The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®




We are very happy to announce Cecilia Woloch has been

awarded The Pushcart Prize for her long poem, “Reign of

Embers”, presented in Volume One of The American Journal

of Poetry. Ms. Woloch’s poem printed out to 26 pages on

standard-sized copy paper. The review heartily welcomes

long poems, not to mention risk-taking. Nominating a 26

page poem to an anthology with, quite naturally, limited

space—is a risk. That paid off! We are delighted to reprint

her prize-garnering poem below. It will appear in Pushcart

Prize XLI / Best of The Small Presses (2017), forthcoming

this fall. Our sincerest thanks to Bill Henderson, legendary

editor of this iconic anthology—and his organization.

Cecilia Woloch

Reign of Embers

                                  "In the dark time will there also be singing?"
                                 "Yes, there will be singing about the dark time." — Bertolt Brecht


I. (Aftermath: Paris)

Can you make a song of the love of death?
(And how does it go? the poet asks.)

Some had been singing before they died.
Some had been bringing the food to their lips.
Some had been kissing. Some had been drunk.
Some had been screaming, God is good,
as they fired into the crowd.

Can you make a prayer from the love of death,
from the fingerprint of the finger
blown off the assassin’s hand?

Can I love my enemy as myself?

Bless the almighty, the powerless.
Bless the boy who was circumcised
at thirteen. Bless the imam’s knife.
Bless the girls who are being raped,
who are strapping on suicide vests.
Bless them remotely, as they detonate.
Bless whoever made the bomb.

How do you fight the love of death?
I ask my friend, who says, You can’t.
It only takes eighteen years to grow
a suicide bomber from a child
and they have this figured out.

But who are they? I ask.

On the small screen, flickering, I watch
a young man unfolding, refolding a shirt —
the shirt he wore that night, he says.
Whose blood? He doesn’t know.
Can I put it away now? he asks.
I don’t know what to do with it.

Can I make a prayer of this?

Some died with the food still in their mouths.
Some died with the music playing, still.
Some died in one another’s arms.
Some were dragged away to live —

hands trembling, lighting a cigarette,
It’s monstrous, the young man says,
when I saw what a bullet could do.

A flower of flame.
A blossom of blood.
A shower of gold-hot sparks.
A blast.

Can you make a song from death?
I ask my friend. He says,
Go to sleep.

II. (MacBeth)

The murderer says, I am one, my liege,
whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
have so incensed that I am reckless
what I do to spite the world.

Some died having dreamt of this —

to cleanse the world of infidels,
to plant a black flag in the sand
where there is no law, no love

but the love of death.

Whose god? Whose flag?

III. (Ratline)

One source says the source is everywhere.
One source says the source is our enemy.
One source says the source is us,
with our blundering, with our greed.

Big, shining vehicles crossing the desert.
Shining machines in clouds of sand.
Black flags visible for miles.

Some died having dreamt of this.

One man says, It’s the Russians again.
One man says, It’s a pipeline, moving oil.
One man says, No, a pipeline moving gas.
One man says, It began as a shadow movement
of the U.S. government.

One source says children are being taught
to fire weapons, to throw grenades.
The face of their teacher obscured in the film.
The faces of mothers everywhere.

One source says they are not blunders
but part of a plan to divide the world.

A little truth, a little honor —
is that such a hard thing to wish?

Blood on the pavements of Paris, Beirut,
covered with wreaths and candles now.
One girl from Los Angeles dead,
dark-haired and young, with a name like a flower.

