The Use of Poetry

On the day a fourteen-year-old disappeared in Ojai, California,   
having left a Christmas Eve slumber party barefoot
to “go with a guy” in a green truck,
and all Christmas Day volunteers searched for her body within a fifteen-mile radius,
and her father and grandfather searched
and spoke to reporters because TV coverage
might help them find her if she were still alive,
and her mother stayed home with the telephone,
not appearing in public, and I could imagine
this family deciding together this division of labor
and what little else they could do to do something,
and the kitchen they sat in, the tones they spoke in,
who cried and who didn’t, and how they comforted one another   
with words of hope and strokings of backs and necks,
but I couldn’t imagine their fear that their daughter
had been murdered in the woods, raped no doubt,
tied up, chopped up, God knows what else,
or them picturing her terror as it was happening to her
or their own terror of her absence ever after,
cut off from them before she had a chance to grow through adolescence,   
her room ever the same with its stupid posters of rock stars   
until they can bear to take them down
because they can’t bear to leave them up anymore—
on this day, which happened to be Christmas,
at the kind of holiday gathering with a whole turkey and spiral-cut ham   
and beautiful dishes our hosts spent their money and time making   
to cheer their friends and enjoy the pleasure of giving,
in a living room sparkling with scented candles and bunting   
and a ten-foot tree adorned with antique ornaments,
the girl’s disappearance kept surfacing in conversations across the room   
while I was being cornered by a man who said his wife was leaving him   
after twenty-one years of marriage, then recited his resumé
as if this couldn’t happen to someone with his business acumen;   
and it did again after I excused myself to refill my punch glass
when someone at the punch bowl said what she had heard about it from someone else
who had played tennis that morning with the girl’s mother’s doubles partner,
while I filled a punch glass for somebody’s dad   
brought along so he wouldn’t be alone on Christmas,   
a man in his eighties with a face like a raven’s,   
his body stooped, ravaged by age and diseases,   
who told me he was amazed to still be alive himself   
after a year in which he had lost both his wife and son,   
then, to my amazement, began telling me how important   
he is in his business world
just like the man I had just gotten away from,   
that he’s still a player in international steel
involved in top-drawer projects for the navy,   
and I was selfish enough to be selfless enough
to draw him out a little, and the younger man, too
(who appeared at my elbow again and started talking again),
but not selfless enough to feel what they each were going through   
because my own fear and hunger
cloud how I imagine everyone,
including the bereaved family of the missing girl,   
and the girl herself, and certainly her murderer,   
although I know what it is to hate yourself completely   
and believe all human community is lies and bullshit   
and what happens to other people doesn’t matter.

Michael Ryan, “The Use of Poetry” from New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 2004 by Michael Ryan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
Source: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004)
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