A Poem That Waited For Me

Four years ago, I found a blog out of Syria. Citizen journalism, mostly cell phone video and unedited, graphic descriptions of the daily violence parts of the country suffered. For a short while, I checked the blog often. One night I saw a video of a man carrying a girl, looking for help that was clearly beyond reach. I watched the video twice. I felt sick. I cried. Someone knocked on our apartment door and I answered. Our friend Harvey asked what was wrong and I said, Syria. I asked if he ever got caught up with a story like that, sad for a country you’ve never been to, hurt for people you won’t meet. Of course. I can’t remember how he explained the line he draws to keep from feeling consumed by tragedy but it was something like: know what is happening but look away when you need to, live.

Watching clip after clip of rubble streets, dust-covered bodies and women shouting to the sky breaks the heart. I think we need to feel broken for others. Empathy, deep sorrow, births prayer and action, even as we live in safe places. I still follow what is happening in Syria, and once checked to see if that blog was still up. It isn’t. But what I saw then, at the opening of Syria’s war, stays with me as horror that continues.

That clip of the man and girl is a scene I’ve written around before but last week I found a new way into the idea of what that girl’s life might look like now, if. I asked students to write a poem using a pre-Socratic epigraph to open. This is an exercise from The Practice Of Poetry that moves your poem in unexpected directions. A philosophical quote prompts wandering thought. The challenge is to tether your thoughts to images. Some epigraph options include

Actions always planned are never completed.

The path up and down is one and the same.

All things were together. Then mind came and arranged them.

I chose

Worlds are altered rather than destroyed.

and because my seniors are finishing a unit on satire, I thought about the crass irony of calling a destroyed world altered. Yes, altered. Terribly altered. I thought of Syria, those before and after photos we’ve seen of market halls and streets, showing a world altered. I wrote and revised the following over a few days. I can’t include the epigraph in the final poem. Syria breaks my heart. This girl breaks my heart.

She Might Now

The video is jumpy, drops and whirls like
the men it follows, the men circling
a father carrying his dark-haired daughter
He carries her last minutes in his arms
Her lips move like a fish breathing
Her eyes are open, looking it seems, looking
Her voice does not speak or cry. The only
sounds come from the mouths of men,
noise that needs no translation because
I understand when the father turns
so the camera shows this girl’s dark hair
cut away at the back, a hole the size
of a fist in her skull, pink brain slipping out

When the camera returns to the girl’s face
I wonder does she see anything at all or
is her being now made from the fabric of her
father’s shirt, the smell of midday sun, the
muted waves of men’s voices in an alley,
the whisper of air on her lips as her father
turns and turns looking for someone to
come, take his daughter, make her whole

She would now be twelve or thirteen
She might now tuck her dark hair under
hijab and help her mother in the kitchen,
walk with her brother to a reopened school,
kiss her father’s cheek at his return late
afternoon, before they sit in slanting light
to eat food from chipped plates. She
might write songs with her shiny pink
brain, its delicate stem running nerves the
length of her limbs so she spins, arms
open, turning and turning in the last slip
of light day gives

& Other Places

A year or two ago I saw a picture of dead Syrian children in a street, their bodies piled against a cinder block wall. The photo was published in the paper and nothing was blurred to make the image easier to look at. What I remember most are the shoes because some of the children were too young to tie or buckle their own shoes. I looked at their shoes. When I help my son with his shoes, I’m bending or kneeling in front of him. He plays with my hair or gives me a hug. I kiss his forehead and say, Let’s go.

Shortly after Friday’s attack in Paris I saw a picture that reminded me of the Syrian children. This of a man on the streets of Paris, covered by a sheet. I thought of the Syrian children because at the time I’d wondered what we’d talk about if this pile of children were British or French or American. And now, instead of a Syrian or Iraqi man covered by a sheet, here was a French man and what will we talk about now? I was sad. And I was sad later because I read about Beirut and thought couldn’t that French man on the sidewalk just as easily be Lebanese?

There is a writing exercise I like because the process distills an idea or narrative. I was writing about the attacks and bombings already and this confined my expression.

The exercise is called Ten To One, taken from What If? and it works like this: ten sentences, the first with ten words, the second with nine and so on until the last sentence is a single word.

I Read About Paris

He is on his back on cement, under a sheet.
Only one hand, the white cuff, dark blazer shows.
And the soles of his shoes splayed, relaxed.
He might lay like this while sunning.
Someone knows him but hasn’t heard.
I have seen him before.
He is from Paris.
And other places.
From Lebanon.


For an interesting perspective on media coverage of Paris and Beirut, read David A. Graham’s essay “The Empathy Gap Between Paris And Beirut” in The Atlantic.