Friday, December 31, 2004
Some horror is beyond words. Watching the news footage this past week from South Asia, the Indian Ocean & Horn of Africa has been like that, a scale of devastation that goes further than our language can carry us. When you see bulldozers simply pushing corpses into mass graves, it is impossible to recall what a catastrophe each & every death must be. This is an instant in which numbers serve only to diminish what has happened – indeed, as promised, they numb us.
One year ago to the day before the tsunamis struck, 70 percent of the Iranian mud city of Bam, which is what you see in the photo above, many of whose buildings were as much as 1800 years old, was leveled by a quake. The death toll of 28,000 amounted to one third of the population. If you’ve forgotten this disaster, you’re not alone – according to Thursday’s New York Times, “Victims … are still living in tents because aid, including ours, has not materialized in the amounts pledged.”
The major difference between Bam & the tsunamis is not in the numbers, nor is it in the wide swath of devastation – tho both of these are very real – but in the presence of cameras & the worldwide communications grid. The Tangshan, China, earthquake of July 27, 1976, occurred during my lifetime – the official death toll was 255,000 but, according the U.S. Geological Survey, estimates of actual fatalities went as high as 655,000 people. Until I saw this mentioned in a sidebar to one of the tsunami articles this week, I don’t recall ever hearing about this.
In contrast, the first our family heard of the 9.0 quake off the coast of Sumatra was from a web buddy of my boys who reported feeling it in his hometown of Chennai, an Indian city most Americans still know by its old colonial name of Madras. Once we realized what this was, there were some anxious hours until the friend reported that his neighborhood had been spared, tho Chennai had a couple of hundred fatalities.
How ironic that, as camcorder shots of tidal surges over the tops of resort hotels filled the screens of the cable news channels, Susan Sontag, who made Walter Benjamin’s media theories safe for masses of NYRB readers & was never one to understate a point, lay dying of cancer. Her passing was a dismal last gesture to what has been, at least in terms of public life, an almost unrelievably dreadful year. The election, the Iraqi debacle, genocide in Darfur and now the tsunami – 2004 has been one long trough of despair.
The world of poetry itself took more than its share of losses in 2004. Two in particular stand out, because they were personal friends as well as great writers. Gil Ott & Jackson Mac Low shared an activist’s orientation to politics & a love of performance that made their readings events never to be missed. Each was more interested in peace & justice than they were in their own poetry – and that commitment strengthened their writing. A really good resolution for 2005 would be to try to live as wisely & bravely as either one of them.