Monday, January 27, 2014



Olga Cabral was born in 1909 in the West Indies, the daughter of Portuguese parents.  She was taken as a child to Winnipeg, Canada, and shortly thereafter to New York City where she married the Yiddish poet Aaron Kurtz and lived there for the rest of her life. She began publishing poetry in  magazines and journals in the 1930s, although her first volume of poetry, Cities and Deserts, did not appear until 1959 (under the marker of the legendary expatriate Bob Brown's press "Roving Eye").  Her next book of poems The Evaporated Man appeared in 1968, followed by Tape Found in a Bottle (1971), The Darkness Found in My Pockets (1976), Occupied Country (1976), In the Empire of Ice (1980), and The Green Dream (1990).  In 1993 the stallwart West End Press published a collective volume titled Voice/Over: Selected Poems. 

Olga was a generous friend and supporter to many, including myself, in the years as a young poet and editor soliciting poems and networking with much older and experienced poets in the trade. She sent to Longhouse her own poems without a hitch, plus others poems (Thomas McGrath, a mutual liking between us, as well as Walter Lowenfels), postage stamps for mailing/sharing, and always some communal funds to keep us going. She was a glowing activist and our world lost one more light when she passed away in 1997.

I know Olga, she would have been thrilled to be side by side with Juan Gelman on the Birdhouse.


Poems shown are from the following books by Olga Cabral

Tape Found in a Bottle, 1971
The Darkness in My Pockets, Gallimaufry 1976
The Green Dream, Contact II Publications, 1990
Voice / Over Selected poems of Olga Cabral, West End Press, 1993

The Breathing Night

Chin on paws the night sleeps
a huge dark animal breathing
as earth keeps time breathing
as sleeping birds respire
breathing softly in and out
wrapped in their folded wings
as fish at rest in dark waters
breathe darkness through their gills
as trees and grasses breathe
each leaf and blade together
and the whole planet turns
upon its side inhaling exhaling
dreaming its green dream.

At the Jewish Museum

("Kaddish for the Little Children", an
environment, consisting of a room 28 x 17 x 8 ft.,
by the sculptor, Harold Paris)

Only what I bring to this room will exist here.
For the room is empty.
Empty as the inside
of a cold oven.
Narrow passageway in.
Narrow passageway out.
At the entrance, bronze scrolls.
the alphabet of mysterious
May words guide me through this place.

Did I expect to find
Did I hope for blindness?
Worse than absence of light this
gloom and evil glint of some
metal object. Is it
a box?
a receptacle for —
An artifact
of a door in the mind?
(Metal door that
clangs, clangs —.)
Walls bare.
Naked brick.
Nothing to see.

In this room there were never clocks or calendars
or daily lists of little things to be done.
No one ever had any birthdays.
No one ever put on a hat.
Neither star nor spider came here.
Nor mouse nor cricket.
There is no trace of the memory
of a swirl of dust
of a fly
crawling on the wall.

A room without history of furniture
of broken plates or cups
of diaries
lost buttons
of shreds of cloth
of colors.
A room filled with absence
a room filled with loss
a room with no address
in a city in a country
unknown to mapmakers.

Once and only once
a trembling old man leaning on a cane
passed by but did not dare
look in.

Perhaps the black metal object
is a box with names.
Perhaps nobody had a name.
It was all done with numbers.
It meant less that way.
Perhaps the box is filled with numbers.
Perhaps the walls and ceiling —
shadow walls and shadow ceiling
bulging with emptiness
are receding rapidly to the edge
of the visible universe where objects
tend to disappear —

where all the names have gone
the diminutives
the sweet
beyond reach of our most cunning
and nets to catch the whispers
of the stars.

 Woman Ironing

I am ironing the dress in which I ran from the prom
I am ironing my favorite dresses of long ago
I am ironing the dresses I did not have
and the ones that I did have, stitched so finely of fog
I am ironing the dress of water in which I met you
I am ironing our tablecloth of sun and our coverlet of moon
I am ironing the sky
I am folding the clouds like linen
I am ironing smoke

I am ironing sad foreheads and deep wrinkles of despair
I am ironing sackcloth
I am ironing bandages
I am ironing huge damp piles of worries
I am smoothing and patting and folding and hanging over chairs to air out and dry
I am ironing the tiniest things but for whom or for what I cannot imagine
I am ironing my shadow which is ironing me.

