Suffer Even the Least

Suffer Even the Least

Suffer Even the Least


for speaking voice and double bass (poems by Don Mager)

©1995
Length: 21'

Program Notes


  1. Rwandan Haiku

  2. Los Olvidados

  3. Nerecuperabili

  4. The Little Ibrahim

  5. Fields and Fields of Mines


The composer's notes:

I met Don Mager during a three-week residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 1994, where he had gone to work with Richard Howard and I had gone to work with Karel Husa. I soon discovered that not only was Don a wonderful poet, but that he had a deep appreciation for, and an astounding knowledge of, contemporary music (I would be thrilled if I ever got to know half as much about poetry as Don knows about modern music). I also discovered that we shared many social and political concerns.

Some collaborations seemed inevitable. I first suggested a short piece for speaking voice and double bass that we could perform together at the Center. This fell through for lack of time, but the basic idea still struck us as a good one. Later, when we were back in our respective homes, Don conceived this cycle and sent me the poems, which seemed the perfect vehicle for us, given our shared tastes and beliefs. I wrote the music at the MacDowell Colony in 1995. We have some future collaborations planned, including a chamber opera.

I have attempted to set these wrenching poems to music simply and directly, with the music echoing and amplifying the power of the words. For the most part the text-setting is straightforward, with the musical rhythms reflecting the natural speech rhythms. There are also relatively few repetitions of words or phrases to obscure their meaning.

The poet's notes:

Suffer Even The Least protests the plight of children in the world today. The work is dedicated to the memory of Iqbal Marsih, the twelve-year-old Pakistani activist who brought to the world's attention the child slave labor in the carpet industry of his country (he was sold into slavery at age four). He was gunned down on 16 April 1995.

The movements look at five sadly all-too-common situations in which children live.

I. Rwandan Haiku - Driven from Rwanda during genocidal clashes, refugees fled to huge camps inside Zaire around the town of Goma. American TV reporters captured images of thousands of orphaned fly-infested babies and young children laid out in rows as a handful or nurses attempted to spoon soy milk into their mouths, many too weak to swallow.

II. Los Olvidados - Olvidado is Spanish for "forgotten one." In Mexico City, in the rubble from the 1985 earthquake, a hidden "child culture" thrives in small gang-families, surviving on petty crime and prostitution. Mainly boys, these gang-families replicate real families; the younger ones serve as wives or girls until they are old enough to assume dominant male roles.

III. Nerecuperabili - Due to Rumanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's policy of forbidding birth control and abortion to raise the birth rate, over 100,000 children and adolescents in Rumania, abandoned by their parents because their families could not afford to raise them, remain in the care of the state. Many have spent their childhood in cribs and later play rooms, with minimal care and nurturing. They have grown up severely mentally retarded, often never having learned even to speak. Even so, as they reach adolescence they are "set free" to survive on the streets as best they can. Many have AIDS. They are called the Nerecuperabili, a Rumanian word that means "unrecuperable, unrecoverable, unsalvageable."

IV. The Little Ibrahim - In Sudan, 10,000 children, mainly males, scratch out a precarious existence on the streets of Khartoum. The scarcity of food in rural regions, due to the lengthy civil war, forces parents to evict their boys from their homes; they end up in the capital city, on the streets.

V. Fields and Fields of Mines - Next to Cambodia, Angola is the most mine-infested terrain on this planet. Estimates are that, at the current rates of searching and disarming, it will take over fifty years to make the country safe. Meanwhile, every field, every village path or country road, holds potential injury or death. A person can walk the same route day in and day out, then suddenly place her foot a few inches to the left or right of the beaten path and explode a mine, maiming herself. Most injuries are not fatal, but frequently require amputation of mutilated limbs. Children are particularly vulnerable due to their instinct to play and explore "off the beaten path."

Texts

I. Rwandan Haiku

In Goma, little
ones lie on plastic sheets like
cut stalks of dry grass.

Little ones are spread
on sheets, lumps of seaweed washed
ashore in Goma

Little ones lie still,
too small or weak to cry, lumped
on sheets in Goma.

Like beads from a broken
string, in Goma countless babies
lie lumped in the sun.

In Goma, sun falls
from the sky like an iron
pressing starched fabric.

In Goma, sun falls.
Little ones too weak to cry
lie-flies in their eyes.

A nurse in Goma
spoons soy milk into small mouths
which cannot swallow.

In Goma, a nurse
wipes away the flies and moves
on. The flies come back.

Like cut stalks of dry grass
little ones in Goma lie,
a field of plastic.

A field of plastic
in Goma, beads from a broken thread
as far as eye sees.

