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On Proximity to Violence
The day after the explosions at the Boston Marathon, I thought of Wislawa Szymborska’s poem, “Any Case.” When I first read the poem a number of years ago, it struck me as the sort of haunting poem I only came across in the work of poets from other countries. Buildings got bombed in the U.S., people had unchecked access to assault weapons and committed acts of mass murder, but they were not acts that occurred with enough frequency to be a dominant force in the American psyche. At the time, I thought it unlikely that an American poet would write:
You survived because you were first.
You survived because you were last.
Because alone. Because the others.
Because on the left. Because on the right.
Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.
Because a shadow fell.
Now, I’m not so sure. I read these lines with a new proximity. I wonder what the increasing frequency of major acts of random violence in America will mean for American poetry. Will it change our sense of what’s at stake when we use randomness as a poetic currency?
Thanks to, thus, in spite of, and yet.
What would have happened if a hand, a leg,
One step, a hair away?
When I got to Penn Station yesterday on my way to work, there was a soldier with an assault weapon at the top of every escalator. After each disaster, they reappear to keep vigil and attempt to prevent some other terrible explosion from happening at the entrance they are guarding or the next one down. People have to keep on going to work even if the thought of a packed subway or station is terrifying. And those of us who have to write poetry keep on reading and writing it, reckoning with the world we wake to each morning.
One of the soldiers in Penn Station looked like he was about to teeter over from all the gear and weaponry strapped to his body. He looked tired. I wondered what he would think of Szymborska’s poem, if I said to him:
How quickly your heart is beating in me.
(translation quoted here is by Grazyna Drabik and Sharon Olds)