Big Bridge #10

An Open Letter to America


ShaunAnne Tangney


Memory / Witness / Evidence

               “Everything human beings have said or written, everything they have made,
               everything they touch can and does give evidence about them.”
                           --Marc Bloch

Thousands of people flock to the desert
to witness the devastation. They think
that they will learn something, that excavation
is in and of itself telling, that craters
themselves have meaning (even as they
secretly hope for caches of grave goods, jeweled
masks, temple foundations, animal tooth
ornaments, or a broken femur or two);
it’s something high-hearted and horrible,
an unsatisfying kind of witness.

You don’t have to flock. Look beneath your feet.
It’s easy enough to turn up lost lockets
and broken dishes and discarded pens,
the ordinary detritus of
simple people who somehow acquired
these things. Things that upon recovery
express dimensions of laughter and grief,
of timelessness and presence; it’s not just,
there were people here, but, these people were like that.

Look: here you can see that there were two
people who maybe once, maybe crossing
a river or a road or themselves, looked at
each other and said, “This is the beginning.”
They said it not because they had so much
in common but because their differences
were so complimentary. You know this
not because of the hole in the ground, but
because of the permanent fragility
of the things they leave behind--they’re signposts

so we can return to be buried again.

(March, 2002)



I wanted to figure out how other people were staying alive.
And to incorporate that into my work.

Like a volcano that erupts and covers a town with lava.
It’s very beautiful.

But you are standing there with the people who live in the town.
And there is emotional horror to go along with the beauty.

You want beauty returning.
But the image is not about beauty returning.

There is only mourning, and other rituals,
multi-layered and complex.

11 September, 2002


To Undo the Folded Lie

In 1976,
television was an infant--
precocious and noisy, to be sure,
but not yet dangerous--and I
was in the seventh grade.

In history, we had
Mr. Prero teaching us
the world, and
how to take notes, especially
the trick of abbreviating: L OF A
for Lawrence of Arabia, and
T&E for the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

The T&E River Valley,
the fertile crescent,
the cradle of civilization:
it is as clear to me now
as if it were running water
through my mind,
over my heart.

has grown from
unruly infant into something like
Eve’s snake, a seductive talking head
lying fold upon fold upon
itself, and I,
having wandered far beyond
the seventh grade,

cannot stand to watch
as television shows only
the opulence of a dictator or
the dirt-existence of his subjects,
the absurdity of personal zoos or
babies maimed by poison gas,
American soldiers
as hawk-hearted liberators or
Iraqi soldiers
as feeble, shifty, or, merely,
dead on the road.

I long for Mr. Prero now,
remember how he gave the word
Mesopotamia like a gift.
It seemed a womb-like word,
even to my seventh-grade ear,
and I wonder:
where are all the other children
Mr. Prero taught? A generation
of children helped to understand
that everything we have and are
began in the T&E River Valley. . .

Perhaps they are generals.
Or television executives.
Or mothers and fathers
of soldiers. Hard things to be.
But none of which
forgives them forgetting
the sheer magic of the word
that binds us all together
as civilization--

and none of this--
neither poems nor speeches,
history nor television--
forgives us
for bloodying those rivers
and leaving us crying
how to be civilized again.

(April, 2003)


A Teacher Speaks of Soldiers

When you’re eighteen—old enough but still
a recruiter follows you home—
sets up a laptop so your mom can see
all that you can be:
helicopter pilot, tank driver,
eighty-eight mike in a hum-vee,
glowing images on
an LCD screen—

And I always think:
if you get ‘em before I do,
before I have a chance
to teach ‘em analysis,
to teach ‘em history and probability,
of course they’ll go, and of course they’ll say,
I can’t think of anything better to do today
than engage and destroy
the enemies of the USA.

And your son, I ask—would you let him go?
He’d better go, they say, he’d better!

When you’re nineteen, deployed, and ready—you’re told—
to rock and roll but mostly sitting around
swapping CDs and DVDs with PFCs and
dreaming of CIBs, and spending your days
delivering supplies—who suspects a landmine?
Who on earth ever thinks they’ll see
a ninety-one whisky tying up their knee
with the threads of their own calf?

And I always think:
if you get ‘em before I do,
before I have a chance
to teach ‘em poetics,
to teach ‘em paradox and irony,
of course you’ll forget
how young they are, and
of course they’ll reply, when they look at their leg,
gone at the knee: shit happens, shit happens, shit happened
to me.

And your son, I ask—would you let him go?
I don’t know, they say, I don’t know. . .

Another year later and Walter Reed seems
like some level of Dante’s hell—
who knew truck metal and pulverized dirt,
engine fluids and bits of your own shirt, and finally the flesh
of your fellow soldier
would have to be dug out of your own pulped shoulder;
who knew you’d end up wallowing there in
100% disability, and
parrot patriotism, and

I always think:
if you get ‘em before I do,
before I have a chance
to teach ‘em rhetoric,
to teach ‘em ethics and critical thinking,
of course they’ll go, and
if you’re lucky
they’ll come back, saying it was totally
worth it, saying, you bet, I’d do it again—

And your son, I ask—would you let him go?
Fuck no, they say, fuck no.

(March, 2004)


Your Folly, Not Theirs
         for George W. Bush

Between North and South
Korea is a long,
narrow strip of land
called the DMZ.

Designed to be
a “buffer” zone where
all human activity
is prohibited, it

has accidentally
become a nature preserve,
home especially
to white-naped cranes. Free

of predators because
only the cranes
are so lightweight
they do not detonate

the many land mines
buried throughout,
these cranes become
detailed shapes of urgency—

a code he cannot understand—
but their presence
is only the notes: we
have to supply the music.

(September, 2004)


Unmarried to Each Other

are all infinities the same or
are some more infinite than others?

Cantor, for example, says
that the infinity of sets of things
(earrings, chromosomes, tennis)
is greater than the infinity of things so

we might assume that
two are
greater than one is but
we are wont to suspect
the theory of everything and more—

I mean,
what does Zeno's paradox
have to say about
till death do us part?

But us—it’s the awful abstractness of infinity
(the echoing hallways of church and state)
we’re set to avoid,
and doors right here
(the schoolboy pleasures of discovering that
some infinities are bigger than others)
we get to open.

Unmarried to each other—
unlike frosted groom and icy bride
atop a clotted wedding cake—
we choose not to be
a simple reductio ad absurdum,
but rather
a tower of infinities.

(November, 2003)