Two Poems on the Middle East | Bruce Black

Smoke rises

Smoke rises on both sides
of the border.

Plumes of smoke unfurl
into a blue sky over Gaza.

Ribbons of smoke curl upward
over Tel Aviv.

The sound of sirens blare, 
hearts pounding seek safety
before the next bomb falls.

Where did peace go?
Wasn’t it here a moment ago?

Moses Intervening in a Beating
Karen Ester Aida ©2022

Brothers at War

My Israeli brother, 		
why can’t you			
see me?			

After the smoke clears	
and the bombs stop		
falling, I will still		
be your brother,		
my hatred of you		
for not seeing me		
only deepening.		

You are still			
stealing my			
bowl of			
God won’t			
see your			

Have you 			
the word			
for peace—			

Why do I feel			
like I’m talking		
to the wind,			
that no one 			
is listening,			
that you			
cannot hear			
my words			
than I can 			
hear yours			
over the sound			
of bombs			
that you don’t			
you are killing			
your own brother?		

How do you spell		
love, brother? Can		
you tell me? Or		
doesn’t the word		
exist in your			
My Palestinian brother,
why can’t you
see me?

After the sirens
fall silent and
your rockets stop
hitting our homes,
I will still be
your brother,
wishing you
had never
been born.

You are
still murdering
my brother,
no one will
see, not
even God.

Have you
the word
for peace—

Why can’t you hear
what I’m saying?
Is it too much
to ask for you
to open your
ears and hear
my words, my
wish that one
day we might
talk to each
other like a
normal family,
like normal
brothers, if there is
such a thing.
That one day
we might stop
trying to kill each
other and listen
to what each of us
has to say?

How do you spell
trust, brother?
Can you tell me?
Will we ever learn
to trust each other
long enough to see
the love in each
other’s heart?

Poems ©2022 Bruce Black
All rights reserved

Bruce Black…

is the author of Writing Yoga (Rodmell Press/Shambhala) and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. He received his BA from Columbia University and his MFA from Vermont College. His poems and personal narratives have appeared in Soul-Lit, Poetry Super Highway, Atherton Review, Elephant Journal, Blue Lyra Review, Tiferet Journal, Hevria, Poetica, Jewthink, The Jewish Literary Journal, Mindbodygreen, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and elsewhere. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

Poems on Peace | Bruce Black

Who gives the order

Who gives the order to fire 
and who aims the gun
and who is the target
and whose life is stolen
and who weeps with regret for what is lost
and who will raise a flag of truce to stop the insanity
and who will be the first to utter the word: peace?

Sunflowers for the people of Ukraine
©2022 Marlene McNew

Where did peace go?

Was it frightened by the sound
of rockets falling?

Did it run away
to hide in the nearest
bomb shelter?

Is it huddled with the
children in the dark
space under the rubble?

Is it hiding from war,
from anger and rage,
unwilling to risk
returning until
the fighting stops?

Is it caught in this endless
tug-of-war, each side claiming
ancient injustices, bruises, rebuffs?

Is it burrowing deeper into
the safe room or shelter
to avoid the conflict?

Or is it missing in action, 
protecting a body 
concealed in the

Or carried
on a stretcher 
into what’s left of a

Or maybe it’s weeping
over each life lost, 
unable to keep count— 
Arab, Israeli—each life
lost a precious life, 

©2022 Bruce Black
All rights reserved

Bruce Black…

is the author of Writing Yoga (Rodmell Press/Shambhala) and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. He received his BA from Columbia University and his MFA from Vermont College. His poems and personal narratives have appeared in Soul-Lit, Poetry Super Highway, Atherton Review, Elephant Journal, Blue Lyra Review, Tiferet Journal, Hevria, Poetica, Jewthink, The Jewish Literary Journal, Mindbodygreen, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and elsewhere. He lives in Sarasota, FL.

