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It’s a problem of inflection really,
how we have to speak about it with some sense
of distance as though from a far hill
or a room with no windows.
The trick is to avoid excesses
of horror so as not to scorch the mind
and strike it dumb, though grief may yowl
in the dirt and the villages burn.
For instance, if we were to say
they brought the men to the square
and bound them to the posts and one
by one gouged out their eyes,
how many of us would turn
away in disgust, witnesses
only to our own revulsion?
And could we risk throwing
children half-alive into a well
until it was—already we feel uncomfortable
with darkness and water and the sheer
weight of suffering, must we add—
packed to the top?
It’s a question of tact, after all,
how when we say they had no hands or feet
we mean to imply the butcher’s knife as well,
the wrists tied down, the blade
seesawing through the bones.
Now, imagine a woman giving birth
by a river—the Euphrates let’s say—
after her long deportation through the desert,
the soldiers around her laughing
and pointing their swords at her belly
as the baby comes and then—
must we say it?—they are slicing her open,
they are shoving the baby back in.
Admittedly, some facts stare back at us
with such severity, we must either
flinch or cry out. But isn’t it the shape
of horror we are after, the poignancy
of our own trembling sensations,
not the horror itself, not the lash
of every gruesome detail
on our own skin?
For instance, the deserts of Der-El-Zor,
the starvation camps, the thousand hands
reaching for a piece of bread:
weren’t those hands like the wings
of thin, bruised birds?
In Kharpert, everyone knew the boys
with good heads on their shoulders.
Along the Euphrates, some women
died in their own blood, and some,
holding their children close,
threw themselves into the river:
say the sun was too harsh and blinding,
say the river was beautiful once.
From So I Will Till the Ground by Gregory Djanikian (Carnegie Mellon, 2007). Included in Vox Populi by permission of the author.