“In the dark time will there also be singing?”
“Yes, there will be singing about the dark time.” — Bertolt Brecht
I. (Aftermath: Paris)
Can you make a song of the love of death?
(And how does it go? the poet asks.)
Some had been singing before they died.
Some had been bringing the food to their lips.
Some had been kissing. Some had been drunk.
Some had been screaming, God is good,
as they fired into the crowd.
Can you make a prayer from the love of death,
from the fingerprint of the finger
blown off the assassin’s hand?
Can I love my enemy as myself?Complete poem available online at The American Journal of Poetry
2015 in France was an annus horribilis: the Hebdo attack in January, a string of isolated violence and attempts throughout the year culminating in November with coordinated attacks at several sites at the same time. A few days later, police raided the Paris neighborhood of Saint-Denis to capture the suspects. For those of us following the events from afar, it seemed like complete chaos, but it was considered successful.
Woloch captures the pain, fear, and confusion of that November in this long poem divided into ten parts, rotating from Paris to LA to Saint-Denis with brief sections of Macbeth and news coverage. Themes of God, love, death, children, morality, all swirl around. It’s brutal, tragic, heartbreaking, and filled with questions, short on answers, because they are the kinds of questions that are nearly impossible for thinking people to answer.
It’s quite a tour-de-force. I’ve been way out of my pay grade for a while now, and this raises the bar even more. I’m tempted, as I often am when confronted with something bigger than I can handle, to just encourage any readers who may find their way here to read the poem itself via the link above. Maybe I’ll leave some breadcrumbs here, hoping they will be followed, and include a few of my own reactions, peripheral though they may be.
One source says the source is everywhere.
One source says the source is our enemy.
One source says the source is us,
with our blundering, with our greed.
I didn’t know, until I read this poem, that ratlines are a system of illicit escape or transit routes; the word originally referred to the rope ladders on the rigging of a ship’s sail, by which sailors could abandon ship if necessary. But that isn’t the important part here, is it?
I can’t remember where I read it – I thought it was Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” but it seems not – but where you start the story determines what the story is about. If you start with the arrival of Europeans on the North American continent, that’s one story; if you start with the thriving indigenous population already there, that’s another. If you start with violence and wars raging through central Africa today, that tells one story; if you start with European partition and colonization of Africa, that tells a different story. If you talk about civility when a restaurant won’t serve a powerful government employee, that’s one story; if you talk about civility when immigrant children are ripped away from their parents and locked in cages, when women seeking health care are harassed outside Planned Parenthood offices, when a twelve-year-old in a park is gunned down by the police after less than 2 seconds of deliberation, when a presidential candidate brags about grabbing women by the pussy and mocks a disabled reporter and insists that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, when two people can’t get a goddamn cake for their wedding, that’s a different story.
Where do you start to look for the source of contemporary violence?
Have we chosen the wrong men to lead us?
Have we made the wrong people rich?
Have we put power into the hands
of those who love power as much as death?
Yes. Yes. And yes.
The poem ends with a cab ride in LA, and a friendly cab driver, an immigrant who prompts the speaker, “Guess where it is… my favorite country in Africa.”
Rwanda, he answers, his smile
lighting up in the rear-view mirror,
because, after the genocide there,
so few men were left alive,
it’s a country of women and children, now,
a new country of the young.
And the women who’ve taken the law
and the government into their hands
hold everyone accountable, he says.
Because all the warriors are dead.
Because they killed one another so well.
A 17-page poem is quite unusual in Pushcart. It’s even more unusual in an online journal; these usually blanch at anything beyond two page scrolls. The American Journal of Poetry, a recent descendant of the earlier journal MARGIE, proudly bucks that trend, looking only for “a strong voice and risk-taking”. They certainly found that in this poem.