January 12, 2020

José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes


History is who did what to whom,
expressed in nominal and verbal groups.
The clause conveys the meanings we assume.

The circumstances vary: in covert rooms,
beyond the border wall, aboard the sloops
of war. We speak of who did what to whom,

participants and processes. The theme
orients us to the message, to the new:
The loss conveys the meaning. We assume

the purpose shapes the grammar, ends drive means.
We must strike down this evil at its roots.
History is who did what to whom,

who may respond, become a who that names
losses they can and must and will recoup.
The clause conveys the meanings we assume,

and truth lies in the words we all consume:
We killed because they killed our troops.
History is who did what to whom.
The clause conveys the meanings we assume.

from Poets Respond
January 12, 2020


José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes: “As part of my research, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a robust (and highly technical!) theory of how language works. The recent events in the Middle East made me reflect on the inescapability of language—how we learn about such events through language and how they will eventually be recounted in history books using language. My poem was also partly inspired by two other poems that explore grammar, Steve Kowit’s villanelle ‘A Grammar Lesson’ and James Najarian’s ‘Armenian Lesson’; and by Thoreau, whose sentence from Walden (‘There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root’) is echoed in line 11.” (web)

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September 21, 2010

José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes


René Magritte, oil on canvas

On the calculous clay, two pennies
stare down a lone dime,

while a matchstick pretends to ignore
the cigarette it once kissed. Someday

the oak wall on which I lean
will warp and shed, splinter

by splinter, long since forgotten
by those who erected it. What is

the point of news, when in the end
all we are left with are scraps

that no one can decode?
I sigh, longing for streams

of stock tickers, Monday-morning trains.
O to escape the tyranny of inaction!

To unlace and take off my feet,
and run to the office bareshoe!

from Rattle #24, Winter 2005
Tribute to Filipino Poets


José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes: “When I was a high school senior, my class would make weekly visits to a nearby public school to tutor a group of sixth-graders. Towards the end of the year, I decided to bring my students some poems. One girl innocently uttered one of the wisest things anyone has ever said about poetry: ‘Poetry is an encyclopedia.’”

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