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City of Dust, City of Stones


[clock] 13-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2011
A tent city made of two-by-fours and fabric, some with clothing drapes out to dry in the sun.
A city street at dusk with motorcycles on the roadway and several vehicles parked off the the right hand side.

 

We knew we had to leave early in the morning. If there were going to be more disturbances and roadblocks, they would not start until just after dawn. We left the Le Plaza Hotel in the middle of downtown Portau- Prince, a stone’s throw from the crumbled Presidential Palace in Champ de Mars, while it was still quite dark, and found ourselves zipping through the city toward Ganthier and then the Haiti–Dominican Republic border without any delays. It was Sunday morning. Somewhere near the subdivision of Del Mar, through the murky predawn light, I could see the sharp colors of clothing, people moving slowly along the street in a long line that ended on a crowded balcony of a building that looked like a worn down stately home. They were well dressed, the men wearing suits or long sleeves; the women in brightly colored dresses and hats. The balcony was packed. The doors were closed. They were waiting for the church to open at four in the morning. The calm of this moment, the devotion, the quiet faith, the hope it represented, the patience, the strong sense of tradition and fortitude—all these things came back to me as ways to talk about the people I had met in Haiti over the past year. And then, in seconds, they were a shadowy mass behind us—the moment, like a poem, lingering in my mind all through the grand adventure of crossing the border, dealing with eight checkpoints between the border and Santo Domingo, harassed by surly Dominican soldiers and police, and the tiring flights back to South Carolina.

Photographer Andre Lambertson and I visited Haiti together four times during 2010. We spent a week there on each occasion. We were there to learn and tell the story of HIV/AIDS in Haiti after the earthquake. Three hundred thousand Haitians died during that quake. Three hundred thousand. There are still bodies in the rubble. They may never be recovered. But millions now live with the memory of their loss. Among that number are the special people who we came to know—the people who are living with HIV/AIDS. We traveled around with a gregarious and resourceful Haitian man, Andre Paultre, who became a quick and dear friend. We laughed, teased each other, had long discussions that saw us vulnerable and uncertain. We saw how angry we could get, what it was like to see the atrocities some humans have to face, and we discussed family, politics, nationhood, and so much more. For hours we drove through Port-au-Prince interviewing people, taking photographs and video, looking at a landscape broken by an earthquake that completely changed a nation.

Recently, I was talking about my process as a poet, how I write, and I thought of an image. I spoke of a pool, a cesspool, even, where things are collected in me, where they come pouring in whether I want them to or not. I spoke about how when I sit to write, I find myself dipping into that pool unsure of what I will find there. I spoke of how the contents of that pool somehow present themselves to me on the page, coming at me the way some memories do, a mess of images that find their own shape in the business of language, rhetoric, and image. But I was at pains to explain that I feel as if I have no real control over what gets into this pool. It may be truer to say that I have come to understand that the gifts that I have found most useful to my being a poet are the capacity to keep my senses open, to allow anything to flow into that pool, and my trust in the value of what I will pull out of the pool when I dip my bucket in. These two gifts have everything to do with faith and grace—a sense that something has been given to me that I do not deserve.

Accepting this has helped me to understand something of what I do as a poet, why I find myself discovering things about my life and the world around me in poetry that prior to sitting to write, I simply had no conscious knowledge of. It has also helped me find a way of explaining why the poems that I have written during my trips to Haiti are no different from the poems I wrote before going to Haiti—or that I will write in the future. I walked through Haiti with a heart that was open and all my senses alert, allowing me to fill this pool with things I could not even begin to understand or register. Some things haunted me. Of those things, some have become poems. Others remain haunting images, moments, feelings that will stay with me for as long as they want. I am not sure what makes one thing form a poem and what makes another thing form an essay or simply a passing sensation. But I am grateful for the poems; the poems have helped me to find a language for the feelings that I could not speak when I landed in Port-au-Prince for the first time, seeing the rubble, seeing the tent cities, seeing the people moving, laughing, quarreling, staring, being. I trusted the flow of what I was seeing, trusted that these things would find a place somewhere in my reckoning at some point, so I did not linger too much, did not ponder, did not try to make sense of the inexplicable, did not try to solve the equations of futility and loss, the equations of desire and fear, or laughter and hunger, of indifference and fierce resilience. I simply let these things enter me and find a place in the pool. One day, I promised, I will dip and when I dip I will find what it is I have taken in and maybe I will find a way to understand it all.