 Lillian's Chair

                     for Lillian Lowenfels                                                           

Lillian has just arisen from her chair.
She has gone into her garden to commune with snails
to answer the birds' questions.
She has left her shawl and her cane
and that iron leg brace.
Won't she need her shawl in the garden?
Won't she be feeling the cold?

And she has forgotten her sling
thrown it carelessly aside -
the crumpled black satin
in which she cradled her dead arm
for seventeen years.
In one hand she took her straw basket
in the other her pruning shears:
"That bush needs seeing to," she muttered
and went looking for red clover, queen anne's lace.

What is she doing so long in the garden?
Where has she gone with her red hair?
She just grew tired of sitting and watching.
A vivid light pulled her into the leaves.
Woolen shawl, satin sling, iron brace -
she just walked out on them all.

Left us this empty chair.

 An Ancient Alphabet

                                  - for Aaron 

 Because you were writing your poems backward
an ancient alphabet
from right to left as in mirrors
because the letters resembled doorways
of cedar beams
letters like pillars
in rows like walls or palisades
because they rose like cities on the page
because they danced in black gabardine
because they were the strong black birds of prophecy
that flew out of the fires of immolation
because I saw these letters resembled commandments
commandments to live
because they stormed across the page
an ancient alphabet
like brotherly armies with linked arms
I knew your poems sere strong and beautiful
I knew they were invincible
because you were writing your poems backward
I loved you then and forever
for one and twenty years.

 O The White Towns

O the white towns with picket fences,
and the green lawns, in the blue hills –
the courthouse bells are tolling, tolling
as for a pestilence:
and schoolbells ring an hour late,
a century late, to empty halls,
and the schoolhouse fortress stands besieged, ringed round with bayonets.

O the white towns with white courthouses
under oaks that stand for a hundred years –
who is the enemy? Where is the stranger?
Why do the lock-lipped people stand
under the oaks in the courthouse square,
with ashen jaws and haunted air?
Show us, good folk, the enemy
that has come to despoil the September sun,
rot the white fences of your trim towns
and rock your cardboard pillars down –
show us, good folk, the enemy
that has brought you here at bay.

Low hang their heads. . . tight clench the fists.
A smell of fear, rank as a beast's
runs through the crowd – and fingers lock
on primeval club: an empty bottle: a hidden gun
snatched from its rusted mausoleum
on an ancestral wall:
and a man on the steps points – there!
And the crowd breaks with a yell
as the last floodgates give
and the full roaring tide of hate
sweeps onward to the schoolhouse gate.

There, in his strength, is the dreaded enemy:
two black children, clean and scrubbed
as the new September morning:
a child of ten and a child of eight
hand in hand at the schoolhouse gate:
two black children, very small
to face that shouting, dreadful wall
of faces chalk-white, paper-white,
obsessed with storm.

Children, children – why do you come
this dangerous road, this forbidden road
this morning in September?
Today's the day I came to learn.
Took a notion to go to school
and teach white folks the Golden Rule.
And if they slam the door
and lock me out, there's more of me, and more.

O you white towns with picket fences,
with your green lawns and you blue hills –
nothing will ever be the same!
Look behind the cardboard porches:
peer through the slits in the tight drawn shutters:
in the ancestral gloom
fear sifts, like a thin gray ash
staining the polish, staining the air –
but a man sits alone with his shame
and a woman sobs to herself.
The mindless mob is running outside,
the sick of soul are jeering at children,
but behind the shutters is anger and shame –
and nothing will ever be the same.

 Tree full of birds

I had thought the tree
was alive with birds
hearing the fury
of so many small wings
but it was only the leaves
wanting so much to fly

And there was no wind at all
but the storm from the tree
the leaves lashing and flailing
hundreds of leaves together
wrestling with gravity

Then a noise like a great river
and airborne at last
the tree flew off into the sun
borne by constellations
of green birds
all its leaves come alive.

