Saddam Hussein Is Writing Poetry In Solitary Confinement
— newspaper headline
1. I laughed when I told my friend: Saddam is writing poems! No matter how down and out you are, there’s always poetry! I snorted. When the last rotten plank in the basement of your mind has fallen through, pray that a thin lifeline of words may sustain you. I feel ashamed now, thinking about it, and fascinated. Is Saddam writing in rhyme or blank verse? Does he prefer narrative epics? And is he any good? 2. I heard the mass graves, when dug up, were overrun with relatives, searching among ten-year-old decayed corpses for an arm, a leg, a thumb — something that had once been wife or brother or son. I hear there are not enough guards to keep the families out, the battalions of grief with their numberless riders. 3. Maybe Saddam really loves poetry. Hitler loved music. Nero probably loved something as well — elephants, or dancing girls, or boys. 4. He lived in a cave for months. That gives a man time to get to know some ghosts. Death must have smelled familiar to him; he must have recognized and then ignored its stench on his hair, his clothes. 5. Large-scale killing numbs the mind. Everything’s a question of scale. For instance, I’ve heard that great blue whales can weigh two hundred tons. Two hundred tons! Hardly imaginable. Our brains aren’t built to think on that scale, any more than one gnat in a cloud of gnats buzzing around a redwood can comprehend the full dimensions of the giant tree. 6. Forget Saddam. Imagine for one moment all the work-roughened hands that have picked your food and sewn your clothes and kept you alive since day one. When we die, will there be a reckoning of what and whom we’ve used to pay for our lives, and how, and will lack of imagination be allowed as an excuse? 7. On the one hand, poetry is entirely useless when weighed against the fact of dying oceans, or hungry children. On the other hand, who actually travels to the bottom of the ocean with a scale to weigh the great blue whale if not some fool of a poet? 8. I know, I know, it’s all extrapolated from a jawbone. And so are all the great stories, all the best poems. 9. Most poetry is bullshit, of course. But if a slender line of truth could reach to the bottom of the ocean, and snag a great blue whale in its delicate noose, and haul her up so we could feel, just for a second, her smooth enormity — could we understand it then? And would it change us?