Poetry of Witness
By Kaia Sand, Daniel Cox, Randy Humphreys, Michone Nettles, George McCarthy and Bronwyn Carver. Photographs by Rian Dundon
MAYBE IT’D BE a stand of trees encircling a ground soft with pine needles, out of view of neighbors so as not to scare them, but close enough that, should danger come, there might be a witness.
That’s the kind of place George McCarthy adds to his mental inventory of where he could sleep as he travels about the city on bus and foot. Even now, a few months into living in an apartment after ten years of homelessness in South Carolina and Oregon, he scans and adds to his catalog of places he could return.
In one of my first conversations with George, he referred to a Frank O’Hara poem, and I realized I’d found a friend. While he vacillated between sleeping outside and finding a mat in a shelter, he would maintain his membership to the Portland Art Museum so he could spend hours browsing art. A nephew of NYC police officers with a strong Brooklyn accent, despite years away, he easily launches into an astute analysis of the disinvestment into federal services under Reagan, or he emphasizes the high cost of housing that drives so much homelessness.
I have the good fortune of knowing George, and the other poets I’ve collected here, because I run Street Roots, a street newspaper in Portland, Oregon. In any given week, about two hundred people sell the newspaper to earn income; in the parlance of social services, this is “low-barrier” work. People can walk in off the streets, without ID, go through orientation, and start selling the paper to get money in their pocket. About ten people join as vendors every week.
I don’t lead our poetry workshops or edit our poetry page. Instead, I experience it in the boisterous conversations between people lugging backpacks, on the scraps of paper creased with dirt, in the ground score art (the street name for items found and claimed as treasures). Poetry is, as Roque Dalton wrote, like bread. It’s like bread and coffee and socks and the many items that are shared, swapped, passed around on the streets. Maybe it’s more apt to write that “Poetry is like socks.”
Bronwyn Carver, one poet in this folio, describes the importance of socks on the streets. People have to carry all they own; sometimes items are left behind. I hear often that sleeping bags, tents, other possessions “have legs.” Possessions disappear again and again. Because there’s little access to laundry, clothing transforms into sodden, composting mounds. Carver and others write frequently of mud and dirt and soil, and also of comforts like soap and socks.
I am a poet with a bent toward politics and journalism who found my way to poetry via Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting. This collection gathered 145 poets who “endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century—through exile, state censorship, political persecution, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare, and assassination.” Poetry in Against Forgetting motivated me to learn more about historical contexts. I learned about the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation by way of the poetry of Robert Desnos. A surrealist poet who had tapped into dreams to compose, his poetry became less fanciful as he endured more brutality from the Nazis. Desnos is one of the poets I think of when I read George McCarthy’s work, which has a defiant surrealistic quality. Life is so extreme for George that images could be literal. At the same time, McCarthy vacillates between the city he walks in and his mental landscape, and the images from the two merge.
Such traces show up variously, but one way is how this poetry collides with nature poetry and fills it with evidence of inequality.
Through Against Forgetting, I came upon Yannis Ritsos’s poetry and learned about the Greek Civil War that followed World War II when Ritsos, a socialist, was imprisoned. Daniel Cox frequently writes tiny poems for Street Roots that remind me of those of Ritsos. I’ve known him for six years, and all that time, he’s lived in a small apartment blocks from our newspaper office. Not long before I met him, he was living homeless in a camp near where the Portland Timbers play soccer. He writes poems built of stacked observation, full of symmetrical lines, close-up details, and widening shots that create a different kind of symmetry, that of the rich (they) and the poor (we).
I worked for three years as Carolyn Forché’s assistant, cataloging her vast library with slim volumes of poetry collected from many countries. “People say to write what you know,” she once said to me, “but you can always know more.” Much of my poetry followed this trajectory: driven by curiosity, by an interest in what I did not yet know. I came to call it an “inexpert inquiry” and “inexpert investigation.” “How do I notice what I don’t notice?” I wrote in the prologue to one book, Remember to Wave. “How do I notice what I don’t know I don’t notice?”
