Poetry from Deborah Guzzi

ashes fall from the joss stick: finger bones


My name is Devi, a foolish name really for it means Angel, and I certainly am not. The city of Phnom Penh had been our home. Father was a professor at The Royal University. I was their only child. I was just getting ready for school, Tuol Sleng High, when the Khmer’s arrived. They drummed on the door of our house and said “Get out, get out!” They had bomb guns pointed at us. One of the soldiers—not much older than I—a very dark skinned girl screamed at Father. “You have American friends? You speak English?” He nodded and said of course he did; he was a professor at the University. “You New People, you think you are so smart.” She shot him in the head. He tumbled like a string-less puppet onto the step. Mother screamed and cried. “You are not to cry,” they ordered, “Get out!”


the open door

let in a light rain:

the kettle whistles


They grabbed mother and I, and tossed us into the band of people milling in the street. They pushed us; prodding with rifle butts along the street lined with palm trees. I was glad it was warm. My black skirt and white blouse were all I wore. All I could think about was my feet. I had been barefoot when they came. What a foolish thing to think. Father was dead. Thinking of my feet. I wish I could go back and get my new shoes. I felt naked. Mother staggered behind me. I told her, “keep up Mae or they will kill you.” Mother bumped into the Grandmother in front of her. Yiey spit at the guard. He jammed the rifle butt into her face. She fell into the gutter. The line walked around her. The guard kicked her body. “Why waste a bullet?” He and the other half dozen guerrilla’s laughed. The girl guard ripped Yiey’s gold amulet from her neck. She wiped the blood off the necklace on Grandmother’s dress. “Be of use or die New Ones,” the male guard bellowed.


To my surprise, the Khmer guards took us to the High School. Mother was ripped away from me. All the women were taken outside. I could hear much laughter. There was screaming and cries to God. The dark skinned female guard smiled. “They are being of use,” she smirked. She sucked on her index finger and the male guard next to her howled. I never saw mother again.


So many, many: young children, young mothers, young boys, all marched days with little food or water. The temperature climbed over 100 degrees. Babies were torn from shawl slings and tossed away like garbage as they died. There were no more tears. We were to be ‘purified’ in a commune. The village was called Prek Sbauv. I struggled to live. I bent my back in the fields of the Old People.


What was life? I asked myself, so many times, but, to say no was to die. I did not want to rot in a rice paddy, not be reborn. Had no one burnt father’s corpse? Had no one placed the white crocodile flag in front of our home? I must live to see father and mothers’ bodies were burned. I must place their ashes in the stupa.


*The Cambodian genocide April 17, 1975

A Hail Mary Pass to the Twenty-First Century


Remembering fear, the sweat of retreat when

one can never seem to run far enough or fast enough.

Remembering the Christian children’s chants of

devil worshiper, atheist; the taunting hell, they saw for those

not blessed to be themselves.


The jeer of the crowd for those not part. The

mob mentality of the Christian heart. The damn you if

you’re not me, to a girl of eight, defies any amount of time—


memories are not obliterated.


Breathless behind a hollow-core door gasping with

tears, a heart pounding to the beat of their fists on the panel.

Fear recalled as bile rises with hate thrown; the Jew bated

only an inkling of what Tanta felt.


Nineteen fifty-six, eleven years after the end of WWII

I had seen the numbers burned into my families’ skin

the ones still alive to show them to a child of eight,

broken glass nights, crowded trains, death camps.


New England, still held in the grip of a Christian hell,

at eight, at twelve, at eighteen—and every Christmas

in between—don’t speak, don’t tell, don’t let them know

your different from them—different hated, taunted,

chased and if possible erased.


Prejudice knows no boundary of time or place, remember,

fear, the mob, the gang, the chanting group, when you kneel;

when you say Amen.



Mary’s Shift


Indigenous woman—rarely accompanied by their

white sisters—or their men enter

through the side door

of St. Peter’s Church.


Here they are boxed in cool stucco,

and stained-glass. A flock of Mexican

Madonna’s shift today to encompass

their fairer sister:


Dios te salve, Maria. Llena eres de gracia: El Señor es contigo.
Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres. Y bendito es

el fruto de tu vientre:,Jesús.


Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is
the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.


Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros,

pecadores, ahora y en la hora


drones on—and on—and on


within the heavenly heights of gilded frescos—bleeding—

rainbows prism the room in false light, kaleidoscoping upon

the walls—murals of  brocade, gold-threaded catch random  rays.


Woman anchor the pews with their desires—


Pliant and pleading these mothers beseech Mary to intercede:

for first class citizenship (inside and outside the Church)

for work, for health, for a better life for their children.


Voices of the lamb bleating; dinner for the wolves, they pray.



The Agony and the Ecstasy

The air heavy with the scent and weight
of sea green is trapped in the enclosure
of the century old graveyard languishing.
Inside the crumble of stucco walls,
walls which do little to keep
the soot of San Francisco’s traffic
from the ancient pocked crosses of
of Mission Dolores and its rich benefactors.

The sad spirits of Yelamu Ohlone
indians haunt behind, beneath and between
the spaces which hold their unmarked graves.
Sad the day when the Christ worshipers came,
with their tales of crucifixion and their flaming hell.
Came and brought the shame of naked Eve
and Adam, came like God’s to judge.

From the bounty of the land they had lived in harmony,
fed on roots, berries, nuts and small wild life,
their ways teaching of man’s place with nature.
Clothed, schooled, worked and worried
were they by the emissaries of Rome.
Even today, it is the Vatican which takes credit
for the rising up of the heathen.

Yet, it is the art and artisans of Ohlone
who built Mission Dolores, and upon
their unmarked graves
white feet still walk.