With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Saddam Hussein Is Writing Poetry In Solitary Confinement
— newspaper headline
I laughed when I told my friend:
Saddam is writing poems!
No matter how down and out you are, there’s always
poetry! I snorted.
When the last rotten plank
in the basement of your mind has fallen through,
pray that a thin lifeline of words may sustain you.
I feel ashamed now, thinking about it,
and fascinated. Is Saddam writing in rhyme or blank verse?
Does he prefer narrative epics? And is he any good?
I heard the mass graves, when dug up, were overrun
with relatives, searching among
ten-year-old decayed corpses
for an arm, a leg, a thumb —
something that had once been wife or brother or son.
I hear there are not enough guards to keep the families out,
the battalions of grief
with their numberless riders.
Maybe Saddam really loves poetry.
Hitler loved music.
Nero probably loved something as well — elephants,
or dancing girls,
He lived in a cave for months.
That gives a man time
to get to know some ghosts.
Death must have smelled familiar
to him; he must have recognized and then ignored
its stench on his hair, his clothes.
Large-scale killing numbs the mind.
Everything’s a question of scale.
For instance, I’ve heard that great blue whales can weigh
two hundred tons. Two hundred tons!
Our brains aren’t built
to think on that scale,
any more than one gnat
in a cloud of gnats
buzzing around a redwood
can comprehend the full dimensions of the giant tree.
Forget Saddam. Imagine for one moment
all the work-roughened hands
that have picked your food and sewn your clothes
and kept you alive since day one.
When we die, will there be a reckoning
of what and whom we’ve used
to pay for our lives, and how,
and will lack of imagination be allowed as an excuse?
On the one hand, poetry is entirely useless when weighed
against the fact of dying oceans,
or hungry children.
On the other hand, who
actually travels to the bottom of the ocean with a scale
to weigh the great blue whale
if not some fool of a poet?
I know, I know,
it’s all extrapolated from a jawbone.
And so are all the great stories, all the best poems.
Most poetry is bullshit, of course.
But if a slender line of truth
could reach to the bottom of the ocean,
and snag a great blue whale in its delicate noose,
and haul her up so we could feel, just for a second, her smooth enormity —
could we understand it then? And would it change us?
I am slack-jawed in awe of Alison Luterman’s poem “Saddam Hussein Is Writing Poetry in Solitary Confinement” [December 2006]. “Most poetry is bullshit, of course,” she writes, then proceeds to blow the roof off with her raw, piercing images, dropping pinpoint word bombs that unerringly hit her target.
Pass the smelling salts. Luterman is good.