From the Refugee Tales

The Lawyer’s Tale

[Note: the following poem was written for and performed during The Refugee Tales, a project organized by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group in England this past June. I was asked to respond to a specific tale in Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales.]

Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale is as narrative of sea migrations, of exile and refuge and exile yet again. Sea journeys are signs of rejection, betrayal, treachery, homelessness. Constance, our heroine, is driven by forces she has little control over—across the Mediterranean, out into the Atlantic—and back again. Systems of state and patriarchal power enclose then reject her; her freedom is fleeting, false—a ship in which They han hir set, and bidde hir lerne saille, or in which she arrives at a straunge nacioun, where she may yet again be bounde under subjeccioun.

Agamben: “It is almost as if, starting from a certain point, every decisive political event were double-sided: the spaces, the liberties, and the rights won by individuals in their conflicts with central powers always simultaneously prepares a tacit but increasing inscription of individuals’ lives within the state order, thus offering a new and more dreadful foundation for the very sovereign power from which they wanted to liberate themselves.”

Chaucer’s Man of Law tells us precious little about the law, or himself. The General Prologue only notes his desire for property: Al was fee symple to hym. It is not clear what Constance’s story means to him, either personally or professionally. The Man of Law remains terra nullius, a spurious empty zone to claim, desire stretching its hands out towards the unclaimed lands of claimants from their own lands torn.


The lawyer
looking out to see
croons April in
cruellest soliloquy
ship that fleteth
in the Grete see
—to make submissiouns
in courts of peine and wo

knowing the truth
one does not always
remain intact
nor does the truth
always remain intact
and the borders
are no longer
at the border

but move as magnets
amongst iron filing statutes


Because of a complicated relation to borders, we are trying to figure the boundaries of our present age. I don’t particularly like the term Anthropocene—isn’t the anthros what we are trying to—navigate away from? Call it geophysical capitalism: the era in which our economic activities have come to affect the entire geosphere—all ecosystems, all species.

If we blame everyone, we blame no one
we give the guilty
—free passage—
and we bear burdens we did not bring on ourselves

Some have said the industrial revolution. Some have said the deepening dependence upon fossil fuels coeval with the industrial revolution. Still others have said it’s the bomb—the atomic marker registered in isotopes the world over. But the first time human activity impacted the entire planet—changing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere in the course of a single century—was during North American colonization, when the deaths of some 50 million Indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island was registered in a world-wide decline in CO2—swallowed up by the forests that filled in the farmland the Indigenous worked before they were suddenly—swallowed up.

In the Mediterranean
fishermen sometimes
pull up skulls and bones in their nets

It’s estimated there could be 50 million climate refugees by the year 2020, displaced by disasters including droughts, desertification, and floods. No matter how colonial the calculus, 50 million for 50 million is no book’s balance, no ledger’s line item.


we were in motion
the empty category
moving north
sand and sea swept
in a ship al sterelees
the carapace of a beetle
blue blue-black
midnight blue blue
of Nut and never
carried for thousands
of miles in fragile hands
to seken straunge strondes
and leave life’s evidence there

the lawyer notes:
his village had been raised to the ground
he’d never been far from his home
until he wound up in London
refused asylum because they
didn’t believe that he was from the tribe
he said he was from
or that his brother could be his brother


In 1816, the restored French monarchy sent a small fleet of ships, led by the frigate Medusa, “to retake possession of the French establishments on the African coast.” Captained by the incompetent but loyally royalist Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, on July 2 the Medusa runs aground on the notorious Alguin Bank, off the coast of Senegal. 147 colonists and crew are set adrift on a hastily constructed raft, from which a mere 15 barely living survivors are rescued two weeks later. Madness, infighting, cannibalism, starvation, the sacrifice of the weak, and the stormy sea took the rest.

Jump ahead two centuries. On April 18 2015, a massively overloaded fishing boat carrying possibly as many as 900 migrants capsizes and sinks in the Mediterranean, some 60 nautical miles off the coast of Libya, while making its way north to Italy. Only 28 survivors are pulled from the sea. Hundreds of African migrants, we learn, were locked in the submerged hold.

“Border controls are most severely deployed by those Western regimes that create mass displacement, and are most severely deployed against those whose very recourse to migration results from the ravages of capital and military occupations” (Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism).

