The Language of Dead Bodies
by Robert Shetterly
everywhere instead of a name there is a lie…
-W. S. Merwin
Look, the trees
their own bodies
of light …
- Mary Oliver
I’ve been cutting trees. The woods on the north side of my house is thick with gray trunks of dead fir and spruce. Neither old nor particularly large, these trees have been dead and dying for some time, killed by acid rain or spruce bud worm or something complex and harder to diagnose. Besides being aesthetically unappealing, they are a fire hazard. Some are still standing. Many have blown over making walking in the woods very difficult — like traversing a giant’s game of pick-up-sticks. With my chain saw I topple the standing trees, then cut everything into moveable pieces, and carry and drag the logs and branches back further into the woods, pile them up, building sanctuary for the red squirrels and deer mice, refuge for the winter wren. What’s left is an open woods with a few healthy oaks, tamaracks, and maples.
It’s hard, sweaty work — especially for an aging guy like myself. Some of the logs are old and dry, nearly as light as the paper they might have been made into. Others are dense and heavy. But the work is not so hard or all-engaging that I stop ruminating. Yesterday, as I picked up each log, cradled it in my arms against my chest, and marched with it back into the woods, I was thinking about other things that I have embraced like that, or things that I might have. Memory and imagination are often stimulated by such a simple gesture.
I remembered times, returning late at night from trips, when my children had fallen fast asleep in the back of the car, and I carried them, cradled against my chest, into the house and put them to bed, pulling off their sneakers and pulling up the covers. Holding the logs against my chest, I also imagined they were artillery shells, that I was about to slam them into the breach of a cannon whose explosive destination might be homes and schoolyards where children just like mine played. And I imagined that I was in a market in Baghdad in the aftermath of a truck bombing carrying away the broken, burned, dismembered bodies of children. Or, maybe the leg of a man, the arm of a woman. My comfortable, old sweatshirt stained, not with perspiration and sap, but soaked with blood. I thought of the slash piles I was building in the woods as though they were heaps of bodies and body parts in an Iraqi morgue. Here I was, on a beautiful summer day, having the luxury to work in the woods, dripping with grief and anger.
You remember Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal written in 1729 in which he satirically suggests that the problem of poverty and hunger in Ireland could be eradicated by employing the practical expedient of cannibalism — breast-fed infants, even of the poor, being plump, tender and nutritious. Swift even offered recipes. I’m not in a satiric mood, though. Particularly in regard to overfed Americans whose overweening appetite for collateral damage is largely abstract, the un-named, uncounted bodies consumed to clear the way for imperialism. And even if Julia Child had written it, I doubt that there would be much of a market for the Collateral Damage Cookbook. Denial tends to deaden the taste buds. Even Oprah couldn’t sell it.
I’m thinking instead of a real, political utility for all these civilian bodies, especially the children. However, where they would have the most political advantage is the least practicable. Having Tony Snow lay out the Fed-Exed body of a blasted and still bleeding Iraqi girl on the president’s oak desk in the Oval Office every morning is unlikely. Nor is having every senator and congressman’s desk similarly graced anything that could be arranged. Visas, even for the dead, are bound to be tied up in red tape. And these responsible parties could hardly be counted on as sponsors.
But, in deadly seriousness, I would suggest to the Iraqis that after each bombing they lay out their dead — in rows, in jumbled piles — at the gates of the Green Zone. In my imagination I can see parents carrying the remnants of their children cradled against their chests and depositing them, as is, against those impermeable, medieval-like walls. Children bearing the heads and hands of their parents, neighbors the legs of their friends with the shoes still on, sisters their shrapnel lacerated brothers. Slash piles.
Why suffer in private? William Sloane Coffin exhorted his parishioners to “improve the quality of their suffering,” use their suffering to unite with and console others. Why not, when no peaceful or violent appeal to decency, morality, and rationality has any effect, why not use the bodies most contorted by violence for the most un-contorted of moral speech — Stop!
Let the dead speak.
Let the dead bear witness.
Insist that the hobgoblins of the Green Zone handle the fruits of their labor. Let’s see who would dare to come out to clean up this mess. Let the limp dead be battering rams against the implacable lies. Lies are finally no match for reality. And the reality of a sliced open child’s head, its brain covered in blood and flies, its one remaining eye still asking why, can be persuasive, perhaps more persuasive than a senator with a non-binding resolution, more persuasive than the measured duplicity of an imperfectly born-again Colin Powell, more persuasive than a Democrat who wants to keep the war going to run against it in 2008.
I appeal to the Iraqis to lay the bodies of children and loved ones out like a moat, a sacred circle, a noose around those walls. What could be more eloquent?
I know full well that such an idea is grotesque. What parents wouldn’t want to lay to rest a dead child with dignity, respect, and sanctity even if they can’t find all the parts? A little peace, a resting place apart from the obscenity of indiscriminate bombs. A private place to grieve separate from the marketplace of death. Who would want to lay down a mutilated sister at the base of the anonymous and arrogant edifice behind whose walls electricity runs, beer is cold, air conditioners bathe the generals in air as cool as the Rockies, pretty young women jog in red, white, and blue halter tops, pizza has all the toppings, the wages are high, and not a word is ever said anymore about wining hearts and minds. Would I, crazed with anger and grief, abandon my own dead son or daughter at the imperial gates of the Green Zone?
I don’t know. There is grotesque and then there is grotesque. And then there is the grotesque that may stop this monstrosity.
I have a mask from the Ngala tribe in the Congo. It’s large and dark brown. The woman’s features are sketched in with pale white paint. The downcast eyes are weeping white tears down the round cheeks. It’s a “Women sue for Peace” mask. When the men have been fighting too long, the women don the masks. I wonder if it ever worked. You might say it’s the mask that Cindy Sheehan wore in Crawford. Surely it wouldn’t work in Baghdad.
Reverend Coffin said, “Improve the quality of your suffering.” Sometimes only an act born from the most outrageous grief and love, an act that tears your own heart, can actually do that — save the life of a not yet shattered child.
Robert Shetterly lives in Brooksville, Maine