Notes Towards a Poem that Can Never Be Written

For Carolyn Forché


This is the place
you would rather not know about,
this is the place that will in habit you,
this is the place you cannot imagine,
this is the place that will finally defeat you
where the word why shrivels and empites
itself. This is famine.


There is no poem you can write
about it, the sandpits
where so many were buried
& unearthed, the unendurable
pain still traced on their skins.
This did not happen last year
or forty years ago but last week.
This has been happening,
this happens.
We make wreaths of adjectives for them,
we count them like beads,
we turn them into statistics & litanies
and into poems like this one.
Nothing works.
They remain what they are.


The woman lies on the west cement floor
under the unending light,
needle marks on her arms put there
to kill the brain
and wonders why she is dying.
She is dying because she said.
She is dying for the sake of the word.
It is her body, silent
and fingerless, writing this poem.


It resembles an operation
but it is not one
nor despite the spread legs, grunts
& blood, is it a birth.
Partly it’s a job
partly it’s a display of skill
like a concerto.
It can be done badly
or well, they tell themselves.
Partly it’s an art.


The facts of this world seen clearly
are seen through tears;
why tell me then
there is something wrong with my eyes?
To see clearly and without flinching,
without turning away,
this is agony, the eyes taped open
two inches from the sun.
What is it you see then?
Is it a bad dream, a hallucination?
Is it a vison?
What is it you hear?
The razor across the eyeball
is a detail from an old film.
It is also a truth.
Witness is what you must bear.


In this country you can say what you like
because no one will listen to you anyway,
it’s safe enough, in this country you can try to write
the poem that can never be written,
the poem that invents
nothing and excuses nothing,
because you invent and excuse yourself each day.
Elsewhere, this poem is not invention.
Elsewhere, this poem takes courage.
Elsewhere, this poem must be written
because the poets are already dead.
Elsewhere, this poem must be written
as if you are already dead,
as if nothing more can be done
or said to save you.
Elsewhere you must write this poem
because there is nothing more to do.
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