Several years ago I took a kind of private vow that I would give no readings that don't explicitly acknowledge the wider suffering of the world, which some of us feel, others of us are privileged to only know from newspapers, and yet which every day bring the evidence of our extraordinary capacity for an incomprehensible inhumaneness, one toward the other. In this case the poem recalls the genocide in Rwanda.

Manners / Rwanda

Manners / Rwanda

They took the woman
and tied to one arm a child
to the other arm a child
to one leg a child
to the other leg a child –
you also read this in the paper –
and threw them all in.
No marks of damage, not one
on the five bodies,
which means of course
that they drowned,
which means of course
that she knew.
The river made its way
from higher ground toward lower
and carried them with decorum,
the way a river does,
it carries what it is given,
and because in the night
a border was crossed,
what was given then was
taken out with a pole.
It may have been untied
before being added
to the tally sheet with others
and given next
to the quicklime and earth,
but probably not.
There it will likely stay,
where it was carried,
the last contact
with anything living
a hand’s continuing rising,
almost a waving,
almost a plea,
letting go after rolling it in.
The two beats of the fall
almost gentle,
a door being carefully opened,
quietly closed.
And though you too
are sickened, as even the river
is sickened, undrinkable now
with the human heart,
you also carry
what you were given with decorum.
Perhaps reminded later
by something mentioned
only in passing –
a large family,
a cat’s toy of string –
you stop smiling a moment soon.
Across the table
someone notices,
but does not speak.
You watch his question rise
and seem to waver like a hand
about to act,
a hand about to change its mind,
then drop politely away.

from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions (Bloodaxe, 2005), ? Jane Hirshfield 2005, used by permission of the author and Bloodaxe Books.

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