In an earlier post I wondered, “Can poetry address a historical moment in the moment?” Hermagoras, in the comment stream, cited Thomas Kinsella’s “in the moment” poem entitled “Butcher’s Dozen: A Lesson for the Octave of Widgery,” about the Bloody Sunday slaughter perpetrated by British troops in Derry, Ireland. Hermagoras pointed out that the poem was “written, printed, and distributed eight days after the publication of the Widgery Report exonerating the British forces for the … massacre.” Kinsella himself called the poem “doggerel,” but Hermagoras notes that “it holds up … remarkably well.” And I agree.
I agree … and so here I am with my own poem on another slaughter-in-progress. It’s anything but doggerel, and to some extent relies on Randall Jarrell’s “Protocols” for its form and its bitterly ironic mood. Here’s Jarrell’s poem:
(Birkenau, Odessa; the children speak alternately)
We went there on the train. They had big barges that they towed,
We stood up, there were so many I was squashed.
There was a smoke-stack, then they made me wash.
It was a factory, I think. My mother held me up
And I could see the ship that made the smoke.
When I was tired my mother carried me.
She said, “Don’t be afraid.” But I was only tired.
Where we went there is no more Odessa.
They had water in a pipe—like rain, but hot;
The water there is deeper than the world
And I was tired and fell in in my sleep
And the water drank me. That is what I think.
And I said to my mother, “Now I’m washed and dried,”
My mother hugged me, and it smelled like hay
And that is how you die. And that is how you die.
I’ve never been sure if there are two children speaking, or more—and that ambiguity is part of what makes it fresh every time I read it. Of course, “Protocols” is not an “in the moment” poem. Mine attempts to be, but whether it succeeds I have no idea. It may be just too damned opaque. Nevertheless, here it is:
(Certain Western capitols: a conference call. The leaders
are on hold for a Moderator, whose name they’ve forgotten.
In silence the participants ponder Israel’s attack on Gaza.)
The S. S. St. Louis brought us here. Choices we couldn’t choose
not to make. Warring bigotries, alliances—we were at their mercy.
It was oil, of course: it had to flow. We’d have frozen otherwise,
like Roman statues. The builder of gulags would have crushed us
with his proxies. I remember my boyhood Bible, those pictures
in living color: Jericho’s walls collapsing; the burning bush;
Abraham’s knife at his child’s soft throat. So God chose them,
promised the land. Better that desert than our own back yard.
They said they’d make the desert flower, and they did. Flattened
a few hovels, some gaunt olive groves. The Arabs of Palestine,
what did they ever do with that land? Goatherds. Traders. Always
proxies of our enemies. So they’ve learned to defend themselves,
these Jews—to be like us: victors, not victims. Defeat Terror?
Kill terrorists! Innocent blood flows, yes. It’s the price of peace.
And that’s the way of the world. And that’s the way of the world.
I imagine “Butcher’s Dozen” is safe from my competition!