GROZNY: NUMBERS

submitted by Karl Patten

A photograph.  Consider.

Three Russian soldiers,

Assault rifles waving

Up and on-the-ready,

Have flushed out a house.

One glances back over

A camouflaged shoulder

At the wide-open door

Into a blackness.

A woman approaches

That door from the left,

Head high in a bandanna,

A sandaled foot stepping

Forward, her straw broom

Firm in her right hand

Pointing down at the street.

From far away, we contemplate

Three and one, one and three.

The soldiers leave in fear.

She arrives as every day,

Will enter that blackness

After they have scampered

Off to the right,

To the next house and the next.

She knows where she is.

Do I miscalculate to say

That she and her straw broom

make present the future,

Their rifles the dirty past

— Even though bullet-holes

Pockmark the open wooden door

And the house-front above?

This photograph shows that

One is a higher power than three.

– from Spaces and Lines

Commentary:

This is a poem rather difficult to comment on because it is based on a photograph (which I no longer have), no doubt taken in the early part of this century.  I found the photo compelling and needed to write about it.  The difficulty comes from the fact that the picture is fixed, objective, but, obviously, I had thoughts and feelings about it, making it subjective.  Upon reading it aloud to friends I became aware that the objective/subjective was far from clear.

The first line, “A photograph.  Consider.”  is intended to meet that problem with its verb.  Then, in the first two stanzas I attempted to describe (represent?) objectively the picture.  Following that, I generalize for two lines, emphasizing the numbers.  In the next stanza I enter the poem subjectively, imagining immediately futures for the four figures, then stating: “She knows where she is,” unlike the soldiers of occupation.  Then I ask if the contrast between her broom and their three rifles, she is in spirit stronger and braver that the soldiers.  Finally, I leap to a generalization – “One is a higher power than three”—based on my own subjectivity.

I suspect that this was written after the US invasion of Afghanistan and before the invasion of Iraq.  Russian’s invasion of Chechnya certainly provided a parallel.  Our own occupying forces have, over too much time, allowed us to see how ignorant and mindless armies can be.  Might they have without question, but to my mind that is as nothing compared with strength of spirit.

Karl Patten

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