Notes towards a Poem that can never be Written

(For Carolyn Forché)

Original Text: 
Margaret Atwood, Selected Poems II: Poems Selected & New 1976-1986 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987): 71-74.
1This is the place
2you would rather not know about,
3this is the place that will inhabit you,
4this is the place you cannot imagine,
5this is the place that will finally defeat you
6where the word why shrivels and empties
7itself. This is famine.
8There is no poem you can write
9about it, the sandpits
10where so many were buried
11& unearthed, the unendurable
12pain still traced on their skins.
13This did not happen last year
14or forty years ago but last week.
15This has been happening,
16this happens.
17We make wreaths of adjectives for them,
18we count them like beads,
19we turn them into statistics & litanies
20and into poems like this one.
21Nothing works.
22They remain what they are.
23The woman lies on the wet cement floor
24under the unending light,
25needle marks on her arms put there
26to kill the brain
27and wonders why she is dying.
28She is dying because she said.
29She is dying for the sake of the word.
30It is her body, silent
31and fingerless, writing this poem.
32It resembles an operation
33but it is not one
34nor despite the spread legs, grunts
35& blood, is it a birth.
36Partly, it's a job,
37partly it's a display of skill
38like a concerto.
39It can be done badly
40or well, they tell themselves.
41Partly, it's an art.
42The facts of this world seen clearly
43are seen through tears;
44why tell me then
45there is something wrong with my eyes?
46To see clearly and without flinching,
47without turning away,
48this is agony, the eyes taped open
49two inches from the sun.
50What is it you see then?
51Is it a bad dream, a hallucination?
52Is it a vision?
53What is it you hear?
54The razor across the eyeball
55is a detail from an old film.
56It is also a truth.
57Witness is what you must bear.
58In this country you can say what you like
59because no one will listen to you anyway,
60it's safe enough, in this country you can try to write
61the poem that can never be written,
62the poem that invents
63nothing and excuses nothing,
64because you invent and excuse yourself each day.
65Elsewhere, this poem is not invention.
66Elsewhere, this poem takes courage.
67Elsewhere, this poem must be written
68because the poets are already dead.
69Elsewhere, this poem must be written
70as if you are already dead,
71as if nothing more can be done
72or said to save you.
73Elsewhere you must write this poem
74because there is nothing more to do.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
Special Copyright: 

"Notes towards a Poem that can never be Written" &#169; Margaret Atwood. Printed gratis, and specifically for Representative Poetry Online, with permission of the author. As published in <i>Selected Poems II</i> (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). Any other use, including reproduction for any purposes, educational or otherwise, will require explicit written permission from Margaret Atwood.