Cyrus Cassells

Cyrus Cassells is the author of four acclaimed books of poetry: The Mud Actor, Soul Make a Path through Shouting, Beautiful Signor, and More Than Peace and Cypresses. His fifth book, The Crossed-Out Swastika, and a translation manuscript, Still Life with Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas, are forthcoming. Among his honors are a Lannan Literary Award, a William Carlos Williams Award, a Pushcart Prize, two NEA grants, and a Lambda Literary Award. He is a Professor of English at Texas State University-San Marcos, and lives in Austin and Paris.


for Elizabeth Eckford
Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957

Thick at the schoolgate are the ones
Rage has twisted
Into minotaurs, harpies
Relentlessly swift;
So you must walk past the pincers,
The swaying horns,
Sister, sister,
Straight through the gusts
Of fear and fury,
Straight through:
Where are you going?

I’m just going to school.

Here we go to meet
The hydra-headed day,
Here we go to meet
The maelstrom---

Can my voice be an angel-on-the-spot,
An amen corner?
Can my voice take you there,
Gallant girl with a notebook,
Up, up from the shadows of gallows trees
To the other shore:
A globe bathed in light,

A chalkboard blooming with equations—

I have never seen the likes of you,
Pioneer in dark glasses:
You won’t show the mob your eyes,
But I know your gaze,
Steady-on-the North-Star, burning—

With their jerry-rigged faith,
Their spear of the American flag,
How could they dare to believe
You’re someone sacred?:
Nigger, burr-headed girl,
Where are you going?

I’m just going to school.


Jacques Lusseyran (1924-1972)
In ignoble Buchenwald,
it began with the blind

Resistance hero’s claim:
Poetry, true poetry, is more

than literature; it’s magic!
So, by basins of bracing water,

where whey-faced prisoners washed,
in the blue hour before labor,

this adolescent Parisian,
pummeled, denigrated for fashioning

a defiant cell
of over six hundred young men,

this risk-taking prodigy who found
an incontestable light

cached under his abraded eyes,
his lids, and words

written on a chalkboard
more radiant than all equations--

suddenly began to recite,
for a chilled, flummoxed,

hard–to-rouse audience,
all the poetry he could summon:

First Rimbaud,
followed in swift succession

by cunning, enigmatic Baudelaire,
some bell-clear Hugo,

then unerring lines from Apollinaire,
so pertinent

to their brutal and bounded days:
I know all sorts of people

who aren’t equal to their lives.
Their hearts are poorly smothered fires . . .

Ensorcelled, soon rallying voices joined
marshalling Jacques Lusseyran

in his rosary of pain-staving poets,
more and more,

until they formed a wellspring chorus
of fifty impassioned men,

chanting, lisping,
gesturing at times, swaying,

beating their chests,
in a raise-the-roof beauty--

Reader, from the book of shoring victories,
keep Lusseyran’s claim:

how a word-dazzled Hungarian Jew,
ignorant of French, memorized

a stanza of Baudelaire
in the onerous, ticking days

before his transport to Poland;
how a once-prim,

suddenly emboldened prisoner implored:
Touch my forehead,

it’s sweat--
that’s what warms us up,

Lusseyran, only fear

of the whip or the gallows, only poetry
can affect us like this!

Here, tomorrow, in the ink of dawn,

beyond the meant-to-crush-you barracks,
the widow-making watchtowers,

true poetry—adamant
as in-a-hurry pistons,

out-galloping hooves;
true poetry— unfailing

as the rescuing oath
of a milk brother;

true poetry—full manna
for the yellow-starred,

far-flung men marked
for “transfer to the sky”:

Eden breath,
fountain spire, telltale

arrows of Apollinaire,


kiss of peace, immense
cloak of humanness

ennobling life and death.

Berlin, 2007

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