S’more Smoke | Bruce Morton


We sit mesmerized
As the fire builds, sparks
Ever hotter, we lean closer
Slide white marshmallow
Skewering ourselves
Turning tan to gold
Then black crisp
Goo pressed on graham
Cracked earth so brittle
Chocolate squares melt
Softening to flesh as we
Consume ourselves licking 
Our lips as heat licks us
Devouring, rhapsodic
As a blood-red sunset

Where There Is Smoke

It probably began somewhere
Else with a flash and crack.
A spark struck, then smolder.
Smell it in the air, nostrils flare,
The throat tightens, lungs burn.
The scent of pine, fir, larch,
And juniper gin up the hearth,
But there is only scorched earth,
The forest fast becomes torch.
Smoke pudding settles heavy in
Bowls, hollows, ravines, and rims
Mimicking morning mists, veils 
That will not lift until snow falls.
We cannot breathe easy, we hunker
Down, anxious, shut up in the house,
Worry about the kiln to come,
Ash glaze and twilight glow, urgent 
Evacuation orders. Go! Get out! Now! 
No time to inventory valuables or sins.

©2022 Bruce Morton
All rights reserved

Bruce Morton…

…splits his time between Montana and Arizona. His poems have appeared in various venues, including, most recently, Muddy River Poetry Review, Sin Fronteras/Writers Without Borders, Wilderness House Review, and Ibbetson Street. He was formerly Dean of Libraries at Montana State University.

Michael’s Monsters | Laura Shovan

The last flight I took before the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown was a trip to Tallahassee, Florida. I spent a few days with my friends Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion, the founders of 100 Thousand Poets for Change and the Read a Poem to a Child initiative.

We didn’t know then, in January 2020, that the dark shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic was about to overtake us. Michael and I sat talking at a wooden picnic table outside Wakulla Springs State Park, one of his favorite places. Decades ago, the classic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon filmed scenes in the springs’ pristine water. But we had our own shadows and monsters to deal with. Michael had recently lost his only son, Cosmos, to addiction. My own college-aged son was clawing his way out of a years-long depression.

Michael Rothenberg and Laura Shovan
Wakulla Springs State Park, 2020

As we ate brown bag sandwiches and drank old-fashioned phosphate sodas from the park’s historic lodge, we shared the hurt and confusion of grief. After Cosmos’ death, Michael had been unable to write for a time. In need of a creative outlet, he began working with art therapist Annie McFarland on a series of colorful abstract illustrations.

Then, two days after I returned home, Michael sent me an image that marked a departure in his work. Here was a blue-jean colored monster with six pink feet, blowing green bubbles. I drafted a poem about a child who is surprised to see a monster moving into the house next door. As a gift for Michael, I recorded the poem and sent it, hoping it would bring some lightness to his day.

The next day, Michael sent a sketch of a monster with balloons hovering in the background. I wrote “Monsters Don’t Have Birthdays,” and messaged Michael, “The second monster has such a sweet expression. It inspired the last line of the poem,” in which a monster is surprised at his human friends’ empathy toward him.

Almost immediately, a concept began to take shape. This was one of Michael’s great gifts. When creative inspiration struck, he ran with it, whether that it led him to draw whimsical creatures, or to form a global network of poets committed to social justice.

Monster after monster showed up in our message thread. I scrambled to keep up with Michael’s creative energy. My response poems described children interacting with the monsters, most of whom represented—to my mind, Michael hated to interpret his own drawings—an emotion or state of being: fear, curiosity, self-love, sadness. “I like the idea of encouraging readers to sit with a feeling and then let it evolve,” I told Michael about a poem entitled “When I Cry.” “Not to brush the sadness away or deny it, but to see it as part of the whole range of emotions.”

In the initial shock of the pandemic, when our normal lives came to a sudden halt, working on Welcome to Monsterville shook us both out of our habitual worries, anxieties, and ways of thinking. It gave Michael and me a way to befriend the unexpected, to make art out of the monstrous unknown.

Both of us suffered new losses. My mother-in-law passed away, and Michael’s brother Bruce. And yet, we had this playful, wonderful collaboration to turn to. There was a joy when we dug into human emotions through the process of creative play. We helped each other when one of us got stuck, all the while engaging in a side conversation, writing messages back and forth about the nature of creativity. We talked about art as a necessary outlet, a grounding force when we’re feeling overwhelmed by emotion

I just let the ideas come. No judgement,” I told Michael when he complimented a poem draft. He replied, “It is the only way for me. The imagination stays flowing that way.” He likened our process to performing his poetry accompanied by live music. “It’s all about my relationship with [the] musicians,” Michael said. “We’re in it together.”

