Hija for Emerson’s Birthday

By Stephen Yenser Stephen Yenser Read the Q & A

I’m honored to shake the hand of a brave Iraqi citizen who had his hand cut off by Saddam Hussein.
     —President George W. Bush, Washington DC, May 252004

“Just ask yourself,” we said back in those days,
“Is this world better off without Saddam Hussein?”
Now that’s a simple question. Just ask yourself.

It turned up starkly, undeniably
As that left hand inside the trench Marines were digging
At the prison turned “facility.”

That was one day’s headlined excavation.
Meanwhile, the relics from the tell near Nasiriyah
Were looted from the National Museum.

Is our world better off without Saddam
Hussein, who had cut off so many other hands?
Our own president had grateful thousands

On hand to honor him, give him a hand
In DC on the birthday of the Sage of Concord.
In other words, though, is this world better off

Without those who have made it better off?
It’s a bit of a riddle, really, how to tell,
But each old hand among us has a hunch.

Is our world better off without Bobby E. Beasely?
Michael Yury Tarlavsky? Craig W. Cherry?
Yadir G. Reynoso? Joshua I. Bunch?

These soldiers’ names graced the obituary
Page that day in the LA Times. It’s archived. Check it.
But what can we tell from a name? Or measly

Obit? Ask yourself. —Well, more than a bit
Of obit is in the name Tobit, but just what
Tobit of Nineveh—praised for preparing

For righteous burial the Judahites
Who fell in war against Assyria,
And blessed with a devoted son who saved him—

What Tobit could now have to do with us,
Not even our extravagant friend Emerson
—Though wait! Emer? Cuchulain’s perfect mate,

Worked hand in hand with him, possessor of
The six great gifts of womanhood, from needlework
Through chastity to sweet words and gentle speech?

—Perhaps not even Emerson could tell,
Who lauded nature’s “rounds” and scorned the divisive “line,”
Its “bounds of good and ill,” and praised perverse

Returns (“Evil will bless, and ice will burn”),
And who would have turned 199
That day in the merry month of Jumada al-awwal

When Bush addressed that brave unnamed Baghdadi.
—Raymond J. Faulstich, Jr., Kane M. Funke.
—What names people have! Stephen I. Yenser!

What monikers, what handles for their children.
—Daniel Lee Galvan...Anyway, without them, mind you,
We’d still have that butcher Saddam Hussein.
—Wait! With them, you mean, we’d still have Saddam?
—Well, it can be perplexing when it’s put like that.
—Bemusing. Like the sound of one hand clapping.

—Or one hand washing itself. Is our world better
Off without Roberto Abad? —Abad, Roberto:
What kind of name is that, in any case?

Middle Eastern? And where’s the middle initial?
To tell him from his father, of course. A typo? For Bad,
Roberto A.? “Good is a good doctor,

But Bad is sometimes better” (Emerson)?
Or W, where Emerson and Bush dovetail?
—It seems Roberto got his girlfriend pregnant

In spite of the “Campaign for Children and Families”
Between Iraqi tours in case he didn’t come back
From his second, which of course he didn’t,

Not for a second, even, to glimpse his son,
Whose name we are not told. Hussein, perhaps—or George.
Or Herbert. George Herbert! (Such embranglement!

“I was entangled in a world of strife”!)
Not that we always want “to know what we don’t know”
(Donald H. Rumsfeld). We’re better off, long run,

If the right hand doesn’t know just what
The left has done, right? This world war’s better, for sure,
And to make the war’s world better too,

Someone has to sacrifice. And ask
Yourself, just who would make the better sacrifice?
Make: what exactly does that mean?
—The ones who wear elaborate tattoos
(Needlework patient, painful, eldritch, intricate,
Wayward as jazz played on the parlor boom box,

Raddled with fractals like our savaged delta),
Obscurely traceable to a secret Inca rite,
Ink indelible as gang connections

That they could nonetheless obliterate
There by the Tigris, on Boulevard Abu Nawas
(Abu Nawas: the Holy Dissolute,

Master of the wine song and of satire,
First Arab poet to applaud Sayiddah Palm).
The idle hands who’d just have died at home
In drive-bys, done in by their neighbors? Druggies,
Who’d get as high as some pol’s daughter and go awol
(lol) at their first chance? The born

Again, who needn’t fear their death? The un-
reborn, spirits aborted by their own vile hands?
The Muslim Americans who had their doubts?

The ones who had no doubts? Just ask yourself.
—Or: how many are we better off without?
Is this where quantity turns quality?

—The world might well be better off without
Others better offed in the right course of things.
Without those looters, for instance, who vandalized

The earliest stringed instrument we’d had,
The Golden Bull’s Head Lyre of Ur (in Genesis,
The Ur of Abraham whose sacrifice
Of his son Isaac God’s hand itself prevented).
Without Hussein’s own sons, and theirs, their sons, we mean,
And then which other ones? The Sunnis? The Shias?

