Between crop fields that rise golden and whisper
when dry and a husk is all that remains,
a white clapboard school sits with a few desks
and chairs for the local boys and girls.
They come most mornings by horse-drawn buggy
or on foot, the boys in dark, homespun britches
and straw hats, the girls in their white caps and frocks.
They clatter together, over wooden planks
with heavy heeled shoes, until the day’s lesson
begins. This is Paradise for any child,
when the class is small and the schoolhouse as serene
as the immense landscape that rises and falls
in green grass and autumn leaves
in their colorful, falling dance. The milk man
rides down the road once a week to collect
the milk from their parents, which is the only contact
most have, at this age, with the outside world
and its machines. Paradise in chalk,
Paradise in blackboard, Paradise in nature.
What a place to grow.
Shoot me first, said Marian to save the other girls.
Shoot me second, said her sister,
but she survived her courage. Thank God.
A wolf howls from a lone rock that levitates
up into the clouds, a woeful sound that circles
around the shoulders of weeping mothers
like a thin shawl. Five little girls executed
in Paradise. The plank boards of the school
redden with blood and so, too, the earth below.
The milkman came to catch the bounty
of the Amish, again, this time in their children.
He must have confused the white-capped girls
with the rocking peaks of milk. He thought
to dip his finger in here and taste. He’d pounded
ten eyebolts into a wall spaced ten inches apart
to truss up the girls he kept when he sent
the rest away so that he could touch them in a line.
How efficient. A siren wail thwarted his saliva-drip
desire, so he shot the girls and himself, most execution style,
so their blood mixed with his amid crayons and lesson books.
With the other women, she dresses the girls in white,
this children she turned with her own midwife fingers
and shepherded into the world.
A nearby meeting house stretches its doors
for the mourning and the candles they bring.
Night lingers on, longer than usual, and the Amish
bow their heads, their whole bodies, into prayer.
Sam Stolzfus, a grandfather of one of the girls, speaks
to the boys who survive: Do not think this man evil.
Their hearts they must resign to God,
keep them smooth and untwisted by hate.
And to those around him, who listen to his husky,
woodcutter voice: A funeral to us is a much more
important thing than the day of birth
because we believe in the hereafter. The children
are better off than their survivors.
The congregation says Amen and moans in agreement.
This meeting place, too, is holy. Mothers look
to their sons, and fathers look to their daughters,
those who were not there or escaped, and hold
them dearer, wonder how this will change the future,
while they plan the funerals of Naomi Rose,
Anna Mae, Marian, Mary Liz and Lena,
determine which horses and which buggies
will bear them up to heaven.
Simple pine boxes with no metal
pins in graves dug by hand.
All things return to dust.
On Boogeyman Dawn, 2013, Salmon Poetry
In Boogeyman Dawn, Raina León explores the space between some of our worst nightmares and the awakening of hope. León does not look away from even the rawest of wounds in the psyche, the flesh, and the social body, but it is through carefully wrought images and patiently distilled language-lines that are anything but raw – that she entices us to follow her gaze and trust that dawn will come. One source of encouragement is her rich and multifaceted cultural heritage – Puerto Rican, black, American – evident not only in the subjects she treats, but also in the way lines of Spanish and English sometimes dance together. Be aware: the ‘boogeyman’ in these poems is no mere myth, but a symbol of problems all too real. Still, as León guides us through her shifting landscape, though she confesses to moments of despair, she always gives witness to the re-emergence of hope: “This morning I found my wrists again, / But you held my hands.”
— Evie Shockley, author of The Gorgon Goddess and The New Black
“[H]ow do you save yourself when silent / mouth clamped shut” asks one speaker. “[H]e needs me to explore the words / with my tongue, repeat them with the muscles / of my face” feels like a reply – one of many. There doesn’t seem to be a device or register that León will not explore in this fearless poemario whose ethos, on the hand, is giving witness: the abused child at school; the prisoner pursuing a GED; the massacre of six Amish children. But also giving surprising voice to, literally, the voiceless: “I just wanted to be held” (‘The pistol’s confession’); “They forget the days when they floated / makeshift prayer boats along my face” (‘Monologue of a shallow river’), all the while deploying “the guts of growl and play” – her plural flexing of language.
— Francisco Aragón, Institute for Latino Studies, University of Notre Dame, author of Glow of Our Sweat
Raina León has crafted an elegant, brooding, and playful peek-around-the-corner view of this often difficult existence through the eyes and thoughts of children, and those whose lives are affected by them--which is all of us. From the haunting dark of premature death to the transformative, ambivalent force of testosterone, León hears the proud, colloquial, melanin-informed line that distinguishes familiar and familial, that border that suggests we are all connected, and we are not. A narrative woven in the intimacy of despair as well as the proximity of hope, this is a stunning, imaginative collection.
— Quraysh Ali Lansana, author of Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy & Social Justice in Classroom & Community