Poetry by Laura Hershey

How to order Laura's poetry chapbooks and audiotapes

Poems from the chapbook On the Lawn: Poems from the Nairobi Women's Conference:

"Welcome" | "Honor" | "The Prostitutes of Nairobi"

Poems from the chapbook In the Way: ADAPT Poems:

"In the Way" | "Petunias" | "You Get Proud By Practicing"

Poems from the chapbook Dreams of a Different Woman:

"Reading to the Cooks" | "Note from Oregon" | "August"

Poems from the chapbook Flights: Poems from the Beijing Women's Conference:

"Belly of the Bus" | "Flights" | "Culture Shock"


copyright 1987 by Laura Hershey

The women in this country are very proud.
They are glad to have us in Kenya.
Their large chests grow larger
when they spread their arms to show us how glad.

"It is good you could come," a woman said to me,
smiling rich, round syllables.
She was beautifully dressed,
in bronze bracelets and a khanga of purple and black,
but she was an ordinary woman.
"We are very happy to see
all our sisters here, in Kenya.
You are welcomed."
She spoke like a dignitary
making an important proclamation.

I am an American.
When I try to imagine an ordinary woman in my country
making an important proclamation,
my first thought is of someone I saw last summer,
dirty clothes layered over her hungry, heavy body.
She stood at a bus stop, Colfax and Broadway, screaming
her confusing political viewpoints
at the traffic.

The Kenyan woman tells me
she is from Mombassa, down on the coast. She walks away,
not knowing what pleasure
her pride has given me.

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copyright 1987 by Laura Hershey

"I will challenge and confront in myself and others acts or attitudes that do not honor any person as my equal."

--from the Women's Declaration of Peace, NGO Forum, Nairobi, Kenya, July 11, 1985

Do I present
too great a challenge
to your ability to honor
as your equal?

I know what it is like for you, my
enlightened sisters.
I can sympathize now;
this conference has taught me
the pain

for example: listening to labored language
english on a foreign tongue
the relief: to hear an american voice -- strong, clear
and like mine
like mine.

How much more foreign we must seem, my
disabled sisters
and I.

When you talk of us at all,
you call us "the physically challenged,"
but I think the challenge
is yours.
For your vow to honor
all, equally
could mean
one woman might need you to carry a lunch plate and drink
across bumpy grass;
one might expect you to listen, listen to what she is saying,
listen, and ask "what?" when you don't understand;
another may want to serve on your committee,
make you look for a meeting place
without steps;
or a woman might need a push
or ask you to help empty her catheter bag

or fall in love with you

you might have to move my hand for me when it falls
away from my wheelchair's control
you might have to
touch me
touch me

honor me?
touch me.
honor me:
touch me

touch me

to be "physically challenged," means
more than being challenged
it means
being physical --

Is that what you want to share

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copyright 1987 by Laura Hershey

The prostitutes are gone from the streets of Nairobi.
For two weeks,
women gather from every land,
great women, chosen
by heads of state
or progressive organizations
to meet here under a few scudding July clouds
of African sky,
and talk of peace and feeding.
President Moi knows
we would not want to see the prostitutes.
A modern city hosts no such evil.
Prostitutes exchange their bodies
for men's money
and wear ugly bruises with their makeup.
We have journeyed here to talk
about change --
great changes.
And we would not want to see the garish colors
of this trade we despise.
An enlightened woman need not sell her body.
We reject their demoralizing presence,
the better to forget
deals we have all struck at times.
So the prostitutes of Nairobi
will spend the next two weeks
in the invisible, roadless outskirts
of this modern city.
They will have no red lights there,
no indecent clothes,
to advertise their services.
They will have no beds
on which to render their trade.
They will have no wine
to increase the asking price.
They will have no food
to sweeten the next morning with.
They will make
no money.

Can a woman live two weeks
without a roof and food
under a cloudless African sky?

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copyright 1992 by Laura Hershey

Could you move, the waitress says,
politely of course,
you're in the way.
A common request, my trusted wheelchair just
an impediment, an obstacle to the busy,
a clumsy roadblock I haul with me down every road
and when parked
an interruption
or at least a slowing down
of the life I only
wish to be part of; a piece of surplus furniture
in the already crowded rooms
of restaurants, bars, theaters.

I accommodate,
backing into corners
turning sideways
angling my wheels
to leave a clear path
asking, politely of course,
Is that better?

I get in the way
without trying.
I apologize
excuse myself
and move out of the way.

But not today.
Today I listen
to a small, recalcitrant voice inside
that insists:
Such power
should not be wasted.

