Adrienne Rich, May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012

Perhaps Rich is wrong in the poem below when she asserts “Not of course here.”

 

THE SCHOOL AMONG THE RUINS

Beirut. Baghdad. Sarajevo. Bethlehem. Kabul. Not of course here.

1

Teaching the first lesson and the last
–great falling light of summer will you last
longer than schooltime?
When children flow
in columns at the doors
BOYS GIRLS and the busy teachers

open or close high windows
with hooked poles   drawing darkgreen shades

closets unlocked, locked
questions unasked, asked, when

love of the fresh impeccable
sharp-pencilled    yes
order without cruelty

a street on earth    neither heaven nor hell
busy with commerce and worship
young teachers walking to school

fresh bread and early-open foodstalls

2

When the offensive rocks the sky when nightglare
misconstrues day and night when lived-in
rooms from the upper city
tumble cratering lower streets

cornices of olden ornament    human debris
when fear vacuums out the streets

When the whole town flinches
blood on the undersole thickening to glass

Whoever crosses   hunched   knees bent   a contested zone
knows why she does this suicidal thing
School’s now in session day and night
children asleep
in the classrooms   teachers rolled close

3

How the good teacher loved
his school   the students
the lunchroom with fresh sandwiches

lemonade and milk
the classroom   glass cages
of moss and turtles
teaching responsibility

A morning breaks without bread or fresh-poured milk
parents or lesson plans

diarrhea first question of the day
children shivering   it’s September
Second question: where is my mother?

4

One: I don’t know where your mother
is   Two: I don’t know
why they are trying to hurt us
Three: or the latitude and longitude
of their hatred   Four: I don’t know if we
hate them as much   I think there’s more toilet paper
in the supply closet   I’m going to break it open

Today this is your lesson:
write as clearly as you can
your name   homes street   and number
down on this page
No you can’t go home yet
but you aren’t lost
this is our school

I’m not sure what we’ll eat
we’ll look for healthy roots and greens
searching for water though the pipes are broken

5

There’s a young cat sticking
her head through window bars
she’s hungry like us
but can feed on mice
her bronze erupting fur
speaks of a life already wild

her golden eyes
don’t give quarter   She’ll teach us   Let’s call her
Sister
when we get milk we’ll give her some

6

I’ve told you, let’s try to sleep in this funny camp
All night pitiless pilotless things go shrieking
above us to somewhere

Don’t let your faces turn to stone
Don’t stop asking me why
Let’s pay attention to our cat   she needs us

Maybe tomorrow the bakers can fix their ovens

7

“We sang them to naps   told stories  made
shadow-animals with our hands

wiped human debris off boots and coats
sat learning by heart the names
some were too young to write
some had forgotten how”

2001

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