The Ba’athist Sunnis and extremist Shias?
Or the Kurds? Which ones? The large Kurds? The older, hairy
Ones, whose lives were mostly lived?

Or the small Kurds, who had no lives or hair
To speak of? The cottage Kurds? The urban Kurds? The turbaned
Kurds—those darker ones? The whey-faced ones?

The anti-American ones? The Jewish ones?
The anti-Ku-Klux-Klan-and-anti-nra ones?
The ones who “hate our freedom”—and our baseball?

The atheists? And there are some among them,
Not fit to enter any god’s Green Zone, perforce
Denied the houris, halos, hemp, and harps.

Or the Yazidis? Yes, that would make some sense,
Since they refuse to wear the colors green and blue,
And since they are so primitive they think,

In the beginning, God made the world a pearl,
And since they are so ancient, weak, impure, muddling
As they do trace elements of Islam,

Christianity, and Mithraism with some
Oddball Sufism and stray Persian superstitions.
Are there Iraqi Buddhists? No, really:
Are there? If you can’t say, will they be missed?
—Well, shame on you, if that is not the old epist-
emological enigma wrapped
In a conundrum!—Or a condomrun,
As Bush might say on an off day. Just ask yourself:
Is our world better off today? Without

David L. Potter? For whom, exactly? The Potters?
At least if the “remains” go off to Arlington?
To Arlington we’ll bring our “idle flowers,”
Then—though “Every aster in my hand
Goes home loaded with a thought,” to cadge from Emerson.
Loaded? And what do we mean by remains?

We used to mean: to continue to belong to.
It’s doubtful that that definition still remains.
Is our “left hand” an instance of remains?

What about the Golden Lyre’s pillar,
Neck, and scroll, stripped of their gold and lapis inlay?
What about its shattered shell and limestone?

And what to make of this morning’s “Missing Remains”?
And “Remains Missing”? Six years after Bush’s offhand
Remark, new headlines from old headstones spring:

“Thousands of Graves Are Misidentified
Or Unmarked at National Cemetery”—the names
Broken off like handles from their vessels—

Where also mud-caked markers line the banks
Of a purling stream (unnamed) and lie deep in its bed.
“Were they used as riprap to prevent

The stream’s erosion?” our good reporter asks.
“Were they engraved incorrectly, hence
Discarded?” Engraved. Incorrectly. Discarded.
Is Arlington our potter’s field today?
And if so, as Abu Nawas’s student asked,
“Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”

“How gladly with proper words the soldier dies,”
Stevens’s verse assures us. But on the other hand,
What are the proper words? Is that word proper?
And shouldn’t that have been “the soil’s erosion”?
Erosion. So how would Eros figure here? Just ask
Yourself. —Of course he wouldn’t! Be rational.

—And so we must mean Cupid. Cupidity
Is one thing we’d associate with “the soil’s erosion.”
Or should that be “the oil’s erosion”? “The soul’s”?

Are we better off without our soldiers,
Not to mention their daughters, inconceivable,
Who might have married deep-rigged princes’ sons

(As the First Daughters—light sweet crude rare—must have
Might have done)? Without the so-called martyrs’ sisters,
Paradisical virgins, immaculately

Pregnant with bombs beneath matte black abayas?
Bush’s brave Baghdadi’s daughter’s better off, we’re sure.
(And he was not a southpaw anyway.)

Or is it the rebellious, the disobedient,
Whose sisters’ brothers died on our side near Samarra,
Without whom our world’s (mostly) better off?

It’s hard to tell, when they have veils. It’s hard
To tell, when phantom limbs report again tomorrow,
Just whom we’re better off without. Yet ask
Yourself: can we contemn “the vanity
Of false distinctions” in light of presidential Scripture?
“If thy right hand offend...”—We must cut Matthew
Off quick as RFK, alas, in order
To go now to commercial. We’re sorry. We’re in the hands
Of the commercial. We leave you with this question:

Would our world be better off without Iraq
Itself? Or what about your simple self?
—A little better, you must mean, or worse?

—And what about our own bull-headed liars,
As Emerson might say? And the Milky Way—
Better off without this blue-green pearl of Earth?
Yet who could tell? And if no one could tell...
What can we mean by tell? Now that’s a simple question.

Source: Poetry (December 2011).

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This poem originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2011
 Stephen  Yenser

Biography

Editor, critic, professor, and poet Stephen Yenser is the author of the poetry collections Blue Guide (2006) and The Fire in All Things (1993). A winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, he has also received an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in Poetry and the Bernard F. Connors Prize for Poetry from the Paris Review.
 
Yenser’s poems range in setting from L.A. to Greece and reveal his literary acumen . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Philosophy, Poetry & Poets, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment, History & Politics, Race & Ethnicity, War & Conflict

POET’S REGION U.S., Western

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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