If I alone can be so much
and so often in the way,
if I can create such worry among waitpersons
such consternation in concert halls
such alarm in the aisles
of grocery stores
just imagine the aggravation a dozen
or two dozen
or three hundred
people using wheelchairs can cause people
who would rather not see our needs
or hear our demands
or acknowledge our rights!
Just imagine!

Better yet, see me now!
See me block this doorway, plant my wheels firm,
see me lock my brakes!
No, I tell some bureaucrat
who wants to get into his office
so he can make decisions about my future.
No, I will not turn
I will not move over
I will not get out of your way
not until the police order me to, under threat of arrest
and maybe not even then!

In the way
in the way all day,
I woman this barricade which is mine
whenever I need it,
this roadblock I haul with me down every road,
this wall I can construct at will,
and be happily in the way with,
and say no with,
and plaster with scrawled signs about freedom,
and add to the bigger walls growing
around whole buildings, around whole city blocks.
I can turn back
customers, employees, delivery people, even cops.
I can keep the usually powerful
in or out of their offices.

I can be in the way
in the way
I can be in the way

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copyright 1991 by Laura Hershey

I knew you planned
-- you knew I supported --
this arrest.

Yet when I watched you,
unstoppable as ever,
driving your chair
around a cop,
up a hill,
through careful, distinctly unrevolutionary
past a police barricade,
and knew I'd probably seen
the last for at least
that day
of you --
my selfish spirit whispered
a small wish
to call you back,
forget the cause,
abandon the movement,
pick some petunias,
and take you home.

Another whisper reminded me
how fragile
our home might be.
The world we share
-- our meals, our bed,
our work, our freedom to live
alone --
depends on this clash
and on our mutual
-- you of your liberty
one or two days
-- me of you
in my bed --

I wanted right then
to offer -- like a hand-picked bouquet --
my small insight
to you, and hear
your thoughts in turn.

But by then I could see
no sign of you
your tire marks through the petunias.

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copyright 1991 by Laura Hershey

If you are not proud
for who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
if every time you stop
to think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
with golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You can
get proud.

You do not need
a better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.
to be proud.
You do not need
a lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.
You do not need
to be able to walk, or see, or hear,
or use big, complicated words,
or do any of the things that you just can't do
to be proud. A caseworker
cannot make you proud,
or a doctor.
You only need
more practice.
You get proud
by practicing.

There are many many ways to get proud.
You can try riding a horse, or skiing on one leg,
or playing guitar,
and do well or not so well,
and be glad you tried
either way.
You can show
something you've made
to someone you respect
and be happy with it no matter
what they say.
You can say
what you think, though you know
other people do not think the same way, and you can
keep saying it, even if they tell you
you are crazy.
You can add your voice
all night to the voices
of a hundred and fifty others
in a circle
around a jailhouse
where your brothers and sisters are being held
for blocking buses with no lift,
or you can be one of the ones
inside the jailhouse,
knowing of the circle outside.
You can speak your love
to a friend
without fear.
You can find someone
who will listen to you
without judging you or doubting you or being
afraid of you
and let you hear yourself perhaps
for the first time.
These are all ways
of getting proud.
None of them
are easy, but all of them
are possible. You can do all of these things,
or just one of them again and again.
You get proud
by practicing.

Power makes you proud, and power
comes in many fine forms
supple and rich as butterfly wings.
It is music
when you practice opening your mouth
and liking what you hear
because it is the sound of your own
true voice.
It is sunlight
when you practice seeing
strength and beauty in everyone
including yourself.
It is dance
when you practice knowing
that what you do
and the way you do it
is the right way for you
and can't be called wrong.
All these hold
more power than weapons or money
or lies.
All these practices bring power, and power
makes you proud.
You get proud
by practicing.

Remember, you weren't the one
who made you ashamed,
but you are the one
who can make you proud.
Just practice,
practice until you get proud, and once you are proud,
keep practicing so you won't forget.
You get proud
by practicing.

Click here for information about the new poster
featuring the poem "You Get Proud by Practicing."

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copyright 1992 by Laura Hershey

We read poems to you in the kitchen,
amid bright chunks of peach and plum.
While you deftly handle honed knives, thick onion slices,
I struggle with a descriptor.
I mix too many adjectives with my nouns,
while you blend in just the right
measure of tomatoes and cayenne.
You hear me try out my second, half-baked rewrite,
as I watch you knead the dough
that will become bread.

You feed us so well,
because it matters,
because nourished bodies
birth sounder poems.