But as I’ve read hundreds of poems written by people enduring homelessness, I’ve returned to Forché’s original idea of “poetry of witness,” and how that framework can be extended to writing out of this experience of societal abandonment, one’s body weathered by elements. “Regardless of the apparent ‘subject matter,’ Forché writes in her introduction to Against Forgetting, “these poems bear the trace of extremity within them, and are, as such, evidence of what occurred.”
Such traces show up variously, but one way is how this poetry collides with nature poetry and fills it with evidence of inequality. After all, it is the trees people live among, and the cracks of sidewalks caulked with crud and seedlings, and the rain that presses into tarped tents, and the squirrels and blue jays and rats. Weather is not small talk but rather, bodily—it’s common for homelessness to chip away at one’s body parts: toes, feet, legs are amputated when people endure repeated freezes. People die in extreme heat. Their lungs take in the smoke of forest fires.
“It is just me and I am broken,” writes Bronwyn Carver. Carver has managed to hold on to her hillside camp in a neighborhood north of downtown for several years without the city displacing her. The city of Portland hires contractors—and sometimes deploys police—to displace camps, actions commonly referred to as “sweeps.” On average, the city sweeps about a hundred camps a week. Most people move a few blocks away; after all, they have to lug possessions and maintain any resources they’ve tracked down nearby. Carver, who is also a journalist, fought back when the city “posted” her camp—court challenges and rulings have led to a process where the city staples up a lime green sheet of paper declaring their intention to remove a camp—by digging into ordinances and writing an article about it. She succeeded.
Carver dips into her Celtic roots, building a magic that surrounds her near-constant contact with urban nature. In some poems, she wakes to faeries, the trees becoming giants as she sleeps on pine needles. Carver depicts a connection to nonhuman nature in contrast to the human systems that impose draconian policies targeting the poorest people in society. In “Cannot Sweep Nature,” she describes the aftermath of city contractors removing the camp where unhoused people reside. The quick, two-beat words—“whatnots” and “trip-traps”—skid over the traumatic event. Carver is looking for hope in the nonhuman natural world, and she finds it in a “lone daffodil” that “pushes up through the mud / that is soil.” The word lone juxtaposed with daffodil brings a bit of that quintessential Romantic nature poem, Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” But in this case, the daffodil has more resilience than human law. It is striking that Carver transforms—or at least reassigns—mud into soil. To be homeless in the Pacific Northwest means enduring a long rainy season, and thus a great deal of mud. Growth takes place in soil. Mud can still be soil.
Though Carver’s bent toward nature draws from a Romantic tradition, Randy Humphreys’ decidedly does not. After years on the streets, Humphreys began to find his muse in his fear of rats, ever prevalent in his life. He’d jot down his thoughts on scraps of paper that Street Roots staff would type up, and as the poems accumulated, they became his “Rat Saga” series. For readers who have never experienced homelessness, Humphreys describes a life populated—and at times overwhelmed—by rats. Rats are active at night, so night becomes his place of terror. He strives to stay vigilant at night, as many unhoused people do to fend off danger. Many people describe turning to methamphetamines to stay up—alert to violence, and also, as the waste pickers of North America, able to wander the streets to collect cans.
Michone Nettles describes a different relationship to night; he strives to sleep so hard that he won’t even perceive nightmares. Many of Nettles’s poems deal with living in this darkness. The lack of bathrooms, showers, and laundry experienced by people on the streets is evidenced here, as it is so consistently in Carver’s poems. Nettles declares that we “can’t see into the darkness / Without a flash.” Some flashes, such as police sirens, are particularly ominous. From 2017 until 2020, the most recent year studied, more than half of all arrests in Portland are of unhoused people. Without housing, one’s presence is easily criminalized—from trespass to “unwanted person” charges to disorderly conduct.
Many city governments police the poor into hiding—whether by removing tents and possessions in a sweep, as Carver writes about, or citing, arresting, and jailing people. In a recent Portland city council meeting in which the mayor proposed a camp ban that would result in jail time for people who sleep publicly during the day, George McCarthy confronted city council for “criminalizing suffering.”
After he testified, McCarthy took stock of the emotional toll it took. “I still feel homeless,” he told me.
