Thursday, January 1, 2004

The Arithmetic of Grief

--"My imagination... doesn't cope well with big numbers" -- Wislawa Szymborska

They told me a hundred thousand died
in the blinding flash, in the poisoned air.
I began to calculate a hundred thousand:
two thirds the city of Syracuse,
two packed Carrier Domes.
Still, what is a hundred thousand?

It is me. I was there.
Skin hung from me in sheets,
and not a cloth to stanch the bleeding,
as all my clothes had burned away.
The rest of my family never came home.

We grieve in particular, not en masse.
It's not two million Cambodians,
but the rows of skulls,
the cracked femur unearthed by the plow.

My crime was knowing how to read.
They smashed my glasses
before they kicked and pushed me to the field.
I worked so tired, so hungry, I wished I could die.
When the club hit my head I wanted to live.

It's not five hundred thousand cancer deaths,
but Debbie in her hospital gown,
the bird-like frailty of her bones.

I noticed the mole. I didn't ask the doctor.
My little boy will never recognize
the robust woman beside Daddy in the photographs.
His mother was too weak to pick him up.

Maybe it's true
our imagination is moved by singularity.
Still the human heart can hold
the sufferings of thousands, even millions,
one life plus one life,
one plus one plus one.

Cheryl Gatling

published in Wisconsin Review

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