Ours was a two year conversation about the creative process, whether Michael was adding layers of watercolor to an inked drawing, or I was revising a poem, line by line. Reading through our message thread again after Michael’s recent death, I’m reminded of the sense of delight my dear friend and I felt at embarking on this creative conversation together.

Although I am sitting with my grief—alongside Michael’s vast community of friends, poets, and activists—it is with the knowledge that the creative conversations Michael began with so many of us are still ongoing. This spring, when our book Welcome to Monsterville is published by Apprentice House Press, I will be introducing children to Michael’s monsters, inviting them to play with art and words inspired by his work.

I like the idea of a child’s wildest, monstrous impulses being beautiful—to be witnessed instead of shunned or corrected,” I once told Michael.

“We are all monsters,” he said.

©2022 Laura Shovan
All rights reserved

Laura Shovan…

…is an author, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone won the Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura’s award-winning children’s novels include The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and Sydney Taylor Notable A Place at the Table, written with Saadia Faruqi. She teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine. Welcome to Monsterville, her poetry collection for children, was illustrated by poet Michael Rothenberg.


The Roots of Institutionalized Poverty in the Compromise of 1877

skepticThe Reconstruction Era immediately following the surrender of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War extends from 1865 until 1877. Reconstruction began with great promise but ended in tragedy. At the very beginning of the Reconstruction Era, three Constitutional Amendments were passed, still collectively known as the “Reconstruction Amendments”: the 13th, which ended slavery; the 14th, which made all people born on American soil immediately and unconditionally Americans with equal rights across the breadth of the entire Nation (and also effectively revoked the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision of 1857, in which the Taney Supreme Court had ruled that slaves were not, and never could be, citizens); and the 15th, which prohibits deprivation of voting rights “by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (in other words, all former slaves could vote). For all practical purposes, however, all three of the Reconstruction Amendments, even in a de facto sense the 13th, were rendered null and void by the collapse of Reconstruction, beginning with the Compromise of 1877. The year 1877 and the inception of the Compromise also mark the beginning of the process of the institutionalization of poverty in the United States.


The Compromise of 1877 is difficult to write about, because, unlike the other great Compromises in the first half of the 19th century, e.g., the Compromises of 1820 (Missouri Compromise) and 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, etc., there is almost no documentation recording who agreed to what and why…and I am very tempted to remove the “almost” qualifier. Furthermore, the Compromise is difficult to write about, not only because of the lack of unambiguous documentation, but also because the events that caused it, and that transpired because of it, are of such complexity that any thorough and accurate account would rapidly expand and displace the subject of institutionalized poverty. Based on what little we do know for certain, it is evident that the leadership of the Confederate States, having decisively lost the Civil War militarily and returned to the Union, elected to attempt to accomplish politically what they could not achieve through the violence of battle: the perpetuation of some form of slavery in the South. In this, Southern leaders were successful to a degree that perhaps even they, in their wildest imaginings, could never have conceived. Their victory began with the election of 1876.

In November of 1876, the presidential election to replace Ulysses S. Grant pitted Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. The outcome of the election – of which the following is a Reader’s Digest-condensed account – precipitated an even greater Constitutional crisis than the election of 1800. I say “an even greater constitutional crisis” because the presidential election of 1800 involved a simple tie in electoral votes between candidates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. (The incumbent President, John Adams, was a respectable but distinct second.) There is a very explicit, and very simple, Constitutional procedure to resolve such an impasse: voting by each State represented in the House, with each State having a single vote. The House of Representatives had to take 36 votes to elect Thomas Jefferson, but in the end the impasse, harrowing though it was, was resolved through “plain-vanilla” Constitutional procedure.


But in the election of 1876, a situation arose that none of the Framers could have foreseen: competing slates of presidential electors were elected from the States of South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, and Oregon. (Rival slates of electors were commissioned because South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana all had self-appointed rival State governments of the other party. In Oregon, there was a controversy about the eligibility of one elector from Oregon.) In each case, one group of electors was committed to Hayes and the other to Tilden, reflecting the rival parties vying for control of the State governments. With time running out and no president yet elected – just as in 1800, only more so – the Congress was forced to grapple with the extra-Constitutional issue of which electors to count and how to validate their votes.

