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By Yusef Komunyakaa

They work fingers to bone & borrow

smudged paper, then make promises

to family, unmerciful gods, the unborn.

Some eat a favorite meal three times

in a row. Others partake only a pinch

of soil before boarding half-broken boats

& rubber rafts — half of the young women

big with life inside them, flesh & blood

for daydreams of the Arabian nights,

as makeshift charts & constellations

work their way through war & rumors

of war. The smugglers count their loot.

Hard winds rattle gongs over sea salt

till the rusty engines die, & cries alert

mermaid sirens as pirated schooners

adrift under a mute sky rock to & fro,

& the fight goes out of the few alive.

Their loved ones & friends, lost folk

songs, mountains & valleys, all left

behind. Searchlights spot the dead

hugging the living, & draglines raise

only those who were braver than us.

The lucky ones stumble out of stupor,

tried by raging water beneath black

skies, listening to the albatross talk.


Source: Poetry (November 2017)

Poet Bio

Yusef Komunyakaa’s poems are rooted in his experiences as an African American growing up in rural Louisiana and his service in the Vietnam War. Influenced by the jazz music he loves as well as by people’s everyday speech, his poetry has won a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1994.

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