IV. (Chateau Marmont, West Hollywood)

He says it’s going to take a hundred years to clean up the mess we’ve made. By us he means Britain, France, the U.S. His country, and mine. Our complicity. Bombs going off over children’s heads, a rain of dust and broken concrete and, in the piles of rubble, limbs, torn flesh. He’s sitting back in his chair in the elegant suite in the elegant hotel.
I’ve got one leg tucked under my hip, one pump kicked off, something sweet in my mouth. I’m trying to shut up, for once in my life, and just listen. He knows more than I know, I guess, about what’s going on in the Middle East. Who these holy warriors are, who’s putting the money into their hands for more guns and more bombs, who’s selling them weapons, who’s buying their oil, who, in the first place, put them in place, thinking they’d be their best instruments. “It’s a very sophisticated operation,” he says, and stutters a bit. Sophis-ticated. Sophistica-ted. Sophisticated P.R. “It’s like Hollywood,” he says, about the videos I’m afraid to watch, the beautiful propaganda — flashes of fire, flags waving, raised fists — because I’m afraid I’d get sucked in. “And these kids,” he says, “these kids, they have nothing else. And they’re stupid, really stupid.” He almost spits the word in disgust. Across the room, our friend has dozed off sitting up in her chair in their elegant suite—she’s tired, or she’s had too much wine. Later, she’ll wake and smile at us, stand up and stretch and go to bed. He’ll walk me back through the private garden, past the pool where someone yells fuckfuck this or fuck that, or fuck you — though I can’t see who, through the leafy dark, just the bright blue eye of the swimmerless pool. And we’ll stand for a while in a crowd of the wealthy young on the sidewalk along Sunset Boulevard, the valets parking expensive cars for the guests of the elegant hotel. And I’ll wonder, where does their money come from, how did they get so much? Some young women hobbling on heels so high they look like tilted dolls; some with faces so famous, so faultless, they don’t look human anymore.

V. (Dawn Raid in St. Denis: Abdelhamid Abbaoud)

And if you’re so in love with death
why are you hiding now?
Why have you barricaded yourself
with your guns against their guns?
Who are you, and who are they
masked as you mask yourself, blacking out
your only human face.

And who was the girl, falling in flames,
and what was the flower of her name?

Were you there, when the shots rang out
and some lay down and some crawled away
and some were hunted, still, like rats
in the basement rooms of the concert hall?

We ran through a maze,
one woman says, We found a nook
and tried to make ourselves
as small as we could get.

In St. Denis, still, the bullets flare
where they’ve flared since dawn, like fireworks.
And you are barricaded, still, and still
love every death but your own.

(They seemed afraid, one young man said
of the men who took hostages, in the end;
in the end, they hadn’t wanted to die.)
How to make a song from the love of death?
How to make a black mask of the dawn,
of your own once-human face?

No children will go to school in St. Denis today.
There would be no books in the world you’d make
but the book you call holy
and have drenched in the blood
of the only world there is.

VI. (News)

One source says it’s a rat line moving weapons
from Libya through Turkey to Syria.
One source says it’s the Turkish president’s son
getting rich transporting the terrorists’ oil.

One source says the oil is put onto tankers,
then shipped to Malta, to Israel.

One man says, from his prison cell,
“You need to think like a woman,
for men only fight for power.”

VII. (The Sixth Day: St. Denis/Alfortville)

The detonations went on for hours.
That’s how enormous the arsenal was.
Almost incalculable, they say,
the weapons stockpiled
in those rooms, the rounds
of ammunition fired.

And those dead inside so dead,
at last, they could not be identified.

A floor collapsing, a ceiling collapsing,
one young woman’s body
exploding in flames.

Are you safe? I type, Keep safe,
to my friend in another Paris suburb
where a safehouse has been found:
two rooms, abandoned, strewn with trash —
pizza boxes and chocolate wrappers,
rubber tubing and used syringes —

here the camera swerves, and stops.

Are the children safe? I type
to my old love whose daughter is named
for one white flower, in Arabic,
whose son is, almost, already, the age
of the young men who attacked,
who were not much more than boys.

One father bows his head and says
he’d prayed that his son was already dead —
the son who had kidnapped his younger brother,
thirteen, and taken the boy to Syria.
One father opens his arms and says,
This country gave us everything.
One young man’s father comes to the door.
Did you know, did you know?
the reporters ask.
Did I know? he says. Did I know?
If I had known,
I’d have killed him myself.