“I am between hell and the deep blue sea.”


we were in motion
emptying the category
moving south
serenading sinecures
in hand-made hopes
and crushing blows
an empty box
that might be filled with spice
an empty ship
that might more lightly go
if sweet and light
it could more crudely show
the underside
of the undercommons
locked deep in the hold
of the ship slipping below


In some historical situations a fire, say, is set in a building where some quarry, let’s call them, has holed up, and when the quarry comes running out of the burning building they have sought, let’s call it, refuge in, they are shot dead by those lying in wait who have themselves set the fire in the first place. Those who set the fire, let’s call them hunters, claim the setting of the fire and the shooting of the quarry are two separate and unrelated events. They claim the quarry, whom, they accuse, were somewhere they should not have been, came running at them, and that they were therefore forced, is how they put it, to shoot them in self-defence, as they call it.

But the quarry know the direct and systemic connections between the setting of the fire and their being shot upon seeking to escape the fire—indeed, their becoming quarry, and taking refuge in the building in the first place, was the result of the hunters “hunting.” They know this is the hunter’s game, and that in this and many similar historical situations, they have so often been named quarry, and that justice is a world without hunters and without quarry, a world where fires are not lit and shots are not fired and “the world is its own refuge.”


sea’s blue
leaps out a bird
leaps out a hand
skyward to jets
to ward ships
from the shore

the lawyer
briefed and briefly
docs the
deep dislocation
in the Sahel
as rainfall patterns
floods and droughts
disrupt the
climatic fact

that the world
was born yearning
to be a home
for all


While the Medusa was not charged with the task of re-engaging in the slave trade, that was nevertheless the end result of the re-establishment of the French colony at Saint-Louis in Senegal, as the new governor conveniently turned the proverbial blind eye. “By the end of June 1818 a French patrol route had been set up in an attempt to intercept and arrest slavers but, perversely, the inconvenience of eluding capture made the trade more difficult and therefore even more profitable for those who escaped the authorities.”

2015—the latch locks on the darkened hold as fighter jets scramble to fishing ports. “Immigration restrictions and the crackdown on smugglers are part of what turned the migrant crisis into a humanitarian disaster. Instead of deterring migrants, these laws make smuggling operations more profitable, more professional and far more brutal.”

Alexandre Correard, survivor of the raft of the Medusa and author of The Shipwreck of the Frigate, the Medusa: “Readers, who shudder at the cry of outraged humanity, recollect, at least, that it was other men, fellow countrymen and comrades, who had placed us in this abominable situation.”


—declarations of rights—
whose subtle inscription
of natural life
is the ordinary figure
in this juridical order
exception made law
and life made bare

it’s Zoe told me this
as we careened
through a dull day—
you can build an office
in your home
but you can’t build a home
in your office

I write to the lawyer. I stare at the reproduction of the Gericault painting on the cover of Jonathan Miles’s The Wreck of the Medusa, its greeny tones deepening in time. A mirror that turns you to stone. The energy feeding the lamp I read by. Can you really tell which bodies are white, and which are black, on the dust jacket reproduction? I scan on-line pictures of blue boats bobbing in the Mediterranean, a diver dragging a blue jean-clad body up through clear water, dark hands hanging loose at its sides. I walk on the beach near my home, looking at ships and water-bound borders.

My ancestors came to the “new world” as a new climate comes to a region that is soon warming. Coal miners, we were ourselves largely carbon, affecting other carbon, through the release of still more carbon. “We” (things that are living) are all carbon-based beings, but “we” (active and passive participants in waves of economic violence) don’t all do unto others as “we” would accumulate various and unequal wealths and debts to ourselves.


under immigration powers
held prior to deportation
on hunger strike until
we could prove that he was
who he said he was
from people who could speak
his language
who could confirm that he’d
been met in the village before

     This was the commune
     vois of every man

he lived a cold winter
sleeping in a phone box
ate food from the floor
the street market left
at the end of the day
he always asked me
about my family
even though he knew that his was gone

the law has this lingering human shape
that from its metal workings must be scraped


April 24 2015, Senegalese writer Fatou Diome on French television, an older white man on either side of her, and her gallant white, male host trying throughout to interrupt her: “You see on the headline the flow of African migrants arriving in Europe but you don’t speak of the Europeans going to Africa. That’s the free flow of the powerful, the ones who have the money, and the right kind of passports. You go to Senegal, to Mali, to any country around the world… Anywhere I go, I meet French people, Germans, and Dutch. I see them everywhere around the world, because they have the right passport. With your passport, you go anywhere around the world, and act like you run those places, with your pretentious demeanor. Stop the hypocrisy. We will all be rich together, or perish together.”


