I was born
in the middle of the century;
fifty years before 2000
fifty years after 1900.
The human crematoria
were still warm;
Idi Amin and
Pol Pot were young
in 1950; someone
put a hammer in their hands
and told them "crush
as many skulls
as possible,"
and they did. Hitler's
body barley cold,
his legs charred black
with ash and bone;
as if still alive,
he spoke in whispers
and with his good
right hand
drew swastikas
in the dirt.

In the 1950s
I lived each Sunday
afternoon through
The Twentieth Century
on television:
D-Day and Dieppe,
Messerschmitts and panzers;
Jewish friends at school lost
whole branches of families
they would never meet-
"one day you'll know"
they said. We imagined
we could still hear
bombs exploding
in a red sky;
hid under kitchen
tables while air raid sirens
wailed, and in the mind's distance
the sound of machine guns
like rain on a tin roof,
as many bullets fired
as people killed at Babi Yar,
over 100,000; at Dresden
streets turned into melted asphalt.
These events caught
in the atmosphere, like smoke
or was it our minds?
A prolonged scream,
or was it Mao Tse-tung
and the Red Army's
Long March,
the passage of people across
the continent
of this century?
Their names are like
cities, places where
people meet and are
executed, or believe
and surrender: Stalin,
Hitler, Mussolini, Ho Chi Minh,

I was born in the middle
of a century known
for cruelty: mass graves
unearthed years after burials;
Polish soldiers shot
in a forest outside
Warsaw, buried where they
fell; men in white
coats watch bulldozers
uncover the dead,
bodies limp, flesh grey,
naked dark genitals
exposed without shame.
They hung the dead
over the backs
of the killers
like sides of beef,
dumped them
in mile-long
mass graves;
the bloated bodies
covered with lime.
Even this week
I saw the dead on television
tossed and twisted
in muddy waves, water the colour
of decaying flesh. The many
acts of homicide, soul
death, spirit death;
trapped by villagers
who hacked neighbours
into pieces with machetes;
the human abattoir,
bodies a red jig-saw puzzle of parts.
We can't sort these pieces,
we can't deal with this much
death, so don't think
about it, get on with life,
the dead can't return
to life, they can't
return to haunt you;
what do these bodies mean,
now we've seen
so much death?

We struggle
with evil, save
what is good as precious:
prehistoric hands drawn
on a Lascaux cave;
the Bayeaux Tapestry;
the Book of Kells.
With one foot in both
halves of the century
I remember when
Stalin starved Ukrainians,
and women cried
in Saigon's streets.
We are mesmerized
by scenes of death; the more
we see the more we evade
our own mortality: street
executions, a hanged man's
body repeatedly battered
with a metal folding chair,
his feet six inches
from the ground;
his face turned black,
a crowd watches
afraid and awed
at the lifelessness of what,
moments before,
resembled us;
the thousand tons
of suffering like toxins
released into
the atmosphere, the recorded
groans and screams;
no catalogue
of suffering
is complete: Rwanda,
Armenia, Liberia,

(from The Trees of Unknowing, Vehicule Press, Montreal 1978)