Sarah Browning

Sarah Browning: Tenth Anniversary Issue

Tenth Anniversary Issue: A Tribute to Guest Editors
Volume 11:1, Winter 2010

Guest Editor, “Wartime Issue,” Spring 2006


Sarah writes:
“When Kim Roberts invited me to guest edit a special issue of Beltway Poetry, it was 2006 and I was already sick of the Iraq war. We had put out two DC Poets Against the War anthologies. We had marched and denounced and read our poems for peace and bearing witness to death and torture and loss for three years. I was ready for something else. I imagined some other theme or organizing principle for the issue. But every day the war seemed to move another page back in the Washington Post. And I knew our weariness was nothing compared to that of the Iraqi people, whose country had been swallowed by a horror beyond even the power of poets to imagine. And what of the weariness of men and women who’d witnessed and sometimes perpetrated these horrors and were now returning home irreparably broken—bodies smashed, spirits broken? And the families of the ones who weren’t coming home? Their grief was a lifetime and a second lifetime. After all, what is three years in the history of a war and its afterlife?

So I put out the call for poems for the Wartime Issue and the poems came flooding in—so many and of such power as to astonish me. As I wrote in my original introduction, ‘When the politicians are compliant and the press is distracted by the next sparkly thing, the poets continue to believe, to speak out and to say no to fear.’ It’s shocking how true that still is, three years later. As I write this in the fall of 2009, the Iraq war, in which Iraqis and Americans are still dying, has almost disappeared entirely from the news. President Obama, elected on an anti-war platform, is considering sending more troops to fight the war in Afghanistan. The poems in the Wartime Issue, sadly, still call out to us to remember, to use our strong voices to dissent. I am grateful to the poets for their courage and their stubbornness, their refusal to shut up. And I thank Kim Roberts for this marvelous platform, Beltway Poetry Quarterly—journal, archive, living testament, healthy diet, sensuous pleasure.”

From the Editor:
Sarah Browning burst onto the DC poetry scene in the winter of 2003, organizing a series of poetry readings to protest the planned US invasion of Iraq. This led to the formation of DC Poets Against the War, and the anthology she co-edited of the same name (published first in 2003, then in an expanded version in 2004). Sarah’s passionate belief that poetry can be an important tool for social change is inspiring to be around, so I asked her to guest edit the Wartime Issue of Beltway Poetry in 2006. Sarah is the only guest editor to do an open call for entries for a special issue on her own, rather than co-editing with me, and Sarah took on this huge task with her usual verve and generosity. In 2007 she formed a national bi-annual festival of poetry, Split This Rock: Poems of Provocation & Witness, to continue expanding her important work, and Beltway Poetry was fortunate to host a special Split This Rock Issue in 2008, timed to be online during the first festival (a special issue that was co-edited by myself and Regie Cabico). In addition, she was a featured author in 2004, and contributed poems to the Whitman, DC Places, and Museum Issues. I count on her for sound advice, ideas, and optimism.




If they ask what it was like,
say it was gray so many days
we dreamed the color chart of gray—
Pearl, Opal, Imperial Half-Tone Gray—
none of which is on display
in the shiny tourist brochure.

Think Italy, think sun: Yellow!
Gold! Siena!—a whole color
named for that imagined
glowing city to the south.

But here in Torino, tucked up against
the Alps – we know they ring the city
but if you ask us we can only gesture
helplessly to the north and to the west—
here, we are connoisseurs of precipitation:
drizzle, mist, downpour, my English
mother’s favorite word: mizzle. Hail twice
now in April. Games cancelled.
Trips delayed. Laundry drying
for days on indoor racks, tired
soggy sweat socks of gray.

Travelogue of gray, pastry shop
of gray, full moon of gray. Today:
gray. Tomorrow: we promise
to stop arguing, to wallow,
luxuriate, fall in love.


Kathy Keler, "Intersect," 2009, acrylic on wood, 9" x 6"

Kathy Keler, “Intersect,” 2009, acrylic on wood, 9″ x 6″


We all love Gracie very much
my mother says after
the diagnosis, the first
transfusion, and I sit
cradling the phone.

I drive to my sister’s when I can—
do laundry, drive Gracie
to the clinic, take Sam to the park,
watch the Tigger Movie at dawn
so the parents might sleep in—
all the comfort I can give.

Crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge
I watch the tankers below.
They hardly seem to move,
they carry such freight.



tune that plays the sail rigs on the ship of me,
tune that men sing at work on the old boat
to bring it home or once more to sea

Tell me, is it true the sky was red—
blood; heart, of course, and shame,
war, rare birds in the yard

And rags, truck, fire, spark, what I know
of you, you of me, rage, night—

how it comes on red, how it winks
at want, how it wants


London, 1940

Here’s an engine in its overnight home
flashing blue and hot orange
in the quiet railroad yard.
The silence is only dull
like the engine’s roar.
No air raid sirens tonight,
calling high and low
across the neighborhood.
The dark is observed
but the city holds its breath.

You hold your mother’s hand
and step across the tracks.
Tonight you are on your way
and America is promised.
No daily wail,
no nightly screech of enemy
excitement, Mr. Bomb.

Last week the two of you were caught
too far from an air raid shelter,
slammed hard against some garden wall.
She prayed angrily in your ear
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
She covered your eyes but they were everywhere:
boots slapping on the pavement,
the whine falling from the sky,
the baby screaming beside you.
Where is the baby’s mother? you kept asking.
Where? Lead us not into temptation,
your own mother was crying,
the earth rocking and the sky
collapsing into the center
of the London road.

Even the shelters are homes for fear,
families tired and waiting forever
together underground.
Their cold cucumber sandwiches
grow soggy in their palms.
How familiar is the thermos,
its dulled shine in the darkness
and the damp of the underground.
You can hear the whiz and whir of the blitz
raging above you.
You bury your long face in the crook
of your mother’s arm.

She is dreaming of the passage
of the sailing you will make together.
She tells you tales of New York,
big cars crossing the vast cornfield,
the ocean dancing on the other side, California,
the golden hillsides, your new home.



Sarah Browning is the author of two books of poems: Killing Summer (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017), and Whiskey in the Garden of Eden(The Word Works, 2007), and co-editor of D.C. Poets Against the War: An Anthology. Browning is co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock: Poetry of Provocation & Witness and an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. She is the recipient of fellowships from the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, a Creative Communities Initiative grant, and the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. Browning has been guest editor or co-edited special issues of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Delaware Poetry Review, and POETRY Magazine. To read more by this author: Sarah Browning: Summer 2004; Sarah Browning: Whitman Issue; Sarah Browning's Intro to The Wartime Issue, Spring 2006; Sarah Browning: DC Places Issue; Sarah Browning: Split This Rock Issue; Sarah Browning: Museum Issue; Sarah Browning on DC Poets Against the War: Literary Organizations Issue; Sarah Browning: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue; Sarah Browning: Floricanto Issue.