II. Los Olvidados

Me Ángel, me live in earthquake holes.
Police chase us through our caves at night.
They call us the rats of the ruins,
the rats of the holes. Me twelve year.
At day in Garibaldi Plaza
I hustle myself for money.
Me Ángel, live in earthquake holes.

A concoction of glue and paint thinner becomes the dominant smell on the streets. Known as "activo," it hangs over these children like a paste and sustains them, deadening their pangs of hunger, numbing them from the cold, and giving them a fleeting boost of energy.

Me Ángel, me no boy-girl any more.
When I came here, a big boy made me
a girl. I was eight, could not fight him.
I lay still. When he was done he gave
me chiclets and candy. He showed me
the Plaza where big men pay money.
Me Ángel, me no boy-girl any more.

Even further down in the seedy underground of the earthquake rubble lurk pornographers who use children in "snuff films" in which the victim is filmed being raped and killed. Reports persist that gangs kidnap street children and kill them to sell their organs for transplants in more affluent countries.

Me Ángel, no talk outreach man.
He come down here with food in boxes.
Where he want to take me? Why I go?
Me only talk with boys I live with.
Man say I need doctor make me well.
Why I need doctor, he just trick me.
Me Ángel, no talk outreach man.

Mexican street children often can be seen shuffling around sniffing their collars or the inside of their coats where the "activo" is spread. Experts say the mixture causes severe brain damage very quickly, permanently slowing the children's cognitive reasoning and motor skills during the most formative years of their growth.

Me Ángel, me live in earthquake holes.
Police chase us through our caves at night.
They call us the rats of the ruins,
the rats of the holes. Me twelve year.
At day in Garibaldi Plaza
I hustle myself for money.
Me Ángel, live in earthquake holes.

III. Nerecuperabili

Unrecoverables, unsalvageables
the nerecuperabili
one hundred thousand of them forced into birth
to be cast out on the streets
unwanted
tethered to cribs in state-run orphanages
unwanted
they don't even learn to speak
hours on hours they shriek

Unrecoverables, unsalvageables
the nerecuperabili
one hundred thousand of them forced into birth
to be cast out on the streets
unwanted
by night they hide in boxes, by day they beg
unwanted
the station guards kick them down
like whipped dogs, they scamper, they run

Unrecoverables, unsalvageables
the nerecuperabili
one hundred thousand of them forced into birth
to be cast out on the streets
unwanted
by age six they sniff varnish in plastic bags
unwanted
seventy beds for kids at best
in the sole shelter in Bucharest

IV. The Little Ibrahim

They call me the little Ibrahim.
At six in Khartoum I found my way.
The village fields grow no more food.
The parents keep only the sisters.
For boys, all roads lead to the city.
We are city boys, the shamassa,
the children who run under the sun.

In every quarter, every alley,
cracks between buildings, you will see us.
We find our families for ourselves.
We who are big snatch food for the small.
They sleep on the cardboard beside us
to stay warm. We are the shamassa,
the children who run under the sun.

Rashid is my jockey, the oldest.
He makes rules for our family, five boys.
He has no legs. The mine took his legs,
in the village fields where war comes and goes.
His bicycle is pumped by his hands,
strapped to sticks. We are the shamassa,
the children who run under the sun.

When shopkeepers hit with sticks,
when the small ones cry and cannot stop,
when no food is found for a whole day,
Rashid takes special care. We each suck
on the rag he gives us soaked in glue.
Our hunger goes away. Shamassa,
the children who run under the sun.

V. Fields and Fields of Mines

My name is Angola
We walk on a path

My name is Angola
We walk on a path
The fields lie empty
Like ashes from fire

My name is Angola
A girl of nine years
We walk on a path
The path winds like string
Twisted through fields
The fields lie empty
Like ashes from fire

My name is Angola
A girl of nine years
We walk on a path
As wide as one hand
Twisted through fields
The fields lie empty
Like ashes from fire
They grow no food
They cannot grow food
Only loud loud surprises

My name is Angola
We walk on a path
The path winds like string
Wide as one hand
The fields lie empty
They cannot grow food
Only loud loud surprises
The fire leaping from dirt
A girl of nine years

My name is Angola
A girl of nine years
We walk with our bundles
Balanced on top of our heads
Sticks tied up in stacks
Don't step off the path

My name is Angola
A girl of nine years
We walk with our bundles
Sticks tied up in stacks
Don't step off the path
As wide as one hand
Twisted through fields
That cannot grow food
Only loud loud surprises.

Fire leaps from the dirt!

My name is Angola
A girl of nine years
I lie in a ditch
My legs lie in dirt
Like meat the birds eat
My bundle of sticks
Is on fire beside me
The path drinks my blood

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

A message is required.
Name is required.
E-mail address is required.