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Journal, Day Two
Stichic Integrity—the integrity of the line . . .
When writing the poems that comprise Here, Bullet and when editing those same poems once accepted by the publisher, I worked hard to focus on the integrity of the line. Each line needed to be considered in isolation for its own strengths and weaknesses. I think the following poem might serve as a good example. . . .
16 Iraqi Policemen
The explosion left a hole in the roadbed
large enough to fit a mid-sized car.
It shattered concrete, twisted metal,
busted storefront windows in sheets
and lifted a car chassis up onto a rooftop.
The shocking blood of the men
forms an obscene art: a moustache, alone
on a sidewalk, a blistered hand’s gold ring
still shining, while a medic, Doc Lopez,
pauses to catch his breath, to blow it out
hard, so he might cup the left side of a girl’s face
in one hand, gently, before bandaging
the half gone missing.
Allah must wander in the crowd
as I do, dazed by the pure concussion
of the blast, among sirens, voices
of the injured, the boots of running soldiers,
not knowing whom to touch first,
for the dead policemen cannot be found,
here a moment before, then vanished.
I like to call some lines ‘wrap-around’ lines. It’s when two phrases cohabitate on the same line. For example: “on a sidewalk, a blistered hand’s gold ring.” That line, for me, has stichic integrity because the two parts play off of each other. The blistered hand’s gold ring can be read as existing on the sidewalk. In the very next line after that (still shining, while a medic, Doc Lopez) Doc Lopez can be read to be still shining. Basically, there is an interplay of meaning, an exchange of relationships, built into the positioning of phrases themselves.
I also give a rare discursive nod to the reader in this poem, something I mostly tried to weed out of the manuscript through the editing process: forms an obscene art: a moustache, alone. In this poem, I wanted to make certain that the reader knew that I wasn’t gratuitous in the use of violence and gore. Sometimes what is real is hard to stomach and sometimes it’s even harder to believe. . . .
Getting back to the line, stichic integrity . . .
Another element that adds to the strength of the line, for me, is the word choice for the final position at the end of each line. The words there must be especially telling. Here is a stanza that I think best exemplifies this idea from my own work (it’s a stanza from the longer segmented poem, “2000 lbs.”):
And the man who triggered the button,
who may have invoked the prophet’s name,
or not—he is obliterated at the epicenter,
he is everywhere, he is of all things,
his touch is the air taken in, the blast
and the wave, the electricity of shock,
his is the sound the heart makes quick
in the panic’s rush, the surge of blood
searching for light and color, that sound
the martyr cries filled with the word
his soul is made of, Inshallah.
Button, name, epicenter, things, blast, shock, quick, blood, sound, word, Inshallah. As you can see, I don’t normally leave words like and or the hanging from that edge, dangling over the abyss.
As an outtake today, I’d like to leave off with a poem that was cut out of the manuscript in the late stages of editing. It was a hard thing to do. I deeply respected the man this poem is about—Louie. He taught me much about Iraq and its people through only a small string of conversations. I wanted to share some of the life he shared with me. However, as Joe Millar said to me over the phone one day: sometimes we must leave woodchips behind in the woodshed.
Notes From An Iranian Prisoner Of War Camp
It is the winter of 1989, Tehran.
Louie stares over the prison walls
as ski lifts rise on their high-tension wires
up the steep canyons, to disappear
into a deciduous canopy, dusted in snow.
To the north, Mount Damavand stands
highest among the Alborz mountains,
with black-bearded goats staring out
toward the Caspian Sea, their spiraling horns
strange as a dream to Louie, who wonders
if he’ll ever see his mother’s hands again
making flatbread on the oven outside,
if he’ll ever hear his wife’s soft breath
on the rooftops of Al Ma’badi, late at night
when the children have drifted off in sleep,
or if he’ll ever see the Tigris again, rolling.
Tragedy is in the unfinished life.
Ask Louie. Sit beside him there
on the train from Tehran to the camps
in the North. Listen to him tell the story
of the Mil-e Gonbad Tower, what stands
just outside, there to the left, 180 feet high
and a thousand years old, what was built
to last forever by a prince, a poet, a scholar,
a man who understood the need for perspective.
Don’t ask about freedom. Don’t search
for pain in the stories he tells of walls,
and seasons. Don’t imagine yourself understanding.
The lines in his face are his alone to bear.
Twelve years imprisoned for a war
long since finished, and still, when he speaks
of Tehran, he speaks of waterfalls and beauty,
he speaks of fog on the mountainsides,
the bright wings of men coming down.
for Louie, of Hamman al Alil