Writing is often a process of retrieval. We can return to places or even return places to other states and times. A poet can gift a reader with experience as if to say, this is what I made of it and I entrust it to you. Melissa Alipalo not only leads us in but also implicates us in the poem’s narrative when she declares in the title itself, ‘You are Witness, not Martyr’. The judicious use of second person through the poem (‘Listen closely, you will hear –the scratching’) furthers this immersion.
Her craft lies in her use of sonic patterns as she interweaves the anecdotal with the thematic. Consider, for instance: ‘a metal wail of grinding and cranking echoed / across the water. We found our facts in the downstream shallows.’
Alipalo’s poems take us to fronts of political and natural crises, to cities, rivers and deserts in Nepal, China and India. Identifying with the poem’s speakers, we enter rich pictures that bridge mere fact to bring us into presence with specificity, ‘like Khejri shade in a barren desert’.
— Mandakini Pachauri
The Bombay Literary Magazine
You are Witness, Not Martyr
Passing by Shahid Gate, you laugh at how our Filipino colleagues
martyr your name the way they say Shaheeeeeed. You say
you are shaHID. The vowel accent makes a difference. You are witness,
not martyr. We are lucky when we get one dinner, when business
brings me to this cobbled, always under construction, ancient
dust bowl. We recount the origins of our friendship, forged
in the Far West foothills, days down the Seti, mercenaries
sent to take the temperature of peasant dissent. They interpret
their dreams into demands. Generations of immanent exodus
out of the valley, into the plains. This life or next, I know the earth
is theirs, and not just what they plow to their graves. The whole earth.
And if what they want is buried under water, they shall have that too.
God would pull the plug himself, drain the whole reservoir, return it
to the dispossessed with a double rainbow. You explain in the waxed light
what it’s like to feel trapped where you belong. Listen closely, you will hear
the scratching. Everyone scratches at the table for something, for what
they deserve, what was promised. I hear the scratching in your voice. I see
your scratches at the desk where you sit, day after day, saving your assigned
corner of the world. You say there are no hours left in the day to dream, to create
something else than making bankers’ dreams come true. You want to make
movies. Do you know you will never be as young as you are today?
When I visit again you are gone on another mission. From your empty office
window, I see Shahid Gate without Dharahara. It has fallen since we
rounded it on your motorbike, all 213 steps shaken from existence,
sixty bodies in the rubble, only the base survived. There is always time
until there’s none. Look, Shahid, at my fingernails, what’s left of them.
Every day I finish a little more of what I started. Witness, Shahid—
read what I have made from my scratches
Like the gravel garden under my children’s bedroom window,
under the anahaw palms where the shade grew nothing, where
we dug through tears to bury their birds, the turtle, the dog.
Like our neighbor who called us bad feng shui, sent his house boy
to saw down the bodhi tree grown taller than the bamboo fence.
Our daughter cried, grit her teeth, threatened to throw stones, grabbed
handfuls of garden gravel. Sawing down her tree, the houseboy said,
sorry, sorry, sorry. Like river dredging I witnessed while fact-finding
in China. How much damage can gravel farming do in a downstream tail
of a colossal hydropower dam? The reservoir could even be serene
if one didn’t know the engineering that created it: Hilltops turned
to islands floating like a fleet of ships waiting for orders to return
to open waters. They idle forever, or until the dam breaks,
to feel their whole selves again. Our placid view split across the air
like lightning: a metal wail of grinding and cranking echoed
across the water. We found our facts in the downstream shallows:
another kind of fleet, industrial pirate ships barely visible through the fog.
Beneath their rusty bodies, invisible claws rake for grey gold,
salvaged riverbed stones. Hauls dragged to shore mount
into cone piles, waiting to mold the next city. The air turned
turbid with the river, scabbed earth, unfathomed futures.
My phone notifies me of something it calls a memory, something
it thinks I want to remember. Every day, one year ago today hammers
an involuntary memory into my palm. I bruise invisibly
though the bone feels broken. I scroll through time like
crawling with bare knees on gravel. I was not raised to believe
in penitence. My heart is too soft to handle the hardness.
To rise and rest in Rajasthan’s desert,
under Khejri shade in a barren desert.
How many young loves? He smiled at me:
No flowers in the Laggar Falcon’s desert.
Homefront arrangements endanger us
like bastards lost in the Godawan’s desert.
Women of the well, unite! Pour your water
over the Shivalinga in your Christian desert.
When the temple denies me, bless me
with sandalwood paste in a suzerain desert.
Like Jacob’s hip to Hosea’s angel, we
are God’s weakness in heaven’s desert.
Ghalib’s time is true: gone. I am not time.
I can always return east of Cholistan Desert.
I wait for the bloom of a new root and seed
in the glacial silt of my garden’s desert.
They will come for the bee and the Blackbuck
alike. Bishnoi, protect my sovereign desert.
Melissa Alipalo is an American poet and writer based in Maine. Her poetics is informed by more than 20 years of working in journalism and international development in Asia. She has worked in 15 countries on various urban, water, climate, and environmental projects. She earned an MFA from the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast and an MSc in Social Development from Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. She is an alumna advisor for the Stonecoast Review, where she recently served as editor in chief. She is currently finalizing her first full collection of poetry, The Past is 13 Hours Ahead.