zerode – a sensibility


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Poem: Bruce Weigl, “The Impossible”


Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize
through the trees and I come back in my mind
to the man who made me suck his cock
when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.
I thought I could leave him standing there
in the years, half smile on his lips,
small hands curled into small fists,
but after he finished, he held my hand in his
as if astonished, until the houses were visible
just beyond the railyard. He held my hand
but before that he slapped me hard on the face
when I would not open my mouth for him.

I do not want to say his whole hips
slammed into me, but they did, and a black wave
washed over my brain, changing me
so I could not move among my people in the old way.
On my way home I stopped in the churchyard
to try and find a way to stay alive.
In the branches a redwing flitted, warning me.
In the rectory, Father prepared
the body and blood for mass
but God could not save me from a mouthful of cum.
That afternoon some lives turned away from the light.
He taught me how to move my tongue around.
In his hands he held my head like a lover.
Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.


from What Saves Us (Northwestern University, 1992).

We fell in love with this poem at Squaw Valley one summer, at the poetry writing workshop, me and a few others. Now, it’s a bit harder to see what we loved. I still like it, but not with the same enthusiasm, and there are things that trouble me, in particular when it comes to the last line. At the time, we were drunk on beauty—the Sierras in Summer, how could we not be? And all there together, to write together, for a week “to sit at desk / and condense,” as Lorine Niedecker put it. I thought often of the Navajo Blessing Way—”beauty all around me”—during that week, and of the notion of poem as prayer and as beauty, issues that came up in a number of the workshop sessions.

Now I see that last line as perhaps a bit dangerous. Is it really true that you can “make it beautiful, no matter what” by saying it clearly enough? I’m not so sure. Some things no amount of condensing will render into diamond.

Did Weigl really mean that? The poem takes an episode of childhood sexual abuse and does, really, render it fairly beautifully. But doesn’t it lose or efface much of what falls into the category of “no matter what”—the violence and pain—with the beauty of its language? “He taught me how to move my tongue around.” It’s a big shift from the “mouthful of cum” just two lines earlier—which, frankly, is a line I have never liked. I’m not sure if this is because I find the abuse hard to take, and it is rendered starkly by the pornographic turn of phrase, or if it is the language of the line. I usually feel that it is the “God” in the beginning, whose appearance in the poem seems abrupt and unhelpful, and also the awkward flow, the lack of rhythm of the line as a whole. But perhaps it is me “turning away” from something that makes me uncomfortable…

I think, too, about the contrast between “he slapped me hard on the face” near the end of the first stanza which seems almost prose-like, and stark in its violence, and “In his hands he held my head like a lover,” whose alliteration verges on poetic parody but doesn’t quite cross the line—at least not that line. Its flow and alliteration, its music work to make it beautiful. But it isn’t really something that should be beautiful, is it? And so it takes us into the last line, which tells us “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.”

Weigl has told it pretty clearly and pretty beautifully in places, so how do we evaluate it? Doesn’t the beauty have a kind of judgment, a value judgment to it? Or is that just me?

Filed under: Poetry

6 Responses

  1. g says:

    Have you been sexually abused?

    I have. I read this poem when it came out in APR in 1992, on the back page. I read it in the coffeeshop, and cried with ragged breaths. Boy, was that odd and embarrassing.

    I wonder if it affects me differently because I’ve been there. I think it’s frequently true that survivors of sexual abuse become sexually “deviant”, often reliving abusive scenarios in order to better control them, in a neverending quest to “make it beautiful, no matter what.”

    • zerode says:

      Whether we know it or not, I think all of us probably know someone who has been sexually abused, and that of course is one way into a reading of this poem. I think in that respect the bit that most resonates with me is about trying to find some way to survive, and about some faces turning from the light.

      That speaks of the kind of damage and restrictions done in the efforts of people who’ve been sexually abused to manager that trauma.

      Part of what resonated for me when I first read the poem was a notion of poetry as such a powerful vocation – of being able to “make it beautiful no matter what.” When you like writing poetry, and are angry or scared over things you see in the world around you, the idea that poetry has some sort of redemptive purchase is powerfully appealing.

      In retrospect, what I find disturbing is the idea that some things – that anything can be made beautiful. I think maybe some things can’t be, or at least shouldn’t be. But it is a deeply complex question – which of course has been raised with particular acuteness over the past 60 years by the issue of the Holocaust. Can poetry still be written after the Holocaust? Well, of course, on some level, but the fully fleshed issue behind this provocative question deserves consideration.

  2. Jenna says:

    I met a woman at a workshop once who had been repeatedly sexually abused by her two uncles. She had engaged in years of therapy and had done much spiritual healing around this horrible issue. She told me in these exact words, “Their encounters with me were the closest thing to love that they had ever experienced in their miserable lives. I forgive them.” I didn’t understand what she meant at first but, many years later, I realized that she meant that on some level, they were blessed by who she was and her ability to forgive. I don’t know if this exactly speaks to the last line in the poem, but it came to me as an “aha!” so I’m sharing it.

  3. I love this poem but find it deeply disturbing too. Bruce was my teacher at one point and one thing about his work is that it is his truth. It’s the old question of Truth and Beauty, are they equal. Does the poem become beautiful because of the terrible truth it reveals? It’s the same with Holocaust poetry, war poetry of any era. The stark poems found in the pocket of a murdered man in the balkans. Yes, they are beautiful to me because they tell the truth. And it’s a truth that challenges others to recognize the world has much to do to honor the poets’ sensitivity, and to FACE the truth. And god forbid, try to do something about it. A poet is a messenger as much as a journalist, or an angel.

  4. Will says:

    You ignore the primacy of the poem’s subject and tone, and how the form–the vivid imagery, the naturalistic frankness (not pornographic) of certain lines, the end-stopped lines at the end, and so on–emerge from the demands of the narrative. As an ars poetica, “The Impossible” asserts that form is an extention of content. Weigl has something that he must say, and the saying–not just how he says it, but that he has the courage to say it, and clearly–is what is beautiful. Note how the ambiguity of pronoun reference of “it,” which appears twice in the last line, and the irony created by the title.

    This poem moves readers to tears. That’s more than most poets dream of accomplishing.

    • zerode says:

      I don’t think I ignore anything about the poem, but I am open to being convinced. The relation of form and content is usually something of which I am very aware, sometimes overly much, which I think comes from relationship with Emily Dickinson’s work. Maybe I should take another look at the poem in this light. I like your notion that the saying of it, the courage to say it, is the beautiful thing. But I still get hung up on the word “beauty” in relation to an incident of childhood sexual abuse – to the overall aestheticisation of something so difficult and painful. Some things are ugly, and the powerful thing, the right thing I think, is to show them their ugliness, and to transcend or escape it somehow, not to aestheticise or beautify it. But you know, I go back and forth on this poem.

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows


is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.


What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.



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