Congress ended up passing a law creating an ad hoc Election Commission for this purpose. The only thing certain at this point was that Samuel J. Tilden had won the popular vote. At issue was which candidate – Hayes or Tilden – had prevailed in terms of electoral votes. (There was and is no Constitutional obligation for any elector to vote for the candidate that won the popular vote in the elector’s State.) Just as Jeffersonian States threatened military action in 1800 if a Federalist interim president were somehow appointed, pro-Tilden Democratic States in 1876 threatened military action if Republican Hayes ended up in office. The slogan of the day was “Tilden or blood.” Commission deliberations began on February 1, 1877 – about six weeks before the inauguration date. During the run-up to the Commission proceedings, it gradually became clear that, in a straight up-or-down vote, Hayes would win. So the Democrats began a desperate filibuster – actually, a series of such – in hopes of buying time and trying to turn the electoral-vote situation in Tilden’s favor. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking: all parties were driving down on the date for the inauguration. The general consensus – remember: there is almost no documentation of this, and no documentation of any kind that could serve as a “smoking gun” – is that Democrats conferred with Republicans and agreed to refrain from a final filibuster, provided that Rutherford B. Hayes, upon assuming the presidency, would end Reconstruction and withdraw Federal troops from the States of the former Confederacy, thus ending protection of the recently freed slaves and terminating enforcement of the Reconstruction Amendments, especially the 14th and 15th. This “corrupt bargain,” as it was called by Republicans at the time, set the stage for the institutionalization of poverty in the South … and eventually across the entire Union. The South lost the Civil War militarily, but won it socially.

 There were three broad categories of consequences that issued from the Compromise of 1877: the de jure triumph of the “black codes” and “Jim Crow”; the extinguishing of the nascent practice of electing African-Americans to public office; and the withdrawal of Federal occupying troops and the consequent unleashing of white-supremacist organizations.

o “Black codes” and “Jim Crow”

The black codes were enacted in the South a year or so following the end of the Civil War in order to regulate the behavior of black slaves that had been freed, first, by the Emancipation Proclamation of January, 1863, and then by passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865. The codes did contain some “fig leaf” protections for former slaves, e.g., owners were de jure prohibited from murdering their former slaves, but the black codes – basically extensions and modifications of the “slave codes” of colonial times – prohibited former slaves from moving from one plantation to another, or even visiting another plantation without written permission from the owner. (Of course, in a formal sense, the former slaves were now ostensibly paid employees of the plantation.) The black codes continued to make it illegal for slaves to learn to read and write – and also for anyone to teach them these skills. Federal troops occupying former Confederate States were able to mitigate these laws somewhat under the terms of the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” and “due process” clauses. But after the Compromise of 1877 and the subsequent withdrawal of occupying Union troops, the black codes were allowed to take full effect. Perhaps of greatest importance vis a vis the institutionalization of poverty is that under both the slave and black codes, slaves were explicitly prohibited from learning any other useful, marketable skill: slaves de facto remained slaves even after their de jure legal status changed.


Similar remarks apply to “Jim Crow,” except that “Jim Crow” laid even greater emphasis on racial segregation than had the “slave” and “black codes.” All public facilities—rest rooms, train stations, schools, etc., etc.—were explicitly segregated by race. Nor was the trend to racial segregation restricted to the South. Fearing an influx of freed slaves to Union territory, most Northern States instituted some cognate of “Jim Crow.” For example, the 39th Congress, which passed the 14th Amendment and sent it to the States for ratification in 1865, is the same Congress that mandated racial segregation in the District of Columbia public-school system. In fact, the passage of the 14th Amendment is one of the vanishingly few cases where it is possible to be virtually certain of “original intent”: the Congress that passed the 14th could not have had the racial integration of public schools in mind when it wrote the “equal protection” clause of Section 1. (One of the ironies of history is that the Warren Court cited the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment to support the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.) Again, this was yet another case in which the occupation of the former Confederacy by Federal troops ameliorated the effects of race laws, and gave some effect to the 14th and 15th Amendments.

o The extinguishing of the nascent practice of electing African-Americans to public office

