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Poetry

This Deliberate Road

Roberta Burnett

“I’m not going to school anymore. There’s a war at school.”
— Beslan, Chechnaya, a young girl, a released hostage,
Los Angeles Times, Kim Murphy reporting, September 2004

 

 

                                                                  
I.

 

It’s 9 a.m. Tuesday. The news from Beslan involves a school
            gymnasium, where children        
                                                            played centuries of games,
            disregarding deep, rigid Russian snows
for everlasting months                           each
                                                            succeeding       
                                                            year.

By Friday, explosions begin the end of takeover
                                    begin the leaks
                                    exposing Putin’s silence on the facts:
a thousand, mostly children, now no longer able
                                    to sweat. Without water and finally
                                    drinking urine, they learn to pack
                                                            courage in, a padding
                                                            for fearful hearts.

Here, in the Americas, it is awful TV news
            and every parent’s latest hometown fear.

            Watching still, we can’t be sure of the toll.
            By Monday, elders mark Beslan’s open slopes
            with string.
                        The first three hundred graves line out
                        a football field of space.

Next spring, with the bodies so full of freezing,
            families will raise
            white markers, red tears
                       will bloom on the hills.

 

 

 

II.  

 

Alana’s six with strength to walk: out of the percussive gym,
out of the stench
                        (in our easy chairs, we realize
                        the feces, piss, vomit,
                                    old blood, and dessication)
                                                            and out of the waterless famine—
                                                            it’s been three days, sixty-two hours;
                                                            for her. But she’s not allowed. 

Skinny, she’s wearing
someone else’s blood and nothing
                                                            but panties.

Her mother, Zalina, 27,
                                    was made to decide—it was Wednesday—
to leave the gym after only a little slaughter, carry
her two-year-old son, leaving
                                    her girl, Alana Dzandarova (notice
                                    her mother’s musical ear), shrieking
behind her. Every step is
                                    one toward
                                    safety
                                    and closer
                                    to a more intense pain:

                        For this there will be no
                                                     by-pass surgery, no
                                                     professional fingers
                                                     and calm expression

                        trained to extract the living facts
                                                       of memory, only the girl’s fresh, cemented
                                                       images—we see what she sees
                                                       in video: her mother’s
                                                       flaring eyes, her brother’s
                                                       small, weak feet jouncing
                                                       near his mother’s cradling elbow.

                        The girl must know her mother hears her
                        anyway, the high timbre
                                                       of her daughter’s fear,
                                                       hears uncertainty drenched
                                                                        in atonal chords roiling
                                                                        between them, across
                        the Black-Masks’ barked staccatos, gesturing guns.

                        Alana must know what her mother’s heavy
                        stumble on the clumps of uncut autumn weeds
                        feels like, having done that much of this in play.

Home and safe again, Alana might learn to notice
                        signs: her mother’s small courtesies and huge sighs
                        of relieved love, a smile that eventually rises
                                    more easily between them. If all goes well,
                                    she’ll relearn
                                                trusting
                                                her mother,
 
                                    and, if all goes well, she’ll enter
                        a school again, read books, play sports, savoring
                        the small pleasures of any ordinary day.

But in Beslan there’s little to stop them from seeing
                                                gashes in notes of the birds’ songs,
                                                wounds hanging in tree leaves, and nightdreams
                                                of blood’s patterns on walls, and the shut doors
                                                of the dead faces of their living friends
            —these will only come shorter and less
                        frequently through decades, never wholly acceding
            to the well meant resolutions
                        of ritardando, diminuendo, and simple silences.

 

 
III.

 

The season for harvest market is past
            the chill air’s been drying the stalks and vines.

Deep into this particular September, parents, a week later,
            consider schooling their children
just as they’d considered, in sweeter times, a young brother’s
            new psychotic disorder or being jailed for a sordid crime.

Walls in the school are submitting
                                                 blow by
                                                 sledgehammer blow
                                                 to trashbins.
Wood floors are planed to discover
            the deepest stain of blood,
            find fresh wood.
 
In the week of the graves, it rains
                                    to disguise
                                    the spaces between
                                    moans from the heart,

                                    it rains
                                    to soften the earth
                                    till mud’s weight can’t be lifted.

Along the road, two women
walk a third who’s young and thin,
                                                            they lean
                        their words in to her, but what
                        in all these graves         
                                                            could heal?
            Experience engorges them,
                        Hopelessness is fecund,
                        Vitality, everywhere dark.

            Finally roofs and food,
            long thick coats and umbrellas are insufficient
            protection, neither the wood

coffins: three planks are angled to cover chests and faces, three more
            become the uncomfortable cup—clam shells
            to be shut for a long time in a dark space.

                        A white swathe of lace
                                    juts out and over
                        the coffin’s edge, lace woven by hand
                        once with joyful meanings—now thin
                                    as water in air. A woman
                                    hovers over whoever’s inside, heavy

                        and stiff in the doughy, meaningless mud.
                                    She kneels, then tries to stand, but her knee sticks.
                                    She frees it to lift herself enough
                         to kiss that corpse’s cheek, leans across the lace, brushes
                                    mud away from the shut eyes
                                    she will see over tea in instants for years,
                                    in the market over vegetables, while reading,
                                    or see again in a reflection
                                    in a dark window.

“Wherever we stand in Beslan,” the TV newsman says,
“we hear people sob.”

 

 

IV.

 

The backhoe and the tires
            made the ruts, the ridges of mud
                                    pushed into
                                    this deliberate road
            this zag of Beslan’s village vagueness into a time
                                    that sickened a world.

 It is one of those hollow-eyed towns
 where parents pass grief on to generations
            through eyes of love streaked through with yellow hate.

            Only certain things will die with them:
                        the chinks of shovels, searing hums of saws,
                        steel striking rock, the wrenched arms,
                        the shovel handles breaking.

 

Acknowledgments:  This poem is based on breaking news, as is indicated by the epigraph. The following sections are seeded by those first-hand journalistic responses to the human situation. Besides the epigraph, only one section (III.) has a direct quote in it.

I. A variety of evening news programs (NPR, CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN all covered this news.)
II. Associated Press, Mike Eckel reporting
III. CNN and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer reporting

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