How to make a prayer from the love of death?

They’d been drug dealers, petty thieves,
they’d been in prison, they were young,
then they put on the black masks of warriors
and called this holy war, jihad
and call, in death, for the end of the world.

Let this not be the end of the world.

But who put the weapons into their hands?
On whose hands, now, the blood
of the young turned to flowers, turned to flame?

Have we chosen the wrong men to lead us?
Have we made the wrong people rich?
Have we put power into the hands
of those who love power as much as death?

How will I know my enemy, in the end,
if the air is full of poison gas?

A man kneels in the street
where wreaths have been lain
and tells his small son, Yes,
the flowers protect us.

The child believes.

The young woman whose body fell in flames
had only begun to wear the veil.
She didn’t know what it meant, they say,
she was smitten with her cousin,
she was in love with him, she screamed,
He’s not my boyfriend! as she fell.
The detonations went on for hours.
The dead in the rooms behind the barricade
could not be identified.

They had been drug dealers, prisoners, thieves.
They had been welcomed with open arms.
They had been boys, once, given to suck,
— as all boys are, in these times —
on the pornography of violence
in which a woman becomes a bomb,
in which the flower of her sex becomes
a passageway to death.

Can they be forgiven?
Can we?
Can the god in the girl still rise up, sing?


VIII. (Veering)

And let he who is without sin
cast the first stone.
And let she who is without blame
fall blamelessly, in flames.
And let our rocket launchers not fall
into the hands or our enemies.

But who are our enemies now?

A rat line, some say,
transporting weapons
from Libya to Syria.
A shadow government, some say,
transporting the terrorists’ oil
across Turkey to the sea.

Two million children fleeing
into the arms of what country now?

A medieval moment, says my friend,
the child of the children of children of slaves.
Some people who have everything
don’t want anyone else to have anything.

A man in prison in Kirkurk, Iraq,
from a family of seventeen,
who’d worked building car bombs
to feed his family —
What other work could he get? he asks.
What other choice did he have?
When the Americans came in,
they got rid of Saddam and gave us this.
Under Saddam, we were starving,
but at least we were alive.

And the god of the men
who paid for the bombs
is not his god, he says.
Their god is not my god.

And the boys in Europe who flocked to Syria
wanted adventure, wanted blood.
Wanted the Hollywood
Hollywood promised them.
Wanted a god who loved them best.

Death to the infidels.
Death to Nohemi Gonzalez,
who sat in a Paris cafe with her friends.
Death to Abdelhamid Abaaoud,
who planned the attacks in which how many died?
Death to the man in prison in Kirkurk
sentenced to death. More death.
How many deaths to feed whose god,
to empty the world of infidels?

A boy with a stone in his hand rears back.
The sky fills with falling stars.

Have we veered off-course?
Have we tilted the world
toward rat line, poison gas?
Have we made of our weapons a god
who will not answer when we call?

IX. (Lauren: Los Angeles)

Or have we loved wrongly all along?

A young woman comes to my door in Los Angeles,
years since I saw her last,
and with something pleading in her eyes,
something harmed. (I would not have you harmed.)

I invite her to sit, I pour wine.
She asks for a cigarette, a light.
She wasn’t much more than a girl when we met,
she was my student, a favorite, then.

Now she’s tasting the smoke, which is bitter.
Now she’s drinking the wine, which is sweet.
Now she’s asking if I’m afraid.

We talk, we agree on the shadows between us:
everywhere, blame, lines blurring, crossed.
The shadow governments, shadow wars,
the shadow weapons in shadow arms.
And the man who’d lived for two years in her house,
who’d slept in her bed and shared her food,
called her from prison last week for help,
having beaten another woman badly enough
to have finally broken the law.
A felony, she says, I was just lucky it wasn’t me.

I tell her that I was just lucky, too.
That we’re all lucky to be alive.
Because some women die for love.
Some women die in the name of love.
Some women died unnamed, unloved.