Yet, he is noticing how his life is changing a few months into housing. His experiences of homelessness defamiliarized him with living indoors akin to how the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky described octpahehne, the artistic technique of making strange what one might take for granted. Take grocery shopping.
While homeless, McCarthy gathered food anew every day, whether by grocery shopping or attending meal services because he couldn’t lug perishable food that would attract rats. Now, he marvels, he only has to buy groceries once a week. What is he going to do with all that extra time?
Write, he tells me. I have so much time to write.
POETRY OF WITNESS
Documentary Verse from 5 Poets
Last House on the Block
The bell was replaced by a speaker.
Vagrants sleep on the doorsteps.
The inside is beautiful, the outside is ancient.
They spare no expense, with all its adornments and gilded objects,
but we the poor keep being the poor.
Street wanderers checking out the corner,
Seeing what’s going down.
While in their social order,
You can hear their daily squabble
With music often heard in the background.
I’ll sit and listen until I can’t take anymore,
And guiltily I leave the group.
From The Rat Saga
The rats sleep during the day
They’re awake, up all night
Tormenting me all night
Keeping me up all night
Getting into all my food
Creeping and crawling through the night
I go through the night
Finally I fall asleep in the sunlight
When those rats go to sleep
When the sunlight comes in the morning time
Saga 2: The Sound of Those Rats
I don’t hear the sound of those rats no more
Now that I’m indoors, housed and secure
It feels a lot better to be out of the cold
Not hearing those rats no more
Heck, it was the sound of those rats
Just keeping me up all night
Now I sleep better
No longer tormented by the sound of those rats
It’s good that we don’t have rats indoors
Because then I would be right back outdoors
The key to housing is success
And success is never hearing the sound of those rats
The Mailbox Mascot
Me and Kerry was just standing there,
by my mailbox,
talking about poetry,
when all of a sudden
a Rat comes climbing
up the mailbox
like a Mailbox Mascot.
And then the mascot sat there
for about fifteen minutes,
and me and Kerry just kept talking,
talking about my rat poems I’ve written.
Now that I’m indoors,
I sometimes think about going
I’m trying to stay indoors,
but it’s as hard living
as it is living
But the rats keep me
I hate it out there.
Although my nature is not to live by day
I cannot tolerate another night like this
So I will wake up
Early tomorrow morning
And do, do, do all day long
Falling asleep exhausted tomorrow
Early evening too tired even for nightmares
There is a man next to me
Laying on the sidewalk
He has no shoes, no blanket, no sleeping bag
And it’s not that warm out
I have given him
Three sleeping bags in the past
And he can’t seem to hold on to them
When night falls we crawl
into our makeshift homes
cardboard boxes, free rent
the scent of urine over
powers the night air.
Trains take over the night’s silence
coming and going the night
falls hard. No sleeping bags
a blanket from the mission
Noise is endless, sleep is fleeting
life is good just to live!
Not much is needed
love and good faith
The bridge is ok
Day breaks with blooming life
another day begins with a smile
and hug from the Earth
Our home under the bridge
our home without a house
Just standing in the middle of the street
And I can’t move. I was crossing the parking lot
When the road ahead of me caught fire—
It rose up around like a pop-up book
And fixed me in the center of a compass
Heading near a flat grate like an iron
Waffle . . . watching it burn . . .
My life is an anchor and I drag it behind me . . .
I withdrew beyond the boundaries of my
Fingertips and made my skin my house—hiding
Inside, deep in a sunken maze recording
My life like a stenographer, herding it
Like a sheepdog, embalming it with neglect.
I promised myself that I would bewitch
It all into a book and read it someday
This collection of dead things, my petrified
World—but I dreamed while the paper made its way
Back to wood with the letters nibbled to
Coral by silverfish—and with a great breath
I let it sink—a casual alchemy
Compressing all together with random
Gravity, and homebrewed glues, foundation chalked
With rusted gears, old buckets, Coca-Cola
Signs rot and jam wood and windshield wipers
Oatmeal and venom jacketing rose milk
All cinched up in enameled python gut bags.