Which is why I am so grateful for the fact that I was traveling on each of these trips with the beautiful man Andre Lambertson—gentle soul, an alert human, a man with the incredible capacity to be both present and absent at the same time. Andre sees things in ways that few people I know can. He knows how to sit in a room and talk to people whose language he does not understand. He is not intimidated by the lack of normal language; he finds a way to communicate the heart, the tender care of someone who wants to be with his subject in ways that only a friend can be with another friend. I studied the way he would disappear from a space allowing the person he was photographing to fill the space with ease, trust, comfort, and a level of calm honesty that is simply a gift. And yet he was always there, intensely present, intensely attentive to every nuance of the body, feeling.

We came away with friends and with a sense of belonging that one cannot plan for. The work we produced—and the work that also involved the reporting of Lisa Armstrong who did her own trips with Andre at the same time—constitutes what I like to call the pure privilege that is given to some of us who are allowed into the sanctuary of pain, need, and helplessness; the holy place of faith, strength and resilience. This project, this journey into Haiti gave me the chance to be touched by the stories of people, and in many ways, the work you see here is an attempt to share the brute beauty of these stories.

This project was made possible through grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

A crucifix stands in front of a pile of rubble from a demolished building.

Tombs

all day long I watch over a town
that’s broken down
—Josaphat Robert Large


Every crumbled building is a tomb.
We step over grey crushed bricks
and the entanglement of steel.

The faint scent of death still in the air;
every sliver of laughter dries in the heat
the dust, the stones, the dust, the stones.

The doctor offers a wry smile,
shrugs his shoulders and says,
“C’est la vie, ki pa—vie c’est une terib.”

He points to the grey slabs of cement
where the hospital once stood—
he counts eighteen—the women

in maternity with their new babies
and their families counting fingers
and toes—they were on the second floor—

on the first were the diligent nurses;
at the top were the broken bodies
of the healing—they are all entombed

in the stone—for days the scent
of their rotting blanketed our skins,
now, after the blue helmeted soldiers

sprayed the ruins (they have done
this before) it is bearable—death
sulks in the corner, like our hearts

which leap at each sound of rumbling.
The city dances to live, the music
leaping against despair. An old

woman skips to avoid a truck.
This earth devours the dead
with such efficiency, and we are left

with our heads covered in dust,
our eyes searching for familiar
faces, our hearts safely tucked away.

An old church window with no stained glass left in it, now only holds a rusted and contorted remnant of its original form.

A young Hatian man similes with closed eyes.  There is a red wooden door in the background.

Boy in Blue

His voice is licked
but his dreams
are the artillery of words loaded
to uncoil our strength.
—Michel-Ange Hyppolite


The words cluster behind your teeth;
close in, the smooth patina, deep brown,
of your face is alight with the effort:
you, boy, carrying the weight
of an old man; this body of yours
broken again and again by the accident
of your birth. I follow the slow
wave of your thick lashes, you are
counting the words, searching
your heart for the right music—
“Sometimes, I wonder why;
sometimes I wonder if
my mother did this—then I grow
dark, the world swallows light
around me, then I cry—only
sometimes, I cry, and then I laugh,
just like that, in a few seconds,
I laugh and I cry and I dream again.
A drum and incendiary tongues
darting through the low rafters
would be easier—a prophet speaking,
telling us the why of the moving earth,
the rubble of our city; even the priest
with his soft horse eyes, his mouth
moving quickly over my skin, even
that would be easier than this
silence; the dark streets of the city,
the heat in my skin, my mother
praying in the shadows, singing
from deeper than I will ever go;
and when I sing, I know how
to fly, and how to reach where
the water eases the spinning
in my stomach, and this blood
is not my enemy when I sing.”
We leave you in the growing dusk,
the scent of rain is heavy in the air—
somewhere beside the broken palace,
the sky opens up, and the streets
flood—the sound of cataclysms,
so normal now—I imagine you,
like these children, dancing
in the deluge, naked as holiness.

A young Hatian boy in a blue dress shirt seated outside a building looks out of the image frame to the space ahead of him.

The camera peers out from inside a building with a weathered wooden dresser to the street outside where a Hatian man in a plaid shirt and dress pants sits on a cinderblock wall.

