January 11, 1977: Three News Items

I

ACROSS THE FROZEN RIVER

At 11:30 last night

On the other shore of the frozen river

Two children burned to death

In a mobile home.

Drinking in my kitchen

I heard the sirens and goose-flesh

Raised hair on my arms.  We enjoyed

Another drink and went to bed.

I don’t know those people

Over there, never will,

But can’t clean from my mind

Today’s front page picture

Of the burning white

Upright ribs of that trailer

Against black.  Silence

Of those children dying.

These days are so cold you could

Walk across the frozen Susquehanna.

II

OTIS SIMMONS

Otis Simmons, a 58 year-old

Derelict from Alabama lay

For 15 hours immobile on Broadway

Near the Americana Hotel

In sub-freezing weather

Then walked barefoot to the hospital.

Doctors say his right leg and left foot

Both lethal with gangrene

Must be cut off.

Otis Simmons says

He wants to die with his legs on.

Psychiatrists say Otis Simmons

Is not competent to decide.

A judge said Otis Simmons

Can choose his death.

I never thought I’d love a judge.

But what of all those passersby

On Broadway near the Americana Hotel?

Are we so cold we’ve forgotten cold?

I think Otis Simmons

Knows what warmth is and legs.

III

THE MAYURUNA INDIANS

The Mayuruna Indians in the remote Amazon

Are killing their children in despair

Because white men are stealing their land.

A few years ago the Mayurunas

Ambushed several bands of rubber trappers and lumberjacks

But there are always too many white men.

The number of Mayurunas has decreased

In three years from 2,000 to 400.

“Desperate, and feeling that they have nowhere to go,

They have decided to die in order not to surrender

And to escape hunger,” a scholar said.

The Mayurunas have not fled into Peru

Because they venerate the land they inhabit.

I’m a white man writing for white men.

Brazil is an integral part of the free world.

Rubber keeps my various things moving

And I drink coffee twice a day.

How many Mayurunas have I killed this year?

I – and you, reader – are black helicopters against the sun,

Spiders of rationality and death,

Whose blades of progress and acquisition

Wrench loose the Mayurunas’ broad sheltering jungle leaves

And flatten their grasses

As we make our improbable descent.

IV

If I could cross the river.

I have to cross the river.

Karl Patten from Touch: Poems

Commentary:  Although this poem may seem rather old, when I read it recently it was clear that nothing had changed over the years.  Disaster, cruelty (and courage), and exploitation can all be found daily in the news.

The title is exact.  I did read these three articles on 1/11/77.  I think now that the French term fait-divers would be a better title, for these are three completely unrelated stories.  The first I read on the front page of the local newspaper under the photograph of that burning trailer; it’s true that I will never forget those ribs standing out against the blackness.  The other two I read elsewhere though where I cannot remember, though their details remain vivid, and one does not need photographs of them, if such were even possible.

The poem is a good example of how poetry fuses unrelated things.  The items stand alone, but it simply takes a mind to pull them together to show how horror and injustice reflect the world we live in.  Beyond that, I think there is little more to say; the facts should speak for themselves, and as I thought then (and now) the theme is obvious: we are all connected and responsible for others; one must overcome the bland egotism shown in the second stanza.

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