Junkyard meat . . . lean swirl of words in gels new
Colors diagram histories crushed around
Eggbeaters, butter churns, and the retreat
Of the waters—herded like llamas, shut up
In cupboards, hushed in escuelitas . . . world
Encrusted with sand, dust in the wind stream
Like lace . . . but there is me and there is that blazing road
Rising up and reaching out . . . meandering
Blending into other places and roads
And as I watched . . . flames cooled to flowers all
Framed by magenta, sunrise, and wild rose
Petals jostled together like eyes flaring
In the wind a stream of banners trailing
Itself . . . so alive and set in the land
Like rivers of fruit and I could feel my
Heartbeat and the living presence of this place
That I would have never seen it was always
Minced in the surroundings but this living fire
Was thick in my mind like sap and I saw
A branch dip down like a liquid tumble
Of festooning bees wearing raspberry sugar . . .
Sitting in the coffee-colored sand . . . thinking
In dull winterlight, in between gray cement
And gray sky I saw a coil of orange
Peel simmering on the pavement like lava . . .
And I trained my eyes to see those steppingstones
Of warmth in orange leather that led my mind
And heart to this fireblast and inside I turned
Over in thick sleep like a melting Dalí
Head climbing its way out of jellied un-time . . .
And now I’m listening to the seabirds
Smelling salt in the air on this desert
That’s becoming a beach—the water is
Giving up her dead and not quite dead:
Cameos of old friends disappeared . . . John’s
Voice following an old man shoplifting
In powder blue pants “. . . but that’s Ensure man
We can’t do nothing about that . . . It’s like
Diapers or medicine . . .” big red growler jug
On Sandy Blvd and long screams that
Orient themselves like bats . . . and the rippling
Warp throughout the land strengthening its voice
And I am pulling out these portmanteaus
And burlap sacks dragging in this flotsam—
I’m reaching in to the puzzle structure
Unpacking it all for I have arrived
I am here rising up and heeling over
Like that ship in bright tropical water
With beards of salt hanging from its joints patterned
In briny seabird prints so much inside—
Blood in daylight, violets and cigarettes
Exit 296B Multnomah Blvd 1/4 mile . . .
And the seep and slosh of chemicals, those
Puddings that were people all up and out
Unlocking and unbinding in the new
Origami of my life you unfold
To create so many things blended into
Butters that I recognize by feel and can
Track by scent—my world coming back—opening
Up around me and inside me and all because
That moment of fire and understanding
Showed me life and transformation in the
Present—when we were all taking one breath
And I realized that life and healing can
Only take place in the sunlight
The Rain It Pours
The rain, it pours from sky
Painted dark by clouds of watercolor grays
The sound, a steady thrumming on my tent
Monotonous are the drips and drops
The rain makes all damp
the tent is damp
my bedding is damp
my clothes are damp
my cats are damp, look at me like I
ordered this weather
But it’s the socks that demand attention
Wet socks, wet shoes miserable I tell you
Dry socks are treated like commodities
Openly exchanged on some fictitious
“I’ll take 3 shares of dry socks!”
Though there are no closing bells at this exchange
Every tent you visit, every visitor to yours all ask the same query
“Do you have any dry socks?”
Another winter in Oregon and the
Malaise has begun to creep in
Keeping me from work that needs doing
There’s so many to-do’s
And it is just me and I am broken
In need of a hip
A lower back with cartilage-free disks
A left knee who feels left out
But it is only me
And I can stand in 15-minute increments then I have to sit down
It’s maddening trying to get any work done
I feel like I’m taking two steps forward
Then being pushed back
Into mud disguised as soil
Cannot Sweep Nature
On a path of freshly turned dirt
from the last sweep that came through
mounds of debris and whatnots
hide within trip-traps
Of muddy earth
Yet even though souls
From this place
have been scattered
North south east west
One lone daffodil appeared
pushed up through the mud
that is the soil
Bright golden yellow with its almost
Orange trumpet center
proclaiming a hearkening
hearkening for hope
Kaia Sand is the author of four books of poetry, most recently ‘A Tale of Magicians Who Puffed Up Money That Lost Its Puff’. She is executive director of Street Roots.
Rian Dundon is a documentary photographer from Portland, Oregon. His latest book is ‘Protest City’.
Co-published with Orion Magazine.