Orr's Poem Gets Crowd's Response at International Festival

December 15, 2008

December 15, 2008 — University of Virginia English professor and poet Gregory Orr represented the United States at the Third International Festival of the Languages of the Americas, held Oct. 9 at the Centro Cultural Universitario at the Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.

"As a poet, you don't usually get an opportunity to read to an audience of 2,000 people," Orr said.

He read a poem that touches on three massacres that he described as "denied" — China's Tiananmen Square in 1989, another incident in which police killed three people during a protest at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, S.C. in 1968 and the Tlatelolco Massacre at the Autonomous University of Mexico, also in 1968. At his host's request, he read the poem, "Nothing and the Incident in the Streets," on the 40th anniversary of the Mexican massacre.

"The audience response was quite amazing … clusters of students started chanting 'Libertad, Libertad!' It was heartening," he said.

In January, Orr will conduct a workshop and reading at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. His 10th collection of poems, "How Beautiful the Beloved," will appear in early February from Copper Canyon Press.

NOTHING AND THE INCIDENT IN THE STREETS

South Carolina State College
Orangeburg, South Carolina, 1968

Tlatelolco Square, Mexico City, 1968

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 1989

Nothing forced those kids
to go out there.
Nothing made them insist on
their foolish demands.
               —
Those kids believed in nothing.
They respected nothing,
you could see that by the way
they behaved.

Nothing mattered to them
once they got excited.
When we were young, nothing
like this
could have happened.
We knew nothing was worth
this much trouble.
                —
Nothing told them to go home
before it was too late.
Nothing scolded them
for the foolish children
they were. Nothing warned them
of the serious consequences.
Nothing said: This is not
a carnival or celebration,
but a serious threat to the state.
                —
Nothing proceeded
exactly according
to the rules.

The police arrived.
They followed orders
precisely.

Nothing was left
to chance.
Nothing had been
anticipated
by our rulers
down to the last
numbered hair
on the protestors'
heads,
down to the last
sparrow's feather.

Nothing took place
that shouldn't have.

Nothing went wrong.
             —
Nothing could have prepared
us for what happened next.

It could have, but
it didn't. Nothing
like it had been seen before.
But not by us.
We were surprised and shocked
by all the blood. Nothing
could have surprised us more.
                 —
Nothing was seen of them again.
Nothing was heard of them.
Nothing was mentioned
in the press.
By dawn
of the next day
the authorities had already
scrubbed the streets,
painted over the graffiti,
and removed the posters.

Nothing came of their demands.

Their sacrifice changed
nothing. Nothing
was the same afterward.
Nothing went on as usual.
Nothing was different
than it had ever been.
              —
It's easy enough, after
it's over, to demand:
Why didn't you do
something?

If you had been there
you would have seen
nothing could have
prevented it. Nothing
could have stepped in
and stopped it.

Nothing had the power
to halt it right there.
So we waited for nothing.
And nothing arrived
in the nick of time.
Nothing kept the bullets
back. Nothing stood
like a wall between
the rifles
and their human targets.
Nothing saved them.
              —
Darkness of human
hearts. Only
following orders.
Caught up
in the moment's
excitement.
A small, necessary
wrong for a higher
cause.
Are these
excuses or explanations?

They tell us nothing.

Nothing is the key
to this brutal mystery.
Nothing can explain
what happened here.

Nothing has the power
to get inside their
motives, what drove
them to do such things.
Nothing will tell us
how they justified
to themselves
the shed blood.

Nothing has seen
such shuffling
of masks before:
the mask of regret
replacing the mask
of rage.
Nothing
has seen such behavior
since time began.

Nothing will tell us
how they sleep
soundly at night
while others do not
sleep at all, and
others sleep forever.
             —
Nothing was further
from the truth.
Not a lot further.
Maybe the distance
of those bodies
laid end to end.
             —
The incident was nothing
to speak of.


(Reprinted with the permission of Gregory Orr, from "The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems." Copper Canyon Press. 2002.)