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My Poem at the Rutgers’ LEARN Event “From Triangle To Rana Plaza To Temp Workers: Building Worker Power”

On May 6th, I presented one of my poems, “Ready to Wear,” which was also translated into Bangla, as part of the Rutgers University Labor Education Action Research Network (LEARN) Event “From Triangle To Rana Plaza To Temp Workers: Building Worker Power,” an international virtual panel discussion with:

Moderator: Dina Siddiqi, Clinical Associate Professor, Global Liberal Studies, NYU

Alison Morse, Poet

Taslima Akhter, Photographer and President BGWS

Rupali Akhter, former Garment Worker at Rana Plaza, Secy for Health Support, BGWS

Reynalda Cruz, Worker Organizer New Labor Taslima Akhter, Photographer and President BGWS

Carmen Martino, Rutgers LSER, Dir, Occupational Training and Education Consortium

Abul Ahsan Rubel, Executive Coordinator of Ganosamhati Andolon (People’s Solidarity Movement) and Chief Coordinator of Protibesh Andolon (Ecological Movement)

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On the Last Night in Dhaka

published in Jaggery
part of The Price of Our Clothes


After a morning highway ride

to Savar, passing roadside piles

of white bags stuffed

with broadcloth pockets,

gingham shirt fronts,

denim lapels—tons

of cotton remains

from factories—


after riding past smokestacks

rising through dirt,

spewing soot

from buried kilns

baking handmade bricks,


after watching, in Savar,

Rana Plaza survivors

push pant legs through

sewing machines

loud as machine guns,


after reaching, by afternoon,

Dhaka’s public cemetery,

to see how microbes

have decomposed

the unidentified

Rana Plaza dead,


after sunset dims my view

of Dhaka’s women garment workers

to silhouettes climbing

on fire escapes, like worker ants,

from one factory floor

to another,


after sitting in starless night

on a mattress in a muddy yard

opposite Pamina, who says:

I have no way out

of the garment industry,

I am confined

with the betterment of my children,


I lie in my hotel bed,

awake to American techno-pop,

jack-hammered from

a nearby disco.


Red, white, blue, flash

into the night with every beat.

Soldiers at the hotel entrance

guard guests—potential targets

for handmade bombs.


After two weeks in Bangladesh,

I long for this country’s

five a.m. call to prayer,

my own country’s music

to stop.

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The Light Under, A Conversation with “Dibaxu (Under)” by Juan Gelman

first published in Poetry City, U.S.A.
reprinted in The News, Mexico


Under the metal wing

of another plane leaving home


a field of clouds, moisture

no one can hold


under the clouds

a white page of snow


under the snow

roofs like book covers

splayed open

under the roofs

our cranial bones


under bone

our songs remembering

life after leaving:


in the city

we walked in rags

wrapped around our feet


hunger held us;

we did well

if we had potatoes


new laws took

our fathers’ work

then took our fathers


they aimed at our elders’ hearts

for “friendship

with God’s enemies”


led us to clothed bones

in barrels; yes, we said

these are our sons, disappeared.


Certain of always losing

we stand on the Strong Cliff

ready to strike.


Our tongues tremble

with this exile.


Yet, under our songs of the separated


our roots sing through soil

to other root clusters

feeding trunks, branches

multi-mouthed, green-voiced

leaves of every shape and language



under the leaves, the word










under the word








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The Great Lakes

published in Poetry City, U.S.A.
made into a song by composer Sarah Miller



On the scan of her after-stroke brain, we see her alien graymatterscape

darkened by pools of dead neurons we dub The Great Lakes of Dementia:


Lake Nonsense, Lake Lost Way, Lake Can’t Be Left Alone,

Lake Scrambled Space and Time, Lake Black Hole.


She greets the plumber, sock on one hand, pants at her ankles, oh, the turmoil

in Ukraine. From her chair into walls she can’t see, she bolts,


rebounds, shuffles over her big toes on the way to her piano.

