A Letter to Vietnamese Prisoners

Tiger CageThis poem was written by Daniel Berrigan during his imprisonment after the Catonsville Nine action, published by Fellowship Magazine & The Merton Center. It was, later, memorized by Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann during his participation in a protest of “tiger cages” used for torture by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War in the summer of 1973 (right). Wylie-Kellermann recited it from memory yesterday at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, to honor the Catonsville Nine activists.

Part 1.

Dear friends, your faces are a constriction of grief in the throat
your words weigh us like chains, your tears and blood
fall on our faces. Prison; Vietnam, prison; U.S.
prison is our fate, mothers bears in prison,
our tongues taste its gall, bars spring up
from dragons’ teeth, a paling, impaling us.
A universal malevolent will, crouched like a demon
blows winter upon us, stiffens our limbs in death, the limbs of
women and children.
Here, they hawk death in the streets, death in the hamburg join
death in the hardware, death in the cobbler’s hammer
death in the jeweler’s glass, the classy showrooms of death.
Death, shouts the newsboy; death, oranges and lemons,
death in a candy wrapper.
Death, the cinema blares it; death!
And beyond it all, out of of sight and mind
like an aquarium at midnight, a terminal hospital
like the eyes of a captive tiger
a colony of golden eyes
of bees in their cells, the miser’s mine of jewels
throttling the moon underground–
you and I
our eyes like grapes under the nailed boots
our ‘why’ dragged in the dust, a flayed animal’s entail’
our ‘how long?’ long as the lifeline thrown from God to Job.

Part 2.

If I were free! the phrase flies form our minds
like a two-edged sword, an apocalypse cutting us free.
If we were free!
I would be your angel of deliverance
all my friends! between you and me the evening star arises, the
jewel of
the compassionate mind encompasses the heavens!
between those hands, their flower like
texture and repose
nothing, nothing is lost!
the tears of mothers sting like scorpions
the scorpion’s sting falls like a tear.
The universal order, fragile as eggshell, broken by the hammers
of mad bombers, heals
heals under that starry breath!
Lord Buddha, Lord Christ
whose hegemony, time and this world
is a compassionate unending search
east and west, sunrise, sunset,
for the least and lowliest, the wounded, the violated
they live in us, the lords and servants of time
we live in them, lords and servants of time.

And we shall break our chains like chains of sand
the conniving dissolute
puppets, their power
slumps like a rotten sawdust
their marauding hearts
burst in a suppuration!
our mothers’ ears, the Buddha’s tears and Christ’s
anoint us like a chrism
the sweet earth, punished by ruffians’ fists
heals like a rising loaf, a bread of heroes
and we shall sit and eat, the poor shall gather under those bells and tears
from graves, ditches, huts, camps and caves
from the ends of the earth, from air and sea
the wretched, the maimed, the blind, the halt
the dead, lively, retiring, joyous as grasshoppers–Buddha
and Christ,
Lord and servants of creation
multiply that loaf in lotus fingers
the lost of existence
our immortal joy, flesh and family and tribe and nation
all things made new!

Part 3

In that day the ingathering, but first the scattering
in that day the banquet, but first the starvation
In that day the freedom, but first the prison
in that day the healing, but first the torture
In that day the music, but first the mourning
in that day the justice, but first the false judgement
In that day the rebirth, but first the bloodletting.

Part 4

We must remember, great Buddha said, the place, the person,
the time, when we first sat at table together. And the first
generation remembered.
The second generation forgot the time. But they remembered
the house, and their brothers’ and sisters’ faces. And great
Buddha said, it is enough.
The third generation forgot the hour and the house. But they
sat with their brothers and sisters, here or there, now or then.
And great Buddha said, it is enough.
The fourth generation forgot the hour, the house, and the faces
of their brothers and sisters. And great Buddha wept.
In the fifth generation, everyone was stranger. Men and
women were violated and tortured and outlawed. And great
Buddha perished. He died, a nameless peasant, in the general
conflagration. He was buried in a common grave. And the earth
was void.

Part 5

If the birth of a child
is sufficient reason
to trim the lamps
of the universe, to grace
seasons in a wedding garment,
to wreathe in smiles
our stiff jointed discontent–
then it must be insisted
with equally rigorous logic;
the murder of a child is sufficient reason
to burn like trash or offal
those hunting licenses
that go by the civilized
euphemism, ‘draft files,’ to endure
imprisonment, loss of repute
the stigma of Cain
branded by the perfumed hands of judges, politicos and church men
on the forehead of Abel.

In a time of sanctioned
insanity, same conduct
is an indictable crime.
In a time of omnicompetent
violence, compassion
is officially intolerable.
In a time that celebrates
the apotheosis of Mars
Christ will languish
on ice for the duration.

Let us liberate reflection
that many branded verdant tree
from its plague of befouling apes–
abstraction, inflation,
mock heroism, mock victimhood.

fed, clothed, housed
solicitously as the last
handful of survivors
of an endangered species.

It is hard in America, hard
even in American prison
to take death seriously
Not hard for you, dear friends.
Official solicitude
evaporates with the distance.
For chairman Caesar or Chrit,
the messianic legions
kill with an equal fervor.
In either case, you are honored
though ignorant of your honor;–

our superior motivation–
Pax Americana,
your bones to make our bread.

A.J. Muste: “we need a foreign
policy for the children.” Exactly

The death of one child brings down the universe
It is honorable to nurture
even in prison, that endangered
flame, to mingle if so required
one’s unwavering purpose
like an eagle’s with that
bereft nest fallen life.

Foreign, domestic policies, idem.
I.e., the nearest child is the furthest.
the nearest of blood is not
thereby most dear.
American airmen dumping
their liquid fire upon faraway
hamlets, bear in breast pocket
Kodak prints of their children
Thus far corruption on high
of the call and course of the blood.

It is snowing tonight as I vigil.
The first white fall of winter
bitterly cold. I think on
the fevers and horrors of Con Son.

No their No. YES to all else.

One thought on “A Letter to Vietnamese Prisoners

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