Kinder toten lieder

A well blogged and much linked-to article in the Miami New Times about the folklore of street children has lost little of its power to fascinate and appall since it first appeared in 1997.

“Folktales are the only work of beauty a displaced people can keep,” [Virginia Hamilton] explains. “And their power can transcend class and race lines because they address visceral questions: Why side with good when evil is clearly winning? If I am killed, how can I make my life resonate beyond the grave?”

That sense of mission, writes Harvard psychologist Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children, may explain why some children in crisis — and perhaps the adults they become — are brave, decent, and imaginative, while others more privileged can be “callous, mean-spirited, and mediocre.” The homeless child in Miami and elsewhere lives in a world where violence and death are commonplace, where it’s highly advantageous to grovel before the powerful and shun the weak, and where adult rescuers are nowhere to be found. Yet what Coles calls the “ability to grasp onto ideals larger than oneself and exert influence for good” — a sense of mission — is nurtured in eerie, beautiful, shelter folktales.



homage to the homeless children of Dade County, Florida

chalk outline on the sidewalk
too small for an adult

someone crawled
under the yellow caution tape & placed
eight carnations in the upper left
side of the missing torso


lullaby lullaboo
dream of the lady dressed in blue
blue shining skin blue diamond eye
blue of the ocean blue of the sky
lullaby lullaboo
ask her to teach her name to you


mother sleeps on a bed of plastic bags
child stands watch against
police & petty thieves &
the terrible screamers
his word for the junkies suddenly
starved for junk

God has gone missing for months now
they say

the boy keeps watch under the street lamp
hour after hour in the neon glow
craning his neck for
the flash of an angel’s
ant-like wing


the kids in the shelter share secrets
it is all they have


everyone knows the necromancy
to summon Bloody Mary
it’s as easy as taking a ride from a stranger
or going to sleep & never waking up

you stand in front of a mirror
in a darkened room
& chant her name until
with a ripple of wind
she shatters out

flying daggers of glass
cut short the scream before
it leaves your throat

your last vision will be of her
crooning low
unholy mother of no one
weeping dark blood
from empty sockets

but why anyone would crave
such a necromance
the stories never say


street children devour television
for hidden messages

friends met only once
in whispered midnight talks
turn up dead on the 6:00 o’clock news

the anchor calls it crossfire
a drive-by shooting but
the kids know better

Kofi Annan is always looking helpless
the world’s at war

grownups scream at each other
& this too they call


the kids make a pact: whoever dies
will bring back news

once a spirit knows your face
it can always find you

whereas the angels are beleaguered
& hard to summon
their names are difficult
& all they can do is say
hold on


the social worker asked
a ten-year-old girl in the homeless shelter
to make a self-portrait

she pulled a gray crayon from the box
& drew a gravestone with
her name on it


Leon is twelve
he’s lived on the streets for six years now
looks tired all the time
says he’s not so sure about the angels anymore
do they care can they win are they even there
but still believes his dreams
can foretell the future
& he says
Sometimes I dream that when I die soon
I’ll be in some high great place
where people have
time to conversate
& even if there’s no God or heaven
it won’t be too bad


if this were a lullaby
who would sing it?

but it’s in the nature of lullabies
that those who sing them never believe
what they’re singing

lullaboo lullaby
driven from their home in the sky
the angels are hiding in the Everglades
among the cypress & palmetto blades
giant alligators guard them there
hurricanes grow flowers to put in their hair

lullaby lullaboo
if you’re brave & good you’ll go there too
across the clear river an ocean of calm
grass for a pillow
& a canopy of palm
they say the angels feed on light
you have to rest if you want to fight

Such imagination exclaim the students of folklore
forgetting how escaped slaves
& Seminole Indians fought the United
States Army for forty years
from the swamps of Florida
& in the end were undefeated

roads don’t go there
& you’ll never get there if you cry

so go to sleep
some dreams are better if they don’t come true

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