“A good life requires the ability to rise above the circumstances of everyday practical considerations. The ability to be something within the self, separate and apart from success or failure in any particular human undertaking. The ability to add psychological resources as the result of life experiences makes it possible to convert success or failure into a psychic event. The sense of self reaches its highest level of expression where practical and adaptive matters are least involved. The psychological capacities of the self, which reach deepest into the sense of inner identity, concern matters such as the ability to comprehend the truth and adhere to the good.” Paul Rosenfels
I first read the poem, Color Photos of the Atrocities, by Kenneth Pitchford when I was 20.
Pitchford was the gay identified husband of feminist, Robin Morgan.
He was also a founding member of the effeminists.
I was impressed by Pitchford’s political courage and clarity of vision in this poem.
Color Photos of the Atrocities
Tomorrow I’m going to read poems
to a college class called
Introduction to Literary Analyses.
How can something be introduced
that doesn’t exist? We have brains
for thinking hard about our lives
and words for telling about them
and we don’t use either well.
Me? I’m alone with my four-month baby.
I’m thinking about him – and what I’ll say
tomorrow to the class—
and about the color photos of the atrocities,
with babies his age arranged in heaps,
the glaring red brought to us
courtesy of Ansco, a corporation that got rich,
courtesy the Kennedys, by buying cheap
the German firm
coalesced from the slave labor of concentration camps,
all that dead sweat crystallized like honey into profits
A folksinger on the phonograph
is promising that
“we’ll all go together / to pick wild mountain thyme
all around the purple heather”
and my usual afternoon of mothering my child
seems to turn over upside down
while I rock and croon and refuse to cry
and he looks up in puzzlement, wanting
to smile. robbed of speech just long enough
so that he will always feel separate,
helpless to explain what he needs,
each of us convinced that no one could understand
each disbelieving that sharing anything is possible.
And then I do start crying, wondering where
my people are, knowing that I will never
find them, will never go, as I’ve often dreamed,
up into burnished hills with
not many possessions on our backs,
all of them shared, our children shared,
women restored to power, men free again to be human,
moving sideways out of history
out of this time, sideways to songs
around campfires and spoken poems
that go unwritten-down handed on
word of mouth, if ever.
At least I can see how useless academies are,
how phony their claim to preserve and instill
values: the attendant at Auschwitz chatting
with a knowledgeable young victim about Goethe
and escorting him back to the end of the execution line
again and again so he could
improve his own chances on a literature exam upcoming
(though of course he finally had to let the victim pass).
At least I know how useless everything we do becomes
when faced with color photos of the atrocities.
One baby in the heap squirmed to find the wet breast
of its dead mother, habit having had just time enough
to teach: Breast equals Safety.
–though how explain this red milk? Next
the child, too, was shot.
then finished off with the stab of a bayonet,
carved into three neat pieces
before being thrown away. Not any words,
not any any words I can teach you
my precious baby, can say back the cries
strangled in your stabbed throat,
no introduction to any analyses
equal to explaining what has happened to a country
that pays $40,000 for color photos
of the atrocities but will not buy
enough milk to keep its own babies from starving.
Stop it. All of it. Stop taking courses
like this one. Wipe them out of the catalogue.
replace them with Introduction to
Malnutrition; Intermediate Butchery; Advanced Ecological
Start bringing this thing that is killing us
down, this ersatz republic, this murderous empire.
Blake, my baby,
there is no country for us to escape to,
no purple heather, and I don’t even know how
to build it here in our lives and words
as my tears take colorless pictures of your smile.
Kenneth Pitchford 1972