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Poetry Three Words For The Dead by Michael Lesher

I saw young men scramble from an earthen tunnel
bootless, unhelmeted, guns in their hands. They meant
to strike Israeli tanks attacking Gaza – & they were doomed
from the start, it was the army that had made the film
I watched (black & white, with white
cross-hairs stencilled over the middle of the frame,
so we’d know
the invaders had those brave ones in their sights) –
& soon, sure enough, explosions
buffeted them, & (when they tried
to retreat) destroyed their tunnel too.

But I had time for three thoughts while the picture lasted.

First: wonder at the freshness of their hearts –
running (not marching, thank the Lord)
so eagerly into battle, not to die really, but to contend
proudly for their homes, their mothers & their fate,
& to sacrifice (just as proudly) if need be, but not to mourn.
Too often jaded by the joyless human carnival
of lies, cruelty & folly, I caught my breath
at such hope, such carefree license with the gift of lives –
my heart rose at their generosity, but not, alas, for long.

Next I knew deep sadness. I saw
that the young were lost, & saw, what’s more,
how such young loves were lost for nothing;
no child survived because of them, no prisoner escaped,
no one would visit their graves with thanks from the living.
Having hoped merely to scratch a scar or momentary
mark on the monster’s tail, what could
they have done – what could any creature have done –
to atone for the wasting of such cherished life?
I chided my heart’s pride in them then,
I scorned myself for having waved a handkerchief
with pointless tears to decorate a crime.

Then anger came; it elbowed grief aside &
stared me down. “How dare you mourn?” it said,
“& reproach yourself with mourning?
Do you scorn the spurned
when he rises, just to be kicked again?
Do you blame the face that yields to blows
only because a man won’t turn his back?
Is it for the hopeless to cast away freedom, too?
Did their hands dig the stony channels
that turned the current of their loves,
either to cowardice or to death?”
Then I knew that I must rage, & knew
the curse of silence, for I saw
I could not say what I felt.
Why must generosity run unheeded into death?
Why a tunnel, not a grateful eye, to draw such fruits & sorrows in?
Why this squalid power over fragile youth?
Why such puny sunsets before
the immensity of night?

The picture faded, & without a sound
those young men, buried & unspeaking,
left me without words, bereft of time.

This poem is from Michael Lesher's forthcoming collection Kaddish for Gaza. Surfaces, his latest book, is published by The High Window.



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