An elegy for reporter James Foley

Daniel Johnson and his late friend James Foley. (Courtesy of Daniel Johnson)
Daniel Johnson and his late friend James Foley. (Courtesy of Daniel Johnson)

One of the more moving responses to the horrific murder of reporter James Foley comes from his friend Daniel Johnson. A poet and the founding executive director of the 826 Boston youth writing center, Johnson worked on a poem throughout Foley’s captivity in Syria. On Wednesday, two weeks after the Islamic State killed Foley, “In the Absence of Sparrows” is being published as part of the Academy of American Poets’s Poem-A-Day feature distributed by King Features Syndicate.

Johnson met Foley when they signed up with Teach for America and worked in a school in South Phoenix in the late ’90s. Later, Foley became godfather to Johnson’s son. “In the Absence of Sparrows” suggests the range of that long friendship and conveys Johnson’s devastation at Foley’s absence.

“In the week following Jim’s death,” Johnson says via e-mail, “a number of poets I know reached out and shared verse with me ranging from Wendell Berry’s ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ to recent poems by Peter Gizzi. The poems did bring me some solace and a sense of kinship with the friends who shared them. I hope that my own poem will help to keep Jim’s image and memory alive for people who knew him and others who may have never met him.”

Johnson’s elegy mixes different forms and tones as it portrays the trajectory of Foley’s life. Early in the poem, when the journalist is being held in captivity, the speaker says, “We don’t know, Jim, where you are.” By the poem’s haunting conclusion, that cry has gathered further dimensions of tragedy.

Although infused with sorrow, “In the Absence of Sparrows” contains moments of comedy, too. One of the most charming and lively sections  portrays a much younger Foley in 1991. He’s drinking beer and racing a borrowed station wagon across the frozen surface of the Winnipesaukee. Suddenly, the car falls through the ice and disappears. “People do reckless things,” Johnson writes, “but your friends dubbed you the High King of Foolish S—.”

Given the grave discussion lately about the risks that war journalists take, it’s a telling passage.

“I think that anyone who is drawn to conflict reporting must be wired differently than others,” Johnson acknowledges. “Jim had a thirst for adventure and an insatiable curiosity about the world.”

But Johnson doesn’t see thrill-seeking as his friend’s motive for working in some of the most dangerous spots on earth. “As courageous as Jim was, I don’t think that it was the violence or the danger that drew Jim to these parts of the world. Rather, I think it was the people’s stories, the stories of mechanics, oil workers, mothers and fathers, people in extremis, that drew him to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and ultimately Syria. Jim always sought common ground and understanding and, despite the horrific circumstances under which he worked, he hoped that his work would inch the world toward peace.”

In the Absence of Sparrows

By Daniel Johnson

Rockets concuss. Guns rattle off.
Dogs in a public square
feed on dead horses.

I don’t know, Jim, where you are.
When did you last see
birds? The winter sky in Boston

is gray with flu. Newspapers,
senators, friends, even your mom
on Good Morning America—

no one knows where you are.
It’s night, cold and bruised,
where you are. Plastic twine binds

your hands. You wait and pray, pray
and wait, but this is where the picture goes gray.
We don’t know, Jim, where you are.

*

In the absence of sparrows: a crowd of friends and family gather in Rochester,
New Hampshire to recite the holy rosary.

*

We keep your picture on the kitchen table, pack of American Spirits,
airplane bottle of Scotch, a copy of Krapp’s Last Tape.

Don’t get me wrong; we expect you back. Skinny, feral,
coffee eyes sunken but alive, you’ve always come back, from Iraq,

Syria, Afghanistan, even Libya after Gaddafi’s forces
captured and held you for 44 days. You tracked time scratching

marks with your zipper on prison walls, scrawling notes on cigarette
boxes, reciting the Koran with other prisoners. Then, you called.

DJ, it’s Jimmy . . . I’m in New Hampshire, brother! I wanted
to break your f—ing nose. We ate lobster rolls, instead,

on a picnic bench by Boston Harbor. You made a quick round
of TV shows, packed your camera and Arabic phrasebook.

You skipped town on a plane to Turkey. We talked once. You said
you’d play it safe. The connection was lost.

*

In the absence of sparrows: American journalist James Foley disappeared
after being taken captive by armed gunmen near Aleppo, Syria on Thanksgiving Day.