You work so calmly and listen,
listen so thoroughly,
as if preparing a meal for eighty
were a simple task, requiring only
half your attention.
You listen, and cook, and listen.
You smile and say "mmmm"
at the lines you like,
as if you had just tasted
something delicious.

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copyright 1992 by Laura Hershey

There's more shade here.
When the light doesn't fall
directly on a thing, sometimes I can see it better;
study its contours by the dark places in it.
Dreams grow like ferns
under the cover of denser forests.
The bottom of the sky is richer
and further away.

The river is loud.
Maybe it wants to silence me.
Not forever,
just a few moments,
so I'll stop and close my eyes
to hear
how different the current sounds
upstream, and down.

In the dark, the page stays clear
even as I write --
till I look, and something has come to life, whole,
under the branches.
There's more shade here.

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copyright 1992 by Laura Hershey

August, month of my birth
an added ring of pulpy wood
like a line added to a poem
like a gift chosen carefully
carried from self to self
changes sculpted lovingly
like deep pots made to
to shape
problems into experimental solutions.
August, like a new blaze added
to the torch light
illuminating one more stand of trees,
one more section of the dark,
endless woods.

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copyright 1995 by Laura Hershey

Swallowed into the belly of a dark bus
I feel myself borne toward Beijing on currents
invisible to me.

City streets trawl us relentlessly forward;
lunatic instinct compels our bus
on a potent, unforeseeable tide.

Inside, below my airplane-swollen feet, grooved wooden blocks
bolster my chair against wheel wells;
I ride backwards.

My own wheels, no longer my mobility nor my underpinning,
surrender to the larger movement;
hold unsurely to a rib in this racing cage.

Buildings ramshackle and geometric
rear into the piercing beams, reefs towering
past peripheral visions of the China I brought along.

In my luggage that country, that idea,
smaller than my wad of dollars,
occupies less space than fear.

Already I discard
the documentaries and Hollywood movies,
the guesses wrapped in old guidebooks.

Odors warm, chemical, organic
flood in through open windows,
unnameable to me still.

This lack of words,
for such certain sensations, accents my strangeness here;
I wonder if I've forsaken one language without learning another.

But, around me in the bus, still living,
stir the other divers into this bewildering dark,
lured here by their own questing appetites.

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copyright 1995 by Laura Hershey

Stairs have ceased to be poetic.
A tight doorway, a curb, a broken elevator,
the lack of a ramp --
for me, these hurdles quicken no creativity,
no bursts of verse.
Flights of stairs no longer launch
flights of my imagination.

Ten years ago these obstructions
awakened our voices,
drew us forward into battle,
forged our unity.
In Nairobi we gathered, one by one,
from our villages, cities, homes, farms, schools, nations.
Women with disabilities, separated from our sisters
by walls and risers,
found our own sisterhood.
Barriers pushed us into margins where we met:
outside the meeting rooms,
at the foot of the stairs,
on the lawn.

Denied our rightful place,
we transformed the obstacles
into a concrete image of our oppression;
a border linking our lives;
a symbol of our connection;
a stage for our angry words.

We gathered to protest our exclusion,
found we had much more to share: our nuanced lives
as workers, as mothers, as daughters, as fighters

But that was ten years ago.
Stairs are no longer poetic.
Barriers drain strength from our arms and hearts,
animate neither verse nor dance.
We are tired of the fight.
Banishment still sets our anger in motion
but no longer makes us sing.

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copyright 1995 by Laura Hershey

I breathe in
a chaos of odors, scarcely filtered,
a noxious bouquet.
Throat muscles tense,
push short breaths through drying tissue,
sounds barely strong
enough to pass the blue paper
masking my nose and mouth.
The language I speak here,
fed by this fetor,
sounds foreign to my Chinese friend, listening so hard,
leaning toward me on the bus;
sounds foreign to my American friends,
wincing behind their own masks;
sounds foreign to my own ears.
my words are
exertion wasted
in a roar of motor and wind.

I pay a price to be here;
to plunge myself
into this dense, toxic air;
to traverse this rough land.

In China
I become
more disabled
than I am.

The wheelchair I left at home,
unwelcome in China --
too heavy for lifting, defiant of dismantling
-- beckons more than my home itself.
Swift, fit, the humming motor --
responsive to every pucker and puff,
to every course I bid --
holds my autonomy for safekeeping.
Left behind, it leaves a rift
between decision and
In this lighter, simpler chair,
I await others' presence, energy, and will.

I speak more weakly here.
I move less.

Travel always stretches, revises
the traveler's self-definition;
it aggravates and violates mine.

This journey makes me
what I am not
back home, though thought to be:
ill, reliant, mute, confined;
more disabled than I am.

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