That phrase flooded my newsfeed in the minutes and hours after 20 children and six adults were murdered at a Connecticut elementary school yesterday.
I understand the feeling. One of my relatives was gunned down in a senseless act of violence this May. My aunt’s brother, a sweet-hearted musician with a penchant for floppy hats and coke-bottle glasses, died when a gunman opened fire in Seattle’s Café Racer Espresso. I didn’t know him, but I shared my loved ones’ grief. There were no words then like there are no words now.
Speechlessness can be troubling to a poet, so I was heartened to come across Bob Hicok’s poem “In the Loop” yesterday, which he wrote after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. (Special thanks to Kerrin McCadden for sharing the poem on Facebook.)
Ironically, Hicok wrote 230 wonderful words about having no words. Here’s how it begins:
I heard from people after the shootings. People
I knew well or barely or not at all. Largely
the same message: how horrible it was, how little
there was to say about how horrible it was.
People wrote, called, mostly e-mailed
because they know I teach at Virginia Tech,
to say, there’s nothing to say. Eventually
I answered these messages: there’s nothing
to say back except of course there’s nothing
to say, thank you for your willingness
to say it. Because this was about nothing.
At the same time Hicok was experiencing the fallout of these shootings, my husband was writing about them for a national media outlet. He was among the many reporters who hastily packed bags, flew to Virginia and didn’t come home for several days.
He called me often, miserable. The sick feeling that there was nothing more to say – that he might be a parasite, an intruder – nearly swallowed him.
I never covered a national tragedy, but one of my first jobs as a reporter was covering the night cops shift at an Arizona newspaper. I befriended a police scanner and called the 9-1-1 operators every couple hours hoping there was no bad news. Most of the time, we’d exchange jokes about people finding rattlesnakes in their toilets and the like.
But eventually, there is bad news.
On those days, I’d duck under the yellow crime tape and watch EMTs drape white sheets over bodies. I’d knock on the doors of people who lost someone they loved in a horrific manner. I still remember the parents of a young fighter pilot who crashed near San Diego. The grandmother of a toddler who perished on the train tracks. Bewildered Blockbuster employees who watched as a customer was gunned down in the video rental line.
Honestly, I felt guilty about writing those stories. When I sat on the grieving grandma’s well-worn sofa, asking her that awful question – “how do you feel?” – and watching her cry, I felt like tragedy’s intruder.
But at some point, it occurred to me – no one had ever kicked me out. Every time I knocked, someone opened the door. Someone invited me into a family room – at once familiar and unfamiliar in the way that all family rooms are – brewed coffee, opened the old, brown photo albums and told me their stories. Readers got to know the victims because of the willingness of family and friends to tell their stories. Because of the bounty of their beautiful words in those horrific moments.
The fighter pilot’s father even walked me through his yard, pointing out the remnants of plastic airplanes his son once played with as a kid. Years later, he remembered “that nice reporter” and asked me to write a follow-up about his son’s posthumous achievements.
It took me years to realize this, even as a lifelong lover of words. It’s the simplest thing. It’s why we write:
I know that as poets we sometime’s share the reporter’s guilt, as if we are obligated to write something profound when tragedy occurs, yet our words don’t quite rise to the occasion. A friend of mine once sheepishly submitted a poem about 9/11 to a workshop, and the teacher consoled her by saying, “It’s OK, every poet feels compelled to write about it.” There’s a kind of camaraderie in our compulsion, even when we fumble.
Let’s fumble more.
We need words at a time like this. But we also need more than words. We need to cast off our clichés and ideas about what should be said and express something real. It might be a quarry of nothingness and senselessness and dumbfoundedness and grief. Hicok fearfully journeys down that pit:
A boy who felt that he was nothing,
who erased and entered that erasure, and guns
that are good for nothing, and talk of guns
that is good for nothing, and spring
that is good for flowers, and Jesus for some,
and scotch for others, and “and” for me
Sometimes “and” is the best we’ve got. Sometimes, we can give ourselves permission to be ineloquent and unprofound. To be simple and real and say “there are no words, and I must speak them.”
Today, I asked my aunt which words, if any, comforted her after the brutal loss of her brother. This is what she wrote:
“The words that stand out in my mind the most are from my dear friend Trea who lives in NJ. She wrote... ‘If I could, I would hold you and rub your back and tell you I love you.’ She told me to take care of myself and eat. She even told me what I should be eating to stay strong and healthy through this difficult time. Most people told me they were sorry and, of course, I felt their love, but Trea had a gift with her words. I'm crying while I remember the pain and still feel it.”
My aunt needed something beyond sentiment, something practical – a warm hand on her back and a hearty meal. I want to remember this the next time I attempt to console a friend or reader.
Hicok knows this. After all, his weighty poem rests on the simple conjunction “and,” a practical part of speech that gets the job done.
[…] “and” that is good
for sewing the minutes together, which otherwise
go about going away, bereft of us and us
of them. Like a scarf left on a train and nothing
like a scarf left on a train. As if the train,
empty of everything but a scarf, still opens
its doors at every stop, because this
is what a train does, this is what a man does
with his hand on a lever, because otherwise,
why the lever, why the hand, and then it was over,
and then it had just begun.
We must write and speak and listen our way through this tragedy. Because otherwise, why the poet? Why the writer? Why the human?
***Stephanie Paterik is a freelance writer, editor and author’s assistant in Manhattan. She earned an MFA in poetry from The New School and, as David Lehman’s research assistant, worked on The Best American Poetry 2010, 2011, 2012 and the forthcoming Best of the Best. Her work has appeared in Anderbo, PARADE, Adweek, The Arizona Republic, The Wall Street Journal and others.