IN MEMORIAM: Charlotte Bacon, 6, Daniel Barden, 7, Rachel Davino, 29, Olivia Engel, 6, Josephine Gay, 7, Ana Marquez-Greene, 6, Dylan Hockley, 6, Dawn Hochsprung, 47, Madeleine Hsu, 6, Catherine Hubbard, 6, Chase Kowalski, 7, Jesse Lewis, 6, James Mattioli, 6, Grace McDonnell, 7, Anne Marie Murphy, 52, Emilie Parker, 6, Jack Pinto, 6, Noah Pozner, 6, Caroline Previdi, 6, Jessica Rekos, 6, Avielle Richman, 6, Lauren Rousseau, 30, Mary Sherlach, 56, Victoria Soto, 27, Benjamin Wheeler, 6, Allison Wyatt, 6
In light of this week’s tragic elementary school shooting (even writing the words “elementary school” and “shooting” so close together seems wrong), I’d like to recommend 5 poems which each speak to some aspect of the ever-shifting emotional landscape of sadness, rage, fear, helplessness, shock, worry that an event of this kind is no longer as shocking as it should be, etc., that we are all moving through right now. While I would hope people find poetry as relevant as I do 365/24/7, I know this is not realistic. But I also know that people who do not think they “get poetry” still find poetry helpful in troubling times. Give it a try:
1. In the Loop by Bob Hicok - I put this one up on Facebook soon after the shooting—it does what great poetry does, which is hit directly at a point by driving through a maze and visiting many sites, mental, emotional, and otherwise, along the way. Hicok earned acclaim for his sensitive handling of the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech in 2008, where he teaches, through a series of poems in his book Words for Empty, Words for Full (“In the Loop” is part of that collection). Sadly, history has repeated itself and “In the Loop” is just as relevant today. Here are some particularly poignant lines from the poem:
…Because this was about nothing.
A boy who felt that he was nothing,
who erased and entered that erasure, and guns
that are good for nothing, and talk of guns
that is good for nothing, and spring
that is good for flowers, and Jesus for some,
and scotch for others, and “and” for me
in this poem, “and” that is good
for sewing the minutes together, which otherwise
go about going away, bereft of us and us
2. And what of survivor’s guilt, of admiration for the teachers like Vicki Soto who gave their lives to protect their students’? It’s time to turn to Emily Dickinson. Shame and tragedy, two of Dickinson’s specialties (although I’m not discounting her lilting songs of ecstasy and love, which we should all remember exist, even at a time like this):
So proud she was to die
It made us all ashamed
That what we cherished, so unknown
To her desire seemed.
So satisfied to go
Where none of us should be,
Immediately, that anguish stooped
Almost to jealousy.
3. Painkiller by Patricia Spears Jones - This poem is about the feeling of pain: pain stemming from fear, the natural human urge to run from pain, and the limits to compassion when one has been injured. From Patricia Spears Jones’ book of the same name. Here are the poem’s last lines:
…You want secrets
I say every reckless act
results from a moment of fear.
While compassion is the simple recognition
That what is done cannot be undone,
may not be forgiven.
And a recognition that the murderer and the martyr
the adulterer and the healer can at any moment
change positions, become the other.
It simply depends on how much pain
You need to kill.
4. A White Gull Headed East by Hafiz This one comes at the recommendation of Lauren Hilger, folks, so you know it’s a goody. A poem about the loneliness of grief and the hope for a lightened load:
A sailor lost for days at sea in a boat all alone
spots a white gull heading east at dawn,
and for a moment her sight becomes his.
Things can happen like that; your soul can
enter another—that fully.
Land, land! he cried within, and then even
tasted the earth in a way,
and so felt saved, as one might if one's mouth
touched God and all your hungers disappeared
for a blessed half second, which can also occur while
reading a half-decent poem,
so hope you find one somewhere. Don't give up
if this falls short.
5. And, finally, one of my all-time slam-dunk, never-fail poems, Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly; don’t let the nursery rhyme quality of this poem lull you—this is a vicious, sweet, beautiful, complicated poem about loss suffered by both the innocent victims and callous, thoughtless perpetrators of a crime. My favorite, final lines:
…What they didn't know
Was that the goat's head would go on singing, just for them,
Long after the ropes were down, and that they would learn to listen,
Pail after pail, stroke after patient stroke. They would
Wake in the night thinking they heard the wind in the trees
Or a night bird, but their hearts beating harder. There
Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother's call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.