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.
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.
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.
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.