Tuesday, April 11, 2017

'The first thing to hit you' (Poem)

The first thing to hit you

is not the shrapnel from the blast.
You remind yourself that you are
inside a hospital at Maaret al-
Numan, not in Khan Sheikhoun,
where the bombs fell,
that in the rush from Binnish you
forgot your mask, and only now
it hits you — the smell. The smell
not of walls washed down and
floors freshly bleached but of
something "strange" you can't
see with your photographer's eye.

On the blue sheets that an hour
ago flapped in the fouled air as if
signaling retreat are the children,
most of them not yet awake when
the planes were loaded and their
targets fixed. You can't, you say,
"put my finger on it", the strange
smell, so you focus on the details—
like the man with the dark-haired
girl with two shut eyes, or the fit
of the oxygen masks that won't be
enough to save the other kids in
front of you, like the newborn with
a brilliant gold orb in each ear.

You imagine your brother's boy,
your sister's daughter, shiver
even as you take your pictures
of the woman's body just outside
the hospital doors, still focused
on the details — ripped clothes left
in heaps as medics hose down the
motionless, the foam around the
mouths, the pupils reduced to

You think to yourself you've seen
this once before, in your pictures
of the patients — in the corridors,
in the ERs, on the operating tables
at 7:30 a.m. It's obvious, you tell
yourself. But you know what it's
not, and it's not chlorine.

A woman explains she saw a fog
rising, a yellow mushroom cloud,
and in the notes you're writing
in your head, for the cut-lines for
your pictures, you enter another
word for the effects you catalogue
— the fluid in the lungs, the spasms,
the paralysis and foam: it's some-
thing "strange" you say, it's what
you can't yet put your finger on.


This poem was inspired by two AFP photographers' reportage featured at poet Tom Clark's blog last week following the Syrian government's chemical bombing of Khan Sheikhoun. Clark also posted images. At the time, the chemical used had not been identified; it is now believed to have been sarin gas. For this reason, I deliberately left vague the conclusion of the poem.

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