The Read Local committee is very pleased to announce Jemshed Khan has won our Bear Witness poetry contest for his poem "#48689." Entries included an impressive variety of poetic forms, including haiku and sonnet, making the selection very difficult. In the end, we selected "#48689" as, like the numbers in the title, it tattooed itself on our minds. The haunting imagery and vivid description lends the poem personal immediacy and requires remembrance. The person #48689, bearing witness as both executioner and innocent victim, gives us chills and the poem deserves repeated readings.
Jemshed Khan lives and works in Kansas City, and attends local readings and workshops.
She was nearly seventy and catching the evening news
when the buzzcut Skinheads appeared on the big screen TV
gathering to explain that it was all just a hoax.
She had thought the Dead dead,
but now the remnant past prickled about her
and the peephole of memory swung open.
Tiny white bones began rising up to consciousness
and she journeyed back into cattle cars
and marched through the fresh and falling snow.
When tilling fields for crops she was startled again
by the tiny white bones of babies turned to fertilizer.
She revisited the half-living about the edge of fire,
and heard voices from her childhood
that had gathered to the chambers.
Now, when I walk in to the mechanized chatter of her sewing shop
she looks up and her pale eyes flash and smile.
The bulb of the vintage Singer machine
blazes yellow on the backs of her hands
as her fingers draw thread
through a needle's eye.
Her veins are old, full and blue like tattoos.
There is meat on her bones.
When her hand feeds fabric to the seam,
the veins bulge and I see the dull blue numbers
on her forearm are ink from another century.
She tells that a few survived the chambers:
Those bodies that still breathed
were dragged out no differently
and stacked with the dead;
all then doused for the burning.
After the blaze of fuel was spent
and the fiery core had already sunk to ash,
the edge of the smoking heap was mostly char.
Little much survived past that smoldering edge -
Just the upper body still alive
with a hand that moved a bit
and a face tilting upward.
The eyes locked intently upon her,
sharply holding her at witness.