Job

For Joel Sainton


This is a home,
this is a shelter,
these walls, shaken,
the lines of jagged
cracks, the split
at the ceiling
that lets in light
and rain—this is
my comfort, here,
deep in the catacombs
of Port-au-Prince,
shaded by a giant
breadfruit tree
with its fragile
branches, its bounty;
here where the yard
is cluttered with trash,
trying leaves, and
broken bricks
salvaged from the ruins
dumped here for use,
they keep saying,
later—they being
those searching
through the broken
houses for paper,
and if truth be told,
money, bread, pots,
clothes and an answer
to our calling of her
name. This is home,
where I pray each
night: “Teach me
the calculus of Job,
teach me the madness
of Hosea, teach me
how to be a priest
of suffering, teach
me how to have
gambled your name
for my gain, teach me
to dream of open skies,
air clear as creek
water for these ravaged
lungs, fruit to flesh
out these bones
under my beaten skin,
sugar to make me fat.
May you wake me
before the next
cataclysm, that I
might rise and leave
this place before
it, too, collapses
like all things have—
teach me how
to sleep deeply
with faith that you
will wake me when
it is time; and teach
me to sleep with no
hope of rising under
this cracked shelter,
teach me, this man,
listless like, blood
sick like this, shunned
like this. Teach me
the way of Job,
teach me.”

A Hatian man in a blue plaid shirt speaks intensely and holds the forehead of a woman in a white dress.

Three young Hatian boys stand on a rocky white beach above the ocean.

Storm

For Malia Jean


From here the mountains around
Port-au-Prince are green; too
far to see the denuded hillside,
too far to see the brown wounds,
too far to see at the layered
city of sand bags, wooden
reinforcement, heavy plastic
tents, the gravel, the dust,
the narrow lanes, the gutters,
the stolen power lines,
the makeshift clubs, the cinema,
the internet café, the phalanx
of shower booths, the admonitions
to keep the place clean, as if
someone hopes to restore
this stripped down hillside
to its glory as a golf course
for expatriates, the moneyed,
the diplomats, too far
to see the constant cloud
from wood fires and coal
factories tucked into
city of improvisation; too far
though from here you can smell
the rain gathering at dusk,
tonight the deluge will heal
all sores, clear the air of dust
from the crushed stones;
tonight the alabaster ruins
will gleam through the tender
mist of rain; and this body
that has grown weary with living,
will hope for a flame of prophesy;
for even the smallest ember,
to keep the heat from slipping
away. This is my world,
these days; this and the ritual
of pills, the cycle of nausea,
the relief at three in the afternoon,
that hour when I feel as normal
as I was before all of this;
the blackness at the edge
of my eyes returns by five;
and here is where my prayers
are stripped of all ostentation,
here faith is tasteless
as unleavened bread; here
hope is a whisper from a dried
mouth, and I know what
the presence of God is. The cool
silence of a cemetery at twilight
is my comfort; the resignation,
the calm presence of mountains,
like this dumb tombstones.
I long to make deals with God.
The transaction the weary
and heavy laden make: Take
this body, it is used up now,
let it rest, dear God, let it
rest. Take this body, it is
yours now, let it rest, Lord,
let it rest. The storm covers
the earth. I stand in the rain.
It comes like the sound of grace,
soaking me to the bone—first
the taste of salt, then the clean
flow of healing slipping in my mouth.

A young Hatian woman reads or sings exuberantly, hands in the air, from a book on the table in front of her.

A closeup of a young Hatian boy in a red t-shirt. He is flanked on one side by a lacy white curtain.

Salt

Our trauma teaches us how to taste,
the salt of sweat on our skin,
the salt of tears, the salt of blood—
these days when we sex, we lick
our faces and fingers, we want to taste
what it is to bleed and sweat, we taste
the funk in our skins; the musk
on our tongues; the salt of cracked
lips, the long kiss, the salt in the evening
air down by the sea’s edge, the salt
of dust rising, the salt in our cocoa,
the salt in the dust lifting from the ruins;
and then the sweet news of stewed
garden eggs, the surprise of honey;
the taste of the air cool at evening time,
the darkness coming quicker than normal,
the clouds gathering over Port au-Prince
rushing across the shelter of the mountains,
the sweetness of the sudden rain on our skins.

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