 The Music of Villa-Lobos

Someone is speaking a lost language.
It is the music of Villa-Lobos.
I try to remember: where was I
born?  And from what continent
untimely torn?  I might have been
a priestess among the caymans
guarding the eye-jewel of the
crocodile god.  I might have sailed
orinocos of diamonds, seas of coconuts,
leased the equator for life and learned
my ancestral language.

But I have only some old sleeves of rain
in a trunk with spiders
to remember my ancestors by.
They have left me
nothing, and I have forgotten
that island of my birth
where the sun in his suit of mirrors
was seen once only with my vast fetal eye.

But in the music of Villa-Lobos
a god with a tower of green faces
comes striding across cities
of permafrost, and I am summoned
once again to the jaguar gardens
guarded by waterfalls
where the hummingbird people are at play
far from the cold auroras of the north.


To Spain

Jarama, Teruel, Guadalajara –
who does not remember?
Their sounds tap on the mind’s window
toll memory wakes and the air is hollow with knocking –
the urgent hands of a hunted brother outside in the dark…
Badajoz, Manzanar, Santander –
who does not remember?
Who has forgotten holy Guernica?

Sun, and the blood of the brigades soaked your battlefields.
They came, the brigade brothers
and left their young bones on your ancient soil.
The brigades died, and the land died with them –
but you went down fighting.

My forefathers too were Iberian,
a people gentle and proud,
like your people dark-browed, dark-souled
speaking the same tongue.
In my bones I know your sun-scarred hills
wrinkled brown and dry like the face of an old woman;
there grows the scraggly olive, covered with a fine gray dust.
in my veins I know your untamed rivers
born amid steep and lifeless crags,
dancing a wild jota down to sunbaked plains
and sudden green groves of citron and of lemon.
And in my mind I know your vast uplands,
bleak and harsh as the fate of your people,
where never the song of a bird is heard –
it is too lonely there, too windswept, too naked of trees.
Old is your land, old
with the wine-grapes of Carthage and the silver olives of the traders from Tyre.
Often have I pondered the classic names of your cities:
Toledo, Zaragoza, Valladolid;
Granada, Cordoba, Castille.
O cities of Lorca, your nightingales are silent now, your bells are stopped with dust!
O cities of El Greco, you stand on a harsh and lonely plain,
Bathed in the green light of storm!

People of Lorca -
I remember how you were learning to read.
Between battles, with your bayonets,
you scrawled the letters of the alphabet in the dust.
As the war progressed, the day came when you could write your name entire,
and proudly you signed the post-card to the Ministry of Education:
Today for the first time in centuries, I Sancho Panza, soldier of the Republic,
was able to write my name.
Thank you, dear Republic,
for not keeping me ignorant.
But now it has all been taken from you,
They want you ignorant as animals,
Your work-twisted hands must know neither pen nor bayonet.

And they want you poor,
poor with the poverty of centuries.
A heavy cross of gold, laid on your backs, crushes you to your knees.
For the tearing cramps of hunger you are given incense no eat.
The droning of parish priests drowns out the vast groaning
from cell and dungeon-keep.
The Caudillo struts in his leather boots –
his paramours long since lie
under the Reichstag, in a criminal’s grave in Italy;
yet, with mincing steps, he tramples on your dreams.
And still, while the parish priests drone orisons,
while leather jackboots click on cobbled streets,
and eye speaks to an eye;
a heart turns over its treasure on the deep and lonely night:

They say
El Caudillo knows –
there are men in the hills who have never surrendered!
They live there as the eagles do,
they bide their time as Boabdil…

Dear land
your children are scattered far:
from Perpignan
where welcoming arms of barbed wire awaited them
to far-flung continents.
But deep underground are the shoots of the dream,
In the high pinnacles of your hearts you have never surrendered,
And eagles soar there still in lonely flight.

Our is an age of exiles,
of lands bereft and hunted men.
Yet, from the high Pyrenees, as from the mountains of Macedonia,
the unconquered shall return.
The children of Perpignan shall have their land again.
Ibarruri – you shall embrace your beloved miners.
And from far continents, from lands of friendship and from hostile lands,
from all the island abattoirs
that dot the fair Aegean,
from all the barbed-wire hells –
salud, my brothers! We shall meet again!
We shall all come home!



Olga Cabral 

Olga's kid's book, too ~

poems compiled by bob arnold