In the absence of sparrows: our house burns blue with news.

*

Winter solstice, 1991. You turned donuts,
drinking beers, in a snowy public lot next to the lake.
Girls yelped. You cranked the Pixies louder, cut the lights,
and steered Billy’s grandma’s Chrysler onto the Winnipesaukee ice.
The moon flamed bright as a county coroner’s light.
You revved the station wagon’s engine. Billy tied
a yellow ski rope off the hitch, flashed a thumbs up,
and you punched the gas—5, 15, 20, 25 miles per hour—
towing Billy, skating in high-top sneakers,
across the frozen lake. Chill air filled his lungs.
Billy pumped his fist. You torqued the wheel left.
Triumphant, you honked and flashed the lights.
You took a swig of Heineken and wheeled
the wood-paneled station wagon in a wide-arcing turn
to pick up Billy, bloodied but standing. People do reckless things
but your friends dubbed you the High King of Foolish S—.
The nose of Billy’s grandma’s Chrysler broke the ice.
You jammed it into reverse. Bald tires spinning,
you flung yourself from the car. In seconds, it was gone.
You gave Billy’s grandma a potted mum
and a silver balloon. Standing on her screened-in porch,
you mumbled an apology. What am I supposed to do now?
she asked. What the hell do I do now?

*

In the absence of sparrows: when falling snow, out the window, looks like radio waves, your face appears, your baritone laugh.

*

August 31, 2004

We read Abbie Hoffman, 1968, watched Panther documentaries,
The Weather Underground, and packed our bandanas, first aid kits,
fat markers, maps and signs for New York City. A31, they called it,
a day of direct action, a time to heave ourselves on the gears

of an odious machine. We marched, drumming and chanting, half a million strong,
through the streets of Lower Manhattan. Worst President Ever, A Texas Village
Has Lost Its Idiot. Protestors carried a flotilla of flag-covered coffins.
We hoisted homemade signs and cried out, Whose streets?

Our streets? No justice, no peace! I’d packed sandwiches,
water, mapped restrooms along the parade route, inked
the hotline for Legal Services on your forearm and mine.
You, my wild half brother, packed only a one hitter, notepad, and pen.

When the parade snaked past the New York Public Library,
we peeled off to confront 20 cops in riot gear blocking entry
with batons drawn. We took position on the library steps.
Stone-still, inches from police, we held our signs

stamped with a student gagged by padlock and chain.
I could feel breath on my neck. We narrowly escaped arrest,
then streamed toward the Garden, a ragtag troop of 200.
We evaded barricades. Cut down alleys. At Herald Square, only

blocks from the Republican Convention, cops on mopeds
cut us off. They rolled out a bright orange snow fence,
hundreds of yard long, then zip cuffed us, one by one.
I called Ebele. You called your brother, set to be married in just three days.

His best man, you were headed to jail. “I’ll be there Friday for the golf outing,”
you vowed, a cop cutting your phone call short. They took you first.
Threw you on a city bus headed to Pier 14 on the Hudson,
a giant garage stinking of axel grease and gasoline. Stepping off the bus,

I scanned hundreds of faces staring through chain link, newly erected
and topped with concertina wire. I couldn’t find you. I can’t. They transferred me,
in soapy light, to the Tombs, Manhattan’s city jail, and freed me after 24 hours
to wander the streets. I peered in Chinese restaurants, seedy Canal Street bars,

called your cell phone from a payphone, trekked to Yago’s apartment
in Spanish Harlem, eager to crack beers, to begin weaving the story
we would always tell. You were not there. Waiting outside the Tombs,
I missed my flight home. Waiting, I smoked your cigarettes on the fire escape.

They held you and held you. You are missing still. I want to hold you. Beauty
is in the streets, my brother. Beauty is in the streets.

*

In the absence of sparrows: trash fires, a call to prayer. Dusk.
Rockets whistling, plastic bags taking flight.

In the absence of sparrows: all of a sudden, you appear. Standing before a cinder block wall, you’re holding a video camera with a boom mic and wearing a bulletproof vest.

In the absence of sparrows: the front page story says you’ve been missing since November 22, 2012. Everything else it doesn’t say.

In the absence of sparrows: you simply wandered off, past the Sunoco, pockets stuffed. The door to your apartment is open still—

© 2014 Daniel Johnson. Distributed by King Features Syndicate

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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