I didn’t count the rings
on the oak we took down

—crane and all—but think
there must have been a hundred

or more. I’d rather,
I’m sure, count the hairs

on your head
or finger the span

of your spine, my hand
on your smooth skin,

until we are old enough
to have limbs

that can no longer bear
the weight of a high wind

or surprise snow.

Rose Marie Berger is a Catholic peace activist and poet. This poem is part of an unpublished collection.


Architectural Detail
National Building Museum, Washington, DC

In several hundred darkened Roman arches
there is only one with a living,
breathing tympanum.
A painter,
with 10-foot-high aluminum ladder,
stands at the springline.

The arch’s span and rise
frame him in a way that, perhaps,
he is not normally in life.
His back fully arched—
columnar vertebrae give way
to graceful line of arm and tool.

The annals say: Michelangelo grew a goiter
in just this way, dwelling in the den of the papal
apartments, beard turned up to heaven…nape fallen in.

Now he rolls an egg-shell layer along the soffit,
oblivious to the possibility
his muscles convey,
light on shade, and
the sureness in his stroke.
See how much he loves the curve.

From below, seventy-two Doric columns,
seventy-two Ionic columns, and eight of
the world’s largest Corinthian columns
attempt to tremble with desire. Ill hath he
chosen his part
, lamented that artist to popes
and kings, who seeks to please the worthless world.

For often must he wear the look of ease
when grief is in his heart.

–Rose Marie Berger

The phrases in italics in “Architectural Detail” are excerpts from the journals of Michelangelo. This poem was published in Beltway Poetry Volume 10, Number 1, Winter 2009.


The Women of Juarez Take a Message to the Bishop

The narcotraficante commanded me
in gestures, take off your blouse.
Then he jerked it, scattering buttons—
smooth and pink—along the ground.

I wanted to undress with more
dignity; a delicate slowness
that might alter time,
might turn back his hands.

From a place beyond the Christmas
lights, he yelled—“Whore.”
And mimed a woman kneeling,
hands lifted to her face.

He must have knelt too
because I felt the muzzle
find the soft swale of my temple,
a part I notice only when exhausted.

A little ways off,
above the desert brush
and trash, beyond the factory fence,
aware of the zipper and what he used

to subdue me, I watched a blue light
rising and falling, falling
and rising. To me
it looked like Tepeyac
and the dawn.

And, against his shadowy line, She swaddled
me in a protective veil, wrapping me in roses.

—Rose Marie Berger

This poem appeared in Sojourners (July 2007) and in the South African feminist journal Agenda (November 2007, issue #74). For more information on women in Juárez, Mexico, see www.mujeresdejuarez.org.


Some Songs Required
Psalm 137

Down the river from Babylon
there was a city of Dales,

not quite like Zion. In Nutdale,
Elmdale, and Oakdale people sat

two by two in boxes neatly stacked
where they wept without knowing why.

Upriver, Babylon heard only their singing
in a special language of clicks and snaps;

not in the stringed language of the lyre,
that riffled and flowed over the feet
of the Stored Ones. True too that the Dale-dwellers
babbled in a tongue fewer and fewer of them

could understand. Instead they stared:
at each other, at the river, pointing out the little

heads of children, afloat like golden boats
on the current. While Babylon, teeth sharp

from gnawing on its platinum
bedpost at night, reached down its

right hand to touch the flag hanging
limp between its legs. A single gold tear

slipped away to tell the others.

—Rose Marie Berger

Rose Marie Berger is a Catholic peace activist and poet. This poem is part of an unpublished collection.

Lazarus and the Rich Man
Hamlet, North Carolina (Luke 16:19-31)

That man dressed fine as Sunday every day
of the week. Owned Imperial Food Products–
poultry processors. Had a plant right here
in town. Every morning, early, the workers
would line up at the front gates–mostly women,
mostly black folk, some with joints froze up
from working those machines, some with emphysema
from working the pantyhose factory
down the road, but all wanting their babies
to eat half as good as what sat on that
rich man’s table every evening ’round supper time.
Well, he got to worrying that some folks
might start stealing his chicken parts,
so he took to locking up the factory
doors once the morning shift was in place. The
time came when a hydraulic line blew on
one of the deep-fat fryers and black smoke
filled up the room, followed by grease fire. None of
the state-of-the-art, automatic, carbon
dioxide sprinklers ever came on. Most
folks died at the south end of the building
near the walk-in freezer. They had headed
for the exit, but it was locked. Then they
were drawn on by the gulps of cool air. Some
died down at the loading dock. Piled up on
each other trying to get through the small
hole between the wall and the truck blocking
the platform. There was Mary Alice Whit.
She was dead. There was Peggy Fairley. She
was dead. There was Lillian Mary Wall,
who’d only worked chicken a few months. She
was dead. And Margaret Banks. When
they brought her out, you could already
tell she was dead. All in all, there were 25
who died that day. The Hamlet police lieutenant
said you couldn’t tell whether the bodies
were white or black on account of the smoke; but the
angels, who pay no mind to color, came
and carried every single one of them
up into the arms of Abraham.
Now, all of this happened the day after
Labor Day. And even though Imperial
didn’t allow no organizing in its
plants, the North Carolina Textile Workers
Union still sent dresses (and suits for the
men) to use as burying clothes. At the
First Baptist Church the mourners cried out “Lord,
Lord,” maybe because in the confusion
they had missed the angels. They cried out “Slavery
time’s been over! How much longer is it
going on?” To which there was just no good
answer. What all happened to the rich man
was never much covered in the newspapers,
but the actual truth is his story’s been told before.

Rose Marie Berger is a poet and senior associate editor of Sojourners. September 3, 1992, was the first anniversary of the fire in the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. Emmett J. Roe, the owner of Imperial Food; his son, Brad Roe, Imperial’s operations manager; and plant manager James N. Hair were indicted in March 1992 on 25 counts each of involuntary manslaughter. This poem originally appeared in Sojourners, Sept-Oct 1992.