The young woman in St. Denis
whose name is on no one’s tongue,
calling out from the midst of the explosions,
Help me, help me, please.
Calling out, He’s not my boyfriend
the last words to ever leave her mouth.
Then the detonation, the bomb,
her body turning to flame in the air,
her head and her spine, two separate pieces,
cinder and bone on the pavement below.
Who ever loved that girl? I wonder,
who loved to party, to drink and smoke,
who her own friends called clueless
— and these were her friends?

Whose mother and father had given her up,
as a child, into foster care,
who had lived nowhere and everywhere,
who had only begun to wear the veil,
who didn’t understand what it meant,
who stood flaming in the sky a moment
then, burning, fell through the air.

Stupid, I think, stupid kids
who thought they loved death
until death came for them.

And my young friend, ash in her palm,
trembling a little, agrees.

And Paul, on the road to Damascus,
hearing the voice of Christ in the wind
asking, Why do you persecute me?
turned, in terror, to love, called love
the fulfillment of the law.
Love is the fulfillment of the law.

But where is the law when you need the law?

A young man had tried to flee the concert hall
in the midst of the chaos and bullets and blood;
he’d climbed out a window and clung
to a bare wall three stories above the street;
just below him, a woman, also clinging,
but slipping, I’m slipping, she sobbed,
I’m pregnant, I can’t hold on.
So the young man pulled himself back inside
— what could he do?— and ran down the stairs
and pulled her to safety — was she safe?
And so he was caught, himself, held hostage
by the terrorists barricaded below —
because, in the end, they’d been terrified.
In the end, they’d not wanted to die.
Because the body wants to live.
They sat with their backs against a wall,
young men like him, but with guns in their arms.
And one threw a wad of cash at his feet
and, Do you love money? he asked.
And when the young man told him, No,
the young man with the gun said, Burn it, then.

Later, his body so pulverized
he could not be identified
except by the prints of one fingertip, spit.

And how did the other young man survive?

And the young cops in the street stood trembling
among the body parts, broken glass,
the dog they’d loved blown apart in the barrage,
the pavement blood-stained
when dawn finally came.

And where is the law when you need the law?
Where is love, as she falls in flames?
My young friend smoking a cigarette.
The dark machines screaming through the sky
over Damascus as we speak.

X. (Elizabeth: Los Angeles)
                      They had a power for death we wanted. —W.S. Merwin

And are these, then, the holy wars?
Is this jihad, martyrdom
for a heaven so filled with virgins
the seams of heaven explode?

Now a mass grave has been found,
filled with the corpses of women too old
to have been the warriors’ wives, or their slaves.

But who put the weapons into their hands,
who took their money, drank their oil?

We’re riding downtown in a car-for-hire,
my friend beside me, whose sight is failing,
her hand resting lightly in my hand;
the sleek car gliding through the gleam
of the City of Angels, Los Angeles,
our dark-skinned driver glancing back
in the rear-view mirror, smiling at us.

Guess where it is, he asks,
my favorite country in Africa?

Because my friend likes to talk to strangers,
she likes to ask them where they’ve been
and she’s asked, and he wants us to ask him
where his favorite country is,
he wants to tell us,
So tell us, she says.

Rwanda, he answers, his smile
lighting up in the rear-view mirror,
because, after the genocide there,
so few men were left alive,
it’s a country of women and children, now,
a new country of the young.
And the women who’ve taken the law
and the government into their hands
hold everyone accountable, he says.

Because all the warriors are dead.
Because they killed one another so well.

Allahu Akbar, God is great,
or maybe just good, and good is enough.
My friend, who is losing her sight,
for whom light is failing, thanking him.





CECILIA WOLOCH has published six collections of poems — most recently Earth, (Two Sylvias Press) —and a novel, Sur la Route (Quale Press). Recent honors include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Indiana Review Prize for Poetry. She collaborates regularly with artists in other disciplines and conducts workshops for writers around the world. She will be teaching this fall in the creative writing program at Georgia College & State University.