Sounds of Silence: Notes From an Exile at Home by Olga Dugan

(for Sister Elsa Maria)

First, el pais, then el mundo!—what madness.
Renegade milicia—all flesh and flint and guns.
Its soldiers, brown Romans, 45s clinking
in their sheaths. They group us priests, nuns

in installations with a paper to sign each day
because we denounce their regime: “Sign it!
Renounce your family!” (On stiff straw paper,
I write a note to God, I’ll hide in my habit,

“Please, keep Mama, Papa, Brother close ...”)
Before sun melts periwinkle to hot-red dawn,
they’re grunting, “Sign it! Renounce this country!”
(“God, keep my homeland—let me not be long

from it.” I ball up the tissue, manage to hide it
when a soldier looks my way.) Clergy, who came
to serve our native people, volunteered fingers,
toes, now, to save their lives in Jesus’ Name.

Hard signing the third paper with a loss dedo.
“Sign it! Renounce the church!” (They miss
the smack of crisp brown-kraft, “Providincia!
In Your hands. I hold You responsible for this!”)

The fourth day, they march Sisters into rooms
of our church; one loses her likeness to Mary:
“No violar!” It’s not me. And she will never tell.
But for her demonio, there will be a special hell.

“Sign it! Renounce God!” Hand swollen—blood,
pus running freely. I cannot sign. Instead, I bury
my notes between the church steps when I’m
told to gather my things, then wait ... unwittingly,

for deliverance. Back in my American cell, I survive
years of silence, until one day I hear the sound—
un pedazo de papel—dead leaves’ crunch underfoot,
pop of hot chestnuts, bringing the curtain down

on a hard history. “Mama died,” Brother writes,
“Papa lives, still works the fields. We’ve kept

Contributor Notes

“Sounds of Silence: Notes from an Exile at Home” is what Olga calls a narrative portrait, the focus of which is to capture and illuminate complex expressions of goodness as strategies for living well. Based on one woman’s lived-experience of thirty years of unbroken silence and prayer for the safety of her family during exile from her home in Cuba, “Sounds” is the portrait of an Oblate Sister of Providence, who was rescued and brought to America after nine months of imprisonment under the regime of renegade militia in Havana during the 1960s.

Olga Dugan is a 2011 Cave Canem Fellow. Her poems appear, or are forthcoming, in Kweli Journal, Pirene’s Fountain, Tipton Poetry Journal, evolution: The Red Moon Anthology of English-Language Haiku 2010 (RMP 2011), Bird's Eye reView, Red Ochre LiT, Hudson View Poetry Digest, Scribble, The Orange Room Review, and other journals and magazines. Olga’s haiku, “what we say,” received first prize in the innovative category of the Haiku Foundation’s International Haiku Now! Contest 2010. Olga is also the recipient of a Maryland Writers Association Prize in Poetry. Her chapbook of lyric narratives, In My Mother’s House, and other poems of resilience is available from Creative Endeavors Press. Olga is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Holding a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Rochester, she is a Lindback Professor of English at Community College of Philadelphia.