Two Poems by Pegi Dietz Shea

Hmong Knives

by Pegi Dietz Shea


(in Ban Vinai refugee camp, 1989)


Away from the depression

of farmers with nowhere to farm,

we begin to hear percussion—

metal on metal.

The nearer I get, the more

sound waves concuss

in my gut, jar my jaw.


Around a bend, there it is:

a forge, fanned by great fronds,

shaded by a bamboo roof.

In the darkness, two orange glows—

two Hmong men,

in black pants, blue shirts,

brimmed leather hats,

work sweat-free in the inferno.

The first poundings shake the ground

but here, a second hit, a bounce,

a playful ping—the smiths’ reward

for swinging the hammer so high

and bringing it down so true

upon its red-hot mate

on the anvil.


Proudly, the men carry

over their wares—

knives engraved

with flowers and scrolls,

swirls and stars.

The bamboo sheaths

wear braided reeds;

hilts are carved from bone.


I’m told to bargain in Thai,

so the men will respect me.

Still, my one hand holds guilt,

while the other hands over

a few dollars-worth of baht.

The smiths smile for pictures,

then I bow and thank them,

“Kawp kum kha.”


As we walk away, I know

that every time I mince

ginger and lemon grass,

the blade sliding smooth

as a snake in water,

and every time I light the fire

under my cast-iron wok,

I will see the Hmong men

and their mettles

glowing in the blackness,

feel the resounding

music of their labor

lilting in the leaves.


Café Campana

by Pegi Dietz Shea


(In Musee d’Orsay, a former train station in Paris)

A path of glass blocks

beckons me

to the café:

Come, sit, reflect.

Indeed, the hands

of the grand horloge

in the window say

I’ve been hurtling

through history

for several hours.


I sip wine near

a watery wall

refracting fellow seekers.

Silverware, glassware

clink like train wheels

cycling from the gare.

Above me, steel arches

frame absinthe clouds, racing

beyond the glass ceiling.

Golden bolts and braces

make connections

between past

and future hues.

There is no present;

light refuses to hold a pose.


Before me, a girl hops

on the glass blocks,

avoiding the cracks,

switching gears,

gaining speed

right on schedule for



Beneath me, four floors

of students streaming,

scholars preening,

tourists trailing docents.

Teens—raging locomotives—

stray from their tracks,

sneak kisses, snap selfies.


We are all

on exhibit

at some point

in time.


Two-time winner of the Connecticut Book Award, Pegi Deitz Shea is the author of more than 400 published articles, essays, and poems for adult readers. Her works for young readers (poetry, fiction and nonfiction picture books, as well as novels) frequently focus on human rights issues. Her poetry for adults has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Tunxis Poetry Review and other journals. She teaches in the Creative Writing programs at the University of Connecticut and at the Mark Twain House in Hartford.

For more, find her at

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