.
But we would do well to remember
that many remain in critical condition.
They number a dozen or so
They number in the billions
around the globe.
And everything depends
on whether they come back to life.
We would do well to remember
that just because some stories have ended tragically
doesn’t mean the stories we are writing always will.
That’s the message James Cameron lived for.
It’s the message Billie Holiday sang for.
It’s the message Abel Meeropol wrote about
and taught in his high school classes in the Bronx
which included students like Paddy Cheyevsky,
Neil Simon and James Baldwin.
Minds change all the time.
Our culture changes
sometimes too slowly for us to point out
all the important differences.
It can be heart breaking
unless we take the time to notice,
that in 1999 Time Magazine named ‘Strange Fruit’
‘the song of the century.’
We can be sad that so many angels
have been relegated to basements
or reduced to stages
no bigger than the hood of a car
on a side street
of the town square.
Or we can listen more carefully
until we notice there are more of them every day
The morning after the Boston Marathon tragedy last week,
my alarm went off.
These days our alarms
are rather sophisticated.
I have mine programmed to play
a Dave Matthews song.
As I listened,
it occurred to me
that if God were at the Boston Marathon
She would have been on a side street
standing on the hood of Her car.
And as the people ran by
consumed by fear
this would have been the song she sang to them.
by Dave Matthews
Don’t give up
I know you can see
All the world and the mess that were making
Can’t give up
And hope God will intercede
Come on back
Imagine that we could get it together
Stand up for what we need to be
Cause crime won’t save or feed a hungry child
Can’t lay down and hope miracles will change things
So lift up your eyes
Lift up your heart
Singing, Mercy! What will become of us?
Have we come too far to turn it around?
Can we carry on just a little bit longer?
And all try to give of what we need?
Me and you and you and you
Just want to be free
But you see
all the world is just as we’ve made it
And until we got a new world
Got to say that love is not a whisper or a weakness
No, love is strong
So we got to get together
Til there is no reason
Singing, Mercy! Will we overcome this
Oh, one by we can turn it around
Maybe carry on just a little bit longer
And I’ll try to give you what you need
(Dave Matthews, 2012)