Five months after the earthquake of January 12, 2011, I sat in an elegant art gallery on the upper slopes of Petion Ville to talk to a gathering of Haitian poets. I was moonlighting while reporting on HIV AIDS in Haiti after the earthquake. I did not want to miss the chance to find out how the poets were responding to the earthquake. We talked, argued, laughed, as we danced the awkward waltz around language. My French is not great, my Kreyol is worse. The translations opened the way for understanding. The poets said they found it hard to write. They asked, how can we write poems when the poems are in the streets, the poems are the voices lamenting loss? They asked if I understood that they could not be free to witness since they were also walking the streets counting their losses and counting their anxieties. One poet said that he had written a few lines but they seemed so trivial, so empty of meaning in the face of what he had seen. But by the end of the evening, they expressed gratitude for the gathering, for the chance to be among each other and for the hope of making poems in the midst of so much tragedy.

My four trips to Haiti gave me images, dreams, nightmares, and the music of poems in the bodies of the people around me. And yet, my greatest companion during these trips were poems I found collected in the anthology Open Gate: An Anthology of Haitian Creole Poetry (edited by Paul Laraque and Jack Hirchman) of Haitian poems translated from the Kreyol. As I read these poems, I jotted down fragments, snippets, lines that caught hold of me and offered me a way of speaking what I was seeing. I found myself drawn to those moments that seem to have been written for this time.

Below are a few of the selections that have become a part of my notebook. In these poems, we understand the poet as a voice speaking for community even as the poet suffers to find language that is faithful to the world in which they live:

Each time they cheat,
It’s our debt for tomorrow
(Claude Innocent)

…the poor man’s spit is all dried up.
(Claude Innocent)

In the land of Haiti
kids are dreaming
but they only dream nightmares.
They see snakes that are crawling
with little cups of water ‘round their necks.
(Georges Castera)

It’s here also that all the dust coming from the houses
says good-morning to the dead
as if nothing happened.
(George Castera)

Around here, life burns!
(George Castera)

When you cross the border
Don’t leave your machete behind
(Jean-Claude Martineau)

Help! Help! Let’s cry out
Until we’re hoarse
So the sun that destroys germs
Spreads its wings
(Jean-Marie Willer Denis)

When a brave woman’s out walking
she’s Mistress Life’s spitting image
(Michel-Ange Hyppolite)

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

Our dawns drown in ashes
(Michel-Ange Hyppolite)

You can cut me
Weed me out throw me away
You can burn me
Make charcoal of me
Birds won’t stop
Making nests in my roots
Hope won’t stop
Blossoming in my heart
I’m a poet
My roots don’t have an end
(Emmanuel Eugene)

But when a flame-tree
All the birds fly the coop

In exile they go singing
On the other side of the water they cry
In sorrow for those left behind
(Emmanuel Eugene)

Each drop of night that drips
Is a cup of bitter coffee in our hearts
Dew flows from our eyes
Staining the coat of powder
On the jaws of early morning
(Emmanuel Eugene)

In a few months, Peepal Tree Press will publish a new anthology of Haitian poetry that I am editing. These are poems written after the earthquake. The promise of these fragments

Originally Published: April 14th, 2011

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...