The Chopin etude she first learned more than sixty years ago


clangs atonal until one arpeggio, two, three, harmonize past her plaques and tangles,

hammer a chain of heat through the piano’s lacquered burls, wires, ivory keys,


the yolk-yellow finches perched like grace notes on the feeder,

our helpless hands in our laps as we listen, submerged with her


in Lake Pleaseanneal, Lake Inexpress, Lake Sing Hilarity, Lake Nothing, Lake Boundless.






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Dream Rematerialized in Bangladesh

published in Water~Stone Review
part of The Price of Our Clothes


Red threads protrude
from the tips of my fingers,
weaving loom warp
attached to the clucking tongue
of my mother. She says,
why are you wearing that shmattah?
Her words steer my hands
to the nearest fashion outlet,
rifle through rack after rack
for the cheapest blouses, skirts
and trousers to make me
more slender, more
modern professional, more
American shikse, less
frum, less
poor, potato-y
Jewish immigrant

Invisible weft
weaves over
and under this warp,
threads of the years
my grandma and great aunts
made by hand
in garment factories,
work to trampoline
my mother and me
to more.

Crimson threads
shoot through the skin
of my fingertips, fan out
like scarlet highways
past my American horizon,
touch down in Dhaka
as running stitches
so red, they vibrate
a green kameez,
its label, Made in Bangladesh,
We Care, promises
artisans paid enough.

To meet Khadija, twenty,
factory shirtmaker since fourteen,
I wear my green kameez
embroidered with threads
as red as gashes
marking the palms
of women and men
Khadija knew
at Lifestyle, a factory
contracting knifers to cut
deep through the hands
of workers who, together,
marched Dhaka streets
roaring for human workday
goals and wages. Change.

Khadija tells the translator
to ask me: why are you here?
I say: I come from a family
of garment workers.
A century ago, the same
things happened in my country.
Kadija says: Bandhu, Friend.
Bangla and English
hum through the fabric
under my skin.

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Activist Means

published in Fashion Revolution Fanzine #001: Money, Fashion, Power
part of The Price of Our Clothes



In this poem, ACTIVIST means Kalpona Akter, not

militant, tree hugger, synonyms on


ACTIVIST means Kalpona, Bangladesh schoolgirl,

family breadwinner, age twelve.



awake, on her feet in a tiny, narrow clothing factory

twenty-three days straight, cutting cloth

into trouser belt loops, showering in the shared bathroom,

drinking tap water laced with toxins, tamarind cheeks burning

from supervisors’ slaps. Kalpona, afraid to say: No.

No to six dollars a month, four hundred fifty hours of work.

No to the one building exit barred by stacks of pants—

locked. No to colleagues kicked, necks pressed hard

by supervisors. No to private overtime shifts under managers

thrusting like needles into female employees’ fabric. No voice

until  “strike” from the mouths of her co-workers pushed

Kalpona to the front line, to defeat’s shadow, to the flint

of a union class, spark for her first luminous NO

and YES to talk between supervisors and colleagues.

Her voice so bright she was fired and blacklisted from the industry.


ACTIVIST means Kalpona, VOICE, who flies from Bangladesh

to the New Jersey office tower of Children’s Place—

international retail brand of onesies, kids’ jeans,

boys’ shirts—to bring the C.E.O a message:

please give more than one hundred forty dollars

to families of garment workers, who, while sewing

Children’s Place clothing in Bangladesh’s

Rana Plaza office tower, were maimed or killed

when the building collapsed. Know

that Children’s Place’s demand for the cheapest

clothes on the quickest deadlines

created Rana Plaza.


ACTIVIST does not mean Garment Industry Destroyer,

name given Kalpona by Bangladesh garment factory owners—

many of whom sit in Bangladesh’s Parliament.

The Ministry of Commerce tells the New York Times

the garment industry fixed itself after Rana Plaza.

Kalpona says: WE STILL LAG BEHIND,

points to unions controlled by factory owners,

worker’s unions forbidden to speak to workers.


In this poem, ACTIVIST means Kalpona Akter, but

I AM A WOMAN, HUMAN, is what Kalpona says.

Her bicycle leans against the wall

by her office desk. Her wide smile embraces me.

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