Weekly Poem: ‘Poetry of Witness’ co-editor Carolyn Forché reads ‘A Letter from Aragon’

Carolyn Forché, co-editor of “Poetry of Witness,” reads “A Letter from Aragon,” written by English poet Rupert John Cornford.

A Letter from Aragon

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.

We buried Ruiz in a new pine coffin,
But the shroud was too small and his washed feet stuck out.
The stink of his corpse came through the clean pine boards
And some of the bearers wrapped handkerchiefs round their faces.
Death was not dignified.
We hacked a ragged grave in the unfriendly earth
And fired a ragged volley over the grave.

You could tell from our listlessness, no one much missed him.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
There is no poison gas and no H. E.

But when they shelled the other end of the village
And the streets were choked with dust
Women came screaming out of the crumbling houses,
Clutched under one arm the naked rump of an infant.
I thought: how ugly fear is.

This is a quiet sector of a quiet front.
Our nerves are steady; we all sleep soundly.

In the clean hospital bed, my eyes were so heavy
Sleep easily blotted out one ugly picture,
A wounded militiaman moaning on a stretcher,
Now out of danger, but still crying for water,
Strong against death, but unprepared for such pain.

This on a quiet front.

But when I shook hands to leave, an Anarchist worker
Said: ‘Tell the workers of England
This was a war not of our own making
We did not seek it.
But if ever the Fascists again rule Barcelona
It will be as a heap of ruins with us workers beneath it.’

“Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500 – 2001” is a collection of works by poets who have experiences war, torture, censorship, and other extreme phenomena. Carolyn Forché, a co-editor of the anthology, is also herself a poet, as well as a translator and a human rights advocate. She has published four collections of her own poetry, including “Blue Hour (HarperCollins, 2003), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and “Gathering the Tribes” (Yale University Press, 1976) which won the Yale Younger Poets Award. Forche is the director of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University.