the earth’s crust
titling under shift
of waters and ice
melt over mantle
pressing earthquake
to drought lips

this kiss for
refuge a greeting
or a goodbye

the law sits
a hooded falcon
on whose arm
privilege preys


What if complicity is a form of relationship—of negative connection—the realization that we are all in (or near) the same drunken boat? It’s just that some of us own the boat, some of us built the boat, some of us work on the boat—some of us have boarded the boat by choice, some because we felt we had no choice, others who were given no choice at all. Still others haven’t even heard about the boat, or they watch it idly, crowded and listing on TV, as waters are roughed by hovering helicopter blades. Complicity, like privilege, then, is when we find our relationship to the boat and find we were not exactly forced, that we can yet choose otherwise. Gather at the stern. Organize the disembarkation into unkempt regions of permanent asylum.


—asylum seeker—
the lawyer coughs—
beneath its hood
the law startles
bells on talons jangling

can sometimes vary
and this is seen as
there can be different accounts
from different members of a family
and this can be seen as

if the information is
it can’t be true

then there is turbulence
somewhere between
the jail and the endless sea


1819: The painter Theodore Gericault begins work on his masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa, in a studio in suburban Paris. “Gericault who, from the outset, craved facts about the catastrophe and assembled a file full of related documents”—painting severed limbs, hands and heads in his noxious studio—“a tangle of limbs that recalls the human debris strewn about the raft”—“the painter spent days in charnel-houses studying decay”—“we can attribute to these paintings and drawings of severed limbs the role of stimuli in his living with the raft”—“I will set myself adrift on a difficult sea,” Gericault proclaims.

October 24, 1848. In the Louvre. “A mason’s ladder punctured The Raft of the Medusa, damaging some sky and the side of the hand of the sailor waving for rescue”—“the controversially placed black signaller at the apex of all their hope.”

“What we see in the distance is not a rescue vessel, it’s nothing but a part of the same state machinery that is responsible for our present plight.”


—dear accomplice—
my anomic drive
is lodged in the very heart
of the nomos
—sing out from the
stays and spars
of fraught voyage—

we shal [not] drenchen in the depe
we will be as soft merchants
we will prune and tame
no flowers will field us
the times will be
a chorus of groans
will mark all our small
no one will see the eyes
we do not possess
we will not repatriate
value will be the heat
in our hands as we
reach out to another
and pull them onto the
common shore


One smuggler was a former oilrig technician. “For the short term at least, international companies have good reason to hunker down in Libya. The country’s crude is abundant. It is also generally light and sweet—that is, low on density and sulfur, a favorable formula for importers and downstream operators—and easy to access.”

The Raft of the Medusa was painted in sombre, monochromatic tones, and has grown even darker as it has aged. This the result of Gericault’s experimental use of “bituminous paint.” Bitumen: “a naturally-occurring, non-drying, tarry substance used in paint mixtures to enrich the appearance of dark tones. Bitumen became very popular as a paint additive in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth. However, because it does not dry it eventually causes severe darkening and cracking of the paint.”


—shapeless future—
we steal our way
far from press releases
to fish on rocks
to one side of the nothing
power does not
already oversee
practicing another mode
of gasping—intake stardust
infinitesimal drops of
drops by turns
turned out
turning spheres colours
green turning blue
turning out


Libya has two seas: the Mediterranean to the north, and the Sahara to the south.

Judie, wearing a red headscarf, is from Eritrea. Aged 25, she is already a widow. She first went to Khartoum and was smuggled into Libya from there. She was caught while crossing the desert. “Yes, it’s dangerous. I know I can die. If I get a chance to live, OK, better. But if I die, that’s also OK. I cannot go anywhere else to change my life.”

“The four months that we stayed there—do you know what death is like? Several times they said: we’re leaving. But we didn’t. Twice we reached the shore but were turned back. Once we reached the boat—but then they said there’s no more space.”

It looked like a fishing boat, but it was a strange time of day to go fishing. “I will make you fishers of men,” someone somewhere once said. The ships are pointed roughly towards a certain oilrig, not far from Lampedusa. The expectation is that if the boat is not spotted earlier, the employees of the oilrig will call the Italian or Maltese coastguards to pick it up.

“Many people would go on the boats, even if they didn’t have any rescue operations.”

He only turned to smuggling because he could not find work as a lawyer

and we turn away quickly in the gallery
damaging some sky
                     and the Grete See seen from below
ripples ever outward





1 thought on “From the Refugee Tales

  1. Pingback: From the Refugee Tales | Beating the Bounds | word pond

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