The Boston-based poet Daniel Johnson was a close friend of murdered American journalist James “Jim” Foley, who was killed in Syria on August 19. (They are pictured together above.)
Johnson says Jim “was—and is— a brother to me.”
Johnson has published “In the Absence of Sparrows,” a poem he wrote during Foley’s 656-day captivity.
“In so doing,” says Daniel Johnson, “I intend to reclaim his image and memory. And I hope to stamp out the numbing vision of Jim in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling in a desert expanse, his captor clad in black, standing above him.”
The poem is below. First this note by Daniel Johnson:
I first met Jim in 1996 when we signed up for Teach for America. Following a stint as a ski lift operator in the Rocky Mountains, I arrived at our teacher training in Houston. Jim shipped in from Milwaukee after spending the summer working at a bottling factory. ‘Good to meet you, bro,’ Jim remarked when we first met. Broad-shouldered and smiling, he was wearing a Milwaukee Bucks jersey and high tops, like he’d just come from a three-on-three tournament. I noticed, to my surprise, that novels lined Jim’s dormitory shelves. Jim, I’d learn over time, was a man of delightful contradictions.
Jim and I spent three enlivening years teaching together in South Phoenix, a sprawling grid of hardscrabble neighborhoods rimmed by South Mountain, where empty desert lots glistened with broken glass. Jim taught middle school history at Lowell Elementary. I taught fifth- and sixth-grade bilingual students at C. J. Jorgensen Elementary. Day after day, we attempted to win over our rowdy classrooms. By night, we moonlighted, sitting in on community writing workshops. Together, we made a pact to become writers.
After leaving Phoenix, Jim went on to study fiction writing at UMass Amherst, where he wrote “Notes to a Fellow Educator,” a prize-winning short story detailing his teaching days in Arizona. His story, thinly veiled as fiction, takes the form of a painfully hilarious tell-all letter written by a teacher named Mr. Foley, who is departing the classroom. Page one describes several middle school girls forming the “We Hate Mr. Foley Club.” “Mr. Foley You are not the boss of this school so don’t try to boss us,” reads Joanna Chavez’s writing sample left behind for Foley’s successor. I’ve always loved the poignant, clear-eyed tone of this story, which seems to prefigure Jim’s later move to study journalism at Northwestern.
Jim left behind fiction for conflict journalism, I believe, out of an urge to study the world even more closely at hand. Even then, he expressed his own frustrations—as he traveled from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Libya to Syria—with making brutality his subject. “In a war zone, you can just turn on your camera. With bullets flying and bombs exploding, it’s automatic news,” Jim shared with me after returning from Libya, where he’d been freed by Khadafi’s forces after being held for forty-four days.
As courageous as Jim was, however, I don’t think that it was danger or violence that drew him to this harrowing work. Rather, it was peoples’ stories, the stories of mechanics, oil workers, mothers, and fathers, people living in extremis, that drew him to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and, ultimately, Syria. A similar thread, I believe, had led Jim into that South Phoenix classroom years before. He fell in love with the stories of his students like those of Reuben, Mari, Patti, and Patricia.
It’s impossible to even reach for language to explain the loss that I now feel. Jim stood up in my wedding. He’s the reason I met my wife in a record-setting New York City blizzard—a long story I’d be happy to tell you over drinks some time. He’s godfather to Luka, my son, now a year-and-a-half, whom Jim will never meet. When I sit down to write these days, I look at a picture of Jim with a pen in his hand, a combat helmet cocked back on his head. I will miss him forever.
A POETIC TRIBUTE
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
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 fucking 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
after being taken captive by armed gunmen near Aleppo, Syria on
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 Shit.
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
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
His best man, you were headed to jail. “I’ll be there Friday for the golf
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
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
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
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
They held you and held you. You are missing still. I want to hold you.
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
In the absence of sparrows: the front page story says you’ve been
November 22, 2012. Everything else it doesn’t say.
In the absence of sparrows: you simply wandered off, past the Sunoco,
The door to your apartment is open still—