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there is no poem unless :i:
we can find the courage to speak
in the middle of a vacation
in the south of france,
a chance to visit a wwii
detention center arises, dusty
and bleak, just outside
aix-en-provence, just past
the scent of lavender, in an
ancient heat. the first thing
you see and the last thing
you visit is a boxcar. you know
what it means. it takes
the same toll on the breath,
the pulse, as the rusted shackles
displayed in another damned
museum. there are histories
of torture preserved all around
us : formally, officially, with
placards and institutional
funding : casually, quietly,
unavoidably, in the quality
of a glance, the poverty of an
existence, the demographics of
a mall, a church, a prison.
in a former tile factory, we learn
again how anything can be
misused, how anyone can be
abused. a kiln is not a dormitory
until it is. here :there: slept
people who were too jewish
to be german, too german
to be french, too despised
and feared to be defended, even
by those who feared they :we:
might soon be despised. if i now
say palestine, have i forgotten
auschwitz? if i say settlements,
have i now forgotten camps? if
i don’t say palestine, have i
forgotten elmina, selma, cape town,
haiti? must every place-name on earth
be a shorthand for violence
on a map of grief?
knee: :sharpeville: :gettysburg:
:tiananmen square: :gaza: :katyn: :plaza
de mayo: :soweto: :dominican republic:
:hiroshima: :srebrenica: :rwanda:
:cambodia: :ankara: :adana:
:odessa: :nanking: . . .
and yesterday’s yesterday,
the planet pushing up
sycamores and lavender,
rice and plantains, fertilized
with lead and blood, with rain
from poisonous clouds and
the dust that becomes
of the dead. adam, whose name
means clay, was not baked
in a kiln. eve’s name means
life, implies the day that follows.
will tomorrow be a place
we can name after something
that grows? what is the proper
use of a wall? there are so many
histories buried in the space
and silence around, within, these
words : these lines make a poor
but portable museum, a set
of sketches—palimpsests, faint
and painfully incomplete—that
map the territory of the human,
with arrows pointing in every
direction : some leading from
you, some leading to you.
there is no poem unless :you:
we can find the courage to hear.
—pour les deux milles plus
(site-mémorial du camp des milles)
Evie Shockley is the author of semiautomatic (2017; finalist for the LA Times Book Prize and The Believer Poetry Award) and the new black (2011; winner of the 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award), among other collections of poetry. She has also published a critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (2011). She is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
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