Perhaps the most bitter disappointment associated with the Compromise of 1877, however, was the subsequent lack of enforcement of the voting rights promised under the 15th Amendment. This included the sudden and calamitous choking-off of the election of African-American office-holders. One of the most consistently overlooked effects of the early Reconstruction period—the late 1860s and early 1870s—was that, in large measure because of the extension of the franchise under the 15th Amendment, African-Americans began to be voted into elective office. In retrospect, this was a golden age for African-Americans in the post-Civil-War South. The most conspicuous example, though by no means the only one, was that the junior senator from the State of Mississippi, Albert G. Brown, was succeeded by a free African-American originally from Ohio, Hiram Rhodes Revels – who was also a distinguished African Methodist Episcopal minister. (Even more remarkable about Sen. Revels is that he was elected, as were all senators at this time and prior to the 17th Amendment, by the Mississippi State legislature by a vote of 81-15.) Sen. Revels was followed by Blanche Bruce, who was the first African-American senator to serve a full term. (Sen. Revels resigned his Senate seat after serving for about 18 months in order to become a college president.) Many scholars count over 1500 African-American officeholders at various levels of government during Reconstruction, among them, in addition to Sens. Revels and Bruce, are: Rep. Benjamin S. Turner (R-AL)Robert DeLarge (R-SC)Josiah Walls (R-FL)Jefferson Long (R-GA)Joseph Rainey (R-SC) and Robert B. Elliott (R-SC). Speaking of irony…Mississippi, the home State of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, the State he represented as a US Senator, and the location of his huge plantation, ended up being represented by the first African-American senator and the first African-American senator to serve a full term; Alabama, the location of the first Confederate capital of Birmingham, elected an African-American to the House; and South Carolina, the State with the greatest population of black slaves on the eve of the Civil War (by many counts greater than the white population!) , sent three African-Americans to the House of Representatives.  And the crowning irony: except for  Mr. Elliott, who was born in England, all the above-named Reconstruction Representatives were born slaves. All across the South, at various levels of government, other examples could be cited.  Their name was “Legion,” for they were many.

reconstruction_congresso The withdrawal of Federal occupying troops and the consequent unleashing of white-supremacist organizations

But the Compromise of 1877, the withdrawal of Federal troops, and the consequent rise of white-supremacist organizations like the Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, the Red Shirts, and the White League, all founded either following the Civil War or in the early days of the Reconstruction, all conspired to render the act of voting, let alone running for public office, lethal for African-Americans. The bright and shining moment was abruptly closed, during whose brief years men like the ones alluded to above—many former slaves, all born to modest, often poor, circumstances—could be elected to office and serve as living fulfillments of the initial promise of Reconstruction. Small wonder, then, that in the wake of the Compromise of 1877, African-American Republicans, many of whom had served in the Union army, felt betrayed by the very Nation whose integrity they had fought to preserve.

Finally, from the standpoint of economic justice and poverty, the Compromise of 1877, the withdrawal of the Federal occupation, and the consequent monopoly on politics subsequently enjoyed in the Southern State legislatures by die-hard segregationists, racists, and “Redeemer” Democrats, the results could hardly have been more severe or disastrous. With the “slave” / “black” codes and “Jim Crow” now in full effect, with no means of coercively enforcing the 14th and 15th Amendments, with former black slaves prohibited from learning a new trade or even how to read and write, and with overtly and militantly white-supremacist organizations now openly enforcing what only amounted to a new version of the old, antebellum social order, the inability to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments resulted in the “hollowing out” of the 13th. The poverty that slaves had known in the past became a present reality, rendered explicitly legal once more and – once more – subject to coercive enforcement.

Blacks remained poor, and were forced to remain poor, literally, on pain of death. Southern planters and capitalists now had access to a vast, vast pool of free, or almost-free, labor—again, in a manner and to an extent virtually indistinguishable from the slavery of the 1850s. Slavery had not been abolished, merely changed in form. Instead of a given slave belonging to or on a particular plantation as the chattel property of a particular, specific, individual slave-owner, the slaves of the 1870s and 1880s were now, as it were, “slaves at large,” in no way whatsoever essentially different from the vast pool of free labor into which the targeted populations of 1940s Europe were transformed at gun—and bayonet-point by the armies of National Socialist Germany. The form of slavery had changed. The substance had not. Nor would this state of affairs begin to change, even in tectonic-plate increments, until the Second Reconstruction, better known as the American Civil-Rights Movement, which began a century later.

– James R. Cowles

© 2015, essay, James R. Cowles, All rights reserved; illustration, public domain